I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:
Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.
Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.
But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.
What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.
There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.
Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.