Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Enslaved to the System

What was the primary cause of the Civil War? Most Northerners, among whom I self-identify, would say that the War Between the States was fought mainly because of slavery and the desire to abolish such a sinful system.

But from the time of the War until the present many Southerners have disagreed. They would be more likely to say that the South launched the Civil War, which started 150 years ago last month, in order to protect their way of life and to preserve the rights of the Southern states.

And the Southerners may be right. It seems that freeing the slaves was not uppermost even in Lincoln’s mind at the beginning of the War. Preserving the Union was. Two years before becoming President he uttered the well-known words, citing Matthew 12:25, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”

Slavery was certainly a pivotal issue, but preserving the Union seems to have been Lincoln’s major concern. During the second year of the War, though, Lincoln did decide that freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, and long before the War ended, on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

But what about the argument of the Southerners; why do I say they may be right? I think it is clear that their major concern was, in fact, preserving their way of life. But the problem is, their way of life depended on slavery. The affluent lifestyle of the landowners was made possible only by their slaves.

Yet in another sense the Southerners were wrong: the war was about slavery. They, as well as most Northerners, were enslaved to the system, the system of capitalism. And in the South capitalism depended on the continuation of slavery.

Capitalism is a great system for those who have capital. It is not so great for those who have nothing to sell but their labor. And it was an extremely bad system for those who were slaves of the capitalists, which is what all slave-owners were.

So it can be argued that the central issue of the Civil War was largely an economic one. The Southerners did not particularly hold animosity toward their slaves. True, some slave-owners did mistreat their slaves just as some farmers mistreated their horses. But most didn’t.

The Southerners didn’t favor slavery because of their dislike of those dark-skinned people who worked for them in the cotton fields and elsewhere. They supported slavery almost entirely for economic interests, although there were other personal benefits that accompanied having slaves in the household.

Those who had the biggest financial stake in preserving slavery tended to be the biggest supporters of the Civil War, and most of those who fought against slavery were largely those who had few, if any, direct economic ties to the system of slavery.

And now in the 21st century, perhaps most of us in this country, and especially the politicians in charge of the legislative and executives branches of the government, seem to be largely enslaved to the corporations, the bastion of capitalism, just as the Southerners were enslaved to the system of slavery in the middle of the 19th century. 

When and how will emancipation come this time?


  1. Excellent question, Leroy. I suspect we in the U.S. are in for a decades-long subservience to corporate interests. The ideologues on the right have been working very hard since the '70s (see Richard Vigueries' The New Right: We're Ready Lead) to capture the culture, and they've been succeeding so far, so it seems to me. They have the money and the momentum. Commentators have been remarking in amazement at how many people whose personal interests do not lie with laissez-faire economics are convinced that this is the way to go.

    We're disempowering government by cutting off revenue streams; we're breaking the power of unions, although they were already historically comparatively weak; and we're looking for new ways to put everything from schools to infrastructure at the mercy of a market economy.

    I've been imagining recently how much fun it's going to be in the future for seniors who will get to use their medicare vouchers to negotiate with an unregulated health-care insurance industry, and their social-security funds to invest in a myriad of brokerage houses, also more-or-less regulated.

    Of course, when things get bad enough for enough people, they will revolt at the voting booth. In the meantime, we have some very interesting and, if I'm right, unusually cruel times ahead.

  2. Here are some important comments received in an e-mail yesterday from a Thinking Friend in Kentucky:

    "While you are right to note that 'dislike' does not describe most slave owners feelings toward their slaves. But mastery was all important--brutal whippings particularly for those trying to escape (a 'capital' loss potential?). Black women had no choice but to accept a sexual relationship.

    "I was at Ghana's 'White Castle' (a British fort built in the 1600s) on Cape Coast last summer. There I learned that black captive women who resisted sexual advances were condemned to foul living conditions until they changed their minds. And should they become pregnant, were often killed since that cost their 'sale-ability.' The irony of walking into the slave dungeon where men were packed in shoulder to shoulder, seeing the marks on the walls of how human excrement had filled and knowing that the chapel was built on top of it! I saw the door named, 'the door of no return' where the slaves were forced onto ships--one fourth of them died in route to their destinations.

    "I take pride in that a great uncle of mine was locked in his cabin by the ship captain. He was aboard a ship sailing up the St. Lawrence Seaway. He had spoken so sharply to the southerns about how they were mistreating their slaves that the captain was afraid the Southerners would throw him overboard."

  3. The first major battle of the War Between the States began with the First Battle of Manassas. The first major battle of the Civil War began with the First Battle of Bull Run. And we wonder why the North and the South cannot agree on whether the war was about slavery!

    Newt Gingrich was just quoted as saying that the 2012 election will be the most important election since 1860. So what does he expect in 2013?

    Actually, the war never really ended. All that is missing is enough fanaticism to escalate mutual contempt into open conflict. So we continue at a dull roar. Although, if the United States voluntarily defaults on its debt this summer, we may experience more history than we planned on!

    The core of Southern sensibility is an exalted concept of property rights. Property rights trump everything else. Parallel to the lives of the black victims of Jim Crow were the white victims of "white trash" ideology. The modern debate over whether large segments of our population are racist hangs on the issue of whether the class distinction between whites is just as powerful as the racial distinction between white and black. In a world where it is seriously argued that Americans do not have a right to healthcare, quality education, or a minimal retirement pension, does it really matter?

    The United States Supreme Court is rapidly moving to give large corporations rights that individuals can hardly comprehend, or counteract. Money is speech. Corporations are persons. Property rights trump everything else. Welcome to the new feudalism.