Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sven Beckert - Slavery and Capitalism

Few topics have animated today’s chattering classes more than capitalism. In the wake of the global economic crisis, the discussion has spanned political boundaries, with conservative newspapers in Britain and Germany running stories on the "future of capitalism" (as if that were in doubt) and Korean Marxists analyzing its allegedly self-destructive tendencies. Pope Francis has made capitalism a central theme of his papacy, while the French economist Thomas Piketty attained rock-star status with a 700-page book full of tables and statistics and the succinct but decisively unsexy title Capital in the Twenty-First Century(Harvard University Press).

With such contemporary drama, historians have taken notice. They observe, quite rightly, that the world we live in cannot be understood without coming to terms with the long history of capitalism—a process that has arguably unfolded over more than half a millennium. They are further encouraged by the all-too-frequent failings of economists, who have tended to naturalize particular economic arrangements by defining the "laws" of their development with mathematical precision and preferring short-term over long-term perspectives. What distinguishes today’s historians of capitalism is that they insist on its contingent nature, tracing how it has changed over time as it has revolutionized societies, technologies, states, and many if not all facets of life.

Nowhere is this scholarly trend more visible than in the United States. And no issue currently attracts more attention than the relationship between capitalism and slavery.
If capitalism, as many believe, is about wage labor, markets, contracts, and the rule of law, and, most important, if it is based on the idea that markets naturally tend toward maximizing human freedom, then how do we understand slavery’s role within it? No other national story raises that question with quite the same urgency as the history of the United States: The quintessential capitalist society of our time, it also looks back on long complicity with slavery. But the topic goes well beyond one nation. The relationship of slavery and capitalism is, in fact, one of the keys to understanding the origins of the modern world.

For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern: cruel, but marginal to the larger history of capitalist modernity, an unproductive system that retarded economic growth, an artifact of an earlier world. Slavery was a Southern pathology, invested in mastery for mastery’s sake, supported by fanatics, and finally removed from the world stage by a costly and bloody war.

Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two American economists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observed in their controversial book Time on the Cross(Little, Brown, 1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the United States. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building on those often unacknowledged foundations. They emphasize the dynamic nature of New World slavery, its modernity, profitability, expansiveness, and centrality to capitalism in general and to the economic development of the United States in particular.

The historians Robin Blackburn in England, Rafael Marquese in Brazil, Dale Tomich in the United States, and Michael Zeuske in Germany led the study of slavery in the Atlantic world. They have now been joined by a group of mostly younger American historians, like Walter Johnson, Seth Rockman, Caitlin C. Rosenthal, and Edward E. Baptist looking at the United States.

While their works differ, often significantly, all insist that slavery was a key part of American capitalism—especially during the 19th century, the moment when the institution became inextricable from the expansion of modern industry—and to the development of the United States as a whole... Read more: