Mayor Cory BookerIf 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?

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Editor's Note: This story first published at DemocratsForProgress.com and is reposted with permission. Photo by David Shankbone - creative commons via Wikipedia Commons.
Walter Rhett

Walter Rhett

Walter Rhett attended Ohio State University and writes from Charleston, SC. He writes about national and global affairs with an eye on southern history and culture in Southern Perlo.  Perlo is a rice dish, handed down by tradition, shared by all; carefully crafted, loaded with local bounty to extend and enhance its value and taste. Perlo: African one pot rice, filled with tradition and life.

2 Comments
  1. Will Cantrell

    Walter:I too saw Cory Booker last Sunday and was horrified that he could so wildly miss the point. Candidate Romney touts himself as ‘Dr. Fixit’ and a job creator, who “…unlike President Obama, knows how the economy works.” He promises that he knows exactly how to jump-start an economic engine that is under-performing. As prima facié evidence of his skill and experience, he points us to the personal fortune he amassed while running Bain Capital as well as his overall success as a businessman. Yet, Romney, as well as his surrogates recoil when that part of the record is dissected.
    To be sure, there are success stories of companies and employees, who have flourished after the ‘creative destruction’ of a corporate takeover. However, there are too many other cases in which the body count was high and all that was left after the carnage was the collateral damage of lost jobs, wrecked futures and broken dreams. The patient flat-lined while the ‘doctor(s)’ grew wildly rich.
    It is not capitalism or even its subset of tools that are on trial in this election. One of the real issues in this election is how Mr. Romney wielded power and applied the selected tools of free enterprise. A closely related and even more important concern is whether –or not– the cure he proposes for the nation is ultimately worse than the disease itself. The devil is in the details as we’ve learned too many times before and they deserve to be thoughtfully examined…before its too late. Good piece. Will

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