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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Capital, American Slavery, Marvelous Sugar Baby, and Thomas Piketty

Posted by on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 8:55 AM

Artnet reports:
Kara Walker‘s colossal, much-discussed work A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, commissioned by Creative Time and currently installed in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Refinery, has recently spawned some tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work. Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”
Those posting smutty pics on Instragram of this work of art are missing in fact three points: One, a critique of Afrocentrism (this to me is the work's most troubling area—the history of slave labor collapsed with the politics of black American nationalism); two, a comment on the mammy type (read Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and Myth of the Superwoman), and a presentation of slavery that locates it dangerously within and not safely outside of capitalism. To better understand the third point, one can turn to a passage in the first chapter in the new and very popular economics book Capital in the 20st Century by Thomas Piketty. The passage in question:
Human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate). This is a key difference from other forms of capital. One can of course put one's labor services up for hire under a labor contract of some sort. In all modern legal systems, however, such an arrangement has to be limited in both time and scope. In slave societies, of course, this is obviously not true: there, a slaveholder can fully and completely own the human capital of another person and even of that person's offspring. In such societies, slaves can be bought and sold on the market and conveyed by inheritance, and it is common to include slaves in calculating a slaveholder's wealth...
Piketty is making two moves here. The first dismantles the popular idea of human capital—an idea whose most famous proponent (the economist Gary Becker) died recently. What this move does is essentially separate Piketty from the neoclassical school of economics, a school which has dominated university programs and government policy for the past 30 years. From neoclassical thinking we get these three neoliberal realities: A government concerned not with full employment but price stability (keeping inflation low), the privatization of as many services as possible (the prison system, for example), and subjects who are no longer citizens but see themselves as entrepreneurs (your education, your skills, your daily life, you children, your dreams are investment opportunities—human capital). Piketty, however, sees this as nonsense because (and this is his second move) human capital does not meet the criteria for capital (which is "the total sum of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on the market") but, however, American slaves did.

You could buy a black African woman/man, sell him/her, loan him/her, make a profit from him/her, borrow against him/her, and so on. Slaves were people reduced to nonhuman capital assets, people who were property in the sense of a government bond or a share in a company. And marketable, profitable assets is what capitalism is all about. Human capital fails to meet this basic standard of an asset. Also human capital is human. Also human capital is really a political project and nothing more. It's about universalizing the weltanschauung of one and very peculiar (and very powerful) mode of life: white men with lots and lots of money. The neoliberal world we find ourselves in still today (TINA's "C.R.E.A.M.") is nothing but the generalization of the thinking and being of this tiny group of humans.

Discuss This Book With Me on June 10th at Vermillion Gallery at 6 pm


Comments (7) RSS

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Human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate).

This is also a problem because a human being can have a very high value or no value in the current economy.

A human is only capital if he serves the machines. If he can add value by pulling a level, driving a vehicle, or optimizing a compiler, he is rewarded. People who give advice, or heal wounds, are mere "after-market" suppliers. Fixing people so they can go and run machines.

However, a human sitting alone in a field, not pulling a plow has no value.

Contrast this with a slave, who was always fairly valued whether at work or idle.

Our current economy has no such similar concept, therefore, we often starve and go homeless. The much maligned hipster, sipping espresso, has no value because he is not a slave, except to his mother, who sends him money so he can eat.

Now, imagine instead of bitcoin, based on numbers, there was GeneCoin, based on DNA. Our DNA becomes a unique number, much like bitcoins. Our parents, "mine" us by giving birth. And each human becomes a "dollar". Then we would have inherent worth.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 4, 2014 at 9:34 AM · Report this
Have a short documentary here on the new debtor prison system. I'm still shocked we're going back to this, including our own state.

"This is the story of Hali Wood, a seventeen-year-old from Columbiana, Alabama who is deeply in debt to the private probation company, JCS. "…
Posted by Large Hardon Colluder on June 4, 2014 at 9:56 AM · Report this
sirkowski 3
Do you want ants? Cuz that's how you get ants.
Posted by sirkowski on June 4, 2014 at 3:15 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
One of the most remarkable things about watching Ta-Nehisi Coates's thinking on reparations unfold over the past four years (culminating in his recent essay in The Atlantic Monthly)has been discovering through him some of the great works of American history and the flabbergasting facts conveyed within.

For instance, in 1860, right before the Civil War, the capital value of slaves in America was greater than all the banks, all the factories, all the railroads combined. 16% of the accumulated wealth of the United States was human bodies; ten trillion dollars worth as a share of GDP. HALF of the total assets of the South was enslaved humans.

59% of US exports was cotton. That doesn't even include other slave-farmed crops like tobacco and rice, or all the other ways white Americans profited from slavery -- and not just in the North. Slaves didn't just magically appear here; they came on ships, and those ships had captains, and those captains built Newport, Rhode Island. Boston and New York were built on slave-trading and trading in slave goods -- Boston was the home of the American rum industry, built on the "triangular trade" that brought slaves to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

We are such a judgemental, moralizing people; we are accustomed to thinking about slavery, and every other thing in the world, in strictly manichean terms: it's "wrong" to own people. Sure, it's wrong -- but that leaves out most of the story. It's an economic system first and foremost. And it is fundamental to the existence of this country.
Posted by Fnarf on June 4, 2014 at 4:56 PM · Report this
@4 When he ran for president in 1860 Lincoln made it clear that he thought slavery had to end. He was willing to abolish it slowly so as not to unduly disrupt the economies of the slave states, but he wasn't willing to compromise concerning the eventual outcome. If slavery was such a good deal for America why why did Lincoln win the election?
Posted by Ken Mehlman on June 4, 2014 at 5:21 PM · Report this
Fnarf 6
@5, slavery was not "a good deal" for America; it was an enormous economic asset for a certain class of people. A lot of other people believed it had to go -- abolitionism was the cumulation of an intellectual process that had been around as long as slavery itself. And it had become apparent by 1860 that slavery was going to split the nation apart, though there was some (unfounded) hope at the time that a literal split could be avoided. Obviously it could not. Fort Sumter was barely a month after Lincoln's inauguration.

I don't really understand what you're asking here, and I don't think you do either.
Posted by Fnarf on June 4, 2014 at 6:27 PM · Report this
@6 Mr. Coates claims that the 19th century United States derived an economic advantage from slavery. I contend that the opposite is true and that the, primarily agricultural, southern slave economy represented a barrier to industrialization that this country had to overcome in order to become a great power. Mr. Coates says that we are as rich as we are today, in part, because our ancestors owned black people. I argue that the United States became a great power in spite of the institution of slavery.
Posted by Ken Mehlman on June 4, 2014 at 7:32 PM · Report this

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