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Slave trade capitalism and the new Republican Party

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Time is a funny thing, especially how the same things seem to happen again and again.

In the early nineteenth century, the young United States of America was heading toward civil war.  The practice of slavery had been accepted, but restrained from spreading further, by the Founding Fathers and the new American constitution. However, with the annexing of the new territories in Kansas and Nebraska, slavery was becoming a major fissure in the cultural landscape of the new nation. During the 1850s one of the presidential hopefuls, Henry Seward made a speech addressing the growing disparity between the wealthy slave owners in the South, and the emerging industrialized society in the north;

“There are two antagonistical elements of Society in America”, Seward proclaimed, “freedom and slavery.  Freedom is in harmony with our system of government and with the spirit of the age, and is therefore passive and quiescent.  Slavery is in conflict with that system, with justice and with humanity and is therefore organized, defensive, active, and perpetually aggressive.  “Free labour” he said, “demands universal suffrage and widespread diffusion of knowledge.  The slave based system, by contrast, ‘cherishes ignorance’ because it is the only security for oppression.”

The freedom that Seward referred to was the free, or non-slave, workers that toiled in the increasingly industrialized northern cities. What is striking about this passage is just how much the sentiments that Seward expressed resonate today.

Today we appear to be facing a parallel scenario to Seward’s, with a push from wealthy multi-national corporations and northern foreign-owned miners who want to spread their low-wage, low skill, high-profit form of business to every state on the planet.

This aggressive and well-funded movement born in American Capitalism now threatens Australian shores; Maurice Newman, chair of the Commission of Audit, attacks the Australian minimum wage, Tony Abbott dismisses of the importance of penalty rates, education reform is defunded and a ‘review’ is announced into the newly minted national curriculum, all nicely framed by ongoing disinformation from government ministers on the reasons for recent collapses in manufacturing in the southern states, all the while encouraging us to drink the trickle-down Kool Aid.

While these attacks on the backbone of a progressive society continue, it seems that there is little fight from either of the standing opposition parties, the ALP or the Greens.

Can we learn anything from the history of slavery and American capitalism?  And in those lessons is there a blueprint for action that we can take now?

Suggesting that American Capitalism is rooted in the slave plantations of the past is not a new thing.  Slave-grown and picked cotton was America’s most valuable export. Without which silver and gold from England and Europe would not have flowed so readily into U.S. Treasury coffers and the pockets of Northern factory owners, providing the much needed ‘capital’ for the growing nation.  Modern management practices also can be traced back to slavers.  Including time and motion studies, and calculating an employee’s worth against ‘unit labour costs’ to calculate productivity.

From this comes one of the central pillars of American capitalism; the practice of paying as little as possible for labour. With many corporations in America, most visibly WalMart and McDonalds, basing their entire business model on hiring unskilled workers that can be paid the absolute minimum.

The difficulty for the workers is that it is not enough.  Recent debate in the USA has revealed that these corporations access billions of dollars in government welfare through their employees.  Because they do not pay their workers a living wage, employees are forced onto welfare programs like food stamps.  The fast-food industry alone rakes in a government subsidy of roughly $7 Billion per year, with McDonalds even having an employee advice line helping employees sign up to government welfare.  These revelations have gone straight to the core of the argument over a living wage, workers rights and the real corporate welfare queens.

In light of this it can be seen that the only difference between Seward’s “two antagonistical elements” and our own is the deep hypocrisy in the arguments of wealthy ‘job creators’.

American, and Australian, elites insist on their quasi-religious, Ayn Rand infused utopian delusion that, instead of inheriting their wealth and profiting from the intelligence and work of generations of workers, they actually built their entire empires by themselves.  This was perhaps best refuted by Bill Clinton when he responded to attacks on President Obama for his out of context “You didn’t build that”:

“The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made . . . Bob Straus, used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. As Straus then admitted, it ain’t so.”

The economy and all the technological advances we enjoy today have been built by the skilled working and middle class that grew from the Industrial revolution in 19th century.  The claim that higher wages hurt business is simply false. It was the massive movement of consumer funds from well paid industrial workers that created the base wealth upon which the post-WW2 industrialized economies have been built.

Without the capital drawn from taxes paid by thousands of workers the ports, rail, and roads built in the 1950s and 60s that transported goods would never have happened. Those same taxes paid for schools that trained up the next generations of skilled employees that businesses could then leverage into creating products and delivering services.

The profits that companies made in the last hundred years were not driven by a select elite purchasing high price items, but by millions of consumers and businesses buying and selling, working and living, increasing demand and driving growth and trade.

When a portion of the population cannot afford to live, then they cannot participate.  When participation in the economy drops so does demand, with employment, trade and profits following soon after.

The rich will always maintain a degree of wealth and privilege.  In many ways the elite still exist in a semi-feudal world where those on ‘their’ lands should be grateful for the opportunity to eke out a subsistence living.   Thanks to their lofty position the wealthy are able enjoy their life regardless of economic conditions, as the businesses that service the wealthy operate in a very different space to the rest of the economy.  They are often able to ride out recessions, and can simply transfer their wealth to another market or country if trade or economies collapse.

The working and middle class, on the other hand, are reliant on trade and education.  The various accountants, tradesmen, managers, shop keepers, artisans, teachers, and lawyers require commerce and constant self-improvement to maintain their standard of living.  Without trade the rich can still enjoy their lands and property without much impact on their life.  However if trade declines or collapses, as seen in the Great Depression and recent Financial Crisis, the middle class and working classes are devastated.

One of the side effects of trade is exposure to new ideas.  Trade also drives innovation and social progress, as both serve to create new markets and new consumers.  All of this is a threat to any established elite, as social progress and greater knowledge builds further demand for equality. Not simply for equal rights for non-whites or non-heterosexuals, but for more equal representation in government, more equal access to opportunity, in short for a more democratic society.  This evolution of more equality in representation is one of the things that the wealthy and political elite fear most.  The American War of Independence and Civil War were fought over just these things.

The feudal world is a remnant that still hangs from our representative democracy.  In many ways representative democracy is the half-way hybrid of feudalism and true democracy.  We rely on a patrician class of political operators to work in our best interests, when in reality they are mainly working in their own self-interest and the special interests of their patrons.  A more direct democracy would see be form of republicanism akin to ancient Athens where all citizens voted directly on bills or the young USA where the voice of the citizenry was a direction for action by their elected representatives.  The attack on workers and education is an attempt to stave off this next logical step in social and political evolution to a more direct and effective democracy.

This is why religious conservatives and economic libertarians attack the means of sustaining a viable middle class.  Poor education dramatically reduces opportunities for employment and advancement, and hamstrings innovations that may threaten the status quo.  Cutting health care forces families to spend more of their income and time on caring for sick or elderly family members.  Failing to invest in effective public transport creates a class divide between those who can afford a vehicle to access job opportunities and those who are trapped in a cycle of poverty due to lack of mobility.

Even now the decision not to build a national, equal-access broadband infrastructure is picking winners and losers.  Those with fibre connections are already enjoying higher house valuations. Once again the inner cities will have the advantages, while the suburbs and regional cities – the tradition heartland of the working and middle classes – are relegated to second class citizens.  How long until cuts to education, health, penalty rates and minimum wage see further collapse of employment options and standards of living in Australia?

For Seward and his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, the principal opposition party of the time was too weak to respond to the pro slavery Democratic Party and the loud threats and aggression from the southern states that demanded they be allowed to establish slave estates in the new territories ‘for the sake of the nation’.

Eventually there was a split, and many from the opposition Whig party joined with other more progressive groups to form the new Republican Party.  Under this banner the nation set about a new path toward the equality promised in the American constitution.  Civil war followed, but the USA emerged stronger and more vigorous than ever.  What followed was over a hundred years of progress and growth that led the 20th century to be named the American Century.

In Australia the Liberal-National governments federally and in the states are filled with a similar aggression to their pro-slavery forebears, and are in a hurry to force their changes on our society before the sleepy masses awaken.  A vocal opposition would do much to quicken this awakening and stifle the fuming vigour of the neo-libertarians.

Unfortunately, the Greens party seem too much interested in attacking the ALP to increase their market share.  Meanwhile the corruption in the ALP Right and the union movement is currently hamstringing the pragmatic and progressive reform elements in the party, and the ALP is nowhere to be found except in lockstep with the right-wing unionists, vague statements on social media and irrelevant emails.

Now more than ever Australia needs a progressive political force that is unafraid to tackle the destructive policies and practices that are currently arrayed against Australia.

The ALP has split in the past; usually with right-wing elements peeling off to create new conservative parties, such as the United Australia Party; forerunner to the modern Liberal Party, and the Democratic Labor Party.

Perhaps now it is up to the progressive and Left in the ALP party to make a stand and plant a new banner that can be a rally point for the dozens of progressive micro-parties that sprang up at the last federal election, for environmentalists, for small businesses, for workers, for entrepreneurs. For everyone who wants better representation, not just in a leadership ballot but in building policy.  For everyone who sees the threat arrayed against our nation and its future, and wants to do something about it.

Perhaps, once again, It’s Time.


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  1. Pingback: Slave trade capitalism and the new Republican Party | Curi-Oz Corner

  2. Tony Francis


    I think this is a very important and enlightening article and I would like to refer to it on Twitter. Unfortunately when I access its URL on my web browser I get annoying advertisement popups which I can’t get rid of. I would therefore not want to refer this URL to others. I would very much like to see this problem fixed.

    Tony Francis

  3. Quint

    Q&A last night perfectly illustrated what is so very wrong with the political system. It is filled to the brim with incompetent little sycophants, whose reason for being is to serve their true master – the dollar.

    Jamie Briggs, step forward please. Your inane babbling in front of a national audience did absolutely nothing but reinforce the ever-widening bridge that stands between your lot and the general populace. You are found guilty of toeing the party line with salacious glee.

    Anthony Albanese, step forward please. Your involvement in the excruciating schoolyard tete-a-tete with the aforementioned did not go unnoticed. You too are found guilty of achieving very little except to remind the masses why going to the polls is just a complete waste of their Saturday.

    Buzzztj, it is most definitely time.

  4. charybds

    Tony Francis,

    I have no trouble at all with popups on this site, not one.
    If I were in your position I would run an anti malware program on your PC,
    and if you are using Chrome install AdBlock (this can remove the annoying ads from facebook too).

    Please don’t let what appears to be the health of your PC (or isp) prevent you from spreading the massage.

  5. edward eastwood

    A good article and a good call to arms.

    I would however point out that you’re comparing apples to oranges when equating 19th century Australia to the 19th century US.

    ‘In Australia the Liberal-National governments federally and in the states are filled with a similar aggression to their pro-slavery forebears’.

    Australia never kept nor had a system of slavery.

    Convicts – yes, but after serving their sentences, they were freed and had the choice of either returning to Britain or staying in the colonies. Most chose to stay.

    On staying, the new inhabitants were determined not to replicate the class and religious divides of the Old World, and were in the main concerned with creating an egalitarian society of which slavery certainly had no part.

    It should also be remembered that Britain outlawed slavery in 1833, thirty two years before it ended in the US, and that in the time period between the FIrst Fleet until the mid 1960s, most Australians saw themselves as Australian with deep cultural roots to ‘The Motherland’ and were resistant to the US cultural mores of the post war era.

    Please do not take this as criticism of the central thrust of your argument, of which I am in total agreement.

    The neo-liberal argument of ‘small government’ and ‘free markets’ and its applications and imposition across the developed and developing world is purely and simply fascism by any definition.

    Yes, it is time that the Left revitalized itself and fights neo-liberalism with every weapon at its disposal. After all, we are now in the fight of our lives to preserve the democratic processes of what was once a society committed to egalitarianism through the notion of ‘a fair go’ (defined at Federation as a fair days work for a fair days pay).

    For my own thoughts on ‘Plantation Capitalism’ – term coined in 2009 by civil rights activist, Rev. James Lawson, see the link below.

    Finally, let me reiterate that I fully support your argument and that no criticism is intended, simply that to compare 19th century Australia and 19th century America, is both inaccurate and unfair.

  6. Political Pete

    It is TIME to change … And, only 6 months since the election … Kick out the cancerous LNP in similar fashion to what just happened in the UKRAINE … We must let the government know that we have the say what happens in Australia and it’s not about them to make up our minds … All Australians must choose the policies referendum style; the role of the elected government is to only formulate and implement what’s right or wrong within our nation and then leave it up to the voters to give the authority to introduce or scrap legislation as we seem fit … Just being elected into government does not give the government a mandate to choose what they want … Governments are elected to do the bidding of the Australian people; nothing more and nothing less …

  7. oldfart

    @edward eastwood
    I think he is metaphorically referring to slaves and trying to demonstrate that we the people are economic slaves to our employers. This is why I will never understand conservatives, the first thing they do is go after the worker deprive or limit their income base. They dont realise the spin off is that the goverments income base is then impinged as well. The uk may well have banned slavery in 1833, but it was only made illegal in the last decade.

