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. Continue reading