Saturday, March 31, 2007

Killing ourselves to live

by Daphne Liddle

BRITAIN has been breaking records lately, with levels of personal debt, long working hours and having the unhappiest children in the western world. These things are linked and this article aims to explore how the ruling class manipulate us into becoming debt slaves and the cost this is having on ourquality of life and that of our children.
Since the Thatcher years of the 1980s, both Tory and Labour governmentshave tried to justify the rampant privatisation of public services and utilities on the grounds of giving us more choice. A choice of service implies that not all the services on offer are the same quality – some are worse than others. The best services, naturally, are reserved for those whocan pay a bit more. When we complain that the poor are getting fobbed off with inferior services they come back saying, “Oh no, everybody has choices,would you like a bit of credit to help you pay?”
So we end up going into debt to pay for things we once had supplied free,as part of the social wage – things like healthcare, higher education,social services and so on. Now, working class people can’t get into higher education without going deep into debt; many non-emergency surgicalprocedures that were once free have to be paid for.
Meanwhile the rapidly diminishing supply of council houses, coupled with rocketing house prices, have forced home buyers to take on record levels of major debt just to find somewhere to live. Banks and credit card companiesencourage everyone to borrow up to their limit and then pay back slowly –interest only – in a way that extends the amount of interest eventually payable.

The marketing media and their friends in the Government encourage us to see spending as a pleasurable experience – “retail therapy”.
“Lifestyle” programmes urge us to throw out our old clothes to keep up with fashions, now this also applies to our furniture and home decoration. Our identity is expressed in our belongings and no longer in ourselves or in ourcommunity, so that when we are burgled or the bailiffs repossess something we feel as though we have suffered a physical injury.We are encouraged to be proud of what we own – and to forget what we havelost in terms of the social wage, community spirit and time for relaxation and recreation.
We think ourselves well off surrounded by the latest electronic equipmentbut forget that in our grandparents’ time the wage of one worker, usually a man, was enough to feed and clothe a family. Now it takes the wages of twoadults working all the hours they can and they never get to clear their debts or get time to relax.
House prices are so high that now we are seeing new kinds of mortgages –50-year mortgages; multi-generation mortgages and interest-only mortgages,which effectively mean the “buyer” will be forever paying interest withoutever coming closer to owning the home – they might just as well call it rent.
Bank staff are ordered to pressure customers into taking out loans. So the loans are offered to all, regardless of their ability to pay back, even topeople with a history of debt problems and to people with mental health problems. “As long as they’ve got a pulse,” is the criterion.
Whatever they can persuade us to want, someone is there to arrange a loan or credit agreement. When we get into trouble with the repayments, they offer to consolidate it all “into one affordable loan” – which could take many years to clear and ends up with us paying far more than the original debt.
Thousands of families are so much in debt they are living on the edge of financial disaster. It only takes a sudden change, usually beyond their control, to break them. This could be a rise in interest rates, a sudden illness or injury or losing their job because their employer has gone bankrupt.

According to Credit Action statistics compiled in February, total personal debt in Britain has exceeded £1.29 trillion. The debt growth rate for the past 12 months has been 10.9 per cent, equivalent to an increase of £114billion.
The average household in Britain has £8,791 in debts, excluding mortgages;if you include mortgages the figure is £53,326. The average debt owed byeach adult individual is £27,445 and the average interest paid by each household on their total debts is £3,400 every year. Britain’s personal debtis increasing by £1 million every 3.85 minutes.
Not surprisingly many people are having serious problems. The Citizens’Advice Bureau has dealt with 1.4 million debt problems in the last year;this equates to 5,300 people a day. Around 1.4 million adults with more than£10,000 of unsecured debt report that they are “quite likely”, “likely” and“certain” to declare themselves bankrupt or take out an IndependentVoluntary Arrangement.

