Monday, July 02, 2012


I was tempted to save this post on racial populism in the USA until Scissions Theoretical Weekends, but I decided to go with it today.  I just couldn't wait.  

While the analysis is overtly about the Cold War period of USA history, I think the lessons are more than applicable to populist movements of a racial nature today, and you and I know they exist.  There are numerous white supremacist populist groups  out there and there is the Tea Party.  The Tea Party is ostensibly not racist, but, well, I simply don't buy that the stream of racist populism doesn't run right on into and through the Tea Party.

Speaking of populism.  It is my belief that is what the Occupy Movement is also.  The Occupy movement is not a racial form of populism, although it has been subject to some infiltration by racial populists in the past.

Anyway, below we have a very informative piece taken from Lenin's Tomb, but via People of Color Organize.

The Problem of Racial Populism in Cold War America

racist populism The Problem of Racial Populism in Cold War America

In Southern US political traditions, populism has many valences.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was a brief moment where populist political forces throughout the South seemed to be converging into an anticapitalist coalition.  Underlying this movement was the transition to capitalism in the Southern countryside.  Charles Post argues in his prize-winning history of The American Road to Capitalism that the US economy prior to the Civil War was an articulation of three modes of production: mercantile capital, petty commodity production, and slavery.  In this articulation, capitalism was the dominant mode of production, its imperatives shaping and determining the forms that the rival modes of production took; the relations between these modes of production also determined the forms of regional competition leading up to the Civil War.  Following the success of northeastern and midwestern industrial interests in the Civil War, the political power of capital was such that no restoration of pre-capitalist modes was possible.  Joseph Reidy’s history of the cotton plantations describes how the Depression of the 1870s forced Southern planters to convert themselves into an agrarian capitalist class.

The populist movements arose when they did to a large extent over the defence of customary rights under assault from the capitalist transformation of the Southern countryside.  Over time, they developed into something considerably more than a reflux against capitalist modernity, connecting the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and the Knights of Labor in a coordinated leftist upsurge.  I will not go into detail as to the reasons for the failure of this populist moment.  Judging from Steven Hahn’s work on the subject, I gather that among the key reasons were the segregated nature of the movement, the conservative influence of white property owners, and the co-opting of many populist thematics by the losing Democratic presidential candidate in 1900.  This is related to the story of the Anti-Imperialist League, by the way, a subject I’ll come back to.  At any rate, the defeat of Southern populism allowed the planters to force through the capitalist transformation of the countryside by means of terror, and to completely colonise the local state formations where they did not simply create them.  As they were unable to wholly subsume the labour process under capitalist control, they resorted to extra-economic coercion – the Jim Crow system answered this requirement. This involved a dual movement of suppression and incorporation.  On the one hand, the exclusion of African Americans and many poor whites from the polity permitted the introduction of segregated controls on their movements and conduct which limited their ability to organise in their own interests. As a contemporary protagonist put it: “If the Negro is permitted to engage in politics, his usefulness as a labourer is at an end.”  On the other hand, the obverse of such controls was the incorporation of white workers through paternalistic means, most evident in the plantations and the mill towns which emerged from the cotton industry.  This involved more extensive intrusion into the daily life of white workers, despite their greater liberty and access to public goods.  It involved white workers being addressed as part of a folkish Anglo-Saxon cultural and political community.  So, racial populism could become a recurring form of Southern politics thanks in part to the defeat and co-optation of turn-of-the-century Southern multiracial populism.

