“Renegade History” Against the “Respectable” Bosses

In his A Renegade History of the United States, variously described as “ultrarevisionist” and “contrarian,” “trouble-maker” Thaddeus Russell explodes the myth that America’s Founding Fathers were libertarian defenders of the “personal freedom” of the individual. His is an American narrative that amends previous attempts at “bottom up” history that, by either marginalizing or patronizing the “lower class,” neglected to see how it “shaped our world” and “expanded our freedoms.”

Russell therefore celebrates, without overly romanticizing, those working men (and “working girls”) who the Founding Fathers would have regarded as “wicked and vile,” the great unwashed who pioneered an understanding of freedom that the contemporary reader can identify with. The buttoned-up elites who populate American schoolbooks, rather than conceiving “the land of the free,” saw the uninhibited lifestyles of “tavern culture” as dangerous and “beneath them,” preferring instead the ideologies of “social management.”

And from the Revolution through to the present day, Russell paints an America where the kind of freedom valued by the free market left was and is a “gift of renegades,” of the supposedly disreputable, and decidedly not of leaders and politicians. For a free market anarchist, then, Renegade History and its vivid vignettes of disobedience and radical independence are full of important insights.

The stories in the book demonstrate that it was the “renegade behaviors” of ordinary people that spearheaded — through nothing more socially aware than their day-to-day activities — the best features of American society. Where orthodox histories eulogize those members of minority groups who adopted the cultural values and strategies of the ruling class, Russell showcases the people we’re not supposed to pay any mind. In doing so, he presents us with a new history, and accordingly new ammunition against the state and its coercive systems of hierarchy.

Especially important for market anarchists is his percipient, nuanced acknowledgment “that the market economy has always been a friend of renegades and an enemy of moral guardians,” that it had nothing to do with U.S. history’s many flavors of centralization and regulation. Comparing, for example, the economic policies of the New Deal to Italian Fascism and its “corporatives,” Renegade History reveals a power elite “creat[ing] cartels of business in every major industry” and lecturing about “the moral obligation to work.”

Despite the United States’ folkloric emphasis on the Puritan work ethic, it is the Americans who ignored and resisted work, thumbing their noses at frustrated bosses, who were and are the true heroes of freedom. Narrow-minded and parochial, elites stood in the way of true liberty and hardly lived up to the enlightened idolizations of our grade school fairy tales.

Russell shows how the “respectable” were so often the agitators for social control and political authoritarianism — for stepping on “ignorant” workers — as against more “pluralistic” impulses; those inclinations, rather, were kept alive by the underprivileged whose lack of “good taste” maintained the small-L libertarian spirit while Big Business and the political class plotted ways to undermine genuine free markets, promoting “authority and discipline.”

Free markets promote voluntary interactions, and — as Russell’s captivating history shows — many of the things that individuals voluntarily do will end up offending the delicate sensibilities of elites and threatening their systems of exploitation. Books like A Renegade History of the United States, by subverting statist official histories, substantiate many of the claims of anarchists.

Moreover, they explore subtleties of historical power relationships that all too often escape the scrutiny of the mainstream, leaving our worst misconceptions untouched. The state and its economic system of theft and privilege are rooted in the myth of their legitimacy, of the righteousness and respectability of their “great men.” Russell’s book goes a long way toward smashing that myth to bits, and with it the state itself.

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