My “dissertation book” on the origins of the Federal Reserve came out in April 1986, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History, a great gig because no one knew what we, the fellows, were supposed to be doing all day. Me, I mainly roamed around the Library of Congress, having talked my way into a stack pass and finding too many wonderful books that had nothing to do with my appointed task, which was to write something called “Accumulating America: How Centuries End, Where Politics Begin.” That roaming was the origin of a schizophrenic book called Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940, which was published in November 1994 as an entry in Alan Trachtenberg’s series at UNC Press. It was my formal debut as an intellectual historian and my angry farewell to economic history. The only reader the press could find was, of course, Martin J. Sklar.
While at the Museum, I marveled at the attitudes of the other fellows—they all seemed to derive, by some route, from Harvard, Yale, or Cornell, although the southern front (Chapel Hill, mainly) was graciously reinforced by Pete Daniel—because they all took the gig for granted, as if a year off to do exactly what you want was just a common card in the academic hand every graduate student was dealt. As far as they were concerned, this was normal, this was what you were supposed to expect as you created a career in academe. So I felt like a freak. For the first time since my conversion experience to Marxism and its attendant political extremities—not to mention its intellectual idiocies—I wondered about my affiliations. These incredibly smart, uniformly decent people were all on the Left, but this space as they understood it was, to me, another planet. We shared no assumptions, no premises. Most of our conversations were prolonged attempts to articulate these.
I was making my way as a junior professor just like they were, but they seemed to know what they were doing. And I had an inkling back then that their sense of academic entitlement had something to do with their definition of the Left as the site of withdrawal and release from the work-a-day world—the place where exemption and abstention from its demands became the same thing, rather than the frictional, contentious point of intersection between theory and practice, or between social classes and political visions.
So conceived, the Left had become a cloister where beautiful souls gathered, just as the university had become a safe haven for intellectuals in flight from a world newly convulsed by supply-side, neo-liberal programs of economic rebirth. It was where you went if you could afford to favor “social equality” and “altruistic justice” over “individual liberty,” as Michael Kazin has recently framed the choice the American Left has always had to make.
Does that sound like resentment? Very well, then. I’ve never believed that you could be in but not of this world. I’ve always been Protestant enough to know that the condition of grace is sin, which is the deep, undeniable, disgusting corruption of your soul, the kind that comes with the territory of the world as it exists, not as you would like it to be, or as you can afford to rise above it or buy your way beyond it. I’ve never believed, as Kazin and most of our comrades on the Left do—here they have a lot in common with Eugene Genovese—that individual liberty and social equality are the terms of an either/or choice. OK, call it resentment.
So even back then, I was worried about the intellectual—or is it the epistemological?—orientation of the Left. I wondered why my comrades didn’t think of themselves as the mainstream, the lifeblood, of American political discourse. Why did they think that Marxism and socialism were still scandalous? I wondered why they needed to believe that they were marginal figures in the academy and out. How was that belief realistic in view of Genovese’s professional success, not to mention the careers of David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and William Appleman Williams?
I wondered why they hadn’t considered the possibility that the originality of American politics (and with it the American Dream) resides in two cognate discoveries specific to the revolutionary experience of the late-18th century. First, the discovery that sovereignty is the inviolable property of the people “out of doors,” not the state, the party, the cabinet, the government, or the nation. The patriotism that has always inspired the Left to return to the first principles of the founding—original intent, as it were—derives from this protean notion of sovereignty, because it lets us distinguish between the will of the people and the expressions of power that enact and embody the nation as a state. Second, the discovery that equality is the necessary condition of liberty, not its negation. The founders understood that republican liberty could not outlast the moment when equality became its opposite, when, as James Madison put it, the rights of persons were overruled by the rights of property—when “the poor were sacrificed to the rich.” The Left seems never to have caught up with this insight, preferring to think of liberty and equality as mutually exclusive moral imperatives rather than eminently compatible commitments.
I’ve been wondering about the Left’s laggard intellectual condition ever since that privileged year in D.C., living six blocks east of the LC, about a mile down the Mall from the NMAH. And now I begin to think that precisely because I have been lost in these thoughts all these years, I was never surprised by Gene Genovese’s political twists and turns. Like our comrades on the Left, he was always looking for an Archimedean point outside the object of his critique—capitalism—which would then serve as the place where exemption and abstention from the world as it exists could become the same attitude toward the world as it exists. He wanted to be in but not of this world. So, like a true believer, he always needed a sturdy faith in a world elsewhere.
