Thursday, March 29, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still Careless and Intellectually Lazy. Also, he's a Wanker

In the third chapter of Civilization for Me, But Not for Thee, Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson addresses the relationship between property and liberty, with a sketchy comparison between (British) North America and Iberian South America. In North America, Ferg tells us, the "American dream" was, from an early date, "real estate plus [political] representation" (99), and for the most part migrants to the continent were able to achieve both. "Even the lowest of the low had the chance to get the first foot on the property ladder" (111), via land-grant clauses in indentured servants' contracts, local governmental institutions that secured property rights, and, after the American Revolution, through cheap land prices. (Secured through the subjugation or expulsion of the indigenous population, of course, but as we've noted before Niall doesn't particularly care about Indians.) Meanwhile, in Latin America, the "American dream" revolved around loot and martial glory, and the post-conquest elites were content to become the "idle rich" (113) while the Crown monopolized land ownership and the Indian, African, and mestizo populations stewed in poverty. Even after the 19th-century independence movement, economic inequality persisted, which destabilized the region's independent states: when populist insurgencies arose and demanded a more equitable distribution of property, landed elites backed dictators who were willing to protect their wealth.

There is one hole which a reader could immediately poke in Our Man Niall's argument: among migrants to North America, "the lowest of the low" were black slaves, who had access neither to real estate nor political representation for 250 years. However, to his (limited) credit, Ferguson has anticipated this argument, insofar as he devotes the second half of the chapter to a comparative study of slavery and racial ideology on both continents. Whereas slaves in British North America were property for life, with very few opportunities to obtain their freedom, and whereas their post-Civil War successors were subject to a century of violent racism and marginalization, Latin American slaves sometimes had opportunities to earn their freedom, or to move their children up a more flexible racial hierarchy through interracial liaisons. (The latter were more violent and exploitative than I indicate here, but Ferguson doesn't mention that fact either.)

In thus shouldering the White Historian's Burden, Ferg provides himself with a convenient excuse for continued inequality in the United States - "social problems" engendered by slavery and Jim Crow continue to "bedevil...many Afro-American communities" today (138). That these problems may be due to persistent institutional and economic factors - white racism, eroding tax bases, and the monopolization of land and capital by a plutocratic white elite - are unpleasant facts that Niall generally prefers not to confront. His solution to the problem of inequality in the 21st century is a classic conservative one: at the microeconomic level, hard work and access to credit; at the macroeconomic level, privatization of state assets and export-led growth, to which he attributes Brazil's recent economic boom (139). Brazil actually doesn't prove Ferg's point, since it had higher rates of annual per capita income growth during the statist 1960s and '70s (4.5% per annum versus 1.3% in the '90s), and since its recent growth is largely due to public investments in education, transportation, and alternative energy. Meanwhile, the microeconomic proposal of More Banks for Everyone, which Ferguson made in a previous book, seems ill-advised given the similarities between modern Western bankers and "loan sharks." (Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism [Bloomsbury, 2010], 55; Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money [Penguin, 2008], iv.)

Still, in this chapter Ferguson expresses views about inequality and racism that would prevent him, if he were a natural-born American citizen, from winning the Republican nomination for president. I cannot imagine giving him any stronger praise.


Jenni Nicole Roman said...

Makes me wonder what Ferg would think of Thomas Sugrue's ORIGINS OF THE URBAN CRISIS. The author argues that while most people idealize the 1950s as a period of postwar prosperity, in reality, the fifties gave birth to the Rust Belt as factories from Detroit, among other places, followed white middle class workers into the suburbs leaving the inner cities to decay. (Obviously automobile culture played a significant role in the narrative as well) Not only did African Americans WWII Veterans face terribly equal access to housing and education, but often times if they managed to move out of the inner city and into the suburbs (i.e. close by a good school and a factory job), they found themselves terrorized by their saintly white neighbors. In fact, Sugrue documents one case outside Detroit in 1955 in which a Black family,the Wilsons, endured so many nightly attacks from white residents that the couple's five year old son developed a nervous disorder which caused him to wake up each night believing "things were crawling all over him". The siege upon their home lasted so long that eventually the Wilson family abandoned their home and moved away. By 1960 only 2.9% of the areas residents were black.

KO said...

Hello David,

Glad to see you back to bashing Dr. Wanker and a good drubbing (coupled with high praise indeed) you give him here. Might there be another area where he falls short in locating the modern “American Dream” in the settlement of the New World. My understanding of the colonial economy, at least in the very early years, was that it was a pre-capitalist economy that had vestiges of the old moral economy of earlier times. Before the rise of modern Liberalism (in the classic Lockean sense, not in the post-New Deal sense) there was a loose awareness of collective responsibility in economic affairs. Indeed, there were sometimes wage and price controls to enforce this collectivism. Mobocracy acted as a mechanism for informal social control when such regulations failed.

One example of this was found in 1713, when a Boston merchant named Andrew Belcher learned of grain shortages and high prices in the Caribbean. Following relatively new notions of the laws of supply and demand, Belcher planned on exporting his grain stores there to increase his profits. The grain was needed at home, however, and the city aldermen pleaded with him not to export it. When he ignored them, about two hundred men and women stormed his warehouses and seized the grain while the authorities stood by with an “I-told-you-so” look on their faces.

So America was hardly the unregulated utopia for private property that The Wanker implies, at least not until the Revolution. Therefore, the notion that the American Dream as it is preached by today’s Republicans, was a major catalyst to our success in settling North America is presentism at best, and a deliberate distortion at worst. Am I correct? If not, please set me straight before I lead any more of my students down this dangerous “revisionist” path.

Happy Trails,


Dave Nichols said...

I think you're right, Katherine. The 17th-century Puritans were far from being free-market liberals; in fact they prosecuted at least one merchant, Robert Keyne, for the crime of excessive profit taking, and the anti-export riot you mentioned reflected the persistence of a communitarian political economy into the 18th century. In neighboring New York the land was divided into manorial estates, and landlords not only refused to sell land to tenants but technically exercised feudal political rights over them (though they never actually set up baronial courts). Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania had growing rates of landlessness and tenancy in the late colonial period. South Carolina, Ferguson's model liberal colony, was originally established with a hereditary hierarchy of lords and commoners, and in the 18th century became the closest thing North America had to a Caribbean plantation colony, with an ultra-rich elite and a majority of impoverished black slaves.

Jennifer, thank you for the Sugrue reference. I suspect Ferguson would appreciate any book that presented Americans as racist wankers, since that would draw attention away from his own wankery.

Jenni Nicole Roman said...

You might be right Dave =) Although I wonder if there is a certain amount of Wanker Solidarity. Perhaps the White Man's Burden is shouldered by Group of Wanker Historians similar to the Avengers?: Wankers Unite! I'm guessing in this scenario Ferguson would be Aqua Man.