During the last quarter of 2006 there were 34,626 mortgage possessionactions initiated by the banks and other lenders – a rise of 15 per cent onthe previous year.
The number of people given County Court Judgements (CCJ) for unpaid debts increased by 18 per cent, with lenders seeking to recover around £500million of bad debts through CCJs. This is a step lenders are reluctant totake, because once a CCJ is issued no more interest can be charged and thedebt is repaid at a rate the debtor can afford – as low as £1 a week for people on very low incomes.
Working class people tend to see debt problems as their own fault and to feel embarrassed about them. When snowed under with serious debt some try to blank it out and pretend it is not happening. These people are punished most harshly, with high penalties for missed payments that quickly turn a bill of a few hundred pounds into a debt of many thousands. There are threats of court action but the courts can be a debtor’s best friend. As soon as a CCJ is set there is no more interest and the repayments become reasonable.Furthermore magistrates have the power to write off some debts. They tend to do this where the debtor is on a low fixed income and has already made payments to cover the original amount borrowed, excluding interest and penalty charges.
But if the debtor does not turn up in court to present their case, they face a visit from bailiffs who are now to be given new powers to break into people’s houses to distrain goods. This is a punitive measure that finance companies take to shock and intimidate debtors into paying. The goods seized rarely raise enough money to cover the debt because they are sold at rockbottom prices at auction. When unregulated bailiffs get a reputation for behaving like bullies and terrifying the families of debtors it suits the loan companies, because this will intimidate other debtors into paying uppromptly.

How can a worker whose debt repayments and essential living costs combined are greater than their income find more money? Legally there is only one way– to work extra hours, either in overtime or by getting a second job. Again,many workers blame themselves for getting into debt and see the extra workburden as part of the penalty they are paying for being foolish – not as adeliberate policy to exploit them to the hilt.
And it is deliberate ruling class strategy. Chancellor Gordon Brown’s“economic miracle” has been based entirely on high levels of domestic consumer spending. Two Australian economists – Shaun Wilson of the University of Sydney and Nick Turnbull of New South Wales – describe this as“secret Keynesianism”. The original forms of Keynesianism, first implemented in the 1930s in Roosevelt’s New Deal in America and later in Europe, relied on Government deficit spending on large public works to combat unemployment,take people off benefit and into work and to put more money in circulation.
Many social democrats have seen Keynesianism as relatively progressive inthat it did fund public utilities and reduce unemployment – in the short term; they boasted that it did away with the old capitalist cycle of boom and bust. But it was still capitalism and ultimately capitalism does nothave a kind face. In the long term it led to the devaluing of money and the rampant inflation of the early 1970s, followed by collapse and a worse crisis than ever – as we saw in the 1980s. The ruling class then abandoned Keynesianism and reverted to old fashioned free market, or “liberal”,capitalism, and started privatising all the public utilities thatKeynesianism had built.
Wilson and Turnbull argue that the new “secret Keynesianism” operates not by the Government undertaking deficit spending but by pushing millions ofprivate households into deficit spending.
They describe how the system operates: “Faster growth rates among countriesthat have placed an ever greater institutional reliance on the privatesector have led to now familiar claims about the superior functionalperformance of markets and the strength of the new, flexible hi-techeconomies. Critics of the achievements of these economies, however, point to the shifting burdens of adjustment that faster growth has entailed longworking hours, widening earnings inequality and higher consumer debt.”
Then they describe the effect in Australia: “We must now look beyond theformal balance sheets of state finances to understand how the state iscontinuing to ‘pump prime’ the Australian economy by relying onhousehold-based deficit spending. Are these policies either desirable or sustainable dimensions of Australia’s economic performance?”
They continue: “Australian households are no longer net savers, saving lessthan two per cent of their annual income. At the same time Australia’s oncemodest household debt levels have ballooned out in the last 10 years, risingto about 90 per cent of household income, closing the gap between Australiaand other countries like the UK, Canada and the United States. Debt-financed consumption expenditure is important in explaining Australia’s recently improved economic growth performance…. Household consumption remains the solid and consistent contributor to Australia’s economic growth.”
Wilson and Turnbull explain how the Australian government is deliberately pushing households into taking on more debt: “Australia’s dependence on rising household expenditure for growth is not coincidental. As we shallsee, there are a plethora of public measures, inducements, taxes and incentives to encourage private spending and growth in household debt in order to sustain Australia’s growth rate.”
They show that household spending on childcare; education and rent have risen linked to the “long-term ‘rollback’ of public provision”. They also say that “gambling accounts for an ever-increasing share of household expenditure” – funded by a run-down in household saving. This follows a dramatic increase in gambling resulting from government deregulation of the industry and an increase in casinos – a warning for Britain.
They conclude: “Recent economic growth has little or nothing to do with the benefits of increased market dynamism. In fact, it is the same old indebtedeconomy we have always had, but with ever greater reliance on household consumption, debt and long working hours to keep it blooming … government policies have assisted this success as a reworked variant of traditional Keynesianism – something not immediately obvious.
“The state, rather than undertaking the expense and risk of deficit spending to stimulate growth itself, is using policy mechanisms to encouragehouseholds to do this. Through these mechanisms households now undertake more of the state’s function in maintaining growth, financed by their rising consumption and household debt.”

