Forwarded from Rakesh

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jul 18 17:42:10 MDT 2003

My reply has to be brief, and will have to return to Charles Brown's comments
later. Am just finishing up latest analysis by Charles Post on US slavery.
DMS wrote:

I appreciate the time and effort you put in your responses,
but I really do not see the point of citing 20 different
books. Nor do I see the point in having to prove that the
historical data is in fact the historical data. Did the
South and the North have an enduring conflict. Yes. Did
that conflict manifest itself in the struggle over the
territories. Yes. Did the South dread Northern expansion
and attempt to "sequester" the territories from the North as
part of a blocking effort. Yes. Was the South able to
effectively expand itself on the large scale into the West?
No. Did the South and other slave/plantation economies keep
large tracts of land fallow, unused at a rate significantly
higher than the North or free capitalism? Yes. Did the
productive nature of farm output in the free soil North exceed
that of the South by the time of the war? Was the South
able to sustain combat from its own economy in the face of
the North once emancipation was declared and the Union Army
was given to Grant and Sherman? Not for long. Etc. Etc.
Draw your own conclusions, as I have drawn mine. I read
as much as I can, mostly that is not material from Marxist
commentators, so I really can't respond to those arguments.
We could have an interesting discussion about the actual
employment of machinery for free vs. plantation agriculture,
but not about the "rationality" of the decisions of the

These are very unrelated questions, and I don't understand what you are
getting at. I assume that you are trying to underline that the South failed
to adopt routinely labor saving techniques and that this failure can only
be explained by the structural disincentives which slavery provided to the
mechanization of agriculture. I would like for these structural incentives
be spelled out if that's ok.

Are you suggesting that a slave plantation capitalist who has already
purchased slaves or inherits them gratis was not about to pay for the
adoption of labor saving techniques which would only devalue his own
(human) capital assets? Is the point that capitalist farmer who was not
wedded to slavery out of perverse tradition and actual sunk costs would
find that his operations would be more profitable than slave plantations
due to the greater freedom he has to adopt labor saving techniques as a
result of his dependence on free wage labor?

But what is your evidence and reasoning for the counterfactual that had the
antebellum plantation owners used free wage labor power rather than slaves,
they would have routinely adopted labor-saving techniques in the harvesting
of cotton? So I shall ask you again: what is your evidence for the claim
that the property in persons rather technical possibilities explains the
less rapid and continuous mechanization of cotton than wheat agriculture in
pre Civil War America? (It's also not clear that greater mechanization on
Northern free soil was driven by the competitive attempt to reduce unit
values as much as by a shortage of labor at peak points.)

Cotton harvesting elsewhere before and after the American Civil War does
not seem to have been much more mechanized, and the mechanization of
Southern cotton agricultural did not commence with the destruction of
slavery (though this is what one would expect on the basis of your implicit
thesis) but was delayed (as Louis Proyect noted) until 1930. And why then
is an interesting problem as well.
While you have provided little evidence in support of the counterfactual
implicit in your argument, it seems clear that had the plantation
capitalists relied on free wage labor, they would have gone bankrupt at
least for most of the history of capitalist plantation agriculture.

The labor demands of cotton production were so heavy, the maximally
profitable form of gang labor so repellant to free people, the geographic
zones often forbiddingly malarial and land rich that a plantation
capitalist simply had to pin down his labor force through slavery if he
wanted to be ensure that labor would be available at a so called reasonable
cost at the crucial points in the farming season. Free wage and indentured
labor had been tried and failed after all.

Of course it is possible that after industrial development the adoption of
labor saving techniques became possible, and the property in persons which
had once made New World plantation agricultural capitalist production
possible now became a fetter to the cost cutting through the adoption of
labor saving techniques that is forced upon capitalists by competition. (By
the way, I don't accept your implicit equating of capitalism with cost
cutting through the routine adoption of labor saving technique, for that
equation leads to the manifestly invalid prediction of the elimination of
the industrial working class; obviously there are technical and
specifically capitalist economic limits to the adoption of labor saving
techniques, as I suggested in an earlier reply.)

Even after the Civil War capitalists couldn't do away with coerced
labor--we all know of the convict lease system and the chain gang, and I
pointed to elements of the same system in the American Southwest. But
perhaps these formally unfree forms of exploitation were more consistent
with continuous mechanization as the possibilities for the routine adoption
of labor saving technique arose.
Yet for close to 300 years it's difficult to see how capitalist plantation
agriculture could have proceeded on any other basis than slave labor. And
it's hard to see how capitalism would have developed without New World
capitalist slave plantation agriculture. To deny or minimize this seems to
me a form of capitalist apologetics and Eurocentrism.

Of course why slavery was racial slavery is another question.

Best, Rakesh

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