Ep. 99: Mushrooms & Men

What is the basis of class status?

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For classical liberals and libertarians, class is a social phenomenon marked by largely artificial distinctions between people based mainly on their access (or lack of access) to raw physical force and a willingness to use force against other people. Classes do not form in society simply because some people have more material wealth racked up than others, nor because some people are better at drawing or sewing or rollerblading than others. Even ideological content of the mind is not really the stuff of class. Sure, plenty of societies have divvied up rights and privileges based on religious or political adherence to one kind of orthodoxy or another, but even in those cases, the ideas do not create the classes. 

Who is the ruling class? How were they viewed in Jacksonian America? What is a tyrant? Who are the parasites of the class system? How would you define the class struggle?

Further Reading:

Class and Class Struggle, written by Henry Heller

Class Struggle Analysis: A Critique of Class Structure, written by Alvin Y. So

Bastiat’s Theory of Class: The Plunders vs. the Plundered

Related Content:

Class for Classical Liberals, written by Jason Kuznicki

Equality: The Meaning of Class, written by R. H. Tawney

Adam Smith, Class Warrior: A Contentious Legacy, written by David S. D’Amato

Anthony Comegna: However many tens of thousands of years ago, two cavemen are both stumbling through the woods at the same moment but without knowing it. They both break through the trees into the same clearing to scoop up the body of a bleeding deer they’d both been tracking. The first caveman sees his own arrowhead lodged in the animal’s back and so concludes that the kill is rightfully his. The other—knowing that he must return home with food or his family will die—decides that he cannot wait for propriety, he cannot risk letting justice prevail, and bonks his fellow caveman on the head, takes his deer, and one family goes relatively fat and happy while the other starves and disappears from the gene pool. That first caveman who used violence to privilege himself and his special interests, who used force to aggrandize and protect his own power over others—that was the first statist, the first patriarch, and the first world class jerk.

Anthony Comegna: Now, of course, my stupid little story there probably has nothing to do with how class actually originated in the most ancient of human worlds. But the point stands—For classical liberals and libertarians, Class is a social phenomenon marked by largely artificial distinctions between people based mainly on their access (or lack of access) to raw physical force and a willingness to use force against other people. Classes do not form in society simply because some people have more material wealth racked up than others, nor because some people are better at drawing or sewing or rollerblading than others. We don’t form social classes on the basis of our favorite football teams, or our capacity to jam on the guitar, or the number of ITunes reviews we have racked up. Even ideological content of the mind is not really the stuff of class. Sure, plenty of societies have divvied up rights and privileges based on religious or political adherence to one kind of orthodoxy or another, but even in those cases, the ideas do not create the classes—the use of physical force to divide people between privileged and unprivileged on the basis of their ideas, that’s the element which turns mere Hindus into a Brahmin class, or mere Catholics into universal imperialists—and it’s physical force that transforms human beings into food for a parasitic clique of people-shaped, man-eating mushroom aristocrats.

Anthony Comegna: You might recall from my interview with David M. Hart last year that classical liberals and libertarians going back to the dawn of time have used extremely colorful, descriptive, and sometimes even delicious language to describe the class divides they saw around them. The descriptors change, of course, depending on the context they were working with, but they’re nearly always gold. For example, the title of this show!—“mushroom aristocracy” is probably my favorite term of them all and you won’t be surprised that it was used fairly often in Jacksonian America. And how fitting it was! Jacksonian radicals looked at the world around them and the imagery was immediately obvious: Here was a grand, open continent which managed to escape Old World feudalism. Over here, people could run from their European taskmasters and make a go of it on their own. The lone individual could, if they were so inclined, always run off to the frontier and start a new society right then and there. It was a whole nation of fallen logs and open valleys, just waiting enough productive labor to clear it all away and start up a never ending series of free civilizations. But somewhere in that misty origin story there lurked an unknown, unseen, and mysterious power. The mushrooms must have come to the Americas secretly stowed away on the ships, perhaps part of their own mission to escape the confines of the Old World. Or perhaps they came here openly and brazenly, hiding in plain sight. However they got here, the American continent quickly became populated by both mushrooms and men, competing with one another for subsistence from America’s forests. The human settlers did what they could—they gathered whatever useful materials they could hold and got to work refashioning them into a better product, in service to those who labored to make it so. But the mushrooms were always on the attack—secretly, without warning or sign of any sort, uncountable armies of mushrooms stalked the settler wherever he went, sponging off his life force, and retaking the forest, choking out any new growth, and the mushroom class grows ever larger.

