Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Did contemporary "American capitalism originat[e] in racial slavery"?

     "One of the really striking things about the school of slavery's capitalism is how little politics there is in its approach to political economy.  This is perhaps not surprising given the hopelessness so many felt in the post-2008 moment.  If capitalism is all powerful, then political resistance is meaningless.  But the American Civil War presents a sharp reminder of the unpredictability of history.  Contrary to Slavery's Capitalism, the critical issue in 1860 was not that Republicans saw slavery as a problem, but that slaveholding Southerners saw free labour and industrial capitalism as an existential threat.  The slaveholders had once called the shots in US politics.  But by 1860 the slave South was not the leading edge of anything except pro-slavery nationalism.  It seceded and provoked a civil war over the future of the nation and of slavery in it.  No one in 1860 could have imagined what was about to happen.  It was slaveholding Southerners' misguided bet that opened the possibility of a new chapter in American and African American history.
     "When the smoke had cleared slavery had been destroyed.  Enslaved African Americans had thought that outcome worth fighting and dying for.  They fought just as hard to define the terms of the post-war order, when slavery's capitalism was dead and gone.  The kind of unfettered corporate capitalism that came after the Civil War certainly merits the critical assessment of historians.  But the destruction of slavery was a crucial event in the history of American capitalism, one hardly underestimated by those who lived through it.  It was, at the very least, a moment of radical disjuncture between two systems of exploitation."

     Stephanie McCurry, "Plunder of black life:  the problem of connecting the history of slavery to the economics of the present," a review of Slavery's capitalism:  a new history of American economic development (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and, by implication, the entire "school of slavery's capitalism", Times literary supplement no. 5955 (May 19 2017):  26 (23-24, 26), italics mine.

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