The Opposite of Freedom

For class this week, I’m reading Walter Johnsons’ “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question.” It is, thus far, excellent. One of the main themes that Johnson interrogates is the tendency of orthodox Marxists to adopt a teleological lens on slavery: slavery is pre-capitalist, wage labor (wage slavery) comes to replace it in capitalist societies.

One of the puzzles about this teleology is that American chattel slavery surely strikes the average person as capitalist. As Johnson asks:

If slavery was not capitalist how do we explain its commercial character: the excrescence of money changers and cotton factors in southern cities who yearly handled millions and millions of pounds of foreign exchange, the mercantile ambitions of southern slaveholders who wanted to take over Cuba and Mexico and Nicaragua so as to insure their commercial dominance and greatness, the thriving slave markets at the centers of their cities where prices tracked those that were being paid for cotton thousands of miles away

The puzzle becomes even more troubling when one realizes that slavery plays an important ideological function in Marx’s capitalism. Slavery exists in opposition to freedom, and therefore upholds our belief that the contract system is actually just: individuals are, of their own free will, entering into contracts. This is indeed an improvement if one perceives chattel slavery as the alternative, so the belief has staying power. So not only does chattel slavery have a capitalist character, it also has a capitalist interpretation.

But can we actually consider chattel slavery capitalist, when forced labor is paradigmatic of earlier economic structures (feudalism, etc.)? Yes, according to Johnson. Not only do chattel slavery and wage-slavery exist at the same time; they create an interlinked economy: in the 19th century, English mills relied on American cotton, British workers drank American sugar in their tea. As Johnson writes, European demand shaped new world production: there “reflected the palpable presence of standards of the exchange in Liverpool in the labor regime that governed Louisiana.”

According to Johnson, we should understand instead understand slavery and wage labor as “two concretely intertwined and ideologically symbiotic elements of a larger unified though internally diversified structure of exploitation.”

I drew two upshots from this discussion. The first is to say that this argument updated me slightly more in favor of that given by Willam MacAskill in his book What We Owe the Future. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed that text, but I was struck by his argument that the fight over chattel slavery should be considered a massive moral victory on the part of humanity. This argument he establishes contra the orthodox Marxist or historical materialist argument that chattel slavery was inefficient and no longer much for this world; that even without the American civil war or British imperial bans, it would have died soon enough. Generally, I lean more materialist, and was predisposed to be skeptical towards MacAskill: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”, as the Upton St. Clair quote goes.

Johnson’s argument, while not dismissing concerns that the inefficiency of slavery would indeed have eventually driven it into the ground, did helpfully remind me that it is important to distinguish chattel slavery as quite a new historical development, sown in the seeds of the transformation of the global economy. When Lincoln and Tzar Alexander wrote to one another about their respective endeavors to free their agricultural laborers, they were not discussing the exact same thing.

The second is less of a takeaway, and more of an interesting add-on. An article that has never left my mind is this 2012 piece by CNN: Slavery’s Last Stronghold. It discusses Mauritania’s long history and on-going struggle with slavery. The practice was only officially outlawed in 2007. According to the article, perhaps 10% to 20% of the country’s population is still enslaved, “in ‘real slavery,’ according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur.”

It’s a devastating piece, opening with the brutal conditions facing one young mother. But there’s a video I find even more striking. At the 12 minute mark, they interview two men: a former slave owner and the man he used to own. Yebawa Ould Keihel, the formerly enslaved man, is asked by the interviewer: “Do you remember the moment you decided to work for yourself and not doing free work for others?” That is, in not so many words, the. moment when he was freed. Keihel is confused by the question. His former master then translates: “They mean the moment you started getting money.”

3 responses to “The Opposite of Freedom”

  1. Interesting! I’m very unfamiliar with Marxist understandings of chattel slavery. I think I would have assumed Marxists would interpret 19th century slavery as deeply capitalist, so long as we think of slavery as a system of buying and selling human bodies rather than as a system of labor. The slave trade was deeply capitalist, generating profits by commodifying human bodies. Slavery as a system of labor, on the other hand, seems similar enough to feudal pre-capitalist systems of labor.


  2. Fascinating! I know very little about Marxist interpretations of chattel slavery, but I think I would have assumed the slave trade is obviously capitalist, while slavery as a system of labor might be fairly labeled pre-capitalist. The slave trade generated profits by commodifying human bodies and enabled the enslaving individuals, corporations, and states to amass enormous fortunes – seems pretty straightforwardly capitalist. Slavery as a system of labor, on the other hand, seems similar enough to pre-capitalist feudal systems of labor, at least on the microeconomic level. I suppose, though, that as a macroeconomic method for exploiting labor throughout the Atlantic economy, it depended on the slave trade and capitalist forms of exploitation.


    1. Joseph, thanks for this! Hmm, I’m not sure if I see the slave trade on its own — without its contributions to freedom of contract and accumulation of capital — as capitalist. I mean, the slave trade was prominent in even Roman times. Just because there’s a market for something doesn’t make it capitalism, unless we’re willing to say that the Roman empire was also capitalist.

      Your distinction between micro and macro-economic interpretations does seem useful. I’m not sure exactly if solves the problem for me. Would we say that each plantation is a little feudal estate connected to a larger capitalist economy?

      One of the difficulties in the class has been pinning down exactly what capitalism means. That it’s not feudalism we take for granted — aside from that, it’s a bit hard to tell.


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