"Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?"
An interesting question posed at The Junto, a history group blog:
It’s been a big part of the new history of capitalism from the beginning to reorient the way historians think about slavery, by removing it from the category of things that are not capitalism. Walter Johnson has asked us to see “the commodification of laborers and the commodification of labor power [as] two concretely intertwined and ideologically symbiotic elements of a larger unified though internally diversified structure of exploitation”—at least, a structure that was unified through most of the “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic.” As Rockman puts it, “slavery was integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.” There’s no denying that the two were intertwined in American and global history. Are we supposed to understand by “integral,” though, something without which the larger system just can’t operate? That strikes me as a harder sell.
I don't see why things can't be both "integral" and "oppositional." For example, the Slave Power and the North were clearly "integrated," at least in the sense that the Slave Power in the South and the North shared Federal institutions ("provide for the common defense") at least up until 1860, though I can't speak to economic integration. ("Southern slaves on Yankee bottoms ended when slaves were no longer imported, with the "Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves," as of 1808.)
However, the Confederate States-to-be and the United States that prevailed were "oppositional" as well; IIRC, the capital invested in the flesh of slaves in the South was equal to the capital invested in stone and metal in the factories of the North.* And the South, although a sophisticated, globalized economy, was optimized for export; that's why their railroads ran from the interior to the ports; there was no thought of bootstrapping an industrial economy on domestic demand, as in the North.
The new historians of capitalism may be right to avoid any “fixed or theoretical definition” of what they are studying. Like other complex historical categories or processes—race and gender, say—you have to look at the thing before you can say what it is. Looking at how capitalism has actually worked lets us see how encompassing, how far beyond the merely economic, its effects have been. In fact it should make us question the whole notion of an “economic system” that is not also political, social, cultural, and all the rest. Where, then, should we look for the edges of capitalism? How can we understand it as a bounded, historical phenomenon, rather than something “timeless and irresistible”? What interests me as a historian are the conditions of its birth, expansion, and development: the spatial and temporal processes that took us from a pre-capitalist world through some sort of transition to a capitalist one. It’s through that history that we can approach not just the world we have now, but something that was not capitalist—and glimpse the possibility of something that might come after.
"Where, then, should we look for the edges of capitalism?" What a good question!
NOTE * Somebody more sophisticated than I am would need to explain why the surplus value extracted from human rental in the form of wage labor -- the Old Mole's idea of what's disinctive about capitalism, if I remember that part of the 70s correct -- is different from the surplus value extracted from those enslaved as the result of human sale; perhaps the breeding aspect? In this regard, it's interesting to recall the words of Lincoln:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Indeed, the Civil War destroyed billions of dollars of capital -- "sunk" into the flesh of the enslaved.