If you work in cultural studies, there’s a place where myth takes over from fact. The meanings of things often overpower words and lie deep in silence, tangled and forgotten. This week’s brouhaha brings up a case in point: Mayor Cory Booker may be nauseated by the criticisms of equity capital, but he of all people should remember the most egregious example of equity capital and be nauseated. Equity capital brought us slavery.
Equity capital has had a spin machine since the colonial era when the huge profits that exploded from the trafficking of human beings for three centuries were interpreted as a response to a demand for labor. Not so. Labor was available. Europe was facing economic depressions and wars; poverty was rampant, and those trapped by class, circumstances and history were eager to better themselves. The cost of keeping and maintaining slaves were not significantly different from paying wages to immigrants. But importing labor didn’t double down (or triple!) profits. Trafficking in slaves created a profit center even larger than the crops the labor grew and harvested. The key difference, the most significant reason for the growth of African slavery in the Americas was as the world’s largest profit center for equity capital firms.
Ship captains and planters didn’t have the capital to “buy” human beings; ship captains and planters didn’t organize international markets or set up legal codes that stripped slaves of every aspect of human liberty. All of this was done and assisted by equity capitalists and political arm-twisting. Firms in London, Liverpool, Newport, Charleston, Baltimore, Havana, and cities around the Atlantic rim organized men of wealth to purchase shares in ships with human cargo and create a fiscal and legal infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic.
Slavery was a risky business. Disease wiped out the investment; even sailors on slavers (as the ships were called), died in record numbers. Abolitionists opposed the business. But the profits reaped made the capital risks and human costs seem miniscule. But Stanford- and Oxford-trained Cory Booker finds a silent place and missing ledger entries and voices no upset about the very forces that continue to see the world as a balance sheet.
When slavery ended, did equity capital reform? Did it question its profit-above-all approach, its strategy of ignoring any considerations other than profit and wealth? Or did it seek new opportunities? Trace the history carefully and you arrive at Mitt Romney—and Cory Booker and Harold Ford and Steve Rattner, who praise the benefits of the investments of equity without reference to its morality or history.
In college, we used a poem, “Middle Passage,” written by Robert Hayden, former poet-in-residence at the Library of Congress, to describe the actions of Cory Booker and Harold Ford, those who turned against community interest for personal gain, adapting the agenda of those who treat death like another GM recall. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, written in the voice of a sailor, in the form of a diary or journal entry. It describes the African king who traffics his own people to accumulate wealth and power.
And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:
He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,
red calico and German-silver trinkets
Would have the drums talk war and send
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages
and kill the sick and old and lead the young
in coffles to our factories.
Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still
but for the fevers melting down my bones.
Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished
Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.
Not the fearful Uncle Tom but the eager King Anthracite who sells his own to meet the market’s demands. We called this collaboration the Anthracite Syndrome.
Sometimes it’s not about who is Republican or Democratic, but who is moral, true to the deepest human principles not attached to profits or partisanship. Cory Booker and Harold Ford failed to nurture or articulate the values that have been roots of wisdom from ancient times. To betray those values is to betray humanity.
The celebration of the benefits of equity capital, the gilded poison fruits of its investments, the historic, global role of equity capital celebrates its special breed of robber barons who strip human dignity for the balance sheet. Barack is right to call attention to the difference. And when a prominent politician feels nausea for the criticism of equity capital but not a moment’s discomfort over its balance sheet approach and the human carnage that marks its history, who thinks equity capital has charged?