In 1860, the economic value of slaves in the United States exceeded the invested value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories, and banks combined.
You probably have seen the articles or heard the talk. In some editorial pages, we have seen pieces of a possible second American Civil War. Myself I have mused on this possibility for some years. The anger and increasing division tell me it is indeed possible. We have also heard members of the professional commentariat speak of a country in the midst of a cold civil war. This talk, in public mind you, is relatively new as well.
Over the weekend a friend asked, slavery was the reason for the American Civil War, what would be the cause today? Why would the country go into one of the most destructive forms of warfare?
It is a very important and perceptive question. What would American citizens fight a civil war over? And let’s be clear, no civil war starts from nothing. They do not come all of a sudden. There are forces that keep pushing societies apart. These forces can take a generation or more to build. The Mexican Revolution and the American War Of Independence come to mind. That Mexican civil war of 1910 was the culmination of forces building up over the course of fifty years. It was about who the nation wanted to be. It was a religious war in some respects, and that part ended in the 1920s with the Cristeros, after the Revolution was over. It was about access to land and income inequality. The American Revolution was about property, access to it, taxation and representation. Keep this property aspect in mind. In American history, it’s a constant. It goes back a long time. In fact, it goes to the colonial period, and yes, aristocracy. In some ways, that line goes all the way to the middle ages.
We know the American Civil War was about slavery. This is taught in most American schools. But there is a corollary that usually is not taught, even though it should. Be reductive, what is a slave? What do you get a bill of sale for? You get them every day, especially with high ticket items. You get one when you buy a car; when you buy a fridge; when you buy a computer; when you buy a house. In other words…when you buy property.
In the most reductive of ways, the civil war was about property rights and the ability of slave owners to use that property however they wanted. It was also about the role of government in regulating, or not regulating those rights. Should any government have the right to tell a property owner how to use his property? We are having that discussion right now. Also, remember, some northern states refused to return slaves to the south. This is the origin of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Southern interests, in many ways, rammed that legislation through. It was corrective action to protect their property. Some Americans also helped slaves, on moral grounds, to escape north. Go down to the ultimate reduction of slavery. The Underground Railroad was stealing property, and it was understood, legally, the same way as stealing cattle. This is why chattel slavery is so problematic. It treated human beings as property covered under property rights.
What ultimately happened, through the 13th and 14th Amendment is that this property was transformed, legally, into people. They were people, but we needed that legal remedy. They were now full persons, not three fifths for census purposes. They had rights. This was not good for former property owners who were threatened. The Southern economy, agrarian as it was, relied on this cheap labor…on property. And it has not fully recovered from that shock brought by the civil war and the loss of that property. The south was the wealthiest part of the country in 1860.
The Southern lag in industrial development did not result from any inherent economic disadvantages. There was great wealth in the South, but it was primarily tied up in the slave economy. In 1860, the economic value of slaves in the United States exceeded the invested value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories, and banks combined. On the eve of the Civil War, cotton prices were at an all-time high. The Confederate leaders were confident that the importance of cotton on the world market, particularly in England and France, would provide the South with the diplomatic and military assistance they needed for victory.
The southern states remain conservative, with overall lower mobility rates than the rest of the country. This is hardly accidental. In some ways, that part of the country has maintained a stratified society, with sharp economic divisions. The Atlantic put it this way when looking at it recently. The full article is a good read, but this section tells the story very well.
In some ways, Charlotte is indicative of a more widespread problem in the region. Map out the data from the Equality of Opportunity Project and you’ll find that much of the South has low mobility rates. The chance of a child moving from the bottom to top quartile in Atlanta is 4.5 percent, the chance of moving up in Raleigh is 5 percent, and the chance of moving up in New Orleans is 5.1 percent. These are among the lowest odds of advancement in the country. “The South really does struggle,” said Erin Currier, who directed the financial security and mobility project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew found that mobility lags in states including Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and North Carolina.
The reasons are many. While Southern cities are booming, the south has high concentrations of poverty. Segregation remains a serious issue as well. Redlining may not be legal, but it still exists.
They also have created a slew of explanations for the war, including the “lost cause,” and the fantasy that the war was not over property rights. Yes, this is a belief among many southerners, that the war was not over slavery, never mind we have plenty of sources to the contrary. White supremacy is peppered all over the excuses, and the terror on newly liberated Blacks, through the newly formed Ku Klux Klan was to keep them down. The system of social control has changed. These days, it is a new form of legal slavery: Mass Incarceration.
The wounds of the war have not healed. The arguments to keep Civil War monuments in place was that picking at the deep scab. The South will rise again is code for that glorious past, when they dominated the country. One where the South was respected, and not perceived by many outsides of it as backward, with a bad economy. This is not rare. Countries that undergo a civil war tend to take many generations to move forward unless the country confronts the reasons straight and has a deep conversation. We have done neither of these.
Flash forward to the present and the conflict that is taking shape.
If you watch political commercials carefully, there are two points that come up often. The first is the government overreach. There are reasons for this. A powerful government that levels the field for everybody is dangerous. So is one that puts in place onerous regulations that make you pay for externalities, such as pollution. This is especially the case if you are a member of an oligarchy that benefits in significant ways. Think of the southern aristocracy before the war. They were an oligarchy that made sure their way of life remained as it was. In the present tense, we have a few billionaires, who Senator Bernie Sanders, among others, calls correctly the Billionaire class that benefits from government capture. The US is an oligarchy. Or at the very least well on its way. Those who are very wealthy have outsize influence in the halls of power, and they would like to keep it that way, thank you very much.
They may not agree on all goals, as they are not a single group. However, some in the group, see the energy sector, for example, have an outsized influence on government policy. This has been the goal of a small group of people for some time, and this is what has led to the opening of state lands to fracking.
The second point is your property and how you use it. You should be able to charge what you want on rent. You should be able to use it however you want. And for god sakes, if you are in the energy business, you should be able to use your assets, in the trillions, however, you wish to without any regulations or cap and trade. In other words, it is your property and you should not be forced to either leave it in the ground or pay for the pollution. That is somebody else’s problem. Incidentally, the arguments made by the energy sector are awfully familiar to historians. This is not accidental.
The father of many of these ideas is James Buchanan, an economist who also got a Nobel prize, but who’s thinking on property rights paralleled those of the 19th century. And all this actually starts with the Brown v Board of Education decision.
James McGill Buchanan was not a member of the Virginia elite. Nor is there any explicit evidence to suggest that for a white southerner of his day, he was uniquely racist or insensitive to the concept of equal treatment. And yet, somehow, all he saw in the Brown decision was coercion. And not just in the abstract. What the court ruling represented to him was personal. Northern liberals — the very people who looked down upon southern whites like him, he was sure — were now going to tell his people how to run their society. And to add insult to injury, he and people like him with property were no doubt going to be taxed more to pay for all the improvements that were now deemed necessary and proper for the state to make. What about his rights? Where did the federal government get the authority to engineer society to its liking and then send him and those like him the bill? Who represented their interests in all of this? I can fight this, he concluded. I want to fight this. (My emphasis.)
Literally, we are in a fight over property rights and the meaning of such, the function of government and how to regulate anything. A subset of this is taxes. How much, or how little should people pay and what services should the government actually pay for. This is not unlike the years leading to the civil war. Not the taxes part. After all, modern taxation did not come until the 20th century. The property part, and how you were to use it.
There are a few subsets of this toxic ideology, which go hand in hand with this. Public education is under attack, and the reasons are many. One is that public education has a role in a democratic society that is different from an oligarchy. Teaching young people about their rights and to be independent thinkers is not good in an oligarchy, but critical in a democracy. Also expanding public education equally to society is a problem. One that led to the uprising of white society and white flight after Brown.
Let's be clear, American democracy has always been aspirational, and hardly perfect. But it has been expanded every so often. Whether this was the case in the America of Andrew Jackson that gave the franchise to white men, or the women’s vote, or the Civil Rights Act. Each was a struggle, and each is still decried. Some still want to take those rights away. At present those rights could threaten the place on top of a perch for the few. Civil wars and revolutions are close cousins. So there is an effort to justify the current state of the American economy to large swaths of people, by playing the same divide and conquer game that is quite racial.
Our era is marked by deep political tribalism. These concepts of property, property rights and civil rights are at the heart of it. So are concepts of regional pride and regional cultures that are supposed to be the whole. In this sense, there are also cultural markers of what people believe is moral, and what is not. We are facing a moment where people are divided into two major tribes, that are sub-divided into many other tribes. It is not just right versus left anymore. In fact, it really has not been, but there is where damn socialists want to tax me to death is coming from.
The first front of this conflict involves the concept of morality. As much as we all would like to believe that there is one set of morals, that is not the case. Slavery was justified on biblical grounds. Our exploitation of the land is also justified in biblical grounds. Both are criticized quoting another set of biblical texts. The separation of children from their parents is justified using the same exact biblical text as slavery was. What we consider moral includes what we fear, and what we want. It is also set in linguistic codes. And at the heart of a lot of this is property and how you will use it. It also includes race and social class.
These differences are stark when you look at Fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, the prosperity gospel, and then you look at Dr. William Barber’s writings. It is clear from his teaching that his resistance is to the radical right (which includes religious elements) desire to change the country:
We cannot let narrow religious forces highjack our moral vocabulary, forces who speak loudly about things God says little about while saying so little about issues that are at the heart of all our religious traditions: truth, justice, love, and mercy. The movement we have witnessed — the movement we most need — is a moral movement.
The prosperity gospel on the other hand advances that the rich have been blessed (and saved) by God. Their concept of property rights, for the far right, lies in the belief of religious salvation and moral right to what you worked for. It is not about us. It is about the individual. Let's be clear about this. Property rights are complex, and tribal, because of who and what they benefit. This is no different now than it was before the civil war. The names of the groups change. It was the Southern aristocracy that did all it could to divide people and keep that system going. They benefited greatly and made immense fortunes. They were willing to die for it. And to be fair, many did. They also convinced white farmers, who never owned a slave, to fight in the armies of the Confederacy, for the state’s honor and a new nation. This is not unlike poor Americans these days adopting the views of the oligarchy, and believing that immigrants are taking their jobs.
These days the ones who benefit are extremely wealthy individuals who are vulnerable to current or future regulations. The trend on the libertarian side of politics, and among others, are the Koch brothers and yes, even Elon Musk. They are in the energy sector, as well as paper goods and even casinos, as is the case with Sheldon Aldenson. They want to return this country to a state where property rights, as they understand them, are supreme. They hate regulations of any kind. They believe that social security and Medicare are a drain on the country, The idea of single-payer health care scares them (never mind it would make them even more money). They oppose things like the minimum wage, which they portray as theft, And they would prefer a society where the government role is limited to national defense. And even that one can be negotiated.
They have used media and other means to create points of division. Things like Fox News, and the CATO institute as essential to the cause. ALEC, which they use to great effectiveness, is a way to get the kind of laws they need to capture state governments, The courts are another front in this effort to return the country to a moment when they could do as they wished with abandon. And in their mind, all this is moral.
Remember, these are the people telling you about liberals who want to steal from you and fake news. They also are the ones telling you that the left tries to control your life in all manners, and tax you to death. They have transformed taxes into a four-letter word and any form of government interferon as un-American. Remember, we do not want any European style government. And at the moment they are also turning Americans against each other, and increasing divisions using that media they decry. This is not different from the southern churches before the Civil War, and their leaders railing against northerners who wanted to change their lives forever. It is these same leaders that decided independence was preferable. In the end, that grand experiment failed, and that oligarchy lost, in the short term.
Right now we live in a country where cultural conflict is encouraged. This is what the famous culture wars, urban versus rural, north versus south, fly over country versus the coasts are about. This is about encouraging divisions. The working class is fighting each other. White versus people of color; native-born versus immigrant. Making America great again, versus it’s been great all along. This is the point of that conflict. However, that can boil over and lead to an actual shooting war. Never mind that the cause ultimately will be the same as the first Civil War, property and property rights. People are led to believe that there is also far more than divides us, and that is creating hate.
These people just listen to talk radio talk about coastal elites, are also exploiting the idea that different regions of the country have different sub-cultures. Cleveland Ohio is radically different from Los Angeles, California. Which is true, if you have ever spent any length of time in either it will be painfully obvious. For starters, Los Angeles is far closer to the Latin culture that emerged from a deep Spanish colonial background. Ohio has a very different culture both linguistically and culturally, coming from immigrants from Scandinavian countries and a good dose of Scott-Irish. This should be enriching the country, not something to be made fun off, or derided.
Nations that are on the edge of a civil war get to this point because the divisions are deep, and are encouraged. Usually, the points of division are ethnic, which in the US is harder to do, but not impossible. They can also be linguistic, or religious. In some cases, they can be all those.
So here we are. The reason for the first civil war ultimately were property rights. We are facing the same issue now. And those who benefit the most from the current state are fostering the kind of division that could lead to a civil war. Will the US have a second Civil War? It is very possible. Will the United States survive as a country? That is also a good question. It is a continental nation, with at least seven clearly identified regions. The cultural divisions are seemingly deeper than they have in sometimes. The way government works in the Democratic States is very different than Republican states. In some ways, it is as if you were looking at different counties.
Chiefly, the way people talk about each other and dehumanize each other is a step towards open conflict.