Without delving systematically into questions relating to language, meaning, naming, “thingness,” etc.—and perforce into the work of luminaries such as Heidegger, Kripke, Searle, Bill Brown, and the like—we are nonetheless obligated to spend a bit of time “unpacking” the twelve words in the title of this essay. Let’s start with the subtitle, a task that is somewhat easier. First, I employ “southern” to denote the southern part of the United States rather than the so-called Global South, aka the areas formerly included under the now anachronistic “Third World” umbrella. Okay, but precisely what areas do I include in the “southern part of the United States?” Or, with a nod to Raymond Carver, what are we talking about when we talk about “the South?”
The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might appear to be on the surface, for there is no consensus even today on the bounds of the region. There have always been problems defining the South, of course, and southerners—or, to be more accurate, (some) white southerners—didn’t clarify things completely when they tried to opt out of the Union between 1861 and 1865. For one thing, a number of kindred slave states, most notably, Kentucky and Missouri, decided to stay put. Since that time, scholars studying the “South” have worked with a variety of conceptual schemes, or metageographies, if you will. Some have taken the simplest route and stuck to the eleven states of the Confederacy, while others have extended their interpretive gaze so as to include Kentucky and West Virginia, and sometimes even Oklahoma. Others, including my frequent collaborator David Carlton, have at times excluded Texas from their analyses, not because the state lacks southern characteristics, but because it also includes many western characteristics and because in recent decades its economy has often moved to rhythms different than those animating “southern” states.
The fact that many of the areas mentioned above play lead roles in other vague constellations—the “Sunbelt,” most notably, but also the “Gunbelt” (areas drawing in lots of defense spending, hosting sizable military bases, attracting significant military-related research and development, etc.)—complicates things further, not least because these broader classifications are used so imprecisely. Further complications arise from the fact that the US Census breaks down the “South” into three subregions (South Atlantic, East South Central, and West South Central), and these subregions don’t always behave in the same way. See what I mean? And we haven’t yet even begun to address complexities arising from other forms of geographic and population disaggregation—the urban/rural Souths, metro/non-metro Souths, African American/Hispanic/Non-Hispanic White Souths, etc.—much less to consider some that would arise if we further stretched our geographical imaginations by looking “Up South” and studying southern migrants in the North, for example, or by hiving off, for analytical purposes, Yankee transplants and/or foreign immigrants from the native-born population of the region.
All of the above concerns bedevil, even as they deepen and enrich the study of the South. Enough definitional complexity—you get the basic idea. Our South will build on the work of Howard W. Odum and define the region so as to include the eleven states in his “Southeast” classification, along with Texas and West Virginia. In other words, no Oklahoma, no Missouri boot, no Cairo, Illinois (thirty miles farther south than Richmond, Virginia), no Maryland, and not even a nod to the “Dixie” region of southwestern Utah.
Now—what about the “long twentieth century?” For starters, it obviously differs from both the chronological century and the periodization scheme known as the “short” twentieth century, associated with scholars such as Iván Berend and Eric Hobsbawm, who used it with reference to the period from 1914 to 1991, that is to say, from the beginning of the First World War to the collapse of communism. Scholars inclined to employ the “long” twentieth century as an organizing scheme extend both of the tails of the “short century,” though not in precisely the same way. For example, Giovanni Arrighi’s “long” twentieth century, which emphasizes finance capitalism and US hegemony over the world capitalist system, stretches from the late nineteenth century until the Great Recession (Lesser Depression?), when in his view the US-dominated system of finance capitalism began its terminal decline. Drew Faust’s begins earlier, with the American Civil War—she emphasizes the role of modern killing technology—and runs to the new millennium. My “long twentieth century,” like Faust’s, begins with the Civil War, though I focus more on the socioeconomic transformation ushered in by that mighty conflict than on killing technology associated therewith. But unlike Arrighi’s, mine is still chugging along well into the twenty-first, for in my view the forces that have driven it from the onset are not yet spent. Thus, the 1860s until sometime TBD. Clear enough?
Okay, now comes the hard part: “Why More Pricks Than Kicks?” Think the Killer Bs here: The Bible and Beckett. As some Southern Baptist readers may recall, harking back, however painfully, to the “Bible Drills”—sometimes called “sword drills”—of their misspent youths, “kick against the pricks” is from the Book of Acts (9:5 and 26:14, KJV). The phrase, which formed the basis for a common Greek proverb also known to Jews, was derived from ancient agriculture. Essentially, it referred to the sharpened pieces of iron, goads, used to goad or “prick” oxen to get them to move purposively and in the right direction. Sometimes, an understandably irritated animal would kick back or out at the prick, which resulted, ironically, in even deeper and more painful penetration. In Acts, the phrase appears twice with reference to Saul, while on the road to Damascus and, thus, to becoming the Apostle Paul. In each case Jesus (or at least the voice thereof) enjoins Saul/Paul not to ‘kick against the pricks,” i.e., not to rebel against God, for said rebellion would ultimately prove fruitless. Rather, he should go willingly in the direction as goaded or pricked. And he did, too.
Beckett, as always, is another story. Very familiar with the Bible, his reference shelf always stocked with concordances, he entitled his first published work—a collection of short prose pieces that appeared in 1934—More Pricks Than Kicks. Although in Beckett meaning is never stable, much less easy to discern, his title appears to suggest that the protagonists in his overlapping (and hugely complicated) stories somehow struggle on, despite what critic Dougald McMillan refers to as “unattainable relief from compulsion.” More pricks than kicks, in other words. Vintage Beckett, no? Moreover, very similar to and perhaps archetype for later, more celebrated Beckettian formulations such as this one from Waiting for Godot: Estragon: “I can’t go on like this.” Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” And, of course, the now iconic—“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”—lines with which The Unnamable ends.
Okay, reality-check time: So just what do pricks and kicks, the Bible, and Beckett have to do with the economic history of the US South over the course of the long twentieth century? To foreground the argument made in this essay: Quite a bit. For the trajectory—or, better yet, path—taken by the southern economy in the modern era was powerfully and perhaps decisively shaped by what had happened before—previous pricks, as it were—rendering “kicks,” if and when attempted, painful and only modestly successful. Moreover, the fact that the early path the region went down was heavily influenced by outside factors, forces, and principals conditioned the region’s peoples sometimes to expect, occasionally to seek, and generally to accept more pricks from outside, which often resulted in further economic distress, at least in the short run. And to cap it all, the southern developmental “strategies” pursued over the “long twentieth century”—and the many socioeconomic pathologies arising from said strategies—bear more than a faint resemblance to those associated with earlier strategies, indeed, to those associated with the path originally embarked upon.
While I would not go so far as Michael Lind recently did in a much-talked-about polemic, and argue that such strategies are today and have from the get-go been controlled by “poverty pimps,” pricking/goading southerners down a low, low economic road, it seems clear that the pricks experienced/endured by southerners and the South—analogous to stigmata perhaps—have placed real developmental limits on the region, leading all too often to all-too-Beckettian outcomes—“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Worstward Ho, as it were. And if the South’s past seems rather bleak, the region’s future doesn’t look all that bright either, which suggests that, going forward, the appropriate mindset for southerners might entail the courageous pessimism associated, again, with Beckett, but also with Reinhold Niebuhr, which could conceivably provide some solace to southern Calvinists, if not to more upbeat economic historians. The takeaway, then, is that southerners would do well to gird their loins for the path ahead.
Invocation of the “path” metaphor was not unintentional, for the argument mounted in this essay draws on the insights of the literature on so-called path dependency in explaining how the “South” as defined above developed over time. Indeed, I should perhaps substitute the verb “evolved” for “developed” in the previous sentence to underscore one of the principal points of the essay, to wit: that “development” and the South were not in close alignment over much of the course of the long twentieth century.
Path dependency qua concept has sometimes been reduced to the casual and rather glib suggestion that “history matters” in the determination of outcomes of one sort or another in the real world. This is certainly true, if trite: Marx famously made the same point in 1852 in a great and still unsurpassed passage in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Here, however, we wish to employ the concept with a bit more analytical rigor and emphasize the limitations placed on future outcomes by discrete decisions and actions—including decisions and actions made as part of economic “strategies,” explicit or otherwise. Sometimes such limits have proven minor, but in other cases they have proven profound, significantly restricting the degrees of freedom and volition populations have been able to exercise in their aftermath. The fact that the limits imposed can concatenate, eventually becoming more severe still, even when the triggering decisions/actions in retrospect seem minor, or may not have been made with a lot of forethought, or may not even be remembered adds both interest and complexity to the concept.
Regarding the economy of the South in the long twentieth century, it seems clear that the “past mattered” a lot. Earlier actions and decisions conditioned, inflected, and in some cases determined important economic outcomes, which outcomes were generally poor in developmental terms. Moreover, at times said decisions, actions, and outcomes did in fact “weigh”—as Marx wrote—“ like nightmare[s] on the brains of the living,” at least on the brains of some of the more sentient inhabitants of the region. Or so we shall argue below in any case.
As stated earlier, our “long twentieth century” begins in the 1860s, either in 1860–61 with the secession crisis and the advent of the Civil War or in 1865 with the war’s formal cessation. It doesn’t much matter whether the century “turns” in 1861 or 1865 in any case. Stepping back a bit, both the beginning and end dates are basically convenient punctuation points for the protracted, increasingly bitter, and more or less irrepressible conflict in the US over slavery and its place in American life that occurred between 1787 and 1861, that is, the period that in an American context might be called the “short” nineteenth century. Although there were certainly other questions at issue between the two regions—differences over imperial visions, for example—slavery underlay them all, and, as Lincoln capaciously put it in March 1865 in his Second Inaugural Address, slavery was “somehow” the cause of the war, for by that time it had insinuated itself into our nation’s DNA. And while “pricks” inflicted on the region during the war and as concomitants directly afterward clearly exercised pernicious influences on the South’s later development, it was the rutted route established by slavery long before that mattered most, a road—or path— to regional perdition, as it were.
However central slave labor may have been to the South’s early economic expansion and growth—and, for a variety of reasons, it was central indeed—the economy bonded labor made possible ultimately impeded the region’s long-term development in many, many ways. Such impediments—some of which were already manifesting themselves in the antebellum period, during the heart of the so-called second slavery era—have been studied and written about at length by legions of scholars, so we shall not spend a lot of time on them here. Suffice it to say that the southern economy—built, by and large, as a platform to support the production by slave laborers of a limited number of agricultural staples for extraregional/international markets—was at once unbalanced, overspecialized, and overly dependent on the vicissitudes of risky commodity markets in an increasingly global agricultural economy. Related to the above characteristics, not surprisingly, were other features deleterious to long-term development.
These features—which to employ a medical analogy, might be called socially iatrogenic because they grew out of the developmental “cure” seized upon early on —increasingly “expressed” during the antebellum period. Any short list would include among them the region’s thin and weak internal market; its high levels of income and wealth inequality, particularly in rural areas; its rudimentary, “conveyor-belt” transportation system, which facilitated getting agricultural staples and raw materials out of and imported goods into the region, but established relatively few robust transport connections within the region; its lack of investment in human capital, manifested most prominently in the low levels of literacy and paltry state of education in the region; in the relative lack of innovation in the region, the paucity of technology networks, and the sluggish response to available manufacturing opportunities, particularly when compared to the rapidly industrializing regions of the US north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi.
Some parts of the pattern were already recognizable to contemporaries—think Hinton R. Helper here, for example—while others were still “latent,” to use Bernard Bailyn’s brilliantly incisive concept, only to surface later, i.e., in the “long” twentieth century. Whether, in describing said patterns, one prefers Drew McCoy’s suggestive comparative formulation suggesting that the South expanded across space, while the North developed through time, or the more straightforward assessment of some economic historians that the region grew during slavery times, but didn’t develop, matters not a whit, for all concerned are essentially describing the same beast in a bestiary of more or less similar animals.
The patterns laid out above, that is to say, were hardly unique to the US South. Indeed, if anything, they manifested themselves in much more muted ways in the region than in other, more fully realized plantation economies, whether in the West Indies, Brazil, or, a bit later, in plantation zones of Assam, Ceylon, northern Sumatra, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, or Malaya. Indeed, in his survey, The Plantation Complex, Philip D. Curtin does not even include the US South, because the plantation did not inform the region in the same way or to the same extent as the institution did the other regions included. Curtin’s decision notwithstanding, most scholars do in fact consider the southern economy to have been organized around and dominated by its plantation sector and we shall follow suit, granting all the while that its role in the region was attenuated in comparison, let us say, to the plantation’s role in Barbados in 1725 or Saint Domingue in 1775 or Cuba in the 1850s.
By now some readers might be wondering about the extended discussion of the plantation, particularly its relationship with the southern economy during the long twentieth century. The short answer relates to that path thing again. The fateful decision—or, more accurately, set of individual decisions— to organize the southern economy around slave plantations, the earliest manifestations of which decisions arose in the late seventeenth century, set much of the tone for the region’s economy for centuries thereafter. With or without a destructive civil war —and our Civil War was destructive indeed—with or without the social upheaval that often follows civil war, and the postbellum South was nothing if not dislocated and displaced, the cocktail created by mixing slavery to plantations did its lethal work, holding back development for almost a century after slavery’s demise and to some extent even today.
Nowhere else in the world—with the partial exceptions of Trinidad-Tobago and Malaya/Malaysia, where the providential discovery/capture/exploitation of oil and gas deposits helped to fuel additional rounds of growth based on primary-sector products— have full-fledged plantation economies ever achieved anything close to developed-country status. The seemingly fortuitous geographical and resource endowments characteristic of such areas early on ultimately proved otherwise in almost every case, as Daren Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Simon Johnson demonstrated famously—and convincingly— in their piece “Reversal of Fortune” published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2002. The South, not quite a plantation economy in the same way as places such as Barbados or Saint Domingue, did not see its fortunes reversed to the same extent after the demise of slavery. But, as we shall see below, the legacy of plantations and racial slavery have limited the South’s developmental possibilities ever since, creating the context for the “sad math”—to borrow a phrase from poet Sarah Freligh —that has plagued the region over much of the long twentieth century.
With a nod to E. B. White, “Here is the South,” c. summer 1865. The economy in disarray, when not in ruins. Death and destruction or intimations thereof almost everywhere. The population, whether despondent or jubilant as the case may be, uncertain about the future, and for good reason. The political and economic orders were in states of disequilibria. The most fundamental questions relating to authority/sovereignty, legitimacy, labor relations, and property rights were up in the air. The above uncertainties were exacerbated—and developmental options limited further—because of the fact that with war-related upheavals, slave desertions, and the abolition of slavery, almost 50 percent of the region’s wealth—that held in the form of human beings, human capital in a literal sense—had recently been lost or, better yet, redefined into oblivion. Poof—just like that. Obviously, a good thing in a moral sense—and over the long run in an economic sense, too. But uncompensated emancipation did complicate matters considerably in 1865, particularly since some of the region’s remaining capital resources was leaking out (hemorrhaging?), and, given the circumstances, little outside capital was poised to come in.
Not a pretty picture, especially on the ground and in the short run, if one were charged with the task of reconstituting political, economic, and social institutions—and relations—in ways so as to “reset” southern society and, in so doing, stabilize it, and hopefully, down the line, render expansion and growth and perhaps even development possible. No person, of course, ever received that charge, for it fell into the remit not of one, but of many—one can even say of millions. But over time a new order, or, more accurately, a modified order did in fact emerge, which order was different in some ways to be sure. In others, alas, said order—again, to be more accurate—is captured rather more by the French epigram, then rather recent, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Let’s begin with the agricultural sector, by far the largest sector of the southern economy at the time, indeed, the largest sector for most of the long twentieth century. In so doing, one first needs to keep in mind that the plantation sector—comprised in the antebellum period by the most heavily capitalized, most efficient, most modern, most recognizably capitalistic units of production in the region—was severely compromised, when not destroyed as a result of the war and its concomitants. To be sure, there was little attempt at systematic land reform, much less redistribution during or after the war, but the structure of entrepreneurial opportunity shifted dramatically with emancipation—from labor to land, as it were—and when large landholdings were reconstituted after the war into so-called neo-plantations, said reconstitution occurred in an understandable, but decidedly retrograde manner.
Bluntly put, without much capital to mobilize or any labor to command, erstwhile planters were essentially transformed into rural landlords (or land lords), cutting deals with available local workers to labor on small patches of land on varying terms—for wages, shares, or “rent”— but almost never with much in the way of “modern” mechanical or biological technology at their disposal. The results were more or less predictable: low-yield, low-productivity, labor-intensive production generating low profits. I say more or less rather than entirely predictable for two reasons. First, labor-intensive agriculture is not necessarily inefficient or low productivity, traditional risiculture in Japan being a notable case in point. Secondly, if prices for the principal agricultural commodities being produced in the South were high, the region’s agricultural sector between the Civil War and World War could have remained viable, if not thriving despite its retrograde structure. For example, the spike in cotton prices in the first two decades of the twentieth century reduced some of the pressure on southern agriculture, for a time masking its flaws, and enabling previously struggling small farmers, black and white alike, to get up off of the ground, if not back on their feet. But that period of high cotton prices was atypical, the exception that proved the rule.
Thus, today when one visualizes the southern agricultural economy in the long stretch between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II, one is for good reason likely to conjure up images of the “hot still pinewinery silence of . . . August afternoon[s]” in the region, and “mules plod[ding] in a steady and unflagging hypnosis.” And also, more troublingly, of exploited, dirt poor, black and white farmers, mostly tenants and sharecroppers deep in debt, eking out livings by growing cotton on under-capitalized, hardscrabble small farms. Many, if not all God’s dangers, in other words.
We have come to learn that this view—Faulkner’s view, by the way (the quoted material in the paragraph above is from Light in August)—is more or less accurate as far as it goes, but incomplete, for several generations of talented scholars have done the work needed to fill important (rather than “much-needed”) gaps in our knowledge about the sector during the 1865–1940 period. As a result, we get a richer, denser, polychromatic view of a sector often painfully reduced to dull, depressing monotones.
