In this excerpt from his 1857 book Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters, George Fitzhugh explains why “free society” begets thousands of -isms, and why the American North of his time was being convulsed by social revolution:
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE ISMS – SHEWING WHY THEY ABOUND AT THE NORTH, AND ARE UNKNOWN AT THE SOUTH.
The exploitation, or unjust exactions of skill and capital in free society, excite the learned and philanthropic to devise schemes of escape, and impel the laborers to adopt those schemes, however chimerical, because they feel that their situation cannot be worsted. They are already slaves without masters, and that is the bathos of human misery. Besides, universal liberty has disintegrated and dissolved society, and placed men in isolated, selfish, and antagonistic positions – in which each man is compelled to wrong others, in order to be just himself. But man’s nature is social, not selfish, and he longs and yearns to return to parental, fraternal and associative relations. All the isms concur in promising closer and more associative relations, in establishing at least a qualified community property, and in insuring the weak and unfortunate the necessaries and comforts of life. Indeed, they all promise to establish slavery – minus, the master and the overseer.”
According to Fitzhugh, liberalism is based on a false premise.
As Aristotle believed, humans are tribal beings who are social in nature. Liberalism assumes just the opposite: that human beings are naturally individualistic and selfish. These individuals exited a mythical “State of Nature” in order to create atomized proposition societies and enjoy the benefits of civilization.
Liberalism is an unnatural individualistic philosophy that disintegrates the social fabric. It sees a world of selfish rights-bearing individualists, not tribes that practice in-group altruism. In the name of “freedom” and “rights,” it sets every “individual” in an unnatural position by prying him apart from every other member of his tribe.
As liberalism and the free market advances over time, which is to say, as both cut deeper and deeper inroads into a culture, it creates huge class inequalities and erodes social capital, which leads to extreme alienation and anomie. This social disintegration and angst is the fountainhead of the North and Europe’s “-isms” which promise to restore “close and more associative relations” and to reduce glaring inequalities.
“As the evils which we have described are little felt at the South, men here would as soon think of entering the lion’s cage, as going into one of their incestuous establishments. Mormonism is only a monster development of the isms. They are all essentially alike, and that the most successful, because, so far, it has been socialism – plus the overseer.”
The “-isms” are all essentially alike because they are constantly generated by the flawed nature of free society itself. Mormon polygamy, for example, is cited as only the most recent monstrous development.
“The mantle of Joe Smith descended on Brigham Young, and if he transmit to a true prophet, there is no telling how long the thing may work. Mormonism had its birth in Western New York, that land fertile of isms – where also arose Spiritual Rappings and Oneida Perfectionism – where Shakers, and Millenarians, and Millerites abound, and all heresies do most flourish. Mormonism now is daily gathering thousands of recruits from free society in Europe, Asia, Africa, and our North, and not one from the South. It has no religion, but in place of it, a sensual moral code, that shocks the common sense of propriety. But it holds property somewhat in common, draws men together in closer and more fraternal relations, and promises (probably falsely) a safe retreat and refuge from the isolated and inimical relations, the killing competition and exploitation, of free society. All the other isms do the same – but mal-administration, or the want of a master, soon explodes them.”
The attraction of Mormonism is a fairer distribution of property and a tighter social fabric that is found lacking in mainstream New England and Britain.
“We warn the North, that every one of the leading Abolitionists is agitating the negro slavery question merely as a means to attain ulterior ends, and those ends nearer home. They would not spend so much time and money for the mere sake of the negro or his master, about whom they care little. But they know that men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation – once committed to the sweeping principle, “that man being a moral agent, accountable to God for his actions, should not have those actions controlled and directed by the will of another,” 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.
There is no middle ground – not an inch of ground of any sort, between the doctrines which we hold and those which Mr. Garrison holds. If slavery, either white or black, be wrong in principle or practice, then is Mr. Garrison right – then is all human government wrong.
