The Leadership of Necessity

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I wrote this for posting, New Years Day, on DailyKos. It began as a reply to Lambert on CorrenteWire, when he was expressing deep doubt at the efficacy of soldiering on against the monumental stupidity of U.S. elites, and the monumental indifference of such a large portion of the American people. At the risk of it being lost in the excitement over President Obama’s behind-the-woodshed beating of the Republican House Caucus earlier today, I’m posting it here. In a few days or a few weeks, I’ll post some thoughts on what you can do to prepare for the hard political and economic times I see coming. But let my reposting of this essay here serve as unequivocal testimony that one of the things you do NOT do, is stop fighting for what you believe in.

You should save last week’s list of recommended diaries. It will be something you may want to refer to in the not too distant future, when your mind needs release and you wonder where the turning point was.

Nyceve assured us, Don’t fear the truth: LieberCare is an unspeakable hoax and One Pissed Off Liberal sadly pointed out It’s Not Even Good Kabuki. And, of course, there was the dance of diaries over Jane Hamsher and her attempt to outflank Rahm Emanual by joining forces with Grover Norquist. The atmosphere around here has become so charged and so bitter, that Cat M pleading Stop Telling Me I’m Not Progressive made the rec list.  

Interestingly, there was even a diary that briefly made the rec list entitled Reconciliation & The Compromise of 1850: A History Lesson on How to Deal w HCR. It made me shudder, deeply. Because from what I have read of American history, we are at about the same point as the country was in the early-1850s. The 1850 Compromise was basically the last great “achievement” of the legacy parties of that time; thereafter, it was all downhill, with actual para-military violence breaking out in Missouri and Kansas within five years, and open Civil War five years after that.

Everyone knew at the time that slavery was a problem. For over half a century, however, Americans had preferred not to deal directly with the problem. Many Americans did not even want to acknowledge a problem existed, or how severe it was. A series of increasingly unworkable political compromises were cobbled together instead: over Missouri in 1820; Nullification in 1832; the Gag Rule (prohibiting the discussion of slavery in the Congress) in 1835, the admission of Texas in 1845. In none of these compromises was there ever any political elite bold enough or honest enough to stand up to the slave holders of the South and declare that there simply was no compromise on slavery that could ever be morally acceptable.

The problem today, is that nearly 50 million Americans are so impoverished that they cannot afford health insurance. Rather than face this problem head on, our elites have cobbled together a political compromise that will “mandate” health insurance, and subsidize those who cannot afford it. Nothing at all will be done about the trends pictured below.

Share of National Income

US Corporate Profit Margins

In fact, these trends are not even being discussed by U.S. political elites. Yet, they tell the whole story of what is happening to the former republic known as the United States of America. The deindustrialization of its economy. The raw, shameless shafting of its working people. The vanquishing of Jefferson’s yeomanry. The collapse of a republican ethic of self-government and in its place the rise of a brutally cynical and self-serving culture of marketing, hucksterism, and “entertainment.”

Just look at those trends. The dynamic should be obvious: if there is not even any discussion of these trends, then, there is not going to be any solutions, and these trends will continue. Meaning, the underlying problem will get worse. You can subsidize $100 billion in health insurance if you want, you can subsidize $1 trillion, hell, subsidize $100 trillion. But if the working class is literally being killed off, and the middle class is next on the mortuary gurney, and the spirit of the republic snuffed out with them, what, really, have you accomplished?

There are other trends that need to be addressed, but aren’t. Climate change. Peak oil. Indebtedness. They all have relatively straightforward solutions, all of them morally acceptable. The real problem is that none of them are politically acceptable. And here’s the rub: they are politically unacceptable, not because a majority of the electorate oppose them, but because very small, almost miniscule, numbers of people oppose them, and they have too much money with which they can buy political influence.

The implications are not comforting:

How dysfunctional is our nation? These days, we lie to ourselves perhaps as badly the Soviets did, and in a worse way, because where information is concerned we really are a freer people than they were, so our failure is far less excusable, far more disgraceful. That you are reading this blog is proof that we still enjoy free speech in this country, whatever state of captivity or foolishness the so-called “mainstream media” may be in.  By submitting to lies and illusions, therefore, we are discrediting the idea that freedom of speech and action has any value.  How dangerous is that?

The inability to come up with an acceptable name for the decade just ended is symptomatic. To me, it’s crystal clear what 2000 to 2009 was: the decade of conservative f#*k-ups. The decade conservatives nearly killed us. The decade conservatives ran the country, and ran the country into the ground. The Republican Rip-off. You and I know damn well that is exactly what the past decade is. Are you willing to admit that political elites – including President Obama – will never allow a moniker that so clearly reflects that?

So, health care reform will be our generation’s Compromise of 1850. The political system is unwilling and / or unable to deal with real problems and create real solutions. That means, as Jerome a Paris warned yesterday, an even bigger and worse crisis is certain. And if things do not change, we can also lump in financial reform with HCR.

The wrong-wing is already preparing for what comes when the political system can no longer create workable solutions. That was the unspoken implication that unnerved so many of us during the summer, as we watched the tea-baggers organize to disrupt the health care debate. As Stirling Newberry wrote back in August, The Drum Beat of a New Nation.

Necessity will mean that the shower of lies from the right will create a physical political conflict. The old formula is to replace bullets with ballots; the right wing, to have a populist base, must preach the reverse: to replace ballots with bullets. Because of who they are, that time must and will come.

The past several weeks I have repeatedly pointed people to Newberry’s article. It is very much worth going back and reading Newberry’s piece again. And again. And again, whenever you begin to feel hope faltering in the face of seemingly immovable political stupidity. What Newberry writes is an extremely useful road map to the future.

Necessity will be our leadership, but only if when that moment arrives we are ready. We must be ready first by decrying compromise in the present, we must be ready by having ideas that are crystal and clear, and fit within a few words in their outlines. We must be ready by learning that most important lesson: When we have a mandate, we must use it.

The reason necessity is so crucial, is that social inertia makes societies very resistant to change. How many banksters have had their country club memberships revoked because of their role in the financial crash? How much has the membership rolls of the Council on Foreign Relations, or the various University Clubs changed? The social networks the elites inhabit continue to support and nurture them, even as the rest of society careens towards disaster.  Oh, there have been a few interesting and rather enjoyable repercussions, such as leading American bankers not being invited to Davos, but Versailles remains Versailles and The Village remains The Village. And so it was throughout the 1850s, even as the southern Fire-eaters poured more and more oil on the sputtering flames of secessionism and war.

The best history of the Civil War was written by Fletcher Pratt, a science fiction writer who also was the military correspondent of the New York Post, in 1935. After narrating the events of 1863, including “When the Wave Broke” at Gettysburg, and “The Absolute Masterpiece” of Grant cutting loose from his supply lines to march 19 days through Mississippi, fight and win five major battles, and arrive at the back door of Vicksburg, Pratt pauses to consider larger meanings, in a chapter he entitled “The Indecisiveness of Decisions.” Pratt argues that by July 1863, the Union army had developed into something Robert E. Lee and the Southern elites had not anticipated and could not understand.

For if any one fact emerges from the tangled account of Gettysburg it is this — that the Union victory was achieved by no one man, but by the cooperation of a large number of men, each appearing, as though by a miracle, in exactly the right place. . . .

Meade was not only a better soldier [than Hooker at Chancellorsville], he also had a simpler problem; he simply could not help putting in all his men. Lee attacked him at every point in succession; all he had to do was keep a clear head and stand his ground. He had seen enough of war by this time — any of the Union generals had seen enough of war by this time – to do that; the rest followed as logically as conclusion succeeds premise. The appearances of Reynolds, Doubleday, Kilpatrick and the others at the right moments were not accidents but incidents; the Union infantry was full of generals who knew how to take advantage of the ground, the cavalry was loaded with valiant youths. What Lee attacked at Glendale was an armed mob; what he attacked at Second Bull Run was a group of quarrelsome old men; at Chancellorsville, he attacked a man; but at Gettysburg he came into collision with a system. The Army of the Potomac had developed to such an extent it no longer needed brains; it needed only someone to see that it did not fall over its own feet, which Meade was quite capable of doing. . . .

The South, a democracy of the classical type, believed combination on such a scale, such regulation, impossible without the sacrifice of individuality; they conceived of the Republic as the narrowly knitted federal league prescribed by the letter of the Constitution. They looked upon it much as Chios or Mitylene on the Athenian League of Pericles.

