Life in Lockdown

My Bondage and my Freedom

Dr Cillian McBride
Senior Lecturer in Political Theory

The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property’. These are the words of Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of Black people. Besides his work as a public speaker, journalist and newspaper editor, Douglass also wrote a biography – publishing three versions of it in his lifetime – reflecting on his life in slavery and his subsequent emancipation, of which My Bondage and My Freedom was the second version.

I became interested in the experiences of figures like Douglass and his contemporary, Booker T. Washington, former slave and noted educationalist, when researching questions of recognition and respect. I was especially interested is the way in which people subject to the most extremely harsh and degrading treatment could nonetheless retain their self-respect in such conditions. While others were unable to resist the relentless humiliations heaped on them by their captors, some people nevertheless managed to hold onto their sense that they were entitled to be treated as equals. Primo Levi, writing about his own experiences in Auschwitz, distinguished these two groups as the drowned and the saved.

Douglass recounts the harshness of the slave life, both the physical hardship of work in the fields (which he himself largely escaped, as it happened) and the hunger and cold (which he did not). Beatings and whippings were a common feature of this life, whether for any of a host of minor infractions, or purely on a whim. One slave owner in Baltimore would strike out at her slaves as a matter of course, whenever they passed by. While other slave holders disapproved of this excessive behaviour, none, Douglass noted, would have questioned her right to beat her slaves.

The violence of slave life is amply represented in popular culture, from 12 Years a Slave to the cartoonish Django, but Douglass also emphasizes the way that slaves were denied a family life, not only denied the option of legal marriage, but regularly split up and sold to different parts of the country. Douglass was raised by his grandmother and scarcely met his own mother. He was surprised to find, on moving to the main plantation as a boy that he had brothers and sisters, although, unsurprisingly, they were never to become close. Sociologist, Orlando Patterson, described this as a sort of ‘social death’ experienced by slaves, whose relationships could be ended at any moment by their masters and who were compelled to live with this possibility hanging over their heads.

The essence of slavery, Douglass points out, does not lie in the harsh treatment to which slaves were regularly subjected, but rather in the status of being a slave. Douglass himself was fortunate enough to be sent away to the city rather than to the fields. There he managed to learn to read and write and life was comparatively comfortable. However, a ‘slaveholder, kind or cruel, is a slaveholder still‘ – it makes no difference to one’s slave status. To be dominated, i.e. in the power of a master, a dominus, is, in the words of political philosopher, Philip Pettit, to be exposed to the possibility of uncontrolled interference in one’s life. It is this persistent vulnerability to others who may mistreat you with impunity, that is central to domination rather than individual incidents of brutality. A kind master is preferable to a cruel one, but both have the same power over the slave and nothing compels them, if they happen to be kind, to remain so. 

Living with this vulnerability can take a heavy toll on those concerned. This is not simply a matter of damaging one’s well-being, but of potentially warping one’s relation to oneself, diminishing one’s sense of self-worth and self-respect. Douglass reflects that slaves commonly adopted a servile attitude in the hope of deflecting the attention of the master. In time, however, servility can become a role from which one cannot escape. The ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, himself a former slave, recommended reflecting on the transience of this life, not simply as an aid to enduring its hardships, but to enduring them with one’s dignity intact. Maintaining one’s dignity might sound like a rather rarified concern, but for Douglass, as for so many others, it was a matter of life and death. In the most dramatic passage of Douglass’ narrative, he recounts how he refused to accept a beating from an especially brutal overseer, even though in doing so he risked his life. Victorious in the struggle, Douglass says that, ‘I had reached the point at which I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form.’

Douglass always insisted, with good reason, that chattel slavery, in which one is legally nothing more than a piece of property, is the most intense form of domination. The end of the slave system which sustained these relationships, however, did not simply eliminate race-based domination. The end of slavery proper did not, as Douglass found, securely establish the equal status of black people. Securing people against domination is a complex matter, requiring the restructuring of laws, institutions, and social attitudes. Alongside more subtle and insidious forms of oppression and inequality, we continue to see the persistence of unusually intense forms of domination, as George Floyd’s recent death has shown yet again. The bare minimum that a decent society can provide is security against this sort of treatment and yet it appears that this still cannot be guaranteed, 155 years after slavery itself was abolished in the US. 

Life in Lockdown


Cillian McBride
Senior Lecturer in Political Theory

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend,’ observed Groucho Marx, before adding that, ‘inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read…’ In these dark times, we can at least read and so I thought I might suggest something to add to everyone’s lockdown reading list. Perhaps something utopian/dystopian from the world of sci fi would be best but my pick is just something that struck a chord with me. I’ll try to shoehorn in a Covid-19 link by the end, if I can. Don’t worry about missing it: it probably won’t be subtle.

The book I have in mind is one I read earlier this year in that happy pre-lockdown period when it was still bliss to be alive (this may be a slight exaggeration. Belfast in January is not Paris in spring, or so I’ve been told). It’s Berlin Finale by Heinz Rein. I hadn’t heard of it before: it was just something that caught my eye one day in a bookshop. The virtue of browsing in actual bookshops is the limited stock, forcing you to be flexible if you want to come out with any sort of a book to read. Second-hand bookshops are especially good in this regard as they may contain just one solitary book that you might actually consider reading and it usually takes some hunting to find it. One Swansea bookshop I knew simply dispensed with any attempt at organisation whatsoever with the result that no shelf could be safely left unexamined. I’m not sure I still have the stamina for that sort of thing.

Having spent the summer of 1989 in Berlin (missing the fall of the Wall, naturally, but at least getting to peek behind the Iron Curtain while it was still hanging), I have a soft spot for all things Berlin. Rein’s book deals with the closing days of the war and the efforts of a collection of surviving leftists to stay alive until the Russians arrive, trying to stay out of the clutches of the remnants of the Nazi regime without also getting themselves killed by their Russian liberators in the confusion. The book was written shortly after the war and Rein punctuates it with passages of Nazi propaganda hailing non-existent German victories as the Russians grow ever closer.

What really drives the book is its outrage at the complicity of the ordinary population with the regime, the day to day compliance of most citizens, interspersed with enthusiastic cruelty on the part of the genuine fanatics. Rein’s heroes, the few who held out and quietly resisted the regime, worry that a whole generation may have been poisoned by growing up in Hitler’s shadow.

The question of complicity appealed to me because I’m interested in the ways our social relationships pull us this way and that. This sets the scene for social and political struggles over whose voices are recognised as authoritative, which expectations we have to navigate around and which ones we end up internalising. One familiar response to these pressures is to strike the pose of the heroic individualist who casts off all social entanglements in the name of personal freedom. This strikes me as a poor response, not only because it is ultimately an impossible goal, but also because it also looks a lot like a cop-out. We are inextricably caught up in social life, weighing the demands of others and making demands on others in turn, vulnerable and potentially dominating in turn. If we refuse to acknowledge this, we aren’t even going to begin to think about our responsibility for the various roles we play in life.

A different sort of mistake is that of the angry moralist who wants to judge everyone equally guilty for collective outcomes because we were all involved in some way or another. Famously, philosopher Karl Jaspers claimed that all Germans bore ‘metaphysical guilt’ for the holocaust. This seems excessive: surely we bear different degrees of responsibility depending on the different roles we play? Attributing responsibility is a tricky business. The reckless populist leader who tries to undermine the public health policies during a pandemic bears more responsibility for the resulting failures than his media-befuddled supporters (to pluck an example out of thin air, and, yes, this is the Covid-19 shoehorn bit. You were warned…) but they must bear some share of  responsibility for putting him there in the first place.

One effect of the current crisis has been to bring to the fore the fact that our lives are deeply interdependent. Our daily lives are sustained by a vast complex scheme of social cooperation, stretching far beyond our borders, which goes largely unnoticed until parts of it stop functioning. We are responsible for our own contributions to this scheme, of course and when these are valuable we can take pride in them. But perhaps we are also complicit to some degree in sustaining of the more problematic patterns of interaction, those that damage the lives of others, whether through social and economic inequalities or environmental degradation. Being responsible, however, is not just a matter of looking back at the things we should have done differently, acknowledging the times when we should have resisted rather than complied, like Rein’s underground heroes. It is also a matter of looking forward, to the ways we can reshape our social relations.

The Greek historian, Polybius, believed that history moved in a circle. Human institutions were impermanent and when they were working well we could only hope to stave off decline for as long as possible before corruption set in. That was the bad news. The good news was that it was always possible, even when things looked most hopeless, that they might be set on the path to improvement. Whether we have grounds for cautious optimism about our future depends entirely on what we do next.