Before turning to the specific period of the Cold War, 1945-65, what I consider the ‘classical period’ of US anticommunism, I will make some attempt to specify what I mean by populism.  In a previous post, I gestured toward Ernesto Laclau’s writing on populism in his pre-post-marxist writing.  While acknowledging some problems with the argument, I thought that one advantage of his interpretation was that it was neither purely descriptive nor is simply historicist, confining the interpretation of populism to a certain conjuncture or political space, but rather specified a conceptual core that could help make sense of the variety of movements and ideologies deemed populist.  I think this is a quality that any account of populism would need to make the concept workable.  The gist of Laclau’s account is that while class ‘interpellations’ (or, if you prefer, identifications) relate to the antagonism between the ruling class and the proletariat, populist ‘interpellations’ relate to the antagonism between the ‘power bloc’ and the ‘people’.*  Populism is thus an anti-status quo discourse that divides the political space into a simple dichotomy of ‘the people’ vs its other.  The ‘people’ is defined as sovereign yet powerless; the true owners of a polity that has been appropriated by an other.  The ‘other’ must in this sense be somehow an elite or bound up with elites.  Thus, racial populism might ‘other’ a ‘Jewish elite’, or a ‘liberal multicultural elite’, or a ‘Federal elite’ that was seen as ‘soft’ on racial others, ‘loving’ the other (rather than the people), or bound up with one-world conspiracies etc.  This step is decisive: the process of othering is what determines the positive content of ‘the people’.  It is what simplifies the political terrain, uniting an array of class actors in (Laclau-speak) a ‘chain of equivalents’.  Populism is not, then, a form of politics like socialism or liberalism, but rather a form of political identification which is tendentially versatile (Laclau would say ‘tendentially empty’), and one which tends to arise when the social order and the system of identities that helps sustain it is in flux.  (There is an argument for treating populism in an historicist manner, as a transitional form of politics rooted in the absorption of previously resistant regions and populaces into capitalist markets.  We certainly see this with the populist movements in the South of the late 19th Century, where the strongest sources of populist support came from areas least integrated into the national or global markets.  Nonetheless, its recurrence in a variety of circumstances seems to weigh against this treatment, and so I think it’s most sensible to see it as a kind of crisis politics.)

Within the terms outlined above, Joseph Lowndes treats George Wallace as a pioneer of racial anti-statist populism, emerging in the crisis of the Sixties as the ‘New Deal’ coalition fragmented over the issue of civil rights.  In fact, I think the crisis of the Southern system really began after World War II.  Manning Marable’s account of the era in Race, Reform and Rebellion demonstrates that by this time, the economic basis for the collapse of Jim Crow had arrived.  He does not focus on the effective subsumption of labour in the South through new mechanisation processes, and the arrival of a ‘New South’ bourgeoisie for whom Jim Crow was desirable but not essential to their reproduction.  Rather, he shows that the beginnings of African American empowerment were in place by the end of the war (evident in FDR’s de-segregation of the military, which appalled Southern politicians because of the implicit threat to white supremacy posed by a seeming capitulation to threats of black civil disobedience).  Politicians of neither party could afford to ignore black electors after the war, and many of the important Supreme Court decisions had been made by the early 1950s.  In the south, black political participation was gradually increasing – this is what the wave of lynchings was intended to stop.  Meanwhile, the colonial system was already disintegrating so that the ‘colour line’ was everywhere in peril.  Only the political practices bracketed under Cold War anticommunism prevented the crisis of Jim Crow from becoming collapse much earlier than it did.

So, I want to suggest that it is in the years between 1948 and 1964, the peak years of the Cold War, that Southern racial populism was developed and refined.  It began with the States Rights Party, which was the basis for the White Citizens’ Council and the John Birch Society.  These groups were organised around a southern tradition of countersubversion, which has precedent in the terrorist campaigns by Ku Klux Klan and associated organisations following the US Civil War aimed at restoring white supremacy under Democratic rule.  Countersubversion is an ensemble of political practices, of which counterrevolution is a subset.  It has an especially long pedigree in the United States, where the presumed conspiracies of Freemasons, Catholics, Mormons, African Americans, the ‘yellow peril’, and of course ‘Reds’ have serially aroused movements in defence of Americanism. In addition to its racial and national connotations, countersubversion is intimately bound up with patriarchal practices and the masculinist ‘regeneration through violence’. The dominant form of countersubversion in US politics at the time of Jim Crow’s greatest peril, however, was anticommunism.

Anticommunist countersubversion, specifically, is an ensemble of class practices whose product is the conservation of extant relations of dominance primarily, but not exclusively, on the axis of class. It is involved in the suppression of insurgent classes and fractions for this purpose.  In treating anticommunism primarily as a set of political practices rather than an ideology, what I am most interested in is the line of political demarcation rather than identifying a specific ideological operation shared by liberal anticommunists, white supremacist anticommunists, Fabian anticommunists, fascist anticommunists, and so on.  This line of political demarcation is between those who have at least a nominal anticapitalist commitment (communists, their allies and their anticapitalist critics) and those who are committed to defending capitalism.  But importantly, this line bissects a political scene unfolding within a concrete social formation, meaning that the defence of capitalism is not organised around a set of abstractions (the mode of production), but rather around concrete political blocs, local state forms, modes of rule, etc. which are not immediately reducible to capitalist imperatives.  This means that such struggles are contextual, and contested: whether white supremacy, ‘free unionism’, ‘pragmatic segregation’, or other policies or structures are considered essential to capitalism’s efficient reproduction will vary.

