Slavery, Racism, and Capitalism

The Internet, for all its flaws, excels at one thing: disseminating information. Not all of that information is factual, but as long as one understands that and takes everything with a grain of salt (and checks cited sources) it remains an invaluable tool for learning.

This piece was inspired by an enlightening thread started by Twitter user @anthoknees.  In it, he points to the common anti-Black (and anti-indigenous) bias shared not just by white people in America, but also people of various other ethnicities. In particular, a common lament in the Black community is the ease with which lighter-skinned people are able to benefit from perceived “whiteness,” a phenomenon known as white-passing. Those people are thus able to benefit from the structural systems of white privilege in Western society, even if they are themselves sometimes discriminated against as people of color.

The discussion brought me back to a point I had heard previously, which was how the enslavement of Africans in America had etched a discriminatory hierarchy in the nation’s psyche that has endured long after the actual institution passed. Wealthy whites were able to keep other poor white people under economic oppression, because they could point to the Black slave or the “savage native” and tell the white poor how they were superior because they were free and enlightened men. As settlers and migrant workers continued to arrive, they then assumed positions in this hierarchy founded on the backs of enslaved Africans, over the bodies of indigenous Americans. In this shared loathing of others, the capitalist oppressors were able to create a perverted sort of solidarity among the working poor to stifle resistance to their illegitimate exploitation.

How did this pernicious symbiosis between capitalism and slavery come about? To answer this question, we must examine the origins of slavery and capitalism together. It is worth studying the entire history of slavery for proper context;  an excellent synopsis can be found in the University of Houston’s Digital History publication The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery.

From Prehistoric Communism to Slavery

Let us begin in prehistoric times. Stephen Shenfield’s article Driven from Eden? points out how prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed copious amounts of leisure time, as they only needed to work 2-4 hours per day gathering food. These historical traits led Frederich Engels, in his treatise The Origins of the Family, to remark:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities.

Around 8000 BCE, however, a major shift in labor took place known as the Neolithic Revolution. At this time, the earliest “advanced” civilizations began to form in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley of India, and the Yangtze River Valley in China. One important factor all these civilizations shared was the systematic use of agriculture, as opposed to the occasional gardening that the mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers would engage in. Instead of all the members of the tribe engaging in brief amounts of work and sharing their resources, the concentrated resources of agricultural harvests–the first form of wealth–began to divide society into classes. Walls were built around villages to defend the wealth of the villagers from the surrounding nomadic tribes; we may presume that the walls were built through the promise of food for the laboring villagers, if not by outright coercion.

Slavery arose around the same time  as agriculture in these early civilizations. The first recorded reference to slavery is found in the Sumerian code of Ur-Nammu, but the actual practices clearly predate the text. The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery notes that slavery “was apparently modeled on the domestication of animals.” The earliest slaves appeared to be predominantly captives taken in battle. It was not until ancient Greece that slaves became a dominant part of the labor force. This practice was extended further in Roman times, and continued in the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia.

The Normalization of Slavery

The various contrived explanations for slavery found in societies that practiced it serve as evidence of its unnatural nature. Aristotle made the following claim in his Politics:

For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In Natural Right and the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery, Marquette professor Darrell Dobbs argues that Aristotle was not referring to any innate predisposition to slavery, but rather “child-rearing and other other cultural practices.” Regardless, arguing over whether Aristotle meant nurture when he talked about nature overlooks the fact that such dysfunctional forms of nurture would not exist without the institution of slavery. The argument, then, is rather tautological: slavery is natural because it teaches the enslaved that slavery is natural.

Examining another ancient society, in his 1994 work Race and Slavery in the Middle East Bernard Lewis writes:

The ancient Israelites did not claim that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, but, like the ancient Greeks, they felt the need to explain and justify the enslavement of their neighbors. In this, as in other matters, they sought a religious rather than a philosophical sanction and found it in the biblical story of the curse of Ham. Significantly, this curse was restricted to one line only of the descendants of Ham, namely, the children of Canaan, whom the Israelites had subjugated when they conquered the Promised Land, and did not affect the others.

These practices continued with the introduction of Islam in the 7th century CE, but it made several important legal changes as Lewis again notes:

The Qur’an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest. But Qur’anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.

Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war.

This made slavery under Islam more progressive than in Europe, where indentured servitude was a typical punishment for debt, as described in Digital History:

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, England’s population grew by a over a third–much faster than its economy. To address a sudden explosion of crime and poverty, England’s rulers forced the poor to toil in workhouses, and beginning in 1547, enslaved persistent vagabonds and branded them with the letter “S.”

Colonialism and a New World

The first slaves in the Americas were not indentured servants; they were indigenous peoples taken by none other than Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492, as described in the journal of his voyage:

“I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak.”

