Kedar Shrinivas Vishwanathan | Reparations – Abolition Futures

By Kedar Shrinivas Vishwanathan

Central to the continuing movement for a better and more racially just and equal society, abolitionists have called for reparations. During the Reconstruction period, reparations were offered in land grants and then subsequently expropriated by white supremacists.[1] During the Second Reconstruction, ‘separate but equal’ was torn asunder. But now the call for reparations should be aligned with the global movement for further freedom and equality in a Third Reconstruction[2] W.E.B Du Bois’ teleological vision for a racially just society.

Mariame Kaba argues that the key to open up the transformational project of the Third Reconstruction is in ‘community accountability’ where people ‘have to get serious about doing work and reaching toward each other.’[3] As a general proposition,  this essay follows Kaba’s theorization that inter-community mutual recognition is where consciousness can be shifted concerning policing and can also include community self-management of property.[4] Consequently, Kaba’s call for community accountability informs this essay and theoretically bolsters the framework Katherine Franke proposes for reparation systems.

Reparations and caste are the focus of this essay, but Kaba’s notion of community accountability helping push toward the horizon of abolition informs this post.[5] This essay discusses B.R. Ambedkar and situates him and the continuing plight of India’s untouchables in the global abolition discourse and turns to discuss the Third Reconstruction and reparations.

There are various movements globally—interconnected as part of the multitude[6]—that have called for reparations, as well as some institutions of the ancien regime that have indicated that they will pay reparations for slavery.[7] For instance, Indian activists are calling for reparations for untouchables.[8] The great Indian progressive reformer and drafter of India’s constitution B.R. Ambedkar ‘born’ an untouchable vehemently called for the abolition of caste and the renunciation of Brahmanical Hinduism: ought reparations be paid for  Hindu ‘customary’ law—read the ‘Laws of Manu’ (Manusriti)—regime(s) of subordination and domination over the Dalits, shudras—untouchables?[9]

B.R Ambedkar should be situated as an abolitionist par excellence in W.E.B Du Bois’ tradition. He sought reform during an anti-colonial movement (India’s First Reconstruction), fought alongside Gandhi and Nehru (and never veered into corporatized majoritarian interests like Gandhi, he remained dedicated to the destruction of untouchability)[10], and had radically different views of societal integration and modernity. Ambedkar wanted to shed the stains of the Hindu system and was influenced by Enlightenment visions of freedom and equality. He, followed by the great Marxist mathematician-historian D.D. Kosambi, sought refuge in Buddhism—the doctrine, which allowed a critical rupture to take place against caste Hinduism. In Ambedkar’s logic: the pathway to Moksha (liberation) or para-atma (ultimate self) or ‘god’ did not require a Brahmanical gateway opiate (I write this as a human born a Brahmin).[11]

He did not share Gandhi’s fear and skepticism of the alienating features of a western modernity, and did not want to remain steeped in tradition, as Nehru seemed to be positioned, in a dialectic between a Tagorean modernism and Gandhian ‘traditionalism.’[12] Ambedkar’s text “The Annihilation of Caste” was originally a speech to be delivered to the Society for the Abolition of Caste System (Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal) in 1935—but the organizers found much of his text contradictory to doctrinaire Brahmanical interests. The truly radical avant-garde feature of Ambedkar’s text is that he sought to destroy the very structural core of the Chaturvarnya, which as the “most vicious system” segregated Brahmins as “cultivators of knowledge”, the Kshatriya as the warrior, Vaishya’s as traders, and Shudra as the server, from each other creating a hierarchal system of subordination and domination. This ideological destruction of the caste-system was echoed elsewhere in India by reformists such as E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, who sat outside the majoritarian Congress party, unlike Ambedkar. Nevertheless, Ambedkar compares this to the European experience stating:

It is true that even in Europe the strong has not shrunk from the exploitation—nay, the spoliation—of the weak. But in Europe, the strong have never contrived to make the weak helpless against exploitation so shamelessly as weas the case in India among the Hindus. Social war has been raging between the strong and the weak far more violently in Europe than it has even been in India. Yet the weak in Europe has had in his freedom of military service, his physical weapon; in suffering, his political weapon; and in education, his moral weapon. These three weapons for emancipation were never withheld by the strong from the weak in Europe. All these weapons were, however, denied to the masses in India by the Caste System.

Ambedkar sought parallel concepts in the elimination of discrimination: the abolition of the caste-system which will undo inter-reliant caste interests in a new economy and modern constitutional secular democracy, which in turn, would also benefit women—who are left out, Ambedkar notes, entirely from the discourse! Ambedkar was a pioneer in India and globally. He found the world-historical subjects in his own Hindu birth identification of untouchability. His call for equality has to be understood with the broader discourse of global human rights and, indeed, reparations. The British Raj/Imperialism/Capital exploited the caste-system by helping reproduce its traditional domination and subordination of Shudras through representing Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya economic interests (note the parallels between the reproduction of untouchability and caste relations with the reproduction of Black Americans as subordinated slave subjects per the 13th Amendment through the criminal justice system and corporatized mass criminalization[13]). This echoes Sashi Tharoor, a minister of Parliament in India, who has been campaigning in Britain and India for India’s ex-colonial overlord to pay up for their expropriation of their ex-colonies natural resources and causing famine amongst other civilizing tendencies such as massacres.[14] Hindu caste remains pervasive in India. Look no further than domestic ‘servants’, or cremation Ghat work; corrupt affirmative action policies; the rape of shudras by brahmin men. Ambedkar making reference to the European tradition of turning peasants into citizens[15], like the American abolitionist thinkers we will turn too shortly, sought to answer Marx’s dictum: “they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”[16], by seeking to represent the interests of the unrepresented. His discourse on the destruction of Hindu caste ought to be seen in light of the global movement against Empire and should be seen within the context of the movement of reparation for the misdeeds of Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. We will now turn to the Third Reconstruction and the call for reparations in America.

Reparations are not solely a nation-state’s civil society’s concerns. Reparations in abolitionist discourse needs to be understood in the broader context of the global demand, and reterritorializing such demand, in international civil society for the ‘making amends’ of Empire.[17] Borne out of the seismic critical rupture of the civil rights movement and racial intolerance, Black policing, Black deaths in custody, Black deaths before custody, and the overrepresentation of Blacks in the prison industrial complex,  Black Lives Matter as a movement—as a galvanizing force for community accountability—as Mariame Kaba points out[18]—has wedged itself into civil society—and for that matter international civil society—demanding to be heard.

Investigative journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her New York Times article of June 30, 2020, “What is Owed”, a provocation: “If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes Black Americans.” In the article, she argues, “[W]ealth not income, is the means to security in America … ” as it provides access to home ownership in “safer neighborhoods” with “better funded schools.” She shifts her analysis to the history of enslaved persons as free labor suppliers for their direct masters and their social and institutional incidents—white society. And that “during and after slavery” restitution for slavery has been tried again and again, alas, with no luck. She turns to reparations.

The call for reparations for lost land, life, property—the very Lockean foundations Constitutionally embalmed—seemed to be escaping the ‘people’. Moreover, to close the ‘gap’ between whites and blacks, Hanna-Jones calls for policies that are centrally intertwined with reparations for the past 155 years. She makes the point that reparations are not “about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them.” She writes “Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.”

She provides the criteria for reparations: “any person who has documentation” identifying “as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Redistribution from the federal government does, for Hannah-Jones, continue a “commitment to vigorously enforcing” civil rights, housing rights, education and employment discrimination, and targeting investments in black communities. She notes that the federal government allocates $5 million per year to support holocaust survivors living in America. She ends by noting if “Black lives truly matter” its “time for reparations.”

Indeed, the crystallization of the contemporary movements discussed by Hannah-Jones has foundational Reconstruction precedents. Katherine Franke in Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition argues that “the failure to provide any kind of meaningful reparation to formerly enslaved people in the 1860s has ongoing structural effects today.” She locates the contemporary malaise of “Black poverty, disenfranchisements and systematic disadvantage” in chattel slavery. She urges Americans to “face our collective responsibility for ongoing racial inequality.” Franke’s project is to re-enchant the past to demonstrate its “enduring afterlife in the present” as it’s the residue that “binds present injustice to unaddressed wrongs of the past.”[19]

She locates property ownership as a key variable in inequality in wealth distribution. A Marxist undercurrent informs her thesis. Due to modern society being a contradictory form of development, “relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form …”[20] Slavery shifts and transmogrifies itself into the minimum wage payments, ghettoized neighborhoods, crack addictions, poverty, not health protection but evisceration, the 13th Amendment’s exception to slavery and the punitive policing of Black minorities and their incarceration back into the chains of an earlier mode of production.

Franke’s project is world-historical, like Du Bois and Ambedkar’s project. Through Franke’s focus on legacies of the emancipatory imagination uncontaminated by the Reconstruction era, she is able to excavate these affective histories in a Foucauldian sense.[21] She traces the roots of the emancipatory imagination to demonstrate “what freedom would have looked like if formally enslaved people had been given a stronger voice in shaping what it meant not just to be freed, but to be free.”  It is these genealogies of the emancipatory imagination—the ‘collective subaltern imaginary’[22]—which grounds the notions for justice.

Turning to reparations and an abolitionist future, Franke notes that the “land-based reparations” previously discussed failed, but the “histories of repair and its failures” for “racial reparations then, and racial reparations now, are a collective national problem.”[23] Franke sets up the question of reparations as a type of moral claim stating: “Do I have a greater moral claim to inherit the wealth of my parents’ generation than do the great-great-grandchildren of slaves?”[24] She states that key disease which has infected Blackness is “American white supremacy” which is the “founding value of American society that metastasized in laws and customs supporting the enslavement of Black people …”[25] Franke observes that the issue with reparations is a collective problem. She proposes that a “compelling means by which racial reparations could be undertaken today is through creative new forms of collective land ownership in which property is placed in trust for a community…”[26] Having noted such experiments in self-management have worked before,[27] she proposes a view of collective ownership that side-steps a private alienated Lockean view of property ownership. She seeks to decenter this narrative by removing the communal property from the “speculative real estate markets” as they were “used to divest freed people of the land they had been promised as reparations for enslavement..”[28] Echoing the “spirit of the experiments in freedom in the immediate  aftermath of the Civil War” Franke proposes a collective property-based solutions: Limited Equity Cooperatives, Resident Owned Communities, and Community Land Trusts.[29] She argues that reparations or renumeration could take the form of these collective-property solutions, that would “amount to substantial reinvestment in communities that have essentially been abandoned by modern society”.

Franke builds on the Black Lives Matter’s divest/invest approach to justice in order to pay for aforementioned programs. Invest/Divest seeks divestment from institutional apparatus reproducing racial inequalities into investments that don’t. Franke offers another method of reparations: the accumulation of wealth that will be “transferred to” her “generation” to be held in a “constructive trust for the benefit of the descendants of slaves and other Black Americans who have borne the badge of inferiority imposed by American slavery.” Importantly, Franke says this as a White American. She notes that “an estimated $59 trillion … will be transferred from 93.6 million American estates from 2007 to 2061, in the greatest wealth transfer in US history.”[30]

We have to ask ourselves the question, how much more residual capital is available and to be found buried in these estates built on the back of Empire and the Atlantic slave trade. How much can be reinvested to expand dignity, humanity, representation, and human capital globally? 

Notes

[1] See Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2019) Ebook, no pagination.

[2] See https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/united-states-needs-third-reconstruction/614293/

[3] Mariame Kaba “Toward the Horizon of Abolition” Interview by John Dude, Next System Project, November 2017, in We Do this ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2021, ebook).

[4] Honneth, Axel, Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts Polity Press, 1995, pp 71-91 and 171-179.

[5] Ibid Kaba

[6] Hardt, Michael, and Negri, Antonio, Empire, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000. Also see Hardt, Michael, and Negri, Antonio, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York, The Penguin Press, 2004

[7] “Catholic Order Pledges $100 Million to Atone for Slave Labor and Sales” New York Times, Rachel L. Swarns, March 15, 2021. US churches are committed to reparations: https://apnews.com/article/race-and-ethnicity-new-york-slavery-minnesota-native-americans-4c7dbcae990bd11dee5a5710c63ece25

[8] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-dalits-reservation-representation-suraj-yengde-6523483/

[9] See Guha, Ranajit, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard University Press, 1997.

[10] Gandhi, Mahatma, “The Soul of All Religions is One”, in The Message of Mahatma Gandhi, Ed,. Mohan Rao, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Government of India, 1968, Faridabad, Pg 34-35; See also Gandhi M.K., Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, Ed., Parel, Anthony, J., Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1997,, Pg 67.

[11] Spivak, Chakravorty, Gayatri, “Postcolonial theory and the specter of capital,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 27:1, 184-198, 25th March 2014, Pg 190.

[12] Bilgrami, Akeel, “Gandhi’s integrity: The philosophy behind the politics” Postcolonial Studies, 5:1, pp. 79-93.

[13] See Kaba, Ibid

[14] See YoutTube Debate by Shashi Tharoor – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7CW7S0zxv4

[15] Weber, Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976. See: Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1993, Pg 158.

[16] Ibid, Pg 124. Emphasis added.

[17] Hardt and Negri Ibid.

[18] Kaba Ibid

[19] See Frank, Ibid.

[20] Karl Marx Grundrisse (Penguin Books, 1975), 105.

[21] See, Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by D.F. Bouchard, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

[22] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2014) General Strike, Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, 26:1, 9-14,13.

[23] Franke Ibid.

[24] Franke Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

Fonda Shen