Tag Archives: slavery

Remnants of Chattel Slavery in the Modern US

by B.

Charles S. Aiken, The Cotton Plantation South Since the Civil War, The John Hopkins University Press (1998).

“What is a ‘survival’? What is its theoretical status? Is it essentially social or ‘psychological’? Can it be reduced to the survival of certain economic structures . . . [o]r does it refer as much to other structures, political, ideological structures, etc.: customs, habits, even ‘traditions’ such as the ‘national tradition’ with its specific traits? . . .

“[A] revolution in the structure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies at one blow (as it would if the economic was the sole determinant factor), for they have sufficient of their own consistency to survive beyond their immediate life context, even to recreate, to ‘secrete’ substitute conditions of existence temporarily.”
– Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx.

The plantation regions of the South, the former heartland of chattel slavery and sharecropping, remain today among the regions in the US with the highest poverty rates. Extending in a crescent-like shape across the South, coinciding with the core territory of the oppressed Black nation, the plantation regions are characterized by lower incomes, higher unemployment, worse housing, less access to health care, higher infant mortality, underfunded public education, and higher school dropout rates.

This book by Charles S. Aiken, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Tennesse – Knoxville, contains a lot of valuable information on the historical development of these regions and their current conditions. The book draws upon Aiken’s previous work published in geography journals; in particular, the articles “New Settlement Patterns of Rural Blacks in the American South” and “A New Type of Black Ghetto in the Plantation South.”

Aiken’s main argument is that the plantation, which he defines as: the “large estat[e]” based on the spatial model of the feudal estate, “the large industrial far[m],” “the great farm,” and/or the “[i]ndustrial-type far[m] that specializ[es] in the mass production of a commercial crop,” survives as a key feature of the landscape of the US South.

Aiken examines the development of the plantation from 1865 to 1970, and discusses the situation at the end of the 20th century. He looks in particular at the significance of the survival of the plantation for Black people:

“At the end of the twentieth century, several million of the nation’s blacks still lived in the countryside, small towns, and cities of the plantation regions.”

Aiken’s insight that the Southern plantation, as a landscape feature, survived the fall of chattel slavery is familiar to Marxists who have recognized the US Civil War and the betrayal of Reconstruction as an uncompleted bourgeois-democratic revolution that continues to cast a long shadow over US society to this day.

For example, Lenin, writing in 1915 on US agriculture, noted that the “economic survivals of slavery” (“not in any way distinguishable from those of feudalism”) were “still very powerful” in the former slave-owning South. See V.I. Lenin, “New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture.” Lenin wrote that following the emancipation of Black people from chattel slavery, the US ruling class “took good care . . . to restore everything possible, and do everything possible and impossible for the most shameless and despicable oppression [of Black people].” Id. The survivals of chattel slavery included a “complex of legal and social relationships” (reflected, for example, in the vast disparity in literacy rates between Black people and white people), which rested on the “economic basis” of sharecropping. Id.

The “shadow of the plantation” remains today despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement in pushing back de jure segregation. However, what has not been deeply elaborated and understood is how the remnants of the mode of production based on chattel slavery have endured beyond the decline in sharecropping and the mechanization of Southern agriculture by the 1960s. We have for guidance here Lenin’s statement on what happens to an “old landlord economy” that is bound “by thousands of threads to serfdom” during the transition to capitalism, in the absence of revolutionary land reform: “the entire agrarian system of the state becomes capitalist” yet “for a long time retains feudalist features . . . in the main, of landed proprietorship and of the chief supports of the old ‘superstructure.’” See V.I. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

What are the remnants today of chattel slavery in the US economic structure (clearly an articulation of different modes of production)? What are the remnants today of chattel slavery in the US superstructures (legal, political, ideological)? Aiken’s book fills in some of the particularities of the answers to these questions, which remain crucial for the development of political tactics and strategy.

Here is a summary of some of the key points in Aiken’s book regarding the current conditions:

1. The “legacy of the plantation” endures in the economy, politics, and society of the South.

2. The large landholdings of the chattel slavery period remain in tact, as pine forests or as idle land.

3. In the present social and political arrangement of the plantation regions: “Planters, timber companies, factories, and government agencies participate in the control and manipulation of the socioeconomic and political structures.”

