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The Plantation Economy and the American Way of Capitalism

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The Times has a good series of essays for the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. This one about the entwining of slavery and particularly brutal forms of capitalism that have remained influential is particularly strong:

This level of data analysis also allowed planters to anticipate rebellion. Tools were accounted for on a regular basis to make sure a large number of axes or other potential weapons didn’t suddenly go missing. “Never allow any slave to lock or unlock any door,” advised a Virginia enslaver in 1847. In this way, new bookkeeping techniques developed to maximize returns also helped to ensure that violence flowed in one direction, allowing a minority of whites to control a much larger group of enslaved black people. American planters never forgot what happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, when enslaved workers took up arms and revolted. In fact, many white enslavers overthrown during the Haitian Revolution relocated to the United States and started over.

Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield. Accountings took place not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. In the words of a North Carolina planter, enslaved workers were to be “followed up from day break until dark.” Having hands line-pick in rows sometimes longer than five football fields allowed overseers to spot anyone lagging behind. The uniform layout of the land had a logic; a logic designed to dominate. Faster workers were placed at the head of the line, which encouraged those who followed to match the captain’s pace. When enslaved workers grew ill or old, or became pregnant, they were assigned to lighter tasks. One enslaver established a “sucklers gang” for nursing mothers, as well as a “measles gang,” which at once quarantined those struck by the virus and ensured that they did their part to contribute to the productivity machine. Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude. In trade magazines, owners swapped advice about the minutiae of planting, including slave diets and clothing as well as the kind of tone a master should use. In 1846, one Alabama planter advised his fellow enslavers to always give orders “in a mild tone, and try to leave the impression on the mind of the negro that what you say is the result of reflection.” The devil (and his profits) were in the details.

But there’s a lot to discuss in them all.

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