Anthony Comegna: Classical liberals and libertarians, Liberty-loving peoples—call them whatever word fits—we have always had a rich array of descriptors for the class divide, and thanks to David Hart and the Online Library of Liberty, we have a massive collection of them to peruse. Etienne la Boetie spoke of a single tyrant atop the socio-political pyramid, a “single little man,” a great tyrant and their clique of accomplices, called “man-eaters.” He spoke of the “Brutish mass” of followers as “bullocks,” “prey,” and “natural slaves.” The Levellers described the ruling class as a mass of hungry caterpillars eating out the people’s substance. They compared the established church to a wolf and the common people to sheep. And the two classes: one was the mill horse who actually helped produce for society; the other was the war horse, who drove us all to death and destruction.

Anthony Comegna: In the century or so after the Civil Wars, Trenchard and Gordon wrote of “gradations of tyrants,” their “deputy tyrants” all over the empire, and a never ending series of parasites. Turgot referred to productive versus “barren” classes and even a tripartite division of productive, stipendiary, and disposable classes. Adam Smith and many contemporaries wrote about faction, parties, and corruption. In the 19th century radical writers like William Cobbett identified a “grand machine” run by money production, feeding a “Fundholders aristocracy,” monied interests, and a “paper-aristocracy.” He cryptically attacked “The Thing” (with a capital T) and “the Government Vortex” which eventually absorbed all things into itself. For Cobbett, the main division was between those on “the OUTS” and the “Boro  ughmongers” and “Tax-eaters” “that now rule.” He added to the list imagery of puppets and instruments.

Anthony Comegna: Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham wrote of “the Sinister Interest,” the “ruling one” and his or her “sub-ruling few” who were all, by necessity, “Enemies of the Many.” John Wade wrote about clans of abusive, devouring, usurping, perpetual, self-elected, plundering, intolerant and corrupt oligarchs. For him, too, it was “the System” (capital S) of INS versus the great majority of OUTS. JE Cairnes attacked “The Slave Power” and the “servile regime,” identifying three classes of slaves, Slave-holders, and the “lawless rabble.” Cairnes described an American Union in which a “compact oligarchy” ruled over an “organized barbarism” and the massive “degraded class.” Frederic Bastiat wrote of ruling rapists, thieves, and plunderers—“universal,” “partial,” “reciprocal,” and “permanent” plunderers. Gustave de Molinari spoke of the budget-eating, place-seeking class and the industrious class. Hippolyte Taine described “political bandits” ruling over “veritable beasts of prey,” a “corps of inquisitors and terrorists,” “swarms of Jacobin locusts,” and clouds of “destructive insects.” The state was an ever-hungry “bottomless pit” into which “the vulture” class could toss away feathers plucked from their personal chickens. Auberon Herbert warned of “the great lawmaking machine,” a society divided between conquerors and conquests, and an “all-powerful army” of bureaucrats. For James Bryce, the contest was between “oligarchies of the Sword, of the Purse, and of the Intellect.”

