Theory for folks who aren’t trying to read all those damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do. Introduction to a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery.
“Es por el poder, no le tengo amor a la lana…” (It’s all for the power, I don’t love the money… – Sick Jacken, “El Barrio”
Why Capitalism and Slavery?
Context of Colonialism We just got finished with Capital. Not gonna lie, a lot of that was pretty complicated, especially the stuff about surplus value and calculating it. But, reading much of Capital (especially the early chapters), you might have gotten the impression that what we are dealing with are a bunch of hapless farmers and factory owners who just want to make peanuts and widgets and shit super efficiently, and that the system built around doing that just happens to end up oppressing the vast majority of the world. Whoopsie-daisy!
But nah. As the later parts of Capital discussed: the story of capitalism, like most of the political history of the world, is ultimately built on domination, violence, and terrorism in their most naked and honest forms. We could start in a lot of places for this discussion: apartheid, conquest (the “settling” part of settler colonialism). Slavery is certainly an example of that. But it’s more than that. In part 2 of this blog on capital, we figured out that the wage relation between capitalist and worker is actually a political relationship, but the one Marx describes is way more specific than the kind of generality we might assume if we just looked at the definitions of “capitalist” and “worker” – he had in mind a male worker supporting one woman and a set of children, which is a particular gender and family structure that was normative in a particular corner of the world at a particular time in history. That’s the organization of an entire realm of a society’s social life, not just its factories. How did that specific kind of social organization come to apply to everybody?
To answer that, we’ll need to know – you guessed it, more history, specifically the history of colonialism that is responsible. The trans-Atlantic slave trade that Williams is about to talk about is a very important part of that, but he’s focusing on stuff that happens later in the 4th quarter and so a play-by-play of the first three might help.
So what’s going on in this imperial game of thrones? Well, for damn near a millennium and a half, Christian Europe was real rough. The Bible dealers (eternal life and salvation from eternal torture? Practically sells itself!) basically ran shit after chasing their Koranic competition off their corners. Anyone who wanted formal political power, to be a king or queen or duke or whatnot, had to kiss the papal ring. In exchange, the mafias (their kingpins generally preferred being described as “nobility”) got to run these fields: they’d come around every now and again to shake villagers down for protection bribes if the funds were low, or if he just wanted to flex on the villagers or the other nobles. They would demand money or grain in the good times, and villagers’ children in the times of war. No wonder their philosophers said emo shit like about life being naturally “nasty, brutish, and short” – shit was grimy.
But those are all cons, and the thug life has its pros. The connected mafias of nobles, royalty, and those running the show in the Vatican realized that they had the muscle to expand their operation. Why settle for running things around the Mediterranean Sea when there were whole oceans to exploit?
Over the 15th and 16th centuries they figured this out through a series of important papal bulls and convened an International Haters' Ball, which basically politically licensed Spain and Portugal, the dominant Christian imperial powers at the time to reduce all infidel populations to servitude and come into the glorious light of Christendom, the chains of chattel slavery, or both. All while maintaining a sort of loose coordination, agreeing to (mostly) stay out of each other’s way. This arrangement got complicated when France and some Protestant Christian powers (Britain, and the Netherlands) joined the party some centuries later, but a similar working relationship was maintained between European powers.
Paraphrasing loosely from meticulous archival work in the medieval forms of these peninsular languages: Portugal and Spain basically said “Bet. It’s on.” Spain hired this goon from Italy who we know as Christopher Columbus, and some of his goonies, gave him three ships. But Chris forgot to carry the 2 in the calculations (likely powered by Islamic inventions) and ended up in the wrong hemisphere. Oops.
Anyways, in 1493 there was a problem, because Chris had found a whole shitload of land and Spain and Portugal both called dibs. So they convened an International Haters’ Ball and the Pope made them agree to go halfsies on the rest of the world. Indigenous folks responded with: whoever this Pope guy “must be drunk” if he thinks he can just give land we live on to folks half a world away. Spain and Portugal responded with: “Yeah, about that…Europe’s ruling classes have been in and out of religious and imperial conflict for a cool millennium or so. We refined warfare, oppression, and the thug life down to a science. You’ll see how we get down.” And over the next few centuries, they did. We all did.
Don’t get carried away – there were lots of co-conspirators and people who got money and power from this arrangement, but there was also resistance to these imperial ventures the whole time. But remember how the powers-that-be(were?) in that time got down: in addition to warfare, they were also kinda nice at politically containing or eliminating people who deviated from the party line, whether on moral grounds or any other. They got that done by, for example, the occasional set of friendly, innocent questions.
There’s a lot to summarize – for example, most of what I talk about here applies to the Caribbean and Americas and parts of Africa, but they found the Indian subcontinent eventually! That’s not even to talk of further east, what went on with China and Indonesia and Japan. But its over 5 centuries of history, give me a break.
About the Author of Capitalism and Slavery
Also, about the author: Eric Williams is that dude. Black doctorate in philosophy from Oxford (there still aren’t a gang of those walking around) and eventually became Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. He published Capitalism and Slavery, which fucked the game up for imperialist academics, around the same time that fellow traveler CLR James published the Black Jacobins, which did too. Both of these books explained the history of slavery and racial imperialism and the abolitionist opposition to both in terms of sober strategic and material analysis: who was benefiting and how much, and what powerful people’s investments were in literal and non-literal senses. That is, not in terms of some fake ass civilizing mission that other scholars at the time granted to imperialism, and not the triumphant, simplifying moral progress narrative some folks like to read into abolitionism either. That is why I’m checking this book out, and why I recommend it to y’all. More next time!