Sunday, January 13, 2008

Capitalism & Slavery

Today was another classic: Capitalism & Slavery by Eric Williams. While I’ve recently started to buy and annotate for myself a number of books, there’s occasionally a certain pleasure in using a venerable old library copy. Finding annotations from other people can be irritating, but I try to imagine it as a pale successor of medieval marginal commentary. This book has notes from two clearly identifiable hands: one scrawling in Spanish, the other neat and tall in English, making careful stars and boxes, occasionally writing ‘thesis’ next to things.

I can see why people might get excited about this book. It’s a satisfyingly Marxist account of slavery without being, I think, too abstract or simplifying things. So from the right, one can object that it over-emphasizes ‘capital’ and that it denigrates the genuinely moral sources of abolitionism (I don’t think, actually, that it does either). From what I guess we should call the contemporary left, one can object that it systematically subordinates racial factors to economic ones (it does). And also that it contains sentences such as: “The ‘horrors’ of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated” (34). I myself was shocked by the degree to which Williams assimilates the indentured servitude of whites in the early phases of British colonial development and the enslavement of blacks. His argument depends on the essentially economic aspects of these two situations, which are of course juridical radically different. I doubt that today anyone would choose to compare the deceptive strategies of recruiters (spirits, they were called) in London and the slave factories of the African coast, or the poor berthing conditions of both indentured servants and slaves. I’d be better able to evaluate all this if I had more empirical knowledge. At any rate, this kind of economism (no doubt even then played up by Williams for rhetorical effect) is no longer possible now that we’ve become ‘serious’ about experience as a category of analysis.

The central argument of the book is that slavery was in every sense an essential product of the mercantilist system of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Slave labor was preferred to nominally free labor because in the specific place and time of the sugar islands in the later 17th century, it turned a profit. The particular reasons are complex, and have to do with various forms of competition, but the main narrative is that these islands became, for the British, less and less profitable. Eventually, the new industrial economy developing in Britain itself came to practice and then demands the institutions of free trade. The West Indies retained great political power as a result of their spectacular wealth and so continued to enforce their monopolies long after they had ceased to be genuinely advantageous to anyone but the island planters. British capital—now invested in industry and increasingly fluid trade—attacked slavery both because this institution was more valuable to other imperial powers than to Britain, and as a way to undermine the disproportionate and anachronistic power of the West Indians. Without denying the genuine moral fervor of at least a few abolitionists, Williams can none the less assert that it was always and only when the most powerful capitalist factions found a use in it that their rhetoric had any traction in public opinion.

What is to me methodologically interesting about the way Williams put together his argument is the faith it demonstrates in the ability of larger historical trends to deliver intelligibility in the face of genuine local confusion and conflict. There is no such thing, in Williams’ book, as a single unitary ‘capital.’ There are just capitalists, all striving to make the best profit they can with whatever resources are at their disposal. That’s all the ideology anyone in his book needs. In what I suppose is classic Marxist form, the seething mess of history only takes on meaning retrospectively, and even then, much is lost or rendered insignificant. I have to wonder if there’s something about the way history is written today which simply doesn’t allow the existence of such a thing as a historiographically insignificant fact. It may be that there isn’t a place for it any particular book, but each little fragment fits, somehow, into a larger synchronic system. The message of Marxist historicism would be, then, that it’s only later on going to be possible to see what matters and what doesn’t—but that some of it will retrospectively turn out to be irrelevant. Here I wonder if I’m letting contemporary Lacanian post-Marxism sneak into my reading of the implications of Williams’ kind of work.

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