2:00PM Water Cooler 1/2/15

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

This is my favorite Louis CK sketch of all time:

And there really is a punch line. At the end. And since I don’t to play spoiler, I’ll say how much Louis CK’s riffing on historical context reminds me of this passage from David Graeber’s Debt:

In the last chapter, I offered a glimpse of how human economies, with their social currencies — which are used to measure, assess, and maintain relationships between people, and only perhaps incidentally to acquire material goods — might be transformed into something else. What we discovered was that we cannot begin to think about such questions without taking into account the role of sheer physical violence. In the case of the African slave trade, this was primarily violence imposed from outside. Nonetheless, its very suddenness, its very brutality, provides us with a sort of freeze-frame of a process that must have occurred in a much slower, more haphazard fashion in other times and places. This is because there is every reason to believe that slavery, with its unique ability to rip human beings from their contexts, to turn them into abstractions, played a key role in the rise of markets everywhere.

Or, as Louis CK puts it, 140 (now ~150) years ago: “That’s how recently you could buy a guy.”

“And it’s not like slavery ended and then everything has been amazing.”

No, indeed! So perhaps a little useful context for the Ferguson protests and #BlackLivesMatter.

Happy New Year! I will resume full Water Cooler programming on Monday of next week.

* * *

Readers, feel free to contact me with (a) links, and even better (b) sources I should curate regularly, and (c) to find out how to send me images of plants. Vegetables are fine! Fungi are deemed to be honorary plants! See the previous Water Cooler (with plant) here. And here’s today’s plant:


Plant struggling to stay green and grow even after the first snowfall amaze me. Still looking for more images of wintry plants….

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. different clue

    What? I am the first comment here !?

    Well. . . alrighty then. I heard Louis C K interviewed on Fresh Air on NPR once. He claimed his ancestry as being Hungarian Jewish in that interview. In which case, what slaves did his Hungarian Jewish ancestors own?
    Jay Leno is Italian descended for sure, and I think maybe Sicilian descended specifically. What slaves did his Sicilitalian ancestors ever own? Are these two gentlemen really white? Reeeeeeallllllly . . . ? Or are they just
    “honorary white” and do they get to stay “honorary white” as long as they stay loyally white-loyal and sincerely white-identified?

    And speaking of what whites do or don’t get to complain about . . . are the Appalachian Mountain people white? If so, do they have something to complain about? The dead white miners in Upper Big Branch mine?
    The dead white miners in Crandall Canyon mine ( Utah, technically, but still . . . )? How about all them dead white people under the flood-mud rock-flow of Buffalo Creek? And how many of their ancestors ever had slaves? And how many of their ancestors ever benefited . . . . way back up in them mountains . . . from the slaves that white Flatlanders DID have?

    Jes’ wondering. . .

    1. ohmyheck

      Not to mention white indentured servitude.
      “1/2 to 2/3 of all immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants. At times, as many as 75% of the population of some colonies were under terms of indenture.”


      Of course, there are big differences between being indentured and slavery, as in at least one’s children were born free, but it wasn’t all hunky-dory for a whole lot of white immigrants either.


      I think this has been discussed here previously, but my point is that it is a class war. Has been for a very long time. Hopefully more and more people will wake up to this fact.

      1. L.M. Dorsey

        It’s not and either/or proposition. Suppose, for instance, that racism was tactically deployed in a class struggle, as, say a way of creating the simulacrum of a social bond between rich and not-rich.

        Also, I am reminded of something by Barbara Fields:

        [T]hat favorite question of American social scientists — whether race or class “variables” better explain “American reality” — is a false one. Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.

        1. Veri

          Let’s agree to disagree. Let’s put it into context.

          Racism is a reason to subjugate and deny others. Employing the reasoning of racism is to put another human being into a class; a slave class. Even lower than what would be considered a serf.

          Analytically, racism is the reasoning to create a new class: the slave class. Racism establishes and justifies a social order based not on wealth, but on perceived racial biases.

          Racism simply employs a different reasoning or fear. And is another reason to? Justify economic exploitation. Just as the plutocrats justify maintaining a social order within society between themselves and the poor.

          Racism is another means of maintaining division among their “inferiors” in the poor class.

    2. Working Class Nero

      Good points, If fact Louis CK’s 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, Eddie Murphy, 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? Did 1400 poor working class girls in Rotherham have their white skin privilege save them from being gang raped because Labour politicians didn’t want to “rock the multicultural community boat”?

      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 at the very most only 2% 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 mighty white of Louis CK to take the collective guilt that should belong to the wealthy and socialize it to all whites, poor or otherwise.

      Let’s call it what it is: Wealth Privilege. People who push the White Privilege meme are assisting the Oligarchs in their latest mission, reducing the salaries and wealth of middle and working class Americans, the majority of whom are white, through collective racial guilt. Mostly déclassé WASP’s, the purveyors of White Privilege who lost their elite group status a generation ago but still maintain the urge to sneer down their noses at their lessers. Three or four generations ago this venom was directed towards non-WASPs. In a great show of how “progressive” they are and how much better they are than the rest, now these WASPs sneer down at working and middle class whites. They biggest tell of their true agenda is they will always pick race over social class.

      And with Asians and Jewish people performing better economically on average than whites, why are we not getting Asian Privilege and Jewish Privilege? What, those terms don’t fit The Narrative?

        1. Working Class Nero

          Jewish Identity ≠ White Identity
          Anti-Semitic ≠ Anti-White
          Jewish victimhood ≠ White victimhood
          Jewish nationalist ≠ White nationalist
          Conspiracy theories about Jews controlling everything ≠ Good = Conspiracy theories about whites controlling everything

          Jewish Privilege ≠ White Privilege

      1. different clue

        Now, there is a little caveat in all this which does illustrate a problem. Will Smith , P Diddy, and Eddie Murphy have children who are at least a thousand times richer than I am. But these children have a greater chance of being killed in an encounter-gone-wrong with a White-Order policeman than I have. And that could be specifically called a problem of Black Disprivilege. Whatever it might be called, it is a real problem. Then again, so is the casual offhand killing of white civilian people by no-whiter-than-they-are white officers. This could be called Police Copism against civilians. Working Class Nero has said that there are examples of this. It would be a real service to link to cases of Police Copism against civilians and keep linking to them , so that the free-standing issue of Police Copism can get the diagnostic analysis and social-medical treatment it deserves and which we need.

    3. bob

      No, don’t you get it? It’s funny because HE IS white!*

      Comedy is now simply stating facts.

      *or hugarian jewish, or catholic, or mexican as his wiki says now

      “Let them eat louis”

      1. different clue

        I have read that the problem with Wiki is that anyone can get on there and retro-edit any targeted wikipage to say anything at all. This is mostly not a problem with wikipages on non-controversial subjects like turnips and goldfish.

      2. jrs

        “C.K.’s parents met at Harvard University, where his mother was completing her degree in a summer-school program”

        egads is that privileged though, his parents fricken *met* at Harvard …

        1. different clue

          Yes, and the White miners in Upper Big Branch mine died for his wealth and comfort. And for his wife-to-be’s wealth and comfort. And invoking White Privilege against the surviving members of the Upper Big Branch dead miners is everything that Working Class Nero says it is.

          1. different clue

            Oh, pardon me . . . it was CK’s PARents who met at Harvard. Maybe they earned their way in there by passing tests and getting grades and scholarships. Still, it put CK in a position to win all the benefits of Rich Privilege. And he won’t get away with offloading the guilt for his guilty privilege onto welfare white people in Upper Michigan. And neither will Jay Leno.

    4. Eclair

      1957. Within my lifetime, an upwardly mobile working class white girl whose grandparents did not speak English, nine African-American students begin to attend Central High School in Little Rock. They are free Americans, born in the USA, but their skin is dark and they are descendants of slaves. And, they are not allowed to attend school with white people. But they want that to change, because ‘their’ schools are underfunded. But the good white citizens of Little Rock (there must have been a few exceptions, but their voices were silenced) determined that black people were dirty, stupid, and, in the case of males, out to rape their women (a clear case of projection by white males, who had been raping black women for generations, so often that most of the African-Americans descended from slaves have a good portion of white ancestry). Here’s what happened.

      “After the Nine suffered repeated harassment—such as kicking, shoving, and name calling—the military assigned guards to escort them to classes. The guards, however, could not go everywhere with the students, and harassment continued in places such as the restrooms and locker rooms. After the 101st Airborne soldiers returned to Ft. Campbell in November, leaving the National Guard troops in charge, segregationist students intensified their efforts to compel the Nine to leave Central. The Little Rock Nine did not have any classes together. They were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities at Central. Nevertheless, they returned to school every day to persist in obtaining an equal education.

      Although all of the Nine endured verbal and physical harassment during their year at Central, Minnijean Brown was the only one to respond; she was first suspended and then expelled for retaliating against the daily torment by dropping her lunch tray with a bowl of chili on two white boys and, later, by referring to a white girl who hit her as “white trash.””

      Little Rock, rather than allow black students into their white schools, voted to close the schools.

      Carlotta Walls LaNier was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine and tells her story in “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.” My book club read it a few years ago and I was devastated by her recounting of the abuse she endured during her year at Central … day after day after day. I was even more devastated by the discussion at our book club meeting, which revolved around their displeasure over the inconveniences of ‘forced busing’ and the way the black students in their high schools had ‘kept to themselves.’

  2. not_me

    “And it’s not like slavery ended and then everything has been amazing.”

    Yep, there’s still wage and debt slavery and we can thank Progressives for perpetuating those. Yes, they ended the gold standard but bank money was never really backed by gold, it is backed by promissory notes and government-subsidized private credit creation DRIVES people into debt and the resulting boom-bust cycle is a means to steal assets from them too.

    1. JCC

      There is more than just wage and debt slavery, and it’s everywhere:


      And it’s accepted, still.

      “When Seo (Seoul Policeman) took Kim to a local police station to give an official account, an indignant (local) policeman asked, “Why didn’t you leave this to us?”

      Villagers, unaware that Kim’s escorts were Seoul police, harassed him at the docks, asking where he was going. Some even called Hong (the slave owner).”

  3. George Hier

    What we discovered was that we cannot begin to think about such questions without taking into account the role of sheer physical violence. In the case of the African slave trade, this was primarily violence imposed from outside.

    Wrong wrong wrong. The Atlantic slave trade exploited the fact that African tribes had been enslaving each other for millenia. When some Dutch sailors land on your shore, offering a king’s ransom for your slaves, of course you’re going to accept. What do you care? They’re just slaves from that tribe you beat up last year. And that just went and set up the incentive for more slave raids, etc, etc. But the idea that it was Europeans running around with manacles chasing people through the bush is completely ridiculous. It wasn’t until the development of vaccines and anti-malarial drugs in the 19th century that Europeans could even begin to penetrate the African continent. (Of course, that brought about colonialism, but that’s a rant for another time.)

    The historical lesson we need to learn from the Atlantic slave trade isn’t that Europeans are bastards, nor that Africans are bastards. The lesson is that humans are bastards, and will be as long as they can get away with it.

    1. Banger

      Not so fast. Slavery was was a minor factor in Africa, historically and even when they did have slaves (in parts of Africa not everywhere) they had some rights. The African slave trade really started with Arab traders and then the Europeans came a long after. In fact, the Arab trade may have involved more slaves and more deaths and mutilations–many of the men were made eunuchs.

      What was particularly bad about the American attitudes is that the Southern slave-holders often did not regard non-Europeans as fully human particularly Africans and Native Americans. That attitude, among “white people” (many areas of the South and Midwest have “whites” who have strong mixtures of Native American and sometimes African blood but pretend not to) continued well into my own lifetime.

      1. optimader

        Not so so fast…
        1.) Be a little more precise about making a distinction between “Arabs” and Africans”, for example: North Africa Arabs –>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maghreb

        2.) https://factreal.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/slavery-history-the-african-complicity-africans-captured-and-sold-other-africans-into-slavery/

        “…While the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English and French slave traders were often brutal, they were not always working alone — many Africans were also complicit in this victimization. Precolonial empires such as Dahomey and Ashanti (located in what is now Benin and Ghana), where slave ports at Ouidah and Elmina flourished, accumulated enormous wealth and power as a result of the trade of their fellow Africans.

        In fact, Europeans often acted as junior partners to African rulers, merchants, and middlemen in the slave trade along the West African coast from the mid-15th century on. …”

        Plenty of bad behaviour to go around.

  4. Jill

    Lambert, I don’t think he threads this needle. You can buy a guy or a gal right now, to include babies and children of any color in the sex trade. His white girls are doing well because he has money and he seems to genuinely care about them. Starvation, lack of medicine, lack of schooling, beatings, no home, no love–these happen to white girls his daughter’s age right now. By failing to tackle his own class position, he misses real harm, both historic and present. This harm intersects with race.

    It is not necessary for a person who is pointing out the evils of racism to point out the evils of classism. However, once he brings in class, by failing to understand or acknowledge that evil, he ceases relaying accurate information. He is dismissing as inconsequential another evil, class, which like black slavery for many white people, passes him right on by.

    I notice that people often hold tightly to the ism they benefit from, even as they decry another. This must end. It is all wrong. Each form expresses itself in causing a unique harm to a certain group. It is necessary to understand that unique harm and it is necessary, ultimately, to understand the interconnectedness of harm.

