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How slavery led to modern capitalism

Bloomberg, an excellent read:

n the North, where slavery had been abolished and cotton failed to grow, the enterprising might transform slave-grown cotton into clothing; market other manufactured goods, such as hoes and hats, to plantation owners; or invest in securities tied to next year's crop prices in places such as Liverpool and Le Havre. This network linked Mississippi planters and Massachusetts manufacturers to the era's great financial firms: the Barings, Browns and Rothschilds.

A major financial crisis in 1837 revealed the interdependence of cotton planters, manufacturers and investors, and their collective dependence on the labor of slaves. Leveraged cotton -- pledged but not yet picked -- led overseers to whip their slaves to pick more, and prodded auctioneers to liquidate slave families to cover the debts of the overextended.

The plantation didn't just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.

The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law.

So important was slavery to the American economy that on the eve of the Civil War, many commentators predicted that the North would kill "its golden goose." That prediction didn't come to pass, and as a result, slavery's importance to American economic development has been obscured.

But as scholars delve deeper into corporate archives and think more critically about coerced labor and capitalism -- perhaps informed by the current scale of human trafficking -- the importance of slavery to American economic history will become inescapable.

Also, too, Foxconn.

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CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

worth considering.

Alternatively, here's the seventy-five minute author's presentation on BookTV. Skip ahead to the 7:10 mark and the first passage reading to get right to it. For a quick version, watch five minutes at that point and then skip ahead to the question and answer at 40:28. [For me, Explorer worked better as a browser for skipping around than did Firefox.]

Submitted by Alcuin on

First, I have to say that I wouldn't take an article that appeared in Bloomberg as Gospel on anything, though the mere fact that such an article appeared at all is interesting. The subject of slavery and capitalism is hugely complicated but I don't subscribe to the 19th century belief in the idea of social progress that Marx was influenced by. An influence that led to the stages of economic development: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism. I had not known of Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name (thanks, CMike!), but it certainly demolishes any arguments about slavery leading to capitalism. If anything, slavery is a feature of capitalism - just ask those unfortunate souls who are enslaved by Foxconn.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Yeah, here's Blackmon again. I think this is queued up at 5:32.

Submitted by Alcuin on

Douglas Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. Wow!