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Ending of Slavery in Cuba and Brazil
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – 1976
 
Slavery as an institution trains people to think in terms of groups instead of thinking in terms of individuals. This perspective, unfortunately, infects not only the master race or class and the slave race or class, but also the liberating race or class (even if, within their own social system, they think in terms of individuals). Anyone who comes in contact with the issue of slavery is almost bound, by the circumstances of the institution itself, to begin to think in terms of groups. It is this kind of group-oriented thinking, a variant or primitive form of collectivism, which characterizes slave societies and post-slavery societies. And it is this perspective which prolongs the evils of slavery.

It is well to point out that the prime evils of slavery are not that the slave race or class are poor or uneducated or live in squalor, but that this is a socially (and, many times, politically) enforced condition. It is too commonly believed that people want to be rich, educated, and healthy according to the 'highest' standards of civilization extant. Perhaps they should. But given their particular background it is not at all unusual for some individuals to be satisfied with something less than the social worker's or government's standards of living. "Emancipation did not result in any significant change in the position of free blacks in the Brazilian social structure. In a society of rigid class lines, they were left on the lowest rung of the social ladder."(1) Of course they were on the lowest rung of the social ladder; I submit that it is irrational to believe that it could have been or should have been different. I get the feeling in reading most of the accounts of slavery that the writers believe that somehow the ending of slavery should have elevated the ex-slave population (or a representative number thereof) to a position socially equal to that of their former masters. This is sheer nonsense. Not only did the group-thinking of the institution prevent such a radical change, but the standard of living with which the ex-slaves were familiar (admittedly not through their own choice) could not prepare them in any way to make such a quantum cultural leap. "It is possible to remove a favela, but to transform favela culture is another matter. In 1963, to give but one illustration, a fleet of bulldozers flattened a Rio slum and forced 22,000 furious inhabitants to reside in a new housing project ... The results, on the whole, were disastrous.... The problem of shanty towns is far from solved. As Brazilian officials see it, public housing can rapidly become superslums and new favelas 'pop out of the ground like mushrooms.'"(2) (Emphasis added.)

Carolina Maria de Jesus said that she wished the government would destroy the favelas. She is an exceedingly bright woman, but, I suspect, too caught up in the misery of the favela environment to ask where she could have gone had the favela not been there ... and whether she would have found life (or her neighbors) any more pleasant in a public housing settlement. Admittedly, slums are a blight, but they are a product of group-thinking social forces; and a means of bucking the social system. Slums signify a diseased social system and a healthy people. The damnable thing is, is that the sick governments, social workers, et. al., seek to change the people instead of having the guts to question their own position. In virtually every society we have studied, the elite have been in a quandary as to what to do about the poor, uneducated, ex-slave masses ... they never even stop to consider whether anything should be done about a mass. (But, here again, we run into the incapacitating group-mentality associated with slavery.)

The 'self-perpetuating' peasantry of Haitians; the favelas of Brazil; the poverty of Cuba's Oriente province, these are all manifestations (in their prolongation and accentuation) of the social elite's or the government's efforts to do well or ill in respect to either improving the lot of the poor masses or keeping them under control and in 'their place.' It is almost inconceivable that a government would protect the political liberties of the citizens of its country, granting economic and social privileges to no group, faction or individual. The perspective of governments following the ending of slavery - their paternalism and their quest for making an economically prosperous and socially stable country - is the most horrendous outgrowth of the institution of slavery . ..... Swamped with migrant invasions, and lacking an open-employment, industrialized economy, most metropolitan cities in Latin America are not prepared today to reach out and transform marginal folk into functional citizens."(3) Transform? Functional? Who on earth is this, playing God? There is inherent in such group-oriented thinking, a profound lack of respect for individual human beings. A concept of promoting social welfare is nothing more than an inversion of slavery, and, as such, is none the prettier.

Hugh Thomas comments, "Is it necessary to point out, so late in the day that Liberty is a convenience as well as a principle?"(4) And this seemingly benign inquiry sets my teeth on edge for so many, many reasons. Foremost, Liberty produces a healthy environment for individual human beings because of its fundamental truth. A principle is not some pretty window-dressing that is afforded only as a luxury. A principle is a fundamental truth. Liberty is a fundamental necessity ... not because of its 'social value,' but because it is right and proper qua individual for man qua man.

