What the Modern World Owes Slavery (It’s More Than Back Wages)

Yves here. It’s tempting to turn our eyes from how the economics of slavery operated, but that system represented a huge amount of what one would now call the capital assets of that era, and some of the ways in which slaves were exploited are not often recognized in modern accounts. This post helps to fill that gap.

By Greg Grandin, author of the newly released The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Originally published at TomDispatch

Many in the United States were outraged by the remarks of conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake on Haitians for selling their souls to Satan. Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble — as many as 300,000 died — when Robertson went on TV and gave his viewing audience a little history lesson: the Haitians had been “under the heel of the French” but they “got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.'”

A supremely callous example of right-wing idiocy? Absolutely. Yet in his own kooky way, Robertson was also onto something. Haitians did, in fact, swear a pact with the devil for their freedom. Only Beelzebub arrived smelling not of sulfur, but of Parisian cologne. 

Haitian slaves began to throw off the “heel of the French” in 1791, when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a choice: compensate slave owners for lost property — their slaves (that is, themselves) — or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late as 1940, 80% of the government budget was still going to service this debt.

In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But there is. It’s just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse, which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S., London reimbursed southern planters more than a million dollars for having encouraging their slaves to run away in wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be “an amount equal to roughly 40% of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today”).

Advocates of reparations — made to the descendants of enslaved peoples, not to their owners — tend to calculate the amount due based on the negative impact of slavery. They want to redress either unpaid wages during the slave period or injustices that took place after formal abolition (including debt servitude and exclusion from the benefits extended to the white working class by the New Deal). According to one estimate, for instance, 222,505,049 hours of forced labor were performed by slaves between 1619 and 1865, when slavery was ended. Compounded at interest and calculated in today’s currency, this adds up to trillions of dollars.

But back pay is, in reality, the least of it. The modern world owes its very existence to slavery.

Voyage of the Blind

Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves.

The death rate on the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World was staggeringly high. Slave ships, however, were more than floating tombs. They were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments.  Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms, classify them into diseases, and hypothesize about their causes.

Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable. In either case, they identified types of fevers, learned how to decrease mortality and increase fertility, experimented with how much water was needed for optimum numbers of slaves to survive on a diet of salted fish and beef jerky, and identified the best ratio of caloric intake to labor hours. Priceless epidemiological information on a range of diseases — malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and so on — was gleaned from the bodies of the dying and the dead.

When slaves couldn’t be kept alive, their autopsied bodies still provided useful information. Of course, as the writer Harriet Washington has demonstrated in her stunning Medical Apartheid, such experimentation continued long after slavery ended: in the 1940s, one doctor said that the “future of the Negro lies more in the research laboratory than in the schools.” As late as the 1960s, another researcher, reminiscing in a speech given at Tulane Medical School, said that it was “cheaper to use Niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.” 

Medical knowledge slowly filtered out of the slave industry into broader communities, since slavers made no proprietary claims on the techniques or data that came from treating their slaves. For instance, an epidemic of blindness that broke out in 1819 on the French slaver Rôdeur, which had sailed from Bonny Island in the Niger Delta with about 72 slaves on board, helped eye doctors identify the causes, patterns, and symptoms of what is today known as trachoma. 

The disease first appeared on the Rôdeur not long after it set sail, initially in the hold among the slaves and then on deck. In the end, it blinded all the voyagers except one member of the crew. According to a passenger’s account, sightless sailors worked under the direction of that single man “like machines” tied to the captain with a thick rope. “We were blind — stone blind, drifting like a wreck upon the ocean,” he recalled. Some of the sailors went mad and tried to drink themselves to death. Others retired to their hammocks, immobilized. Each “lived in a little dark world of his own, peopled by shadows and phantasms. We did not see the ship, nor the heavens, nor the sea, nor the faces of our comrades.”

But they could still hear the cries of the blinded slaves in the hold.

This went on for 10 days, through storms and calms, until the voyagers heard the sound of another ship. The Spanish slaver San León had drifted alongside the Rôdeur. But the entire crew and all the slaves of that ship, too, had been blinded. When the sailors of each vessel realized this “horrible coincidence,” they fell into a silence “like that of death.” Eventually, the San León drifted away and was never heard from again.

The Rôdeur’s one seeing mate managed to pilot the ship to Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean. By now, a few of the crew, including the captain, had regained some of their vision. But 39 of the Africans hadn’t. So before entering the harbor the captain decided to drown them, tying weights to their legs and throwing them overboard. The ship was insured and their loss would be covered: the practice of insuring slaves and slave ships meant that slavers weighed the benefits of a dead slave versus living labor and acted accordingly. 

