The Age of Freedom and Enslavement 

by Christopher Horner

We have it in our power to begin the world over again —Tom Paine

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? —Dr Johnson

That the Age of Revolution and Rights was also the Age of Slavery and Empire is well known. Less obviously, it was also the time (roughly 1775-1835) which a template was established for the control and exploitation of citizens and subjects which has lasted into our own day. The rhetoric of liberty and equality accompanied a reality of control and subordination. It still does.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt commented that the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)  marked a historic turn: a claim that man was now ‘emancipated from all tutelage and announced he had come of age’ [1]. It is an echo of Kant’s 1786 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’: for him, it is the end of tutelage, casting aside the would-be guides (and gaolers) in the shapes of priest and King, in order to achieve maturity which Kant takes to be thinking for oneself. He adds that this must involve the free use of public reason, the uncensored exchange of opinion between citizens qua citizens  – as distinct from the use of the private reason of the specialist, bureaucrat, etc. Kant’s message then, and that of the Declaration, is anti-paternalist, invoking the ideal of a mature citizenry. A core meaning of the politics of Enlightenment: free citizens, deliberating together without the miasma of superstition, taboo or state censor. But this is a kind of promise, not an accomplished fact, a statement of what might be about to emerge.

And here we have to pay attention to the historical moment of these declarations in France and the United States of America. Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the 1789 Declaration coincided with an uncertainty about the place of people as the feudal structure ceased to provide a framework of security and meaning. The Declaration might be ‘universal’ in intent, but it was the emergent nation-state that would have to be the guarantor of those rights. The universal was to be expressed through the concrete particulars of the new states. So the Declaration of the Rights of Man stands in ambiguous position to the newly Republican French State: the rights apply universally, presumably, but it will be a particular state that will defend them. The immediate problem becomes that of identifying those who are bearers of rights and freedoms and those who are not.

This was not a simple matter of excluding foreigners. The second half of the Eighteenth Century was the period in which the slave trade and the plantation system became a large part of the wealth-creating economy for those same states that regarded themselves as being in the forefront of liberty. One only has to contemplate the importance of a phenomenon like this to see that Arendt’s account needs to be supplemented and corrected by one that attends to social and economic factors. The enlightenment vision was problematic in its distinction between the cultivated and uncultivated, but it was the economically motivated enslavement and repression of masses of people that first undid the promise of universal freedom. The existence of huge slave populations in the colonial possessions of the European states, and in the plantations of the southern states of the new USA, were a clear anomaly, but it was one that was allowed to persist. In fact, as several historians have recently pointed out, the idea that slavery should be ruled out as a way of disciplining the (European, white) labouring poor was a comparatively recent one. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the issue was one of ensuring labour discipline as the feudal structures declined. Hobbes, Locke, Pufendorf and Hutcheson all endorsed versions of domestic slavery for idlers, paupers, landless and masterless men, of whom there were a great many, given the spread of the enclosure movement. From the mid century this ceased to be widely advocated ‘as the slave populations in the colonies mushroomed and production boomed.’ [2]  Awareness of the cruelty of the slave system certainly grew in this period, but so did a fascination on the part of industrialists in Europe with the methods of surveillance and control that the slave system had developed.

A number of subsequent developments should be noted. When the movement to abolish first the slave trade, then slavery itself, gathered pace, so did the rhetoric of freedom that developed in the ‘white’ metropolitan centres, along with a clearly racist ideology of the unfitness of ‘the Negro’ to rule himself. And when slavery itself was actually done away with, the anxiety of the abolitionists was focused on the issue of labour discipline: would the ex-slave turn up for work? Having no alternative way to feed his family, turn up for work he did. The lesson was not lost on liberals in Britain:

As reformers grappled with the problems of crime, pauperism and labour discipline, they seemed to be unconsciously haunted by the image of the slave plantation…Slave-holders and industrialists shared a growing interest not only in surveillance and control but in modifying the character and habits of their workers. [3]

The anti-slavery figureheads like Wilberforce and Hutcheson were often the very men who pressed for the most severe treatment of working people at home, and the interest of a ‘progressive’ figure like Bentham in methods of surveillance is well known. Thus, a quite peculiar and selective application of ‘freedom’ developed in Europe. Free trade meant that the legislation that had protected customs of trade and restrictive practices of workers were repealed (many, as EP Thompson has noted, in the period 1807-9 when the slave trade ended). Similarly, when slavery itself was abolished in Britain’s colonies (1834) the Poor Law Amendment Act ended the old system of public welfare and brought in the workhouse – the unemployed now had the choice to starve or work for their keep in the humiliating workhouse. The worker that was in a condition of perpetual dependence, could, because he accepted wages and was thus not a slave, be defined as free:

What mattered then, was not labour exploitation, but sustaining the fiction of voluntary submission to it…free property, plus free labour, plus free trade added up to the newly conceived modern criterion of liberty. [4]

That strain in the enlightenment in which we can see the first signs of a recognisably ‘liberal’ style of thought, with its emphasis on individual freedom and political (not economic) equality had, from the start, at least a deep ambivalence towards the mass of people. As classical liberalism gave way to the social liberalism of later decades the political parties that sought the votes of the newly enfranchised masses ceased to use the language of the plantation owner, but the conception of freedom developed in this period (‘free property, free labour, free trade’) persisted. Built into the structure of the post revolutionary west was the conception of political and civic freedom (up to a point) allied to dependence on the part of the mass of workers and an anxiety about how to modify the behaviour of those same workers to turn them into sober and diligent labourers and mothers (or both). The most recent developments of what we must call ‘bourgeois culture’ have continued in this line, with an important modification: it is now the manipulation of consumers, as well as of workers. The Age of Revolution, and the Dawn of Liberty, was also the beginning a of a new enslavement to the employer and the commodity.

[1] Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Schocken (1951, Rev. Ed. 2004). 290-1. 

[2] Susan Buck-Morss: Hegel, Haiti and Universal History , University of Pittsburgh Press 2009. P 89

[3] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, Oxford University Press, 1999.  p. 458

[4]  S. Buck-Morss, P. 100