Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

“The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.“

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Book III, Chapter 2, Para. 10.

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social democracy, a system of government based on the equitable distribution of wealth plundered through centuries of slavery and imperialist violence

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Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master. Acrylic on PVC panel, 2011. 
Private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York.

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“Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery,
which could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation.
In many respects, the very structure of the plantation system and its aftermath
manifests the emblematic and paradoxical figure of the state of exception. This figure is paradoxical here for two reasons. First, in the context of the plantation,
the humanity of the slave appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed,
the slave condition results from a triple loss: loss of a “home,” loss of rights over
his or her body, and loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute
domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether).
To be sure, as a political-juridical structure, the plantation is a space where the
slave belongs to a master. It is not a community if only because by definition, a
community implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought. As Paul
Gilroy says, “The extreme patterns of communication defined by the institution
of plantation slavery dictate that we recognize the anti-discursive and extralinguistic
ramifications of power at work in shaping communicative acts. There
may, after all, be no reciprocity on the plantation outside of the possibilities of
rebellion and suicide, flight and silent mourning, and there is certainly no grammatical
unity of speech to mediate communicative reason. In many respects, the
plantation inhabitants live non-synchronously.” As an instrument of labor, the
slave has a price. As a property, he or she has a value. His or her labor is needed
and used. The slave is therefore kept alive but in a state of injury, in a phantomlike
world of horrors and intense cruelty and profanity. The violent tenor of the
slave’s life is manifested through the overseer’s disposition to behave in a cruel
and intemperate manner and in the spectacle of pain inflicted on the slave’s

Violence, here, becomes an element in manners, like whipping or taking
of the slave’s life itself: an act of caprice and pure destruction aimed at instilling
terror. Slave life, in many ways, is a form of death-in-life. As Susan Buck
Morss has suggested, the slave condition produces a contradiction between freedom
of property and freedom of person. An unequal relationship is established
along with the inequality of the power over life. This power over the life of
another takes the form of commerce: a person’s humanity is dissolved to the point
where it becomes possible to say that the slave’s life is possessed by the master. Because the slave’s life is like a “thing,” possessed by another person, the slave
existence appears as a perfect figure of a shadow. 

In spite of the terror and the symbolic sealing off of the slave, he or she maintains
alternative perspectives toward time, work, and self. This is the second
paradoxical element of the plantation world as a manifestation of the state of
exception. Treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and
instrument of production, the slave nevertheless is able to draw almost any object,
instrument, language, or gesture into a performance and then stylize it. Breaking
with uprootedness and the pure world of things of which he or she is but a fragment,
the slave is able to demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond
through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another. 

If the relations between life and death, the politics of cruelty, and the symbolics
of profanity are blurred in the plantation system, it is notably in the colony
and under the apartheid regime that there comes into being a peculiar terror formation
I will now turn to. The most original feature of this terror formation is
its concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege. Crucial
to this concatenation is, once again, race. In fact, in most instances, the selection of races, the prohibition of mixed marriages, forced sterilization, even
the extermination of vanquished peoples are to find their first testing ground in
the colonial world. Here we see the first syntheses between massacre and bureaucracy,
that incarnation of Western rationality. Arendt develops the thesis that
there is a link between national-socialism and traditional imperialism. According
to her, the colonial conquest revealed a potential for violence previously unknown.
What one witnesses in World War II is the extension to the “civilized” peoples of
Europe of the methods previously reserved for the “savages.” 

That the technologies which ended up producing Nazism should have originated
in the plantation or in the colony or that, on the contrary—Foucault’s thesis—Nazism
and Stalinism did no more than amplify a series of mechanisms that
already existed in Western European social and political formations (subjugation
of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medico-legal theories
on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. A fact remains,
though: in modern philosophical thought and European political practice and
imaginary, the colony represents the site where sovereignty consists fundamentally
in the exercise of a power outside the law (ab legibus solutus) and where
“peace” is more likely to take on the face of a “war without end.” 