Anthony Comegna: William Leggett, of course, gave us equally rich terms of art: he hotly attacked the “chartered aristocracy,” the “paper money aristocracy,” the “Paper Dynasty,” and the “phalanx of placemen.” Lysander Spooner poured out contempt for “the great lenders of blood money” that drove the Civil War forward on both ends while William Graham Sumner later identified a plutocracy essentially at war with “the forgotten man and woman.” And that pretty much takes us right the way up to the twentieth century. But you might justifiably ask: If there’s such a rich and descriptive history and language surrounding class divisions in western history, why did this way of thinking disappear from the American mainstream so quickly in the late nineteenth century? As many of you have no doubt already pieced together, we have offered some narrative explanations on the show before. Consider, for example, the Dorr War. Back in those episodes, I quoted historian George Dennison—who was himself quoting our document for the week from historian Fred Somkins. In his book Unquiet Eagle, Somkins argued that somewhere in the nineteenth century, Americans lost (or rather gave up) the most fundamental components of their intellectual and revolutionary heritage. The country which came out of the Jacksonian and Civil War periods had lost something vital, something it could perhaps never truly regain without another struggle as earth-shattering and world-changing as was the Revolution of 1776. We pick up with Somkins’ discussion of American exceptionalism and the progressive historian Vernon Parrington. Parrington is dismissed today for presenting a rather cartoonish, over-simplified version of American intellectual and political life, cleanly split between the Jeffersonian supporters of the agrarian, producer’s republic and the Hamiltonian extractive state run by and for privileged elites.

Speaker: “A man who gives a good account of himself,” wrote George Orwell, “is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Orwell’s remark, extended to the writing of American history, raises a disquieting question. Our historians have traditionally given a good account of the national biography. High expectation and overfulfillment have in general been their theme. In the history books America has been the story of those who succeeded, making those who did not, by implication, non-American, or in the modern phrase, un-American. The Godly Commonwealth, the agrarian republic, the small, decentralized federal government, vanished one by one from the American scene. But an idea of America remained, and the continuing process of American self-definition carried the obligation of doing justice to the past.

Since Americans have always been more or less satisfied with themselves, their official story has been one that would suit a satisfied people. Yet from the beginning there were those whose idea of America refused to compromise with time. John Taylor of Caroline, Henry Adams, and Albert Jay Nock were, like Ernest Hemingway, unwilling “to pretend that a country which is finished is still good.” Almost alone among American historians, Vernon Louis Parrington saw American history in Orwellian terms, as “a series of defeats.” Main Currents in American Thought portrayed the downfall of Parrington’s Jeffersonian America in terms of classic tragedy. The protagonist appears in many ages and plays many roles: he is Roger Williams, Sam Adams, Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman, and Wendell Phillips. Always he is humanitarian, individualistic, freedom-loving, devoted to agrarianism, decentralized government, and idealism, for “the idealist has always seen deeper into the spirit of America than the realist.” Time after time he goes down to defeat not under the onslaught of alien forces but because of his own inner flaws. At a time when they were in a position to resist, the farmers let the Constitution be foisted upon them, passively allowing their necks to be put in the yoke of property rule. With Jackson they had another chance but let themselves be taken in by cloudy Whig slogans and their own greed. Again in 1896 they contributed to the “final” victory of capital over themselves. Parrington’s American hero is a dreamer cozened by sharpers, but it is his own gullibility and obvious yearning to be a sharper himself that deliver him into their hands.

Speaker: A contradiction in terms, an unoptomistic Jeffersonian, Parrington felt that when Jefferson took office in 1800 “the drift was all in the direction he was facing,” but that by the time Thoreau came to die, the New Englander was “fortunate in not foreseeing how remote is that future of free men of which his hopes were fixed.” In spite of his repugnance toward the Puritans, Parrington shared with the New England Saints a fervently held assumption that America was somehow uniquely exempt from the burden of the past and free to work out a peculiarly original destiny. Whatever its varying formulations the idea of an American destiny has been perhaps the central focus of American self-consciousness. Under the Puritan dispensation a refusal to follow destiny was a rebellion against God; for believers in the power of reason it was at least a sad mistake. “Democracy,” Parrington gloomily concluded, “may indeed be only a euphemism for the rulership of fools.”

Anthony Comegna: Next, Somkins takes us through the Jacksonian and sectional periods, arguing that generational change and perspectives on America’s place in history became especially important in the post-Revolutionary era when Americans were desperate to define themselves and understand their role in the world. Almost everyone agreed that it was absolutely necessary to defend the Revolutionary heritage, but the actual content of that heritage was as much up for debate then as it was in 1776, 1781, 1783, ‘87, and ‘89. All the while, an intense and growing level of prosperity often stepped in to fill the void, convincing most that things were bright and happy even while the Revolution’s most important fruits rotted away on the vine.

