Noam Maggor in the European Review of Books: Saint Domingue was the crown jewel of the French empire in the Caribbean when its slaves rebelled in 1791. They formed the independent republic of Haiti in 1804, but the terms of the island’s separation from France was contested long thereafter, and French reconquest loomed. In 1825, in order to secure their sovereignty, the Haitians were forced (in the words of Charles X’s decree) « to compensate the former colonists who may claim an indemnity » for the human property that had been lost. The total sum of these reparations was 150 million golden francs, which the new Caribbean nation funded through a massive loan, paid back slowly over decades. Generations of Haitians – deep into the twentieth century – contributed a significant portion of their livelihood to support the descendants of those who had kidnapped their ancestors from Africa in the hundreds of thousands and forced them to labor under genocidal conditions.
The French aristocrat and intellectual Alexis De Tocqueville is best remembered for his prophetic insights into American democracy, but in 1843 he turned his attention to Haiti. When the indemnity arrangement was again debated in France, Tocqueville declared his unqualified support for the deal, calling it « fair to all participating parties. » Not only would it compensate slaveholders for their lost property, he argued, and restore the social order that had been badly undermined by the rebellion. It would also inculcate much needed labor discipline among the emancipated population. In place of the whip, which kept things in check under slavery, a new instrument – a debt repayment schedule – would coerce the population to return to plantation work and resume sugar exports.
The agreement helped shore up the French banking system while pushing Haiti into an escalating spiral of poverty. It also exacerbated inequality within France itself, given that interest revenues from this debt were funneled into the pockets of a narrow upper-class of wealthy Parisians. The legacy of slavery thus reverberated through the French economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. In the new social order that had emerged, property became sanctified. Reparations illustrated that sanctity: no property, not even human chattel, could be confiscated.
The debate over reparations for slaveholders – and Tocqueville’s endorsement of the idea – has been marginalized in many histories of West. But it has received detailed attention in the work of another French thinker, Thomas Piketty, a professor of economics at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Over the last decade, Piketty’s name has become synonymous with the problem of inequality. Even more remarkable has been his self-reinvention. The barefoot empiricist – a massive dataset builder charting quantitative shifts in inequality over time – would become a theorist seeking the root causes of these shifts, and more recently a pointed political voice, with a sense of the long historical durée. He now calls for the end of neoliberalism and a renewal of socialism worldwide.