Plant Up

By Howard Slater, 29 December 2015
Image: Annotations from W.E.B. Du Bois on 'Map of the Makhnovist Region and Movement', in Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), Freedom Press, 1987.

Howard Slater unspools the slave-economy sinews of our modern social body, where to be free is to be a debtor.


“Natty lick down Rome
Natty leave and come home
– Prince Far I

To be caught running through the forest
and coffled
or captured on board with only your inquisitiveness to blame
To have been sold as part of an outpost pact
in memory of Saharan trade routes

To be at the bottom of the ocean
bone stone
osseous dust floating to the shore
labour ballast
  dead on arrival

To be the sentient object of surplus value
To be the harbinger of the human as fixed capital

What's sought from then on?                                              

            Hollows                dugouts                     holes              arbours              iron pots
            upturned pots         sound catchers        river spirits          river worn stones
                           night sings                earth bows

These are the spaces and routes of survival as they turn into insurrections
Polyglot rebellions of living oraliture
Sudden quick rebellions against being overseen, penned
  misinterpreted, deemed dumb, dogged, berefted, unmourned
Creolising rebellions against the language of


Flights that follow the North Star
as you pass from      Dark Frank, to Bob, to George, to Peter, to Joe for 12 miles, to Cato for
                                  8 miles until you reach Ned at the railroad above 96, and keep going in
                                  the snow towards the fodder barn...

All these non-roads, wood trails and riverways bringing you
forwards and back
synchronically and diachronically

            to Gabriel, Prosser, Turner & Vesey
            to the Exodus of the General Strike
            when thousands of you left the Plantation
            to Jub-a-lee for long furlongs
             spreading drapetomania to the free


A family heirloom. A shuttle. There is even a bobbin beside it without its cotton cone. There's cotton dust in the threader and the spike on which the bobbin was placed is rusty. I found it in a house and asked if I could have it. The house was built by the factory owner of Stone Bridge Mill and at one time, before the windows glinted with welding sparks, there was plenty of these shuttles all going at once in a rhythm that couldn't have been said to be freeing anymore than the paced-picking freed those over the ocean. Some whistled to be shrilly heard above the looms and others sang to lay a bass moan over the cracker driven air. The one as many invisible to the other as many in a solace of sound. The house is still there. The mill is there too, but the balefulls of the past no longer find their way up from Liverpool. Instead, with a long belated awareness, I try to summon a path from those who are deceased and called wage labourers to others who are deceased and who almost became human




Grandad on his
railway plot
A patch
hardly an acre
Chickens fattened
for Christmas
Blue overalls
on the
backdoor peg


At one time we were all descended from peasants and rural workers. Does any memory of this survive? Maybe, in the drive of modernity, the drive of an enlightenment-led progress, what was shunned was this rural and rude past of self-subsistence and proto-communalism. As industrialisation grew so did the nations, so did separation and the abstract universals of work and money, humanity and value. So, as the Atlantic slave trade began there was an impulse, a social driver that accompanied the move from feudalism: the incipient ideology of betterment and expansion coupled to divine right and an un-self-reflexive ontology. So, it may have been that when the emissaries of such a ‘progress’ came face to face with West Africans they were confronted with the galling similarities between the peasants back home that needed enclosing and the common ways of the West Africans. Moreover, the demands of civilization, in requiring a personality type that repressed non-rational desires and subdued the urge to refuse to be put to work, may have led, at an unconscious level, to a resentment directed at the West African mode of communal expressivity. A potential alliance across continents could, with hindsight, be summoned to mind. Enter the construction of ‘Man’. Enter the “West’s ontologically absolute self-description” as Sylvia Wynter puts it. Enter omnipotence. Enter categorical sub-division. Enter the Pieza. Enter racism




I am North
I am free
but I am neither
one of them
nor one of
The song
of legba
no longer
reaches my
ears from
the upturned
pot and the cry
in their city words
seem so strangely
satisfied and dry


Just as when escaped slaves arrived in the northerly zone of their dreams, so too, the emancipation proclamation brought with it fresh experiences of alienation. Fredrick Douglass found himself lonely once he was a freedman. He was cut off from the cultural bonds he had left behind. Bonds that Orlando Patterson described as a “reaching back for the past and a reaching out to the related living.” Likewise, the emancipation of the slaves led to sharecropping and contract labour and, eventually, after several waves of migration, to the wholesale wage labour of the ‘negro job’. Fresh experiences of alienation. Some, reports George Rawick, did not even know they were free, as the distinguishing line between toil slavery and contract labour was imperceptible to them: “I was free three years before I knowed it.” So, then, what is it to be free? Does such a question receive new vigour when those who are asking the question are placed outside the groundings of humanity? Orlando Patterson speaks of manumission as a renewed and troublesome discovery of freedom. Saidiya Hartman answers: “To be free was to be a debtor”

Was there an analogous, though not identical, process when the rural workers of Lancashire were compelled to leave the land? Did the theoretical dream of plantations and enclosures arise at roughly the same time? A kind of continuum of times that accompanies a continuum of the shifting forms of unfree labour?




