(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘justice

“Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance”*…

A thoughtful consideration of Eric Williams‘ groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery and of his career as a politician…

… Despite his humble origins, the studious and disciplined Williams won a prized academic scholarship at the age of 11, putting him on track to become a “coloured Englishman,” he noted ruefully. His arrival at Oxford in 1931—again on a scholarship—seemingly confirmed this future. There he mingled in a progressive milieu that included the founder of modern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the self-exiled African American socialist Paul Robeson. It was at Oxford that Williams wrote “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” which was later transformed into the book at hand. In both works, but in the book more decisively, Williams punctured the then-reigning notion that abolitionism had been driven by humanitarianism—an idea that conveniently kept Europeans and Euro-Americans at the core of this epochal development. Instead Williams stressed African agency and resistance, which in turn drove London’s financial calculations. He accomplished this monumental task in less than 200 pages of text, making the response that followed even more noteworthy. Extraordinarily, entire volumes have been devoted to weighing his conclusions in this one book.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to say that when Williams published Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, it ignited a firestorm of applause and fury alike. His late biographer, Colin Palmer, observed that “reviewers of African descent uniformly praised the work, while those who claimed European heritage were much less enthusiastic and more divided in their reception.” One well-known scholar of the latter persuasion assailed the “Negro nationalism” that Williams espoused in it. Nonetheless, Capitalism and Slavery has become arguably the most academically influential work on slavery written to date. It has sold tens of thousands of copies—with no end in sight—and has been translated into numerous European languages as well as Japanese and Korean. The book continues to inform debates on the extent to which capitalism was shaped by the enslavement of Africans, not to mention the extent to which these enslaved workers struck the first—and most decisive—blow against their inhumane bondage.

Proceeding chronologically from 1492 to the eve of the US Civil War, Williams grounded his narrative in parliamentary debates, merchants’ papers, documents from Whitehall, memoirs, and abolitionist renderings, recording the actions of the oppressed as they were reflected in these primary sources. The book has three central theses that have captured the attention of generations of readers and historians. The first was Williams’s almost offhand assertion that slavery had produced racism, not vice versa: “Slavery was not born of racism,” he contended, but “rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” To begin with, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan,” with various circumstances combining to promote the use of enslaved African labor. For example, “escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features”—and, Williams added, “the Negro slave was cheaper.” But it was in North America most dramatically that slavery became encoded with “race” and thus, through its contorted rationalizations, ended up producing a new culture of racism.

This thesis was provocative for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because it implied that once the material roots of slavery had been ripped up, the modern world would finally witness the progressive erosion of anti-Black politics and culture. This optimistic view was echoed by the late Howard University classicist Frank Snowden in his trailblazing book Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Of course, sterner critics could well contend that such optimism was misplaced, that it misjudged the extent to which many post-slavery societies had been poisoned at the root. But this sunnier view of post-slavery societies was spawned in part by the proliferation of anti-colonial and anti–Jim Crow activism in the 1940s and ’50s.

Williams’s second thesis hasn’t stirred as much controversy, but it also exerted an enormous influence on the scholarship to come: He insisted that slavery fueled British industrial development, and therefore that slavery was the foundation not only of British capitalism but of capitalism as a whole. To prove this claim, Williams cited the many British mercantilists who themselves knew that slavery and the slave trade (not to mention the transportation of settlers) relied on a complex economic system, one that included shipbuilding and shackles to restrain the enslaved, along with firearms, textiles, and rum—manufacturing, in short. Sugar and tobacco, then cotton, were ferociously profitable, adding mightily to London’s coffers, which meant more ships and firearms, in a circle devoid of virtue. Assuredly, the immense wealth generated by slavery and the slave trade—the latter, at times, bringing a 1,700 percent profit—provided rocket fuel to boost the takeoff of capitalism itself.

Williams the politician was forced to reckon with many of these knotty matters, in particular as they pertained to the purposefully incomplete process of decolonization and the rise of new forms of empire. As prime minister, in order to court the United States’ favor, he was derelict in extending solidarity to its antagonists in Cuba and neighboring Guyana, where Cheddi Jagan would be joined by Jamaica’s Michael Manley in seeking to pursue a noncapitalist path to independence.

Williams’s tenure as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago extended for nearly two decades, from 1962 to 1981. But the presence of oil on the archipelago attracted the most vulturous wing of capital, further limiting his aspirations. As in Guyana, tensions between the various sectors of the working class—one with roots in Africa, the other in British India—were not conducive to anti-imperialist unity, hampering Williams’s ability to forge a sturdy base. Incongruously, though he did as much as any individual to assert the primacy of enslaved Africans in modern history, he ran afoul of the Black Power movement in his homeland, which—not altogether inaccurately—found him too compliant in dealing with the intrusive imperial presence in Trinidad. Yet despite being hampered by a divided working class and a proliferating Black Power movement that often regarded him with contempt, Williams was able to hang on to office, though he lacked the political strength to solve the persistent problems of poverty and underdevelopment.

The scholar whose X-ray vision detected the role of enslaved people in the innards of capitalism and empire was seemingly felled by both when the moment to confront their toxic legacy arrived. Even so, the failings of Williams the politico should not be used to vitiate the insights of Williams the scholar. As slavery-infused capitalism continues to run amok, we must, like an expert diagnostician, finally develop an adequate history that can drive a comprehensive prescription for our ills.

Eric Williams and the tangled history of capitalism and slavery: “The Politician-Scholar,” from Gerald Horne. Eminently worth reading in full. For a taste of the on-going dialogue that Williams provoked, see “A Few Random Thoughts on Capitalism and Slavery” (source of the image above).

* “Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times it provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism. It made the American South and the Caribbean islands.” –Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

###

As we puzzle out the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792 that construction began on the White House with the laying of the cornerstone. Slaves, free African Americans, and Europeans did much of the construction. Wage rolls for May 1795 listed five slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, three of them owned by White House architect James Hoban.

The 1795 Carpenters Roll for the White House, containing the names of slaves slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel source: National Archive

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 13, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.”*…

Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins…

Unlike ideas of air, food and water that allow us to think about the everyday resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth or justice don’t obviously cater to practical needs. On the contrary, these exalted ideals draw our gaze away from practical pursuits. They are imbued with grandeur precisely because of their superb indifference to mundane human concerns. Having knowledge is practically useful, but why would we also need the concept of knowledge? The dog who knows where his food is seems fine without the concept of knowledge, so long as he’s not called upon to give a commencement address. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth or justice appear to have been important enough to emerge across different cultures and endure over the ages. Why, then, did we ever come to think in these terms?

Friedrich Nietzsche grumbled that, when it came to identifying the origins of lofty ideas, philosophers had a tendency to be led astray by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they felt were the ‘highest concepts’, the ‘last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality’, they had reverently placed them ‘at the beginning as the beginning’, convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato’s eternal Forms, the mind of God, Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world – they had all served as cradles to higher concepts, offering them a suitably distinguished pedigree.

But to insist that higher concepts were bound to have higher origins, Nietzsche thought, was to let one’s respect for those ideas get in the way of a truthful understanding of them. If, after the ‘Death of God’ and the advent of Darwinism, we were successfully to ‘translate humanity back into nature’, as Nietzsche’s felicitous rallying cry had it, we needed to trace seemingly transcendent ideas such as knowledge, truth or justice to their roots in human concerns. Their origins weren’t empyrean (to be sought in the highest spheres) but distinctly sublunary (found in lowly practical needs). Nietzsche encouraged us to ask: what necessities might have been the mothers of those inventions? And what, if anything, do they still do for us?…

Matthieu Queloz (@matthieu_queloz) takes up Nietzsche‘s challenge: “Ideas that work.”

[image above: source]

* Epictetus

###

As we root out first principles, we might spare a thought for Sir Alfred Jules “Freddie” Ayer (usually cited as A.J. Ayer); he died on this date in 1989. A philosopher associated with the the British humanist movement, he is best remembered as the champion of of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956). While he had a number of material disagreements with Nietzsche, Ayer shared his rejection of objective ethical values.

source

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”*…

John Rawls (1921–2002) was the most important political philosopher of his age. His 1971 book A Theory of Justice, which offered a philosophical basis for liberal egalitarianism, also supplied the raw material for an entire “Rawlsian” school of thought. But the reputation of Rawls in the academic world grew just as conservative forces committed to fostering greater inequality were becoming dominant, especially in the Anglo-American countries where Rawlsian ideas were most influential…

His philosophical vision of a just society, which embodied the postwar liberal dream of a more perfect America, became the basis for a philosophy known as “liberal egalitarianism.”

Katrina Forrester (@katforrester) on “How John Rawls Became the Liberal Philosopher of a Conservative Age.”

* “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought… First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with similar liberty for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. – John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

###

As we play fair, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792 that a group of 12 Freemasons laid the cornerstone of The White House.  Eight years later, John and Abigail Adams moved in.

The White House was designed by James Hoban, an Irish immigrant architect living in Charleston, South Carolina, who won a competition for the commission (and a $500 prize) with a design modeled after Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland.  He beat out a future resident, Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello/UVa-like design was among the many losers.

