Import Substitution and the Pioneer Ethic Today

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a ganner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky - The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany

A constant target of ridicule in Utah among 'free thinkers' or 'ex Mormons' is the strange affinity of Mormons and other religious conservatives for alternative remedies like essential oils, and an antipathy towards certain parts of modern medicine, like vaccination. This comes along with the rest of the anti-intellectual baggage of Utah conservatism, including Mormon apologetics (the Limited Geography Thesis, criticism of the fossil record, etc.), opposition to sex ed or even public education in general, and relentless ignorance/apologism about the history of their country.

Obviously this makes great Facebook fodder if you've got nothing better to do but I was thinking the other day about what the source of this particular mindset could be. Before I explore that I'll lay out what I think are the key elements of the mindset so people know the specific profile I'm talking about. This profile might not be as prevalent in other parts of the country. Here it is:

The Profile

  • Opposition to and/or distrust of the federal government. Sometimes this is just taxation, sometimes it extends to libertarian goals such as auditing the Fed (a huge demand at Occupy Salt Lake, by the way) and in the weirder subtypes it can go in the direction of outright conspiracy theories or (very rarely) actual opposition to police violence and the American Empire.
  • Skepticism about modern medicine or science generally. Again this runs the gamut. A guy at work told me they cured his wife's autism via a special diet. The essential oils and homeopathic remedies industries are frequently headquartered in Utah and do tons of business here. A lot of people are against vaccines. This oftentimes crosses over with the first characteristic.
  • Faith in the particulars of the Book of Mormon and an attempt to justify it using pseudo-modern methods (e.g., "yeah they figured out that the Indians are actually related to the Israelites via DNA analysis").
  • Profound racism and sexism. Almost unspoken. You hear offhand genocidal remarks from complete strangers constantly. although there are exceptions.
  • A revolting self-pity. In Utah this takes the form of complaining about anti-Mormonism and 'attacks on people of faith.'
  • The 'tendency to truck and barter' and lose tons of money on stupid scams without learning anything. Everyone is constantly trying to sell something to someone else, or find a get-rich-quick scheme, or trade stocks like the big boys, or flip houses, or start a new business.

The Story

When the Mormons reached Utah they were seeking a way to set up their own community in a way they'd been unable to before. When they settled in a state with its own legal system and government they found that they couldn't control things as much as they wanted to, even when they could elect the entire town government themselves and pressure outsiders to leave or acquiesce. Salt Lake Valley, which had been seen by only a few white people before, seemed ideal. The fact that it was even outside of the United States (in Mexico technically but the only visit to Utah from either the Spanish empire or Mexico came in 1776 and only reached Utah lake) sweetened the deal. And the Salt Lake valley, providing the Saints could come together and create irrigation works, seemed like a great place to live.

The Saints were capitalist. They came either from English factory towns (the Saints recruited heavily in England, providing incentives for skilled workers to emigrate) or the farm hinterlands (like upstate New York, where Joseph Smith started his divining and Bible-cribbing business) of the eastern seaboard. They understood the economy in terms of private ownership, exchange in markets, financial instruments, corporations etc. Their task in Utah was to create a capitalist economy that would benefit the community, from scratch. The path they chose, outlined in Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom, has been called 'socialism' (Arrington, writing in the forties, attempts to position it as Keynesian, in line with what US policy was seen to be at the time) and been compared to utopian communes popular around the time of the Second Great Awakening, but it bears more similarities to the developmental states of East Asia: they started with farming and worked their way up the import-substitution ladder, producing more and more complex goods with the goal of self-sufficiency and later, economic dominance.

The Saints built irrigation works first. Property was parcelled out in precise lots based on family units. Speculation and squatting were banned and carefully policed. Salt Lake's gloriously wide and straight streets, and its grid system, were possible because of this centralization. Polygamy had its own economic role as well. Polygamous men worked several plots, each with its own wife, children, chickens, cattle and farm implements. Most polygamous marriages were consecrated in the early years of near-famine in the Saint's community, when men were encouraged to marry widows to provide for them and their children. The Bishop's Storehouse, where Mormons tithed ten percent of their increase either in currency, or most often, in kind, functioned as a state construction firm and charity all in one. Most of the public works in Salt Lake, including the temple, were built by labor paid in food from the Storehouse, not by private contractors paid using money. Outside observers said that the Saints were "building a temple with bread." The Church, using resources collected by the storehouse, also conducted trade for capital goods the Saints needed to make things they wanted.