On October 14, he continued exploring the ways that the natives might be enslaved:

[F]or these people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.

Not coincidentally, the voyages of Columbus and other European explorers around this time were primarily focused on gaining wealth for their respective crowns, either through the acquisition of gold directly (as with Columbus and Cortez) or the lucrative trade in spices, tea, silk, and other exotic goods from Asia. Slavery, as an accepted part of European society, meant that these explorers had few to no moral qualms with the ruthless exploitation of indigenous peoples.

The discovery of precious metals and cash crops in the New World changed everything, for metals must be mined and crops must be planted and harvested. Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him turned to slavery as a means of obtaining more gold and silver once they had stolen all the valuables they could readily find. Sugar cane plantations sprung up all around the Caribbean. A substantial portion of the indigenous Taíno population and culture was wiped out between enslavement and diseases like smallpox on many of the islands, and this pattern repeated itself during colonization of the mainland to a lesser extent.

Europeans thus turned to Africa as a source of expendable labor, having been familiar with it through the slave trade maintained by the Arabs. With naval power of their own, they saw no need to let Arab slave merchants take a cut and went straight to West Africa to set up shop. Along the way, they learned of Africa’s own riches, setting the stage for the colonial exploitation that continues to this day.

The Genesis of Capitalism

No discussion of the history of capitalism would be complete without mentioning the 6-part documentary series Capitalism, which details how mercantilism evolved into capitalism. Again, I find it worthwhile to take a step back.

Roman society had many of the aspects that we now associate with capitalism, as argued in this Quora post. In that way, it was not very dissimilar from mercantilism: both periods had existing power structures that the merchant classes worked in, but did not upset. The collapse of Rome effectively put any further evolution of the merchant class on hold outside of the Arabic world for several hundred years.

Through the Middle Ages and into medieval Europe, merchants slowly gained increasing amounts of power under feudal lords, eventually coming to dominate societies such as the Republic of Venice. Much like modern capitalists, merchants derive their wealth from the labor of others by adding a “profit” margin to the goods they trade, but unlike capitalists, they did not typically control the labor of others directly. Most of the slaves in Europe were used in domestic service. Exploiting slave labor for the agriculture and the production of goods was more common in the Near East, particularly under Ottoman rule (Christoph Witzenrath, Eurasian Slavery, Ransom and Abolition in World History, 1200-1860, p.222).

Once the new-found merchant classes were dominant in their societies, they pushed to do what any self-respecting capitalist would do: expand. Venice developed an effective monopoly on trade within the Adriatic Sea. The tales of Marco Polo, himself a Venetian trader, inspired others like Columbus to set out for fame and fortune. Thus began the heyday of mercantilism, with the merchant class wielding considerable power and influence over society while remaining nominally obedient to their feudal lords.

The expansion to the Americas (and later Africa) upset the status quo. While colonization was conducted in the name of the crown, and typically financed by the treasury of the crown, it was primarily a private, for-profit enterprise. Forced labor provided its backbone.

Developments in common law created entities such as the British East India Company (ca. 1600) and Dutch East India Company (ca. 1602). These are generally considered to be the first multinational corporations, and they assumed a broad mantle of quasi-governmental powers that had formerly been reserved for the crowned nobility. The Dutch East India Company, in particular, was granted the power to wage war, set up colonies, negotiate treaties, execute convicts, and mint its own coinage. As I argued in my last piece, Why I’m Not Celebrating Constitution Day, the American Revolution resembled nothing more than a heavily-armed corporate tax revolt. This may explain the striking similarity between the flag of the East India Company and the Continental Congress’ Grand Union Flag.

To assume that the theories of Malthus, Ricardo and Smith mean that capitalism sprung fully-formed during the 19th century like Athena from the head of Zeus is silly. Capitalism is nothing more than the latest (quite possibly final) stage in the evolution of private wealth throughout the ages. Like all other economic systems going back to the dawn of agricultural civilization, it was built upon slavery and requires slavery to function.

While we may have fashioned ourselves progressive enough to abolish slavery, slavery is still a fact of life in most of the world. It may be explicit, like enslaved fishermen in southeast Asia, or implicit, in the form of wage slavery most of us take part in without realizing it. Even here in the United States, we have enshrined slavery to this very day in the very amendment that supposedly abolished it with these words: “except as a punishment for crime…”


The Enlightenment creates a monster

From the ancient world through the medieval era, race as we know it did not exist. Instead, most societies divided the world into a few groups: Jew and gentile for the Israelites; citizens and barbarians for the Greeks and Romans, etc. In both the Christian and Muslim world, people were divided based on believer and non-believer. The Muslim world experienced a schism immediately after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE between his followers and those who claimed Ali was the rightful successor, which developed into the present divide between Sunni and Shia. Much like Christianity, this initial schism led to further division and internal conflict, as well as the creation of violent reactionary sects.

