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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading