05 July 2016

Capitalism and slavery, old and new

This article by Blake Smith in Aeon magazine is an incredibly important one: I would emphatically exhort my gentle readers to read it all the way through. The Whigs – the libertarians and ‘liberal’ reformers who advocated free trade, deregulation and open markets in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – were not the enemies of the slave trade, as many Americans nowadays are sadly wont to think; no, indeed, the Whigs were actually the slave trade’s most ardent defenders. As Blake Smith argues in his article, the early advocates of laisser-faire economics, particularly Vincent de Gournay (noted influence on Adam Smith), pointed to the trade as a shining example of the growth that could be spurred by getting noisome government regulations out of the way of business – in this case, the business of kidnapping Africans and working them to death producing monoculture crops on large factory-style plantations in the colonies. In Smith’s words: ‘the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise’!

In an era when a radical movement based on industry and mass communication had not yet been born, the resistance to the slave trade was left largely in the hands of religious, High Church, conservative, monarchical – that is to say, Tory – moralists. People like, to give just a few examples: Samuel Johnson, Bishop Beilby Porteus, Jonathan Swift, James Oglethorpe, Robert Southey and Lord Dunmore. And later: Richard Oastler, Granville Sharp, Sir John Colborne, Bishop John Strachan and (famously) William Wilberforce. By and large, these men opposed slavery not on the grounds of any radical levelling notions of complete social equality, but precisely from those religious convictions that demanded a certain level of dignity and mutual respect between all human beings as creations of God. For very similar related reasons, they detested and opposed the Whiggish ideologies that would generate capitalism – a system they viewed as presumptuous on the part of the bourgeois arrivistes of mercantile trade, degrading to the poor, and debilitating to received forms of human relations that depended on mutual trust rather than on contractual obligations. Again, slavery was not only not inimical to capitalism, it was an expression of capitalism at its most brutal, with all the veneer of civility stripped away. Slavery is an enforceable capitalist contract wherein the slave is obligated for everything up to and including her own body, to a master who has no possible motive to earn or value her trust.

It is worthy of note that slavery has not gone away. It has simply changed its face, but it still exists and it is still defended largely by the same people. As Chris Hedges takes pains to tell us, the grisly market in human flesh continues to operate, though this time through legal and semi-legal avenues of prostitution and pornography. Some of the victims come from sub-Saharan Africa (in particular from Nigeria and Ghana), but Central America, Eastern Europe, East and especially Southeast Asia are where most of the victims and enslaved women and children tend to come from. And though a significant number are internally trafficked within their countries of origin (such as Thailand), the destination countries are very often the same masters of trade and commerce which have traditionally dominated the slave trade: Western Europe (including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy), the old Ottoman Empire (Turkey and Greece), Saudi Arabia, Japan and the United States of America. It is true that human trafficking – that is, outright kidnapping and selling of human beings – accounts for possibly a tenth or more of the entire sex industry worldwide (that is to say, by no means all), but significantly more numbers of prostitutes are coerced in far subtler ways into ‘the trade’. Furthermore, legalisation of prostitution has been shown to increase the incidence of human trafficking inflows whilst restriction and prohibition of prostitution have been shown to decrease incidence of human trafficking; however, the authors of the study which uncovered these statistics still refused to sanction the obvious policy choice – because that choice might ‘overlook potential benefits’ of legal prostitution, such as restricting ‘freedom of choice’ (to which the obvious question arises: whose choice?).

Even though few modern-day Whigs and libertarians with any historical self-awareness would be so gauche as to support human trafficking outright (and even go so far as to deny any link between the two, and even call them ‘polar opposites’), they still have any number of reasons to support the single largest and most profitable industry in which slaves are trafficked. Chief among them being – yes – the idea of ‘free trade’. As long as money is being made, it seems, the industry should be deregulated, no matter how many millions of innocent Hispanic, Eastern European and Asian women worldwide are hurt in the process. That was, of course, the same justification for slavery that de Gournay used back in the day. It shouldn’t be any more convincing now.


  1. Great commentary on a great essay. All of it reminds me of my blogging days.... The Right-wing valorization of capitalism cannot survive the merest breath of historical knowledge.

  2. the conflation of the free market with the 'right' has done us a great disservice.