Indeed, such a view corresponds to Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty at
the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the power to decide on the state of
exception. To properly assess the efficacy of the colony as a formation of terror,
we need to take a detour into the European imaginary itself as it relates to the critical
issue of the domestication of war and the creation of a European juridical
order (Jus publicum Europaeum). At the basis of this order were two key principles.
The first postulated the juridical equality of all states. This equality was
notably applied to the right to wage war (the taking of life). The right to war meant
two things. On the one hand, to kill or to conclude peace was recognized as one of
the preeminent functions of any state. It went hand in hand with the recognition
of the fact that no state could make claims to rule outside of its borders. But conversely,
the state could recognize no authority above it within its own borders. On
the other hand, the state, for its part, undertook to “civilize” the ways of killing
and to attribute rational objectives to the very act of killing.
The second principle related to the territorialization of the sovereign state, that
is, to the determination of its frontiers within the context of a newly imposed
global order. In this context, the Jus publicum rapidly assumed the form of a distinction
between, on the one hand, those parts of the globe available for colonial appropriation and, on the other, Europe itself (where the Jus publicum was to
hold sway). This distinction, as we will see, is crucial in terms of assessing the
efficacy of the colony as a terror formation. Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war
is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely,
a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus
of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle
of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a
moral sign.

In the same context, colonies are similar to the frontiers. They are inhabited by
“savages.” The colonies are not organized in a state form and have not created a
human world. Their armies do not form a distinct entity, and their wars are not
wars between regular armies. They do not imply the mobilization of sovereign
subjects (citizens) who respect each other as enemies. They do not establish a distinction
between combatants and noncombatants, or again between an “enemy”
and a “criminal.” It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum,
colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the
political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are
the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order
can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is
deemed to operate in the service of “civilization.” 

That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the
racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the
eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying
experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension. In fact, according
to Arendt, what makes the savages different from other human beings is less
the color of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature, that
they treat nature as their undisputed master. Nature thus remains, in all its majesty,
an overwhelming reality compared to which they appear to be phantoms, unreal
and ghostlike. The savages are, as it were, “natural” human beings who lack the
specifically human character, the specifically human reality, “so that when European
men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed

For all the above reasons, the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule
in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any
manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules. It is not a
legally codified activity. Instead, colonial terror constantly intertwines with colonially
generated fantasies of wilderness and death and fictions to create the effect
of the real. Peace is not necessarily the natural outcome of a colonial war. In
fact, the distinction between war and peace does not avail. Colonial wars are conceived
of as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against
an absolute enemy. All manifestations of war and hostility that had been marginalized
by a European legal imaginary find a place to reemerge in the colonies.
Here, the fiction of a distinction between “the ends of war” and the “means of
war” collapses; so does the fiction that war functions as a rule-governed contest,
as opposed to pure slaughter without risk or instrumental justification. It becomes
futile, therefore, to attempt to resolve one of the intractable paradoxes of war
well captured by Alexandre Kojève in his reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology
of the Spirit
: its simultaneous idealism and apparent inhumanity.”

– Achille Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 21-25.

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Robert Tombs:

Many humanitarians, however, were eager to use British power to do good, and they constituted a significant lobby. Anti-slavery was the most urgent cause. When in 1814 Castlereagh successfully pressed the French to agree to abolish their slave trade in five years’ time, this delay was denounced as the “death warrant of a multitude of innocent victims” and a huge national campaign was organized, claiming 750,000 supporters. Wellington tried to renegotiate the treaty, and the government put pressure on its allies Spain and Portugal, the main slave-buying nations, to stop the trade. Castlereagh wrote: “You must really press the Spanish…there is hardly a village that has not met and petitioned.” London even asked the Pope for support. Castlereagh persuaded the reluctant Great Powers to attach to the Treaty of Vienna (1815) a condemnation of the slave trade—the first such “human rights” declaration in a major international treaty. This began a long effort to end slaving, against the resistance of the slave-trading and slave-holding nations and their African suppliers.

Campaigning peaked in 1833 with more than 5,000 petitions, containing nearly 1.5 million signatures. One, more than a mile long, was signed and sewn together by women, who played an unprecedented part in the campaign, among them Elizabeth Heyrick, author of Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition (1824). Parliament responded in 1834 by emancipating 800,000 slaves in the empire, paying a huge £20m in compensation to the owners—equal to a third of the state budget—and requiring a four-year “apprenticeship” by slaves. This was thus a compromise measure, but still its anniversary was publicly celebrated annually by American abolitionists as a great achievement. In 1843 British subjects were forbidden to own slaves anywhere in the world. The abolition of slavery in the empire in practice applied to slave ownership by whites. Greatly affected was the Cape Colony, one of the most rigid and oppressive slave societies in history. The “Boers” (Dutch-speaking settlers) responded by trekking out of British territory, outraged that black people were “placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God.” Traditional forms of servitude remained endemic in Africa and Asia, however, and in places still remain; and colonial authorities were very cautious about tackling them.

Even when other states agreed to outlaw slave trafficking—sometimes (as with Spain and Portugal) with compensation paid by Britain—they commonly winked at evasion. So the Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa. It was based at Freetown, the capital of the colony for freed slaves at Sierra Leone, which had the first African Anglican bishop, Samuel Crowther, rescued as a boy from a slave ship by the Royal Navy. Patrolling was a thankless and gruelling effort, exposing crews to yellow fever, hardship and even personal legal liability for damages; it also cost a large amount of taxpayers’ money. France and the United States refused to allow the Royal Navy to search ships flying their flags. There was continual diplomatic friction with slave-trading states. British officials there were often threatened with violence. During the 1830s and 1840s several American ships forced by bad weather into British colonial territory had the slaves they were carrying released. In 1839 in the famous case of the slave ship Amistad, when captives rebelled and killed the captain, British testimony proving illegal action by American officials helped to secure their freedom. A serious dispute with the United States occurred in 1841 when American slaves on the ship Creole, being taken from Virginia to be sold in New Orleans, seized the ship and killed a slave-trader. They were given asylum in the British-ruled Bahamas, where they were acquitted of any crime and declared free.

Britain signed forty-five treaties with African rulers to stop the traffic at source. They were very reluctant to give it up, even threatening to kill all their slaves if they were prevented from selling them. In several cases, Britain paid them to abandon the traffic. Abolitionists urged that Britain should maintain a territorial presence in West Africa, to combat illegal trafficking and promote legitimate commerce, such as palm oil, to wean African rulers and Liverpool merchants away from slaving and towards soap manufacture—a good example of cleanliness being next to godliness. By 1830 palm oil exports were worth more than the slave trade. But the trade continued, and the Royal Navy adopted more aggressive tactics, including blockading rivers and destroying slave pens on shore, even when these were foreign property. In 1861 it occupied Lagos, deposing the ruler who refused to stop the trade, and thus blocked one of the main slave routes. Over sixty years the navy captured hundreds of slave ships off the African coast and freed some 160,000 captives. As one recalled it:

They took off all the fetters from our feet and threw them into the water, and they gave us clothes that we might cover our nakedness, they opened the water casks, that we might drink water to the full, and we also ate food, till we had enough.

Several hundred thousand more were prevented from being shipped from Africa by naval and diplomatic pressure.

Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, was prepared to put pressure on slave-buyers too. In 1839 he simply ordered the seizure of Portuguese slave ships, and in 1845 his successor, Lord Aberdeen, declared Brazilian slave ships to be pirates, and 400 were seized in five years. In 1850 the Royal Navy even forcibly entered Brazilian ports to seize or destroy hundreds of slave ships—decisive in forcing Brazil, the biggest slave-buyer of all, to end one of the largest forced emigrations in history. Palmerston said this had given him his “greatest and purest pleasure.” Cuba, supplied by fast United States ships, came under similar pressure. But American ships were treated more cautiously, as searches of suspected slave ships carrying the Stars and Stripes caused threats of war from Washington. As Palmerston expostulated, “every slave trading Pirate” could escape by simply hoisting “a piece of Bunting with the United States emblems.” The American Civil War caused a reversal in American policy in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln’s government signed a secret treaty allowing the Royal Navy to intercept American slavers. The Spanish and Cuban authorities bowed to circumstances, and the Atlantic slave trade was effectively ended. Slavery itself remained legal in the United States until the 1860s, and in much of Latin America until the 1880s. As late as 1881 the Royal Navy arrested an American slave ship off the Gold Coast.

The British campaign against the slave trade has often been debunked. French and American slave-traders accused Britain of using it as a pretext to try to gain control of West Africa, Cuba, even Texas. Some later historians claimed that slavery ended only because it was no longer profitable. But recent research is practically unanimous that slavery was booming, and it would have been in Britain’s economic interests to expand it, as the United States did. But Britain was rich enough to let its powerful humanitarian and religious lobby get its way.

