By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
A new wave of scholarship on slavery seems to be breaking, which feels to me like coming full circle to the work I read as a young adult: The Genoveses (The World the Slaveholders Made, The Mind of the Master Class) and Fogel and Engerman (Time on the CrossVery subjectively, however, let me say two topic areas seem new to me, or at least more salient: The first is the globalism of the American Slave Power, and the second is a focus on the lived experience of those who served that Power, or were enslaved by it. (I know that there are many books, even from my time, that treated slaves and masters as subjects and not objects, but these treatments were book-length; what seems new to me is the willingness to shift perspective from object to subject at the paragraph or even the trope level. Story-telling is intermingled with scholarship in a much more granular way.)
I propose to excerpt and give brief commentary on material from two books, both appropriate for Labor Day and the current political moment:
1. Karp, Mathew. This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016;
2. Beckert, Sven and Seth Rockman, eds. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
(To the publishers: Both books are beautifully typeset and indexed, and I especially appreciate that the running heads for the back-of-the-book notes include page numbers, so that if I’m looking for note 3 on page 16 I can skim to the Notes to Pages 16-17). There’s nothing more frustrating than flipping through the notes not being sure which note 3 one has encountered. These books are not crapified! They’re also reasonably priced, especially for trade hard covers.)
This Vast Southern Empire
Harvard University Press summarizes Karp’s thesis:
When the United States emerged as a world power in the years before the Civil War, the men who presided over the nation’s triumphant territorial and economic expansion were largely southern slaveholders. As presidents, cabinet officers, and diplomats, slaveholding leaders controlled the main levers of foreign policy inside an increasingly powerful American state. This Vast Southern Empire explores the international vision and strategic operations of these southerners at the commanding heights of American politics.
For proslavery leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, the nineteenth-century world was torn between two hostile forces: a rising movement against bondage, and an Atlantic plantation system that was larger and more productive than ever before. In this great struggle, southern statesmen saw the United States as slavery’s most powerful champion. Overcoming traditional qualms about a strong central government, slaveholding leaders harnessed the power of the state to defend slavery abroad. During the antebellum years, [slaveholding leaders] worked energetically to modernize the U.S. military, while steering American diplomacy to protect slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas.
It’s richly ironic, for example, the Jefferson Davis, when Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, successfully expanded the Army (after the so-called “Fort Laramie Massacre”). And not merely to “protect” slavery, pace HUP as Publishers Weekly urges:
Karp further argues that this aggressive approach was a major factor in the Mexican-American War, the secession of the South, and the Civil War, as these leading policy makers were unwilling to relinquish their chance at constructing “the global order they envisioned—based on racial hierarchy, coerced labor, and aggressive state power.”
So now let’s talk about 1860. Quoting a great slab of Karp (pp 226-228):
The election of 1860 constituted a recvolution in American politics. For the first time in the nation’s history, a President was elected on the basis of a purely sectional vote. Abraham Lincoln carried virtually every state in the Union where slavery had been outlawed; he lost every state where slavery endured. The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the nonslaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States. The electoral arithmetic alone made the Republicans unique, but their vocal antislavery political platform made them revolutionary. Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.
This revolution of 1860, among its many reversals and disruptions, contained dire implications for the foreign policy of slavery…. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, slaveholding fingerprints remained especially prominent on the levels of executive power that dealt with international relations. In foreign and military affairs southerners could still look forward to a central role in shaping national policy.
The incoming presidential administration offered none of these inducements. In fact the organizing principle of Abraham Lincoln’s entire party was resolute opposition to the fundamental beliefs, interests, an aims of the proslavery South. Certainly, there could be no such thing as a foreign policy of slavery in a Republican administration. Southern elites, understanding themselves as the leading architects and principal stakeholders in U.S. international power for the last three decades, now found themselves cut off from their own creation. …
Worse yet, the mighty organism that southerners had built now threatened to turn its formidable energies against the institution they held most dear. “The crisis of the 1850s,” Steven Hahn has written, “was no longer a battle between expansive and restricted conceptions of Federal power. It instead unleashed a full-scale struggle over who would control the state itself.”
But among the many disturbing consequences of Lincoln’s victory, perhaps the most immediate was the Republican Party’s capture of the outward-looking American state. Under President Lincoln, the United States suddenly assumed the shape of an antislavery world power. Slaveholders from Matthew Maury to Jefferson Davis had made heroic efforts to enhance American power in a global context, but now those efforts appeared to have been wasted, or actively misspent. …
After January 1861 the antebellum South’s most experienced proslavery statesman accepted the dissolution of the republic they had worked so hard to build. Why did these powerful leaders accept a leap into the unknown? They had many reasons, but the future international career of the United States counted among them…. The secession crisis involved not only the fate of the existing slave states, but also the “vast domain” from the California coast to the Amazon Valley–and, given the rising power of the United States, the wider world beyond.
The triumph of the Republican Party in 1860 meant that the overarching question of empire could no longer be resolved through a struggle for control of the American state. Slaveholders had lost that battle; they now resumed the contest within the hastily constructed apparatus of a proslavery state of their own.
As Karp sums up (page 9):
Southern secession was a kind of foreign policy decision. The election of an anti-slavery president snapped the last and strongest bonds connecting the South to the Union–access, through the executive branch, to foreign affairs, the army, and the navy. Deprived of any further investment in the United State’s international clout, southern elites found the appeal of an independent career irresistable. … [However, after] Davis and the antebellum master class were long gone, key elements of the global order they envisioned–based on white supremacy, coerced labor, and aggressive state power–continued to shapre world politics at the turn of the twentieth century
Comment: It’s fascinating to see the similarities between 1860 and today: A legitimacy crisis, globalization, empire, state power, and white supremacy. (Obama giving Malaysia a free pass on slavery in exchange for their TPP vote might be viewed as an experiment in running an empire without white supremacy). Another similarity is seemingly intractable divisions based on faction — that is, on property interest (slavery being a property interest in human beings), with coastal elites participating a vast program of rental extraction based on globalization and control of the rentier state, and the “flyover states,” well, not. However, the factionalism and fragmentation of “the heartland” isn’t nearly so simple as North vs. South, or the latter-day Red States vs. Blue states; there’s nothing so simple as a Mason-Dixon line along which a new approximation of an 1860-style sectional split could take place. Readers may, of course, speculate freely!
Slavery’s Capitalism is a collection of essays, of which I will look at two:
1. Martin, Bonnie. “Neighbor-to-Neighbor Capitalism: Local Credit Networks and the Mortgaging of Slaves.” Slavery’s Capitalism, pp. 107-121.
2. Baptist, Edward. “Toward a Political Economy of Slave Labor: Hands, Whipping Machines, and Modern Power.” Slavery’s Capitalism, pp. 31-61.
Quoting, once again, a great slab, this time from Bonnie Martin (pp. 108-119):
This chapter draws on data collected from more than 10,000 Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana loans in which slaves served as collateral.
(Martin does focus on individuals as subjects with stories, but I’m leaving them out. What I like is the methodology, which not only reminds me of Fogel and Engerman, but of the wonderful work by E.P. Thompson on the London corresponding societies in The Making of the English Working Class and with legal records in Whigs and Hunters.)
While the recent research of Edward Baptist has highlighted human collateral in transatlantic financial networks, it was ordinary southerners, not international bankers, who made the most of this fiscal strategy. …
Data from St. Landry Parish reinforce the activity pattern of the region’s creditors, the evidence that lenders were much more likely to be fellow residents that institutions. Credit flowed from neighbor to neighbor in overlapping local and regional webs of borrowing and lending. The data show that the parties to the contracts were individuals acting in a private capacity, not as agents for institutions. In a fifteen-year sample of St. Landry credit relations, banks appeared as parties to purchase moeny and equity mortgages in only 2 percent of the total transactions, and these mortages raised only slightly more than 5 percent of the total capital and accounted for only 10 percent of all the slaves used as collateral. There are similar results for merchants.
“[S]laves used as collateral.” Ponder that.
Mortages on slaves were part of the financial fabric across the South in the nineteenth century. Neighbors lending to neighbors kept the flow of credit from completely drying up during the panics of the nineteenth century. …
Today, we call that “resilience.”
The documentary record shows that community networks remained active throughout the crises of the Panics of 1819, 1837, and 1857, helping to fill voids left by bank closings and tighter lending restrictions. For example, while the Bank of State of South Carolina approved equity loans totaling just over $9 million during the fifteen year sampled in the nineteenth century, accepting 1,120 slaves as collateral, this represented only 9 percent of the slaves that appeared in the sampled South Carolina mortgages, and only 7 percent of the capital raised by loans secured by human property.”
“Loans secured by human property.” Martin sums up:
The data on local lending networks reveal that perhaps the most consistent credit that allowed the slave economy to grow efficiently and rapidly was the amalgamation of the tens of thousands of quiet transactions between neighbors like Armand Duplantier and Juan Bautista Massi. The continuities in these practices over time are striking. The boom-and-bust decade of the of the 1830s was transformative both for regional and national banking and for international finance. In contrast, local credit networks in the South functioned in highly consistent ways to use slaves to finance their own purchase and that of additional enslaved workers, land, and personal property….
Projections from the data support the conclusion that the capital raised using human collateral had a powerful impact on local, regional, and national economies.
There is still much to discover about slavery’s capitalism, yet all the chapters in this volume share an image of capitalistic sophistication that runs counter to the traditional assumptions about the economy of the South… Rather than putting North and South on a sliding scale that is preset to rank the North as a model of complex nineteenth-century capitalism and the South as an inferior replica, it may be more useful to think of northerners and southerners as performing various social and economic experiments in capitalism.
Comment: What I found more than a little disturbing in Martin’s account was that the challenged posed to localism and subsidiarity. From my experience with the economic debacle of the 2008 Crash, I’m used to thinking of “neighbor-to-neighbor,” local credit, and even State banks as unqualifiedly good things. Clearly, that’s just vacuous and due for a rethink. It’s entirely reasonable, for example, to posit local co-operatives bootstrapping themselves with human collateral (and for all I know, examples exist). Martin also reminds us that it’s important to focus on local financial flows, besides the sportier flows of international capital.
Toward a Political Economy of Slave Labor
Baptist’s essay is beautifully layered and complex (and full of irony and fellow feeling). I am going to focus on one theme: The site where profit is extracted from labor, that, the workplace, in this case the fields. As with Martin’s contracts, Baptist’s account books will be central. I’m going to pluck out the components of what today we would call workflow, starting with the field itself (pp. 32-51):
Pushing men like [Charles] Ball’s owner… deployed several innovative techniques of labor control to fill new fields with ever-greater quantities of cotton. One such technique was that of forcing fast workers like Ball’s captain, a man named Simon, to “carry the fore row” — to work at top speed, and thus set a pace that the others had to match. “By this means,” Ball decided, “the overseer had nothing to do but keep Simon hard at work, and we was certain that all the others must work equally hard. If not, their slowness would be visible in the line of workers.
“A good part of our rows are five hundred and fifty yards ong,” wrote one Tennessee cotton planter in the 1820s. Not only had he created a kind of space where he could easily identify stragglers, he could also use it a a stage on which to inflict immediate and exemplary punishment in front of a large audience.
So you can already see the incentives, which we will get to in more detail. Contrary to much conventional wisdom then and now, the plantation system was very efficient:
The amount of cotton enslaved people harvested increased dramatically over time. In 1801, 28 per day per picker was the average in the South Carolina labor camps…
…for which we have records. In 1846, the hands on a Mississippi labor camp averaged 341 pounds each on a good day, and in the next decades averages climbed higher still. A study of planter account books that recorded daily picking totals for individual enslaved peopeke on labor camps across the South finds a growth in daily picking averages of some 400% between 1800 and 1860, or a 2.1 percent growth in productivity each year.
