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The American Work Ethic Heads South

Steven Malanga is certainly right about this change in our culture:

The breakup of this 300-year-old consensus on the work ethic began with the cultural protests of the 1960s, which questioned and discarded many traditional American virtues. The roots of this breakup lay in what Daniel Bell described in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism as the rejection of traditional bourgeois qualities by late-nineteenth-century European artists and intellectuals who sought “to substitute for religion or morality an aesthetic justification of life.” By the 1960s, that modernist tendency had evolved into a credo of self-fulfillment in which “nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored,” Bell wrote. Out went the Protestant ethic’s prudence, thrift, temperance, self-discipline, and deferral of gratification.

Weakened along with all these virtues that made up the American work ethic was Americans’ belief in the value of work itself. Along with “turning on” and “tuning in,” the sixties protesters also “dropped out.” As the editor of the 1973 American Work Ethic noted, “affluence, hedonism and radicalism” were turning many Americans away from work and the pursuit of career advancement, resulting in a sharp slowdown in U.S. productivity from 1965 through 1970. So great a transformation of values was occurring that, as George Bloom of MIT’s Sloan School of Management wrote in a 1971 essay on America’s declining work ethic, “It is unfortunate but true that ‘progress’ is becoming a bad word in virtually all sectors of society.”

But earlier in the article he noted this:

The work ethic also distinguished the northern colonies from the southern, and later helped the North win the Civil War. Many southern settlers came in search not of religious freedom but only of economic opportunity. Instead of founding villages or towns with a common civic life, southern settlers developed isolated, widely separated plantations. They cultivated a few staple crops using slave labor, instead of developing a diversified economy. They created a society where a relatively few plantation owners acted like an aristocracy. Rather than viewing all honest work as honorable, they developed what historian C. Vann Woodward calls the “Southern ethic,” which saw some work as fit only for slaves. In the end, these attitudes proved the South’s greatest vulnerability, as the North, shaped by the work ethic, brought to bear its industrial might against the narrow economy of the South, built precariously on tobacco and slave labor and a Cavalier rather than a Puritan ethic.

There’s a connection between the two.

It’s interesting to note that the 1960’s and 1970’s were the era of the ascendency of the “Sun Belt,” that great Chamber of Commerce euphemism for the Old Confederacy.  Those who came south found out several interesting things.

  • The most “Protestant” section of the country didn’t have the “Protestant work ethic” to go with it.
  • The most “American” and patriotic (in some ways) part of the country didn’t have an American work ethic to go with it either.
  • The escapist culture of the 1970’s and the post-bellum escapism of the South went together hand and glove.
  • The strict surface of Southern culture–eroded by the legal changes shoved down its throat by the liberal judicial system–was there to counteract a libertine backroom, which manifests itself in a high divorce rate and other social woes.

One thing I don’t agree with Malanga on is his idea that southern settlers didn’t come in search of religious freedom.  That’s not true; religious dissenters were very strong amongst the Scotch-Irish, and contributed to the disestablishment of the Anglican church (the Southern way of separating church and state) after the Revolutionary War.  The Scotch-Irish, burned by the enclosures back home, were also very strong on personal property rights.  The work ethic of Americans has been connected with both, but in the context of Scotch-Irish culture the intention of both was to increase personal autonomy and thus lessen the need to work.

The Scotch-Irish were the strongest (if unintentional) exponents of distributism, that darling “three acres and a cow” (Southerners would think in terms of “40 acres and a mule”) philosophy that Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton were so enamoured by.  Their disciple, J.R.R. Tolkien, would embody this in the Shire, and it’s not an accident that he drew on the experiences of an Oxford friend from Kentucky for The Lord of the Rings.  But alas the biggest enemy of this is the Scotch-Irish (and now American) addiction to credit, something that Tolkien wisely left out of the Shire.  (Sauron should have set up a bank…)

In any case, the influence of the Scotch-Irish in eroding the “Protestant work ethic” in the U.S.–especially on the Right–cannot be underestimated.


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