[Marxism] Reinterpreting the Cotton Kingdom | Solidarity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 18 17:16:48 MDT 2014

For Genovese and more recent proponents of the non-capitalist thesis 
such as Charles Post, the question of underdevelopment is central. They 
argue that the South’s inability to fully industrialize and urbanize 
sets it apart from the capitalist mode of production for the simple 
reason that they consider capitalism inseparable from 
industrialization.(6) They document the features of peripheral economies 
identified by Samir Amin’s Marxist theory of underdevelopment — 
dependent and “disarticulated” regional or national economies within 
which capital accumulation fails to instigate a synergistic development 
of agriculture and industry.(7)

They conclude, based on their a priori definition, that these traits are 
proof of the non-capitalist character of the slave-plantation economy 
while attributing underdevelopment solely to slavery.

Johnson’s critique of their approach is brief but highly pertinent. A 
materialist analysis “begins from the premise that in actual historical 
fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery.”

However else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence 
of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not 
develop that way. Extracting the history of industrial development 
(whether in Great Britain or the Northern United States) from the 
historical context of its entanglement with slavery, itemizing its 
differences from the economic field from which it had been artificially 
separated, labeling it ‘capitalism’ in pure form, and then turning 
around and comparing it to the slavery upon which it subsisted in order 
to judge the latter “precapitalist” or “noncapitalist” — this way of 
proceeding conscripts historical analysis to the service of ahistorical 
ideal types. (254)

However important and convincing this is, the medium of the historical 
manuscript (bereft of any explicit theoretical development) is not the 
place where such questions can be fully resolved. His rich narrative is 
highly suggestive and will likely be a reference point for any future 
attempts to characterize the slave-plantation economy, but Johnson’s own 
exposition unfortunately falls short of realizing that task. Political 
economists may find his work wanting for clearer argumentation and for 
concise elaboration of if or how economic categories such as 
surplus-value and fixed capital are relevant to the plantation economy.

full: http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4163

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