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Published 18 April 2015
The Civil War and the struggle of the slaves blazed a path for the rest us to extend into the future.

The stakes cannot be higher, rivers are running dryplains are flooding, and the planet is the midst of its sixth “Great Extinction.”  In fact, it has been 66-million years since a colossal extra-terrestrial object slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, eliminating in its wake 75% of all plant and animal species and initiating the last Great Extinction event. Given that decisions by a section of humanity are the cause of the current event, it is sobering to realize that we only emerged as a species in the last 100,000 or so years. But there is a robust, organized denial of these realities by fossil fuel corporations. Given that carbon pollution is a primary driver of catastrophic climate change, climate justice activists are therefore desperate for models that help us respond to the moment. Of increasing appeal is the example of slavery and emancipation in the United States - making for a timely conversation on the 150th anniversary of Civil War’s end with the South’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. 

This three-essay intervention suggests that challenges abound in making the comparison, but good reasons remain for doing so… if we’re prepared to listen to history. The present essay considers the merits and dangers of the comparison; the succeeding two essays consider the centrality of slavery to the making of our world, and the political forces that ended slavery. 

Looking at the beneficiaries of both systems, one can see why one should make the comparison. Despite their very different rhetorical styles, declarations from slaveholders and fossil-fuel corporations readily suggest their shared conceits about the value, naturalness, and “no alternative” character of their respective institutions. Here’s an extract from the shameless “Declaration of Secession” of the State of Mississippi:

[The] institution of slavery [is] the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. 

And this is a statement from a “clean coal” [sic] coalition:

[Fossil] fuels, which generate CO2, facilitated successive industrial revolutions, created the modern world, and enabled the high quality of life currently taken for granted. There is a strong causal relationship between world GDP and CO2 emissions over the past two centuries, and this relationship is forecast to continue for the foreseeable future… We found that the current benefits clearly outweigh any hypothesized costs by, literally, orders of magnitude…

Greatest material interest. Industrial revolutions. Law of nature. High quality of life. Necessities of the world. Benefits clearly outweigh the costs. It is no wonder then that Naomi Klein endorses the comparison. She also reminds readers of her latest book that, “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one.” Recognizing that that struggle is not completely over, she also echoes Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations. She also goes beyond the analogy to show the historical connection between the seemingly disparate issues. Much of wealth accumulated from slavery, she observes, “…went directly into the coal-powered infrastructure of the…Industrial Revolution…” Ending the system of slavery, Klein notes, took a “transformative movement” that “forced ruling elites to relinquish practices that were still extraordinarily profitable, much as fossil fuel extraction is today.” 

Wen Stephenson, another serious thinker about climate change, has also summoned the gravitas of anti-slavery struggle to argue that “global warming is the great moral crisis of our time” and to urge the climate justice movement to embrace the radicalism of the abolitionists. Less politically-inclined scientists have also made the comparison: James Hansen, the distinguished climatologist whose 1988 testimony to Congress first rang the alarm bells about climate change in official circles, remarked of slavery, ‘Some people thought it was wrong, and they made their arguments, and they didn't carry the day. And then something happened and all of a sudden it was wrong and we didn't do it anymore. And there were social costs to that. I suppose cotton was more expensive. We said, “That's the trade-off; we don't want to do this anymore.”’ Of course, Hansen could not be more wrong about cotton prices in the following half-century (they fell sharply); also, his phrase, “then something happened,” is especially intriguing and will be explored in our third essay in this series. Nonetheless, it is becoming commonplace to the make the analogy between ending slavery and ending our dependence on carbon fuels.

But it is tricky! Slavery’s open wounds means that those best placed to make the comparison are the people most directly dealing with its legacy. And indeed, there are examples of African American thinkers who have made the comparison between the struggles; moreover Cornel West has endorsed Naomi Klein’s book. In a similar vein, Van Jones draws on Dr. King’s remarks on justice when he observes that the “overwhelming majority of those suffering the most [from climate change]– in this country and especially abroad – will be people who contributed little or nothing whatsoever to the problem… This would be the greatest injustice in human history, irreversible on a time scale of centuries.” 

Even if the descendants of slaves risk the comparison, it is still a difficult one given the deliberate myths and real debates about the process that ended slavery. History does not offer unambiguous lessons. On perhaps the most important question, that of the part played by slaves in their own emancipation, there is a see-saw character to the conversation. Historian David Roediger, (writing in Seizing Freedom [2014]) complains about one obfuscation: “Blockbuster books and films of the recent past appreciate the general strike of slaves perhaps less than at any time in the last half-century.”  And the list of distortions can go on and on… 

It is also too easy to bend the stick in the opposite direction. The story can be reduced in some tellings to an account of Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and choices; conversely, his role can be shrunken or simply reduced to that of another white racist. Interestingly two of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers were at pains to formulate a more nuanced picture of Lincoln. W.E.B. Du Bois, in his least flattering portrait of Lincoln, noted that he was, “big enough to be inconsistent… despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man—a big, inconsistent, brave man.” Similarly, after a reviewing of the more troubling aspects of Lincoln’s personality and career, C.L.R. James nonetheless concludes that, “We pay him the tribute due to him as a great historical figure, with a place in the struggle for human emancipation.”

