Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The En-Closure of Gaza

We hear constantly in the mainstream media, and in the hallowed halls of the U.S. government, the great rationale for bombing the hell out of Gaza: Israel has a right to defend itself. ‘If the Gazans would only stop firing those rockets, we Israelis would be glad to cease our fire.’ But Hamas, Gaza’s duly and democratically-elected government, keeps insisting that a ceasefire isn’t enough, because it will only put Gazans back in prison. What’s needed, says Hamas, is for Israel to lift the siege of Gaza and open the borders so that Gazans are no longer prisoners. That would constitute a permanent ceasefire worth partaking in.
            Rarely, however, do we hear anything about this notion other than ridicule of it. ‘Those terrorist Hamas leaders—they want Israel to reward them for their aggression. Have they no morals?’ But perhaps this notion deserves a bit of consideration. What does Hamas actually mean here? Why do they insist that the real aggressor is Israel, even aside from bombs and rockets, and that it is Hamas that has the right to defend itself?
            A recent article by Prof. Daniel C. Maguire, “Hiding War Crimes Behind a Question,” (July 24, 2014, Consortiumnews.com), provides some light here. That is, according to Maguire, “siege (or blockade) is itself an act of offensive warfare,” indeed, one of the most devastating forms of warfare and one that is condemned by ethical and religious and civic leaders from Maimonides to Just War theorists to humanitarian law. Therefore, since the Gazans have been under siege since at least 2007 (in 2006, explaining its “economic warfare” on Gaza, Dov Weisglass, adviser to then-PM Ehud Olmert, said the goal of the siege was to put the people of Gaza “on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”), and since that siege or blockage of both entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip has become even more devastating since the new Egyptian government closed the tunnels near Rafah that were the only lifeline for Gazans until then, the policies and military measures locking Gazans into their open-air prison have become even more suffocating. Their farmers cannot trade with other countries including their relatives in the West Bank and Israel, their fishermen cannot fish, their builders cannot build, even hospital supplies and food are rationed, their meager supplies of water and electricity have been cut off, they have no airport, and the few places where they can take refuge are themselves being bombed. In short, like the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Gazans have decided that they would rather “die on our feet than on our knees.” And that the continuous warfare against them, the never-ending siege, gives them, not the Israelis, the right to defend themselves.
            Once one decides to look into this notion, the plight of the Gazans and the violations of the Israelis take on ever darker tones. Numerous international organizations have condemned the siege as illegal. In 2010, a UN fact-finding mission into Israel's attack on the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla concluded:
'The Mission considers that one of the principal motives behind the imposition of the blockade was a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip for having elected Hamas. The combination of this motive and the effect of the restrictions on the Gaza Strip leave no doubt that Israel's actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law..” (cited on http://imeu.org/article/reference-sheet-israel-gaza-international-law1 ).

In 2011, a UN panel of experts similarly concluded that Israel’s blockade of Gaza (resulting in its deadly attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010) does violate international law, stating that it amounts to collective punishment  “in flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.” This is because, according to a detailed position paper produced by the Israeli organization, GISHA (http://gisha.org/UserFiles/File/publications/GazaClosureDefinedEng.pdf,), the closure of Gaza is in fact collective punishment, authorized in September 2007 when “Israel’s Security Cabinet approved a decision that openly called for restricting the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza.” The Gisha position paper explained, in fact, that the “restrictions on the movement of people and goods through Gaza’s borders” are neither ‘economic sanctions,’ as Israel argues, nor a siege or a blockade as they are commonly known. Rather, they “constitute a closure imposed for purposes of collective punishment - and are therefore illegal under international law.” Though this might appear to constitute a technical distinction, it is extremely important in this case because while both sieges and blockades are sometimes legal, the type of closure imposed on Gaza is not. It is, as noted, a closure (I prefer to call it an en-closure, like fences or walls that enclose farm animals) imposed for purposes of collective punishment, and therefore illegal.
            So why is the en-closure not a siege? Quite simply, because a siege is “the act of surrounding a particular area in order to induce surrender.” That is, the only reason the laws of war allow a siege is to bring about a surrender, after which the siege would be lifted. A siege is temporary, in other words; it happens only for a limited time, until the town or area opens itself to its besiegers. But in Gaza, there is no time limit. Gaza is closed indefinitely (except, of course, to the Israeli military). Israel controls everything about Gaza: its entrances and exits, its ability to trade or sell goods, its import of the most basic goods, the sea outside it, its air space, practically the air it breathes. Again, Israel’s en-closure of Gaza has no military objective. Rather, it is aimed at civilians,

with the goal of using them as a point of pressure on the Hamas regime - in blatant violation of the fundamental international law prohibition against collective punishment and deliberately harming civilians. (Gisha report)

