Commodifying Labour, Commodifying People

cotton millThis post is part of an ongoing exploration of the edges of capitalism that I’ve been conducting in the pages of the Junto, most recently here. One element of that exploration, and something that’s been highly visible in the discussion lately—especially with things like the furore over The Economist‘s review of Ed Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told (we posted our own review)—is the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Today I want to focus on just one element of that relationship: the distinction between commodifying labour and commodifying people.

Exponents of the “new history of capitalism,” who see slavery as an integral part of the capitalist system during its existence, emphasise how the widespread practice of buying and selling of slaves was a way of turning labour into a commodity. If in a feudal system, lords expropriated excess production (through taxes and tithes) rather than labour itself, capitalism differed because capitalists bought the labour, and then (or even therefore) laid claim to the whole product. This was an absolutely crucial difference, that shifted the role of private property right to the very centre of social relations. And no system relied on strong private property claims more than slavery did.

Still, perhaps there are differences between buying labour by hiring workers for a wage, and buying labour by buying people outright. Leaving aside questions of morality and sticking just to the economics, what might those differences be? Well, for one thing, buying a person is a different type of investment for the owner than just buying someone’s time. If a slave dies, that’s a loss to the owner; if a worker dies, the capitalist just starts paying someone else. Extrapolating from that, we could say that slave-owners take on a whole set of responsibilities that wage-employers don’t: responsibility, that is, for all the necessities of his slaves’ lives, from food and medicine to clothing and shelter. As well as that, it looks like slave-owners might get less flexibility out of the deal too. Rather than paying for work when it’s needed, they own their slaves all the time, so there’s always pressure to find new ways of putting slaves to work.

Looked at like that, slavery seems pretty inefficient compared to wage-labour. Until fairly recently, most historians have seen slavery this way. Evidence of slavery’s efficiency and profitability always seemed surprising. It’s accounting for that evidence that has led the new wave of slavery scholarship that contributes so much to the new history of capitalism. But in fact, if it’s slavery scholarship that’s on the front lines right now, I think the next phase of the project might involve a return to the real conditions of wage labour, and its hidden costs.

Historians of slavery have shown how, far from taking responsibility for their slaves’ well-being, slave-owners usually did as much as possible to throw the burden on the slaves themselves. After all, if a fancy new hospital was being built, who would be the ones building it? If work in field and factory couldn’t be done on a Sunday, why then that was the perfect day for slaves to produce their own week’s food; and so on. But the converse applies to the relationship between employers and wage-earners: on a social level, the survival and reproduction of the pool of labourers was just as much the employer’s concern as it was the slaveholder’s. Both kinds of capitalists needed workers. Charity and state welfare of all sorts were the result. The beneficent face of the charitable mill-owner was the mirror-image of the “paternalist” slave-holder.

Likewise, was wage-labour really all that flexible? Factory-owners dealt with just as many high-value investment problems as slave-owners, and they too had to constantly reckon with the agency of labourers themselves. In short, the schematic opposition between slavery and wage-labour dramatically underestimates the inefficiencies of the latter, even while it overestimates them in the former. Both systems were far, far more complex than I’ve sketched here, and I hope to look at some further complexities in future posts. But for now, I’ll close by asking: just what kinds of ideological apparatus lay behind the wage/slave dichotomy that historians are now beginning to unpick?

9 responses

  1. Perhaps I am mistaken, or creatively misreading, but I take it that part of the implication of at least some of the work regarding slavery and capitalism is that it is the body of the slave that gets commodified, not necessarily the labor.

    • Yes, Matt, that’s precisely the issue I’m trying to talk about here. What’s the difference between commodifying labour, and commodifying people (i.e. bodies). Hence the title, or this sentence: “Still, perhaps there are differences between buying labour by hiring workers for a wage, and buying labour by buying people outright.”

      • Yes, I saw that. But I think there is a point in the literature you are talking about, Walter Johnson’s work comes to mind, that suggests that the comparison you have set up here does not quite adequately capture the precise nature of what makes slavery closely related to or even a form of capitalism. You are saying, and its a good point, that we can compare efficiency and inefficiency, culture, etc., across two systems of labor by looking at whether the owner of the means of production has decided he would be better off just owning the worker or not. And if we can see an economy built on those two systems feeding one another developing sufficiently and with certain characteristics, we can say the labor of both kinds of workers is commodified. Ok. I think the implication of a book like Soul by Soul is that yes, this is true, but the body of the slave was managed and accounted for as a commodity in a such a way that the labor’s commodification is almost an afterthought, or a product of this first, more primary and elemental commodification of the body. You have it set up as the worker and his or her machine vs. the slave and his or her field, and I think part of the point of this literature is that that doesn’t quite capture the degree to which the slave’s body is documented and legally recognizable as part of the field, part of the machine, part of the network, part of the engine of exchange. Johnson uses the term anthropophagy in River of Dark Dreams: human flesh is part of what is being processed, worked on, and used and consumed. It is not just that the worker dies and the owner gets a new one vs. the slave as an investment, it is that the peculiar configuration of the slave body in the market of bodies (not just one of labor) makes the idea of the slave an entity that blurs or even obliterates distinctions between labor and property or between subject and object (think of Madison’s Federalist 54). This is part of why that idea gives Jefferson such bad dreams.

        Now again I may be misreading or drawing out unwarranted implications, but I don’t think so, even if I am giving the body of literature in question here a bit of a spin. It strikes me that there is a radical point to be made from the history and the literature that is getting lost in how we talk about it. Thanks, as always.

  2. I think viewing this as a “dichotomy” is part of the problem. During the early republic, I do not see an ability for many people to “opt out” of selling their labor. It was during this era that Jeffersonian judges ruling that embryonic attempts to organize were “conspiracies,” vagrancy ordinances were in vogue, and masters had the right withhold wages as a hedge against workers quitting.

    “Capitalists” also preferred not to hire full fledged white male citizens. Instead of a “dichotomy” it might be more useful to view the world of work as a spectrum.

  3. I would still disagree with the claim that until recently most historians regarded slavery as inefficient. That has certainly not the case among economic historians, unless you define recently as a half century. One of the things that emerged from this half century of research on the efficiency of slavery is that one can only consider the relative efficiency of slavery and free labor in specific contexts. One can’t simply ask which one was more efficient. In the Americas, slavery came to be the dominant mode of production for specific crops, most notably sugar and cotton. These were crops in which there were economies of scale in production and large benefits associated with being able to drive relatively large groups of laborers very intensely during certain parts of the production process. There was slave production of other types of crops and slave labor in industry, but they generally do not seem to have been capable of competing with independent producers and free labor. On the other hand, free labor does not appear to have been capable of competing with slave plantations in sugar and cotton. The use of slave labor was ultimately determined by geography. Where sugar and cotton could be grown, slavery became important. Sokolof and Engerman argue that these initial conditions and crop choice led to concentrations of wealth and political power that had long lasting effects on the development of institutions in these regions.

  4. I would need more information to accept the statement “no system relied on strong private property claims more than slavery did.” I may be misreading this, but I believe you are stating that production on plantations relied on private property (slaves) more so than any other industry.

    Mining claims for example, particularly after the “apex” law was adopted (where you could lay claim to any vein of ore wherever it may go, if that vein peaked on your claim) was a highly valued and fought after form of private property. Claimants were engaged in war underground to block or steal each others precious metals.

  5. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

  6. Pingback: Continuing the Debate on Slavery and Capitalism « The Junto

  7. Pingback: Defining Capitalism in the ‘New History of Capitalism’ – roads to modernity


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: