There is a concerted effort to poison the American mind with a false narrative about its people’s history and a primitive ideology of blood guilt and intergenerational obligation with the arrow of responsibility in the latter running in the wrong direction. The poison has been weaponized in popular culture the delegitimize the American republic, to justify dismantling and fundamentally altering its institutions, to prepare it for a fuller integration with the global order steered by corporate power. The defamation of America is designed to render the working class impotent through a process of denationalization, a popular weakening working at cultural and institutional levels. New Left anti-Americanism polished and pushed by cultural managers in America’s academic, media, and political institutions is increasingly reflected in the ordinary consciousness of the American public.
One manifestation of the campaign of defamation is the deeply flawed 1619 Project, pursued by The New York Times, organized by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s many errors and disregard for its own fact checkers to the side, the 1619 Project is ideological work, moving America’s founding marker from July 4, 1776, when in fact the American colonists declared their independence from the British Empire, to 1619, the year a handful of Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. For the record, African slaves were present in North America almost a hundred years before they landed in Jamestown. And the English did not bring them.
The ideological goal is to construct an account of history where the chief antagonism in the dynamic of America has always been about race, to portray America’s founding as a slave society, and to defame those of English descent and others defined as white. We see this claim in the pages of The Washington Post on the eve of Independence Day, where historian Elizabeth Kolsky writes, “The nation’s democracy was founded as a slave society.” Repeating the superstitious nonsense of living persons owning centuries-long experiences that is so fashionable in Western universities, Kolsky writes, “The knee to [George] Floyd’s neck has provided black and indigenous peoples with a metaphor to express their own centuries-long experiences of and struggles against systemic racism. These protests are not only expressions of solidarity with black Americans—they represent a collective reckoning with a past that is not past.”
But the chief antagonism in America’s story has always been primarily about class exploitation and struggle, of which slavery is but a part. Thus, the false narrative functions to stifle the conversation about class exploitation. Functional language is too charitable. This is its intent. The narrative seeks to erase from historical consciousness the fact that North American colonies were established the produce value for the emerging world capitalist market and that the slave mode of exploitation was one among many methods—and not the primary one—and that exploitation continues under corporate rule. Our is a capitalist society. But you won’t find a New York Times project condemning the systemic exploitation of human under conditions of wage-labor. Establishment media like The Washington Post are organs of capitalist propaganda. Their role is to reinforce the ruling ideas of the age, which, as Karl Marx pointed out, are the ideas of the ruling class.
Given the intent to stuff history down a hole, I want to briefly reclaim that history in this blog. Time and space permit only a historical sketch. But that is really all that is needed to shatter the myth being peddled by Establishment propagandists.
Before Africans arrived in the colonies in large numbers (the Royal African Company was not reincorporation until 1663), English settlers were the primary sources of exploited labor, and many of them could hardly be said to be free. Most owned no productive capital. At best, some owned their labor-power. But labor was always controlled by the company. Living arrangements were typically dreadful. Labor was housed in cramped barracks, worked in gangs, suffered corporal punishment or the threat of it, and were poorly fed. Their health and well-being were sacrificed for the greater objective of profit. The goal of the Virginia Company was to pay the lowest possible wages—if any wages were paid at all—and maximize labor productivity through the extreme disciplinary regimes. The early colonies were effectively penal colonies.
The great transformation that had become by the end of the long 16th century a world capitalist market had produced by the 17th century all the basic constituents of the capitalist class: the agrarian, banking, commercial, industrial, and mining bourgeoisie. Along with the capitalist class, although often in a contradictory location in relation to wealth and power, were various petty bourgeoisie, owners of small business and artisan industries in the urban areas, and tenant farmers in the rural areas. On the other side of the production relation were those who owned no capital, the various proletariat, farm and industrial workers. The English brought with them to North America the practice of hierarchically organizing society.
One of the rationales for English colonization of North America was the transfer of surplus population from England to North American colonies. The dissolution of the feudal retainers in the 15th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, and the rationalization of production created a surplus of people in the urban areas in England. The London Company stated as its colonial objective: “The removing of the surcharge of necessitous people, the matter of fuel of dangerous insurrections, and thereby leaving the greater plenty to sustain those remaining within the Land.” Thus, as the colonial economy grew, demand for workers coincided with the needs of the English elite to maintain social stability on their island nation.
Much of the European labor came as convicts and voluntary indentured servants (which is not say there was no coercion involved). The convict class were drawn from of the “lumpenproletariat,” i.e., vagabonds and paupers. There were also orphans and state-dependent children sent to be servants to the colonial elites. These unfortunate souls, criminalized by a host of discriminatory laws against the poor and unemployed, were rounded up by the thousands by traffickers in human beings and the government. An indentured servant was a debt bondsman who received no wages. He or she (typically he) was obligated for a term of service of four to seven years (though the range was at times larger) to the planters who secured their fare across the Atlantic. Convicts were also sent to the colonies. They often had longer term contracts.