In a similar way, and for similar reasons, the en-closure of Gaza cannot be considered a blockade. For Israel’s aim is not the blockade’s normal aim of depriving an enemy of needed military supplies, as can be seen from the obvious fact that what is kept out of Gaza is not just weapons but a broad range of civilian goods including hospital supplies, “most of which have absolutely no military use or potential for military use.” Neither can the closure be considered “sanctions,” which usually involve an agreement among nations to refuse to trade with the target nation. This doesn’t apply in Gaza’s case, because no other nation (with the possible exception of the U.S.) has joined these sanctions, and more, because numerous other nations have indicated that they want to trade with Gaza, but Israel is using military force to prevent anyone from trading with Gaza, or even, as in the case of the Flotilla—where nine Turkish nationals were killed—bringing it humanitarian supplies.
         The conclusion of the Gisha report, therefore, is simple and even more devastating to the en-closure than its simple illegality due to its purpose of collective punishment. This is because the report adds the fact that “the closure of Gaza is taking place in the context of an occupation.” That is,

Israel continues to control Gaza through substantial control of Gaza's land crossings, total control of Gaza's airspace and territorial waters, control of the Palestinian population registry (including the question, who is a "resident" of Gaza) and control of tax policy and transfer of tax revenues. That control rises to the level of "effective control", the test in international law for the existence of a state of occupation. Gisha's position is that Israel owes obligations to Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank commensurate with the level of control it exercises.

In short, it is not just that the imprisonment of the people of Gaza (a majority of them refugees from Israel’s original seizure of their homes/land in 1948) in a total enclosure is illegal collective punishment; it is also a violation of Israel’s obligations as an occupying power—obligations including “the right to life, the right to freedom of movement, the right to water, the right to health, the right to decent living conditions, protection from hunger and the special duties owed to protect children,” hundreds of whom her military has killed in the latest invasion and assault. These have been Israel’s obligations since 1967, when the occupation began, and they have been violated repeatedly for nearly fifty years. They have been violated even aside from the violations incurred during each of the last three invasions that have now killed nearly 5,000 people in Gaza and wounded thousands more, the vast majority of them civilians.
            So the next time you hear the rationalization about ‘self-defense’ from Israel or from United States officials up to and including the President, you might want to think about the right of the Gazans to defend themselves against their deadly en-closure. You might also want to think about whether, in the absence of United States support—vetoes in the UN Security Council; U.S.military aid amounting to $3 billion each year, plus a recent Congressional vote to send several hundred additional millions to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome defenses—the state of Israel could for so long get away with its blatant depradations against a helpless population, its gross violations of international and humanitarian law, its grim pursuit of its aims without regard for truth or justice or simple human decency.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 1, 2014

Merchants of Doubt

The title of a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes (Professor of history and science studies at UC San Diego) and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pretty much tells the grim tale contained therein. Starting with the tobacco industry’s decades-long fight to combat and obfuscate the science that they knew to be true—that cigarettes cause a host of diseases including lung cancer; and that even second-hand smoke causes the same suite of diseases to those who breathe the smoke from others’ cigarettes—Oreskes and Conway provide the details of how all other industries took their cue from the tobacco companies and tried (with alarming success) to cast doubt on the real facts scientists had unearthed about the dangers of acid rain, CFCs causing the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, and most recently global warming from the human-caused buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. Here was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that the normal uncertainty that is crucial to science could be used

to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge…. “Doubt is our product,” ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best method of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” (34).

And what the industry and administrations like those of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes have been able to do is to recruit scientists themselves—including some distinguished ones—to undermine the conclusions of the scientific majority who have been establishing the dangers in some of the prime environmental hazards of our time. This undermining work has led to doubt, delay and constant attack on the government agencies that have tried to regulate these environmental hazards. As to why legitimate scientists would want to smear the work of their colleagues, the reasons are probably legion, but Oreskes and Conway identify what is probably the major one: Find a scientist who sees environmental regulation as the road to Socialism and/or Communism, and you can probably find a scientist who will figure out clever ways to undermine what most other scientists agree are established facts.
            The “scientists” who have played a major role in such nasty work are clearly identified by Oreskes and Conway, and they include Fred Seitz, a physicist and onetime president of the National Academy of Sciences who had worked on the A-bomb project during WWII and who opposed everything from arms control to peaceful coexistence with the Soviets; Fred Singer, also a physicist developing Earth observation satellites and later a chief scientist in the Reagan Administration and prime proponent of SDI or “Star Wars”; William Nierenberg, also a physicist who had worked on the bomb and later served in the Reagan White House; and Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist who had worked on the space program. All four were once termed “my scientists” by President George H.W. Bush. Together, and with a few other colleagues and millions from corporate coffers, they have managed to create the impression that there is a raging debate about such established scientific facts as the harm done by tobacco smoke, the devastation caused by the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, the ozone depletion caused by CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), and the global warming caused by CO2. The harm and the probable deaths they have caused by sowing the doubt that gives corporations cover is thus incalculable.
            Merchants of Doubt tells us not only how this has been done, but why it has been done, and it is a story that will grey your hair if you care about the planet we live on and the health of the humans who live on it with us. The main outlines, though, are fairly simple and in many ways familiar. These guys are zealots, most of whom ended their original scientific work years ago, and spent their ‘twilight’ years cozying up to the power elite by attacking colleagues whom they saw as threatening the American system of ‘free market capitalism’ through research that would lead to regulation. Government regulation was, for most of these true believers, the great socialist sin and anything or anyone that called for it was little more than a subversive undermining the American way. They hated the EPA in particular, but all environmentalists and regulatory agencies in general, as well as anyone who opposed military preparedness (hence their fondness for SDI or ‘Star Wars’). Here is what Fred Singer wrote in 1989, for example, when he was arguing against measures to eliminate CFCs from the atmosphere. First, he slandered the scientists who agreed on it (virtually all of them) as “corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology” (a perfect description of Singer himself). Then he added that

            “..there are probably those with hidden agendas of their own—not just to ‘save the environment’ but to change our economic system…Some of these ‘coercive utopians’ are socialists, some are technology-hating Luddites; most have a great desire to regulate—on as large a scale as possible.” (134).

In another article in 1991 concerning global warming, Singer reinforced this idea about the “hidden” agenda of environmentalists, and the scientists who gave them their data: to destroy capitalism and replace it with some sort of worldwide utopian Socialism or Communism. It was to counteract this nefarious plot that Singer and Seitz and their cronies in 1984 established the George C. Marshall Institute, primarily to promote the so-called science of the Strategic Defense Initiative even then being attacked by main line scientists as pie-in-the-sky nonsense, a waste of money, and probably an incentive to a new and more dangerous arms race. Of course the new Institute was touted as “promoting science for better public policy,” but like the better known Team B of the Reagan Administration (boasting such luminaries as Richard Perle, Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and other hawks), it was really designed to promote SDI and the underlying right-wing view that “The Soviet Union is preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable..” (40).
            To understand how Singer and company operated, consider his efforts to undermine the science on acid rain. You may remember that acid rain comes about when sulfur and nitrogen emissions from electrical utilities, cars, and factories mix with moisture in the atmosphere, and then fall as precipitation to poison lakes, rivers, soils, and wildlife far from the polluting source. Twenty years of meticulous studies led to a 1974 article in Science magazine that summed up the danger: “Acid rain or snow is falling on most of the northeastern United States” (68). The article went on to identify acid rain as the product of burning coal and oil in tall smokestacks designed to remove particles from the smoke in the Midwest—the unintended consequence being that since the particles tended to neutralize acid, “removing them inadvertently increased the acidity of the remaining pollution.” In short, tall smokestacks had transformed local soot into the far more damaging and widespread acid rain. In addition to falling in New England, that is, acid rain generated in the Midwest was also falling in Canada, and the Canadian government had concluded that most of its acid rain came from the United States. President Carter agreed, and signed the Acid Precipitation Act of 1980, which established a ten-year monitoring program to determine the impact of acid rain on both the environment and human health. But then—Ronald Reagan was elected, and “his” scientists began to pump up the doubts. In 1984, Congress simply rejected a joint pollution control program with Canada. At about the same time, the Reagan White House’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) commissioned its own panel to review what the EPA had already concluded about acid rain, i.e. that it was caused by coal-fired Midwest plants. Bill Nierenberg was made chair of this commission, and managed to have some of the major scientists who had already worked on acid rain included. They, not surprisingly, concluded the same thing as the EPA: acid rain was caused by man-made sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. This might have concluded the story, but for the fact that the White House had pushed for Fred Singer to be on the Commission, and after the Executive Summary was generated, insisted not only that Singer contribute an appendix, but also that the strongest paragraphs of the summary, dealing with soil damage that could set off devastating effects in the food chain, be deleted and that several other paragraphs be presented in a different order. As Oreskes summarizes it:

