The Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement final report is one of the strangest things I have ever read. It opens with the call to ‘eschew […] the creation of set narratives’, but proceeds to unfurl just such a narrative. The preceding sentences note: ‘We know from preceding and present examples that history is too often used to justify those actions’ that follow from the ‘way people understand their past’. The implication is that a bad reading of history can undermine the present. Indeed. But what is the proper analogy between enslavement then and the world today? If slavery no longer exists, we can only deal with the ‘legacies of enslavement’. But this is not the case.
The entire premise of the report falls down on the idea of ‘legacy’; but this legacy assumes that slavery no longer exists — or, perhaps, that the evil of chattel slavery in the transatlantic slave trade is the only kind of slavery to exist in human history. But we have evidence of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome, the descendants of whom live to this day (indeed, we all share their genes). Why is there no report into this slavery? The recommendations of this report, which reveal the unsurprising links between rich people in Cambridge and the slave trade (evident to anyone who has read Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery), are specifically for giving voice to ‘Black British communities’. No evidence is offered for the existence of discrete, quasi-segregated ‘communities’, and one is reminded of the stigmatisation and ghettoisation of Jewish people in the nineteenth century, often deified for supposed intelligence but condemned for imagined slights against Gentiles. This cycle between the hatred and love of imagined communities was the pathway in the nineteenth century to the totalitarian antisemitism of the twentieth, as noted by Hannah Arendt in the opening chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism.
A similar phenomenon occurs today, where a group of people are labelled as belonging to a ‘black community’, praised for their moral integrity in the face of ongoing racism, and condemned as culprits in the corruption of the young through jazz, hip hop, and whatever other artistic expression is traced to this imagined community. (Indeed, I was told earlier today that musical artists Jay-Z and Kanye West are culprits in such corruption, which was compared to terrorism and incitement of violence — a strange accusation to the rappers who moved us away from the fears of violence that once consumed the genre, with good reason: the 1990s were not as conducive to domestic peace and prosperity as elites would like to imagine.)
Such stereotyping is degrading and dehumanising, and it is intended to be thus, for it is functional for the persistence of a form of slavery to keep some people in a sub-human position, as occurred in the War on Terror, dividing ‘Good Muslims’ from ‘Bad Muslims’, as noted by scholar Mahmood Mamdani. Indeed, one is reminded of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which traces the origins of nationalism to a similar period studied in this ‘Report’. Except Anderson notes the role of ‘print capitalism’ in the formation of mythic national identities. This report naturalises identity and thereby dehistoricises it. It supposes an eternal ‘black’ versus ‘white’ division that is fictitious. It is inhuman and reflective of a legacy of slavery that endures to this day: an acceptance of established ideology, a Manichean vision of the world.
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks debunks this vision as fictitious, echoing Nietzsche’s argument that master/slave dialectics underpin religious oppositions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This report is riddled with the same moralism used to justify slavery. And it ignores the ongoing realities of (1) human trafficking, a ‘modern slavery’ acknowledged by Stop the Traffik and other humanitarian institutions, (2) wage slavery, or enslavement to the givers of wages in exchange for increasingly exorbitant expenditures of labour time, and (3) mental slavery, or enslavement to the ideology of liberal capitalism, according to which whatever advances your career or makes money for your friends is by definition moral and acceptable.
Moreover, the report fails to acknowledge the role of racism in antiracism itself, creating a Manichean division between good and evil, black and white, that merely turns the slaver mentality on its head, without undoing the fundamental contradiction. The report is totalitarian in its form and enslaving in its content. It requires research groups be created to further justify the tacit call for reparations, an idea as vengeful as it is absurd, for evil in the past cannot be repaired. The deed is done, and the elites stood by as they do today over ongoing evils. It is the evil that is ongoing that must be stopped. But we will not, for we are focused on the past – not learning from it, but avenging it. Such is the path of cowardice and intransigence, not courage and determination to save the world from the coming cataclysms of climate change, capitalism, and the rise of totalitarian China. We are lost in the world, grasping at straws. When will we wake up?
This is a class war, and capital is winning, while the professional managerial class (between capital and labour, as noted by Barbara Ehrenreich) deals in revisionist history-writing that fails to recognise parallels between slavery then and slavery today. To focus solely on racism (which, as Kanye West noted earlier in his career, is ‘still alive – they just be concealing it’, undoubtedly true today) is to almost miss the point: if slavery generated racism then, the persistence of racism and its cousin ‘antiracism‘ is itself explicable in terms of a class divide between the new slaves (labour) and the new masters (capital). We professionals and students, cowering in our new ivory towers, should know better. Reject this racialised view of the world, and reject the apology for slavery (which is, as the medieval philosophers knew all too well, equivalent to a defence of slavery). End slavery now. That is the true way of honouring the past – not to lose ourselves in fantasy, but to wake up to reality. It is, to quote singer/flautist Lizzo’s trailblazing foray into the musical world of 2022, ‘about damn time’.
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?