CapitalismEssaysRace

Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism

Family of African American slaves on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. © Timothy H. O'Sullivan | learnnc.org

Racialized chattel slaves were the capital that made capitalism. While most theories of capitalism set slavery apart, as something utterly distinct, because under slavery, workers do not labor for a wage, new historical research reveals that for centuries, a single economic system encompassed both the plantation and the factory.

At the dawn of the industrial age commentators like Rev. Thomas Malthus could not envision that capital — an asset that is used but not consumed in the production of goods and services — could compound and diversify its forms, increasing productivity and engendering economic growth. Yet, ironically, when Malthus penned his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, the economies of Western Europe already had crawled their way out of the so-called “Malthusian trap.” The New World yielded vast quantities of “drug foods” like tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar for world markets. Europeans worked a little bit harder to satiate their hunger for these “drug foods.” The luxury-commodities of the seventeenth century became integrated into the new middle-class rituals like tea-drinking in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, these commodities became a caloric and stimulative necessity for the denizens of the dark satanic mills. The New World yielded food for proletarians and fiber for factories at reasonable (even falling) prices. The “industrious revolution” that began in the sixteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But the “demand-side” tells only part of the story. A new form of capital, racialized chattel slaves, proved essential for the industrious revolution — and for the industrial one that followed.

Book cover of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz © Penguin Books | Amazon.com

The systematic application of African slaves in staple export crop production began in the sixteenth century, with sugar in Brazil. The African slave trade populated the plantations of the Caribbean, landing on the shores of the Chesapeake at the end of the seventeenth century. African slaves held the legal status of chattel: moveable, alienable property. When owners hold living creatures as chattel, they gain additional property rights: the ownership of the offspring of any chattel, and the ownership of their offspring, and so on and so forth. Chattel becomes self-augmenting capital.

While slavery existed in human societies since prehistoric times, chattel status had never been applied so thoroughly to human beings as it would be to Africans and African-Americans beginning in the sixteenth century. But this was not done easily, especially in those New World regions where African slaves survived, worked alongside European indentured servants and landless “free” men and women, and bore offspring — as they did in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America.

In the seventeenth century, African slaves and European indentured servants worked together to build what Ira Berlin characterizes as a “society with slaves” along the Chesapeake Bay. These Africans were slaves, but before the end of the seventeenth century, these Africans were not chattel, not fully. Planters and overseers didn’t use them that differently than their indentured servants. Slaves and servants alike were subject to routine corporeal punishment. Slaves occupied the furthest point along a continuum of unequal and coercive labor relations. (Also, see here and here.) Even so, 20% of the Africans brought into the Chesapeake before 1675 became free, and some of those freed even received the head-right — a plot of land — promised to European indentures. Some of those free Africans would command white indentures and own African slaves.

Book cover of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia by Kathleen M. Brown © University of North Carolina Press | Amazon.com

To the British inhabitants of the Chesapeake, Africans looked different. They sounded different. They acted different. But that was true of the Irish, as well. Africans were pagans, but the kind of people who wound up indentured in the Chesapeake weren’t exactly model Christians. European and African laborers worked, fornicated, fought, wept, birthed, ate, died, drank, danced, traded with one another, and with the indigenous population. Neither laws nor customs set them apart.

And this would become a problem.

By the 1670s, large landowners — some local planters, some absentees — began to consolidate plantations. This pushed the head-rights out to the least-productive lands on the frontier. In 1676, poor whites joined forces with those of African descent under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon. They torched Jamestown, the colony’s capital. It took British troops several years to bring the Chesapeake under control.

Ultimately, planter elites thwarted class conflict by writing laws and by modeling and encouraging social practices that persuaded those with white skin to imagine that tremendous social significance — inherent difference and inferiority — lay underneath black skin. (Also, see here and here.) New laws regulated social relations — sex, marriage, sociability, trade, assembly, religion — between the “races” that those very laws, in fact, helped to create.

The law of chattel applied to African and African-descended slaves to the fullest extent on eighteenth century plantations. Under racialized chattel slavery, master-enslavers possessed the right to torture and maim, the right to kill, the right to rape, the right to alienate, and the right to own offspring — specifically, the offspring of the female slave. The exploitation of enslaved women’s reproductive labor became a prerogative that masters shared with other white men. Any offspring resulting from rape increased the master’s stock of capital.

Book cover of Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora by Stephanie E. Smallwood © Harvard University Press | Amazon.com

Global commerce in slaves and the commodities they produced gave rise to modern finance, to new industries, and to wage-labor in the eighteenth century. Anchored in London, complex trans-Atlantic networks of trading partnerships, insurers, and banks financed the trade in slaves and slave-produced commodities. (Also, see here.) Merchant-financiers located in the seaports all around the Atlantic world provided a form of international currency by discounting the bills of exchange generated in the “triangle trade.” These merchant-financiers connected British creditors to colonial planter-debtors. Some of the world’s first financial derivatives — cotton futures contracts — traded on the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool. British industry blossomed. According to Eric Williams, the capital accumulated from the transatlantic trade in slaves and slave-produced commodities financed British sugar refining, rum distillation, metal-working, gun-making, cotton manufacture, transportation infrastructure, and even James Watt’s steam engine.

After the American Revolution, racialized chattel slavery appeared — to some — as inconsistent with the natural rights and liberties of man. Northern states emancipated their few enslaved residents. But more often, racialized chattel slavery served as the negative referent that affirmed the freedom of white males. (Also, see here.) In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson — who never freed his enslaved sister-in-law, the mother of his own children — postulated that skin color signaled immutable, inheritable inferiority:

It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction… blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind … This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.

Even so, the former plantation colonies of the Upper South stood in a sorry state after Independence, beset by plummeting commodity prices and depleted soils. After the introduction of the cotton gin in 1791, these master-enslavers found a market for their surplus slave-capital.

The expanding cotton frontier needed capital and the Upper South provided it. Racialized chattel slavery proved itself the most efficient way to produce the world’s most important crop. The U.S. produced no cotton for export in 1790. In the antebellum period, the United States supplied most of the world’s most traded commodity, the key raw ingredient of the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to cotton, the United States ranked as the world’s largest economy on the eve of the Civil War.

From about 1790 until the Civil War, slave-traders and enslavers chained 1 million Americans of African descent into coffles and marched or shipped them down to southeast and southwest states and territories. They were sold at auction houses located in every city in the greater Mississippi Valley.

Book cover of Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson © Harvard University Press | Amazon.com

Capital and capitalist constituted one another at auction. At auction, slaves were stripped and assaulted to judge their strength and their capacity to produce more capital or to gratify the sexual appetites of masters. Perceived markers of docility or defiance informed the imaginative, deeply social practice of valuing slave-capital. In this capital market, Walter Johnson reveals, slaves shaped their sale and masters bought their own selves.

After auction, reconstituted coffles traveled ever deeper into the dark heart of the Cotton Kingdom (also, see here) and after 1836, into the new Republic of Texas. Five times more slaves lived in the United States in 1861 than in 1790, despite the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 and despite the high levels of infant mortality in the Cotton Kingdom. Slavery was no dying institution.

By 1820, the slave-labor camps that stretched west from South Carolina to Arkansas and south to the Gulf Coast allowed the United States to achieve dominance in the world market for cotton, the most crucial commodity of the Industrial Revolution. At that date, U.S. cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity. Without those exports, the national economy as a whole could not acquire the goods and the credit it required from abroad.

And the Industrial Revolution that produced those goods depended absolutely on what Kenneth Pomeranz identifies as the “ghost acres” of the New World: those acres seeded, tended, and harvested by slaves of African descent. Pomeranz estimates that if, in 1830, Great Britain had to grow for itself, on its own soil the calories that its workers consumed as sugar, or if it had to raise enough sheep to replace the cotton it imported from the United States, this would have required no less than an additional 25 million acres of land.

