Capitalism and the free-market economy are based on the exchange of value and the key freedom of participation. One is free to work; one is free to pursue economic ends; one is free to do and create things in exchange for compensation or other value. On its surface this is simple. It is in many ways the commodification of doing. But the ethics of the free market slide into another realm when we look at the fact that this same system in the United States also accommodated slavery. In slavery, not only is the capacity to work, or produce goods commodified, but ones very existence becomes a tradable, marketable value. The capacity to procreate, to express (or suppress) emotion…i.e. docility, malleability…even basic human will becomes of value in the marketplace.
The ethical horror of American slavery includes many ills: rape, torture, family separation, etc. But the great sin (and I use that word deliberately here) that sits at its heart is the non-humanization of human beings. Slavery in the United States is* based entirely on the commodification of being.
Democracy has tried in the past to be a stopgap to this tragedy. The early failures of the original framers of the constitution to erase the commodification of being, were given some course correction by the combination of executive action followed by legislation…after a vicious and tragic war. Sadly however, the poison runs deep. It is evident in how there continues to be a lively trade in anti-blackness, both domestically and abroad. No amount of legislation seems capable of fixing the sickness of anti-blackness that is held both by those who are not black and sadly (and I say this as a very proud black man) by those who are. Still democracy tries.
More importantly, activists, organizers, legislators, teachers, businesspeople, children, most of them black and some who are not…try daily to portray blackness through lenses of pride and worthiness; dynamic expression and ingenuity; creativity, beauty and brilliance. It is not that the people who were brutally brought here from the African continent starting in 1619 didn’t have any of these same qualities…one need only to look at the list of technological and other advancements for which they were responsible to recognize that. The problem is that their being as opposed to their doing was turned into value. If you do not outright own your own being, you have nothing. You are nothing. This is what sits at the heart of anti-blackness.
I am not against a free market or capitalism. However, I do believe capitalism needs to always be checked by ethics. Slavery and its progeny anti-blackness are the best examples of this. The Civil War was a bizarre ethical conundrum: white men fighting white men over the power of their whiteness over black people. A war over the “freedom” to commodify being that summarily denies freedom to others.
Now THAT is meta.
I encourage everyone who engages this brief reflection I’ve written to think carefully about the technology that Mark Zuckerberg has used to create wealth. The means and technology are different, but the ethics are the exact same as what created the slavery industry and subsequently led to the deep seeded anti-blackness we live with today. My greatest concern is not just the damage that is done by any kind of commodification of being (Zuckerberg’s business model is based on algorithms that do exactly that) but as a theologian and someone invested in the ethics of being, I worry what equivalent of anti-blackness will result from this failure of our democracy to act? Anti-Asian? Anti-woman? Anti-elder (think Logan’s Run)? Anti-faith? Anti-poor? Anti-disability? In truth, if you have engaged Zuckerberg’s work at all, you have probably experienced the potential for any of these already.
How quickly we forget that the abuse of freedom has consequences. The freedom to put people’s being in chains against their will is a lesson I thought we had learned.
*I refer to slavery in the present tense because we continue to live with its shadows and echoes in anti-blackness.