Understanding Slaveowners

Before I forget, the piece that Lars Walker wrote was linked to another article of his, on the difficulties we encounter in teaching young Americans how to understand the mindset of slaveowning ancestors.
Here's the embarrassing truth in civilization's closet: it demands cheap labor. The philosopher can't meditate, the artist can't paint or sculpt, the astronomer can't contemplate the heavens, if he has to spend the bulk of his time tending his own fields, caring for his own livestock, or cleaning his own house. The higher the civilization, the more slaves it requires. It was like that from the beginning of the world until the Industrial Revolution. (There was a brief break in parts of Europe following the Black Death, but that was a demographic anomaly, it seems to me.)

The Industrial Revolution (a blessing from God, in my opinion) made it increasingly possible to carry on the work of civilization using machines rather than slaves for the scut work. And as soon as that happened, the scales fell from the eyes of the Christians, and they said, "Hey! I never noticed it before, but this slavery business is really cruel."...

Understanding these facts doesn't justify slavery. All it does is make it understandable. It opens a door of human sympathy to people who were different from us.
By way of which, let me recommend to you one of the most interesting and entertaining works of history you will ever encounter: Dr. Kenneth S. Greenberg's Honor & Slavery. I'm sure I've mentioned it before (for example here). It is subtitled, "Lies, duels, noses, masks, dressing as a woman, gifts, strangers, humanitarianism, death, slave rebellions, the proslavery argument, baseball, hunting, and gambling in the Old South."

In addition to being hugely entertaining and informative, for many of you there is a personal reason to read the book. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably feel as I do that honor is and ought to be a major motivating value in your life. Dr. Greenberg's book is a helpful way to deepen your understanding of how honor was practiced in an earlier generation, and also to demonstrate some of the perils of honor as a value system.

I remain entirely committed to living by the old code -- which I take to be far older than the period of American slavery -- but I think reading the book helped me understand better how to do it without falling prey to the traps that captured our ancestors. Rarely can anyone deeply understand an organic system to which they do not belong -- an outside observer of a religion or a culture has a huge task simply to understand the system. Dr. Greenberg not only came to understand, at least in part, his perspective usefully improved my understanding of a system I was born into. That's a high accomplishment for a scholar.


douglas said...

"The Industrial Revolution (a blessing from God, in my opinion)"

Tell that the creator of the London Olympic opening ceremonies.
Of course, if you took him, or any of the like minded Gaia worshippers and made them live as if they were in the 18th century, they'd change their minds rather quickly, I think.

Maybe that's the ticket. Get them onto a reality T.V. show like Frontier house (or Colonial house, or Victorian Farm, or Edwardian Farm...)

Eric Blair said...

That's a poor reading of civilization. It's not cheap labor that's required, it's *specialization* that's required.

Heinlein to the contrary, specialization is not just for insects.

And frankly, nobody is ever that good about talking about the less savory bits of their ancestors.

Grim said...

I think the point is that specialization requires a lot of labor: instead of a philosopher or astronomer, think of a blacksmith. This guy's really useful, but he doesn't actually produce any food himself.

And to specialize, he needs a long learning period. Somebody has to provide his food while he's still not quite good enough to provide his labor. That person (once, the master under which he was apprenticed) has to be able to focus on the education of the apprentice as well as his own work; but he has to eat too.

A hunter/gatherer society can't afford that. In order to afford the civilization, then, somebody has to be doing the work of producing the food for others so that they can study and specialize. The people doing the low-skill work of producing the food aren't earning at the same rate as the specialists; but we couldn't have the specialists if they weren't out there working.

This is really Marx's point about value being extracted from the laborers; and the objection to it is the one you're raising, which is that the specialists are producing value (and therefore wealth) on a scale the laborers could never have done on their own. But there remains the point that the laborer's work is a necessary condition for that prosperity, too. We tend to compensate them at a lower rate (especially when they were unfree), but insofar as they are necessary to the process...

Eric Blair said...

AND MARX was WRONG about that, because you and he are assuming that there's some 'slave' producing the surplus food that enables the specialization, as opposed to 'hey, we live in the fertile crescent and one guy can end up producing enough food to feed more than himself.'

It is most emphatically not a zero-sum game.

Grim said...

I think I allow for Marx to be wrong about that in the comment above; but the reasons why he were wrong are manifold. Eliminate slavery: well, we did that a while ago. Is there a slave producing produce? No; but in practical fact, there's an illegal alien who (by virtue of being illegal) lacks the usual protections regarding salary and benefits.

The problem is still there. The unskilled laborer is most easily replaced, and so he faces the strongest economic pressures. But the system depends upon him -- it really does. He is a necessary condition. That's interesting, and it's problematic.

Gringo said...

The Industrial Revolution (a blessing from God, in my opinion) made it increasingly possible to carry on the work of civilization using machines rather than slaves for the scut work. And as soon as that happened, the scales fell from the eyes of the Christians, and they said, "Hey! I never noticed it before, but this slavery business is really cruel."...

An irony here is that a mechanical invention, the cotton gin, gave slavery more life by making cotton farming more productive. Had the cotton gin not been invented, we would not have seen the great expansion of cotton production in the 19th century in the South.

Even more ironic given the New England origins of Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. Eli Whitney's promotion of interchangeable parts also contributed to the Industrial Revolution.

Eric Blair said...

Grim, society today doesn't depend on cheap strawberries.

You've basically bought off on the Marxist narrative of history, and I don't think you realize it.

Grim said...

I wouldn't say that I buy anything like Marx's theory of history; I'm certainly not an economic determinist. I think military force often determines what economic models are viable, for example; Marx would hold something like the opposite.

(Marx would argue that it's the economic system that allows the institution and maintenance of military force; but military force can be predatory at first, and thus not dependent on any given model; and then, having instituted control, can select from several economic models that may be viable. The feudal system is based on rents, for example; but in Spain many places maintained the old Roman tax-based system even as the Feudal mechanisms developed elsewhere. To some degree, you could decide which one you preferred).

I also don't buy Marx's Hegelian theory of inevitable evolution of history; and I fully endorse Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction and the ossification of monopolies.

So, really, that's a rejection of at least 95% of the model. Even in the labor theory of value, which is the 5% where I think there might be a useful point, I'd discard most of it: just not all of it. There is a point at which we find that there is a necessary condition in the labor of people who aren't treated very well by the system that depends upon them.

Strawberries may be dispensable, but wheat isn't: America grows 94% of her own wheat, and is the largest exporter of wheat in the world. Most of it is grown on big corporate farms, so that's a lot of capital investment (another necessary condition to farming on this scale); but see here.