December 13, 2011 was the three hundredth anniversary of the law passed by the New York City Common Council that made Wall Street the city's official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans.
"1711 Law Appointing a Place for the More Convenient Hiring of Slaves Source: Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, vol. II, 458, December 13, 1711. Be it Ordained by the Mayor Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York Convened in Common Council and it is hereby Ordained by the Authority of the same That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett out to hire within this City do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Markett house at the Wall Street Slip untill Such time as they are hired, whereby all Persons may Know where to hire slaves as their Occasions Shall require and also Masters discover when their Slaves are so hired and all the Inhabitants of this City are to take Notice hereof Accordingly."
As the number of slaves imported into the city soared, barrel makers, butchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and tin workers began to purchase young enslaved men in order to teach them their trades. Typically, when a slave owner ran out of work, they hired their slaves out at half the rate of free labor. Often the slaves themselves were sent out to find work. In a time when fear of a slave uprising was ever-present, the sight of so many enslaved men walking the streets looking to be hired caused alarm. Fearful white citizens began to complain. They demanded a market where slaves could be hired, bought, and sold.
Yet there is not a single sign, plaque, marker, statue, memorial or monument with any reference to slavery or the slave trade in Lower Manhattan (with the exception of the African Burial Ground memorial). The fact is that New York's first City Hall was built with slave labor. The first Congress passed the Bill of Rights there and George Washington gave his inaugural speech there. Slaves helped build the wall that Wall Street is named for. Slavery was such a big part of early New York that during the colonial era one in five people living in New York was an enslaved African. One in five. New York was a major hub for the slave trade in North America, Moore said. Slave auctions were held regularly throughout the city. Most of the slaves who were transported to New York were eventually redistributed to the Virginia or Carolina markets. New York enacted some of the most draconian slave laws during the colonial period. Between 1711, when the slave market was fully established, through the period just after the Civil War, the value of enslaved people was in excess of the cumulative value of all the railroads in the United States and seven times the net worth of all its banks
The predecessor bank of Citibank was actually founded by a banker and sugar trader deeply involved in financing the illegal slave trade bringing Africans into Cuba in the 19th century. When Moses Taylor died in 1882, he was one of the wealthiest men of that century with an estate reportedly worth $70 million, or about $1.6 billion in today's dollars.
Between 1890 and 1896 Mary E. Lease, the supposed model for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and speaker for the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party toured the country making speeches telling farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." She believed that big business had made the people of America into "wage slaves", declaring "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master... Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The political parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us. We were told two years ago to go to work and raise a big crop, that was all we needed. We went to work and plowed and planted; the rains fell, the sun shone, nature smiled, and we raised the big crop that they told us to; and what came of it? Eight-cent corn, ten-cent oats, two-cent beef and no price at all for butter and eggs-that's what came of it.The politicians said we suffered from overproduction. Overproduction, when 10,000 little children, so statistics tell us, starve to death every year in the United States, and over 100,000 shopgirls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for the bread their niggardly wages deny them...."
Early capitalism benefited from the slave trade not only because it stimulated world trade generally but also because it contributed to the primitive accumulation of capital that was later invested in industrial production. But chattel slavery was not a suitable form of labour exploitation for capitalism. Which was why, in the end, it was abolished. Capitalist factory-owners needed a flexible labour force and a reserve of workers they could draw on in times of expansion and who could be discarded in times of slump. They did not want to own their workers, precisely because they wanted, when business took a downturn, to be free of any obligation to maintain them as they would have had to with chattel slaves. They favoured “free” labour. They were only interested in buying their workers’ ability to work for a limited period.
“Free” labour meant more than that the worker was just not a chattel slave. It meant that he or she was also not tied to the land either as a peasant or a serf. It means that the only productive resource they own is their ability to work, their labour-power, which they are “free” to sell to some capitalist employer or other.
The idea of wage slavery is difficult to refute. The notion that we are in an entirely different social position to chattel slaves is based upon the assumption of our freedom. But this sense of freedom is an illusion which rests upon the contradiction between law and reality. The law grants us personal liberties, and we therefore have the right to make our own decisions: where to live; who to work for; or whether to work at all. But underlying this veil of freedom are the real, material, physical facts, and they run as such: you can only live where you can afford to live; you can only work for someone who will willingly employ you; and while you are under no legal obligation to work for anyone at all, you will find it a struggle to live while not doing so. We are in reality bound to the wages system, and within this system we enter into contracts with employers whereby the value we create for them is less than the value we receive in wages, and thus they make a profit through our exploitation. We are not by law bound to a single individual, but, in fact, to the capitalist class as a whole.
Frederick Douglas, a former slave, understood and wrote "The difference between the white slave, and the black slave, is this: the latter belongs to ONE slave-holder, and the former belongs to ALL the slave-holders, collectively. The white slave has taken from his, by indirection, what the black slave had taken from him, directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers"
With the acknowledgment of these simple truths, the illusive veil of freedom is dissolved, and reveals the reality that we are still in chains. Socialists are the modern-day Abolitionists. We want the wage-workers of the world to act to abolish their slavery. To organise to make the means of wealth production – the land, farms, farms, warehouses, means of transport and communication, etc – the common property of the whole of society. A world without slavery in any form.