This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Mixed motives and the Civil War

The Civil War revolved around slavery in rhetoric and in fact, but we should be careful not to ignore every other factor, as if slavery were the only issue at stake. This problem of ‘mixed motives’ is in fact the norm for political phenomena, and it is hardly an original observation to say that various currents were at play, at that the war was more a ‘point of convergence’ than a single-issue line in the sand.

What was unique, in the case of the Civil War, was that the tactics used by the North, the organization of its motives, the legal prerogatives it claimed, and the propagandistic approach it deployed, would combine to lay the groundwork for all future US military endeavors, and would become a kind of ‘blueprint for success’. Moreover, by taking a close look at the secondary aspects of the conflict, we can better understand how much we lose even when we win.

We can and should be grateful that the barbaric ‘chattel slavery’ of the South was destroyed, but we are also inclined to lament that, when the dust settled, certain desirable characteristics of Southern life were lost and could never be recovered. As a result, some of the most unattractive characteristics of Northern economic life would become universal, partially due to the imperialistic nature of industrial economies, but also due to the destruction of any vigorous cultural obstacles to that style of production. All of this was intentional, because the Civil War represents the violent culmination of economic tensions that had been building for quite some time. Yes, many of the men who died, died for the freedom of the slaves, but as for the power groups that orchestrated the project, ulterior motives were almost certainly predominant. In their case we can say that it is always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and modern political projects tend to operate for the wrong reasons, even if occasionally the right thing is done.

To understand the economic aspect of the conflict, we should note that the richest men in America lived in the north and made their fortunes on manufacture and trade. This put them in a very different economic world from the Southern states, where a distributed, agrarian style of organization was the norm. In the North, wealth was held by capitalists in the industrial sense while in the South it was held by families who were aristocratic in the old sense of nobility and breeding. The North was therefore plutocratic in the commercial and political sense, while the South was patriarchal, the most obvious sign of which was the institution of slavery itself.

We should observe, with the Catholic writes G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, that there are different degrees or types of slavery, and what constitutes slavery for us depends largely on the criteria we use to define it. If we understand slavery as the complete dependence (total lack of self-direction) of the individual on a superior, which takes place in a context where there are no real alternatives open to the except to remain faithful to the master, then we can say that the industrial North and the agrarian South each had their own ‘brand’ of slavery. It would, of course, be disingenuous to conflate the two as if they were equally barbaric, but the point remains that by our given definition, it is a question of degrees, and that both fit the criteria. Thus, the war was not so much about the abolition of slavery but about which type of slave-based economy would win out.

As for the Southern agrarian type, we can observe that the slave owner had to provide shelter and enough food for his slaves to live, and it was his loss when slaves became sick and died, since they could not be easily replaced. This placed a certain natural minimum on what he had to provide. Turning to the Northern capitalist, this ‘owner’ did not have to provide either food or shelter, or even consider these things, but only had to offer a wage. As to the nature of this wage, it was determined by ‘competition’ whereby the workers were set against one another, driving the cost of their labor to an absolute minimum that did not have any real relation to food, shelter, and family size or health. The amount of ‘pay’ therefore fluctuating, calculated in the abstract, and under the influence of numerous factors, most of them never acknowledged and still not acknowledged, which had nothing to do with the limits of the human condition. All human and natural considerations were thereby avoided by the Capitalist, whereas in the South they were constantly confronting the plantation owner. This does not, of course, mean that the Southern slave owner was more humanitarian. It only means that, by necessity, his mind was directed to real human needs, whereas the Capitalist was able to avoid these things and think only in terms of money.

The South was organically structured, which implies the presence of established roots, and this meant that it was less mobile, particularly in the sense that it did not have the fluid ‘workforce’ that the North had achieved via wage-slavery. This was yet another disadvantage, from a purely economic standpoint and during war.

The South, being what it was, had to import manufactured items either from the North or from somewhere else. They chose to import from England, and this led the North to demand high protective tariffs. This was a primary political struggle in the decades preceding the Civil War.