Socialism, not Abolition, is the real object of Black Republicanism. The North, not the South, the true battle-ground. Like Fanny Wright, the author of American Socialism, the agitators of the North look upon free society as a mere transition state to a better, but untried, form of society. Thereader will not fully comprehend the ideas we would convey, without reading “England the Civilizer,” by Miss Fanny Wright. It is worth reading, not only as far the best history of the British constitution, but as the most correct and perfect analysis and delineation of free society – of that form of society which all Socialists and all thinking men agree cannot stand as it is. The Abolition school of Socialists like it because it is intolerable – because they consider it a transition state to a form of society without law or government. Miss Wright has the honesty to admit, that a transition has never taken place. No; and never will take place: be cause the expulsion of human nature is a pre-requisite to its occurrence.
But we solemnly warn the North, that what she calls a transition, is what every leading Abolitionist is moving heaven and earth to attain. This is their real object – negro emancipation a mere gull-trap.
In the attempt to attain “transition” seas of gore may be shed, until military despotism comes in to restore peace and security.
We (for we are a Socialist) agree with Mr. Carlyle, that the action of free society must be reversed. That, instead of relaxing more and more the bonds that bind man to man, you must screw them up more closely. That, instead of no government, you must have more government. And this is eminently true in America, where from the nature of things, as society becomes older and population more dense, more of government will be required. To prevent the attempt at transition, which would only usher in revolution, you must begin to govern more vigorously.”
Abolition is “a mere gull-trap.” The transformation of society is “their real object.” There is something much deeper going on here.
“In our little work, “Sociology for the South,” we said, “We may again appear in the character of writer before the public; but we shall not intrude, and would prefer that others should finish the work which we have begun.” That little work has met, every where, we believe, at the South, with a favorable reception. No one has denied its theory of Free Society, nor disputed the facts on which that theory rests. Very many able co-laborers have arisen, and many books and essays are daily appearing, taking higher ground in defence of Slavery; justifying it as a normal and natural institution, instead of excusing or apologizing for it, as an exceptional one. It is now treated as a positive good, not a necessary evil. The success, not the ability of our essay, may have had some influence in eliciting this new mode of defence. We have, for many years, been gradually and cautiously testing public opinion at the South, and have ascertained that it is ready to approve and much prefers, the highest ground of defence. We have no peculiar fitness for the work we are engaged in, except the confidence that we address a public predisposed to approve our doctrines, however bold or novel.
Heretofore the great difficulty in defending Slavery has arisen from the fear that the public would take offence at assaults on its long- cherished political axioms; which, nevertheless, stood in the way of that defence. It is now evident that those axioms have outlived their day – for no one, either North or South, has complained of our rather ferocious assault on them – much less attempted to reply to or refute our arguments and objections. All men begin very clearly to perceive, that the state of revolution is politically and socially abnormal and exceptional, and that the principles that would justify it are true in the particular, false in the general. “A recurrence to fundamental principles,” by an oppressed people, is treason if it fails; the noblest of heroism if it eventuates in successful revolution. But a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” is at war with the continued existence of all government, and is a doctrine fit to be sported only by the Isms of the North and the Red Republicans of Europe. With them no principles are considered established and sacred, nor will ever be.
When, in time of revolution, society is partially disbanded, disintegrated and dissolved, the doctrine of Human Equality may have a hearing, and may be useful in stimulating rebellion; but it is practically impossible, and directly conflicts with all government, all separate property, and all social existence. We cite these two examples, as instances, to shew how the wisest and best of men are sure to deduce, as general principles, what is only true as to themselves and their peculiar circumstances. Never were people blessed with such wise and noble Institutions as we; for they combine most that was good in those of Rome and Greece, of Judea, and of Mediaeval England. But the mischievous absurdity of our political axioms and principles quite equals the wisdom and conservatism of our political practices. The ready appreciation by the public of such doctrines as these, encourages us to persevere in writing. The silence of the North is far more encouraging, however, than the approbation of the South. Piqued and taunted for two years, by many Southern Presses of high standing, to deny the proposition that Free Society in Western Europe is a failure, and that it betrays premonitory symptoms of failure, even in America, the North is silent, and thus tacitly admits the charge. Challenged to compare and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of our domestic slavery with their slavery of the masses to capital and skill, it is mute, and neither accepts nor declines our challenge.”
