On Growth, Sugar and the Forest

Another day, another World Heritage Area. Today we headed through the Queensland sugar plantations to the rainforests of the Kuku Yalanji people. The experience was a direct clash between destructive but highly productive Western agriculture and indigenous no-growth stewardship of the land. For two centuries, this has been a history of the former defeating the latter. The Yalanji have been here for 40,000 years, though, so this little story is just a blip. What we saw was the contradiction between “globalization” and the planetary.

It was during the American Civil War that Queensland jumped into the business of sugar cane production to meet the fall in supply. Sugar cane was an immensely labor-intensive process and so indigenous labor from across the Pacific was brought in under compulsion.

Sugar planting in Queensland around 1870

Missionaries had no hesitation in calling it slavery (above). As a self-governing colony (until 1901), Queensland nonetheless had a free hand. The compeled labor was brought in from relatively close locations like ni-Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and as far away as Polynesia. They were called “blackbirds,” and are still trying to get their story recognized.

In more recent times, the industry declined until the rise in demand for ethanol led to a massive revival. Although the cane growing is now highly mechanized, the square plantations of seven foot high plants, each as thick as a large finger, would be recognizable to any plantation owner or worker.

As ever, the grass (sugar cane is a grass) is visibly destructive. The crop rapidly denudes the soil because the indigenous tropical flora, although spectacular, are evolved to grow in the poor, sandy soil. Later we were shown a tree in the forest from whose seeds the Yalanji make bread. It’s eight hundred years old and only about twelve feet high. Sugar cane seedlings that I saw were therefore surrounded by black compost and white chemical powders. In between the fields, which are in all stages of production from planting to recently harvested, stand a few remnants of the forest.

Higher up, where the cane can’t grow, the rainforest and its people survive, protected now as a National Park and a UNESCO heritage site. Today the steep green slopes were shrouded in mist and cloud, looking more like Aotearoa New Zealand than the Sunshine State. The Kuku Yalanji people have recently begun to offer guided tours of their land and its culture.

Guides from the Kuku Yalanji people

Our walk, guided by Jenny, also known as Butterfly, was beautiful and informative. Apparently uninteresting plants were revealed to be means of cleaning, healing, or sources of food. Shelters were left for others to use, rather than being demolished. Few now live in this traditional way, but there’s a commitment to remembering and passing on the old ways. It’s easy to be naive and romanticize this way of life. But as Raymond (Kija/Moon) emphasized at the end of our tour, these people have survived in this place for millennia without rendering it unusable, as Europeans have managed in a couple of centuries.

Raymond performed the digeridoo for us, and showed the required technique of circular breathing, also used by some jazz players like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Wynton Marsalis. Accompanying himself with clapsticks, he gave a virtuoso performance, imitating the sounds of numerous animals above the drone-like beat. He also insisted that the instrument was forbidden to women, although there are many known instances to the contrary. It seems to be another instance where a reaction against European culture is producing a more conservative form of indigenous culture. For example, art works that were formerly permitted by Elders to be seen in galleries have recently been reclassified as secret.

It’s hard to be censorious. The cassowary bird is a key link in the rainforest ecosystem.

Cassowary bird

It eats fruits that are poisonous to humans and disseminates the seeds in its scat. Humans have now taken to feeding the flightless bird. The cassowary becomes accustomed to being fed and sometimes attacks people for food. Human food has altered its digestive system, so we were told, with the result that it is less able to digest the fruits it normally eats. It’s at these small intersections that things go out of joint and violence results.

If it’s a direct choice between sugar culture and indigenous conservation, it’s seems clear where we should go. But it isn’t. The Kuku Yalanji are not proposing that kind of return to a lost beginning, in part because the land could no longer support the numbers of people that there are here, and in part because electricity, health care and other such modern conveniences are not worth revoking. There are some people living traditionally off the coast of the island of Kauai, part of the Hawai’ian archipelago, it should be said, and traditional navigation is making a return across the Pacific. By the same token, we can’t choose modern-style growth as a solution because there aren’t enough resources for everyone to live in the Anglo-US-Australian way. This is the sharpest edge between the myth of “globalization” and the actual experience of the planetary. All the choices are bad.

