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SOUTHERN COMFORT? (PART I)

June 27, 2016

SOUTHERN COMFORT? (PART I)

Harold Meyerson notes in the (2015) Summer edition of the American Prospect that the South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights – through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party – resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system.

A bit of history would be constructive in this connection. The slavery-ridden South was considered to be a somewhat feudal society before the Civil War, relatively unconnected with the development of 19th-century American capitalism. Finance and factories rose north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Railroads spanned the Northern states but were few in the South. There were also few banks and factories. The South was thus largely detached from the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. They instead developed an economy based upon free (slave) labor to plant and pick their cotton for export to the textile mills of Massachusetts and to Liverpool for further transport to Britain’s looms in Manchester and Leeds and elsewhere. The South provided the raw materials; Northern and British markets supplied the demand for such slave-produced cotton.

Meyerson writes, as paraphrased, that the Deep South prior to the Civil War was a vast slave-labor camp that made huge profits for manufacturers and bankers who lived hundreds and even thousands of miles from the Mississippi Delta as well as for plantation owners, who it can be fairly said were not low wage but rather no wage employers. That antebellum thinking has spilled over to today, as European and Asian  auto and aerospace manufacturers open low-wage assembly plants in Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. Now, as before, white Southern elites and their powerful allies from the North are in the process of exporting the South’s subjugation of workers along with suppression of voting rights of those who might oppose their policies.

The South’s efforts to spread its values across America is advancing, as Northern Republicans adopt their Southern Republicans’ antipathy to unions and support for voter suppression as workers’ earnings in the North fall toward Southern levels and formerly stalwart union states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana adopt right to work laws. We seem to be headed to (another) sectional backlash with the South which is (again) creating two nations within one.

The American South has become a favorite cheap labor venue for European and some Asian manufacturing firms to alight for still other reasons than labor costs and worker suppression. Thus Jurgen Buhl, a union representative and treasurer of IG Metall, the German metal-workers union and a member of the board of directors of Airbus stated: “Airbus is a global manufacturer. When we go abroad, we have the high-value work, the research and development, done in Germany. Workers in German factories supply the high-value parts. The workers who assemble the parts in the Airbus factory in China produce 3 to 5 percent of total value. But given the 6 to 1 productivity advantage that the United States has over China, it’s cheaper to do the final assembly in the U.S.” Some of that “productivity advantage” is doubtless the low wages paid to Southern workers and, increasingly, Northern workers, which contribute to tepid demand in the marketplace which further negatively affects merchants and others producing ancillary goods and services.

I will discuss German and American manufacturing wages, threatened British intervention on behalf of the South in the Civil War because of Yankee blockades of cotton exports, the Walmart hatred of unions etc. in Part II. Stay tuned.     GERALD     E

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