This 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?