To be more specific, almost all of the older generalizations about the agricultural sector have been subject to at least some modification, including biggies pertaining to the agricultural ladder, contracting and bargaining relations, labor markets, geographical and vertical mobility, agricultural debt and credit, farmer-merchant relations, household income-generation strategies, and work portfolios. Moreover, the hard work of assiduous scholars now allows us to say with some confidence that the answers to most questions regarding the region’s agricultural sector during this period vary, often considerably, with the variation observed resulting from factors relating to geography, demographic profiles, time of observation, race, gender, crop(s) cultivated, local political regimes, etc.
We now know, for example, that the metaphor of the so-called agricultural ladder with ostensibly stable vertical rungs, with wage workers occupying the bottom rung up to cropper to tenant to owner, is as rickety and unstable as it is misleading. Indeed, virtually every component of the ladder metaphor has been adjusted, when not scrapped. Distinctions between and within ladder categories have been parsed—especially between/within the sharecropping and tenant categories—and more attention has been paid to the growing numbers of landowners, black and white, who formerly received little attention. In addition, in tobacco and rice—even in cotton in certain places, as Robert Tracy MacKenzie has shown—wage work was not only important, but often preferred because such work offered higher returns.
What else? The mobility of agricultural labor seems to have been greater than conventionally viewed, albeit still within circumscribed bounds. For a variety of reasons, including the need for farmers to leverage their personal reputations in order to attain agricultural credit (“the furnish”), most southern farmers didn’t stray too far. But, generally speaking, they were mobile enough to take their business to—and seek credit from—more than one country store, which has certainly rendered questionable the once regnant “territorial monopoly” argument associated most closely with Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch. Farmers, it is true, may have been “locked into” production of cotton and a few other exportable staples because of market imperfections—just as Ransom and Sutch contended—but they were locked in by a panoply of structural factors far more important than their relationships with the nearest storekeeper, monopolist or otherwise.
Similarly, today we know that income-generating strategies within “farm” households were far more diverse and elaborate than can adequately be reduced to a container such as “sharecropper” or even “share tenant” or “cash tenant.” Many “farm”—better yet, “rural”—families assembled flexible “portfolios” for subsistence and income generation, which portfolios could and did include, in addition to row agriculture, activities such as hunting/fishing, lumbering, hauling, laying track, working in turpentine orchards, or mining phosphates on rivers or land. Perhaps a little work at a cotton gin or crushing cotton seed for oil, and hawking meat, fish, vegetables, and eggs at rural cross roads, or doing formal or casual labor in town. And, if white after c. 1880, maybe working in a cotton mill, as we’ll see in a bit.
And further complicating everything we have just said, some farmers in the region did pretty well at times, at least in relative terms. Here, I don’t just mean the Cokers of Hartsville, S.C. or Oscar Johnston et al., and the shareholders of the Delta and Pine Land Company, the huge British concern that in the 1920s and 1930s owned around 38,000 acres of land in the Mississippi Delta, including the largest cotton plantation in the United States and the South’s largest agricultural unit (with around 9,000 acres of cotton under cultivation in the 1930s). Other groups did well too: the small, but fairly prosperous white and black tobacco farmers in eastern North Carolina—some of whom seemed to do all right even working for wages—and, as the case of Ned Cobb/Nate Shaw suggests, at times some enterprising black cash tenants and black landowning cotton farmers (of whom there were a surprising number) in the Deep South in the early twentieth century.
As impressive and perhaps even more surprising were the rice pioneers of the Old Southwest—in southwestern Louisiana, southeastern Texas, and, especially, in east central Arkansas—who between about 1890 and 1920 succeeded in establishing an entirely new (and profitable) rice industry in the US. Unlike earlier cultivation regimes in the US—or cultivation regimes anywhere else in the world for that matter—the “high-tech” cultivation regime created by the pioneers of the “rice revolution” in the Old Southwest was capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive. Machine technology originally developed for the cultivation of small grains was adapted for rice cultivation, eliminating much of the need for labor, which, unlike the case in most other parts of the South, happened to be rather scarce, pricey, and/or unruly/undependable on the desolate prairies of the Old Southwest then being converted into rice fields.
The fact that many, if not most of the pioneers in the new rice industry were not from the South, but instead were recent migrants from the Midwest or from the UK and Germany—places with which they often maintained strong network links—speaks legions about southern development and the limitations thereof. So, too, does the fact—to which we shall return later—that none of the above individuals/types/groups was sufficiently numerous or economically powerful as to move the developmental needle, as it were, in the Old Southwest. The areas wherein they were located remained poor, despite (some would say, because of) their efforts and examples, and large segments of the populations living in these areas still remain economically strapped today.
What, then, do we make of this new mash up? Too early to say for sure, perhaps—as Zhou Enlai supposedly said of the impact of the French Revolution (or maybe of the events in France in 1968!). But in my view it seems pretty clear that things were more complex and convoluted than we once believed, and that the disequilibrating dislocations to southern agriculture and labor relations associated with the Civil War and emancipation had not settled firmly into a new equilibrium by 1880 or thereabouts, as some scholars contend, but remained open, unsettled, and unstable—and subject to flux—well after that date, indeed, in some ways, until the demise of the “postbellum” agricultural regime in the 1930s. A whole lotta shaking was going on in southern agriculture, it seems. It seems clear too that such shaking was often associated with, when not caused by the extremely risky global market environment in which southern farmers were emplotted. Why? Mainly because the growth rate of world demand for cotton slowed down, but also because increasingly integrated global markets for other southern staples, particularly rice and sugar, also had deleterious consequences (and implications) for relatively expensive southern growers. And, speaking again of cotton, it hardly helped that large numbers of poor white yeoman farmers were joining their black brethren in commercial cotton production during bad market times.
At the end of the day, what we see in the southern agricultural sector during the 1865–1940 period is a situation somewhat analogous to the agricultural sectors of many LDCs (less developed countries) in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The reality of pervasive, persistent, seemingly intractable poverty, as super abundant (often redundant) rural laborers kept on planting, hoeing, and chopping cotton and a few other staples on tired soils in a market generally characterized by low prices and high risk. And they did so without modern technology, without adequate credit facilities, without much efficiency, without many viable options, and, thus, often without much hope. Debt, the need for credit from established sources, the balm of kith and kin, and the reality of a dual labor market in the US—the South was not integrated into the US labor market as a whole until after World War II, as Gavin Wright has shown—kept plenty of rural labor down on the farm, as it were, which meant that agricultural labor was dirt cheap. Not quite “unlimited supplies of labour” in the sense set forth by Nobelist W. Arthur Lewis long ago, but uncomfortably close, not least because of the extremely high white and black fertility rates in the region during the period. And with labor so cheap, why mechanize, why buy better seeds, why invest in pesticides, why innovate? Good questions all, with a certain logic to them, which, by and large, produced the same answers everywhere in the rural South, but for the rice prairies in the Old Southwest, the exception that proves the rule. Don’t mechanize, don’t improve, don’t invest, don’t innovate. Not with all that cheap white and especially black labor in place.
This said, some contemporaries publicly proclaimed the sector to be sick—many others sensed as much—and various attempts were made to cure the patient, albeit without a lot of success from a regional-development perspective. There were, for example, widely publicized initiatives aimed at getting southern farmers to diversify out of staples, particularly cotton, but the so-called lock-in mechanism (or variants thereof) generally precluded that option. There were farmer-led efforts to work in more collective ways for their mutual benefit—including, for example, the establishment of both producers’ and consumers’ coops, and of intentional communities—but an array of factors, ranging from organizational difficulties, to commodity-price zigzags, community opposition, and residual racism for the most part put the kibosh on the same, particularly after the mid-1890s. And a bit later there were a series of rather fanciful schemes to recreate in backwaters of the South replicas of Scandinavian farming communities, which schemes, not surprisingly, either never got off the ground or, when they did, quickly “went south.”
In a relative sense, perhaps the most successful of such efforts—before the crisis of southern agriculture came to a head in the 1930s and the regime finally collapsed—were those promoting greater diversification out of agriculture, particularly into manufactures, hopefully with a little help from extra-regional friends. It is to such efforts—often embedded initially in the well-known “New South” frame, but recurring again and again—that we now shall turn.
By this late date—as the long twentieth century churns on and on—little is left of the reputations of the late-nineteenth/early twentieth-century orators, publicists, and promoters associated with the ideas Paul Gaston famously, if vaguely referred to as the New South “creed.” Whether said ideas are more properly cast as mythology or ideology is seldom the problem for critics. Rather, it is the limited, top-down, racist character of the constitutive elements of the “creed” that brings the critical hammer down on men such as Grady, Edmonds, Kelly, Watterson, and the like. Sometime confreres such as industrialist Daniel Augustus Tompkins, poet cum agricultural reformer Sidney Lanier, and journalist-diplomat Walter Hines Page often get pounded by critics too. When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, as they say.
The purpose here is not to “disarm” critics—interpret as you will—but to reposition said “New South” ideas in the context of boosterism, an all-American belief system if ever there was one, and to make a case not only for the plausibility and durability of many of the elements constitutive of the creed, but also for their inherent limitations. Think a bit about the overarching themes with which they were associated. Regional reconciliation (facilitated at home by their support of the Lost Cause). Social (i.e., racial) stability. Alluring come-ons to northern capitalists and especially northern capital. Promotion of the South’s assets—its comparative advantages, as it were: bounteous resources, cheap labor, community buy-in, and government support. Can you spell “boosterism”? Sounds a lot like plans all over the US at the time, and, frankly, not all that different from pitches heard over and over again both in the South and in places such as Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and maybe even River City, Iowa. The problem was that in the South boosterism had less to boost, or, more accurately, what was being boosted provided only marginal lift, much less take off!
