This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.
As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization.
Beckert and his fellow “new historians of capitalism” have made it their task (building on the work of earlier pioneers from what he called the margins of the profession, including C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois) to push back against this “utopian” account. In his book, Empire of Cotton, Beckert introduced the concept of “war capitalism” to emphasise the role not just of violence, but of state-sponsored, state-perpetrated violence in constructing the global processes of production that characterise the capitalist economy. Plantation slavery in the American south was one part of a larger system that incorporated many different regimes of labour and forms of coercion. In Egypt and India, Africa and South America also, states and capitalist entrepreneurs organised violent mechanisms by which to extract the cotton that, Beckert claims, drove European economic growth during the nineteenth century.
In his comments to the roundtable, Beckert condensed and reiterated some of the positions he staked out in Empire of Cotton. What interested me the most, and made me rethink my reading of the book, was the way he framed his concept of “war capitalism,” within which slavery was a crucial element, in terms of the weakness of capitalist forces. Market mechanisms, Beckert argues, simply didn’t have the power to transform the globe in the way that capitalists needed; so they used state-backed violence instead. In a notion that was picked up in Caitlin Rosenthal’s talk afterwards, Beckert emphasised the political power inherent in slavery: slavery as a system of rule as much as a system of production. Political strength had to be exerted before capitalism’s economic logic could take hold.
As Peter James Hudson has pointed out, Beckert’s account of “war capitalism”—especially as expressed in his roundtable remarks—reads a lot like Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation,” the historical moment (albeit an extremely long moment) in which violent expropriation made capitalism possible. But if Marx’s notion emphasises, well, accumulation—the monopolisation of land, resources, and labour by first-generation capitalists—Beckert seems to want to draw attention to something slightly different: destruction. War capitalism may be less about what capitalists gained than what other people lost. The structures of social organisation, law, government, culture, and community that preceded the dominance of capital were also the greatest barriers to its expansion. It was these that had to be, in many cases, violently destroyed. Just as Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” paves the way for new heights of capitalist innovation, Beckert’s war capitalism broke down institutions of resistance. In this light, we could imagine primitive accumulation as less like the dragon’s hoard of gold… more its annihilating fire.