    1. different clue

      Exactly so. The Upper Big Branch miners died for his sins. Or at least for his social class comfort. And for Jay Leno’s , too. And for sufferin’ succotash’s, too. Which is the nerve I think I hit up there.

    2. quixote

      Yup. No need to go back a century. You can buy women right now. Just because many of them are rented, doesn’t make it better. Rentals are treated worse than owned property. (For anyone who wants to jump in with “Oh but wage slaves just the same it’s a job” etc etc, remember the words of a sex worker. “Like being a cleaning lady? Yeah, I guess, if you had to clean the whole house with your tongue.”) And the really amazing thing? It’s so accepted the slave-owning class doesn’t even have a name for what they’re doing.

      Sex slavery is the most hideous modern slavery, but there’s no shortage of regular old straight-up labor slavery either. It’s everywhere. Developed world, less-developed, everywhere. How many slaves work for you?

      A nice planet Louis CK lives on, where all this was over before living memory.

  5. L.M. Dorsey

    …[T]here is every reason to believe that slavery, with its unique ability to rip human beings from their contexts, to turn them into abstractions, played a key role in the rise of markets everywhere.

    And, indeed, US slavery played a key role in the development of globalized industrial captialism. The mills of Manchester could not have been kept running incessantly without the cotton of the American South. See:

  6. steviefinn

    I imagine if anybody could go back far enough they would have ancestors who were slaves or slave owners in the traditional sense. As a youngster I knew about the Romans, but my main knowledge of slavery would have been in regard to African Americans, this would have been about the time ” Roots ” was the biggest thing on TV.

    I later discovered that slavery was very common in the period from the time the Romans left to about 1100 AD when it was banned in England. Previous to this pirates used the West coast of England to supply Ireland with slaves – the most famous example being St. Patrick. The West country was later to suffer 300 years from Barbary pirates, who during the 17th century it is estimated kidnapped an average of 1500 persons per year. It’s hard to imagine the fates of these men, women & children – although it was probably similar to what Africans suffered later at the hands of other Englishmen.

    Then there were the serfs or villeins who only managed to gain their freedom due to a third of them dying from plague in 1350. Due to the history I had been taught at school this all came as a bit of a shock as I still thought that Richard the Lionheart was a good guy. I suppose it’s very much like the subjects usually discussed here – the more stones you lift the grubbier it gets.

    1. Yves Smith

      Any nominally white American who has been in the US long enough has some black ancestors.

      BTW Mormon genealogies go to great lengths to create phony lineages to hide that fact.

      1. ambrit

        Not to mention the Mormons refusal to accept their close connection to that other North American “Lost Tribe,” the Sasquatch Peoples of the North West.

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    Re: …”[T]here is every reason to believe that slavery, with its unique ability to rip human beings from their contexts, to turn them into abstractions, played a key role in the rise of markets everywhere.”

    Assume Graeber is referring to financial markets. Don’t know about the correlation between the timeline of the rise of financial markets and that of slavery, as I seem to recall reading about the collapse of a market in Dutch tulip bulbs in 1637, which would have predated the rise of slavery. But phrases like …”Put your money to work?”… “Have your money in the market working for you?”… certainly provide food for thought regarding the respective roles of modern financial markets, finance and management accounting, together with legal structures such as corporations and limited partnerships, in converting human beings (and elements of the natural world) into mere abstractions.

  8. different clue

    I remember Mad Magazine used to have a feature called “Scenes we’d like to see”. Well, here is a scene I’d like to see.

    Louis CK and Chris Rock together on the same venue on the same TV cameras at the same time. Now Chris Rock is more intellectual and scholarly than what CK maybe gives him credit for. And Rock will have studied his subject and prepared himself. So Rock will know that CK claims descent from Hungarian Jewish immigrants.

    So picture this: someone steers the conversation to talk of White Privilege. And CK says something about “we White people . . . ” the dialog commences from there . . .
    Rock: ” Aren’t you Jewish?”
    CK: “Yeah”.
    Rock: “When and from where did your ancestors come here?”
    CK: (gives the facts and history . . . )
    Rock: “So you’re Hungarian Jewish?”
    CK: “Yeah”.
    Rock: ” So tell me this. If you’re Jewish . . . who died and made you White?”

    That’s a scene I’d like to see.

    1. Fred

      Different Clue:

      From your references to Upper Big Branch and Buffalo Creek, you must be an ‘eer.

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