But why? Baptist disposes of various explanations, including better strains of cotton, before returning to the workplace:
Any persuasive explanation for the rise in picking efficiency must take seriously something that the economists in question admit they never considered. Those who survived the incredible increase in labor efficiency knew that something well, however, and focus on it in the testimony they left for history. Using their testimony, I will explain why picking totals actually rose, and what that meant. …
A system of measurement, accounting, and torture was used to coerce enslaved people to pick large amounts of cotton. … [This incentive system was structured by whip, scale, and ledger—and not only by the existence of thousands of pages of cotton-picking records.
[A Natchez doctor describes it. in 1835, After dark, “The overseer meets all hands at the scales, with lamp, scales, and whip. Each basket is carefully weighed, and the nett weight of cotton set down on the slate, opposite the name of the picker.” “The countenance of an idler may be seen to fall,” for the penalty for failure to meet his or her quota was coming out of their back. Or, as travelers less friendly to the enslavers report hearing: “So many pounds short, cries the overseer, and takes up his whip, exclaiming ‘Step this way, you lazy scoundrel.’. …. ‘Short pounds, you bitch.'”
Once enslaved people learned how to meeet the quota consistently [picking cotton isn’t easy, as Baptist shows] the enslaver erased his chalk and wrote a higher quota on the slate for the next day.
The whip made cotton.
Comment: I’m sure this comparison has already occurred to others, but the comparison between the Nazi concentration camps and the Slave Power’s labor camps seems reasonably exact, at least if we’re looking for avatars of evil. However, I find it ever more disconcerting to understand that slavery was profitable, successful as a business. On the left, there seems to be a sort of teleology that holds that feudalism withered away, to be replaced by capitalism, and that slavery, under capitalism, failed to meet wage labor’s challenge, because slavery was less efficient. Clearly, the story is not so simple. Even more disconcertingly, if the triumph of capitalism as wage labor with the victory of the North was not “inevitable,” but contingent, that implies that slavery could rise again. Here, as a matter of methodology, I think that Bapist’s focus on the exact means by which profit is extracted is very important; in today’s rentier economy, we might find metaphorical whips not only in the workplace — Bapist mentions Amazon in a note — but in every transaction from which a rent can be sucked out (including complex societal and multi-decadal systems taking their cues from epigenetics. But that is a topic for another day). Speculate freely!
I should have a grand conclusion, but I do not. These books are both wonderful works of scholarship, and despite their horrific subject matter, they are a joy to read. I encourage readers to look further into the new wave of scholarship on slavery.
This article was on Medium this morning. It’s about the sex trafficking in the Dominican Republic that involves children. I hate the word trafficking. It’s slavery.
The Long Road Home
Slavery could rise again? It will be in a different form, but it will rise, certainly. Or at least is still here.
Here’s an interesting site to check out on that matter:
As the dominant form of labor in a world power’s political economy? Perhaps. I’m more concerned with that than the margins.
Incidentally, that site doesn’t load for me.
Already here. Prison labor. For one example. Undocumented Afro workers another.
“Hear the sound of the men/Workin’ on the chain gang…
Good point. That there was a prison strike against this (I briefly saw in my twitter feed). I have not heard about it anywhere else.
Try these sites for current conditions “at the margins.” Seems the “margin’ encloses the whole, if you look at it that way, and is a not insignificant part of the overall political economy of what its rulers think of as a world power, if they really think of it as anything more than the “ownership society” that is the launching pad for aspirations to control and possess everything — keeping in mind the reality of power and wealth as currently constituted, “interlocking oligarchies/kleptocracies” and all:
And that’s just Texas. Lots of other states, lots of other such “programs,” once again “All nice and legal…”
Sure. Proving my point. Is slavery the dominant mode of production in the United States today? No. Was it before the Civil War, in the Slave States? Yes.
Try it without the www? (my mistake)
The site is very “slippery” in trying to read it, and in it’s content. About 4-5 pages. Maybe when it adds more content it’s goal and methods will be clear.
I’ve been slowly working my way through the book, “Dirt, The Erosion of Civilzations” by David Montgomery. His chapter titled, “Westward Hoe” touches on the environmental impacts of agriculture in the USA from the colonial days, through the run up to the civil war. He points out that from the early days, it was easier to practice poor land management because land was so cheap and abundant as compared with europe which was so much more densely populated. This meant that techniques for good land stewardship were usually not followed because clearing new land was always cheaper and easier than doing things like crop rotation, cover crops, and spreading manure. These things were labor intensive and involved lower return on investment than clearing more virgin forest and raising another quick few years of cash crops like tobacco or cotton.
Montgomery doesn’t use the word ‘ponzi’ in describing plantation agriculture, but he probably should have. He points out that investing in slaves was expensive and required that they be engaged in the most high magin activities like cotton. No one could justify such an investment to do low value, land-care activities. Declining fertility and rapid erosion meant that new land was constantly required. He also makes the point about how these conditions meant that slavery had to constantly be expanding, or it would wither and die becuase of the declining productivity and erosion problems resulting from planation management.
If slavery was going to die out naturally, it wasn’t becuase wage labor worked so much better as a business model, it was because of environmental limitations.
I think this practice of poor land use in part led to the dust bowl of the depression era. After that, a certain amount of thought was put into better farming practices – which started out well but now gives us Big Ag and factory-farmed everything.
I think it’s misleading to say that better farming practices give us Big Ag, as a large part of what Big Ag has done involves turning away from the better farming practices introduced after the Dust Bowl. The land recovered enough that they could get going again, and they promptly disregarded what they should have learned and expanded destructive practices, so that much of that spectacular rich soil has been lost. Fifty years ago there were places it was said to be over six feet deep, maybe even some that still approached twenty, and now I hear it’s down to a few feet, or even inches. That was not accomplished by conservation.
Hmm. On the one hand, sharecroppers can be worn out and shucked without having to invest in their upkeep. On the other, workers as stock can then be financialized as collateral.
And a second on the new scholarship of slavery. The role of geology in making the conditions for slavery, and of Wall Street in pushing the financial bust of cotton over the edge, have been in recent articles which opened my understanding of history into new dimensions.
