October 25, 2018
When Saidiya Hartman visited Ghana some years ago to follow the tracks of the slave trade in Africa, she was told by an African American who had lived there for many years, “Soon the Europeans will own all of it again. Do you think slavery is just some old buildings and dead folks? No, it’s when other people decide whether you live or die.”
American history is often presented as a long, upward climb towards freedom. The Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Originally, of course, “all men” was taken to include only white men who owned property, and of course that excluded all women, and all non-Europeans, especially native people and people of African ancestry. Most of the latter were enslaved and were intended by the Founders to stay that way. But, so the story goes, over the next two centuries, the nation struggled to grow into its image of itself as the “land of the free”.
The abolition movement and the civil war put an end to slavery; the suffragists succeeded in winning the right to vote for women; the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s liberated African-Americans from the shackles of Jim Crow, and the Women’s Movement made progress towards the goal of equal treatment and opportunities for women. So while it was hypocritical to call the US a free country at its birth, it’s close to being one now.
Now this story of a largely successful campaign for Freedom is increasingly difficult to believe. The police regularly harass, arrest, and kill black people with only imaginary provocation; women and people of color are commonly denied equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for advancement. Latinos and Latinas are regularly harassed and terrorized by government agents. People with darker skins pay more to borrow money. Women and children are frequently enslaved for sex and unpaid labor. And we could go on and on.
But what I want to focus on is the kind of slavery that is so common and pervasive that we don’t even see it, the slavery captured by the remark I quoted at the beginning: slavery is “when other people decide whether you live or die.” The people of Ghana are not free if everything is owned by Europeans. In other words, freedom is not just a matter of political rights granted by the State, or civil rights — the right to be treated equally regardless of your ancestry or your gender or sexual orientation. Freedom is also a matter of who owns and controls the conditions of life: the kinds of work we can do, under what conditions and for what wages; what kinds of food, housing, transportation, and entertainment are available and at what cost.
When we go to work, we come under the rule of the boss and the business or agency he or she represents. We are not, usually, whipped or beaten for not meeting the boss’s requirements, but we can be punished in other ways, including the loss of our livelihood. Moreover, though we may be able, depending on the state of the market, to choose to work for a different boss, we do not, unless we are independently wealthy, have the option of not working for wages at all. These two factors — needing to work for wages in order to live, and needing to obey our masters as we work, make it appropriate to call ourselves, as Marx did, “wage slaves.”
It seems, then, that it’s only when we are off work that we are free — though how much “free” time we can have depends often on the demands of our employer. We may have to be available on a moment’s notice to go to work, or the wages we are paid and the cost of living, may require us to work overtime or work two or more jobs. For the most part, we have very little voice in how much we are paid or what it costs to buy housing, food, clothing and other necessities.
So here, too, we are slaves in the sense that other people decide, not just whether we will live or die, but how we live. We are not legally owned, as chattel slaves are, but our lives belong to us only at the margins, in the few hours we can manage to do things we really care about. And even in our so-called “leisure” time, the culture and entertainment available for us is produced by people answerable not to us or people like us, but to the owners and managers of corporate capital whose only goal is holding onto and growing their wealth and power. And their wealth, don’t forget, is not a product of their labor but ours. Our share of that wealth we have produced is paid out in wages that steadily lose their value relative to the cost of the living. Meanwhile, the profits of not working, but merely owning things, climbs to record levels.
We suppose that slavery is over; it belongs to the past. We are not chattel slaves. So we think we are free. We live in a democracy, not a tyranny, so we call ourselves free. We have basic political rights, like the right to assemble and the right to speak our minds — at least in theory if often not in practice. But our democracy is highly controlled by the rich and powerful; governments, especially the national government, does not represent those of us whose only input is to vote for which member of which ruling class party shall pretend to represent us. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels claim that “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Today, it is not just the executive, but the legislative and judicial branches that work to facilitate the extraction of wealth from the people.
Consider the climate crisis: As Bill Resnick and Margaret Klein Salamon of the organization Climate Mobilization pointed out recently on KBOO’s Old Mole Variety Hour, only the federal government could conceivably marshal the resources and the authority to take the actions necessary to prevent the climate catastrophes coming at us, but the petroleum and related industries have managed to delay and water down every serious attempt to slow down or stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The accumulation of capital comes first. Those who manage and defend that accumulation are the others who decide whether, and when and how, we shall live or die. We are, then, slaves of capital.
Nevertheless, we can think. We are all, as Gramsci pointed out, philosophers in spite of ourselves, and we have the power to rethink the hegemony we are living under, the hegemony of profits, private property, and individualism that keeps us on our self-destructive course. Gramsci’s “optimism of the will” is always present among the oppressed, even among slaves living in chains and under the whip, from the slaves of ancient Greece and Rome to the African slaves of Haiti and the Southern US. In that spirit, we claim now that a better way of life than this is possible, and indeed necessary, a life in which we are not slaves of any kind, in a world where we, cooperatively and together, decide how to live. Working together for our common future, we can make a future of freedom possible, a world in which we not only survive but flourish.
Clayton Morgareidge is member of the Old Mole Variety Hour Collective that produces for KBOO Radio, 90.7fm, Portland OR. This commentary was aired August 8th, 2018.