Updated: Jul 15, 2020

by Walter Winch


“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism.”

- Sven Beckert, and Seth Rockman, historians

The 1619 Project by the New York Times examines the legacy of slavery in America and is a remarkable and detailed investigation of how this institution was a cornerstone in the creation and development of the United States, as well as a fundamental building block in the early evolution of global capitalism. This legacy is very much with us in the 21st century.

The cotton plantation was probably America’s first big business and the combined value of enslaved people was greater than all the railroads and factories in the country. Cotton was to the 19th century what oil later became to the 20th century.

Land in the southern region of America was abundant and arguably some of the most fertile on the planet. The United States (white America) simply expropriated million of acres from Native Americans and then sold it on the cheap. Speculators purchased it first, “flipped it” and sold it off for much more than they paid for it. Cut down trees piled up, more often than not chopped down by slaves, then burned, and finally the earth was leveled for planting.

Cotton production was, however, hard on the land and the soil was exhausted after a few years. More land was acquired and more trees were cut down. The once rich, bio-diverse land now had a single crop, leading to flooding and decreased food production. Greed, genocide, and the barbarism of industrial slavery on a grand scale created what can best be described as low-road capitalism, where humans were commodities to be bought and sold as seen fit, along with the environment they worked in.

Textile mills in the North sprung up and the global economy took shape. European financial institutions were enthusiastically bankrolling slavery—at least initially-- in the U.S., well after the slave trade was abolished in Europe in the early 19th century.

In many cases modern management techniques were first developed by large plantations in the South and later used in northern factories: such things as economies of scale and maximization of profits were established, tested and modified on these sprawling plantations. Contrary to popular belief and myth these were not “primitive,” pre-capitalist institutions.

“The novel thing about the 2008 foreclosure crisis was not the concept of foreclosing on a homeowner but foreclosing on millions of them. Similarly, what was new about securitizing enslaved people in the first half of the 19th century was not the concept of securitization itself but the crazed level of rash speculation in cotton that selling slave debt promoted.”

- In Order to Understand the Brutality of American Capitalism, You Have to Start on the Plantation, NYT, by Matthew Desmond, sociologist

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), a larger share of working age people (18-65) in the U.S. now live in poverty, greater than any nation belonging to OECD, which are primarily countries in the developed world.

No, not all variations of capitalism across the globe are the same. Generous pension plans and retirement benefits are common in many countries, health care plans are available for all citizens and a living wage is not regarded as a radical proposal. As well, the so called “gig” workers in many countries are, by law, entitled to certain rights and protections, unlike most part-time workers in the U.S. Low-road capitalism is the rule and not the exception in the United States.

Of course the first question should always be why it is so difficult for the U.S. to join the rest of the developed world. We talk a lot about a “living” wage, or maternity leave, or access to health care for everyone in the country, or even the right for employees to organize … yet, it becomes so difficult to actually make it happen in the United States.

Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at our own American history—one that reflects reality--in order to understand our reluctance to conceive of something different and then make it happen.

Watching the colossal disaster of the Amazon rainforest burning uncontrollably, it is easy enough to place blame directly on the greed of cattle ranchers, farmers and loggers along with Jair Bolsonaro, the mindless president of Brazil. But this does seem like a far too simple explanation. Low-road capitalism has its own antecedents that stretch back in time and connect us to the present.

“We have cheap, good quality products to sell. If they don’t want to buy them, we’ll sell to China and other places.”

- Agamenon da Silva Menezes, farmer’s union leader in Novo Progresso, Brazil, 2019, where some of the worst destruction has taken place.

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