[Marxism] Fwd: Expanding the Slaveocracy | Jacobin

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 22 07:44:35 MDT 2017

Q: One of the cottage industries in the historical profession right now 
is studying the relationship between capitalism and American slavery. 
This is an old discussion; it goes way, way back. Karl Marx said things 
about it.

That’s not exactly the subject of your book, but I’m wondering how you 
think your study, which is a study of slaveowners and their vision of 
America as a great power in the world, fits into the ongoing debates 
about slavery and capitalism nowadays?

A: The book joins a whole series of works that explore the slave South 
in a transnational sense. That’s another fashionable aspect: 
reemphasizing the dynamism and brutality of antebellum slavery. A lot of 
previous scholars — for instance, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman — 
made the argument that slavery was capitalistic because slaves had the 
Protestant work ethic and were well-treated and so on.

The direction of modern scholarship also emphasizes slavery as a 
foundational element in global capitalism and American capitalism, but 
precisely in the opposite direction. Its brutality, for someone like Ed 
Baptist or Walter Johnson, is the source of its dynamism.

I think it’s right to put my book in conversation with those books. In a 
way, though, my arguments are more modest about the place of slavery in 
global capitalism. I’m not so interested in the deep historiographical 
terms — asking “was slavery capitalist?” — but how slaveholders 
understood this institution, and how their understanding shaped the 
political decisions that led to the Civil War, or in some sense shaped 
foreign policy.

To an extent much greater than a lot of scholars have realized, they 
really did see slavery not simply as the kind of paternal, organically 
constructed institution that provided security from the tumult of modern 
life or wage labor society — but also as an incredibly dynamic, 
world-making, productive institution that was very compatible with the 
modern world.

I don’t want to swallow their arguments whole cloth, because I think 
that they were wrong in a lot of important ways. But I think we need to 
take seriously what they believed about the institution.


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