Noel Ignatiev's Blog

The Antislavery Movement Today

I spent the 2009-2010 academic year as the Edward Said Visiting Professor of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. As my friend Dave Roediger remarked, it felt good to occupy a chair named after a worthy individual instead of one of the parasites or war criminals those chairs are normally named after. Students there invited me to address the UNESCO Club on the subject of the modern antislavery movement. I agreed, but warned them that they might not like what I had to say. To their credit, they went ahead. Here is the talk I gave:

Who ain’t a slave? asked Melville.

All written history is the history of the conflict between the many who labor to produce the things necessary for life and the few who live by expropriating a portion of what the laborers produce. In ancient and medieval times the expropriation was by direct physical coercion. In modern society it takes place through the wage, for which the laborers, separated by force from the means of directly obtaining the necessities of life, exchange their labor-power.

In the same way that people in modern society look back on the past with disbelief, asking how for so long people could have thought it right for one person to own another, future generations may look back on our time and ask, how could those people have thought it right for one person to sell his labor power—his energy, his life force—for money? A woman I knew at United States Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana said to me, I’ve been in prison, and I’ve been in a mental hospital, and I’ve worked at US Steel—and this is the weirdest of all, because in those other places people knew there was something wrong but here people think what they do is normal.

If for most of recorded history people labored under direct compulsion, why, then, did chattel slavery suddenly come under widespread challenge at the end of the nineteenth century? The answer is, of course, that another system of extracting the surplus product from the laborers had arisen. Only as the wage system became widespread did slavery of the whip fall out of fashion.

It did not die of itself, but as the result of a protracted global struggle in which the slaves played the decisive part. The struggle against chattel slavery was central throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for two reasons:

1)     Slavery as it existed in the United States, Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere was the foundation of world commerce;

2)     The slaveholders were the principal support of reaction everywhere.

Hence the destruction of chattel slavery became the over-riding task of the working-class movement.

Chattel slavery is today largely concentrated in peripheral areas. Does the movement against it carry the same global significance as did the struggle that reached its peak in the American Civil War? It does not. Why, then, is it being pursued with such vigor, and who is doing the pursuing?

The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1994 by Charles Jacobs, who served as its first director. Incorporated in Newton, Massachusetts, it claims 30,000 members around the world. It focuses its attention on slavery in Sudan and Mauritania, and maintains close ties to The Sudan Campaign (Save Darfur), for which Jacobs serves as co-chairman.

Who is Charles Jacobs? Aside from his duties with the AASG and The Sudan Campaign, he served as Deputy Director of the Boston chapter of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) and co-founded The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership.

He is a Zionist attack dog.

CAMERA was formed after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for the purpose of monitoring the U.S. press. It operates on college campuses to combat what it calls “propagandistic assaults on Israel” and publishes a student-focused magazine “useful in countering misinformation.” For undergraduates willing to write op-eds and organize pro-Israel events on campus, CAMERA has offered compensation and training in Israel.

In May 2008, five CAMERA activists were sanctioned by Wikipedia administrators, who wrote that they functioned as “a private group to surreptitiously coordinate editing by ideological like-minded individuals.”

Edward Said pointed out that not even the Israeli government has ventured arguments as extreme as CAMERA, and that “surely, the Israeli lobby can find better propaganda methods than this.”

When the entry I wrote on Zionism for the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Race and Racism came under attack, CAMERA was among those doing the attacking.

The David Project, which Jacobs also founded, is headquartered in Boston, with branch offices in New York and Israel. Its stated aim is “to educate and inspire strong voices for Israel.” It has waged campaigns to discredit Columbia University’s Middle East Studies program and to pressure Harvard University to block a chair in Islamic Studies at the Divinity School. It sought, and failed, to prevent the construction of a mosque in Boston.

It is clear that the American Anti-Slavery Society, CAMERA, the Save Darfur campaign and the David Project are all motivated by something other than the desire to abolish chattel slavery. They represent attempts to divert attention from Zionist crimes by focusing on evils, real and imaginary, in the Islamic world.

Is there an issue with the potential to shake up the world system the way antislavery did in the nineteenth century?

There may be: the abolition of prison.

The prison is neither an accident nor an aberration but an essential component of the world system. Without it to serve as an ever-present reminder, who would subject himself to a lifetime of hated toil?

The United States, befitting its position as world leader, keeps a higher percentage of its people behind bars than any other country, 714 per 100,000: 6.2 times the rate for Canada, 7.8 times the rate for France, and 12.3 times the rate for Japan. With five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses twenty-five percent of the world’s inmates.

There are more people in the U.S. under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War. Incarceration falls especially heavily on certain groups. Young black men are the favored targets: For the U.S. as a whole, fewer than one out of a hundred people are in prison. One and six-tenths percent of all white men aged twenty to forty are in prison; among Hispanic men of the same age the figure is 4.6%; among young blacks it is 11.5%. Almost one-third of all black male high school dropouts aged twenty to forty are in prison.

One hundred black men go to prison for every one that graduates college. In California there are more black men in state prisons than in state colleges. In the U.S. a criminal record makes the holder ineligible for student loans and for many jobs. The mass incarceration of young black men impoverishes not merely them but the black community as a whole.

Prisons are worth big money to the areas in which they are located—not only in profits made from housing and feeding the inmates and in the jobs created, but also in the federal allotments that accrue as a result of counting inmates as part of the local population. A newspaper article explained how it works in a small town in southern Illinois:

Before the prison was built, the city took in just $17,000 a year in motor fuel tax revenue. Now the figure is more like $72,000. Last year’s municipal budget appropriation was $380,000. More than half of that money is prison revenue. Streets that were paved in chopped gravel and oil for generations soon will all be covered in asphalt. The $850,000 community center that doubles as a gym and computer lab for the school across the street is being paid for with prison money. Because state and federal tax revenue is figured per capita, a prison population that puts no strain on village services is a permanent windfall for a little town. “This little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700” explained the mayor. “And those people in that prison can’t vote me out of office.”

Although the town is visibly white, the Census Bureau lists it as 42 percent African-American (and ninety percent male). The town is no exception: Throughout the U.S. the majority of inmates come from metropolitan centers with large unwhite populations, while the majority of prisons are located in largely white rural areas. Hence the prison system is one of the principal means by which wealth is transferred from blacks to whites.

As the mayor noted, the prisoners do not vote. Forty-eight states disenfranchise incarcerated felons, 37 disenfranchise probationers or parolees (or both), and 14 states disenfranchise those who have completed their sentences. Four and four-tenths million Americans have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction. As might be predicted, a disproportionate number are African American: one out of seven black men is disenfranchised. There are now more black men without the right to vote than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting voting discrimination on the basis of race. With all the focus over miscounted votes in Florida in 2000, few commentators pointed out that had ex-felons been allowed to vote Bush would have had no plausible claim to have carried the state and hence would not have been able to seize the presidency. The difference that would have made in the world I leave you to ponder.

No important U.S. politician has made an issue of the disenfranchisement of prison inmates, not even the Democrats who all polls show would gain votes if it were overturned. The reason is not hard to figure: no candidate or party wants to be identified as the “black” candidate or party.

The refusal of mainstream political figures to address the disenfranchisement of prison inmates is a good reason for revolutionaries to take it up without abandoning their view of the electoral system. I do not think that campaigning for inmates’ right to vote is incompatible with a campaign to abolish prisons, or for that matter with a struggle to transcend representative democracy.

Most Americans are uneasy with the idea of keeping two-and-a-half-million of their fellows in cages. Yet the idea of abolishing prison is commonly dismissed as unrealistic because so many depend upon the prison system for their livelihood—the guards, the suppliers, the parole officers, etc.—not to mention the fear of releasing into society people who pose a danger to those on the outside.

It is exactly because the prison is so deeply embedded in modern life that the movement to abolish it carries such potential. Even to consider it compels people to examine their assumptions about property and community.

Before the Civil War, most Americans felt slavery was wrong, but they either depended upon it for their livelihood or could not imagine throwing millions of slaves into the general population. The true measure of the radicalism of the original abolitionists was their refusal to be swayed by such considerations. For their adherence to their conviction that slavery was evil and must be destroyed they were mobbed and stoned—and are today recognized as prophets.

Imagine what it would take to create a world without prisons.

Bibliographic Note: The material on the “American Anti-Slavery Society” I got from the internet by tracking it through google. The figures about prisons I got from published articles by Glenn Loury, Michelle Alexander and Paul Street.

Send comments to [email protected]. Indicate if they are intended for publication.

Back to Noel Ignatiev’s Author Page