Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Brief Note on The Economist's Slavery Problem

The Economist has a slavery problem, as Greg Grandin has recently called it. Grandin’s wonderful article is a response to a series of lamentable book reviews published by The Economist that deal with the topic of slavery: Grandin’s own The Empire of Necessity, and more recently Edward Baptist’s The Half Has NeverBeen Told. The list goes on, as Grandin reports. But, as he continues, this slavery problem is old, well pedigreed even. During the U.S. Civil War, he notes, The Economist “stood nearly alone in supporting the Confederacy against the Union.” If cheap cotton was blood cotton, so be it. Summarizing this long running slavery problem, Grandin concludes: “The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery [i.e., capitalism] is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism.”

Indeed. The Economist’s “slavery problem” is even older than Grandin suggests, though. It dates back to the very first issue of the paper itself.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence, to be sure, but a suggestive one, that The Economist’s first issue was published on 1 August 1843. That is, on the ninth (or fifth, to account for the end of Apprenticeship in 1838) anniversary of Emancipation Day. The anniversary was celebrated throughout the Atlantic world. Emerson and Douglass gave speeches on it; US abolitionists held picnicsand of course gave speeches tooto mark it. In the British West Indies, shops shut down, holidays were granted. Newly freed folk prayed in church and celebrated with whatever means were available to them; the better off feasted and drank (with plenty of toasts to Victoria and the Empire). Creole newspapers would go all prolix on the event, taking the anniversary as a chance to reflect on the beneficence of empire as well as the work still to be done to secure a meaningful (or, for the plantocracy, sustainable and profitable) freedom. And so, given the liberal bent of The Economist, given its belief in the glorious mission of Britain in this our fallen world, one would imagine that it too would participate in the convention of mouthing a “Glory be to Empire!” or toasting Wilberforce on the anniversary of emancipation. It was simply what Britons did.

Nope. Not a word. It’s not that the West Indies don’t make an appearance, though, in the august prospectus heralding the emancipation of the market. They do. But as refuse to be jettisoned.

It all has to do with The Economist’s guiding principles. Simply put, The Economist was founded as a pressure rag for free-trade agitators. Its first issue offers a lengthy essay that details both the economic problems derived from Britain’s “restrictive system” of mercantilist tariffs and the glories that awaited a free-trade Britain. Sound familiar? Like something you might have read in it yesterday? The Economist is literally the most ideologically consistent publication to have ever existed.

For The Economist, two commodities in particular figured the irrationality of the “restrictive system” of mercantilism: corn (i.e., cereal grains, in particular wheat) and “the greatest foreign article of consumption, and therefore of exchangeable ability, SUGAR.” Together, corn and sugar accounted for most of the caloric intake of your average Briton. For this reason, the price of corn and sugar was understood as having a strong determining effect on wages, and so the costs of production, and so the costs of goods, and so the costs of production, and so on and on. The cheaper these primary goods, the lower the cost of production, the greater would be the abundance of Britain. The problem, though, was that tariff walls favoring British farmers on one hand and West Indian sugar planters on the other kept the prices of these goods high.

Quite high. Sugar production in the British West Indies didn’t totally collapse after emancipation—it’s a debated topic, anyhow—but it dropped. It had been dropping for years, as an effect of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, soil exhaustion, bad cultivation technique, the collapse of estates due to impossible debts, the quotidian resistance of the enslaved, and so on. With the end of slavery, many more plantations went bust, free people worked out multiple arrangements with plantations that invariably entailed a diminished production of sugar, and no British capitalists were really willing to sink much into most of the islands. Free trade agitation, too, affected the capitalization of the islands; it was widely understood that it was only the restrictive tariffs that kept the West Indies afloat, and few capitalists were willing to risk the investment when the tariff walls were starting to come down. And so the situation: More Britons were consuming sugar, but the supply was inadequate, and so expensive.

The West Indies and their protected markets were thus a primary target of The Economist, the best example that one could find to describe the idiocy of anything but liberalized markets. (It’s always a shame to me, when reading The Great Transformation, that Polanyi so absorbed the Little Englandish imaginary of free-trade liberals that he can’t think sugar with corn, his primary example.) And so the solution: liberalize sugar markets. “We must be willing to take,” The Economist’s first issue declares,  “the sugar and coffee of Brazil, Cuba, and Java,” “to avail ourselves of the vast and rich productiveness of Brazil, Cuba, Java, &c.”

Of course, the “rich productiveness” of Brazil and Cuba owed everything to slavery. The Economist didn’t agitate for the resumption of slavery in the British Empire, no; it simply demanded what amounted to its externalization. On a day when about a million emancipated humans celebrated their freedom, The Economist agitated for a position that would intensify slavery elsewhere. When news reached Cuba that an act to liberalize sugar markets was passed in 1846, the slaveholding elite reportedly partied well into the night: they now had access to the biggest sugar market in the world. British capital poured into Cuba and Brazil—it had been for some time—and so too did enslaved humans captured in Africa. (Following Engels on the late re-constitution of serfdom in Eastern Europe, Dale Tomich with good reason calls the period following liberalization the “second slavery.”)

In one of the weirdest about-face alliances in British political history, some antislavery activists joined with the West Indian plantocracy to protest liberalization—but not many. By the 1840s, free-trade activism absorbed much of the utopian impulses of antislavery organization; free-traders cribbed antislavery organizational practices to boot. Friendships were shattered, groups dissolved, and all because there was a simple choice: free trade in “slave sugar” or moral trade in “free sugar.” Free trade activists with prior antislavery connections such as Richard Cobden insisted that slavery could only be abolished through free trade, when rational, liberalized markets would reward the best, most rational form of production, which was always taken by liberals (with good evidence to the contrary) to be free-labor production. Freedom meant cheapness; cheapness meant freedom. Or, as The Economist put it in its first issue, "we seriously believe that FREE TRADE, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world—yes, to extinguish slavery itself."

By opening British markets to “slave sugar,” Britain effectively guaranteed the hyper-underdevelopment of the islands. Indeed, if just a decade earlier, abolitionists insisted that enslaved humans were just like any other British subject, entitled to the same rights and protections, liberalization cut into this flickering moral geography, decisively constituting at the politico-economic level an inner Britain and an outer one. The postemancipation world was rendered institutionally foreign and so not as deserving of British care regarding its level of economic development—or, really, much care at all. In practice, then, liberalization entailed the economic and political abandonment of the islands. As Disraeli later asserted, the "wretched" colonies had been a "millstone" about Britain’s collective neck; he tore the millstone away. (He didn’t, and it’s weird that he, an arch-protectionist, should say he did, but free trade had become so ideologically hegemonic that down was up.) It became common to compare creoles’ resistance to emendations of tariff protections with Luddites’ destruction of machinery—with the implication, of course, that machines won out in the end. Nature following its course, Providence providencing. (Marx would absorb this figuring of the West Indies in his remarks on free trade, but only to insist that flows of capital and distributions of commodity production are not natural.) Still, plenty of liberals fantasized that the islands would simply sink into the sea. "[I]f we could," Anthony Trollope writes in his West Indies and the Spanish Main, "we would fain forget Jamaica altogether. But there it is," he lamented. Indeed. Brontë's Rochester responded to the inconvenient presence of the West Indies in manorial Britain by locking his mad creole wife Bertha in the attic. Just think about how some Yanks think of Detroit.

The result of liberalization, then, was not simply to intensify slavery throughout the Americas or to more fully saturate British markets with slave produce. Nor was the result simply to decimate an already decimated West Indian economy, although it did that too. Most importantly, the result of liberalization was to reduce Britain’s relationship to the West Indies, and to West Indians, to a market rationality, and one wherein the market directed Britain’s attention from subjects who just a decade earlier had been the focus of Britons’ intense political and moral concern. (As Eric Williams half-melancholically, half-sarcastically put it, echoing Burke, "The age of empire was dead; that of free traders, economists, and calculators had succeeded, and the glory of the West Indies was extinguished forever.") That is, of course, not how the emancipated understood their relationship, not normatively. Not when they offered letters of thanks to Victoria for their emancipation, not when they wrote petitions to Victoria soliciting economic assistance for the islands, not when they declared themselves British subjects and so entitled to all the rights and privileges attaching to that quality. It’s hard for us to read such documents now, with our postcolonial eyes, and see anything but imperial hegemony. But in such supplications we gain quotidian access to what emancipation, at least in part, meant for creoles: freedom to transact with Britain, to be included in an expansive polity, and to possess a legibility there that differed from the logic of the market.

The Economist has a slavery problem then, to be sure. But it has another one, too, and a bigger one. Call it a freedom problem. It’s partly, as Grandin suggests, that The Economist offers the same (neo)liberal solution to every (neo)liberal problem: more freedom (for capital). And yet, were The Economist to recognize the complicity of its ideology in the production and persistence of slavery, I’m not sure much would change. After all, the publication was quite conscious that cheaper sugar purchased on liberalized markets entailed, in the short run, intensified slavery abroad. One lesson here, one I wish people effusing over new studies of capitalism and slavery or the new capitalism studies stuff, is that we need to stop thinking that somehow naming capitalism’s imbrication in slavery in any way constitutes a radical act, an emancipatory gesture. Capitalism already knows how shitty it is. It doesn’t care.

The Economist’s freedom problem runs deeper than its willingness to capitalize on a form of production premised on freedom’s negation. It is rather that its monochromatic definition of freedom as market freedom rendered it incapable of hearing the other kind of freedom articulated both as a demand and as a gift in each black creole missive of gratitude or supplicatory petition to the queen. In composing freedom in the economy, as the economy, The Economist rendered itself, and its liberal readers, and a liberalized Britain, incapable of hearing the aneconomy that inheres in every demand for black freedom. To be a person, not a thing; to be described in print as a British West Indian, not metonymized as sugar; to be a subject one hangs around with, celebrates emancipation with, and even after the cane juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Indeed, sticking around when there’s no good reason to do so is probably the basis of any politics worth sticking with; such a practice entails a collective fracture of social necessity that originates (as) anything I’d call freedom. The rebels of Morant Bay didn’t get going because their economic prospects were bleak; they were always like that. They got going because the queen told them to fuck off.

And so let’s say this: If The Economist’s slavery problem consists in its abandoning ideological responsibility for capitalism’s deep ties to slavery, its freedom problem consists in its redefinition of freedom as the capacity to abandon. Ex-slaves were the first, and foundational, victims of this freedom.