Reparations [2]: Slavery, Human Capital, Le Déluge, and Paying the Piper

Après moi, le déluge.
(After me, the deluge.)
— King Louis XV of France

Proposed reparations for the USA’s racial history raise complex legal, economic, and other issues. We’re familiar with these – they’ve been well-rehearsed in op-eds and speeches by politicians and pundits, activists and the media.

Less familiar are issues more subjective than objective, reflective than combative, instinctual than intellectual. These are the province of shared human experience and sensibility, particularly of virtue — a nearly obsolete concept these days. Virtue prompts change not from the outside, not institutionally, but from a transformation in shared human consciousness, a cultural change of heart, We learn its lessons not from economic models and legal briefs, but principally from truth expressed in fiction –myths and legends, fables and feature films — Aesop’s Fables for adults. As one of Aesop’s contemporaries said about him:

“… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”.[1]

As we’ll see below, virtue asks more than legal compliance, it demands that we pay the piper.

In this series, we will look at both kinds of issues in detail.

History Lesson: The French Revolution

“After me, the deluge” is sometimes attributed to the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as “After us, the deluge.” Either way – King or mistress, me or us – the quote is usually taken as a prophesy of the French Revolution, delivered with an attitude of elite indifference that ranks right in there with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” (Which she probably never said.[2]) “We’re getting away with it now, but all hell is going to break loose once we’re gone.” And indeed it did, when King Louis XVI was guillotined a generation later, under the name Citizen Louis Capet. [3]

From that historical context, après moi, le déluge has come to represent an awareness of coming doom, a feeling that we can’t get away with this forever. Things are good now, but watch out, they won’t last. People thought life was good back in Noah’s time, but look what happened to them. We keep this up, we might get our own version of the Flood.

Contemporary Lesson: Economic Inequality

Plutocrat Nick Hanauer offers a modern version of the saying in his TED talk. According to his TED bio, Hanauer is a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” and founder of 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He unabashedly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for his own future, and the futures of his fellow plutocrats, if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

Whether French Revolution or today, the issue is “paying the piper.”

The Moral of the Story: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Victorian poet Robert Browning brought us the “paying the piper” idiom in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. [4] Here’s a synopsis to refresh our memories:

“‘Pay the piper’ comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.

“Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.

“Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.

“At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.

“When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.

“The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.

“Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.

“At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.”

After me, the deluge + Pay the piper = Pay the piper or risk the deluge

Virtue says don’t get greedy. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be a fraud. Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t be too smart for your own good. Don’t try to get away with it. You’re better than that. Fess up, take responsibility. Don’t invite the deluge – the sudden and terrible twist of fate, the movement of greater mysteries, the imposition of higher justice.

The rats you get rid of won’t be worth the children you lose.

The mayor and citizens of Hamelin defrauded the Piper at the cost of their own children. Justice was absolute — the mountain vault was sealed. The Piper was fully, awfully paid.

Reparations for American slavery are a proposed remedy – a way to pay the piper — for the lost humanity of slaves, stolen from them by a legal and economic framework that assigned slaves economic but not human value. Slaves were dehumanized, and virtue will not tolerate it.

Exploitation of Human Capital

Exploitation of capital assets is expected in a capitalist economy. Human labor is a capital asset, and will also be exploited — everyone who’s ever worked for someone else figures that out the first day on the job. But slavery took exploitation too far: slaves were not people, they were capital assets and nothing more. They were no longer human.

“Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were ex ante. What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair.

“It is relatively easy to come up with intuitively compelling cases of unfair, exploitative behavior. Providing a philosophical analysis to support and develop those intuitions, however, has proven more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is specifying the conditions under which a transaction or institution may be said to be unfair.

“Does the unfairness involved in exploitation necessarily involve some kind of harm to its victim? Or a violation of her moral rights? Is the unfairness involved in exploitation a matter of procedure, substance, or both? And how, if at all, are facts about the history of the agents involved or the background conditions against which they operate relevant to assessing charges of exploitation?”[5]

Slavery harmed its victims, exploited them both procedurally and substantively. And “the facts about the history” of slavery’s purveyors and “the background conditions against which they operate[d]” are most definitely “relevant to assessing charges of exploitation.” Today, 165 years after the nominal end of slavery, those charges remain unanswered, and unpaid.

Slavery and Human Capital

19th Century economist John Elliot Cairnes was “an ardent disciple and friend of John Stuart Mill” and “was often regarded as ‘the last of the Classical economists.’”[6] Writing during the American Civil War, Cairnes analyzed the impact of slavery on both human and other forms of capital in his book The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.[7]

“Cairnes’s shining hour was his widely-discussed 1862 treatise Slave Power.  Cairnes analyzed the consequences of slavery for economic development, in particular how it speeded up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally. Written during the American Civil War, Cairnes warned British policymakers to think twice about backing the economically-unviable Confederacy.  Cairnes book was instrumental in turning the tide of popular English opinion against the rebels.”

Writing about slaves as human capital, Cairnes said this:

“The rice-grounds of Georgia, or the swamps of the Mississippi may be fatally injurious to the human constitution; but the waste of human life which the cultivation of these districts necessitates, is not so great that it cannot be repaired from the teeming preserves of Virginia and Kentucky.

“Considerations of economy, moreover, which, under a natural system, afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master’s interest with the slave’s preservation, when once trading in slaves is practiced, become reasons for racking to the uttermost the toil of the slave; for, when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts.

“It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race. It is in Cuba, at this day, whose revenues are reckoned by millions, and whose planters are princes, that we see in the servile class, the coarsest fare, the most exhausting and unremitting toil, and even the absolute destruction of a portion of its numbers every year.”[8]

Five years after Cairnes wrote that, Karl Marx cited the above passage in Das Kapital[9] in his own analysis of slave labor as capital:

“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.

“‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?

Marx believed that the ultimate culprit was not the individual slave owners, but the capitalist economic system which sponsored the exploitation of all capital – including human capital – to achieve its competitive goal of profitability:

“But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Under the reign of capitalism, Marx argued, workers would be exploited – slaves and free alike — and this would be both an economic and cultural norm. This practice would become so entrenched that it could only be broken by a contrary “compulsion from society.”

The Deluge:  Civil War

“The deluge” is a form of “compulsion from society,” and civil war is a form of both.

The American Civil War was the deluge. The war ended almost exactly four years after it began, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, uncounted non-fatal casualties, and incalculable damage to the rest of American citizenry, human property, and nature.

“Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Both men fought for the Union. Their estimate is derived from an exhaustive study of the combat and casualty records generated by the armies over five years of fighting.  A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts.  It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.”[10]

Tragically, the course of American racial history would question if all those deaths had been in vain. War – the deluge, the compulsion of society – had its day, but it didn’t change cultural attitudes — the same ones that supported Antebellum slavery only became more belligerently expressed.

In France, Louis XV saw the deluge coming, Louis XVI suffered from it, but eleven years later Napoleon was Emperor.

The piper was never paid.

In the USA, war gorged itself on the American land and population, but the Union’s victory foundered on the failings of the Reconstruction.

The Piper was never paid.

The law concerning slavery was changed, but de facto[11] slavery lived on. Before the Civil War, slavery had been, like war itself, a legal crime against humanity, justified under the law of the land. After the Civil War, slavery was simply a crime, illegal as all other crimes, but propagated by a reign of terror that eventually gained its own legal justification that would once again have to be dismantled by another compulsion from society 100 years later.

After the war, you couldn’t own slaves anymore, couldn’t buy and sell them, but you could treat legally freed former slaves just as you once treated their legally enslaved predecessors. In fact, it was much worse. Before the war, the ownership and treatment of slaves was by legal right. After the war, de facto slavery relied on a reign of terror grounded in cultural indifference and brutality. Cruel and unusual punishment had been banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but de facto slavery relied on it to terrorize society into submission.

The Piper was never paid.

The U.S. Labor Movement and Human Capital

The American labor movement’s 400-year history is a chronicle of shifting economic theories and new labor laws brought about by periodic challenges – compulsions from society – to the capitalist norm of the exploitation of human capital.[12] Changing times generated changing attitudes, and American culture demanded accommodations in often violent ways.

And now, in the middle of another deluge – this time a plague, the Covid-19 virus – we have seen the most recent and striking societal shift in the form of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination.[13] Few would claim that the 56-year old Civil Rights Act specifically had today’s gender sensibilities in mind, but the law shifts with cultural attitudes when compelled to do so.

The labor movement will continue to change with the times. Issues of sexism remain, and technology – especially robotics, AI, and machine learning – are threatening human labor in ever-accelerating, unprecedented ways. There will be more deluge, more societal compulsion.

The Piper was never paid.

The Racist Roots of Police Brutality

Finally – for today, at least – the Coronavirus deluge has also recharged the force of societal compulsion currently taking on mass incarceration and police brutality, both of which have historical roots in the Reconstruction’s unresolved racism.[14]

The Piper was never paid.

We have much more to talk about. We’ll continue next time.

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14. From Wikipedia.

[2] See Solosophie.com and Phrases.org.

[3] For more about what the saying might mean, see this is from Wikipedia: “The most famous remark attributed to Louis XV (or sometimes to Madame de Pompadour) is Après nous, le déluge (“After us, the deluge”). It is commonly explained as his indifference to financial excesses, and a prediction of the French Revolution to come. The remark is usually taken out of its original context. It was made in 1757, a year which saw the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians at the Battle of Rossbach and the assassination attempt on the King. The “Deluge” the King referred to was not a revolution, but the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was predicted to pass by the earth in 1757, and which was commonly blamed for having caused the flood described in the Bible, with predictions of a new deluge when it returned. The King was a proficient amateur astronomer, who collaborated with the best French astronomers. Biographer Michel Antoine wrote that the King’s remark “was a manner of evoking, with his scientific culture and a good dose of black humor, this sinister year beginning with the assassination attempt by Damiens and ending with the Prussian victory”. Halley’s Comet finally passed the earth in April 1759, and caused enormous public attention and anxiety, but no floods.

[4]   Idioms.online.

[5] Exploitation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published Thu Dec 20, 2001; substantive revision Tue Aug 16, 2016).

[6] The History of Economic Thought.

[7] Cairnes, John Eliot, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (1862).

[8] Cairnes, Slave Power, op cit.

[9] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5).

[10] American Battlefield Trust.

[11] “In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.” Wikipedia

[12] See this timeline, which runs from 1607-1999, beginning with complaints about labor shortages in Jamestown in 1607, addressed by the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves stolen from Africa.

[13] Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times (June 16, 2020).

[14] See, for example, The Racist Roots Of American Policing: From Slave Patrols To Traffic Stops, The Conversation (June 4, 2019) and George Floyd’s Death Reflects The Racist Roots Of American Policing, The Conversation (June 2, 2020).