Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America

The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America was published back in 2004. I've only just now started to read it; so far it has been very impressive (the author is Eric Kaufmann, a politics professor in London).

Kaufmann provides much evidence that the American elites, for most of America's history, had what he calls a "double-consciousness." On the one hand, they had an ethnic consciousness of themselves as Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand they were committed to a liberal view which led to universalist ideas and to open borders. The two commitments contradicted each other, but nonetheless were held in tandem.

The first chapter of the book deals with Anglo-Saxons as the dominant ethnic group in the U.S. Kaufmann notes that on the eve of the American Revolution the white population was over 60 per cent English and nearly 80 per cent British. There was a commonly held belief at the time that the liberal political principles held by the Americans had their genesis in the Anglo-Saxon past; the ethnic and the liberal political became bound together.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, said after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that Americans were,
the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honour of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed

Jefferson helped to inaugurate the study of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Virginia in the early 1800s. He also said:
Has not every restitution of the antient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century?

But Jefferson had a universalistic view of rights which led him to support open borders. He wanted America to be a "sanctuary" for those seeking "participation in the rights of self-government". He wanted open borders despite his belief that migration might lead America to become "a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted, mass".

Kaufmann writes of "how Anglo-American thinkers expressed the latent tensions between their dominant ethnicity and their commitment to liberal-egalitarian principles".

Kaufmann sees this Anglo-Saxonism as being "optimistic" up to the late 1800s. What he means is that those thinking of themselves as a dominant Anglo-Saxon ethny were optimistic that they were assimilating all others to themselves. For instance, in 1887 Samuel Harris, the Episcopal bishop of Michigan, said:
The consistency of divine purpose in establishing our evangelical civilization here is signally illustrated by the fact that it was primarily confided to the keeping of the Anglo-Saxon race...Refusing to depart from its own type, it has compelled other people to conform to that type and constrained them to accept its institutions, to speak its language, to obey its laws.

He is saying that it was given, as part of divine destiny, to the Anglo-Saxon race to establish an evangelical civilization in America and that this race had made others assimilate to it.

Kaufmann seeks to explain at the end of the third chapter how people could live with contradictory beliefs, i.e. how Anglo-Americans could see America as "an Anglo-Saxon country which ought to defend its ethnic boundaries" and at the same time hold to "the universalist idea of the United States as a refuge for the world's oppressed and a composite melting pot".

Kaufmann claims, first, that there was a "general absence of reflexivity" in much nineteenth century social thought. Second, he notes that laws of heredity were understood less scientifically in the 1800s, which meant that people believed that culture could change a person's race. It was thought possible that if people joined an Anglo-Saxon culture, then over time they would start to develop the physical, racial characteristics of Anglo-Saxons as well.

It seems to me that the Anglo-Americans had put themselves in a fix. They had made liberalism part of what defined their ethnicity. Therefore, they were in a losing position. Asserting their ethnicity meant advocating a set of political values which would, in the long run, fatally undermine their ethnicity.

The answer was to see the liberalism for the dissolving agent that it was. But it you have staked so much and built a sense of your destiny and identity on adherence to liberalism, that was no doubt a difficult thing to do. That's particularly the case when, early on, the non-Anglo-Saxon populations were closely related groups like the Germans and Swedes, who could be assimilated over time, and when America was rapidly growing and gaining in status, so that the idea of a manifest destiny seemed to be playing out.


  1. In 1776 Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution wasn't drafted until 1787. Don't worry, though, there are many allegedly educated Americans who can't keep these two documents straight. I think Kaufmann may be projecting the Jewish "melting pot" idea into the past. Benjamin Franklin doubted whether it would be possible to assimilate Germans, and almost everyone doubted whether it would be possible to assimilate the Irish. Most of the Founding Fathers were Liberals in their political philosophy, but their anthropology was what a modern Liberal would call racist.

