Weeding out Newtonian Causal Explanations from History

In returning to my dissertation studies on environmental and ecological history, I’ve noticed something peculiar in my research on the Great Migration—the early twentieth century migration of African Americans from the American South to the northern industrial urban centers—that I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around. The issue concerns historical causality and why populations migrate from one place to another. In explaining the issue, I hope to also indicate where this issue might pose problems from those of us who wish to cling to a mechanical view of capitalism as an internally logically consistent system which of course also happens to be its virtue.

So the story of human migration, as tweed coated, armchair historians like to tell it, is explainable by the invocation of what is referred to as the push-pull hypothesis. On the one hand, in terms of the push half of the hypothesis, humans throughout history have been impelled to move from their native locations by external forces that are outside of their control, forces that most often threaten their economic livelihoods. Some of these forces throughout history (and I’ll use relatively recent examples of the modern era) have manifested themselves as religious intolerance in the native land or the lack of control over the religious environment (e.g., the Puritan expedition to the American northeast in the 1600s or Lord Calvert’s Maryland colony for Catholics in the same century); European development of New World resources (e.g., the forced removal of Africans by Europeans to the New World to harvest those resources); or environmental or ecological devastation (e.g., nineteenth century Irish migration to North America to escape the ruin of the potato famine). I do not intend this to be an exhaustive list of push factors but the point is that in general the push factors tend to be conditions in the native land that make maintaining life in that land difficult, if not impossible, conditions that are beyond the control of the natives.

Then on the other hand, historians like to declare pull factors as causes of human migrations. What is a pull factor is some sort of enticement for travel. Certainly the promise of riches is often always the lure but what distinguishes this from a push factor is that the individual is not, in his or her native land, under any pressure to leave his or her home: that he or she may already lead a comfortable life in the native land. The Gold Rushes of the 1840s and 1850s, the Homestead Acts of nineteenth century, etc., can be considered as enticements or motivating forces that drew eastern American populations out west: people who abandoned their already productive lives to strike out on their own in search of greater economic enrichment.

Of course we can already see where the push-pull hypothesis can be problematic as a criterion of explanation as to why populations move. I’d like to illustrate this with the Great Migration of African Americans to the northern states. First, some historians attribute, as a push thesis, the cotton crop failures in the South during the 1910s and 1920s. Specifically, they point to the arrival of the boll weevil beetle for which, at least initially, southern farmers had no answer for. Given that cotton was still the main source of revenue in the South (from which term “King Cotton” was derived) and that African Americans in great numbers remained to work on the some of the plantations from which they were freed, such a disaster would impel blacks to immigrate to the north for work. A frequent pull thesis that historians have used to explain African American migration from the South to the northern urban centers is the emergence of World War I, which opened up jobs in the north for blacks after European immigrants left to fight back in their native lands. So the lure of jobs in the northern factories was another cause for migration.

Unfortunately in this example, there is just too much overlap between the push and pull factors, a problem for just about any push-pull analysis. For example, we can see that a crop failure is a push factor: that the native conditions are not survivable but is that not any different than suggesting that the conditions of the desired destination are more survivable (pull factor)? Usually what goes hand in hand with crop failure as a push factor is an almost unabated Jim Crow environment in the south that restricted black voting rights, a Jim Crow that oversaw the lynchings of African Americans, a Jim Crow that gave African Americans a second class status in society and in the court system. It seems here that the economic and social mobility lay at the heart of a push-push hypothesis, and therefore we can actually turn a push hypothesis into a pull hypothesis easily. For example, instead of saying that crop failures and Jim Crow pushed African Americans form the South in the 1910s and 1920s, we can say equivalently that the lack of crop failures and the lack of Jim Crow in the north enticed southern African Americans to move north. Here, push-pull overlaps as logically equivalent explanations of migration.

Additionally, the cause of the crop failures was the boll weevil beetle. So would it be more precise to say that the beetle was the cause of African American migration to the north? And what brought the beetle to the South? Windy weather driving the insects from its native Mexico northward? Is that another cause, a push factor as well? We can see now that we can’t pin down precisely the main cause or explain exactly how a complex or conglomerate of causes was necessary for the Great Migration. More importantly, we need to understand that not all African Americans in the south migrated to the northern cities and that even others migrated westward: it is interesting to note that there was a westward migration of Southern blacks to Texas in the same time period where the boll weevil first struck before moving eastward.

The historian’s problem therefore is the modelling of history as singular, atomic phenomena. Events such as the Great Migration or the Irish Potato famine migration are viewed as monolithic events in which catastrophe in the native land, catastrophe that threatens economic well-being, impels large numbers of people to move. But given what I noted about the Great Migration and the role that Jim Crow conditions had in causing African Americans to move northward as well as the fact that some African Americans remained where they were despite the cotton crop devastation, we can certainly say that what moves a given population—what pushes it—is not uniform for the members of that population. Additionally with respect to the migratory path, the destination of migration also might lack uniformity as I noted in the example of African Americans who actually migrated westward to Texas during the Great Migration: an area that had already felt the boll weevil’s wrath. We can even see the failure of applying this old fashioned historical analysis, an analysis that thinks of migratory chains a singular, monolithic, atomic phenomena–to Irish migration in the nineteenth century since historians characterize it as a move from Ireland to North America when Irish immigrants of that immigrant stream also settled into places such as Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. We can probably say the same of pull factors as well but I must indicate that the issue with pull factors is that they can be made equivalent to pull factors (and vice versa) which obscures what the real causes are. The main issue perhaps is why we ought to think of an event such as the Great Migration or the Irish potato famine immigration as singular, monolithic, atomic events caused by other singular, monolithic events or complexes of events (macro-events). In the case of African Americans choosing to remain in the South despite the conditions brought on by the boll weevil, this would challenge the notion that all or most African Americans in the South immigrated anywhere: that some African Americans in virtue of remaining in the South in spite of the economic devastation and social conditions they endured or even being cognizant of the opportunities in the North afforded to them by World War I would necessarily compel them to be a part of the immigrant stream to the northern cities (pull thesis). Briefly, then, environmental degradation in the native land does not necessarily compel all of the natives to move; equally, the promise of better opportunities (pull thesis) elsewhere also do not necessarily compel all of the natives to move.

So how does this all relate to capitalism? I contend that when historians use this Newtonian language—thinking of history as a series of atomic phenomena or atom events that impel other atom phenomena or events in a monolithic, singular way or direction—this is of course the same model in which classical liberals (which of course are political conservatives for us) view the great machine of capitalism. Their view of capitalism is that economic fortunes decided in such an economy are always valid, and to increase the virtues of that system (or to make it more beneficial for everyone), we need to unshackle businesses and commerce from regulation, as well as even subsidize businesses with tax cuts for hiring or keeping their jobs in the United States. Of course the expectation is that businesses will respond in kind by actually increasing hiring and/or keeping jobs in the United States. But as we learned in the discussion of migration, there is no necessary connection between the cause of a migratory chain and its destination (or rather that we need not assume that the members of a migratory chain all have the same rationale or destination for travel) and that equally not all catastrophic events or opportunities for greater wealth elsewhere can compel an entire population to vacate its native environment: likewise it is presumptuous to assume that businesses and the beacons of commerce will be inclined out of necessity to create jobs or maintain jobs if given tax breaks or more freedom from regulatory restrictions. This is just another form of trickle-down economics at best: assuming that the wealthy and corporations, if given more tax breaks and freedoms, will raise employment levels. As we are learning in this apparent post-recession of slow job growth and financial industry gift bailouts, there is no necessary connection that giving to the wealthy and businesses will compel them to create jobs or maintain them here. This Newtonian paradigm, still largely the framework or mode of explanation for economics and history, is outmoded, namely because its relies upon the unproven assumption of necessary connection, as well as regarding people or events atomically as singular, monolithic phenomena governed by the laws of action and reaction.1

  1. For further reading, please peruse Robert Higgs’ 1976 article “The Boll Weevil, the Cotton Economy, and Black Migration 1910-1930” in Agricultural History, Arvarh Strictland’s 1994 article “The Strange Affair of the Boll Weevil: Pest as Liberator” in Agricultural History), Henry Adams’ 1904 piece “A Dynamical Theory of History” in his Autobiography, David Harriman’s 2003 article “Where have you gone, Isaac Newton?” in Capitalism Magazine, and E.K. Hunt’s “Economic Scholasticism and Capitalist Ideology” in Social Economy and Social Theory in the Writings of E.K. Hunt, and “Emigrating from Ireland” by the State Library of South Australia. []

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.