The colonial system of indenture represented a unique condition for labor; there was no real equivalent in England. For example, a bondsman’s obligation to his/her employer was governed by criminal law. In contrast, a servant in England was usually a wage-laborer with a term of contract of one year. The English servant’s contract was voluntary and mediated by civil law. The conditions of an indentured servant were poor and they were often mistreated by their employers. Ill treatment of indentured servants reflected the growing belief in English culture that the idle poor were inherently inferior human types and/or members of the dangerous classes. These beliefs were part of an ideology that had emerged in the sixteenth century, largely the result of developing capitalist attitudes and the Protestant worldview. On the basis of this ideology, the poor enjoyed diminished rights and deserved to be treated with less respect than would be afforded decent members of English society. English inhumanity mirrored the acquisitive society its bourgeoisie built.
The tendency towards brutal repression of labor was there from the birth of the colonial experience in North America. In 1610, in Virginia, a dictatorship was imposed on the colony. In contrast to the opulence of the elite, a population of freeholders, tenants, indentured servants, and, in time, a small number of black slaves, lived a largely agrarian and impoverished existence where excessive rents and taxes and low incomes guaranteed a life of impoverishment.
If we are going to move the date of the founding of America to capture the moment of the principle antagonism and the original mode of exploitation, we had better move it to before 1619. Beginning the timeline from 1619 is an arbitrary and ideological starting point, one that telegraphs a dual motive: put race and slavery central to the American story while skirting the truth of the dynamic of class struggle. Because class exploitation continues. The capitalist system the academy, the media, and political elites in both major parties defend is built upon and depends on the exploitation of human labor. Dwell on a long-abolished mode of exploitation, the cultural managers tell the masses. Make that the master explanation for why inequality persists. Do not think about the actually existing mode of exploitation that makes it possible for those who defame America and belittle the worker to live a life of comfort and leisure. Don’t think about such as facts as this: there are three times more poor white Americans than there are poor black Americans. Think about this instead: all whites are privileged and racist. Don’t read Karl Marx. Read Robin DiAngelo.
But why move the date at all? The colonies in the 17th century were English colonies. We are not British. We haven’t been British for more that 230 years. We’re Americans. And the nation we established established the values that has produced the greatest nation in world history. And one of its greatest achievements was abolishing slavery.
To be sure, slavery was part of the US system in its early years. But slavery was not established by America’s founding. Slavery is a very old institution. One finds slaves in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The monuments and statues of these empires and civilizations are protected from defacement and toppling where the rule of law prevails. Africans were kept and sold as slaves throughout the Muslim world. Slaves appear in Europe, apart from the Mediterranean, at least as early as 1000 year ago. The Atlantic slave trade began more than 500 years ago. The Portuguese brought African slaves to Europe in the 15th century. Less than a hundred years later, the Spanish brought African slaves to the Americas. Yes, even North America—before 1619. The Cherokee held African slaves (and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War to protect their investment). Indeed, slavery was practiced by the American Indian before Europeans came to these shores. We are told to demolish Mount Rushmore because those are the likenesses of slaveowners and racists and Indian killers that desecrate sacred Indian lands—the sacred lands of peoples who themselves owned slaves and killed Indians.
The truth is that establishment of the United States does not establish slavery. That is a false claim. Some will push back and say it is a bad inference. But it is wrong to support any account of history that makes it likely that people will falsely infer such a thing. American civilization emerges from a long history of slavery, from a world where slavery was a common part of material production of economic life. Slavery is now illegal in the United States. It has been for more than 150 years. Moreover, the struggle against slavery in the United States was there from its founding.
In 1775, Pennsylvanian Quakers established the first abolitionist society. Betsy Ross, who sewed early American flags, was a Quaker and an abolitionist. Within the decade, Massachusetts abolished slavery in its constitution. In 1787, the US Congress outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territories. The United States Constitution (Article One, Section 9) set a date certain for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. It followed through in 1807—before the British and the Spanish (the Spanish did not abolish the slave trade until 1888). President Jefferson signed the law prohibiting the importation of slaves into any ports or place within the jurisdiction of the United States. The British abolished slavery through the Empire in 1834. France followed suit in 1847. The United States followed in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
So maybe we should stop talking falsely about how the United States established slavery and start telling the truth: The United States led the way in abolishing slavery worldwide. And, while we are at it, we should step back a bit more and remind the world that abolitionist sentiment did not emerge in other places, such as in the Islamic world. The abolitionist sentiment emerged in the Christian world, in Western civilization, from the Enlightenment, the very civilization and movement that the cultural managers and political and economic elites are, with the help of the mob in the streets, tearing down.