But before we jump all over Grady et al. after the fact, we would do well to put on green eye shades for a moment and ask ourselves what viable alternatives did they have? What else did they have to sell? Ex-slaves may have come out of the war with “nothing but freedom,” to employ Eric Foner’s powerful phrase, but freedom was something with which developmentally minded people had to wrestle as well—and there were few degrees thereof available to those hoping to boost the South and, in so doing, themselves.
The postbellum South, as we have seen, had all kinds of legacy disadvantages as a result of the path it had been on during slavery times. Compounding matters, it abutted the emerging manufacturing belt during its will to power as the world’s most vibrant economic district, and, because the Union was preserved, it had to deal with this rising industrial behemoth without benefit of tariff walls or the ability to set and thus to manipulate monetary policy for its own regional benefit. Given the above considerations, how likely was it that the New South creed would include serious calls to recreate in the South the dynamic, innovative, highly networked agro-industrial complex that was emerging north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi in the booming northeastern quadrant of the United States? Not very. The conditions just weren’t right. Thus, a plea for understanding, if not approval of the narrowly circumscribed developmental visions of standard bearers for the New South creed. At the time they were shilling, the region may not have been prostrate, as journalist James Shepherd Pike had claimed of South Carolina in the early 1870s, but it was, at best, on its knees.
With the above context in mind, the types of rudimentary mining, raw-material extraction, and rudimentary processing activities called for and delivered in the late-nineteenth-century South made a good bit of sense. The fact that sufficient stocks of capital could be mobilized from within and without the region to establish and grow such industries testifies to the point. That said, the fact that the South has been involved to an inordinate degree in much the same types of activities ever since attests to the difficulty of deviating from certain paths, once taken, and, alas, facilitates the building of an archive for narrating what might be called the South’s developmental pathography.
Phosphate and iron mining (the latter of which was New South spokesman Richard Edmonds’ particular hobbyhorse), lumber and forest products—well into the twentieth century the biggest industry in the South in terms of employment—and, of course, textiles set the developmental tone for the New South as it evolved after c. 1880. These activities were joined in certain suitable locales by iron production and the manufacture of simple steel products, by tobacco/cigarette manufacturing, and by (basic and generic) furniture production. These activities, however modest in comparison to industrial goings-on in the North, unquestionably helped to improve material conditions for many in the South and to facilitate the region’s protracted transition toward a more modern and more sophisticated economy.
Even so, it should be noted that agriculture continued to dominate the southern economy in terms of employment and contributions to regional GDP for decades after the South became “new,” with the stranglehold of cotton monoculture hardly diminished until the Great Depression. Indeed, cotton production in the South did not peak until 1927, despite the demise of slavery, the retrograde agricultural regime established after the war, land erosion, the boll weevil, insufficient conditions for widespread tractorization, and woefully incomplete mechanization of the cotton-cultivation cycle, the harvest, most notably.
While on the subject of agriculture, it should be noted too that southern agricultural exports, which constituted so dominant a position in total US merchandise exports in the antebellum period, remained very important in the period between the Civil War and World War II. Cotton and tobacco alone comprised 30 percent of the total value of US merchandise exports between 1861 and 1910, and 21.5 percent of the total value for the entire eighty-year period from 1861 to 1940. Although the South became less competitive internationally in certain staples—rice and sugar especially—as staple markets became increasingly integrated globally, the region’s comparative advantages in tobacco and cotton were sufficiently robust, despite the problems to which we have alluded above, as to allow the region’s growers to retain prominent positions in global markets, as W.A. Lewis noted long ago.
The New South’s boosters peddled more than mining, lumbering, and manufacturing. Like their brethren in the North, they pushed for both urban growth and for what we would now call urbanization, which is to say, for a relative increase in the urban proportion of the South’s population. They pushed, too, for commercial expansion, for improvements in, and reorganization of the South’s transportation infrastructure—particularly its rail lines and connections. And after the turn of the century, they and/or kindred “Progressive” successors, including a number of prominent African American leaders from the region and some prominent philanthropists and foundations from without, often supported certain modest social/labor reforms and modest increases in spending on human capital, relating to both education and health. But neither graded schools nor low-bar compulsory education provisions, nor the eradication over time of hookworm, pellagra, and even malaria did enough in the 1865–1940 period to enhance population quality sufficiently in the South to allow the region’s people to come anywhere close to achieving the set of “capabilities” needed to live rich and fully-realized material and ethical lives. And this is true whether we employ Amartya Sen’s sense of capabilities or more exacting criteria laid out by Martha Nussbaum among others.
So, then, what was the overall effect of the New South agenda—or, better yet, agendas—parts of which were implemented, others partially implemented, rejected, or forgotten? Mixed at best is probably the most judicial answer. The “bundle” endorsed/packaged by New South boosters, their Progressive confreres, and business progressives—to use George Tindall’s label—during the 1920s likely did some good in developmental terms, underpinning, supporting, and/or reinforcing some much-needed economic changes that arguably would have come about at some point in any case. Such changes, however, were not sufficiently jarring to effect a striking redirection in the historical trajectory or path the region had been goaded along or pricked along for centuries, which is to say, the path rutted by plantations, export staples, and racial slavery.
Said path, under the institutional regime informed by chattel slavery, had generally enabled the region’s economy to expand and to grow at an impressive clip during the antebellum period, and, in so doing, to allow the free population therein to attain relatively high levels of income and to accumulate significant amounts of wealth. Indeed, on the eve of the Civil War, southern levels of income and wealth, though not quite on par with those of the precociously developing North, were within striking distance. Moreover, at that time the income/wealth levels of the free population in the South were extremely high by world standards. However, after the instauration of a new institutional regime, one wherein chattel slavery was illegal, the picture of the southern economy in terms of income/wealth relatives, looks very, very different. Whereas per capita income of the free population in the region was about 85 percent of the national average in 1860, by 1900, per capita income in the region had fallen to half of the national average. Thirty years later—in 1930—southern per capita income was still only about 55 percent of the national average. This said, there is a lot to unpack, as it were, in interpreting the income and wealth figures mentioned above.
Obviously, the definition of “per capita” changed in the South once formerly enslaved African Americans began to figure into the denominators in income/wealth calculations. But that said, in the late antebellum period, the South was still doing pretty well income and wealth-wise even if wealth held in the form of slaves was excluded from overall wealth calculations, and slaves were included in calculations of total population. Another complicating factor—this one perhaps mitigating to some extent the South’s economic performance between 1865 and 1930—grows out of the fact that after the traumas and economic dislocations associated with the Civil War and emancipation, which led to a deep plunge in virtually every indicator/index of southern economic health, the region more or less kept pace with the rapidly developing North. This is suggested by the fact that after its relative fall in the postbellum period to half the national average in terms of per capita income, the South didn’t fall further behind in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, and as we shall soon see, it actually converged quite a bit upon national norms during the calamitous decade of the 1930s.
Even with all this in mind, it is nonetheless difficult to argue that, on balance, the New South’s “growth strategy” was successful. For example, several decades of work by anthropometric historians has demonstrated that the biological well-being of the southern population, white and black alike, worsened in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, as measured by indices such as height, weight, BMIs, disease incidence, military rejection rates, etc. Although living standards and biological well-being have often been found to diverge during early stages of growth/industrialization (the so-called antebellum puzzle in the North), there is little indication that material conditions rose markedly in the South during the period considered here. That this is so is not totally surprising, of course, given the parlous state of southern agriculture and the fact that almost all of the South’s leading industries entailed simple, low-skill, low-wage processing functions.
The region boasted but one high-value-added industry—cigarette manufacturing—but this industry owed this status more to the early monopoly position enjoyed by the southern-based American Tobacco Company than to anything else. The region’s most important industry, cotton textiles, arose in its “modern,” post-1880 form largely because of the possibilities opened up by recent transportation/communications improvements worldwide, which allowed for the dispersion of production out of centers of modern manufacturing such as Lancashire and New England. This textiles “breakout,” which David L. Carlton and I, and more recently Sven Beckert have written about in detail, led to the dispersion of “modern” manufacturing to areas closer to various cotton-supply sources, areas where cheap power was available, areas where labor was cheap and ample, etc., to areas, that is to say, such as Brazil, Japan, India, and the US South.
The US South was triply blessed, as it were, because of its propinquity to the world’s most competitive cotton-production sites, the relatively widespread availability of cheap water power in the region, and the South’s large stock of poor, relatively inexpensive, and eager laborers. The fact that by the 1880s the highly competitive cotton textiles industry was already a “mature” industry late in the product life cycle rendered the South more attractive still to capital, for textiles manufacturing technology was by then pretty standardized, routinized, and portable, and thus relatively easy to plunk down “off the shelf” even in backwaters such as the Piedmont of the Carolinas, where the three desiderata mentioned above were all in place. It helped, too, that the Piedmont was home to both numerous industrial boosters, some of whom such as Daniel A. Tompkins proved instrumental in facilitating the “transplanting” process, and welcoming communities, some of which bought into fiery rhetoric likening mill-building to a religious crusade by investing whatever large or, more frequently, small sums of money members had been able to squirrel away in the construction of mills and the acquisition of spindleage.
