Enslaved to an Individualist View of Social Change

October 13, 2017
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I note with some interest the debate over whether it is ethically necessary to refer to slaveholders as “enslavers” in order to convey our disapproval over their actions.  The obsessive use of the enslaving terminology in The Half Has Never Been Told (Baptist) bothered me at the time, and now I see he was part of a trend.

I understand the motivation—up to a point.  Anyone who participated in the slave system had a share in the responsibility for it.  It is not anachronistic to look at it this way, since many members of slave-owning households had the same feeling and chose to opt out.  Of course, this moral judgment applies not only to those who directly owned slaves, but also those whose livelihood was predicated on enslavement, which includes financiers accepting slaves as collateral and business owners producing goods for slave maintenance and exploitation.  To some extent, in my opinion, it even applies to workers for those slavery-based businesses: I’d like to think that I would never have taken such a job if I had been around back then.

Nevertheless, the insistence on language that parcels out responsibility to each participating individual implicitly distracts attention from the systemic, collective basis for slavery.  In what sense was an individual slaveholder an enslaver, personally responsible for the enslavement of his or her chattel?  An individual is responsible for whether they will be the one with the whip, but not whether individuals will be placed in bondage to someone.  The institutions of slavery, which encompassed the political, legal and financial mechanisms that defined, enforced and managed enslavement, took care of this.  Language that foregrounds individual responsibility backgrounds the institutional basis of the system.

The linguistic debate matters because it reflects a disagreement over how to achieve change, one that simmers today.  Emphasizing personal responsibility inclines us toward individual action: refusing to purchase slaves in centuries past, boycotting the most objectionable corporations today.  And, to be clear, I have no problem with individual action; doing good is doing good.  But collective action does the heavy lifting.  It took a civil war to (mostly) eliminate slavery in the United States, and it was the failure of the federal government to follow Reconstruction through to the end that left us with a system of massive racial inequality.  Our most important individual responsibility is the one we bear as citizens, to do what we can to change the institutions that oppress and exploit.

Just as the history of slavery is being reinterpreted as an epidemic of individual moral failing, there is a tendency today to see social and economic inequality, the unfolding horror of climate change and other urgent problems as matters of personal virtue or vice.  For instance, I sometimes give talks on child labor, and invariably, no matter how much I emphasize the systemic aspects of the problem, I get the question, “So what should I buy?”  Yes, an ethical individual cares about choices like this.  No, child labor will not be overcome by more mindful consumerism.  If you want the world’s children to have a better life, you should carry the banner for a global economic order that can eliminate mass poverty, beginning at the very least with the modest ideas of the Leading Group (of which the US has shamefully never been a member).

My hunch is that the proclivity toward viewing social problems as individual moral failings stems from the political reversals suffered by the organized left over the past four decades; it avoids what might otherwise be a painful sense of collective failure.  It helps people to feel good about themselves even if, objectively speaking, little is actually being done to reverse the drift toward ever worse outcomes.  But it also reinforces failure by redefining social change as the spread of personal virtue rather than the change in laws, institutions and flows of resources we truly need.

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