Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Whiggery and slavery

In a certain whiggish version of events, slavery is an evil that has been with human societies for millenia, and has finally been gradually eradicated due to Enlightenment, or liberalism, or capitalism, or some vague cultural amelioration, or to all of these as expressed in the British Empire. A strange view, to say the least: who doesn't know that the enslavement of Khoikhoi took place against the background of Dutch enlightenment and bourgeois reform, or that a certain kind of Latinocentric Enlightenment was enlisted to legitimise slavery (since the Romans, by enslaving a large portion of humanity, allegedly laid the basis for modern civilization)? It is not exactly occult knowledge that European capital benefited immensely from the slave trade - and actually, as David Brion Davis points out in 'Inhuman Bondage', lost a great deal from its long-term abolition. Liberal doctrines were deeply implicated in slavery, including Locke's theory of property, for example (see Andrew Vallis, ed, Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, pp 89-104). Precisely as many opponents of slavery disavowed the connection between exploitation and the cultural achievements of the ancient world, so they disavowed that connection during Europe's global expansion. As for the argument that slavery was always with us, it is certainly true that it has characterised class societies for a substantial period of their existence, and there are some continuities, but the differences are hard to miss. For example, as has been understood for a while, free labour played as decisive a role in Athenian society as its expansive slave labour system, even in agrarian production (the importance of slavery to the Greco-Roman world can best be understood in comparison with contemporaneous societies, where it was much less prevalent). By contrast, the colonies were often decisively founded on slavery. The Atlantic slave trade was unique in a number of other ways, in terms of scale (15 million Africans enslaved and perhaps as many killed, usually before the even reached the African coast), and of course in terms of its 'racial' dynamic, in which traditions of indenturing and enslaving 'white' labour (often Irish labour) were supplanted during the 17th and 18th centuries by the capture and sale of Africans. Some previous systems of slavery were partially for the purposes of military competition, preserving the independence of dynasties from the Iberian peninsula to Bengal, for example. The slaves of Islamic societies in the medieval period didn't contribute decisively to the surplus, but they did contribute decisively to conquest. In most such cases, the consequences of slavery were present in the domestic lives of the states that permitted or encouraged it, while for much of the period of the Atlantic slave trade, the consequences were effectively concealed by distance.

Of course, that only takes us so far. The fact is that the emancipationist movements in the early modern era were unprecedented. There were hugely significant anti-slavery currents in the Enlightenment expressed by the likes of Bentham (is any evil to be mandated simply by calling it a trade?, he wondered). The American South had to work much harder to legitimise slavery in light of the critique originating in the overthrow of the British empire, despite extensive official protection in terms of domestic and foreign policy. The British government was under waves of skilled diplomatic and political attack from millions of Britons before it first moved to abolish its involvement in the trade in 1807 and finally effectively abolished the practise of slavery in the empire by 1834. Only in part can this pressure can be explained by a moral revulsion against the extremity of British slavery, which was far less accepting of individual emancipation (manumission) than slave-owners in Latin America for example, and always had laws restricting a slaveholder's ability to free slaves. Why should it suddenly be a topic of revulsion at all, when it had been tolerated in various forms throughout various societies for thousands of years with only minimal dissent? Christian sects hammered against the slave system hard, but Christianity had been complicit in slavery until then. Clearly, the eighteenth century revolutionary tradition obviously deserves the lion's share of the credit - but in what way? It is clear enough that when Jefferson attacked slavery as "a cruel war against human nature itself", he expressed the revolution's "historic leap", as Robin Blackburn puts it, from the particularism of 'the right of an Englishman', for example. On the other hand, the revolution's founding documents referring to equality in fact meant a very diluted form of 'white' equality - democracy in American ideology was co-extensive with Anglo-Saxon white supremacy. Further, Jefferson's words were deleted from the Declaration of Independence since there was no intention of abolishing the slave system, and scholars have argued that they were really based on an acute augury about the vulnerability of slave societies to revolt (see David Brion Davis' 'The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution', 1999). It is sometimes observed that slave rebellions were comparatively infrequent and treated as patholigical eruptions rather than events with a social meaning - but then it had required sustained terror, starvation, mutilations, and the harshest punishments to achieve the required 'docility' (subsequently rendered in ideology as the 'natural' state of Africans). And after all, aren't all rebellions pathologised in this way (fanaticism, greed, lust for power etc) until the lie can no longer hold? The revolutionary upheavals contained a self-radicalising component because they were not simple top-down military revolts, because the (multiracial) masses insisted on being involved. But also because it intersected with and stimulated anti-colonial revolution, not only in St Domingue but also in Spanish America. Of course, one thing that made the property-owners of Spanish America so conservative and wary of raising democratic slogans was their propensity for spreading among free people of colour, (often inspired by Muslim beliefs). These constituted sizeable minorities in Brazil and Cuba, for example - compared with the tiny number of such people in the United States on its foundation.

One the one hand, it is true that the ideology of 'free labour' had to produce accompanying ideologies of racism (that is, cast whole populations out of the human race as such) in order to make slavery normatively consistent, and this partially explains the Christian animus against slavery - it required a narrative wholly inconsistent with biblical monogenism. Yet, as pointed out, free labour had coexisted with slavery in Athenian society, and with considerably more prestige at that. The unprecedented savagery of the emerging capitalist social relations coincided with a unique opportunity in the creation of a working class with a structural capacity not only for revolution but for abolishing class relations entirely. The ideal of what we now call socialism - high-technology, modern societies free of exploitation, hierarchy and militarism - was a marginal one in the aftermath of the French revolution, but it was for the first time becoming a possibility. This is as far from the Whiggish view of 'progress' as one could imagine: it is more like turning disaster into an opportunity, weaknesses into a potential strength. If the idea of reproducing communal forms of life prevalent in Europe during the high middle ages as the dominant form of production, without their parochial and gendered constraints, was a novelty made possible by capitalism, it is also one that capitalism has not ceased to militate against by all horrific means at its disposal, up to and including the peak of barbarism in the twentieth century. And there are no historical guarantees: capitalism possesses, as EM Wood puts it, an inherent "systemic opportunism". For example, capitalism doesn't absolutely need gender oppression in the same way that it does actually need forms of racism (because the imperialist dynamic is a permanent feature of capitalism), but it can and does make use of it despite apparent social costs (such as ). Slave labour continues to exist as a relatively small component of the global capitalist economy, and alongside it are far more substantial forms of 'sweated' or hyper-exploited labour. The states system created by colonialism in the Middle East frequently relied on effective slave labour. Kuwait was more or less a slaveocracy until the expulsion of its Palestinian residents. Who is to say it couldn't return as a mass system, given a unique opportunity or set of circumstances? It did return to German capitalism during its most barbarous phase, after all. The extent of slavery is a reasonable metric of progress, but it seems to highlight how complex and fragile even our current, unsatisfactory situation is.