The regional variations in US capitalism at the time of Jim Crow’s crisis are quite clear.  In the north and west, Fordist production dominated, with workers incorporated by means of productivity agreements and wage rises (the material substratum of hegemony) and disciplined by anticommunism (loyalty oaths, the war against communism and the left in trade unions, etc).  In the South, the planters and the textile industry dominated.  The textile firms were small and poorly unionised.  Employers and state officials worked to isolate union activists as ‘communists’, beating or ‘disappearing’ them rather than trying to incorporate them in a class compromise.  Local state forces in the South had a long tradition of arresting large numbers of workers, especially African American workers, to bolster the cheap prison labour force for local employers – a practice which was incentivised by payments per arrest made, and which continued on a widespread basis well into the 1940s.  All of this class repression had a parapolitical, vigilante aspect to it, not dissimilar to the way the Klan operated in alliance with police to terrorise blacks and civil rights workers, or to the way the FBI organised illegal raids on suspected radicals’ premises.  The murky boundaries of the capitalist state in this context should remind us that it is not an object, or an instrument, or an institution: rather, it is a set of strategic relations which facilitates the organisation of the dominant classes and fractions, and the disorganisation of the dominated classes and fractions.

At any rate, if rising wages and productivity agreements worked to incorporate labour in the north and west, as part of the wider offensive against communism and the radical left, the South depended on different mechanisms of incorporation.  Here, the material substratum of hegemony was the relative advantage enjoyed by white labour over black labour: it was this which made white workers so resistant to unionisation, fearing that it would erode their racial position.  I hesitate to call this ‘white privilege’, because the system did not improve the wages of white workers in aggregate.  White workers had more access to skilled and supervisorial jobs as a result of segregation.  Their wages tended to be better than those of black workers. However, the overall effect was actually to reduce the bargaining power of both black and white labour, and to magnify income inequalities among whites – or, to put it another way, to increase the rate of exploitation of white workers.

This is where racial populism comes in.    From the late 1940s, as I say, the system of Jim Crow was endangered.  Washington’s global empire-building was partially responsible for this, as it entailed a set of strategic orientations at odds with those of the South.  First of all, obviously, Washington needed to construct multi-racial alliances against communism – necessarily, given that most of the world was not white, and would no longer be ruled by whites.  The US could deploy considerable violence against opponents, but could not have ruled through force alone.  So, it was under constant pressure to address or mitigate white supremacy – a matter it took up reluctantly, because Washington politicians mostly believed in some form of white supremacy, and the South was a politically powerful and reliable component of the domestic anticommunist coalition.  Nonetheless, segregationists would have cause to complain that troops were being used against white Americans in Little Rock rather than communists in Peking.  Secondly, the international system that Washington set about creating was crafted under the influence of New Dealers, whereas the bulk of Southern capital was against the New Deal and particularly opposed to anything (Marshall Aid etc) that smacked of ‘socialism’.  They had come to terms with the New Deal in the first place largely by ensuring that its provisions were ‘racially laden’ – e.g., containing exclusion clauses that omitted most African Americans in the South from wage and employee protection.  This dramatically accelerated the divergence in living standards between white and black workers.  So, the further entrenchment and global expansion of New Deal ideas could not but be perceived as a threat in the South.

The states rights movement beginning in the 1940s founded its activities on the proposition that federal civil rights legislation was the culmination of global communist conspiracy.  This grammar of anticommunist countersubversion was one advanced first in Washington DC, of course.  The specific charges used by Southern bodies to attack human rights, civil rights and political organisations originated from HUAC, or the Justice Department, or the Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee (SISS).  HUAC under the Texas senator Martin Dies had always protected the South as far as possible.  But in the South, such countersubversion acquired a populist element during the Cold War in that this conspiracy was treated as one that involved elites – not just the federal government, but financiers, celebrities etc. – in a united effort with the riff-raff (criminals, protesters, blacks, militants) to undermine the people.  Civil rights legislation would merely undermine a fragile concord between racial and minority groups, spread misunderstanding and distrust, and hand agitators a weapon to divide the American people and soften them up for tyranny.  The States Rights Party warned of a “police state, in totalitarian, centralised, bureaucratic government” arising from Truman’s civil rights legislation.  In general, the view was that foreign-controlled conspirators had infiltrated the federal government to promote an egalitarian agenda at odds with the venerable ‘way of life’ of the South, which was itself the most pure version of the American ‘way of life’.  Strom Thurmond’s major thematic in 1948 was the threat posed by “collectivism” to “economic opportunity” for Americans.  Echoing claims that were current in Washington DC, he asserted that spies and infiltrators were at the top of major strategic industries, as well as the political establishment, and that the Fair Employment Practices Commission had been introduced to “sabotage America”.  Seeking the votes of a “racial minority”, he said, the national parties had all adopted a programme that would “open the doors to eventual communistic control of this Republic”.

