Reparations campaign distracts from challenges facing Caribbean: A response by Hilbourne Watson and Trevor Campbell

Hilbourne Watson is a Barbadian political scientist. Trevor Campbell is a Jamaican political economist.

20140120diaspora On July 16th Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Principal of the UWI in Barbados, spoke to the House of Commons in his capacity as Chairman of the Caribbean Reparations Commission, making the case “that the Government of Great Britain, and other European states that were the beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African peoples, the genocide of indigenous communities, and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture, have a case to answer in respect of reparatory justice.”

(The full text of the address can be found at http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/news/releases/release.asp?id=514 ).

We would like to remind Sir Hilary and his associates that no class or group has ever successfully made its case for transforming the conditions of its existence by basing its appeal on moral suasion. We argue that the Commission is employing faulty logic to make its case for reparations for unpaid labour. For his part Sir Hilary argues that two crimes – the transatlantic (African) slave trade and unpaid labour associated with capitalist slavery in the Caribbean – remain uncompensated and must be resolved with reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans. However, Sir Hilary and the reparations advocates avoid making a critique of capitalism as a form of commodity production for private capital accumulation that rests on the exploitation of labour. We argue that the reparations campaign is giving a free pass to those elites in the Caribbean, in the process shifting attention from the contradictions of the capitalist crisis that currently beset the working people across the Caribbean and beyond.

The historians and others at the forefront of the reparations discourse in the Caribbean completely overlook the fact that the entire history of all class societies dating back to the distant past is the history of exploitation which has been bound up with the appropriation of the surplus labour by the class that owned the means of production. This relationship necessitated the use of force to compel the exploited to toil for them. This fact tells us that the producers of the wealth in those societies – slaves from antiquity, serfs, peasants and workers – could justifiably make a claim for reparations, equally with the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Marx put the entire issue of the appropriation of surplus labour, which we understand as unpaid labour, into historical perspective when he said:

“Merchant’s capital, when it holds a position of dominance, stands everywhere for a system of robbery, so that its development among the trading nations of old and modern times is always directly connected with plundering, piracy, kidnapping slaves, and colonial conquest; as in Carthage, Rome, and later among the Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.” (Marx Capital Volume III, 1971: 331).

Here Marx captures the process of primitive accumulation that led to the transition to capitalism with which the African slave trade was associated.

In other words, what we are suggesting is that you cannot seriously engage in any discussion about the phenomenon of chattel slavery or so-called reparations without developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of the role of social classes and the class struggle in the development of human history.

The European ruling classes, which included landlords and the merchants (from the 15th century onwards) could not have carried out the project of enslaving Africans on such a wide scale, without the surplus labour (the wealth) that they had previously acquired from the exploitation of the population over which they ruled during the precapitalist era and the early capitalist period. Let us be very clear on this: Economic exploitation means that one class has acquired the means (ownership of the tools that produce the necessities of life) to live off the energy of another class.  This is the scientific meaning of economic exploitation, in the context of class society.  Without this very basic understanding of the relationship between the ruling, dominant classes (the owners of the means of production whose material existence is based upon the expended energies of the direct producers), and the dominated classes (those who do not own the means of production), we inevitably get caught up in futile and pointless debates.  The fact is that the European masses were also robbed of their surplus labour, which created the material conditions for enslaving the Africans. Does this fact not qualify the European working classes for reparations?

The argument for reparations upon which the Commission makes its case does not demonstrate an understanding of the role of surplus (unpaid) labour in the development of human civilization. Would advocates be so adamant in demanding reparations if the slaves had received compensation for their labour during slavery or in the period of “Apprenticeship”?

The Commission’s arguments fail to recognize that both the enslaved and the wage labourer are forms of exploited labour. Let us be very clear on this. Within the context of capitalist production the working class is forced to sell labour power for a wage by spending a relatively small portion of the working day reproducing itself and the bulk of the day reproducing the capitalist.

Those who exercise state power in the Caribbean and reparations advocates in academia and beyond would like us to believe that economic exploitation is a moral problem resulting from the racist conduct by British and other European white people that was limited to the period of capitalist slavery, which ended with emancipation in the British West Indies in 1834, and has nothing to do with the period since decolonization and independence.

On the surface it is hard to deny that reparations has a compelling moral dimension, as Sir Hilary has so effectively demonstrated in his book on the subject. However, can we really appeal to bourgeois morality to solve the contradictions of bourgeois civilization? The reparations narrative distracts us from deepening our consciousness of the crisis of contemporary capitalism.

In his book on reparations and in his address to the British House of Commons, Sir Hilary makes a compelling moral plea for reparations by linking reparations to “development cooperation”, never mentioning capitalism or class exploitation. The Reparations Commission appeals to moral authority the West has consistently claimed as part of its moral philosophy but has never possessed. This is precisely how the bourgeois class system functions.

The reparations advocates within the University of the West Indies who advise the political and labour leaders in CARICOM societies overlook the fundamental fact that the production of surplus (unpaid) labour is the basis on which class societies are reproduced. They therefore divert the attention of the working people from the real issues that need to be studied.

Let us therefore ask the Reparations Commission the following: Why should European working classes agree to be taxed by their ruling classes to finance reparations at precisely the moment when masses of workers in all categories are being systematically eliminated from capitalist production – a process that heightens the coming of what some commentators have described as the jobless future?

The fact that the Caribbean intelligentsia and the CARICOM leaders are so preoccupied with the past is reflective of a lack of any clear understanding of the process that is unfolding at the global level and what this implies for the future of the region.

We suggest that the main focus of the Caribbean intelligentsia and the young people in the region should be the discussion of the process that is unfolding whereby living labour (workers) is being replaced by machines as the latest strategy by capital to increase both the mass and rate of surplus (unpaid) labour. In other words, the aim of capitalists is to produce a greater mass of commodities with less labour.

Our challenge is to struggle to bring to an end economic exploitation and capitalism. To begin to see this as our real priority could change the terms of discourse and leave behind us the despair and distraction that reparations represents.



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