Monday, October 31, 2011

Slavery and Debt

David Brion Davis makes the point, somewhere or another, that the writing wasn't developed to create love poetry but rather to make clear who owned whom. Slavery, in other words, is a bed-rock institution of civilization whether western or other. 

As I mentioned, I think David Graeber's argument in Debt has a problem with slavery. On pages 167-8, for example, he suggests that most found slavery "perverse," "unnatural," and "tawdry." On 168, he insists that no one ever took the justifications for slavery seriously. This is an odd and very difficult to maintain argument. For most of human history, as he mentions on 167, slave revolts aimed not at the institution of slavery but rather on the fact that this slave and his fellows objected to they themselves being enslaved. Spartacus, in other words, wasn't striking a blow for universal brotherhood and freedom but rather for his personal freedom and, almost assuredly, his desire to return home and continue to his life with his slaves. Haiti's slave revolt is another example, as is  Cabeza de Vaca's time among the natives when he was enslaved and yet retained ownership of his "black." Graeber metions the odd case of Equiano (167) a former slave who had to be convinced to become an abolitionist. Slavery was an institution like any other and, with the exceptions of the few like the Greek Skeptics and the Quakers -- one of whose diary you can and should read, it was accepted.

He makes the rather astonishing claim that by 600 CE
the slave trade appears to have died off, and slavery itself was a waning institution, coming under severe disapproval from the Church. (171)
As evidence for this he offers this bit of nonsequetor
St. Patrick, one o f the founders of the Irish church, was one of the few of the early Church Fathers who was overtly and unconditionally opposed to slavery.  (171, note 15)
In Charlegmagnes capitulatory of 802 we find :
Secondly, that no one, either through perjury or through any other wile or fraud, or on account of the flattery or gift of any one, shall refuse to give back, or dare to abstract or conceal a slave of the emperor, or a district or territory or anything that belongs to his proprietary right; and that no one shall presume to conceal or abstract, through perjury or any other wile, fugitive fiscaline slaves who unjustly and fraudulently call themselves free. 
 The Church so  hated slavery that it named Karl der Grosse Holy. There is little in the way of evidence that the Church took any steps, beyond rhetorical moves like discouraging Christians from enslaving Christians, which no one heeded, to end slavery. Indeed the rapidity with which the Iberians and others created slave-based society in the New World and the  wide-spread slave trade, with which the Church was complicit, is evidence of the Church's lack of concern about slavery as an institution.

Or consider the Graeber's claim about no one taking justifications for slavery seriously and Stephens' famous Cornerstone Speech.
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
As I said last time, I am not at all clear as to what good these, and other errors on slavery's history, do for his argument. One thing they do do, however, is undermine his attempt to get his history right as a means of overcoming others' errors.

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