The Peckerwood insurrection and the decline of Hydrarchy
It is the anthropology of the moment that fascinates.
One first has to survey from the facts on the ground. James Galbraith, in the Predator State, does a very nice job of summing up the structure of the American economy:
“Try adding these elements together: health care, higher education, housing and Social Security. Together they account for nearly 40 percent of the total consumption of goods and services in the United States. Moreoever we have not yet counted the direct contribution of non-military public expenditure at the federal, state and local levels, which amounts to another 14 percent of the GDP (2 percent federal, 12 percent state and local). Of that, a high fraction goes for public education at the primary and secondary levels (Over 88 percent of American schoolchildren attend public schools, and that proportion has not fallen notably in recent years). Taking everything together, we find that the United States is not a “free-market” economy with an underdeveloped or withered state sector. It is, rather, an advanced postindustrial economy like any other, with a government sector responsible for well over half of economic activity. It is just somewhat less organized and efficient in some respects, and considerably more profligant in others, than the European norm.” (112)
There’s nothing odd in this, but it is shocking to the milkbred American sensibility, liberal and conservative. In America, the talk is always going to be around the fact, on the ground, that the U.S. is a mix of socialist and capitalist just like Sweden. Take, for instance, employment. Economists who publish columns in the NYT routinely and airly speak of what the government should or shouldn’t do at the point of “full employment” – meaning that employment has reached the ‘natural rate’ of five percent. If you listen to this talk long enough, you fall into a daze of thinking that you have, on the one hand, the heroic private sector, and, on the other hand, the unemployed. But if you wake up from that daze, you will see that the economists are talking mush: since the 1940s, the state – the federal governments and the states – have never employed less than 13 percent of the population, and the numbers have tended upwards – particularly under conservative presidents like Reagan and Bush II – so that the figure stands now at 18 to 19 percent. The government is by far the institution that employs the most people in this country, Add together the real rate of unemployment, which averages more like 6 percent over that period, and you find that the private sector is doing well when it employs 77 percent of the employed. At the moment, the private sector can only employ around 69 percent of the employed – if you use the more accurate U figure, around 65 percent.
In a recent editorial by the ever crazy CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, attacking socialized health care, he wrote:
“Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?”
Obviously, this is a man whose knowledge of the history of housing policy in the U.S. could be contained in a crushed Dixie Cup. Alas, even in his own field, food, he is as blind. Perhaps he ought to ask himself, some day, how California, or for that matter, Kansas and Nebraska, became such food providing giants. He might well be surprised that the bluest of states, with self-supportin’ Republican men’s men representing them in the Senate and the House, vote every year to socialistically support the food industry. In fact, since the New Deal, the American farmer has been so hooked up to government lifesupport that the farmer no longer considers it ‘government’. Rather, it is the manna that falleth from heaven. It was the state, of course, that made possible industrial farming in Imperial Valley. It was the state that seized the rivers in the West and dammed them. It was the State, in California, that devised the most complex and expensive water distribution system in the world, which – unsurprisingly – subvents the giant Ag Industry. It is the State that changed the rules on monopoly, allowing such as Monsanto to do such things as “patent” genes – a hilarious misuse of the police power of the state, and an excellent way to introduce monopoly rents to fatten the shareholder.
And so it goes – industry after industry. The clock ran out on the worry about socialism in 1900. But in America, unlike other countries – and this is the American difference – we pretend that it didn’t. Wallowing in the fruits of state supported activities while denying that we are doing so has created, as I’ve pointed out before, a vast freerider mentality. If one superimposes the flow of federal money upon the map, you find, oddly enough, that much of that money goes to the Blue States – the states in which the Republican party, fighting against socialism, is the strongest. Statements gleefully culled by liberal bloggers from teabagger besieged meetings with congressmen – statements like, keep the government’s hands off my medicare – simply underline the freerider mentality. Mackey simply plays to it - although one should never overestimate the intelligence of a CEO. He may actually believe that he housing market and the food market are government free. It is amazing what a man can believe if he feels there will be no punishment for false belief. Which gets us to the anthropology of this moment. The elections of 2000, 2004 and 2008 have been remarkable in as much as they have crystallized a sort of psychic soft budgetary constraint in American at large. The question is: can an inefficient imperium still live on the fumes of the dominance it had thrust upon it when the rest of the world, in WWII, committed suicide? To be fair, for a good forty to fifty years, the U.S. became an actual innovator in the world. The systematic collaboration of the state and private entities resulted in an unprecedented boom. Of course, that boom was world wide – France, Germany, Japan, the smaller European economies, they all boomed too. The recipe for opulence seemed to be found, and one could easily model it – all of the countries mentioned found themselves able to sustain a strong private sector and an interventionist public sector, the kind of thing that did not go as far as a socialist like Jean Jaures, in 1900, might have dreamed, but went far enough. In fact, it became obvious that the state did a poor job of total management – the Soviet economy is an excellent experiment that showed the flaw in the socialist model, which is that the real driver of the economy – Schumpertian innovation – can be generated in a total socialist system but never systematized. The soviets developed the best mathematicians in the world, and had a third world computing sector.
However, in the developed economies – the post-industrial world – real flaws also develop. The major one, I would say, is attitudinal and hard to quantify. It is that opulence develops fear. A real fear of systematic change. In the face of the Malthusian constraints rapidly coming up, in a world devastated by our normality, this isn't good.
