Money  /  Book Review

Slavery, Capitalism, and the Politics of Abolition

"The Reckoning," Robin Blackburn’s monumental history, offers a dizzying account of the politics behind slavery's rise and fall.

Among the achievements of The Reckoning is adding clarity to the long debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Space does not permit a full recounting of these discussions; it is enough to say that Blackburn comes out against interpretations that see nineteenth-century slavery as necessary for, prior to, or generative of the mechanisms specific to capitalist growth in the US North and Britain/Europe.

In previous work he has endorsed a qualified version of the thesis, posited by the historian and politician Eric Williams, that England’s eighteenth-century capitalist rise made possible by the “super-exploitation” of slaves in the Americas. But in the Reckoning, Blackburn asks readers to

turn the Williams thesis on its head, and ask how the rise of capitalism in Europe generated a more thoroughgoing slavery in the New World, one that required . . . the fungible structures of an enterprise dependent on world markets. . . . [I]n the construction of the Second Slavery the planters’ main motive was to make money . . .

The credit markets so key to the Second Slavery had to preexist it in order to be used; the same was true of the industrial demand that provided a home for the goods made on plantations. In other words, the free-labor capitalism of the metropole was not dependent on the Second Slavery, so much as the Second Slavery was dependent on free-labor capitalism.

Slaveholders had a two-sided relationship with the market. Ever-increasing plantation collateral value was only useful so long as the credit bubble didn’t burst (which it did, in cyclical periods of capitalist crisis); even if slave labor was profitable, money invested in it was money not invested in advanced technology, creating a Southern economy that was both incredibly profitable and underdeveloped.

Yet planters’ comparable lack of (non-slave) fixed capital — physical assets like machines and buildings — did not make them any less capitalist. Capitalism is not distinguished by any specific level of technological development so much as by the organization of production around maximized profit, and if this could be achieved by the superexploitation of human beings rather than investment in farming machinery, then so be it. Cotton, sugar, and coffee harvesting were, Blackburn tells us, hard to mechanize, requiring “great precision and intricate hand-eye coordination.” The “mass of field workers had aptitudes which the new machines could not mimic.” Mechanization was “selective,” mostly confined to processing raw cotton, coffee beans, and sugar cane so that more slave labor could be simultaneously allocated to the field.

This dependency on slave labor, paired with plantations’ geographic expansion and the slowing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, produced some of the worst cruelties of the slave system. In the United States, the Upper South developed into a center for slave “breeding.” There, violently separated family members were sold to the cotton lords further south. A similar dynamic arose in Brazil; the stagnation of the sugar economy of the North led planters to begin selling slaves to coffee planters in the South. US plantations distinguished themselves in cultivating self-reproducing slave populations (families were a cheaper proposition than constant new purchases), while overwork-to-the-death of newly imported Africans, especially on sugar plantations, was more common among US planters’ Latin counterparts.