Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti (2012)

Film Review

In this presentation, Michael Parenti discusses the fraudulent history we are taught about the late Roman Republic. In particular, he focuses on the popular resistance movement that led to the rise of the Populares in the Roman senate in the second century BC. The revolt of the Roman proletariat was largely a reaction to the privatization of Rome’s collective agricultural lands as latifundia (plantations owned by Roman aristocrats). Historically there was no private land ownership in Rome until thugs hired by aristocrats drove the peasants off their land around 200 BC.

Parenti starts by demolishing the myth promulgated by mainstream historians that Rome was a republic. The Roman senate was a self-appointed oligarchy. For the most part Roman senators paid no taxes though. Instead they loaned money at interest to the Roman government (sound familiar?). The lower classes, in contrast, were heavily taxed.

The first great Populares to serve as consul was Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. He and his brother Gaius, who succeeded him, fought for land reform to break up the latifundia and redistribute them to the landless. Despite their aristocratic background, all the Populares consuls challenged a Roman economic system that was rigged in favor of the elites All were assassinated by aristocratic death squads.

Julius Caesar would be the last Populares consul, and he, too, would be assassinated in 44 BC. Among the reforms he enacted were

  • Lowering interest and fines on debts
  • Building exceptional public libraries to be used by all Roman citizens
  • Guaranteeing freedom of religion to Roman Jews
  • Ending the practice of forcing people with unpaid debts into slavery
  • Introducing a democratic constitution
  • Creating state jobs in Rome and the colonies for the unemployed
  • Ending Cicero’s* witch hunts and extrajudicial executions

The aristocrats in the senate, who detested Caesar because he threatened their wealth and privilege, responded by labeling him a brutal tyrant and assassinating him. Ironically the emperors who succeeded him were far more tyrannical. Yet the senate aristocrats supported them as they protected their wealth and privilege.

What strikes me most about this presentation are the clear parallels with the current period, with the liberal elite and intelligence establishment portraying Trump as an unspeakable fascist tyrant based on little evidence other than his rhetoric. I’m aware that much of the liberal establishment is justifiably frightened of the ultraconservative bent of Trump’s appointees. However most of the strident anti-Trump rhetoric seems over the top to me.

For me the two main ways the parallels break down are 1) the absence of a genuine reform movement from below similar to the Roman resistance movement that led to the formation of the Populares 2) the absence in Trump of the towering intelligence, charisma and military and political ingenuity that Caesar displayed. Trump’s lack of political experience raises the vital question whether he or his conservative cabinet will be in control. Despite his promise of numerous populist reforms, I’m extremely skeptical whether the prominent conservatives in his cabinet support them.

negroland

Negroland: A Memoir

By Margo Jefferson

Granta Books (2015)

Book Review

Negroland is a memoir by theater and book critic Margo Jefferson about growing up in the American Negro aristocracy in the 1950s. Far more than a memoir, the book carefully chronicles the history of Black America’s elite professionals, academics and business people. For the most part these families are descended from the children of white slaveholders, from ancestors bought and freed by slavery-hating whites, from ancestors descended from free Negroes (non-slaves) or ancestors who bought their own freedom with hard work and cash.

These ancestors, in turn, used their wealth and privilege to ensure their own children pursued higher education and professional or academic careers. Prior to the 1970s they also used their wealth and privilege to found clubs, organizations and charities to improve the conditions of less privileged African Americans.

Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician and prior to marriage, her mother a social worker. As a member of the tiny African American aristocracy, which Jefferson refers to as “Negroland,” Jefferson grew up with very suffocating rules of refinement that were far more strict than those applied to white women. Living daily with ubiquitous mainstream racism, Jefferson came under heavy criticism (mainly from the women in her family) for drawing attention to herself with flamboyant dress, activities or talk, with “ashy” elbows or knees or poorly straightened hair that became “frizzy” in damp weather.

Jefferson writes poignantly about the identity crisis she experienced when her upbringing was challenged by the Black Power movement of the 1970s. It was at this point she realized how the pressure to assimilate to white society had isolated her from fully embracing her African American history and culture. She also suddenly became aware of the unwritten Negroland rule against experiencing or acknowledging feelings of depression. Owing to concern that emotional weakness would reflect unfavorably on the entire race, members of the Negro aristocracy were expected to power their way through depression with duty, obligation and discipline.

In Negroland, Jefferson achieves a good balance between subjective experience and a historical/cultural backdrop that helps us make sense of it. I highly recommend the book for its excellent depiction of a sadly neglected aspect of US history.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

and-their-children

And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James, Agee, Walker Evans and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South

By Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson

Random House (1990)

Book Review

This book is meant as a sequel to James Agee’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the original, Agee and Evans documented – though photos and biographical narrative – the profound poverty of white and black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt. The sequel also provides historical background about the invention of the Cotton Gin* in 1794,  which first made cotton a viable crop in the southern US, and of cotton picking machines, gradually introduced in the 1950s, which ultimately put nine million sharecroppers out of work.

Between 1985-88, Maharidge and Williams revisited the same families that Agee and Evans had interviewed, compiling a coherent account of significant life events befalling children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original subjects. Sacramento Bee journalist Dale Marahidge, also provides a detailed analysis of various sharecropping schemes that were deliberately designed set up to keep families in debt. Typically the landlord advanced credit, based on a crop-lien agreement, and charged so high interest (as much as 200%) that families became virtual slaves when they couldn’t pay it. The end result was excruciating poverty, extreme malnutrition and chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition (mainly hookworm and pellagra**).

Despite contributing approximately one billion annually to the global economy, most tenant cotton farmers ended up owing money to the landlord. Maharidge maintains that without slavery and the sharecropping system that replaced it, there would have been no way the South could have produced cotton economically.

The book finishes by exploring develops that would end cotton cultivation in the Cotton Belt. In addition to the total mechanization of cotton farming that occurred after World War II, Maharidge blames the invention of and other synthetics, competition with other countries for cotton export markets and depletion of Cotton Belt soil due to the slash and burn mentality of large landholders.

At present, nearly all US cotton cultivation occurs in Texas and California and is totally mechanized. White tenant farmers displaced by the death of King Cotton could find work in southern factories that sprang up in the fifties and sixties. Owing to racial discrimination they faced from factory owners, former black tenant farmers mainly migrated to northern cities. Many, however, failed to find work, even after five years and longer.

Maharidge subscribes to the role played by massive unemployment of former black sharecroppers in triggering the early sixties civil rights movement.


*The cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, allowing for much greater productivity than manual cotton separation.

**Hookworm is an intestinal parasite and pellagra is a deficiency disease stemming from absence of Vitamin B3 in the diet.

The following is an eye-opening presentation for Martin Luther King Unity Day. In it, long time political activist Angela Davis explores the roots of the electoral college and the death penalty in slavery. Unlike more mainstream liberals, she doesn’t catastrophize about Trump’s recent electoral victory. Instead she faults both Trump and Clinton for failing to mention even once during the campaign the working class, inequality or climate change.

She goes on to emphasize that it isn’t Martin Luther King as an individual we celebrate, but the thousands of people in the civil rights movement who did the real work. She then highlights the myriad of movements Americans have formed to resist the oppression experienced by the working class Americans. She devotes special focus to the movement to abolish prisons in a country that incarcerates more people (in absolute numbers) than any other country in the world. In her view, the majority of inmates in US prisons have been deeply traumatized in childhood. All incarcerating them accomplishes is to irreparably re-traumatize them.

The goal of the prison abolition movement is to replace prisons with a system of restorative justice,* starting with youth prisons.

Davis starts speaking at 1:09.


*Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. New Zealand, which has no youth prisons, relies on a restorative justice process to deal with juvenile offenders.

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.


* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.

 

 

 

Thanks to climate change, California’s wildfire season got an early start in 2016 – in February. According to the BBC, 30 percent of California’s firefighters (roughly 4,000) are state prison inmates. They make $2 a day while at fire camp, and $1 an hour while on a fire line – saving state taxpayers $80 million a year. Inmates also earn two days off their sentence for every day they’re on a fire. The work of battling a 100 foot high fire wall is incredibly dangerous, and inmate firefighters suffer a “handful” of injuries every year – usually from falling branches and debris.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

While the BBC feature quotes inmates as being honored by the “privilege” of fighting fires, the inmate fire fighting program is taking place against the backdrop of a federal court order requiring California to reduce overcrowding. In 2011, the The Supreme Court upheld  a lower court ruling ordering California to cut their prison populations (by reducing the sentences of low level offenders).

State correction officials complied by offering an early prison-release program to all minimum security offenders – but only “so long as it proves not to deplete the numbers of inmate firefighters.” In 2014, state Attorney General Kamala Harris argued against the program, concerned it would severely impact fire camp participation “a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

The New Jim Crow

In other words, California is openly balancing the state budget on the backs of prison slave labor.

Given that low income minorities comprise the great majority of California’s prison population – for circumstances largely beyond their control – this policy clearly violates the UN Convention on Human  Rights (which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude).

In fact, it sounds a lot like southern Jim Crow laws.*

In The New Jim Crow , lawyer Michelle Alexander describes in detail how urban police deliberately target minority neighborhoods for enforcement of drug possession and other victimless crimes. She also cites numerous examples of minority arrestees forced to cop guilty pleas owing to their inability to obtain competent legal representation.

Below prisoners fight a 2014 fire in Shasta County.


*In the Jim Crow system that followed Reconstruction, most southern states passed arbitrary vagrancy laws that were used to imprison black males and force them into unpaid slave labor on plantations, on the railroads and in factories and mines. See 1941: The Year Slavery Finally Ended

 

war is a lie

 

War is a Lie

By David Swanson

Just World Books (2016)

Book Review

In War is a Lie, author David Swanson presents extensive historical evidence that the US has never been a democratic republic – that this is a carefully crafted fairy tale the ruling elite has been telling us since the late 18th century. He also demolishes the myth that warfare is deeply ingrained in human nature. Ninety-eight percent of people are deeply opposed to killing and warfare and require extensive brainwashing to commit to either. Although the species homo sapiens is 60,000 – 1000,000 years old, they have only engaged in war for the last 10,000 years. Many human civilizations (including the people of the Arctic, Northeast Mexico, Australia and Nevada’s Great Basin) had no experience of war prior to contact with Europeans. Among the more astonishing facts Swanson reveals is that 80% of the US troops drafted into World War II declined to kill enemy troops.

Starting with the Revolutionary War, War is a Lie is full of delightful little factoids that are omitted from high school and college US history courses.

Among the high points:

Revolutionary War

The two real goals of the US War of Independence were to 1) remove the King’s representatives from positions of power in North America and replace them with colonial merchants and bankers and 2) to overturn the British ban on western expansion (via the slaughter of indigenous tribes). The Continental Army consisted mainly of poor farmers who were forcibly conscripted, brutally mistreated and rarely paid (even though General Washington was the richest man in the colonies. During and after the war, numerous “democratic reforms” were enacted to motivate these the “recruits, with all being promptly nullified.

War of 1812

Contrary to what we’re taught in school, the US started the War of 1812, with the intention of invading and occupying Canada. They lost this war.

Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Another war about western expansion that resulted in the US annexation of Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and parts of Colorado and Oregon. Many Irish and other European immigrants fought for Mexico.

Civil War

Swanson maintains the Civil War was also about western expansion and whether the North or South would control the new western territories. Swanson stresses that Lincoln could have easily freed the slaves without launching a war (other countries did so). The Emancipation Proclamation was issued well after the war started, as public sentiment turned against the war due to high casualties. Swanson reminds us that the Proclamation only applied to states that had seceded – slavery remained legal in Union states.

World War II

Swanson details the deliberate Wall Street strategy of arming Hitler to neutralize the Soviets, highlighting orders US pilots received not to bomb German munitions factories owned by Americans. He also writes at length about the Nazi eugenics experiments that originating in the US under the guidance of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Harrison. I was intrigued to learne the Rockefeller Foundation funded Josef Mengele’s experiments on Jewish prisoners. Swanson attributes Roosevelt’s eagerness to enter World War II to increasing working class militancy in the US (which the compulsory draft ended) and fears of full blown insurrection. He also discusses numerous efforts Hitler made (as late as 1940) to negotiate a peace settlement with the allies – which they rebuffed.