Capitalism & Slavery in the United States
Most definitions of capitalism build from a variant of freedom: free labor, or free markets. But not everyone agrees. Since Eric Williams’ landmark 1944 study Capitalism & Slavery, scholars in the black radical tradition have challenged sanitized narratives about capitalism’s rise. Williams argued that a pivotal era of economic development – the industrial revolution – inextricably relied on unfreedom: enslaved labor, expropriation, and conquest. Today, the question of how much capitalism owes to slavery remains a matter of intense debate, even drawing the attention of non-academic publications like the Economist and The New York Times. This course will examine that debate in detail.
Our readings and discussion will cluster around points of contention: is slavery less productive than capitalism, or unable to yield innovation? Do markets – the traffic in money, goods, and people – exhibit the entanglement of slavery and capitalism? Or do markets simply shuttle commodities between two distinct economic systems? Would we have had the industrial revolution without the cotton slavery of the south, or the sugar slavery of the Caribbean? What is free labor, anyway? What explains the rise of racism, and is slavery or capitalism the cause?
The purpose of this class is not only to think critically about the terms slavery and capitalism, but also to consider the legacies of these systems. To this end, the final project will require mounting an argument for or against reparations for slavery in the United States, drawing on the course readings.