It’s not known whether there was anything contained within the cornerstone.  In fact, though the building stills stands (albeit rebuilt and expanded after being burned down during the War of 1812), the whereabouts the stone itself are a bit of a mystery.

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation”*

 

White Collar Crime

 

Over the last two years, nearly every institution of American life has taken on the unmistakable stench of moral rot. Corporate behemoths like Boeing and Wells Fargo have traded blue-chip credibility for white-collar callousness. Elite universities are selling admission spots to the highest Hollywood bidder. Silicon Valley unicorns have revealed themselves as long cons (Theranos), venture-capital cremation devices (Uber, WeWork) or straightforward comic book supervillains (Facebook). Every week unearths a cabinet-level political scandal that would have defined any other presidency. From the blackouts in California to the bloated bonuses on Wall Street to the entire biography of Jeffrey Epstein, it is impossible to look around the country and not get the feeling that elites are slowly looting it.

And why wouldn’t they? The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously. In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998. Even within the dwindling number of prosecutions, most are cases against low-level con artists and small-fry financial schemes. Since 2015, criminal penalties levied by the Justice Department have fallen from $3.6 billion to roughly $110 million. Illicit profits seized by the Securities and Exchange Commission have reportedly dropped by more than half. In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.

With few exceptions, the only rich people America prosecutes anymore are those who victimize their fellow elites. Pharma frat boy Martin Shkreli, to pick just one example, wasn’t prosecuted for hiking the price of a drug used to treat HIV from $13.50 to $750 per pill. He went to prison for scamming investors in a hedge fund scheme years before. Meanwhile, in 2016, the CEO whose company experienced the deadliest mining disaster since 1970 served less than one year in prison and paid a fine of 1.4 percent of his salary and stock bonuses the previous year. Why? Because overseeing a company that ignores warnings and causes the deaths of workers, even 29 of them, is a misdemeanor

A bracing look at an alarming phenomenon, and at the forces that drive it: “The Golden Age of White Collar Crime.”

See also this interactive “heat map” of “White Collar Crime Risk Zones,” from @sam_lavigne and his colleagues, and this paper on the cost of white collar crime– more than $300 Billion per year as of 2015; likely more now– and who pays for it (HBS pdf).

rich [Paul Noth in The New Yorker, via Jack Shalom]

* Criminologist Edwin Sutherland’s definition of white collar crime, 1939

###

As we equilibrate equity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after the German Parliament building (the Reichstag) was damaged by arson, that President Hindenburg issues the Decree for the Protection of People and the Reich…

Though the origins of the fire are still unclear, in a propaganda maneuver, the coalition government (made up of Nazis and the Nationalists) blamed the Communists. They exploited the Reichstag fire to secure President Hindenburg’s approval for an emergency decree, popularly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, that suspended individual rights and due process of law. The Reichstag Fire Decree permitted the regime to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge, dissolve political organizations, and to suppress publications. It also gave the central government the authority to overrule state and local laws and overthrow state and local governments. The decree was a key step in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship. Germany became a police state in which citizens enjoyed no guaranteed basic rights and the SS, the elite guard of the Nazi state, wielded increasing authority through its control over the police.   [source]

 

Reichstag fire source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just”*…

 

Spliddit offers quick, free solutions to everyday fair-division problems, using methods that provide indisputable fairness guarantees and build on decades of research in economics, mathematics, and computer science.  The project of a professor and his research assistant at Carnegie-Mellon University, Spliddit is an attempt to provide easy access to carefully designed fair-division methods, thereby making the world a bit fairer, and at the same time, to communicate to the public the beauty and value of theoretical research in computer science, mathematics, and economics– from an unusual perspective.

And, its creators assert, you can trust it:

When we say that we guarantee a fairness property, we are stating a mathematical fact. In other words, there are formal proofs showing that each of our algorithms provides rigorous fairness guarantees. The surprising possibility of formulating fairness in mathematical terms is the beauty of the scientific field of fair-division, and the force behind Spliddit.

* Victor Hugo

###

As we get in touch with our inner Solomon, we might recall that it was on this date that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was begun as a collaborative effort between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth while walking through the Valley of Stones near Lynmouth.  Wordsworth brought up a book he’d been reading, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726) by Captain George Shelvocke, in which a melancholy sailor, Simon Hatley, shoots a black albatross.  Coleridge expressed an interest in rhyming on the subject; Wordsworth gave advice {including “suppose you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the south sea, and the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime”); and by the end of the walk the poem– one of the cornerstones of English Romantic poetry– had largely taken shape.

The mariner up on the mast in a storm. One of Gustave Doré’s wood-engraved illustrations of the poem.

source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 13, 2014 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: