Monday, March 21, 2016

My Theory of Slavery and Other Oppressions

While I was recently visiting the Happiest Dogs in the World in Colorado my sister thoughtfully placed in my hand an excellent history of the West Indies sugar plantations, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War in the West Indies by Matthew Parker. It tells the story of the Brits in the sugar plantation game and the staggering fortunes that were made on this addictive drug, and also the staggering brutality of the slave plantation system.

One big takeaway from the book for me was that the early visitors to the sugar islands like Barbados did not so much rail against slavery as a system as comment on the cruelty and the brutality of the sugar masters towards their slaves.

The point is that cane sugar production was a highly organized and capitalized system. You needed to grow each batch of cane and harvest it at exactly the right moment so that it could be fed into the processing plant, including the "boiling" or reduction of the cane plant juice into sugar. Only the big boys could compete. Sounds just like the factory system that arose about a century after Brit adventurers transferred the Dutch sugar system from northern South America to the Caribbean island of Barbados in 1640.

Here's my take from The Sugar Barons. Slavery was just a part of the way things were up until it got scaled up into a capitalist endeavor on the sugar islands. Then, and only then, did people start to look at slavery with new eyes, and think back from the individual acts of cruelty and brutality to the idea that the domination and oppression of one human by another was an unjust and evil thing.

Same thing with the workers. I am sure that workers in every walk of life have been cruelly treated and exploited by their masters since the dawn of time. But when the industrial revolution brought hundreds and thousands of workers into a single manufactory and subjected them to industrial discipline, then and only then did people start to discover a moral problem with the exploitation of man by man.

Likewise the end of feudalism. I am sure that serfs and peasants were buffed about by their lords since time immemorial, not to mention droit du seigneur and all that. But when the Tudors disarmed the nobles and nationalized the armed forces and the nobles chucked their now useless peasants off the land so they could make money from agricultural improvements, then we had a scandal of landless peasants and predatory vagabonds that prompted the Tudors to enact a Poor Law to "do something" about the problem.

So my theory is that capitalism, with its concentration of resources and its scaling-up of economic activity, creates a scandal out of injustices that were just accepted as the "way thing are" in olden times.

It's one thing to oppress and starve peasants out on the feudal manor, but another thing when the landless are nationalized by the end of feudalism.

It's one thing to have house slaves and harems and beat them and exploit them and rape them, but another thing when you scale slavery up to a sugar plantation and the white overseers are casually raping and beating everything that moves.

It's one thing to starve and exploit your 'prentices in your family shop or business. It's another thing to exploit hundreds or thousands of workers in a big industrial plant.

Notice that I am not saying that we are morally superior to our ancestors. I am just saying that the modern era has shone a light into dark corners and that we have not liked what we saw. So we made the depopulation of the countryside into a scandal; we made plantation slavery into a problem; we made factory labor into a scandal.

One other thing that has been scaled up in the modern era is government. You could say that in the old days the petty oppressions of small governments were just part of the way things are. But now, with big government maybe it is time to shine a light into the oppressions that big government presses onto the brow of modern people. Like the sugar barons, our modern ruling class focuses on its power project; the people it crushes under its heel are just collateral damage.

But if my theory is correct our ruling class has a rendezvous with history. The huge scaled-up operations of modern government are going to bring its casual oppressions into sharp relief. Maybe that's what the Trump phenomenon is all about.

No comments:

Post a Comment