Friday, July 29, 2016
I was thinking about Mrs. Obama’s reference to waking up every day in a house that slaves built. Some people immediately brought up the old argument that the slaves were provided for in terms of food, lodging, and elderly care, etc. This is basically comparing the slave economy to the mediaeval serf economy. There is one significant difference, however. The barons didn’t hate their serfs.
Serfs were considered to be a part of the territory, along with the rivers, forests, and fields. In exchange for being allowed to live on the land, the serf provided taxes, occasional military service, and fealty to the baron. The baron, in turn, provided security and the rule of law. Serfs were allowed to work the commons and have regulated access to the King’s forests and rivers. Certain other organs of civilization, traders; soldiers; priests; etc., also factored into the mix. They always do.
A serf was not free nor was he exactly a slave. He was another integral part of the economy. Contrast this with the capitalist economy where the capitalist sheds all responsibilities while amassing as much capital as possible. His only obligation to the serf, now called a laborer, is a daily recompense: A wage. If the laborer does not work, he does not get paid. If he can’t afford food, he starves. If he grows too old to work, he dies. If the environment becomes too costly for the capitalist, he packs up, leaves town, and bears no responsibility to the abandoned laborers for anything, including environmental damage his venture may have caused to the King’s land. The capitalist has no obligations other than to make money. Period.
So the serf’s life was actually easier and more secure that today’s workers’, oddly. Check out Terry Jones’ ‘Midieval Lives’ on YouTube. Enjoyable and informative. This is peculiar seeing as we have more in the way of technology, medical advancements, sanitation, healthy food and clean water, and access to (temporary) fossil fuels which gives each and every one of us an estimated 150 fossil fuel ‘slaves.’ In other words, if we needed human laborers to provide everything we get from coal, oil, and natural gas, it would require 150 people for each and every one of us. Those are our carbon slaves.
But this essay is about comparing the serf economy with the slave economy, not serfdom vs. capitalism.
Slaves, like serfs, aren’t free. Even the Magna Carta originally only applied to the barons. Serfs had no rights. It took several hundred years for these rights to become universal and for there to be a House of Commons as well as a House of Lords (but that’s another story.) Slaves never have a House of Slaves. This was the only request of the politicos of the colonies: A seat in Parliament. Barring that, we weren’t English citizens. We were serfs. Had the King granted that one thing, there’d have been no Lexington, no Valley Forge, no Yorktown. We’d all be English now. We’d be Canada.
Also, slaves are property of the capitalist/baron instead of part of the land. So the slave economy is not like the serf economy. As much as I did not want to discuss capitalism, I have no choice since slave owners were capitalists. Slaves were treated as capital, which they aren’t. This means that the slave owner must discard ownership of his slaves as quickly as possible in order to be a true capitalist. Not owning the serf/laborer but instead just paying him a daily wage means that the capitalist doesn’t have to worry about accommodations (that’s his problem,) food (ditto,) old age (ditto,) child care (ditto,) health care (ditto,) or anything other than just providing a dollar a day.
And he gets to shunt off every other expense on the government (roads, security, law and order,) or the environment (depletion, pollution, landfill.) In turn, the serfs and the government get to give the capitalist lots of money for his goods and services. Quite a racket. They weren’t called Robber Barons for nothing. No wonder we are poorer than the serfs were.
Of course, laborers respond by using the only tool they have: Their labor. They organize, strike, and demand that the government enact laws in their favor. The capitalists react by employing union busting thugs, buying those same governments, repealing regulations which are ‘crippling business in America!’ or outsourcing work to countries where the serfs are cheaper. We are in the down cycle of that dance right now.
Most western countries had already outlawed slavery by the 1860’s. Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to outlaw it in 1888. Of course, slavery is slightly more cost effective in an agrarian economy, like the South, than in an industrial economy, like the North, but it was just a matter of time before they realized it was to their economic benefit to abolish slavery and then just hire them back at a dirt poor wage. The issue here is racism. The barons didn’t hate the serfs. They didn’t think of them much at all, any more than they thought of such and such a river or those pastures full of sheep over there. Oh, sure they thought they were better than the serfs, but doesn’t everybody?
American slaves were mostly African and the easiest way to identify an African is by the color of his skin, an insignificant marker controlled by a single gene out of tens of thousands. At other times in history slaves could be anybody. There was brief talk in ancient Rome about making slaves wear a certain mark so they could be recognized on the street. Once they realized how many more slaves there were walking around the streets of Rome than Roman citizens, they quietly dropped the idea. Good move, Brute.
So the American barons hated their serfs and treated them badly. You didn’t see English barons whipping serfs or working them to death. You didn’t see barons at all, except at major festivals. The serfs/slaves went about their own business and governed their own farms and communities according to Church and State. So it’s really impossible to compare slavery as it was practiced against Africans in the western hemisphere from the 16th to the 19th centuries and its resultant racism with any other kind of economic system, even former slave economies. This one was unique.