Slavery, Capitalism, and Commodification

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:40 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Caitlin Rosenthal, University of California, Berkeley
In the resurgence of interest in slavery and capitalism, definitions of “capitalism” have been in short supply. The “definitional elasticity” of capitalism has paid dividends. The rapid growth of the field reflects its fluidity: after the pattern of Atlantic history, the “new history of capitalism” alternately denominates both a historical reality and a new subfield. Unencumbered by precise definitions, research has ranged beyond the traditional spatial and temporal boundaries of “capitalism.” And, freed from the methodological boundaries of labor, business and economic history, scholars have reached productively (if sometimes promiscuously) across disciplinary boundaries. But the unbound exploration of capitalism has had consequences for clarity, particularly as we attempt to understand the place of slavery in it. As one recent critic puts it: “by dodging the problem of definition altogether they fail to provide a coherent account of capitalist slavery.” As the “new history of capitalism” matures, it may be time to trade elasticity for a more precise definition and, with it, a clearer theoretical understanding of the relationship between slavery and capitalism. My proposed paper unfolds in two parts. First, I explore the problem of defining of capitalism, offering a definition based on the commodification of labor as it results from the distribution of capital. Such a definition attempts to reconcile definitions of capitalism that focus on wage labor with the circumstances of slavery. That is, it attempts to keep labor-relations central to the study of capitalism without excluding slavery. The second half of the article tests antebellum American slavery against my proposed definition, asking to what extent bondspeople and their labors were “commodified.” To do this, I follow planters and slave traders as they attempted to convert the infinite variety of enslaved lives into abstract, measurable units of human capital.
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