Lessons of Previous Septembers (and Octobers, and Februarys etc etc), Part 1

S.Artesian

1. On September 18, 1850, the 31st Congress of the United States passed “An Act to amend, and supplementary to, the Act entitled ‘An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters,’ approved February twelfth, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”  This 1850 supplement was known as the Fugitive Slave Act and was part of the “Compromise of 1850” which admitted California to the Union as a free state; fashioned the territories of Utah and New Mexico out of a portion of the land seized from Mexico in the 1846-1848 war; effectively annulled the Maine-Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing these new territories to determine for themselves whether slavery would be permitted; and outlawed the slave trade within the limits of the District of Columbia.

The compromise was the follow-up to the war against Mexico; the war  was a follow-up to the admission of Texas as a slaveholders’ state to the Union; the admission of Texas as a slaveholders’ state was the follow up to the “rebellion” of Anglo slaveholders in this territory of Mexico who were threatened by Mexico’s abolition of slavery in all regions save Texas, and prohibitions on the slave-trade throughout the country; the “rebellion” was fed by  the decision of  Mexico’s military commander of Upper Galveston to arrest a Louisiana slaveholder attempting the recapture of two fugitive slaves.

Nothing says freedom like or louder than defending the fugitive, the runaway.

Nothing says compromise like the empowering of the slave-catcher.

Mexico stood with the runaways.  The US with the slave-catcher.

Engels stood with the US in its war against Mexico

Blame it all on Engels?  Of course not.  Blame it all on Texas?  Hmmh…….let me think a moment.

The compromise would lead also to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the birth of the Republican Party as a political party explicitly in opposition to the extension of slavery, and to the slaveholders’ power over the federal government,  to “Bleeding Kansas” where the slaveholders deployed their night-rider, terrorist gangs against the free soil, free labor farmers, and ultimately, the Civil War itself, where 11 states initiated a “rebellion” in an attempt to preserve the money-making ability of barbarism.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act contained provisions that authorized the appointment of commissioners with the powers of the courts, but without the tedious and time-consuming requirements of “due process,” to grant certificates to slave-catchers to “take and remove such fugitives from service or labor…to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled” (sec.4); required all marshals and deputy marshals to obey the warrants and orders of the slave-catcher commissioners or face a fine of $1000 if convicted of non-compliance; made the marshals financially and criminally liable for the escape from custody of a captured fugitive; authorized the slave-catcher commissioners to require and command the aid of bystanders to form a posse comitatus, to mobilize the petty bourgeoisie in exercise of the slave-catching authority (sec. 5); authorized seizure of an alleged fugitive without warrant, “without process,”  and prohibited the admission of  testimony of the alleged fugitive as evidence in any procedure under the act (sec. 6);  and further enacted that “any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder or prevent” the slave-catcher from seizing a fugitive, or attempt to rescue, or hide, or conceal, or protect a fugitive would be subject to fine and imprisonment (sec.7).

The law was a triumph for the sanctity of private property, even when, particularly when that property was the life/labor of another.

It made the US what it was and longs to be, the nation of slave-catchers.

It is that glorious history that  US capitalism intends to relive through its capture and arrest of migrant workers.  Take a lesson.

2. The new law didn’t go down well or easy with the anti-slavery forces.  When in October 1850, slave catchers showed up in Boston to seize the runaway slaves William and Ellen Craft, anti-slave forces took to physical resistance,  hiding the couple while a “counter” posse (of anti-deputies, I guess) stalked and harassed the agents, persuading them ever not so gently to leave Boston.

Take the lesson: Remember that when all the pseudo-Marxists, academic libertarians weep over the “left’s” disrespect for the sanctity of free speech when Ann Coulter, Milos Yiannopolous, Richard Spencer, the two Matts– Parrot and Heimbach– ad nauseum, show up to target immigrants for attack.  “Free speech” is a  right of property. We’re for the abolition of property.

In February 1851, a fugitive ex-slave named Shadrach was seized by slave-catchers in a Boston coffee house where he was employed.  A group of African-Americans organized themselves, again in a counter-posse, forcibly entered the US courthouse where Shadrach had been imprisoned; overpowered the federal marshals serving the slave-catchers, and freed the ex-slave.

In Syracuse, New York, another anti-posse made up of  European-Americans and African-Americans raided a police station, freeing a captured fugitive ex-slave, and ferried him across Lake Ontario to safety in Canada.

This wasn’t exactly what the senators and congressmen had in mind when they passed the laws, but the struggle against slavery, oppression, exploitation don’t usually follow the script as written by those vested and invested in the maintenance of the oppression.

On September 11, 1851, the most dramatic opposition to the actions sanctioned by the Fugitive Slave Act occurred in Christiana, Pennsylvania in Lancaster County.  Four fugitive ex-slaves, unconvinced by and unwilling to wait for the slaveowner’s vow of manumission, had earlier fled the slaveowner’s estate in Maryland and had obtained refuge among the Quaker community in Christiana.

The slaveowner and his son organized a posse of slave-catchers, and accompanied by three federal marshals descended on the farm of William Parker, an ex-slave, where the fugitives were hiding. Gorsuch’s posse showed up, as did the anti-posse of two dozen armed African-Americans intent on blocking the slave-catchers.  Gorsuch, when instructed to leave Parker’s farm, replied that he’d sooner go to hell than leave without his property.  No sooner said than done.  Someone took him at his word, and dispatched Gorsuch to hell sans property with a well-placed, and well-deserved, gun shot.  A firefight ensued, and after Gorsuch’s son was wounded, the slave-catchers driven off.

President Millard Fillmore sent marines to violent, bloody, Quaker, Christiana.  The ex-slaves had already escaped to Canada so the US demanded their extradition. A federal grand jury indicted 38 of those who had resisted the slave-catchers for treason.

Take the lesson: After the Civil War, none of those officials of state and local governments who had taken up arms against the United States in the defense of slavery, none of those who had provided aid and comfort to those who had seized federal property, battled US soldiers, marshals and deputies were charged with treason, much less hung by the neck until dead. Thirty-eight US citizens of a Quaker community, attempting to prevent the extension of slave-holders’ power into a state where slavery was illegal were charged with treason.

Nothing says treason like defending the oppressed, the exploited, except maybe arming the oppressed and the exploited so that they might defend themselves.

First to face trial was a white man, Castner Hanway, indicted for refusing to aid deputy-marshal Henry Kline in the apprehension of the fugitives.   Thaddeus Stevens, perhaps the greatest individual to ever serve in the US House of Representatives (that doesn’t sound like much, but the generally pathetic nature of those who served then, and serve now, in the US Congress shouldn’t be allowed to diminish Stevens’ own stature), headed the defense of Hanway and won the dismissal of the charges. The indictments against the others were then dropped.

3. The federal government, that of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, proved their slave-catching mettle by sparing no expense in money or manpower in protecting the sanctity of the property and trade in human beings.  In response, several anti-slavery states attempted to interpose their own authority between their residents and federal government-slave-catcher alliance.  Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin passed “personal liberty laws” authorizing state official to refuse cooperation with slave-catchers and federal agents engaged in slave-catching actions.

This attempt at state “nullification” of a national slave-catching law didn’t get by the United States Supreme Court.  Pro-slavery chief justice, Roger B. Taney ever eager to expand upon the decision rendered in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford that found all restrictions on slavery unconstitutional, led the court in an unanimous decision that personal liberty laws were unconstitutional; a state could not impose its sovereignty, a sovereignty limited by and subordinate to the federal government by the US Constitution, against that of the federal government.

Taney was right in that, although odds are, if conditions were reversed, if a state were attempting to interpose its sovereignty to protect slave-catchers against a federal proscription, Taney would have constructed an opinion defending such “personal liberty.”

When it finally came to prosecuting the war against slavery, and only a war could have ended slavery in the United States, Lincoln ignored Taney’s attempts to protect pro-Confederate elements in the North.

Take the lesson.  Lincoln, however cautiously, however slowly, however reluctantly,  did.  There are no “autonomous zones,”  no “safe spaces,”  no “sanctuaries.”   There is only the struggle against property, the property and commerce in men and women as property then; the struggle against the commerce in the labor of men and women as property now.

4.  Slaves fleeing their masters, “property” fleeing “owner” is one thing, that one thing sure to bring down the power of the state on the side of slaveholder.  Masters fleeing slaves, in the “modern”form of capitalists fleeing “free” laborers, is something else altogether.  No commissioners, agents, empowered to seize the owner or the property and return it by force to its previous location.  No fines, penalties, sanctions against those aiding and abetting the capital flight.  No enshrinement of the posse comitatus as an instrument of justice.  None of that. Law not only follows property, it kisses its ass.

World War 2 was very good to organized labor in the United States, provided of course you weren’t one of the one million killed or wounded during the course of the conflict.  Between 1941 and 1945, the weekly manufacturing wage increased 65 percent, while the cost of living increased only 30 percent.  At the end of the war, eighty percent of US workers in the “heavy industries” were unionized.

The end of the war, however, brought the end of price controls and within six months in  real wages declined some 15 percent.   The CIO feared the worst, the worst being that the US economy would tumble back into recession, like the recession just prior to the war, 1938-1940 had produced lay-offs severe enough to reduce CIO membership by half.

The CIO retained enough memory to remember that contraction, and it retained enough institutional memory to recall how capital had fled its former centers of textile production in the US Northeast for the South.  Between 1925 and 1940,  Fall River, Massachusetts lost three-quarters of its textile production capacity to the closing and relocation of its mills to the South.

The history of the “progress” of capital, i.e. its expansion, its “tearing up” the soil of  “pre-existing” “pre-industrial” and “antediluvian” formations, always becomes a history of its absorption of, accommodation to and recomposition of those so called “primitive” relations.  So after the defeat of the slave confederacy by the capitalist United States, the capitalists of the United States retreat from the impulse to revolution, that impulse carried forward by radical Congressional Reconstruction and go on about their business, their business being the restoration, a re-forming of the old slaveholding ruling class in the “new” plantation ruling class.

The CIO recognized that this unreconstructed but redeemed South constituted a critical reserve for capitalism; a critical reserve of underpaid labor; a critical reserve of segregated labor with segregated wage levels; a critical reserve of super-exploited female laborers paid at a rate guaranteed to generate poverty.

The CIO recognized that “cracking” the South would effectively restrict not only the ability of Northern capital to flee, but of corporations  to mobilize its network of thugs, goons, preachers, police, and politicians to constrain a labor movement with reactionary legislation.

Nostalgia, however, is a degenerative disorder.  It’s more than just the mechanism where history is lost to ideology; it’s means for reproducing self-delusion as the delusion of others.  The CIO, for its part, was very, very nostalgic for the imaginary history of the 1930s and its own creation.  The CIO actually thought it, as an organization, had organized the mass struggles which had erupted at the point of production; that had been precipitated by the Great Depression and had been all about the terms of social reproduction; the ability of the working class to maintain its own existence.

In truth, the CIO had been able to contain those mass struggles within trade union struggles, as bloody and militant as those struggles were.  The CIO had been able to impose the union “question” on struggles which at their root, and in the prospects of their development,  were about “which class rules?”  And in its success, the CIO had failed, as the 1938 economic contraction proved,  cutting CIO membership by one-half. The CIO pledged allegiance, and the world war saved it.

In its delusional nostalgia, where it played the tape of the 1930s backwards, the CIO thought it would and “once again” win a mass struggle for trade union representation, when in fact it had only ever converted a mass struggle into a union struggle.

In 1946, the  CIO committed 250 organizers to the Operation Dixie union drives– 250 organizers dispersed among 12 Southern states, with a budget of one million dollars.   Operation Dixie was, from the getgo, understaffed, underfinanced, and literally undergunned.  Many organizers were stunned by the fierce, widespread, and uniform resistance to organizing efforts they encountered from press, police, propagandists, preachers, and political officers.

It wasn’t simply that the press, or the police, or the preachers, or the political officers were sympathetic to the textile mill owners, the tobacco companies.  It was more than that.  The press, the police, the preachers, the political officers were direct employees of the mill and factory owners.  In towns that really were unincorporated areas owned and administered by the mill owners, all commercial, political, and religious entities were branches of the companies.

Now this may have been a revelation to the CIO organizers,  but it was the legacy of the retreat from Reconstruction, the legacy of the reformation of the plantation ruling class, the legacy of the slaveholding system.  “Commerce,” such as it was, and “politics” such as it is, served and serve property, and the plantation property, and the property in human beings constrained commerce and politics, confining them both to the immediate power of the landowner, the slaveholder.  It was a totalitarian power in fragments.

This constraint was absorbed into, and adapted to, by the capitalist enterprises, the textile mills, the tobacco factories, the mines, that were established post Civil War.  The available  “social space,” that area outside the factory, the mill, the plantation, has no “independent” existence, but is the direct extension of the mill, the mine, the plantation, like the company store, the company nurse, the company cop are the direct extension.

In its “restricted development,” its ersatz “feudal” legacy,   the South compressed the totality of capitalist relations.

This “totalitarian” expression itself is the reflection of the slave legacy, where the laborer is himself or  herself owned as property and whose existence, whose very time of being, is all-consumed by the slaveholder; where the division between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time barely exists and is never recognized.  Where that division, that primary distinction upon which accumulation of value, accumulation as value depends, is suppressed, stunted,  then the relations that surround value, that represent the proliferation of value throughout the entire social organization are themselves isolated, fragmentary, and maintained through force, brutality, terror. The direct subordination of church, state, press to the land or mill owner, rather than the interrelation, the interaction of property with church, state, and press is the rule.  And the law.

The only chance the Operation Dixie had against the impoverished, provincial, petty totalitarianism of the South lay in expounding a program of the most radical egalitarianism-– rejecting all differentials in wages; all classifications and sub-classifications in jobs; all discrimination on the basis of gender and race.

The Southern capitalists knew this– denouncing every effort at “rational” economic adjustment; any “accommodation” or “understanding” or “cooperation” between management and labor as a vital threat organized by race-mixing, anti-religious, masculinity threatening, absolute social and racial equality advocating  communists.

The CIO got that message, but didn’t get the message– that “cracking the Dixie” for unionization would require nothing less than the uprooting of the entire society.  The Operation Dixie organizers continued to advocate contracts that maintained differential wage levels between men and women; that tacitly accepted the distinction between “Negro work” and “white work.”  Organizers for Operation Dixie attempt to negotiate contracts preserving wage differentials for men and women because, as one organizer put it,  “It never occurred to us to do it any other way.”

Take the lesson.

September 25, 2017

 

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One thought on “Lessons of Previous Septembers (and Octobers, and Februarys etc etc), Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Anti-Capital #7

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