Did Britain—another accusation at the time and since—use the slave trade as a pretext for colonial expansion in Africa? In fact, successive gov-ernments were reluctant to rule inhospitable and relatively profitless territory, and movement inland was negligible until the late-nineteenth-century “scramble for Africa.” The exception, which involved campaigns against the aggressive slaving kingdom of theAsante (Ashanti)—a magnificent and exceptionally cruel warrior society—was done at the request of Africans on the coast, who were subject to repeated attack from the 1820s onwards and requested British protection. Central Africa meanwhile was being devastated by Muslim slavers supplying the Middle East. The Foreign Office estimated that they were taking 25,000–30,000 people per year during the 1860s, and the nineteenth-century total has been estimated at between 4 million and 6 million people, huge numbers dying as they were dragged across the Sahara or to the coast, and many others being killed in the violence of capture. British anti-slavery groups—inspired by the adventures and writings in the 1850s and 1860s of one of the most revered Victorian heroes, the working-class missionary and explorer David Livingstone—demanded government intervention in what Livingstone had rightly called the open sore of the world. He hoped optimistically that a “Christian colony” of “twenty or thirty good Christian Scotch families” would lead to moral and commercial improvement and would put an end to slavery. Instead, a long diplomatic effort was required to throttle the trade, by persuading African rulers to stop supplying and Muslim states to close the great slave markets of Egypt, Persia, Turkey and the Gulf. Britain had far less power to act directly in the Muslim world, where slavery had ancient social and religious sanction, so action had to be discreet. The consul-general at Cairo in the 1860s, Thomas F. Reade, spied out the Egyptian slave markets disguised as an Arab. He estimated that 15,000 Africans were sold in Cairo annually, and reported on “the cruelties and abominations” involved. Other diplomats were active in helping escaped slaves, including by purchasing their freedom with official funds, and the consul in Benghazi maintained a safe house for escapers at his own expense. British interference in the slave trade—however cautious Whitehall tried to be—could cause serious tensions and even led to mass uprisings in Egypt and the Sudan. However, careful but persistent high-level pressure on the Egyptian, Turkish and Persian governments to forbid the trade, backed up by naval patrols, treaties and even bribes to officials to apply the law, eventually had considerable effect. Pressure and financial inducements to the sultan of Zanzibar (a vast slaving entrepôt) shut its slave market in 1873. Pressure on Egypt resulted in an Anglo-Egyptian Convention of 1877 to end the trade, and in 1883 a similar convention was signed with the Ottoman government. Further afield, the navy even patrolled off Australia to stop “blackbirding” (bringing quasi-slaves from Fiji and other Pacific islands) for the sugar plantations of Queensland.

Britain pressed for the insertion of an anti-slavery agreement in the 1885 Berlin Act on the partition of Africa, though it was notoriously unequally applied. As a Foreign Office official noted in 1896, Britain, “with small military means,” could only govern “countries full of Arabs…with the assistance of the Arabs.” Moreover, the partial abolition of slavery was no panacea—indeed, it gave rise to other social and economic problems. There was a huge multiplication of indentured labour, particularly of Indians shipped to theCaribbean and Africa, who were also highly exploited. Suppressing the slave trade meant at first unsaleable slaves being held by African rulers, and treated even more cruelly. Generally, the British stopped slave trading and abolished slavery as a legal status in territories they controlled in Africa and India (often with financial compensation to the slave-owners), so that slaves could free themselves—which many did. The colonial official Frederick Lugard claimed that 55,000 became free without violence in northern Nigeria between 1902 and 1917. Gradual abolition weakened the brutal hierarchies of slave-owning societies, indirectly benefiting women and the young. The fact that emancipation was supervised by “alien and disinterested authorities” smoothed the process.

– Robert Tombs, The English and Their History. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2015. pp. 549-551.

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“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin’s Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.