In New England and (mostly) Manchester, waged-workers spun cotton thread which steam-powered mills spun into cloth. Once a luxury good, cotton cloth now radically transformed the way human beings across the globe outfitted themselves and their surroundings. Manchester and Lowell discovered an enormous market in the same African-American slaves that grew, tended and cleaned raw cotton, along with the same workers who operated the machines that spun and wove that cotton into cloth. According to Seth Rockman’s forthcoming book, Plantation Goods and the National Economy of Slavery, the ready-made clothing industry emerged in response to the demand from planters for cheap garments to clothe their slaves.

Book cover of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist © Basic Books | Amazon.com

The explosion in cotton supply did not occur simply because more land came under cultivation. It came from increased productivity, as new work by Ed Baptist illustrates. The Cotton Kings combined the bullwhip with new methods of surveilling, measuring, and accounting for the productivity of the enslaved, radically reorganizing patterns of plantation labor. Planter-enslavers compelled their slave-capital to invent ways to increase their productivity — think of bidexterous Patsey in Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave. At the end of every day, the overseer weighed the pickings of each individual, chalking up the numbers on a slate. Results were compared to each individual’s quota. Shortfalls were “settled” in lashes. Later the master copied those picking totals into his ledger and erased the slate (both mass-produced by burgeoning new industries up North). Then he set new quotas. And the quotas always increased. Between 1800 and 1860, productivity increases on established plantations matched the productivity increases of the workers that tended to the spinning machines in Manchester in the same period, according to Ed Baptist.

Slavery proved crucial in the emergence of American finance. Profits from commerce, finance, and insurance related to cotton and to slaves flowed to merchant-financiers located in New Orleans and mid-Atlantic port cities, including New York City, where a global financial center grew up on Wall Street.

Cotton Kings themselves devised financial innovations that channeled the savings of investors across the nation and Western Europe to the Mississippi Valley. Cotton Kings, slave traders, and cotton merchants demanded vast amounts of credit to fund their ceaseless speculation and expansion. Planter-enslavers held valuable, liquid collateral: 2 million slaves worth $2 billion, a third of the wealth owned by all U.S. citizens, according to Ed Baptist. With the help of firms like Baring Brothers, Brown Brothers, and Rothschilds, the Cotton Kings sold bonds to capitalize new banks from which they secured loans (pledging their slaves and land for collateral). These bonds were secured by the full faith and credit of the state that chartered the bank. Even as northern states and European empires emancipated their own slaves, investors from these regions shared in the profits of the slave-labor camps in the Cotton Kingdom.

The Cotton Kings did something that neither Freddy, nor Fannie, nor any of “too big to fail” banks managed to do. They secured an explicit and total government guarantee for their banks, placing taxpayers on the hook for interest and principal.

It all ended in the Panic of 1837, when the bubble in southeastern land and slaves burst. Southern taxpayers refused to pay the debts of the planter-banks. Southern States defaulted on those bonds, hampering the South’s ability to raise money through the securities markets for more than a century. Cotton Kings would become dependent as individuals on financial intermediaries tied to Wall Street, firms like Lehman Brothers (founded in Alabama).

Book cover of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by A. Farrow, J. Lang, and J. Frank © Ballantine Books | Amazon.com

It didn’t take very long for the flow of credit to resume. By mid-century, racialized chattel slavery had built not only a wealthy and powerful South. It had also given rise to an industrializing and diversifying North. In New England, where sharp Yankees once amassed profits by plying the transatlantic slave trade — and continued to profit by transporting slave-produced commodities and insuring the enslaved — new industries rose up alongside the textile mills. High protective tariffs on foreign manufactures made the products of U.S. mills and factories competitive in domestic markets, especially in markets supplying plantations.

After the Erie Canal opened in 1824, the North slowly began to reorient towards timber and coal extraction, grain production, livestock, transportation construction, and the manufacture of a vast array of commodities for all manner of domestic and international markets. Chicago supplanted New Orleans. By the 1850s, industrial and agricultural capitalists above the Mason-Dixon line no longer needed cotton to the same extent that they once did. With the notable exception of Wall Street interests in New York City, Northerners began to resist the political power — and the territorial ambitions — of the Cotton Kings. Sectional animosity set the stage for the Civil War.

