Writing a book called _A Nation of Farmers_ and arguing for Jeffersonian democracy brings you, sooner or later, bang hard up against the question of slavery. And it is not possible to address that question either by eliding the problem of slavery, as many of Jefferson's advocates do, or by claiming, as many anti-agrarians do, that Jefferson's slave holding makes the whole question of agrarian society so irrevocably tainted that it cannot be useful to us any longer. That is, Aaron's and my opinion is that the only answer we can come up with is to go towards this vexed question full steam ahead.
Jefferson made quite a number of statements arguing that independent farmers were the best candidates for democracy. He claimed in "Notes on the State of Virginia," "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. " Speaking slightly less effusively, he went on to say in a 1785 letter to John Jay, "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands."
His opposition to Alexander Hamilton's plan to create large state supported financial institutions and move towards industrialization represents one of the great philosophical battles at the founding of our nation. Henry Cabot Lodge famously called it the founding debate of our society. And it would be easy for agrarians to see Hamilton, and Hamiltonianism as the bad guy - that is, Hamilton supported the notion of concentrating wealth in the hands of an elite, and moving the nation towards trade and manufacturing.
But the undercurrent of their debate, less popularly considered, was slavery. Hamilton was an abolitionist who regularly attended New York Abolition Society meetings. He believed that manufacturing was the only alternative to an agrarian slave society - wage labor, he felt, would end slavery. Jefferson, of course, was a plantation owner and slave holder. That he was ambivalent about slavery and at times worked for its overturn does not erase that at times, he also supported it, and he had no desire, to see, as Hamilton did, African-Americans working alongside white people in independent agriculture or factories. Jefferson imagined that freed slaves would be sent to Africa or Haiti, rather than they would grow independently alongside white people.
Roger Kennedy, in his Book _Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause_ argues that in fact, Jefferson's agrarianism struggled with two conflicting impulses, and ultimately operated to reinforce slavery in our society. Jefferson's agrarianism, he argues, wasn't quite what it seemed to be. While independent, largely self-sufficient farmers with good educations and a great deal of civic engagement were a norm in the North, the South was largely divided between white, wealthy plantation owners, and small backwoods farmers, mostly illiterate, who Jefferson regarded with a great deal of distaste. When Jefferson claimed, for example, "Ours are the only farmers who have read Homer" he was not, in fact, referring to the Southern Scots-Irish self-sufficient farmers of his region, but to Northern farmers (who had a 100% literacy rate in the Colonial period by some accounts, higher than it would ever be again), or plantation owners.
Kennedy makes a compelling case that Jefferson's vision of agrarianism, which included the slave plantations, enabled westward expansion, and the subjugation of the Native population - he does a fascinating analysis of the rate at which plantation owners destroyed their soils, almost three times the rate of non-slave holding southern farmers and five times the rate of Northern farmers, and argues that Jefferson's rhetoric, and the Louisiana Purchase, were predicated on a notion of ever expanding slavery, and the depletion of the soil.
This is a compelling critique, and to Kennedy's enormous credit, it is a nuanced critique. He does not claim that Jefferson cynically manipulated the plantation owner vote, so much as argue that Jefferson both believed in the notion of independent farmers and was unable to bring about the society he imagined.
Here, I think, is the beginnings, not of a rehabilitation of Jefferson, but of a way of thinking about agrarianism and slavery. Because it would be foolish to argue, as Thom Hartmann does in his book _What Would Jefferson Do?_, that Jefferson figures largely as a helpless opponent to slavery. Hartmann, whose arguments are otherwise well taken seems to belong to the category of Jeffersonian advocates who rehabilitate him by only looking at the anti-slavery writings. But to do so is to ignore the fact that Jefferson's legacy to us was more than just his principled objections - it was his practices.
That is, to find a way towards Jeffersonianism, we must not erase slavery, but face it. One of Hartmann's own arguments, however, directs us usefully to the urgent larger question. That is, Hartmann argues that instead of eliminating slavery, the US merely moved it elsewhere. I think Hartmann is wrong to use this argument to defend Jefferson. He says,
"Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves? I'm typing these words on a computer containing many parts made in countries where laborers are held with less freedom and in conditions worse than those of Jefferson's slaves." Hartmann has a point, but also recognizes that this is a rationalization - Jefferson did more than simply hold slaves, he enabled slavery on a large, public scale. This argument does not work as a defense of Jefferson.