    1. Yes, Kaufmann seems to have confused the two documents and it wasn't picked up by his editors. However, I don't think you're right about Kaufmann projecting the 'melting pot' idea into the past (he includes the Benjamin Franklin quote). I suspect that most Americans reading Kaufmann's book will be more surprised by the strength of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic identity held by many American political and cultural figures up into the 1800s. Kaufmann believes, though, that this identity was flawed as it illogically contained a contradictory universal liberal element. Therefore, the Anglo-Saxons wanted others to assimilate to their own dominant ethnicity, and had a very positive view of their own character and destiny as Anglo-Saxons, but they held to the idea of universal rights and so did not look to closing the borders to protect their own existence, preferring instead to continue to believe that others would be remade in their own image (a "melting pot" suggests that everyone dissolves in the mix - Kaufmann believes that the Anglo-Saxon cultural leaders wanted everyone to be remade along Anglo-Saxon lines).

    2. (I've corrected the post to refer to the Declaration of Independence and not the drafting of the Constitution.)

  2. The thing is, Mark, that the United States is in precisely that bind. The national mythos is not tied to being former Anglo colonies, but rather tied to the mythos around the war of independence, the declaration of independence, the constitution and bill of rights -- i.e., it begins ~1770. It's definitely a mythos of replacement -- that is, the mythos of the founding of the US is the whole enchilada, it displaces entirely any mythos relating to being Anglo colonies. And of course the mythos of the US is based entirely on enlightenment liberal ideas.

    This is why changing that would be very hard to do without fundamentally changing what the US is (not demographically only, but also in terms of mythos). You can't really purge the enlightenment liberalism from the US without destroying it or completely remaking it from the ground up, because the foundational documents and ideology are straight enlightenment liberalism. This is almost inextricably tied up with the concept of the "good" in the psychological identity of most Americans as well -- it's foundational. And very hard to dismantle without dynamiting the whole thing, because the whole thing is based on it. This is why a kind of political traditionalism has limits in the US in terms of practicality -- the entire system is premised on something else, as is the entire discourse. Making appeals that the system itself is problematic at the core is to label oneself immediately as a dangerous radical at the very least, and a crank, likely, in the eyes of most. It almost requires a "political red pill" to be swallowed before it has the possibility of being assessed fairly, I think.

    I'm not sure if Australia is in quite the same boat because it does not have the same national mythos as the US does, having had a different history.

    1. Novaseeker, Australia is not in the same kind of bind. The Australian founding was a relatively good one for traditionalists. The decision was made to keep Australia a high wage, ethnically homogeneous country via immigration controls; there was a strong sense of loyalty to Great Britain buttressed by the continuing importance of our trade and security links to Great Britain and our place within the British Empire; there was an effort to keep class conflict low through an arbitration system and so on. It was a time in which the state was actually on the same side as the population.

      Novaseeker, I do understand the point you are making (you made it well) about political traditionalism being more problematic in the US. I haven't read all of Kaufmann's book yet, but thus far he does make a good case that up to the very late 1800s there was a dominant ethnic identity in America that had its own mythos (which included the idea of the independent yeoman farmer as a purified (improved) kind of Anglo-Saxon living a pre-Norman yoke existence).

      This is perhaps something that American traditionalists could highlight (though I understand that Americans these days are more likely to identify on racial terms as "white" rather than on ethnic grounds as Anglo-Saxon).

      I'm not sure that traditionalists anywhere right now are going to be able to assert themselves comfortably within the mainstream. We are going to be "counter" to the liberal establishment; if we are to gain any kind of respectability it will have to be through the quality of the political material we produce and the quality of those we recruit to our movement. One option is to do what radical liberals have previously done and to congregate in particular areas - within that area we would set the tone and have local institutional support.

  3. It's definitely a conundrum - liberty and individualism are so much part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition and heritage, we (speaking as half-English/half-Ulsterman) cannot abandon them without ceasing to be what we are. But we have made them idols and they are destroying us, with a little help from cultural Marxism. It seems we can only survive by recognising that there are other equally important values, which have been allowed to lie latent for far too long - but do this without rejecting our heritage of liberty, either.

  4. Kaufmann is a top scholar. I highly recommend his 'Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?'.