At each turn, un-protection
from the gentle lash of moralizing sadists
life-saving double deals
the command of work as freedom to slave
the freedom through work as command over slaves
as forced-labour
as ‘alien labour’
  rock busting – wire twisting
  bank repaying – self-coruscating
But, on each continent
actually-existing officialised slavery
‘merely inorganic and natural’


The glaring, gashing-gutting, cut-flesh incidence of, as Frank Wilderson has said,
             “capitalism's primal desire”:




And so, by way of the slave trade and the plantocracy, more is revealed: the underbelly of political economy as libidinal economy: the inner nucleus of fear; the cathecting of survival: the affective bonding in being bonded: the continuum of trauma: the colonization of the psyche: relations of domination seceding into parasitism: control addicts… brood mares


Some of you stayed on the plantation
            were forced to stay there as
                        the Negro Codes replaced the Slave Codes
                        restricting movement
                                    monitoring the endless work contract
                                                the seeding repayments
            The Negro Codes:
                        After Aristotle’s ‘sub-rational’
                        After the Romanus Pontifex
                        After the Requerimento
                        The Negro Codes: bedrock of an institutional racism
                                    drafted and ratified in county courthouses
                                                and enforced in the forests


For some, 16th century slavery marks the emergence of western capital in a despotism of primitive accumulation where the labour costs are nullified by racism-inducing relations of colonial force and the calculations are made on the basis of shipping and packing costs. It’s all narcissistic omnipotence. It's all logistics. In another direction, and poetically gnawing at our taken for granted categories, the slave as ‘sub rational’ human could be said to be outside the form of value; for being enslaved and not being offered the ‘human’ option to enlist as a wage labourer, isn’t the slave removed from exchange, removed from the ‘logic of capital’? For instance, does the slave create a surplus? Not according to an orthodoxy that would have surplus value dependent on the purchase of ‘free’ alienated labour. Even Marx had to revert to the poetics of illogical compound phrases when he offered the slave as “a living labour machine”. But, just as this may point towards a shared leftist blindspot as well as to a recourse to poetics to unlock categories amidst changing times, it still arises that the plantation model and the factory model worked in consort, with slave and worker being made invisible to one another (racism: why should a ‘human’ think of the ‘sub-human’?) Moreover, the slave, when reflected upon in the mode of leftist categories, would, as Frank Wilderson offers, be killed-off as a political subject, as an agent of revolution. What we have then is what Wilderson called the “unthought category of the slave”. The slave is not working class, the slave is not a wage-labourer, the slave is a ‘sub-human’ sentient object. This 'unthought', or one could say, this unconscious, libidinal element of political economy, could then lead us to the repressed of political economy: that the capitalist system is maintained on the backs of unavowed suffering, a suffering related to the intensity of labour, the intensity of the conditions of labour and not just the length of the working day. The plantation shares this aporia with the factory: the intense exploitation of the disqualified racialised human as ‘fixed capital’ (slave) and as a quality of living labour, an immeasureable intensity that Marx shows is not paid for (wage-labourer)




Saidiya Hartman: “Pain is essential to the making of productive slave labourers” and through this suffering, which cannot be 'thought' or 'spoken' except as a logic-defying cry emanating from ‘a witless object’ or as a subtle transmission of scrambled creole, there arises the 'other of thought'; the imaginary, the social imaginary, the cultural bonding and the will to struggle. A will to struggle against dictatorship, against endocolonising relations of domination and of instilled bespoke languages. Just as to speak of ‘productive slave labourers’ is, in the Marxist terms of some, another illogical poeticism which nonetheless has the power to unlock epistemological coffles, it seems similarly in defiance of logic to entertain the hope that the categories of the human, the human as a bio-centric and ‘epidermalising’ category itself, can be re-thought and re-experienced from a basis in the ‘unthought’ (e.g. the affective life of a sub-human sentient object). Maybe we have just this when, defying taught expectations and relying instead on poetic thought, we view slaves as necessarily human subjects, as more than the ‘presupposition of their selves’, and not just as ‘animated machinery’ preparing the raw materials for overseas wage-labourers. Slave subjecthood, like any deemed by Western decree to be ‘sub-human’, is dangerous, exceptional, revolutionary. As an assemblage of affected-bodies meeting in railway sidings and motorway laybys, as culturally bonded through the creation of relation, it collectively ‘unthinks’ what we know of as ‘human’ and presents the ‘unthought’ of narcissistic human thoughtlessness and cruelty back to itself                                           


