In Defense of Slavery

George Fitzhugh (whom we discussed here) and the parable of the market professional:

The professional man who charges the highest fees is most respected, and he who undercharges stands disgraced. We have a friend who has been, and we believe will continue to be, one of the most useful men in Virginia. He inherited an independent patrimony. He acquired a fine education, and betook himself laboriously to an honorable profession. His success was great, and his charges very high. In a few years he amassed a fortune, and ceased work. We expounded our theory to him. Told him we used to consider him a good man, and quite an example for the rising generation; but that now he stood condemned under our theory. 

Whilst making his fortune, he daily exchanged about one day of his light labor for thirty days of the farmer, the gardener, the miner, the ditcher, the sewing woman, and other common working people's labor. His capital was but the accumulation of the results of their labor; for common labor creates all capital. Their labor was more necessary and useful than his, and also more honorable and respectable. The more honorable, because they were contented with their situation and their profits, and not seeking to exploitate, by exchanging one day of their labor for many of other people's. To be exploited, ought to be more creditable than to exploit. 

They were "slaves without masters;" the little fish, who were food for all the larger. They stood disgraced, because they would not practice cannibalism; rise in the world by more lucrative, less useful and less laborious pursuits, and live by exploitation rather than labor. He, by practicing cannibalism more successfully than others, had acquired fame and fortune. 'Twas the old tune--"Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands." The more scalps we can shew, the more honored we are. 

We told him he had made his fortune by the exploitation of skill, and was now living by the still worse exploitation of capital. Whilst working, he made thirty dollars a day--that is, exploitated or appropriated the labor of thirty common working men, and gave in exchange his own labor, intrinsically less worthy, than any one of theirs. But now he was doing worse. He was using his capital as a power to compel others to work for him--for whom he did not work at all. 

The white laborers who made his income, or interests and dividends, were wholly neglected by him, because he did not know even who they were. He treated his negro slaves much better. It was true, he appropriated or exploitated much of the results of their labor, but he governed them and provided for them, with almost parental affection. Some of them we knew, who feigned to be unfit for labor, he was boarding expensively. Our friend at first ridiculed our theory. But by degrees began to see its truth, and being sensitively conscientious, was disposed to fret whenever the subject was introduced.

This is a wild, wild, wild book. I find myself admiring the aggression embedded in the writing ("They stood disgraced, because they would not practice cannibalism,") the rigor of the thinking, and the poetry in the overarching metaphor (market capitalism as cannibalism.)  Again, much of what Fitzhugh offers works if you have no respect for democracy or individual rights, if you can countenance a "quiet slavery."

In some of our earlier discussions about slavery, it was pretty normal for someone to argue that, after the war, there were freedman who'd been better off as slaves. The point being that under slavery a master was obliged to provide food, shelter, clothing, care for the young, elderly and infirmed. Free blacks had none of that coming.

Beyond generalizing, this view privileges security over freedom. And it does it opportunistically. One could just as easily argue that the white poor in Boston would have been better off as slaves. (I think Fitzhugh actually does argue this.) The point of emancipation was not to bring about a perpetual heaven on earth. The point was "a troubled liberty," the right to succeed or fail on your own merits. That's a part of the American Dream, and it's the essence of Lincoln. From an economic perspective, he believed that individual black people had the right to go as far as their talents and efforts could take them.

But the notion of a broad aristocracy, an almost communal vision, is also part of the American Dream. I think back to Mitch Albom's conception of Detroit:

Detroit and Michigan are part of the backbone of this country, the manufacturing spine, the heart of the middle class -- heck, we invented the middle class, we invented the idea that a factory worker can put in 40 hours a week and actually buy a house and send a kid to college. What? You have a problem with that? You think only lawyers and hedge-fund kings deserve to live decently?

I've always found that quote interesting, because, in some ways, it is at odds with the old Republican concept of America. This is not simply individuals rising according by their merits. It's the guarantee of the right of the high-school graduate to live like the hedge-fund king. It's a seductive vision, and Fitzhugh would likely argue that the standard which awards more worth to the hedge fund king than to the factory worker is dubious and arbitrary.  And yet, while I lack the knowledge to prove this, intuition tells me that a world where factory workers live like lawyers is not only engineered, but is likely to be built on the collective exploitation of some other invisible class, itself, no doubt, dreaming of living like hedge fund kings.

During Detroit's hey-day it was, in part, through the oppression of blacks that this dream was achieved. To be white in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, was to achieve membership in a kind of cartel which guaranteed you potential access to the best jobs, the best housing, the best accommodations. And in these endeavors, it guaranteed you total freedom from competition with blacks. When I was reporting my Detroit story, I sat in the home of a woman who'd been the valedictorian of Cass (Detroit's top high school.) But her principal attempted to talk her out taking the honor. She was not a member of the cartel.

I am trying to track those two traditions up through today. Surely we take for granted that people should be able to go as far as their individual efforts take them. (This was not a settled matter in Fitzhugh's time.) But we also have that old market socialism. We believe (or believed) that everyone should have access to owning a home, for instance. We believe in our right to purchase goods at Wal-Mart at bargain prices. We don't quite believe that factory workers should live like hedge fund kings, but we believe that worker should have some access to the good life.

This is the end of this post. It is unfinished, because my thoughts on all of this are unfinished. More to come as I read.

MORE: From comments, my interpretation of Albom is tortured and overstated. My apologies.