Thursday, April 2, 2009
Was Slavery a Moral Advancement in the History of Mankind?
We tend to look upon slavery as a great evil, a scourge that ravaged mankind all through history. By our modern moral standards this is understandable. We believe in ‘human rights’, individual freedom, and equality of man. So, from our perspective slavery can only be regarded as a great sin and a terrible stain on those who’ve practiced it. Of course, white people have been blamed most for slavery, not least because they were hypocritical in preaching Christian values while enslaving peoples; also, because of the particularly racial nature of slavery in the modern Western world, slavery in the Americas came to regarded as especially evil.
Be that as it may, one could argue that slavery was actually a moral advancement in the history of mankind. For most of history, the options other than slavery were genocide, mass expulsion, or mass human sacrifice. The rules understood and practiced by all sides was might-is-right. Tribalism or clan-ism was the operative spirit governing ‘political’ behavior. So, when one side fought another side, it was usually for total victory. The losing side would be totally wiped out, expelled, or captured for human sacrifice–especially in the case of Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico. This was merely an extension of the way animals operate. When a pack of wolves fight another pack, the goal of both sides is total victory and to gain absolute dominance over the territory. Of course, as packs tend to be evenly matched in many cases, most packs come to ‘respect’ each other’s hunting ground and keep a certain distance from one another, their differences being settled off and on through skirmishes. But, there are times when one pack has decisive superiority over another pack, and a fierce battle will break out whereupon the losing pack will be driven far away or mauled to death. This is also true among lions. When a pride gets into a fight with another pride, each side wants to wipe out the other side or drive it out completely. If a lion becomes separated from its pride and encircled by enemy lions, it is as good as dead. In the excellent National Geographic documentary "Lions and Hyenas", we see what happens to such a lioness. Failing to make an escape, she is surrounded and mauled to death by enemy lions. Animals don’t take prisoners or slaves. They totally expel or kill the enemy.
Because animals don’t have ideals or visions, their blood-letting tends to be limited to the needs of survival. Lions hate hyenas and lions of rival prides but will not embark on a crusade to wipe out all hyenas and enemy lions. There can’t be an animal Hitler. Even so, animals–especially predatory animals–tend to be ruthless toward their enemies and seek to destroy as many of their enemies as possible. They instinctively ‘think’ in terms of kill-or-be-killed. Oftentimes in nature, a degree of equilibrium is reached among animals not because of mutual affection or agreement but because, after much growling and fighting, they realize they cannot wipe out all their nearby enemies–like Iran and Iraq finally ended the war in the late 1980s when neither side could achieve victory. So, they learn to co-exist but not out of any higher ideal or mutual affection.
Anyway, humanity in its early stage was like the predatory animal world. Various tribes generally distrusted and hated one another. While some established relations and learnt to trade with other tribes from time to time, war and conquest were constant threats. You never knew when the other side would go into aggressive mode, attack, and possibly conquer your side; and , your side was tempted to attack and conquer the other side. But, when wars broke out, it was for total victory, which meant you’d wipe out the other side totally or at least drive them out as far away from your territory as possible(even if your enemies were driven into areas where most of them would die of hunger or exposure). But, with the rise of slavery, there was another option. Your side didn’t have to kill everyone nor expel them from the area that produces bountiful food. You could spare their lives and accept their place in your world as long as they were your prisoners or property. They became slaves but were allowed to live. In time, they could even become part of your community and blend in. So, in this sense at least, slavery was a moral advancement in mankind.
We need only to consider the policy of the Mongols to see the moral dimension of slavery. We tend to think in terms of freedom vs slavery or good vs bad, but for most of history, the options were often death vs slavery or bad vs worse. Given the nature of such social reality, slavery could have moral value. Nazis, for instance, sought to kill all Jews, but they were willing to let most Russians live as long as Russians became slaves. Slavery and genocide are both evil from our perspective, but which is more evil? Slavery can be regarded as a positive good compared to genocide–which was prevalent in the primitive and ancient world; we need only read the Bible or ancient documents to know what the Israelites did to the Canaanites, what Romans did to the Carthaginians, or what Alexander the Great did in certain places he conquered. In each case, wouldn’t we agree that conquerors who enslaved the population were morally superior to those who committed genocide? In the primitive and ancient world, genocide and slavery were not necessarily evil because much of humanity operated by ‘either you or me’. If your side didn’t strike first, the other side might attack you. If you didn’t wipe out the other side, it might wipe your side out. If you didn’t enslave the other side, they might enslave you. In a world where genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder were so common, slavery was preferable to the defeated or conquered peoples. It meant that the victors allowed the losers to live. The victors didn’t bestow freedom and equality to the conquered because (1) such ideals didn’t exist as political concepts in the first place prior to the rise of modernity and (2) the losers might use freedom to rebuild their strength and take revenge on the victors(and turn them into slaves). So, the losers, if they were to be spared, had to be turned into a subservient people–slaves or members of a lower caste(as in Hinduism). Also, since ruling over a vast loser population was going to be expensive, it only made sense to put slaves to work so as to contribute to the overall economy. We all know how expensive it is to run prisons; prisoners are owned by the state, but the state has to take care of their needs. So, it made sense to turn prisoners into slaves and put slaves to work.
