Blogs > Cliopatria > David L. Carlton--By Way of Introduction

May 4, 2011

David L. Carlton--By Way of Introduction

For my initial (much delayed, but better late than never) posting to Cliopatria, I thought I’d introduce myself both by saying something about what I’m currently up to and making some observations about the connections (or disconnections) between history and public policy. Normally I teach at Vanderbilt and live happily ensconced in Nashville, but a year ago I received an invitation to spend this academic year at a newly established Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I have for a long time (too long–mortality knocks) been at work on a project with the working title “Strategies of Southern Development: The Case of North Carolina.” Its origins were rooted in a specifically historical concern: my discontent with the so-called “Prussian Road” school of the New South, which argued, among other things, that the industrialization of the South was sponsored by a ruling elite rooted in the antebellum planter class, and that its tight control of the process explained the “separate path” the region took to the modern world. While I certainly believed that there was a distinctive southern style to the region’s post-Civil War economic development, I had long concluded that in fact the elites that drove southern industrialization were in almost all respects similar to their counterparts in business elsewhere in the US. If the manner in which they’ve developed the region was distinctive, I reasoned, the reason lay not in their class power but in their peculiar situation as business people. As late-comers to industrialization, hampered by the structural disabilities bequeathed by the slave plantation regime, lacking human capital and institutional depth, and facing crippling competition with one of the most sophisticated industrial regions on earth, they were largely forced into a reactive, adaptive strategy rather than a creative one. Instead of creating new industries and new technologies, they adopted old industries and borrowed technologies. Rather than compete on innovation and quality, they concentrated on competing on cost alone, identifying industries with low skill requirements, and turning the poverty of the southern people, white and black, into a cheap-labor advantage. Rather than create new markets for new goods, they thrived by stealing market-share in established markets. Explaining southern business history in business terms, I thought, was far more logically parsimonious, and thus more satisfying, than talking about planter persistence.

Over time, though, I found myself less interested in the historical issue, and increasingly interested in what I saw as its public-policy implications. For any close observer of the contemporary South will tell you that much of it is hurting, and hurting badly. De-industrialization has hit the region hard, especially in the small-town and rural precincts where so many still cling to their traditional worlds of family and community. The massive employment shift out of agriculture between the 1930s and the 1970s was largely balanced out (along with out-migration) with a massive influx of “footloose industry”–what Philip Scranton and Douglas Flamming have termed the “second wave” of southern industrialization. During that wave, large swaths of the rural South became as heavily dependent on factory jobs as any state in Smokestack America. For the past twenty years, however, that wave has been receding dramatically. In the Piedmont, massive industrial monuments such as Cannon Mills and Dan River Mills have become immense vacant lots, leaving aching holes in their communities. More quietly, jobs to which people devoted lifetimes have evaporated, with little prospect of replacing them. North Carolinians are well aware of this crisis, and indeed the first theme of the GRI (and the reason they invited me here) is framed as “Globalization, the Economic Crisis, and the Future of North Carolina.”

So I’ve been spending the year hobnobbing with public-policy types, and enjoying it greatly. But in so doing, I’ve found myself confronting people with a very different mind-set from my own. Whether it grows out of my historical work or out of my native Calvinist pessimism, I have always been most struck by the constraints under which historical actors operate. Far from being replete with the power to shape their society, the “agency” of the businessmen and communities I’ve studied have persistently faced the problem of playing bad hands the best they could. This grim determinism carries over to my observation of the present-day devastation I see in my travels around the region; I see little room for agency in responding to the present situation. While some public-policy people (especially economists) share that pessimism, or go it one better, most insist on the ability of people of good will (usually in the public sector) to solve these problems. After all, not all of North Carolina is hurting: the Research Triangle, one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, is doing quite well, thank you, and the setbacks of its banking sector may simply be a hiccup in Charlotte’s inexorable rise. The future, the argument goes, is there, in clusters of creative-class entrepreneurs nurtured by intelligent industrial policy. Even the so-called “traditional industries” can survive by exploiting niches carved out by long experience and proximity to customers. The South can still have an industrial future; all it needs is the application of intelligence and a willingness to change. To this the pessimist in me replies, well, yes. But, however great creative-class clustering is for the Carys and Northern Virginias, it’s hardly the way out for the Spindale, North Carolinas or the Dresden, Tennessees. In fact, this sort of internal economic polarization is introducing a new inequality into the region, one that separates those ready to embrace the new world of knowledge-based products and rapid product cycles from those who just want steady jobs to support their families and communities. To me, the history still matters: to drag out that dreaded southern-studies cliché, the past not only isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Or is that all the history can teach us? Is it my inner Calvinist strangling my imagination? That’s what I’m wrestling with right now. It’s odd fare for Cliopatria, but as a veteran reader, all its fare is odd. I hope this is a good opening course.

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