Yet it was really following Brown vs the Board of Education and the censure of McCarthy that the articulation of racism and anticommunism in a populist inflection emerged in its most energetic form.  McCarthy had never gained as much support in the South as his authoritarian anticommunist politics would lead one to expect.  In fact, southerners were the least likely to back McCarthy despite their increasing propensity to back Republicans in national contexts.  This was perhaps, as Wayne Addison Clark argues, because McCarthy’s basic orientation was toward creating a local power base and maintaining conformity on issues relating to foreign policy rather than defending a racial caste system.  Nonetheless, he used his power to disseminate ideas – communist infiltration of government, industry and Hollywood, a lack of sufficient vigilance against communism by American leaders – that the defenders of white supremacy would find very useful.  He also had personal influence in a number of political fights against supposed crypto-communists in southern states such as Texas, where he forged alliances with oil plutocrats.  Following his personal political demise, the ideas of McCarthyism took on a new life in the South, among the Southern rich as well as small businesses, journalists and ‘patriotic’ organisations such as the American Legion, Minute Men and so on.  Senator James Eastland was the South’s McCarthy in many respects, expressing a hatred for the New Deal, liberalism, and concessions to labour that southern Democrats shared with conservative Republicans, in a distinctly Southern idiom.  Eastland worked through SISS to gather and disseminate (dis)information about civil rights organisations and to organise the harrassment of white supremacy’s opponents, as well as organised labour and the left in general.  Similarly, the publications of the White Citizens’ Council were remarkably similar in tone and content to those of HUAC, albeit with the emphasis falling on race and identity.

Wallace represented a defiant last stand, as it were, in respect of this form of racial populism.  His early background had marked him as a critic of the most egregious forms of white supremacy but, having lost the primary in the 1958 gubernatorial contest to a candidated backed by the KKK, he vowed not to be “out-n****red” again.  By 1962, he had become and out-and-out Dixiecrat, using populist identifications to establish himself as a defender of the white southern people against the seemingly unstoppable egalitarian tyranny.  “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth,” he said on being sworn in as governor of Alabama, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  This speech, written by a former Klan member, invoked the shades of the Confederacy.  Though promising ‘the greatest people’ (the superior southern white) protection from the clanking chains of tyranny, from a regime that reviled them, despised them, and trod on them, he also staked the South’s claim to true Americanism.  “You are Southerners too”, he told the whites of New England, the Mid-West and the far west.  However, like many of his predecessors, Wallace preferred not to focus his discourse chiefly on race.  And when he did address race, he often addressed it through codes and a richly symbolic language often tapping the region’s strongly Protestant religious traditions.  But it was through race that he could unite the suburban white middle classes with urban white workers: to the middle classes, he could arouse fear of the threat to property rights posed by civil rights legislation; to workers, he could cite a putative threat to job security.  It was through the same language that he could speak to Polish northerners as much as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ southerners.  It was a spurious white racial victimhood that could fuse these disparate class, religious and ethnic groups into a ‘people’ in opposition to an elitist tyranny.

Throughout the period from 1945-65, Southern elites sought to protect white supremacist capitalism by forging a populist alliance against communist conspiracy.  Their efforts were not merely repressive, but actively sought to alert and mobilise popular forces to the threat to their racial advantages. They were not simply conservative, but actively sought to direct an oppositional force against the Washington power bloc – not to overthrow it but to recompose it in the interests of Southern white supremacy.

The ‘power bloc’ is a concept from Poulantzas, who argues that such a bloc arises as a logical form of class dominance under capitalism because the ruling class and its allied classes are “constitutively divided into fractions” such as rentier, finance, commerce, industry, etc. A power bloc comprises the “coexistence of several classes, and most importantly of fractions of classes” in a “contradictory unity”.  The ‘power bloc’ is thus an alliance of dominant classes and fractions under the hegemonic direction of the leading class or fraction.  It is not important for this argument, but it is worth saying, that the power bloc is unified by the capitalist state in this account, because the bourgeoisie and its fractions are held to be incapable of either unifying themselves or assembling a coherent system of class alliances – so wrapped up are they in competition.

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