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"The Racist Dawn of Capitalism"


In the Boston Review, Peter James Hudson reviews four scholarly books that, using varying approaches and emphases, tackle the role of race-based slavery in the history of capitalism. Hudson argues that the more successful of the books treat slavery as fundamental, rather than incidental, to the rise and development of capitalism. Here’s his assessment of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom:

Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams claims indebtedness to the radical tradition and intervenes directly into the capitalism-and-slavery debates. He argues that it is pointless to try to impose a theoretically pure abstraction of capitalism on its actual iterations, asserting that what often gets lost are the bare facts of what really happened:

A materialist and historical analysis—a focus on what happened, rather than on how what happened was different from what should have happened if Mississippi had, in fact, been a bit more like Manchester—begins from the premise that in actual historical fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery. However else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not develop that way.

For Johnson, race and white supremacy were essential to capitalism’s historical development.

Glossing Cedric Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism, Johnson argues that the historical and political-economic conflicts of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mississippi Valley can be viewed through the prism of “slave-racial capitalism”—a phrase that captures how white supremacy passes for an economic rationale, which in turn organizes a racial hierarchy. At the center of this rationale is cotton. Adopting Marx’s political-economic methodology for deciphering the “social hieroglyphic” of commodities, River of Dark Dreams describes the grim transubstantiations through which men are converted into machines, flesh and land turned into capital, and capital rendered as the very history of modernity.

Johnson’s luminescent prose lends moral weight to the harrowed tribulations of the past, but he also has a keen geographical imagination that captures the spatial upheavals, the recurring conflicts and contradictions over land and water, that marked the history of slavery and capitalism in the Mississippi Valley. Johnson writes of how the revolutionary transformations of steamship technology continually pushed the possibilities of profit-making to the point of saturation and collapse. He describes the ecological strafing through which the Mississippi Valley was reordered and remapped onto the grid of capitalism. He narrates the creation of a carceral landscape wherein the plantation became a panopticon, surveillance, punishment, and policing forcing the black body into a constant state of furtiveness and fugitivity.

Image via Boston Review.