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Reading between the lines

Aidan Campbell challenges the view that if slaves helped build civilisation it is not worth having

Why should slavery damn modernity?

  • The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870
    Hugh Thomas, Picador, £25 hbk

  • The making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800
    Robin Blackburn, Verso, £15 hbk

  • The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery
    Robin Blackburn, Verso, £17 pbk

Can being a slave ever be 'a good thing'? Not since the French Revolution of 1789 made freedom a reality. We find it easy to choose between the options of slavery or freedom. Yet in pre-Revolution times, the choice was frequently between being enslaved and being killed. In fact selecting slavery is the better option here. When mankind lived like an animal, only bestial methods were available to lift humanity out of the mire. And that made slavery a more progressive option than being slaughtered. Moreover, history shows that slavery can take many different forms: from the slave who labours all day and night in the mines until he dies, to the Mameluke soldier slaves who ruled Egypt and dominated the Middle East in the fourteenth century. Would the world be a better place without the scientific and cultural achievements of ancient Greece and Islam? Without slavery we would not have had them.

Yet increasingly these days the conclusion is drawn that, if they involved slavery, then we would have been better off without the immense contributions to human culture made by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is why, for example, Debbie Allen, the producer of the recently released anti-slavery film Amistad, can state that African culture is 'far beyond and centuries ahead' of America's. African culture is assumed to be far more modern than America's because the continent was the main victim of the Enlightenment's institution of slavery.

It is indeed true that slavery during the embryonic stages of capitalism was far more barbaric and extensive than under any previous system. As Karl Marx said, the market system came into life dripping in blood from head to foot. But its ferocity was a product of its vastly greater dynamism. For the same reason it was also more civilised than any previously existing order. Most significantly, for all its ghastly crimes, capitalist society at least held up the prospect of humanity advancing to a consistently civilised world. Even when viewed in its most romanticised light, no pre-modern society ever remotely offered that possibility.

In a weak reply to the prevailing anti-modern temperament, Hugh Thomas makes the point that slavery had been an institution in Africa for millennia before Portuguese explorers began to venture down the African coast early on in the fifteenth century, and he points to evidence of the enslavement of bushmen in Lower Egypt in 8000 BC (p25). One can go much further back than this, since humanity originated in Africa and slavery was one of the first instances of the division of human labour.

However, this rational point does not justify Thomas' claim that the anti-slavery policy pursued by Britain from 1815 to 1832 was the most humanitarian foreign policy ever conducted. Evidence of African slavers from that period seems to make Thomas' point that Britain was a force for good in the eradication of slavery. But in truth abolitionism only served as a pretext for colonisation - to the point where Britain seized most of Africa to set it free.

Thomas acquits Europe of responsibility for slavery by saying that everybody else was just as bad, but Robin Blackburn relishes the special culpability of the European Enlightenment. For Blackburn, 'the Enlightenment was not so antagonistic to slavery as was once thought' (p590). Whereas Thomas sees no connection between free market industrial capitalism and slavery, Blackburn is determined to prove the link since, for him, the intensification of slavery as capitalism developed places a question mark against the whole project of modernity.

Blackburn carefully lists those features of capitalism which he associates most closely with its slave plantations in the Americas: the growth of instrumental rationality; the rise of the nation state; the spread of market relations and wage labour; the development of administrative bureaucracies and modern tax systems; the growing sophistication of commerce and communication; the birth of consumer societies; and, finally, the 'individualist sensibility' (p4). He then demonstrates the persistence of slavery 'well into the nineteenth century', argues that 'the spread of philosophical enlightenment, the advent of industrialisation and the eruption of revolution was, for a time, compatible with a continuing growth of slave populations and a mounting total of slave produce' (pp590-1) and adds a footnote for good measure that records the existence of 'many millions' of child labourers in the mid-1990s, which is a form of 'thinly veiled slavery' (p593). His book concludes that 'anti-slavery could not make substantial advances until the sacred rights of private property were challenged' (p591). Contrary to Thomas, Blackburn's aim is to show that modernity achieves its most perfect form in slavery, rather than under free labour, and therefore modernity itself must be rejected.

The Making of New World Slavery is Blackburn's second book about slavery. His first, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, was published 10 years ago. It was a record of the anti-slavery struggles instigated by the example of the French Revolution and in particular emphasising the vanguard role played by the slaves of the Caribbean island of St Domingue in creating the free republic of Haiti in 1804. The Making of World Slavery was supposed to be the sequel to this legacy, considering 'the character and dynamic of the new slave systems and of the new anti-slavery challenges they faced' (The Overthrow, p548). But in fact the final date in the title of the latest book only goes up to the year 1800. The expansion of slavery in nineteenth century America and its abolition in the aftermath of their 1861-1865 civil war is not dealt with by Blackburn. The very fact of the civil war indicates that capitalism in America could not only survive without slavery, but that America could go on to become the world's most prosperous country ever. It is pointed that Blackburn's original focus on the resistance to slavery must now take a back seat to the more pessimistic focus on the problems of modernity.

While Thomas imagines we already live in a free society, Blackburn develops his anti-modern critique by trying to locate who is interested in abolishing modern society and who wishes to maintain it. He warms to the alternative routes to development suggested by small producers 'including farmers and manufacturers' (Making of New World Slavery, p515). On the other hand, he constantly blames the dynamism of the 'modern' plantation slave system on the rapacious demands of mass consumers of 'drugs and stimulants' like tobacco and coffee, and purchasers of cotton for popular apparel (p19). In Blackburn's eyes, smokers and other greedy consumers are part of the problem of slavery, too. Under the rubric that everything is connected, Blackburn is laying a complaint against everything modern, from smoking to mass consumption. To this extent slavery is made the exemplar of everything that has gone wrong in the modern world.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism: African Ethnicity (Cassell)

Adam Hibbert finds that evolutionary psychologists and their critics share some prejudices about humanity

Nurturing nature

  • How the mind works
    Steven Pinker, Penguin, £25 hbk

Evolutionary psychology examines the psyche through Darwin's spectacles, treating our mental complexity as another of those little marvels of natural selection. As Steven Pinker puts it, 'The mind is a system of organs of computation . . . their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history'. Just as evolution explains the pancreas or bat sonar by finding fitness conditions to select the genes for them, evolutionary psychology wants to explain our minds by the mental fitness conditions of our Stone Age past, and their genetic bequest to us.

How the Mind Works is a sophisticated and accessible survey of this young science, from MIT's top cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker. It is a hefty, highly-readable book, the author moving engagingly between the roles of populariser and boffin. Scientifically correct academics have reacted venomously: Pinker's account of the genetic calculus of infanticide among hunter-gatherers has been interpreted, in the press and in the rhetoric of sociologist Tom Shakespeare, as an argument for murdering disabled babies.

Yet Pinker is not easily dismissed as an old-style Social Darwinist. In the past biological inheritance was used as a pseudo-scientific justification of social inequality, on the grounds that income differences could be explained by genetic differences. Pinker is different: the emergence of his discipline is inexplicable without reference to rather more contemporary insecurities than those of racial supremacists. As sociologist Howard Kaye has noted, far from excusing the status quo, 'the aim of current efforts is instead to transform the human self-conception by translating our lives and history back into the language of nature, so that we might once again find a cosmic guide' to steer us through our insecure times. It is the promise of such a totalising account of human society that drives Pinker and company; and it is this aspect of evolutionary psychology that most offends his relativist critics.

In this regard, evolutionary psychology should be understood as a reaction to sociology's retreat from any big picture. Pinker and colleagues are easily identified by their rejection of what they term the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM). The SSSM (while variously attributed to Marxists, the New Left, or feminism) is most succinctly stated by that seminal theorist, Emile Durkheim; that human nature counts in sociology as merely the indeterminate material that the social factor moulds and transforms.

Pinker's attempt at an assault on the SSSM deploys two main analytical tools; first and best is the computational theory of cognition. This method has revolutionised the cognitive sciences, previously confined to studying inputs and outputs of the mind (behaviourism), enabling psychologists and neuroscientists to model the inner mechanisms of cognition and the brain. The mind is treated functionally as a set of modules which employ simple rules to process information, like subroutines in a program. The excitation of neurons is treated much as the on/off bits of computing science.

It is the extraordinary power of the computational theory that makes How the Mind Works such a compelling book. For one example, Pinker successfully lays bare the operations that together perform the incredibly complex task of vision, by which humans and other animals translate stimuli to their retinal cells into basic internal models of the world around them.

But despite many such masterful and rewarding analyses in the opening chapters, Pinker's evolutionary psychology is no alternative to the flawed Standard Social Science Model. In fact, in so far as Pinker seeks to give an evolutionary account of social relationships, he only repeats the worst deficiencies of the sociological approach.

What Pinker and the SSSM have in common is a tend- ency to take human subjectivity out of the picture, and see men as the mere puppets of forces outside of them. In the one case those forces are impersonal sociological factors, in the other natural forces. Pinker just gives a better account of what Durkheim's indeterminate material runs on. The computational theory is not, almost by definition, a study of consciousness: it traces how information might be processed in neural networks in the brain, not what relation subjectivity might have to such processes. On its own, it says nothing about whether a 'program' is built by nature or by nurture, nor to what extent a subject or a society may intervene to 'rewrite' that program.

