Ideology or Economics: Chattel Slavery and Capitalism

Following the resurgence of White Supremacy and calls for the removal of confederate monuments, it is easy to see that the position of slavery in American History still remains a highly controversial topic – especially when mixed with another highly controversial and intimate topic, capitalism. Following these recent trends, many Americans have come to enter a similar dialogue once more: what exactly is the relationship of capitalism and slavery? Julia Ott in Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism” offers a proactive insight into this puzzling question by proposing that slavery as a practice should not be seen as historically distinct from the evolution of capitalism.

The most intriguing implication of Ott’s proposition is that it would require slaves be seen as capital rather than people. This seems superficially obvious but I agree with Ott’s rejection of  the prominent theories of capitalism that state that “because under slavery workers do not labor for a wage” because it misunderstands that slavery plays a crucial role in the evolution of capital. This would require, if we were to recombine slavery and capitalism historically, that slavery can be seen as capital alongside that of technology, land, etc. This is intriguing because it tackles a longstanding and often difficult question: how much are people worth? Cotton Kings in their development and acquisition of land and technology answered this question by raising quotas and using physical punishment to increase the output of slaves. In this, each cotton king is, as an economic agent, reducing people down to slaves, and then further, slaves down to an output.

Another implication found in the relationship of chattel slavery to capitalism is the ideological conflict present in the American Revolution. Ott mentions that “after the American revolution, racialized chattel slavery appeared – to some – as inconsistent with the natural rights and liberties of man.” This has resounding effects in the conversation about capitalism’s relationship to slavery because it underscores a deep conflict: what is the larger motivating factor: economic gain or ideology? This is also a terribly difficult question to answer and it seems to have torn the nation apart in the Civil War. Ott implies that economics played a much larger part in determining the future of slavery as the North emancipated slaves not because of their devotion to some abstract idea of freedom or liberty, but instead that “ By the 1850s, industrial and agricultural capitalists above the Mason-Dixon line no longer needed cotton to the same extent that they once did.” Furthermore, the South’s continuation of chattel slavery was in large part because “slavery proved crucial in the emergence of American finance” and that “profits from commerce, finance, and insurance related to cotton and to slaves flowed from merchant-financiers located in New Orleans and mid-Atlantic port cities.” This is a very provocative argument as it implies that any ideological reason for supporting or banning slavery is seen as almost peripheral (or perhaps ancillary) to any reason stemming from economic benefit or loss.  This conclusion could be explored even further (in probably a much longer paper) and would provide an intriguing synecdoche for American motivations as a whole.

The question about capitalism is not one divorced from the question of slavery and its importance in the development of America. Not only does capitalism have economic implications, as seen through the industrialization and diversification of northern factories, as well as the emergence of Cotton Kings in the South, but it also has ideological implications seen through Revolutionary ideals and its conflict with economic gain. Ultimately the distinction between ideological and economic motivating factors aids in our understanding of both the conflict leading up to the Civil War and even its relation to our problems in modernity.


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