Capitalism and slavery

How much is our prosperity based on the exploitation of Africa? The trend is to take apart the age of the Enlightenment in a post-colonial way. But that doesn’t have to mean that it is wrong.

Depiction of a Nubian slave in ancient Egypt.

Sslavery, colonialism and genocide are the foundations on which the prosperity of the West rests. The European Enlightenment was, in fact, deeply imperialist. This is what it says in a recently published study by the social scientist Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. His book is subtitled “How Racism and Colonialism Rule the World to this Day”.

The post-colonial deconstruction of the Enlightenment follows a fashionable trend. But that doesn’t have to mean that it is wrong. Especially since the question of the connection between the success of capitalism and racist colonialism has always been part of the standard repertoire of Marxist analyzes, but as far as I can see, it is dealt with marginally in the current debates on identity politics.

Capitalism has a good repute in liberal circles as long as it is understood to mean division of labor, free trade and the prosperity of nations. How can it be that the freedom-loving Europeans had no problem with freedom-suppressing slavery for centuries? In Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park”, published shortly after the British ban on the slave trade in 1807, the heroine Fanny Price inquires about Sir Thomas Bertram’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where black people had to do slave labor. “Dead silence” was the answer, it says in the novel.

Germany also benefited

Has this dead silence been a blind spot in economic history to this day? When we think of black slaves, we think of the USA and tend to forget to what extent England, France and Holland lived from the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries – and the Germans also benefited from it at least indirectly. In the colonies of Britain in the Caribbean alone – including the Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago – 520,000 slaves bought in Africa toiled on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations at the end of the 18th century. The wealth of England at this time was undoubtedly based to a large extent on the exploitation of its Central American colonies. The sugar sweetened the tea of ​​the noble English societies. And smoking was considered medicine. Monopoly trading companies organized everything from a single source: They had access to the plantations, the import of the slaves and the export of tea, tobacco, coffee and cotton to England.

Did capitalism rely on slave trading and keeping? Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, denies this in his famous main work on the “Prosperity of Nations” from 1776 – with economic, not moral arguments. Although slave labor appears to be the cheapest work because it only costs the maintenance of the slave’s physical existence, it is actually the most expensive mode of production, writes Smith. Because the slave must be absolutely interested in eating as much as possible and working as little as possible. Free workers who are paid a wage are therefore much more productive than slaves.

We like to hear the words of the liberal economist. But the reality was different. Why? One should consult the standard work of the historian Eric Williams, “Capitalism & Slavery”. Williams came from the Trinidadian Creole elite, received his PhD from Harvard in the 1930s and later served as Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Today he is considered the “father of the nation” there.