But up to that point, slave-capital proved indispensable to the emergence of industrial capitalism and to the ascent of the United States as a global economic power. Indeed, the violent dispossession of racialized chattel slaves from their labor, their bodies, and their families — not the enclosure of the commons identified by Karl Marx — set capitalism in motion and sustained capital accumulation for three centuries.

Adapted from a lecture in the team-taught course “Rethinking Capitalism” at The New School for Social Research.

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Julia Ott

Julia Ott

  • Amy Werbel

    Thanks for this Julia. I will assign this reading for my students.

  • che.g.

    This is great, another book that should be given a citation/shout out is Cedric Robinson’s classic: Black Marxism.

  • louisproyect

    Puts the nail–metaphorically speaking–in Charles Post’s Brennerite analysis of slavery as “precapitalist”.

  • Nicholas Brady

    Awesome piece, I am left wanting the theorization of desire, pleasure, and sexuality to be centralized in this narrative on global and national industry though… For instance the section on rape discusses the economic interest in rape and chattel production, but this heterosexualization (and rationalization) of master-slave relation leaves out the structural rape and molestation of men and children, ie non-productive economies of pleasure and enjoyment… I am also thinking here of a discussion of the intersection of mastery and libindinal economy that links with the excellent point made about drg food and consumption patterns… This can also work to explain how the eventual distinction made between indentured servants and chattel slaves were able to stick so fast, not simply cuz laws were passed but because of the libidinal investment in using black flesh as the ultimate fetish object

    • black body radiation

      Thank you.

    • Julia

      On these issues, I recommend the work of Ed Baptist, Walter Johnson, Kathleen Brown, and Jennifer Morgan (links above).

  • Critical_Reading

    Marx does not ignore the role of slavery, but he sees two phases in the development of capitalism in England. The first is the emergence of capitalism in the countryside (which began well before the slave trade)—here enclosure plays a key role. The second is the development of industrial capitalism—here imperialist plunder and slavery are central. Here’s how he describes the second phase: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm) It’s a mistake to counterpose enclosure and slavery, as if we have to choose one or the other.

    • arobinson

      The debate of Racism and Classism by the Marxist and Fredrick Douglas is further reading. Critical Reading I enjoyed the post.

  • Rebecca Hollender

    I enjoyed reading the post and have some thoughts to follow-up:

    Slavery existed previous to African slavery and chattel slavery and were essential in securing economic and political power during
    different places and time periods. For example, just prior to the arrival
    of the first reported African slaves to the New World, Spanish colonists were already organizing, enslaving, and proselytizing indigenous populations of South America. Without African slaves, the mining and extractive projects, as well as the “civilizing” project of the Catholic Church, were extremely profitable for European colonies in terms of economic gain, territorial conquest, and political domination. I bring this up in an effort to raise the question of whether these colonial activities this were not just as significant for laying the basis of capitalism as was African slavery? Yes, they involved slavery as defined as bonded/unfree non-wage labor, but not always slaves that were traded, rather by enslaving and/or organizing already existing communities. I agree with the idea that African and chattel slavery was essential for New World development, but wonder if the foundations weren’t already or parallel being laid without African and racialized chattel slaves.

  • Jesse Posl Rhinehart

    Great piece Julia! Really manages to sum up well the critical elements in behind the development of industrial capitalism in the U.S. Still we should emphasize the critical weight of many different events and institutions prior to the flowering of the slave trade in the U.S. For instance the development of trusts in England through a distortion of Roman law which allowed money to be manipulated as it was being stored for the first time (prefiguring the development of fractional reserve banking–an argument forcefully presented by Jongchul Kim (2013). Or as Pomeranz emphasizes, the role coal deposits favorably located in Britain played in the early stage of the industrial revolution and the development of the steam engine.

  • Miguel V. Guevara

    This piece does a great job illuminating alternative understandings of the economic circumstance and motivations of the Cotton Kingdom in the establishment of Capitalism. Something I think could be given added importance in relation to racialized chattel slavery is the role of White Supremacy. It is no small feat that white slave-owners were able to convince free and slave-less whites (who would otherwise be competing for the same jobs that slaves did) that their own economic circumstance was better off with the continued existence of free African labor. In reality, a better economic future could have been had by free and slave-less whites if they sided with enslaved persons and stood in favor of the abolition of slavery.

    • One More Libertarian-Socialist

      As LBJ purportedly said about American racism:

      I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

      • Daisiemae

        Interesting quote. From colonial times, the elites and government of this country have used race to divide us and distract us from their abuse and oppression of us.

        Still works pretty good today, doesn’t it? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • zev f.

    I reject the fundamental premise that racialized chattel slavery was crucial to the development of capitalism. It is not possible to reconcile it with the scientific analysis presented by Marx in his discussion of primitive accumulation—”the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.” Global capitalism had already been established, so the interpretation of African-American chattel slaves as a root of American Capitalism disintegrates when one realizes that the American and global economies were much larger than “King Cotton,” perhaps a vestige of previous modes of production. The transatlantic slave trade was crucial to the development of American capitalism. It was a conduit for the material exportation of European capitalism. The (multinational) joint-stock corporations were perhaps crucial organizational forms.

    From Marx, with many implications of course:
    “Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.” (Capital I, Ch. 26)

    • Julia

      How can Marx’s (exceedingly sparse) analysis on this issue be considered ‘scientific,’ I wonder?

    • Nahema M.

      Mar’x concept of ‘primitive accumulation’ refers specifically to the historical process that gave birth to the preconditions necessary for a capitalist mode of production. And for him, these preconditions correspond mainly to the
      ‘freeing’ and expropriation of a section of the population, leaving it with no
      other means of survival and livelihood than its labor power, which it can sell
      for a wage. The concept of primitive accumulation is here based on the notion
      of capital as class relation, rather than capital as “stock”:

      I think that two
      conclusions can be inferred from this definition, which shed light on the
      relation (or lack thereof) between slavery and primitive accumulation. First,
      according to Marx the capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of
      the laborers from the conditions for the realization of their labor.
      The producer or worker is turned into a thing itself, a mere
      object of a particular use value. In light of this, it would be easy to draw
      parallels between slaves and expropriated laborers. But the slaves who
      were brought from Africa were effectively displaced and deprived of their
      subjectivity; they were turned into ‘things’. However, capitalism and slavery
      are fundamentally counter-poised systems. One is based on free labor, and the
      other, on slave labor. Moreover, capitalism is a process, whereby the social
      means of production are turned into capital, and the producers are
      turned into wage-laborers. And finally, as others have pointed out,
      slavery did not entail a model of transition from feudalism to capitalism – it
      is a form of exploitation that predates capitalist and even feudal
      societies. Thus, Marx’s emphasis on the fact that capitalism arose
      from the demise of the economic structure of feudal society seems incompatible
      with the claim that chattel slaves were the capital
      that made capitalism.

      However,
      and this is the second conclusion, this does not mean that slavery and capital
      accumulation are unrelated! In Part VIII of Capital, Marx’s discussion of
      primitive accumulation simply traces the path by which the capitalist economic
      order emerged from the feudal order in Western Europe. In that regard the
      process of land enclosure in England, seems to be a mere illustration of
      primitive accumulation – and an illustration specific to England. However, Marx
      himself was well aware that the history of capitalism provides a number of
      possible answers to the question of what constituted the starting point for the
      capitalist mode of production. He identifies six historical processes which
      were a pre-condition for the appearance of the industrial capitalist: (1) Colonialism, (2) Public
      credit and the national debt, (3) Commercial wars (4) Child-slavery (5) Plantation
      slavery and, lastly (6) The enforced separation of workers
      from the means of production and the subsequent imposition of the exploitative
      wages system.