Speaker: Roughly from the Peace of 1815 to the death of Thoreau in 1862, America was engaged in a quest for a definition of self that would give meaning to the American past, present, and future. The questions “What is America?” and “Who are the Americans?” had been asked before, but not with particular urgency. Rarely were they phrases so specifically, and the answers were varied, yet the American essay at self-definition during this period carried a critical significance. First, because the United States became in this time a viable enterprise, beginning to feel the twin forces of technology and urbanism which were to become so characteristic in the future. Second, because of the crucial position of the generation that was attempting to hammer out the meaning of the national self-consciousness. With the passing of the Revolutionary generation that had heard the voices at Sinai, it remained for a generation of Americans born free to discover for themselves in a shifting environment what it meant to be an American and what the destiny of America was.

In tracing the evolution of a tribe of nomads from desert wanderers to the conquerors and masters of a  city civilization, the fourteenth-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun marked our four stages of what his translator has called “prestige.” Roughly, the term refers to a mixture of esprit de corps and efficiency based upon an environmentally fostered realism, essential for both victory and the retention of power. The generation of the founders, Khaldun said, knows the cost of what they have achieved; the following generation knows the founders; the third generation lives by the tradition; and the last, in token of decay, knows the cost of nothing and believes that it has everything coming to it.

Speaker: This scheme may suggest something about America. James Monroe, President in 1820, was the last incumbent to have been an adult at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, men who “knew the Founders,” passed from the scene around the middle of the century, having themselves contributed to the formulation of the American idea. Abraham Lincoln, a railroad lawyer born in the nineteenth century, reaffirmed the outlines of a tradition on which he was prepared to stake the existence of the nation. Parrington’s own era, from Grant to Hoover, could perhaps pass without distortion for Khaldun’s last stage.

This is a study of certain ideas and attitudes in the years preceding the Civil War, during which Americans attempted to know themselves as a people committed to the idea of freedom. The period has come to present something of a puzzle. Since these were years of booming geographical and economic expansion, it is natural that their interpretation has rested upon the doctrine of progress. But increasingly in the last decade and a half, students have uncovered convincing evidence of widespread nostalgia and regret for the past. Somewhere in this period, it is now fairly clear, a great American body lies buried, whether it is Parrington’s agrarian democracy, an Edenic forest paradise, or simply an Adamic condition of moral innocence.

Speaker: All cultures that undergo social change probably demonstrate some inclination to hold onto the past, so there would seem nothing surprising in this discovery. Yet the American carcass, whatever it may be, can still poison the enjoyment of the present, as Parrington’s book demonstrated. The reviewer of a recent work which indicts technology as the killer of the dream goes so far as to say that “all thought and feeling in this country has been profoundly affected by the rapid transformation of a rather simple agrarian nation into a highly complex urban civilization.” Assuming, as I think we can, that during this critical period of transformation something important did happen, and that technology and urbanization had something to do with it, the problem remains to account for what appears to have been a disproportionate effect.

Speaker: The visible fact of American prosperity [is] the key to the sense of American selfhood, of America as a free society.

Anthony Comegna: Somkins’ study was a survey of hundreds of Fourth of July speeches delivered across the Union—but especially in the North—from the 1820s through 1862. These were particularly important events given what Somkins is after: he wants to explain the meaning and purpose Americans sought when they were finally cut generationally adrift from the grand Revolution. Who would they be now? What would they make of themselves? Would they be defined by all their things, their wealth, their mastery over Nature and man? Or would they be able to rediscover, rekindle, and revive that ancient spark which set them free in the first place? Was the United States a nation of mushrooms or men?

