Unfree Labour & Mass Killing

“The preoccupation with the origins of ‘freedom’ and a persistent understanding of market economies as essentially ‘free’ has clouded our perspective of the past. It is time to engage with new explorations on the role of unfree relations, not only in the form of slavery, but in other variations as well. Studying the role of slavery in the Dutch global empire and the presence of slavery in the Dutch Republic is only a modest first step. It is important to critically re-examine the role of coercion in other parts of the history of and explicitly in Europe as well. How did debts, legal and economic force, or other limits to freedom influence migration, labour relations, social strategies, everyday life and politics?…As much of the global history of slavery, these questions are waiting to be explored” (Karwan Fatah-Black and Mattias van Rossum. 2014. “Slavery in a slave-free enclave?: Historical links between the Dutch Republic Empire and slavery, 1580s-1860s.” Werkstatt Geschichte 66-67: 55-73.



What is liberalism? Liberal principles have been asserted as rear-guard, ad hoc defenses of elite privileges under significant assault by absolutist rulers, chartered corporations, and centralized states. Across these rear-guard defense options, one principle grounds liberalism: absolute private property right.

  1. See Losurdo 2011.
  2. Fatah-Black and van Rossum: The States General (1776) “The freedom of the Negro and other slaves, brought here from the State’s colonies to these lands” ordinance stipulated that “the freedom of the citizens of the state, who would lose their property (if slaves were freed), would be damaged more severely than that the upholding of the principle of freedom would be worth… ‘This would be a far graver affront against the birthright and immediate freedom of the inhabitants of this Republic,’” the preamble announced (64).
    1. Roman Law was introduced in 1629 to manage slavery in the Dutch Republic (62).
    2. Creditors’ rights superseded both plantation owners and slaves’ rights (65).


Varieties of domination across space: Why (where) slavery and not wage-wage slavery or genocide?

Premise 1: There are different forms of slavery.

Premise 2: Imperialists rely on genocide where slavers’ freedom cannot be supported by the slavery of the regional population.

What conditions support or attenuate slaver freedom?

