The Slavery / Capitalism Debate Global. From “Capitalism and Slavery” to Slavery as Capitalism
Vol. 30 No. 5/6 (2020)
Slavery accompanied, even promoted, capitalism from its birth and continued alongside it until the last decades of the 19th century. It remains for us to examine how capitalism and slavery are related. In the historical analysis we have to ask ourselves at every step what kind of slavery we are dealing with and place it within the set of coercive labour modalities that existed in a certain period of history. We have to ask ourselves what kind of capitalism we are dealing with, because capitalism is also subject to evolution. Considering slavery as a labour system, we will analyse the way in which it is linked to capital and (in a later period, as a “second slavery”) slavery is linked to capitalism. Capitalism sometimes created, sometimes subsumed, but always encouraged non-free, non-voluntary forms of work. But, the slavery, conceived as a unique form of coercive labour, has special characteristics within the framework of the hegemony of capital.
This paper evaluates the standing of Eric Williams, author of the classic work on capitalism and slavery 75 years ago, in the light of new scholarship, notably by historians writing as part of the New History of Capitalism movement. It emphasises how one part of Williams’ argument is especially persuasive, that in the period between 1688 and 1763 all sections of British society supported the planter interest in the Americas and thus slavery without reservation. The Seven Years’ War marked, in retrospect, the peak of planter power within the British Empire. The American Revolution, by contrast, formed, as Williams suggested, a crisis in plantation societies but more so, at least economically, for the American South than for the British Caribbean.
Capital is a form of “abstract wealth” (Marx), socially and historically specific to modern society and based on undifferentiated combustion of human energy: “abstract labour”. The historical constitution of capitalism is the worldwide process of constituting that nexus between abstract wealth and abstract labour, effectively reducing human beings to mere carriers of bodily energy to be mobilized for the valorization of value. In this article, starting from a theoretical reflection on the historicity of three of the main categories of Marx’s critique of political economy – value, labour, and abstract labour – I intend to (i) provide a general interpretation of the historical process of constitution of capitalism between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, as the transition from a newly created world system of monetary-wealth circulation to a world system of abstract labour; (ii) reflect on the role of slavery in this process and its relationship with the constitution of the specifically modern categories of labour and labour power; and (iii) show that, despite its past and common elements, it is the essential differences between the slave commodity and the labour power commodity through the self-ownership category that will ultimately become decisive for modern struggles for social recognition and the historical constitution of capitalism itself.
This chapter examines the relation of capitalism and slavery by reinterpreting the role of slavery in the formation of the capitalist world-economy beginning in the sixteenth century. By distinguishing between Marx’s theory of capital and the history of capitalist development, it construes historical capitalism as a global system embracing multiple forms of social labour. Atlantic slavery, it argues, is a specific form of commodity production that is integral to historical capitalism from its inception. The article proceeds to explore the specific role of Atlantic slavery in the original accumulation of capital, that is, the formation of the system. Surplus production and appropriation were based on slave rent, that is on ownership of the slave as property, not on ownership of the land. This relation created a very mobile and dynamic form of labour organization that was suited to the open commodity frontiers of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic. The expansion of slave labour in the south Atlantic played a fundamental role in creating the world division of labour and world market of the sixteenth century.
Early modern globalization was accompanied with a simultaneous expansion of systems of coerced labour exploitation across the globe. This article seeks to deepen our understanding of the impact of early globalization by using a comparative approach to examine the effects of the increasing global demand for (coerced) labour on systems of bondage and slavery, especially in West Africa and South Asia. We argue that the developing systems of globalized trade during the early modern era had a transformative impact on many local forms of slavery and bondage in Africa and Asia by connecting them to global demands for closed, commodified (or ‘chattel’) slavery. We conclude that that local systems of slavery and bondage and global systems of commodified slavery were not separate and unconnected, but co-existed and interacted at three levels: that of state formation and expansion; the adaption of socio-political systems to increase slave exports in response to the demands of a globalized labour market; and the modification of local systems of slave and bonded labour. This underlines the need for new global-comparative approaches to deepen our understanding of the coercive roots of global capitalism and the long-term transformations of slavery.
