25 March 2019

Zimbabwe: Of Race, Capitalism and Slavery

With world politics taking new twists and capitalism becoming the new norm in this globalised village, the temptation is to seek interfaces and or insights informing how hegemony shapes outcomes and relations.

The idea that some parts of the world are considered developed or First, and others Second or Third somehow points to differentiation based on superiority and inferiority complexes that history attempts to explain.

Historical explanations, however, like scholarly arguments, or any other debates in whatever area are often contentious since they are mostly subjective. There is always a standpoint, which standpoint is justified through arguments and counter-arguments ad infinitum.

Some debates even turn ugly, or degenerate into violent verbal or physical attacks; both literally and metaphorically. Some debates are known to go on for ages, especially in these days of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. People really get "personal", as they say.

Healthy as they may be, debates lose their essence if standpoints are rigid, interlocutors close out others through intimidation and instigation of fear in the claim that their argument is the Alfa and Omega of it all.

If there is a more contested terrain than the one that obtains between capitalism and slavery in the way the phenomena influenced or were/are influenced by racism, then debate is open to determine that. It is not the idea of this instalment to foreclose that debate, for as has been said, humanity learns through constant interaction.

Eric Williams easily comes to mind where the link between capitalism and slavery is involved.

In his book "Capitalism and Slavery" (1944), Williams seems to foreclose debate by perching on four propositions premised on economies of scale as determinants of slave labour opposed to morality, racism and socio-political considerations among other variables (Drescher 1987).

Though lacking on both conviction and observable reality, Williams argues that slavery was an economic phenomenon; and thus racism was a consequence and not the cause. He further avers that slave economies of the British West Indies contributed to the British Industrial Revolution. After the American Revolutionary War the slave economies declined in profitability and or importance to England; and that abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves in the West Indies were driven not by benevolence or humanitarianism, but by economic motives within England.

The reasons for slavery were not an issue of morality, Wakefield concurs with Williams, "but economical circumstances; they relate not to vice and virtue, but to production."

To put the foregoing debate in context, it is imperative to define the two terms that have put Williams in such a spot, and inspired scholarly and philosophical thought; capitalism and slavery. Giddens (1991) defines capitalism as "a system of commodity production, centred upon the relationship between private ownership of capital and propertyless wage labour, this relationship forming the main axis of a class system."

Slavery, as defined in the Slavery Convention of 1926, is "the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised," and slave refers to a person in such a condition.

Both capitalism and slavery as defined above hinge on the commodification of production with the Hegelian material gain as the ultimate goal, which leans towards Williams' idea of economic gain as the overriding motive behind slavery.

However, a close analysis of the terms reveal the complexity of human nature where time, place and space determine class stratification, with variables shifting through "discovery" of "empty space" and "remote region" (Giddens, 1991), thus, problematising what constitutes class systems and ownership.

In Williams' view, slavery in the Americas was a matter of "a specific question of time, place, labour and soil," with nothing to do with race, inferiority complexities and climate. However, Giddens (1991:18) argues that: "What structures the locale is not simply that which is present on the scene; the "visible form" of the locale conceals the distanciated relations which determine its nature.

"The dislocation of space from place is not, as in the case of time, closely bound up with the emergence of uniform modes of measurement. Means of reliably subdividing space have always been more readily available than means of producing uniform measures of time."

Therefore, if the locale simply maps out what it considers good for the distanciated basing on known modes of measurement considered uniform in terms of space and place in relation to time, there is an element of superiority inherent in humanity which leads to racism.

It is an issue of them versus us; "othering".

Williams' claim that the land, being abundant, there should be a distinction between free labour and coerced labour to determine profitability, in economic terms and not racial terms. This argument is premised on Wakefield, Merivale and Cairnes' ideas, who posit that where land is cheap and abundant "the natural inclination" to work on one's piece of land as opposed to paid labour, becomes paramount, thus, voluntary labour becomes scarce.

Consequently, coerced labour becomes the only way to go (Williams 1944). In concurrence with Wakefield, Merivale and Cairnes, Williams maintains that economies of scale in crops such as sugar, cotton and tobacco determined the adoption of slavery.

Williams argues that "subhuman characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalisations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labour and resorted to Negro labour because it was the cheapest and the best," (Williams 1944:20). This rationale finds favour in Green cited in Solow and Engerman (1987), who debunk the notion that blacks were "weaker and backward", hence, the need to "civilise" them.

However, this depiction of equality of classes loses hold if the Elizabethan period (Nov 17, 1558 to March 24 1603), during which William Shakespeare writes, is factored in. "The Merchant of Venice", "Twelfth Night", "The Tempest" and "Othello" all have racial connotations which were in existence in England as depicted also in Lope de Vega's plays, especially "El negro de major amo". In "Othello" Shakespeare is unequivocal with his blackmooring, even though he had never set foot in Africa, which has roots in the negative connotations of voyagers.

Before considered as slaves blacks already carried the tag of being "heathen", "ethnic" and "unChristian" (Sollors 1988). Christianity, therefore, was at the forefront in depicting the concepts of race and ethnicity, with blacks considered as pagans and savages requiring civilisation. They have to abandon their cultural and religious norms to be accepted, not on equal terms though, as a way of justifying slavery and colonialism. Blacks had to be psyched up to accept their condition.

Europe has always been contradicted in the perceived openness in its nature. The belief that blacks were "subhuman" as Williams disputes is rooted even in the way Queen Elizabeth 1 addressed the issue of blacks in her territory, as illustrated in the following: "Queen Elizabeth began to be discontented at the 'great number of Negars and Blackamoors which . . . are crept into this realm," and in consequence issued two edicts in 1599 and 1601 in which she commanded the infidels should be discharged out of Her Majesty's dominions" (Jones 1971:20).

The racial undertones in the Queen of England's words are glaring as the word "crept" suggests, and the fact that she went on to issue edicts to rid her "dominions" of "Negars and Blackamoors". For Williams, therefore, to blame racism on slavery without closely looking at the inherent nature of racism as exhibited in Europe, is rather unfortunate and weakens his argument.

Shakespeare plays into this status quo through portrayal of the inherent nature of superiority and inferiority complexes, with black characters relegated to demeaning roles.

Williams lacks conviction in his claim that racism was a consequence and not a cause of slavery. He should have delved into the reasons for enslavement of other races before blacks, beyond white indentured slaves that co-existed with blacks. As a phenomenon slavery has been in existence even in biblical times or before.

The depiction of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice", puts the rationale of racial discrimination into context.

Solow and Engerman (1944:14) point out that Williams "made no attempt to trace the subsequent path that led to racism or to investigate the power relationships and alienation associated with the institution."

With reference to Gee, Williams maintains that slavery stimulated industrial growth in Britain. He goes on to cite industries propelled by the Atlantic trade, giving impetus to the Industrial Revolution. On the contrary, however, Thomas cited in Solow and Engerman (1987) pokes holes in Williams claims by pointing out that the colonies contribution to the Empire was negative. Engerman (1987) concurs with Thomas, and further states that whatever profits accrued from the slave trade were too insignificant to be of any effect on British investment and income.

Although Solow, Inikori and Richardson attempt to give statistical estimates in support of Williams' proposition that British industrial growth hinged on the Atlantic slave trade and the increased demand for sugar, they falter on empirical evidence to sustain their argument.

The idea that land is infinite is unsustainable, that it can be worked on until it is tired or degraded is rather careless, which is the major reason why no meaningful investment was poured into mechanisation in eighteenth-century England. Large investments could have led to a decrease in slave labour and lowered the value of properties owned by slave owners, including slaves, a hotbed in the Americas and the West Indies.

Williams' claim that plantation profits were invested to heighten industrial growth is a fallacy, since growth can only be stimulated through widening the market in the case of sluggish investment and slow technical change (Ibid).

In his "Econocide" thesis Drescher concurs that slavery did contribute to the British economy, but goes beyond Williams to contend with Eltis and Temperley's takes that the contribution never diminished as a consequence of economic conditions, but suffered as a result of legislative acts of abolition and emancipation as opposed to British economic interests.

Drescher holds that by adopting antislavery measures, the British inflected severe economic losses on themselves. In Drescher's view any decline in West Indian production, slave imports as well as their share of trade in Britain in the period between 1783 and 1807 is evidence of permanent secular downturn.

As slavery was on the wane colonisation and political hold on colonies heightened. There was a lot that was happening that reducing it to economics alone will be tempting natural justice a notch too high.

Indeed, as Solow and Engerman (1987:11) aptly notes Williams "was right in his intuition but excessive in his claims and incorrect in some of his arguments." His attempt to foreclose debate by perching on an absolute economic position slackens when other socio-political and moral complexities are put into consideration.

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