Given Time: Debt and the Impossible

“Let us begin by the impossible.”

A fourth Strike Debt Assembly today in New York found itself in a problem that it defined as organizational: what to do next? Or first? Or in what order? If you were there you would have heard people say many things related to time, such as “Time is of the essence.” Or, “We have no time.” There was a sense of repetition, we’ve been here before. It was experienced as frustration. I would suggest that it is, as befits an Occupy Theory project.  more of a theoretical problem.

Any economy is a distribution and a sharing of what there is, according to the law (nomos) within a household (oikos). In Roman law, the holder of authority is the auctor, precisely the person that decides this distribution. By definition, that person was a patriarch, the male head of the household, whose word controlled animals, slaves, women and children.

There is a certain frustration, then, in giving time to a leaderless association like Occupy that refuses authority and does so in part by refusing to meet inside (oikos) and by challenging the distribution of what there is to be seen and said. This is, then, a gift that cannot make itself present. Or a present, even.

And in the matter of debt, what is taken is also time. Debt is measured in time: a 30-year repayment perhaps, a monthly minimum, a daily calculation of interest. It is circular and it is  without end. In my own case, I have come to realize that the debts that I have will be resolved by my own death, the end of my given time. An uninsured chef suffering from leukemia, cited in a Times Op-Ed today, hoped for his own death so as to spare his family debilitating posthumous debt.

So we are faced with an impossible equation: we give time to something that cannot accept it in order to reclaim some of our given time. These are, then, the reasons for the impossible demands of Strike Debt. Debt has to be abolished, not forgiven. For if it is “forgiven,” an obligation remains on those so forgiven to live up to forgiveness. We see intense resistance to such apparently unearned gifts that were part of the formation of the so-called Tea Party, when a white guy from Chicago railed against people of color getting mortgage support. So there is now an automatic mediatization of radical right demands that no time be given to anyone who has not “earned” it.

Yesterday in Bed-Stuy we talked about abolition in terms of the abolition of slavery: how slavery appeared to be essential to the economy right up until the moment of its abolition; how Reconstruction reimagined the place of the public in ways that we still have not lived uo to 150 years later; and how Stop-and-Frisk continues to inscribe certain people as inherently criminal and part of the economy only on sufferance. We reminded each other that, just as enslavement was social death, so too is debt that treats lives as disposable but banks as eternal.

Today I am reminded of the means of “forgiveness” inherent to slavery. When a slaveowner died, he would sometimes free those of the enslaved he liked or had fathered. These emancipated folk had to carry papers at all times to prove that they had been freed, papers that were not always given credit. You do not make demands on systems like this, systems that discount people from their status as people to being chattel or criminal.

You recognize that impossible demands require a given time: a breaking, a fracturing of the normal course of time. It comes when you least expect it, as it did in Tunisia. Or it comes when those who are subsumed into the impossible category of chattel, debtor, criminal, strike that concept and step into a place in which they are not supposed to be. So the enslaved moved themselves from the slave states to the Union and became not free but “contraband,” or stolen property. They had, impossibly, stolen themselves. Impossibly, they had abolished enslavement.


Other Histories: The Ancient General Strike, for example

In remembering the general strike we also need to remember the historical world-view of the general strike. We have to replace the idea that all progress was modern and Western with a decolonial perspective that reshapes time as well as space. We should set aside the fictitious genealogy that runs from ancient Greece and Rome to Christianity and then modernity, even in thinkers as profound as Foucault, with an awareness of how much more varied and interesting the historical record has been.

So let’s consider the ancient world with this in mind. The oligarchic “democracies” of Western Europe and North American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries first defined themselves as descended from ancient Greek democracy, a rhetoric that is widely deployed today. Against that pose, anarchists and radicals of the period produced a history of the ancient general strike.

Athenian democracy was in any event nothing like our present-day representative system. It was limited to non-slave men of adult age who had completed military service, a minority of approximately 10% of the population of Athenian slave-labor society. Most free Athenians “owned” at least one slave. Within the structures of the Assembly, officials were  selected not by voting but by lot, on the presumption of equality. So while the Assembly proceedings were decided by majority vote, this was a direct democracy of the minority, contrary to the usual representations. A look around any Western capital city will confirm that ancient Greece and Rome nonetheless became the archetypes for the modern imperial capital.

By the same token, European and North American radicals identified themselves as the descendants of Roman slaves in ongoing resistance to classicizing aristocrats. So the proles (child or minor) of Rome had engendered the “proletarian” of the industrial revolution. These researches into ancient class struggle were, according to History Workshop scholar Raphael Samuel,

the principal site on which the claims of historical materialism were advanced.

Among the most influential of these publications was a remarkable two-volume opus called The Ancient Lowly (1888) by C. Osbourne Ward, a member of the New York based People’s Party.

The Ancient Lowly

Ward did extensive original research in keeping with the then-latest methods of studying ancient inscriptions. In all other ways, he broke with academic convention. He self-published and later worked with co-ops to get his work out. He described his findings as “news,” like today’s “history of the present.” He called attention to ancient rebels and resistance fighters like Eunus, Achaeus and Cleon, who led what he called “general strikes” against Rome. Cleon, for example, headed an army of 200,000 rebel slaves in Sicily around 140 BCE. Under Eunus the formerly enslaved dominated the entire region for over a decade from 143-133 BCE, defeating numerous Roman armies.

You probably still haven’t heard of these people but you have most likely heard of Spartacus (109-71 BCE),  revolutionary leader of the enslaved. His story was told in the classic movie from 1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.  Now the film is mostly remembered for its camp homoerotics and for the claim by all the captured rebels: “I am Spartacus,” a form of mike check.

There’s a sex-and-sandals TV show about Spartacus out in the wilds of cable-land even today.

These popular culture forms are the cultural echo of the long radical tradition of seeing the ancient period as one of radical class struggle, in which the enslaved often won victories against their oppressors. Indeed, seen in the historical long-run, you might argue that they won outright. Around 600 CE, slavery disappeared from the former Roman Empire in the West. While there are many views as to the cause, the modern radicals would have had no doubt that it was the final victory of a seven hundred year struggle. Against the view that slavery had existed everywhere prior to its European abolition, this argument can point to eight hundred years without slavery from c.600-1492. With such perspectives in mind, early twentieth century radicals recast the Bliblical story of Exodus as the Israelites general strike against dictatorship.

So how do we know that another world is possible? Because people have remade worlds over and again, overturning hierarchies that were supposed to be divine and eternal, first for days and years, then decades and centuries.

The Debt-Prison System

Debt is prison. Few debtors, whether dealing with students loans, credit cards or mortgages, would disagree I imagine. By this phrase I intend not a metaphor but a description: debt is a systemic way to limit options, impose unfreedom and sustain the unfree labor market on which capitalism depends. In the United States, this debt-prison system is necessarily intertwined with what Angela Y. Davis calls the post-slavery prison-industrial complex. Resisting debt servitude in this country is a central part of extending and completing the Civil Rights movement.

The old face of the new refusal

This is a proper concern for Occupy for any number of reasons. As I mentioned a while ago, Wall Street was the site of New York’s slave market. Combine that with its role as a barrier against the indigenous population (hence the name) and as a site of financial speculation and we begin to understand what the symbol “Wall Street” really means. So while what I have to say here may sound like a history lesson, it’s very much a history of the present that enables us to see what how high the stakes are in the apparently technical problem of student debt.

Transatlantic slavery was a system dependent on debt financing. The slavers borrowed money for the costs of the voyage and the trade good they exchanged for human property in Africa. These goods were far from worthless and developed into a money form based on copper. The enslaved were purchased by American planters buying on credit. It was only with the sale of the products of the plantation back in Europe that true profit entered the system.

But this profit was spectacular: a ship called the Lively left Liverpool, England, in 1737 with cargo worth £1307 and returned with £3080 in cash plus a cargo of sugar and cotton. In short, a profit of at least 500%, unavailable anywhere else in the early modern financial system. Don’t take my word for it: here’s Adam Smith, inventor of the concept of the market in his 1776 Wealth of Nations: “The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known.” Haiti was the wealthiest place on the planet when its revolution began in 1791.

Just as the factory system described by Marx was not participated in by anything like a majority of workers but was typical of its time, the slave system was the hallmark of American capitalism. Today I would argue it’s the debt-prison system that marks out the peculiarity of the United States. Debt servitude, racialized segregation and mass incarceration of those so racialized are thus the true American exceptionalism–while debt is central to capitalism worldwide only in the United States do we have such a peculiar and networked system of debt as racialized punishment.

US slavery persisted much longer than in Europe, as we all know. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the enslaved enacted a general strike against slavery in which half a million people moved away from plantations to the North. The South claimed that millions of its capital were, so to speak, contained and hence “lost” in the bodies of the enslaved in 1863. The period known as Reconstruction (1865-77) was a struggle by the formerly enslaved to escape being, as it were, recouped by the planters into the debt-prison system. In so doing, the freed used many of the tactics we continue to deploy today from occupying to marches and strikes. It failed because of a Wall Street real-estate speculation crash that produced the typical binary form of US racism in its wake.

The freed claimed their own land to farm. If the Freedmen’s Bureau would not give it to them, they occupied it. The concept was simple: a small group of people would create sufficient food for themselves and a surplus to trade with. It was a sustainable anti-poverty system that did not rely on wage labor. But as David Graeber puts it:

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.

The idea that the freed would work freely was abhorrent to the planters and to Northern capital alike. Instead, they were to be compelled to work for their former owners.

All the new labor systems that were developed to this end were, as Angela Davis puts it, “dramatic evidence of the persistence of slavery.” That is to say, share cropping, tenant farming, the scrip system and the convict lease system of imprisoned labor all depended on a new series of connections between debt, labor and prison. Share cropping meant that the farmers were entitled to a share of the crop they produced, usually a third. However, as this meant they were paid only once a year, they had to make purchases on credit for the rest of year at the notorious crossroads or company stores. Very often the annual payment would not cover this debt meaning that the sharecropper could never escape the land. In fact, wage laborers were often not paid in cash but in scrip, a paper form allowing you to buy things at inflated prices in the company store.

Even this labor was too expensive for the planters. So the new Black Codes passed in the South after the Civil War criminalized minor financial transgressions. In Mississippi any person who “handled money carelessly” could be declared a vagrant and imprisoned. Simple theft, whether of bread or an animal, was turned into a felony and those convicted were imprisoned. The new African American prisoners were turned into a virtually free labor force by the convict lease system in which employers could use convicts to work for almost nothing. Even today, the University of California gets its office furniture from prison workshops.

The freed resisted these innovations. In South Carolina, the legislature attempted to borrow money to buy land for the freed. Wall Street would not buy their bonds. The laborers organized and called strikes for waged field labor. In Louisiana, workers refused to labor for their former owners, organized and marched. One freed organizer named John J. Moore testified that planters said  to them: “if you do not let politics alone you will get killed here.”

But in 1873, Wall Street crashed, having speculated wildly in railroads and real estate. It took down the Freedmen’s Bank and with it about $3 million of deposits made by the formerly enslaved. Emboldened by the crash, known then as the Great Depression, planters reduced wages where they were paid, as in Louisiana, from $18 plus food to $13 only a month. When the Hayes-Tilden compromise withdrew Federal troops from the South, the political gains of Reconstruction were rapidly overturned and the convict lease labor system swung into full effect.

Even now, the freed were not willing to give up. In 1887, a major strike on the sugar plantations of Louisiana was repressed only by armed force, in which about thirty strikers were killed and hundreds injured. Although the strikers came from all backgrounds, the planters defined them as “black” and themselves as “white.” It was three years later that the “Separate Car Act” enforced racialized segregation on trains in Louisiana, leading to the infamous 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson case at the Supreme Court that declared “separate but equal” facilities to be legal.

In short, the debt crisis that has generated over one trillion dollars of student debt, $700 billion in credit card debt, 4 million foreclosed homes, 6 million other homes in danger of foreclosure is part and parcel of the system that has placed over two million people in jail.

The consequence is simple and challenging: there will be no making the debt system better, or less burdensome. Even today, sub-prime lending was reported to be on the rise again. Graduate student loans accrue interest immediately as of next year so that someone working on a PhD will have eight years of interest at a minimum of 6.8% by the time they graduate. Debt is so central to what we are trying to occupy when we Occupy Wall Street that it cannot be separated out.

I do not think this is depressing but rather it shows that Occupy continues to advance our understanding of the tasks that lie before us. It should be remembered that it was once said to be impossible to abolish slavery, and not long ago it was supposed to be inevitable that there would always be segregation. It’s not inevitable that we agree to live in debt, accept debt as our punishment for not having been born wealthy and apply for opportunities to get more and more in debt. The first step is refusal, which is why the new slogan going the rounds is Bartleby’s rejoinder to a Wall Street banker:

I would prefer not to.

Me too.

Abolition Democracy–Visualizing Occupy

As part of the build-up to May 1 and beyond, I’m going to devote a series of posts to the concept of the general strike and abolition democracy as the means by which we might visualize Occupy. Over the next few weeks, I want to delineate a genealogy that draws its energies from the abolition crisis in the Atlantic world (1861-77), triangulated by the abolition of US slavery, the Paris Commune and Reconstruction. In a moment where we are so often told it is impossible to imagine the end of capitalism, let’s draw energy from the overthrow of a much longer-lasting means of production–chattel slavery.

While these events are of course remote from present-day concerns, the unexpunged energy of that moment can inform and illuminate our own. Just as Walter Benjamin looked back to the formation of Empire from 1830-71 to understand its crisis in the moment of European fascism (1923-45), so too might we imagine the resistance to the present crisis of the military-industrial complex by considering the resistance to the crisis of the plantation complex. In short, this is the work that an intellectual and historical materialism can contribute to visualizing Occupy as a movement in and across time as well as space.

In affiliation with W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis, I think of abolition democracy as the radical transformation of democracy both so that all have a part in its process and so that social institutions designed to exclude designated sectors of the population from that process should be abolished. In his 1935 classic Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois saw that “the true significance of slavery” was the question of democracy:

What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black and white, became free, were given schools and the right to vote, what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men [sic] regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship would rule, and how would property and privilege be protected?

If Occupy has a signature issue it is economic justice, but its signature as a movement is the commitment to a renewed democracy that reopens such questions. The force of abolition democracy is its capacity to at once visualize what needs to be transformed and what might result from that transformation. It is therefore realist in the sense that it envisages the real difficulties of the present, that which must be made sense of, but also is aware of real possibilities for future alternatives.

In the nineteenth century, the dynamics of abolition, colonization and revolution formed a new realism that I call “abolition realism.” Abolition realism brought together the general strike and the Jubilee (the end of slavery and debt) in order to forge a refusal of slavery, such that abolition was observable, and capable of being represented and sustained. Consequently, it needed to be legible to others as “real,” as well as to those involved in making it.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx summarized the dilemma of revolutionary change as “the creation of something which does not yet exist.” Such creation took two forms. First it was necessary to name what was being created and then to give it visualizable and recognizable form. In short, this was a task of imagination.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Untitled (former 'slaves', nr. Beaufort, S. Carolina), 1862

The enslaved in the United States engaged in this representative labor immediately at the outbreak of the Civil War. As soon as hostilities commenced, the Sea Islands of South Carolina were captured by Union forces in 1861, causing the plantation owners to flee in disarray. With the Emancipation Proclamation still two years off, the status of the enslaved Africans left behind was unresolved, in a kind of juridical no-man’s-land or interregnum. It was clear to many African Americans that this kind of freedom was better than none and many made their way there. We can now say that they occupied the Sea Islands.

For Du Bois, this mass migration was not a casual activity but a general strike of the enslaved, a decisive move to end forced labor:

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people.

Even today one can read historical accounts by Ivy League historians claiming that the abolition of slavery had been inevitable since 1776, as the logical end point of the Declaration of Independence. Du Bois and many others, insisted to the contrary that slavery was ended by the enslaved themselves.

Timothy O’Sullivan, who later became famous for his photographs of the American West, captured the “general strike” against slavery as official photographer for the Army of the Potomac. At the Old Fort Plantation, Beaufort, O’Sullivan took a group photograph of well over a hundred African Americans (above). The group represented a mix of those on the move during the war and those to whom the war had suddenly arrived where they were already located.

