We Have Never Been Modern

This Robin post reviews Karen Orren’s scholarship into the persistence of feudal law in the US workplace. Right, where people spend almost all of their waking time, when not unemployed.

Orren, Karen. 1991. Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law and Liberal Development in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521422543.

Orren’s “”Belated Feudalism” set off multiple explosions when it appeared in 1991, inflicting serious damage on the received wisdom of Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In his 1955 classic ”The Liberal Tradition in America,” still taught on many college campuses, Hartz argued that the United States was born free: Americans never knew feudalism; their country – with its Horatio Alger ethos of individual mobility, private property, free labor, and the sacred rights of contract – was modern and liberal from the start. For decades, liberals embraced Hartz’s argument as an explanation for why there was no – and could never be any – radicalism in the United States. Leftists, for their part, also accepted his account, pointing to the labor movement’s failure to create socialism as evidence of liberalism’s hegemony.

 But as Orren shows, American liberalism has never been the easy inheritance that Hartz and his complacent defenders assume. And the American labor movement may have achieved something far more difficult and profound than its leftist critics realize. Trade unions, Orren argues, made America liberal, laying slow but steady siege to an impregnable feudal fortress, prying open this ”state within a state” to collective bargaining and congressional review.

By pioneering tactics later used by the civil rights movement – sit-ins, strikes, and civil disobedience – labor unions invented the modern idea of collective action, turning every sphere of society into a legitimate arena of democratic politics.”

While the US had slavery and identifiable feudal lords in the South, it maintained feudal workplaces throughout, and up through the entirety of the 20th century. Along with the continuing influence of anti-revolutionary British culture (P. Anderson), instilled via the Anglo American elite class (W. Domhoff), no wonder Southern feudal conservatism (D. Blackmon) was resonant and spread throughout the US even after the Democratic Party was modernized in the mid 20th century.

I had been aware that the contemporary torture and domestic and international repression privileges of the US Executive office were based in ancient and barbaric Anglo feudal law, but now I recognize that, considering British feudal warlords became the capitalist class, the idea flogged, that there was a legal or institutional break with feudalism in the Anglosphere, has been vastly overmarketed.

The last thing we have needed is a break from the fledgling Enlightenment movement, which set up the US as a semi-independent state locked into global economic elite rule, but would have been thereupon abandoned per the Federalist and slaver preferences, save for the unions. American unions were not radical because they were busy trying to push the US from slavery and feudal law and institutions into basic liberal law and institutions.

…Now, that argument is not going to get you very far, if viewed without historical depth. Societies and their institutions obviously don’t have to try to mince their way through lukewarm liberalism. Sweden, for one, developed much more radical and effective unions starting from feudalism. Then there’s Russia, the Latin American countries, etc. However, given the fact that the US was advertising itself as a modern, liberal bastion–to immigrants, to foreign allies–the early 20th century unions found political opportunity in pushing for actual liberal laws and policies within the US.

Here the thesis I will again advance is that liberal institutions as your “Left” do not create a sufficient or robust counter to conservatism–Liberalism is incapable of moving a society into even merely political democracy, let alone democracy and freedom egalitarianism.

And with the destruction of the unions and labor rights, the US has slid back down the muddy liberal bank and sunk back into the dank, suffocating morass of conservatism: Freedom for a few; slavery for most.

Here in “Birth Control McCarthyism” (referencing his book “Fear: The History of Political Idea,”) Robin explains why feminists and labor have a lot of ground in common, faced with conservatives. Insofar as we lose sight of the necessity of the feminist-labor coalition, it is because we have come to have a scandalous blindspot for the horrible, deranged, rabid elephant in the Western livingroom, the ubiquitous, pervasive, legal fact of our (especially Anglosphere) societies: the totalitarian workplace.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s