Back in Britain we can see now why the European Union 48-hour directive is not working in Britain. Workers up to their ears in debt are as keen to subvert it as the bosses are. The boss does not need to crack the whip and impose long hours when the bank manager is cracking it harder. But of coursethe boss is well pleased with all the extra surplus value that long workinghours bring.
But the effects on our health and quality of life are devastating. A recentAmerican survey, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, showed that overtime and extended working hours are associated with anincreased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress,depression, musculo-skeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes andother health complaints.
In Japan they have a word, karoshi, for death by overwork and a few years ago there was a minor epidemic of it, leading to court cases against bosses.In Britain people rarely die of overwork but thousands suffer breakdowns –physical or mental or both – and end up on the “scrap heap” of incapacity benefit, with their life-expectancy shortened.
Professor Cary Cooper, a stress expert at Lancaster University Management School, claims the risk is not only to those who work over 60 hours a weekbut affects anyone regularly working over 45 hours. She said: “If you work consistently long hours, over 45 a week every week, it will damage your health, physically and psychologically. In the UK we have the second-longest working hours in the developed world, just behind the States and we now have longer hours than Japan.”
An Amicus survey found that one in five workers was put off sex because of long hours and a third said they did not have enough time to spend with their children. Long hours also lead to tiredness, lapses in concentration and higher accident rates.
Binge drinking is another product of the long hours culture. When young workers do not have time for leisurely relaxation and recreation they findthat hard drinking and drunkenness brings them a few hours respite from thestresses and tensions of endless work. But it does long-term damage to their health and leads to violence and anti-social behaviour.
Another factor in lengthening working hours is the target culture that has invaded many workplaces, where lower and middle management are constantly set new targets to improve performance. Failure to meet targets leaves them vulnerable to sacking so they drive those under them all the harder. Andsince it is unrealistic to imagine performance can be improved under all circumstances, this culture also encourages corruption, of middle management falsifying figures to make their performance appear better than it is.
The effects of long working hours on our children are also devastating andthere is a developing anti-child culture. Once children were seen as thefuture of the nation and our pride and joy. Winston Churchill, in the middleof the Second World War, spoke of the importance of “putting milk into babies” as a vital investment. Now children are seen as a nuisance, theydemand our time and attention and they distract us from work. Childcare is no longer taught in schools and few young adults have grown up with anyexperience of minding younger siblings. Many are terrified of the responsibility.
Long hours and big debts put many young people off having children at all.We are told that bringing up a child will cost us £180,000. Those who dohave children are regarded as self-indulgent and a burden on society.Overweight pregnant mothers are told they are a burden on the NHS. Anyone who takes time off work to look after children is regarded as a selfish slacker.
The rich of course are exempt from this disapproval. And the ruling classdoes not need to worry about the next generation of workers. There are thousands in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe – fully adult and trained at another country’s expense – queuing up to come to Britain to escape the direpoverty and wars that imperialism is imposing on their home countries.
It is not surprising that the recent Unicef report found that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world. The Unicef report covered six different areas of well-being using 40 separate indicators. In five of the six areas, British children came in the lowest third, making them overall the unhappiest children in the western world. In particular their own assessment of their well being was very low. This is hardly surprising in a society that regards them only as a nuisance and a burden.It is heartbreaking to compare them to children in socialist countries who are so confident and high achieving because they know their whole community treasures them and takes pride in them.
Britain is one of the few countries around the world that does not celebrate International Children’s Day, usually set on 1st June or in late May, though some countries celebrate it at different times.