Events on the Rôdeur caught the attention of Sébastien Guillié, chief of medicine at Paris’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth. He wrote up his findings — which included a discussion of the disease’s symptoms, the manner in which it spread, and best treatment options — and published them in Bibliothèque Ophtalmologique, which was then cited in other medical journals as well as in an 1846 U.S. textbook, A Manual of the Diseases of the Eye.

Slaves spurred forward medicine in other ways, too. Africans, for instance, were the primary victims of smallpox in the New World and were also indispensable to its eradication. In the early 1800s, Spain ordered that all its American subjects be vaccinated against the disease, but didn’t provide enough money to carry out such an ambitious campaign. So doctors turned to the one institution that already reached across the far-flung Spanish Empire: slavery. They transported the live smallpox vaccine in the arms of Africans being moved along slave routes as cargo from one city to another to be sold: doctors chose one slave from a consignment, made a small incision in his or her arm, and inserted the vaccine (a mixture of lymph and pus containing the cowpox virus). A few days after the slaves set out on their journey, pustules would appear in the arm where the incision had been made, providing the material to perform the procedure on yet another slave in the lot — and then another and another until the consignment reached its destination. Thus the smallpox vaccine was disseminated through Spanish America, saving countless lives. 

Slavery’s Great Schism

In 1945, Allied troops marched into the first of the Nazi death camps. What they saw inside, many have remarked, forced a radical break in the West’s moral imagination. The Nazi genocide of Jews, one scholar has written, is history’s “black hole,” swallowing up all the theological, ethical, and philosophical certainties that had earlier existed.    

Yet before there was the Holocaust, there was slavery, an institution that also transformed the West’s collective consciousness, as I’ve tried to show in my new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World.

Take, for example, the case of the Joaquín, a Portuguese frigate that left Mozambique in late 1803 with 301 enslaved East Africans. Nearly six months later, when a port surgeon opened the ship’s hatch in Montevideo, Uruguay, he was sickened by what he saw: only 31 bone-thin survivors in a foul, bare room, otherwise empty save for hundreds of unused shackles.

City officials convened a commission of inquiry to explain the deaths of the other 270 slaves, calling on the expertise of five surgeons — two British doctors, a Spaniard, a Swiss Italian, and one from the United States. The doctors testified that before boarding the Joaquín, the captives would have felt extreme anguish, having already been forced to survive on roots and bugs until arriving on the African coast emaciated and with their stomachs distended. Then, once on the ocean, crowded into a dark hold with no ventilation, they would have had nothing to do other than listen to the cries of their companions and the clanking of their chains. Many would have gone mad trying to make sense of their situation, trying to ponder “the imponderable.” The surgeons decided that the East Africans had died from dehydration and chronic diarrhea, aggravated by the physical and psychological hardships of slavery — from, that is, what they called “nostalgia,” “melancholia,” and “cisma, a Spanish word that loosely means brooding or mourning.    

The collective opinion of the five surgeons — who represented the state of medical knowledge in the U.S., Great Britain, and Spain — reveals the way slavery helped in what might be called the disenchanting of medicine. In it you can see how doctors dealing with the slave trade began taking concepts like melancholia out of the hands of priests, poets, and philosophers and giving them actual medical meaning.  

Prior to the arrival of the Joaquín in Montevideo, for instance, the Royal Spanish Academy was still associating melancholia with actual nighttime demon possession. Cisma literally meant schism, a theological concept Spaniards used to refer to the spiritual split personality of fallen man. The doctors investigating the Joaquín, however, used these concepts in a decidedly secular, matter-of-fact manner and in ways that unmistakably affirmed the humanity of slaves. To diagnose enslaved Africans as suffering from nostalgia and melancholia was to acknowledge that they had selves that could be lost, inner lives that could suffer schism or alienation, and pasts over which they could mourn.

Two decades after the incident involving the Joaquín, the Spanish medical profession no longer thought melancholia to be caused by an incubus, but considered it a type of delirium, often related to seasickness. Medical dictionaries would later describe the condition in terms similar to those used by critics of the Middle Passage — as caused by rancid food, too close contact, extreme weather, and above all the “isolation” and “uniform and monotonous life” one experiences at sea. As to nostalgia, one Spanish dictionary came to define it as “a violent desire compelling those taken out of their country to return home.”

It was as if each time a doctor threw back a slave hatch to reveal the human-made horrors below, it became a little bit more difficult to blame mental illness on demons.

In the case of the Joaquín, however, the doctors didn’t extend the logic of their own reasoning to the slave trade and condemn it. Instead, they focused on the hardships of the Middle Passage as a technical concern. “It is in the interests of commerce and humanity,” said the Connecticut-born, Edinburgh-educated John Redhead, “to get slaves off their ships as soon as possible.”

