In tomorrow’s Washington Post, James Loewen writes a succinct refutation of the notion that the South seceded from the Union and sparked a bloody war 150 years ago because of its dedication to the principle of states’ rights. Loewen points out that the Southern states’ written declarations object to Northern states’ autonomous decisions to:
1) Oppose and outlaw slavery in their own states
2) Allow black men to vote in their own states
3) Permit the existence of abolitionist groups
4) Prohibit rich Southerners from keeping their slaves with them in their Northern summer homes
The slaveholding South was actually against states’ rights for the North.
Loewen addresses four other myths about slavery in the South in the same article. I was struck by his point that the Southern system of slavery was not collapsing under its own weight and was not headed to some natural cessation anytime in the near future. Rather, the slave system was prospering, if not in a moral sense then at least in an economic sense:
Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba.
Unpaid labor is highly profitable labor. So is underpaid labor. It’s fashionable to draw a clear and distinct line between Slavery — that evil system in which people are held against their will and paid nothing — and Manufacturing, which makes the world go round. But there are existing systems of Manufacturing today that come close to Slavery. In some countries today, sweatshops exist in which people are brought in to work under Indentured status to pay off fees associated with the “privilege” of working at a factory, in which they are kept in compounds behind barbed wire for their own “safety,” and in which workers are punished for complaining about being poisoned or having their wages withheld from them. Just as goods from slavery powered an export economy to fill consumption habits in the 19th Century, these sweatshops power an export economy to fill consumption habits in the 21st century.
The moral questions of slavery and sweatshops would be trivial if they didn’t make sense economically. But they do make sense economically, which means we have to individually and collectively weigh the advantages of accruing more money in production (or saving money on a $7.99 Value Tee) against the moral offense of treating people like expendable and abusable tools. There are some sorts of people who will always choose the path of easy money, even if it involves treating people like tools, and from those sorts of people emerge classes of slaveholders and sweatshop producers. No such class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. The gruesome violence of the Civil War is nothing to emulate. The lesson I take from 150 years ago is that it’s up to the rest of us to bring the profitable exploitation of human beings to an end.
To make this lesson concrete, there at least two things you can do today. The first thing you can do as an individual is to withdraw from cooperation in the system, weaning yourself from the products of human suffering. #5 in this year’s list of 365 ways to make things better: stop buying things made in sweatshops. How can that tee shirt shipped on a boat halfway around the world from Vietnam still cost just $7.99? You work it out. The second thing you can do is to urge your country to withdraw from commerce with exploitive producers, making it unprofitable for that exploitation to continue. To make that step practical, #6 in this year’s list of 365 ways to make things better is to call the Capitol Hill Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask to be connected to your Representative, and tell that Representative to author and cosponsor of bills like last year’s Jobs through Procurement Act. No, it hasn’t yet been introduced this year; that’s the point. Specifically, ask your representative to write and support bills that require government contractors to certify that its products are made in conditions that respect workers rights and pay them a living wage.
If we really oppose using people as tools, we should be willing to do those things. If we aren’t willing to do them, what does that say about us?