  1. Structural explanations:
    1. As slavery contributes to slaver societies’ value accumulation–for example, between 1595 and 1829, slavery contributed around 70 million guilders to the Dutch port cities’ economic profit margins (69), slavers are an economic network. Within this network, slave traders‘ profits are typically “modest” (70), and could be a bottleneck for the development of slavery.
    2. To capture and distribute wealth within an oligarchical metropole, specific commodity chains produced by slavery promote or prevent slavery across locations.
      1. Slavery-promoting commodities: Cotton, sugar, rum, coffee, sexual services, domestic service, diamond mining. See also economic sectors that rely heavily on “volunteer,” “labor of love,” and “intern” labour: education and research, conservation, community and social services,…
      2. Wage slavery commodities: Expansive, alternates with slavery, see above.
      3. Genocide commodities: Commodities requiring total territorial control? Doubtful. Rather than “genocide commodities,” genocide probably is structurally caused by irreconcilable oikoi within a region, and may be indicative of a closer power balance than is present in slavery and wage slavery regions. As they are central in financing slavery commodity production, expanding financial metropoles and capitalization may play a role in spurring oikos rivalry blocs into genocide.
      4. To parse out the distribution of slavery, wage slavery, and genocide, compare commodity production and capitalization histories of high- indigenous population American regions–Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, the Four Corners, USA, (New Zealand?); and regions that relied more heavily upon genocide: financial-manufacturing Eastern US and Canadian regions, Argentina, Australia, etc. What is happening distinctively with commodity production and capitalization in indigenous-settler mixing zones– “La Malinche” Mexico, New Zealand, and Metis Manitoba?
  2. Cultural & social network explanations:
    1. Within this structure described above, relative regional coordination capacity and culture would matter.
      1. In Dutch Asia, slaves came from East Indonesia because the non-Islamic population had low coordination capacity and lacked anti-slavery culture (60). By engaging in internecene war and raiding, supplying slaves to the imperial merchants, violent Indonesian parochial competition made Dutch slave traders’ work easier and profit margins higher.
    2. The trade in slaves was (re-)produced through elite networking. Slaves were taken from merchant elites’ business travels and dislocated around the globe, via elite network gifting, etc (59-60).
      1. Network symbolic capital, distinction (63)–as in modern, inegalitarian, imperial, cosmopolitan immigration/colonial settler societies–incentivizes the separation and relocation of humans as slaves, and by that, produces “trouble” in metropoles.
        1. This trouble had to be regulated with metropole laws that progressively reduced slaves’ freedom further, until at the last (just before illegalization of the slave trade) owners’ sacred property was threatened–the law threatened to free any slave who gave herself up to authorities when entering the metropole (65-67).
          1. Capitalism works by unevenly allocating exploitation and appropriation across space, across social categories. Yet over time separating these geographically requires great management effort, including racialization to reproduce exploitable parochial competition, and this differential breaks down when the slave comes to the metropole. The metropole is a value-distribution zone opposed to extraction zones.
            1. Contemporary: Core global metropoles–NYC, SF, Singapore– are even today policed and efficiently cleansed of anyone surplus who is not a wage slave or owner. Non-capitalist populations in metropole space degrade the capitalization-coordinator/accumulator function. Check out geography lit.
    3. Slavers could depend on black overseers to use their human capacities to innovate torture, to control slaves on plantations (72).
      1. The Master’s dependency on the humanity of the dehumanized: “Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have in the woman most nearly connected with them not a forced slave but a willing one.” –JS Mill, 1869, “The subjection of women.”
        1. See also Hegel’s critique, “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” (1807).
      2. The human capacity for unmaking (see Scarry 1985): Using others’ human sentience against them to destroy their material worlds, and in place of their semantic world, promote the imperial voice and order.
      3. The stimulated jump from a state of unsolidaristic, competitive, parochial soveriegnty to a state of subordinate patriarchal intermediary secures the social construction of steep and complex social hierarchy.
        1. According to Federici 1998, patriarchy in complex societies invokes intimate and, by categorical extension, systematic alienation and fear of the target of defection and the defected relation, to realign trust and solidarities to an inegalitarian, socio-spatially dispersed network, an imagined global community of men, “winners v. losers.” This trust realignment permits the transfer of property to and up the hierarchy of men. Alienated on multiple everyday levels, and crippled by fear, non-elites are compelled to reproduce exploitation and appropriation.
          1. Not all communities are responsive to patriarchal co-optation, and it is not structurally advantageous. For example the Basque maintained intra-community solidarity that permitted an autonomous and successful economic development path within capitalism (Federici 1998). Some communities rather are disposed to the protection racket bargain and patriarchal co-option. Why? What are the factors?
            1. As well as Robin (2004), the comparative history of the Scandinavian countries suggests some hypotheses, see Barton (1986). Ask Jonah Olsen about the Basque exception as well.
        2. Once instituted, capitalist law recreates the vertical-solidarity, competitive patriarch.
  3. See Losurdo (2011), Robbie Etheridge, Fatah-Black and van Rossum (2014).

What conditions support or attenuate genocide?

  1. See Straus, Scott. 2007. “Second-generation comparative research on genocide.” World Politics: 476-501. Of the early 21st century efforts to improve on genocide theory, Valentino’s (2004) is the most convincing, least ideologically-motivated, most comparative explanation. He argues that in the modern era, small groups of leaders are ideologically persuaded to choose mass killing (including both genocide and politicide) as an instrumental solution to resource and land acquisition, or to defeat collective resistance. Everyone else just accommodates and enables the political entrepreneurs. Valentino’s theory has the virtue of specifying a central role for rational calculation as well as a lesser role for irrational ideology, both by a small leadership group. In modern/capitalist societies, the popular classes are dominated and socially accountable to elite-ruled networks.
    1. Valentino (2004) identifies two categories of mass killing: a) Dispossessive mass killing, such as where leaders seek to transform/modernize societies across diverse, populated territory; and b) Coercive mass killing, including mass killing in wars and in imperial strategy, where “leaders try to defeat resistance and intimidate future resistance” (485).
      1. Arguably the long colonial genocide in North America is the progressive confluence of both forms of mass killing.
    2. Levene’s (2005) explanation is flawed but offers a couple of insights of value. In his first volume, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State, he argues that genocide is a contingent outcome and more likely when targeted populations resist. He specifies the irrationalism as phobia. However, Levene is an elitist, and his overall argument is that popular irrationalism in late-developer countries causes genocide. To arrive at this explanation, he ignores colonial mass killing. However, the irrationalism of phobia could just as well be imported into Valentino’s theory to specify the elite ideology behind the genocidal path. Semelin suggests that leaders use ideology to transform popular anxieties into fear, and this is affirmed by Federici’s study of the European witch hunts.
    3. Of the comparative genocide theorists, Levene’s second volume alone attempts to survey mass killing in the vast expanse of the pre-modern period. While he is unable to substantively theorize pre-modern mass killing, it exists empirically. The transhistorical abstraction of mass killing explains it as a byproduct of “political development.” So by comparison (following the Marxist technique of comparing a phenomenon’s capitalist form to its transhistorical form), “modern” or capitalist-era mass killing is caused by political development (also), state interest, and to a lesser extent, ideology, or the elite deployment of fear.
    4. Midlarsky’s comparative work (2005) is also flawed but has the virtue of exploring where genocides did not occur: There was not genocide in Cambodia, but politicide. Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and Jews in pre-WWII Poland were not targeted for genocide. Such examples could be used to help explain mass killing. Midlarsky thinks that modern genocides are created in the context of loss: territorial, economic, or population loss in war (486). His theory also helpfully specifies that targeted populations are simultaneously feared as threatening and assessed as vulnerable (486), and he points out that genocide perpetrators have both gotten away with violence before they commit the genocide, and have some international support, such as the Vatican for Nazi Germany and France for the Rwandan genocide (486).
    5. This brings up the point that theorists of genocide have to take political sides. In the early 20th century, the UN defined the problem of mass killing as genocide on the model of the Shoah. That specific context and formulation produces a liberal moral framework and research agenda, which at first produced explanations of genocide that were highly idiosyncratic to the Jewish community’s preexisting frameworks and post-Holocaust political needs (see pp. 480-483), and in the second wave of genocide scholarship, still produced explanations, like Weitz’s (2003), that identified communist revolution as genocide, or like Mann (2005) tended to select genocide cases from amongst the Anglo-American Empire’s late-to-the-party rivals. Less ideological approaches recognize and theorize the mass killings committed across the political and geographic spectrum, including the colonial genocides.
    6. Note that both Mann and Levene think that late capitalist development causes genocide. I don’t agree with this, but I think it’s interesting that sociologist Mann as well as Levene acknowledge the position of Germany relative to the Anglo-American Empire at the start of the 20th century. Idealist explanations for the rise of fascism typically obscure what Hegel had identified in the early 19th century as the intractable problem of an already-owned world–at the individual level, The Right of the Starving Man.
  2. ipsum lorem

At stake:

Consider the recent indigenization interventions of Glen Coulthard and Leann Betamosake Simpson. They call for a reclamation and reinvention of indigenous lifeways and associated ways of knowing, and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial refusal, rather than mere Reconciliation and cultural celebration. Their intervention is heroic.

At the same time, even liberal Reconciliation is countered by furtive but insistent protest. If a viable alternative to capitalist extractivism was built in extractivist Canada, a place that exists within the World-system in order to transform nature’s work into capitalist accumulation, would the settler protest switch into mass brutality again? As it is, it’s more like a constant mining or blood-letting. One thinks of the baby moose of the north-eastern U.S. seaboard, drained to death by tens of thousands of ticks. Humans have mass-killed off our rival macro-predators, and the tiny killers, the biomass of bugs, flood into the breach. We sit like Mr. Kurtz amidst the entropy we have created, and we celebrate culture.

Under what conditions does capitalist power organize through its hierarchical network its primary forms of economic- and other warfare, its infinitely-negative judgment–wage slavery, slavery, and genocide?

Research Site

The Equal Justice Initiative’s The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. For background, see review by Laquer, Thomas. 2018. Lynched for drinking from a white man’s well. The London Review of Books.

The US has killed more than 20 M people in 37 countries since WWII.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s