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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.


Originally posted to teacherken on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 08:24 PM PDT.

Also republished by ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (26+ / 0-)

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 08:24:50 PM PDT

  •  I think it's unfair (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devtob, JoeLibertarian

    to compare chattel slavery to imprisonment or 3rd world workplace conditions.

    Ok, I was being too nice, it's not only unfair, it's utterly ridiculous.

    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
    I know those Apple factories in China may seem horrible to me and you , but it's much better life for them then under the  "people's economy" of Mao.

    America didn't come to what is today because of slavery, which has nothing to do with capitalism. The tribal communal African and Indian tribes practiced slavery too. It was widespread throughout the world and was if anything a setback to the economy since it made innovation less likely as investors could rely on quasi-free labor.

    The North was more powerful economically by 1860 because it didn't rely on chattel slavery.

    Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only." -- LBJ

    by moderatemajority on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 09:13:06 PM PDT

    •  You are so very wrong about slavery- (9+ / 0-)

      You write-

      America didn't come to what is today because of slavery,
      That's like saying the U.S. didn't come to what it is today because of stealing Indian lands.

      You should read the article Ken is talking about.
      From the article Ken linked to-

      As slaveholders supplied themselves (and, much more meanly, their slaves) with Northern goods, the credit originally advanced against cotton made its way north, into the hands of New York and New England merchants who used it to purchase British goods. Thus were Indian land, African-American labor, Atlantic finance and British industry synthesized into racial domination, profit and economic development on a national and a global scale.

      America's greatest political dynasty...the Ka'an

      by catilinus on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 10:40:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And the North financed the slavery of the South. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        For example, many (most) of the old Northern insurance companies made their early fortunes insuring slave-trading ships.

        Just cause the North was too cold for cotton (and sugar)doesn't mean it didn't play its part in the crime.

        •  As is still the case, capitalism has two parts (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          bythesea, hooper, catilinus, northsylvania

          The extractors and the extracted, often separated geographically but inextricably entangled economically.

          Think commodity agriculture in the South/mills and banks in the North.  Think coal in Appalachia/powerplants and factories and banks in the Rustbelt; uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal in the Sourhwest/"clean" nuclear power and banks in the east and west. The global deregulation examples are left as an exercise for the student.

          We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

          by bmcphail on Sun Mar 31, 2013 at 09:37:50 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  um, officially we have a country where many (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greengemini, Mathazar

    especially our southern brethren wish we still had slavery imo

    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.

    as long as teabggin congressmen continue drowning our government in the

    ''A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward.'' FDR

    by lostinamerica on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 09:51:57 PM PDT

  •  We are moving to what I call Feudal Capitalism (4+ / 0-)

    where we are merely serfs for our Owners.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 10:01:10 PM PDT

  •  The Cotton Kingdom, (8+ / 0-)

    "a vast region of the lower South, one that stretched from South Carolina to Louisiana," was devoted to slavery and essentially caused the Civil War.

    The first seven states to secede -- South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas -- were all from the slave/cotton kingdom.

    Only after Fort Sumter did Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina join the kingdom traitors.

    Kingdom states remain committed to cheap labor, minimal public services, and discrimination, and therefore continue to rank near the bottom in income, education, health care, etc.

    Their Republican Senators and House Members want to bring America down to their level.

    As in 1861, that's downright un-American.

    A public option for health insurance is a national priority.

    by devtob on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 10:10:14 PM PDT

    •  then there was neoslavery for (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini, devtob, Eric Nelson

      another century. But there was an obvious break from the past with railroads and plutocratic industrialization. It was the railroad lawyers on the Court and in Congress that dismantled Reconstruction laws and constitutional amendments until the New Deal revolution ended their era. After the Northern migrations, Jim Crow lost its Northern support. The plutocracy has come back with a vengeance and one sign of our current political climate is the total absence of morality. Charles Sumner entered the senate at a similar time in 1851, and within 10 years everything changed.

      •  neoslavery (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Musial, teacherken, Eric Nelson

        This book is the definitive history on the subject. I could only read it in short stretches otherwise my blood would have boiled over.

        Slavery by another name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

        The Age of Neo-Slavery

        In this groundbreaking historical expose, Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—when a cynical new form of slavery was resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War and re-imposed on hundreds of thousands of African-Americans until the dawn of World War II.

        Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

        The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.

        Help me to be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster

        by BOHICA on Sun Mar 31, 2013 at 06:17:41 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  To a certain extent, I think it can be argued (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      teacherken, devtob, Mathazar, Eric Nelson

      that the political establishments in the southern states have assumed the role and functions of the plantation managers. One reason individual income in dollars is less in the south, despite the fact that the states collect more dollars from Washington than they send back, is because social services are centralized in the state. Georgia, for example, doesn't want dollars from Washington to set up health clinics because it already has functioning health departments providing prophilactic care in most of its 159 counties. Hunting and fishing are promoted on state lands to provide sustenance that doesn't show up in national accounts, just as the kitchen gardens and 1 1/2 day weekends enabled the slave population to pretty much sustain itself during the plantation era. Slave owners provided some imported goods (clothing, sugar), but the slaves were self-sufficient and generated a profit for owners, who were often improvident and ended up in bankruptcy, just as our industrial managers do today. Bankruptcy has long been SOP and the workforce always pays the price. Slaves most often had to be sold, resulting in the disruption of their families, because the owners defaulted on their loans.
      The Americas have paid dearly for the rise of western Europe's "civilization." Spain plundered the gold of South America, then lost it to the Dutch, who used it to back their notes, which they lent as "capital" to spawn the industrial revolution in Britain, whose products were sold to the colonies, on credit.
      Profit = exploitation. For the middleman to realize a profit, either the producer or the consumer or both have to give him a "cut."
      However, I would not argue that profit and capital are one and the same. I still think that, especially in the long run, what we call capital can be made up of what would otherwise go to waste. Human invention and ingenuity, plus the acuity that comes from habitual behavior and repetition does generate a surplus which, if it isn't traded or shared in some way, would go to waste. It is this surplus, from avoided waste, which is non-exploitative and available to sustain innovation, education and the finer things in life.

      We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

      by hannah on Sun Mar 31, 2013 at 03:19:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  small note on cotton; cotton was a low margin (3+ / 0-)

    crop so while there were fortunes to be made, it required thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves.  Small farmers of the era relied upon tobacco and other high value crops to provide the limited monies they required as they produced much of what they consumed and relied upon barter within their community.

    Cotton also strip mines the soil so that in the days before commercial confinement operations and commercial fertilizers, the practice was to farm out an area and then to move on, leaving the slimmer pickings for the late comers.  This is how cotton cultivation got from the coast to TX

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