What can we do to combat this culture of debt, long hours and child neglect? We can call on the trade unions to fight for higher wages but this alone is not enough. The credit companies would probably raise everyone’s credit limits and the Treasury and the banks would look upon it as a fresh supply of household deficit spending. This is a problem that has to be fought on many fronts.
Karl Marx said: “Workers of the World Unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Now the debt culture is fooling too many workers into working all hours to pay for the use of the chains. It sets workers at odds with their unions in wanting to work long hours.
We must support the trade unions in their fight to defend the 48-hour limit. And we must involve them in discouraging debt, supplying debt counselling and campaigning for the restoration of the social wage – in other words to reverse the privatisation of the last two-and-a-half decades and restore free healthcare and education.
We must support the campaign to restore council housing, which will bring down house prices. We could demand that mortgage payers in serious trouble and facing eviction should have the right to demand that their local authority buy out the house from the mortgage lender by compulsory purchase– at a price that takes into account what has already been paid – and thenthe family remain in the house as council tenants. And we must call for the restoration of the Rent Act.
We must call for stiffer lending controls, so that banks and finance companies who lend to people they know will struggle to keep up payments cannot pursue their mis-sold loans in the courts. We must definitely call for the restoration of strict gambling controls and oppose the opening ofsuper-casinos.
We must use all our propaganda resources to combat the culture that judges people by the possessions and try to restore a sense of community in the working class. We must also use our resources to remind people that after a socialist revolution, personal and household debts would be abolished overnight. Probably in today’s anti-political and cynical culture not many would believe us but it is one benefit a socialist revolution can deliver instantly.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Common appeal of communist and progressive parties of Europe on the Rome Treaty

Common Appeal of Communist and Progressive Parties of Europe
on the foundation of the European Economic Community (EEC)

The Rome Treaty for the foundation of the EEC was an option of the main powers and West European monopolist capital. Today, 50 years later, the developments in the EU vindicate the forces that struggled against its policies, that had said and still say NO to the Maastricht Treaty, that voice their opposition to the “Constitutional Treaty”. They vindicate all those who today continue to fight against the European Union of big capital – a directorate of the big, neo-liberal and militaristic powers.

The goals trumpeted by the EU's dominant forces, the social democrat, conservative and various right wing forces – namely, the convergence of national economies, employment and improvement of the workers' conditions, more democracy, peace and cooperation on an equal footing - have proved false. The EU mission is to strengthen the European-based transnational capital and big business in the main European powers, by taking away rights and gains of the workers, expanding its economic power and influence upon policies at the European and State levels, and exploiting new markets and natural resources. This course leads to an increase in social inequality and regional asymmetries, the spreading of poverty and marginalization.

At present, there is a growth in attacks against jobs and wages, pensions and social security, labour and union rights. Fundamental rights, such as the right to an education, to healthcare and social security are transformed into commodities and sources of profit for big business. There is growing exploitation, unemployment and precariousness.
At the same time that, through the so-called “Economic Partnership Agreements”, unfair trading relations are imposed on some of the poorest countries of the planet, walls are built up for migrants in a fortress Europe.

Family-sized farming and fishing are ruined, self-employed workers and small entrepreneurs in industry, commerce and services are annihilated by the dominance of the financial and large-scale distribution corporations. Democratic rights suffer severe blows. There is a growth in anti-communism, in some cases sponsored by the governments of European countries, and in others, promoted by the European Union institutions themselves. Prohibitions and persecutions of left-wing, anti-capitalist political forces and popular movements are widespread. Racism and xenophobia are being fomented.

The militarization of the EU advances, as well as its cooperation with NATO and the US in the imperialist wars namely in Afghanistan and in Iraq, in the illegal CIA flights, the pressures against Socialist Cuba and Bolivarian Venezuela, against countries and peoples that resist. As “requested” by NATO and by the European Commission, military expenditures are rising and there is an ongoing arms race.

The big European capital uses the enlargement of the European Union and of NATO towards the East, as well as the policies of pressure against sovereign Eastern countries, to pursue its own objectives of political, economical and geo-strategic domination.

The sovereignty and independence of peoples and nations are increasingly undermined. There is a plan to re-launch the "Constitutional Treaty", in spite of its explicit rejection by the French and Dutch peoples. This global offensive of imperialism is being confronted by promising struggles of the peoples and workers, which we hail.

Our parties will strengthen their cooperation and joint action and will actively contribute to strengthen the working-class organisations and struggles and the anti-imperialist movement, to resist, challenge and fight against the neo-liberal policies and militarism and to reject the "Constitutional Treaty".

We appeal for the creation of alternatives that meet the needs and interests of the people, affirming socialism as the real alternative for the peoples of the European continent. We appeal for the convergence of activities and struggles that, throughout Europe, can pave the way for a Europe of peace, of cooperation among sovereign States, equal in rights, a Europe of employment and true economic and social development. A Europe open to the world, able to develop relations of friendship, fair trade and cooperation with all the countries and peoples of the world, respecting their right to an economic and social development. A Europe that can promote peace internationally and stand for the political resolution of the conflicts.