But I like to whip you
I like to feel the thrill
of a humanity defying frisson
the animality of pain
makes me hard
it hardens me
gives me the will-instilling
power of aggression
to hear your suffering moan
that sounds like the recipient moan of
a care I've never had
the loving moan of approval
& the strips of lips
across your back as I grip
the plaited leather handle is
in this free moment linked
to the work you will do
and do and do and do again
and again for Massa Lincoln's
gain and standing
his international freight repute
& I am his wage slave and
glad to be so forever and ever
but not a slave like you
not an ass  not a donkey  not a mule
not cane stem  not cotton boll
not a machete  not scabbed fingers
for I am not an oversight
I have been contracted
incidentally  occidentally
as human


As once for the worker and continually for the slave, this denial of subjecthood (full subjecthood in terms not just of rationality but simultaneously of affect) makes these ‘inhumans’ ripe to be overlooked. The overlooking leads to or is based upon capital’s need to render invisible the contiguity of forms of labour and capital accumulation. Would we need to render slavery into a category as Wilderson seems to be suggesting? Should we not rather place the emphasis on the ‘unthought’ as that may well take us beyond categories and into the ‘unthinkable’ itself (we can maintain ‘slavery’ as a category in continuum with that of wage-labour and add a little kindling to the critique of political economy). Just as this would be the ‘unthinkable’ of suffering, we could offer that the experience of those denied subjecthood (and these are many and varied) is an existential one in that the slave, like the ‘surplus population’, exists and yet does not exist. So, to be out like the slave and the worker, to be out of the reckoning, to not be seen or credited but to be exploited, is to be in-the-know, another-know, the know of the self-as-other and crucially, to know the psychology of the oppressor. It is to have a “double consciousness” as Du Bois termed it. It is to experience contradictions as bodily phenomenon, as carrying the statement and the counter statement at the same time. This is what, Hortense Spillers contends, makes the bonds of black culture a “space of contradiction, indictment and refusal”. So, this ‘double consciousness’, as it comes to be expressed, can, from its de-selected standing as ‘sub human’, multiply itself into ‘one or many’ selves, into componential selves. A figure of freedom is reborn. The figure of a ‘new being’ is born. Free from subjecthood and individualisaton as this is produced as a matter of industrial precision. For George Rawick, who edited 18 volumes of slave testimony from the 1930s, such an “ambivalence of personality” can lead to “self-liberation through revolution”




Grandma, I love you
every morning
t’knockers stick
the clogging
the rush around t’corner
You wuhnt to know
where t’cotton had come frae
you wuhnt to know
you shunt have known nothing
least of all
how to unhold your pain
in a dialect-equal language
Only how to serve your husband
as a natural fact
as a way of being
It's what'wuh expected
The May Queen come home
to dissapointments
the dead son
the dutiful daughter-in-law
helping you to die
away from t’hearth
of your loved oppression
It was there I learned
whilst watching the coals
in the quarry cast of the
mill's cliff that it's the
monied objects who take to
the poker   the branding iron
the belt   the rate


I work and I can't do anything else. I live in a cell, in a shack, in a mortgaged room. My phone rings or the cock crows or the buzzer goes off or I wake at first light after having crashed at dusk and I'm ready and able to work. The overseer comes around and he's called a free newspaper which is as good as saying it's a little bible of belonging to the real world as it is mediated to us as the dream we left amidst the pills and bills. Phone in sick? No, it's best to keep going in case I really get sick and then they hassle me with phone calls and special GP appointments and deductions from my pocket money. Sick? I'm too sick to go sick! Won't get no pass from master to go and see my new born over on the Coulson Place. Won't get no appreciative look off of master that make me feel safe for now. Won't get the blind eye when I pop out for a fag. Won't get that flexie request granted or that appraisal done and dusted in five seconds. No, I work and I can't do anything else, and I work because I'm scared. I'm fucking scared. And If I didn't have a job I'd be terrified. But I don't know what I do as work. I couldn't tell you what I work as, or work on. What's my work about? Am I blanking it out? Or is it not really work I do? Is it my hobby? My pastime? My vocation? Am I so instinct with work that I do it without thinking, without registering any willed action I perform during the day? I'm working for work. I'm working for master but master is working for her master and so on and so on. Maybe I'm working to be a master so as I can give the suggestions, the orders, the subtle enticements to others to do my work for me? As far as I can recall I got a job so as I can help people, but it seems more like a police job or something: spying on folks, warming the branding iron in the brazier, busting up those midnight bonding meetings, catching sounds and squashing them, snapping up them earth bows...




The slave is not a subject in the terms laid out by capitalist civilization and this leads to a libidinal economic dimension of racism and to the possible forms that resistance can take. It is not simply, as the slave traders and plantation hands must have thought, that the slave is an object that works under threat of aggressive punishment or in the hope of a peculium. The slave, it was soon discovered, is a ‘sentient object’, an animate inanimate, that reacts, speaks back and composes. The slave is a polyglot talking a gibberish that came to be known as creole. The slave has brought along a drum that can puncture the canopy of the cosmos. In terms of cultural resistance, then, it is a matter of what, under the duress of this encounter, the slave triggers in the psyche of the owner and his cracker-acolytes who become dumbstruck by having to overhear the unintelligible hieroglyphs. The slave, as Hartman suggests, “is outside of the normative terms of individuality”, the slave is sub-human, but the slave is a marker of possession for the owner, an object to possess: the slave is a vessel of the ideality of owning, the slave is the “vehicle of another’s rights” and as such, if the slave “lays claim to the self”, if the slave talks back from the silent position of contractual objecthood, then the possessive individualism of the owner, which is part of a psychic economy, is contravened in such a way as to reveal the instability of both this ‘unlimited right’ and the owner’s ‘self-possession’. More than this. Fred Moten writes: “The commodity whose speech sounds embodies the critique of value…”


                        Speak in riddles
                        Make opaque
                        Use pebble maps
                        & box wood fiddles
                        Under this cover
                        become the ‘signifying monkey’
                        Plant up
                        Culturivate against Latinate
                        Spin and weave
                        Sip sugar water
                        And then speak plainly:
                        “Master, you ‘eated me when
                         I was meat, and now you must
                         pick me when I am bone”


The fury that was often vented upon those slaves who showed any ‘self-possession’ was of an extra-economic intensity in that what was under threat was not just profit, but the very integrity of the owning self, the sense of the disintegration of an owning world-view as expressed in the sanctity of value. This threat often led to violent psychosis. So too, and in consort, did the threat of slave rebellion (Gabriel, Prosser, Turney & Vesey). Even one slave standing up to you, defying death, led to the founding, right before a masters’ eyes, of a placeless interred ethics and the end of the masters’ ‘unlimited right’ to be free; free as in free to practice an in-turned ethics. The slave, then, not only has to endure physical pain but also survive-on after being subject to the psychical trauma of being exposed to a psychosis that, as absolute sovereign power, as narcissistic omnipotence, could strike at any time under any ‘irrational’ auspices and from then-on be transmitted down the generations. A sovereign power, maybe like that of de Sade’s, that demands its inhuman rights so as to enable the quest for guilt-free libidinal satisfaction (to not think of the other, to make the other the ‘unthought’)




                        Marx made a slip,
                        he slipped because he speculated
                        like a surrealist.
                        The ice was white and unseen
                        in its reified obviousness.
                        It was only an aside
                        a slip in an unsent letter
                        Who cares?
                        But his slip, according to
                        his disciples
                        The 2nd Marxists
                        was to utter his own heresy
                        as poetry
                        when he wrote to
                        Vera Zauslich
                        of the People's Will
                           ( a group that supported
                            the seemingly slavish
                            Archaic Commune )
                        and made reference
                        in this letter to “the slave
                        mode of production”
                        amongst other more
                        important narrativical and
                        pollimical points.




An interesting parallel arises at the beginning of the Reconstruction Period that follows on from the American Civil War. Hopes had been raised. The word freedom was being ‘interrogated’ and found sorely wanting just as the entry of slaves onto the labour market was recasting the slave system into a legally ratified apartheid and white working class closed shop. But, as Du Bois notes, there were hopes in the Reconstruction Period, hopes for what he calls an ‘agrarian democracy’. This was popularised as ‘forty acres and a mule’ and still has echoes down to this day with the Global Justice Action on Reparations Movement (that black families be recompensed not just for the unpaid labour of slavery, but for cultural genocide and inter-generational trauma). Within five years of the Reconstruction period, Marx was researching the Peasant Commune in Russia and was closely connected to members of the People’s Will who actively supported the content of the Peasant Commune as, in some senses, an ‘agrarian democracy’ based upon communal property. Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich: “Russia is the only European country in which communal property has maintained itself on a vast, nationwide scale”. It has been argued that Marx saw in this not only a form of progressive ‘social relations’ informed by the dynamics of communal property rather than private property, but that, as he wrote elsewhere, the Peasant Commune could provide the impetus for “a revival in a superior form of an archaic social type”




                                    After Tackey’s revolt
                        His father sold his mother
                        He took part in the Gordon Riots
                        He saw many hanged
                        He knew the plantation, the workshop
                                    the ship, the chapel, the workhouse
                                    the prison, the anonymous oral tradition
                        He made contact over the Atlantic
                                    an axe laid to the root
                        He urged his sister to free her slaves
                        let them form the half circle of a new moon


If the critique of political economy throws up the antagonistic subject as working class, then the underbelly of this political economy, the much underthought (though painfully experienced) libidinal economy, throws up something approaching an ‘affective class’ as subsisting alongside it and through it. The categories of political economy and its critique do not seem to give room in their equations to the intensity of labour, the intensity of suffering. Nor do they give rise to considerations of the psyche of the worker (i.e. Marx: “…the worker only in his character as labour, and not he himself”). Slavery, as it persistently comes and goes, not only troubles the category of ‘wage-labour’, it troubles the lack of attention we give to the intensive forms of exploitation within the Marxist categories and leads, it could be said, to a distancing instrumentalisation of the worker as a category (proletariat) emptied of psyche that renders it just as out of the expected transformatory reckoning as the category of the slave




It is these categories, these systems of classification that “direct our thinking and order our behaviours” as Sylvia Wynter contends, that, as dispositifs of separation, have the effect of blunting any transformatory consciousness. Such a “classifying logic” is, for Wynter, one of the roots of racism, and the resulting reduction of possibilities (of encounter, empathy, alliance, creolisation… of a populous front) does not help us to overcome our differenting alienation in that, in the absence of mutual recognition, we are, to cite Marx, self-referenced in our alienation. Each to his own and each defending his own even to the degree of owning our differing oppressions and the contextual historical conditions that give rise to them. The categories, the ‘classifying logic’, end up trapping us in mutually exclusive autobiographies that make us invisible to one another. So it may well be that, as with the slave positioned outside ‘freedom’ and as with the worker positioned only within a ‘formal freedom’, that a blind spot may be revealed; a blind spot that marks the Achilles Heel of ‘relations of domination’ in that we begin to talk differently and against the overrepresentation of a domination that sells to us its own in-turned notion of freedom.

But in an era of the just-in-time work of such agencies as Task Rabbit, when it is deemed necessary to have a Modern Slavery Bill, there is another Marxist category that is coming back into view; a category that could be said to include both the worker and the slave and yet which may well be the ‘category-that-is-not-one’. The notion of ‘surplus population’, itself mooted back in 1981 by Paul Gilroy in an essay following upon the Brixton Riots, has been receiving renewed attention in the past years as a means of describing the redundancy of the ‘human’ in relation to capital. The ‘vitality’ of the human (‘living labour’) is less and less required as ‘labour power’, creating a human surplus across the international division of labour that increasingly lacks the means to reproduce itself materially. The struggle to live  (‘mere self-preservation’ as Marx called it) presents itself as a common condition of ‘surplus populations’ in which the slavery form, deemed lacking the subjecthood of a psyche, meets a supernumerary worker that is only haphazardly required to sell its living labour capacity and is thereby blocked in confronting capitalist domination as even a ‘formally’ independent individual. If, as Anslem Jappe recently stated, the “greatest threat capitalist society poses to everyone of us is that we are virtually superfluous… and might become factually so”, then, the category of ‘surplus population’ may be coming closer to the refinement Marx made of it as a ‘stagnant surplus population’ that appear to be ever growing beyond its own bounds; an explosive category inclusive of a growing portion of de-categorising, de-identifying humans who are confronted with overcoming their self-reference in alienation. In an inversion of Marx, it could be said that slavery no longer presupposes wage labour, but, under the dictatorship of capital, it is neo-slavery that is presupposed by the rationing of wage labour





Howard Slater
November 2014 & September 2015


Howard Slater is a writer and researcher who lives in London.



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