The American capacity to deny history might be heroic if it weren’t so persistently in the direction of social repression. The port of Charleston, South Carolina was the major entry and distribution point for kidnapped Africans forced into slavery in the American colonies. Slaves built the city of Charleston and were the force that drove the colonial economy of South Carolina. By 1709 South Carolina had the first slave patrols in the colonies, self-appointed groups that policed the movements of Blacks. By 1837 the Charleston slave patrols became the first official municipal police department in the U.S. Today Charleston’s role in the horrors of slavery has been sanitized through the storyline of the ‘progress’ of history. But with the blood of nine Black innocents freshly spilled, this history doesn’t wash away so easily.
The racist sociopath who committed the murders, Dylann Roof, made it clear that there was ‘nothing personal’ in the commission of his crime. His stated motive, to start a race war, was categorical— by reports the murderer knew none of his victims until shortly before he murdered them. In contrast to the willful obfuscation of the professional promoters of White supremacy among the chattering classes, the fact that the murders were categorical, were motivated by racism, makes them political. The murderer’s broader motives are White supremacist boilerplate, the generalities that signal tribal allegiance, not response to actually occurring offenses. Given American history, these motives are near perfect reversal of the facts of three centuries of torture, rape, murder and exploitation of enslaved and nominally free Blacks by Southern Whites.
The White resentment evidenced by Dylann Roof is over lost privilege that was never lost. The flag flying over the South Carolina State House isn’t the Confederate flag as has so often been reported, it is the Confederate battle flag— a potent and purposeful statement that the culture of racist repression was never defeated. And while the existence of the Emanuel AME Church where the murders occurred is evidence of resilience in the face an unbearably tragic, and purposely inflicted, history the theme of a reversal of this history, of ‘the country being taken over,’ is so radically delusional that discourse— a ‘conversation’ and symbolic acts, stands little chance of providing the needed link to social circumstances as they are actually being lived. The willful, insistent peace that led those murdered to welcome their assassin into their midst appears to be the ultimate target of Dylann Roof.
Of the official ‘remedies’ being put forward one makes symbolic sense and the other little to no practical sense. The Confederate battle flag that hangs atop state buildings in South Carolina celebrates centuries of systematic repression of Blacks by Whites. This may be “history,” but it is history that favors oppressors over oppressed— it is a symbol that actual power remains with the White establishment. Conversely, how covetous of history would the White ‘traditionalists’ be if Whites had been enslaved? That the flag still flies is evidence that this American history remains radically unresolved. Removing it would be symbolic. But without redressing the material differences that are the residual of this history mere symbolism is misleading. Paying reparations and political power-sharing that removes White privilege would be steps beyond the merely symbolic.
The modern gun control movement began after legally armed Black Panthers entered the Sacramento State House in California in 1967. The prior three centuries of White gun violence had nothing to do with it. Effective gun control would require actively taking guns from large numbers of people. Given the history and current state of policing in the U.S., what are the chances that White nationalists would be the targets of this effort? (Answer: none). The gun used by Dylann Roof appears to have been a gift from his father that was legally purchased. And the case of Australia, where strict gun control laws were implemented after a horrific mass murder was committed there, is less compelling than is generally presented. Data compiled by the World Bank has the murder rate falling less in both relative and absolute terms than in other comparable countries, including the U.S.
Slaves produced American bounty and the capital now in the hands of the descendants of slavers. The coded language of economics is used in the present to wash this tainted history from current social relations. The ‘original sin’ of capitalism lies in the provenance of this ‘capital’ produced by slaves and its ongoing expropriation. Original image source: salient-points.blogspot.com.
Political economy was brought to the fore through the temporary alliance of the President of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber, South Carolina State Representative Doug Brannon and the Chamber of Commerce in a recent piece on DemocracyNow! All agreed that the Confederate battle flag should be removed from State buildings. But when Rev. Barber argued for increased social spending and a living wage law to address the economic residual of slavery the alliance quickly dissipated. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gave the game away when she offered that none of the corporate leaders who were relocating ‘their’ companies to the state had complained about the flag up to that point.
Historical metaphor is apparently not the strong suit of the Southern business class. In South Carolina three or more centuries of slave ‘owners’ claiming the product of slaves for themselves has been replaced in the present by the executives of multi-national corporations using the social / political and economic residuals of slavery to claim the product of modern labor as ‘profits.’ The White political class in South Carolina wants to remove the flag because the historical distribution of political and economic power that it represents is better served by the more effectively coded language of economics. With the preponderance of American history as a guide, the international business ‘leaders’ to whom Governor Haley referred selected South Carolina in large measure because of this distribution, not in spite of it.
The current owners of luxury car maker BMW bought the company with the proceeds from Concentration Camp labor in WWII. Like the provenance of expropriated slave labor in the Americas, these proceeds are being used in the present to exert political and economic control over the social residuals of this tainted past. Even cursory investigation suggests that engineered dependence, coercion and directly expropriated labor are the material basis of modern capitalism. Original image source: thetruthaboutcars.com.
The profound moral and political differences between slavery and ‘free’ labor are as compressed in capitalist theory as they are by the material circumstances that are the residual of Southern history. The ‘human capital’ of capitalist theory can be owned, controlled or ‘free,’ with the determinant being that with the lowest cost. Among the business leaders to whom Governor Haley alluded, the owners of ‘luxury’ automaker BMW, now located outside of Greenville S.C., were major ‘users’ of concentration camp labor in WWII. The Boeing Corporation in North Charleston uses prison labor in its production processes. The ‘free’ labor that arrives at these doorsteps faces the historical question of why expropriated slave labor, now in the form of accumulated capital, is still owned / controlled by the descendants of Nazis and slavers?
The national ‘get over it’ chide that places current circumstance far removed from the legacy of slavery gets both current circumstance and the legacy of slavery wrong. In contrast to the ever-present ‘now’ of capitalist economics, slaves built substantial portions of the wealth and means of production that are presently owned and / or controlled by international capitalists. South Carolina is a particularly acute example of this history. And Northerners profited from trade in the cheap cotton produced by slaves, from the effect that slavery had in lowering factory wages and from the capital accumulation that resulted from these. Slave labor and its residual are deeply embedded in the fabric of current economic circumstance. The White and reactionary Black chides might make more sense if this past had ever been reconciled. Stating that history has ended while providing copious evidence to the contrary hardly makes it so.
Contention over the Confederate battle flag that hangs over public buildings in South Carolina suggests a symbolic basis for the social residual of slavery. However, the unity of American and European ‘capital’ gained from slavery can be found across South Carolina, and more broadly, the capitalist West. Sleek corporatism may be replacing the crude and overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan and other earlier racist organizations, but the expropriated labor of slaves embedded in corporate capital suggests that better marketing doesn’t change intentions. Original image source: life.time.com.
This treatment of history that seems so intuitive in the present is, in fact, an artifact of capitalist ideology. Capitalist economics whitewashes the provenance of existing capital— land, machines, financial obligations and wealth in various forms, through inferring immaculate economic conception back in time. Land gotten through genocide against the indigenous population in South Carolina— the Trail of Tears was conceived to ‘free’ land for White European settlers, is modern day ‘real estate’ and the subsidized land on which slavers like BMW locate factories. What precisely constitutes the starting point after which subsequent capital and wealth accumulation is fairly gotten? Major Western corporations, including BMW, continue to knowingly use slave labor in the present, right now.
In the economic calculus of the business interests that locate in the low-wage, anti-union South the residual of slavery is incidental in the same way that imperial history is to Western capitalists who locate production in El Salvador, Vietnam or Malaysia. Boeing argues that it pays lower wages in South Carolina because the cost of living is lower— an economically circular and wholly self-serving, argument. Otherwise, business ‘leaders’ seek out ‘natural’ indicators of probable high profits like low / no wages, limited capacity for labor to organize, few environmental restrictions and subsidized infrastructure. Charleston has infrastructure built by generations of slaves, a pro-business leadership class that understands the political economy of economic expropriation and the added benefit of “history” devoid of history. From her statements, Governor Haley appears to understand who she answers to.
A superficial paradox can be found in the support that these corporations give to universalist-humanist causes. None other than BMW offers ‘partner’ benefits to LGBT employees in South Carolina even though the factory was built with the proceeds from slave labor and from competitors ‘bought’ on the cheap as their founders were being hauled off to concentration camps. This paradox unravels when the corporate distinction between workers and customers is made. Most modern corporations care not the source of customer dollars— any type of customer is fine as long as it supports further business. Profiting from captive labor in the present, as many large Western corporations do, is considered ‘efficient’ labor management but publicly advocating the use of, or celebrating, captive labor is poor customer relations.
This distinction helps explain the temporary alliance between people who have historically been on the wrong side of the Confederate battle flag and those who see it as a public relations problem. The bipartisan economic program currently being implemented in South Carolina (and nationally) instantiates permanent class divisions by relegating the social mechanisms that might produce rough social equivalence like public education, public health care and food and housing security to ‘personal choice’ when 90% of the population lacks the resources to make these a choice without going deeply in debt. This is an alliance of diametrically opposed interests once the flag is brought down.
This history of resisting all efforts at creating factual social equivalence explains both the persistence of the Confederate battle flag and the economic program being promoted by South Carolina’s political class. More broadly, America has a greater degree of racial segregation in its schools today than it did forty years ago. The shift from overt racism to the economics of oppression ties slavery to modern capitalism. Absent wholly implausible theories of racial superiority there is little to explain the persistence of White privilege and political and economic power other than continuing claims on, and control of, expropriated slave labor. The shell game in the present is immaculate economic provenance, putting forward the expropriated product of slavery in the form of accumulated capital as a continuing claim on economic privilege.
Life is no doubt more cluttered than theory, but that is the burden of theory. The modern American social strategy is to claim ‘opportunity’ while assuring that the material basis for it does not exist. The division of explicit from implicit has slavery formally ending one-and one-half centuries ago but its functional reconstitution occurring only days later. Leap forward and today we find police founded in slave patrols providing racial / social repression and a steady stream of captive labor to work for the descendants of slavers and Nazis who have never made recompense for past crimes. If one cares to look for a dependent class, it can easily be found in executive boardrooms, in the investment portfolios of the wealthy, in state assemblies across the country and in Federal government policies.
The murder of nine Black martyrs in Charleston is both tragic and horrific, but it is only surprising through aggressive resistance to American history. Indigenous rights and recompense belong alongside the mechanisms of social, political and economic reconciliation if any are sought. Dylann Roof murdered more than the nine martyrs with his crime, he murdered peace, as locally circumscribed and hard fought as it was. Calls for reconciliation without material redress for centuries of tortured history seem empty. It is an illusion to expect political economy built on subjugation and expropriation to produce the social goods that proponents claim. And the fact that past expropriation has never been disgorged and is now being used as tool of economic re-subjugation should help clarify the lines of contention.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.