This article looks for the initial configuration of indentured labour in the final stages of the Spanish Empire in the Gulf of Guinea to try to give, from this peculiar historical trajectory, a new spin on the concept of transition, or rather transformation, from slavery to post-slavery forms of unfree labour. The first labour contract in the Spanish colonial island of Fernando Pó, sitting off the coast of Nigeria and Cameroon, was brought over in the 1860s from Cuba, which combined both coolie indentures and emancipado (apprenticeships for slaves freed from slave ships) arrangements. I outline some of the emergent effects of this new colonial contract, such as the appearance of a new generation of labour recruiters by describing and examining the techniques used to try to attract and keep West African Kru workers on the island. By closely connecting Fernando Pó to the process of abolition of slavery in Cuba and to labour recruitment along the West African coast, I show how the founding and the effects of the contract can be tracked back to the partial fragmentation and mutation of slavery. I provide a conceptual outline in the conclusion in relation to a critical discussion of the metaphors of the “slavery of wage labour” and the sometimes just implicitly lingering premises of the concept of imperfect and inhibited transitions still underpinning much of the global labour history and the new histories of capitalism literature.
The Dutch Republic and its successor state the Kingdom of the Netherlands were deeply involved
in slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean world. Its most intense involvement roughly coincides with the period in which this small country played an outsized role in the development of the ligaments of global capitalism – coupling domestic capital accumulation with a prime role in world trade, international finance, commercial warfare and the spread of new forms of calculative reasoning. This combination makes the Dutch case an important one for investigating the ways in which capitalism and slavery co-constituted each other in a crucial phase of transformation of the global economy. However, narrowing down the question of the relationship between capitalism and slavery to the much more limited question whether the profits from slavery fueled a domestic industrial revolution, has led many authors in the past to simply out of hand dismiss the relevance of this problematic for Dutch history. This article seeks to show why and how for the Dutch, over the course of several centuries and in a large number of constellations across and beyond its territorial reach, capitalist development and different forms of commercial slavery became joined at the hip. Since in this relationship neither capitalism nor slavery were stable entities, the ways in which they were mutually integrated (constituting the political economy of the Dutch participation in slavery)
also stemmed from different motives and aims across geographies, varied in intensity, and underwent substantial change over time.
In the nineteenth century, there was a certain chronological parallel between the ever-increasing
incorporation of the Spanish into the slave trade and the construction of a modern banking system in Spain. On an individual level we find numerous examples of former captains or slave traders who later converted to respectable bankers as Pedro Martínez Pérez de Terán, José de Abarzuza Imbrechts, Mariano Serra Soler, José María Serra Muñoz, Mariano Flaquer Lluch, Esteban Gatell Roig, Jaime Badia Padrines, Antonio Vinent Vives, Manuel Calvo Aguirre, Antonio López y López, and José Canela Raventós, among others. Through their capital or their activity, all of them contributed to the creation of different financial institutions in nineteenth-century Spain. This article offers a first approach to this phenomenon. I will do so on the basis of three different banks founded in 1844, 1846, and 1876, respectively, in two Spanish port cities (Cádiz and Barcelona) and in whose foundation and development former slave traders played a major role. We will therefore analyse the participation of varous slave traders in the Banco de Cádiz and then repeat the same analysis in two financial entitites with their headquarters in the Catalan capital: the Banco de Barcelona and the Banco Hispano Colonial, respectively.
The aim of the article is to understand how the new mechanisms of slave management developed in the Cuban and Brazilian sugar and coffee frontiers during the nineteenth century were connected to a new visuality of slavery. The argument is that it is possible to identify a cluster of new strategies aimed at extracting more labour from slaves in the coffee and sugar cane plantations of Brazil and Cuba, which was not only a response to the great reorganization of the world economy under industrial capitalism, but also to new patterns of slave resistance. These strategies can be understood as part of a new visual regime of New World slavery.