Saturday, December 01, 2007

Arguments for slavery.


In light of the recent refulgence of arguments for white supremacy, it is worth taking a look at precedents. No sooner were the British ruling class strategically terminating their own colossal role in the enslavement of millions of Africans than they bitterly regretted it. Such is the contemporary understanding of historians of that institution, at any rate. In a somewhat analogous fashion, as soon as Southern white slaveholders were defeated, they started to experience a "Negro problem" that made them regret their defeat all the more. This "problem" was experienced variously as economic competition, displacement in political institutions, the spread of education among those who had previously been strictly banned from learning the first letter of the alphabet, the resistance to continued subordination - in short, a transformation in the status of African Americans so great as to constitute a state of emergency for white elites. Their response was to revisit the 'peculiar institution' and to give rise to a flood of historical revisionism about slavery whose core doctrines would impress themselves upon leading political figures of the Progressive era, up to and including Woodrow Wilson.

The cardinal belief among the pro-slavery revisionists was that the institution was a sort of school through which all 'races' had to proceed in order to attain civilization. For example, Matthew Este's post-bellum text 'A Defence of Slavery, as it is practised in the United States' made a very particular argument about slavery: it could be a barbarous practise, he admitted, when the overseer was a brute, but Americans stood in the Anglo-Saxon and Christian tradition and could be entrusted with the administering of such a sacred duty. Biblical references were crucial here: Abraham held slaves, Moses too, all the old Semites in fact, even the priests. The practise was an ancient passage of rites, as venerable as wife-beating and child-rape. Since many of the foremost opponents of slavery were Christians who believed fervently in the literal truth of the monogenism and - to purloin a prase - 'moral equivalence' established in the tale of man's descent from Eden, it was obviously important to pay particular attention to scriptural support. "No institution," Este writes, "clearly sanctioned by Divine authority, contains within itself the principles of its own destruction. Slavery is clearly established in the Old Testament - it met the Divine Sanction - we cannot therefore suppose it is wrong". At any rate, slavery is not the product or foe of Christianity, according to Este - the province of religion is to abolish evils arising out of social relations, not to create or abolish social relations (which advert to a 'human nature', an essence put into manufacture by the Creator in the same way that the blueprint for a watch is put to practise by the watchmaker).

The slave benefited, of course. This was the ultimate moral mandate for slavery. In a moral/religious sense, in that he gains systems of virtue that were otherwise denied him; in a political sense, supposing he gains a level of freedom hitherto denied him (yes, it may be tyranny, but the other kind of tyranny was worse); in the economic sense (the most important of all), since the slave has learned the customs of industry, the arts of civilization, the means of self-government. Self-government is the crucial point: Americans were constantly faced with the question of who was fit for self-government. Since their ruling elites were perpetually having to give way to unpropertied classes (extension of the franchise), to enslaved peoples (ending slavery), to women (letting them out of the house), it was a decisive question. In this sense, democracy and independence are not political-economic states, but cultural ones. Can you handle your money, can you save, are you morally virtuous, is your wife obedient, do your children maintain cleanliness, are you industrious? Etc etc. Este cites the example of Rome where, he maintains, at its most virtuous and vigorous it was ready for self-government - but then it degenerated and so, Providentially, the necessary despotism arrived to save its olive-toned skin. Similarly, the procession through historical examples yields an absence of deities among Africans (a lack of religious wisdom); only a brief acquaintance with reason among Indians and Chinese (a lack of secular wisdom); and of course a total lack of written history among the indigenous - they have only oral histories. Egypt had its heiroglyphs, true, but never the remainder of Africa. (Derrida's attack on logocentrism becomes more comprehensible when you study the history of racist doctrine).

At any rate, the whole system at the late 19th and early 20th Century seemed ripe for re-examination. It was bursting with potentia. Democracy would soon mean the rise of the labouring classes. Abolitionism would soon overthrow peonage and wage-slavery. The woman would soon be out on the streets, cavorting with men of all hues. Children would no longer learn to obey, or expect a harsh competition over resources ordered along lines of race, class and gender to be natural. It was predictable that white capitalist elites would seek to invent a history that would legitimise their violent restorationism. John David Smith has shown that African American historians challenged this - often in contradictory ways, ways that accepted some part of racist doctrine, or worried over how much to accept, but the challenge was usually radical. It attacked the foundations of racism, the implicit or explicit acceptance of the white purview as natural, the Providential arguments - many of these writers had enough experience of slavery themselves to know how to unsentimetally dispose of such trash. However, it bears reflecting on the fact that their outlook would almost certainly have been seen as 'biased' by their experiences, as immature, insufficiently appreciative of what the cold, unsentimental facts of the matter would tell them. That seems to me to be the automatic point of view of those considering southern or Third World writers today, however liberal or 'moderate' they in fact are.

The current breed of apologists for Ian Smith are disgusting, of course, not least because of their resemblance to their forebears. They are, however, a breed almost as extinct as Smith himself (one hopes). Far more insidious, perhaps, are those who repeat the gestures of pro-slavery doctrine in bad faith, who accept its basic contours without the discredited racial mythologies. They still hold that systems of white supremacy can be an education in democracy, that populations can be fit for self-government only when an Anglo-Saxon Christian man named George takes them through it step-by-step (with a limitless willingness to use violence, and be enthralled by violence). They still hold that tyranny is a benign 'civilization' academy. They maintain, in such a way that it does not seem fit to question on CNN, that capitalist habits of practise are the surest road to freedom (Arbeit Macht Frei, in other words). They cleave to the cultural supremacy of the West. The only doctrine that isn't completely fashionable in liberal imperialist circles is the doctrine of biological racial superiority. The meme of 'totalitarianism', really a prophylactic against communism in their hands, has the unintended consequence of prohibiting their natural racism, forcing them to find inventive ways of commuting it through new discourses. The neocons of the Cold War found that racism was okay if it was seen as a meritocratic reflection of cultural hard-headedness, a proportionate reward for the will or lack of will to pull oneself up by the boot-straps - what could be more democratic and all-American than that? In a similar sense, today's racists find themselves on good standing when they speak of cultural distinction rather than a biological one. The culturalist aspect of racism, which was actually prevalent during the post-bellum pro-slavery revision, has not been successfully assailed, so that it remains the last refuge of the vicious supremacist. And so the arguments for imperialism that we hear today are arguments for slavery - how unsurprising that each imperial adventure seems to end in the long-term violent bondage of a whole country.