They did not realize that the North had developed a much stronger and more imperial structure, a type of polity new in the world. Combination is not new in the world; the Romans were a people of combination; the Germans are, so are the Japanese. But all the classical combinations had obtained their strength by making the individual one grain of sugar in the sack, with no thought or will or direction save those furnished by the mass. They ruthlessly harried the oddity, even the oddity of genius, such as Scipio or Schubert. The Northern type of combination — which became the American type, since it triumphed — was something much more complex and valuable, and constitutes this nation’s one outstanding contribution to the science of human relations, a contribution not even yet thoroughly understood. . . .

Americans are a race of “joiners”; they should exult over the fact, it is their greatest title to fame. It enables them to form an association for the improvement of musical taste without inquiring into the social status of the members, and one for sending a rocket to the moon without examining their private morals. In Europe such bodies would be impossible unless the members were gemutlich, sympathique all around the compass; every association is necessarily a general association, throwing the members together at all points.

Americans are a race of joiners; it has enabled them to form those strange caravans that subdued a continent, and those research bodies which are the glory of science. The husking-bee, the house-building-bee, are the characteristic American institutions. Once their purpose is accomplished, they disband and no more is heard of them.

This implies an extraordinary flexibility of mind and a high degree of tolerance. The fault, the fatal fault of the Confederacy was that its system possessed neither. Tolerance was reserved for the small circle of the elect. It was intolerant of any but received opinion; it was inflexible, Chinese, dead, static. It was not without splendid virtues; ability (when found in the right places) made its way more swiftly to the top through the loose Southern organization than through the tighter organization of Northern society. But such ability, unless it were genius itself, arrived at the top not quite capable of performing its tasks. The Northern system furnished talent with such an elaborate apparatus of training and support that it became the equal of genius. It is not without significance that the Southern commanders at the beginning of the war — Lee, Longstreet, Johnston, Bragg, Forrest — were still the Southern commanders at the end of the war, mostly older men, while the Union, with an air of prestidigitation, was producing such young tigers as Sheridan, Custer, Wilson, Upton and Kilpatrick. The South, like most aristocracies, was deficient in education, both of the corporate body and of the individual member.

It should worry us greatly that we can recognize much of America today in what Pratt writes about the “inflexible, Chinese, dead, static” culture of the Southern elites. But — and I’m starting to get to the point — “inflexible, Chinese, dead, static” would also pretty much describe American elites, both North and South, throughout the 1840s and especially 1850s. The abolitionists, for all their vehemence and organization — and let us not forget their being morally and historically correct — won precious few electoral victories until the Democratic and Whig Parties began to shatter after Kansas-Nebraska. Indeed, what is remarkable is that almost all who were leaders in their communities, North and South, remained so through the firing on Sumter, and the rushed raising of regiments, to emerge as officers in the new armies. But then began the terrible and ferocious process of testing them, in which rivers of blood were literally required to sweep away the mere opportunist, the incompetent, and the outright venal. The South, with its aristocratic character, never was able to lift its head above the torrent of gore and catch its breath. The North, as Pratt wrote, emerged with a whole new generation of leaders. Custer was made Brigadier General when he was 23. Douglas MacArthur’s father was made a full colonel at 19.

For at least two decades after the Civil War, this new generation of leaders made the United States the most vibrant and rapidly industrializing nation on the planet. The industrial revolution had begun a century before, but it was not until the nation had replaced its elites by drowning them in the bloodbath, was the full power of the industrial revolution unleashed to create a hitherto unknown cornucopia of material wealth that was commonly shared by all. The torrent of material goods we take for granted today did not really occur until the widespread introduction of metal-cutting and metal-bending machine tools in the 1870s to 1890s. It is no coincidence this is the era that saw the first enterprises of mass production of complex consumer goods, namely the sewing machine, and the bicycle. The typewriter should also be mentioned here, though originally it was not a consumer good. There is an extremely useful book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Networked Machinists: High—Technology Industries in Antebellum America, by David R. Meyer, which literally traces the shop managers and foremen who became skilled machinists in the various machine tool firms located in “Precision Valley” as the Connecticut River area was once called, as they moved into new firms and transferred their technical metal-working skills in one new industry after another. Meyer actually provides the names of the people on the factory floors who created the basis for Henry Ford’s assembly line breakthrough some three decades later. Prior to this leap in productive potential, you simply did not have the overwhelming amount of schlock that we have today. If you ever get the chance, see if they have a few colonial wills at your local history museum. People would specify who got which dish and which fork and spoon, which bed, which shirt, or handful of extra buttons. It really is an eye-opener to realize how precious things were that we today consider every-day objects and don’t think twice about throwing away or donating to Goodwill.

