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It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied
to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive
for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The
labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and
presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I
suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.)
Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.
The question which Chai-on's analysis raises is who got this surplus value?
The slave owners presumably paid prices for slaves that were partly (or
mainly) based on the anticipated surplus value they could get out of the
slaves' labor. (Some slaves were probably also bought as "consumption" or
"personal service" goods --- those that worked in the "house", for
example.) If the analogy with fixed capital is strict, then the price the
slaveholders paid for slaves would have been equal to the surplus value
they expected to appropriate from the slaves' exploitation discounted at
the average profit rate. If this were true, the surplus value would
effectively have been appropriated by the slave traders rather than the
But several issues complicate this analysis. First, slaveowners owned the
children of their slaves, so the purchase price would have to include the
prospective value of the slave progeny. Second, it is unlikely that the
slave market was a "perfect" market in this sense. Third, if a slaveowner
was more successful than average in exploiting slave labor, he would
appropriate a "profit of enterprise" above the average. Fourth, the
slaveowner might experience a capital gain or loss on the slaves, which
wouldn't show up as an appropriated surplus value unless the slaveowner
sold them, which might not invariably happen.
So it seems to me that it is somewhat off the track to try to analyze this
form of slavery as a separate mode of production. While its "peculiarities"
require some adaptation of the usual categories of commodity production and
surplus value, those categories seem to be the best starting point for
understanding the issues of social relations, economic competition, and
value generation involved in slaveholding.
I found both Patrick and Julian's remarks on the historical origins of New
World slavery and the crisis of the Civil War enlightening and
thought-provoking, by the way.
Duncan K. Foley
Department of Economics
New School University
65 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
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