How slave­hold­ers ac­counted for bod­ies on the bot­tom line

The cap­i­tal value of slaves made it pos­si­ble for white liveli­hoods to flour­ish, writes Martin My­ers

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Martin My­ers is a lec­turer in ed­u­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Portsmouth.

Ac­count­ing for Slav­ery: Masters and Man­age­ment By Caitlin Rosen­thal Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press 312pp, £27.95 ISBN 9780674972094 Pub­lished 31 Au­gust 2018

The de­fence of cap­i­tal­ism as an in­her­ently bet­ter sys­tem of eco­nomic dis­tri­bu­tion than its al­ter­na­tives tends to rely on the as­sump­tion that it ben­e­fits most peo­ple most of the time. It’s never a moral ar­gu­ment. Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the free mar­ket is not bogged down in po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious or philo­soph­i­cal ide­ol­ogy. It re­lies in­stead upon com­mon-sense ob­ser­va­tions: how­ever much we envy a hand­ful of ex­ces­sively suc­cess­ful in­di­vid­u­als, we still recog­nise that in gen­eral we are all bet­ter off.

Caitlin Rosen­thal’s his­tory of the ac­count­ing and man­age­ment of slave plan­ta­tions in the Amer­i­cas goes a long way to­wards punc­tur­ing com­mon-sense nar­ra­tives of free mar­ket eco­nomics. She ex­am­ines an abun­dance of pre­cise de­tails held in the records of slave own­ers. These in­clude the ledgers and records of daily trans­ac­tions, sum­mary sheets and an­nual ac­counts – and the metic­u­lous record­ing of in­di­vid­ual pro­duc­tiv­ity lev­els.

Dou­ble-en­try book­keep­ing, the per­fect record of busi­ness through its care­ful bal­anc­ing of cred­its and deb­its, seems an un­likely place to make a call for so­cial jus­tice. It is, how­ever, the very place where the bal­anc­ing of slave lives takes place most vividly.

Be­yond the profit and loss ac­counts of rev­enue, there are the records of cap­i­tal ac­cru­als and de­pre­ci­a­tions. These con­tain de­tailed live­stock records, in­clud­ing the black bod­ies owned at the be­gin­ning of the year sup­ple­mented by births, de­pleted by deaths and added to with new pur­chases.

Dili­gent slave­hold­ers em­braced reg­u­lar, de­tailed no­ta­tion of the skills and at­tributes of in­di­vid­ual bod­ies. They mea­sured po­ten­tial out­put and as­signed cap­i­tal val­ues based on age, skills, pro­duc­tiv­ity and docil­ity. On the eve of the civil war, the cap­i­tal value of slaves, neatly recorded in thou­sands of busi­ness records, was in ex­cess of $3 bil­lion. The sig­nif­i­cance of this black hu­man cap­i­tal value can­not be over­es­ti­mated: it pro­vided the back­bone for the loans and mort­gages of south­ern busi­ness and white liveli­hoods.

What emerges from Rosen­thal’s book is a pic­ture of sci­en­tific man­age­ment: en­trepreneuri­al­ism based on ex­tract­ing the most value from hu­man cap­i­tal. She high­lights the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween these strate­gies and those de­ployed to con­trol in­creas­ingly large fac­to­ries and in­dus­tries em­ploy­ing free white work­ers. While the metic­u­lous record­keep­ing is sim­i­lar, the chal­lenges of manag­ing free labour and con­trol­ling en­slaved cap­i­tal are vastly dif­fer­ent.

The ar­gu­ment that quan­ti­ta­tive in­for­ma­tion sys­tems were key tech­nolo­gies in con­trol­ling the lives of slaves is con­vinc­ingly made. Although re­peat­edly un­der­scor­ing such ma­te­rial with ev­i­dence that “man­age­ment ex­per­tise blended well with vi­o­lence”, Rosen­thal notes that she does not en­gage with “ab­strac­tions like hege­mony and ide­ol­ogy to ex­plain planters’ con­trol”. In essence, this is an ar­gu­ment from busi­ness stud­ies, not pol­i­tics or so­ci­ol­ogy. Rosen­thal is con­dem­na­tory of all as­pects of slav­ery, but a nec­es­sary dis­cus­sion of race, eth­nic­ity and white power of­ten feels as though it is miss­ing.

Rosen­thal ar­gues that, from “the per­spec­tive of slave­hold­ers and other free whites, the free­dom to en­slave was an eco­nomic free­dom”. In which case, the abo­li­tion of slav­ery be­comes an act of de­com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and “a tri­umph of mar­ket reg­u­la­tion”. That’s a strong ar­gu­ment and one that should be kept in mind when we make the case for po­lit­i­cal con­trols on other ac­tiv­i­ties pro­moted as de­sir­able pro­po­nents of the free mar­ket.

En­slaved cap­i­tal on the eve of the civil war, the cap­i­tal value of slaves was more than $3 bil­lion

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