Monday, February 6, 2012

The Plantation Owner and the CEO

By Walt Garlington

Slavery has thankfully perished from the South.  But that does not mean it cannot be studied without benefit.  In particular, is there anything in the conduct of the plantation owner of the antebellum South that the present-day chief executive officer (CEO) of a typical corporation might profit from emulating?

The plantation owner was the greatest force in the politics, economics, and morals of the South, the exemplar nearly all in that region tried to pattern their lives after (Weaver, 1989, p. 33, footnote 1).  Today in the United States the CEO holds that position of high influence (Bosworth, 2011, pp. 1-2), so it is essential that he live a life worth imitating, a life of virtue.  What we see manifested too many times is the opposite.  While both the CEO and plantation owner might often suffer from arrogance and an impatience with criticism that comes from a monopoly on power (Weaver, p. 40; Bosworth, p. 2), the similarities for the most part end there.

Taking the attitude toward money to begin with, the CEO’s chief aim is to make the highest profit for his corporation as possible, while at the same time seeking the highest compensation for himself.  These possibly conflicting goals aside, the focus nevertheless remains on acquiring as much as possible, with little thought given to proper limits.  The fixation on quarterly earnings reports of corporations and news of multimillion-dollar salaries, golden parachutes, and other rewards for CEOs bear this out.  The Southern gentleman, however, though he had a fondness for luxury, also possessed a ‘contempt directed at money-getting, as well as the belief that money itself is somehow contaminating’ (Weaver, p. 48). 

An underlying greed, then, is often present in the CEO’s character, while disinterest toward money was the usual mark of the plantation owner (Weaver, p. 47-8).

The CEO knows very few of his employees intimately, can take but little interest in their welfare, and does little to provide a sense of rootedness and security for them.  His human resources department normally recruits employees from across the country, uprooting them from their families and other long-standing connections with promises of material prosperity (large salaries, vacation time, health insurance, etc.).  His own personal interaction with those employees is then often limited to superficial conversations during his time ‘walking the floor’.  And if an employee’s work is not satisfactory (or perhaps for something as cold as cost efficiency), he will quickly be dismissed, with the CEO and his corporation providing scant support for him as he seeks his next source of income.

The example of the plantation owner, again, could not be more different.  Quoting Weaver, ‘The landholder, if he belonged to the tradition, would not concede that his servants meant nothing more to him than the value of their labor, nor did the servant ordinarily envisage the master as nothing more than a source of employment.  The master expected of his servants loyalty; the servants of the master interest and protection’ (39).  The highest example of this relationship is George Washington, Weaver says:  ‘Washington, for example, who was far from a sentimentalist on the subject of slavery, was accustomed to visit his sick slaves and on occasion to take over personal supervision of their treatment’ (39).  Indeed, the slave was considered a part of the master’s very own family (Livingston, 2010, p. 19).

From such a set of responsibilities and rights and expectations a strong sense of community developed on the plantation and throughout much of the antebellum South in which each person, from the highest station to the lowest, felt secure in his livelihood and was well respected for performing his particular role (Weaver, p. 36).  The fear of sudden unemployment and no sustenance by the order of a superior was generally unknown to them, but is all too well-known today. 

Furthermore, just as the good CEO is focused on eliminating rivals to his corporation in order to gain as much ‘market share’ as possible, disrupting innumerable families and communities in the process (Bosworth, pp. 1, 6), so the Southern gentleman was busy minding the affairs of his own estate – how he might make it more self-sufficient, less dependent on outsiders, letting his neighbour’s plantation alone, desiring neither its destruction nor its domination by his hand (Weaver, pp. 33-37).

Perhaps the most telling difference between the CEO and plantation owner is their respective attitudes toward the spiritual health of those under them.  For even the lowliest on the plantation, the slaves, Christian teaching was provided (Weaver, p. 35).  Writes M. E. Bradford, ‘…[M]ost Southerners recognized slaves as human beings in that they hoped to see them accept Christianity’  (1990, p. 223).  He continues, ‘There is no purpose in extending the Divine Grace made available to men through the death of God’s Son to creatures less than human’ (pp. 226-227, note 12). 

By acknowledging a slave’s ability to receive the grace of God, the master admitted the slave’s full humanity, for a man is not simply a mind or a body, but a trinity of body, mind, and spirit.  And though the slave’s free will was hedged in significant ways, this does not undermine the significance of the recognition of his triune nature.  Children likewise have their free will restricted by their parents and others but are still considered fully human.

With this in mind, and adding to it not only the total absence of religious instruction provided for a corporation’s employees but also the reprimands faced by those who express a religious opinion in the wrong manner, an unpleasant picture begins to emerge:  The employee appears as little more than raw material from which profit can be extracted - a body and mind only, whose spirit the CEO can show no regard for, whether out of fear of a lawsuit, or a desire not to offend the sensibilities of the pluralist elite, etc.  The corporate employee thus devolves into something less than human if we follow Bradford’s reasoning to its logical end.

* * *

For owning other human beings; his lack of grace when chided; his sometimes excessive spending; and his other faults, the Southern plantation owner deserves and has received his share of condemnation.  But if we are to judge even-handedly, the CEO must receive his own reprimand.  That the corporate economic system continues on largely free of criticism is telling:  CEOs truly are dominant in our society.

Despite its faults, the plantation system had some admirable traits:  its Christian vision, self-sufficiency, stable communities based on mutual respect, and more.  These are worthy of our attention and, where possible, should be grafted back into the life of our society. 

But the economic system built on slave labour is dead and gone, and no one mourns its passing.  We should strive mightily for the day when the lifeless body of the current corporate economic system, with all its attendant evils, is buried right beside it.

Works Cited

Bosworth, David.  ‘Compensation: The Cultural Contradictions of Philanthrocapitalism.’  Front Porch Republic.  Accessed 29 Dec. 2011.  Available from .

Bradford, M. E.  ‘Against Lincoln: A Speech at Gettysburg.’  The Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary & Political.  1st ed.  Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1990.

Livingston, Donald W.  ‘Why the War Was Not about Slavery.’  Confederate Veteran.  Vol. 68, No. 5 (September/October 2010).    Available from .

Weaver, Richard M.  The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought.  Eds. Core, George and M. E. Bradford.  1st ed.  Washington, D. C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989.

Walt Garlington is a chemical engineer living in Monroe, Louisiana, and serves as editor of Confiteri.

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