A constant worry of the Mormon leadership was that they would become dependent on the "Gentiles," the non-Mormons, who had betrayed the Saints time and time again and must never be allowed dominance over the community. Gentile merchants were especially hated by Brigham Young, because the money they made by selling Saints sugar or coffee (neither of which were produced in Utah) or farm implements, flowed right out of the territory. Most of Brigham Young's "anti-capitalism" can be chalked up to this hatred of merchants. In other ways he acted exactly like a small business owner, for instance making volunteer labor build a huge wall around his compound and saying "if I can put someone to work I can make them do whatever I want." This isn't something you'd expect to hear from a leader who was expected to justify the expenditure of labor with reference to the public good.

Most of the time the Mormons had to buy what they needed from the outside at steep prices (and truck it to Utah themselves, for which purpose they set up a freight-hauling company along the same route they'd taken to Utah). But sometimes the Mormons caught a lucky break, as when the US Army sent to occupy them during the Mormon War was called back to fight the Civil War. The Army sold all its wagons and iron tools to the Saints at a steep loss during a time when the Saints had almost no way to make their own. It was the first of many crucial gifts, welfare, from the federal government that the Saints would gladly accept, their stoic facade and apparent commitment to self-reliance somehow remaining intact.

But sugar, iron and clothing weren't going to fall from heaven. The Mormon leadership sent several 'missions,' including one to the California gold fields, to secure things the Saints had to buy from other people. Southern Utah was first settled (ethnically cleansed) by 'iron missions' sent to mine and smelt metal so it wouldn't have to be imported. Coalville, over the Wasatch range from Salt Lake, was settled to provide coal to Mormon households. But the biggest challenge was sugar. It was one thing the Mormons couldn't make in Utah and it was a huge drain on the community's currency reserves. And, unlike coffee, which was banned around the time Brigham Young decided he didn't want Saints importing it anymore (later on Postum would come to the rescue), sugar couldn't be done away with. Brigham Young was determined to climb this rung. Machinery from France was imported, French sugar-beet specialists were sought out and converted, a water-powered building was set up in the present-day Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake (aha) and farmers in Jordan were ordered to plant beets. In the end they couldn't figure out how to make it work. Western-grown beets wouldn't be a source of sugar until the early 20th century, when the complexity of the soil was better understood and chemistry was able to break the beet pulp down better. With other things such as cloth, they were more successful. Brigham Young, like Sankara a hundred years later, even made a point of wearing only locally produced clothing, and requiring Saints to do so as well, as a point of pride and of practical economic necessity. The Provo Woolen Mills firm that was established during this time was one of the most successful Mormon church/state enterprises, and the last Church-owned enterprises to be wound down, in the early 20th century.

Another object of Brigham Young's ire was eastern-produced medicine, especially Ephedra, which the Saints used. Brigham Young identified a local variant of Asian plant, today called 'Brigham's Tea' and ordered the Saints to switch. It worked, despite the fact that the two variants of Ephedra are totally different: the Asian one actually has the active ingredient, and the Great Basin variant doesn't.

Eventually the Mormon economy with its unique features of constrained (but still private) property, controlled (but still capitalist) market relations, and the large role of state development, was dismantled. The Mormons couldn't have their utopia in the desert after all. They would have to settle for statehood, no more (open) polygamy, and with only controlling the entire state government of Utah, and not of a huge nation stretching (as Brigham Young originally intended) from Southern Idaho and Colorado to Baja California. But the unique features of Mormon settlerism, including the distrust of 'outside' forces, especially the federal government which had sent Mormon leaders into hiding for years (and even repossessed the Temple!!!), hasn't diminished too much. The virtues of self-reliance (if not the reality) persisted during the Depression period when the Mormon church campaigned against the New Deal and then presented the fruits of the federal money that eventually came to Utah as its own doing. The current state government, rejecting a fully funded Obamacare program purely out of spite, shows that the roots of the pioneer era are not totally ripped out yet. The tragedy-farce dynamic is visible in the Church itself as well. Today the Church, which once operated industrial firms and built rail lines and guaranteed all (white settler) inhabitants food and shelter, is a real estate firm and political lobbying organization that also happens to own the trademarks to the Joseph Smith brand. In the past the Mormons cravenly recruited French and English craftsmen who were specifically needed for industries the Saints were attempting to develop. Today the Church dangles its meager food bank and assistance programs in front of desperate refugees, this time to shore up its brand image as diverse and inclusive. And it goes almost without saying that the capitalist features of early Mormonism have been brought to the fore. The social base of Mormonism, then as now, is the settler, yesterday on a farm, today in a grotesque suburban parody of the homestead, conducting irrigation of roses and home-spinning cures to complex diseases, pulling money out of home equity thanks to the insane federal subsidy of home ownership, and LARPing the agonizing handcart journeys every Pioneer Day. Trotsky was right. Today, the nineteenth century lives next to the twenty-first.

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