The 43rd post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.
Harry Jaffa liked to tell the story of how, while reading Plato’s Republic with Leo Strauss at the New School in 1946, he encountered a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in a used book store near his father’s Greenwich Village restaurant. Unable to afford the book, he read it piecemeal on several furtive visits and realized that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas—no slavery in the territories v. “popular sovereignty”—was identical to that between Socrates and Thrasymachus: natural right v. might makes right.
We see a similar similarity between Lincoln’s times and ours.
In the decade or so before the Civil War, a phrase in common use was “the Slave Power,” which described a trans-partisan (and even to a small extent trans-regional) alignment of interests to protect, promote and extend slavery in the United States and even in the Western Hemisphere. The Slave Power was led by the big slave-owners themselves, of course, but was hardly limited to them. Through various proxies and fellow-travelers, they absolutely controlled Southern state governments. They could also count on some federal officials, including—importantly—judges. They even had support in the North: the notorious “doughfaces.” The growing influence of the Slave Power contributed mightily to the Civil War. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act alone destroyed the Whig Party and created the Republican.
But this is not meant to be a history lesson. The point is that a numerically and proportionally small but economically and politically powerful oligarchy managed—for a time, anyway—to steer the nation in the direction of its own interests at the expense of everyone else’s and of the popular will. Sound familiar?
Nor do the similarities end there. Is not the similarity between slavery and mass immigration obvious? (Note to the hysterical that I said “similarity” and not “identicality.”) They both serve the same fundamental purpose: sources of cheap labor to squeeze out the working class and enrich a few.
The fact that slaves are not free and immigrants are is, to be sure, a non-trivial difference—for immigrant and slave. But what about the third man, William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man”? In their effects on him, the two don’t seem so very different after all. Nor are they supposed to.
A major source of opposition to the Slave Power arose from the Free Soil Movement: free men—American citizens—who wanted to earn decent livings without having to compete against slave labor that would undercut them at every turn. Does that sound familiar? Nor is at any accident that the Old South was staunchly free trade while the free North was protectionist. Is the theme becoming clearer?
Now it is probably too harsh to refer to our modern oligarchs as a new “slave power.” Peter Brimelow’s “treason lobby” is not bad. We’re partial to Walter Russell Mead’s contribution: Davoisie.
The fundamental similarity is however undeniable. A trans-partisan and trans-regional, numerically small but economically and politically powerful elite—in our case, financial, technological and corporate—essentially control political debate and get their way on everything important, in defiance of popular will, in order to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.
We know how it ended the last time. How will it end this time?
What makes our current overlords slightly more insidious (if only in one way) than their slave-master predecessors is their risible moral preening. 19th century slaveholders really did have a difficult time affirming the justice of their “peculiar institution.” In addition to the obvious injustice of owning other human beings like animals, they knew from experience what Xenophon teaches in the Anabasis and Shakespeare in the Tempest: “when difficult things are commanded, harshness, and not sweetness, is needed in order to bring about obedience.” Concerned to shield its reputation from intrusive, revealing sunlight, the Slave Power was not eager to advertise this necessity and the harsh treatment it necessitated.
By contrast, our overlords never tire of lecturing us about how virtuous they are. I know of no record of a plantation owner claiming that his recent purchases at a slave auction show his goodness. But every new immigrant—legal or otherwise—who takes an American job at a fraction of the recent wage, our masters trumpet as a sign of their superior morality. Every American laid off and every job outsourced gets the same self-congratulation. Recall the words of that hedge-fund high priest: “if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.”
That sickly sanctimonious phrase—“lifts people out of poverty”—heard in every hotel conference room and lecture hall where the Davoisie meet to rub holy oil on each other’s backs, is the modern rhetorical equivalent of John C. Calhoun’s “positive good” and serves the same purpose. Only it’s been much more effective. The real aim of the Davoisie’s showy, skin-deep leftism is to confer upon itself the veneer of legitimacy necessary to preserving its status. Well, that and divide-and-conquer.
Has there ever been a plutocratic class more adept at claiming the moral high ground for wealth and privilege achieved in large measure by the impoverishment of its fellow citizens and decimation of domestic industries? If so, we can’t think of it.
Lincoln described the issue dividing Douglas from himself as:
the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Thrasymachus to Stephen Douglas to George Soros and Paul Singer. Plus ҫa change.
Since the Davoisie seized the commanding heights of the West (about 30 years ago), Trump is the only presidential candidate to oppose our equivalent of the slave power. Granted, he’s not exactly a Lincoln in stature, temperament, virtue, intellect or ability. We’d certainly prefer another Abe! If you know where to find one, please send him our way. In the meantime, we have no choice but to make do with Trump.