Historians are rewriting the history of slavery and capitalismHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, capitalism
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 scholars have 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.
Notwithstanding skeptical critics, there are reasons so many find this new scholarship refreshing, compelling and persuasive. In part, of course, an emphasis on the darker side of capitalism’s history comports well with the world today. It is a world where, following the financial meltdown of 2008, the fragility of the economic system is apparent. It is a world in which almost anything can be commoditised and securitised for the benefit of a small minority, while those at the bottom struggle to scrape by. In this world, a past in which the most vulnerable literally belonged to forces of capital that manipulated their labour and their lives for profit makes perfect sense. Indeed, sometimes the past presents striking, specific parallels with the present. The crisis of 2008, for example, grounded in reckless speculation and foolish beliefs about the endless rise of real estate and housing prices, looks not so dissimilar from the crisis of 1837, grounded in reckless speculation and foolish beliefs about the endless rise in the prices of cotton and enslaved people. ...
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