Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question

Article excerpt

What does it mean to speak of the "commodification of people" as a domain of historical inquiry? Why put it that way? What does it mean to say that a person has been commodified? Is this about slavery? Prostitution? Wage labor? The sale of donated organs, fetal tissue samples, and sections of the human genome? Is it about the way that my personal data is sold without me knowing anything about it? Is it about the Coke machine in my kid's school cafeteria-the sale of her unwitting little field of vision, her tiny stomach, and her enormous desire to be grown-up? At first glance, the phrase seems impossibly baggy: inviting all sorts of comparisons of the incommensurable, and posing questions that sit at odd angles to the standard categories of historical inquiry. But perhaps that's the point: by inviting comparisons, the editors have framed a question that draws attention to the connections and similarities between historical processes that are usually analyzed as if they were distinct-slavery, wage labor, and prostitution, say-and calls attention to the historically embedded distinctions that separate them from one another as ethical, legal, and analytical subjects.

In reflecting on these wonderful essays, I want first to review the older version of the question out of which this one seems to have been conjugated: the Question of the relation of "caDitalism" to "slaverv." And I want to do so with particular attention to the work of Karl Marx and the most influential of those who have written about slavery in the United States in orthodox Marxian terms; for it is, after all, this intellectual tradition that has most actively kept alive the idea that when you talk about "capitalism" and "slavery" you are talking about two things, rather than one. Finally, I want to propose a heterodox reading of a short section of Capital that foregrounds the question, which Marx so insistently repressed throughout the rest of the text: the question of slavery.

If it is hard to think about slavery as capitalism, that is because it is supposed to be: slavery is, in some sense, "unthinkable" in the historical terms that frame western political economy.1 In both Smithian and Marxian economics, slavery serves as an un-theorized historical backdrop to the history of capitalism, an un-thought (even when present) past to the inevitable emergence of the present. This foundational exclusion of the fact of slavery from the framing of political economy, I would argue, has had consequences that bedevil us down to the present moment.

James Oakes recently has argued that Adam Smith and the "bourgeois" political economists who followed him spent a great deal of time and energy trying to reconcile what everybody knew-that slavery would inevitably give way to "free" labor because of the superior capacity of self-interest as a tool of labor discipline-with what seemed nevertheless to be everywhere the stubborn fact: slaveholders were making a great deal of money. Smith resolved this problem, according to Oakes, by passing it off to other regions of intellectual inquiry. Perhaps it was the "pride" of man that made "him love to domineer," combined with the excessive fertility of the tropics, that accounted for the persistence of slavery m the face of its inherent inefficiency and inevitable decline.2 Perhaps, that is, the persistence of slavery was a question to be answered by psychology or geography (by moral philosophy or natural history, to use terms Smith would recognize) but certainly not political economy.

If Smith displaced the question of slavery, it might be said that Marx simply evaded it. The magnificent critique of the commodity form with which Marx began Capital, for instance, unfolds from a detailed consideration of the nature of a bolt of linen. Out of the dual character of that linen as an object and a commodity-having a use value and an exchange value-Marx develops the notion of "the fetishism of commodities," the habit of mind by which things are made to seem as if they exist in relation to one another (compared according to their prices) rather than to their vises and the circumstances of their production (which reflected the larger matrix of social relations). …

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