Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dystopian sci-fi as bad conscience

Some time when I was home on break from college, my parents and I watched a documentary about Stalin. What I recall most about it, more vividly than the few stray facts that have clung on for those roughly 30 years, was my shock at being shocked.

I was a history major in college, with a focus on eastern Europe. I knew the outlines of Stalinism and many of the salient horrible facts, like the relocations of entire ethnic groups, or the famine in Ukraine created by policy. So I went in already knowing that Stalinism was really bad.

And yet the documentary was able to shock me with the explanation that Stalin was really bad. It's as if my mind can't really hold onto horror, and so something about a horrific situation makes a fresh impression every time I encounter it, even if the facts are familiar. I don't know whether that's a general human trait or if it has something to do with my fortunate reality of never having been directly exposed to that awful side of humanity. Whichever, for decades now I've been aware of this tendency in myself.

And I have the same relationship to slavery.

It's not like the situation of Richard Cohen, who by his own description seems to have learned early in life that slavery was "a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks."

While it's tricky to be too sure of what one learned while still in single digits, I'm pretty sure my first impression of slavery was as a deeply unfair wrong in which pretty bad things happened to black people, for the benefit of white people. And as I got older, more graphic details got filled in.

And yet I still have the capacity to be shocked when I revisit the issue in detail, as I'm doing now, reading  The half has never been told, by Edward E. Baptist. I'm perfectly capable of going into the book knowing that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism, and nonetheless find myself reeling from the evidence that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism.

Baptist's thesis has two core parts.

First, he contests the notions that slavery was a static, backwards relic of feudal times, and that it was inherently less economically efficient than free labor and was therefore fated to wither away.

Baptist documents how slavery changed in the early 1800s as it expanded from the Old South to what was then the Southwest of the United States, in the lower watershed of the Mississippi. It started as a cruel, unjust, and inhumane institution, but in developing the cotton fields of the Southwest it shed what traces of humanity it had left and became worse.

And it turns out it was economically efficient (more on that below).

Beyond correcting the impression that slavery was an inefficient feudal relic, Baptist's second main point is to show that slavery was integral to the progress of the Industrial Revolution and the development of modern capitalism.

His argument starts from the observation that the key resource of the Industrial Revolution was cotton. I might declare a tie between cotton and coal, since that fuel provided the raw energy to move ships faster, to move quickly over land, to produce the massive amounts of steel needed to make the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, and eventually to move the factories themselves, taking over from water power. But Baptist is correct that cotton was the raw material for the key industry of mechanization, the one that give Britain an item of mass production that could be sold around the world for profits to keep the process of economic expansion going.

And Baptist documents how the new form of slavery was a horrifically efficient way of producing more cotton.

Among economists, the conventional story of how the world got rich is one of mechanical and organizational efficiency. New reaping machines made farmers more productive. Mill equipment massively multiplied how much fabric a worker could produce.

Economists like me who pay more attention to resources add in some consideration for the role of fossil fuel.

Baptist turns our attention to what was known as the "pushing system," a way of getting more work out of enslaved people.

There was no mechanical harvester for cotton until the 1930's, so cotton picking until that time was all done by hand. Yet from 1811 to 1860 the mean daily pounds per worker were multiplied by a factor of about 3.6. (see p. 126)

There was no new machine that helped people do their job more effectively.