While Christianity remained relatively united for the first millennium, the unity was enforced by the Roman Emperors starting with Constantine through a series of ecumenical councils, and various sects that were deemed heretical were violently persecuted. The fall of the western Roman Empire fueled further division as the Roman patriarch assumed more of the former western Emperor’s powers and often acted independently of the other patriarchs. This came to a head in 1054 CE when the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other amidst misunderstandings and intrigue in an event known as the Great Schism. Five hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation increased division further.

When they were not busy killing each other, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians alike found unity in persecuting the “others.” We may therefore infer that ‘whiteness’ as an identity has its origins in this European Christian identity based on the persecution of others. This “other” was usually broken down into further sub-groups: Jews, Muslims, and pagans, all of whom were to be treated with suspicion if not outright hostility. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are probably the best-known examples of Christian intolerance.

As the Enlightenment called various fundamental aspects of religion into question, and secularized governments around the world, it also altered this shared Christian identity. The notion of human species emerged, with three to five “races” as subtypes. Some ethnologists argued that the various “races” of humanity were in fact separate species. Christian was replaced with Caucasian while the various “others” were re-classified using various pseudo-scientific means like phrenology.

The end result of this ‘Enlightened’ quest to pigeonhole the wide variety of Homo Sapiens was found in the eugenicist policies supported by many progressive leaders in early 20th century America. Ironically, those same policies heavily influenced the Aryanism of Nazi Germany. Race was used to construct various justifications for the continued existence of slavery in America, and segregation after slavery was officially ‘abolished.’

This legacy of racism is toxic, and inextricably tied to the very notion of whiteness. Simply acknowledging that race is fictional does not absolve oneself of benefiting from its very real effects on society. To make matters worse, the re-emergence of religious conservatism has brought back the historical, religion-based forms of otherness. Even noted (white) atheists like Richard Dawkins have managed to muddy the waters by stoking Islamophobia while brushing off the very real threat of reactionary Christianity.

While there is no scientific basis for race, this social construction of race is very much real and has had an indelible effect on millions–if not billions–of lives over the last two centuries. That impact cannot be erased with a few words; the only suitable reparation for the impact of racism and religious intolerance is the dissolution and abolishment of the discriminatory systems that maintain both.

Abolish All The Systems

This may sound hyperbolic, but I am quite serious about it. Every aspect of modern society–from the way we live, the goods we buy, the churches we attend, to the politicians we elect–has been built around our oppression.

The way we live is a twisted parody of early civilizations. Instead of living in close-knit communities where resources are shared for the benefit of all, we build miniature castles anywhere we please, regardless of the impact to the environment or the potential usefulness of that land to society.

We regain some of that community by attending religious services with others, but any sense of community often disappears the moment we leave the church grounds. Furthermore, the divisive rhetoric often employed by religious leaders imposes unity within the community by creating an external, existential threat, whether it is another religious group, queer and non-binary people, or the very act of pleasure itself.

Liberal, republican politics, so rigidly clung to by those on the modern right and even the center-left, tell us that the most democratic form of government is one in which we the people surrender our collective power to an elite cabal of capitalists by voting for the best-sounding liar every few years. British humorist Douglas Adams brilliantly satirized this peculiar absurdity in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

It is a curious accident of history that we revere the ancient democracy of Athens, in which only the “citizens,” comprised of the upper class and wealthier parts of the middle class, were allowed to participate. The lower classes, such as the poor “free” men and of course the slaves, were disenfranchised, and women were not even considered a class of their own. But even the rigidly class-centric Athenian democracy was superior to modern bourgeoisie democracies in some regards: the very notion of electing officials was rightly regarded as oligarchic in nature, as Aristotle describes Spartan elections in his Politics:

By others the Spartan constitution is said to be an oligarchy, because it has many oligarchical elements. That all offices are filled by election and none by lot, is one of these oligarchical characteristics; that the power of inflicting death or banishment rests with a few persons is another; and there are others.

Going back to the beginning, we may re-examine prehistoric tribal society in this light. While these societies were unable to support the large populations of modern agricultural societies, they nonetheless were communal in nature, enjoyed substantial leisure time, and were broadly equal. The question that has plagued humanity since the institution of agriculture and forced labor, then, is how to regain this egalitarian sense of community without sacrificing the benefits of agriculture and other aspects of modern and industrialized society. We may even conjecture, to echo Marx, that there is an ancient spectre of Communism haunting modern civilization.


4 thoughts on “Slavery, Racism, and Capitalism”

  1. > The question that has plagued humanity since the institution of agriculture and forced labor, then, is how to regain this egalitarian sense of community without sacrificing the benefits of agriculture and other aspects of modern and industrialized society.

    Oh, that’s easy to resolve: you can’t.


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