The American Civil War

The Charleston massacre has highlighted some of the unresolved issues of the American Civil War, which are now being addressed in yet another round-about way. I think the whole thing has been poorly thought out and hasn’t really touched upon the issue that should be addressed — the principle of private property.

What would motivate young men who owned no slaves and realistically had no real prospect of owning slaves to risk their lives and enlist in a military enterprise (assuming they weren’t involuntarily press-ganged) to defend that institution? The usual explanation for the American Civil War was that it was about slavery. But more to the point, it was about the principle of private property and the supremacy of so-called “market forces”, and this remains the unresolved issue in American political and civil life. The Proclamation of Emancipation was, from the Southern perspective, interpreted as an expropriation of private property and an illicit interference by the State with private property rights.

It probably does no good to insist that other human beings cannot be considered commodities or private property without addressing the very root notion and meaning of “private property” itself, let alone dealing and trafficking in other human beings as if they were merely private property and commodities. The whole idea of “ownership” and “possession” must be addressed and interpreted, because, in the mind of the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, sexism and racism and imperialism were very much intertwined — ie, “to have and to hold” — where the principle of private property and possession applied not just to the institution of slavery and race relations, but to the institution of marriage and gender relations, as well as colonial entitlements, too.

This notion of the supremacy and sanctity of “private property” and of private property rights — to “the ego and its own” — is, I would suggest, the real unresolved issue of the American Civil War.

And is it not reminiscent of that very thing of which I wrote in “A Parable of Self-Destruction“?



9 responses to “The American Civil War”

  1. donsalmon says :

    I’m wondering if I understood the wikipedia entry on “the ego and its own” correctly – it sounds at first like something similar to Robert Kegan’s psychological stage of individual autonomy. However, as it goes on it simply sounds like a textbook description of psychopathy. Am I missing something?

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I have a German copy of Stirner’s book. It’s very short, and I bought it because someone mentioned it in relation to Nietzsche’s philosophy. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that “someone” was very badly mistaken about Nietzsche’s supposed “self-aggrandising philosophy”. Stirner is definitely about “self-aggrandisement” however.

    I can see why Stirner might have written something like that — praising egoistic individualism — in the context of German militarism and tribalism, though. It would have made sense in that socio-historical context, but would have been seen as offensive to German — or most especially Prussian — collectivist or nationalist sensibilities. Nietzsche found those same collectivising sensibilities — German nationalism and militarism — quite oppressive as well. I’m unsure whether he was familiar with Stirner’s booklet, though. But Nietzsche was no fan of “egoism” or of anything like “egoistic individualism”. That’s pretty evident even from his chapter on the “Self” in Zarathustra entitled “To the Despisers of the Body”.

    • donsalmon says :

      That sounds like a compassionate reading of Stirner – and I’m not being sarcastic, I mean it. It’s good to understand such things in context. I suppose even Ayn Rand can be understood a bit more compassionately as reacting to the expropriation of her family’s property under Stalin – though she had enough years in the states to change her views, so I wouldn’t give her much leeway there.

      I was just thinking a bit more about this issue of private property. Jan (my wife) and I have been looking around Western North Carolina for some kind of intentional/eco-community. We’ve had a brief experience of “community” – we lived for 7 months at “Nature’s Spirit” (now defunct – in no small part over VERY contentious issues related to property, the individual vs the collective, etc) and are basically looking for something as different from NS as possible:>) (we left NYC a few weeks after 9/11 and were so eager to get out we didn’t really spend enough time looking into Nature’s Spirit).

      The intentional community movement is particularly strong around here – Asheville, NC has been a mecca for artists and “bohemian” types since the late 1800s. the CELO community, for example, has been in existence since the late 1930s, and a few others (Earthhaven) for example, have been around a few decades.

      The contentious issues almost all revolve around shared vs private ownership. But there’s also daily questions about how to resolve differences, who makes decisions, who “owns” those decisions, endless questions about money, many of which relate to collective vs individual ownership and responsibility for funds.

      It’s particularly interesting being conditioned as super-individualist Americans (worse, I imagine, than you Canadians – you are from Canada??). We could laugh at times to see how resistant we were to “sharing” and recognized our conditioning as generally making it much harder to resolve these issues.

      Though ultimately, I think it’s just the modernist/ego that makes it so hard. We’re all searching for a less mechanically rationalist way of doing things, but we’ve all been brought up swimming in that mindset so it has a way of taking over without our realizing it.

      We see this at Nature’s Spirit, where the main financial contributor had been an executive at a Fortune 500 company. He would insist that there were “no rules” and then lay out a silent “non rule” that everyone knew to follow, that everyone was expected to show up at ALL meals (boy did that create waves of resentment and rebellion) as well as many other non-stated regulations that inevitably led to the breakdown of the community.

      If anybody here knows of an intentional community that works, I’d love to hear about it! Anywhere.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Stirner might therefore be worth reading even if just to understand his meaning of “ownership” and of “taking ownership”. Not everything in Stirner is pathology, but was an extreme reaction to German Nationalism and Statism — and an attempt to radically distance oneself from that. Probably Stirner would modify his views if he really saw the consequences of egoistic individualism as it has developed since.

        It’s very difficult for us to form a “we”, because of the heavy conditioning which elevates the “I” above the “you”, the “we”, and the “he or she”. So I think Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic is a very good corrective to this unbalanced social situation. How to form a proper “we” is the problem you are highlighting above, and that is often the fault of our public education system, and the problem that Gebser identified as Individualism having lost its connection to the vital centre.

        I have nothing against ownership or personal possessions. We might think that this was not the case in tribal societies, but even there it personal possession had its place — the “medicine bundle”, as it is sometimes called, was a collection of personal effects and momentoes of the individual life. The “I” was, nonetheless, quite subdued compared to the “we” form. Still, it had its place and its mode of expression. But anyone who became “egoistic” in that context was “set apart” — exiled by the band, and usually that was a death sentence unless he could convince others to go into exile with him and start another band.

        Exile is an interesting world “ex-silio” meaning roughly into the silence, basically the same thing as ex-communication. Socrates took the hemlock rather than exile and excommunication amongst the “barbaroi” — the word for “babblers” or non-Greek speakers. No “egoistic individualism” for him.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Just occurs to me. Rosenstock-Huessy founded the Civilian Conservation Corps after he emigrated from Germany to Vermont. It became the basis for your later Peace Corps. The founding of Camp William James was the initial act of the CCC and one of the participants, Clint Gardner, wrote a book about it and Rosenstock-Huessy’s influence in founding it. It might be helpful.

        Also read something this morning in The Guardian about such intentional community in England

        It might provide some clues.

        I think what you really have in mind is a kind of secular monasticism? That was also an ideal of an old professor of mine at Uni. He thought of it as a refuge from an impending Dark Age, much as the historian William Irwin Thompson proposed secular monasteries. So the study of successful monasteries, and how they held themselves together over generations, might also provide clues to enduring “intentional communities”.

        As I said earlier, it’s the problem of successfully forming a “we”. Monasteries seem to provide a template or model of that, which I think Rosenstock probably employed in founding Camp William James.

        Monasteries are interesting social and communal forms. They served a bit like ships during the stormy years of the Great European Dark Age, riding out the storm. When Luther dissolved the monasteries during the Reformation, it was probably a recognition that they had already served their purpose of “keeping the fire”, as it were, and as refuges from the Dark Ages, but in his mind had become anachronisms.

        • donsalmon says :

          Thanks Scott, I’ll follow up on these.

          • Scott Preston says :

            I liken Luther’s act of dissolving the monasteries during the Reformation to botanical “dehiscence”. I used that metaphor quite frequently in the old Dark Age Blog — the positive side of disintegration and dissolution, as it were.

            When Luther dissolved the monasteries, tens of thousands of monks and nuns had to leave to find their own way in the secular world. But in that they also acted as leavening… they carried “the Rule” and “the Word” with them into the secular order. That influence remains with us in many ways, although quite unrecognised. Dehiscence.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    I suppose you could say that Stirner even highlights the real issue of egoism — ie, the turning of everything into a mere means for its own utility and gratification. Stirner seems to do that — truth, lie, friendship, trust, love etc — all “higher values” and ends — are reduced to its own means. The “heroism of the lie” is just rationalisation for that kind of reductionism of everything to a mere utility or means.

    The ego as agency (of being of “service”), or as being an end in itself and for itself… that seems to be the difference in considering the dubious merits of Stirner’s philosophy.Individuation for its own sake seems quite pointless.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    “The whole idea of “ownership” and “possession” must be addressed and interpreted……..”

    Very much so. I have thought about this at great length in terms of my own life and decided that I don’t want to own much of any property. To have just enough to make ends meet and living like a tourist is much more enjoyable. But the economic environment of the 21st century almost forces many working adults to think in those terms and reevaluate their notions of ownership and possession, anyway.

    It seems to me that in this increasingly volatile work and social environment, ownership and possession of any kind seems more a disadvantage.

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