Speaker: It is my contention that some of the contradictions that appeared in American life during the first half of the nineteenth century, and that had such lasting cultural effects, were largely due to an agonizing and finally unsuccessful attempt to retain the esprit of a sacred society, a family brotherhood, within a framework of conceptual and institutional constructs based upon freedom of contract. The somewhat sudden and apparently permanent prosperity brought to sharp realization the divisive and centrifugal tendencies of a social momentum which was in danger of losing vital contact with the still-revered ideals of a past essentially communal. The American response to this realization involved a national reorientation, an assessment of what American had been, what it was, and whither it was bound. A grand opportunity for such reorientation and assessment was provided by the return of Lafayette in 1824-1825, a cultural event of tremendous magnitude which involved all sections of the nation and the participation of Americans in all stations of life. As such, it offered a marvelously unified setting, fully documented, in which to identify and track down a host of fascinating clues, all pointing toward a determined and almost desperate American attempt to justify the present and the future through a time-defying union with the virtuous past….

That this period of surface optimism should turn out to be shot through with critical tensions is understandable. Until recently no other major society has had to face such wrenching social change within the short space of three or four lifetimes. The resulting ferment is what makes the period so intriguing. It may even be possible that the proliferation of communitarian settlements, a subject that I do not treat, was the most striking testimony on a spatial level to the powerful longing for temporal community which I have tried to understand.…

Speaker: An examination of hundreds of addresses, particularly Fourth of July orations, for the period 1815-1860 leads me to conclude that the age had a certain unity of shared public utterance, an utterance which was perhaps representative in a way that has not been the case since. Speeches, orations, sermons, and disputations of all sorts were listened to by large crowds, published, reprinted, anthologized for school reading-books and pored over by lip-moving cabin-dwellers in remote areas. Not only Sangamon County pullulated with budding Websters and Clays, sermonizers, arguers, debaters, and just plain talkers. And it is safe to say that, for the better party of fifty years, the great theme of all this expression, whether in form political, religious, or cultural, was a powerfully held belief in the concept of American freedom. This was preeminently the res Americana, the matter of America….


Anthony Comegna: So just what the Hell happened, then? What happened to the revolutionary heritage? Where did the practice of revolution go? In those hundreds of speeches, Somkins identified a “great American body” lying buried in the era’s historical graveyard—but how did it die and who killed it? Well, I’m sorry to say, but that’s the story we have been telling now since we covered the Revolution in the first place, way back in episode 25. When our revolutionary New World governments decided to preserve the sovereignty of the monarch by scooping up his remains and stuffing them into the form of a legislature, they spread Old World forms across the frontier. Almost every unjust power and privilege once exercised by a monarch spread across the ocean and, like a mushroom’s spores, sprouted in the New World’s fertile soil. Nestled in the dark corners of legislatures and governors’ mansions, they blossomed into a veritable new ruling class and over generations they choked the life out of country. Old World government by charters of monopoly rights, special powers, and artificial privileges for the mushroom aristocracy: that’s what we have and that’s what the Locofocos were fighting against. But over a generation or two of their own, even our beloved radicals fell prey to the mushrooms’ malignity. When the radicals organized themselves into factions or parties, the mushrooms drew political energy from their movements. When the locos burst into a frenzy of cultural creation with the Young America movement, the mushrooms annexed Texas, took half of Mexico, and spread their spores further than ever before—Manifest Destiny for the Koopa Kingdom. And when the radicals grew tired of defeat and drew the sword to fight back, nothing else so energized their fungi captors. Even when they believed they were successfully reforming the system and preparing a freer future, the radicals were not the ones in charge and the future never belongs to anyone.

Anthony Comegna: The illusion of power is itself extremely powerful, and after thirty or forty years of fighting William Leggett’s “War on Monopoly,” most combatants died in the field, convinced they had done the right things the right ways, their bodies now food for a new generation of mushrooms to use however they will. If American history can be told as a sort of grand metaphorical war between Mushrooms and Men, and if the mushrooms have been winning for at least two hundred years or so now, then perhaps what the human beings of us need to remember above all else is this—While biting back might taste good, mushrooms too are a force of Nature and we’ll never exterminate them all; but recall that mushrooms only grow in dark, cool corners and under the earth’s surface. We need not agitate their growth by charging them with violent energy; we need only flood the environment with light, fresh air and warmth. The rest will sort itself out