when empathy just means you’re rationalizing slavery

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick published a misguided apology for slavery in Aeon. He admits as much in the comments:

The premise is that he went to India, talked to some slaveholders, and rediscovered things slaveholders said back in the 1800s. You can tell how naive he is from the first paragraph:

I liked Aanan as soon as I met him. My field notes read: ‘What a nice guy, you can just see from his face.’ Open-faced and conversational, he was enthusiastic about the explosive growth in his quarry operations and excited to show me around. Together, we toured the open mines where his workers carve into the earth, producing boulders that are broken down into gravel by smaller labourers, often women and children. Together with his workers, Aanan laughed at my efforts to repeat the process for myself, the sledge held high over my head before arcing down, momentarily disappearing into shards and dust.

He showed me the crushing equipment that transformed gravel into silica powder, proudly explaining that the Indian multinational company, Tata, which makes generous donations to Harvard’s renowned business school, was the exclusive buyer of his materials.

He describes a debt-based system in India that sounds like sharecropping to me. The reference to Harvard business school is important, because it’s a clue to the cognitive dissonance he’s dealing with:

The days of owning people are over, yet slavery still persists in dark pockets of the global economy. All forms of slavery are now illegal in every country on Earth, yet the practice still festers in unreformed nests of feudalism, where threats and violence can suppress or eliminate pay for work. Where slavery is verboten, psychological control through deception and fear is the new coin of the realm. In the case of debt bondage, it is the caste system – with Brahmin at the head and ‘untouchable’ beneath – that does the delicate work of stitching debts together into a seamless, infinite coercive system that leaves labourers feeling trapped.

Dark pockets of the global economy like the patrons of Harvard business school? The reason for his “Stockholm syndrome” is that he works at a neoliberal “peace studies” program at the University of San Diego, which has offerings like a master’s degree in “social innovation,” i.e., the kind of thing where a tech company pisses on your leg and tells you it’s raining. Slavery has to be an exotic thing in a land far away, not the default practice of the rich people, who are of course generous philanthropists.

Despite the abuse, the caste-based worldview frames these exploitative labour relations in familial terms. ‘You have to understand the mentality of labourers, and you should know how to make them work,’ says Aanan, who views himself as the caring parent and his workers as children. ‘To manage a group of labourers is like managing a group of primary-school children. They have to be provided with food or clothes, and they are taught how to behave … sometimes they start drinking alcohol; sometimes they indulge in feasts. So we have to pay them with caution. We divide them into small groups because larger numbers of workers tend to form a union and sometimes engage in mass holidays or strikes.’

Aanan says the happiness of his worker is paramount, even though his business model depends on entrapping the vulnerable and working them to the bone as they crush rock from dusk to dawn. He couldn’t come out and say this to me or to his workers – or perhaps even to himself…

When asked if he needs the workers or the workers need him, Aanan explains that: ‘The worker is my cash machine, my fate.’ In this one statement, he has captured a central contradiction inherent in most human-rights violations worldwide: exploitation takes place at the intersection of culture and capital, in the overlap between relationship and extraction, at the moment where care and exploitation intersect.

Long accustomed to power, slaveholders work hard to sustain their status and baulk at any hint of equality. One previously powerful employer confided to me that his community was in decline. ‘In the olden days … labourers used to work in their fields, they used to think of their work,’ he told me. Now, however, they freshen up after work and drink coffee and tea while talking about ‘unnecessary things’, an opportunity for democratic discourse that is ‘deviating their minds’.

In other words, it’s exactly the same as what they were saying 200 years ago or more. Requoting Calhoun from an earlier post.

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other…The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.

Yale still had a building named after that guy until last month.  George Fitzhugh:

A state of dependence is the only condition in which reciprocal affection can exist among human beings–the only situation in which the war of competition ceases, and peace, amity, and good will arise. A state of independence always begets more or less jealous rivalry and hostility. A man loves his children because they are weak, helpless, and dependent. He loves his wife for similar reasons….slaves are always dependent…

Brahmins in India talk like white people in the United States:

As one high-caste slaveholder explained to me: ‘To be born in the higher caste has become a bane. Even when we do well, we are blamed and our rights are withheld.’

What’s the point of empathizing with crap like that? Empathizing with Southern slaveholders didn’t end slavery. Dehumanizing them and kililng their soldiers and defeating them militarily ended slavery. India’s rich people have their own version of “Make America Great Again.” How is that interesting or surprising?

He says that “we” fail to recognize evil because people doing evil things wear nice clothes. Really.

Likewise, many of the men I interviewed had children the same age as my own, and others struck me as the classic beneficiaries of the kind of international development programmes that I tend to support. In interview after interview, I came away with the same sense as Conroy: ‘The worst part of these interviews was that they were not difficult … I never met the monster I anticipated.’

Siddharth Kara – a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center on Human Rights and the author of two important books, Sex Trafficking (2009) and Bonded Labor (2012) – found the same thing in conversation with a trafficker: ‘He was so ordinary – just a man, wearing simple village clothes. His aspect was common, his moustache trimmed, his hair neatly combed.’

No wonder we fail to recognise the villain.

Human-rights violators are a far cry from John Rawls’s evil, bad and unjust men. ‘What moves the evil man is the love of injustice,’ Rawls wrote in A Theory of Justice (1971), ‘he delights in the impotence and humiliation of those subject to him and relishes being recognised by them as the willful author of their degradation.’

The contemporary traffickers and slaveholders I spoke with are not motivated by a love of injustice. They are instead driven by cultural inertia, a desire for profit or, more frequently, a need for basic sustenance. Instead of evil villains, we find husbands, fathers, mothers and neighbours working with the cultural materials available to them, surviving as best they can.

I don’t see him quoting these people’s slaves. Do they share the view that their owners don’t have a sadistic bone in their bodies? Why should this bullshit story be more convincing than it was when American slave owners were using it?

I wasn’t on a mission to find something offensive to write about, just now. I woke up from a nap and checked Aeon on my phone. Just recently, Aeon also published cool Foucault stuff:

Those who think that philosophy still needs to identify eternal essences will find Foucault’s perspective utterly unconvincing. But those who think that what feels eternal to each of us will vary across generations and geographies are more likely to find inspiration in Foucault’s approach. With respect to the central concepts of political philosophy, namely the conceptual pair of power and freedom, Foucault’s bet was that people are likely to win more for freedom by declining to define in advance all the forms that freedom could possibly take. That means too refusing to latch on to static definitions of power. Only in following power everywhere that it operates does freedom have a good chance of flourishing. Only by analysing power in its multiplicity, as Foucault did, do we have a chance to mount a multiplicity of freedoms that would counter all the different ways in which power comes to define the limits of who we can be.

The irony of a philosophy that would define power once and for all is that it would thereby delimit the essence of freedom. Such a philosophy would make freedom absolutely unfree. Those who fear freedom’s unpredictability find Foucault too risky. But those who are unwilling to decide today what might begin to count as freedom tomorrow find Foucault, at least with respect to our philosophical perspectives, freeing. Foucault’s approach to power and freedom therefore matters not only for philosophy, but also more importantly for what philosophy can contribute to the changing orders of things in which we find ourselves.

Aeon isn’t Stormfront. My point is the inescapability of the racism. Many white liberals will read the article and feel like Good Liberals for, y’know, digging real deep and pushing themselves to empathize with slave owners.