2120 Hindsight: The End of Slavery

12Jun08

One of the most firmly held beliefs of the 20th century, in the United States, was that slavery had been largely eradicated following the First Civil War (CW I). This belief was possible primarily because, at that time, slavery was defined in terms of chattel ownership of one person by another. The ascendant view, throughout much of the 200-year period beginning in 1865, was that ending slavery was a convenient matter of forbidding the legally authorized ownership of persons.

That view survived as long as it did because this was an era of extraordinary cognitive disconnection, wrought primarily by excessive tolerance and sheer public fatigue. In other words, people were essentially trained to look at a situation and conceptualize it in terms other than what it obviously was.

The fatigue factor was simply that people were too tired and overwhelmed by the constant barrage of news, advertising, decision, stress, obligation, and the other trappings of consumerist society. They did not have time or stamina to sort things out and understand them. So when they looked at ongoing slavery, they lacked sufficient energy, training, or inclination to perceive it as such.

There were also, as always, some risks in any act of questioning the dominant viewpoint, in those areas where such questioning was societally verboten. People were free to wear, say, and think all kinds of things; but they were not really very free to question what the First Civil War had actually achieved, much less to ask whether another such war might be necessary to consummate the truly free society that abolitionists of the mid-19th century had envisioned.

The tolerance factor had to do with the core democratic flaw through which tired, uninformed, and easily manipulated voters could be persuaded to grant enormous power to madmen and fools. There was a remarkable faith in the wisdom of the people. Voters in Germany had elected Adolf Hitler in 1933, despite indicia of his intolerant views. And yet, after the experience of years of extremely costly war against Hitler, American voters reserved the right to do much the same with a series of extremist presidents in the late 20th and early 21st century. As in Germany, those presidents did not seem extreme when they were being elected; voters in all such instances were pretty confident, time after time, that they were finally getting it right. Only with the post-Depression generation of the 2020s was there, at last, sufficient public humility to obtain ratification of the 30th Amendment and imposition of basic knowledge requirements for those who would vote in national elections.

Because of these fatigue and tolerance factors, people of the slavery centuries possessed a highly developed ability to misconstrue a situation despite overwhelming evidence. As we now know about consumerist democracies, members of the public were typically functioning in a satiated mode of near somnolence, lulled almost to sleep by their comforts, at a time when alertness might have served them better. People simply did not see slavery as a continuing phenomenon, much less a growing one.

Slavery was only beginning to develop during the first century after CW I. The banning of chattel slavery meant that those who wished to own persons would have to do so in more carefully camouflaged ways. Black people were released from their plantations only to endure more than a century of struggle for equality with whites; and even then, their equality was often de jure rather than de facto.

Of course, blacks remained only a small minority of the population, and aggressive enslavement efforts were meanwhile underway elsewhere. For purposes of facilitating a highly affordable middle-class lifestyle, corporations enlisted desperate developing-nation workers (whether located on U.S. soil or abroad) in wage-slave conditions that were often worse than those that chattel slaves had experienced. The plantation slaveowner had a financial investment in his/her slaves, and would lose money if a slave became weaker or died. The wage slaveowner, by contrast, could exhaust the labor of the wage worker with little if any maintenance and upkeep expense, and (except where forbidden by relatively scarce effective union contracts) could simply discard the worker when s/he proved unprofitable.

The U.S. was thus able to exploit its predominant position in the world for more than a generation following World War II, so as to provide an unprecedentedly luxurious life to its middle-class citizens (primarily at the expense of those persons, American and not, who were least able to protect themselves); but in the late 20th century that American position of global supremacy began to fade. Working conditions for whites had been relatively tolerable, though still highly exploitative and oppressive, for nearly three postwar decades; but by the mid-1970s they were beginning to revert to their less tolerable prewar form, albeit in service rather than manufacturing industries. In this sense, blacks finally did achieve large-scale admission into the middle class, only to find that the middle class was ceasing to be what it had once been.

Facing overwhelming fiscal difficulties, reformist administrations of the early 21st century found themselves increasingly unable to help their constituents meet basic needs for security, education, food, shelter, urban infrastructure, and old-age assistance. Slowly, research began to demonstrate that consumerist democracy was delivering a lifestyle inferior to that which American farmers had enjoyed a century earlier – and, of course, vastly inferior to that which tenants had enjoyed under the manorial form of societal arrangement employed in Europe in the 12th century.

Such findings eventually contributed, not only to the passage of the 30th Amendment, but also to the formation of the Freedom Party, with its insistence that people enjoy greater peace, freedom from worry, quality of interpersonal relationships, and liberty of action and self-expression in small, insular communities under the protection of an appropriately trained and competitively selected liege lord.

Decades would pass before the Freedom Party moved out of fringe status and finally achieved power. Once the issue had been brought to public consciousness, however, those decades of recurrent tragedy and trauma served to underscore the plausibility of the Freedom Party platform. The first elected Freedom Party candidate for national office was Senator Perot of Oregon in 2024, but it would be nearly three more decades before the party was finally able to gain control of Congress and begin to dismantle the American slave legacy.

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