Denise Ferreira de Silva – ICA talk – 25 August 2018

Saturday 25 August 2018 – Went to Institute of Contemporary Arts in The Mall, London to listen to Denise Ferriera da Silva. Quite a good sympathetic crowd. She was seeking to interface between Western philosophical canon and Black oppression, seeking interstices and cracks in the facade to reconstitute and expose the hidden oppression.

She began her tale with a long disquisition on Marx’s theory of value. Here she focussed on the formula:

$price =P = c +y +z

Where c = capital

y = raw materials

z = labour.

Marx in later life abandoned such simple models and their implications. Denise however was mired in the quagmire. If this formula was correct then the modern mode of production was ‘rational’ and so superior to primitive accumulation and at a later more developed level. The system may be exploitative but it was capable of producing higher surplus accumulation. Denise attacked the edges of its hidden perception of slave labour which is clearly pre-capitalist and so inferior. Marx  at this time follows the implication and sees Western slavery as a step forward for primitive people. This consequence is explicitly stated by none other than CLR James who in the final pages of Black Jacobins along strict Trotskyist lines states that the introduction of slavery was a step forward for Africans. James later adopts entirely different views.

However if we allow for negative wages we then need to add a vector for murderous brute force (v), but more importantly the value of P need not be the sum  of (c+y-z +v). There is now scope for abundant waste (w). The system need not maximize unit values as it may maximise v giving rise to wasteful abundance (w), profligacy in expense of lives (c + y -z +v -w). Marx’s formulas were of course inadequate for the market  as many slave plantations over supplied the market and exhausted their soils (part of the culture of profligacy) leading to hunger for new territories in search of unspoilt lands. The fact that the plantation may have been making a loss might in Marx’s model be proof of lack of formal exploitation but if we allow negative wages  all that follows is increased profligacy and inevitably greater brutality and prodigious waste.

The moment the model is no longer efficient it is no longer rational and no longer superior to the previous lives of the slaves. It is the need for and claim of rationality in the model  that allows the model to periodize and allot the slaves to primitive life forms. Marx did later abandon this view. But Hume, Kant and Hegel require the model to be ‘rational’ i.e. the ‘real is rational’ so the form of production for the slaves must be superior to their previous pattern of  primitive accumulation. This periodisation is also required in the Kantian model for Kant believed Black people to be a lower life form and their enslavement by a more rational superior civilisation was proof. If the enslavement were not rational then it were not ‘real’ and Kant’s and Hegel’s speciation of human life collapses.

Denise tries to tease out what is in fact upfront and blatant though generally hidden by todays collusive and deceptive scholarly practice. Locke engaged in slave trading and advocated genocide, Bishop Berkeley  founded Yale University with a gift of slaves and David Hume was busy working in government administering the slave trade. This does not require deconstruction.

Denise took the standard interpretation of Kant and Western philosophy as credible. She then seeks to make space  for spiritual values. Unaware that Newton spent more of his time on alchemy than natural science, Liebniz was a total mystic, that Kant at one time was enthusiastic Swedenborg supporter, and was a Protestant pastor. The ‘rational’ view of Western philosophy has everything going for it except truth. Mysticism and religious belief runs through the work of most philosophers  and only our 20th Century schools wish to rewrite them as ‘rational’ and then using periodisation to render any spiritual concern primitive and pre -rational.

Not only is Denise hitting straw men she is being misdirected from her true target by established interpretations. I sought to make these points to Denise. There was another Black philosopher present  who came up to me after the talk to express his agreement with my points and that he wanted to pursue these with Denise whom he knew well. Good luck.