Questions about the relationship between slavery and capitalism in the United States have animated historians for nearly a century, and they have never really been resolved. Where some scholarshave argued that profit motives, entrepreneurialism and market relations defined American slavery, others have insisted just as emphatically that the slave society of the southern states lacked a truly free labour market and precluded the cultivation of bourgeois values and the development of large cities, which are distinguishing characteristics of capitalist society.
In the past several years, however, the former view has been clearly ascendant, with historians producing a steady stream of scholarship advancing the argument that slavery in the US was both itself deeply capitalistic and made profound contributions to the burgeoning industrial world whose guns, ships and bombs would eventually bring about slavery’s demise. Books by Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson have made the most noise. But their work, along with that of the historians Daina Ramey Berry, Seth Rockman, Caitlin Rosenthal, Calvin Schermerhorn and many others has effectively launched an entire subfield of literature dedicated to exploring the ways that human bondage gave rise to a modern Western superpower.
Unsurprisingly, it is an avenue of enquiry that has roiled academics and the public alike. For some, the definition of capitalism in recent works is too imprecise or insufficiently grounded in theories of political economy to take seriously. Some question whether the authors of these works have an understanding of economics deep and thorough enough to sustain their claims. Still others are underwhelmed by arguments they feel they have heard before and found less than convincing the first time. And for some people the very idea that slavery could be integral to capitalism is anathema, because to them capitalism is the foundation of freedom itself.
There is some irony in all this reactionary hodgepodge, because whether it comes from the left or the right, the hostility toward the new history of slavery and capitalism frequently seems rooted in disdain that is as much a matter of dogma as of analysis.Aeon Magazine
The new history of slavery and capitalism
Karl Marx On American Slavery by Ken Lawrence
Throughout Karl Marx's long career as philosopher, his- torian, social critic, and revolutionary, he considered the enslavement of African people in America to be a fundamental aspect of rising capitalism, not only in the New World, but in Europe as well. As early as 1847, Marx made the following forceful observation:
"Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.
"Without slavery North America, the roost progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe out North America from the map of the world, and you will have anarchy — the complete decay of modern commerce and civilisation. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.
"Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of the peoples. Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.1"
1. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy: A Reply to M. Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty, New York, International Publishers, n.d., pages 94-5.
A History Defined by the Trade in Human Beings