Follow the Money

Slavery transformed other fields of knowledge as well. For instance, centuries of buying and selling human beings, of shipping them across oceans and continents, of defending, excoriating, or trying reform the practice, revolutionized both Christianity and secular law, giving rise to what we think of as modern human rights law.

In the realm of economics, the importance of slaves went well beyond the wealth generated from their uncompensated labor. Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned — not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.

Starting in the 1770s, Spain began to deregulate the slave trade, hoping to establish what merchants, not mincing any words, called a “free trade in blacks.” Decades before slavery exploded in the United States (following the War of 1812 with Great Britain), the slave population increased dramatically in Spanish America. Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside Bogotá. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used for carrying more slaves from Africa to Montevideo. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brick makers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants.

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland and across the continent, the opening up of new slave routes and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin for the creation of a new commercialized one.

Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money — at least in a way. It wasn’t that the value of individual slaves was standardized in relation to currency, but that slaves were quite literally the standard.  When appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, or estate, slaves usually accounted for over half of its worth; they were, that is, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.

In the United States, scholars have demonstrated that profit wasn’t made just from southerners selling the cotton that slaves picked or the cane they cut.  Slavery was central to the establishment of the industries that today dominate the U.S. economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has shown how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer “accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves” — techniques that were then used in northern factories.

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Green argued half a century ago, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” Fathers grew wealthy building slave ships or selling fish, clothing, and shoes to slave islands in the Caribbean; when they died, they left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments.”  In due course, they donated to build libraries, lecture halls, botanical gardens, and universities, as Craig Steven Wilder has revealed in his new book, Ebony and Ivy.

In Great Britain, historians have demonstrated how the “reparations” paid to slave-owning families “fuelled industry and the development of merchant banks and marine insurance, and how it was used to build country houses and to amass art collections.”

Follow the money, as the saying goes, and you don’t even have to move very far along the financial trail to begin to see the wealth and knowledge amassed through slavery. To this day, it remains all around us, in our museums, courts, places of learning and worship, and doctors’ offices. Even the tony clothier, Brooks Brothers (founded in New York in 1818), got its start selling coarse slave clothing to southern plantations.  It now describes itself as an “institution that has shaped the American style of dress.”

Fever Dreams and the Bleached Bones of the Dead

In the United States, the reparations debate faded away with the 2008 election of Barack Obama — except as an idea that continues to haunt the fever dreams of the right-wing imagination. A significant part of the backlash against the president is driven by the fantasy that he is presiding over a radical redistribution of wealth — think of all those free cell phones that the Drudge Report says he’s handing out to African Americans! — part of a stealth plan to carry out reparations by any means possible.  

“What they don’t know,” said Rush Limbaugh shortly after Obama’s inauguration, “is that Obama’s entire economic program is reparations.” The conservative National Legal Policy Center recently raised the specter of “slavery reparations courts” — Black Jacobin tribunals presided over by the likes of Jessie Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, and Russell Simmons and empowered to levy a $50,000 tax on every white “man, woman, and child in this country.”  It’s time to rescue the discussion of reparations from the swamp of talk radio and the comment sections of the conservative blogosphere.  

The idea that slavery made the modern world is not new, though it seems that every generation has to rediscover that truth anew. Almost a century ago, in 1915, W.E.B Du Bois wrote, “Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung; and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for four hundred years Ethiopia stretched forth her hands unto God.”

How would we calculate the value of what we today would call the intellectual property — in medicine and other fields — generated by slavery’s suffering? I’m not sure. But a revival of efforts to do so would be a step toward reckoning with slavery’s true legacy: our modern world. 

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  1. Theodore C. Stallone

    Superb piece, would also recommend a new book that no outlet has covered, “Dog Whistle Politics”, by Ian Haney Lopez, a law prof. at Berkeley. A current examination of racism embedded in our political system, and a book that could use some word of mouth.

    1. Vatch

      Louis C.K. seems to be exaggerating, but there’s a great deal of truth in what he says. Even the achievements that weren’t accomplished directly by slaves, were enabled by them. Slavery and serfdom allowed small numbers of free people the spare time to invent and create. There’s a lot of science, technology, literature, and philosophy that exists because slavery and serfdom spared some lucky people the need to perform many of the mundane tasks that are needed for survival.

  2. timoetheus

    Grandin’s book is getting a lot of attention, which is noteworthy in itself. His reading at the NY Public Library in January was so packed I couldn’t get in.

    1. Anarcissie

      The invention of slavery was fundamental to the invention of civilization, that is, city-building. Hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers would have no use for cities; they came into being when food could be raised and stored at fixed locations, which made possible the development of fortresses and prisons. (Among hunter-gatherers and nomads, constant movement from place to place would make it easy for slaves to run away.) The surplus of goods derivable from slavery and booty would make markets desirable. Sex and reproduction could be imposed on the female slaves, leading to a surplus of human beings; the new males could be made into soldiers and laborers, and the females into more breeding stock.

      1. Calgacus

        Actually, that’s not what the most recent, still somewhat controversial, research indicates. Probably was linked here some time ago. Civilization came before agriculture, etc. Hunter gatherers liked having permanent places to hang out with other ones in the neighborhood. Cheers!

  3. ArkansasAngie

    I understand the desire for recognition.

    I do not understand who today is the guilty party that must pay up. Me? I’m a 1/8th American Indian, does that count for something?

    When you ask for money from people, you generally piss them off. Pissed off people don’t stop and contemplate. They react … negatively.

    So … what is the purpose? To further divide us?

      1. James Levy

        Amen. I’m sorry Arkansas but the truth hurts. Maybe we just owe the descendants of the survivors the truth and the acknowledgement of the unalterable fact that the toil and blood of the “lazy niggers” and the economy built around their enslavement made the modern capitalist world. Perhaps, even if you can’t part with a coin to help their descendants who were dispossessed of everything, you can sanction that truth.

        1. M.Guthrie

          Agreed wholeheartedly. Reparations are not exclusively (or primarily at this point) about remuneration. The acknowledgement, and promotion through teaching, of the many ways in which the African slave trade was instrumental to the rise of Western capitalism and America’s relative historic prominence, is priceless. Such acknowledgment is critical for countering respective notions of racial superiority and inferiority that persist to this day.

    1. Anarcissie

      It could be argued that the institutions which supported slavery could be held liable for the injury to the slaves, an obligation which would reasonably pass to their descendants per stirpes. No living person is responsible for slavery (although some are responsible for the injuries of Jim Crow) but those institutions, like the Federal and state governments which existed before 1861 are certainly responsible. (Ironically, these do not seem to include the states which joined the Confederacy, since they were abolished by defeat in war and reconstituted in order to rejoin the Union.)

    2. dennis mcf

      Yes , not only to divide but to distract . The issue is far broader than black slavery . It goes to the heart of Neo-Liberal piety for ” the Rule Of Law ” something that is accorded the hushed reverence that old time Catholics used to reserve for the Blessed Sacrament . In essence , it is the belief ( usually tactfully unstated ) that existing ” property rights ” should trump every other societal concern . I was unaware of the truly outrageous Haitian slaves compensating their owners plan , but , in principle , it was hardly unique . ” Land Annuity ” payments were required of the Irish Free State government to repay the British Treasury for money LOANED to abjectly poor Irish tenant farmers in the 19th Century to allow them to purchase the land they had been forced to rent from the Anglo-Irish gentry descendants of conquering English invaders . Orlado Figes in his superb ” A Peoples Tragedy ” ( a study of revolution era Russia ) describes a similar arrangement for landless ” liberated ” serfs . The Rule Of Law most often means protection of the Rulers at the expense of the Ruled .

  4. Jim A

    The question is never “was slavery awful enough that the victims deserve restitution.” It was. At its most humane and benevolent, it was a system of forced labor extracted by the threat of torture from kidnapees and their descendents. The question is Who pays whom for what exactly? After all, nobody alive has suffered from legal slavery in the U.S. Plenty of people are the descendents of slaveowners and slaves. Should they pay or receive payment Many Americans (white and black) are the descendents of people who emigrated after the Civil War. Should they be exempt from payment? Should I get credit for my great, great grandfather who ran up missionary ridge with his regiment in part to end the institution of slavery? Should we also be making payments to the descendents of the families that remained behind in Africa when their father and or mothers were kidnapped to be sent on the middle passage? The answer by the proponents is usually that since slavery was race-based and it’s legacy is persistent, racial discrimination, the payments should be race based as well. But if that’s the case, the shouldn’t we call say that these payments are for persistent racial discrimination? But that wouldn’t get as much traction. The programs that we have, even though they are relatively insignificant, like slight preferences in college admissions are already under fire.
    So to convince people that more should be done, rather than look at what the current situation is, and how far from “equal opportunity” it is, advocates have claimed that more should be done today because of the TERRIBLE suffering and the crime against humanity that slavery constituted. But I think that it is disrespectful of the victims of institutional slavery to claim in the name of their HORRIBLE suffering, recompense for wrongs which while real and enduring are orders of magnitude less.

    1. Banger

      The whole idea of reparations is absurd at best. Most black people are mixed–most have native American blood and most have some white blood–so if someone is mixed how do we determine how much to pay. Should the white part of my daughter pay the black part? What of the native Cherokee part? We’re in this together and we need to face it together. You see someone in pain, suffering from grief, poverty, prison, addiction and so on you help them–simple as that. That is the best form of reparation.

    2. Herk

      Gotcha, and while we are at it where is my pile of loot? My forefathers were enslaved by the British occupation of Ireland for 800 years. My father emigrated to the USA in 1949 because of the horrible conditions that were the legacy of that occupation and forced labor. The English have never made a serious attempt to compensate or even sincerely apologize to the Irish for this near millennia long crime. Am I to dwell on the ugly past forever? Or, should I understand that sometimes men did bad things and move on with my life.

      I will tell you this though, if one dime of reparations is paid for slavery I will not be paying it, to make sure of that I will leave the USA permanently. We have all been victims on some level from lingering wounds in the past, but that does not engender a moral obligation on the people of the future to compensate financially any of our descendants.

      1. Jess

        Hey, I got you beat. Not only were my ancestors on my mother’s side Irish and subject to the same British boot heel that you mention, but my father’s side ended up in the border state of Kentucky where they helped run the Underground Railroad that made it possible for at least some escaped slaves to make it to safety in the North and Canada. So not all us “crackers” bear legacy guilt requiring financial reparations.

    3. Paul P

      “Perhaps to recognize that we have debts to one another that can never be repaid?”

      Perhaps to recognize in the exploitation mentioned that reparation requires a just society in which the material wealth redounds to all. Jobs, leisure, health care, housing, education, art, and pensions are possible for all people today. The tortured past has given this possibility to the present. In a rational society a just society could be achieved.

  5. j gibbs

    Not to minimize any of this, but one only needs to skim Volume I of Capital (Marx) to see that “free” labor wasn’t any picnic either, at least through the end of the Nineteenth Century. Exploitation of labor by the landed rich, the merchant rich, the industrial rich, the usurious rich, the financiering rich, is the reality of history one never gets in school, or in most books either.

    About the best one can say about our country these days is “everyone gets some kind of chance,” which is why individuals are encouraged to make the most of it.

    And to those seeking reparations for history’s crimes against their ancestors, my advice would be don’t count on it.

    1. Carla

      Please also read “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas A. Blackmon.

      “The genius of Blackmon’s book is that it illuminates both the real human tragedy and the profoundly corrupting natures of the Old South slavery as it transformed to establish a New South social order.” — The Atlanta Journal Constitution

      “Shocking…Eviscerates one of our school-children’s most basic assumptions: that slavery in America ended with the Civil War.” — The New York Times

      Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work of history should be read by every American–for our own damned good, not anyone else’s.

      And no, watching the PBS special of the same name doesn’t count. At all.

  6. Ulysses

    Just think how incredibly different the South would be today– if folks had actually received the 40 acres and a mule they were promised at the end of the Civil War!

    1. Working Class Nero

      His kids are doing so well NOT because “they are two little white girls in America”; they are doing so well because they are two little filthy-rich girls in America and the daughters of a famous celebrity. Louis CK is number 97 on Forbes’ top 100 celebrity list with an income of $16 million last year. Both of his parents went to Harvard. He cleverly conflates his particular wealth with general whiteness. Is he trying to say the children of Will Smith, Michael Jackson (uh, never mind) or P Diddy aren’t just as spoiled as his own rich kids? Is he trying to say poor white kids around the world have some magical white fairy dust sprinkled on them so that their empty stomachs don’t ache as much as other hungry children’s do?

      Rich people are famous for privatizing the profits and socializing the losses. In this case Louis CK takes whatever rich guilt he should have and spreads it far and wide in the form of white guilt by saying “they took OUR slaves away.” A cursory glance at the numbers shows that “OUR” was only around ten percent of white families in America who owned slaves at any given time. In fact most working class whites didn’t exactly thrive having to compete against slave labor. So that’s pretty white of Louis CK to take the collective guilt that should belong to the wealthy and socialize it to all whites, poor or otherwise.

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Surely you’re not talking about reparations for the exploitation of segments of our society through creation of money by the Federal Reserve and the use of that money to buy bonds and stocks, pay out cash dividends, huge CEO bonuses, stock repurchases, etc… are you? I mean wouldn’t that be another “ex”- word?… although I must admit that at least for the Fed portion of the national debt, the funds could be put to good use in the infrastructure and education realms.

  7. allcoppedout

    Part of the argument put to Parliament concerning the abolition was not moral but economic. Getting rid of slavery would open Africa up for much more profitable exploitation. ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa’ – http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15399 – contains such a plea made by a black man.

    Slavery, of course, is much older than the particular and disgusting exploitation of black people in the modern world. It continues today. Free people have often faired little better than slaves. The Domesday Book is a revolting example of the organisation of various categories of free men and serfs. These days the stuff can be found in Harvard Business Review HRM or McKinsey reports on raising profit per employee.

    There are many ways to look at reparation. I’d guess women have done somewhat more than half the world’s work, so how much of the world’s wealth do they have? We could sequestrate, say, all money owned by descendants of slavers paid off around 1830, all the properties built by slaves (including the original White House) and so on. There were black people who were slavers and we might track their descendants down too. Arabs were involved and one can make an argument to re-direct oil revenues. Indeed, if you think of the resource curse generally, Glencore, the Seven Sisters and the rest should all be handed over. And who financed it all?

    Quick break to salute a squadron of pigs flying over the Pennines.

    I’d be more concerned morally to stop slavery today and various other forms of indenture, than look to reparation. The way forward in this discourse is about the exploitation of work by a small elite – the general size of this elite has been 15% under the various capitalisms based on Washington, Frankfurt, London, Moscow, Peking and so on. Over all history we can find disgusting practices like slavery, sexism, genocide, concentration camps, mutilation, poverty wages and much more rationalised away by those in power. Some of the Scottish Enclosures took place after the abolition of slavery in the UK, as did the dreadful Irish famine. The reasoning involved in this an abolition make chilling reading.

    We could try to understand that most work is forced labour and organised to create or maintain an elite. There is probably no ‘need’ for any of this kind of organisation today. What we lack is an economics of freedom based on facts. What we have is an economics of slavery based on institutional facts similar to those that tolerated slavery and recorded ‘China white’ transactions quite openly as UK Government business. What we could have today is an honest, transparent money system. Instead, we have a closed-off system essentially the same as the one that hid slaving profits and now hides killings for land grabs and massive control frauds.

    For me, slavery in the past is relevant only in what it explains what we are doing today. As with nearly everything, the real history is much worse than we can bear to look at and is acting in disgusting ways in the present because of this cowardice. What we need is a levelling of the attitudes in which we believe we understand how much work we need to do, how we can share what is necessary and motivate ourselves to do the necessary and create new directions. We might remember most ‘us’ in the past were not against slavery, just as most of us now have no clue what our elites do now in our name. There would be no slavery without the influence of ‘money’ over personal morality. What are we slaves to?

    1. j gibbs

      Fifteen percent is pretty high. Who are you counting? Anybody in any kind of supervisory position; anyone part of media, schools, any profession, advertising, public relations, government at any discretionary level?

      1. allcoppedout

        The figure stuck in my head years ago from an American study of the Soviet and Chinese elites. I forget the work now, but on my travels the nomenclature always seems about this size. The classic work was by C Wright Mills, but without numbers –

        As you say it depends who we include. One indicator now is the number of people who benefit from higher education by getting into the big pay, another the number of ‘mansion-dwellers’. The top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country’s wealth in 2007. In the UK the top 10% own 40%. 35% of Russian wealth is owned by just 110 billionaires. But you find non-money stuff and various systems like ‘wasta’ and old boy networks.

  8. Laurens M. Dorsey

    “History’s not was but is,” said Faulkner. So not only a living institution, slavery, but as well a robust political metaphysic replete with the intellectual and moral delights of hierarchy and place and cruelty.

    I am convinced (fwiw) that it is and aways has been the aspirational horizon of the American adventure. Mr. Jefferson’s philosophical posturings not withstanding.

    1. Anarcissie

      The values of the Right (power, private wealth, social status, order, authority, superstition, patriotism, racism, tribalism, the military virtues, and so forth) were developed precisely to maintain and extend war, slavery, and empire. However, in American and elsewhere there is also widespread rejection of these values.

      1. Laurens M. Dorsey

        Agreed. But there is rejection and rejection. And one’s life can depend on practices one rejects.

  9. Vatch

    From the article:

    Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable.

    This is a lot like the veterinary profession in factory farms (CAFOs or Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and slaughterhouses.

    1. diptherio


      In the case of the Joaquín, however, the doctors didn’t extend the logic of their own reasoning to the slave trade and condemn it. Instead, they focused on the hardships of the Middle Passage as a technical concern. “It is in the interests of commerce and humanity,” said the Connecticut-born, Edinburgh-educated John Redhead, “to get slaves off their ships as soon as possible.”


      Result 1: Delegating the wage decision enhances worker performance and increases the earnings of both firms and workers relative with the case where firms do not delegate.

      The second quote comes from a paper titled The Hidden Advantage of Delegation: Pareto-Improvements in a Gift-Exchange Game by some economists at UCSB, that purports to show why allowing employees some say in their wage levels is actually a good thing. Their findings are not, of course, based on the unfair nature of current arrangements but rather on the fact that treating employees more like humans is financially lucrative for the employer.