My book on the Fed arrived on shelves the same week that William Greider’s Secrets of the Temple was published to great fanfare. I have hated him and his book ever since: I never met the man, but if I did, I’d say this to his face with a smile, I hope. I was supposed to have lunch with him in Washington—there I was, so was he—but the intermediary sent last-minute apologies. I like to think that Greider backed out because, having read my book, he knew my grasp of the Fed’s arcane origins and oracular pronouncements was better than his. But c’mon, do you think that anybody understands this shit? OK, Blinder, Bernanke, Krugman, Henwood, Meltzer—not Friedman & Schwartz, don’t cite them unless you want to believe that the Great Depression was just a normal business cycle until big mistakes were made at the Fed—these guys get it. Sort of. Almost. Nobody can be sure of what he’s saying because Greider is right, the meanings, functions, and consequences of money are just too many and too religious, especially after 1971, when Nixon declared that the dollar is dead, long live the dollar.
My book was pretty well-received, as such arcane monographs go, except in the AHR, where the reviewer solemnly explained that my argument couldn’t be right because it departed so unceremoniously from the received wisdom, and the Journal of Economic History, where somebody gave it to Richard Timberlake, the libertarian drone and occasional historian of banking—there are lots of them—whom I had ridiculed in the Introduction. In the JAH, the economist Hugh Rockoff, an expert on monetary history at Rutgers, gave it a C+. As a mere tourist in every area I claimed to map, from economic theory to the history of banking, from Marx and Keynes to Friedman & Schwarz, not to mention Gramsci and Freud, I was relieved to have received my green card. I was official.
That book, Origins of the Federal Reserve System, has stayed in print since 1986. Its comic itinerary reminds me of the story Carl Parrini, my dissertation adviser, used to tell about the front window of his father’s butcher shop in Rochester. When times were bad, the Collected Works of Lenin were stacked there; when times were good, Vladimir Ilych was consigned to the back room. Carl’s father knew his anti-clerical Italian constituency well because it mirrored his own leftist sensibilities. Lenin was their symptom, a residual sign of a slumbering urge to say, “Fuck you and your mayonnaise-face friends, we know how this system works, and we know how you rule, so don’t patronize us with your liberal pluralist bullshit.” Origins of the Fed has an analogous history. When times are bad, sales pick up—79 copies sold in the last quarter of 2011, for example—and when times are good, sales slack off, to the point where the press has to postpone a royalty check out of embarrassment, bureaucratically and yet beautifully expressed as a cost-benefit calculation on the author’s behalf. If I had a front window, I’d be moving the book back and forth like Carl’s father did, or at least shuffling titles. Amazon has that window, but it just sits there, waiting for the next random follower of Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul, or Doug Henwood to look inside.
At Marty Sklar’s urging, I joined Gene Genovese’s last crusade, the Historical Society, in 2000. Christ, I became a member of its Board of Governors, and even served for a couple of years on the editorial board of the Society’s journal, going so far as to arrange a symposium on The Rise of American Democracy (2005), Sean Wilentz’s heroic attempt to sell us the bridge between Jefferson and Lincoln that was built by Andrew Jackson.
What was I thinking? It seemed like a good idea at the time, as my career decayed into teaching routine, my third book disappeared into an academic vacuum—a certifiable moron with an axe to grind panned it in the JAH on the grounds that it interpreted texts he hadn’t read, I loved that part—and my third marriage exploded in slow motion. I knew Gene was anathema to my colleagues in the discipline, and to my comrades on the Left. So was I. What did I have to lose?
Besides, Il Duce had personally though unintentionally endeared himself to me with a witty response to an elderly man who approached him after a talk at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, to announce, in a Calabresian dialect of Italian, that his son-in-law was the Marxist historian James Livingston. According to this man, who was then my father-in-law, Gene answered in another southern dialect: “I didn’t know that Livingston had married into the master race!”
Genovese finally said goodbye to the comrades in 1994, with “The Question” in Dissent. I won’t bother to refresh your memory of this intellectual debacle, which still resonates on the Left like the inexplicable echo that initiates a lousy science fiction sequence. His indictment of the comrades here isn’t very complicated, or, to my mind, even controversial. All he claims is that the atrocities of communist states weren’t deviations from the doctrine of Marxism, as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao embalmed it, but rather its logical conclusions: “The horrors did not arise from perversions of radical ideology, but from the ideology itself.” If you grant his claim, he insists, you can’t dodge complicity with the crimes of these states.
I’m fine with that. I don’t even see why we’d want to dodge complicity—so for once I agree with Eric Hobsbawm, the slightly better-than-average historian who was nothing if not consistent. Still, there’s a catch in this contract. Like Genovese, and unlike the pathetic Hobsbawm, I’m all for a “sober reassessment of the ideological foundations of our political course.” But the real question is, what are those ideological foundations?
Gene confused himself and his readers by first defending Marx—wait, wasn’t he the source of all this carnage?—and then blaming what he calls “radical ideology” for the body count of the 20th century. The elements of this ideology (the “allegedly high ideals we placed at the center of our ideology and politics”) were devotion to or belief in equality of condition; radical democracy; human goodness or malleability; destruction of all hierarchy or elimination of all illegitimate authority; and secularization. It suffered most, Genovese insisted, from its inability to replace “the moral and ethical baseline” long provided by religion.
I took him to mean that because “radical ideology” knew no limits imposed by the past—by custom, tradition, institution, or constitutional scruple—it would inevitably produce the counter-revolution we knew first as the Terror, then as the purge trials, and finally as the Cultural Revolution. So, having learned to treat Hegel’s Phenomenology as a handbook for conservative revolutionaries like me—we think that mere radicalism leads straight to reaction—I agreed with Genovese. Still, I wondered why he was so dubious about democracy, and why he defined religion as a self-evident limit on political innovation.
I was able to explore these questions in a paper I gave at the AHA meeting of January 2002, in Seattle. Ian Fletcher and Van Gosse of Radical History Review put together a panel on Genovese which included Manisha Sinha and Ronald Grele. It was great fun, especially the moment when I brought down the house by calling Frederick Jackson Turner a founder of the Marxist historiographical tradition here in these United States. I thought I was just passing along Lee Benson’s insight into Turner’s careful borrowings from Achille Loria, the great Marxist theorist of borderlands and settler states who also shaped the thinking of his fellow Italian, Antonio Gramsci, on the issue of the South’s backwardness. But nobody there had read Benson (who himself admitted to being a closet Marxist in his presidential address to the OAH in 1981), so I sounded original—and, I guess, hilarious.
Now in “The Question,” in his role as political provocateur, Genovese had asked whether the “unprecedented abundance” that socialism promised, or presupposed, could be produced by anything except a command economy, and he had accordingly asked about the feeble purchase of markets on the imagination of socialists, even long after the Prague Spring and perestroika. But in his role as a professional historian, he was always wary of markets as such, perhaps because he sided with Maurice Dobb against Paul Sweezy on the impact of commerce, concluding, with Dobb, that the effect of increased international trade in the early modern period was often the intensification of seigneurial bonds rather than the creation of a market in free labor and the inauguration of capitalism (hence the “fruits of merchant capital”). Scylla or Charybdis.
Indeed Genovese always assumed that any genuine alternative to capitalism required the displacement rather than the socialization, modulation, or regulation of markets (and here he merely accepted the unitary definition of socialism offered by the Soviet experiment). In effect, then, and again in his role as a professional historian, he claimed that a market society is by definition a capitalist society; certainly market socialism was an oxymoron in his lexicon. “The South had a market economy,” as he put it in The World the Slaveholders Made (1971): “It did not have an essentially market society, and the whole point of the defense of slavery in the abstract was to ensure that it did not develop one.”
Genovese also claimed, along the same lines, that if a critique of capitalism was not to be merely “idealist,” it had to be issued from a “social base” exempt or opposed to market forces. George Fitzhugh of Virginia, the most outspoken defender of slavery in the 1850s, could call for the “utter destruction” of capitalism, according to Genovese, “because he spoke from an appropriate social base—from a world in which the fundamental social relations remained nonbourgeois.” Thus there is no socialist radicalism worthy of the name in US history because, since the fall of the house of slavery, the market has penetrated and mutilated every sphere of American social life. Nor has there been an articulate conservatism that escapes the orbit of “market morality,” and thus the gravitational field of capitalism.
The political impasse Genovese faced would have been intolerable to most of us. Generally speaking, modern American historians maintain their critical stance toward the powers that be by positing a moment in the past when the people slowed the juggernaut of capitalist accumulation and tried to democratize their society, giving us reason to hope for deliverance from evil in the present. By now the two moments that best serve these purposes are the Populist revolt of the 1890s and the labor-led reforms of the 1930s. Genovese had his “moment,” to be sure, but he knew better than anyone that the mind of the master class offered no promise of moral or political redemption in the present—just as Henry Adams knew better than anyone that the Jeffersonian moment he studied with such care was not a usable past.
In the course of his prodigious research, each of these great historians decided that the democratization of American society was a hopeless dream, perhaps even an awful nightmare, and finally put his faith in a world elsewhere, in a hereafter where time and place, cause and effect, can no longer matter, or in a heretofore where modernity disappears because it hasn’t yet arrived. Or both. No wonder they appear to us as “conservative” critics of modern, corporate, bureaucratic capitalism in the US.
I would insist, however, that if you apply this political label to Genovese’s scholarship, you must be willing to do the same to the critics of consumer culture, who have been similarly engaged in a search for genuine alternatives to commodity fetishism and hedonistic individualism, and who, like Genovese, have found these alternatives in the household economies and simple market societies of the 19th century—in the moral universe of thoroughly bourgeois individualism.