How colonial slavery disproved the tenants of economic liberalism.
Last week, Republican state Rep. Werner Horn came under fire for comments he posted on Facebook suggesting slavery in the United State had been an essentially economic decision, one having little or nothing to do with racism.
“It shouldn’t be surprising since owning slaves wasn’t a decision predicated on race but on economics. It’s a business decision.” — Werner Horn
Horn, a three-term lawmaker, elaborated on his views in a statement given to the Union Leader:
“Slavery later on in the American South was not about the color of the skin of the slaves but their value as workers on the plantations. The U.S. had abolitionists since the start, people who felt slavery wasn’t moral but they weren’t enslaving black people because they were black. They were bringing in these folks because they were available.”
It’s not hard to see why such claims by a US lawmaker would draw fierce criticism. Slavery and racism are the deepest stains in the American fabric. And yet, Mr. Horn’s views on such a matter are hardly new. They’re a telling example of a common problem: defining racism as personal hatred rather than systemic oppression.
But while it’s true the slave owners were without question racists — we have their own words to prove it — there is also truth in the suggestion that the motivation behind slavery was economic, rather than racist. After all, do we doubt the plantation owner’s economic desires? Of course not! They obviously wanted to make money.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” -Mississippi’s Declaration of Succession
And this begs the question: why did they need slaves to make money?
After all, early America was the quintessential capitalist environment, or at least that’s what we’re often told. In such a place, people were free to exchange their labor for products and services, to establish trade based on mutual aid and profit.
But for some reason, in this supposed utopia of voluntary exchange, these capitalists found that enslaving humans and dragging them across the world was more profitable than hiring local labor.
It’s not like there was a shortage of new arrivals. Every year, thousands of immigrants were landing on the shores of the United States eager to make a life in the new world.
Why didn’t the American capitalists simply hire these workers and create a mutually profitable relationship with them? This is what was supposedly happening back in Europe as the industrial revolution took hold. Workers poured into the factors to sell their labor for wages.
This was “human nature.”
And yet, the colonies refused to obey these laws of nature. This is the reason the capitalists of early America were forced to turn to the slave market to make their profits. They simply could not find enough people willing to work for wages.
And why not?
Leaders like Horn would do well to guard their tongues, lest they accidentally reveal this game. Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag. The economic realities of western Europe, with its system of capitalist owners and independent wage-laborers, simple didn’t work in the colonies. They needed slaves to make their profits.
With 1.9 billion acres of unclaimed land in the continental United States, there was little the capitalists could do to coerce settlers to toil in their fields for pitiful wages.
Early America was, in truth, quite antithetical to capitalism. The indigenous population had refused to sell their land, denying its function as a commodity. The settlers themselves frequently built their own houses and made their own tools, toiled their own fields.
What use is someone like that to the capitalist? These archetypal, independent Americans worked for themselves, carrying the products of their labor to market. Doing so, they enriched themselves instead of enriching the capitalists. What motivation did they have to work on the plantation, or in the factory?
Meanwhile, the waves of immigrants arriving from the old world were unable to meet the labor demand either. As soon as their boats had come ashore, these immigrants were off to stake their claim on the free land.
Without a large, landless pool of labor — like what existed back in Europe — capitalists could not hire workers in the quantity or for the wages they needed to make a profit.
To solve this problem they would eventually need manifest destiny. In other words, they needed the government to seize control of the whole territory, east coast to west coast, and set an artificial price on the land. This would ensure a steady flow of labor from the old world that could be exploited. Workers would come and sell their labor in the factories for low wages, eventually saving enough to buy some land and liberty for themselves.
But these circumstances wouldn’t become reality until the middle of the 19th century. The founding fathers couldn’t wait that long. In the interim, they turned to slave labor to fill the gap created by too much free land and too much liberty.
Racism is not the reason why American capitalists owned slaves, but it is the consequence and method of their system of profit. They employed it because the realities of colonial America undermined the common narratives of liberalism.
Among these early capitalists we find not voluntary exchange and mutual gain, but coercion and violence in the name of profits. We find genocide and slavery.
The problem is that the engine of capitalism has had from the start the fundamental need to annihilate the self-ownership of labor. Simply stated, people who are free cannot be coerced to work for wages. They will, left to their own devices, work to make their own lives better, thus denying the capitalists the fruits of their labor.
What’s more, capitalism’s claims to human nature were refuted by the indigenous populations who refused to participate in the colonist’s exploitative enterprise. They argued that land wasn’t a commodity and couldn’t be traded on the market, forcing the colonists to either admit a fault in their ideas or deny the humanity of those who disagreed with them.
Our land is more valuable than your money, it will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the water flows, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell the land. — A chief of the northern Blackfeet, Touch the Earth
Instead of accepting this view as valid, they denied the humanity of the indigenous Americans and took their land, dangling it over generations of immigrants who would fill the factories and make America the richest country on Earth.
In this way, these capitalists overcame the limits of their ideas in practice. They used racism to disguise their weaknesses. They buttressed the failure of commodity exchange with violence and coercion.
Mr. Horn didn’t say what he did in a vacuum. There’s a reason he made that statement. Racism has once again reared its ugly head in America, forcing its citizens to reexamine some dark truths about themselves and their country.
After what we’ve examined, could it be a coincidence that this vile racism has emerged at the tail end of the worst economic recession in a century?
Could it be that capitalists are simply returning to their old tricks of dehumanization and violence to protect the failure of their ideas?
Isn’t it obvious?