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June 14, 2017


A world without slavery as an institution is relatively new in human history. Slavery was common and typical in ancient societies and was with us for thousands of years (and may still be with us in adulterated form today modified to fit our democratic institutions). It was un-condemned by religious as well as secular authorities in days of yore and was so common that it was considered a “given” (just the way things were) because in fact it was just the way things were. Jesus had little to nothing to say about the institution and the Apostle Paul used the phrase “whether slave or free” in adding slaves to gentiles who had a shot at heaven, but Christianity, like other religions of that day, had little to nothing to say about the moral component of the institution.

Slavery was at bottom an economic and not a moral issue in those times. Slavery provided zero labor costs and, for instance, slaves in cotton-picking economies in our American South and South American slaves who labored in gold and silver mines for the Spanish added to the bottom lines of those who produced cotton for the textile looms of Massachusetts and of Leeds and Manchester in England and for such bluebloods as Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain and their middlemen. As today, the cheaper the labor the fatter the bottom line, whether the proceeds wound up in the hands of royalty from the production and sale of cotton, precious metals, and monopoly trade granted by royal charter to the East India Tea Company for the Indian trade, or from private enterprise where kings and queens took their cuts from the proceeds, a rather cozy arrangement.

Though slavery was at bottom an economic institution, my thesis in this essay is that slavery as an institution has undergone considerable change and that, as it has evolved, is still with us today in modified form without the “loom or lash” arguments of Massachusetts abolitionists prior to our own Civil War, abolitionists who introduced a moral component to the idea that one human can own another one and that the latter is a mere chattel who can be bought or sold as in a cattle market.

I have often speculated that if Watt’s steam engine power which supplanted human labor and which drove the Industrial Revolution had occurred in the Congo instead of England that we white people might well have been the cotton pickers. It was an accident of history that we in this country associate slavery with black people; historically whites enslaved whites, blacks enslaved blacks, blacks enslaved whites, and yes, whites enslaved blacks. The sense of the times was that a slave was a slave, hence the Nubians in Egyptian history, the Jews in Babylonian and Assyrian history, among others. Cheap to zero cost labor, after all, knows no class or color. Such people are chattel property, and that’s the way it is. My side won, your side lost. I own you.

The booming textile looms of Manchester and Leeds in England before our Civil War depended heavily upon slave-picked cotton from our American South and England nearly went to war with the Yankee North when Northern ships blockaded Southern ports during the war and dried up their source of supply. It amounted (along with Luddite-type complaints) to an economic disaster for English textile manufacturers and some wanted England to go to war with the North (it would have been their third with us). Instead, thankfully, they quickly introduced cotton growing in Egypt on a massive scale to feed their hungry looms.

It is to be noted here that such English entrepreneurs had no compunctions with slavery as an institution; their choice of war that didn’t happen was purely economic, quite a different grounds for war than that of the abolitionists in Massachusetts, a state that also had a lively textile industry which depended upon cheap slave-picked cotton from the South. The abolitionists had a different take on slavery than one based purely on economics; they thought it was morally wrong. Imagine!

Per my thesis for this post, I see no difference between the views of the English entrepreneurs in their day than those of today’s employers who use their “middlemen” in the Congress to impose a new form of slavery upon the American workforce. Thus while the institution of slavery has evolved and employers today don’t put the lash to those who are unproductive or who “talk back” as in the antebellum old South, they can fire them, send their jobs offshore, play the “reduction in force” game to finance stock buybacks among other things, and via their state right to work and other such restrictive laws sponsored by their employers can see to it that their union representation is missing in action, all amounting to an economic “lashing” of the American workforce and without regard to race, color, gender etc. It’s an economic thing – their employers “own” them; they have no rights: they are once again chattels; their job is to further enrich the already rich. I call that a new form of slavery by political process.

Such employer tactics given legal force through their bought toadies in the Congress are not what we may think about when we think of the term “slavery” but I think that we need such a redefinition of just what slavery means as it is practiced today against a background of evolving norms of the institution and the intrusion of politicians into employer-employee relations. I submit that the practices of modern day slavery can be found in, for instance, median wages (as adjusted for inflation) that have not increased in forty years, union representation for workers’ rights that are virtually extinct since Reagan’s firing of the air controllers preceded by Powell’s infamous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on how businesses can take over the American political process (which they did), congressional refusal to provide a minimum wage that is a living wage (with its deadening effect on aggregate demand etc.).

So, are we slaves as measured by a redefinition of the institution of slavery? Yes. Welcome to the plantation! So what are we going to do about it? Easy. We will start with a change in the slave-holders’ captives among the sycophants in the Congress, elect “abolitionists,” abolish wage inequality, remove “chattel” from the lexicon and really make America great again, but an America for all the people and not just the coddled few, an America that fully and finally renounces slavery in all its forms. It won’t be easy and it won’t be soon, but our task is clear and our cause is just, so let’s get on with it.    GERALD     E






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