      Marx
      recognizes and affirms that ‘‘capital comes dripping from head to toe, from
      every pore, with blood and dirt.’’ In this view, primitive capital
      accumulation is not a mythical event, a single causal act that took place at a
      particular point in time, but on-going historical process “written in the
      annals of human-kind in blood and fire”. This is primitive accumulation,
      conceived of not as an episode but as an ongoing aspect of the
      accumulation process – what has been termed by De Angelis and others as
      ‘continued primitive accumulation’ (1999)

      Therefore,
      slavery did not invent capitalism, nor did it constitute the single instance of
      primitive accumulation, but rather assured the further development of an
      already existing mercantile capitalist complex, through exchanges with the
      plantation zones. As Blackburn puts it (1997: 515) ” The colonial
      and Atlantic regime of primitive accumulation allowed metropolitan accumulation
      to break out of its agrarian and national limits and discover an industrial and
      global destiny.” The slavery of wageworkers and children in European
      factories did need the slavery of the New World as its foundation..

    • Nahema M

      Mar’x concept of ‘primitive accumulation’ refers specifically to the historical process that gave birth to the preconditions necessary for a capitalist mode of production. And for him, these preconditions correspond mainly to the ‘freeing’ and expropriation of a section of the population, leaving it with no other means of survival and livelihood than its labor power, which it can sell for a wage. The concept of primitive accumulation is here based on the notion of capital as class relation, rather than capital as “stock”:

      I think that two conclusions can be inferred from this definition, which shed light on the relation (or lack thereof) between slavery and primitive accumulation. First, according to Marx the capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of
      the laborers from the conditions for the realization of their labor.
      The producer or worker is turned into a thing itself, a mere
      object of a particular use value. In light of this, it would be easy to draw parallels between slaves and expropriated laborers. But the slaves who were brought from Africa were effectively displaced and deprived of their subjectivity; they were turned into ‘things’. However, capitalism and slavery are fundamentally counter-poised systems. One is based on free labor, and the other, on slave labor. Moreover, capitalism is a process, whereby the social means of production are turned into capital, and the producers are turned into wage-laborers. And finally, as others have pointed out, slavery did not entail a model of transition from feudalism to capitalism – it is a form of exploitation that predates capitalist and even feudal societies. Thus, Marx’s emphasis on the fact that capitalism arose
      from the demise of the economic structure of feudal society seems incompatible with the claim that chattel slaves were the capital that made capitalism.

      However, and this is the second conclusion, this does not mean that slavery and capital accumulation are unrelated! In Part VIII of Capital, Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation simply traces the path by which the capitalist economic
      order emerged from the feudal order in Western Europe. In that regard the process of land enclosure in England, seems to be a mere illustration of primitive accumulation – and an illustration specific to England. However, Marx himself was well aware that the history of capitalism provides a number of possible answers to the question of what constituted the starting point for the capitalist mode of production. He identifies six historical processes which were a pre-condition for the appearance of the industrial capitalist: (1) Colonialism, (2) Public credit and the national debt, (3) Commercial wars (4) Child-slavery (5) Plantation slavery and, lastly (6) The enforced separation of workers from the means of production and the subsequent imposition of the exploitative wages system.

      Marx recognizes and affirms that ‘‘capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’’ In this view, primitive capital accumulation is not a single causal act that took place at a particular point in time, but on-going historical process “written in the annals of human-kind in blood and fire”. This is primitive accumulation conceptualized not as an episode but as an ongoing aspect of the accumulation process – what has been termed by De Angelis and others as
      ‘continued primitive accumulation’ (1999)

      Therefore, slavery did not invent capitalism, nor did it constitute the single instance of primitive accumulation, but rather assured the further development of an already existing mercantile capitalist complex, through exchanges with the
      plantation zones. As Blackburn puts it (1997: 515) ” The colonial
      and Atlantic regime of primitive accumulation allowed metropolitan accumulation to break out of its agrarian and national limits and discover an industrial and global destiny.” The slavery of wageworkers and children in European factories did need the slavery of the New World as its foundation..

  • Joe Lombardo

    I think Eric Williams’ book is one of the great mistaken books in history. The fact that slavery correlates with capitalist expansion does not mean slavery caused, is the source, for the the accumulation of capital. The origin of capitalism, the origin of wage labor is the dispossession of the producers from their means of subsistence. In England, the only area according to Marx where that process had been carried through to completion, that dispossession is not based on the expansion of slavery.

  • Derek

    Capitalism is a social system based on the principle of individual rights. Politically, it is the system of laissez-faire (freedom). Legally it is a system of objective laws (rule of law as opposed to rule of man). Economically, when such freedom is applied to the sphere of production its result is the free-market.

    Slavery is the antithesis of capitalism.

    • Zachary Sunderman

      Capitalism has no legal or ethical dimension. It is a rational economic system with an interest in profit, based on the “laws” of market exchange. Philosophies (like libertarianism and anarchocapitalism) assign a normative dimension to it (individual rights, freedom, etc.), while legal systems function to check its potentially limitless expansion into further and further realms of exploitation (of which slavery, formerly legal while being motivated by the capitalist production model, is a perfect example). Capitalism can function within a number of various political contexts (anarchist libertarianism vs. European social democracy is a particularly salient illustration) and, being amoral and rationally self-interested, tends naturally not toward freedom, but toward oppression for gain (as illustrated very nicely by the history of the U.S.), unless checked by something external to it (a system of ethics, the rule of regulatory law, etc). (Although in its pure form it certainly does respect and protect the freedom of certain parties to amass wealth and use power without regard to the inequalities and injustices that result.)

      • Derek

        Just because there is capital, doesn’t make it capitalism. If anyone, including the government, is placing controls on the market, capitalism it is not.

        There are no inequalities or injustices with capitalism. The inequalities and injustices on come when governments try and control the market.

        • Zachary Sunderman

          “There are no inequalities or injustices with capitalism. The inequalities and injustices on come when governments try and control the market.”

          Demonstrate this.

          • Derek

            Where is your demonstration?

          • Zachary Sunderman

            This was your argument, not mine. You came to argue that capitalism is literally faultless, but all you’ve offered in support of that is the recitation of a stock ideology. You should show us how pure capitalism leads to “no inequalities or injustices.”

            As an aside, I did offer examples — cursory ones, but examples nonetheless — and the whole article to which you’re responding purports to be an empirical demonstration against your position.

          • Derek

            I didn’t come to argue. I came to state the fact of what capitalism is, versus what the article claims it is.

            You are the one who claimed further exploration, oppression, inequalities and injustices.

            You should show how capitalism leads to those things.

            Your examples support my position, not yours. Slavery was an institution of government. Not only was it permitted by law, but the capturing and return of slaves was permitted by law. If slaves were able to fight back without repercussions from the ‘law’ and government, it would never have existed.

          • Zachary Sunderman

            We are working under different definitions of “argument.” I think you are under the impression that I meant you came to “instigate.” I meant that you came to advance a position against another position, which is exactly what you say you were doing. We agree.

            I claimed that exploitation, oppression, inequality, and injustice are built into capitalism due to its nature as a rational self-interested system. History is replete with examples of social evils being committed in the name of this amoral interest in profit (just one: unsafe working conditions that save the company money but lead to health problems and possibly death for employees). Law — and I don’t mean to import to law your normative evaluation of capitalism, but let’s just admit that this happens — Law attempts to curb the tendency of capitalism to place the profit of the most successful over the wellbeing of those they exploit.

            That law sometimes supports a capitalist enterprise against the interest of those exploited by it does not transform that enterprise into “an institution of government.” Slaves were not public sector workers. They were laborers for private businessowners, whose interests were protected by the State (and this, of course, is why I can’t claim law as the Source of Good, either). I don’t see how you can get from slavery being permitted by law to slavery being caused by law and law exclusively. If the law were silent on the practice, why would it not have happened? What law caused the slave trade to come about? To use my earlier example: if I employ you and coerce you, under threat of being fired and blacklisted, to work long hours in unsafe conditions for low pay in order to maximize my profit, what about this scenario is influenced by law, and what about capitalism as you envision it renders it impossible?

          • Derek

            Slavery was absolutely an institution of government. Backed by law. BackEd by the court. Backed by force. Regardless, that is really just semantics.

            The real point is that the government protecting the specific interests of specific industries or corporations or companies is not capitalism.

            Really you can’t see the connection? If slavery was not permitted by law, than people would have been committing the crime of kidnapping, false imprisonment. Even without the law charging and trying them, individuals which were many, who disagreed with slavery would have been able to combat it without fear of being charged themselves.

            In pure capitalism, no one would work for such a company. Without workers, it goes out of business.

          • Zachary Sunderman

            For there to be a “crime” of “kidnapping” requires that a law exists to define it as such and characterize it as an offense. That law would have to be backed by force in order to be valid, which runs counter to the voluntarist non-aggression principle that is at the source of your position. If you advocate a system that is naturally free of harm to others and overcomes the need for a state apparatus that has the right to use force, then you should not need recourse to one law in order to get around another.

            Nothing about an unregulated economic system that rewards self-interest (again, in your own construction, which admits no need from anything external to soften the system’s impact) prevents a more powerful individual from using force over another to achieve gain. This is the paradox of the libertarianism you advance. In its quest to treat liberty as an absolute, it allows losses of liberty to occur. In my opinion, a better way forward is to admit that in any scenario, liberty will not be absolute, and the point is to protect which liberty is more deserving of protection.

            In invoking the free labor power of the workforce, you’ve given your first real indication of how your system could work. But it still doesn’t line up with reality. People work all the time for organizations they don’t support, and perform jobs they hate generation after generation. Nobody requires them to do this — the need to survive in a money-based socio-economic system does. This exerts a force and coercion as sure as that of the state upon the individual and leads to the requirement, in most situations, that one sell his or her labor to someone who has become more powerful within the system. This doesn’t sound very liberating to me, and in the number of soul-crushing jobs I’ve worked for capitalists with more resources than me, it hasn’t been experienced as such, either! What do you do for a living, anyway?

            In any case, the existence of a completely free labor force is irreconcilable with the socioeconomic conditions of capitalism. Capitalism undoes the smaller social circles that prevent humans largely from performing tasks from which they are alienated, and in the smaller social world that inhibits the unlimited individualistic growth that characterizes capitalist society, the concept of free labor power is meaningless. In order to reconcile work with the individual, you need to move backward to a time when work meant something else — but this also means stripping the individual of the freedoms of self that come with modernity. As far as I can see, humankind under civilization has never been free in the absolute sense; it has only traded different qualities and degrees of liberty and oppression.

            The way forward (if not out) is to envision a system that admits the lessons of history, recognizes the complex science of the present, and synthesizes these findings into something new. The attempt to ideologize and simplify the matter, which I see represented in anarcholibertarianism and Marxism alike, is not only unproductive but, I think, dangerous.

          • Derek

            You misunderstand the non-aggression principle. It is against the initiation of force, like kidnapping. It is not against the use of force in the defense against the initiation of force.

          • Zachary Sunderman

            The problem, I think, is the definition of “force.” Force goes beyond obviously violent acts such as kidnapping. I would define the use of one’s economic position against the interest of another (as in the exploitation inherent in the capitalist business model) as a form of force. The enterprise that makes a profit by causing harm to the life circumstances of its employees (health, wages, time, whatever else) is exercising a form of violence. To support resistance against initiated force where it has an immediate quality but to leave to the “individual” the right to make decisions that amount to a long-term, subtle imposition of force against others is, as far as I can see, inconsistent. So perhaps we don’t disagree fundamentally: one should do something about unjust force. The division is that I believe checks on capitalism are a manifestation of that principle, whereas you are making an exception in the form of individualism.

      • Ivan

        That is the best description I have ever read of market-based systems.