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Who Ain't a Slave?

By David Golding

1. “We Left the U.S. We Chose Chile.”

In Chile, the settler-colonialist project of extermination and subjugation (a project driven from its beginning by a “native” oligarchy in a mistrustful and protean alliance with multinational capital) has always depended upon the sizable vanguard presence of colorful psychopaths, questing gringo monadological personalities, Melvillean isolates hurtling with perfect equanimity through hell: they don’t do the dirty work of the State, or they don’t do the lion’s share of the dirty work, but they do provide the State with a parody of a state of nature or a parody of the apocalypse, depending on the customs or the ideology of the moment, and in doing so they create the conditions that allow the project of centralization and monopolization to flourish (this is the paradox of liberty and of liberal capitalism: its shock troops have always been true-believers, like Melville’s sailors, who win their metaphysical liberty at the expense of their political-economic liberty and, naturally, at the expense of the citizens of what is now known as the Global South). In literature, Robinson Crusoe (modeled after Alejandro Selkirk, who was stranded on the Chilean island of Más Afuera, farther away) was the first of such characters: Jonathan Franzen, our pitiable Augustinian, is the latest, having gone to Crusoe’s island after the death of his friend, David Foster Wallace, to meditate on the sundry hemorrhoids of late-capitalist technology and on the death of his privacy, by which he means the waning of a kind of cacophonous Beckettian silence which tortures the ears of those who are known as “privileged white men” or “white male authors.” In real life, the huaso (cousin of the Argentinian gaucho), a landless criollo or mestizo, came first, his (he was quintessentially a male) liberty being nothing but his necessity elevated into a sadomasochistic ideal. Shortly after came English adventurers and other military or civilian emissaries of Empire, impoverished New England democrats (los bostoneses), fallen-on-hard-times Spanish latifundists, Napoleon-era ex-Jacobin slavers, hardy Germans who settled south of the Bio-Bio River and who now throw cake-baking festivals in their North Face Potemkin villages (Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of North Face and eco-billionaire, currently owns substantial swathes of Patagonia and like a good capitalist-with-a-conscience is trying to blackmail the government into managing his land for him), Nazis on the lam who set up colonies that divide their time between ritualistic child molestation and funneling arms for the CIA and Mossad, and most recently Ayn Rand acolytes. It’s easy to laugh at the Ayn Rand colonies in Chile (many of whose members were swindled in bad land deals) but if we laugh at them, we should also remember what drew them to Chile in the first place: a dystopian dreamscape, an imperial fantasy for those who aren’t cut out for Empire, a charnel house for failed killers or for killers who never wanted to kill in the first place and who went to the end of the Earth in order to do so.

A certain regular contributor to dailypaul.com (Ron and/or Rand) moved to Valparaiso with his extended family to survive the coming apocalypse. Chile won out over all the possible contenders (New Zealand being too close to China and having a restive Maori population) due to its eviscerated social welfare and regulatory systems, its low taxation, its large European population, its low violent crime, its low pollution, the ease of importing pets and Social Security checks, the availability of non-GMO produce, its olive oil and wine, its solid-enough gun rights, its ski resorts, etc. The only problem is pesky leftist students who scrawl Marxist graffiti on the buildings, but that’s nothing a bucket of paint and a civic spirit can’t solve.

2. Minerva’s Owl

Even a Jeremiah is right twice an apocalypse.

According to Chomsky, whose dotage happens to coincide with what he considers the end of human civilization, Minerva’s owl, who only flies at dusk, has a lot to think about these days.

Anonymous Economist reviewers agree, but they would prefer that the owl transform itself into a neoliberal parrot that squawks its approval of the rising tides, no matter how many slaves died on the Middle Passage or afterwards. According to The Economist, slaves had the special privilege of being liberated by the British, the prime movers of their slavery, once slavery ceased to be profitable to the British Empire. Similarly, today’s victims should acknowledge that their suffering has been inflicted on them for a purpose and in fact should be grateful for the opacity of their suffering, which adds not only an element of surprise but an element of divine revelation. “Mr Baptist [Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism] has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” The Economist retracted this review, since the public was not prepared for its Tory truth-telling. Slavery was an evil system, they acknowledged, in spite of what they actually and transparently think.

What ultimately is the difference between Chomsky’s owl and The Economist’s owl-parrot? I think the difference is that Chomsky’s owl is sad and The Economist’s owl-parrot has a (metaphorical) dick as big as the Eiffel Tower which can fuck the world for a seemingly endless number of hours, or for a single gruesome and incalculable hour. But there are similarities, too. For instance, they both agree that ISIS is a troublesome epiphenomenon and that BDS is a bad idea. They both agree with the idea of a germinal moment: for Chomsky it has something to do with the Fertile Crescent and for The Economist it has something to do with the accidental-genetic spark of the Enlightenment that happened to take place, or did it only happen to take place?, in a noble white Land and in noble white Soil (I won’t say “Blood and Soil,” because after all I’m fairly polite, I’ve heard of Godwin’s Law, I know that it’s uncivilized to compare a publication that from its inception has always provided ideological cover to the institution of slavery (I’m talking about The Economist) to actual Nazis, in the same way that it’s uncivilized to compare slavery to capitalism, but it’s civilized to compare slavery to socialized medicine, which is something Rand Paul did).

It’s worth noting that in 2008 (the year of the financial crisis) the Department of Defense launched something known as the “Minerva Research Initiative” which aims to militarize the social sciences at American universities in order to enlist academics in the project of studying social unrest (with a particular emphasis on non-violent social unrest). The theory is that, in the near future, a concatenation of events will take place that closely resemble traditional notions of either the apocalypse or revolution. The events will, inevitably, be caused by global capitalism: climate change, imperial wars in the Middle East, an increasing disparity between the wealth of the global elites and the global masses, even in Europe, especially in the United States. The problem is not so much violent terrorists (who are easily discredited or isolated) but people who sympathize with “political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change.” The goal is twofold: to corrupt the humanities and social sciences by making their funding explicitly dependent upon their loyalty to imperial projects and to actually mine their institutional knowledge for possible stopgaps or possible false consciousness-creation-measures. But it’s not the goals that are interesting. The goals were already implicit in everything the State does. What’s interesting is that, seemingly for the first time in recent history, the State itself has a theory of mind (a banal, an anodyne theory of mind). Normally it’s assumed that there’s a Kafkian gap in the center of the imperial-bureaucratic machine, a gap filled up by inertia, lust, and sluggishness: a gap filled up by House of Cards or Homeland metaphysics, for instance. Or it’s assumed that the powerful assume that their self-evident gifts are appreciated by all (which is what writers for The Economist, in their self-conscious obsolescence, think). The Defense Department, however, is a step ahead in acknowledging that national security is a self-perpetuating fetish: it doesn’t offer a better world, only a twilight world beset by the enemies that have already overwhelmed it, as if power existed in a physical place, somewhere in a castle in Bavaria or a palace in Lima, as if the barbarians or the everymen at the gate could be put off with the tritest of petty-bourgeois ideology, in the same way that Kafka, the most profound writer of the twentieth century, was put off by the promise of a nice marriage and a family, or by the promise of Zionism, or by the promise of an Italian vacation. There’s something uncanny about the Defense Department’s Minerva project (and it’s not just the name): it’s like listening to a doll speaking about strategies to remain a doll. Or if not a doll, then an Odradek.

I remember talking to a guy who said that he wasn’t particularly bothered by the Snowden leaks because he didn’t have any porn habits to hide, even though one of the Prism program’s primary objectives was to spy on anyone engaged in ill-defined or all-encompassing “dissent.” I suppose “kink-shaming,” the new ideological shibboleth of corporate gays in San Francisco, now includes political kinks, such as environmental or labor activism.

3. Great American Novelists

Let’s say that there’s a world in which such a thing as the American novel exists, and the firmament of that world, naturally, is dominated by white men who have a certain prophetic and profane vision into the nature of reality, and no one denies it, not even feminist critics, especially not feminist critics. And in that world, as Bolaño says, even writers who write in Spanish look towards the horizons set by American novelists, where they glimpse the fate of America, of all America (the real America, which begins in Polynesia and stretches west towards Easter Island), even though that fate seems inscrutable to many, or actually to everyone, but it exists more inviolably for that reason. And in that world, Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are the only books and one has to decide between the abyss of the first and adolescence of the second, and in adolescence one decides that going to hell isn’t so bad but in the abyss one decides that hell is all that exists.

4. Islamic Terrorism in the New World before Hugo Chavez

But as Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, reminds us in his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Necessity in the New World, it wasn’t the spermatic-Stalinist jouissance of the whale ship that provided the template for the expansion of American capitalism, nor was it Ahab who in his libidinal delirium unmoored himself from the profit motive in pursuit of a nightmarish and undead object (“Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, Owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience”). It was, rather, the sealing industry with its boring brutality, its exploitation of an impoverished labor base, its resource depletion, its dwindling profit margins and volatile markets, its telos of insipid luxury items instead of productive energy, that epitomized the new economic system. And its protagonists were not Ahabs but men like Amasa Delano, a sturdy republican solipsist from Duxbury, Massachusetts, marginalized and indebted by the new revolutionary ruling class, driven, in order to maintain his own precarious class position, into a grueling and humiliating search for new markets, a search with a patina of revolutionary romanticism and Protestant individualism, but ultimately doomed and a fool’s errand (Grandin adeptly explains how Delano’s generation had shed their ancestors’ Calvinism in favor of a kind of hybrid Unitarian belief in human praxis and divine providence: but the vicissitudes of their lives, or rather the superficially episodic but ultimately monotonous pattern of their lives, proved these concepts to be nothing but ghastly mirages or spectral jokes). Delano was a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another man whose idealism was corrupted by his racial blinkeredness, by his ideological and class umbilical cord, and by the implacability and malignity of the system that exploited his ideals for its own end (or rather, that required the epiphenomenal humanism of the Delanos in times of capitalist crisis, so that the system could gather its strength or fight off its organismic entropy).

Delano was also the model for Melville’s eponymous character in Benito Cereno, a novella Melville wrote in 1855 about a daring (not only metaphysically daring, though metaphysics is Melville’s province) slave rebellion off the coast of Chile in which men and women who had survived an apocalyptic and genocidal journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the pampas, and the Andes mutinied on Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power, the holiest day of Ramadan), slaughtered the majority of their captors, and ordered their slaver, a Spanish captain named Benito Cerreño, to return them to the coast of Africa (according to Grandin, they first asked to go to revolutionary Haiti, which they had learned about during their sojourn in the relatively free port town of Montevideo, but Cerreño denied that such a place existed, echoing the cruel revisionism and obscurantism of not only the Right but the Left on the subject of Haiti). Cerreño stalled, sailing north and south, until near Lima they encountered Delano’s ship. For nearly a day, they managed to deceive Delano into thinking they were still slaves—slaves with an unsettling and enigmatic confidence, perhaps, a troubling and murky interiority, but slaves nonetheless—and that Delano was their ailing and aristocratic master. But Cerreño escaped and revealed the ruse to Delano, who helped to crush the rebellion, inspired not only by his desire to make a profit but by a kind of metaphysical terror and vertigo that could only be righted by annihilating violence.

The Economist, in reviewing Grandin’s book, claims that the book is an unending litany of horrors and lacks “heroes”: heroes of course can’t be Muslim slaves from Senegambia whose proto-revolutionary actions evoke ethical nausea in the stomachs of racist imperialists, slaves who give off the unfortunate stink of Third-Worldism and Islamic terrorism: heroes can only be found, naturally, in the traditional imperialist trinity of the Royal Navy, evangelical Christians, and free-market ideologues.

Melville wrote the novella, incidentally, not long after his father-in-law, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Lemuel Shaw, refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus for Thomas Sims, a seventeen year-old escaped and recaptured slave. Shaw, though an abolitionist (“Obama, though opposed to the systematic use of torture…”) decided to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act for the sake of some nebulous national unity. Delano was also opposed to slavery, yet he violently suppressed the slave rebellion onboard the Spaniard Benito Cereno/Cerreño’s ship (Melville drops the second “r” and the tilde) for the sake of an equally nebulous personal unity (his profit margin, since he hoped to be compensated for his efforts) and a dubious notion of international maritime law.

5. The Flickering Conscience of Writers

It’s not enough for a writer to have no owner and no conscience, but it’s a good start. It’s not enough because when he or she emerges from his or her isolation and melancholia, from the pure futility of the inland empire of liberty, there’s still the literary market to worry about and family dinners with collaborationist in-laws.

6. The Illusory Vessel of Social Democracy

The true horror of Benito Cereno is that it proves the truth of Hegel’s dictum that mankind is not liberated from slavery but through slavery. Except that, in the end, it’s not the slaves who are liberated by their pantomiming of their own slavery, but the owners’ who are liberated from their actual impotence into a new stage of free and sovereign violence. In the same way that the British and later the Americans were liberated through slavery into an unchecked imperial dominion in which slavery itself became an impediment to the free market and Latin America passed into the hands of the new comprador bourgeoisie. Grandin’s proposes a kind of social-democratic recognition of mutual dependence to counter the Milton Friedman-Pinochet model of absolute freedom through absolute repression, or the Reaganite-Central American model of the freedom fighter as amoral fascist drug-runner/death-squad entrepreneur. But the history of Latin America, which is a metaphor (but as yet a metaphor for nothing), suggests that these reformist compromises with the imperialist dialectic of liberty-slavery, these temporary truces in the belly of the whale, will come to nothing so long as the social-democratic pact exists only on a single ship, so long as the ancien régime (Benito Cereno, for instance) remains alive onboard and so long as the predatory and amorphous, or polymorphous, shadow of a fledgling new empire, which is the same as the previous empire, but worse, lurks on the open seas. Ahab and Delano are mirror images of each other, blind and implacable appetites, Ulysses with and without wax in his ears, a homosexual and a heterosexual anti-hero, a gangster and an apparatchik, or a psychopath and an Aspergers case. Think of them as Third World vulture capitalist Paul Singer and the more responsible or disciplined executives of financial capitalism, some middling IMF bureaucrat, for instance. And think of Babo and Mori, the leaders of the slave revolt, as Latin American revolutionaries, or black power revolutionaries, or Islamic revolutionaries (because the truth is they’re all three wrapped into one) who, at the moment Delano boards their ship, have to pretend to still be slaves. This ruse works for a while, but eventually the imperialists will figure them out (when they try to implement land reform or nationalize key industries), or worse, like Evo Morales, they’ll end up believing their own act and cozying up to the World Bank and turning the military against miners and against indigenous populations. Either way—the way of martyrdom or the way of treason—the play-acting of social democracy is not enough.

From March, 2015

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