Event—Scholarly Seminars

John Clegg, University of Chicago


Theorizing Capitalist Slavery, John Clegg

The relationship between slavery and capitalism has recently become a topic of both scholarly and to some extent public interest. But while most scholars now agree that antebellum American slavery was in some sense "capitalist," it is not at all clear what they mean by that. This paper argues that this confusion is largely due to an inattention to the analytical and theoretical stakes of the debate. It first attempts to clarify those stakes by situating the debate in the Marxian tradition from which it arose. It then argues that non-Marxian accounts of capitalism fail to explain the social transformations that have accompanied the rise of capitalism globally, but that it's focus on wage labor raises problems for Marxism's ability to comprehend similar transformations that occurred on American slave plantations in the 19th century. The paper then sketches out a general model of capitalism that not only incorporates distinctive features of antebellum slavery but also helps to explain them.