Book: Capitalism & Slavery, by Eric Williams (1944)

This has been on my “to read” list for a couple of years now, ever since coming across it in a British Empire seminar, and I finally picked it up for my dissertation.

It’s pretty much a seminal, though not uncontroversial, work on the history of the slave trade and industrial revolution, and how the latter built upon the former; and, in particular, how the abolition of the slave trade was not purely humanitarian but itself economically motivated.

He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependent industries right back to the seventeenth century, detailing the economic reasoning behind it at each stage; why certain industries found slave labour profitable (generally those which were both labour-intensive and land-intensive, like sugar and cotton), and why, as industrial and geopolitical developments occurred over the course of the eighteenth century, the political power of the West Indian plantation owners was reduced. I was particularly interested in some of the ideological motivations, both for the development of slavery itself and for the abolition, and how these hid the material reasons behind both of these processes.

At the beginning of the slave trade he details how the concept of racism (other authors might argue, even the concept of race) was secondary to economic concerns; racism only developed as a justification when it became clear that the African slave trade was a profitable source of labour. Towards its end, he gives many examples of double standards applied against British versus non-British slave labour; campaigns against slave-produced sugar, for example, were not (in most cases, at least until decades later) accompanied by those against slave-produced cotton. On another level, he also discusses the contempt many anti-slavery campaigners had for the working class (and, conversely, the contempt some working-class activists had for Africans) — ‘Saint’ William Wilberforce, he says, ‘was familiar with everything that went on in the hold of a slave ship, but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft’.

He doesn’t go into much, if any, detail about the period after abolition; I’ve heard the claim that ex-slaveowners used the capital (or the compensation) to invest in developing industry in Britain, but there’s little here to support or refute that, nor much about ongoing British dependence on slavery post-1833.

An interesting, though disappointing, aspect was the section on slaves’ own struggles against slavery. This was mostly detailed in the final chapter, an addition to the thesis which formed the original basis for the work, but failed to go into much depth; other books are likely to be better on the topic (C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins comes to mind).

An aside: a little while ago I spotted, on Goodreads, a new edition re-titled “British Capitalism and British Slavery”, with the claim that this “more aptly captures Williams’s work”. This seemed suspicious from the outset: an attempt to limit the scope and thus absolve non-British capitalism of complicity in slavery. Capitalism even by the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a global phenomenon, and British industry depended on (and defended) slavery in America decades after it was abolished in the Empire. The conclusion confirms this feeling, explicitly arguing against titling the book “British Capitalism”. This is expanded on in the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, which quotes from letters between Williams and the (American) publisher in which he specifically opposes any title that would limit its scope to Britain and the British West Indies. Retitling the book posthumously, against the author’s explicit wishes, seems deceitful; giving the book a title which the text of the book itself argues against just seems incompetent.

Commodity Fetishism and Technological Solutions

A common observation among my group of friends is that “you can’t apply a technological solution to a social problem”; broadly speaking, that if a problem is fundamentally caused by human behaviour, technology can provide, at best, a temporary fix, until humans modify their behaviour to bypass the solution. Technology can’t, in many (perhaps not all) cases, address the fundamental causes of problems. And yet, somehow, it’s a recurring theme; a lot of security-related technology seems to fall into this category, for example.

Completely unrelated to all this, or so I thought, I’ve been trying to get my head around Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish:

As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

(Capital, vol. 1, p. 165, Penguin edition; emphasis mine.)

What I understand him to be arguing, in short, is that (in capitalist societies) people tend to see the value of a commodity as being, somehow, a property of that commodity or based on a relationship with other commodities (e.g., money), when in fact it’s a result of the relationships between the people who own commodities.

So I started to wonder if this could apply much more broadly; isn’t (for example) the Thatcherite–Reaganite refrain of There Is No Alternative rooted in the same assumptions? That is, it’s based in the assumption (or the assertion) that economic conditions are an unchangeable fact, the result of unquestionable laws of nature (a relationship between things) and not a result of decisions made by human beings who benefit from this state of affairs rather than the alternative, and who can impose this state of affairs  on others (a relationship between people).

You can see this at work in any discussion of the markets, which are (we are expected to believe) mystical forces uncontrolled by human desire, rather than some thousands of people around the world acting in their own interests; one memory of this that stands out in my mind was the days of discussion between the 2010 general election and the subsequent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The markets are unhappy. No mention of the people behind the markets, the people who wanted the best outcome for their own investments at the expense of other possible outcomes; simply an angry god, beyond human understanding or control, that must be appeased at all costs.

That seems to me to be what we’re seeing (perhaps at a more abstract level) with the current general election. Labour is unelectable because that’s the way things are. The Conservatives (or, “Theresa May’s Team”, as I hear they’re rebranding themselves) are strong and stable leaders because that’s the way things are. These assumptions appear to be entrenched even within the Labour Party, whose right wing insists that Corbyn will be (or already is) a failure because he fails to accept this framing. They’re reflected both in governmental economic policy (which can’t consider anything but cutting taxes and reducing expenditure: there is no alternative) and the priorities of every company attempting to use new technology to ‘solve’ a problem rooted in socioeconomic conditions (AI being the latest buzzword, but not the first).

Too often I think the first problem faced by the left is simply accepting the framing of problems that’s defined for us by the right, rather than redefining it in our own terms and with our own priorities. More and more, I’m starting to realize that this framing influences more aspects of society than just politics (and, after all, it’s to be expected; the separation of ‘politics’ from society and the economy is artificial). Dozens of startups spring up with a ‘clever’ algorithm or app to ‘solve’ problems facing employers or landlords (for example); the problems are simultaneously assumed to be unavoidable facts of life that are, nevertheless, fixable with a monthly or yearly subscription. This is doubly incorrect; on the one hand, the problems exist only because of the current socioeconomic structures, as a result of human actions that shape and are shaped by those structures; on the other, they’re unsolvable as long as those structures exist.

Of course, I don’t entirely know where I’m going with this; I don’t even know if my interpretation of Marx here is at all relevant, and I certainly don’t know how socialists might be able, in practice, to push back against the illusion that right-wing economic dogma is a law of nature. But asking the correct questions might be a starting point.

Book: Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert (2014)

I got the impression, when reading this, that Beckert may have simply wanted to write a history of capitalism; on the other hand, perhaps cotton really was the original subject, and the sheer scale of its impact on capitalism came later. Either way, this really is about more than just cotton, and gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism developed from simple trade networks into an all-encompassing system of production and control; it also gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism and imperialism grew up together, intertwined, and how commercial interests influenced national policy. Globalization, and corporate lobbying, are far from new phenomena.

I read this as part of my research for a dissertation on the nineteenth-century British cotton industry, so I tended to skim over the sections on manufacturing in other countries, as well as the final chapters past 1900. Nevertheless, the British cotton industry and its relation to cotton farming in India, America, and Egypt are a major theme of this book, as well as the ways in which industrial capitalism really depended on violence and slavery (what Beckert calls “war capitalism” and Marx called primitive accumulation).

It’s extremely well-referenced, covering a wide range of academic literature and primary sources on the nineteenth century (at least), one of the things which made it so useful. I may have picked this up in a normal bookshop but it’s really an academic work; despite that, it’s pretty readable by the standards of mainstream non-fiction. As for the reviews on Goodreads that accuse it of Marxist bias — I see no sign of it. If you think that a history of capitalism is going to be entirely positive about capitalism, then, of course, the truth seems like bias. (Indeed, if anything, the author might have benefitted from more Marxism, not less; it would have simplified the analysis a little, and avoided reinventing categories like “war capitalism”.)