The Parties:

Workers' Party of Belgium
Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Communist Party of Britain
New Communist Party of Britain
The Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) - Cyprus
Socialist Workers' Party of Croatia
Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia - Czech Republic
Communist Party in Denmark
Communist Party of Finland
German Communist Party (DKP)
Communist Party of Greece
Hungarian Communist Workers' Party
Communist Party of Ireland
Socialist Party of Latvia
Socialist Party of Lithuania
Communist Party of Luxembourg
Communist Party of Norway
Communist Party of Poland
Portuguese Communist Party
Socialist Alliance Party - Romania
Communist Party of the Russian Federation
Communist Workers' Party of Russia
Communist Party of Spain
Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain
Party of Communists of Cataluña
Communist Party of Turkey
The Party of Labour (EMEP) - Turkey
Communist Party of Ukraine

New Communist Party of Yugoslavia

23rd March 2007

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Slavery and Freedom

by Prof Mohammed Arif

A talk given to the World Muslim, Sikh Federation in February.

I WOULD LIKE THANK the World Muslim, Sikh Federation for inviting me to speak to you on the subject of slavery and freedom.
In March this year we will be celebrating the bicentenary of the end of Britain’s part in the slave trade. There will be lectures, film shows, exhibitions and TV programmes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted £16 million for this purpose.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1807. This Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. However, the slave trade continued for more than 30 years in deferent forms after the act was passed.
During this period, major slave rebellions took place in Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, Honduras and Guyana. This was primarily because the Act gave false expectation among slaves that their servitude might soon come to an end. This was a mistake and the rebellions were savagely crushed.
In fact, the Act was not respected even by the British who violated it by purchasing black people in the slave market to serve in their imperial wars. Black people were imported from the slave market in Goa and Mozambique to fight a war of conquest in Ceylon.
However, when the final end of the slave trade took place it was due to the enormous struggle by slaves themselves, who were at the heart of their own liberation (today they would probably be described as terrorists), with the help of their supporters and sympathisers throughout the world.
To understand the horrors of slavery, we need to be both passionate and informed about the way in which human relations were perverted by the insatiable thirst for incredible wealth.
I would like to quote Makgabuka K Kola, a distinguished African writer who said, “a person without knowledge of his own history, culture and identity is a lost person. He is like a lifeless leaf that drifts aimlessly with neither direction nor destiny over the ocean of time.”
This quotation underlines the significance of this meeting. The slave trade did try to disconnect African slaves from their heritage, achievements, culture and identity. The impact of the injustices of slavery is palpable today among the descendents of slaves.
Slavery is about the ownership and control of people by other people through economic and military means. It has existed since the beginning of time, long before it came to be seen in terms of race. In fact, slavery was an economic institution of the greatest importance. It was the basis of the Greek economy and propped up the Roman Empire.
The demand for African slave labour arose in the New World through the development of plantation agriculture, the long-term rise in the price of sugar, cotton and minerals, and the need for domestic servants. The African slave trade was massively boosted and carried out on an industrial scale as Europeans began to invade and occupy that continent. Corrupt African rulers were supported by Europeans to participate in the ghastly trade.
This point was eloquently elaborated by Karl Marx: “Western capitalism, in its period of primitive accumulation, turned Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skin.” Marx further pointed out that “labour in the white skin can never be free when in the black it is branded”.
The British, French and Spanish scoured the Gulf of Guinea, moved east, around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Mozambique.
The slave traders moved into the interior, plundering as they went, capturing all, regardless of age and sex, setting tribe against tribe, murdering and looting. Darcus Howe, a distinguished writer has pointed out that for the first time in its history, Africa experienced murder and plunder on an unimaginable scale.
For the African continent it was tantamount to a Holocaust. The continent was robbed of its physical, intellectual, technical and productive capabilities. The process of negative “cumulative and circular causation” devastated the continent economically and socially.
Richard Gott has pointed out: “For more than two centuries the slave trade has been the central feature of Britain’s foreign commerce. The beneficiaries included financiers, landowners, and merchants. The wealth created by slave trade was a crucial element which made the industrial revolution possible. In some specific families that wealth has cascaded down from generation to generation.”
The state of Virginia in the US was the primary site for the development of black slavery. In 1672, the King of England chartered the Royal Africa Company to bring a shipload of slaves from West Africa to the trading centres in Virginia. Prior to that time, the Dutch had already formed their own Dutch West Indies Company in 1621 to ship slaves to the Americas. African slaves were in great demand because they were skilled workers and experts in tropical agriculture. They had high immunity to malaria and yellow fever compared with Europeans and Native Americans. The slave trade made slave traders rich and brought a massive supply of labour to the Caribbean and American colonies. Capitalism in America could not have progressed without the slave trade.
They did not succeed in enslaving Native Americans (so-called “Red Indians”) as they were rebellious, supported by their tribes and knew their country better than white immigrants, while African slaves found themselves in a strange atmosphere in a strange country without any help or support.
As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and mid 19th centuries, over 20 million Africans were removed from their home and shipped to the New World. Around 50 per cent died, either in transit or while being prepared for servitude.
These sons and daughters of the African continent were kidnapped and forcibly carried to the Americas to be sold and branded with the initials of their masters’ name, with large iron hooks hung around their necks. Extremely cruel instruments of torture were used against them. This applied not only to the US but also to the Caribbean and South America.Slavery in US was fundamentally different from other parts of the world. Here, most blacks were slaves and no slaves were white. It was strictly racial.
From 1660 to 1860, slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of laws: These laws made slavery a permanent condition inherited through the mother and defined slaves as property. It placed the label of inferiority on black skin and black culture. Slaves could not marry, own property, give evidence in a court of law, carry weapons, assemble in groups or leave plantations without permission of their master; slaves could be bought and sold, auctioned, rented and separated from their family.
It may be worth noting that many distinguished leaders of the US were slave owners. In 1774 George Washington held 202 slaves, while Thomas Jefferson owned 187 slaves and both became President of the United States and “founding fathers” of the nation. However, in their lifetimes, they did very little to relieve the suffering of slaves.
In fact, African slaves had very few supporters and friends in the countries which owned and traded them. With the honourable exception of Methodists and Quakers, many leading churches supported and profited from the slave trade. Many Bishops owned hundreds of slaves. The Church of England has recently apologised for its role in the slave trade.
Many slaves were converted to Christianity but that led to little improvement in their conditions. Slave owners had Christian names but no Christian ethics. The complicity of some Christian missionaries in the plunder of Africa has been very powerfully presented by Jomo Kenyata former president of Kenya: “When the white man came to Africa, he had the Bible and we had the land, and now we have the Bible and he has the land.”
The intellectual basis for the slave trade was provided by a twisted logic promoted by the slave owners, that slave labour was uneconomic and if slaves were freed, then they would not produce enough to feed themselves. At the same time, slave owners were renting slaves, earning rental income and were still able to feed them. This proved the duplicitous nature of this logic.
Slavery in America was different from other parts of the world not only because of its racial dimensions but also because it was solely motivated by commercial incentives. In other was words a slave was not only considered to be a chattel but also racially and culturally inferior.
It is important to note that ‘slavery was not born out of racism but racism was the consequence of slavery’.
Slavery has existed as a human institution in Africa and Asia since the days immemorial but it was not based on race or the colour of skin. It typically involved prisoners of war and was considered a humane alternative to prisoners being put to death. It was common in Africa for slave owners to adopt slave children and to marry slave women who then became a full member of the family. Slaves, after gaining their freedom, faced no difficulty in settling down in society as equals.
Slaves accumulated property and in some cases reached the status of kings, for example Jaja of Opobo in Nigeria.
One finds similar instances in the Islamic world: Prophet Mohammed’s own spokesman was a slave named Bilal. There had been a slave dynasty in India. Within Europe, slavery was common but was not based on the racial inferiority of slaves. For example, Cicero, the great orator and statesman of Rome, had a low opinion of the intellectual ability of the English, but it was not racial. He wrote in 50 BC to Atticus, his close friend and a slave trader who had settled in Athens: “Do not obtain slaves from England because they are so utterly stupid and incapable of being taught that they are unfit to form a part of the household in Athens.”
On the other hand, slavery in America was solely based on the colour of the skin and the racist perception of the inferiority of the African culture.
The example of Phyllis Wheatley is a case in point. Phyllis was born in Senegal in 1753. She was abducted into slavery at the age of seven and shipped to Boston, US. She was brought up by a family called Wheatley. At the age of 13, Phyllis had not only achieved a complete command of the English language, but also had studied Greek, Latin and published her first poem.
