Juneteenth And the Capitalist Origins of Slavery

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a day that is properly celebrated as the true day of liberation for black peoples in North America from the scourge of chattel slavery. Originating in Galveston, Texas, on June 19th, 1865, the holiday commemorates the emancipation of black peoples held in bondage across Texas, years after the Emancipation Proclamation was actually ordered. Though chattel slavery would persist in two union states for several more months, the people of Texas were liberated from those slave owners who sought to preserve their property and profits—taking advantage of their remote location to withhold information from enslaved people about their legal emancipation. Along with this day comes the tried and true profiles of the Black Wall Street massacre, Maroon rebellion in the Caribbean, white supremacy’s permanence, and Nat Turner—as he and his comrades barnstormed from one plantation to another, liberating those in bondage with a bloody vengeance. That sense of vengeance has given new fire and breath to certain corners of the black population, and I’d beg to state that that sense of racial vengeance—being reminded of the cruelties and inequities overcome by our forebears—is the dominant way in which we as a nation consume and internalize this newly official national holiday. From this comes flarings of cultural nationalism and entreaties to buy black to support black businesses, regardless of whether that business empowers their workers or even provides a living wage. 

This day more than any other reckons with the heritage of bondage chattel slavery like no other in this nation. That is right and good, but I beg for a deeper operational scrutiny of what this day means for those who were liberated and those who used their power to oppress and enslave others. When we look at slavery, race, and segregation not from an emotive point of view but from a historical point of view, it is my proposition that this is a day that should be celebrated as an anti-capitalist holiday of liberation first and foremost. If we are to dig into this particular day, we should dig into all the incentives and influences that brought us the American chattel slavery system and the prevalence of white supremacy. And it is my belief that when we do that, we uncover the cruelty of capitalism and are urged to stand against all exploitative relationships even if they do not rise to the brutality of chattel slavery, because they certainly live in the lineage of that very same social and economic institution. But before we get into that, we must go back to the roots of how chattel slavery came to exist in the Americas.      

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States reminds us of the country’s original sin. With funding from the recently unified Spanish state, Christopher Columbus made his infamous voyage across the Atlantic in search of a hospitable route to India to find spices, silks, and gold. Running aground in the Caribbean, Columbus and his men encountered the Arawak tribe and noticed the gold they wore. Columbus himself noted infamously,

“They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” 

From there, the die was cast—Columbus immediately took prisoners, and soon after engaged in genocide and biological warfare in the form of the spreading of diseases. This voyage and its ensuing atrocities were made in pursuit of profit and riches.

Thus the course of the Americas was set, from its foundation—not in the pursuit of white supremacy, but in the pursuit of imperial profitable imperial  greed. Those who survived the oncoming battles, genocide, and suicide epidemics were driven to massive estates to work silver and coal mines, cotton and cash crop plantations where they risked physical mutilation and death under the pressure of absurd quotas which forced work at an inhumane pace. A former slaveholder and eventual critic of the practice, Bartolome de Las Casas, reported on the condition in the multi-volume History of the Indies “[the slaves] suffered and died in the mines and others labor in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.”

Though the pivot to Africa was sure to come, it’s important to note the formative years of the institution of slavery in the Americas and the incentives that led to its creation. Karen and Barbara Fields’, Racecraft reminds us,

“The first boom in what would eventually become the United States took place during the 1620s and it rested primarily on the backs of white indentured servants, not black slaves.”

Drawing from Zinn’s A People’s History once again, it is noted, “As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were ‘remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences’ and, ‘Black and white worked together, fraternized together’”. The very fact that laws were eventually passed to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661, a law was passed in Virginia stating that “in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes” he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia called for the banishment of any “white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free.” Perhaps the unity of those with similar conditions can be drawn from a common understanding of power and the forces that sought to impose this infernal institution.

Many groups stood to profit from the institution of slavery—not only those operating the cotton and sugar plantations in the South. Also implicated were the industries and shipping interests in the North, vendors in the Old World, and certain Native tribes referred to as“buffer tribes” who collaborated with the colonists out of self-interest to capture and return runaway slaves. We must also look at Africa’s involvement in the slave trade just as critically as we do Europe’s and America’s for a truly complete picture.