But it does give us a useful direction to point our own analysis at - that is, if we are to imagine, as Hamilton did, as many anti-agrarians have since, that the debate between industrialization and agrarianism can come down to the question of slavery, we need to ask, how good has industrial society been at freeing its slaves. That is, do we have fewer slaves right now than we did in an agrarian society? How many slaves are there in the world today?
When you add up the numbers, the results are surprising. At present, according to the UN, the world has 27 million literal slaves - that is, people who are presently held as slaves, owned as objects, and treated like them. Add to that 218 million child laborers, which UNICEF documents are almost always forced laborers. Then add 100 million adult women prostitutes (the child prostitutes are included in the previous number) who according to the UN committees on human trafficking can be said to lack control over their lives, bodies and earnings, and the minimum of 400 million poor workers who live in conditions of effective slavery, either in debt to the company store or given a choice between starvation and working in unsafe, dangerous conditions for virtually no money, and we end up with between half and 2/3 of a billion people on this planet in slavery, or effective slavery. That means that one out of every 10 to 13 people on the earth is enslaved or as near as to make no difference.
This figure is almost certainly too low, however - these are estimates, and low estimates in many cases. For example, at least 300 million women worldwide engage in prositution of one sort or another throughout the world, and it stretches the imagination to conceive that the 200 million that the UN does not consider to be effectively enslaved are all fully willing participants who simply chose prostitution as their career. Nor does this figure include involuntary military conscripts all over the globe, many of whom (including a substantial number of children), are used for forced labor or cannon fodder in conflicts all over the world. In _The Age of Extremes_ Eric Hobsbawn estimates that there are more than 200 million involuntary conscripts at any given time, worldwide.
The child labor figures are hotly disputed - for example, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker's Union estimates that 250 million children, more than half under the age of 14, are at work in clothing and textile manufacture alone (Naomi Klein, _No Logo_). Since these constitute only about half of the UNICEF figures, that would raise the estimate up dramatically, towards one billion people in slavery, at least 1/3 of them children. Far more than half are female - because women are often poorer than men, less well educated and more likely to be encumbered by children, they are diproportionately likely to end up in sweatshops, domestic service, or in the sex trade from lack of other options.
Some may protest that those adults who are not literally enslaved shouldn't be included here. For example, adult sweatshop workers. I'll conceed that their conditions aren't quite the same as slavery. But res ipsa loquitor - that is, the thing speaks for itself. This is testimony taken from a single sneaker plant (producing Nikes and Adidas in 1998 in El Salvador,
"...12 hour days in hot, unventilated conditions. Workers are given backless wooden benches from which to work. Cushions are not allowed. Supervision is brutal, with constant verbal abuse aganist those who do not keep up the required pace, physical violence and sexual harassment. Permission is required to drink water or use the batrhoom. The drinking water is not purified and comes from the cistern into which the toilet empties. No toilet paper is available and the toilets are filthy. Male supervisors come into the women's toilets regularly to harass the women back to work. Talking is not allowed. Workers leaving the plant are subject to humiliating body searches. Workers are expected to work when they are sick. One or two days pay is deducted for any visit to the clinic. Women are made to undergo monthly pregnancy tests which they have to pay for themselves. Pregnant workers are fired instantly. In some plants superivisors give depo-provera contraceptive injections to women who are told they are getting anti-tetanus jabs." ("Labour" by Mark O'Brien in _Anti-Capitalism_ ed. Bircham, Charlton)
Both effective and literal slaves have little control of their own lives. They are subject, in the literal sense of the word, to the whims of their masters. They experience physical violence, control of the full range of their lives including sexual activity. They are subject to degradation and told that they deserve their conditions. They are not free to leave or to stop their work, and often do their work under the terror their families will be harmed, or that their children will starve to death.
As historian Kenneth Stampp, writing of American slavery points out, "the predominant and overpowering emotion...in the majority of slaves was neither love nor hate, but fear." (Stampp, _The Peculiar Institution_). Those who live in constant fear of their bosses or masters are always slaves.
And who are they enslaved to? Well, directly speaking, they are enslaved to pimps, factory owners, industrial farmers, large companies, mining corporations, private entrepreneurs, local warlords, private slaveholders in countries that largely turn a blind eye to this sort of thing (including our own - there have been a number of high profile liberations of effectively enslaved immigrants in domestic service, garment factories and agriculture in the US, and that's almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg).
But, of course, the economy moves up the chain - who motivates these slave owners to enslave people? Sometimes human beings are the only thing there is left to traffic in. Sometimes slaves merely serve the evils of their immediate society. For example, the nation of Mauritius outlawed slavery only last year.
But often, their work and its proceeds moves up the economic food chain, and the people who profit are us.. That is, the appetites of people rich enough to travel around the world seeking out prostitutes (there are many of these trips advertised in the US and other rich nations for business people and men who can't have sex with children as easily here), the appetites of people who want cheap coffee and bananas, the appetites of people who want cheap t shirts, diamonds, energy and oriental rugs.
That is, most of the work we enslave people to do is work that the rich world directly or indirectly benefits from. Our cheap bananas come from the Ecuadorian plantation where whole families, including children, are so indebted to the "company store" that they can never hope to do anything else. And you and I eat their bananas. We wear the fancy sneakers, put the diamonds on our fingers, burn the Nigerian oil in our cars, decorate our homes with the labor of small children. We do not benefit from every slave, and responsibility exists all down the line, but it is also true that the economic function of slavery is to make masters rich.
Still, we might overall say we're doing pretty well with abolitionism, if we compare ourselves to the past. After all, the best guess is that maybe 1 in 10 people are enslaved, but in Ancient Athens, it was almost 1-1, and in the American south, in most plantation regions, slaves outnumbered free white people by between 2-1 and 10-1.But if you look at the society as a whole, Ancient Greece at the height of its slaveholding was about 4 free people to every slave and the US in 1850 had about 2.5 million slaves and just over 23 million people (Meltzer, _Slavery: A World History_. That is, in 1850, America as a whole had about the same percentage of slaves that we have right now worldwide.
If we recall that much of Northern Industrialism profited from slavery, turning cotton into cloth in the mills of Massachusetts, for example, the percentages are surprisingly similar. That is, the basis of rich society rests, roughly speaking, on the backs of about the same number of slaves that 19th century American wealth did. We're doing better than ancient Greece, but that's not saying much. We've not so much abolished slavery as offshored it, as Hartmann rightly observes.
So one answer to the question of whether agrarianism is irretrievably bound up in slavery would be to say yes - but no more so than industrialism. Both are slave societies. In one, we see our slaves, in another, we hide them, so that we can feel righteous, and not be confronted with their suffering.
Looked at in this like Jeffersonian agrarianism is no better - and no worse - than industrialism, which of course, depends on colonialism and enslaved labor. So the question becomes, how would we get out of slavery altogether, in either system - that is, which system can best be adapted to be truly slave free?
There's one kind of slavery we haven't included, but probably should, our energy slaves.
These slaves aren't people, of course, although they too come with a moral freight that we might want to consider, as millions of our slaves in the poor world, besides their horrible lives, now are in increased danger of death because of our warming the planet.
Equally importantly, fossil fuels have enabled most rich world denizens to live their lives as though they have slaves - not just far away slaves making their clothing and growing their coffee, but in the house slaves to do things like wash their dishes, carry them places they want to go, and cook their food. I'm not sure if James Kunstler coined the term "energy slaves" but it is a useful way of thinking about our lives now - that denizens of the rich world are living like slaveowners of prior days, dependent on fossil fuels and a good bit of globalized distance to seperate us from the ugly name.
It is certainly true that we shouldn't look on energy slaves with the same degree of horror we look on human slavery. But it is also the case that we might look on a lifestyle that requires human slaves and the equivalent amount of non-renewable energy with the same repugnance one might look at the lives of southern plantation owners. Because when the non-renewable energy runs out, we'll have created a generation of people who lack the essential skills, the physical fitness and the mindset to do their own work. The future of people trained only to be masters is not bright - either they remain rich, and do evil by enslaving more people to compensate for their diminishing resources (think what we're doing to the Iraqi people to get their oil), or they do quite badly indeed when they first have to pick up the work they have so long avoided.
Because, of course, the work that isn't easily mechanized, the work we can no longer afford to fuel - the manufacture of clothing is notoriously part of this - is still done by people. If we estimate, as Kunstler does in _The Long Emergency_ that the average rich world denizen uses fossil energy as the equivalent of 40 or more human laborers, and then add in the 1 in 10 actual slaves, it turns out that the world is actually using a much higher percentage of human labor or human equivalent labor without actually paying the real price for it - that is, without paying a fair and living wage, or the full, unexternalized costs of our fossil fueled "slaves." It also means that we have more slaves than anyone in history, broadly construed.
Now there's an obvious connection between slavery and fossil fuels, and a number of wise people have pointed out that it is no accident that the abolitionist movements of the 19th century arose at precisel y the same time as industrialization - just as machinery began to reduce the sheer numbers of bodies required to make and do things, it became possible in many senses to really imagine a society without slaves. The dualism we Americans all learned about in high school, the industrial north vs. the slave owning, agricultural south only tells part of the story.
Which brings me, of course, to the real question. Is it possible for human beings to imagine a society in which no one is enslaved to anyone else and we also don't burn fossil fuels? In which human beings cannot be commodified? Is it possible to imagine a low-input world in which there are no slaves? To some degree, of course, we can build renewable energies that allow us (and in an ideal world, more of the world's populace) to retain some of our energy slaves. But the larger issue of abolitionism must take center stage as we do this - that is, it is not enough to say "when we have all the power we need, we'll free our slaves" because, of course, that day never comes. The only choice is the choice of abolitionism itself, to acknowledge that it will cost us something to give up such a profoundly immoral structure, and that we will do it anyway, because it is right.
Last year at the Community Solutions Conference, someone asked me about the dangers of going back to a slave society in the absence of fossil fuels, and the question has haunted me since. I said then that we were still a slave society, and that we had to undo both evils - both fix the broken infrastructure in a society that can't imagine life without infinite cheap energy and also eliminate our slaves. But my answer has struck me as woefully insufficient ever since. How, after all, do we disengage from slavery? How do we face a future with less energy that doesn't lead to a permanent, huge, underclass of people, on whom a few people's wealth depends entirely? Because in that situation, the rich must always fear the poor, and have every incentive to reduce them to slavery.
Neither capitalism (which institutionalizes the disparities that encourage slavery and depends on reducing the value of human labor and resources, ideally to nil) nor communism (which outright controls humans and their labor) can provide us with an economic model. Fortunately, these are hardly our only choices. But it should remind us that the traditional dichotomy between these two "poles" and discourse in which there is nothing between or beyond Marx and Smith is a false one, designed to distract us with only a few choices. That both our "choices" lead to the enslavement of peoples should, I think, be sufficient to dismiss them.
Gandhi's Swaraj or "self-rule" movement offers one piece of the puzzle for a life without slavery. The notion that self-rule contained elements of political, economic and social theory meant that the system did not compartmentalize labor in ways that enabled slavery. It is a difficult system, because it places enormous faith in the independent good will of individuals, for, as Gandhi put it, "In such a state (where swaraj is achieved) everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour" - and yet, all deeply democractic systems depend on precisely that faith, that trust that ordinary people can and should hold in their hands the most essential details of our lives. It is Utopian, of course, but in the best sense. As Gandhi himself said, "It may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore not worth a single thought... Let India live for the true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want before we can have something approaching it"
The idea that democracy can be separated out from the way we earn our livings or treat our soils is false, and Jefferson was right articulating this. The idea that we can also seperate out our agrarian ideology from its history of racism and slavery is also false - we cannot erase the inconvenient parts of our history, or minimize them. But what we can do is create our own sort of Swaraj, and take the complex legacy of our agrarianism, and make it into something else.
How might this come about? Well, a nation made up not of plantation owners, but of true small farmers might be able to do so. A distributist model, a la Chesterton, in which most of the land is held by very small farmers, is a potential beginning. And in fact, we have already done much of the inconvenient work of chopping up land and putting small houses on it - we call it suburbia, and most suburban lots come with a piece of land, perhaps not quite sufficient to sustain a family, but often enough to render them independent of a host of created needs, and able, because of that independence, to make their choices based not on their fears and dependencies on corporate entities, but from a dispassionate consideration of what is best for the society as a whole. Small suburban farmers cannot need slaves - their land is too small to require them. Intensive agricultural techniques mean that small lots can come close to supporting a family, or do so entire. It isn't necessary to take seriously the distributist's focus on biological family units here - we can create these "family" structures in other ways, and imagine cooperative ownerships that work in concert with distributism.
The question, of course, is how larger agriculture will be enacted. Reallocation of fossil fuels means that we are unlikely to require literal slaves to produce our food for a long time, during which our job is to create such a loathing for notion of holding either immediate or distant slaves that we would no more consider it than we would consider eating human flesh.
As for the rest - the simple fact is that industrial agriculture depends on our willingness to buy its products. The ethanol boom depends on our willingness and dependence on gas. Industrial corporate farms depend on our willingness to buy their products. Stuart Staniford has recently demonstrated that industrial agriculture will remain profitable under the current model long into the future, and that it is likely to starve millions or even billions of people in the biofuels rush. All of which is best answered that markets alone are only as powerful as the people who accept their parameters. Industrial agriculture could remain powerful - unless we do not allow it to be. And then, the question becomes only what should take its place.