The Demon Of Overproduction

Real school reforms have always failed, not because they represent bad ideas but because they stand for different interpretations of the purpose of life than the current management of society will allow. If too many people adopted such reforms, a social and economic catastrophe would be provoked, one at least equal to that which followed the original imposition of centralized, collective life on men, women, and children in what had been a fairly libertarian American society. Reverberations of this earlier change in schooling are still being heard. What else do you think the explosion of homeschooling in recent years means?

The reason this cataclysm, out of which we got forced schooling, has been put to the question so very little by the groups it violently damaged is that the earlier storm had a confusing aspect to it. Those who suffered most didn’t necessarily experience declining incomes. The cost of the metamorphosis was paid for in liberties: loss of freedom, loss of time, loss of significant human associations—including those with one’s own children—loss of a spiritual dimension, perhaps. Losses difficult to pin down. Coal, and later oil, relentlessly forced a shift in crucial aspects of social life: our relation to nature, our relation to each other, our relation to ourselves. But nowhere was the impact greater than in the upbringing of children.

Colonial and Federal period economics in America emphasized the characteristics in children that were needed for independent livelihoods—characteristics which have remained at the heart of the romantic image of our nation in the world’s eyes and in our own. These characteristics, however, were recognized by thinkers associated with the emerging industrial/financial systems as danger signs of incipient overproduction. The very ingenuity and self-reliance that built a strong and unique America came to be seen as its enemy. Competition was recognized as a corrosive agent no mass production economy could long tolerate without bringing ruinous financial panics in its wake, engendering bankruptcy and deflation.

A preliminary explanation is in order. Prior to coal and the inventiveness coal inspired, no harm attended the very realistic American dream to have one’s own business. A startling percentage of Americans did just that. Businesses were small and local, mostly subsistence operations like the myriad small farms and small services which kept home and hearth together across the land. Owning yourself was understood to be the best thing. The most radical aspect of this former economy was the way it turned ancient notions of social class privilege and ancient religious notions of exclusion on their ears.

Yet, well inside a single generation, godlike fossil fuel power suddenly became available. Now here was the rub, that power was available to industrialists but at the same time to the most resourceful, tough-minded, independent, cantankerous, and indomitable group of ordinary citizens ever seen anywhere. A real danger existed that in the industrial economy being born, too many would recognize the new opportunity, thus creating far too much of everything for any market to absorb.

The result: prices would collapse, capital would go unprotected. Using the positive method of analysis (of which more later), one could easily foresee that continuous generations of improved machinery (with never an end) might well be forthcoming once the commitment was made to let the coal genie completely out of the bottle. Yet in the face of a constant threat of overproduction, who would invest and reinvest and reinvest unless steps were taken to curtail promiscuous competition in the bud stage? The most efficient time to do that was ab ovo, damping down those qualities of mind and character which gave rise to the dangerous American craving for independence where it first began, in childhood.

The older economy scheduled for replacement had set up its own basic expectations for children. Even small farmers considered it important to toughen the mind by reading, writing, debate, and declamation, and to learn to manage numbers well enough so that later one might manage one’s own accounts. In the older society, competition was the tough love road to fairness in distribution. Democracy, religion, and local community were the counterpoise to excesses of individualism. In such a universe, home education, self-teaching, and teacher-directed local schoolhouses served well.

In the waning days of this family-centered social order, an industrial replacement made necessary by coal lay waiting in the wings, but it was a perspective still unable to purge itself of excess competition, unable to sufficiently accept government as the partner it must have to suppress dangerous competition—from an all-too-democratic multitude.

Then a miracle happened or was arranged to happen. After decades of surreptitious Northern provocation, the South fired on Fort Sumter. Hegel himself could not have planned history better. America was soon to find itself shoehorned into a monoculture. The Civil War demonstrated to industrialists and financiers how a standardized population trained to follow orders could be made to function as a reliable money tree; even more, how the common population could be stripped of its power to cause political trouble. These war years awakened canny nostalgia for the British colonial past, and in doing so, the coal-driven society was welcomed for the social future it promised as well as for its riches.