HISTORY - The New Abolitionists


 Direct slavery is as much the pivot of our industrialism to day as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery no cotton; without cotton no modern industry. Slavery has given value to the colonies; the colonies have created world trade’; world trade is the necessary condition of large-scale machine industry.

                        Karl Marx, 1846.[1]

 Twiggy Forrest is funding a campaign against chattel slavery out of the profits that he extracts from the surplus-value produced by his wage-slaves.

Wage-slavery is a concept rarely heard nowadays even from Marxists despite its being at the core of capitalism. Instead, Leftists are more comfortable denouncing slave-labour rates for non-Europeans although slave labour cannot have a wage rate because slaves, by definition, do not get money wages. If a parallel must be drawn for Aborigines on pastoral stations, those indigenous workers were not enslaved but ‘en-serfed’ since they got keep – ‘plour, baccy ‘n tea’ –  for their work with the cattle and were encouraged to fend for themselves in the off-season.[2]

To restore the concept of wage-slavery to political debates we shall need to show what the two social relations of production have in common and how they differ. In what sense are workers in each system ‘slaves’? What is the distinction between ‘chattel’ and ‘wage’?  

            This response will be on four levels. The first draws on the critique of political economy by Marx and Engels to establish the substance of wage-slavery. The second provides a time-line for the so-called Abolition of slavery. The third summarises the contributions of slavery to the genesis of capital as the self-expanding value that became capitalism only from the late eighteenth century. An appendix documenting the second and third will follow – in due course..

 1. wage-labour and capital

Marx recognises that ‘robbery’ had been a precondition for capitalism. However, he conceives his critique of political economy by showing why the capitalist mode does not thrive on ‘robbery’. Instead, capitalists, on average, pay in full for the commodity that we must sell them, namely, our labour-power. We have to make that sale because hundreds of years of robbery have deprived working people of the means to support ourselves.

To repeat, most of the initial productive property for capitalists came from thieving. Today’s subjection of wage-labour to capital is the result. Capitalists now – on average - pay full value for the units of our labour-time that they purchase.[3] After that equal exchange, they take the surplus value which we add.[4] That expropriation is why there never can be a fair day’s pay under capitalism.

As personifications of capital, capitalists operate through their expropriation of surplus value. That is what Marxists mean by exploitation. We are not talking about theft. Of course, the boss class stands ever ready to combine robbery with exploitation, relentlessly weaving swindles into equal exchanges. That thievery is blatant in unpaid over-time. Capitalists also cheat rivals and partners through squabbles over the profits realised out of the surplus value added by their wage-slaves.[5] Even by the standards of bourgeois jurisprudence, they are repeat offenders.

Marx called the sale of our labour power ‘formal’ subordination; its consequent application as labour he called ‘actual’ subordination. We are no use to capital if it can do no more than make us sell our capacities to for a wage. Capital has to make us add more value than we cost them. Its agents therefore impose regimes of discipline over labour-time. The Australasian Engineering and Machinery reported the arrival in 1913 of a device to get the most out of the labour-time that capital bought:

The mechanical appliances consist of a chronometer and a motion-picture camera. This invention is the most powerful tool ever for the measurement of efficiency,   suggesting the whip of owners or taskmasters in earlier times.[6]

Although there cannot be slave-labour rates, there is no shortage of slave-driving overseers and middle-managers.

In analysing this subordination, Marx used the unfamiliar term ‘subsumption’. His insight is clearer when we say that labour and its products are ‘subsumed’ into capital. The paradox is that precisely because we wage-slaves have no productive property - in other words, no capital - we become a form of capital the instant we sell a time-lot of our labour-power. Marx calls this form of capital ‘variable’ because it alone can add more value than goes into its production. That is how our creative capacities are subsumed into capital.

Under capitalism, wage-slaves are ‘free’ in two senses. Because capital has ‘freed’ us from the encumbrance of productive property which would allow us to work for ourselves, we are, therefore, set ‘free’ to sell our labour power in order to exist. That is how we can be at once ‘free’ labourers and slaves. No abundance of personal possessions held by a contemporary Australian wage-slave can override this fact. Two vehicles, a weekday residence and a beach house are not productive of surplus value. Their possessor remains a wage-slave. The same rule applies to independent sub-sub-sub contractors whose twin pieces of productive property are Australian Business Numbers, which mean they get no super, holiday pay or long-service leave, and the vehicle they need to scurry from one site to the next in the hope of getting picked up to sell their labour-power for an hour or three – like any other wage-slave, albeit with even fewer legal protections.

As individuals, we wage-slaves are free to ‘liberate’ ourselves onto New Start, exercising our right to starve. As a class we are not free to withdraw our labour. ‘Free labour’ is maintained through state apparatuses as the enforcer for the boss class to prevent strikes, resorting to open violence if that’s what it takes. The freedom of our forebears to dispose of their labour was constrained by Master and Servant Acts, and by a tangle of laws against collective action.

Some of us are not even legally ‘free’ to withdraw individually. 457-visa holders who quit the exploiter who brought them here will find themselves on a flight out. This right of the employer to deport the unruly is disastrous for sex-workers fleeing abuse. 

2. Abolition

The abolition of chattel slavery came in stages across more than 100 years. Evangelicals performed no miracles in 1807, or at any time.

1771-2 Chief Justice Mansfield was cornered into ruling on a technicality that no one could be a slave in the United Kingdom, at the same time Mansfield while he validated contracts for selling slaves;

1807 abolition of slavery was no such thing but merely the abolition of the trading of slaves inside the British Empire.

The Portuguese continued to supply as did the British in Mauritius as they did between the West Indies and mainland America with what they claimed were slaves obtained before 1807, or the children of slaves. Part of being a chattel is that your offspring also belong to your owner.

1831-32. Panic after revolts in Jamaica and Mauritius

1833 Slavery made illegal in the Empire whereupon the government paid compensation to the erstwhile owners; their chattels got nothing beyond being driven into debt peonage.

Now the Royal Navy got active in blocking the trade.

At the same time, British capital replaced chattel slaves with bonded labour, aka ‘A new System of Slavery’ which lasted until 1920, taking Gandhi to South Africa and Pacific Islanders to Australia’s canefields.

1850 California prohibited chattel slavery but forced American Indians into involuntary labour, their ranks soon to be boosted by gangs of bonded Chinese navvies;

1861 the war between the States, aka, the Civil War, to preserve the Union;

1863: Lincoln freed the slaves to help maintain a continental-market-state.

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.’ Lincoln, 22 August 1862.

Britain supported the Confederacy to ensure the supply of cotton for its mills and to stymie its New England competitors and from fear of Washington’s predations into Canada.

1865 Thirteenth Amendment to end chattel-slavery; proves ineffective, despite recent movie.

1868 Fourteenth Amendment made ex-slaves citizens, enshrining due process; it fails to patch up Thirteenth.

1870 Fifteenth Amendment also fails to secure the right to vote.

Failure of these three Amendments means that most former chattel-slaves and their children become bonded labourers or indebted sharecroppers;

mid-1880s Supreme Court twists the Fourteenth into the constitutional basis for allowing unchartered corporations (eg Standard Oil) to gain the protection of due process as legal persons.

2010 and 2014 The Court extends Second Amendment free speech so that corporations may now spend as much as they need on political campaigns in the US plutocracy. How long will it be before a corporation can stand for the Presidency and not depend on agents like Obama?

1950s- self-emancipation with the Civil Rights movement.

 3. The capitalist revolution – a summary.

 Utter muddle prevails inside Historical Enteprises Inc. about slavery, feudalism, capitalism even among the economic historians. Few professionals makes no attempt to delineate, still less define chattel-slaves, serfs, bonded labourers, convicts or wage-slaves. Should scholars be cornered into providing an explanation for the genesis of capitalism, they either make one element represent the whole, or toss wage-labour, credit, factories and steam-engines into the pot after the manner of the witches in Macbeth:

Surge in trade, divided skill,

Navvy’s spade, exchange of bill,

Engine’s steam, and low piece-rate

Goldsmith’s loan and factory gate

For a mode of powerful trouble.

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Attempts by many a soi-disant Marxist are almost as gestural as those from bourgeois ideologues.

Here are a few markers to clear a line of sight towards onto  the revolution in capital. The prime task is to toss out ‘industrial’ revolution’ as bourgeois propaganda designed to deflect attention from the capitalist revolution:

-          agriculture is and was an industry;

-          so are construction, mining and transport;

-          agrarian revolution(s) at home and abroad;

-          not industrialisation but processing;

-          rethink industrialisation in terms of centralising and concentration;

-          revolutions in credit and chemistry as potent as in machinery;

-           mining and transport;

-          importance of fisheries and whaling;

-          more manu-facture than machino-facture;

-          usurers’ or merchants’ capitals were not early forms of capitalism;

-          domestic system survived but organised centrally;

-           almost no steam engines driving other machines before 1820s – instead renewable sources in water, wind, and animals including humans.

Now we can focus on the relationship between chattel-slavery and the rise to dominance of wage-slavery, Here, we find:

- No unilinear march from primitive communism past slavery to feudalism onto capitalism before striking out onto socialism and communism;

- Not a transition from feudalism to capitalism - if there is a contrast it is with serfdom with feudalism;

- by 1400, feudalism had disappeared from England;

1500s Absolute monarchs imposing full-blown serfdom across Eastern Europe, lasting till the 1860s;

- by the late 1700s, emerging capitalism cohabited with primitive communism (eg in Australia), with a remnant serfdom in Scottish coal mines till 1799;

- all three flourished under the fist of the East India Company.

Instead of disputing how the world got from feudalism to capitalism, the task for historical materialists is to track the accelerating expansion of capitals across the Eighteenth century through slavery to capitalism, and its nineteenth-century advance on the back of slaves. To do this, we need to distinguish four of the ways in which slavery contributed to the genesis of money capital.

First, the trade in slaves. Here specify the profits made on their sale and the impetus given to the broader economy through the building and equipping of the ships;  

secondly, the triangular trade around the Atlantic that was built on servicing that truck in human beings;

thirdly, the plantations that the slaves worked.

fourthly, the processing of their produce in Europe: sugar, tobacco and cotton.

Not even all the profits made from the human-flesh market could ever have generated sufficient money-capitals to lift the British economy out of the sediment of its previous modes into self-expanding value. Equally, it is true that without that trade in human beings, the other three sources of wealth via the slave system could not have existed. Their connections are how chattel slavery became the foundation for wage-slavery.

 Postscript: Class sense and insensibility

A nineteenth-century historian of Bristol recognised that every brick in his city had been mortared with the blood of a slave. That horror applied in Liverpool and Glasgow – and is not far from the truth about every corner of the United Kingdom, from London across to Bath. Two hundred years ago, in 2014, Jane Austen published Mansfield Park, set around the country seat of the West Indies planters, the Bertrams. Their fictional plantation is on Antigua. Austen’s reverend father had been the real-life principal trustee of a plantation there, a detail neglected by her family hagiographies.[7]

The 1807 ending of the trade in slaves could explain why Sir Thomas had travelled to Antigua during 1812 on ‘business’, as Austen demurely puts it. He returns with the family’s affairs in order. Profits will flow. Indeed, like the other planters, the Bertrams could continue to live off the proceeds of slavery until at least 1833 when that system of exploitation was abolished throughout the Empire. The surviving Bertram son, Edmund, now a Reverend, would have received the government compensation for being forced to free his slaves. Thereafter, he could continue to live at Mansfield Park without working because his emancipated property had became debt peons.

The snobs who today pride themselves on their prejudice of reveling in the refinement of Georgian England as they sip Earl Grey from Wedgwood flesh-and-bone china, bristle when the barbarism that underwrote the age of elegance is pointed out, as it was by Edward Said in 1993.[8] How dare he despoil the delight in literature by chucking around the muck of politics? We must expect some indignation at our contrasting of Forrest’s high-minded opposition to chattel slavery with his high-life funded by the exploitation of his wage slaves.

 Forrest’s trinity of holy men is saddled with the guilt that neither Rome nor Westminster found slavery sinful until the 1800s, by when it was no longer the best way to maximize exploitation, and that Islam still does not forbid slavery as such. To avoid embarrassment at the United Nations, Saudi King Feisal used the profits accumulated from wage-slavery on the oilfields to redeem the chattel slaves in his kingdom – while opening the door to the newest system of slavery with the traffic in Filipina maids and construction workers from the Middle-East.

Forrest’s crusading is, like the philanthropy of tax-dodging Dame Elizabeth Murdoch and the price-fixing of career crim Dick Pratt. These exploiters and parasites camouflage their inhumanity and dodges, as the founder of Transfield, Franco Bellgiorno-Nettis, explained, with ‘a veneer of civilisation’.

[1] Marx to P.V. Annenkov, 28 December 1846, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), Moscow, 1950, p. 47.

[2] K.M. Dallas, ‘Slavery in Australia’, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Papers and Proceedings, 16 (2), September 1968, pp. 61-76.

[3] Karl Marx, ‘Wage-labour and capital’, Marx-Engels Collected Works (M-ECW), vol. 9, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977, pp. 197-228.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, M-ECW, vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1976, pp. 197-212.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, Penguin, London, 1976, pp. 264, 278 and 907n.; Capital, vol. III, Penguin, London, 1981, pp. 569, 597 and 624-5.

[6] ‘Supplement, Australasian Engineering and Machinery, vol. 3, no. 4, 1 April 1913, p. 39.


[7] Brian Southam, ‘The silence of the Bertrams, Slavery and the chronology of Mansfield Park’, Times Literary Supplement, 17 February 1995, pp. 13-14.

[8] Edward W. Said, Culture & Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, London, 1993, pp. 69-70 and 110-16.


BACK TO Political Economy