What was at first an economic battle became a political one. This is how it always works. To cite a more recent example, we can mention Guatemala (the ‘banana republic’), when it chose to act in its own interest, in opposition to the United States-based corporation, United Fruit. The Guatemalan government repossessed the lands held by the foreign corporation. Propagandists were hired and suddenly the issue became communism vs. ‘freedom’, since that sort of thing always enlists the masses, who would never go to war just to increase the profits for United Fruit but are always ready to glut themselves on ideological struggle.

In this same way, idealists from the North emphasized the slavery issue to the point that it completely obscured the economic battle. It remains obscured in the public mind to this day. The Yankees held the slavery issue high before the public, and of course held up their own wage-slavery as the pinnacle of human self-direction and humanitarian progress against the inhuman cruelty of the plantation owner. A false dichotomy if there ever was one, but the chattel slavery of the South was so ugly that the wage slavery of the North looked dignified in comparison.

We must also address the issue of secession. Leading up to the Civil War, or what could just as easily have been called the Secession War, there was a struggle over representatives in the central government. The South had long been at an economic disadvantage, but this was now becoming real in the legislative sphere, and it was clear that the central government was becoming captive to the interests of the North. This is, again, a kind of illustration of the principle that democracy is driven by money—since the territory that holds the wealth will inevitably hold the government.

The issue that finally actualized the war was whether or not the Southern states had the right to secede from the union. The South, seeing that the union of which it was a part was no longer serving its interests, decided to withdraw. It should go without saying that free people who enter, as a collective group, into a given political union should be able, when they judge it necessary, to dissolve the contract. Was this not the premise of the Declaration of Independence? But the heart of the issue was not the maintenance of liberty, it was rather the maintenance of power, and the secession of the South would have seriously diminished the power wielded by the whole, and so came the war.

The Civil War represents the assertion of ownership by the North of the territory occupied by the Southern states, such that the claims of the Northern states could overrule those of the Southern states. Although it seems oddly contradictory, the freedom of the slaves was pursued with vigor while the freedom of Southern states to secede was vehemently denied.

The fluid nature of the Northern population was perhaps its greatest advantage once the war began, since all of its ‘workforce’, composed of so much homogenous ‘human material’, was easily converted into cannon fodder. Moreover, the Northern capitalists could pay their wage slaves to fight, and they did, although of the course white soldiers were paid twice the blacks. In the South, the confederate soldiers were sometimes offered official wages but in practice, and unofficially, they were paid nothing at all.

Another advantage of capitalist economies is that they can replace lost soldiers immediately and via the same tactics that they use as employers to replace lost wage-slaves. They can either hire more ‘manpower’ from the desperate working class, always ready at hand, or else bring in immigrants. In the case of the Civil War, they did both. The immigrants were mostly German and Irish, and this allowed them to keep fighting and win even while the South won battle after battle against superior numbers. When the dust settled, the union had sacrificed over 150,000 more men than the South. It was a case of quantity over quality, a hallmark of modern warfare. It typically worked, but not always, as would be discovered much later in Vietnam.

What is important to note here is that the Civil War, and in particular the methods used to win it, set the tone for all later American military policy. From that point forward, recruitment would be based on virtue propaganda about the freedoms of this or that abused group, about attacks on American principles of freedom and equality, and the real issue, almost always a question of economic advantage, would not be mentioned. The soldiers would be paid a wage roughly equal to the subsistence wages they normally earned, sometimes higher, and recruited almost entirely from the lower ranks of society. As for the Confederacy, which, whatever its errors, embodied more traditional attitudes, we find that men of all ranks came with or without pay to the front. Never again would that be the norm.

The Civil War abolished chattel slavery, and we cannot but rejoice at that fact; but it came at a cost. It meant the death of the aristocratic spirit in American warfare and governance, and the bringing to fruition of rule and war by plutocracy.

The Civil War also signified the beginning of American isolation in the sense that even if England had a dog in the fight (since it had business with the South) it would not intervene because it did not have the surplus resources. Europe’s concerns at that point were closer to home. Thus, America came into its own as the power in its part of the globe. The United States did not have to fear the interference of outsiders any longer.

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