The crisis of slavery in the New World has always been a major topic of scholarship and public debate. From the time of abolition to current Black Lives Matter, the end of a centuries-old, adaptive, and powerful institution has been a sort of puzzle.

Today, popular will, mobs, and riots have been unable to change regressive taxation, the property structure, ecological devastation, and the militarized policies of U.S.-led western geopolitics. How was it that they could do away with slavery?

The short answer is: they could not. At least, not alone.

Slavery was eventually overthrown in the Americas as a result of social action within broader processes of transformative change in capitalism itself.

But it is not easy to see it. And this has all to do with our trained incapacity to see capital in history.

Capital and capitalism form an important dimension of the scholarly discussion about the crisis of slavery in the Americas but are often used unreflexively as ahistorical equivalents to money and markets, respectively. This conflation is problematic.

Since New World slavery reproduced itself through profits, productivity, and other market rationales, its crisis came to be, thus, understood through a binary reasoning. Some said that slavery was incompatible with modern capitalism (equated with wage labor) and died because of its archaism. Others argued that slavery was capitalism by another name (because it was profit driven), therefore an economically dynamic institution eventually crushed by non-market forces like politics, social resistance, and morality.

Both views are deeply misleading. The first, shared by Eric Williams and his followers, depicts capitalism and slavery as external poles of a non-dialectical duality. The latter, espoused by the New Economic History and most of the New History of Capitalism, portrays capitalism and slavery as the undifferentiated whole of a non-dialectal identity.

More importantly, they both take capital as an unchanging thing (money, machines) and capitalism for a seamless continuum of market exchange and economic growth without internal breaks or discontinuities throughout modern history.

In a recent article, I outlined an alternative approach to reframe the problem by historicizing capital as an analytical category of social change from a global perspective.

My claim is that the ultimate crisis of New World slavery is best understood as an expression of the global geographical remaking of capitalist accumulation over the nineteenth century.  This formulation shifts the focus of analysis from categories of classical economics (profit, efficiency, productivity, entrepreneurialism) to those inspired by critical theory, such as value, global value relations, and world geographies of accumulation.

Classical and neo-classical categories are the heart and soul of economic theory. When used in the capitalism and slavery debate, they take price incentive as a normalizing template for assessing the performance of plantations as if their material reproduction were a mere matter of business accounting. The history of world capitalism is reduced to the nutshell of balance sheets.

These are bad abstractions.

(Hence the binary thinking mentioned above).

In contrast, critical value theory offers a more adequate framework inasmuch as it allows for the incorporation of historical time and space into the analysis. Here, the notion of value, one of Marx’s path-breaking concepts, plays a key role.

Value is a historically specific social form of wealth. It gives the objects of human wants (food, clothing, inputs and the like), which Marx calls “use values”, a social substance born out of the synchronization of labor processes under competitive pressures through the price form. In capitalism, value is the true purpose and meaning of wealth.

In our social life, wealth is not the physical collection of objects and goods. It is, rather, the abstract accumulation of value temporarily embodied in those objects and goods.  Cotton fiber, for example, is cotton fiber (because of its materiality) and also not cotton fiber (because it is also value).

Not only do commodities have a twofold character in capitalism. So does labor. Since any “commodity contains a duplication”, being a physical object and abstract relation, any labor represented in the commodity “also must have a double character”: concrete labor (the socially organized act of making objects of human wants) and abstract labor (synchronizing processes mediated by value).

Value creation is never confined to the point of production. It requires a social formation that plays with the twofold character of capitalist labor through multiple spatial-temporal scales. A social formation that morphs concrete into abstract labor, abstract labor into world abstract labor, world abstract labor into world accumulation, and world accumulation, the end point of the process, into the assumption of concrete labor, its starting point.

There’s no value in one country. Value is born worldwide. It is a global real abstraction.

Value notions have the potential to recast the capitalism and slavery debate in innovative ways.

Capital and capitalism are no more fixed, external conditions for the reproduction of slavery as suggested in the non-dialectical duality view (Eric Williams and his followers). Nor are capital and capitalism the same as slavery as pointed out in the non-dialectical unity view (New Economic History and most of the New History of Capitalism).

On the contrary. Since value is the outcome of worldwide synchronizing labor processes, and since labor processes are ecology-remaking and demography-dependent, the composition of capital changes accordingly. Capital in (say) 1770 is not the same as in 1820 nor in 1860.

In each historical moment of accumulation, plantation profits might be doing equally great, but that is only half the story.

Capital has its changing organic composition, its changing socially necessary turnover time, and its changing metabolic needs. Its contradictions are then processed through reorganizing global trade circuits, reconfiguring the global countryside, and rearranging concrete forms of labor organization. The positional value of slavery changed accordingly within the shifting frame of capital.

The scholarship presents the period 1780-1860 as a homogenous block (after all, a market is a market is a market). However, the shifting composition of industrial capital consistently reshaped spatial relations between town and country, capital and labor, and production and consumption, engendering overlapping layers of a world geography of accumulation that both stimulated and challenged slavery.

My claim is that by remaking the spatiality of capital during the nineteenth century, value relations transformed the temporality of slavery, setting the global historical conditions for both its expansion and its crisis.

I don’t have the space to elaborate this thesis empirically here. I can only say that between 1780 and 1820, large-scale investment in fixed capital (mechanization) mediated by value relations led to a series of permanent pressures in all stages of the circulation of capital, from the supply of raw materials for machinery (say, cotton) and food for the workforce (sugar, coffee, wheat) to the distribution and consumption of finished goods (mainly, textiles).

Each of these time-determined metabolic needs expressed a contradiction: capital and ecology, capital and labor, and capital and consumption. And each contradiction was fixed by a layer of world geography: plantation labor in Cuba, Brazil, and the southern U.S. (for cheap cotton, coffee, sugar), peasant and petty-commodity production in the Atlantic and Mediterranean (for cheap wheat), and consumption in the East (for textiles).  As the British West Indies fell short of meeting such demands, they fell prey to the rising abolitionist tide.

Industrial capital went on changing its world composition. Between 1830 and 1860, the cotton cycle lost its place as the leading sector of the Industrial Revolution to coal and iron. Money derived from cotton but not absorbable by cotton mills financed the fabulous age of the railroads, prompting a new revolutionary magnitude of fixed capital investment. The new metabolic needs transformed processes of accumulation worldwide, speeding up the velocity of workforce migration, landscape remaking, and the circulation of goods, which changed the relations of power between slavery and freedom towards free labor in places like the United States, the stronghold of nineteenth-century human bondage.

Value did not destroy slavery, human actions did. My point is that those actions were mediated by value relations. It is high time to see capital in history again both in past and present. Perhaps all the more so now, that the combined crises of world democracy, world governance and global ecology demand collective action, but collective action seems insufficient to resolve them on its own.

Tâmis Parron is assistant professor of the History Institute at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and member of the UFF Center on Global Inequalities. His research focuses on the history of slavery, state building, and capitalism in the nineteenth century from the perspective of world system, conceptual history, and critical theory. He wrote, among others, The Politics of Slavery in Brazil (2011), and Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba (2016). 

To read more, see Tâmis Parron. “Transcending the Capitalism and Slavery Debate: Slavery and World Geographies of Accumulation” in Theory and Society 2022.

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