Reparations [3]: The Airtight Legal Case Against Them, and the Moonshot That Would Make Them Possible

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win….”

JFK, Sept. 12, 1962[1]

It was 1962 and the Cold War was raging. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his “we will bury you” speech to 1956[2] and his shoe-banging speech in 1960[3]. Meanwhile, the competition had turned skyward[4], and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up.

“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.

“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”[5]

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compares Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:

“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess: twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’

“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”[6]

JFK announced the USA’s comeback with his “we choose to go to the moon” speech[7] to 40,000 people packed into the stadium at Rice University.[8] It was visionary in concept and triumphant in tone. The USA wasn’t going to go to the moon just because the Soviets were trying to beat us there, not just to win a celestial derby for a grand prize of bragging rights, and not just to gain the ultimate battlefield high ground. We were going to do it to further America’s mission of bringing peace to the nations, including the new frontier of outer space.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

The speech didn’t focus on the bad guys, didn’t accuse or blame them, didn’t spout media-speak about protecting our national interests. Instead, it was aspirational. It seized the high ground. We were going to the moon because that’s the kind of thing Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges because that’s who we are. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

It’s hard to imagine someone making a speech like that today. It feels hokey in the unforgiving hindsight of all that’s transpired in the past 60 years, and especially recently. No, I’m not nostalgic for the 60’s — those were not “the best days of my life.”[9] And no, I’m not beatifying JFK or waving the flag of American superiority – a myth I’ve long since had disillusioned out of me. It’s just that I miss living in a culture, nation, and world where leaders think and act and talk like that. And in particular, if we’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, we need to do so with the kind of attitude and outlook that permeated JFK’s speech. Otherwise, the legal technicalities will shut it down.

The Open-and-Shut Case Against Reparations

Here is the insurmountable legal case against reparations:

  • Slavery wasn’t illegal. There are and never have been criminal penalties or civil remedies against those who carried it out — all of whom are long since dead anyway.
  • The only possible responsible party is the government itself, which sponsored slavery in the first place.
  • But even if there were legal grounds to prosecute or sue the government (there aren’t) you can’t do it anyway. That’s because the government is protected by the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which means it can’t be held to account for administering its own law.
  • The only tribunal with authority to override the doctrine of sovereign immunity is international law, but submitting to international law is voluntary, a matter of each nation’s willingness to give up some of its sovereignty to its national peers, and that is a choice the U.S. has not made.

“Law and order” adherence to the legal case against reparations instantly shuts down the idea. The legal case against reparations is exemplified in what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said about the topic:

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War and passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, because it’s pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”[10]

McConnel’s comments make it clear that he views reparations in the conventional way of suing for “damages”– money –to recompense a victimized party for past losses.

I wasn’t there. Nobody who’s alive now was there. Everybody who was there is dead now. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. The law doesn’t hold anybody accountable.

He was right about all that. The rest of what he said was legally unnecessary, a resort to the kinds of rationalization and platitudes we reach for when what we really mean is “over my dead body.”

Slavery was bad, but why dwell on the past? We’ve been trying to move on, put it behind us. We’re a work in progress. We need to let bygones be bygones.

He didn’t need platitudes. He could have gone straight to the ultimate legal defense:

The Ultimate Defense: Sovereign Immunity

“Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine whereby a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”[11]

Sovereign immunity came over on the boat with the rest of English common law.

“Sovereign immunity finds its origins in English common law and the king’s position at the ‘apex of the feudal pyramid.’ In that pyramid, lords could not be sued in their own courts, ‘not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.’ Thus, lords could only be sued in the courts of their superiors, but, for the king, ‘there was no higher court in which he could be sued.’” [12]

Where Sovereign Immunity Came From: The Divine Right of Kings

Sovereign immunity is a carryover from the “Divine Right of Kings” – a legal doctrine formulated in the days when monarchies were more than ceremonial. The doctrine was derived from the Biblical worldview that underlies law and culture in America, Europe, and the U.K.

“The theory of the divine right of kings lent support to the proposition that the king was above the law-that he was in fact the law-giver appointed by God, and therefore could not be subjected to the indignity of suit by his subjects…. To Bracton the maxim ‘the king can do no wrong’ meant simply that the king was not privileged to do wrong, but to Blackstone the phrase was not so restricted, and in his Commentaries the following is to be found: ‘Besides the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king in his political capacity absolute perfection… The king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.’”[13]

The divine right of kings and non-monarchical sovereign immunity both mean that government –i.e., the people in it who determine and enforce its laws — get the same hands-off treatment as God. God can do no wrong — neither can the king or the President or their emissaries.

I still recall sitting in a law school class when I learned about this. How could it be, that government would not be held accountable for how it treats the governed? “Government needs to be free to govern,” my law professor explained.

There is, however, one powerful way through this legal barrier:

Sovereign Immunity Can be Waived.[14]

The government can volunteer to make things right – it can waive its own sovereign immunity. (It has in fact done so on other occasions, which we will also look at another time.)

Viewed solely as a legal act, a waiver of sovereign immunity would require the commitment and action of all three branches of U.S. government: an act of Congress, signed into law by the President, and upheld as Constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Beyond legalities, reparations would require a break from centuries-old notions of the right of government to govern as it sees fit. Such a break would require a new “social contract.” As one history teacher explains:

“The Divine Right of Kings represents a ‘Top Down’ approach to government, in contrast with the ‘Bottom Up’ approach of social contract theory, which claims that the people create governments for their own protection and that those governments serve the people who created them.”[15]

A New Social Contract

According to Rousseau, a social contract is the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. As Thomas Hobbes famously said, lack of that tradeoff is what makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[16] Or, as a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.”[17] A social contract suggests we can do better. As Hobbes said:

“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”[18]

The USA was created out of the colonists’ desire for a new social contract when their deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom. In response, the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence[19], the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That original social contract + revisions and amendments over the course of 250 years of history = the USA as we know it today.

Mitch McConnell was right: our nation’s history is always a work in progress – we are constantly revisiting and readjusting our social contract.

For reparations to happen, we need a new social contract that would enable a waiver of sovereign immunity. And for that to happen, the new social contract needs to explicitly reject a racial perspective articulated by none other than John Wilkes Booth:

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. “And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”[20]

Reparations Would Require Another Moon Shot

A new social contract is an idea of monumental proportions. People don’t rally behind small ideas. National transformation requires big, bold, decisive initiative — ideas like that are hard, impossible by current standards, that require voyages into uncharted territory and commitment to solve unprecedented problems. The USA would make reparations for slavery because that’s what Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges. That’s who we are. We don’t make ourselves the good guys and everyone else the bad. We don’t blame them, don’t spout media-speak about national interests, don’t hide behind legal technicalities. We do the aspirational. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

If the USA is going to make reparations for slavery, we need a new moonshot.

 

[1] Here’s the full text. See also Wikipedia.

[2] See a previously classified CIA report on that speech here.

[3] See Wikipedia.

[4] See this timeline for the Space Race.

[5] NASA.

[6] Tyson, Neil deGrasse and Lang, Avis, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,

[7] Here’s the full text.

[8] Wikipedia.

[9] Bryan Adams, Summer of ’69.

[10] Axios.com.

[11] Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States.

[12] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both. See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity” “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”.

[13] Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[14] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity” and Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States

[15] TomRichey.net.

[16] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan.

[17] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016),

[18] Hobbes, op cit.

[19] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as the ideals of one contract conflict with those of another.

[20] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).

Reparations [2]: Slavery, Human Capital, Le Déluge, and Paying the Piper

Après moi, le déluge.
(After me, the deluge.)
King Louis XV of France

The proposal of reparations for the USA’s racial history raises complex legal, economic, and other issues. We’re familiar with these – they’ve been well-rehearsed in op-eds and speeches, by politicians and pundits, activists and the media….

Less familiar are issues more subjective than objective, reflective than combative, instinctual than intellectual. These are the province of shared human experience and sensibility, particularly of virtue — a nearly obsolete concept these days. Virtue prompts change not from the outside, not institutionally, but from a transformation in shared human consciousness, a cultural change of heart, We learn its lessons not from economic models and legal briefs, but principally from truth expressed in fiction –myths and legends, fables and feature films — Aesop’s Fables for adults. As one of Aesop’s contemporaries said about him:

“… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”.[1]

As we’ll see below, virtue asks more than legal compliance, it demands that we pay the piper.

In this series, we will look at both kinds of issues in detail.

History Lesson: The French Revolution

“After me, the deluge” is sometimes attributed to the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as “After us, the deluge.” Either way – King or mistress, me or us – the quote is usually taken as a prophesy of the French Revolution, delivered with an attitude of elite indifference that ranks right in there with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” (Which she probably never said.[2]) “We’re getting away with it now, but all hell is going to break loose once we’re gone.” And indeed it did, when King Louis XVI was guillotined a generation later, under the name Citizen Louis Capet. [3]

From that historical context, après moi, le déluge has come to represent an awareness of coming doom, a feeling that we can’t get away with this forever. Things are good now, but watch out, they won’t last. People thought life was good back in Noah’s time, but look what happened to them. We keep this up, we might get our own version of the Flood.

Contemporary Lesson: Economic Inequality

Plutocrat Nick Hanauer offers a modern version of the saying in his TED talk. According to his TED bio, Hanauer is a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” and founder of 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He unabashedly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for his own future, and the futures of his fellow plutocrats, if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

Whether French Revolution or today, the issue is “paying the piper.”

The Moral of the Story: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Victorian poet Robert Browning brought us the “paying the piper” idiom in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. [4] Here’s a synopsis to refresh our memories:

“‘Pay the piper’ comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.

“Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.

“Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.

“At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.

“When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.

“The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.

“Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.

“At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.”

After me, the deluge + Pay the piper = Pay the piper or risk the deluge

Virtue says don’t get greedy. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be a fraud. Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t be too smart for your own good. Don’t try to get away with it. You’re better than that. Fess up, take responsibility. Don’t invite the deluge – the sudden and terrible twist of fate, the movement of greater mysteries, the imposition of higher justice.

The rats you get rid of won’t be worth the children you lose.

The mayor and citizens of Hamelin defrauded the Piper at the cost of their own children. Justice was absolute — the mountain vault was sealed. The Piper was fully, awfully paid.

Reparations for American slavery are a proposed remedy – a way to pay the piper — for the lost humanity of slaves, stolen from them by a legal and economic framework that assigned slaves economic but not human value. Slaves were dehumanized, and virtue will not tolerate it.

Exploitation of Human Capital

Exploitation of capital assets is expected in a capitalist economy. Human labor is a capital asset, and will also be exploited — everyone who’s ever worked for someone else figures that out the first day on the job. But slavery took exploitation too far: slaves were not people, they were capital assets and nothing more. They were no longer human.

“Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were ex ante. What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair.

“It is relatively easy to come up with intuitively compelling cases of unfair, exploitative behavior. Providing a philosophical analysis to support and develop those intuitions, however, has proven more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is specifying the conditions under which a transaction or institution may be said to be unfair.

“Does the unfairness involved in exploitation necessarily involve some kind of harm to its victim? Or a violation of her moral rights? Is the unfairness involved in exploitation a matter of procedure, substance, or both? And how, if at all, are facts about the history of the agents involved or the background conditions against which they operate relevant to assessing charges of exploitation?”[5]

Slavery harmed its victims, exploited them both procedurally and substantively. And “the facts about the history” of slavery’s purveyors and “the background conditions against which they operate[d]” are most definitely “relevant to assessing charges of exploitation.” Today, 165 years after the nominal end of slavery, those charges remain unanswered, and unpaid.

Slavery and Human Capital

19th Century economist John Elliot Cairnes was “an ardent disciple and friend of John Stuart Mill” and “was often regarded as ‘the last of the Classical economists.’”[6] Writing during the American Civil War, Cairnes analyzed the impact of slavery on both human and other forms of capital in his book The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.[7]

“Cairnes’s shining hour was his widely-discussed 1862 treatise Slave Power.  Cairnes analyzed the consequences of slavery for economic development, in particular how it speeded up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally. Written during the American Civil War, Cairnes warned British policymakers to think twice about backing the economically-unviable Confederacy.  Cairnes book was instrumental in turning the tide of popular English opinion against the rebels.”

Writing about slaves as human capital, Cairnes said this:

“The rice-grounds of Georgia, or the swamps of the Mississippi may be fatally injurious to the human constitution; but the waste of human life which the cultivation of these districts necessitates, is not so great that it cannot be repaired from the teeming preserves of Virginia and Kentucky.

“Considerations of economy, moreover, which, under a natural system, afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master’s interest with the slave’s preservation, when once trading in slaves is practiced, become reasons for racking to the uttermost the toil of the slave; for, when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts.

“It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race. It is in Cuba, at this day, whose revenues are reckoned by millions, and whose planters are princes, that we see in the servile class, the coarsest fare, the most exhausting and unremitting toil, and even the absolute destruction of a portion of its numbers every year.”[8]

Five years after Cairnes wrote that, Karl Marx cited the above passage in Das Kapital[9] in his own analysis of slave labor as capital:

“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.

“‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?

Marx believed that the ultimate culprit was not the individual slave owners, but the capitalist economic system which sponsored the exploitation of all capital – including human capital – to achieve its competitive goal of profitability:

“But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Under the reign of capitalism, Marx argued, workers would be exploited – slaves and free alike — and this would be both an economic and cultural norm. This practice would become so entrenched that it could be broken only by a contrary “compulsion from society.”

The Deluge:  Civil War

“The deluge” is a form of “compulsion from society,” and civil war is a form of both.

