From slavery to imperialism

What were the continuities between the elites of the slave economies of the southern United States before the Civil War, and the elites that pushed the formal imperial expansion of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

This was a question that crossed my mind earlier this year when I was doing some casual reading and reflecting on the aftermath of the Civil War.  Aside from the brief period immediately after the Civil War, when the slaver/planter elites were on the backfoot during Radical Reconstruction, the relative socio-economic and political power of these elites remained largely intact.  Thus, it stands to reason that the interests of these former slavers was a powerful force behind the expansion of US imperialism by the turn of the 20th century.

Jacobin has recently published an interview with the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016), which re-empahsizes the power of the Southern planter class in the US state, and which touches on issue of foreign policy.  One relevant argument discussed in the interview is that the US slaver elite saw slavery as necessarily being an international system, and pushed US foreign policy to act accordingly prior to the Civil War.  For example, on views on Cuba:

…many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

Another relevant book that I recently came across is The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), which looks at the continuities between the southern slave economy and the slave/indentured-labor markets of various Pacific Islands. From the summary:

Worldwide supplies of sugar and cotton were impacted dramatically as the U.S. Civil War dragged on. New areas of production entered these lucrative markets, particularly in the South Pacific, and plantation agriculture grew substantially in disparate areas such as Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. The increase in production required an increase in labor; in the rush to fill the vacuum, freebooters and other unsavory characters began a slave trade in Melanesians and Polynesians that continued into the twentieth century.

The White Pacific ranges over the broad expanse of Oceania to reconstruct the history of “blackbirding” (slave trading) in the region. It examines the role of U.S. citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade and its roots in Civil War dislocations. What unfolds is a dramatic tale of unfree labor, conflicts between formal and informal empire, white supremacy, threats to sovereignty in Hawaii, the origins of a White Australian policy, and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power and putative protector.

All of this just goes to show how important it is to trace the way class and capitalism undergoes a constant process of decomposition and recomposition.  Nothing in history is really “new”–its always built on the formations and movements and dynamics of previous eras.  A more optimistic look at this dynamic can be seen in the evolution of the radical left in this era: the Radical Republicans paved the way for the Knights of Labor, which paved the way for the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America.

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