The axioms of the Declaration of Independence have outlived their day. Revolution is an abnormal state of society and its principles are true in the particular, but false in the general. “The mischievous absurdity of our political axioms and principles quite equals the wisdom and conservatism of our political practice.” The divided structure of the American government has a restraining effect on the radicalism of its principles.
“In the first place, the character of the enemy we have to contend with prevents anything like regular warfare. They are divided into hundreds of little guerrilla bands of isms, each having its peculiar partizan tactics, and we are compelled to vary our mode of attack from regular cannonade to bush-fighting, to suit the occasion.”
Hundreds of guerrilla bands of -isms!
There is so much good stuff in this book. Fitzhugh and Carlyle nailed the nature of the beast generations ago.
“Why have you Bloomer’s and Women’s Right’s men, and strong-minded women, and Mormons, and anti-renters, and “vote myself a farm” men, Millerites, and Spiritual Rappers, and Shakers, and Widow Wakemanites, and Agrarians, and Grahamites, and a thousand other superstitious and infidel isms at the North ? Why is there faith in nothing, speculation about everything? Why is this unsettled, half demented state of the human man mind co-extensive in time and space, with free society? Why is Western Europe now starving? and why has it been fighting and starving for seventy years? Why all this, except that free society is a failure ? Slave society needs no defence till some other permanent practicable form of society has been discovered. None such has been discovered. Nobody at the North who reads my book will attempt to reply to it; for all the learned abolitionists had unconsciously discovered and proclaimed the failure of free society long before I did.”
Let me update that to 2016.
Why have you so many proud homosexuals, self-hating cis-het White men, transsexuals, SJWs, anarchists, democratic socialists, bra-burning feminists, Black Lives Matter activists and the like at the North?
Update: In the previous post, I alluded to the Dark Enlightenment of the 1850s. Here’s an excerpt from C. Vann Woodward on George Fitzhugh that highlights the same phenomena:
“With such a wealth of sterling and illustrious examples of the Lockean liberal consensus, from Benjamin Franklin to Abraham Lincoln and on down, surely a small niche could be found in our national Pantheon for one minor worthy who deviated all down the line. For Fitzhugh frankly preferred Sir Robert Filmer and most of his works to John Locke and all his. He saw retrogression in what others hailed as progress, embraced moral pessimism in place of optimism, trusted intuition in preference to reason, always preferred inequality to equality, aristocracy to democracy, and almost anything — including slavery and socialism — to laissez faire capitalism. Whatever his shortcomings, George Fitzhugh could never, never be accused of advocating the middle way. Granting all his doctrine to be quite un-American, one might still ask that Fitzhugh’s thought be re-examined, if only for the sharp relief in which it throws the habitual lineaments of the American mind.
Louis Hartz, who applauds America’s rejection of Fitzhugh, has deplored the prevailing indifference to what he calls “The Reactionary Enlightenment” of the Southern conservatives. “For this was the great imaginative moment in American political thought,” he writes, “the moment when America almost got out of itself, as it were, and looked with some objectivity on the liberal formula it has known since birth.” While in his opinion the movement ran to fantasy, extravagance, and false identifications, he calls it “one of the great and creative episodes in the history of American thought,” and its protagonists “the only Western conservatives America has ever had.”1
Hartz is quite justified in placing Fitzhugh near the center and in the forefront of the Reactionary Enlightenment. He goes further to pronounce him “a ruthless and iconoclastic reasoner,” “the most logical reactionary in the South,” and to attribute to him “a touch of the Hobbesian lucidity of mind.” He is on more doubtful ground when he pronounces the Virginian a “more impressive thinker” than the great Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, but he qualifies his praise with numerous charges of inconsistency, irresponsibility, and even insincerity. In commenting upon the South’s shift from the liberal doctrine of the Revolution to ante bellum conservatism, Hartz writes: “Fitzhugh substituted for the social blindness of Jefferson a hopeless exaggeration of the truth. The South exchanged a superficial thinker for a mad genius.”2 I would not agree fully with either the praise or the indictment implied, but would cordially endorse the demand for serious attention to a neglected and provocative thinker.”