Beyond our repair
Chattel slavery’s damage is done, argues Paul Demarty, so communists should fight for a better future, not redress for past injuries
It seems barely a week passes before there is some news story concerning reparations for slavery.
Most recently, it was confirmed by Arley Gill, chair of Grenada’s national reparations commission, that it and several other equivalent bodies in the Caribbean would be submitting letters to the British royal family seeking reparations from slavery. Various researchers over the years have succeeded in tying parts of the royals’ vast fortune to the triangle trade, to nobody’s surprise (but to much pearl-clutching in the press gallery).
While we expect Charles et al to reply with a polite ‘fuck off’, some other descendants of slavery’s beneficiaries have been more conciliatory. William Gladstone, the great 19th century Liberal statesman, inherited a stupendous fortune from his father’s many slave plantations; the extant scions of this clan agreed to fund some worthy projects in Guyana by way of recompense (although the Jamaicans are not happy at being left out).
And in July the American state of California published a report recommending payouts to descendants of African slaves living within its borders: a peculiar initiative, perhaps, seeing as how California was never a slave state (though some indigenous people were subjected to quasi-slave labour on church missions, when the Spanish initially spread into the territory, these are not the targets of the state’s reparations).
As will become clear, my argument is that the reparations campaign - both in its home territory of the United States, and in its missionary outposts in Britain and elsewhere - is misconceived. It has played a salutary role, admittedly, in refreshing society’s memory of the crimes of empire (and, in the States, the crime of plantation slavery itself). In its focus on “following the money”, it has done a great pedagogical service in tracing how ‘sticky’ wealth is down the generations, and dramatising the sordid origins of such wealth. Marxists tend to point in the direction of the chapter of Capital on primitive accumulation - but, the more illustrations of the point, the better.
To that solution, however, we cannot concur. The problem can be posed by breaking things down into three subordinate questions: what is owed, by whom, and to whom?
Art of the deal
The first question seems easiest to solve in practice - the relevant parties agree a sum, after a more or less protracted period of haggling, and then the sum is paid.
That we have the traditional means of low commerce - the ‘art of the deal’ - to take the sting out of this process ought not to blind us to a prima facie moral absurdity. The sorts of questions seriously considered a matter for reparations are not trivial ones as a rule. In the case of American slavery, for example, we are dealing with a centuries-long process whereby millions of people were imprisoned, worked to death, separated from their children (or parents), subjected to routine torture and rape, and so on (and that is to leave aside the betrayals even after emancipation).
What is the cash value of such a mountain of horrors, exactly? To ask the question seriously is to lapse into bourgeois stupidity at its most Laputan. Of course, most advocates of reparations would not seriously ask that question. Reparations become instead tokens of repentance; and some kind of cash value is not nothing. (Giving a beggar a pound in the street will not get him a house, never mind solve the housing crisis; but he could probably use the money anyway.) Yet to take the question off the table is to accept that reparations are not a matter of justice. No sum could be equal to the injustice.
The onus is therefore on advocates to produce a serious argument for this campaign’s adequacy; it cannot be taken as ever more liberal shibboleths are these days. If the point is to improve people’s lives, or to expose the sordid history of slavery and colonialism, or whatever: will it work, and is it the best way of doing so?
Who owes the reparations, and to whom? Sometimes this is fairly straightforward: Ronald Reagan, on behalf of the American government, apologised to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II and paid out reparations. In this case, the money is clearly owed to the victims of this earlier crime; there is perhaps some debate to be had about whether the state itself is continuously responsible or the government of the day, but plainly it is part of the game of bourgeois constitutional government that governments take responsibility for past crimes like this, and if they do not it is because they choose not to.
In the case of plantation slavery in the US or the British triangle trade, things are a little fuzzier. The very last surviving American slave-owners - at least according to the pre-1860 institution of chattel slavery - presumably died some three generations ago; that number would be four or five for British owners of colonial plantations, although, of course, the empire continued its bloody course until very recently. So there are a few candidates to be made into reparators: principally, the direct descendants of known slave-owners, like the Gladstones; corporations that descend from those who profited from slave labour (for example, the British textile industry, which was fed to a great extent by cotton from slave plantations, or universities that benefit from endowments by slave traders); and the state regimes who favoured the institution.
The advantage of the first one is that it fits best the quasi-tort-law framework of reparations. If you have enough money to be worth going after for reparations, and your ancestors had a finger in the slave trade or slave labour, then the chances are these two facts are connected. However, presumably, in principle, you owe the money to the descendants of the specific slaves your ancestors were exploiting; but this is invariably difficult to determine, since even in countries with good census data for the relevant period (ie, the USA), record-keeping fastidiousness did not typically extend to slaves, who were barely treated as human at all. Hence the rather ‘institutional’ character of the Gladstones’ Guyanan philanthropy - funding research into slavery, and so on. What else could they do, exactly, except give everyone a handout that was merely trivial?
The case for laying it at the door of the state is rather stronger; it at least gets to the social character of the institution of slavery. Even this has some uncomfortable implications, however. Reparations would inevitably be paid out of general taxation, and thus ultimately by the ordinary taxpayer: that is, the descendant of the English peasant, hurled into the cities by enclosures; or of the Irish farmer, starved out of his homeland by the famine; or (alas!) the migrant from Jamaica, herself a descendant of slaves. This unfairness is obvious, and therefore easily exploited by Tories, the Republican right, and other cynics to divide the general population. Reparations politics is therefore inherently minoritarian, and can only work if, and so long as, your minority is in charge.
We will say less about the problems deciding to whom payment is due. Deciding on individual eligibility is difficult for the same reasons that individual liability is. So more typically the money is to go, Gladstone-style, to institutions: governments of former slave colonies, or NGOs with a focus on ‘racial justice’. In neither case can we be confident that reparations will benefit the average descendant of slaves: the governments suffer from all the usual corruptions of bourgeois governments, and we need only remind readers of the Black Lives Matter founders’ habit of spending donations on substantial property empires in southern California.
So the movement for reparations is unable to plausibly determine what is owed, by whom, or to whom. We need to think radically differently about the importance of the historical crimes at issue - those of empire and slavery.
To do this, we should first zoom out, and take a very different example of a historical crime. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 involved extensive bloodshed, scorched-earth tactics, and no doubt the usual depredations of war (rape, pillage and so forth). Reparations have been paid out over less. Why do today’s English not demand satisfaction from the modern inhabitants of western France? The answer is straightforward - because nobody cares.
Why does nobody care? Because there is no present relation of disadvantage between the English and French (or Normans). Since that unhappy time, the Norman elite has been Anglicised, and the power of England has waxed to become the greatest territorial empire in history (before waning somewhat, of course, but at no fault of the French). English is the de facto world language. To complain about missing generational wealth or other such stuff would be obviously absurd; so nobody does.
Reparations are represented as redress for past wrongs, but this is ultimately a kind of presentism - the redress sought is for present wrongs, and the genealogy of those present wrongs, their source in vile historical crimes, serves as raw material for rhetoric addressed to those present problems.
The real motivation is that, in 2023, former exploitation colonies are unlikely to be in the first rank of world powers, thanks to their historic subordination by colonial powers and ongoing relations of semi-dependence in the contemporary world system; and black people in the States are vastly more likely to be poor, or to be imprisoned, among other dysfunctions. It is this that we are actually trying to address; if we were not, nobody would bother with the historical redress, as the English do not bother today’s Normans over the harrying of the north.
The reparations movement is thus a kind of ‘hack’: we know world capitalism cannot in fact deliver equality between poor nations and rich ones, after half a century of ‘developmentalism’ failed to do so; and American capitalism cannot actually deliver equality between African and European (or for that matter Asian) Americans, because it fairly reliably transmits social status from one generation to the next, and those who start at the bottom of the pile will tend to stay there - and you cannot get much further down the pile than the status of slave. Reparations presents this ongoing injustice in a form that appears to impose obligations by a purely bourgeois logic on bourgeois society, or sections of the bourgeoisie perhaps. Yet it cannot in the end do so coherently and, if it did, the benefits would - by the usual bourgeois logic - accrue to the people at the top end of the generational wealth curve.
Marxism proposes to destroy altogether the automatic machine that transfers wealth from one generation of the ruling class to the next. This is a policy for the present, in service of a future in which - at no doubt very great length - all the hideous crimes committed in the name of exploitation will reach the status of William’s bloody escapades in the late 11th century (spent convictions, as it were).
This does not involve forgetting the past; indeed, in a healthy socialist or communist world, some way must be found to keep the historical memory going, as a warning against a return to such barbarism. (As we said above, the reparations movement plays at least the role of forbidding Tory nostalgists and neoconfederates from the forgetfulness necessary to sustain their ideologies.) It means not confusing present injustices with those of the past, or collapsing them into one; it means treating politics as politics, not as an enormous class-action lawsuit.