Story by Bailey Walker
It is difficult to argue that someone would prefer to live in any other time than the present. Food, healthcare and luxury goods are more accessible than ever. The modern world is ripe with bounty, but it is not perfect. Depression diagnoses have risen sharply, and though some of the surge can be attributed to greater attention to the issue and a reduction in stigma of mental illness, it’s not the only explanation. A 2012 study by Dr. Brandon Hidaka, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found obesity, sedentary lifestyles caused by computer-based working, sunlight and sleep deprivation, competition, inequality and loneliness are key problems from the modern world that contribute to rises in depression. The over-saturation of goods, though riddled with drawbacks, has massive usefulness but in this time of abundance many are left out of the lion’s share.
Punk artists Chris Calvin and Hannah Jones argue in their piece “Laziness is Next to Evilness,” “... This luxury comes from slavery in some far, far away place. Always think about the things you buy and where they’re from and how they’re made. Always try to keep in mind that your privilege comes on the backs of slaves.”
Luxury goods, such as those from Apple and Nike, are manufactured cheaply overseas using unprotected workers and are then sold domestically. Worker exploitation supports the everyday lifestyles of billions of people.
On the spectrum of exploitation, slavery may be the pinnacle, stealing all forms of agency from a person and profiting entirely from their bondage. Exploitation beyond slavery exists in varying forms and degrees; underpaying immigrant workers, whether they work in agriculture or construction, poverty wages, sweatshops and prison labor, are all differing forms of exploitation.
Noticeably, across these forms of exploitation is a unifying motivation: profit. Wealthy business owners choose to outsource work to nations with lax labor laws. The notion “immigrants drive wages down” is a misnomer, business owners being the ultimate deciders in the matter choose to pay immigrants less. The minimum wage has remained stagnant since the ‘70s because business controllers make more money that way, landowners supported and perpetuated the institution of slavery to sustain profits from their plantations. Structurally speaking, exploiting workers is one of the most apparent cost-saving measures and therefore the most common. An Economic Policy Institute study in 2017 found that in the 10 most populous states, around $8 billion were lost to minimum wage violations. This amount is a quarter of their total earned wages, and is equivalent to $3,300 taken per worker per year.
The current condition of the United States was built on the basis of forced labor from African slaves founded in approval from northern and southern institutions. Economic gains that cemented the U.S. as a global superpower were made using slave labor and the contemporary U.S. benefits from that legacy.
The Americas were invaded and colonized by the European powers beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus and, as early as 1526, slavery took root on the continent. Slaves were brought to what would become Brazil, four years after being brought to North America. Over the next 300 years until abolition, Brazil received 40 percent of all imported slaves to the Americas. Comparatively, North America received around 10 percent of all imported slaves to the Americas. Forced labor was essential to quickly extracting wealth from the continent, taming and cutting back the rain forests of South America and working the fields of the labor-intensive cash crops spanning both the North and South continents. Slaves were liberally utilized in the Colonial U.S. before their relegation to the South in the era leading up to the Civil War.
In 1703, 42 percent of households in New York state owned slaves; only Charleston, South Carolina had more. In 1740, one-third of Manhattan’s workforce was made up of enslaved black men. The idea that the North divorced itself from slavery is half true, in that at one time they owned many slaves and then reduced their numbers drastically; however, the North did not stop benefiting from the institution nor did racism weaken.
Edward Baptist is a history professor at Cornell University and author of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” Baptist argued the industry of the North, as well as American industrialization generally, relied heavily on the global trade monopoly America controlled on cotton that was achieved using slave labor.
“Slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation-not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping make the civil war possible,” Baptist wrote.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History concluded similarly; “One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth.”
This interdependence of North and South made the economic gains and rapid industrialization undertaken by the US a direct product of slavery.
The Global Policy Forum reported, “The value of that critical “contribution” to United States’ industrialization and export of capital, with an interest of six percent compounded through 1993 is a staggering bill of $97,100,000,000,000.”
The United States and therefore the world as it is currently known was created through the subjugation of African slaves and their subsequent generations. Profit motivated the kidnapping and brutalization of millions, and only once profit became untenable were they then freed. Both ‘halves’ of the prevailing North-South narrative profited and actively contributed to the prolonging of the institution of slavery. Slavery acted as a jumping off point for the industrialized global economy, but exploitation in other forms is continually used in pursuit of profit and cost-cutting. Multinational corporations routinely utilize unprotected workers; those in countries with even more lax labor laws than the U.S., undocumented immigrants who have come to The States, and those incarcerated within the country.
Read Part Two in the next issue of the 15th Street News.