There’s a lot of confusion about slavery’s economic impact. Let’s clear it up.
Slavery, as a form of capitalist extractivism (AKA expropriation), contributes to a kind of economic growth–inegalitarian economic growth. As well, slavery contributes to economic decay and destabilization, because it durably stunts the development of public infrastructure supporting the reproduction of both commodified and absolutely-unfree labor.
First, in the recent neoliberal era, scholarship was highly influenced by resurgent conservative culture, in which the Southern US led ideas. At that time in the US, scholarship and popular discourse amplified the tendentious Southern slaver idea that the Civil War was only a rivalry for regional economic control, and was not an extension of the post-Religious Wars Enlightenment struggle over expanded human recognition and distribution of sovereignty. But that economic-instrumentalist idea was inaccurate and anachronistic, a transposition onto the late 19th century conflict of the more recent, 20th century ploy to geographically and racially reconstruct the Democratic Party network, and shift conservative inegalitarians over to the Republican Party (See Delton 2002). Though territorial conquest (wage labour v. slavery) was at stake, the US Civil War was not a contest between rationalist capitalism and sentimental Southern family farming.
Slavery was not battled into disrepute because it was unprofitable. So long as states protected its private property ownership law, Slavery was a profitable form of capitalist extraction. The key to recognizing slavery as a contributor to inegalitarian economic growth is to lift your eyes up from the regional dirt to recognize that both NYC and London banking were heavily involved in financing and reaping profit from the maximization of slavery-based industrial agriculture–both a labor-intensive and capital-intensive form of capitalist extractivism (Desmond & Ward 2019). A valid account of slavery’s contribution to economic growth has to extend beyond the ag-extraction region’s Boss Hoggs to include the profits it delivers to its financiers, usually in NYC and London.
Slavers’ plantations were not the bucolic farms depicted in romantic illustrations; and our Anglo-imperial understanding of the hyper-rationalized Iron Cage, tied to the Holocaust in Germany or USSR experiments, should rather be based on US Southern plantations. It is Southern US agriculture, a form of capitalist extractivism, that was the highly-financed, industrialized manufactury for the big-data, dehumanizing and depleting managerial and surveillance techniques we know (See Desmond & Ward 2019). Not only slavers but Anglo Atlantic finance capital fueled and grew fat on slavery’s extreme level of managed extractivism that pulped humans…an inegalitarian form of growth building to the Gilded Age. Slavers’ rationalization machine supplied a form of economic growth so inegalitarian, so predatory, so dehumanizing that it crippled human capacities (including drastically chopping down human lifespans), distorted markets, and violently destabilized societies, economies, and political orders. It was only temporarily, partially suppressed, under the gun of egalitarian organization, in the aftermath of the world wars it launched.
As is clear from the global history of the 1600s to the Gilded Age and on to the finance-led restoration of inequality and inegalitarianism (the post-1968 expansion of slaver infrastructure), extractivism, expropriation–a predatory, dehumanizing, and decaying contributor to inegalitarian economic growth–is both fundamental and usually necessary to capitalism as a global coordination system organizing and fortifying elites, and disorganizing, exploiting, and expropriating nonelites.
Against all odds, with organized working-class leadership and sacrifice, and taking advantage of global elite disorganization in the conflagrations capitalist extractivism fuels, expropriation can be reduced and socio-economic stagnation temporarily overcome, but expropriation is neither external to nor ultimately optional in capitalism. Thus, capitalism is not a stable-progress social system. As Katharine Pistor (2019) clarifies in her examination of how English Common Law works, capitalist law accompanies and does not replace violence and warfare.
Extractivism Stunts Public Infrastructure
As economic historians have shown in the US and Brasil, the economic depletion resulting from financed, hyper-managed slavery extractivism was not the economic depletion of the planter or financer elites (who tend to be in law and society tendentiously, sloppily, and mistakenly conflated with society tout court). Rather, economic stagnation emerges from the stunting of the state’s public infrastructure capacity (See post “Where Slavery Thrived…” link in References below).
This public infrastructure stunting is still easily observable in counties that once hosted slavery (though the race of their populations may have changed over time), and it is also correlated with human stunting (Therborn 2014), or poor life chances. Insufficient public infrastructure is insufficient support for the reproduction of human life and ecology. Reproduction requires recognition of humanity and distributed semi-sovereignty. Where human sovereignty is misallocated and scarcity is manufactured, life is too cheap, human development is disincentivized, human socio-material requirements cannot be expressed and realized, market signals are distorted, and market failures and economic decay and destabilization result.
As social reproduction feminists have demonstrated since Kollontai (1915, theorizing earlier, see Ghodsee 2018), capitalist accumulation arrives upon a precarious balance of, on the one hand, saleable commodifications orchestrating and exploiting human labor endowed with the capacity to buy commodities, and, on the other hand, expropriation of the unrecognized private and natural reproduction work that makes the fakest of commodities harnessed under private property. Because the base of expropriation must not be recognized in order to extract recognized profit from recognized commodity sales, the entire capitalist system wobbles on over-extractivist tendencies.
The states that arise to secure and service those extractivists’ “mines,” whether those “mines” are natural resources, pollution sinks, or unfree humans, develop to misrecognize socio-economic contribution and to unequally distribute wealth. Extractivist states thus do not produce sufficient public infrastructure to reproduce their unrecognized natural basis and human labour. Extractivist institutions instead proliferate a culture of predation and trauma, forgetting and blindness (politesse), and depleted, stunted, and distorted human capacities and life chances. Extractivist institutions are skeletal, inflexible, and expansionary, removing degrees of collective-action freedom long after slavery is formally illegalized, and long after it is clear that inegalitarian economic growth is destructive. When they take over a larger society, as Southern slaver institutions took over the US with the 20th century restoration of Anglo Atlantic financial capital, extractivist culture and institutions are exported like wildfire.
