[OPE-L:7125] mercantilism: putting out or slavery?

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Tue May 07 2002 - 13:15:55 EDT

In this post, I want to argue against Robert Albritton's stimulating 
thesis that the putting out system of woolen mfg was the typical form 
of mercantilist or early capitalist accumulation that plantation 
slavery actually played this role.

First to repeat: Variable capital is the investment that capitalists 
make on the control and reproduction of labor power which alone has 
the potential to create new value in excess of its own costs--s/v.

Modern plantation owners had to pay for the control and reproduction 
of slave labor power even if on some plantations  slaves  produced 
much, if not all,  of their own food (which was less true in North 
America after the explosion in demand for cotton while housing 
materials, shoes, clothes, fish and other subsistence goods had 
always been purchased off the market by the planation owner, often 
with credit); the cash crop commodities  which slaves produced 
through the coerced expenditure of their labor power broke down into, 
say, that sugar which reproduced the value of their own subsistence 
and that sugar which represented surplus value (not all of which was 
directly appropriated by the plantation owner).

And slaves spent--according to Fogel--80% of their working time on 
the production of cash crop commodities which seems to have been a 
much higher proportion than the putatively true Anglo rural, 
15th-17th century proletariat  which was often composed (as Robert 
Albritton underlines) of servants-in-husbandry who as only seasonal 
commodity producers often relied on payment in kind and were tied 
down by extra economic coercion.

Also, the resort to the gang labor system on the New World slave 
plantations (and I do think this needs to be considered a 
techno-organizational innovation) allowed these New World capitalists 
to so increase the productivity and intensity of cash crop production 
that they were able to  outcompete the plantations  off the coast of 
Africa and in the Mediterranean even as they fiercely competed with 
each other first for luxury markets and then mass markets.

  So even if slavery is ultimately a system of absolute surplus value 
production, it may have had (from the capitalist point of view) the 
most advanced technology and the most industrial technology in terms 
of the organization of the labor process at its time. This is close 
to the argument of Keith Aufhauser (sp?) in his Harvard dissertation; 
he emphasizes how closely Taylor studied the organization of the 
plantation slave process in planning the organization of factory 
labor (Fogel very much picks up on this).

At any rate, the plantation owner appropriated surplus human labor 
through the production and sale of commodities or, in short, through 
value relations, not through the command of rent in kind or direct 
labor services.

Any attempt to return to  a natural or patriarchal economy was 
blocked (as underlined by Blackburn) by the debts which the 
plantation owners had incurred and the capital investments which they 
needed to amortize. After the cotton revolution, American plantation 
owners were often criticized for excessive focus on cash crop 
production to the detriment of subsistence farming (see Fogel; 
Blackburn's anecdotal evidence on the food self sufficiency of the 
North American plantations seems to predate the cotton revolution). 
Slavery had been transformed from a patriarchal institution into a 
system of commercial exploitation. Slaves' direct subsistence labor 
time was minimized.

Robert Albritton has argued that the putting out system of 
manufacture especially in the case of woolen goods was the most 
important form of surplus value production in the mercantilist or 
early capitalism.

While I agree with Albritton (and Marx) that not only pure wage 
laborers can produce surplus value (these independent mfgs after all 
were not directly paid a wage), I think plantation slavery was just 
as, if not more, central to the mercantilist phase of capitalism--so 
I disagree with the Uno school which puts the center of capital 
accumulation (to repeat) in the putting out system of woolen 
manufacture instead of in English agrarian capitalism.

Yet,  slave gang labor approximated--in fact anticipated as Keith 
Aufhauser has shown--the cooperative, piecemeal and large scale 
nature of capitalist factory discipline: it was much closer to real 
subsumption and much more productive than the putting out system 
which just is the formal subsumption of labor; and capitalist slavery 
was free of any trace of precapitalist patriarchal relations as 
slavery became enmeshed in the capitalist world market (despite what 
Genovese has claimed).

Albritton argues the putting out system was more important to the 
development of capitalism than slavery because the profits of slavery 
were often not used for accumulation but the purchase of country 
estates. But he cites no data here (there is only a citation to 
Crouzet); moreover, he agrees that those who purchased country 
estates often acted in terms of capitalist rationality in how they 
tried to improve them--was this case of the new plantation capitalist 
owners? Finally, many industries other than the plantations 
themselves made profits from the the slave system  and as Blackburn 
and William Darity (following Eric Williams) show,  the profits from 
slavery as a system were crucial in creating a sufficient supply of 
capital so that working capital requirements could be met and 
infrastructure projects financed in early capitalist England.

Racial slavery was the veritable pivot for the development of the 
world capitalist system not only in terms of the surplus value which 
it generated but also in terms of the organizational changes in the 
labor process which it introduced.

And it also made a mightly contribution to the revolution in ethics 
that was needed to kick all gods but Profit off the altar!

I think Albritton should have made slavery the key example of the 
mercantilist phase as Grossmann had.


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