The American Civil War was the deluge. The war ended almost exactly four years after it began, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, uncounted non-fatal casualties, and incalculable damage to the rest of American citizenry, human property, and nature.

“Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Both men fought for the Union. Their estimate is derived from an exhaustive study of the combat and casualty records generated by the armies over five years of fighting.  A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts.  It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.”[10]

Tragically, the course of American racial history would cause many to wonder if all those deaths had been in vain. War – the deluge, the compulsion of society – had its day, but it didn’t change cultural attitudes. The ones that supported Antebellum slavery only became more belligerently expressed.

In France, Louis XV saw the deluge coming, Louis XVI suffered from it, but eleven years later Napoleon was Emperor.

The piper was never paid.

In the USA, war gorged itself on the American land and population, but the Union’s victory foundered on the failings of the Reconstruction.

The Piper was never paid.

The law concerning slavery was changed, but de facto[11] slavery lived on. Before the Civil War, slavery had been, like war itself, a legal crime against humanity, justified under the law of the land. After the Civil War, slavery was simply a crime, illegal as all other crimes, but propagated by a reign of terror that eventually gained its own legal justification that would once again have to be dismantled by another compulsion from society 100 years later.

After the war, you couldn’t own slaves anymore, couldn’t buy and sell them, but you could treat legally freed former slaves just as you once treated their legally enslaved predecessors. In fact, it was much worse. Before the war, the ownership and treatment of slaves was by legal right. After the war, de facto slavery relied on a reign of terror grounded in cultural indifference and brutality. Cruel and unusual punishment had been banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but de facto slavery relied on it to terrorize society into submission.

The Piper was never paid.

The U.S. Labor Movement and Human Capital

The American labor movement’s 400-year history is a chronicle of shifting economic theories and new labor laws brought about by periodic challenges – compulsions from society – to the capitalist norm of the exploitation of human capital.[12] Changing times generated changing attitudes, and American culture demanded accommodations in often violent ways.

And now, in the middle of another deluge – this time a plague, the Covid-19 virus – we have seen the most recent and striking societal shift in the form of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination.[13] Few would claim that the 56-year old Civil Rights Act specifically had today’s gender sensibilities in mind, but the law shifts with cultural attitudes when compelled to do so.

The labor movement will continue to change with the times. Issues of sexism remain, and technology – especially robotics, AI, and machine learning – are threatening human labor in ever-accelerating, unprecedented ways. There will be more deluge, more societal compulsion.

The Piper will still need to be paid.

The Racist Roots of Police Brutality

Finally – for today, at least – the Coronavirus deluge has also recharged the force of societal compulsion currently taking on mass incarceration and police brutality, both of which have historical roots in the Reconstruction’s unresolved racism.[14]

The Piper was never paid.

We have much more to talk about. We’ll continue next time.

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14. From Wikipedia.

[2] See Solosophie.com and Phrases.org.

[3] For more about what the saying might mean, see this is from Wikipedia: “The most famous remark attributed to Louis XV (or sometimes to Madame de Pompadour) is Après nous, le déluge (“After us, the deluge”). It is commonly explained as his indifference to financial excesses, and a prediction of the French Revolution to come. The remark is usually taken out of its original context. It was made in 1757, a year which saw the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians at the Battle of Rossbach and the assassination attempt on the King. The “Deluge” the King referred to was not a revolution, but the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was predicted to pass by the earth in 1757, and which was commonly blamed for having caused the flood described in the Bible, with predictions of a new deluge when it returned. The King was a proficient amateur astronomer, who collaborated with the best French astronomers. Biographer Michel Antoine wrote that the King’s remark “was a manner of evoking, with his scientific culture and a good dose of black humor, this sinister year beginning with the assassination attempt by Damiens and ending with the Prussian victory”. Halley’s Comet finally passed the earth in April 1759, and caused enormous public attention and anxiety, but no floods.

[4]   Idioms.online.

[5] Exploitation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published Thu Dec 20, 2001; substantive revision Tue Aug 16, 2016).

[6] The History of Economic Thought.

[7] Cairnes, John Eliot, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (1862).

[8] Cairnes, Slave Power, op cit.

[9] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5).

[10] American Battlefield Trust.

[11] “In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.” Wikipedia

[12] See this timeline, which runs from 1607-1999, beginning with complaints about labor shortages in Jamestown in 1607, addressed by the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves stolen from Africa.

[13] Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times (June 16, 2020).

[14] See, for example, The Racist Roots Of American Policing: From Slave Patrols To Traffic Stops, The Conversation (June 4, 2019) and George Floyd’s Death Reflects The Racist Roots Of American Policing, The Conversation (June 2, 2020).