Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Slavery, Capitalism, and 21st Century Politics

Over the past few decades there has been a raft of books emphasizing the connection between slavery and the origins of capitalism. Capitalism in this sense doesn't mean trade or business, but the modern apparatus of capital markets, insurance pools, and joint-stock companies that allows both the rapid mobilization of wealth for investment and the spreading of risk across a large group of investors who may never even have met. Modern capitalism developed in northwestern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its beginnings were very much bound up with international trade, especially trade with Asia and the Americas. Many of the first joint-stock companies were trading ventures, such as the Dutch and English East India companies. From 1495 on one of the most important products in the Atlantic trade was African slaves. Those slaves went to plantations where they grew crops for export back to Europe: tobacco, sugar, cotton. These crops became big parts of the world economy, and the first modern commodity exchanges were set up to trade them.

The argument made in books like The Half has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, and Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert, is that capitalism and slavery were inextricably linked; that the wealth of the trading states was extracted from the labor of African slaves, not the genius of European businessmen. The point is made again and again that capitalism was not in any way opposed to slavery, or in any meaningful sense based on a model of free labor. Capitalists were simply out to make as much money as possible, and cared not a whit who suffered as a consequence.

As an argument about the past, this view has much to recommend it. The vast expansion of slavery in the Americas was part of a crazed rush toward riches, a sort of mania that took over thousands of Europeans in those days. Reading a book like Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, or Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons, you are overwhelmed by the vicious greed of many leading colonists. They were determined to get rich or die trying, and if that meant ethnic cleansing of Indians, abuse of indentured servants, or the systematic persecution of slaves, they would do so happily. The cutting edge of European expansion was often cruelty.

But, really, these books are not about the past, and this is where I start to wonder. I have no quarrel with the assertion that 18th-century capitalism was much bound up with slavery and plantation agriculture. I am at a loss to say why this matters very much in the 21st century. There are boosterish champions of capitalism who like to claim that it is always a force for freedom, and they are wrong. But neither is it true that capitalism is always a force for oppression. Much of the energy and money for the abolition movements in both Britain and the United States came from business interests, including many businessmen involved in textiles and therefore dependent on cotton grown by slaves. Nor was all of early capitalism involved in slavery; slaves had little role in the spice trade with the Indies, for example. It is simply not possible to equate capitalism with slavery.

I suppose there are many people who like to think about capitalism in moral terms, and who want to believe that it is either good or bad in some fundamental way. I see it differently. To me capitalism is a neutral technology, no more good or bad than a knife or a railroad locomotive. For some purposes it works very well; a recent example was the transformation of the internet in just a few years from an obscure communications channel into a whole online world, funded by billions raised on Wall Street. For other purposes, e.g., providing poor people with clean water, it works terribly. C'est la vie. When properly regulated and supported by government insurance schemes and so on, it seems to make more people better off than any other system.

Does it matter that the first great modern commodity market was for cotton raised by slaves? Or that much of the profit that enriched 18th-century Europe came from plantations worked by slaves, on land stolen from Indians? I have a sense that these books will persuade nobody who does not already agree with them; the Scott Walkers and David Kochs of the world will just roll their eyes and say, "There they go again."

But maybe I am being too flip. Perhaps in the long run the only way to persuade Americas that capitalism must be controlled is to equate it in people's minds with slavery, satanic mills, violent strikebreaking, coups in Central America engineered by American companies, and so on. There does seem to be a strand of thought in America that goes Business = Good, Government = Bad. But if someone is already so divorced from reality as to believe such things, can he be moved by any sort of argument?

I like my history to be about the past. Of course I draw lessons from it, but the main lesson I almost always end up with is things are complicated. Books that make capitalism out to be an unmitigated evil simply irritate me, and I usually put them down.


Thomas said...

A bit off topic, but...

I recently read a young adult book about maritime trade in the late 18th and early 19th century, and I was struck by how risky that business was. Not just the risk of losing the ship. Ships headed out with only the vaguest plans for where they would do business, and they had no concrete idea if the goods they were sailing with would sell where they were going, or if they could buy the items they wanted there. There wasn't a plan. They didn't get an order for goods and sail to fulfill orders.

Sailors got a share of the profits, and often sold parts of those shares to their neighbors before sailing off, as a way of hedging their risk, because they could come back (if they came back at all) with nothing after potentially years at sea.

A little more on-topic:

Capitalism has almost always sought ways to get unwilling contributors to production. Pollution is a simple example - when a business pollutes, it is passing the cost of production to people who have no possibility of gain. If a business can save $1,000,000 by doing $1,000,000,000 damage to a community, and there is no risk of punishment, only morality and proximity will stop the business from doing this.

The moral contortions of the support for slavery were entirely a way to insist that slavery was not only moral, but God's plan, and the racial side meant that they were not at risk (proximity) - the evil of slavery was never going to subjugate them.

Aaron said...

I think that capitalism is inherently interested in exploitation of some kind. It's always about maximizing "something for nothing".

It really doesn't work very well unless there is some kind of externality that you can take advantage of - whether it's unpaid labor, usurious interest, or a lack of willingness to look at the actual costs of carbon emissions. It's still just a great way of redistributing wealth through some kind of extractive process.

If you look at it from the perspective of the capitalist, there continue to be great innovations in the 21st century in terms of reducing risk and spreading wealth around, but if you're able to look at it on a bigger scale, it's always exploitative of someone.

That said, having a ton of money can certainly be a good thing if you're interested in financing good causes. So we capitalists aren't always bad people. But abolition might have been better funded by paying black people and letting them choose where to put their hard-earned cash instead of taking their labor and then financing the groups that fight to set them free.