African Enslavement and the Rise of Capitalism in North America and Beyond

Further reflections on “A New Origin Story: the 1619 Project”

By Abayomi Azikiwe

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has continued to make an impact with the revised publication of “The 1619 Project” as an extension of the original work which coincided with the 400th anniversary of the enslavement of African people in the British colony of Virginia.

The book includes historical essays along with poetry and photographs which explore the various social aspects of African American existence for more than four centuries.

One of the most interesting chapters is entitled “Capitalism” (pp. 166-185) written by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond. This contribution to the book illustrates clearly why the teaching of the actual social history of the United States has become a battleground between the right-wing, liberals and progressive political forces.

Desmond explains how the political institutions of the U.S. enshrined within the Constitution of 1789 were designed to accommodate the Atlantic Slave Trade, involuntary servitude and the expansion of European rule throughout the country. This alliance between the northeast colonies and the southeastern ones was indispensable in consolidating a nation-state to encompass all thirteen territories. At the time of the war of separation from Britain, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies.

African enslaved harvesting cotton
African enslaved harvesting cotton. | Photo:

During the early years of the post-British empire period, several colonies in the northeast such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire had become even less reliant on enslaved labor and outlawed the practice. However, within other soon to be states such as Virginia, Carolina and Georgia, slavery as an economic system was expanding which prompted the ruling classes in these areas to vehemently defend its claim to disproportionate representation within the legislative branch of government.

The creation of two branches of Congress, the Senate and House of Representatives sealed the undemocratic character of the institution. The upper house, the Senate, irrespective of population, each state sends two people to Washington. Legislation requires the approval of both houses of the legislative branch. As in the last year, important bills guaranteeing voting rights, housing, social spending involving child tax credits and assistance to public education cannot pass the current Congress due to the obstinance of a section of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Desmond notes in this discussion that:

“What pro-slavery advocates feared most was democracy itself: that Northern majorities would use the power of the federal government to dismantle slavery. This fear shaped our political institutions in ways still felt today. To protect slavery, Southerners fought for and won several provisions that all but ensured that majoritarian rule over the South would be impossible…. Congress would be divided into two houses, a lower house based on population—with each enslaved Black person counting as three-fifths of a citizen—and an upper house that gave all states an equal number of votes.” (Desmond, p. 168)

By adopting the three-fifth clause in the Constitution, the South was given disproportionate representation based upon African enslavement. The pro-slavery South maintained control of the Congress and White House until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Even today in the 21st century, Desmond emphasizes that

“the fifteen states where slavery remained as of 1861 still hold the power to block a constitutional amendment supported by the other thirty-five.” (Desmond, p. 169)

The author continues the chapter by tracing the origins of the U.S. concepts of private property, business management and race relations back to the system of slavery. Desmond says that

“the uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave-labor camps predates industrialism…. The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the overseer was the nation’s first corporate Big Brother.” (Desmond, p. 180)

It was the southern cotton producing plantations which supplied the textile mills of the northern U.S. and industrial England. As a result of the rapid growth in factories during the mid-decades of the 19th century, new sectors arose to dominance such as shipping, banking, international commerce and real estate.

Connecting African Enslavement to the Rise and Growth of Capitalism

Of course, Desmond in his writings on capitalism for the 1619 Project continues the work of scholars such as Eric Williams, who was born in Trinidad and studied history in England and the U.S. His pioneering work entitled “Capitalism and Slavery”, published in 1944, focused on the link between the rapid industrialization of Britain and the expansion of the exploitation of enslaved African labor.

Williams documents the close connection between the supply of U.S.-produced cotton to the enrichment of British commerce. In the chapter entitled “British Capitalism, 1783-1833, Williams says that:

“The cotton industry was the capitalist industry par excellence. A calculation in 1835 gave an average employment figure of 175 for all cotton mills, 125 for silk, 93 for linen, 44 for wool. The size of the average cotton mill was something unprecedented in British economic history…. In 1835 there were 116,800 power looms in all  of Great Britain, all but six per cent in the cotton industry.” (Williams, p. 127-128)

Eventually the contradictions between the expansion of slavery and capitalism forced one system to turn against the other. As Williams said in Capitalism and Slavery in the chapter on “The New Industrial Order”,

“The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system.” (Williams, p. 136)

A series of rebellions by the enslaved and the Civil War in the U.S. led to the demise of the system of involuntary servitude. However, the dominance of world capitalism has intensified the economic exploitation of a global proletariat.

The Struggle Against Imperialism Remains Paramount in the 21st Century

The demand for mineral resources, trade routes, agricultural commodities, cheap labor and energy continues to fuel imperialism and all its manifestations. Despite the decline of socialism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union from the late 1980s to the 1990s, the ascendancy of the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Cuba, the national liberation movements and independent states in Asia, Africa and Latin America, combined with the shift leftward by several countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the U.S., Britain and the European Union (EU) are threatened by their waning political and military power.

The withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan during 2021, has created an image of Washington as lacking resolve in its current diplomatic and military objectives. There are constant reports within the corporate media about the need to eradicate crime in the cities along the putative fight against terrorism abroad.

Aerial targeted assassinations of ISIS leaders in northern Syria and in other geo-political regions cannot resolve any of the burgeoning social problems in the U.S. African Americans were instrumental in the electoral defeat of the previous administration of President Donald J. Trump, yet there is widespread discontent over the failure of the current administration of President Joe Biden to deliver on any of the policy imperatives of Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities and oppressed nations residing in the U.S.

Without the mobilization of the progressive electoral constituencies in the U.S. for the upcoming 2022 midterms and 2024 national elections, there is a strong possibility that current political impasse within the Congress will remain. However, the unprecedented reforms instituted since the post-World War II era were often won through mass movements and labor action.

The persistent economic crises brought about by the unresolved issues within the social and economic fabric of the U.S. have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020. Many of the same issues which arose during the late 18th century surrounding the drafting of the Constitution remain today. The failure of the Biden administration and Congress to reaffirm the voting rights and economic security of African Americans and the working class as a whole, are reminiscent of the reversals seen during the post-Reconstruction years and the decades after the gains of the 1950s through the 1970s.

The ongoing attacks on the educational system by the right-wing conservative tendencies are a result of the power struggles that continue in the U.S. African Americans have a centuries-long history of resistance to racism and exploitation and will continue to wage a protracted struggle to end oppression and injustice.

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