is the title of this piece in the Opiniator section of the New York Times website. It was written by Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African and African-American Studies at Harvard. It is not long, and definitely worth the read.
A couple of things caught my eye. He posits that the normal viewpoint that the Civil War represented the victory of capitalism over slavery is incorrect:
In actual fact, however, in the years before the Civil War, there was no capitalism without slavery. The two were, in many ways, one and the same.He reminds us that
Eighty-five percent of the cotton Southern slaves picked was shipped to Britain. The mills that have come to symbolize the Industrial Revolution and the slave-tilled fields of the South were mutually dependent. Every year, British merchant banks advanced millions of pounds to American planters in anticipation of the sale of the cotton crop. Planters then traded credit in pounds for the goods they needed to get through the year, many of them produced in the North. “From the rattle with which the nurse tickles the ear of the child born in the South, to the shroud that covers the cold form of the dead, everything comes to us from the North,” said one Southerner.Please keep reading.
Let me offer one more paragraph from the piece before I close with a few comments of my own.
It is not simply that the labor of enslaved people underwrote 19th-century capitalism. Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined. Seen in this light, the conventional distinction between slavery and capitalism fades into meaninglessness.We tend to forget how dependent upon slavery many of the great fortunes were. After all, some major fortunes in the North were built upon the Triangular Trade.
We may have officially abolished chattel slavery, but remember the 13th Amendment contains an exception - "except as punishment for a crime" - and our ever increasing prison population - also increasingly in for-profit prisons - also serves as a very cheap labor force for the operators of prison industries. We have a long history in this country of utilizing labor that is under-compensated for the work they do which creates the profits that build more great fortunes. We had sweatshops in the garment industries of New York City which were staffed by Eastern and Southern European immigrants, we now have sweatshops in Los Angeles staffe by immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Coal miners lived in company towns, were paid in scrip usuable only at retail institutions owned by the mine operators, and as Ernie Ford sang in the 1950s in the voice of a minor "I owe my soul to the company store." In modern capitalism manufacturers move operations to low-wage states, and when that is not harsh enough, then to low-wage countries where worker safety and environmental protection can easily be overridden - let nothing interfere with the almighty profit, which is never enough, and which by the light of the capitalists should be subject to as little taxation as possible. In this schema we see an old history being repeated. It may have been colonialism and mercantilism. It certainly was slavery. It was the company towns of the industrial revolution. Now it exists through "free trade" and "globalization."
Capitalism is at best amoral, since it cares about nothing beyond the maximization of profits. Capitalism cannot exist without government to provide security of all kinds: a safe currency, guarantee of safe transportation (a major reason the US and Britain both became Naval powers was the protection of their commercial interests), protection of patents and copyrights - which of course are in essence a contradiction to the notion of a totally free market. In the eyes of the unrestrained capitalist, government's primary purpose is to protect his ability to maximize his profits, and hopefully the costs of doing that will be imposed as much as possible on others.
Officially we no longer have slavery.
Yet if we truly understand the nature of capitalism, and its history, we cannot help but realize that the capitalist impulse - unless restrained by governmental action it cannot dictate - inevitably results in economic and even personal servitude that begins to approach the lack of meaningful liberty that approaches slavery.
Of course this is not the kind of analysis we teach ourselves and our children.
It is certainly not the analysis that drives much of our politics and legislation, and too much of our jurisprudence.
In this country King Cotton contributed mightily to the development of the US as a major capitalist nation. Perhaps one may disagree with some of the analysis of Johnson.
King Cotton's shadow is, however, far more than how it colored and shaped our past.
I think it not unfair to argue that the same mentality that was advantaged by chattel slavery is still advantaged by the unfair tiit of economics, government and power. There is a class war going on, and almost everyone here is on the side that is taking the beating.