Slavery and Capitalism

Sven Beckert in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Slavery capitalismIf 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.

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