Rather, the overseers and enslavers concocted a very effective system of setting individual quotas for each enslaved person, using torture to enforce conformity with those quotas, then ratcheting up the quotas some more, and using further torture to force people to come up with ways of meeting the new, higher standard.
Historians of torture have defined the term as extreme torment that is part of a judicial or inquisitorial process. The key feature that distinguishes it from mere sadistic behavior is supposedly that torture aims to extract "truth." But the scale and slate and lash did, in fact, continually extract a truth: the maximum poundage that a man, woman, or child could pick. (pp. 139-140)
Along with using the word "torture" rather than its euphemisms "discipline" or "punishment," Baptist avoids the words "master" and "slave" in preference for "enslaver" and "enslaved person." And he uses the word "plantation" a lot less than the phrase "slave labor camp." He's trying to shift the language in order to shift our understanding of what slavery was.
Innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system. Enslaved migrants in the field quickly learned what happened if they lagged or resisted. In Mississippi, Allen Sidney saw a man who had fallen behind the fore row fight back against a black driver who tried to "whip him up" to pace. The white overseer, on horseback, dropped his umbrella, spurred up, and shouted, "Take him down." The overseer pulled out a pistol and shot the prone man dead. "None of the other slaves," Sidney remembered, "said a word or turned their heads. They kept on hoeing as if nothing had happened." They had learned that they had to adapt to "pushing" or face unpredictable but potentially extreme violence. Enslavers organized space so that violent supervision could extract the maximum amount of labor. "A good part of our rows are five hundred and fifty yards long," wrote one Tennessee cotton planter in the 1820s. He had created a space in which he could easily identify stragglers. He also simultaneously ensured that when he inflicted exemplary punishment, he did so in clear view of a large audience. (pp. 117-118)
In addition to "rational" violence - torture as a tool to extract more work from enslaved people - there was an irrational element, as in this incident that adds an air of sadism to the business sense of not wanting "unproductive" children around:
Women nursing babies in the shade where they had been laid, or toddlers among the cotton plants - all could become flashpoints for white fury. "Gross has killed Sook's youngest child," wrote a white woman to her slave-trader cousin. "He took the child out to work (it was between one year and eighteen months old) & because it would not do its work to please him he first whipt it & then held its head in the [creek] branch to make it hush crying."
The phenomenon of families getting split up is familiar to anyone who has read about slavery, but what I hadn't thought about was the deep economic logic behind the barbarity. Baptist uses notaries' records of slave sales to track down the prior homes of slaves sold in Louisiana, and their ages. The most valuable were people who were fully grown but not yet old. If you were in the eastern states of the Old South, where the soil was tired and your crops would no longer fetch much money, the enslaved people you claimed to own could be a source of wealth directly:
In the 1820s, migrating enslavers and new traders moved approximately 35,000 enslaved people from Maryland and the District of Columbia; 76,000 from Virginia; and 20,000 from North Caroline - and that was only the beginning. Speculators repeatedly tapped areas that had large enslaved populations and anemic cash-crop possibilities, skimming off the cream of uncounted parents' lives: young men and women, boys and girls. Of the enslaved children aged ten and under in Virginia in 1820, only three of every four who lived would still be in Virginia ten years later. The figures for Maryland, Delaware, and North Carolina were all similar. (p. 180)
About a week before I picked up Baptist's book, I followed one of those random paths of web links that constitute the life of the mind in the 21st century, and I ended up at a YouTube clip of the last three minutes of Terry Gilliam's move Brazil. And I hadn't  made it through chapter 1 of the book before I sensed a resemblance not only to Brazil but also to earlier stories like 1984 and later, like Minority report.

In all of these imagined worlds, normal people can fall through the façade of everyday reality into a hellscape where the individual is torn from the relationships that anchor his life and subjected to the irresistible and seemingly capricious force of the state.

And none of them are worse than the reality of American chattel slavery in the 19th century.

Instead of imagining what it would be like if the future were to turn out as these artists depicted it in fiction, we could focus our imaginations on what it must have been like for enslaved people in reality.

It's as if these fictional totalitarian dystopias are the bad conscience of white society. We're not quite willing to face what was done in our name, for our benefit as people not at risk of enslavement, under the banner of the idea that whites are superior, that, as Thomas Jefferson claimed, "separation from loved ones mattered little to African Americans." (p. 192)

So we paint a fictional future where "they" are doing to "us" what some of our predecessors actually did to those they enslaved.

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