OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Picking cotton in leg-irons is very slow work. So instead – and with very few exceptions – slaves are held in their servitude not by leg-irons but by there being nowhere else to go, and there being no access to the means of survival save by submission. This invisible bondage is especially the case if the slave herself has mouths to feed. And yet, according to feminists, this precisely describes most women under patriarchy; and according to marxists, most workers under capitalism. Hence the oft-cited collapse of the distinction, save in name only, between patriarchy, capitalism, and slavery. 

Needless to say I think this reduction is too quick, but it’s not too too quick. But my quarrel is not with the reduction per se, but with its moral import. The feminist and marxist think that since slavery is inarguably immoral, so are patriarchy and capitalism. But hold on. What if slavery isn’t inarguably immoral? Huh?! Patriarchy and/or capitalism might still be immoral on independent grounds. I have nothing to say about that. But it can’t be immoral because slavery is if slavery isn’t.

Because a return to institutionalised slavery would be unthinkable today, we often forget just how recent that unthinkability has been. If you asked the ancients whether slavery is morally defensible they wouldn’t have understood the question. There’s no objection to slavery in either Judaism or Islam. And in claiming that there’s neither slave nor master as far as God is concerned, the early Christian church wasn’t declaring itself pro-abolition.  

None of the European powers had a problem buying slaves in Africa and shipping them to the New World. Neither did the Creek Nation of eastern Oklahoma have a problem with buying some to work their cotton fields. For that matter, the colonial powers didn’t introduce slavery to the New World. In 1491 slavery was pervasive from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Salish of (what is now) coastal British Columbia went shopping for slaves as far south as (what is now) northern California.

The logic behind the ubiquity of slavery isn’t rocket science. Of all the beasts of burden on the planet, the homo sapien is orders of magnitude the easiest to train. Why? Because on pain of the lash he can be simply told what to do. As, under patriarchy, can she. As, under capitalism, can the worker. Arbeit Macht Frei may have been a lie, but at least the sign was clearly legible.

Where slavery sets itself apart, assuming it does, is that the slave, unlike the woman or the worker, enjoys no protection from the state. In fact the master can count on the assistance of the state in recovering his runaway property. That’s some consolation, concedes the feminist and the marxist, but as often as not not a whole lot.

We also forget how only relatively recently it’s been that we were able to exploit skin colour to preclude slaves dissimulating as freemen. For most of human history the slave was captured from the tribe just over the hill. In fact there’s probably no one on the planet whose ancestors were not at one time enslaved by the ancestors of his current next door neighbour. But we don’t think of this because neither is there anyone on the planet whose ancestors were not slaves and slave owners. This is because owners have always found their slaves fetching; and slaves have always exploited that fetchingness to raise their offspring out of what would otherwise perpetuate their condition.

If this be doubted, look at the complexion of African Americans, many of whom, though counted as black, are no blacker than I am. Now how do you suppose that happened? Rape, certainly. But we’re all the products of rape. So there’s something unseemly – is there not? – in thinking there’s anything remarkable about the ancestry of African Americans.

Of course to move from the ubiquity of slavery to its moral acceptability is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. That is, if you can’t get an ought out of an is, neither can you get one out of a was. But pursuant to the axiom that all is permitted save what is prohibited, the onus is on the abolitionist to show why slavery is morally impermissible. She doesn’t deny that animal husbandry is permissible. Nor does she deny that humans are animals. So she needs to cite the distinction between animal and human husbandry that grounds the permissibility of the one and the impermissibility of the other. And that, I submit, she cannot do. 

What she can do, I have no doubt, is cite such circumstances – including those that pertain almost everywhere today – under which the enslavement of other human beings has proven imprudent. But that speaks not at all to its having always been imprudent. Without the galley slave there would have been no Pax Romana. African Americans complain that American prosperity is built on the bent backs of their ancestors, by which is meant, presumably, that pace slavery America would not enjoy the prosperity it does. I have no doubt this is true. But then what exactly is the complaint?

Scripture tells us that my ancestors were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. There’s a growing body of evidence among Egyptologists that that’s probably not true. But even if it were, what’s the statute of limitation on compensation? To whom is that compensation owed? And to whom should the bill be submitted for payment?

These are the questions it doesn’t pay to ask. In any event, the present-day Egyptian is no more the descendant of the Egyptians of 3500 BCE than is the present-day Italian the descendant of the Romans. By contrast, the American people are still reaping the dividends of the lashes on black backs, and black backs still bear the scars from those lashes. But to suppose there’s a moral debt requires a moral theory that is unlikely to be forthcoming. Many marxists claim that American prosperity post-Emancipation is parasitic on the economic enslavement of contemporary Africans. One wonders how willing American blacks are to pay compensation to the descendants of their ancestors’ aunts and uncles who were left where they were.

What this shows, if it shows anything, is not that black Americans should quit their whinging. All it shows, if it shows anything at all, is that they do themselves an argumentative disservice by pegging their grievances, legion and legitimate as they are, on some moral injustice. Just as we’re all the products of rape, every one of us, black or white, has been a slave-owner, and many of us, depending on how we treat our women or employees, still are.  



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. The statute of limitations on ancient grievances keeps being extended until one day there will be a consensus that it should not be further extended. Until then a baby born in Egypt tomorrow will owe reparations to a Jewish baby born in Israel or anywhere else (although good luck in collecting on that debt). And the grandchildren of these yet unborn babies will also owe and be owed reparations. Likewise African Americans and Indigenous Canadians will be owed for what happened to their ancestors.

    There’s nothing more profitable than an inherited grievance. It takes no capital investment, no expenditure and no risk. All it takes is claiming the right ancestors, some activist supporters and a few demonstrations with the appropriate placards.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paul said, “So she needs to cite the distinction between animal and human husbandry that grounds the permissibility of the one and the impermissibility of the other. And that, I submit, she cannot do. ”

    So say scholars at Critical Animal Studies: https://www.criticalanimalstudies.org

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: