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The Southern Capitalist Economy, Then and Now

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slaves-montgomery-alabama

Slaves, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861

Harold Meyerson overstates his argument on the Southern economy as the point of low-wage capitalist production both before the Civil War and today, but he makes a lot of good points and it’s well worth your time. Basically, Meyerson uses the new historical literature on the connections between northern capitalists and southern plantation owners to draw comparisons to the recent growth of low-wage industrialization in the anti-union South. There has been some return of heavy industry to the South in low-wage, non-union states that provide workers few opportunities for economic advancement and are constricted by state governments that are firmly in the pocket of the companies. And that has, as Meyerson states, created two nations in one, as during the mid-19th century, as northern and western liberal states increasingly pass worker-friendly legislation while southern and Midwestern states pass anti-worker legislation.

Meyerson also notes the expansion of southern style governance north in the present, although he significantly underestimates how prominent this was in the pre-Civil War North, as the Democratic Party was a white supremacist party no matter where it ruled. The point about two nations in one is something I’d observed. I will note that the comparison between slavery in 1860 and non-union auto factory work in 2015 is stretching it pretty far; after all, there is still plenty of truly brutal work happening around the world, often in conditions of slave labor. But there’s no question that in a world of globalized capital, low-wage American production can make sense in some industry and unless the U.S. government steps up with pro-labor measures, politicians in the pockets of corporations will bend over backwards to create states that serve those companies as much as possible.

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