Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cotton, Abolition and the Lash of Hunger

"The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." -- Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Marx's "revolutionary watchword," abolition of the wages system, plays on analogy and allusion. The allusion to wages slavery as analogous to chattel slavery was a commonplace in both pro-slavery and anti-slavery rhetoric in 1840s America:
How much better than slaves are laborers forced by the lash of hunger to toil for the mere minimum of human subsistence? And what right has England to read us a lecture on slavery? Let her look at home. The great mass of her population are reduced to a state of moral and physical degradation unknown in any other European country.
Orestes A. "Lash" Brownson
This metaphorical "lash of hunger" appeared in a disingenuous tract by Orestes A. Brownson who professed to despise slavery but maintained that Secretary of State John C. Calhoun's justification of it, in an official letter to British ambassador Richard Pakenham, was not a defense of slavery, "it is said Mr. Calhoun entered into a defence of slavery. He did no such thing. He offers in his letter not one word in defence of slavery."

In truth, Calhoun's infamous letter offered not one but 2,259 words in defence of slavery -- including explicit, albeit diplomatic hints of war arising from the United States' "sacred obligation" to defend and protect slavery as "a political institution, essential to the peace, safety, and prosperity of those States of the Union in which it exists."

Theodore Sedgwick, writing under the pseudonym of "Veto" in the New York Evening Post, offered this less "nuanced" interpretation of the Calhoun letter:
It is evident that this presents to the people of the Union a question entirely new and which they cannot avoid. This issue is not as to abolition of slavery in the southern States, the District, nor the Territories of the Union, but whether this government shall devote its whole energies to the perpetuation of slavery; whether all the sister republics on this continent which desire to abolish slavery, are to be dragooned by us into the support of this institution.... Hitherto the watch-word has been non-intervention in the domestic affairs of the South. Now it is intervention with foreign nations to protect, extend and perpetuate those institutions.
At the other end of the spectrum from Brownson and Calhoun, Free Soil (later Republican) Congressman George Washington Julian of Indiana offered the following rationale for the Homestead Bill in 1847:
The freedom of the public lands is therefore an anti-slavery measure. It will weaken the slave power by lending the official sanction of the Government to the natural right of man, as man, to a home upon the soil, and of course to the fruits of his own labor. It will weaken the system of chattel slavery, by making war upon its kindred system of wages slavery, giving homes and employment to its victims, and equalizing the condition of the people. 
George Washington Julian
In a later speech to the Indiana state convention of the Free Soil Party (1853), Julian took note of the hypocrisy of pro-slavery politicians justifying their "peculiar institution" on the grounds of the social evils of the wages system:
Such an argument in defense of slavery is infamous, besides being the baldest sophistry. The free States do not justify the social evils that have grown up in their midst. They do not cling to them as to the corner-stone of the Republic. They do not invoke in their behalf the divine sanction, nor threaten to dissolve the Union if they should be abolished. It is especially true of anti-slavery men, that whilst they wage war against chattel slavery in the South, they wage war against wages slavery in the North (emphasis added).
The "lash of hunger" is a metaphor. But is the "kindred system of wages slavery" really an analogy? After all, as the Sandwichman reported previously, Simon Kuznets warned against the dangers of analogy, citing Sidney Hook as authoritative. For his part, Hook scorned analogies as "formally worthless and never logically compelling."

Analogy? What analogy? The cotton picked by slaves in the South was not "similar" to the cotton subsequently spun and woven in Manchester with the aid of steam-powered machinery. It was the same cotton. Alf Hornborg has documented that "investments in steam technology in nineteenth-century Britain, for instance, were indissolubly connected to the Atlantic slave trade and the cotton plantations in the American South":
"...capital, however much it tries, will never be able to ‘delink’ itself from labor and land. The rationale of machine technology is to (locally) save or liberate time and space, but (crucially) at the expense of time and space consumed elsewhere in the social system."
Chattel slavery and the wages system were thus constituent parts of a single, vertically integrated production process -- cogs in the same machine, so to speak! And speaking of machines... in a more recent book chapter, "The Fossil Interlude," Hornborg referred to the notion of "energy slaves" as "more than a metaphor."
If the category 'slavery' is defined not primarily in terms of being victims of immediate violence, but more fundamentally in terms of being coerced to perform alienating, low-status tasks for the benefit of a privileged elite, a significant part of the world’s population would qualify as slaves. Seemingly neutral concepts such as 'technology' and the 'world market' organize the transfer of their embodied labour and resources to an affluent minority. From this perspective, the operation of technology represents the deflected agency (the labour energy) of uncounted millions of labourers, harnessed for the service of a global elite.
Machinery, in Hornborg's view doesn't simply enhance the productivity of the laborer using the machine. It does so by displacing a great deal of the work time and effort to someplace else where it can be performed more cheaply and invisibly. The beneficiaries of this unequal exchange have failed to discern that what they enjoy as a gain is actually an inequitable distribution of costs and benefits. Resource exhaustion and constraints from climate change make the sustainability of this illusion doubtful.

What happens, then, when the wages system -- temporarily spared the lash of hunger through its insatiable consumption of fossil fuel and displacement of "degrading, low wage toil" to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind periphery -- runs out of cheap fuel to power the displacing machinery? Will we see a return to the metaphorical lash of hunger or to the overseers' actual lash? Or perhaps some combination of the two?

If people are not happy to hear that slavery is what made the U.S. rich and powerful, they'll be choked to find out it wasn't a one-shot, lasts-forever deal.

1 comment:

Bruce Wilder said...

Neoliberalism becomes neofeudalism.