While cotton textiles—and later apparel—proved most durable in the South, spreading over time from the Piedmont to other parts of the region, the developmental impact of these industries was mixed. Given the sorry state of the southern economy c. 1880, the advent of the modern textiles industry proved something of a godsend, allowing many poor white families—almost all textiles jobs were considered “white” jobs until well after the Second World War—to do better than they would have had they remained in agriculture, for agriculture essentially set the wage floor for textile labor in both spinning and weaving activities. As long as textile wages outpaced farm wages—or in many cases farm income whatever the tenure status of an agricultural worker—movement into textiles paid off.
Moreover, because textiles’ plants in the region generally preferred employing families rather than individuals, they often employed several household members in a plant, which meant that family income, as opposed to the wages paid to any one individual worker, could enable a family to rise up a bit. This was particularly true if said family lived in inexpensive company housing in a so-called mill village and/or still had residual access to a bit of land for farming or at least for a garden plot. When land was in fact available, we find a situation not all that dissimilar in analytical terms to one some development economists refer to as the articulation of production modes, whereby waged production is at least partially subsidized by a non-remunerated subsistence sector (or in this case non-remunerated subsistence activities). Interestingly, contemporary observers, particularly, mill boosters, were not unaware of the value of such cross-subsidies, which in their view constituted yet another advantage of becoming a factory hand.
Whatever the limits of its developmental impact, no one can gainsay the fact that the “modern” southern textiles industry grew rapidly in the first few decades after its birth around 1880, and continued to grow thereafter. Until the 1920s it co-existed rather peacefully and somewhat synergistically with the older, more sophisticated, high-wage textiles industry in New England, each region specializing in different segments of the market (with southern firms, not surprisingly, concentrating on low-end products such as coarse yarns, bulk cloth, and the like). Indeed, by 1920 the South actually possessed more spindleage than New England, though in value-added terms New England still outpaced the South. And by 1924 North Carolina had become the leading producer of textiles in the United States.
The 1920s, alas, brought crisis to the entire US textiles industry, though crisis played out differently in the North and in the South. The surge of synthetic fibers after World War I—viscose/rayon especially—and the growing reality of market competition from foreign supply sources (with wages and overall production costs far lower than textiles manufacturers in New England and even manufacturers in the South) led to a fundamental restructuring of the American industry. Such challenges were particularly stiff because textiles, again, was already a mature industry, the growth rate and prospects for which were hardly robust. Initially, New England seemed to bear the brunt of the crisis, with its high-cost mills entering into a tailspin that led to many mill shutdowns and in time to the gutting of the entire industry in the region.
The South benefitted, albeit briefly, from New England’s decline, becoming dominant in the American market for bulk goods during the decade of the ’20s before running into the same types of problems that led to the demise of the industry in New England—synthetics, foreign competition, and slow growth—which led southern mills to attempt to cut costs and increase efficiency, which led predictably, if not inevitably to growing labor strife in what had been a generally quiescent industrial-relations regime. A few kicks in other words in response to external and internal pricks.
Most of the South’s other leading industries faced more or less similar problems as the chronological century proceeded, which is understandable given the fact that almost all of them shared certain structural features with textiles: low skill requirements, low-end production of rudimentary products, borrowed/acquired technology, competitive markets, manufacturing clustered in low value-added SICs (Standard Industrial Classifications). Cigarette manufacturing—high value-added and oligopolistic—was the exception that proved the rule, but cigarette manufacturing was concentrated in North Carolina and Virginia and even as late as 1930 employed far fewer workers than did textiles, lumbering and timber products, and hosiery/knit goods, fewer even than turpentine and resin and not many more than the furniture industry.
With the onset of the Great Depression, the southern manufacturing sector, which was weak and unbalanced and in many cases already experiencing difficulties in the 1920s, was hit hard, but not nearly so hard as the region’s agricultural sector, which was, if anything, even weaker and more unbalanced in 1929. By then, decades of, first, retrogression, then, of relative stagnation had left the sector on the precipice. Indeed, it has almost become a truism amongst agricultural historians to argue that for farmers the “depression” actually began in the early 1920s, when farm prices for most American staples fell significantly and in some cases, such as that of cotton, precipitously.
That said, the further collapse of farm prices between 1929 and 1933 precipitated at long last the death spiral for the vitiated and degraded agricultural regime that had been constructed—or, more accurately, jury-rigged—in a region operating under severe resource/historical constraints in the decades after the Civil War. By the time FDR stepped in via the AAA, the death rattle was already audible, but the manner in which crop supply was reduced and allotments allocated, speeded the sector’s demise. Bluntly put, those with the least took the biggest hits, as tens of thousands of landless laborers, croppers, and tenants were thrown off the land with reductions in cultivated acreage, resulting in what some have referred to as a modern enclosure movement.
The power of the enclosure allusion notwithstanding, it is perforce important to keep in mind that the hold of the land on poor farmers, black and white alike, had been loosening for several decades as transportation, communications, and information markets in the US improved, legal and extralegal obstacles to movement in/from the South eased, and economic opportunities for unskilled labor opened up both in the urban South and in the North. Thus, especially from the 1910s on, we see increasing mobility in/from the rural South.
Regarding outmigration: As is well known from the “Great Migration” literature, among African Americans there was net outmigration from the South over each of the ten decades between 1870 and 1970. During that century-long period, just under 6.3 million African Americans quit the South, with almost 6 million of this total coming in the period between 1910 and 1970, the result, like most migration movements, of a complex, ever-changing mix of push and pull factors. What is still less widely appreciated about outmigration from the South is the extent to which whites participated in the same process. Over each decade between 1900 and 1950, there was a net flow of whites out of the region, with a total net outflow of about a million over the fifty years. To be sure, a great proportion of the net outflow of whites from the region occurred during the 1930s and 1940s (almost 86 percent of the total outflow between 1900 and 1950), but the overall trend held through the whole 50-year period.
Clearly, rural-to-urban migration within the South and the migration of rural and urban southerners out of the South occurred because of a variety of factors, especially over the long stretch of time discussed above. This said, it is clear that the acceleration of movement and outmigration among both African Americans and whites tracked closely with a smaller number of macro factors. To wit: wars and the changing demand for labor associated therewith, and periods of intensified agricultural problems within the South. These factors kicked in for African Americans beginning in the 1910–20 period, and for whites beginning in the 1920s. During the 1920s and obviously in the 1930s, the South’s agricultural regime fell under increasing structural stress, and, when the Agricultural Adjustment Administration knocked, as it were, the entire edifice informing southern agriculture, flimsy as it was, fell down.
With its fall, the rising mobility of the southern labor force, and other federal actions later in the “depression decade”—the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, most notably, which for the first time established a minimum wage in the US, albeit one replete with exceptions—the dual-labor market, famously identified and named by Gavin Wright, began to collapse as well. With its collapse, the “poverty wages” characteristic of the South for seventy-five years began slowly to rise, helping the region to begin to converge upon national norms in terms of standard development indicators such as GDP per capita, an indicator itself just being developed in the 1930s. Indeed, already by 1940 the economic disruptions/dislocations of the 1930s, which occasioned the redeployment of southern labor into more productive activities, along with other factors—most notably, governmental interventions of one type or another—facilitated or at least enabled the South to begin to “catch up” a bit. To wit: per capita income in the region, which had been 55 percent of the national average in 1930, had risen to about 65 percent in 1940.
A case can perhaps be made here for what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium,” wherein a powerful event (the Great Depression) redirected long-term evolutionary trends. Said redirection was rendered more powerful still by a second “event”: World War II. Together, these two world-historical developments, along with the responses thereto, were in fact sufficiently powerful to move the South somewhat out of its long-term groove. After all, these were powerful pricks. The interesting, though not particularly funny thing, though, was that, even after these events, the South’s “new” path was not all that different from—indeed was still organically linked—to the old.
As the economic crisis deepened in the South, a crisis that left the agricultural economy in ruin, the region’s leaders responded, by and large, by aggressively pushing same-old, same-old boosterish New South/Business Progressive policy nostrums, particularly the building up of the region’s portfolio of low-skill, low-wage, low-value-added manufacturing activities. Although Mississippi’s Balance Agriculture with Industry program represented the first and most famous of such pushes, almost every southern state followed the same game plan, as James C. Cobb documented long ago in The Selling of the South.
If exigencies and contingencies associated with war-time mobilization resulted in some higher-value-added, higher-skill, higher-wage manufacturing activities in parts of the region—the commanding heights of the so-called “second wave” of southern manufacturing—neither aircraft manufacturing in the Atlanta area, nor shipbuilding in the Hampton Roads region, nor (domestic) auto-assembly plants in the South after the war, nor even the chemical weapons plant that begat the Redstone Arsenal, and, eventually, the Huntsville defense complex, came to inform, much less dominate the manufacturing picture in postwar Dixie. History largely won out again, outweighing and outlasting even the shocks of depression and war. While the southern economy was diverted by such profound pricks, the new path taken was still low and eminently recognizable to those who knew how to map history. To say this is not necessarily to criticize those that pushed for and blazed this new path, but to acknowledge its propinquity to the old, and, thus, to the powerful legacy effects of what had gone on in the region before.
If one were to encapsulate in a few bullets the principal drivers and indicators of the “new and improved” southern economy of the first few decades after the war—for simplicity’s sake, let’s use the standard 1945 to 1973 chronology of the “postwar boom” in this periodization scheme—almost everyone would include the following ten points:
- Completion, at long last, of the mechanization of cotton production, and with the diffusion of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1950s and 1960s, the drastic shrinkage of jobs in the South’s agricultural sector, and the migration (“export”) of a large number of poor/poorly skilled laborers to the North and West
- Concomitantly, the impressive growth in the number of low-paying, low-value-added manufacturing jobs, typically light assembly and processing in nature, often sited in rural or at least non-metropolitan areas, and utilizing large numbers of dislocated and/or redundant farm laborers
- The equally impressive efforts of southern industrial recruiters, working at the behest of development-minded pols, to lure into the region runaway shops and branch plants from the North via “smokestack-chasing” stratagems of one sort or another, and of southern politicians to land military bases—with attendant low-skill, low-paying jobs either on said bases or in low-end procurement activities—for the region
- Continued expansion and elaboration of southern infrastructure, particularly road networks and power systems, building on developments of the interwar years
- Growth in levels of investment in human capital, relating both to education and health
- Rapid urban growth and rates of urbanization, with concomitant increases in middle and lower-level service-sector jobs
- The establishment in a few areas of complexes predicated on high-end, research and development-focused development strategies
- The breakdown of de jure racial segregation in the region and the reduction in labor-market discrimination against African Americans, developments often receiving decisive support from important segments of the business community
- A rise in overall economic productivity in the region, largely as a result of moving labor out of a dreadfully inefficient agricultural sector into a moderately inefficient manufacturing sector
- A significant rise in income per capita in the region and strong convergence upon national norms—from about 73 percent in 1950 to around 80 percent in 1970
Bullets seem so PowerPoint-ish—like Edward Tufte, I’m not enamored of that “cognitive style”—but I wanted to make some large claims quickly, before elaborating on a few. In explaining the southern economy in the immediate postwar decades—the decades that set the stage for the emergence of the much-ballyhooed “Sunbelt”—the most important of the ten bullets above in my view are the first three and the last three. That is to say, the most powerful forces making for southern “convergence” in postwar decades were related to the massive shrinkage of the region’s backward agricultural sector, the flight of large quantities of poor, unskilled black and white workers from the region, and the emplacement of many of the remaining unskilled, former farmers into rudimentary manufacturing. In a sense, what happened in the South between World War II and the early 1970s was an extremely attenuated analogue to what has happened in China between about 1978 and today. Of course, the changes in the South, indeed, the population shifts in the US as a whole resulting from the rearrangement of southern agriculture in the postwar period, pale by comparison to the changes that have occurred in the PRC. What Americans endlessly trumpet as the “Great Migration” seems quite modest in world-historical context—small beer, as it were—akin in some ways to what the late, great, southern historian Eugene Genovese might have called “a pimple on the ass of world capitalism.” No more, no less.
Whereas the farm population of the South fell from about 16.4 million to just over 4 million between 1940 and 1970 and the region experienced a net loss of well over 2 million people via outmigration during the same period, in China between 1978 and 2016 over 500 million people left the peasant sector, and the urban population of the country grew by over 600 million, rising from about 18 percent in 1978 to over 56 percent in 2016. Going from roughly 20 percent urban to 56 percent urban—figures similar to the proportional shift China experienced between 1978 and 2016—took seventy years in the US, i.e., from 1860 to 1930. In other words, almost twice as long as the process took in the People’s Republic of China. And the numbers involved in the US were far smaller. The total population in the US was 31.4 million in 1860 and 123.2 million in 1930. The urban population in the US in 1860 was a little over 6 million; seventy years later, about 69 million people lived in cities and towns. Thus, the US had seventy years to accommodate growth of 63 million in urban population. A tough task, to be sure, but not nearly so tough as coping with an increase of 603 million in urban population in just under half the amount of time.
Many of the former peasants in China found employment, of course, in urban “sweat shops” in coastal cities, particularly in the region known as the Pearl River Delta, often, particularly for the first 25 or 30 years of this period, working for what we would consider abysmal wages in rudimentary processing and light-assembly activities. As horrible as these jobs seem to us, and as inefficient as the plants actually were, by increasing the capital/labor ratio and linking into larger markets, Chinese efficiency grew, just as it did in the South, which speaks legions about the state of southern agriculture prior to its reorganization and, alas, about the state of the southern economy as a whole.
To be sure, the other drivers and indicators mentioned above also made a difference, as did others not mentioned. Such drivers and indicators ranged from the efforts to promote development by various politicians, government agencies, and business leaders—business progressives, conservative modernizers, progressive plutocrats, call them what you will—to strong commitments at improving efficiency by industry groups/networks (those in the paper, pulp, and forest products industries were exemplars in this regard, as William P. Boyd has pointed out), and from export-promotion schemes to the advent and subsequent spread of air-conditioning during the period. But putting poor, uneducated former row-crop farmers into rural poultry-processing facilities, cut-and-sew operations, and apparel-finishing plants—whether home grown or imported—mattered more.
Thus, the rise of the “Sunbelt”—or at least the southern portions thereof—is a lot less glamorous than the much-celebrated development is often depicted to be, with dreary aluminum-sided rural sweatshops, slaughter houses, and rendering plants, at least until the mid-1970s or so, trumping in economic importance the region’s portfolio of mediocre colleges and universities, and its glitzy downtown/uptown bank towers, tacky atria hotels, suburban office parks, and slow-developing exurban “research campuses.”
Moreover, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the share of defense spending claimed by the South began to meet the region’s share of US population, and, later, when the South began to claim more than its proportionate share of the same—what with the rise of the “Gunbelt” and all that—the region’s share was comprised mainly of payroll earnings at low-wage bases in desolate parts of the South where land was dirt cheap rather than in the form of prime procurement contracts. And, as David L. Carlton has pointed out, most of the prime contracts the region did procure were concentrated in single firms—Ingalls Shipbuilding (now Huntington Ingalls) in Pascagoula, Mississippi, or Lockheed Georgia (now Lockheed Martin) outside Atlanta, for example—prone to boom/bust cycles, or located either on the periphery of the region (Dallas-Fort Worth, northeast Virginia (“Nova”), or in “not-very-southern” parts of the region, in areas like central Florida, or in regional outliers such as Huntsville in northern Alabama.
The quintessential southern defense “industry” in the Sunbelt era, it seems, was not something like Lockheed Georgia or Bell Helicopter just outside Atlanta, however, but something more akin to Fort Bragg or Fort Benning or Camp Lejeune, military-training bases in impoverished, god-forsaken parts of the South, which nonetheless proved attractive to the military because of political pressure, cheap land, and low wages. Or the type of small, low-skill assembly plants defense contractor Hughes—attracted to the South by low wages, lack of unionization, and the region’s favorable “business climate”—established as late as the early 1980s, facilities that Hughes managers themselves, according to economist Ann Markusen, referred to as “slave manufacturing plants.”
If the Sunbelt’s early path was deeply rutted—and, as the Hughes case mentioned above suggests, remained so even during the Sunbelt’s heyday—the region’s prospects on balance did in fact brighten in the ’70s. Population growth, rising per capita income, and the increased rate of urbanization helped boost the South’s regional economy, creating robust demand for housing, schools, and infrastructure, as well as for consumption goods for the region’s expanding middle class. The last consideration—the expanding middle class—was, of course, aided as well by the large inflow of middle-class émigrés from the Rustbelt, who moved south with their companies, or to pursue new opportunities in southern firms, or to retire in cheaper areas with sunnier climes. Indeed, one shouldn’t minimize the role of such in-migration and of the South’s larger population “swap” with the North during the postwar boom—with the South losing large numbers of its poor and uneducated and gaining in return large numbers of better educated migrants with middle-class incomes from the North—in explaining the Sunbelt/Rustbelt phenomenon.
With this in mind, one of the key issues in economic development bestirs itself: is development about places or people? Beaufort County, S.C., extremely poor even in 1980 is now one of the wealthiest counties in South Carolina, largely because rich people moved in and poor people were pushed out. Chicago and Detroit became magnets for poor migrants from the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas, while the South became a magnet not only for runaway shops but for corporate headquarters of prestigious northern firms such as the Royal Insurance Company (1986), Exxon (1989), UPS (1994). Equal or unequal exchange? It depends on positionality—what you need, what you want, and who you are.
In any case, in the early to-mid ’80s—just as the Sunbelt boom was gaining greater purchase both in metro areas and in the popular imagination—a few prescient observers of the region began to call attention to disturbing data that at once captured and reflected the Sunbelt’s limitations. To be sure, banks in places such as Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham were booming, petrochemicals were bringing smiles to people’s faces in the Old Southwest, northern Virginia (“occupied” Virginia) was fusing into the Northeast corridor, and research and development in places such as Austin, Texas, (firms such as Tracor, IBM, and Texas Instruments were already there in the 1950s and 1960s) and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina were flying high. But at the same time, the original drivers of the boom—low-value-added processing and light assembly operations in increasingly overlooked if not forgotten parts of the rural/nonmetropolitan “Sunbelt South— were not merely showing their age, but in some cases beginning to tap out. Two important studies, both published in 1986, illustrate this point: Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go: The Report of the 1986 Commission on the Future of the South, produced under the auspices of the Southern Governors’ Association’s Southern Growth Policies Board, and Shadows in the Sunbelt: Developing the Rural South in an Era of Economic Change, prepared by MDC, the North Carolina–based economic development NGO.
Although these studies differed in particulars, they both stressed the lingering economic problems and social ills plaguing the rural/non-metropolitan South even after its greatest period of sustained advances in a hundred years. The problems so identified, alas, have become more serious still in the thirty-odd years since the studies appeared: job losses, plant closings, income stagnation, poor showings on a large number of health and social indicators, depopulation in many rural/non-metro counties, failing schools, troubling levels of family breakdown/dissolution, crime, and drug/alcohol abuse. Oxycontin, anyone? Moreover, similar problems plague both inner-city parts of the urban South—with Charlotte, North Carolina, wherein recent studies have found absurdly small chances of upward mobility for poor residents, being exhibit A—and, increasingly, older suburbs surrounding the “boom towns” of the Sunbelt South. Complicating explanation of such developments are important data assembled by Gavin Wright that demonstrate in the aggregate both black and white populations in the South experienced real economic gains in the wake of the region’s revolution in civil rights, a period essentially coterminous with the rise and growth of the Sunbelt. What gives? How do we reconcile the above observations?
Well, what we have increasingly seen in the South is a divide—or, more accurately, several divides—in the economic experience of the region and its inhabitants. For example, the Sunbelt, we now know, has its own Rustbelt, forlorn areas, often well off of the interstates, where the economy based on rendering poor, unskilled former farmers into somewhat less poor, unskilled factory workers has largely collapsed, and where the best economic development strategy for many in such areas is a ham sandwich and a one-way bus ticket out. Such areas were recently detailed in Paul Theroux’s revealing travel account Deep South.
The Sunbelt’s inner-city populations often face severe challenges as well, although because of greater proximity to and connectivity with advanced economic sectors—high tech, banking/FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), pharma, higher education, oil services, and the like—they at least can hope of snatching low-level, service-sector jobs. To be sure, even in our parlous times, similar low-level job opportunities are still available in the public sector—both in the metro and rural/non-metro South—but somehow serving as a nurse’s aide at a VA hospital, a security guard at a county courthouse, a dishwasher at a government cafeteria, a file clerk at the DMV, a school bus driver, or a crossing guard doesn’t create the frissons of excitement commonly associated with the idea of the Sunbelt South. And there are other divides as well, between the formal and informal sectors, between the job categories staffed largely by immigrant workers—agricultural labor, poultry processing, landscaping, painting, construction, restaurant help—and the broader job categories wherein nonimmigrants are involved. All of these divides have complex, tangled roots—in class, race, education, geography, legal status, and, alas, history.
Ever since the shadows in the Sunbelt began to receive attention in the mid-1980s, those doing the observing have searched for culprits, even bogeymen to explain the same. Among the most prominent and consistent of the purported malefactors has been “globalization,” often cloaked in one of a number of guises—Mexico, NAFTA, China, the WTO, the TTP, etc.—but always implying a great sucking sound vacuuming southern jobs away. How else so conveniently to explain why the economic progress of the Sunbelt South began to stall? How the convergence of the region upon national norms in terms of per capita income—from 73 percent in 1950 to 85 percent by 1973 and over 90 percent by the early 1990s—had stopped converging at that time and essentially flat-lined in the quarter century ever since?
Globalization was one factor involved, of course, but in complicated ways, with its role varying during different sub-periods during the period since the 1980s. First, the complications. Globalization is difficult to define even if we focus only on its economic dimensions. For starters, most students of globalization believe that it has quantitative and qualitative features, with some emphasizing the former and others the latter. In a narrow, quantitative sense, economic globalization can be said to be occurring when the rates of growth of transnational economic flows of one type or another—trade, capital, population, etc.—exceed those of global output, capital, population, etc., over a sustained period of time. According to this view, if global trade in goods and/or services grows by 5 percent and global output of goods/services grows by 3 percent over a decade or two, globalization (at least in terms of trade) can be said to be occurring.
Those that prefer qualitative criteria generally emphasize in one way or another increasing transnational economic connectivity, with a panoply of opportunities, problems, pressures, and challenges related thereto. Obviously, “increasing” is relative and can be used with reference to any period of time—one reason some scholars see globalization in embryonic form beginning thousands of years ago and ebbing and flowing over subsequent millennia. In its most recent phase, beginning after the Second World War and gathering momentum in the 1980s, the “global” economy’s increasing interdependence, scale, scope, and simultaneity is emphasized. Social theorist Manuel Castells defines the present-day global economy as one “that works as a unit in real time on a planetary basis.” Such an economy, not surprisingly, brings about new competitive pressures, constraints, and opportunities, and journalists such as Thomas Friedman have gotten rich telling us so.
Employing either of the above approaches—or combining the two—we find the South, the nation, and the world profoundly affected by the globalizing phase in history that began in 1945, and that has increased in intensity as a result of profound improvements in technology—particularly transportation and communications technology—from the 1980s until relatively recently—at least until the Great Recession. The South was affected in many ways, negatively and positively, by the changes that occurred during this phase of globalization, but some context is needed before we can fully appreciate how and why.
By most standards the “South” was born global and was arguably the most economically global part of British North America during the colonial period and of the US until the Civil War. This is so whether we base our argument on population, capital, or trade flows. Regarding the last: the South’s agricultural exports totally dominated US exports during the antebellum period, with three southern agricultural staples alone—cotton, rice, and tobacco—constituting fully 55 percent of the total value of US goods exported during the entire period between 1815 and 1860. Even in the decades after the Civil War, when the region’s economy went south, as it were, when immigrants stopped calling, and the southern economy was characterized by a labor market largely isolated from that of the rest of the US, the region remained very much part of the world economy, with its agricultural exports retaining a prominent place in the US trade mix, and southern political leaders generally bullish on economic engagement with the rest of the world, particularly if such engagement were limited mainly to exports of southern goods (mostly primary) and imports of capital, whether in the form of direct or portfolio investment.
The problem with economic engagement of this sort—not only when transnational but even when interregional—was that the South’s role in both the world economy and the US economy was essentially that of a producer/supplier of raw materials, agricultural commodities, and low-quality, low-value-added manufactures and of an importer/consumer of higher-quality, higher value-added goods, physical and financial capital, commercial services, and basically everything else. As a result, many southerners and many scholars studying the South, have often interpreted said relationship as dependent and exploitative in nature, and ipso facto characterized the southern economy as “colonial.” Such a depiction, however understandable, is only partially accurate, as David Carlton and Gavin Wright among others have pointed out. Many of the problems attributed to colonialism were structural in nature, internally conceived, and related to the path (white) southerners blazed early on. Said path may have been facilitated and supported by outside forces/powers, but not initiated without.
In addition, the fact that an economy is relatively rudimentary, even dependent, does not necessarily mean that more sophisticated economies with which it engages are “exploiting” it, certainly not intentionally so. Economies structured like the South during the long twentieth century—that is to say, economies dominated by agricultural commodities, raw materials, low-value-added manufactures, mature industries, etc.—are prone to commodity cycles and intense price competition. To the extent that technological portability, transportation and communications allow, one would expect to find market churning, footloose companies, and great sucking sounds echoing through the landscape, especially without much in the way of governmental interference, much less interdiction. And technology, transportation, and communication has certainly allowed in recent decades. Indeed, to employ an analogy first associated with Ann Markusen, the southern economy, especially since the 1980s, has had few “sticky places” in very “slippery space,” and as a good portion of the region’s large stock of uncompetitive firms shrunk, folded, or slipped away, a variety of politicians, celebrity and otherwise, have not only called attention to, but also tried for electoral advantage to exploit, often cynically, the “evils” of globalization.
The problem, however, is that by making a bogeyman of globalization, and, thereby, viewing the region’s problems as primarily “foreign,” extrinsic, and nonessential, southerners—cynical pols and displaced, often blindsided workers alike—often were missing the boat, for the region’s plight cannot be attributed only or even primarily to the “G word.” Indeed, a compelling, not merely plausible case can be made that at least before China’s admission into the WTO in December 2001, factors other than “globalization” exerted more powerful influences on the (mis)fortunes of many southern companies/industries. This is in no way to minimize the (often enduring) pain that many southerners have felt because of the widespread loss of manufacturing jobs. After all, I live in a state, North Carolina, wherein industrial employment dropped by 44 percent between 2000 and 2010, with job losses particularly steep in textiles and furniture, long-time bellwether industries. Similarly, I take the point recently made—strikingly—both by MIT’s David Autor and his collaborators and by David L. Carlton and myself that industries concentrated in many parts of the rural and small-town South (including in North Carolina) have been particularly vulnerable to global competition in recent decades, particularly from China. Who doesn’t know this after the 2016 presidential election? My point, though, is that many industries in the South are in trouble and many jobs in the region are being lost for reasons unrelated or only marginally related to “unfair” trade, purported currency manipulation, ostensibly poor deal-making on the part of the US, and insufficiently calibrated globalization.
