Capitalism and Slavery

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.


  1. juan tenorio August 1, 2014 at 12:10 pm | #

    Capitalism is basically just the most recent form of slavery.

    Most workers, even office workers, have next to no choice about what they do, how much they are paid, and are certainly not free to simply not work at all. The system will NEVER allow ordinary workers to make enough to stop working.

    There are tasks that I will call ‘3-D’ tasks–Dirty, Dangerous and Disgusting–that are essential for a complex and comfortable (for some!) existence.

    NOBODY really wants to do these tasks, which include disposing of the dead; disposing of sewage; working underground; slaughtering animals; and even a lot of farming and ranching tasks.

    The ‘ancients’ discovered a solution: FORCE a certain class of people to do the 3D tasks.

    If you are forced to work, you are a slave. It is as simple as that.

    And until recently, most people never even thought it was a bad thing.

    Feudalism was simply an extension of the slavery of antiquity. The serfs had zero control over their lives.

    With the industrial revolution, slaves were moved from the countryside to the cities, where the ‘slave quarters’ were re-named ‘slums’.

    Mid-level slaves (overseers, housekeepers, etc.) have always existed and have a somewhat better time of it, but they still have next to no choice about what they do or whether they do it.

    As long as the world needs the 3-D tasks to be done, and as long as human beings are willing to live in a society in which the very few take the very most of the material wealth, some kind of slavery, whether it goes by that name or not, will be necessary.

    Yes, Benito Cereno is Melville’s masterpiece, and can be read in an hour or so. Worth a glance.


    • Escotttnyc August 4, 2014 at 11:03 am | #

      I agree with your concept of “slavery”.
      I disagree about “3-D” work. All necessary work is honorable, especially physical labor. The problem is low wages. If these jobs paid well the illusion of “jobs no one wants” would vanish. Anyone capable of remembering would wonder how that notion ever existed.

  2. Natasha Petrova August 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm | #

    Nice contrast with Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

  3. jonnybutter August 1, 2014 at 3:43 pm | #

    Closed circuit to Corey’s students: I hope at least some of you realize what an outstanding prof. CR is – not outstanding for CUNY, but outstanding for anywhere. I, a random guy in cyberspace, can tell this because his ad hoc reading list alone – books he mentions on his twitter feed and on this blog – is an open ended, broadly coherent ‘course’ I wouldn’t be without. I can’t read all of the material he cites, among other reasons because we don’t have a subway where I live. But seriously folks…agree with him or don’t, you are unlikely to have better in your formal education career. Just sayin.

  4. Aaron Gross August 1, 2014 at 4:58 pm | #

    The bit about capitalism using the slave as a defining contrast to the free man – that contrast has been used to define the free man or citizen ever since classical antiquity, right? So there’s nothing special about capitalism doing it, too. It would be surprising if capitalism didn’t do it.

    The stuff about the deception involved in slavery is interesting, but I don’t think it’s supported by the novella. The deceit in the story has all kinds of different meanings – political, social, and (I think most importantly) theological – but I don’t remember anything supporting Grandin’s interpretation there. Grandin talks about the slaves’ character being revealed as something allegedly counter to stereotype, but there’s nothing in the text to suggest it, not as he specifially defines that character. In fact Delano’s self-deception does conceal the character of the slaves, but that character is savage and bloodthirsty: recall the part where he sees the nursing women singing a song, and in a parody of liberal sentimentality reflects on how peaceful and noble the savages are. (This is from memory, I might have some details wrong.) But he finds out later that they were singing about the joy of slaughtering the white man. The deception involving character is Delano’s liberal delusion that the slaves are good, when in fact they are evil.

    I haven’t read the book,but I’ve read an article on this by Grandin, I think in The New Republic. Lots of interesting stuff, but he seems to be deliberately evading the plain interpretation of the text, which is not at all anti-slavery. (The murdered slave-owner, a good man, is a Christ figure, being “resurrected” after three days in the clmactic battle against metaphysical evil, represented by the slaves .) From the article, it seems the historical story of Benito Cereno was all that was used for support, with nothing extra from the novella.

    • Hank August 2, 2014 at 11:48 am | #

      But remember Benito was written at a time when slaves were very genuinely considered mentally inferior to whites: the very fact that a slave could engineer the kind of insurrection that is described is a daring concept for its time.

  5. Aaron Gross August 1, 2014 at 5:05 pm | #

    Also, I don’t know where the Arendt quote is from, but is it misleading in the context of political struggle regarding necessity? In On Revolution, Arendt wasn’t too positive about the French revolution’s taking up the cause of the poor, of necessity; she believed that it’s best kept out of revolutionary politics. My guess is that in context, this quote was about the private sphere, not the political. Just a guess, though.

  6. Roquentin August 2, 2014 at 11:06 am | #

    Powerful stuff. You can follow the logic of needing slavery as an ballast to define what freedom is all the way down to the days of segregation or even to today’s hostility towards immigrants from Mexico and other places in Latin America. One of the few bones thrown to middle and lower class whites was the ability to think “at least I’m not one of them.” If thrown even this thin gruel far too many supported and continue to support which relatively few of them see any benefits from. Playing one ethnicity off the other was one of the favorite tricks of the British Empire, but it seems people don’t wise up to those tactics being used domestically as well.

    You even hear this in political discussions about US politics and the sad “love it or leave it canard.” So long as another country can be found on the map to which one can point to and show a more repressive government, nothing here need be changed.

    It’s also good to see discussions about how capitalism shapes subjectivity and concepts associated with individual autonomy and preference. Maybe I’m not running in the right circles, but that seems to me to be a conversation which happens far too seldom.

  7. Glenn August 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm | #

    All wealth accumulated through exchange is accumulated through unequal exchange. In consensual equal exchange, no wealth is accumulated. You have to get more value than you give in exchange to accumulate wealth.

    The deadliest conflicts are engendered as a response to unequal exchange. Capitalism in its empire stage decides that the price of a dominant military is less expensive than, for example, the price of oil. More wealth is to be had by stealing oil in a coerced unequal exchange than by buying oil in a consensual equal exchange. See the 1953 CIA coup in Iran for details.

    Slavery is the epitome of unequal exchange.

    The state and its monopoly of violence, by mandating and normalizing unequal exchange, is the necessary partner of capitalism.

    Frederick Douglas observed that some of the most fervent Christians found justification for slavery in the Bible.

    People will believe what they want to believe to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.

  8. thenodster August 3, 2014 at 8:49 am | #

    On the link between capitalism and criminality I think of the meaning of “Tory” in Irish Gaelic: a wanted thief.

    • juan tenorio August 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm | #

      Regarding criminality: has there ever been a time when ALL business was conducted fairly?

      If you cheat (deliver less than agreed to for example) and someone finds out, what recourse do you have other than violence?

      In other words: is it possible to have a large complex society without someone somewhere using violence and murder as a way of doing business?

      So… even from the earliest times the mob–whether Russian, Italian or Carthaginian–has been involved in business.

      Maybe that’s why the expression “we mean business” has such ominous overtones?

  9. Anonymous August 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm | #

    Yet we’re using our individual autonomy to question our cultural narrative, and we’re empathizing with slaves because we acknowledge that they, too, have “selves” and “feelings” that we might hurt, if we continue to lie to ourselves about their suffering.

    We’re critiquing individualism, but we’re using our individual minds, which don’t always think the same way as people in the mainstream, in order to do so.

    I don’t think we should “throw out the baby with the bathwater”.

    • Roquentin August 4, 2014 at 8:09 am | #

      Notice how even in saying this you use the pronouns “we” and “they:” ” “we’re using our individual autonomy ” and ” we acknowledge that they, too, have “selves” and “feelings””

      Not being pedantic, just illustrating that even in your argument you are not using the language specific to one lone individual and are already referring to a collective grouping of people, be it slaves or people reading this blog.

      I’m firmly on the side of abolishing the Cartesian subject. If there was one notable conclusion to arise out of 20th century thought, it was that. The idea that we are all lone individuals making rational, isolated decisions is as antiquated as phrenology and should be treated as such.

      • Anonymous August 4, 2014 at 11:43 am | #

        I didn’t say we all made rational decisions. I used “we” in the sense of “everyone reading this blog”, but you and I are not the same people, or we wouldn’t be disagreeing with each other like this? We’re different from each other. We don’t have the same minds and we are not part of some Great Collective. That is not “Cartesian subject”, that is a fact, or I wouldn’t be disagreeing with you.

        Abolishing the individual is tempting, but if you’re not willing to make distinction between different members of other groups, that’s what leads to oppression in the first place.

        “Black people are all savage! Women are all weak! Men are all violent!” Things like that.

        Once you stop treating others as individuals, you then stop acknowledging that others have the right to have feelings, and then you start doing things like saying, “How dare you chastise me for hurting your feelings, you must think you’re the center of the universe! Stop being so selfish by complaining, and think of other people, namely me!”

        I’m very sorry to belabor the point, sir, but sometimes I don’t think people think through the possible negative implications of ideas that sound good at first, especially when those ideas that sound good are formed in response to the bad ideas of others, making the former seem good by comparison.

      • Roquentin August 4, 2014 at 2:56 pm | #

        This is not about sounding good, it is about veracity. I don’t particularly care for cancer or hurricanes for example, but that has zero influence on whether or not they exist. That’s another type of argument entirely. I’m sorry you are uncomfortable with the dissolution of traditional notions of subjectivity, but getting squeamish will not put the cat back into the bag.

        Also, you are putting words in my mouth. I never said anything remotely close to what you are arguing against in your second paragraph. You may see that in the implications of what I said, but I certainly do not.

      • Will G-R August 4, 2014 at 3:01 pm | #

        @ Anonymous: “Once you stop treating others as individuals, you then stop acknowledging that others have the right to have feelings”

        Well, to be blunt, yes, we do stop acknowledging this. Only a Cartesian subject is capable of *having* a right to anything whatsoever. (By the way, note the critical metaphor here of rights as objects to be possessed in the same way that one possesses private property, which raises a whole host of interesting questions about the liberal discourse of human rights.) The relationships that enable oppression are those in which the Cartesian subject is removed only partially: the savagery of blacks or the weakness of women etc. is suitable justification for *me*, the subject, to respond by instituting an relationship in which these categories of people are reduced to passive objects. Oppression happens not when we succeed in stamping out liberal individualism but when we fail to do so entirely. You seem to be implying that the atomized Cartesian subject is an innate feature of the human condition, that abolishing him as an enlightened signatory to the liberal social contract can only ever lead to reinstating him as a savage lone wolf in the Hobbesian state of nature. Whether or not you realize it, your reasoning is Cartesian through and through.

        Come to think of it, this notion that we’d all revert to unchecked selfishness if not for the chain of moral reasoning built on the atomized individual resembles nothing so much as the insistence by many religious folks that we’d all start murdering each other willy-nilly if we weren’t all held in check by fear of God’s eternal damnation. It’s a very blinkered and ultimately supernatural worldview.

  10. Anonymous August 4, 2014 at 3:31 pm | #

    Roquentin complains about me putting words in his mouth, and then both he and Will presume to tell me how I feel and what I think, based on things I didn’t say.

    I didn’t say rights were “objects” to be “possessed”. You did, and then you just insisted that liberal individualism needs to be “stamped out”. You didn’t respond to any of the points I was making about where this might lead.

    Did I not say I don’t care about the “Cartesian subject”? I was talking about the idea that if others have an individual worldview, you think it should be “stamped out”, like you just said. Yet you accuse me of believing that the “Cartesian subject” (your phrase, not mine) is a “natural human condition” and then compare me to religious people because I feel uncomfortable at the implications of your ideas.

    You sound condescending. “I’m sorry you feel uncomfortable because we’re letting the cat out of the bag and you hate that”, etc., etc. That’s a Bulverism: you assume you’re right and I’m wrong, and then tell me how you think I “came to be so silly.” It is precisely because you don’t see me as an individual that we’re having this communication breakdown.

    You’re judging me based on a “category” based on what you THINK I feel, based on your “Cartesian subject” idea. You’re not paying attention to what I’m saying, which proves my point. You don’t see my ideas, you see your version of my ideas.

    Frankly, your talk of “stamping out” ideas you hate (and to you, these ideas NEED to be “stamped out”, with no regard as to why I might object) makes you sound more religious than I am, and incidentally, I’m agnostic. I’m also a big fan of Corey Robin, but some of the people who comment here could stand to be more tolerant of others’ ideas.

    • Will G-R August 4, 2014 at 7:47 pm | #

      Well stick with me here, don’t dismiss the intellectual history of your own worldview just because you haven’t yet heard it explicitly articulated. You described in great detail a process by which one abandons the perception of *others* as atomized individuals in possession of innate rights, but still behaves according to the equivalent perception regarding *oneself*. This sentiment captures the early liberal philosophical view of human social relations in a nutshell: we are all atomized individuals, the state of nature is a world where individuals engage in unbridled selfish competition (the way your hypothetical illiberal person stands up for his rights and his alone), and the only meaningful way to improve on this condition is for individuals to recognize each other as such in order to constrain each other’s innate selfishness through some sort of social bargain.

      Unless I’m misreading your prior post, you seemed quite clear that the result of abandoning liberal individualism would be to foster oppression and/or blind selfishness. Like it or not, this view is an intellectual inheritance from early Enlightenment philosophy like that of Descartes, and its rise within the Western intellectual tradition is ineluctably linked to the rise of capitalism. If you’re a big fan of Corey’s, surely you’re aware that he subscribes to a theoretical tradition according to which the liberal worldview and the capitalist world system are not only understood as having risen together, but are also expected to perish together, hopefully to the betterment of humankind.

      And please don’t misunderstand the allusion to religion, I’m not trying to invoke a banal New-Atheist-style pejorative “your view equals religion equals BAD STUPID EVIL BIGOT” or whatever. The point is that the Cartesian view of human beings as atomized individuals is built on a set of premises regarding the innate essence of human character (which to Descartes would have meant the innate essence of the immortal soul) and that such essentialism is itself a non-materialist worldview regardless of whether or not it comes attached to the whole invisible-man-in-the-sky schtick. Once you acknowledge that all human beings are part of an evolutionary lineage in constant flux, you acknowledge that there is no inherent essence of “humanness” that could include immutable qualities like, say, an inability to cope with the rejection of individualist liberal philosophy. In the final instance, to postulate such an essence is to deny the materialist account of human origins.

  11. Roquentin August 4, 2014 at 10:14 pm | #

    There isn’t one single time in any of my posts I used the term “stamping out.” Again, you are putting words in my mouth. You even brought in phony scare quotes that time. Quit trotting out that strawman. I said it was an antiquated notion, sure, but that’s not the same thing.

    I’m sorry if it sounds condescending but I have a point to make. I’m not going to pull any punches just because you don’t like how it sounds.

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