Reading: Slavery & Capitalism

Aug 17, 2019

From the Matthew Desmond essay in the awesome NYT 1619 project

Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds and French francs, a need that Western financial markets fast found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause — historians haven’t settled the matter — but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular. “I think they go together,” the historian Calvin Schermerhorn told me. “We care about fellow members of humanity, but what do we do when we want returns on an investment that depends on their bound labor?” he said. “Yes, there is a higher consciousness. But then it comes down to: Where do you get your cotton from?”

There are so many uncomfortable similarities between the economics, management, and accounting practices of slavery and modern business & labor. I learned about mortage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations after the 2007 US credit collapse and thought these things were just some new-fangled inscrutable financial instruments that morally-bankrupt coke-sniffing wall street types cooked up. Turns out they’re not new! Plantation owners put up their slaves as collateral for their mortage.

Here’s another passage from the essay, quoted from a fugitive slave John Brown, describing how cruelty & brutality toward slaves rose and fell with global market demands of cotton.

“When the price rises in the English market, the poor slaves immediately feel the effects, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.”

This reads right in lock step with more of the unbelievable stories about Amazon employee conditions at fulfillment centers and warehouses, and the possibly fake tweets(?) from twitter accounts of Amazon FC ambassadors.

The image of the ledger of slaves name, age, current value and estimated value at year end is transfixing. Everyone’s value–even 70 year old John–is estimated to increase. What optimism! The author Matthew Desmond reminds us how fresh slavery still is, “only 2 average lifespans (79 years) past”. I can see it in handwriting on the ledger; it looks like my grandmother’s writing in the recipe cards for cookies and cornbread that she sent me my first year at college.

“Where do you get your cotton from?"

I like the idea of conscious consumption but it’s overwhelmingly difficult to truly enact. Surely it’s true that “voting with your wallet” is an effective way to make change. If the market value of inhumanely produced t-shirts drops, then it’s a good incentive for those t-shirt manufacturers to rethink their supply chain. But it’s really fucking hard to do and pretty exhausting. My family and I have chosen to pick a few areas to effect a kind of targeted conscious consumption, but I still wouldn’t disown someone for buying some a cotton shirt from Target. This is still something I’m figuring out and need to think on.

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