Making up For Damage Done: the Case for Reparations


Instead of siphoning tax-pounds and dollars in to arming regimes who abuse human rights, we could instead redress the descendants of slaves who suffered one of the most callous cruelties human history has witnessed. 

Slavery is the absolute possession and subjugation of a people by a conquering, exploiting force. It completely eviscerates the human individual and subjects them to the whim of craven power. In the history of modern empire, slavery consists in the forcible expropriation of labour from colonial subjects, wrenched from their homelands and made to toil under appalling conditions in the New World. And the ill-gotten gains of white society, underwritten by the blood and sweat of slaves, have never been given back.

Although in time the arrow of history moved towards progress and protests of the abolition movement forced the conscience of the free world to focus on outlawing the unpardonable evil of slavery, on putting a stop to the suffering so-called civilization had engendered, suffice to say the twin problems of racism and inequality persist. The wounds and scars remain.

The issue of monetary redress for the injustice of slavery has exerted a galvanising force in public debate throughout the decades separating the heights of the civil rights movement from today. It is a question which fails to die. The proposals draw as much fear and condemnation as they do support. But there are clear reasons why we ought to support the idea and i will try to outline them here.

One reason colonial states must provide compensation is because the offspring of slavery’s progenitors continue to immorally benefit from reparations paid to recompense slave owners for human stock lost at the time the trade was outlawed. Whereas the collective lot of slaves and their descendants was systematic discrimination and disadvantage, left to fend for themselves in a hostile, prejudiced society, the likes of David Cameron still indirectly benefit from the generous stipends his ancestors received, worth millions in today’s money. It is decidedly wrong that the wealthy can live it up on reparations, as a form of inheritance, when descendants of slaves were damned to troubles and pittance.

Moreover there is the argument we would only be returning wrongfully seized wealth. In his essay for The Atlantic “The Case for Reparations” Ta Nehisi Coates writes about the kleptocracy which bedevilled black people in America. He estimates they collectively lost 24,000 acres of land, valued at tens of millions of dollars, at the hands of greedy, powerful, rapacious white colonialists. Society was enriched only through it’s misdeeds, racism and capitalism going hand in hand.

Colonial prosperity and its legacies of inequality are sometimes discussed in the context of dependency theory. The theory argues that the modern capitalist system created a strict global hierarchy divided in to core and periphery sectors. In this version of political economy the main dynamic is that of the core zone enriching itself through its exploitation of the periphery, continuing the expropriation of labour and wealth fundamental to capitalism. The construction and evolution of the colonial metropole brought with it the deprivation and alienation of periphery subjects. That is the abject truth behind the modern world’s supposedly innovative and productive capabilities. On this view, it is only right to compensate the victims of empire building, to develop a more compassionate ethos to replace the morally defunct one which gave intellectual justification for the bad practices of colonialism.

General unwillingness to truly regard reparations as a form of redress for historical abuse shows we still have a long road to equality. I have heard complaint it is unfair to ask present generations to carry the past on our backs, but what that argument seems to entail is letting societies which are beneficiaries of slavery off the hook. If equality and evolution are values we hold dear, we shouldn’t stop the process of truth and reconciliation in societies infected by racism, and reparations are one critical step in making up for damage done.

Feature image by Sebastian Steele. 


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