Rather than start with the fact of the 25 million tons of SO2 emissions per year, the White House wanted to start with a statement that earlier actions taken under the Clean Air Act were a “prudent first step,” and then proceed to the discussion about incomplete scientific knowledge.” (87)

Fred Singer’s revisions were even more damaging. He started by claiming that acid deposition was “a serious problem, but not a life-threatening one.” He then summarized the main points from his point of view, i.e. that the science was uncertain, that more research was needed, that the economic consequences of controlling acid rain, even if it did exist, would be too great, and that acid rain might be cause by natural sources after all. In short, Singer and the White House had drastically altered the conclusions of the scientific experts who had written the original draft, and they had done it without ever consulting those scientists—who were, almost to a man, outraged. The most authoritative scientist on acid rain, Gene Likens, wrote to Bill Nierenberg that “My understanding is that these unapproved changes in the Executive Summary originated with the White House/OSTP. Frankly, I find such meddling to be less than honest and extremely distasteful” (99), an objection that may not sound like much, but which, from a scientist, is devastating.
            The damage was done however. As the report began to surface, a House subcommittee considering legislation on acid rain voted in May 1983: the vote was 10 to 9 against the legislation, thus killing congressional action. Nor would there be any legislation addressing acid rain during the rest of Ronald Reagan’s terms in office, as the administration continued to insist that not only were the causes unknown, but the proposed fixes were too expensive: “a billion-dollar solution to a million-dollar problem.” The George H.W. Bush administration would finally, under pressure, amend the Clean Air Act to set up emissions trading (cap and trade), resulting in a 54% decline in SO2 levels between 1990 and 2007. But further research, especially by Gene Likens and his colleagues, determined that the problem had not been solved at all. Writing in 1999, Likens said: “Acid rain still exists, and its ecological effects have not gone away.” In fact, things had gotten worse: not only had the forest stopped growing, but it was in fact shrinking. He predicted that the legendary sugar maple was “dying…[and] scientific research suggests that by 2076, the 300th birthday of the United States, sugar maples will be extinct in large areas of the northern forest” (104). Thus, this first use of ‘cap and trade’ to stop an industry-caused environmental threat failed utterly to even stabilize things.
            Fred Singer and his diabolical cronies went on to attack the EPA, the damage to the ozone by CPCs, the dangers of second-hand smoke, and even Rachel Carson (for the alleged deadly damage to world health done by getting DDT banned, thereby sparing malaria-carrying mosquitoes and causing 50 million unnecessary deaths!), as well as the threat from global warming. Regarding global warming, for example, the first Marshall Institute report on this subject blamed global warming on the sun, which was changing and sending more heat our way.
            What Oreskes concludes, however, is that far from accomplishing their aim to ridicule and delegitimize environmentalists out to ‘destroy free markets and capitalism,’ the merchants of doubt have in fact led even former allies to consider more seriously the fact that “free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect.” Such ‘externalized costs,’ imposed by the damage done by DDT and a host of other pesticides and herbicides, SO2 in rain, cigarette smoke, CFCs eating the ozone, and CO2 creating the greenhouse effect, are

all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why the market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them.

As more and more people, including former free-marketeers, begin to realize this, argues Oreskes, they become less able to deny that major changes are required in how governments, regulators, and corporations conduct their business. Thus the final irony: the one thing that the merchants of doubt dreaded most—what they saw as the advance of bleeding-heart socialist regulation—must increasingly, under the pressure of real science and looming environmental calamity, come to pass. If it does not, if the merchants of doubt prevail for much longer, we will all go down with their badly-leaking free-market Titanic.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Slaughter in Gaza--Again

It seems as if I’ve written about this before, and I have—twice: once in the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza (over 1400 Gazans killed), and again in 2012 when Israeli forces again invaded the “largest open-air prison in the world,” the Gaza Strip. It's the most densely populated urban region in the world: 1.5 million inhabitants with no air defenses or air-raid shelters or heavy weapons of any kind. I used the same language then, too, as I described in 2012 the latest massacre in the Gaza Strip by the full panoply of modern weapons that Israel, with immense help from the United States, has managed to amass over the years. The blog was called “You Cant Kill Them All,” (Nov. 12, 2012) but it made the point that it wasn’t for lack of the Israeli desire to do just that, as this comment from Gilad Sharon, Ariel Sharon’s son, made quite clear:

We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire. (emphasis added)
Now we have the Israelis doing just this, flattening not only entire neighborhoods, but hospitals and UN schools and every other conceivable place of refuge for Gaza’s residents, refugees all from previous Israeli war crimes, who are expected—because of Israel’s ‘humanitarian’ warnings to get out of their homes in advance of shelling—to take refuge in just these places. And so we have the usual justifications for Israel in the mass media outlets who parrot everything said by the Israeli prime minister, and United States officials up to and including Barack Obama who parrot the underlying justification: Gaza started it with rocket fire and the digging of tunnels, and Israel has a right to defend itself (and, which the President does not express of course, experiment with new weapons and forms of ammunition which will benefit our own eager military).
            But of course Gaza didn’t start it, nor did Hamas. The three settler teens who decided to hitchhike in Palestinian territory (current settlements, including Kiryat Arba, are built smack in the middle of the Palestinian city of Hebron so that many homes and businesses in Hebron’s Old City have been shuttered to accommodate the illegal settlers; perhaps one reason the teens felt they had the “right” to hitchhike in hostile territory), were kidnapped to be held for ransom, and then killed by the panicked pair operating on their own, who apparently realized that the cell phone call by one of the kids would soon bring IDF forces down upon them. This led to Israel’s blaming of Hamas and bombing of Gaza for revenge (not to mention a Palestinian teen burned to death in Israel) and Hamas rockets being fired in response, and the eventual Israeli ground invasion.
            In a very real sense, though, it doesn’t matter who started it, or what the proximate justifications trumpeted throughout the world by Israel’s propaganda machine consist of. The truth is that the Israelis do not want a separate Palestinian state, they do not want a single Israel with Palestinians included, they want a Jewish state, and the Palestinians—the original, indigenous inhabitants of all this territory—are in the way. They have always been in the way, they continue to be in the way, and they will always be seen as subhuman obstacles—in the way. Given this indelible “demographic” fact, the real solution the Israelis seek is to make the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and even the neighborhoods and cities in Israel where Palestinian ‘citizens’ of Israel live—to make them all unbearable. Unlivable. That’s what the slow starvation and blockade and periodic invasions and destruction of Gaza are about. That’s what the Jewish settlements right in the middle of Palestinian cities in the West Bank are about. That’s what Israel’s insistence on getting Palestinian leaders to agree to Israel’s right to exist—not just to exist as a state, but as a Jewish state—is about. Because once you grant that Israel has a right to provide preferential status to any Jew throughout the world (which it has done from the beginning), over any Palestinian no matter how ancient his or her pedigree or claims in the land of Palestine—once you grant that right, and the corollary right to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel, then Palestinians are no more. And that is exactly what Israel wants.
            Here is how Ali Abunimah, of Electronic Intifada, put it in a recent piece (http://mondoweiss.net/2014/03/abunimahs-justice-palestine.html):

Simply put, Palestinian parents are trampling all over Israel’s right to maintain a Jewish majority by having children, and their babies, by virtue of not being born to Jewish parents, are violating Israel’s right merely by living and breathing. Israelis themselves see the births of non-Jewish babies—whether to Palestinian citizens of the state or in the occupied territories –—as an assault on their rights and on the very existence of Israel. The routine use by politicians and media of the term “demographic threat” to describe these babies attests to this phenomenon.  “The most pungent expression of this fear,” David Hirst reminds us, came from Golda Meir, who was Israeli prime minister in the 1970s. “The Palestinians’ birth-rate was so much higher than the Jews’ that her sleep was often disturbed, she would say, at the thought of how many Arab babies had been born in the night.”