      The more things change….

    2. larry silber

      Wow, your the first response to notice, what to me ,obviously screams out concerning humanities exploitation of sentient animals today, and concurrent through the vile history of slavery, a connection and convenience regarding that fiendish institution of human enslavement . We dont ever seem to quite get it, maybe the future will avail an enlightenment, but i fear it will be too late. That treating animals with equal consideration, regarding what should be their inherent right to not suffer, might in turn pay immense dividends in our ethical and moral development , as well as environmental impacts relating to the profitable exploitation of animal products, as an obvious benefit. But just as then, the fraudulent claim , we cant expect utopia here, its reserved for the heavens, lest evil self interested men institute their versions of what is right and just, and consequently it is far better to let market forces be the legal arbiter of ethical consideration, with the rule of law remaining the highest accord. Problem is the rule of law is directly connected to the powerful financial interests of the vilest offenders of coercion, giving us a tight negative feedback loop of justification. Of course education and its concentrations support what ever the establishment considers reasonable. So change crawls. One can hope the social media of today can be cause for quicker change, but i doubt the religious preconceptions can be over taken .Humans, observed outside their social networks, act so similarly to parasites and viruses on communities external their incredible technologically efficient intellect, but frighteningly selective moral inclusiveness.

  10. huxley

    Slavery never went away. It diversified.

    While traditional slavery is still alive and well in nearly every country, modern techniques for the control of labor deemphasize direct ownership and the reliance on overt force as inefficient. Current best practice leverages the strategic and tactical manipulation of currencies, political arrangements, and labor markets. The Fascist technique of converting labor unions into instruments of control has likewise been deprecated in favor of the elimination of worker cooperatives altogether, with a few dwindling exceptions. Technological innovations already practically guarantee that domination over workers will become increasingly total, fine-grained, and cost-optimized for quality and flexibility.

    Present populations of workers, as well as the marginally-productive and unproductive, are grossly excessive and can also be expected to be optimized by systematic reduction in due course. The Holocaust was hardly an isolated incident, was neither the first nor the last, was not the largest, and is properly seen as a clumsy prototype which in time will be refined and applied generally.

    L’histoire, l’horreur. It is unfortunate in the extreme that evolutionary pressures over the last several thousand years have favored the emergence and modern domination of the psychopathic and the avaricious. Absent any effective deflection from present trends, such persons are very much on course to generate a permanent global society of masters and slaves within a very few generations. That’s their goal. They said so.

    These trends should be obvious to most people, who can hardly avoid watching them unfold in real time. What’s amazing is that the victims seem to be mostly unconcerned about their ghastly, grisly destiny, when they should be desperately trying to avoid it. Because if they don’t, they won’t.

    1. Massinissa

      “These trends should be obvious to most people, who can hardly avoid watching them unfold in real time. What’s amazing is that the victims seem to be mostly unconcerned about their ghastly, grisly destiny, when they should be desperately trying to avoid it. Because if they don’t, they won’t.”

      But what in gods name can actually be done? The ‘masters’ have not only all the economic power but all the political power as well. The only way I see this stopping is massive economic collapse, and im not sure im so nihilistic that im willing to pray for that.

  11. James Levy

    To the naysayers here, whose moral imagination seems stunted at best, my answer would be clear” the capital on which this edifice sit was stolen. Stolen from the indigenous Americans and stolen from the black slaves. White Americans have been and continue to be the heirs to that stolen wealth. We are culpable because we have done nothing to compensate those from whom it was stolen. If I live in a house my father stole from its Jewish inhabitants, and I inherit it, it doesn’t mean just because I was born 20 years after the last Jew went into the gas chamber that it is ipso facto miraculously mine with no strings attached. Someone was disposed and likely died to get me that house. That should mean something to me, and to the society in which I live. Coughing up some cash is the least I can do. Diminishing the suffering of the family whose house that once was, and then claiming “Hey, I didn’t take it, my daddy did–so why hold me accountable?” is the worst kind of moral cowardice. And that, my friends, is exactly what all conservatives, and most skeptics, do in order to denigrate and try to make ridiculous the claims for reparations.

