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Slavery, Domination and the Corruption of Democracy

Articolo pubblicato nella sezione “Schiavitù contemporanee”

Slavery is a bad thing for its victims. But it is also a bad thing for us all. This is not just because slavery taints morally all those who are complicit with it, but because it impedes the freedom of all those who come into contact with it, both freeman and slave alike. This, at least, is the classical republican argument. The effects on freemen are not, of course, as brutal as on they are on slaves, and the two cannot seriously be compared. But these effects do still undermine what we consider to be our free way of life and so leave our society far short of what it could be. If the primary legitimate aim of government is, as republicans claim, to protect and promote the freedom of the state and the people then permitting slavery contains a clear contradiction. Put like this, we have a practical as well as a normative reason for tackling slavery.
Republicans make their claim stronger by defining slavery in very broad terms. Slavery is not defined in terms of the legal ownership in persons or of forced labour of various kinds, but as specific form of power imbalance. In republican terms, slaves are those individual who are subject to any form of arbitrary power that leaves them in a state of dependence in which they rely on the continued discretionary goodwill of others in important ways (Pettit 1997, 22, 52; Coffee 2013). This power could be economic, legal, political, social or physical so long as it leaves the subordinate party at the mercy of the dominant. The essence of slavery is considered to be dependence. What people typically think of as slaves (bondsmen, human chattels) are the most extreme and tragic cases of a more general condition that has historically been applied to subjects of an arbitrary monarch, women denied basic rights and representations in patriarchal societies, and vulnerable workers. In broadening their analysis to include these forms of dominating power, republicans provide a framework of lasting theoretical appeal in societies such as ours in which formal servitude has been abolished but which retain large and systemic patterns of oppressive power imbalances.
The claim can be made stronger still. Left unchecked, the presence of slavery – entrenched cases of dependence and alienation from power – in a society changes the way that the population thinks, bringing about conceptual changes that alter the background culture, and ultimately subverting the process of public reason so that democratic society itself becomes subverted and even destroyed. This is the form of the republican argument that I shall discuss. Republicans do not often argue this extreme case. In part, the reason may be that public reason forms the most foundational and final level of defence against domination. Without the possibility of reasonable public discussion conducted in good faith, there can be no reliable protection against the encroachment of unaccountable power which is the republican standard for freedom. Without public reason there can be no republic. But there may be a deeper and less edifying reason why this argument has received less attention.
In the form that I will discuss it, the most powerful cases have been put forward by slaves. Historically, however, republican theory has been entirely written by freemen. Although this theory is constructed around the distinction between master and slave, the perspective of slaves on their own condition has been routinely and wholly disregarded. As a result, it is argued, the relative social privilege of republicans who are not part of a slave class serves to hinder their ability to perceive their own epistemic biases (Coffee 2015).
In building the argument I have drawn on writers from two oppressed social classes. I start with two women writers from the revolutionary period at the end of the eighteenth century, Catharine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft (who wrote self-consciously as a slave herself). I then turn to the emancipatory work of Frederick Douglass – himself a runaway slave – from the mid-nineteenth century. The basic argument is that relations of domination and servitude generate a motivational effect that on all sides (slaves, masters and on wider society) that leads inexorably to the corruption of the civil deliberative environment thereby making democratic society more difficult at first and eventually impossible. The slavery issue, often in disguised forms, becomes the issue that drives the political agenda, leading to the creation of partisan allegiances that divide the population and thereby encouraging a propaganda war between interest groups rather than an impartial discussion of the facts, issues and policies that concern the common good.
In an unequal society, patterns of domination arise as those with more power are able to control and exploit those with less. In order for these patterns to become stable, social and political institutions are altered and adapted to protect the interests of those in power. This, in turn, leads to cultural change as the structure of power becomes accepted as the norm. It is this final step that Macaulay, Wollstonecraft and Douglass fear so much. The impact of domination in society can be stubbornly long-lasting and resistant to subsequent concerted political efforts to reverse it. Here, we might think of the way that the subjection of women in earlier times – when they were without legal or political rights – gave rise to sexist cultural forms that continue to have an impact today more than a century after women were granted equal suffrage and admitted to the citizenry. Wollstonecraft foresaw just this outcome when she observed that “servitude not only debases the individual, but its effects seem to be transmitted to posterity” (1992, 181).
I believe that this version of the republican argument, which I term republicanism from a slave’s perspective – can offer important insights into contemporary issues and crises in democratic theory. One example is the phenomenon often referred to in the media as ‘post-truth politics’ in which appeals to emotion in public debate outweigh a regard for factual accuracy or detail which receive scant attention (e.g. Suiter 2016). What is distinctive about this post-truth environment is not so much the prevalence of falsehoods as the way that this drives a highly partisan politics in which all claims are viewed through the lens of one’s personal allegiance. Even if your own party is lying then so are the others. If everyone is lying then who can you trust? In the end you trust those with whom you can connect emotionally as defending your interests, remaining fiercely loyal to their statements and dismissing opposing views as malicious. The purpose of many of the lies is to provide just that connection - such as the claim made in the latter stages of the Brexit campaign that “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU” with the subtext that all Turks would be eligible under freedom of movement to live in the UK. This is just the situation that both Wollstonecraft and Douglass describe through their analysis.

