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Slavery in world history and Marx’s cynicism

November 16th, 2014 · No Comments

Historical materialism can induce, as it seemed to have done in Marx, a kind of cynical perception of the inevitable brutality of economic history, a case in point his apparent belief that slavery was not only necessary but important as a stage of economic history. That, to me, is a fallacy. And it ends up in the worst case: a mistaken teleology for permanent nightmare. How will we challenge slavery if we think it was inevitable and therefore a necessary evil on the way to capitalist pre-socialism. This thinking is, to be sure, an obscure logical and empirical issue. But the dangers of such assumptions are part of what doomed the bolshevik realization. Need I remind marxists that actually given bolshevik realizations in all cases reinvented slavery! This was a natural confusion in men who thought that the road to development required massive sacrifices of Moloch all over again. The theory projected to liberate labor fumbled the ball here. That the bolsheviks thought like the ‘bourgeoisie’ it was can be passed over in a whisper.

I think Marx was wrong here, but even so world history muddles the question because it seems like we see slavery all the way through. In fact we don’t. The second chapter of Last and First Men tries to cite the evidence that slavery is a fairly late development of civilization, as a large scale process. The assumption that the pyramids were built with slaves dropping like flies as they labored with huge stone blocks is a fantasy of Hollywood, and many economic historians. The real evidence seems to suggest the use of a technology still hard to grasp, but relatively transparent, and not so arduous as thought, using not slaves, but ‘citizens’ of the dual monarchy drafted into a year or so of patriotic corvee. This is remarkable: the world’s most remarkable engineering project was done by men in arduous but not bone-crushing labor crews from the basic social fabric obliged only to a brief draft, as in the modern armies with their levys. This evidence at the start suggests slavery in the large (slaves as an anomalous small scale given may go back to the Paleolithic) was a deterioration. Surely the data of Roman case suggests pathology, next to the Roman games. This wasn’t economic teleology, but barbarous culture stuck in civilization manque. The original in Sumer seems to spring from the treatment of captives in war.
This kind of example at the beginning is crucial, because it shows, as capitalism shows, that greed, domination, social dislocation come in the phase of degeneration and the coming of ruthlessness by psychopaths to dominate civilization. The absence of slavery at the beginnings of high civilization (we suspect a similar case in early Sumer, more or less) is thus an important reminder that at no point of civilization was slave labor a necessity. In fact the ideals of the beginning seemed to have eroded very quickly and we see that the great temptation of slavery soon became endemic. The idea that we wouldn’t have all those great monuments left by the Romans without slavery is thus irrelevant. In fact, Roman civilization was a failure, that had to be subjected to a rescue operation by religion, which slowly enabled movement toward abolition.

The arguments here are unconvincing to realists and cynics, but I think, in any case, the neo-communism with an updated postmarxism must cease to compromised thought here: no project, even a socialist one, can allow the confusions economic teleology to induce comprise on this issue of labor in world history.
It is important to see that marxism saw the problem here in two ways, a fumbled ball with respect to the core complexity of the evidence or lack of it: to me this was an easy mistake. But the degeneration of current capitalism even as it flushes ‘success’ is a phenomenon related to that of endemic slavery. We think these systems will teleoological drivers, when the reality is that difficult and hard to realize uphill rescues operations are needed once again. That, really was the point behind marxism’s original ambivalence: revolution now, no let capitalism perform its wonders, then revolution later, we can simply cancel the Faustian pact and tell Mephistopheles to go ‘eff’. Madness. The Roman world create a situation that required waiting for an empire to decline, followed by a millennium of medievalism to reset the habits of antiquity. Let’s not be optimistic about capitalism’s miracle getting a miracle cure without a complete replacement of its core civilization.
This discussion profits from the revised outlook due to the use of a ‘finite transition’ model: we can see history is two modes. Here the ‘stream and sequence’ logic shows how slavery can be an aspect of decline, and that the ‘sequence’ aspect can seed the motion beyond the stream.

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