Which gets us back to the peckerwood insurrection we have been seeing, directed against ‘Obamacare’. Among the delusions of the liberal elite, the one that gets to the heart of liberal amorality is the notion that cultural values count for nothing. Obama, in a speech during his campaign, talked about rural culture in the U.S. and how it had been wounded by economic changes in the last 30 years – true enough. But he then built the case that somehow the peckerwoods cling to their guns because they don’t see what is happening in front of their nose. In other words, they don’t have a good sense of their self interest.
This strikes me as a fairy tale. It is the fairy tale that capitalism has been telling for a long time. “Free” up labor, mobilize it, and eventually every self becomes a little calculating machine, oriented towards getting more. The drive for accumulation (dubbed ‘rationality’ by the economists) will dissolve any and all blocks to its satisfaction. Cultural values will just have to wait in line, where our highly professional core of economic specialists can euthanize them. This simply isn’t so. The peckerwood culture is not opposed to liberalism because the wealthy have hired talk radio hosts to pull the wool over their eyes. Rather, they are opposed to liberalism because they don’t like the liberal cultural values. Instead of those values being at the back of the line, they are at the front. And instead of the peckerwoods being blind, it is the liberal elites who are blind to the fact that their economism is a cultural value, not an objective fact about the world. Even so, a culture of freeriders will not stand. Which gets us to the decline of hydarchy.
The polity of the hydra, hydrarchy is a term used by two radical historians, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in their marvelous book, The Many Headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. They bring together, in this history, the radical subcurrents that touched the first American settlers, the Africans stolen from their countries, the sailors often shanghaied into serving on military ships, and the radical end of the Protestant revolution that beheaded Charles I and proposed a commutarian society – the diggers and the levelers, liquidated by Oliver Cromwell before he began his genocidal conquest of Catholic Ireland. It is a history to please Thomas Pynchon’s heart – Linebaugh and Rediker even use an eighteenth century phrase to talk about rioting sailors – the motley crew – which could easily have found a home in V. This history is about one cultural value above all others – liberty. The defense of liberty was mounted by mobs – mobs of commoners, mobs of sailors, mobs of slaves. These mobs, to establishment eyes, were dangerous mixtures of the discontented and desperados. A minister, Richard Baxter, wrote of the sailors, who represented a continual radical leaven in the mix, like this:
“He cannot speak low, the sea talks so loud. His advice is seldom taken in naval affairs; though his hand is strong, the headpiece is stupid. Stars cannot be more faithful in their society than these Hans-kins in their fraternity. They will have it valiantly when they are ranked together, and relate their adventures with wonderful terror. Necessary instruments are they, and agents of main importance in that Hydrarchy wherein they live; for the walls of the State could not subsist without them; but least useful are they to themselves, and most needful for others supportance.”
Our authors strongly reject Baxter’s characterization as they adopt Baxter’s word. A hydra was a creature seemingly all tentacles and without a center, that yet had one, secretly.
The Peckerwood hydrarchy, unfortunately, is a decayed version of this revolutionary company. Their world has been turned upside down – the symbolic wound of a black man as President has had a surprising effect in Dixie burgs, reminding ‘Southern man’ that the status landscape has changed for good. At the same time, of course, Wall Street collapsed, and the shame of autonomous capitalism came into the open as the political establishment, Bush to Obama, made its repair – made the wealth of the wealthiest – the first and tenderest concern of the government. An elite which would worry that Social Security may have a trillion dollar deficit in forty to fifty years didn’t blink as a trillion dollars was calmly shoved at the banks in little over three months, and the Fed created loans that are estimated at 8 trillion dollars. It was all too much reality. It is one thing to be inured to a war economy peculiarly favorable to southern industry, and an agricultural support sector without which much of the Midwest would revert back to desert. But it is the genius of a state institution to retreat under the skin of the social body and there to function, much as the system of blood does. Blood is bloody, however, and when it comes to the fore and moves to the surface of the body, it makes grown men faint. Trauma – the encounter with the truth – takes a while to forget. After it is forgotten, those who benefited will be the first to deny they ever needed or wanted it.
So the revolt against that mishmash of health care programs desperately not seeking socialism which are being ground through Congress is really a revolt against the world turned upside down. The problem of course is that the world cannot long endure the parasitic stature of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. As the U.S. misses its opportunity to lead the next industrial revolution, to green tech, because it frightens the old boys in Macon, Georgia, the expenses will overwhelm us. Or, as Laurie Anderson puts it: this is your Captain speaking. I have a funny feeling I've seen this all before…
MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Roger Gathman was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover
ice. Or rather, to discover the profit making potential of selling bags of ice to picnicking Atlantans, the most glorious of the old man's Get Rich schemes, the one that devoured the most energy, the one that seemed so rational for a time, the one that, like all the others - the farm, the housebuilding business, the plastic sign business, chimney cleaning, well drilling, candy machine renting - was drawn by an inexorable black hole that opened up between skill and lack of business sense, imagination and macro-economics, to blow a huge hole in the family savings account. But before discovering the ice machine at 12, Roger had discovered many other things - for instance, he had a distinct memory of learning how to tie his shoes. It was in the big colonial, a house in the Syracuse metro area that had been built to sell and that stubbornly wouldn't - hence, the family had moved into it. He remembered bending over the shoes, he remembered that clumsy feeling in his hands - clumsiness, for the first time, had a habitation, it was made up of this obscure machine, the shoe, and it presaged a lifetime of struggle with machine after machine.