Later on, she published many masterpiece poems and pieces of prose. Had she lived in more enlightened times, she could have won the Nobel Prize. Many of her white opponents could not believe that a young black slave was capable of writing so well and so profoundly. They also could not tolerate her revolutionary views regarding freedom, human equality and human dignity.
The racists at the time tried to dismiss her as a fraud. The Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts prosecuted her in a court of law for plagiarism, which was a criminal offence at that time. She won the case and the racists were forced to acknowledge that she was the sole author of her works.
Oscar Wilde later on wrote that the mistreatment of Phyllis Wheatley could be put down to the fact that they (Americans) were a nation of philistines who would not have been able to define the term ‘philistine’.
It is an established maxim that where there is oppression, there is resistance! There were slave revolts in America as early as 1712. In New York slaves revolted – the revolt was not successful and 21 slaves were executed. Again there was another revolt in New York in 1741.
However, the successful revolt took place in Haiti in 1791. The slaves set up the first free black state. The Haitian revolutionaries exploded the myth of white imperialist supremacy by driving the Spanish, the British and the French out of their island in a brilliant guerrilla war.
Yet other islands also saw serious uprisings by slaves, assisted by French, they seized control of large parts of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Vincent, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Trinidad. The rebellion defeated two British armadas sent to destroy them, killing thousands of soldiers and seamen. The rebels were eventually defeated but they deprived the British of income from their sugar plantations for years. The danger of the continuing slave trade to British commercial interests became evident.
At the same time, anti-slavery movements were set up all over Europe and in America.
The 1772 Case of Somerset vs Stuart, with Judgement by Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England, freeing the slave (Somerset) from bondage is held to be a landmark in British judicial history. Mansfield held that slavery was irrational and could only be maintained by perverse laws.
In 1774, a Ghanaian scholar presented a brilliant thesis against slavery in a University in Holland, arguing that slavery was inconsistent and incompatible with Christianity.
In 1775, Lord Dumore, Commander of British Forces in America, declared freedom for slaves who joined the British forces against the rebels.
George Washington also asked the help of slaves to fight for freedom from the British, promising that he would put the issue of abolition of slavery before the Congress, knowing full well that the Congress would never approve it.In 1778, the Society of Friends of Blacks was set up in Paris.
In 1807 Britain finally abolished the slave trade in all its colonies.
In this respect, the contributions of Lord (William) Wilberforce (a Conservative MP) and Thomas Clarkson in fighting slavery were extremely important. They helped to set up anti-slavery committees throughout the country and mobilised public opinion against it.
Moreover, the French revolution of 1789 played a major role in providing the ideological basis for revolt against slavery. One of the first acts of the revolution was to abolish slavery.
When Britain finally abolished the slave trade, it compensated the slave owners but not the slaves, leaving the question of compensation and reparation unresolved. What Africans are asking for is the stolen fruits of their ancestor’s labour to be given back to their rightful heirs.
This is a powerful argument for the cancellation of all African debt as a collective way of admitting responsibility and atoning for the suffering western countries caused. Tony Blair has belatedly expressed “deep sorrow” over the slave trade without tendering an apology or restitution. This gesture is vacuous and unlikely to satisfy those who are demanding compensation for the descendants of slaves as well as for Africa generally.
It will not be out of the place to mention that indentured migrant labour from South Asia in the 19th century carried on where the classical slave trade left off. Indentured labourers from South Asia were dispatched to the plantations of the empire from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Death rates on these sea voyages were similar to those on the earlier Trans-Atlantic slave trade voyages.
Today there are some 30 million slaves in the world, if you include bonded labour, child labour, and a large numbers of women caught up in international prostitution.
Moreover, neo-liberalism and the dominance of multinationals are enslaving the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America, with debt bondage predatory pricing, skewed concepts of intellectual property rights, interference in internal affairs under the pretext of “human rights”, wars, occupations, setting up puppet regimes, and the outright exploitation and theft of the natural resources of these countries.
Whatever we do, ladies and gentlemen, we must not allow the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade to mollify us into self-congratulation. We ought to link it with the broader issues of today, such as poverty, disease, inequality, exploitation, environmental degradation, unprovoked attacks against defenceless countries, and occupation.
I firmly believe the battle is far from won.