Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

Tag: Slavery

Cotton is Not What Made the United States Rich

Lately, everyone is arguing that the United States got rich off of cotton. The New York Times recently put out a story arguing that American capitalism “begins on the plantation”. This completely misunderstands the relationship between slave and serf-based agriculture and industrial capitalism. A dominant agricultural industry is not the foundation for industrial success–it is an impediment. Let me show you why…

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How and Why Slavery Got Abolished

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.

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Self-Care Puts Us on an Amusement Treadmill

For some years now there’s been some people who have written pieces encouraging folks to engage in “self-care” and other people who have picked at this concept from the left. The pro self-care pieces tend to give people practical life advice for dealing with the stress and anxiety of modern life. The anti self-care pieces point out that self-care puts the burden of coping with the failures of modern capitalism on the individual. We experience higher incidences of stress and mental illness because our economic system leaves us in precarious positions. We fear being outcompeted for an ever scarcer number of good, professional class jobs. This pushes us into an arms race to polish our resumes. The more we try to look good, the more everyone else feels they must try to look good. So anti self-care pieces frame the practice as a luxury open only to those who are already reasonably secure–it doesn’t address the fundamental structural causes of precarity and it doesn’t rescue people from those forces.

These are the usual arguments surrounding self-care. But today I want to make a different argument–I want to claim that self-care is itself a celebration of a behaviour ancient political theorists rightly associated with slavery.

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Why Rebellions and Revolutions Don’t Work Very Well

Throughout the history of civilization, there have been people who have been tasked with providing the necessities of life–growing the food, collecting resources, making the tools, and so on. There have also been people who don’t do this kind of work, who instead have lots of free time. These people have free time because other people provide their necessities for them. In this sense, the first group of people serves the second. The precise social mechanic governing this service has shifted over the years. In the early days, the first group of people were slaves of the second group. Slavery was an astounding social invention–it made it possible for some of us to have large amounts of free time, and we used that free time to do art and science and high politics. But slavery only worked by denying the vast majority of people access to that free time. It precipitated largescale inequality. This made it difficult to sustain. The slaves were unhappy, and unhappy slaves are unproductive. The slaveowners eventually discovered a secret–happy slaves are more productive than unhappy slaves. And to make the slaves happy, you had to tell them a story about how they were free. Into this space steps capitalism, and the employer-employee relationship. You are free to work for any master–but you must work for one, or you won’t earn enough to make a living. The masters have pooled the slaves and shared them, and told the slaves this makes them free. And for the most part, the slaves buy it. Except when they don’t. This piece is about that.

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How the Democratic Party Can Win the South

Since Donald Trump’s election I have increasingly become interested in how the left engages with white America. The left isn’t getting enough white support. Even with over 90% of the African-American vote, alleged pedophile Roy Moore came absurdly close to winning in Alabama. This can’t just be because white Americans are racist, stupid, or evil. There has to be more to it. In the past I’ve identified many things wrong with our approach–we’re too condescending and patronising toward white voters, and too quick to blame and shame them. We don’t spend enough time talking about and emphasizing programs and policies that help all marginalized people, including poor, working, and middle class whites. But today I want to go further and discuss in detail a new way of looking at the South and at middle America more broadly–one that takes these people and their concerns seriously. If we’re willing to tell a different story about the South, or at least acknowledge a different story, and build that acknowledgement into our policy and rhetoric, I think we can make some gains.

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