Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on Reading Capitalism and Slavery in a Grad School classroom

Do you ever sit in a class and think about how happy you are to have finished all the piles of reading, like you understand the concepts and are ready to discuss and then there is no intellectual space to do so?  Cultural Studies has differed in many ways from Women's Studies (my undergraduate degree) and one of the main differences is pedagogical.  My Women's Studies classes necessitated engaged crtitcal dialogue originating and perpetuated as much as possible by the students but facilitated when necessary by the professors.  This forced us to not only have done the readings but to have understood them enough to drive a conversation about them.  My classes were usually all women and there were enough brief silences that it felt right when I spoke, as if we were giving eachother space to take turns.  I didn't fear I would be interrupted or that my thoughts wouldn't be heard.  I realize this sounds utopian; of course not all my classes were like this, but the ones for W/St majors only really were.  My experiences here in private graduate school as opposed to public undergraduate school differ greatly.  Here in private school the students and professors are from different economic backgrounds whereas at state we were basically poor and working class.  Here the students and professors are mixed genders whereas in Women's Studies my classes and professors were almost all women.  And here in private graduate school competition seems to be emphasized as students seem to leap over eachother to top one another in regards to book critiques, reputation, and experience.  Though I have now been here almost a year I am still getting used to the alien concepts of competition in and outside of the classroom and feeling the unease and stress at not being quick and loud enough to say my thoughts before topics change.

Eric Williams
So I decided to write my thoughts on the reading this week for my Introduction to Cultural Studies class in my blog, though they are now influenced by the class lecture and discussion.  Today a classmate presented briefly on Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery and in their presentation they brought up immigrant labor today and asked several questions about the connections between William's argument and today's economic dependency on sweatshops and migrant workers.  The weird thing though, at least different for me from Women's Studies again, was that for this class we are assigned to present briefly on the reading and then come up with questions for the class.  In W/St we did this as well and would basically facilitate discussion based on questions we created.  However, today after the student asked the questions the professor facilitated the rest of the class not based on the student's questions but on their own and we never came back to the presenter.  I had thoughts on the student's presentation and as the discussion didn't focus on it and the space in the class was not open I thought I would share some brief thoughts here.  As a side note I worry sometimes that I am just a whiny student who needs to learn to shout things out in class and stop being shy.  But I know I'm not shy and that in classes where the professor expects the students to drive the discussion I still thrive.  I am not the quickest thinker maybe as I like to formulate my thoughts in my head neatly before saying them, but in cases of many Cultural Studies classes by that time the discussion has quickly moved on or someone has said a similar thought more quickly.

So here is my piece.  Eric Williams's arguments were basically that the beginning of slavery in the so-called New World by England and its abolition as spearheaded by England were not based on race.  He says that it began because it was economically beneficial to England and that it ended because it was no longer economically beneficial to England.  He argued that race was used after slavery was already in place to justify it, but that it was not the reason for slavery.  He also argued against the sentimentality of abolitionism and the idea that England was so heroic/brave/selfless and symbolic of hope and humanitarianism for abolishing slavery first as this was not the reason they did so.  I am down with Williams though I think he downplayed race a lot because his argument was primarily economic and he wanted to differentiate his argument from others.  I think that slavery was both based on economic need and the idea that people from other lands with different customs and languages and who look "different" from English hegemonic "man" were underdeveloped mentally because they had a whole different paradigm of value, intelligence, labor, family, etc.

Rosie the Riveter
In thinking about the connections between hatred of African Americans and slavery as an economic system, this brings me to my classmates connection with immigrant labor.  Williams's argument that hatred came later makes sense when you think about other situations including labor by anyone but white men.  Today there is this liberal feminist idea that Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of women's strength, women's inclusion, and women's rights.  Rosie symbolizes women moving toward equality in the labor force.  But really Rosie is also sentimentalized under the auspices of humanitarianism when in reality she was war propaganda which, once the war ended, changed her tune.  As men returned home, women was practically forced out of their jobs and the common sentiment was that women were taking mens jobs away.  Just as they were first called patriotic for working, they were then demonized and called unpatrotic if they did not immediately stop working.  Rosie's image in propaganda began to look like a huge buff giant stepping on industries like Godzilla to make clear that paid labor was once again a man's job.  Then take the bracero program in which Mexicans were lured to the United States to work and were then deported and sent back to Mexico regardless that they had started families in the US.  "Americans" began to show hatred toward them for "taking their jobs" and blamed them for their own bad economy.  In both of these cases the empowerement of the laborers were followed by hateful discrimiation based on the threat that women or immigrants would/could one day have access to the same privileges as white men.  This for many people is scary because to some equality is a zero-sum game.

Anti sweatshop poster calling it slave labor
Women and migrant laborers are not slaves.  Some people liken maquiladoras and migrant workers to slave labor but there is a difference.  I do think there are modern day slaves and that these are people who are trafficked whether by kidnapping or trickery into another location so as to be isolated and then forced to work without pay.  Undocumented laborers in the US and sweatshop workers outside of the US are often exploited in that they are underpaid for their work and sometimes not paid at all, forced to work in hazardous and unhealthy conditions and they are working without job security.  There are also issues such as sexual harrassment and assault, and all of these conditions and effects occur with impunity.  But as bad as the work conditions are, as overtly exploitative, this is still not slavery because slaves are the property of their masters and exploited and underserved workers are not.  To use the term slavery, even when paired such as in the case of "wage slavery" is to change the meaning of the term such as when the term "rape" is paired with other words like "raped my wallet."  The inherent meaning of rape is about the use of sexual means to gain power just as slavery is about owning a human being for personal use.  When used to describe situations other than these they are being misused and misappropriated to bring the weight of their own meaning to another issue.  Comparing and discussing slavery, servitude, and underpaid and exploited labor is fine, but a word with as specific and important a word as slavery should only be used to describe situations that are in fact slavery.

I hope that all made sense.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, it makes sense. I agree and disagree. On the one hand, slavery is an experience that is minimized when the term is overused. On the other hand, the job of a writer or an organizer is to get people to think, and sometimes using words in different ways can help do that. Its the most radical labor organizers who call the wage system "wage slavery" (after, of course, post Civil War slavery apologists used the term to describe northern industrial work to cast ownership of other humans in a more favorable light). And they used it to get people to think about their labor conditions, about how many options they really had open to them in life, about who was making the decisions that affected them and what needed to change for them to have more say.

    Although in those days the companies really did act a lot more like plantation owners, with company stores and the like, whereas today's employers are more and more divorced from their workforce through the use of temp agencies, minimal benefit provision, etc. So maybe that's why the ownership dimension is less evident today. Day laborers, temp workers, interns, entry-level employees, are all just cheap, throwaway labor because Williams is right--it's cheaper not to own your slaves.