Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Our Founding Fathers"

(I read about the following in Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism):

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both expressed misgivings (and sometimes rhetorical opposition) to the institution of slavery. There was even some disagreement about the issue of slavery among the US ruling class in the 1790s.

But despite the personal misgivings either Madison or Jefferson may or may not have had, their rationale for upholding slavery as a national economic institution could not be clearer. As Jefferson saw it, the "cost" of abolishing slavery was much higher than whatever "benefits" it might provide for the ruling class. He writes: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation on the other".

James Madison, likewise, declared that slavery was a "moral, political and economical evil". But Madison didn't stop there, he quickly followed up with qualifications. Despite this evil, he argued, "there could be much improvement" in slave culture, "particularly where slaves are held in small numbers by good masters and managers". More importantly, he added, the "costs" outweighed the "benefits" for the ruling class.

If there were no slaves, Madison asked, "will you [i.e. members of the ruling class] cultivate the land yourself? Then beware of the difficulty of procuring faithful and complying laborers. Will you dispose of its leases? Ask those who have made the experiment what sort of tenants are to be found where an ownership of the soil is so attainable".

Note the dispassionate, cold, calculating character of the arguments. They acknowledge that the enslavement of human beings is morally repugnant... but their final arguments have nothing whatsoever to do with human beings. Their resting argument could be expressed in quantitative terms, with numbers and equations. Concern for human beings as such doesn't enter into their calculations at all.

The Jefferson/Madisonian reasoning seems to be this. "We" (i.e. the ruling class) would like to maintain our ruling status. In order to do this, we need to find a way to best invest our present holdings such that we can get steady, maximally large returns. "Procuring faithful and complying laborers" is difficult to do. Hence we should maintain the institution of slavery in order to secure a steady source of profits and power.

This instrumentalizing, objectifying way of thinking about human beings characteristic of industrial capitalism (what Lukacs and others came to call "reification"), was what Martin Luther King, Jr. was picking up when he said:
When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together...A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them, make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments... and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say "America, you must be born again!".

1 comment:

fwoan said...

I read that book last year - loved it.