Tuesday, December 30, 2008

slavery's ground zero

I have been spending the holiday season in Richmond, Virginia, my first trip to the former capital of the Confederate States of America and my first trip to the U.S. South in almost 30 years. Before I came to Richmond, I had not thought much about the significance of the trip from an international development perspective, but for the past week I have not been able to avoid it. The reason is simple: in one of my early first year lectures I focus my attention on the role of slavery in facilitating the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe and the United States, and Richmond is the ‘ground zero’ of the American slave trade.

The U.S. stopped the international trade in slaves in 1808. It was Virginia’s slaveholders that stepped in to replace international trade by transforming Richmond into one of the biggest, if not the biggest, slave markets in the U.S., particularly in the neighbourhood known as Shockoe Bottom. What Île de Gorée in Dakar, Senegal, is to the slave trade from Africa, Shockoe Bottom is to the slave trade in the U.S. Owners of slaves from Virginia plantations brought them into Richmond to sell to owners developing new plantations in the Deep South. As a result, between 1808 and 1865 anywhere between 300000 and 3500000 slaves were sold out of Richmond’s slave markets. Considering that in 1865 the African-American population of the U.S. stood at around 4 million, this means that today hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of African-Americans can today trace their ancestry back to the slave markets of Richmond.

However, slavery in Richmond was not only about securing unfree labour for agricultural export production from the South. It was also about ‘developing’ the economy of a Virginia witnessing declining soil fertility and a decaying agrarian economy. Granted, a large proportion of Richmond’s slave population worked as ‘domestics’. Nonetheless, the development of industrial capital in Richmond—a legacy that can still be witnessed today—was predicated upon unfree slave labour. Hired slave labour was an important part of the work force at the Tredegar Iron Works, and the other iron foundries, that provided the industrial basis of the Confederacy’s attempt to sustain the class power of agrarian elites. Hired slaves also dominated the labour force in Richmond’s tobacco industry, performing the hard, back-breaking work needed to process tobacco. Finally, slave labour was necessary to create and maintain Richmond’s transportation networks. Unfree labour worked on the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal, the first canal in the U.S., while crews of slaves, alongside free African-Americans, made up the bateau crews that navigated cargoes into Richmond.

The truth is thus that the history and development of Richmond, like the United States as a whole, and indeed the North, was, to a large extent, built by slave labour. As I try to argue in my lecture on colonialism and slavery, a convincing case can be made that industrial capitalism in its infancy required slavery in order to gain economic ascendency in the North. Capital was built, initially, on slavery.

This reality demands two final comments. The first is that slaves incessantly resisted their unfree status. Richmond paradigmatically illustrates this. Following the Haitian Revolution of 1792, the first major slave revolt in the south was led by a 24 year old slave named Gabriel (often, incorrectly, named Gabriel Prosser), a deeply Christian blacksmith. In 1800, disgusted by the slavery that bound him, Gabriel made plans to take the city of Richmond by force. By August of 1800 Gabriel had thousands of slave supporters and had secured a cache of weapons, including guns. Gabriel’s plans came to naught: he was betrayed by two of his ‘followers’ and, moreover, on the day of the planned revolt, the bridges into Richmond were destroyed in a flood. The Virginia militia attacked Gabriel and his thousand followers the next day; they were captured, and he and his followers were hanged. Gabriel’s revolt, little acknowledged outside African-American historiography, was the closest the U.S. came to a home-grown slave-led revolution.

The second comment follows from the fact that Gabriel’s revolt is little acknowledged. The history of capitalism’s development, and our globally-privileged life, is predicated upon slavery; yet this is not discussed, freely and openly. Our lives are built on a hidden history of power and privilege, a transcript that needs to be revealed and confronted if the poverty that stalks the world is to be eliminated.

Postscript: It should be acknowledged that Richmond was, in 2007, the first city in the U.S. to formally apologize for slavery. In mid-2008 Gabriel was informally pardoned by the Governor of Virginia. In late 2008, in the Shockoe Bottom area, a Slavery Reconciliation Statue was unveiled. These acts, which are about revealing a hidden transcript, do not come about autonomously, but as the result of citizens seeking to reclaim history. Such acts are a precondition of further, deeper social change.

Monday, December 29, 2008

remembering Samuel Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington, one of the most influential and important American political scientists in the field of international development studies, died on Christmas Eve at the age of 81. Huntington embodied the contradictions of the U.S. intelligensia towards international development: a lifelong Democrat, with ideas that many of his friends and colleagues considered quite liberal, and an ability to move between the academic and the political world, he nonetheless throughout his life articulated a set of ideas that apologized for the powerful and accommodated authoritarianism.

Huntington's first book, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, published in 1957, was still required reading when I was an undergraduate. In it, Huntington argued that the U.S. had to protect conservative military institutions and individuals because they in turn protected the U.S. from the foibles of human nature: 'irrationality, weakness and evil'. The argument was developed in relation to the U.S., but it was one that could be used more broadly, in both developed and developing societies. However, it was, in effect, an ideological apology for what Eisenhower had called 'the military-industrial complex': the economic fractions that dominated U.S.--and hence global--capital and shaped a set of hegemonic ideas that sustained their own power.

These ideas were further crystalized in Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies, published in 1969. In this hugely important book, Huntington argued that international development had not taken place in the South because of a lack of political 'order'. 'Order' mattered, and not the character of the political governance: and thus, for the good of 'development', the U.S. could support authoritarian dictatorships such as those in South Vietnam, Zaire, Iraq and beyond because they brought 'order', which was more important than 'democracy' (however defined). These were the ideas that had allowed Huntington to advise the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, a campaign that was, in part, based upon ensuring that the Vietnam War was continued until military victory was ensured--and 'order' established.

Huntington will, however, be best remembered for 1996's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which argued, well before the September 11 attacks, that differences in history, tradition, language and religion would be the cause of wars to come. Huntington asserted that these differences were particularly evident in the 'continuing and deeply conflictual relationship between Islam and Christianity'. He also asserted that these differences would produce essentially unresolvable conflicts that would continue until one side had secured victory. In essence, Huntington was arguing that as a consequence of this 'clash of civilizations' one side would have to impose order on the other. He was thus providing the intellectual justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and, before the mistruths of the Bush Administration were revealed, the invasion of Iraq.

Samuel Huntington was extremely influential in the world, even if few have heard of him. He provided the intellectual justification for the imperial misadventures of the early 21st century, just as he provided the intellectual justification for the imperial misadventures of the 1960s and 1970s. He was, in the sense of Antonio Gramsci, an organic intellectual of the ruling class: an individual who propogated a set of ideas that shaped the way people think and facilitated their willingness to accede to the deployment of class power, no matter how much it was not in their interest and no matter how relentless it might be.

Monday, December 15, 2008

more on the case of Omar Khadr

As a followup to my weblog entry of 27 October, it is worth highlighting the fact that Lietunant-Commander Bill Kuebler, who is part of Omar Khadr's U.S. government-appointed defence team, last week tried to have entered into evidence at Omar Khadr's military commissions hearing at Guantanamo Bay photographs of Khadr buried under the rubble of a collapsed roof at the time he was supposed to be throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. The judge at the hearing, Colonel Patrick Parrish, banned Cdr. Kuebler from showing the photographs. Asked why Col. Parrish banned the photographs, Cdr. Kuebler said: 'Because they show he's innocent'.

There has been no response from the Canadian government to these photographs, which have been known about for a year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

senseless sacrifice

On 5 December 2008 a grisly milestone was passed in Canada's war in southern Afghanistan: the 100th solider to be killed died as a consequence of a roadside improvised explosive device.

This weblog has previously argued why the war in Kandahar being fought by Canada's army is a mistake. Canada is not 'fighting global terrorism' or sustaining 'peace in Canada', as the Canadian government has suggested. It is fighting local Pakhtun tribesmen who see the Canadians as a foreign occupying force. Moreover, the local Pakhtuns are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ability to fight, having won a number of set-piece battles in both Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand province. Fighting in Afghanistan in general, and southern Afghanistan in particular, is getting heavier, not lighter, as time goes by, and more, not fewer, foreign soldiers are dying as more and more of the country falls out of the control of NATO forces. Increasingly, NATO military commanders suggest that the war is not about winning, but about containing an acceptable level of violence. Indeed, given the deep unpopularity of the massively corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai, a former friend of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, even achieving an acceptable level of violence may be a difficult, if not impossible task. Insurgents now target heavily-guarded areas of Kabul, the previously safe capital, and increasingly international non-governmental organizations are being targeted.

It is, without a doubt, true that Afghans have better access to health care, to education, and to economic opportunities than was previously the case. However, it is also true that much of the country remains desperately poor, and is unlikely to see its prospects improve during the next 15 years. Hunger is widespread. Finally, of course, there is death: we have no idea of knowing how many Afghans have died during the war (I have seen numbers of around 13000 bandied about), but we know that many that have died have died at the hands of the occupation forces, by accident. Wedding parties have been bombed, drivers have been shot, goat hearders have been strafed. A recent attack in Shah Wali Kowt in Kandahar killed 3 dozen villagers. The price of a life in rural Afghanistan is just under US$2000--that is what the U.S. government pays in compensation for the death of an innocent bystander in the countryside. Those who are injured typically get paid around US$140.

It is the death of innocents, along with tribal grievances, that drives the insurgency--as I forecast would be the case in October of 2001. For many--most?--rural Afghans, NATO forces are no different than the Soviet occupiers of the 1980s; indeed, in some instances, the Soviet occupation is viewed more positively than the NATO occupation, for the government was more coherent. Let us hope that it does not take another 100 dead Canadian soliders to make the government realize this.

recent activities fall 2008

After a wet summer, the first few days of the Fall Term have been extremely pleasant: a fine way to commence the 2008 - 2009 academic year.

In addition to teaching my regular courses at Trent University, Human inequality in global perspective and Agrarian change and the global politics of food, this fall will see me very busy, in terms of research activities. I will continue to work on the draft of my next book, Hungry for Change? Farmers, Global Food Crisis and Agrarian Questions. I have a book chapter, on gender and development, to complete in due course. I also have a commissioned paper for the Journal of Agrarian Change, and a number of book reviews that I have promised. Finally, in October I will be delivering a paper on global food insecurity and the agrarian question to a conference at the University of Manitoba.

Administratively, the new International Advisory Board of the Journal of Peasant Studies, of which I am a member, will assume their duties in the fall, and I will take part in executive meetings of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development and the Canadian Journal of Development Studies.

I expect that I will be working flat out through the fall.