Commodification, Specialization, Mechanization

This post is the second in 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. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at Rosenthal’s.

IMG_3913The new historians of capitalism have sometimes been criticised for refusing to offer a definition of their object of study. At the OAH panel, Caitlin Rosenthal (an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley) responded to that criticism directly. The refusal to start out with a strict definition has been, on one level, an asset to recent scholarship—freeing it from earlier dogmatic approaches. But the downside, Rosenthal said, is that it leads to misunderstandings among historians, and between historians and economists. Her tentative definition, then: “Capitalism exists where capital (and through capital, power) is consolidated in such a way that labor can be highly commodified.” Capital is at the centre, but so is labour; and what connects them is the process of commodification.

Drawing on her archival research, Rosenthal presented some provocative evidence for the way slave labour was sometimes commodified in the nineteenth century United States. What makes a commodity isn’t just the capacity to buy and sell it, but its fungibility: the degree to which one unit is like any other. At least some slave-owners and slave-merchants, Rosenthal showed, thought of slave labour in this way, finding ways to price slaves “objectively” (by height or weight, for example) and to quantify their labour power. Because enslaved people were people, this process was always incomplete and subject to resistance. But planters “made an audacious effort” to achieve it, to turn their slaves from people into fungible packets of labour power to be deployed at the planter’s will.

Of course, there’s a difference between commodifying labour and commodifying labourers. For historians and economists who see slavery as a non-capitalist form of production, that difference is essential. It is the wage relation that allows capitalists the flexibility to deploy labour only where and when they need it, where and when the market price is right. Wage labour promotes processes like division of labour, which Adam Smith placed at the centre of his analysis of the growing, new, industrial economy. But rather than hiring the right specialists for each job, slave-owners had to make the most out of the slaves they had. While elsewhere people became more and more interdependent, plantations were becoming more self-sufficient (except, that is, for their fundamental reliance on the cash crop market). Because their labourers were also capital, slave-capitalists had to treat them differently.

Yet Rosenthal’s presentation made me think harder about that distinction. Of course, on larger plantations the division of labour could be thoroughly implemented; slaves who developed specialised skills could also be hired out in a secondary labour market that allowed increased efficiency. And it’s not as though capitalists in free-labour systems didn’t also face limits to their flexibility. Especially in smaller enterprises, workers, servants, and apprentices had to take on multiple roles and could not always be easily fired and replaced. Here too, labourers were also people, with individual and collective powers of resistance; and here too, capitalists often had interests other than maximum efficiency. The commodification of labour was vital to capitalism, but nowhere was it complete or without contradiction.

Along with specialisation comes the question of mechanisation, obviously paradigmatic to nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Was there something about slavery that prevented the drive toward technical innovation and the mechanisation of labour? Planters who invested heavily in slaves might not be particularly interested in replacing them with expensive machinery. But then, capital improvements were expensive and risky for everyone, regardless of the type of labour used. The south did see technical development and mechanisation, just not on the scale of the industrial north. In the antebellum United States, plantation slavery, like other forms of agriculture, grew by expanding more than it did by intensifying. That’s why the question of land was such an important one. None of that helps to draw a sharp dividing line, economically, between slave and free labour systems.

That’s not to say there weren’t good reasons some capitalists preferred slaves to wage labourers. As Rosenthal pointed out, slave labour was as much about control as it was about price. Through systematic and violent coercion, backed by the power of the state, slave-owners could make slaves go to places and perform tasks that free labourers wouldn’t. “Capital’s power to control labour was rarely more extreme,” Rosenthal concluded, “than when labourers themselves were capital.” Just as historians of slavery have worked to tease out the agency and powers of resistance in enslaved people, so historians of capitalism might also help to find the limits, gaps, and contradictions that place power, even just a little, in the hands of labour.

5 responses

  1. So I suppose nobody bothered asking Rosenthal why she wants to continue privileging the antiquated Marxist definition of capitalism in which “commodification of labour” plays the central role ? Is it because that definition permits the kind of hopeless Eurocentrism to which historians of capitalism are addicted? As Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Tirthankar Roy, Gareth Austin etc have pointed out, that Marxist criterion overlooks the other (proto?) capitalist elements in other regions of the world. Or maybe the thraldom is to Polanyi ?

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