Slavery and Capitalism in America

I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.

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Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.

Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).

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By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860,  Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).

“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).

In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.

“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).

Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”

That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.

What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”

With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”

The Ecology of Capitalism

This post is largely in response to this interview with the ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. Foster spends most of his time responding to criticisms of his work by Jason W. Moore.

I haven’t read Moore’s work, so I’m not sure whether the misunderstanding of Latour arose with him or with Foster’s characterization of the latters “constructionism” in the interview. Moore and/or Foster seem to reduce Latour to a social constructionist who thinks “nature is subsumed within society,” as Foster put it. I interpret Latour’s ontology through Whitehead’s, which is neither naively monist nor dualist, but pluralist. Not “neutral monism” but creative process, the many becoming one and being increased by one. In proper dialectical fashion, seems to me that Foster and the position he is critiquing need to be overcome. Yes, capitalist society can be distinguished from the earth metabolism for the purposes of analysis; but ultimately isn’t capitalist society’s metabolic rift with earth only comprehensible as a kind of cancerous tumor or autoimmune disease? Our species wasn’t parachuted in from a higher dimension so far as I know; rather, we grew out of geochemistry. The Whiteheadian trick, as I see it, is to push talk of “social construction” all the way down, such that agency and value are understood to permeate cosmogenesis rather than existing exclusively within the human domain. Reality is socially constructed by collective agencies operating at all levels. Latour’s modes of existence are important here as descriptions of different ways that humans and our closest non-human companions construct reality. Politics is one way humans have found to compose and decompose common worlds. Economics is another (as are science, religion, art, etc.). Translating between the modes happens all the time but is never complete. The modes are irreducible one to the other. No one mode can “subsume” the others. And yet it seems to many of us that “capitalism”–that is, the privatization of everything from healthcare and education to prisons and war, along with the externalization of hidden costs on people and earth–presents an existential threat, that it appears to be subsuming everything around it, converting the community of life on earth into use-and-dispose consumables for the sake of accumulating digits in some offshore bank account. Others disagree. It all depends on the signifier “capitalism,” which I admit verges on reification in some Marxist discourse.

For better or worse, actually existing capitalism is way ahead of our attempts to theorize about it. This makes political action in relation to it almost impossible. Indeed, more and more it seems like capitalism has gained a monopoly on possibility. Bernie’s “movement” (we will see in the next several months and longer if it deserves that name) may be an example of a new possibility for political action. In his live webcast last night, Bernie said:

In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.

Some of my more libertarian friends have been mocking this statement. It is hard to deny that magnifying the reach of agencies that operate in the style of the TSA and the DMV into our everyday lives is pretty frightening.  But still, I agree with Bernie that public projects are where we should be pouring our energy right now. Yes, government as it currently operates is almost always less efficient than the “free market,” but maybe a shift in priorities that drew more capable people into public office would improve the situation. We need to reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy that is draining our government at local, state, and federal levels of capable, honest people who cynically shun politics, because by doing so they are allowing that government to be taken over by increasingly incompetent and corrupt egomaniacs.

Some argue that “capitalism” will transform itself faster than government could ever hope to “fix it.” Maybe. But I worry that allowing the private sphere to subsume the public will leave our communities with little legal protection from the sorts of social and ecological injustices that capitalism has thrived upon (e.g., cotton slavery, fossil fuel industry, etc.). Shrinking the power of government and privatizing everything is only going to open the door to racist, nativist regression and further destroy ecosystems, since the metabolic forces that shape these social and ecological realities do not respect the abstract borders of our maps or the metaphysics of our money. As the #Occupy movement taught us, the concepts of “debt” and “ownership” need to be thoroughly reevaluated.

CIIS Commencement Speech 5/22

Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.

I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university?What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.

Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”

Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.

But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.

I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”

CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts sayswith the practical transformation of human consciousness.”

I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist.Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of newworlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”

I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.

In defense of other possibilities…

I always try to ration myself early in the month since I only get 10 free articles, but Charles Blow’s op-ed in the New York Times this morning–“A Trump-Sanders Coalition? Nah”–seemed worth the read.

Blow rightly points out why Trump’s campaign manager is sorely mistaken about the prospects of winning over Bernie’s supporters in the general election. It’s not going to happen. Yes, there is a shared distrust of Hillary. But the similarities end there.

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But Blow is also missing the point. Bernie’s support is not coming from people who think the political system is broken. The political system is actually functioning exactly as it has been designed to function. Bernie’s supporters are angry because democracy has been replaced by neoliberal capitalism. Voting has thus been reduced to another consumer choice based on brand identity. The two-party system is designed to protect the super wealthy from the threat of growing class consciousness. The two major parties do everything they can to prevent large sectors of the population from thinking about the real causes of the socioeconomic imbalances in our system and instead find ways to divide up the electorate based on identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Not that there are not injustices that need our attention in these areas (Trump’s rise shows we have lots of work to do on this front). But by continuing to allow the oligarchs to frame our political process for us, we remain vulnerable to the temptation to continue fighting with one another over the table scraps they throw us. Identity politics has played an important part in the process of liberation for marginalized peoples, but thus far this liberation has only been allowed to unfold in the framework set by neoliberal capitalism. In other words, the civil rights movements for women and for black, gay, and lesbian people have succeeded in securing many of the legal protections afforded white men (again, more work remains on the cultural front). But the framework these liberatory movements have unfolded within assures that the most that can be achieved is equal status as a wage-earning consumer within the capitalist profit-machine. I recognize that my positionality as a white male makes it perhaps all too easy for me to say this, and I welcome other perspectives to help me see my blind spots, but it seems to me that at this point in the game we need to begin recognizing the various identities we employ to brand ourselves are a means of political transformation, rather than an end. If they are an end in themselves, then the transformational process can only produce further social fragmentation among the 99%, thus further inhibiting our collective ability to overthrow oligarchy. Does equality mean equal right to work 60 hours a week for stagnant wages so we can all afford to lease a car, pay rent, and send our kids to college to become indentured servants to banks for the rest of their lives? Maybe we’ve forgotten what individual freedom and social flourishing really mean.

There is more at stake in this election than the mainstream media’s talking heads are allowed to let on. What does the next century hold in store for America? Capitalism’s fantasy of never-ending economic growth is being severely challenged by the ecological and social crises. Back when capitalism was first establishing itself, colonial theft of unspoiled land and labor from non-Europeans made it seem like profits would never end. In the 20th century, capital relied upon the energy produced by fossil fuel to replace all that emancipated slave labor (though of course it still depends upon the wage-slavery of large sectors of the “developing” world). But now the petroleum interval is ending, the third-world is demanding higher wages, and the Earth is reminding us that its carrying capacity is not unlimited. From this point forward, capitalism can only secure growth by making sure 99% of us remain insecure and continue to bicker at one another about “family values.” Divide and conquer: it is the oldest ruling class strategy for domination in the book. The oligarchy is counting on us to continue believing that there are no economically viable alternatives to capitalism.

INDONESIA-ENVIRONMENT
Indonesian demonstrators carry an effigy of the earth as they parade in a rally in Surabaya in Indonesia’s eastern Java island to mark the World Earth Day on April 22, 2013.

In reality, there has never been a better opportunity to fundamentally transform the economic model that has gotten us into this social and ecological crisis. Whether we look to the secular approach of Naomi Klein or the spiritual approach of Pope Francis for this transformation, let us not forget that there is hope on multiple fronts.