Low Country Digital Initiative (a digital public history project hosted by the Low Country Digital Library [LCDL] at the College of Charleston) reminds us that,

Slavery was prevalent in many West and Central African societies before and during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When diverse African empires, small to medium-sized nations, or kinship groups came into conflict for various political and economic reasons, individuals from one African group regularly enslaved captives from another group because they viewed them as outsiders.”

The Old World was undoubtedly rife with bondage slavery of all flavor and purpose. That existing market was capitalized on to provide a new, free labor base for the new world and its economic interests, allowing for new levels of innovation and industrialization that depended entirely on free labor to cut costs. While the slavers and rival states in Africa indulged the financial and political incentive to provide that labor base, they also engaged in their own rebellions and counter-attacks from rival states and tribes aimed at enslaving their own people, and refused to sell off slaves to their European partners when it made no economic sense to them. As Zinn notes,

“Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something other than natural racial repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.”

Such black population explosions would be the course for most slave-holding states. Meanwhile, in order to manufacture consent for this new institution, slave owners and those with economic interest in maintaining the institution of slavery were forced to justify its existence using racial arguments. Profiling Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery, Professor Gerald Horne notes of William’s work in The Nation, “Slavery was not born of racism,” he contended, but “rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” To begin with, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan,” with various circumstances combining to promote the use of enslaved African labor. For example, “escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features”—and, Williams added, “the Negro slave was cheaper.” I’d contend to add to Williams’ point that there was an incentive to enslave people of the African diaspora since with the  inescapable physical marker of black skin, there would be a more certain heretability to their status, that did not apply to European and Anglo-descended slaves and indentured servants. The question must be asked then—when and why the racial ideology began and how the institution of slavery in the Americas became synonymous with the skin, blood and labor of people’s from the African diaspora.   

Racecraft shares insights on the development of the concept of race and how it developed during this time. In their critical book on the foundation of the racial ideology, the authors note that the project of slavery and the ambition of a heritable kind of bondaged underclass was not something peculiar to black peoples. Looking to a 1664 law from the state of Maryland, we see that project in action: an insidious search to create and preserve an exploitable underclass that finally landed on the unambiguous relation between child and mother. “The purpose of the Maryland law is clear: to prevent the erosion of the slave owner’s property rights.” The Fieldses go on to highlight the law’s preamble, which addresses the caveat of free women who may give birth to enslaved men’s offspring: “Freeborn English Women—not white women—were forgetting their free condition and disgracing their nation—not yet forgetting their color and disgracing their race… race did not explain the law, rather the law shows society in the act of inventing race”. They go further,

“Slavery got along for hundreds of years without race as an ideological rationale. The reason is simple. Race explained why some people could rightly be denied… liberty, supposedly a self evident gift of nature’s God”

The Fieldses continue,

“Euro-Americans resolved the contradiction between slavery and liberty by defining Afro-Americans as a race (…) American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself.”

It is my belief that the Fieldses are correct when they make arguments opposed to looking at slavery as chiefly a racial institution with the intended goal of creating white supremacy. Rather, it is far more workable to view the institution as one with the aim of producing cash crops for profit, protecting property, and maintaining social control—an institution and resultant ideology intended to uphold capitalism. 

In his book The Invention of The White Race, Theodore W. Allen reminds us of Adam Smith’s pontification on capitalism as “a revolution of the greatest importance to public happiness.” That singing praise falls flat when confronted with the realities of the working peasantry in England. The years of 1500 through the 1650’s were marked with peasant uprisings against low wages, raised rents, and exploitative prices and working conditions. As noted in an appearance on “This Is Revolution Podcast” (episode #273), professor Zine Magubane, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, states these conditions created “a negative repulsion from home” as the peasantry challenged the profits and power of the owner class. Commenting on a peasant uprising in 1607, the House of Lords stated such fears, saying,

“There must be yearly turmorur (uprisings)… as it did of late, save for war or the exportation of such persons from the mainland, and what better way to accomplish that then to send those vacant energies’ to the colonies to work under and profit the Kingdom?”

