Political Volcanoes

James Delingpole asks:

how much time needs to elapse before a historical crime is considered expiated?

Should the Italian government be paying Britain reparations for the indignities its legions and slave-keeping elite inflicted on our people from 55BC to 388AD?

The imposition of slavery was an ancient crime of such magnitude that it might still demand reparations nearly 2000 years later.

In addition a commentator called David Frum, from the other side of the political spectrum, described (2:20) Donald Trump as

“The worst human being ever to enter the presidency – and I include all the slave-holders.”

What was so bad about slavery that both Left and Right unite to condemn it?

This is a serious question. Slavery was ubiquitous in antiquity, yet neither the Greeks or Romans (nor anyone else) seem to have regarded it as immoral. They seem to have regarded it as an unremarkable fact of life. Were they in some way morally deficient in ways that we enlightened moderns no longer are? At what point did slavery become reprehensible?

The answer to the second question seems to be that: Slavery became intolerable as soon as we no longer needed slaves. And we no longer needed slaves once we had replaced them with machines during the industrial revolution.

In fact much the same thing happened with the coal that initially powered the steam engines during the industrial revolution. Once coal began to be replaced with other fuels, it began to be regarded as a toxic, dirty fuel, and carbon dioxide produced by burning it became a dangerous greenhouse gas. After using it for several centuries, we now demonize carbon and carbon dioxide.

It is as if, after ceasing to need something, we suddenly discover everything that’s wrong with it. Or we suddenly find that the disadvantages of using it outweigh the advantages. We suddenly start emphasizing the costs rather than the benefits.

And it seems to be an overnight step change in perception, a moral revolution in which all the values change. People start seeing the world in a new way.

Or some of them do, while the remainder continue to see it the way they did before. And this brings them into collision with each other.

This seems to be what happened in the American Civil War, when the northern states industrialised and the southern states did not. In the north slavery became not just redundant, but intolerable. In the south it continued to be accepted as the necessary underpinning of an agricultural economy. This set up a clash between two value systems that couldn’t co-exist.

Slavery was tolerable while some people – slaveowners -benefited from it, and could be relied upon to support it. It became intolerable when it ceased to benefit anyone, and losers started outnumbering winners. And that’s when the value system inverted.

If America is now (rather suddenly) once again near the point of civil war, might it be that the moral conflict that led to civil war one and a half centuries ago is still present, and still active? Why are we only now being told that “Black Lives Matter”, when it would have been far more relevant in a time when there actually was slavery in America? Does it not suggest that the moral conflict is still as intense as it was one and a half centuries earlier? How long does it take for these disputes to fade away? Do they ever entirely vanish?

I’ve recently been reading about how Europe moved from peace to war in 5 weeks in 1914, And I’ve generally been reading it with the belief that such a war would be inconceivable today. But within Europe there are the same kinds of ancient moral disputes as there are in America today. We are all sitting on the top of political volcanoes that can erupt as suddenly as Vesuvius in 79 AD.


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9 Responses to Political Volcanoes

  1. Rose says:

    Don’t forget the Normans, unfinished business if you ask me.

  2. Dmitry says:

    That was a good idea, Frank. But there is something very Marxist about the idea that moral battles start when the material base crumbles down. What’s so material about that madness currently engulfing several societies? To me, it looks like the reverse – suddenly, out of the blue, it becomes fashionable to have a lot of mad ideas, and then the solid base on which we all sit has to become obsolete. I truly believe in human idiocy, not driven by any tangible need.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Well, it could be that morality is as much a matter of fashion as clothes or hairstyles, and we are always in the grip of one mad idea or other.

      For example I read today that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a believer in the Social Darwinism of the time, and saw nations as competing rivals. It’s not very surprising if he believed this that he built up the German military: he was in the grip of the latest mad idea.

  3. RdM says:

    Perhaps just slightly off topic:

    Fake news, or something?

    UNDER ATTACK! United States Report Cyber Attack Across the Nation, Possible Cyber Terrorist

    Of course, that is US-centric.
    Major services may have server farms elsewhere?
    I found no problem with say YouTube, after stumbling across that link earlier today.

    But interesting to consider ways cyber warfare might go.

    Are we slaves in or to the internet, or free men and women?
    Free within the infrastructure, as long as it exists.

    How would it be if trans Atlantic or Pacific cables were targeted, taken out?
    Not so pleasant, perhaps.
    But think back say 40 years, when none of us had internet.

    It would be sheer vandalism to destroy that.
    Enemies might use it to attack, but destroying the means of attack, the infrastructure itself?
    Hardly likely, but some madman might?

    Perhaps best left in the realm of speculative fiction.

    The first transatlantic cable… August 16, 1858

    ~ RdM

  4. sackersonwp says:

    I don’t know about the life expectancy of slaves in the ancient Roman world but the Caribbean was a killer:

    ‘The average life of a slave after “adjusting” to the climate and environmental conditions of Jamaica was expected to be less than two decades. This was due to their limited familiarly and immune defense against the diseases and illnesses present in Jamaica.’


    So, some even worse than others.

  5. Doonhamer says:

    Serfdom, Indentiture, extended apprenticeship, impressed service, poor house service, working for your rich uncle, working “in service”, living and working under the trucking system, eviction, transportation, working to pay off your ancestor’s debt.
    A lot of apologies needed.

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