The Slave Mind
The news that Hillary Clinton, during her time as the First Lady of Arkansas, was in charge of a staff that consisted of unpaid prison labor is…well, not exactly news. It’s a ‘revelation’ published in her own memoir, written and published over twenty years ago, and only recently rediscovered by a racial justice advocate who made it big news in the Twitter age. However, it came at an inconvenient time, with Ava DuVernay’s excellent documentary, 13th, and other cultural and political developments galvanizing public opinion on the issue. While there’s no question that some people are using this detail from the Clinton biography as a cudgel to further punish an already-unpopular politician, it can’t be denied that wealthy white southerners in any context using uncompensated, unwilling, and largely African-American labor is what you call a bad look.
It may be entirely true, as Clinton’s defenders say, that this is no big deal; that she was only following a tradition she did not invent; that other southern states still carry on the same practice; and that, regardless, her involvement in it took place some 30 years ago and that there’s very little she could do about it now. It may also be entirely true that, as Clinton’s detractors say, that this is a very big deal indeed; that ‘following tradition’ is the same excuse used by slave owners in the antebellum South; that the continuation of the practice in other states is both disgraceful and not in any way exculpatory of the Clintons; and that regardless of how long ago it happened, Clinton does not seem to have learned much from it and has done nothing since then to either condemn the practice or eradicate it despite her considerable political clout.
But I don’t want to talk about the outlying decoration of the Arkansas governor’s mansion, as gross as it may be to consider using the already put-upon impoverished black people of the state as decorations that recall the pre-war South and do nothing but add to the creature comforts of the richest and most powerful people in America. I want to talk about what we mean by slavery, and why it is the endgame of every capitalist enterprise in existence — and why that means socialism is the only humane choice.
We are accustomed to thinking of the struggle between labor and capital as a friendly give-and-take in which both sides are simply trying to gain the largest possible advantage for themselves, with boundaries set by conviviality and reason. The laboring class tries to secure as many advantages for itself as it can (higher pay, better working conditions, pensions and benefits), while the ownership class does the same, trying to secure lower labor costs, cheaper resources, fewer regulations, and more profit. The struggle between the two may sometimes be a bitter and costly one, but both sides essentially want the same thing and will play by a set of agreed-upon rules to achieve it. This is the great fantasy of neoliberalism, the very foundation of the reformist idea — the belief that what ails society is simply a question if imbalance between the two sides that can be addressed by oversight, regulation, and the development of a leadership class of beneficent technocrats of good character.
The truth is far different. The truth is what Karl Marx articulated with fatal clarity 150 years ago: the struggle between the classes is in fact a war of extinction, and the employing class is winning. Every attempt by the bosses to repeal the protections hard one by leftists organizing is not simply a ploy to pay fewer taxes or squeeze out a few pennies more in profit; it is part of an ongoing attempt to reduce the working class to a position as close to involuntary servitude as humanly possible. The capitalists do not want more complacent workers; they want slaves. This is clear in every action they take. It was the capitalist class in America that fought for black chattel slavery in the south. It is the capitalist class overseas that takes advantage of ever loophole, every opportunity, every unenforced regulation to reduce their laborers to the status of machinery.
The devilish genius of capitalism, the inhuman brilliance of its logic, is that it has presented to us as “freedom” a status quo in which anyone who does not own the means of production — which is to say practically everyone — is forced to either work under whatever terms are made available to them or to die. Under our current system, we must pay for literally everything — food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, all of the most bare essentials of life — with the capitalist’s coin. He alone determines how much we pay and how much we are paid. If we refuse to work under his terms, we will not be paid, and if we are not paid, we will die. We will starve, we will drink poisoned water, we will be exposed and sickened, we will have no home. All of these necessities are owned by the capitalist, and he sets the terms under which we may receive them. This is so close to slavery as to be barely worth distinguishing — it is called “wage slavery” for a reason — and yet it is presented to us, without even a wink of irony, as true freedom.
Consider how often the capitalist class has attempted to return to slavery. When black Americans were emancipated, they finagled the language of the 13th Amendment, guaranteeing free labor from anyone convicted of a crime; the obvious and predictable result was mass incarceration of the blacks who once formed the slave class, returning them to involuntary servitude, and has culminated in a for-profit prison system whose workforce is both as numerous and as helpless as their literally enslaved ancestors. When unions began to empower working people, capitalists fought back with every means at their disposal; when they could murder, they murdered, and when they could no longer murder, they bought off the government, which has systematically overturned every protection the workers had in order to weaken the power of the organized laborer. They have converted the workforce from permanent employees to “contractors” and “freelancers”, imbued with the “independence” to receive no benefits and to lose their incomes on the whim of an accountant or the turning of a page on the calendar. They have taken their jobs overseas, to countries with no worker protections where they can pay pennies a day and hire local brutes to crush any resistance out of their countrymen; they have outsourced their production to countries that use political prisoners and children as a workforce. If anyone in America dares complain about the increasing loss of worker protections, they are told to keep quiet lest their job is shipped out of the country. They have automated millions of jobs out of existence, but rather than pay taxes to help keep the displaced workers alive, they have kept every penny — and fought every attempt to be responsible for the lives they have ruined. They have poisoned the planet possibly beyond salvation, making perfectly clear that, far from simply seeking a slight advantage over their workforce, they are willing to kill off the human race if it means a higher number at the bottom of their yearly ledger.
We can have conversations about Southern prison labor and the Clintons’ role in supporting it. We can talk about the carceral state and how it has led to a shameful profit motive intruding on the justice system. We can talk about how different cultures perceive slavery, and the degree of guilt or innocence people play in being a part of it. But never forget this: the endgame of capitalism is always a return to slavery. We are either part of that process, or we are fighting against it. Make your choice.