1. Independence: Virtue, Equality and the Common Good

A democratic way of life requires a population that is committed to the process of public deliberation. This process in turn requires a commitment to an idea of the common good since individuals are called upon to forego the private advantages that might be had from lying or manipulating in favour of the collective benefits of abiding by the standards of respectful debate. This commitment is what republicans refer to as “virtue” (Coffee 2016). There are, of course, other behaviours that might be considered to be part of republican virtue but on any account the capacity and willingness to govern one’s conduct according to the standards of public reason will be foundational. Domination in any form is said to undermine any commitment to the common good. In so doing it has a corrosive or “corrupting” effect on virtue. Without virtue, rational argument becomes impossible. “Truth – Wollstonecraft says – “is lost in a mist of words, virtue in forms and knowledge rendered a sounding nothing, by the specious prejudices that assume its name” (Wollstonecraft 1992, 91).
In the rest of this section, I shall set out what republican freedom is, identifying its constitutive parts and showing why each part is necessary. In the third part, I show how it is the corrupting effect of slavery operates and why this leads to a break down in democratic process that undercuts everybody’s freedom. If public reason – meaning a commitment to reasoned, restrained and rational deliberation – is necessary for democratic society, then republicans argue that three conditions are required. The population must be, first, independent. No one should be in the arbitrary power of another since this will compromise their ability to speak freely in debate. For there to be independence, republicans add two further conditions, equality and virtue.
The central image in republican theory is that of the ‘free man in the free state’. This illustrates a core feature of republicanism, that freedom is both an individual and a collective venture. These two sides – the individual and the collective – are connected, neither being possible without the other. Freedom is defined as independence. This is a robust conception that indicates that a person is guaranteed protection against any kind of arbitrary power. Freemen do not depend on luck for their freedom – they are independent of that too. No individual can achieve this level of independence alone. Instead they require the support of others. These others, of course, want the same level of protection in return for their support. Individual freedom, then, is secured within a collective system of laws in which each person has an equal stake.
This condition of equality is critical, the reason being that if any group within society is treated more favourably than the others then its members gain an advantage that can be exploited, allowing them to bypass the provisions of law. This is the first step towards domination: something Machiavelli warned republicans to avoid at all costs, following Cato’s reaction to Coriolanus in saying that “a city could not be called free in which there was one citizen of whom they were afraid” (Machiavelli 1970, 183).
Individuals, then, are free only in a state made up of other free individuals living in a condition of broad equality such that no one is dependent on any of the others and where the law represents each of their interests. Fundamental to this project is that the citizens’ shared interests – the common good – are first identified and then actually used as the basis of government. Traditionally, republicans have put their trust in the possibility of there being accessible and transparent institutions through which the rulers and officials can be held to account. Given a strong institutional structure every citizen should have an effective voice both in public debate and when making appealing to the state for protection. If this approach is to be successful, it requires that both the general population and those who regulate the institutions are able and prepared to shed their personal perspectives and judge arguments on merit according to the standards of public reason.
The ideal of freedom, then, comprises several constitutive elements including independence, equality, virtue and the common good. Republicans understand there to be a causal relationship between these internal parts to freedom such that the absence of any one aspect has the effect of unravelling each of the others. Inequality, for example, creates dependence, dependence undercuts virtue, while a lack of virtue creates the incentive to destroy equality by gaining an advantage. This process of contagion also operates between different spheres in social life. So a wife who is economically dependent on her husband, for example, may find that her political independence is compromised because she cannot speak out against her husband’s beliefs for fear of upsetting him and losing her financial protection. An economically well-off wife, on the other hand, in a society such as Macaulay’s and Wollstonecraft’s where women had no political rights of their own soon found that any material assets they might have were of no use to them. As Wollstonecraft observes, “a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing which she can call her own… [not even] the fortune which falls to her by chance; or (so flagrant is the injustice) what she earns by her own exertions. No; he can rob her with impunity, even to waste publicly on a courtesan” (Wollstonecraft 2005, 80-81, see also Macaulay 1790, 131-132).
The process of expansion operates at one further level. The corruption of virtue inherent in domination spreads from the particular bilateral relationships – of masters and slaves – involved to others who come into contact with them. This extension is especially pernicious. To use Madame Roland’s metaphor, corruption is like rust which extends imperceptibly but inexorably, eventually to corrode the whole surface: “the rust of barbarity covers their proud masters and ruins them together. The poisoned breath of despotism destroys virtue in the bud” (Bergès 2015, 111). The result is that the moral community is subverted and replaced by an arena of competing private interests. Like rust, once the process is started it is incredibly difficult to stop and it cannot be reversed.
Although a few dominant people may do very well out of a corrupted society, it remains against the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population whose assent is necessary. Macaulay puts it in very strong terms. A political system based on arbitrary power is necessarily absurd and the defence of such a system, which she calls “the doctrine of slavery”, can only be made by “fraud and sophistry in opposition to the common reason of mankind” (Macaulay 1783, XIII). To be sure, there are many people who will accept it: “the vulgar are at all times liable to be deceived, and this nation has ever produced a number of bad citizens, who, prone to be corrupted, have been the ready tools of wicked ministers and the zealous partizans, in a cause big with the ruin of the state and the destruction of the felicity which the individuals in the country have for some years enjoyed” (Macaulay 1783, IX). How this can come about will take some explaining.

2. Slavery and Propaganda

Douglass argues that lying and the manipulation of ideas are at the heart of the domination relationship. By putting the powerful and the subordinate at odds with each other a system of incentives is set in place that encourages and rewards prejudices based on self-interest and punishes rational deliberation about the common good. Douglass builds his case by drawing on his own experience of bondage, showing how deception starts with individuals but expands to envelope the entire social structure (I discuss the ideas in this section in greater detail in a forthcoming paper, Coffee 2017).
The relationship between oppressor and oppressed is an inherently cagey one. Neither side has the luxury of being able to set aside their personal interests in order to think about what is best for everyone. Instead, each must do whatever it takes to secure his or her own interests. Slaves have no control over their lives and so survive by their wits, sometimes using cunning and flattery, and at other times keeping a low profile when there is trouble. Wollstonecraft makes the same point about wives in the eighteenth century, who must “govern their tyrants by sinister tricks” (Wollstonecraft 1992, 262). Masters for their part know that the risk of rebellion amongst the slaves is very real. In spite of their many public pronouncements that slaves were irrational, child-like and perhaps even sub-human, Douglass makes it clear that slaveholders knew that they were in a dangerous game with worthy opponents. “So much intellect as the slaveholder has around him”, Douglass observes, “requires watching. Their safety depends upon their vigilance. Conscious of the injustice and wrong they are every hour perpetrating, and knowing what they themselves would do if made the victims of such wrongs, they are looking out for the first signs of the dread retribution of justice” (Douglass 2003, p. 205). The stakes are intolerably high. For the slave it is their very life and liberty while for the slaveholder there are enormous riches to be had. For this reason, neither party can afford to relax or to take their eye off their enemy, for “slavery never sleeps or slumbers” (Douglass 1975, vol. 2, 215).
What unfolds is a complex psychological battle between slaves and masters, each attempting to distort appearances to suit their real purposes. Slaves must hide their every thought and intention. Even if they are not harbouring ideas of escape or retribution, they cannot afford for others to believe them capable of that. They must instead appear docile, ignorant and compliant, as the stereotypical ‘Uncle Tom’ (slaveholders, of course know that this is a fiction but it suits their purposes to maintain the illusion). Any “unusual sobriety, apparent abstraction, sullenness and indifference” Douglass remembers, “indeed, any mood out of the common way – [would] afford ground for suspicion and inquiry” (Douglass 2003, 202).
Slaveholders and slaves both knew, however, that the battle was not just between each other and that the winners would be those who most successfully engaged the support of others. For the overwhelming majority of slaves escape was not a viable option. If it were possible to flee, where would they go? They were taught to believe that the slave territory was boundless and even those on the edge of the free northern states were often unware of their existence. The slaves’ only real option was to enlist the help of agitators and activists to change public opinion and bring about political change. The slaveholders were well aware of this danger and used their dominant position to manipulate and control public perception with ruthless efficiency. The contest was hardly a fair one. On the slaveholders’ side, they had education, religion and moral influence on their side and stood “sworn before God and the universe, that the slave shall continue a slave or die”( Douglass 1975, vol. 2, 208). Slaves, on the other hand, had no means of influence. They had no newspapers or places to congregate. This means that slaves cannot speak up for themselves but must rely on others to do it for them. The battle of ideas between, then, was inevitably one that took place between freemen, both pro-and antislavery. As Douglass reminds us, “there comes no voice from the enslaved” themselves (Douglass 2003, 216).
Silencing slaves was only the first stage in the contest. The next step was to stifle the possibility of dissent amongst wider free society. Slowly but relentlessly, proslavery supporters came to dominate each of the major social and political institutions of the nation – the church, the judiciary and even the presidency itself. “Slavery”, Douglass observed, “has not only framed our civil and criminal code, it has not only nominated our presidents, judges, and diplomatic agents, but it has also given to us the most popular commentators on the Bible in America”. The effect was to thoroughly normalise the proslavery position so that so that the interests of the slaveholders became “woven and interwoven with the very texture—with the whole network—of our social and religious organizations” (Douglass 1975, vol. 2, 216). Anti-slavery arguments then came to be seen as dangerous, unpatriotic and immoral and were easily dismissed as extreme or radical.

3. Truth and Prejudice

While disparaging antislavery sentiment made reform much harder another by-product of the propaganda process was far more damaging. This was the prejudice against the slaves that came to be both intensely felt and deeply entrenched in the social fabric. In the case of racial slavery, the prejudice bordered on hatred. The idea of the “free negro” was simply unthinkable and anyone defending their rights would “at once open a fountain of bitterness, and call forth overwhelming wrath” (Douglass 1991, vol. 1 63). In the case of women’s oppression the prejudice was less violent but no less damaging. Wollstonecraft goes so far as to suggest that all the “meanness, cares and sorrows into which women are plunged” can be attributed to the widely-held prejudice that they were emotional rather than rational, created “rather to feel than to think” (Wollstonecraft 1992, 154-155).
We all, of course, acquire many prejudices from our social environment as we grow up. Although this process is inevitable and perfectly natural, the tendency is for prejudices to embed themselves in our way of thinking causing people to mistake local and particular, culturally-specific, ways of thinking for actual representations of the way things really are. In Wollstonecraft’s phrase, prejudices have the capacity to “cloud” our reason inhibiting our ability to deliberate impartially (Wollstonecraft 1992, 92). Clear thinking is not made impossible by the presence of prejudices, but it takes hard work and intellectual virtue to minimise their impact. The problem arises, however, where prejudices are used to maintain a power imbalance between social groups. Using the case of gendered power imbalances, Wollstonecraft observes that men do very well out of the prejudice that women have a natural need of male protection. Men are easily seduced into believing this to be obviously true and are subsequently, if often unconsciously, motivated to protect their position of dominance rather than to seek the truth of the matter. “Men in general” she argues, “seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out” (Wollstonecraft 1992, 91-92). The implications are serious. Rather than being governed in accordance with the common good as determined by the best arguments, state rule is founded “on a chaotic mass of prejudices that have no inherent principle of order to keep them together” save only that it serves the interests of those in a position of social dominance (Wollstonecraft 1992, 204).
It is characteristic of prejudices that those who hold them are unaware that they do so. Their presence, therefore, makes the identification and pursuit of the common good a very uncertain business. Since the test for republican freedom is that it is can be relied upon, public institutions must be responsive to reasoned arguments that are transparent, accessible and acceptable to all those who are subject to them. If decisions are made on any other basis, however well intentioned, then those who are affected would be dependent on the goodwill and favour of those with the power to influence the outcome. In a deliberative environment made up of a “mass of prejudices” then even those who lucky enough not to be victimised remain unfree in republican terms, since it is good fortune rather than right that puts them in this position, and good fortune can always turn.

4. Post-Truth Politics

Republicans have long argued that no society can remain fundamentally unequal for long. Even small pockets of dependence can trigger the process of corruption that undermines first virtue as a commitment to the common good and then the conceptual background by enabling damaging prejudices to become established. In the end, Douglass argues, nobody is free. Even after the Civil War when the slave interests were defeated, they were not destroyed and their culture lived on continuing their prejudices and giving them new life as they once again took up hostilities towards freedom, resisting the project of Reconstruction at every juncture and overturning many of its gains. The result, Douglass concluded was a form of enslavement for black Americans that was very little different in many ways from what had gone before. Significantly, while it is clearly the black population that had most to fear from this, Douglass makes plain that if slavery were to be restored this would only create “A class of tyrants in whose presence no man’s Liberty, not even the white man’s Liberty would be safe. The slaveholder would then be the only really free man of the country” (Douglass 1975, vol. 3, 350).
By way of conclusion, we can return finally to the idea of a ‘post-truth’ political context. There is a good deal of analysis that seeks to identify what the causes are that have led us to this position. Amongst the contenders are factors such as levels of education, economic concerns and identity politics. Each of these is plausible – there is evidence for example that recent voting patterns in both the UK and the USA have tracked each of these drivers at different points – and I would not want to speculate on the importance or influence any specific local cause. But I would like to suggest that the slave’s perspective on the republican argument adds a valuable conceptual tool in seeking to understand how these factors work in concert to undermine the deliberative environment.
On the republican account, the ultimate driving factor is identified as inequality in the form of inequalities of power that give rise to dependence and all the motivations to subvert the common good that this brings with it. Significantly, however, in order to understand why we are where we are today, we need to look not first at the inequalities that exist today – though these certainly must also be addressed – but to the historical patterns of domination, oppression and bondage that have shaped the social power structures and cultural attitudes that have come down to us. While we must do all we can to combat present-day injustices such as poverty or job insecurity, and to improve education levels so that all citizens can participate more effectively in civil society and public debate, and to try to bridge racial, ethnic and class divisions, these measures will not be fully effective if the deliberative and democratic environment remains corrupted for historic reasons. Although both Wollstonecraft and Douglass were optimistic that the causes of deliberative corruption could be overcome, neither pulled their punches about what was required. What they called for was nothing short of a full-blown conceptual revolution carried out collaboratively by all sections of society working together, men and women, black and white, rich and poor.


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