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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Masterless Slaves (p. 86)

From chapter "Property"

George Fitzhugh was the author of the two best-known books in support of slavery: Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society and Cannibals All! or Slaves Without Masters. He professed support for white as well as black slavery. In 1857, he wrote, “The South is fulfilling her destiny and coming up to her work beautifully. She is multiplying her academies, her colleges, and her universities, and they are all well patronised [sic] and conducted by able professors.” He continued, “Cotton is king; and rice, sugar, Indian corn, wheat, and tobacco are his chief ministers. It is our great agricultural surplus that gives us power, commands respect, and secures independence. . . . [T]ake away our surplus from the world’s supply, and famine and nakedness will be the consequence. . . . Our present pursuits are more honorable, lucrative, and more generative of power and independence than those we fondly aspire to.” All of this power and independence were based on slavery. Religion, the comforts and elegancies of life, the cultivation of arts and letters, the development of moral and intellectual excellence (for the masters): all of these were not seen as possible without forced labor.

And unless abolitionists were also anticapitalist, the proslavery argument went, they were hypocrites. “What,” William Harper asks, “is the essential character of Slavery, and in what does it differ from the servitudeof other countries?” He answers his own question: “Where a man is compelled to labor at the will of another, and to give him the greater portion of the product of his labor, there Slaveryexists; and it is immaterial by what sort of compulsion the will of the laborer is subdued. . . . What difference does it make, if you can starve him, or alarm him for the subsistence of himself or his family? And is it not under this compulsion that the freemanlabors?” So what, Harper argues, if the laborer can change employers? One capitalist will be as willing and ready to exploit the worker as the next, and in any case, most laborers would prefer a long term, committed relationship, precisely the sort of relationship provided by chattel slavery. He asks, “Is not the condition of the laboring poor . . . too often that of masterless slaves?”

He takes his case even further, arguing that calling laborers under a capitalist system free merely adds to their misery. If you’re a slave, at least you know you’re not free. But if everyone tells you that you arefree, if you still feel exploited it must be your own fault: free laborers “feel indignity more acutely, and more of discontent and evil passion is excited; they feel that it is mockery that calls them free.” To switch to modern parlance, even though Harper would, I’m sure, never have used the fword, calling industrial laborers free is really just mind-f**king them. If you’re going to use them as slaves, why not just make them chattel?

The answer, according to the consensus of slave owners, and many capitalists (including, as we shall eventually see, many modern capitalists), is that it’s cheaper to call laborers free than it is to own them outright. It is in the capitalist’s best interest to not own workers. “It is a fallacy to suppose that ours is unpaid labor” wrote John Henry Hammond. “The slave himself must be paid for, and thus his labor is all purchased at once, and for no trifling sum.” In 1850, an average field laborer cost between $1000 and $1800, three to six times the annual wage of an American worker, the equivalent of $50,000 to $100,000 today. “Besides the first cost of the slave,” Hammond continued, “he must be fed and clothed, well fed and well clothed, if not for humanity’s sake, that he may do good work, retain health and life, and rear a family to supply his place. When old or sick, he is a clear expense, and so is the helpless portion of his family. No poor law provides for him when unable to work, or brings up his children for our service when we need them. These are all heavy charges on slave labor,” charges that are avoided by nonslave-owning capitalists.

But if slavery is so unprofitable (and modern studies suggest that slavery was, in fact, not all that profitable, with an average annual return of about 5 percent on the investment in each slave), why, then, own slaves? It ends up that from the standpoint of production, slave owning is the rational choice when there is a lot of land, and not many people to work it. When there is less land and more people to work it (“a pool of excess labor,” as the phrase goes), it’s in the producer’s best interest not to own his slaves, and to thereby relieve himself of responsibility for their care and upkeep. Here’s the logic. Access to land leads to self-sufficiency. Land is the source of food, clothing, and shelter. If someone (or a community) has access to land, and requisite skills (which nearly all people have had throughout human existence until recently) there has been no reason for that person (or members of that community) to sell labor to another. Remember the difficulty white South Africans encountered trying to generate a supply of workers for their diamond and gold mines. Remember, for that matter, that the builders of Mohenjo-Daro found it expedient (if not crucial) to separate the city’s populace—its potential workforce—from their food supply. When land is plenty and labor scarce, I’ve either got to pay wages high enough to induce others to work for me—to overcome their natural aversion to work, as slaveholders would have put it—or, and this is usually the option of choice, I’ve got to forcethese others to work for me. If I can set up the military, philosophical, and legal framework to force these others to go to work, it becomes in my economic self-interest to enslave them: There is simply no other way to get them to work at reasonable rates, and to keep them working. Unfortunately for me in this case, enslavement carries with it a few legal, moral, ethical, and, most especially, practical obligations. I need to provide food, shelter, and clothing for my slaves, or at least enough to maintain worker productivity. Remember, if workers are scarce, they’re expensive, and I don’t want to starve to death a worker who cost me as much as a house.

If, on the other hand, there’s not much land, or if a few people own most of the land and so can deprive the majority of the people of its use, and if, at the same time, the population has increased such that a lot of people need to find a way to provide themselves the necessities of life, it becomes no longer in my best interest to own or in any way constrain these workers. I hire them for as little as I can, and if they don’t like the wages I pay, I hire someone else who is just the tiniest bit more desperate. Hammond put it well: “In all countries where the denseness of the population has reduced it to a matter of perfect certainty, that labor can be obtained, whenever wanted, and that the laborer can be forced, by sheer necessity, to hire for the smallest pittance that will keep soul and body together, and rags upon his back while in actual employment—dependent at all other times on alms or poor rates—in all such countries it is found cheaper to pay this pittance, than to clothe, feed, nurse, support through childhood, and pension in old age, a race of slaves.”