Group-think. Justification of political, economic or social systems in social terms has the affect of condemning the world to a state of extended slavery (of some form). As long as people think in terms of the government providing social welfare or of the Peace Corps (or some other standardized social ideal), civilization will stagnate. Social stability is the ideal of the 'divine right of stagnation' (as in Zaria) - only the 'community of the dead' are truly stable; but, good God, what kind of an ideal is that? Does this really seem so far from the topic of post-slavery society? Group-think.

The destruction of property by the blacks in the U.S. race riots in the 1960's was revealing. Consider the pressure exerted on every one of us by Madison Avenue. It is a pressure to conform to a certain set of social standards such as to induce us to purchase what we may not need and may not be able to afford. The government and social welfare groups want, somehow, to instill in the blacks the economic and cultural values of the majority. The public, common, or social 'good'... nothing could be more vicious. The pressure exerted on the blacks in this country is much the same as Madison Avenue's pressure, only stronger and even more ubitquitous. And it is just as nebulous, and too ineffable to be able to determine just who or what to strike back against. The blacks in the 60's directed their wrath against the most concrete manifestations of those ineffable forces which had, somehow, converged to regulate their lives. Whether the forces take the personal form of red-necks or social workers, the principle (and effect) is the same: a fundamental lack of respect for individuals.

"Doubtless these [African] cults survived more in Cuba (as in Brazil) because slavery had lasted until recently there..."(5) "The black population in Cuba therefore lived still partly in a mysterious dream world, hispanisized or North Americanized to some extent, which whites could visit but never really incorporate into their own affluence or poverty. This went ill, inevitably, in a country where materialism had utterly displaced religion. The Communist Party, despite its important following among Negroes, criticized the African cults as non-productive and anti-social..."(6) Earlier, the "public celebration of all religious ceremonies and festivals both African and Catholic, had been banned by the U.S. military government"(7) in Cuba. In Brazil, "the whites themselves are divided into blond and brunette, depending on the color of their hair."(8) Group-think.

"Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man's genetic lineage - the notion that a man's intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors."(9) "Oracy Nogueira has called the distinction the difference between a prejudice of mark (Brazil) and a prejudice of origin (United States). This terminology has an advantage in regard to Brazil since it can include within a single term elements such as hair quality, general physical appearance, and even educational backgroup as well as color."(10) This is not to say that the Brazilian approach to racial distinctions mitigates racism, but that it is merely complicated by other factors; i.e., on top of racism are other means of pidgeon-holing individuals into group slots. Even if an individual is physiologically distinct from other groups, he will still be socially defined by group standards.

It is important that we recognise racism as but one form of social classification, and that any other form is just as injurious to individuals by virtue of the fact that social classification (or group-think, as I have referred to it) ignores, omits, and oppresses the reality of the individual except as he relates to the group. From this perspective it is easy to see that any governmental action affecting the living standards of any of its citizens is oppressing individuals because it cannot have any operative conception of the individual qua individual. In approaching such matters, the government's position is entirely predicated upon the inter-action of individuals; that is to say, the social context. A government acting for the benefit of any group or section of its populace can do so only to the detriment of that group, regardless of the superficial educational and material improvements effected. This is the case, of necessity, because the government abrogates the fundamental human right to self-determination ... a concept which is applicable only to individual human beings (and not to governments or any other artificial collection of human beings). This is a right which governments should be instituted among men to protect ... not violate. The ending of slavery is a positive good because it is a recognition of this right on a very preliminary level. The social residue which hangs over into post-slavery societies (which is, as often as not, associated with abolitionist groups) indicating a lack of respect for individuals, in evidence that the essence of slavery has yet to be identified. Slavery is not simply physical ownership, but a condition of bondage of any individual to any other individual or group. As Thomas Jefferson put it, it is "every form of tyranny over the mind of man." - he did not say over minds of men. And neither should we.


1 Robert Brent Toplin ed.. Slavery and Race Relations In Latin America (Westport, Connecticutt: Greenwood Press, 1974), p. 271.
2 Ibid., P. 413
3 Ibid., p. 414-5
4 Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1971). p. 1487.
5 Ibid., p. 518
6 Ibid., P. 1125
7 Ibid., p. 517
8 Carl N. Degier, Neither Black Nor White (N.Y.: Macmillan Company, 1971, P. 103
9 Ayn Rand, "Racism," The Objectivist Newsletter, 11 (September, 1963). 33
10 Op. Cit., Degier, p. 111

 

copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben