Sunday, April 17, 2011

Texas populism and Southern agrarianism

I'm speaking ex cathedra here, since I don't have my source handy, but it's interesting that in the unnamed source someone plotted the movement across the deep south from Southern conservative agrarianism to Texas populism, saying that the further west one got, that is the further away from slavery, the more the sort of decentralist impulse was oriented into a less reactionary and more proto-socialist form. The problem with the Southern agrarians, and the tradition that they upheld, was simply that the agrarian society that they praised was based on black labor, either slave or share cropped. The basic inequality behind the agrarian economy, and the fact that large parts of the workers in this economy had no choice about whether or not they wanted to be part of it, and in fact were legally discriminated against even though they were the basis of it, undermined their credibility in many ways. But, if slavery had in fact not been an issue, but the ideas were applied in an area that was based on free labor, the question of whether or not it would have worked would soon have come to the forefront. Indeed, it's possible that the agrarians were at once making good arguments in the abstract but also misstating what the reality that existed around them really resembled. I should note that the writers I'm referring to, who in the present were loosely associated with Vanderbilt university, were not the typical embodiment of pro-Southern conservatism that's seared into the public mind, being not to my knowledge vocally pro-segregation. They were more genteel for that, maybe too genteel in their aloof dealings with Southern reality, again possibly contributing to intellectual cover for institutions that were exploitative. I suspect that they bought into the myth that Southern ways of doing things were being threatened by Northern ways of organizing society. Perhaps in the movement of the Populists, in Texas but also across the West/Midwest, would be a good case study of how agrarian ideas could work out in a more reasonable context, although the real continuity of the ideas would have to be proven.

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