The American Road to Capitalism

Charles Post’s book, The American Road to Capitalism:  Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620-1877 (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011) is a collection of essays largely written between 1980 and 2011, with an additional chapter and conclusion specifically written for the volume.  The work presents an account of the development of capitalism in the United States from the colonial period to the civil war that is rooted within the ‘political Marxist’ – or what Post prefers to call the ‘Capital Marxist’ – tradition, associated with the work of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood.  This particular contribution to historical materialism emphasises the importance of conceptualizing capitalism not merely as a process of ‘commercial’ development predicated on trade, nor simply as a process of profit-oriented commodity production for exchange.  Rather, capitalism is best understood as a mode of production embedded within social property relations that compel both producers and appropriators to engage in profit-oriented production through the need to constantly improve the productive forces (often, but not always by way of reducing the amount of labour time engaged in the process of production).  At issue here is whether or not producers and appropriators are market dependent; that is, whether or not they enjoy non-market access to their means of social reproduction.  Where producers and appropriators are market dependent – as is the case under capitalism – the market becomes a sphere of economic coercion rather than a sphere of economic opportunity.  Producers must ‘sell to survive’, and, given their inability to withdraw from the market and fall back on non-market forms of subsistence production (or from the appropriator’s perspective, political forms of accumulation), they must constantly improve their output relative to their labour costs or – given the time period under study – must sell their labour power in order to survive. 

To simplify what is an exceptionally sophisticated and rich analysis, three major themes stand out in Post’s account: i) the character of social property relations in the colonial and revolutionary period; ii) the nature of slavery as a form of social property relations and its relationship to capitalist development; and iii) the relationship between the American civil war and the development of American capitalism. Taken together, Post’s lucid narrative presents a highly complex, contested, and at times, contingent process of capitalist development in the United States that defies any characterization of America as capitalist nation from its moment of birth.

Far from contending that capitalism arrived in the first ships of the English colonists, Post argues that colonial America was characterized by a diversity of pre-capitalist social property relations, each of which was constituted by its own dynamic. In the North, independent household production of a pre-capitalist nature existed in a tenuous relationship with merchant capital (with the latter representing the timeless pre-capitalist practice of buying cheap in one market and selling dear in another).  In this sense, the development of petty-commodity production was not enough to initiate a process of long-term capitalist development, because the availability of cheap land in the west enabled small producers to retain their economic independence.  Only in conjunction with the commodification of land through the colonization of the west by an increasingly speculative merchant class did petty commodity producers eventually become market dependent – the necessary condition for capitalist development – in the sense of losing their non-market access to their means of subsistence.  This process of expanding market dependence in the North occurred over decades, well after the conclusion of the revolutionary war. The drive towards national independence, therefore, did not signify a ‘bourgeois revolution’ of the conventional Marxist variety, one that witnessed the overthrow of the yoke of British imperialism in order to unleash the unbridled forces of an aspiring ‘American’ bourgeoisie.  

In the South, a fundamentally pre-capitalist form of plantation slavery existed alongside small scale sharecropping, largely amongst poor white agrarian workers. Post is quite meticulous in his discussion regarding the debates on slavery and its relationship to capitalist development and emphasises, not only its non-capitalist nature, but also its antagonism to capitalism as a socio-economic form of organization. In terms of plantation slavery’s non-capitalist nature, Post clearly sides with the likes of Eugene Genovese and other proponents of the ‘non-bourgeois civilization’ model against the ‘planter capitalism’ thesis. It is worth examining the argument in greater depth because it plays a significant role in Post’s explanation for, and characterization of, the civil war. Whereas proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ thesis argue for the capitalist nature of plantation slavery based on its profitability, Marxists such as Genovese argued that, despite its profitability, plantation slavery represented non-capitalist form of social labour. While Genovese may be correct in his characterization of plantation slavery as non-capitalist, and while he may be correct in some of his characterization of the ways in which slavery is a pre-capitalist form of social labour, his analysis Post argues, is problematic in a number of ways. First, it rests largely on a Weberian notion of the ‘irrationality of slavery’ that ‘cannot explain why the social-property relations of slavery made ‘cheese-paring’ technical change and geographical expansion rational methods of expanding output for the market (122-3).’ Secondly, it wrongly assumes that slaves, due to their unfree status, are necessarily recalcitrant workers who are more likely to sabotage the labour process and are incapable or unwilling to develop skills.

In contrast to this, Post’s characterization of the pre-capitalist nature of plantation slavery is rooted in an analysis of the specificity of the master/slave relationship.  The non-capitalist character of plantation slavery, and its antagonism to capitalist development, is not attributed to the irrationalities of slavery, but rather to the strategies employed in the process of production and reproduction that are perfectly rational relative to the form of social labour employed. The fact that, under plantation slavery, the master purchases the person of the slave (as property) rather than the labour power of the free worker (as under capitalism) means that the former enters the process of production as a form of ‘constant capital’ indistinguishable from other inputs into the labour process. As such, ‘the master is unable to distinguish capital invested in objects and instruments of production from that invested in producing his labourers (132). The consequences of this for the expanded reproduction of plantation slavery are crucial. Perhaps most importantly, ‘masters could not readily reduce the size of their slave labour-force to adopt labour-saving technologies in the face of changing market-imperatives (133).’ Even if they wanted to, therefore, slave masters faced ‘structural’ disincentives to technological innovation that made other strategies of expanded production and accumulation more ‘rational’.

One such strategy was territorial expansion. Faced with few prospects for ‘intensive’ accumulation and reproduction, masters had to expand the geographical area under production and expand the size of its slave labour force (in direct contrast to the labour-saving dynamic of capitalism). The territorial expansion of plantation slavery, therefore, was the ‘necessary form of the expanded reproduction of the master-slave relation of production (221).’  It is this expansionist tendency of plantation slavery, as a distinctively non-capitalist form of social labour, that forms the basis of conflict with the capitalist North, where the ‘new social relations of production also created an irreconcilable political conflict over the future class-relations of the geographical expansion of commodity production (225-6).’ In other words, the optimal strategies for the expanded reproduction of capitalism in the North – even if based primarily on the intensive expansion of capitalist manufacture – tended to favour the ‘containment of slavery, a homestead-act and a protective tariff’ (225). 

The tensions between North and South, therefore, were not essentially ‘contingent’ political or ideological conflicts, the result of reckless statesmanship driven incompetence or ideological fervour. Rather, the increasing political and ideological tensions that enabled the outbreak of war had their roots ‘in the antagonism between the conditions of reproduction of Northern-capitalist manufacturing and petty-bourgeois agriculture, and Southern plantation-slavery (226).’ It is in this sense, then, that the American civil war, as opposed to the revolutionary war of the previous century, can be characterized as a classical bourgeois revolution:

The geographical spread of a non-capitalist form of social labour, plantation-slavery, constituted an obstacle to the future expansion of a vibrant capitalism. Capitalist manufacturers and commercial family-farmers, organized in the Republican Party, take the lead in organising the political and military struggle to remove the impediment posed by slavery and its expansion (249).

Thus, despite the relatively contingent nature of the origins of capitalist development in the United States, one that emerged out of the market dependent consequences of class struggles between independent farmers and artisans against merchants and land speculators between the revolutionary war and the mid-19th century, the outbreak of civil war between a capitalist North and a non-capitalist South was the direct result of the political consequences of antagonistic processes of expanded accumulation and reproduction in both instances, and of a conscious desire by the North to eliminate the obstacles, posed by the South, to the further development of American capitalism. Post’s book is lucidly argued, theoretically rich, extensively argued and ultimately convincing.  It is required reading for anyone interested in the social and economic history of the United States in particular, and in the literature on the various ‘transition’ debates to capitalism in general. 

This review was initially published in the German publication Das Argument number 299 (2012). 

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