4. “[N]ewly elected black officials in the South, like ones in the [‘postcolonial’] Caribbean, often adopt the image of the whites whom they replaced.” Citing John Rozier, Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County, University of Georgia Press, 1982, 187-96.

5. The economy of the plantation regions is currently characterized by: “low wages, insufficient economic diversification, shortage of local development capital, creation of few new enterprises, and inadequate economic linkages to the growth sectors of the national and international economies.” Furthermore, “[l]arge areas of the regions are capable of attracting job-creation facilities only from the bottom sector of the economy or facilities that have social, environmental, or economic stigma.” These facilities include NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and LULUs (Locally Unpopular Land Uses), such as hazardous waste landfills and incinerators, polluting factories, and federal and state prisons. One of the largest hazardous waste landfills in the eastern US is in the Alabama Black Belt.

6. Industries in the region today include pine forests, commercial farming, and labor-intense low-wage manufacturing (garment, food processing, furniture, chemicals, electrical appliances, pulp and paper mills). The “investment climate” is characterized by anti-union right-to-work laws, a lack of environmental regulations, and regressive taxation.

As Harry Haywood noted in his 1957 essay, “For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question”: “industrial development of the South is distorted and lopsided, ‘geared as it is to the expediency of the absentee owners, rather than to the necessities of the region and its people’. Industrialization is geared toward the extraction of raw materials and natural resources, and primary processing of agricultural products.”

7. Although there has been a great decline in agricultural employment due to mechanization (e.g. in 1990, 2.3% of the Black population in the lower Georgia Piedmont was employed in agriculture, while 32% was employed in manufacturing), the economy has been incapable of fully absorbing displaced farmers and agricultural workers into some other sector, thus exacerbating unemployment and underemployment. In the Alabama Black Belt, “the agricultural economy is largely gone,” but a “new type of local economy that can fully assimilate the underemployed population has not developed.” Even in places where agriculture remains viable, such as the Yazoo Delta where 12% of the Black population is employed in this sector, there exists a large underemployed labor force. Across the plantation regions, transfer payments are the leading source of personal income.

8. As the civil rights movement defeated Jim Crow de jure segregation and Black people gained access to public facilities, private facilities exclusively serving white people (including schools, country clubs, and recreational spaces) grew in importance.

9. Despite winning and exercising the right to vote, Black people have had their voting power diluted by state legislatures engaging in gerrymandering (combining predominantly Black electoral districts with predominantly white districts) and changing the selection process for certain positions (e.g. school superintendents) from election to appointment.

Aiken ends the book by calling for continued federal and state assistance to the plantation regions as a short-term measure and improved public education as the larger solution. Though a significant reform, this would obviously leave the “legacy of the plantation” in tact. As can be expected, Aiken’s liberal prescriptions ultimately fail to point towards the fundamental, needed solution: uprooting the “survivals of slavery” in all their forms, in the structure and the superstructures.

This task must be taken up by the historic bloc led by the international proletariat, but it cannot do this without deeper study and elaboration of the complexity and particularity of the US social formation. The US is not simply a “capitalist” or “capitalist-imperialist” society. It is a unique social formation: a settler-colonial society and a slave society, where the capitalist mode of production became dominant. If we look hard enough through a concrete analysis of the concrete conditions, and shed the idealist notion of a “pure” contradiction between Capital and Labor abstracted from social reality, we find within this late empire a tangle of contradictions and the “intense overdetermination” of the basic class contradiction in the direction of a rupture.

A final note: all of this exposes the fact that much of the discourse on reparations for slavery, by treating this as a past injustice whose remedy must now include acknowledgment and apology, fails to get to the root of the problem: remnants of the slave mode of production survive into modern times; its economic survivals are articulated to and reinforced by the capitalist mode of production in its imperialist stage; and its corresponding superstructural constituents also persist in law, politics, and ideology. In other words, the US continues today to have certain characteristic features of a slave society. Since sharecropping declined through the “landlord road” (with the characteristic maintenance of the plantation form), rather than the road of revolutionary land reform (“40 acres and a mule”), these features will continue “for a long time” in the absence of fundamental social transformation.