    I agree with you that neo conservatism is facism. Many commentators spoke of newmans bikie laws being used against other groups and yes he choses his targets carefully, Pedophiles are now included. both groups are not tolerated by society, At a national level we have Obersturmbannfuhrer Morrison locking up in LNP eyes other undesirable untermenschen, but the question remains, Who is next?

  8. Anomander

    Bravo TJ. You’ve hit the nail fairly on the head with this one.

    Unfortunately, the bulk of the Australian populace seems to live in a state of wilful ignorance, happy to blithely accept any government edict until it affects them personally.

    Piece-by-piece our individual rights and collective assets are being subsumed by a wealthy few, along with an erosion of the very constructs that underpin our social cohesion, in favour of pursuit of the ideology of wealth.

    The current political party structure (principally the duopoly) evidently fails to meet the aims, objectives and needs of our society any longer. The time is ripe for an alternative option, one that emphasises the concept of an economy that works FOR our the good our our people and our society, first and foremost, as opposed to the present dysfunctional model which sees society feeding the rampant economic beast. A model where humanity takes precedence over money.

    We need to act now to stem the flow before it is all too late and what remaining hope we have for democracy is finally washed away.

  9. Brian

    Interesting and thoughtful article. Reflects a great number of my own beliefs. It seems humanity has always thrown up people who simply can never be satisfied. Greed has been an unfailing companion of the human race throughout history. The thing that has never been clear in my mind is how these individuals attract the support of so many followers, believers, worshippers or whatever you choose to call them. Without such adherence none of these “masters of the universe” could possibly advance their own interests as they do. What do they offer that attracts so many to their camp. It’s beyond my comprehension. I’ve never regarded myself as stupid but I have to admit that I simply have no understanding of why humans act in ways that are so clearly against their own interests and that of the general population in order to further the interest of these individuals or organizations.

  10. buzzztj

    Thanks for your comment Mr Eastwood.

    I appreciate your supportive comments, though perchance you have misread the rhetoric I have used in this piece.
    The slavery connection is nothing to do with Australian history, and at no time do I connect the criminal indentured labour of the early Australian colony with the commercial slave trade in America.

    The connection is in the policies being pursued by those in business and government. These ideas are American in birth, and are being promoted with the same righteous aggression that Seward addressed.

    This is what I mean when I write about pro-slavery forebears. The current crop of neo-libertarians have lost any connection to the Liberal party of Menzies or Frazer. Their history of ideas comes from American neo-liberalism all the way back to the plantation.

    I hope this clears up any confusion.
    Thanks again for your supportive comments
    Have a great day!

  11. edward eastwood

    You too BuzzzTJ, and keep up the good work!

  12. Stephen Tardrew

    Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States clearly demonstrates that there has not been a magical period of prosperity for workers in the US. The post war period was and aberration and now we are returning to the norm of unwarranted inequality and complete exploitation of the poor working class.

    Unions in the US were corrupt, yes, but many industries were not unionized and these individuals, in the past and present, suffered intolerably.

    Its like the Arcadian myth that once upon a time all was well in the Antipodes. Ask aboriginal people what they think about that.

    No we have not had Democracy and yes a new political movement is required. I honestly could not bring myself to continue watching QA.

    Joe Bageant’s brilliant book Dear Hunting with Jesus demonstrates clearly how impoverished Appalachian mountain people lost their farms and means of lively hood to become the impoverished right wing seed of anger and resentment thus turning against their own self-interest.

    We are repeating the patterns described by Zinn and Bageant.

  13. mars08

    I firmly believe that our plight is exacerbated by speaking the same language as our American cousins. So many of their anxietis, political spin, slogans and redneck myths are easily absorbed by our citizens. Sadly this is usually done without any filtering or context. Just a direct feed from their rabid right to ours…

  14. diannaart

    Excellent piece of well considered thought –

    Goes very well with this article from The Conversation:

    Will the return of distributional debates and stagnant living standards shift politics to the left? It is unlikely. It is true, as many on the Left insist, that voters are concerned about inequality, but their focus is narrowly on the ultra-rich and the bogeymen of “big corporations”. These provided targets for Labor’s unsuccessful tilting at populist windmills during the Gillard years.

    There is no sign that Labor might support egalitarian reforms such as the reversal of the capital gains tax reductions of the Howard government, despite the advice of economist Ross Garnaut.

    Labor’s response to the decline of secure working-class jobs has been to champion industry support. Protectionism was once the Right’s response to economic crisis. It was a conservative alternative to socialism, but now with socialism an unhappy memory, industry support is all that the Left has to offer.

    Which is well worth considering.

    @ BUZZZTJ, my primary point of difference is that the Greens do criticise the incumbent LNP government.

    Also, until Labor finds its heart again, the Greens will continue to criticise Labor – t’was Labor which set-up the Manus Island camp and which the LNP was all too ready to utilise in their archetypal born-to-rule manner.

    Did not vote for Labor last election (although I gave it a great deal of consideration) primarily due to expensive and heartless treatment of refugees.

  15. edward eastwood

    Old Fart; Who indeed is next? Without question this is the nastiest pack of bastards in Australian political history. A man has been murdered, yet no one in government has even raised the question on whether or not their will be an investigation or even if there are any suspects or even more to the point, are the PNG police going to charge anyone over the murder?
    The Abbott government has focused solely on the causes of the riot – one suspects in order to cover them up and shift the blame to the Asylum seekers.

    Diannaart: Yes, thank God the Greens are questioning the Abbott government’s methods on all fronts, and hopefully will continue to do so, otherwise one suspects there would be utter silence.
    Like yourself, I couldn’t in all conscience vote for the ALP at the last election, not only due to the asylum seekers issue but also because of the neo-lib. Lite policies that they’ve pursued during the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years

    As I’ve written and argued before -and I’m certainly not alone in this, if the Left wants to revive itself as strong political force, then it must get its head around Neo-Keynesian (or even plain old ordinary Keynes) economic theory as the central plank to its electoral platform.

  16. Cassmiranda

    Yes I had never thought of slavery as one of the foundations of capitalism but it probably is. Think about how observable productivity seems to be the only feature of individuals that is valued by big corporations.
    Also the connection of neo-liberalism with fascism is becoming clearer every day.
    Many people evidently go through life trusting that things will just somehow alway be ok and that the leaders of our country have the common peoples’ interests at heart. It is so obvious that this is not the case but so many believe it. I really don’t understand.

  17. Don

    Abbott giving a speech to the party faithful about the slump in the polls, he has reflected back to the Howard era, stating how unpopular they were when they made dramatic cuts to get the budget to back into surplus, but they did it, and well do it this time. What he fails to mention, during the Howard years was the biggest mining boom bringing in billions of dollars to the coffers, which they wasted on reckless spending, everything but infrastructure. Where is the boom this time, mining is going down hill, well we all know what he thinks of manufacturing, so it isn’t there either, maybe science, no, we have no minister for science because science is crap, sell off public assets, no sorry Howard got rid of most of the also.
    So where the magic rabbit going to come from, unemployment is on the rise, inflation is on the rise, the dollar is about to slump, interest payments will go through the roof, and they are going to rely on the trickle effect to increase employment, no back up plan
    When the new slums hit the lawns of parliament house, will he do something then, doubt it, call in the federal police give them their marching orders and burn it to the ground, teach you for not being people of calibre.

  18. Trevor Vivian

    It’s time for?

    Political re-establishment

    It’s time to?

    Recreate the same shitty paradigm that threatens the future. Why do humans have to shit all over and in the only nest that supports biological life?

    It’s time

    White Australia generally has little knowledge of its own Black history. In Northern Australia the cattle industry, that bulwark of economic freedom came about on the backs of the slavery undeclared.

    Black birding, the practice of Australian slave traders on the Pacific underpinned the sugar cane industry. And today these people are considered unfit as migrants in case they overstay.

    The empire ran an undeclared war with genocide and policies not dissimilar to Manus after the invasion of Aboriginal Australia.

    The empire learned after Treaty of Whiatangi notto declare war and that was its MO in Aboriginal Australia.

    Yes it’s time

  19. scotchmistery

    Just for balance can someone please name 3 great right wing thinkers of the last 50 years?

    Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t count, he isn’t great and he doesn’t actually need to think.

    That PM on the “group of wonderful chaps, Malcolm Fraser, also doesn’t really count, since he has only begun to think recently.


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