Slavery and Capitalism

Slavery and capitalism. The twin pillars of American history. This pairing forces us to question exactly what we mean by capitalism.

Many argue that the South was originally pre-capitalist or at least had strong pre-capitalist traditions (see my post about the book The Mind of the Master Class). It is true that there were clear economic differences that led to regional conflicts. Also, it is true that pre-capitalist practices such as subsistence farming and bartering held out longer in many communities in the rural South. But all of this was contained in a larger capitalist system that dominated Anglo-American culture since the colonial era of the British Empire.

Here is something I wrote getting at some of this conflict within the US economy (Sin of the North, sin of the South):

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

I just came across another book on this topic, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. This author is making a stronger argument for the connection between slavery and capitalism. I’ve barely begun to read it, but I thought I’d present a passage from it that summarizes the case being made.

The following passage is from the introduction (Kindle Locations 173-220). It puts slavery not just in the context of classical liberal economics but also in the context of liberal society in general. It implicates liberalism, in the broad sense. Maybe this view would fit into Domenico Losurdo’s harsh criticism, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Of course, this ‘liberalism’ is pretty much a category including all post-Enlightenment ideologies, including American conservatism. It is liberalism as a pervasive social order, not a mere partisan ideology limited to a particular group.

Baptist questions about the true nature of freedom in a society with a long history of unfreedom. When we speak of free markets, what kind of freedom are we speaking of and whose freedom is it?

* * * *

The way that Americans remember slavery has changed dramatically since then. In tandem with widespread desegregation of public spaces and the assertion of black cultural power in the years between World War II and the 1990s came a new understanding of the experience of slavery. No longer did academic historians describe slavery as a school in which patient masters and mistresses trained irresponsible savages for futures of perpetual servitude. Slavery’s denial of rights now prefigured Jim Crow, while enslaved people’s resistance predicted the collective self-assertion that developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.

But perhaps the changes were not so great as they seemed on the surface. The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post– Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.

Thus, even after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multicultural eras rewrote segregationists ’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies, historians were still telling the half that has ever been told. For some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system— a way of producing and trading commodities— American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy— one of the central stories of American history.

The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.

Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived , it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire— this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of US history, for instance—if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth —then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity , on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen— even elect one of them president— to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.

Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce all these assumptions. Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the “symbolic annihilation” of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it. 2 Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow “accepted” slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a little dirty secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.

The Legacy of John Brown

Annie Brown, John Brown’s last living daughter, died in 1926. She was born in 1843 and so she made it to her early eighties.

She was 16 when her father helped incite the American Civil War. She participated by acting as a lookout in guarding the farmhouse that was used as barracks and armory in preparation for the raid on Harpers Ferry. She was 22 when the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

Her lifetime began in the first half of the 1800s and continued into the early 1900s. By the time she died, many events had transpired: Lincoln’s assassination, the backlash against black freedom, the destruction of independent black communities, the expulsion of blacks from sundown towns, the creation of black ghettoes, the organizing of the original KKK and the rise of the Second KKK, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, the wave of lynchings, the emergence of forced labor chain gangs, and the response to black soldiers returning from WWI.

I wonder what her perspective was on all of this. Did she think her father’s sacrifice for the cause was worth what it achieved? What did she hope would follow?

All of this wasn’t that long ago. To put it in perspective, someone alive today who was born when Annie died would only be slightly older than she was when she died. My grandparents were kids and teenagers at the time of her death. As Annie was reaching the end of her life and the lives of a new generation were beginning, a new society was forming out of the ashes of what came before. The last of the Indian Wars were being fought. Those early decades of the twentieth century also involved fights by other minority groups and fights by labor groups. It was an era of radicalism, often violent.

Annie Brown’s lifetime included many fights for freedom. But victory of freedom was still an uncertainty, as it remains to this day. Much more struggle would follow her death, though few later events in this country would be quite as dramatic as her father’s raid on Harpers Ferry.