This makes it vividly clear why one of Israel’s legislators recently expressed the hope that the invasion now going on would finish off the Gaza Strip for good. Or why another gave vent to his desire that the “snakes” to which Gazan mothers were giving birth would be exterminated. Or why killing Palestinian children by bombing them or imprisoning them or beating them is looked upon by Israelis with such indifference. It also explains why the so-called ‘peace process’ recently abandoned by Secretary of State John Kerry was in fact a failure and why it never had a chance of succeeding from the outset. Israel does not want a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Israel does not want a two-state solution or a one-state solution or any state solution. What Israel wants—and it is a horror to say it—is a final solution. That solution, however it is achieved (making life in the occupied territories such a living hell—without water, without electricity, without jobs, without a safe roof anywhere—that Palestinians will flee), is the reduction in the Palestinian population, the cessation of Palestinian births, the expulsion of whatever Palestinian people remain from the land they call Eretz Israel—the land they insist their God gave them for their Jewish state.
            This is the process that is going on right now. And as long as the world allows this organized slaughter of a defenseless population to go on, there will be no justice, no peace, no coexistence. There will be only what we have had since at least 1967: a slow holocaust, a daily genocide carried out in the bright light of day as the politicians and pundits and moneyed interests prate about fairness and justice and rights to defense and the search for a ‘reasonable partner for peace.’ And the world’s population nods in agreement or turns to another channel with less disturbing images for the children.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Slavery's Role in Modern Capitalism

Most people have heard of the term “wage slave” as part of the Marxist critique of capitalism, but the term is generally understood as a metaphor to convey harsh working conditions inadequately compensated. In recent years, however, the relevance of slavery to capitalism, especially in its beginnings, has become ever more insistent. Thus we have a sentence like this in a recent essay by economists Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman:

America's "take-off" in the 19th century wasn't in spite of slavery; it was largely thanks to it. And recent research in economic history goes further: It highlights the role that commodified human beings played in the emergence of modern capitalism itself.
Their essay, “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” posted on Bloomberg View on February 24, 2014, provides fascinating details about the roots of early American bankers and capitalists in either the slave trade, southern plantations, or both. New York banker James B. Brown of Brown Brothers & Co., for example, is reported to have had investments in the American South exceeding $1.5 million, “a quarter of which was directly bound up in the ownership of slave plantations.” Other bankers with links to southern slavery, according to Rockman and Beckert, were the Biddles, the Barings and the Rothschilds. But it was not just the United States version of capitalism that owed its origins to the immense profits from slavery and the slave trade. Eric Williams in 1944 wrote his seminal Capitalism and Slavery (U of No. Carolina Press; access at https://archive.org/details/capitalismandsla033027mbp), a book that goes into great detail to demonstrate how much British capitalism and the industrial revolution itself owed to the slave trade and plantation slavery in the West Indies. Calling slavery “an economic institution of the first importance,” Williams notes that “in modern times it [slavery] provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism” (5). And, like the American bankers cited above, British bankers who were so crucial to the financing of British industry often inherited their money from forebears who had made it in the slave trade and/or plantation slavery. Thomas Leyland, for example, became, in 1802 “senior partner in the banking firm of Clarkes and Roscoe,” but he was “one of the most active slave traders in Liverpool and his profits were immense” (99). Even more renowned is the British banking name of Barclay. Williams points out that not only were “two members of this Quaker family, David and Alexander…engaged in the slave trade in 1756,” but David “actually owned a great plantation in Jamaica” (101). Moreover, Lloyd’s of London, whose name is synonymous with great insurance endeavors, began as a coffee house where runaway slaves could be returned. It then moved, like most other insurance companies of the time, into insuring slaves and slave ships, and one of its most “distinguished” chairmen was one Joseph Marryat, “a West Indian planter” (104), which is to say, an owner/exploiter of slaves.
            Williams makes much of these West Indian sugar planters because they were not only the jewel in the crown of British trade, but the source of much of the wealth that fueled the subsequent industrial revolution in England. That wealth, of course, derived from African slaves, both from their unpaid labor on huge sugar plantations in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and other British-owned Caribbean islands, and from the profits made by slave traders who captured and transported them to those islands to sell as slaves. British cities owed their dramatic expansion to this slave trade: first Bristol, which “in the first nine years of free trade…shipped 160,950 Negroes to the sugar plantations,” and then Liverpool, “the greatest slave trading port in the Old World,” which between 1783 and 1793 alone shipped over 300,000 slaves valued at over 15 million pounds in 878 ships for an “average annual profit” of “over 30%” (36). And the most powerful institutions supported this trade: the British government itself, the Catholic Church (Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans were involved in sugar cultivation), and Quakers, as noted above in the case of Barclay’s bank. That was because, of course, slavery made immense sums of money. West Indies planters became some of the most conspicuously wealthy men in England, returning to their homeland to buy huge estates where they could and did entertain royalty. And the related industries involved in what is known as the “triangular trade” (England supplied the exports and the ships; Africa the human merchandise; the plantations the colonial raw materials) contributed even more profits. According to Williams, the lucrative triangular trade worked as follows:
The slave ship sailed from the home country with a cargo of manufactured goods. These were exchanged at a profit on the coast of Africa for Negroes, who were traded on the plantations, at another profit, in exchange for a cargo of colonial produce to be taken back to the home country (51).

Again, the profits from this trade were not only key to British wealth in the mercantilist 17th and 18th centuries, they also provided the financial base for the subsequent industrialization that England pioneered in the 19th. As Williams notes: “The profits [i.e. from the slave trade] obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution” (52). And that industrialization consisted in large part, early on, of cotton cloth and garment manufacture (Williams calls cotton the “queen of the Industrial Revolution”). In the process, the wealth and activity shifted from the trading port of Liverpool to the manufacturing center of Manchester, otherwise known as ‘Cottonopolis.’
            Of course, cotton was the product par excellence of the American South, a fact which made British industry dependent on a steady source of cotton from those former colonies. This in turn meant that, despite the growing objections of British abolitionists to the continuing slavery upon which American cotton plantations depended, there was little chance that moral scruples would kill the golden goose of slavery. Consider the numbers it took for England to clothe the world:

The first steam loom factory was built in Manchester in 1806. In 1835 there were 116,800 power looms in all Great Britain, all but 6% in the cotton industry….The population employed by the industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806 (128).  

So while England abolished its own slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833—essentially because by that time its West Indian sugar plantations had lost the sugar battle to cheaper sugar from French islands like Saint Domingue and, increasingly, sugar plantations in Asia—British manufacturers continued to depend on slavery in the newly independent United States for the raw cotton critical to British cotton and clothing industries. Nor did this hypocrisy go unnoticed. Williams cites an editorial in the London Times from 1857 that says it all:

We know that for all mercantile purposes England is one of the States, and that, in effect, we are partners with the Southern planter; we hold a bill of sale over his goods and chattels, his live and dead stock, and take a lion’s share in the profits of slavery…We fete Mrs. Stowe, cry over her book, and pray for an anti-slavery president…but all this time we are clothing not only ourselves, but all the world besides, with the very cotton picked and cleaned by ‘Uncle Tom’ and his fellow-sufferers. It is our trade. It is the great staple of British industry. We are Mr. Legree’s agents for the manufacture and sale of his cotton crops (176).

The Mrs. Stowe, of course, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Mr. Legree the chief villain and torturer of slaves in that abolition-inciting novel.
            In short, capitalism grew with slavery as its virtual progenitor, first in providing immense profits from the 17th and 18th century West Indian sugar plantations that depended on African slaves for their labor, and second in providing the capital derived from those sugar plantations to finance the industrial revolution, itself based in slave-grown U.S. cotton, that undergirded the entire British Empire in the 19th Century. Williams puts it thus: “The commercial capitalism of the 18th century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly.” More than that, plantation slavery not only required constant renewing of its labor force (hence the encouragement of slaves to reproduce), but also constant expansion of the cultivated land—for the simple reason that slave-worked land wore out astonishingly fast since slaves had no incentive to husband the soil they worked. That legacy remains today in the tendency of capitalism to ‘externalize’ its costs, to expropriate life itself, and thus to lay waste to the very resources upon which it and all economic activity depends. 
            This is something to think about when we consider the critical role of capital in our time. Capitalism, as Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) has recently reminded us, eminently involves inherited wealth. The fortunes in profits made in the slave trade and the related slave plantations growing sugar, tobacco and cotton—fortunes possible only via the gross exploitation of humans considered expendable, commodifiable—not only provided that wealth initially, but literally constitute the history and background, indeed the prime ingredient of early capitalism in both England and the United States. As Balzac maintained, behind every great fortune, there is a great crime (his actual words, in Pere Goriot: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a forgotten crime…”) And the corollary secret behind capitalism may well be said to be the buying and selling of living human beings known as slavery.

Lawrence DiStasi