It’s similar with other extractivist industries and economies, like fossil fuel extraction. Along with its NYC financiers, the apex extractivist maw of Texas, capitol of both slaver and oil extractivism, amasses rents, inequality, and militant inegalitarianism (including its military supplement). Extractivist institutional expansion accelerates economic destruction across space, as extractivist institution-importing regions, such as Wisconsin, do not have access to the scarce oil rents that mask and prop social-reproduction corrosion and failures in the recognized economy. Political fixers and the comprador bourgeoisie desanguinate the socio-economic host. The coordinating federal state props the public-poor regions with expanded military spending and employment.
Does Conservatism Destabilize Not Just Its Egalitarian Enemies, But its Sponsors As Well?
Some scientists, particularly institutionalist economic historians, social reproduction scholars, and ecologists, recognize economic decay and destabilization as a time-lagged product of inequality-based wealth, privation, and privatization (expropriation infrastructure).
Institutionalist economists studying inequality in the US generally maintain spinoff research institutes attracting funding from states and donors upon the assumption that–without a state capable of progressive taxation–redirecting resources to some of the US’s economically-stagnant zones on an experimental, ad-hoc, or demonstration basis, sufficient public infrastructure can be built in those zones to reduce inequality (human stunting) and boot-up socio-economic development.
Note that a key public institution, a particularly flexible, generative form of democratic infrastructure frequently cited in the institutionalist economic-history literature as a socio-economic development anchor, the regional community-embedded college/university, at this historical point has already been greatly expropriated (including privatized), and is still slated for financial liquidation in governing management and political priorities and planning. This continued, fundamental expropriation betrays little serious collective effort to re-seed socio-economic development infrastructure in the US. The mid-20th century capital strike (via the City of London’s financial deregulation and subsequent inflation) broke the US’s civilian surplus recycling capacity (to borrow Varoufakis’ 2011 term). Even while a glance at Wall Street, on the edge of the Atlantic, conveys the impression that the US gathers the world’s wealth, the US continues to be crippled across its gigantic Manifest Destiny rear.
While institutionalist economists studying inequality in the US will not be able to fix this overwhelming tendency with their more marginal pilot programs, their reorientation to working with regional organic intellectuals can contribute toward restructuring social networks, and in that way, can contribute toward social change.
As of fall 2019, most conservative and liberal observers are still betting (including with their pocketbooks) that epic militarization will maintain a functional balance between concentrated, global private wealth accumulation and societal and social reproduction in the US (Mittelstadt 2015), while also providing coercive backup to global private property legally incorporated in NYC (See Pistor 2019). Conservatives and liberals continue to believe that the apex-extractivist Texas model can be universalized, including in all the regional networks that do not enjoy high oil rents.
We’ll see. The deal with militarization is that it redirects (at best) and prevents the working class from organizing to break up the build up of predatory, disorganizing, stagnating inequality institutions and infrastructure. Despite the US’s slavery-rooted infrastructure deserts crying for repair, the military juggernaut, infused with Southern personnel and culture (Meany 2019), refuses to use its seemingly-bottomless resources, utterly fails to connect, let alone integrate its co-opted working class into meaningful life outside violent military interventions. For all its organizational capacity, for all its marketing capacity, the US military cannot organize beyond its function as expensive machinery of death and disruption. As a result, decommissioned soldiers turn to destructive White Nationalism, the organization that most resembles the military in American life (Bromwich 2019). It is a mistake to view this coercive repression institution as a simple social, political, or economic good, an adequate girder to expropriation.
Militarization is not as unconditionally compatible with capitalist growth and regional competitiveness as conservative organizers–led from the 20th century by the defunct Austrian Empire’s Mises, Hayek, et al–have hegemonically claimed it is. As lots of people have observed (though the 20th century academy turned off the volume on the Enlightenment), once the institutions of inequality and inegalitarianism get up a head of steam, belligerent entitlement and paradigmatic inflexibility kick in. Conservative institutions may deploy plenty of surveillance; but they become fatally insensitive to “empirical signals” from their targets, all the morally-excluded “subhumans.” Conservatives may be listening in, but they don’t recognize it as communication about world conditions. Consider it inegalitarianism’s handicap.
Bromwich, David. 2019. “Letters: A Craving for Action.” London Review of Books, September 26.
Brown, Wendy. 2011. “The End of Educated Democracy.” Representations 116(1): 19-41.
Delton, Jennifer. 2002. Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party.
Desmond, Matthew & Jesmyn Ward on “Episode 2 – The Economy That Slavery Built,” 1619 podcast, 2019. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/the-new-york-times/nyt-1619/e/63588472
Robin Einhorn on Behind the News with Doug Henwood podcast, 2019. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/left-business-observer/behind-the-news-with-doug-henwood/e/64018920.
Graeber, David. 2007. “Army of Altruists: On the Alienated Right to Do Good.” Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination.
Karp, Matt. 2019. “The Mass Politics of Antislavery.” Catalyst 3(2): 130-178.
Meany, Thomas. 2019. “White Power,” London Review of Books, August 1.
Mittelstadt, Jennifer. 2015. The Rise of the Military Welfare State.
Pistor, Katharina. 2019. The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality.
Therborn, G. 2014. The Killing Fields of Inequality.
Varoufakis, Y. 2011. The Global Minotaur.
Where slavery thrived, inequality rules today INFC repost of Mihm 2014, with references.
Method Reference: Lagged causation
Ye, Hao, E.R. Dayle, L.J. Gilarranz, & G. Sugihara. 2015. “Distinguishing time-delayed causal interactions using convergent cross-mapping.” Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14750.