Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

“What Kind of Freedom is This?” The Historical Question of Work and Blackness

The Old Plantation c.1790s

Image Credit: The Old Plantation, c. 1790s, (Public Domain)

“Why has ‘Black Freedom’ become so precarious (yet again!) at this historical conjuncture?” Taking up that question, I have posed another: “What Kind Freedom is This?”1 There is a very particular provenance for this question, which I shall elaborate in a minute, as we say. At this moment, however, I draw your attention to the way displacing the why with what redirects the interrogative force. Permit me this critical—in the old sense of dialectical—challenge, but it is often presumed that we know what Black freedom is; and I’m not so certain we do. Although, as I hope to show, there are sound historical reasons why we should. This redirection also shifts the grounds of interrogation; the question of work in relation to blackness is preliminary to interrogating the historical conjuncture of the concepts “freedom” and “Black,” or more aptly put “Blackness,” in modernity, which, as Robin Blackburn has so definitively shown, is at the crux of the capitalist construction of humanity in relation to work, right alongside Hegel’s intensely studied account of the concomitant emergence of rights and feudal serfdom. Right there, then, I’ve extended the spatio-temporal scope of “this historical conjuncture.” Accordingly, my pursuit of the quaestio here is concordant with three consonant situations.

The most immediate of these are the events that prompted Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors to send out a call to action in 2013: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”2 Among its foundational principles is a declared commitment to “collectively, lovingly, and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people . . . intentionally building and nurturing a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.”3 This is very much about eventful response. What I wish to draw attention to is the long-standing situation of that eventfulness, arguably extending back to the Thirteenth Amendment, which, per Du Bois’ exposition in Black Reconstruction in America, marked a recalibration of the relationship between Blacks and work, and concomitantly between work and freedom.

In other words, when we probe the concept of freedom and justice for Black people to which Black Lives Matter is committed, we discover a particular identification of work and freedom as somehow a characteristic of what it is to be human. This latter point is the principal argument William Julius Wilson made in his 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. There are three main points in Wilson’s argument: (1) that in neighborhoods offering few legitimate employment opportunities, “many people eventually lose their feeling of connectedness to work in the formal economy; they no longer expect work to be a regular and regulating force in their lives;” (2) this leads to nihilistic, disruptive patterns of social behavior that are structural or sociogenetic rather than the effect of inherent culturally-specific attitudes; (3) that this pattern of degenerative unemployment, which is prevalent in inner-city ghettos, is a more extreme form of broader problems of economic marginality that have affected most Americans since 1980, and stem from changes in the global economy.4 This argument is reiterated in his 2009 book, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, which, should we accept it, clearly has echoes in the current political analysis of the momentum behind Donald Trump’s election as President, but also in the general decline of liberal democratic government as an aspect of neoliberal globalization.5

Underlying Wilson’s research and analysis is the presumption that work is an essential component of human self-worth, as well as social value. That underlying presumptive identification of work with humanity as natural is my principal target here. To be a bit more precise, I interrogate its applicability in relation to the question of Black freedom; about which, as I stated earlier, we need to know more. What is this? Asking this question of Black freedom with regard to broad tendencies of globalization, is to ask how is it meaningful as an earthly historic human event in the world-system. We are talking about historiography here, and the historiography of Black freedom as a historic event in the world-system is still primarily focused on the North Atlantic world. This brings us to the second situation, which we might initially call the Black Atlantic.

Arguably, the study of the Black Atlantic emerged as an aspect of the generalized “Atlantic turn” in the historiography of the early modern Western world that occurred in the 1980s among historians of the colonial Americas, the relevant metropolitan European merchant empires, as well as Atlantic Africa and the African diaspora responding to an increasingly integrated global world. Yet, while slavery and the demographic study of the transatlantic slave trade have been elements in the general Atlantic turn since Philip Curtin and Paul Lovejoy, they have indeed been brought to the fore of systemic analysis in the past twenty years or so. Most of that scholarship has been focused on the market and political economics of the trade, however, and not the workplace, to speak euphemistically of the slave ship/plantation matrix. Let us allow a qualified exception for Eugene Genovese Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made; qualified because of its acute US focus more than its workplace analysis. Addressing the generative dynamics of work in determining human identity fell to the creolists, Sidney Mintz, Richard Price, and Kamau Brathwaite. Particularly pertinent to our concerns here is their postulate that in the intense violence of the matrix of transatlantic slavery, the diverse populations constituted as Negro labor forged ad hoc progenitive socialities that have endured and thus can be studied ethnologically as well as historically.

Hypothesizing the formation of new compound political and cultural identities among not only Africans enslaved in the New World, but those in Africa implicated in the Atlantic World system is no small thing; it touches on the vexing issues of conceptualization and perspective, from Silvio Zavala’s and Herbert Bolton’s grasping for a proper Pan-American focus in the Atlantic World, to Robert Palmer’s insistence that the eighteenth-century revolutionary movement was a phenomenon of the Atlantic civilization in general and not imitated from the French. There is, of course, C. L. R. James’s still invaluable analysis of the global significance of the long Haitian revolution, not to mention, the work of Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, all of which explore the perennial presence of revolutionary formations. We could easily add to this Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein’s study of antisystemic movements as a constitutive aspect of the planet-wide extension of the capitalist world-system.

I come, then, to the third situation, placing the question of Black freedom in relation to the revolutionary or antisystemic tendency of that world-system. Doing this requires another historiography of revolution, one that not only makes use of alternative archives but also deploys an alternative anthropology, by which I mean an alternative radical humanism. Pursuant to this aim, I am proposing that in addressing the question of what this Black freedom is, and how it is meaningful as an earthly historic human event in the world-system, we need to ask what it initially looks like. For that, we must turn to the long Haitian Revolution, which in Article 14 of its 1805 Constitution expressly uses the “dénomination générique de noirs [the generic appellation, Black]” to define Haitians regardless of color. The question of Black freedom is recognized here as a movement articulated with the world-system that cannot be properly located in it—of which such events as the Arab Revolution, beginning with Tunisia in December 2010, as well as the ongoing Palestinian Intifada, can arguably be viewed as iterations; or to put it bluntly, “other-than-European” popular revolutions. Putting events like the Tunisian Revolution in relation to Haiti dislocates the question of Black freedom, of Blackness, from the more-narrow geopolitical Atlantic World, opening up a re-imagining of globality; something intimated, I think, in Du Bois’s earliest conception of what he called “Pan-Negroism.”

In any event, I can only suggest this here. That noted, I’ll merely point out that to locate something is to place it within some set of boundaries and to so settle it, to situate it. How does one situate or settle revolution except to stabilize it in the manner of the French National Convention in 1795, having just repressed the last uprising of the revolutionary Parisian sans-culottes and ceding power to the Directory. Nor is it a trivial fact for our purposes here that chief among the stabilizing institutions was the comprehensive public education law enacted in October of that year, establishing the Institut national des sciences et arts (National Institute of Sciences and Arts); the expressed mission of which was indeed to advise the Directory about intellectual work, both scientific and literary, in France and abroad, which might have been of use in stabilizing the energies of the revolution, thereby promoting the glory of civic republicanism. Something that was perhaps most successfully realized in the work of the Institute’s second class, the Classe des sciences morales et politiques (Class for Moral and Political Sciences), in which Destutt de Tracy’s Idéologues held considerable sway: a heuristic of some of the pitfalls involved in the academicization of revolution well worth attending to now.

Be that as it may, it warrants pointing out that in its voluminous work of memoirs, the Institut achieved a corpus of psychological social science, including theories of mind as well as ethics, all focused on the well-tempered individual as proper embodiment of revolutionary force, which still contributes to our understanding of proper social order in change. And that is precisely why we still cannot to this day “locate” the Haitian Revolution per se. My point with this last remark is that the revolutionary “Black” connotes what is emergent in the event without synthesis, the non-synthetic that does not so much point to the so-called Negroid African type, but rather to the common history of human emergence, and, as Pico della Mirandola asserted at the beginning of our early modernity, “humanism.” Paraphrasing Fanon, the Haitian revolution is a step towards a new humanism that sets out to shed the synthesizing tendencies of Mirandola’s European-forming humanism by foregrounding that Black being is perpetually on the way, a restless flying that consistently and insistently does displacement. This needs further explanation, but for now, I’ll simply remark that the Black Haitian Revolution does not settle nicely into the community of nation-states, the international systematization of the earth as a world order, as much as it exacerbates the conceptual crisis of such an order. This resistance to settlement, this un-situatedness vexes in a fundamental way the conceptualization of the world system, which is why, as the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot asserted in 1990, the events that shook the Caribbean French colony of Saint Domingue from 1791-1804, persist as “unthinkable facts . . . for which one has no adequate instruments to conceptualize.”6

The incomprehensibleness of Haiti is symptomatic of a particular epistemological scandal. On that score, we do well to recall that despite his notoriously counterrevolutionary position, Kant thought the French Revolution, having erupted spontaneously among the populace without the benefit of the breeding, Zucht, achieved through cultured pedagogy, “demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once;” specifically, “that humanity can progress of its own accord.”7 As such, he deemed it evidence of the inherent universal human tendency of progressive change, where the movement is towards realizing a common association of life and living. For Kant, this is expressly a communicative association in reason; its conceptual schemata are principally a function of imagination, which we could term the natural sovereignty of human freedom, as in self-conscious autopoesis. Regarding the events unfolding on Saint Domingue during the same time as those in France, however, it was precisely the unlawfulness of such collective imagination that inclined him to view them as the purest instance of collective irrational emotion— in the sense of ill-directed public commotion and unrest: riots contrary to moral-reason, and so an absolutely illegitimate eruption of violence against not only government but also civil society.

I’ll not rehearse Kant’s account of the deontological foundation for the origins of civil society, with its complicated elaboration of duties of right—virtue to the self and justice to others—and his notion of authorized reciprocal coercion absolutely prohibiting violent rebellion, which lay the foundation for his counterrevolutionary views. It suffices to remark here that his account turns on the postulate that humankind is comprised of individuals who, even in the state of nature, are all rational, autonomous beings. These two aspects of Kant’s thinking are key reasons why all he could see happening in Saint Domingue was a slave rebellion. It is crucial for us to understand that this was not simply a failure of personal morals, or some kind of irrational reaction to human difference. It was a fundamental function of Kant’s transcendental deduction, which is to say of his account of what is our reality and how we have it, and so what it means to be a free human subject capable of enlightenment, of warranting the motto Sapere Aude (dare to be wise). In his assessment of all that, the Negro is a type of hominid firmly situated in the natural domain of things governed by physical law, but not so fully within the supranaturalistic domain of persons governed by the rational moral law. By that light, the basis of the Haitian Revolution’s incomprehensibleness Trouillot references, and Kant so nicely exemplifies, has precisely to do with the priority of the individual in the tradition of European political philosophy. It is because the Negro cannot be admitted into the ranks of rational cosmopolitan individuals, and so cannot be the generator of civil society, that the prospect of a revolution forming a republic—that is, constituting a civil society— is unfathomable and nearly unimaginable. My point here, however, is not about race per se. Rather, it is that what gets expressed as a problem of race in regard to Haiti is indicative of a more fundamental problem of anthropological psychology and philosophy: the long enduring premise that only one mode of subjectivity drives history, and it has a definitive formation.

That the Haitian Revolution is a contradictory corrective to this premise was announced by Jean-Jacques Dessalines on April 28 1804, when he proclaimed the island’s independence from France with the words: “We have paid these true cannibals back in full; war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage. . . . I have saved my country. I have avenged America.” With this proclamation, Dessalines declared the establishment of the Republic of Hayti, in his capacity as its first president. Naming the new country by the supposed Arawakan term for the island of Hispaniola, the very first place to see the arrival of Iberian colonists and the emergence of Europeans on the world stage, was a symbolically powerful statement, as was his reversing the accusation of cannibalism that had long justified the autochthonous people’s enslavement and murder. With these statements, Dessalines signified an act of solidarity with not only all the oppressed populations, les damnés, of the Western hemisphere, but also the entire world, as was made explicit in the language of the 1805 constitution. One is inclined to agree with Nick Nesbitt and recognize in that constitution the first attempt to construct a society in accordance with the radical Enlightenment axioms of universal emancipation and universal human autonomy, calling for a society in which all human subjects retain their autonomous constituent power.8

Dessalines thus defined the Haitian Revolution as a war of worlds, one that in “saving” Haiti from colonial slavery had avenged an entire hemisphere. In so doing, he expressly took up the Radical Enlightenment, further radicalizing in turn that very Enlightenment, which had refused to address Africans as full subjects of human rights. As Nesbitt characterizes it, the Haitian Revolution amounted to an “invention of an egalitarian freedom unknown in the North Atlantic,” the personification of which is the Black. That this was the articulation of a distinctive historical subjectivity was remarked by Dessalines’s secretary Pompée Valentin, Baron de Vastey, the earliest Haitian theorist and polemicist for the revolution. In his An Essay on the Causes of the Revolution and Civil Wars of Hayti, Vastey wrote of a population that only twenty-five years earlier was “in slavery and the most profound ignorance,” with “no idea of human societies, no thought of happiness, no kind of energy,” yet through massive spontaneous individual autodidactic effort “many of them learned to read and write of themselves without an instructor.”9 “They walked about with books in their hands, inquired of persons whom they met, whether they could read; if they could, they were then desired to explain the meaning of such a particular sign, or such a word. In this way many of the natives succeeded, without the help of education, though already advanced in years.” Through such autodidactic learning, the native Haitian population produced a corps of indigenous “notaries, barristers, judges, statesmen, that astonished everyone by the solidity of their judgment. One may readily conceive what such men would have been, had they been trained with the care and method of a classical education.”10 Even more significant than this being a direct contradiction of Kant’s dismissal of the Negro as an inferior, more natural hominid, is the fact that such Haitian autodidactic activity is evidence of his theory of humankind’s capacity for autopoetic progression. So, what the incomprehensibleness of the events of the Haitian Revolution clearly indicates is not merely that they are unthinkable in accordance with the reigning cosmology, but that the cosmology is woefully, on its fundamental premises, incapable of yielding any truly adequate knowledge about the eventfulness of humankind, about how the societies in which we actually live are as they are. Which is to say, they are far removed from giving a full picture of how humanity lives life in our world.

What Alain Badiou has called le temps des émeutes (the era of riots), does not begin with the Arab Revolutions; rather, they are arguably iterations of the processes first instantiated with Haiti. In fact, it was the general insurrection launched by the slaves on 14 August 1791 in the North province of Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest and most important of the anciennes colonies françaises, that first made it clear there was tension between the revolutionary principles of universal human freedom enshrined in the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen and the political economy of the market. Overthrowing the Bourbon ancien régime did not end the French Colonial Empire; moreover, the National Convention’s state of war with the princes and kings of Europe made it all the more dependent on the revenues generated by Saint-Domingue’s extensive system of slavery-based plantation agriculture. The slaves’ insistence on their liberté immediately precipitated a systemic economic crisis that jeopardized the revolutionary French Republic’s continued possession and control of the colony’s resources, and concordantly its capacity to wage war for its own survival.

It is precisely those circumstances that led to the first successful armed native struggle for liberation from the French Colonial Empire, resulting in the establishment of the world’s first independent Black republic. They also, however, were elemental in the struggle for what will eventually be la République d’Haïti, inaugurating an historical lineage of postcolonial state formation, whereby the newly-founded nation-state, in order to generate the revenues essential for its political and social viability, is compelled to continue its relationship with the imperial metropolis, reconfigured within the parameters of the international system’s political-economy, as a provider of the natural resources fueling metropolitan capital growth. The political-economic conditions of the decolonized state’s legitimate inclusion within the international system call for securing the economic sector so as to assure continued productivity in a way that, more often than not, results in a militarized or quasi-militarized regime of control in tension with the foundational tenets of civic republicanism. The Haitian paradigm of this formation is clear when we bear in mind the historical events of the independent nation’s emergence pertaining to the relation between republican freedom and economic discipline—the need to predicate enfranchisement on a certain relationship to work. A history that warrants recalling briefly because the instruction it provides about the historical development of the modern conceptions of freedom. With Haiti, we get to work on freedom.

This piece was originally given as part of a plenary session on June 22, 2017 at the Futures of American Studies Summer Institute, Dartmouth College. The topic of the session, which was chaired by Soyica Diggs Colbert, was “Why has ‘Black Freedom’ become so precarious (yet again!) at this historical conjuncture?” I wish to take this opportunity to again thank Donald Pease for the invitation to present the piece, as well as the Institute fellows for their characteristically collaborative intellectual engagement, full of the gravitas warranted by this moment.
Black Lives Matter, Guiding Principles, http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles/
William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Vintage Books, 1969).
William Julius Wilson, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2009).
See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 82. This was a reiteration of what he had already set out in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); and in his landmark 1977 work, Ti difé boulé sou Istoua Ayiti, which was the first book-length monograph in Haitian Creole on the origins of the Haitian Revolution.
Immanuel Kant, Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Mary Gregor (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992),153.
Nick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008, 154.
Pompee-Valentin Vastey, An Essay on the Causes of the Revolution and Civil Wars of Hayti, Being a Sequel to the Remarks upon Certain French Publications and Journals Concerning Hayti, trans. W. H. and M. B. Exeter: Western Luminary Office, 1823, iv.
10 Vastey, iv-v.

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