One of the things I find odd about the American discourse about slavery is how rarely Americans think about slavery as an institution which existed outside America. Not only did slavery exist in the ancient world in a pre-racialised way–in which many slaves were white, and many masters were people of colour–but it also existed in many other places during the period in which it existed in America. In many of these places, slavery was abolished not by violence but by ordinary politics. Yet this is rarely acknowledged or discussed, and it is increasingly common for Americans to frame our history largely in terms of the slavery question. We don’t often ask why slavery was more contentious in the United States than in other places. That’s what I want to think about with you today.
I see a lot of people making claims about how left wing or progressive various Democratic candidates or potential candidates are. Most of the time, I think these claims are flimsy. Commentators like to judge candidates on three core metrics:
I want to argue that these metrics are largely useless. Instead, I want to give you a much better toolkit for assessing candidates–one that most journalists don’t know how to use.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the coverage of the Gilets Jaunes or “Yellow Vests” protests in France is this tendency to think of the French taking to the streets as a cultural phenomenon. People in the Anglosphere think the French protest because that’s the way the French are. So whenever there’s a commotion in France of any variety, everyone wants to make all sorts of callbacks to the French Revolution, and invariably the takes on the new protests will resemble the takes on the old protests. You’ll have some people write pieces asking “why can’t we be like the French”, but the undertone will be that the French are the way they are because they’re French, and that while we might wish we could be like the French we never will. I hate cultural explanations, because they’re lazy. State institutions produce different kinds of incentives in different contexts, and these different incentives give rise to different behaviour. We attach that behaviour to peoples, but it is the product of particular institutional configurations. If the French had different institutions, they wouldn’t do what they do.
When an important leader dies or leaves office, I sometimes like to write retrospective posts on their performance. There are any number of places where you can get a Fidel Castro obituary–what I’m offering is a hard look at the consequences Castro’s policies had for the Cuban people. My intent is neither to polish nor tarnish Castro’s image, but to present his government’s policies and institutions as they were.