Ironically, Lincoln pioneered the innovation which would make chattel slavery obsolete: a progressive tax of 3% on annual incomes beyond $600 ($12,742 in 2009 dollars) and 5% on incomes above $10,000 ($212,369 in 2009 dollars) or those living outside the U.S., to terminate “in the year eighteen hundred and sixty-six.”
Unlike plantation slavery, whose productivity was doomed to decline as mechanization displaced agricultural labor, progressive taxation preys on the middle class — because “that’s where the money is.” Its diabolical brilliance is that it creams off purchasing power, while leaving its plundered victims responsible for feeding, clothing and sheltering themselves.
It’s no coincidence that Lincoln’s temporary income tax, as well as Woody Wilson’s permanent one, were wartime innovations. Income taxation is war finance. And it was in WW II that none other than Milton Friedman designed withholding tax, to pick workers’ pockets before they ever saw their full pay packet.
Mere slavery, in the form of a couple of weeks’ annual corvée workin’ on the roads, would be preferable to Lincoln’s monstrous system of universal financial slavery.
Monstrous. Simply monstrous. From the point of view of the Owners.
Any thoughts,from one who professes concern for “the middle class,” which is currently being disemboweled by the wealthy, on how the muppets and hobbits might have a prayer of limiting the accumulation of vast wealth that seems to be killing our and a lot of other species, and the habitability of the planet? I recall you find “death taxes” simply monstrous too…
Not that the Elite need would-be arrivistes to toot their horns and beat their drums for them. ALEC and K Street and Wall Street and The City have that in hand, way above your pay grade. What is it, maybe $14 trillion and likely a huge amount more of wealth, money and property, beyond the reach of increasingly feeble or suborned “taxing authorities?”
And if Lincoln’s “monstrous” tax was indeed what ended the more obvious manifestations of That Curious Institution, that was a bad thing just why, again?
Equating taxation to slavery is lazy, dishonest and insulting. I don’t get it, Jim. You seem articulate, well read and incisive – until it comes to economics – where you sound like a teenager who has just discovered mises.org.
For those interested in time travel to 1860, here is James Russell Lowell’s article “The Election in November,” from the October 1860 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly.
Thanks for the link to the Lowell article. He managed to anticipate the Clinton’s who came 130 years later:
The cheating mirage of the White House lures our public men away from present duties and obligations; and if matters go on as they have gone, we shall need a Committee of Congress to count the spoons in the public plate-closet, whenever a President goes out of office.
“that implies that slavery could rise again” – it never went away
“slavery was less efficient” – it is, unless your sense of efficiency is that of a nazi
“However, I find it ever more disconcerting to understand that slavery was profitable, successful as a business” – this depends solely on the politics of money (a wage laborer gives rise to a money outflow) and on capitalizing wage ‘cost’ in inventory (which is not straight forward in a service business)
“by bank closings and tighter lending restrictions”
Monetary policy has to work hand-in-glove with fiscal policy to be effective – http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=34295
The powerful are pleased we find interest rates boring http://evonomics.com/keeps-rich-powerful-night-theyre-happy-dont-know/
High-Rolling Central Banks https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2016-09-02/let-s-hope-high-rolling-central-banks-can-pay-up
Citadel’s Lean, Mean, Derivatives Machine https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2016-09-02/citadel-s-swaps-vision-is-too-bleak-for-wall-street
Most of these corporates have no reason to have foreign currency liabilities
Debt issuance by EM corporates turns negative https://www.ft.com/content/758b3886-6f57-11e6-a0c9-1365ce54b926
AEP: Dollar hegemony endures as share of global transactions keeps rising
the level of sabotage the US inflicts on itself and others is staggering
Nice post. Some edits-
Your italics at the beginning “Very subjectively…” are a little off.
“Slaveholding leaders” lower down has wrong bracket closing…
lower down typo,
leverls of executive power
you have a broken html thingy,
p>Pushing men like [Charles] Ball’s owner
as Bpatist shows
Have been reading the Master & Commander ( really Aubrey/Maturin) novels, and, at least as depicted in the books, the treatment of English navy sailors seems to be pretty much the same as the treatment of cotton picking slaves you describe above. Not sure what that means, if anything.
“Hands.” Aubrey didn’t believe in whipping. “There never was a ship that fought well without she was a happy ship.” With some level of irony, no doubt.
I’m reading “The Slave Ship: A Human History” at the moment, and one of the most surprising things so far is how much the ordinary sailors hated the slave trade. Many reasons, but the biggest one was that slave ships always under-hired so the crews were small and massively outnumbered by the slaves (20-to-1 or more), and if the slaves got loose during the voyage (which happened with some frequency) a losing crew would be slaughtered to a man. Even a winning crew could expect deaths and crippling injuries.
One of the results of all this is that the early British abolitionists got a lot of their information on the “real” slave trade by surreptitiously interviewing disgruntled sailors.
The detail I remember is that you could smell the stink of slave ships from many miles away.
Great detail on the disgrunted sailors!
The African end of the slave trade was run by Africans, who used it as a dumping ground for troublemakers, POWs, and people who came in second in political rivalries. Victims though they were a good many of the slaves were also tough and resourceful.
An excellent book by Sven Beckert – Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Here is an overview by the author that only focuses on the era around the Civil War. The book is an amazing analysis of how global trade was instigated and continues today all oriented around the cotton industry. One take-away that I found astonishing is that there are currently 325+ million people currently working in the cotton industry: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/empire-of-cotton/383660/
Here’s another review that covers the book more liberally: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/12/empire_of_cotton_a_global_history_by_sven_beckert_is_a_great_history_of.html
And now, cue the Bezzle theme music, it turns out that the vast majority of “Egyptian” cotton, that much preferred long-staple soft luxurious kind, well, isn’t.
“But the government regulates labeling! They can’t lie to us like that! I paid a lot for the real deal!”
(takes out magnifying glass, scans sheets)
Perhaps it is a seed variety. That would be like Icelandic wool, which is not from Iceland necessarily but from a breed of sheep that originated there.
I am “binge reading” White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.