That status of “enslaved” for a white chattel class was unable to persist due to the lack of physical markers which could maintain enslaved status, and allowed white workers held in bondage to easily escape. Same for the native population who’d resist and comprise a greater flight risk than any due to their knowledge of the land and ability to escape into their own or friendly tribes. And so with the goal of profiting from exploitation and unpaid labor, the pivot to Africa made all logical sense. 

Taking people from their home in the form of the Transatlantic Voyage was no small task with the risk of disease, inclement inclement  weather, and revolt on the open sea. This laborious endeavor could have only one aim: profit. White supremacy as an ideology almost certainly operated in the minds of those from Columbus to the founding fathers as they dismissed the basic humanity of a people, but it is critical that we examine the end to that means correctly and with historical acuity. Further, if white supremacy were an explicit aim of the institution of bondage slavery, then it does not explain the pivot to Africa from the use of Natives, white indentured servants, and “non-Europeans”. For myself, that end seems to be the obvious goal of profiteering and social control of a people whose skin, blood, and labor were brought here for the express purpose of the production of cash crops and the consolidation of power for the land owners, the planters and the capitalists.

Returning to Racecraft we are reminded,

“From Peterloo to Santiago, Chile, to Kwangju (Gwangju), South Korea, to Tienanmen Square and the barrios of San Salvador, humanity has learned again and again that shared colour and nationality set no automatic limit to oppression. Ultimately, the only check upon oppression is the strength and effectiveness of resistance to it.”

Though the “buffer tribe” and frontiersmen of today are the white supremacists, and the political and economic reactionaries of all color and nation—those seek to protect the status quo out of fear of losing their own privileges. They are those who’ve internalized the “divide and conquer” mindset even as they themselves are dispossessed of their homes, their benefits, and in not so many words, conquered. So, it is our duty to provide meaningful resistance in service of a better world. We can do that by seeking to understand a better, more workable, and potent history. We now live in the twilight of so many indispensable moments, movements, and injuries. Now that Juneteenth has been properly elevated to the status of a national holiday, it is my hope that in addition to embracing that heritage we come from—whatever that may be—that we lift up an evaluation of what this day means for those who continue to profit from exploitative labor practices—whose interest is not chiefly white supremacy—but cheap, easily exploited, profitable labor. We then must consider what this day means for those seeking to resist and fight exploitation of all forms.

As a socialist, I have no fear of the truth because it is said that history has a liberal bias, and it is my belief that humanity has a socialist bias, and it is only to our benefit to engage in truthful accounting and reckoning with history. If we are to get to the root of it—of slavery and liberation in the Americas—we are severely lacking if we do not consider the labor relations and profit motives which brought about the institution and which to this day maintain exploitative relations between workers and owners. We should recognize that we come from a people who persevered, rebelled, and struggled for our freedoms and that that work is not complete. Freedom is a constant struggle. In acknowledging this day, we must also see that chattel slavery was a project that may have been undone in the Americas, but that same brutal profit motive did not die—it simply evolved: from sharecropping, to black codes, to Jim Crow, to union busting, to our current neoliberal order that seeks the cheapest, most exploitable, labor on a global scene for the sake of a profit motive. 

This day should be a day on which we celebrate those resistances, those forebears that smashed chattel slavery and undid that “peculiar institution” with their resistance. We are up against not only the interests of the capitalists, the billionaires, and the reactionaries, but a matured and empowered buffer class of white supremacists and a multicultural capitalist class willing to weaponize that multiculturalism to stagnate any meaningful challenge—and we must realize that fight in its totality. We are a link in that chain—we must be. From freedom fighters, to runaways, to saboteurs, abolitionists, populist movement militants, Red Scare socialists, civil rights activists, et al. It is now our task to do the work, and do that work honestly. In the butchered words of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, the work must be intersectional, it must be international, it must be green and it must be Red. 

Happy Juneteenth, y’all. Celebrate well.