Bound labor has not always been associated with the fully developed chattel slavery oriented toward market production that gave the antebellum American South, for example, a distinctive character. In various guises this form of labor has both preceded and followed in the wake of chattel slavery. Forced labor has even developed in societies where the New World’s peculiar form of ownership of one person by another, rationalized by bourgeois property relations, was unknown. Consistent features of this form of labor have included the collusion of the state, penal servitude as an enforcer of work, and intensification and expansion during periods of rapid economic development or transformation.

Coercive labor relations frequently aim to control a population reluctant to enter wage labor relations freely, and encourage the consequent proletarianization of these recalcitrant recruits to the “free” labor market. The beneficiaries of this process often justify its harshness as necessary and efficacious discipline for this emergent working class. In advanced societies such labor coercion has even been legitimized by resort to the ultimate expression of capitalist free labor relations, the contract. And when not controlled by individuals, forced labor has frequently been concentrated by the state on public works — pyramids, waterworks, and roadways.

Involuntary servitude has also been reserved as the fate for conquered combatants in war, for indigenous peoples in the New World and Africa, and for races deemed "inferior” by Europeans (and those of European descent) or Aryans. Its victims include both “enemies of the people,” and those declared "criminal” by a judicial rationale derived from enlightenment principles and bourgeois social relations. Everywhere, as the criminologist Thorsten Sellin has argued, slavery and punishment have been an inseparable dyad, in advanced as well as primitive societies. Indeed, as the “right” for individuals freely to dispose of their labor power as they saw fit (within the dictates of the market) increasingly came to define capitalist social relations, as it began to in the New South, the revocation of that right became the ultimate sanction. In putatively “modern” societies, where citizens value the rule of law, that right can only be limited by legal procedures restrained by, for example, constitutional legality. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution expresses this bargain succinctly. But wherever the historical legacy of racialism has been conjoined to the identification of penal sanction with enslavement, as it was in the postbellum South, and really in the United States as a whole, the results for a society’s vision of equality and labor have been profoundly destructive. This has been true even — perhaps especially — when forced labor contributed to economic development.

One of the persistent themes of American history has been an abiding faith in progress and development; and one of the persistent themes of southern history has been the necessity for federal intervention to extend the benefits of progress to the nation’s less "developed” region. Whether carried out by the Union Army, carpetbaggers, northern capital, technocratic "experts,” the judiciary, or, today, the forces of postindustrial economic change, this process has frequently revolved around the inseparable issues of labor and race. Free labor triumphed over slavery in the Civil War, but in their effort to reshape the South it was the original prophets of a New South, the Reconstructionists, who fastened the convict-lease upon the region’s former bondspeople, as Hoke Smith took pains to remind the legislature when his administration finally abolished the system in Georgia. And it was those ersatz defenders of southern tradition, the Redeemers, who invited northern capital to help them reap the benefits of forced labor, as they developed the South’s extractive sector. Finally, as a wave of Progressive reform brought an end to the convict lease, it was the federal agents of progress, the civil engineers of the US Office of Public Roads, who helped articulate and exploit the enormous contribution of the South’s black forced labor pool to yet another vision of a New South.

This continual correspondence between the forces of modernization and the perpetuation of bound labor was no anomaly. Even chattel slavery in the Americas was a crucial component in the historical development of capitalism. The various extreme forms of labor coercion and control that supplanted slavery in the modern world continued to demonstrate a "progressive” quality; rather than constituting an “archaic” obstacle to capitalist development, destined to be swept away by modernity, unfree labor has frequently been an essential element in the accumulation process that made that development possible.


Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. New York: Verso, 1996. pp. 186-188.  

[The photographs are actually from New York State prison road gangs circa 1912-1913. There is much more of a connection between the use of road gangs in the North and the chain gang of the South than is generally admitted.]

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“Though it is the subtext of savagery (ascribed to both Indigenous and African-descendent peoples in the Americas) that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play. The turn to witchcraft as a trend (rather than a practice) is conditioned by white women’s desire to obfuscate the power begotten by their whiteness. The occult is after all definitionally about power that obscures its origin. In the current fashion and fashioning of witches, the historical connections between witches and racialized savages, however sublimated, continues to magnetize the appeal. I am sympathetic to this appeal even as I am suspicious of it; it marks a desire to be contrary to the colonial project, even if it does not always enact it.

The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.

That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).

Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.

The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.

These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.”

– Lou Cornum, “White Magic.” The New Inquiry, Feb. 5, 2018.

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