From the 1400s to the 1900s Europeans entered the global trade in human beings with massive numbers of men, women and children forced, and semi-forced into migration from their homelands. This African diaspora was the bedrock foundation of the economic system that led to the social and physical infrastructure that produced the modernity of the 21st century. Even though slavery is forbidden almost everywhere, reality is that in today’s world the economy is fed by slave labour. The greatest profits of this slavery are generated and accumulated in the rich and highly technological counties, whether undocumented workers on farms in rich countries, or underdeveloped countries actually working for suppliers of rich country corporations. Neoliberalism has allowed the development of an enslaving economic system – more workers than ever in history around the world are chained to their jobs for survival. The Internet has created a passive population full of consumerism and void of historical conscience and responsibility. Silence is passive consent and complicity.
During the 18th century the French colony of St. Dominque that became Haiti grew and prospered. By the time of the French Revolution Haiti was producing more than half of all the coffee produced in the world, 40 percent of the sugar for France and Britain and accounted for 40 percent of France’s foreign trade at a time when France was the dominant economy of Europe. By the 1750s, Haiti was France’s richest colony, rich from the sweat of slave labor’s brow. By the time of the French Revolution the population of slaves in Haiti was somewhere between 500 and 700 thousand. Under the French plantation system, based upon slave labor, Haiti was an enormously profitable operation. French sugar and coffee operations in Haiti were so productive that its exports to Europe were comparable and perhaps exceeded the total exports of the British North American colonies.
Five years after the storming of the Bastille, in August 1791 the slaves of Haiti rebelled. The news of the insurrection sent electrifying waves of fear throughout the hemisphere. The slave states and the slave owners in all parts of the US and elsewhere in the Americas were forced to face what they long dreaded, the cruelty of their deeds would turn on them in violent slave revolutions. President George Washington and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners, supported France in its efforts to suppress the slave revolt in Haiti. Napoleon sent an army of 20,000 trained soldiers to crush the rebellion. However, the African slaves and yellow fever defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army – inflicting greater losses than occurred at Waterloo a few years later. When the French surrendered in 1803, Haiti lay in ruins – nearly half of its population lost. The twelve-year war of liberty had destroyed most of the irrigation systems and machines, that, with slave labour, had created France’s richest colony.
News of the failure of Napoleon’s effort to re-establish slavery after sending 20,000 professional soldiers for the task, and their final defeat sent shock waves across the hemisphere. Profound fear spread among white peoples throughout the Americas wherever Africans were held in slavery. Haiti was reviled and feared by all the rich nations of the world precisely for its successful slave revolt which represented a threat not only in nations where slavery was legal, but in all countries, because of their large under-classes living in economic servitude. The strategy of the nations primarily affected, including the U.S., was to further impoverish Haiti, to make it an example. In one grand commitment, Haiti, contributed more to the liberation of the Americas from European colonial powers than any other nation. Twice Haiti, poor as it was, provided Simon Bolívar with men, arms and supplies that enabled the Great Liberator to free half the nations of South America from the Spanish yoke. Haiti asked only one act in repayment: Free the slaves.
In 1885 France agreed to recognize Haiti for payment of 150,000 gold francs in ‘indemnity’. In 1910, President William Howard Taft granted Haiti a large loan in hopes that Haiti could pay off its international debt, thus lessening foreign influence. Shortly before World War I, US bankers obtained shares in the Haitian Bank which controlled the government fiscal policies, and participated in a huge loan to the Haitian government, again placing the people in servitude to a foreign master. US capitalists were quickly given concessions to build a railway and develop plantations. From 1911 to 1915 Haiti went through five presidents driven by unrest that the country was being taken over by American money. The US invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify occupation. From 1915 to 1934 American administrators ran the government of Haiti. In August 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt ended the occupation. However, as Haiti was deep in debt, the US continued direct control of finance until 1941, and indirect control until 1947 to control loans and business interests.1
In the US, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in education, housing, transportation, and public facilities. Its purpose was to create a second class and maintain white supremacy. Vagrancy laws allowed blacks to be arrested for minor infractions. A system of penal labor known as convict leasing was established at this time. Black men convicted for vagrancy would be used as unpaid laborers, and thus effectively re-enslaving. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks (1913 – 2005), a resident of Montgomery, Alabama refused to obey the bus driver’s demand that she relinquish her seat to a white man – she was arrested. Her trial for this act of civil disobedience triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the organizers of the boycott, to the forefront of the civil rights movement that fostered peaceful protests to Jim Crow laws.2
The economic elite made loans to developing countries conditional on adopting neoliberalism – removal of subsidies, social spending cuts and privatization of social services. The main practices that created this enslaving system in the hands of the economic elite is the concentration of purchasing power and vast selling power based on oligopoly and monopoly. This allows maximization of profits by extracting the maximum value created by workers and their organizations. Under globalization corporations are able to modularize the production process, assigning the production of restricted parts of the products to smaller companies abroad – the community will keep that business as long as they comply with the will of the economic elite – with respect to taxes, regulations and labour requirements. In the global competition of alternate suppliers, these powerful multinational companies compete against each other by offering lower and lower prices which translates into lower and lower wages, lower and lower benefits, and lower and lower environmental standards.
The arguments of political economy were based on intuition and assertion rather than on rigorous analysis, but their strength rested on their ideological appeal rather than on their analytical rigour. Modern neoliberal economics is no less dogmatic than its nineteenth century predecessor in resting on a set of simplistic assertions about the character of the market and the behaviour of market actors. Modern economics is not a scientific discipline but the rigorous elaboration of a very specific social theory, which has become deeply embedded in western thought. Cultural hegemony – the domination or rule achieved through ideological means – functions by achieving the consent of the masses to abide social norms and rules of law by framing the worldview of the economic elite, and the social and economic structures that go with it as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though they may only benefit the wealthy.3
Slavery is happening in the 21st century – even in the heart of rich countries, slaves are working for the biggest companies, for the biggest multi-nationals. The enslaving of workers making ordinary goods intended for consumption of the general public is a current phenomenon. How much are the workers making that bring you the tomatoes on your plate? Most meals in Canada and the US include a hefty portion of human rights abuses. With a political environment that encourages public resentment over illegal immigration, many employers take advantage of the vulnerable illegal workers, reducing pay and imposing brutal work conditions. Neoliberalism injects violence into our lives, and fear into our politics. The divisive 2016 US election was built on fear and, yes, despair of too many of the US populace, who have suffered negative impacts that neoliberalism’s memes and policies have reaped. This election result tells us that there is something badly wrong in the system.
Neoliberalism is an ideology of fear and insecurity that enslaves us all. Neoliberal ideology is not just about political power and domination and oppression of those most marginalized in society, rather it requires the consent and compliance of wider society to operate without challenge. Political power follows economic power. Neoliberalism requires that democracy be largely nominal, that is, less involvement of citizens in societal decisions; remove decision-making out of the hands of the working class, and rely on the politicians owned and the media controlled by the economic elite. We need to switch from a value system based on ‘rule of the market’ and individualism to the values based on ‘community’ and ‘public good.’ This includes shifting to a narrative that an open and transparent political and economic system is fundamental to a healthy society. There is no ‘one way’, but change to end this violent and enslaving economic system begins at the ballot box.
1 Clark, Ramsey. Haiti’s Agonies and Exaltations. https://iacenter.org/haiti/ramsey.htm
2 Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/jim-crow-laws-andracial-segregation/
3 Opportunities Lost: Create Your Own Truth. (20 December 2017) http://questioningandskepticism.com/opportunities-lost-create-truth/