    1. Working Class Nero

      To the naysayers here, whose moral imagination seems stunted at best, my answer would be clear” the capital on which this edifice sit was stolen. Stolen from the indigenous Bedouins and stolen from the Palestinians. Israelis have been and continue to be the heirs to that stolen wealth. We are culpable because we have done nothing to compensate those from whom it was stolen. If I live in a house my father stole from its Palestinian inhabitants, and I inherit it, it doesn’t mean just because I was born 20 years after the last Palestinian went into the refugee camps that it is ipso facto miraculously mine with no strings attached. Someone was disposed and likely died to get me that house. That should mean something to me, and to the society in which I live. Coughing up some cash is the least I can do. Diminishing the suffering of the family whose house that once was, and then claiming “Hey, I didn’t take it, my daddy did–so why hold me accountable?” is the worst kind of moral cowardice. And that, my friends, is exactly what all Lukudniks, and most skeptics, do in order to denigrate and try to make ridiculous the claims for reparations and rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees.

      1. James Levy

        I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the fact that you hijacked a serious topic to make a snarky point about a foreign country or the fact that you obviously aimed it at me because you think I’m a Jew.
        On the first point, of course the Israelis owe the Palestinians at least the right of return. But I don’t live in Israel or vote there. My country is the USA, where we had slavery and Jim Crow for 450 years. Our wealth was based on stolen capital and labor and I think we ought to do something major about that. Acknowledging it honestly might be a good place to start, rather than making a show of how clever we are.
        On the second note, the last Jew in the family was my father’s father. None went to Palestine and those who didn’t make it here died in Ukraine during World War II. I’m waiting for you to turn their fate into a joke next. I’m sure it will be hilarious.

    2. tim s

      So my reparations from those damned Romans who conquered my people’s homeland and took many of them as slaves will be forthcoming? I’m so relieved. I’ve been waiting for this for…well, a long time. Will that be with interest?

      1. Vatch

        In addition to making jokes, you can support efforts to eliminate existing slavery and quasi-slavery. Please see:


        Also, the huge and increasing disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest people resembles slavery in many respects. You can do your part to reduce the outrageous inequality that infects our world.

        1. tim s

          It was not so much a joke as it was a question, and a serious one at that. Not a question as to my reparations which was proposed tongue-in-cheek, but as to what is the limit to the people who are owed reparations? Is anyone saying that the descendants of African slaves of the American colonies are owed reparations, but if you are a descendant of a slave in another place or time, you are owed nothing?

          This is a topic of discussion that leads to a dead end for any number of reasons.

          1. Vatch

            Hi Tim. Fair enough. I lack the wisdom to answer your question and determine what the cutoff point for reparations would be. What I do know is that real slavery, and approximations of slavery, exist today, and these abominations demand action.

  12. informania

    reparations are virtually useless if we allow an exploitative system like capitalism to persist; our ‘democratically’ chosen leaders are allowing new transgressions by the thousands and will target you too once you might start to resist.

  13. casino implosion

    Weird, just started reading Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery” and this NC post pops up.

  14. susan the other

    Well, this was sickening. And we all know that capitalists enslave whatever they can in order to make a profit. So what’s next. Either something/someone gets enslaved in any number of ways (“debt” being the big one, “debt” because capital is allowed to be a mirage) or we give up capitalism. It is too full of contradictions. Not to undermine the atrocities of slavery and subjugation, but capitalism is the thing; it’s done.

  15. tim s

    I look back into history and see slavery directly or indirectly is much more the norm than are equitable societies. An enslaved people has typically had to free themselves if they were to be free at all. It seems a truism that much of civilization was built on slavery – why would the masters own slaves otherwise. It’s best to look forward and maintain strength & awareness so as to avoid falling into slavery rather than obsess about perceived injustices in the past. Just as slavery existed in the past, it still does today and undoubtedly will in the future.

    Any descendant of slaves should either 1) be eternally grateful for the ancestors who had the strength and courage to revolt against their masters & win OR, if that was not the case, then 2) consider themselves fortunate that they are not currently slaves themselves.

  16. allcoppedout

    I think it is less about reparation and more about preventing the capitalist motivation to cheat and enslave, to bring about indenture by other means. Women have generally suffered since time immemorial (some arbitrary date in 12th century England), we know life went backwards for the farming class as agriculture rose, that ants take slaves and it is hard to find human society free of it. I regard the current faculty-student split in academe as a slave relationship, the kids forever amassing debt as in very old usury relations that led to indenture and blood debts. Academics are not really the slave owners, more the bailiffs and stewards burning out crofters in the Enclosures. The bailiffs and stewards were also a class above, like tenured academics and university administrators, palming the real work off onto poorly paid part-timers.
    The problem is we can’t see slavery for what it is. And let’s face it – we weren’t much good at recognising it when the accoutrements of chains, whips, rape and massive cruelty were under our eyes.

  17. impermanence

    The notion that [economic] freedom exists in a social context is perhaps the greatest illusion of them all.

    The organization of society has always been about how the most depraved among us are going to steal from the rest.

    Social evolution is simply a chronology of increasingly complex systems of fraud and theft.

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