The book gives short shrift to all the major events in US history, but digs deeply around each event to show how people in all different “classes” were affected or did their darndest to keep the class(es) below down while maintaining THEIR place within their current class if they were unable to Move Up in Class.
Isenberg points out that The Great Depression forced “Middle Class” America to realize that their grip on their class standing was tenuous (at best) and that “through no fault of my own, I am adrift and falling….fast”
Fast forward to 2009-16 and the Great Recession is doing the same thing as the Middle Class shrinks dramatically and “through no fault of my own” my Get-By Job at The Mill has gone to Malaysia and my Get-By to My Bye-Bye job is Tempin’/Fill-In/Part Time Giggin’ or WalMartin’
It is exciting to read the New Takes (and voluminous footnoted research) that current Historians are putting out there for us to look at Our Old World in A New Way……
I like White Trash a good deal, but as a work of scholarship it’s not in the same league with the work presented here. I kinda lost interest about two-third of the way through, I’m afraid, when it seemed to veer away into pop pyschology. Well worth a read though.
Hmm. Why would a plantation owner whip his less productive slaves? I understand the incentive factor, but the physical damage done would only further reduce their output on the following days.
No doubt this happened, but how common was the practice? Seems like a loser from a productivity standpoint.
“Pour encourager les autres.”
Not to mention plain old savagery and stupidity.
You could say the same about whipping a soldier or sailor, but it was a legal military punishment until the 1860s. I think EGrise is right.
British navy did several kinds or categories of physical violence to sailors. “Starting” was like slave whipping, using a cane or a short piece of heavy rope to beat a swabbie deemed not sufficiently brisk at his work, or just for fun by the many oppressive violent sadists attracted to or outed by a mantle of authority and impunity. Starting was part of the regular day to day operation of the vessel. Resistance was mutiny, with terrible consequences.
“Flogging” was the use of the infamous cat o’nine tails scourge on the naked back of a sailor designated with pretty complete autonomy by a captain, many of whom were ineffectual petty tyrants. Could be deadly, not just from bleeding and shock but subsequent infection.
Lots of intentionally deadly violence against seamen too– hanging, keel-hauling.
Man’s all too humanity to man…
Sounds like it was just a cost of doing business.
The practice was quite common, in fact universal, as slave owners shared advanced methods of torture and it had a name – the “push” system of extracting more output. The overseer pushed the lead slaves and the others had to keep up.
Why would a plantation owner torture (and that’s the right word, not “whip”, according to Baptist) his enslaved people? It wasn’t that he didn’t care about their lives, or thought they were replaceable. They were expensive assets and couldn’t be replaced cheaply. But they were less than human, in the master’s eyes, and torture, applied in just the right amounts, as a spectacle, for all the enslaved people to see, produced wondrous results. The ledgers proved that year after year output did indeed increase and at the outset of the Civil War was at an all time high.
It’s well past time that America, and America’s whites, came to an understanding that “their” country is build on the savage torture of enslaved Africans and the brutal extermination of indigenous peoples. American exceptionalism indeed! It is truly mind numbing that white Americans can’t even imagine a need for reparations to African Americans, let alone a simple apology and recognition of the horrors perpetrated in the past that continued through Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow.
As H. Rap Brown, the 1960s, put it so eloquestly, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
Is the Baptist essay from his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism?
Karp brings out one point about antebellum Southern politics which I found pretty surprising and that was the pro-navalist thinking common in the 1840s and 50s. A bigger navy, unlike a large standing army, would be no threat to state sovereignty and could facilitate the acquisition (conquest) of more territories favorable to slavery (Cuba, Central America). It’s as if people like Abel Upshur, Matthew Fontaine Maury and Stephen R. Mallory were anticipating the imperialists of the 1890s, though with somewhat differing motives.
The Congress was obsessed with naval matters during the early 19th Century.
The Barbary pirates were just gutting our commerce.
Fantasies of oceanic conquests came along pretty late in the game.
I’ve often thought there must have been something quite specific about the American South and the Caribbean which made slavery so profitable. When you look through history its striking how marginal slavery seems to have been to economies. Within agrarian societies, slaves seem to have been kept because it seemed just less wasteful than killing enemies, there is no evidence I’m aware of that early societies showed productivity benefits not shared by non-slave owning cultures. In particular, slavery seemed to die out pretty much naturally in South and Central America in the 19th Century. Even in ancient Rome, I’ve always suspected slavery was more a way of focusing wealth on Rome itself by creating the labour force to keep the core economy from overheating and monetising (making liquid) the spoils of conquering nations with lots of people but no gold (it seems that when the conquered nation had gold, the Romans took that and didn’t bother much with slaves). It seems that most of the great monuments of Rome were build using paid labour, not slaves, which indicates there wasn’t a great cost advantage to owning slaves over and above hiring freemen. Similarly with the great monuments of Egypt or Khymer or China, so far as we know. We know from Roman history that the key advantage of slaves was that they were deemed more trustworthy, as a Master could do what he wanted without recourse to law, hence they were better as domestic servants or accountants.
I suspect the obvious answer is the specific economics of cotton and sugar in a climate which tended to kill off immigrants from Europe at a high rate.
I think you’re right about slavery needing unique conditions. Per my comment above, it seems to require loads of cheap land, and high prices for cash crops that require lots of labor in a place where there isn’t a lot of cheap labor available. Large scale intensive monoculture wipes out the soil after a period of time. Better techniques to make it more sustainable don’t match up with unskilled labor.
These days, in most of the developing world, labor is cheap enough that landowners don’t need to ‘buy’ humans when renting them seasonally is so cheap.
Plus, there’s not really a lot of cheap, good quality farmland available around the world that can be quickly mined for cash.
