Historical analogies are perilous ventures — high-wire acts of political argument, even in the best of circumstances. A historical analogy that turns on American slavery, though, goes beyond ordinary acrobatics and approaches something like a human cannonball routine.
Last week, The Nation’s Chris Hayes soared through the digital sky with a bold essay that explicitly compares the struggle to curb fossil fuels with the struggle to end American slavery. And miraculously, it works — thanks to the radical implications of the historical formula. To save the planet, what we need are not technical policy adjustments, but a movement that aims at nothing less than the fundamental transformation of America’s political economy.
Yet Hayes has produced a powerful, illuminating beacon and aimed it through the kind of narrow aperture that only a contemporary liberal could have fashioned.
Like the old abolitionists, Hayes argues, climate activists must mount “a movement of dispossession” against the fossil fuel companies whose products are slowly poisoning the planet. By adopting this radical premise, he tactfully directs attention to the absurd inadequacy of standard Democratic Party ideas on the subject. (It is telling that in a 4,600 word essay, the only Democrat who earns any real attention from Hayes is John C. Calhoun.)
Hayes suggests that a vigorous movement of fossil fuel divestment, combined with a direct appeal to shareholders, can lead the way. But is it possible to “dispossess” some of the world’s most powerful private businesses by appealing to the long-term good sense of the investor class? Is it even possible to separate the bad capitalists — the ugly dealers in oil and coal — from the good capitalists, whose class values and interests are almost identical?
Of course not, and Hayes’s own historical formula shows why.
The anti-slavery struggle was the most successful radical movement in American history — a political crusade that began at the outer fringes of society and ended with a democratic seizure of state power, the destruction of a ruling class, and the emancipation of four million human beings. In making war on slavery, nineteenth century Republicans aimed at — and, for a time, achieved — nothing short of social revolution: a complete transformation of the American political economy, and a reconstruction of “the whole organism of southern society.”
If they had followed Chris Hayes’s advice, they would have settled for a targeted campaign against the tobacco industry.
Analogies like Hayes’s are slippery and imprecise by their nature, but they are also necessary: the abundant variety of historical comparisons is an antidote to the sterile sameness of everyday politics. It’s no coincidence that the most formidable critics of capitalism, from Engels to Piketty, have drawn sustenance from such comparisons — it is the contemporary right wing, after all, that is most invested in preserving capitalism’s eternal present tense.
Hayes begins by noting that his slavery analogy is not moral, but political and economic. Opponents of climate change, like opponents of slavery before them, are facing off against a set of entrenched interests: powerful elites who have grown unfathomably rich on the profits produced by a particular form of property, and who are therefore not inclined to give it up without a fight.
The abolition of slavery, seen from this angle, was not simply a moral triumph but in fact the largest and most dramatic “liquidation of private wealth” in American history. To prevent oil and coal companies from burning the carbon that will destroy the Earth’s atmosphere, climate activists must accomplish something similar — and, in effect, liquidate the potential wealth that exists in the form of untapped fossil fuel reserves.
Hayes’s emphasis here is on the enormous amount of capital bound up in the slave system. In 1860, as he reports, the total value of American slaves exceeded the combined worth of American factories, railroads, and bank deposits.
Yet Hayes describes the slaveholding South as rich but backward — with its economy “stunted” by an overreliance on slave labor, the South “lagged further and further behind” the North in modern economic development.
By contrast, the most recent scholarship on American slavery describes a much more flexible, dynamic political economy than historians previously imagined. To be sure, the antebellum South’s intense focus on slave-grown agricultural staples meant it trailed the North in industrial development, but by many other measures the gap was not nearly so large as an earlier generation of scholars believed. By 1861, the South could claim almost 10,000 miles of railroad track, more than any European nation; its relative rate of urban growth was faster than that of England, France, or the Northern Midwest.
Just as important, scholars have converged around the point that slavery was not hostile, opposed, or separate from nineteenth century American capitalism, but impressively compatible with it. Modern financial and management practices bubbled up from the slave South as well as the free North; and, of course, the diversifying, modernizing Northern economy itself owed a great deal to its close ties to slavery. Not just in the cotton South, but also in sugar-exporting Cuba and coffee-growing Brazil, industrial growth in the North Atlantic advanced in twain with the hemispheric plantation economy. Slaves, as one recent survey put it, were in a very real sense “the capital that made capitalism.”
All this only extends the power of Hayes’s original parallel: Southern slavery, like the modern energy industry, was not an isolated sector of the world economy, but dynamically incorporated into its core.
“The wonderful development of this western continent,” declared one South Carolina magazine in 1856, sounding not a little like last week’s The National Review, was “effected only through and by means of slavery — her immense produce scattered all over our globe, carrying food and clothing to the hungry and the destitute; her cotton and sugar sustaining not only herself but the might of Europe’s most powerful nations.”
Like slavery’s champions before them, today’s fossil fuel boosters scoff at the lunatic idea that human civilization might live on without their own indispensable institutions. And they take comfort in the certain knowledge that the global economic system, as it is currently organized, sustains rather than challenges their power.
Their opponents shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that this power can be threatened by a threadbare policy menu of mild regulation, indirect subsidies, and pricing schemes. Without a political struggle against the larger system, the historical analogy suggests, even these modest goals are likely to prove elusive.
In the 1840s, under pressure from sugar merchants, abolitionists in Great Britain were unable to maintain a subsidy that discriminated against cheap slave-grown sugar in the name of humanity. Amid the booming staple market of the mid-nineteenth century, slavery’s tentacles could not be sliced off one at a time — and we cannot expect the energy industry’s hold on contemporary politics to be any less firm. It’s no surprise that well-intentioned efforts to convince the US Congress to “price carbon” have not made any more headway than the long-lost Parliamentary campaign to save the Sugar Duties.
In the New York Times, Josh Barro has offered a technocratic critique of Hayes’s parallel, arguing that plans to buy out today’s carbon emitters will be much easier than nineteenth century schemes to end slavery by paying off slaveholders. Yet as any historian of Delaware could tell you, compensated slave emancipation was a stillborn idea not only because it was too expensive, but because slaveholders did not want to sell out. Their commitment to slavery, by 1860, had its roots not in mere economic self-interest but ideological imperative. The end of slavery would — and ultimately did — mean not just a business loss but an end to civilization as they knew it.
Today’s energy kingpins are no different. Like the slaveholders, they are not simply a collection of self-interested capitalists but a group whose profits and powers are impossible to separate from the plutocratic elite as a whole: less an economic sector than an inextricable segment of a larger ruling class. To suggest that this class, or a portion of it, could voluntarily sell itself out of existence is to misread politics and history alike.
In The Political Economy of Slavery, the great historian Eugene Genovese put it this way: “The assumption on which these notions rest is that the South, faced with containment, could have accepted its consequences. On the further assumption that men may agree to commit suicide, the assumption is possible.”
Ruling classes, as Genovese argued, seldom invite themselves to their own beheadings. If the old abolitionism required an active political struggle to defeat the whole of the Slave Power, the new abolitionism will require a similar effort, aimed not just at particular “sectors” but the entire ideological edifice of twenty-first century capitalism.
“Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful,” Hayes writes, “it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth.”
But that wasn’t the half of it. The radicalism of the abolitionists did not lie in their demand that rich slaveholders must become significantly less rich. The antislavery movement, as it gained political strength in the 1850s, did not understand its mission as an effort merely to “convince or coerce” a select number of very wealthy wrongdoers to cease doing wrong. To end slavery, they knew, a much larger political and economic transformation would be necessary.
The issue, in other words, is not the $10 trillion in potential fossil fuel wealth that must be forfeited, but the principle at stake in its forfeit. Without some larger challenge to the current configuration of power and ideas, we are just asking our masters, politely, if they will agree to commit suicide. We shouldn’t be surprised when they decline the offer.
This does not mean that individual climate policy reforms should not be pursued when they can be. The Republican Party, after all, first came to power not by pledging to end bondage all at once but to block its further spread.
Yet for nineteenth-century Republicans, this limited demand was not an end in itself, but a means to achieve a total makeover of American politics. It came attached to blistering assault on the Slave Power, whose command of the state and the economy had to be broken for freedom to flourish. Slavery, as Lincoln declared, could not simply be restricted, or tinkered with, but must be put on “the course of ultimate extinction.”
This critique of the South did not target distinct sectors of the plantation complex, but the entire political economy of slavery. And in rejecting bound labor in absolute terms, Republicans developed a positive vision of the social and economic forms that would replace it. At the heart of this new free labor ideology was a revolutionary redefinition of property — a staunch denial that a tiny, haughty class of elites had any moral or political right to own the labor of their fellow human beings.
The challenge for today’s activists is not so different. Who, in a democratic society, possesses the right to own its vast resources, to manage its economy, and to decide the fate of its atmosphere? So long as our contemporary plutocracy maintains its grip on politics, these questions can never really be debated, never mind resolved.
And this grip cannot be severed by a movement that limits its focus to energy politics alone. We must make up our minds to put twenty-first century capitalism itself on the course to ultimate extinction.
Consider this passage from the Republican Carl Schurz’s 1860 address “The Doom of Slavery.” it is remarkable how smoothly it reads with all references to “slavery,” “planting,” and “free labor” replaced with “capitalism,” “polluting,” and “socialism”:
CAPITALISM, therefore, opposes all measures tending to secure the soil to the actual laborer; SOCIALISM, therefore, recognizes the right of the settler to the soil, and demands measures protecting him against the pressure of speculation. CAPITALISM demands the absolute ascendency of the POLLUTING interest in our economic policy; SOCIALISM demands legislation tending to develop all the resources of the land, and to harmonize the agricultural, commercial and industrial interests.
CAPITALISM demands the control of the general government for its special protection and the promotion of its peculiar interests; SOCIALISM demands that the general government be administered for the purpose of securing to all the blessings of liberty, and for the promotion of the general welfare. CAPITALISM demands the recognition of its divine right; SOCIALISM recognizes no divine right but that of the liberty of all men.
Schurz, to be sure, was no socialist. But the transposition works because he and his party sought not merely to defund an industry, but to dispossess an entire ruling class, and to extend the reach of democratic politics into the economy as a whole.
Hayes’s call for large-scale divestment from fossil fuel companies is a perfectly legitimate protest tactic — part of a range of “radical approaches” that may make short-term sense for climate activists. But it’s hard to imagine how any of these ideas can make political headway without a much larger vision — one that imagines an end not just to Big Oil and Big Coal, but the oligarchic regime that protects them, and the political economy that nurtures their destructiveness.
The Republicans of the 1850s were not incremental but radical reformers; confronted with the relentless, violent opposition of the proslavery elite, they grew into radical revolutionaries.
Here, again, the force of Hayes’s analogy is stronger than his actual argument. The eventual abolition of slavery, after all, was not simply a “liquidation of private wealth,” but a redistribution of that wealth — from the slaveholders to the slaves themselves. A successful political challenge to today’s energy industry, and the capitalist elite that enfolds it, will require a similar transformation.