Matthew Desmond’s Vulgar History in the New York Times Project 1619


[Keep It Plain] 

A Black soldier in the union army, 1864. Thousands fought bravely and preserved the union and liberate this country. This journey continues. Source: Wikimedia Commons via Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

November 10, 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of our forcible landing on the shores of these United States. The genocidal and immoral exploits of Christopher Columbus on the continent of Africa and in the Americas culminated in our mass enslavement and producers of free labor to these shores and in the Americas. Columbus is directly responsible for the subsequent demise of millions of Africans which has continued to this day in one form or another, throughout the African diaspora. 

The only achievement of note by this man is that he found a way to sail across the Atlantic and back, avoiding the influence of the North Equatorial Current. The New York Times has instituted an initiative called the 1619 Project which is supposed to be “observing” the 400th anniversary of our arrival and subsequent enslavement; this is done through a series of articles by bourgeois scholars and profiles on some African Americans. 

Once again Whites are confused by the fallacy of White privilege that makes them believe they know our History more than us and have exclusive understanding of the sociology of the Black experience. That being said, the most contentious piece is the article “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to The Plantation” by Matthew Desmond a professor of sociology at Princeton and; the attendant commentary by John Phelan an economist at The Center of The American Experiment. 

The gist of Matthew Desmond’s article is an attempt to equate capitalism with slavery and Phelan’s misunderstanding of the role slavery played in the development of the United States as an economic and military superpower. To-date society has had three distinct modes of production: hunters and gatherers, feudal/agrarian systems and capitalism. The way goods and services are produced and distributed as well as the ownership of the productive means, determine the economic system in question and the nature of the society. 

Slavery occurred during an agrarian economic system; the products were agricultural regardless of what the final use form turned out to be. The labor used to produce and harvest those products were not “free” labor but that of enslaved people. The people providing the labor were captured and lured from Africa and, forcibly brought to the United States and the Americas, to work on the plantations. The uncompensated labor provided by the enslaved Africans provided the landowners and the other members of the ruling class with significant wealth and therefore laid the basis for the primary accumulation of capital. This accumulation of capital produced by the labor of enslaved Africans put the Southern landowners and ruling class in an advantageous position to enter the emerging stage of capitalist production thus joining the industrial revolution already developing in the North.

There is no real or imagined comparison between slavery and capitalism; one is a theory and practice of genocide, dehumanization and unbridled torture used to maintain an agrarian society the other, a mode of production where the surplus accrues to the owners of capital. Contrary to Desmond’s “enslaved workers” the Africans were not considered as workers but part of the landowner’s material inventory which he can use, refuse, replace as he sees fit and “destroy.” I’ll not waste valuable space in repeating the well known facts of the Africans “working from sun up to sun down” and in some cases before sun up; one scholar suggested that the do-rag is a spin off from the dew-rag used by the women to cover their heads in the early morning mist. This helped to prevent them from catching a cold and making them sick which could turn out to be physically harmful and life threatening. 

The constant supervision by the overseer ensured that the expected quotas were met in productivity. If an enslaved African was considered as not fulfilling his or her quota, they were severely beaten and inhumanely punished; they had to be sick close enough to death not to be in the fields. Fear, rape and other forms of intimidation were used especially toward the women, to guarantee loyalty to the owner and the plantation. Children were removed and sold to other owners as part of trade and intimidation tactics.

With the advent of capitalism, the agrarian economy with the use of slave labor became nonproductive and costly to maintain so its dissolution was inevitable. The labor provided under capitalism is paid labor in the form of wages. The worker is, in theory, protected by a Union and governmental legislation. Certain social and financial benefits are awarded to the worker in return for their labor-power. The worker, if disgruntled, can complain to his Union to bargain and negotiate on his or her behalf; the worker can strike if adequate working conditions are not provided. There are of course consequences. 

The supervision and productivity monitoring of the worker is done through evaluation interviews and reports or CCTV cameras; non or under-performance results in termination, demotion or reassignment; never floggings. The attempt to equate the labor conditions of slavery with that under capitalism in its infancy or monopoly stage is vulgar, intellectual buffoonery and textbook scholarship.

As to the commentary by Phelan, this is another reason why people like him should just leave the issue of reparations to those of us who understand it. Whether it was $600 million or $77 million that the labor of enslaved Africans contributed to GDP, the fact remains that the labor gave the ruling classes the financial base to enter the industrial age and resuscitate their fledgling agrarian economy. 

Secondly, every White person directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, benefits from the oppression, degradation and dehumanization of Black people. This occurs whether through wage disparity, redlining in housing, mass incarceration or police brutality. Black people have consistently experienced these atrocities as part of their existence in the United States.

Black people pay taxes as continued contribution to the development of the Republic. Reparations has nothing to do with taking “billions of dollars from one group of Americans and give them to another group.” The State of Israel gets $38 Billion in taxpayer money each year. Saudi Arabia and other reactionary regimes get billions of dollars in taxpayer money–the U.S. also provides a security umbrella to protect the oil–which help them to finance and carryout genocidal wars in and outside their borders. I guess this is acceptable to Phelan. 

As a collective, the people who laid the financial basis for this superpower should be compensated in whatever form is the most feasible, acceptable and socially efficient way for the 300 plus years of unpaid labor and the most tyrannical and degrading period ever in history. 

The theory and practice of slavery is our holocaust and an egregious wrong need to be addressed definitively; reparations is one such way.


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