`Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,’ (with Giorgio Riello), Journal of Global History 15, 2 (2020), 1-20

In this largely historiographical essay, Giorgio Riello and me look at the relationship between
slavery and capitalism, made famous 75 years ago by Eric Williams, by looking in particular
at scholarship produced by an American-based historiographical movement that goes by the
term `the New History of Capitalism.’ The new history of capitalism (NHC) places a great
deal of emphasis on slavery as a crucial world institution. Slavery, it is alleged, arose out of,
and underpinned, capitalist development. This article starts by showing the intellectual and
scholarly foundations of some of the broad conclusions of the NHC. It proceeds by arguing
that capitalist transformation must rely on a global framework of analysis. The article
considers three critiques in relation to the NHC. First, the NHC overemphasizes the
importance of coercion to economic growth in the eighteenth century. We argue that what has
been called ‘war capitalism’ might be better served by an analysis in which the political
economy of European states and empires, rather than coercion, is a key factor in the
transformation of capitalism at a global scale. Second, in linking slavery to industrialization,
the NHC proposes a misleading chronology. Cotton, produced in large quantities in the
nineteenth-century United States came too late to cause an Industrial Revolution which, we
argue, developed gradually from the latter half of the seventeenth century and which was well
established by the 1790s, when cotton started to arrive from the American South. During
early industrialization, sugar, not cotton, was the main plantation crop in the Americas. Third,
the NHC is overly concentrated on production and especially on slave plantation economies.
It underplays the ‘power of consumption’, where consumers came to purchase increasing
amounts of plantation goods, including sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton, and coffee. To see
slavery’s role in fostering the preconditions of industrialization and the Great Divergence, we
must tell a story about slavery’s place in supporting the expansion of consumption, as well as
a story about production.
We conclude that scholars need to consider, in discussing slavery’s contribution to economic
growth in eighteenth-century European empires, that we need to return to the global. If we
accept the NHC’s totalizing tendency, the Americas, later narrowed to the United States,
become the new core in a Wallersteinian narrative. This narrative is to the detriment of
explanations that have emphasized a multiplicity of factors in the connections between
capitalism and slavery; that have adopted comparative methodologies (between Europe and
China, or Europe and India); and that have provided much thought on the economic
mechanisms at play, beyond the commonplace view that the violence of thugs always wins.
Thugs may win a great deal, but they win only when the structures that maintain their power
make their thuggery viable.
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