Once again — this time using the Baltimore uprising as a pretext — Thomas Sowell has pulled out the template for his favorite column dismissing what he calls “the ‘legacy of slavery’ argument” and blaming black poverty on the Great Society (“The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities’ Social Breakdown,” National Review, May 5). As is the case with the previous versions of this column he’s written, everything in this by-the-numbers puff piece is a decades-old neoconservative talking point. If you put him up against an algorithmic Thomas Sowell Column Generator, I doubt he could pass a Turing test.
The “Great Society/culture of dependency” argument goes back to Marvin Olasky, and has since been repeatedly digested, excreted and re-ingested, human centipede fashion, by mediocrities like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich. It was shown to be nonsense by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in Regulating the Poor, their radical history of the welfare state: the actual cause of social disintegration was the earlier massive influx of unemployable black sharecroppers from the rural south when they were tractored off their land after WWII.
Until WWII, northern black communities like Harlem were thriving centers of culture and entrepreneurship. The white sharecroppers (the so-called Okies) who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s were severely exploited in California; but at least there was a need for migrant farm laborers. That’s more than can be said of the northern cities southern blacks moved to in the 1950s. The lack of demand for any skills black husbands and fathers had to offer made them economically superfluous. The breakdown of black families was already well underway in the 1950s. If all this is not a structural effect of the legacy of slavery, I don’t know what is. See also comparisons of the economic history of the minority of black families that were given land during military Reconstruction in some areas, to the great majority who didn’t.
So a “culture of dependency” existed all right, but it was created by southern agricultural capitalists and banks and real estate interests in collusion with the state. Far from being the cause, the Great Society was just an inadequate response — and one with a lot of exploitative strings attached — to the social ills created by that robbery.
There’s at least a kernel of truth to Sowell’s identification of the War on Poverty with a “culture of dependency” — those strings again. The problem is that Sowell puts a right-wing spin on it (you know, the welfare state is robbing blacks of initiative by pampering them too much, creating moral hazard problems and encouraging idleness, etc., instead of giving them the “tough love” they really need). But in reality, the main purpose of Great Society welfare programs wasn’t to redistribute income downward; it was to safeguard the previous upward redistribution of wealth by which freed slaves and their descendants had been robbed for the previous century. It was to make sure stolen goods stayed stolen.
Like the relief efforts of the Great Depression, the Great Society’s welfare programs were passed in response to the social disorder resulting from poverty. But the form the response took reflected the purposes of the capitalist state. Far from “pampering” the recipients, such programs only gave them a small fraction of what had been stolen from them in the first place. And the actual benefits were wrapped up in layers and layers of social control. The strings attached to these programs — the enforcement of social discipline by an army of case workers — were their real purpose.
As Piven and Cloward point out, that’s what welfare states have done since the Poor Laws and their workhouses were set up to manage the population evicted from the English countryside by centuries of enclosure. Welfare states don’t come about, as per the right-wing trope, when popular majorities “vote themselves largesse from the public treasury”; they’re created to manage classes previously robbed by the plutocracy. But that’s a nuance lost on Sowell, who’s made a career of defending the robbers as “free market” heroes and obscuring the fact of robbery — a robbery made possible only by the government power he pretends to dislike.
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