If you have "no place to go," come here!

"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.”[4] As Rockman puts it, “slavery was integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.”[5] 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.[6] 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.

No votes yet


Jay's picture
Submitted by Jay on

If you want to look at the edges of capitalism, and an economy that for a while coexisted with the development of American capitalism, I would point to the people whose contributions curiously never account for anything in studies of American history: Native Americans.

The various tribes traded with each other. If you view the inputs as natural resources, labor, and the energy given by the sun, any excess beyond subsistence might be dried corn, tobacco, pelts, and even finished goods like garments, combs, baskets. True, many had wampum, but I would suggest that this may have been more of an intermediary accounting medium for more accurate trading. Rather than a rare metal possessing intrinsic value worthy of accumulating in and of itself. Any fool Indian will tell you that you can't eat a Krugerrand.

Ideas about private or public property were/are culturally different; although no one owned real estate any more than they own the air that passes in and out their lungs, the things that pertained to a person or family were viewed as reasonably "theirs." If you raised some horses, they were the horses that *you* rode. Within a tribe, there were individuals and families of varying prosperity. Human sentiment did not allow starvation among select members unless there was a general ongoing collapse--bad harvest, bad hunting herds, widespread disease.

There were intratribal and intertribal disputes. Sometimes the horses *you* raised got raided by a neighboring tribe. Or a dispute arose between tribal members that got to the level that required mediation by elders. What couldn't be arbitrated often got bloody. Trickery, deceit, vendettas . . . human stuff.

The continent only supported as much population as it could, with negligible diminution of nonrenewable resources. If we run out of those--as we surely will--something like that is what may be in store for us.

Not what I would consider capitalist. Yet students of U.S. history are always overlooking the real Americans. A phrase you will encounter often in such discussions: "but that doesn't count . . . " presumably because Indians are somehow not human.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

I'm pretty sure Marx's point is that the extraction is hidden when taken from labor because it appears the laborer is being paid for a full day's work according to the dictates of the market. The extraction of surplus value from the slave or serf is self-evident and determined, or mitigated, by local custom.