[Marxism] n+1: Slave Capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 20 06:24:46 MST 2014

N+1 26 August 2013
Gabriel Winant
Slave Capitalism

Walter Johnson. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton 
Kingdom. Harvard, January 2013.

Johnson approaches this second task in River of Dark Dreams, not by 
uncovering new sources but by layering new interpretations onto old 
evidence. His road from cultural history back to a critique of 
capitalism runs through the work of David Harvey. For Johnson, the 
classic period of the antebellum South was not just an endless 
performance of anxious white masculinity; it was also the site of a 
series of capitalist crises on the Harvey model. The crucial feature in 
the South’s political economy was the attempt to tidy the physical world 
of the lower Mississippi, its human and natural ecology, into a form 
abstract enough that it could make a stable bed for increasingly 
restless capital.

As Harvey has laid out, capital wants to be abstract, the way a river 
wants to flow downhill. Imagine some investor smells a new market. He 
sinks his capital into a factory full of machines (or he buys up a bunch 
of land and slaves). Capital goes from abstract—symbols on a piece of 
paper, data in a computer—to concrete. For this to occur, actual 
physical stuff—human bodies, supplies—has to get fitted to capital’s 
abstract account-sheet needs, to produce X amount of a product in Y 
time, at Z cost. People become labor-power; human communities are 
reorganized around the rhythms of the factory; forests and mountains 
become raw materials. In the ensuing production process, capital cycles 
through various forms: from resources, through supplies, machinery, 
workers, into the product. Each of these is a holding cell, a trap for 
value. Only when the product is finally sold does the invested value 
(plus surplus) return to the capitalist, again in its more comfortable 
abstract form—money. This dynamic tension, between concretion and 
abstraction, liquidity and solidity, lies for Harvey at the heart of the 
capitalist process and produces capitalism’s propensity for crisis.

Crisis is what happens when too much capital chases the leading prospect 
of investment. As excess capital piles up in solid form, its very 
solidity turns boom into bust. Capital might overproduce the 
once-valuable product, glutting the market, or exhaust the resources on 
which it depended, or give workers a tempting target to strike. One way 
or another, by becoming physically real, capital becomes vulnerable. 
Timeless in the abstract, it is forced to live in time and inevitably 
deteriorates. So capital finds it harder to successfully navigate the 
transition back to liquid form without taking a loss. The destruction of 
value results, and capital begins to flee elsewhere—a movement Harvey 
calls the “spatial fix.”

full: http://nplusonemag.com/slave-capitalism

More information about the Marxism mailing list