Is slavery essential to capitalism?


US slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

African American slavery is indisputably an ugly stain on history. It was also necessary to the establishment of modern capitalism.

Until about the mid-1970s, historians treated American slavery as a pre-capitalist institution. Now, scholars increasingly highlight that Southern slavery was a key to establishing the US position in the world economy. More than half of US exports in the early 19th century consisted of raw cotton, extracted on slave plantations; slaves were employed in many more industries than cotton-picking; the Northern economy relied in part on the Southern; and many former slave owners would become established in ‘post-slavery’ capitalist institutions.

Although Northern capitalism had its advantages over Southern slavery (for example, wage labourers must not be housed by their employers), the system died because the abolitionist movement killed it:

Slavery did not die because it was unproductive or unprofitable, as some earlier historians have argued. Slavery was not some feudal remnant on the way to extinction. It died because of violent struggle, because enslaved workers continually challenged the people who held them in bondage… and because a courageous group of abolitionists struggled against some of the dominant economic interests of their time.1

So now, has slavery been abolished? Sadly, no. Instead, it has been outsourced: through the prison system (exempted from the abolition of slavery in the US constitution), and through border regimes. In 2013 the United Nations estimated that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry.2

A report on labour conditions in NZ waters found that fishermen worked 15 to even 53 hours, for as little as 49 cents an hour.3 Many ships fly under ‘flags of convenience’, flags of countries without shipping regulations, despite the owners and crews not coming from those countries. Banning ‘flags of convenience’ would make legal abuses easier to solve, and is a key demand of maritime unions internationally.

Laws and regulations can in some cases protect these workers. In Aotearoa, the International Transport Federation hires an inspector to examine ships in New Zealand ports for compliance with labour laws. Let me repeat that, however: one inspector. Attempting to overcome modern slavery in shipping is like attempting to stop a tsunami with a plunger.

It comes down to the bottom line. Corporations will do anything to extract profit and cut wages, below $1 an hour if possible. This can be stopped in various places and times, through both laws and collective action, but while profiteers run labour processes in general, they will always utilise slavery where they can get away with it.

1Sven Beckert, Slavery and Capitalism, The Chronicle of Higher Education

2 Lauren Bradford, Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: Thailand and Cambodia, Inside Investor

3Tess McClure, Slavery on NZ seas: rape, bonded labour and abuse widespread on fishing boats, Stuff Business Day


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