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“Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!”: the Deep Roots of the Birth Control Freakout

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Thanks to Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and the Virginia Legislature we’re engaged in an elevated and enlightened national debate over just exactly how big slutty slut sluts are our nation’s women. We all know, of course, that sex without the intent to procreate is immoral, unless, like Newt Gingrich, you’re in the sanctity of a Congressman/aide relationship. So the question is, of course, exactly how many sexual experiences should women be allowed? 5? 10? Exactly how much should we humiliate those who have unapproved sex? Should they be forced to videotape the sex for Rush’s sweaty amusement? Be raped by the state of Virginia?

Some commentators have noticed that this rash of attacks on women’s rights is a bit strange coming from a political movement that, a year ago, was screaming about getting the government off its back, but is now so eager to get in between our sheets (and our knees). It does raise a serious question: why does the libertarian tradition in this country seem to be so blind when it comes to women’s rights? Why is it that the party that claims to speak for people’s private property rights, is so careless about the autonomy of people’s privates? We shouldn’t be surprised, though, as the conflation of property rights and control of women have deep roots in American history.

Corey Robin has discovered some great intellectual history that partly explains this disconnect, showing that libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises actually had repugnant views on women, worrying that access to birth control might give women too many free choices. And Mike Konczal has also written on some intellectual background. Together they suggest that there is a strong tradition of libertarianism that is not committed, even in theory, to what Robin calls a “project of universal liberty,” not even a project of negative liberty. At least as so far as women are concerned.

I would like to add a little social history to the mix, in a way that I think supplements the analysis of Robin and others. I’m currently reading Stephanie McCurry’s book on the troubles of Confederate nation-making, Confederate Reckoning. A major theme in her work, going back to her Masters of Small Worlds, is the intersection between domination of the home and perceptions of liberty. Many scholars piously tell us of the need to integrate analyses of race, gender, and class, but, other than maybe Glenda Gilmore, I can’t think of anyone who does this as well as McCurry.

In Masters of Small Worlds, she studies small households in the Low Country South Carolina, those with no or few slaves. These poor whites have always been a bit of a problem in historical understanding. In a nutshell, why did those white men who were not profiting from the slave system, still fight and die to protect it? One traditional answer, going back to Edmund Morgan, and before that W.E.B. Dubois, is that race was the factor that tied the poor white to the rich white, creating a “socialism of fools,” which seemed to unite the interests of all white people. McCurry doesn’t disagree, but adds gender to these analyses.

White men’s self-identity, she argues, in the age of the yeomanry, was intricately linked to domination of the home and, especially, domination of dependents: children, women, and slaves. Moreover, this was a process that linked private property with control of slaves and women. Her first chapter in Masters of Small Worlds is about the spread of laws regarding fencing and boundaries. Once this enclosure is complete, and property is ensured, than the white male can exercise control over his subordinates. “The law elided distinctions between forms of property, rendering a man’s control over his enclosure synonymous with his control over the familial and extrafamilial dependents within it.” (p. 14)

The result was an economic system in which the small property holder had total control of his property and total use of the labor of all dependents on this property. Like many yeomanry, they first produced a subsistence, and the remainder they sold for the market. Thus, they weren’t as totally integrated into the market as, say, a New England millworker was, or even a Western grain farmer was. Women’s labor, then, was crucial for the functioning of the economic unit, as they wove, cooked, cleaned, butchered, etc.. But it was a labor that occurred under the control of the male. In defiance of pro-slavery ideology, in fact, white women often worked in the fields alongside white men and slaves. And, though she doesn’t go into this, the reproduction of both the wife and slave women had direct economic benefit for the master.

White Southern men received real and tangible benefits from this system that ensured their near-total autonomy and power within the boundaries of their own property. While at home, they controlled the labor of their subordinates, and in public their status as a free-holding white man (a master) linked them to the elite. McCurry does not actually argue that this common mastery eliminated all class resentment or divides, but it did provide a common language that could be used to mobilize poor whites. Thus on the eve of the war, planter elites argued that the “black Republicans” would threaten the mastery of white men, an argument laden with gender and racial anxiety.

Moreover, this was a tradition that was hostile to most government action. Sure, you needed the government to capture fugitive slaves, protect against rebellion, and punish other transgressors. But, unlike those Whig factory owners in Massachusetts, a Southern freeholder had no need for tariffs or canals, no need for public education, and no need for a systematized and regularized legal code. The conflation of property with racial and gender privilege also partly explains the seeming paradox that the capitalist North actually had a far greater communitarian tradition, far more advanced public goods (libraries, roads, schools, etc…), and a far more advanced anti-capitalist tradition, than the supposedly agrarian South did. Southern white men had extra-good reasons to be suspicious of the Federal Government, as you would have to share power with those idealists from Ohio or Massachusetts who you couldn’t trust on the issue of slavery.

The result was, publically, an ideology that strongly linked the subordination of women and the subordination of blacks with the defense of white liberty and white private property. Few issues were as intricately linked in antebellum times as were black rights and women’s rights. Southern ideologists weren’t alone in noticing that in the North women’s rights activists came almost exclusively out of the ranks of abolitionists. While abolitionists imagined liberty as about individual self-possession and control, Southern ideologues imagined it as household self-possession and control, possession and control being exercised by the white man. George Fitzhugh wrote that abolitionists “give at once the coup de grace to the old world, and to usher in the new golden age, of free love and free lands, of free women and free negroes, of free children and free men.” (these are all bad things, for Fitzhugh). In Cannibals All, he constantly refers to the “women, children, and free negroes” as one group, those fit to be ruled. He also, interestingly, accuses all abolitionists of being socialists: “men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation … are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews – to no private property, no church, no law, no government, – to free love, free lands, free women and free churches.” (p.368)

Now Fitzhugh was no libertarian, obviously, but he was a spokesman of a Southern ruling class that saw no inconsistently in emblazoning both “liberty” and “slavery” on their banners. The reason, as should be clear from McCurry’s analysis, is that the freedom of the white man (as they saw it) really did depend on the subordination of both women and blacks. As Fitzhugh said, in commendable honesty, “To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!” Moreover, you can see how, in his mind, loss of control over women would literally be an assault on private property, as women join slaves as being essential appendages of private property.

I haven’t finished McCurry’s new book yet. But I gather from what I’ve read so far that she will argue that it is exactly this style of freedom that Confederates think they are preserving when they go to war. But, in fact, the war necessarily politicizes and empowers women and slaves, who play a part in bringing down the Southern project.

The relevance, of course, is that, is that out of this social history comes a strong tradition of understanding liberty, not in abstract terms, but in the concrete, as the ability to dominate and control your own subordinates. Moreover this should remind us that the women’s rights movement does entail real losses for men: loss of status, loss of labor, loss of privileges. I think Robin has made similar arguments from an intellectual history point of view. But I think its important to also embed the arguments of classic conservatives in the particular economic forms that give rise to them and where they best grow. I suspect that the average Tea Partier knows relatively little about von Mises’ actual thinking. But the sort of deep cultural sense of control and hierarchy created in antebellum yeomen life (and continued in Jim Crow and after), laid deep roots in American society.

Written by Jenny Carlson

March 2nd, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Main