There were African Americans illegally volunteering for the Union army, known as “contrabands,” wearing soldier’s caps (most clearly at extreme left, third row back.) The term was a legal fiction, reinforcing the paradox that these soldiers fighting for freedom were not free and had “stolen” themselves. The camera was placed high up on the roof of a former slave cabin in order to get everyone into the shot in a bright, sharp light that produced some strong contrasts leaving some faces in “white-out,” others too dark to see. Others moved before the exposure was complete, creating a “ghost” at the left edge and many blurred expressions.

The long exposure time prevented any displays of celebration but the very event of the photograph itself suggests that all the participants were aware of the historical significance of the moment. There was no leader present, or a suggestion of a hierarchy. Men, women and children are gathered together in a collective assertion of their right to look and therefore be seen.

Under slavery, the enslaved were forbidden to “eyeball” the white population as a whole, a law that remained in force in the Carolinas until 1952 and is active in today’s prison system. So the simple act of raising the look to a camera, and engaging with it, constituted a rights claim to a subjectivity that could engage with sense experience. The photograph can be seen, then, as depicting direct democracy, the absence of mastery.

On the Sea Islands, the space between regimes became a space without regime, democracy. Their occupation hails ours across time, one space of temporary autonomy to another. See them.

Greece, Slavery and the General Strike

Today the Greek parliament met to approve the deliberately humiliating terms of the German-backed bond rescue plan (aka the bailout). In the streets, it is more precisely defined as slavery. The response is, as it has long been, to organize the general strike. For globalized neo-liberalism this is the moment to bring an “end” to 2011, a year after their man in Egypt, Mubarak, had to step down.

Estimates suggest 50,000 people in the street in Athens, perhaps as many as 100,000 with thousands more elsewhere, and many buildings occupied. The inevitable riot police and tear gas have been deployed. Exarchia, the radical district resounded to explosions. As fires burned, allegations circulated that the police had started them or ignored them. (Watch on Livestream here.)

Athens 2 12 12

The scenes were extraordinary–Starbucks on fire, smoke bombs, riot police–with the word “chaos” on every Greek website.

General Strike in Greece

The troika-installed Prime Minister Papademos–whose name seems to evoke a patriarchal “father of the people”–pushed the market line about debt refusal:

It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion. The country would be drawn into a vortex of recession, instability, unemployment and protracted misery.

Such remarks fly in the face of existing reality, in which those are already the prevailing conditions. Official unemployment exceeds 20%. Reports have suggested people returning to family farms in the countryside and islands from the cities in order to survive. The Church feeds 250,000 people a day in a country of 11 million people. Homelessness has increased by 25% (although the absolute numbers are low by U. S. standards. The official EU statistics agency Eurostat reports that one-third of the country is living in poverty. And yet Papademos called for more “sacrifice.”

Nonetheless, even this is not enough for the one percent: “The promises from Greece aren’t enough for us any more,” the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, said in an interview published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. When the vote is passed, the minimum wage will be cut by over 20%, pensions will be reduced and the already ruined state will cut back still further. The graffiti in the streets calls this slavery.

"We Should Not Live as Slaves"

“We should not live as slaves,” it reads [Na men zesoume san douloi]. Evocatively, the word “doulos” is used for “slave,” the same term used by Aristotle in his Politics to approve the institution of slavery. His meditation on slavery is in fact one of governance, which manifests itself as the necessity of dominance. I’m going to quote at some length because it is the inability to “reason” according the “logic” of the markets that is being used to justify Greek slavery today. It’s also important to read this to realize how thoroughgoing and long-lasting the Western commitment to slavery has been.It is also a passage that contains within it so many of today’s critical concerns from the human/nonhuman, to the “soul at work” (Bifo), governmentality, Rancière’s division of the sensible, and the persistence of slavery. Let us note this is not a coincidence:

for that some should govern, and others be governed, is not only necessary but useful, and from the hour of their birth some are marked out for those purposes, and others for the other, and there are many species of both sorts….Those men therefore who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul, are to be thus disposed of, as the proper use of them is their bodies, in which their excellence consists; … they are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous to them to be always under government. He then is by nature formed a slave who is qualified to become the chattel of another person, and on that account is so, and who has just reason enough to know that there is such a faculty, without being indued with the use of it; for other animals have no perception of reason, but are entirely guided by appetite, and indeed they vary very little in their use from each other; for the advantage which we receive, both from slaves and tame animals, arises from their bodily strength administering to our necessities; for it is the intention of nature to make the bodies of slaves and freemen different from each other {1254b-1255a}

The present rhetoric of the “lazy” Greeks, shiftlessly avoiding tax payments and demanding state support defines people driven entirely by appetite. They must therefore become the chattel of the troika, despite the likelihood that the cuts will still worsen the economy and necessitate yet more support for the external bond markets. What matters is that the Greeks be made an example: “Can’t pay! Won’t pay!” is reworked into “Can’t pay? Become a slave.”

In Black Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that the enslaved had ended chattel slavery themselves by mass migration from South to North at the beginning of the Civil War, long before the Emancipation Proclamation:

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people.

The result of the strike was an abolition democracy, whose participatory process centered on education and the capacity to be self-sustaining. The measures have passed. The occupations have been ended. It’s up to us to keep this present, to remain in the moment, to be present.


In sight of the law

So I’m waiting for a Direct Action meeting to begin–probably my single greatest category of time spent at OWS has been waiting. I’m talking to an Occupy friend about the movement, who says something to the effect that it’s been like a relationship–all buzzy and idealistic at first, more complicated and argumentative later. From the media perspective, of course, we’ve broken up already. Perhaps that’s why cultural work that interfaces politics with law and familial structure seems so relevant to me now.

When I saw the Motus refiguring of Antigone (Alexis. A Greek Tragedy), Antigone’s complex defiance of the law and her incredibly complex family were somewhat in the background because the company had spent years exploring Sophocles’s and Brecht’s versions of the theme. Watching Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation (2011), though, these questions really can’t be avoided. Set in present-day (which is to say post-Green movement) Iran, A Separation shows a complex but open set of events that suggest a new form of spectatorship might be possible.

The opening shot of "A Separation"

The very opening shot establishes this new problematic. At the end of the credits, the screen fills with a man and a woman arguing about a divorce. It becomes clear–as perhaps would be obvious to an Iranian audience–that they are debating in the presence of a judge as to how the divorce might be carried out. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) cannot agree on their future: she wants to leave the country for an unspecified destination to improve the chances for their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), while he feels obligated to stay and care for his father, who has Alheizmer’s. As we watch the debate, our perspective is that of the judge before whom the hearing is being held, whom we hear but do not see. The screen, then, is the Law. But which law? The state law that requires both parties to agree to a divorce? The law of the (male) gaze that is held to structure narrative cinema? What kind of watching might be possible if legislated on the psychoanalysis that Judith Butler imagines as being derived from Antigone, rather than Oedipus?

Antigone, as Oedipus’s daughter and brother, is decidedly “postoedipal,” as Butler puts it, “caught in a web of relations that produce no coherent position within kinship.” Just as Butler shows that Antigone’s position has no singularity, in A Separation everyone tries to do the right thing, only to find that there is no single way to be right, that the law breaks down against itself. To take one resonant example, a subaltern woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is employed to look after Nadar’s father after Simin leaves him. Perhaps confused by the change of circumstances, the old man soils himself and cannot (or will not) clean up. In her understanding of Islam, Razieh feels unable to look on a naked man other than her husband. She calls an authority–a rather interesting reconfiguration of the deus ex machina–who gives her permission, given the “urgency” of the situation. Here she fears god, her husband and her new employer in equal amounts.


The dilemma resonated with me in two ways. I once had a student who refused to look at images of naked bodies in a photography class for religious reasons. It turned out that she was a nurse and when I asked her what she did at work, she said that she imagined the bodies to be objects. Apparently this tactic did not operate in the classroom. Bemused, I found a workaround for her. In another context, we might recall the legend of Ham, cursed by God for seeing Noah’s nakedness. His “punishment” was to become “black.” This purported Biblical story was often used as a post-hoc justification for slavery.

In the context of Antigone, it resonates twice. Oedipus cursed Polyneices that he would not be buried with honor, a curse that further entailed Antigone’s claim to autonomy from law, when she buries her brother’s body, resulting in her own death. Antigone dies for a brother: but which one? In the story of Ham, God is Noah’s father–but also Ham’s, making them in a sense brothers. Ham’s “reckless eyeballing,” to use the Jim Crow term, is the alleged origin of the “social death” of slavery. A farmer named Matt Ingram was convicted of “reckless eyeballing” in North Carolina–in 1951. A white woman had not liked the way he looked at her from the distance of sixty-five feet. In Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the scandals, US guards yelled at the detainees: “Don’t eyeball me.” The law does not like to be looked at, it prefers to look.

Towards the end of A Separation, for reasons that I can’t go into without giving away the whole plot, the middle class family leave Razieh’s house to stare in horror at the screen. A cut shows them inside their car with a smashed windscreen. Suffice to say that all concepts of the law have been challenged by the pervasive interference of the state apparatus, the intransigence of multiple and divergent familial constraints and the uneven but thoroughgoing effects of the financial crisis. In the post-Green movement moment, gently but noticeably referenced in Nadar’s insistence on getting “change,” the final question of the film remains unanswered. It’s not as simple as breaking up, it’s not possible to go back to the way it was. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

J16: Visuality is Slavery

Today is of course Martin Luther King Day. OWS observances included a gathering at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, followed by a march to Wall Street, where there was a slave market, established in 1709. This was not simply a historical recovery but a reminder that the authority claimed by present day claims to visualize the social derives from the power of the slave-holder.

The slave market on Wall St circled in red

New York was not a marginal place in the history of slavery:

the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700’s, forty percent of New York’s households contained at least one enslaved African.

Its slave market was an unimpressive building designed for the rapid circulation of human property.

Print depicting the New York slave market

It is routinely claimed that such histories can safely be consigned to the past. There are three ways in which such claims are invalid.

1. Slavery and Capital

The Caribbean historian and decolonial politician Eric Williams established a key link between capitalism and slavery in his 1944 classic text of that name. In his recent magnum opus Debt, the OWS theorist and occupier David Graeber has shown that debt and money owe their very existence to slavery: “Money, then, begins, as [Phillipe] Rospabé himself puts it ‘as a substitute for life.’ One might call it the recognition of a life-debt” (133). Thus so-called “blood-money” is exactly the same as money that is used to arrange a marriage: money in exchange for a life. The “slave” is the person utterly alienated from life, so that to all intents and purposes they are socially dead.

2. “The New Jim Crow”

This is the name given by legal scholar Michelle Alexander to the extraordinary racialized disparities in the US “justice” system. One in three young African American men are in some way involved in this system. In Washington DC, 3 out of 4 such men will be imprisoned or otherwise subject to penalty, part of the 2 million in the current prison system. Such figures exceed even the ratios generated by the apartheid system in South Africa. As drug use is about the same in white and black communities, the cause is not outlandish substance abuse by African Americans. Alexander shows that:

A huge percentage of [African Americans] are not free to move up at all. It is not that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so…To put the matter starkly: The current system if control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. (13)

That is to say, the possibility of democracy is permanently impaired by a caste system, itself the direct descendant of slavery, as W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis have shown. Any direct democracy must first be an abolition democracy, a democracy that refuses the caste system at a minimum and, Davis would argue, the prison-industrial complex itself.

3. Visuality and Slavery

Visuality is a means of suturing authority to power. Power can be reduced to the means to compel people to act or not act by force. Usually, however, people respect the authority of the state, even when they disagree with it. Authority is a separate category to power. It is derived from the Latin term auctor, meaning the head of a family. As head of this family, the auctor had control over the possible purchases of land, animals and slaves. His patriarchy depended on this power, just as his financial empowerment reinforced his patriarchy. This is why any questioning of authority sooner rather than later generates questions of gender and (in countries where Africans were enslaved) racialized difference.

This analysis still begs the question of why the auctor was held to have such authority. In the Roman historian Livy, authority is distinguished from power (imperium) by the ability to interpret signs. This ability to discern meaning in both the medium and the message generates visuality’s aura of authority. When it is further invested with power, that ability becomes the ability to designate who should serve and who should rule.

The rulers in these histories are the named, those whose genealogies are held to count. Those without part, who do not count, are the anonymous, as incapable of visualizing the social as they are of being themselves visualized. Abolition democracy begins with the history of the anonymous, a project for this week’s posts.