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A Modern theory of the Morality of Capitalism
on December 19, 2011
The author is both an historian and a political scientist. He, also, perhaps unwittingly, is a brilliant theorist. Because of the latter, this treatment of capitalism and slavery is a superb, comprehensive, dispassionate, critical and scholarly analysis of the invention and perpetuation of the English led industrial revolution, and the role slavery played as an inportant concomitant in carrying that revolution to completion.
In this regard, there is both a long and a short version of the story. The short version sticks most closely to his theory about the morality of capitalism, so it is only appropriate to give the short story in this review, which is this: Slavery and monopoly (mostly of sugar and cotton) powered the English led industrial revolution. Everything else is just cultural decoration, a tying up of all the moral loose ends very much after the fact, and building post hoc rationalizations for how (not why) slavery was engaged in. The why is already self-evident: It was done for profits and for no other reason. But slavery was its own economic closed system.
This gets us to the second part of the book, the amorality or moral innocence of economic processes. This is a theme that runs along side the narrative in the subtext. For my needs, this part of the book was perhaps the most important part. For like Charles Beard (in his fabulous book "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S."), this author also puts in the foreground the economic origins of many well-known social, political, and intellectual movements (including of course, the topic of this book, slavery). In doing so, he clears the air and resets the moral parameters for those who might want to deal exclusively in morally correct fantasies (like myself) when dealing with an issue as sensitive as slavery.
What he tells us here, with a kind of moral clarity that cannot be mistaken for anything else: is that every brick in Buckingham palace was cemented in Negro blood. But then he gives us a brutal lesson in the ethics of (or the lack of morality in) economics: Politics, economics and morals in the abstract make no sense. The infrastructure of political and economic systems are more important than their respective super-structures, and are more important than the ideological base that sustains them after the fact. This is not to say that morality and ideologies do not count or that all men are simply racist and thus venal. However, the chilling message of the book is one that we already knew from the bible: "Where your treasure is; there will your heart be also." That basically is the moral story of the European pursuit of slavery.
We thus tend to forget that the use of Negroes as slaves was not at first imposed by any Hitler-like racial doctrine. It was based on a simple economic calculus: Black slaves paid better than enslaved Indians, Irish or Scottish prisoners-of-war, or the use of indentured white servants more generally. Plus, and (this was the economic deal breaker, especially with the coming of the ban on the Atlantic slave trade), the children of Negro women were slaves in perpetuity. Slaves could be bought and sold; used to produce crops, and then perpetuate or replenish themselves(!). A black slave thus constituted a tight closed economic loop, out of which emerged free-standing profits, more capital, and the bonus: more slaves. End of story. Morality did not play a role here; it was purely economics in the raw. So long as the system was profitable, it was rationalized, defended, and praised. Justification for continuing it, became its own ideology and its own legitimacy.
The author's finely-tuned theory teaching us that the only thing that cannot be seen in hindsight is how economic forces tend to coalesce as they come into being with their own built in justifications. They do so gradually, almost imperceptibly, having an irresistible and cumulative effect that is difficult to reverse, once started. Morality takes a back seat when gradual processes emerge and when questionable economic practices are used to either feed the family, build a nation, or an empire. Drug trafficking is the perfect modern case in point. Moral reckoning can always be delayed and dealt with after the fact, when profits have run their course. Such was the case in both the slave trade of the 17th and 18th Century, and the drug trade of today. The warning of this book is a morally sobering one: Capitalist profits always try to bring with them, their own moral legitimacy. We see it again in the 2006 Housing crash based on a greedy Wall Street Ponzi scheme.
The longer story of the slave trade, we already know: its origin and development, the Atlantic triangulation, the coming of the American revolution and the development of British capitalism. But here we begin to understand how slavery so easily got under the moral radar of a European world full of religious Puritans claiming to be struggling for their own freedom. Five Stars