Charles C. Mann (could have been someone else but I read it from him) put forth the theory that malaria had some influence over plantation owners utilizing bond servitude from Africans over Europeans going back to the 17th century. A compelling theory but difficult to prove. Another thing to remember is the difficulty presented to a plantation owner attempting to enslave people from a similar culture who speak a similar dialect or the same language. There were numerous examples of indentured servants in the Virginia colony raising protest over their treatment in the colonies at the hands of fellow Christians (a serious impediment for enslavement at the time). This came through letters to their families in the home country, appeals to judges, governors, etc. There were no such issues with African slaves who were often captured in raids or wars, sold through multiple intermediaries, then purchased thousands of miles from their homes by people from an alien culture, religion, and tongue.
Despite all this there was solidarity between Europeans bond laborers and African bond laborers (through revolts and rebellions) all the way up to the point when the planters and colony governors came up with the idea of “whiteness”. That is when everything went to hell. Theodore Allen’s books “The Invention of the White Race” are a good read on this issue.
Alfred Crosby discusses the origins of the plantation slave system in his masterpiece, “Ecological Imperialism.” It began in the 14th Century when the Spanish wiped out the native population of the Canary Islands. The built large sugar plantation and manned with them with slaves imported from Africa. The book is beautifully written and 40 years later is worth a read.
During the decline of the Roman Empire, taxes became ruinous.
Since slaves could not be legally taxed, it actually became common for free men to adopt slave status as a tax dodge. (!)
Some of the emperors had insane economic policies.
They went far towards shortening the time at the top.
No-one had the wit to merely copy Augustus.
A wonderful counterpoint to this post is an interview just released on The Real News Network with the erudite and inspiring former Black panther Eddie Conway (44 years a political prisoner till his release just over a year ago) interviewing Asatar Bair about who owns prison labor. It’s a thoughtful analysis from Bair’s Marxist economic perspective, including his thoughts about what changes would most benefit the current US prison system. Bair estimates that 36% of the current prison population or about 750,000 people meet the criteria for slavery, defining the term from Marxist principles. Labor unions were one of the factors that gradually reduced the percentage of inmate slavery from 100% to to what it is today.
This discussion of prison labor from a different perspective is a great addition to Labor Day.
That 750K figure is a magic number. Cost of “freeing the slaves” = 750K dead Americans. Would it have been cheaper to just purchase and then free every slave? But America was still a relatively young nation and unable to wage war abroad. So why not grind up it’s own citizens?
The value of slaves was about 50% of total property value of the South. This was about 70% of GDP for the entire US. In today’s dollars it would be tens of trillions of dollars. Politically war is easier to do than convince the population to up front fork over that much money.
The last country to make slavery illegal was Brazil in 1888. It would have died a natural death in the US as well with a few decades if the Civil War had not been fought. Makes you wonder if the Civil War was really a good idea but then, if it hadn’t been fought, the US wouldn’t exist. Instead the US would be at least 2 nations if not more. The Civil War tells us a lot about the uncompromising nature of our leadership and their lack of vision then and now.
It cost in dollars, not spirit which is inestimable, over $500,000 to kill each “gook” in the Vietnam enterprise. And that assumes the body count totted up by the lying Brass.
But the Racket grinds on, one face of the overal Bezzle…
Brazil wasn’t the last to outlaw slavery. Several countries didn’t get around to outlawing it for nearly a century, and it might still be legal in a few places:
For activism, see:
Ok, thanks, you are right. Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery in the western world-at least according to wiki:
I am curious what were the drivers for slavery in those Muslim countries. I suspect they weren’t economic as in much of the 19th century western world.
If you find something out, let us know. Without contrary evidence, I have to believe that the root cause of slavery is almost always primarily economic, even in societies where they don’t use money as we understand it.
The drive for slaves comes straight out of the Koran, the Hadiths and the Sira.
Yes, it’s part of Islamic dogma — right along with FGM.
A Big Man in Islamic societies is expected to have slaves.
BTW, Saudi Arabia bases all law on Shariah. So, de facto slavery is still common there. Some of the tales that have leaked out are horrifying.
The abusers never get more than a slap on the wrist.
Did you read the post? Baptist explictly argues against slavery “dying a natural death.” In fact, slavery was immensely profitable until the Slave Power fought its losing war. If you want to make that claim, which is also a “Lost Cause” talking point, then back it up with some evidence.
The war wasn’t fought to “free the slaves”. It was fought by two armed gangs of white settlers over who would control all that land stolen from the Mexicans and “Injuns”. And who would own the railroads going into all that land.
There is no evidence that slavery would have died a “natural” death. In fact, the opposite was true. The Southern slave owners wanted Cuba, and they wanted it cut in three states, which would give them majorities in both houses. This was an incredibly efficient and profitable form of capitalism. By the time the English had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, Virginia became the breeding ground for the 3 million slaves who met the expansionary needs of the slave owning class. And expand they did. And who knows where they would have stopped. CA? Brazil?
And don’t forget, as Beckert points out in some essay, that the Civil War focused the European powers as well as Japan on colonial expansion, so that they could have dedicated sources of cotton not subject to the political vagaries of the United States. They saw it as a political necessity, as they couldn’t have the major industry of their cities run out of raw materials without fear of Revolution. In some sense, this competition for colonies set the stage for WW1 and WW2, as well as the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
Besides the 750,000 lives lost in the US, the British insistence on monocropping cotton eventually cost 29 million lives lost to starvation in India in the 1870s and 1890s, according to Beckert. Would the British have done this anyway, without having experienced the cotton famine of 1861-65? Who knows?
Thank you for posting this. This subject has been of interest to me for some years now. I will have to check out Karp’s book. In the years since the end of the American Civil War a great deal of myth has clouded just how integral slavery was to not just the US economy but the global economy for hundreds of years. The discontinued use of slave labor had catastrophic effects on southern US agriculture, southern US finance, NY City and London merchants, the English cotton mills (the south never really recovered), etc. Baptist’s book began to dismantle the theory among economists that slave labor was inefficient and its demise was inevitable. Those are dangerous and unfounded truisms in a world where our caution is demanded WRT labor’s relation to its employers. Slavery can (or will) come back in some similar form if we do not take its potential utility to capitalists seriously.
From the 1850 and 1860 census, the work camps of the largest slaveholder in North Carolina had a standard complement of an overseer, a couple of blacksmiths, and several waggoners. For 900 slaves, Mr. Cameron had seven camps.