Like the proverbial mosquito at the nudist colony, where do we begin? One place would be with technological change, which cut the need for workers both in the region’s unskilled industries—textiles and apparel, furniture, poultry processing, paper and pulp—and in its skilled industries significantly and sometimes drastically. Regarding the latter: in 2011 Siemans AG, the huge, ahem, German engineering firm opened a very large facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it would produce gigantic, high-tech, high-valued-added gas turbines needed for electric power generation all over the world. Once open, the new facility employed 825 workers. Twenty-five or thirty years ago a plant of the size, scale, and capacity of this one would have employed as many as five thousand. This type of scenario has played out all across the US, including the South, in recent decades, as the country’s manufacturing labor force has shrunk in both relative and absolute terms, even as manufacturing output has risen (in constant dollars) to its highest levels in history.
Then there are various and sundry mismatches, whether between the job skills needed and the available workforce in given areas, or between the locations of openings and the places where people needing jobs live. Moreover, Department of Labor folk throughout the region complain of the difficulty of finding applicants for low-level jobs who can meet even minimal criteria such as hold a GED, and pass a drug test and a criminal-background test. The above problems exist throughout the South, but are perhaps most serious in the old Piedmont manufacturing belt, in impoverished former plantation-belt areas ranging from southside Virginia to the Arkansas Delta, and in the equally forlorn extended Appalachian zone stretching from western Virginia to northeast Alabama. Areas, that is to say, where the aforementioned David Autor and colleagues have recently found populations responding most vigorously to anti-globalization appeals.
Underlying all of the above problems in my view is the South’s history, which judgment should surprise few readers by now. What the South is today is closely related to—or to more deterministic types, largely a function of—what its often grim, even tragic history has allowed. And the pessimist in me suggests that the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 and its aftershocks will, if anything, exacerbate the region’s historical problems. How? By increasing social, economic, health, and geographical inequalities and disparities, and, in so doing, rendering many already weak and sick rural areas (as well as numerous inner-city census tracks) into dead zones for lack of economic oxygen. Hard for me to believe otherwise, much as I try.
My emphasis up until this point—surprise, surprise—has mainly been on the ways in which the South’s history has impeded development and broad-based prosperity in the region. Lest I be accused of stacking the deck, though, let me at least partially offset my critique with some praise, however faint.
Over the course of the past half-century or so—the most recent third of the long twentieth century—the South, to employ bullets once again, has:
- Grown substantially in total population and in its relative share of the total population of the US. In 1960 the South (again, the eleven states of Odum’s “Southeast” plus Texas and West Virginia), with a population of about 48.4 million, comprised about 27 percent of the US total. As of July 1, 2019 the population of these same thirteen states was around 114 million, comprising almost 35 percent of the US total. One little sidebar here: the population in the chronically depressed state of West Virginia in 2019 was 68,000 fewer than in 1960. Sunbelt West Virginia? Not so much.
- The population of the South has continued to become more urban/suburban, as a result of push/pull factors in the region: the lack of opportunities in the rural/non-metropolitan South pushes people out, while relatively greater opportunities in metropolitan areas pull people in. Interestingly, if we include Washington, DC, in the “South”—as does the US Census, in its extensive and misleadingly configured “South Atlantic” region—the South, as of 2018, is home to five of the nine largest metropolitan complexes in the US, to wit: Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, fourth, with a population of 7.5 million; Houston-the Woodlands-Sugarland, fifth, 7 million; Washington, DC-Arlington-Alexandria, sixth, 6.25 million; Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, seventh, 6.2 million; Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, ninth, 5.95 million. As a result, in order to capture a sense of the evolution of the South, we need to supplement Faulkner, as it were, with a little Frederick Barthelme or perhaps J. Bradford Hipps, chroniclers of the alienating new landscape of the suburban/exurban South.
- The region is becoming more polychromatic in terms of race and ethnicity. Often viewed—for good reason—in black and white, as it were, at the beginning of the long twentieth century, the area today is harking back to its roots, when the region’s racial and ethnic mixes were more complex and diverse. In recent decades, the relative importance of Hispanic and Asian populations in the regional population mix has increased substantially, particularly in the case of Hispanics. In 2015 about 18 percent of the US population was Hispanic, with the Asian population comprising another 6 percent. The South, for the most part, came in below these averages, although in 2015 the Hispanic proportions of the populations in the two largest southern states, Texas and Florida, were much higher than was the proportion for the US as a whole, with fully 37 percent of Texans classified as Hispanic and 26 percent of Floridians. In 2015 the Hispanic proportions of the populations in two other large southern states, North Carolina and Georgia, were also quite substantial—11 percent in NC and 10 percent in Georgia. By 2018, with the Hispanic population in the US as a whole a little over 18 percent, the Hispanic proportion of the South’s population had grown to about 16.6 percent, converging considerably upon the national average. The Asian proportion of the population in the South is growing rapidly as well—up to 3.2 percent by 2018. That said, this percentage figure is still far below the national average, and the percentage figure for Hispanics in the South. By 2018, however, the Asian proportion of the population in one southern state, Virginia at 6.3 percent—slightly exceeded the national average (about 6 percent). Stay tuned, then, because Hispanic and Asian proportions will continue to grow, as, in a number of states, will the proportion of Africans in the black component of the region’s population.
- The South over the past fifty years has invested substantial sums in education at all levels and has seen improvements in educational attainment and achievement. In particular, most states deserve credit for building relatively strong, practically oriented community college systems and a large number of reasonable and credible options in higher education. As a result, many southern workers have become more “job ready” and the “brain drain” of college-age talent from the region has slowed down considerably.
- A considerable proportion of the African American population in the South has registered significant gains, absolute and relative, in income, and made impressive strides in education, housing options, job possibilities, etc., largely as a result of the civil rights revolution, as Gavin Wright among others has pointed out.
- With all these increases in relative terms—in per capita income, population, urban population, in racial and ethnic diversity, and in education—the South in cultural terms hardly resembles the region that Mencken famously referred to as in 1917 as the “Sahara of the Bozart.” Even today no place in the South possesses, supports, and sustains the kind of rich, diverse, and sophisticated cultural life we associated with the great cities in the North and West, but, here again, progress has been made. No longer the Sahara of the Bozart, then, but still semiarid in many places, temperate in a few.
The bulleted points made above could not have come about, much less been sustained, without some solid and at times inspired public policy. In contrast to the malfunctioning political order in which we live today, most scholars and journalists working on the South would likely agree that over the past fifty or sixty years southern states on balance benefitted from a diverse, but generally reasonable and reasonably successful portfolio of policies and programs in the “economic development” space. Few would give the policy responses, the programs, or the policy makers grades of “ten,” of course, and there would obviously be sharply divided opinion regarding the efficacy of industrial subsidies, “buffalo-hunting,” and the like. But most reasonable and reasonably objective “experts” would likely see the moderate, fiscally prudent, stability-seeking, consensus-oriented approaches to development, particularly via investment in infrastructure, education, and other forms of social overhead capital—however slow, piecemeal, and limited—as being much better than nothing, and better even than some things that also might have been considered and tried. If most policies and programs, especially in recent decades, seemed too narrow in scope, too pro-business, too concerned with maintaining a “good” (low-tax, low-wage) business climate, the fact remained that from the 1940s until the early 1990s the region, while desegregating, was at least catching up. Okay—fine then.
To those critics and even those sympathizers who expected more, a word or two regarding history. The long twentieth century is indeed long—and in my view this “conjuncture” is not done yet, but it is not sufficiently long to have undone the past. By the time the “century” began after the Civil War, the southern economy was, if not fixed, at least deeply rutted in the path it had been goaded along for two centuries before.
And there have been more pricks than kicks ever since, pushing much of the South down a path more or less resembling the traditional path right down to the present day. The fact that the region is still the poorest, the unhealthiest, and the least educated in the United States, a half century or more after the beginning of the “Sunbelt boom” says a lot about the difficulty of extricating a region once it is headed down a pernicious economic path. There are no magic policy bullets, but rather policy nostrums that may be of some utility, but won’t change the world overnight or even over the course of a long century. Unlike, Nietzsche, though, who once wrote that hope “is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torment,” I retain in the case of the southern economy a margin of hope, however slim.
We began with Beckett, and so shall we end. This time, however, with Endgame, which in my view offers something to those that would understand the South’s economic course. In the 1958 play, readers may recall that the invalid Hamm repeatedly asks his caretaker Clov if it is time for his painkiller. Clov repeatedly answers no—it is not time yet. Finally, after one more plaintive interrogative by Hamm—“Is it not time for my pain-killer?”—Clov answers, “Yes.” Then the following sequence:
“Hamm: Ah! At last! Give it to me! Quick!
Clov: There’s no more pain-killer.
Hamm (appalled) Good . . . ! (Pause.) No more pain-killer!
Clov: No more pain-killer. You’ll never get any more pain-killer.
Hamm: But the little round box. It was full!
Clov: Yes. But now it’s empty.
Regarding the South today: it’s time to face the facts, however much they hurt. No more pain-killer. The little round box is empty or nearly so. Carry on.