“Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay the common beggars in the streets...court a set of admirers, and plume themselves on that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others...When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. 'Who will love me then?' was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal.”----John Adams. (1)
Every man, John Adams claimed, needs to be held in esteem and, by extension, to lord over someone else. “Even the American democrat, Adams reasoned, would rather rule over an inferior than dispossess a superior. His passion is for supremacy, not equality, and so long as he is assured an audience of lessors, he will be content with his lowly status”. Indeed as Corey Robin has pointed out the promise of American life, the American Dream if you will, was not an egalitarian society nor, necessarily, a meritocracy. Rather the promise of the American dream was “to rule over another person” or in Huey Long's memorable turn of phrase, “Every Man a King”. (1)
The problem for American conservatives is how, in a democratic society, does one make privilege palatable? The solution, answers Robin, is not to “defend the ancien regime of king, priest and lord. Nor have they appealed to antimodern arguments of tradition and history.(2) Instead, they have surrounded an array of old regimes—in the family, the factory, and the field—with fences and gates as they descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. More importantly, they moved to give it a veneer of democracy.
“It took the American slaveholder to grasp the power of this insight. The best way to protect their class, the masters, realized, was to democratize it...to that end, Southern politicians attempted to pass legislation and provide tax breaks to ensure that every white man owned at least one slave ...so invested would he be in his mastery that he'd work to keep all others in their place”. (1)
But such dynamics were not novel to the South. The Virginian George Fitzhugh (1806-1881) argued in 1857 that all men desired to live without work, and that America was witnessing a form of wage slavery emerging in the capitalist North much more inhumane that what existed in the Antebellum South,(3) in effect reiterating from yet another perspective Adams' thesis. A man must be about the business of distinguishing himself; a man “on the make” to become in time a king (by living without work) of his own domain. The acquisition of wealth whether by slaveholder or tycoon became the ultimate act of self-definition “through which the 'uncommon' man—who could be anybody—distinguished himself from the 'undifferentiated mass'. To amass wealth was not only to exercise freedom through material means but also a way of lording oneself over others.” (1)
Whether under the ancient regime of slavery or the emerging new world order of capitalist 'free' enterprise, Americans and westerners generally have consistently embraced political philosophies that have rooted themselves, whatever their stated ideals, upon assumed inequality. The problem, for the modern democratic state, is how do you accommodate a form of vassalage (wage slaves in Fitzhugh's memorable definition), in a free society? After all if the purpose of a 'free' society is to allow—indeed encourage—exaggerated concentrations of wealth and power then there must follow a society of relatively few lords and many vassals. Again let us return to Robin for some insight: “In 'Conservative Thought,' an unjustly neglected essay from 1927, Karl Mannheim argued that conservatives have never been wild about the idea of freedom. It threatens the submission of subordinate to inferior. Because freedom in the lingua franca of modern politics, however, they have had 'a sound enough instinct not to attack' it. Instead they have made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission. Men are naturally unequal, they argue. Freedom requires that they be allowed to develop their unequal gifts. A free society must be an unequal society, composed of radically distinct and hierarchical particulars.” (1) This leads, by short steps, to the war of 'liberation' against trade unionism in order to free the worker to negotiate alone with his 'lord' as one would confront the almighty on judgment day. It liberates consumers of protection to negotiate alone with his banker over interest rates on his home, auto, or credit card. It 'liberates' the community of protection so that the individual is left to sue the corporate conglomerate to stop the pumping of poisons into his water supply or the ground he stands on. It 'liberates' one to be free to become an 'associate' instead of an employee; it liberates 'privilege' by making democracy aristocratic.
1.As quoted by Corey Robin, “Out of Place” The Nation June 23, 2008 pg 26.
2.Earlier in the history of the republic, John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senator from South
Carolina and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, would defend slavery using
ancient historical precedents and tradition in an effort to found a republic on blatant principles of political inequality. Such arguments are foreign to the
modern ear and are not used in polite political discourse. Accordingly the conservative must be about the business of constructing a 'populist' veneer
with which to cover his defense of privilege
3. Fitzhugh, George. “Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters”, in Baritz, Loren “Sources of the American Mind” Vol. 1. John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, New York. 1966. pp 373-378.