Enslaved People Provided the Capital that Made Capitalism: Over 40 million people still live in conditions of slavery in 2018

2nd article below is on the history.

First, from Quartz, July 2019: Today in California, all companies with revenues above $100 million are required to disclose their efforts to fight slavery through checking their supply chains

Slavery has been illegal worldwide for just about four decades, since Mauritania finally abolished it in 1981.

But slavery didn’t end there. According to the latest report by the Walk Free Initiative, presented today (July 17) at the UN Headquarters in New York, there were 40.3 million people living in conditions of slavery in 2018, most of them women.

There isn’t an official legal definition of modern slavery, but the UN describes it as the condition of people whose work “is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty.” Modern slaves can be coerced to work through explicit measures like violence, but also through subtler means like financial pressure, or by limiting someone’s movement by retaining their identification.

While it’s easy to believe that slavery is limited to poor or underdeveloped countries, or countries with a questionable human rights record, it is actually happening everywhere. Recently, for example, there was two cases where diplomats kept staff in their US residencies who were working in conditions of slavery.

The UN and its member states committed to eliminating slavery by 2030, along with human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor. The commitments are part of the UN’s sustainable development goals—a set of ideals the world’s governments pledged to tackle in 2015.

But progress has been little, and slow. According to the report, which surveyed 183 countries (out of 193 UN member states), only 31 countries have ratified the UN-developed protocol on forced labor, a legal framework for countries to identify and target exploitation. The US and many European countries are among those that have yet to ratify it, and all over the world there is a lack of procedures to identify victims of slavery, or provide the support they require.

One area is especially problematic: Business supply chains.

Katharine Bryant, the manager of global research for Walk Free, the anti-slavery organization that published the report, told Quartz that some 16 million victims of slavery work within poorly-monitored supply chains. And that doesn’t include child labor, or exploitative work conditions that don’t limit the freedom of movement.

Fewer than 40 of the countries surveyed have systems and laws in place to prevent businesses from buying products that may have relied on slave labor somewhere along the line of production, and even then the ones that do have laws fail to enforce them effectively. Global circulation of goods makes it extraordinarily challenging to ensure products are slave-labor free because it’s hard to track whether, for example, the components of an item assembled in the US are all made without the use of slave labor somewhere else.

Many countries that supply consumer goods have high percentages of people working in conditions of slavery, enduring long shifts and exhausting conditions without the choice to leave. The fashion industry is notoriously marred by the use of forced labor. So is the tech sector, where companies often fail to monitor the supply chains of the components in their products.

There are some laws aimed at addressing this: A model one is in California, where all companies with revenues above $100 million are required to disclose their efforts to fight slavery through checking their supply chains. However, this still leaves out smaller companies, and the law is so far limited to just the one US state.

The US was one of the first countries to acknowledge the problem of modern slavery in the supply chain of private business and passed laws to address it during the Obama administration, Bryant said. But while the supply chain of American-made goods can usually be verified, the report found that the US actually imports the largest volume of goods that are made with slave labor at some point before it reaches the consumer.

This reality does not take into account the labor practices that don’t strictly fall under the definition of slavery, but are still deeply questionable. “Labor exploitation is a spectrum,” said Bryant, who said the more nuanced the abusive practice, the harder it is to define and control it.

Some countries have had more success fighting slavery and forced labor than others. Australia, for instance, passed a law in 2018 that requires all businesses with more than 36 employees to report on the condition of the workforce, as well as their supply chain. Still, these efforts are yet too isolated, and the law has limited ability to enforce regulations without the cooperation and engagement of the private sector, Bryant said.

Even when the businesses are on board and the legal framework is in place, there is still another important piece missing: Education. Promoting human rights education among people at risk of exploitation—for instance, in communities of migrant workers, or where forced marriages are common practices—is an important step to undertake because large parts of the global population aren’t aware of their rights.

“We see cases where people have been exploited and didn’t realize they were in slavery conditions,” Bryant said.

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  , New School for Social Research 


Racialized chattel slaves were the capital that made capitalism. While most theories of capitalism set slavery apart, as something utterly distinct, because under slavery, workers do not labor for a wage, new historical research reveals that for centuries, a single economic system encompassed both the plantation and the factory.

At the dawn of the industrial age commentators like Rev. Thomas Malthus could not envision that capital — an asset that is used but not consumed in the production of goods and services — could compound and diversify its forms, increasing productivity and engendering economic growth. Yet, ironically, when Malthus penned his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, the economies of Western Europe already had crawled their way out of the so-called “Malthusian trap.” The New World yielded vast quantities of “drug foods” like tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar for world markets. Europeans worked a little bit harder to satiate their hunger for these “drug foods.” The luxury-commodities of the seventeenth century became integrated into the new middle-class rituals like tea-drinking in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, these commodities became a caloric and stimulative necessity for the denizens of the dark satanic mills. The New World yielded food for proletarians and fiber for factories at reasonable (even falling) prices. The “industrious revolution” that began in the sixteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But the “demand-side” tells only part of the story. A new form of capital, racialized chattel slaves, proved essential for the industrious revolution — and for the industrial one that followed.

While slavery existed in human societies since prehistoric times, chattel status had never been applied so thoroughly to human beings as it would be to Africans and African-Americans beginning in the sixteenth century. But this was not done easily, especially in those New World regions where African slaves survived, worked alongside European indentured servants and landless “free” men and women, and bore offspring — as they did in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America.

In the seventeenth century, African slaves and European indentured servants worked together to build what Ira Berlin characterizes as a “society with slaves” along the Chesapeake Bay. These Africans were slaves, but before the end of the seventeenth century, these Africans were not chattel, not fully. Planters and overseers didn’t use them that differently than their indentured servants. Slaves and servants alike were subject to routine corporeal punishment. Slaves occupied the furthest point along a continuum of unequal and coercive labor relations. (Also, see here and here.) Even so, 20% of the Africans brought into the Chesapeake before 1675 became free, and some of those freed even received the head-right — a plot of land — promised to European indentures. Some of those free Africans would command white indentures and own African slaves.

And this would become a problem.

By the 1670s, large landowners — some local planters, some absentees — began to consolidate plantations. This pushed the head-rights out to the least-productive lands on the frontier. In 1676, poor whites joined forces with those of African descent under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon. They torched Jamestown, the colony’s capital. It took British troops several years to bring the Chesapeake under control.

Ultimately, planter elites thwarted class conflict by writing laws and by modeling and encouraging social practices that persuaded those with white skin to imagine that tremendous social significance — inherent difference and inferiority — lay underneath black skin. (Also, see here and here.) New laws regulated social relations — sex, marriage, sociability, trade, assembly, religion — between the “races” that those very laws, in fact, helped to create.

The law of chattel applied to African and African-descended slaves to the fullest extent on eighteenth century plantations. Under racialized chattel slavery, master-enslavers possessed the right to torture and maim, the right to kill, the right to rape, the right to alienate, and the right to own offspring — specifically, the offspring of the female slave. The exploitation of enslaved women’s reproductive labor became a prerogative that masters shared with other white men. Any offspring resulting from rape increased the master’s stock of capital.

After the American Revolution, racialized chattel slavery appeared — to some — as inconsistent with the natural rights and liberties of man. Northern states emancipated their few enslaved residents. But more often, racialized chattel slavery served as the negative referent that affirmed the freedom of white males. (Also, see here.) In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson — who never freed his enslaved sister-in-law, the mother of his own children — postulated that skin color signaled immutable, inheritable inferiority:

It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction… blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind … This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.

Even so, the former plantation colonies of the Upper South stood in a sorry state after Independence, beset by plummeting commodity prices and depleted soils. After the introduction of the cotton gin in 1791, these master-enslavers found a market for their surplus slave-capital.

The expanding cotton frontier needed capital and the Upper South provided it. Racialized chattel slavery proved itself the most efficient way to produce the world’s most important crop. The U.S. produced no cotton for export in 1790. In the antebellum period, the United States supplied most of the world’s most traded commodity, the key raw ingredient of the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to cotton, the United States ranked as the world’s largest economy on the eve of the Civil War.

From about 1790 until the Civil War, slave-traders and enslavers chained 1 million Americans of African descent into coffles and marched or shipped them down to southeast and southwest states and territories. They were sold at auction houses located in every city in the greater Mississippi Valley.

After auction, reconstituted coffles traveled ever deeper into the dark heart of the Cotton Kingdom (also, see here) and after 1836, into the new Republic of Texas. Five times more slaves lived in the United States in 1861 than in 1790, despite the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 and despite the high levels of infant mortality in the Cotton Kingdom. Slavery was no dying institution.

By 1820, the slave-labor camps that stretched west from South Carolina to Arkansas and south to the Gulf Coast allowed the United States to achieve dominance in the world market for cotton, the most crucial commodity of the Industrial Revolution. At that date, U.S. cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity. Without those exports, the national economy as a whole could not acquire the goods and the credit it required from abroad.

And the Industrial Revolution that produced those goods depended absolutely on what Kenneth Pomeranz identifies as the “ghost acres” of the New World: those acres seeded, tended, and harvested by slaves of African descent. Pomeranz estimates that if, in 1830, Great Britain had to grow for itself, on its own soil the calories that its workers consumed as sugar, or if it had to raise enough sheep to replace the cotton it imported from the United States, this would have required no less than an additional 25 million acres of land.

In New England and (mostly) Manchester, waged-workers spun cotton thread which steam-powered mills spun into cloth. Once a luxury good, cotton cloth now radically transformed the way human beings across the globe outfitted themselves and their surroundings. Manchester and Lowell discovered an enormous market in the same African-American slaves that grew, tended and cleaned raw cotton, along with the same workers who operated the machines that spun and wove that cotton into cloth. According to Seth Rockman’s forthcoming book, Plantation Goods and the National Economy of Slavery, the ready-made clothing industry emerged in response to the demand from planters for cheap garments to clothe their slaves.

Slavery proved crucial in the emergence of American finance. Profits from commerce, finance, and insurance related to cotton and to slaves flowed to merchant-financiers located in New Orleans and mid-Atlantic port cities, including New York City, where a global financial center grew up on Wall Street.

Cotton Kings themselves devised financial innovations that channeled the savings of investors across the nation and Western Europe to the Mississippi Valley. Cotton Kings, slave traders, and cotton merchants demanded vast amounts of credit to fund their ceaseless speculation and expansion. Planter-enslavers held valuable, liquid collateral: 2 million slaves worth $2 billion, a third of the wealth owned by all U.S. citizens, according to Ed Baptist. With the help of firms like Baring Brothers, Brown Brothers, and Rothschilds, the Cotton Kings sold bonds to capitalize new banks from which they secured loans (pledging their slaves and land for collateral). These bonds were secured by the full faith and credit of the state that chartered the bank. Even as northern states and European empires emancipated their own slaves, investors from these regions shared in the profits of the slave-labor camps in the Cotton Kingdom.

The Cotton Kings did something that neither Freddy, nor Fannie, nor any of “too big to fail” banks managed to do. They secured an explicit and total government guarantee for their banks, placing taxpayers on the hook for interest and principal.

It all ended in the Panic of 1837, when the bubble in southeastern land and slaves burst. Southern taxpayers refused to pay the debts of the planter-banks. Southern States defaulted on those bonds, hampering the South’s ability to raise money through the securities markets for more than a century. Cotton Kings would become dependent as individuals on financial intermediaries tied to Wall Street, firms like Lehman Brothers (founded in Alabama).

After the Erie Canal opened in 1824, the North slowly began to reorient towards timber and coal extraction, grain production, livestock, transportation construction, and the manufacture of a vast array of commodities for all manner of domestic and international markets. Chicago supplanted New Orleans. By the 1850s, industrial and agricultural capitalists above the Mason-Dixon line no longer needed cotton to the same extent that they once did. With the notable exception of Wall Street interests in New York City, Northerners began to resist the political power — and the territorial ambitions — of the Cotton Kings. Sectional animosity set the stage for the Civil War.

But up to that point, slave-capital proved indispensable to the emergence of industrial capitalism and to the ascent of the United States as a global economic power. Indeed, the violent dispossession of racialized chattel slaves from their labor, their bodies, and their families — not the enclosure of the commons identified by Karl Marx — set capitalism in motion and sustained capital accumulation for three centuries.

Adapted from a lecture in the team-taught course “Rethinking Capitalism” at The New School for Social Research.


Edward E. Baptist: The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.

Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.

Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.

But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.

As the historian Jelani Cobb pointed out to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, the reviewer’s ideas about slavery’s history are not actually as uncommon as many of us would like to believe. He’s right: All across the American south, you can go to historic plantation sites still pushing the idea that slaves who had a “good” master were happy, and “faithful”.

If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.

For instance: white people have had numerous opportunities, especially after Ferguson, to hear what African Americans think about how policing takes placewhen white civilians aren’t around. Yet twice as many white Americans as black Americans still think that police treat African Americans fairly.

Perhaps this is because, according to a recent survey, 75% of white Americans have zero black American friends. Surely if more white people knew more black people on a personal level, some would be more ready to accept the accounts from African Americans about how white privilege affects their own lives.

Instead, we’ve still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which re-enforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it. In the meantime, both historians and advocates of contemporary change often have to turn to the strategy of getting white people to vet black testimony before other white people will believe it.

Back in 1845 on the Cambria, as the attackers surrounded Douglass, threatening to throw him overboard, he told the other white passengers that if they didn’t believe his words, he would speak the words of the enslavers. Straight from the book of state law in the south, Douglas read aloud those punishments allotted to slaves, then – “lashings on the back, the cropping of ears and other revolting disfigurements” – as now: “for the most venial crimes, and even frequently when no crime whatever had been committed”.


“King thinks that racism divides the people who are most vulnerable and most disempowered for economic and political reasons,” said Brandon M. Terry, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard and an editor of a new book on Dr. King’s political theories.

“In a community where there are really stark racial tensions it’s going to be really difficult to organize a large enough group to fight back against exploitative industries or corporations that don’t want to do their fair share to take care of environmental hazards,” Dr. Terry said. “All those people have to do is invoke the idea of a racial interest and they can split those groups quite easily.”

Several studies have shown that unequal societies invest less in environmental policies, monitoring and research.

“In more segregated cities, communities of color and the poor might be less able to have civic engagement power and influence land-use decision making,” said Dr. Morello-Frosch. “They have less ability to resist” when decisions are made about polluting activities, she said.

Dr. King may have foreshadowed this in his 1963 speech in Detroit. “Segregation is a cancer in the body politic,” he said, “which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”