This list of personalities with outsized historical reputations could go on… divisions persists about how we are to think about say the armed abolitionist John Brown, or Thaddeus Stevens who led the Radical Republicans. And this challenge extends to perhaps the most interesting organized political force: what are we to make of the ~abolitionists who after thirty years of activism, running up to the Civil War, were in crisis and despairing of their strategies and tactics?  For some who invoke their legacy and inspiration, their resolute and principled anti-slavery stances are often seen as not only virtue but also a model to be emulated and not sullied by politics.

As the succeeding essays will address these questions in light of their meaning for contemporary anti-Carbon politics, we must first establish that the anti-slavery struggle was successful. This is especially important given current struggles signaled by #BlackLivesMatter and the anti-mass incarceration movement. It is also sharpened by debates over the intentions of the key players in the Civil War. For example, writing in his Memoirs (1885, 1990), General Sherman, whose victory in Atlanta (1864) secured Lincoln’s reelection, indicated that he would have been quite happy with a kinder-and-gentler slavery. Here is his description of his pre-Civil War thoughts on slavery:

I would deem it wise to bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings under all Christian and civilized governments. In the first place, I argued that, in sales of slaves made by the State, I would forbid the separation of families, letting the father, mother, and children, be sold together to one person, instead of each to the highest bidder. And, again, I would advise the repeal of the statute which enacted a severe penalty for even the owner to teach his slave to read and write, because that actually qualified property and took away a part of its value.

Similar sentiments and qualifications over what would have constituted meaningful reforms can be marshalled for nearly all the major decision makers of the time. 

Slavery by another Name?

An initial challenge for people invoking the anti-slavery struggle is that the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction in American history failed to live up to expectations. In fact, even before federal forces began their withdrawal from the South, there were attempts to re-assert the prewar relationships and re-impose slavery. These included sharp attacks on the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872) in startling similar ways to contemporary Republican attacks on Federal institutions that actually benefit working people. The agency was systematically weakened from its inception, eventually dying a death of a thousand cuts as Congress struck at its budget and eventually defunded the institution. That the Bureau was in effect an advocacy body—backed by Federal military power—for freed slaves, meant that its sabotage and eventual disappearance paved the way for Southern elites to claw their way back to dominance (if only at the local and regional levels).

In recent years, Douglas A. Blackmon, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, has painstakingly researched the extensive use of convict labor and demonstrated the reemergence of forced labor as part of a “web of restrictions” including debt peonage and sharecropping whose collective impact was to suppress black citizenship and freedom. Blackmon shows that “every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws… to criminalize black life” and that as soon as “such laws were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions… new statutes embracing the same strictures… quickly appeared to replace them.”

Some environmental activists seem to be aware of the unfinished business of emancipation. Naomi Klein points out that instead of “40 acres and a mule” for ex-slaves, “the lands were returned to former slave owners, who proceeded to staff them through the indentured servitude of sharecropping.” 

However, as Sven Beckert has recently argued, sharecropping which emerged in the wake of the Civil War was a “class compromise” compared to actual slavery and resulted from the modest measure of power that African Americans won during Reconstruction. Moreover, as both W.E.B. du Bois and Eric Foner have demonstrated, Reconstruction itself was not a failure; to the contrary, many achievements, including the first public health systems of any value, emerged in the South from African American efforts during Reconstruction. The problem was that Reconstruction was defeated – as opposed to being a systematic failure or rigged game. Specifically, political defeats (of the Radical Republicans and especially the loss of Thaddeus Stevens) and historical contingencies (Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s accidental presidency) which were not inscribed into the logic of capital accumulation, help explain the outcomes.

It is also true that despite many continuities with the antebellum relationships, the freedom struggle continued onto a new, higher plane of organizing and thinking. Recent work by Susan Carle demonstrates that the same period saw the formation of organizations and novel strategizing to further civil rights, connect with other struggles, and build on the legacy of the Abolitionist movement. 

In a similar vein, David Roediger taking Du Bois’ arguments as point of departure, shows how the emancipation struggle impacted other struggles. It boosted the struggle for an 8-hour work day, built the women’s movement, and began to problematize white manhood. The latter questioning came as a result of the widespread war-related disabilities and amputations. Roediger summarizes this shift with poignant observation that, “In the inspired presence of the self-emancipation of slaves, hundreds of thousands of women and white workers began to think very differently about their own possibilities and desires.” Reading Roediger along with Carle, Du Bois, and others, we are forced to concur with Roediger’s conclusion that “the general strike of the slaves changed everything, establishing revolutionary time as a reality in US history.” In other words, the Civil War and the struggle of the slaves blazed a path for the rest us to extend into the future. If there is a lesson then for anti-carbon activists, it is that the great historical struggles from which we draw inspiration have no end dates, instead, they open the door to and inspire new struggles. 

Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of encuentro5; he may be contacted at suren [a-t] fairjobs org. Sources and notes for this essay may be downloaded from http://bit.ly/1b05Ifw. Parts II (The Centrality of Slavery) & III (Who Ended Slavery?) will appear in the next two weeks.

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