One of the realities of the South in the 1830s through the Civil War was the importance of the domestic slave trade to the profits of the Southeastern seaboard planters of Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Productivity of the land was diminishing from overuse and overextension. The situation became one of breeding human beings for sale. No doubt there were records connected with the sale and transport of slave caravans from the Southeast to the Mississippi Valley, Texas, and Arizona.
I am glad that historians like these are putting out books that correct the record of many pre-1960s Southern historians who were essentially mythologists for the “Lost Civilization”. I’m looking forward to more solid works on Reconstruction as we are in the sesquicentennial of that revolutionary period.
Thanks for this review. Looking forward to reading these.
There is meaning to life beyond economics, but money matters. I agree that this is a revolutionary election like 1860 except Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln. Only by lifting the curtain do you see that this election (like Brexit) is really about nationalism verses globalism. The trade deals and powerful supranational institutions are required to expand multinational corporate trade but at the expense of sovereign states’ laws and regulations and democracy. This is similar to the need of Atlantic Slavery for new virgin soil to prosper.
If you cannot earn enough to pay off your debts, you are a slave. Today in the West, not whipped or chained outside of the justice system. But, blamed and addicted into servitude.
Wage slavery replaced chattel slavery a quick. Whites were willing for the crumbs thrown to them as racists.
Work as honorable was in every trade made into failure giving no one rest.
Ah but there was the tube fireplace burning in the homes of blue light and phones used for everything but a phone call.
When farming as small farmers was competing with slave labor on the plantations, the small Southern farmers were essentially using themselves and their own families as slave labor without getting much capital accumulation because of the way slave-produced supply allowed plantation owners to sell at relatively lower prices in poor price years. Moreover bankruptcy laws were more beneficial to slaveowners than to small farmers because the networks of credit were personal relationships and slaves provided the salable asset of first resort.
Whites who did not own slaves were used to wage slavery incomes; in fact, the attraction of factory jobs was that wage slavery incomes in factories seemed more promising than the risk of farming marginal land.
The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash in 1941 made an interesting statement about the freeman’s wages in the south could not rise above the cost to replace him with a slave. It seems today technology is limiting wages of workers the same as slavery did before.
Also the dwelling on the plantation economy in the south is comparable to Wall Street finances reverberating and plowing under other economic engines of the economy for its own benefit. Plantations and slavery was important but to not have a fully rounded analysis of economic activity and the population not engaged in it is to miss most of the population, poor as they might have been.
What is missing about the South and in fact for the whole country is a history and past and present economic tabulation of the First Families that came to America and the same for the first families in the individual states. I know in South Carolina through the 1980s if you looked at a politician, judge, or others in political positions past you would find a history of family relations to the first families that settled in South Carolina and founded plantations.
I believe those in power established the myths and mistaken beliefs of the population in the past to keep themselves in control and to enhance their wealth.
In the past influentials held political office themselves. Today their gladiators, call them slaves, are financed and controlled at least at the state level by these same individuals who would have been in the public light themselves in the past. I believe they know how awful the policies their “slaves” have put forward at their directions are and thus afraid of the future if they are recognized as directing the policies.
Thank you for pointing out the connection of past ruling families and present elites. Time “telescopes” in and through itself, it is not the linear thing we think it is. The present is our point of impact–allowing us to reach all of it.
Wouldn’t get too carried away with the “revolutionary” Lincoln Republicans. Socially, the Civil War was the apotheosis and Gotterdammrung of the American Agrarian, as settler farmers with rifles slaughtered one another by the hundreds of thousands over who would develop all that “free land” stolen from Mexicans and Native Americans. The war drove a deep and lasting wedge into that Agrarian North and South, easing the way forward for Capital from then on. Otherwise the constitutional system reemerged virtually unchanged, with the Amendments merely extending to Blacks rights long enjoyed by Whites, and Southern rights were fully restored (“redeemed”) after 1876, whereupon the Amendments were rendered a dead letter. Except for corporations.
The only revolutions were enacted by Blacks and native Americans. The sight of Whitey-on-Whitey slaughter was truly The Day of Jubilee for both peoples. Blacks began to abandon the plantations as soon as Grant’s army arrived in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the main cotton slave labor pit, forcing Lincoln’s hand in the Emancipation Proclamation. Native tribes, meanwhile, were able to roll back the devil settler’s frontier for quite a distance in Texas.
The antebellum imperialist slaver angle is the best point. Even more interesting would be the role of the redeemer South in the New Imperialism from the 1890’s on, up to and including that wannabe Yankee, Woodrow Wilson. Saint Woodrow, the patron of every Klintonoid warmonger.
[…an actual labour dialogue on labour day – who’d of thunk it…]
Excellent references and much grist for the mill. I quite like long book quotes and germane statements about them … both from yourself in-text and other’s comments therefrom.
I was wondering, however, when you use the term ‘margin’ that ‘marginal’ might be a better ? Or am I not understanding (my normal state of affairs)?
For, if marginal was a ‘better’ fit, then incremental concepts around, but barring actual slavery itself, could also apply. For example, as capital entitities compete with each other to make labour more “efficient” so as to increase any single capital position relative to each other, then ramping-up daily production targets, willy nilly, becomes its own raison d’etre in either non-paid or paid slavery. As, indeed, does the “self service” aspect (that is a feature of modern life) becomes a freebe for the employer of capital. The employee becomes, just like the slave, objects – cogs in the wheel and nothing else. Dehumanised dimensionality.
Like automation, slavery replaces free labor with capital. So to regard it as some sort of antithesis of capitalism is a big mistake. Under the manor system in Medieval Europe serfs were tied to the land. Combined with feudalism, where land tenure was always a personal relationship, and not for sale fee simple, this meant that labor in the feudal age was profoundly non-mobile. In the American system of slavery OTOH, labor was quite mobile, but that mobility was controlled by capital flows, not by the choices of the laborers. Being sold “down the river” was a constant threat for slaves being held in states that were too far North for cotton growing.
A classic of the “genre”:
Capitalism and Slavery ~Eric Williams
Cotton is married to slavery.
It’s a plant that no-one wants to pick; but whose pickings everyone wants.
It’s an outstanding trade good — as it does not spoil — while it’s so demanding (water & soil) that most lands can’t grow it properly.
The systemic abuse of the under class to grow and pick cotton long predates the capitalist era. (Sparta, et. al.)
The slave exploiting class of the Antebellum South thought of themselves as ‘better’ not capitalist. IIRC, Marx coined capitalism circa 1848.
So the pairing ought to be racism and slavery.
Their operations are more akin to a criminal enterprise than free trade. Lucky for them that they owned the courts, the ultimate in organized criminals.
Up north, their same antics would’ve landed them in prison.
That’s bogus. If they act like capitalists, they’re capitalists. Look at the account books, the scales, and the whip, and how they were used to increase exploitation.
Since you’re a veteran of books on slavery, you might know. Are there any who treat the modern US economic sectors based on illegal immigrants as slave-based economies?
Martin Wolfe from the FT seems to be getting pretty despondent and he goes to the Bilderberg meetings.
This thing is dying.
Globalisation was always based on a flawed belief set and those flaws have become more and more apparent over time.
When you roll out one set of ideas across the world you need to be pretty sure they work, and they didn’t.
Back in 2006, I saw this BBC documentary that goes into today’s ideas and it was a real eye opener:
Ideas were rising up in various different fields that all seemed to tie together and offer a new way of organising society, ideas based on individualism, free markets and capitalism, producing a stable society that would best reflect the wants of all the individuals involved.
The overall set of ideas contained no mal-intent.
George Orwell, talked of “doublethink” and Greek philosophers noted how people held totally contradictory belief sets.
Today is no different and is as prevalent in those at the top of society as it is at the bottom.
In the UK, the majority at the top of society hold these contradictory beliefs.
1) I believe in capitalism because fair competition means the best and most efficient succeed.
2) I send my children to private schools because I want my own children at the top and not the best.
It is not hard to see how capitalism naturally descends into crony capitalism.
When the top politicians, businessmen and bankers are all drawn from the same small pool, keeping crony capitalism at bay is going to be almost impossible.
In the US they have private schools and universities and everyone at the top is drawn from the same small pool of Ivy League University graduates.
Other nations have their own ways of maintaining entrenched elites, which in the case of many Southern European, South American and African nations means entrenched and corrupt elites.
The idea was that individual competition and raw capitalism would deliver the best outcome for all.
It ignored the natural human capacity for “doublethink” and its natural tendency towards crony capitalism.
This was later to manifest itself in its most obvious and patently most ridiculous form.
“Unconditional bailouts for bankers and austerity for the people”
“Doublethink” leaving the elite blind to the problem.
Economically, it was based on raw capitalism and neoclassical economics.
They had forgotten that neoclassical economics was put together as a way of hiding the findings of classical economics. In developing it into a supreme mathematical way to solve all economic problems, they had forgotten that its foundations were flawed.
Many problems we see today were known by the Classical Economists of the 18th and 19th Centuries.
In taking no responsibility for 1929, neoclassical economics was never developed to deal with its problems that were investigated by Irving Fisher. He looked at the debt inflated asset bubble after the 1929 crash when ideas that markets reached stable equilibriums were beyond a joke.
Fisher developed a theory of economic crises called debt-deflation, which attributed the crises to the bursting of a credit bubble. This omission led directly to 2008 and the unanimous mainstream reaction of “How did that happen?”
Hyman Minsky followed the work of Irving Fisher and came up with “financial instability hypothesis” in 1974, Steve Keen carries on with this work today. Steve Keen saw the private debt bubble inflating in 2005.
This desire not to take responsibility and place the blame elsewhere ensures little is learned from mistakes. Who better than the IMF and World Bank to demonstrate that, they have been laying nations low for 50 years with Greece as their latest victim.
They also had forgotten that small state, raw capitalism was how it all started and they only had to go back to the 19th Century UK to see what it looked like.
1) Those at the top were very wealthy
2) Those lower down lived in grinding poverty, paid just enough to keep them alive to work with as little time off as possible.
4) Child Labour
Immense wealth at the top with nothing trickling down, just like today.
This is what Capitalism maximized for profit looks like.
Labour costs are reduced to the absolute minimum to maximise profit.
The beginnings of regulation to deal with the wealthy UK businessman seeking to maximise profit, the abolition of slavery and child labour.
The majority got a larger slice of the pie through organised Labour movements, raw capitalism gives nothing freely to those at the bottom when left to its own devices.
It now seems obvious this is exactly where current ideas are taking us.
Slavery and child labour are now illegal, but multi-national corporations search the world for conditions as close as possible to this ideal.
Global corporations are still frequently caught using child labour and pure slavery seems to be the only real taboo for them.
Back to the drawing board.
I enjoyed this thread by Lambert; it resonates with my ongoing study of all aspects of history; especially U.S. history; it ain’t what you were taught in U.S. schools; even to this day.
Except for a brief period following WWII; wage slavery has existed in the states to the present. And since the 2008 crash, a case can be made it’s back with a vengeance (although Reagan expedited that by busting the unions back in the day).
Neo-serfdom has largely supplanted what has been erroneously termed a free market labor force.
Once one separates from the necessity of being part of wage labor, a whole new world opens up; reality strikes home and hard.
Marx’s insights about the the role of slaveholders in American politics are well in accord with Karp’s :
[In]foreign, as in the domestic, policy of the United States, the interests of the slaveholders served as the guiding star.’ Specifically, efforts to acquire Cuba,‘unceasing piratical expeditions of the filibusters against the states of Central America’, and the conquest of Northern Mexico were all done for the ‘manifest purpose . . . [of ] conquest of new territory for the spread of slavery and of the slaveholders’ rule.’
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1975–2004 Collected Works vol 19
Quoted in August H. Nimtz (2011) Marx and Engels on the US Civil War:The ‘Materialist Conception of History’ in Action