The key point is that prior to this full realization of the industrial revolution, there simply was not the material abundance of goods that would have allowed a mail order operation like Sears or Montgomery Wards to function. How much mass produced stuff do you find from the 1860s or 1850s, even in the most up scale antique shops? The effects of this sudden material abundance, of course, was not evenly shared. There were still many Americans that lived in abysmal conditions. But the dramatic changes in public health and longevity are undeniable. Think of this: what was the impact of being able to mass produce seemingly simple items like fittings for indoor plumbing, or medicine bottles?

Mortality Rate showing 1880s drop

Simply stated, there could not be a vast new market of a rising middle class catered to by a Sears Roebuck or a Montgomery Wards until the status quo in the North had been buried in blood soaked fields, and the aristocratic fantasies of the Southern planters had been expurgated from the nation’s soul.

What the trend lines near the beginning of this essay tell us is that we have once again allowed too dense a jungle bloom of aristocratic fantasies. It’s what we hint at when we speak of Wall Street versus Main Street. And just like in the 1850s, we would rather accept the most rotten, debased, and depraved political compromises, than stand firm and hurl defiant truth at a loutish, malevolent power structure.

There were two significant after-effects of the Civil War. One, everyone knows: the end of slavery. But the embarrassing fact is that it was not until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that the promise was fully realized. The second is one very few know or realize: Lincoln’s successful attack on the monopoly of the money center banks of the nation’s currency and money system. The rise of the Progressive and Populists movements at the turn of the last century are in large part a reaction to the campaigns by the money center banks to seize back that power. What we face now is to attack back across ground our grand-fathers and great-grandfathers once held, to force the banks once again into subservience to real industry.  

Much worse lies ahead of us, and the wave of misery and suffering that is coming will drive our fellow citizens to both discard those who are now leaders, and elevate to leadership those who are willing and able to answer the call of history.  Because without vision, the nation perisheth. And the nation will act, be it at the last minute, to survive.

The internet, because of the times we are in, is becoming a revolutionary force. At least twice the past two years, I have written that I view my blogging as an act of insurrection. It is here that the leaders of the future are gathering, testing their ideas, refining them, strengthening them, readying them for when the nation itself is ready to accept them. Just think a mere 24 months ago – how many people were there that were even discussing what the Federal Reserve does? How many people were even discussing the dangers of credit default swaps? Think back just eleven months, and how much the tide of opinion has shifted against Obama. Yes, the weight of current events may have helped force these discussions into the MSM, but I am absolutely certain that were it not for the fury and rancor of the blogs, none of it would ever have seen the light of day.

As Newberry concluded:

The drum beat of history is loud at moments, and almost an imperceptible hush at others. But it is steady, and unceasing, and so must be our marching to it. It is the Valley Forge of the next progressive wave, but in these cold days a new nation is being born, one which will act where the last one averred, one that will do what is now left undone, and one which will hold substance, not style, as its measure of success.


  1. There is class warfare end the rich are running up the score.

  2. The internet, because of the times we are in, is becoming a revolutionary force. At least twice the past two years, I have written that I view my blogging as an act of insurrection. It is here that the leaders of the future are gathering, testing their ideas, refining them, strengthening them, readying them for when the nation itself is ready to accept them.

    Then there is the seduction of the internet.  The seeming power of being able to reach the entire world through a keyboard, the anonymity.  It’s okay to make reckless insults if you’re only talking to a screen name.  We’ve all run across these “internet diseases.”

    What I’ve been learning in the past few months is, in using the internet to organize, the importance of “traditional values,” the need to dialogue patiently with small groups of people, or one-on-one, to avoid broad proclamations, to write an essay to teach one person.  If they’ll talk to me, I’ll talk to them, and I’ll give them the same attention and seriousness as though they were sitting across the table from me.

    By the way, did you ever read Douglas Southall Freeman’s three-volume “Lee’s Lieutenants”?  He’s a southern symp (the sobbing tragedy of the death of Stonewall Jackson), and it gets a bit tedious, but it’s also a fascinating blow-by-blow of what you describe about the devolution of the Army of Northern Virginia.

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