Bryan’s Question Corner #6

Here is my question for Wages of Whiteness sections 1 and 2:

The ‘Neither a Servant Nor a Master’ section of Wages of Whiteness reminded me of this article I read over break:

“It’s the same with most religious traditions. In the Hindu tradition, they start with, your life is a debt you owe to the gods. And then they say, except, well, no—ultimately it’s recognizing that you and the cosmos are the same, then you’d realize there is no debt. Biblical tradition is the forgiveness of debts, cancellation of debts. So it seems like these people feel like they have to start with this language of debt as morality, but then get rid of it again. Why? It’s because this very idea of shame, of sin, that is associated with debt makes it this incredibly powerful ideological mechanism, so that any time you have violent inequalities of power—and mass inequalities of wealth and power have to always be maintained by violence of some kind or another—the first move is to try to convince the people on the bottom that it’s somehow their fault, and debt is the easiest way to do that.” 

What’s interesting about debt, however, is that it is also the language we most commonly use to justify rebellion and descent:

“The overwhelming majority of rebellions and insurrections, jacqueries, throughout world history, have been about debt—much more often than they are about more structural forms of inequality like slavery or serfdom or caste systems. People rebel about debt all the time. And part of the reason is because on the one hand it’s accusatory, and on the other hand, you’re saying, “Well, you should be my equal, you know, it’s an equal contract, except you fucked up.” And somehow saying that to someone is much more offensive than saying, “You’re just inferior.” Because the only response you can really make to that, if it’s destroying your life, at a certain point, is: “Wait a minute, who owes what to who, here?” This makes it a very explosive thing, so you get debt revolts, but it also means that the people rebelling end up using the master’s language, right? It’s the same if you look at Jubilee 2000 and efforts to forgive Third World debt, they said, “Well, you owe us.” Which is true, but, again, you’re framing things in terms of debt, morality is debt.”

‘Servitude’ and ‘slavery’ seems to work like this in Wages of Whiteness. The labels servant and slave take on, among white male laborers, a sort of moral rot; to be a ‘servant’ is to be ‘dependent,’ and dependency is suspect within a republican state where white men are supposed to be the ‘legal, moral, and civil proprietors of this country and state’ (52). But at the same time, the language of servants and masters was profoundly useful as a way of framing these white laborer’s own grievances: “Use of the term white slavery and avoidance of master grew together.” Is part of Roediger’s point that if white laborers could draw from race language and ‘master/slave’ language at once, they could criticize masters/mastery without conflating themselves and black slaves? I.e in a world where both mastery and slavishness were considered reprehensible, did white laborers who were obviously not masters use blackness to make moral arguments against masters that simultaneously distanced their plight from that of the slave?


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