Though communism was a form of slavery, many people think it was less evil than Nazism because its modus operandi was state slavery than state genocide. Of course, communism did end up killing millions and millions of people, but at least theoretically, that was not supposed to be the case. Communism would take away your individual freedom and turn you into a slave of the state, but the state would be ‘progressive’ and take care of you; as such, it was supposedly not as bad as Nazism which was founded on the ideology of genocide(though, to be sure, Nazis didn’t intend genocide against most peoples but only particular groups such as Jews and Gypsies).
Anyway, let’s return to the subject of the Mongols and how slavery fits into their moral order. By our standards–and even by the standards of many peoples back then–Mongols were a brutal and murderous people. But, even the Mongol war policy had a moral component. Mongols sent delegates to towns or cities they were about to conquer with the message that the people would be spared if they bowed down to the Great Khan, pledged their loyalty, and became his slaves. Otherwise, they would all be killed. Slavery, in this scenario, was a terrible fate but preferable to getting wiped out in war. Genghis and Kublai Khan were not sentimental men, and they didn’t care how many people they killed. But, they were willing to spare lives as long as their prospective victims chose slavery over death. Prior to the concept of slavery, the general rule was simply to attack and kill all or drive everyone out of the territory–genocide or ethnic cleansing. With slavery, the third option became let-them-live-and-stay. (Of course, once slavery become a well-understood concept, groups began to raid other groups to capture and bring back and/or sell slaves. There were also raids to capture wives but it was a time when a wife was considered the propert or slave of her husband. As it developed, slavery no longer remained the byproduct of war and conquest but became the very object various warring groups sought after and fought for.) Of course, being a slave wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it was preferable to death. Also, slavery was different than other kinds of relations known to man. Man had a special relation to animals, but animals were seen and treated as chattel. Though we are familiar with the term ‘chattel slavery’, slaves were generally not looked upon nor treated like animals. They were treated as second class humans; in most cases, their humanity was not denied. Someone who owned a cow or horse would use it for labor and then guiltlessly kill it for food and hide. This was generally not how slaves were treated–though we can always find exceptions such as mass human sacrifice, head-hunting, and cannibalism, etc. Slaves were used for labor like cows and horses, but there was a understanding that they too had HUMAN needs. Of course, when times were really bad or when danger loomed, there was little mercy or compassion toward slaves. But, under ideal circumstances, most slave owners throughout history didn’t see slaves as mere animals to be exploited and then killed. Slaves were often forced to live separate lives, but slaves were allowed to have their fun, joys, and pleasure in life when possible.
Though people could be born into slavery, the original form of slavery probably grew out of wars between tribes. Instead of killing or entirely driving out the enemy, some tribes probably spared the lives of the vanquished. The losers became prisoners of the victorious tribe. Since the victorious tribe feared that prisoners might seek revenge, the vanquished had to be forced into inferior status so as to keep their lids shut.
We have something similar even in the modern era. For instance, the Allies won the war in World War II. The Soviets imposed communist slavery on the Eastern Bloc. East Germany became essentially a vassal state of the Soviet Union. East Germans were allowed to live, but had to live under communist domination imposed by the Soviet masters. Japan and West Germany, in contrast, had democracy and their citizens gained political freedom and rights; even so, Japan and West Germany became national or political slaves of the United States or NATO. Though allowed to be sovereign nation-states with their own system of government, neither Germany nor Japan had military autonomy nor independence/freedom in its foreign policy or affairs. They had to do as America commanded or demanded. America was not overtly oppressive to either of them but the nature of the relationship was not equal. America was the boss while Japan and Germany were the servants if not slaves; Japan and Germany were America’s bitches. So, a kind of slave-status can exist in the modern world on a nation-to-nation basis if not on an individual-to-individual basis. Even today, it’s true that Big Powerful Nations ‘own’ smaller ones. China owns North Korea. United States owns Japan. Israel owns United States.
Anyway, most of history was marked by wars, and no side felt totally secure in the way that Americans have felt secure since the late 19th century. Even in the 20th century, few nations felt safe as Americans too(and even Americans were shocked into fright when Pearl Harbor and 9/11 happened).
WWI resulted from powerful European nations feeling insecure than confident in their power. Same could be said of World War II. Hitler had a grand crazy dream, but he also felt hemmed in by enemy or rival nations on all sides. And, UK and France declared war on Germany in 1939 out of fear than out of confidence. Japan didn’t feel secure in the 19th century when Western powers pried its gates open. China didn’t feel secure as imperialism–Western and Japan–encroached on its territory. Russia felt insecure despite–or because of–its (over-stretched)size due to perceived threats posed by Germans, Turks, and Asians. Mexico didn’t feel secure when Americans took a whole chunk of their territory in the mid 19th century. Finally, white Americans don’t feel secure as liberal and leftwing Jews have taken over their country and are using the most powerful institutions(which they own)to permit(and even encourage)countless non-white immigrants–legal and illegal–flood into this country.
Until relatively recently, the entire world still lived by the rule of stronger-forces-gaining-domination-of-weaker-peoples-and-places. Modern imperialists were not mass murderers for the most part. They either sought slavery or submission from those they conquered. At any rate, it made no sense to conquer a people and then grant them equality and freedom. That would have neutralized or undermined the whole point of conquest and victory. Why expend so much wealth and manpower, why take great risks to give the defeated people a chance to take revenge and counter-conquer the conquerors? The whole point of conquering is to rule over others; in order to rule over them, it makes no sense to grant them equality or freedom. You have to maintain their inferior status if you want to preserve your supremacy or mastery over what you’ve expended so much in life, limb, and wealth to obtain.
Slavery and subjugation were a moral improvement from ethnic cleansing(mass expulsion) and genocide because you let the conquered people live and carry on with their lives(even if only as inferior beings). As our moral values advanced and became idealized, we came to reject imperialism, wars of conquest, subjugation, and slavery. So, slavery is rightfully seen as an evil in OUR society. And, we believe, at least theoretically, in the equality of nations. That is why we have the UN.
It is for this reason that paleo-conservatives oppose expanding American power around the world. In the past, imperialist expansion meant gaining superiority over people you conquered or forced into your political or imperial orbit. There was genuine prestige in the idea of conquest and victory. Heroes that people admired most were victors in wars, discoverers and conquerors of new lands. Even Great Conqueror-Leaders of your enemies were respected out of sense of awe. There was a sense that great mighty powers were most civilized and had a divine right or historical destiny to conquer other peoples and unify the world(in which the Metropole would be the center of governance. ‘All Roads Lead to Rome’). Your side would bring civilization, progress, order, improvement, and/or reform to the lives of people you gained mastery over. It was imperative that the conquered people understood the basic hierarchy of who was boss and who was underling. Otherwise, conquest–expensive and dangerous–made no sense. What’s the point of conquering a people only to make them your equal and kick you out? Why would a free people want to stay under the thumb of another people? We’ve seen what happened in Iraq. We invaded and conquered... and brought them freedom and liberty and equality... and the Iraqis are telling us get out of their country as soon as possible. Equality & freedom AND war & imperialism are incompatible. Iraq may turn out to be a fine country because of what we’ve done, but if it is to be free and independent, we cannot own it. And, if we cannot own it, why did we have to sacrifice so many lives and dollars? Because of the egalitarian ethos shared by both Western and non-Western nations(even if such values are ideally practiced), it is a hard sell to conquer another nation and then impose one’s will on it. The concept of FORCING freedom on a people and then expecting them to FREELY obey YOUR orders is ludicrous.
We’re living in a schizo world. As US is the richest and most powerful country in the world, the world expect us to be globo-cops. But, where ever or whenever US exerts its power, it comes under the criticism of both the Right and the Left for acting like naive idealists or devious imperialists. On the other hand, if we do nothing at all–as with Rwanda–, the world condemns us for not caring and violating the principle of "Never Again".