Pinker's second analytical tool, 'reverse-engineering' is meant to carry us over the dead end that faces any experimentation into the line between nature and nurture. 'In forward engineering, one designs a machine to do something; in reverse-engineering, one figures out what a machine was designed to do.' This seems fair play at first glance; but to work adequately, one needs first to answer the question of what features the machine has, and Pinker begs it: 'The mind is an exquisitely organised system that accomplishes remarkable feats no engineer can duplicate. How could the forces that shaped that system, and the purposes for which it was designed, be irrelevant to understanding it? Evolutionary thinking is indispensable...in the form of careful reverse-engineering.'

The difficulty is this: the forces and purposes that have shaped the human mind (and brain) are assumed to be just exactly those forces and purposes which apply in biology, the natural selection of genes. In other words, the mind that Pinker sets about reverse-engineering already stands defined as the product of genetic evolution. Pinker assumes from the outset that the mind is a genetic product and, amazingly, that is what he concludes too.

Despite disclaimers, Pinker actually reinforces his reductionist project in the modestly entitled closing chapter, 'The Meaning of Life'. Anything that reverse- engineering must strain to encompass can be chalked up to unselected side-effects of adaptive capacities. Here may sit the gay gene, otherwise something of a contradiction in terms (think about it). Pinker is keen on research into whether the 'gay gene' is an artefact of one that is 'for' something else, perhaps early puberty in females. Since whole chunks of human experience can be swept under this carpet, including subjectivity itself, this is less than satisfactory.

It is to just such misapplications of the evolutionary sciences (and of the reductionist method) that Steven Rose's book, Lifelines, is addressed. Rose, as much as Pinker, is engaged in a polemic against the orthodoxy, though his target is the gene-centrism of contemporary biology, and so also the alleged gay gene or IQ gene discoveries that regularly infuriate sociologists. Rose gives a neat caricature of such theory by inviting us to replace God with DNA in the first verses of St John's gospel, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with DNA and the Word was DNA...All things were made by DNA; and without DNA was not anything made that was made. In DNA was life...

The main argument of lifelines is to expose the heart of genetic determinism's logical weakness: its abuse of the reductionist method. Rose thinks it wrong to imagine that all higher levels of description to be in some sense captured within or reducible to more fundamental ones: as one molecular biologist puts it, There is only one science, physics - everything else is social work.

This deconstruction of levels of description into their lower building blocks is not universally useful: 'at each level new interactions and relationships appear between the component parts - relationships which cannot be inferred simply by taking the system to pieces.' (p93) The Grand Unified Theory quested for in modern physics will not explain the objects of 'higher' sciences. Unhappily, Rose indulges in some cosmic guidance of his own. With his version of autopoiesis (from the Greek self-construction), he smuggles in a peculiar metaphysics. This version of autopoiesis is to explain why it is in the very nature of life and living processes themselves that we, as living organisms and specifically as humans, are free agents.

The irony of this excursion is that, against every other principle Rose holds dear, it radically undermines any distinction between humanity and the natural world; perhaps more effectively than Pinker ever could. Where Pinker unintentionally confesses to a sort of Dualism, that natural and ethical realms remain 'two self-contained systems played out among the same entities in the world', Rose's autopoiesis transplants something like human subjectivity into nature. By conflating the natural world with the social Rose obscures the workings of both.

Henry Joy McCracken peers into the Underworld

The aftermath of paranoia

  • Underworld
    Don Delillo, Picador, £18 hbk

'The missiles remained in their rotary launchers. The men came back and the cities were not destroyed'. So writes American novelist Don Delillo near the beginning of Underworld. The book stretches from one fateful summer afternoon in the 1950s to the deserts of the American west at the beginning of this decade; from the beginning of the Cold War to the aftermath of paranoia.

Underworld starts with a famous baseball game - a match that seemed certainly lost until striker Bobby Thomson hits a last long shot which wins the game. This, we are told, was 'the shot that was heard round the world'; and in the stalls watching is J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. Midway through the match an agent comes to him with the news that the Soviet Union has exploded an atomic bomb. Both events appear on the front page of the next day's New York Times, side by side; the end of post-war certainty and the beginning of the long cold winter of threats and counter-threats. Delillo sees the importance of the game as something that 'binds.. to a memory with a protective power', which 'keeps us safe in some undetermined way'. Delillo's Underworld is history in the miniature, the secret histories of individuals bound together in crowds.

Bobby Thomson's ball catapults into the stands and into the hands of a black kid who has sneaked into the game - and from there the ball drills through pages of the novel.

The feeling hanging over 'Underworld' is not the nervous claustrophobia of his earlier works - it is a different feeling, a sense that this has passed and we are now entering a new period. One of his characters describes the Cold War as 'greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held the world together...violence is undone, violence is easier now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has no measure any more, it has no level of values'. Delillo does not judge this change, he offers no pronouncement on it. But it is clear from his work that at its heart there is a deep and fundamental love of language and words, a yearning to divine reason and order, a belief in the miracle of the everyday - a belief that can even survive the aftermath of paranoia.

Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998



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