Blogs > Cliopatria > Revealing the Hidden Transcript

Feb 19, 2010 12:19 am

Revealing the Hidden Transcript

States extract. Subjects regulate state extraction by their choices to resist or participate, flee or stand in place, fight or accommodate.

In Texas today, a software engineer named Joe Stack crashed an airplane into a building occupied by employees whose function is to extract revenue for the central state.

How can historians discuss this event?

In a public suicide letter, Stack's language seems deeply familiar, the grievance of tax rebels for hundreds of years in places all over the world. His argument is that state elites overreached, pushing their extractive mechanism too far into the life of an ordinary person and costing him his ability to subsist.

He even expresses the precise theme identified by James Scott as the center of the moral economy of the peasant: food security.

"In retrospect," he wrote in his suicide letter, describing his struggles to start a business while working through a punitive set of tax penalties,"the situation was laughable because here I was living on peanut butter and bread (or Ritz crackers when I could afford to splurge) for months at a time."

While he faced severe and persistent personal uncertainty, Stack added, state elites extracted resources from people like him for the clear purpose of redirecting those resources to the use of other elites:

"Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours?"

This moment doesn't seem like an aberration; it seems like the public expression of a private conversation among a broad class of angry subjects.

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Chris Bray - 2/19/2010

What does United States history look like to historians writing 500 years from now? Political historians on the U.S. focus on the fine grain of Anglo-American ideology, the roots of our constitutional republicanism, the development of particular government systems, and so on.

It seems to me that from a distance, the United States will look like an ordinary state that sought to dominate and extract from a subject population under a covering language about personal rights and administrative restraint. Massive state interventions to protect the private wealth of powerful state clients, an absurd debt spiral, and an empire that can't retract even when its limits are long past becoming clear -- how special is this place, after all?