“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
– Henry David Thoreau
So I often read the writings and scribblings of the nineteenth century abolitionists in America and come away confused by the lack of taking their sophisticated arguments about the ownership of other humans to the obvious conclusion. While they fought mightily against chattel slavery, they tend to give a Gallic shrug to taxation and regulation slavery or not even address the implication of their introspection. The harnessing of individual time, resources and volition in the fields in perpetuity with the deed to their lives held by the plantation owner certainly puts a finer point to slavery but the more ”civilized” variations on human ownership in modern nation-states begs the questions.
Somewhat like being opposed to killing unless it came with government approval from the newest slave masters on the block – the state. War is the health of the state but as the old saw goes, if you kill privately, you will be held to account but if you are conscripted, handed a rifle and play “plink-a-pinko” for the state, you get a free pass; much like the police state in America today where the cops have a literal license to maim and kill and charge the taxpayers for the cleanup.
Whether Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison or other abolitionist worthies from the nineteenth century, with the noble exception of the great Lysander Spooner, none took their umbrage at human ownership by others to its logical conclusion. Most dared not understand the foundational relationship between the state and the institution of slavery. It was the mortar and glue that maintained the depth and breadth of Greco-Roman civilization in the West. The feudal variations may have been the embryonic foundation of the modern slave societies in the West where total ownership was not in the mix but freedom was conditional on the amount of tribute, time and resources was surrendered at gunpoint in the name of civilization. After the West abandoned chattel slavery, the more hidden and tangential forms of slavery started to advance and spread throughout the body politic finding champions and apologists across the political spectrum. Excepting the anarcho-capitalists, rare is the Western political construct that calls for a total abolition of all forms of human slavery
Turning to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, I find the following happy tribe of definitions:
- A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.
- A person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.
- A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.
- An ant captured in its pupal state by an ant of another species, for which it becomes a worker.
The last one is especially unnerving because it speaks to the Constitutional implied consent that is the holy writ both Left and Right in America binding the infant with the misfortune of US citizenship to become one of the tax cattle administered by the government and its innumerable regulatory hydras haunting the fruited plain.
Whether the cradle to grave welfare system for the poor, the corporate welfare class or the tens of millions saddled with enormous tax bills and regulatory burdens, American fish swim in a vast ocean festooned with dozens of statist remoras sucking the lifeblood out of them on a daily basis. There is no choice unless one goes underground to conduct daily business.
It could be that the main difference is the plantation dwellers get to apparently vote for selected plantation owners every four years at the highest level and sub-plantation owners at different intervals across the vast tax jurisdiction.
But what did those nineteenth century abolitionists mean then when they were opposed to all forms of slavery but not all?
Garrison waxes eloquently but seeks statist institutions to rid the land of chattel slavery:
“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
He speaks of moderation and simply seeks to temper the chains and make them lighter maybe even adorn the manacles with velvet in the end, who knows. While Garrison was poetic and spoke from abstract conviction, the notion set forth by the fire-breather Frederick Douglass were far more engaging in my mind:
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”
Little does Douglass know that he describes the modern American if not the modern planetary inhabitant housed in a tax jurisdiction somewhere outside a state-repellant mountainous region or the high fastness of Zomia.
Dostoyevsky speaks to this in one of his books: “In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.” Eerily contemporary when one looks around at neighbors and friends. Jose Rizal tell us that “[t]here are no tyrants if there are no slaves.” If only that neat sentence were the extent of the equation that spells the moral quandary that is slavery in all its permutations. The absolute ability to choose and opt out and refuse is the primary marker of ultimate freedom and none of that exists in this ”post-slavery” world that the abolitionists apparently bequeathed to us.
Some modern observers who pay careful attention to the streams of history like Wendell Berry see it just as clearly:
“I watch and I wonder and I think. I think of the old slavery, and of the way The Economy has now improved upon it. The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom.”
Berry surprisingly misses the point in the Faustian bargain. There are no choices. The choice is submit or be fined, kidnapped, caged, maimed or killed depending on your level of resistance.
Mark Twain, a keen observer from the other century described what that future would look like with an unfulfilled promise on the part of the abolitionists then:
“The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world. And for all this, the thanks they got were cuffs and contempt; and so poor-spirited were they that they took even this sort of attention as an honor.”
Twain was a cynic and had his eyes wide open much like Spooner.
Did the nineteenth century abolitionists lack the moral imagination to see that they had simply moved plantation locales and masters? Did they realize that Lincoln and his successors had no interest whatsoever in eliminating the institution of slavery but simply transforming it to something that suited their needs? Was there a cynical realization that chattel slavery was terrific for raw resource exploitation but unsuited for an economy that wished to move on to exploited more sophisticated production and delivery of goods and services? Who knows, good vexing questions for future inquiry.
A sober and contemporary look at chattel slavery never painted a pretty picture but the evolutionary step that created slavery in the first place and perpetuated the institution was the state and this commonplace never came into question for any but Spooner. But, of course, that’s why I’m writing a book on Spooner because he was clearly ahead of his time.
Unfortunately, the nineteenth century abolitionists were not, they were marooned in it. They did not seem to realize that the state was the plantation owner the whole time, it had simply repossessed the proxy title and deed from the sub-holders and repossessed the population.
‘The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”
– C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns