Hernan Cortes: “We Spanish suffer from a sickness of the heart for which gold is the only cure.”
Below: A map of Equiano’s travels.
Equiano and the Rise of the Liberal (bourgeois, capitalist) Subject
The massive influx of wealth from the Americas during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries created the economic conditions for the rise of a class of people who were neither aristocracy nor peasant. There had, of course, been merchants, craftsmen and traders for some time in Europe, but their numbers and influence were minor compared with the years following the opening of the western hemisphere to colonization. The rise of this class was above all dependent upon the surplus created by unpaid, unfree labor.
A global slave trade accumulated vast amounts of capital that sluiced into the cities of Europe, filtering into industry and personal wealth, building monuments, museums, and universities. Technological innovations and a rising system of mills and factories radically reconfigured the lives of the mass of people. Dispossesed agricultural workers sought refuge in manufacturing centers, where– policed by the government and exploited by the owners– they began to coalesce into a class.
The formation of the working classes occurred not only against powerful state control but with the rise of national bourgeoisies and their colonial counterparts, who were bound ideologically and economically to Europe.
According to Michel Beaud’s A History of Capitalism, the consolidation of the middle-classes depended on “bonds of marriage and kinship, of common education… and of converging interests”. The bourgeoisie cohered as a class “by the adoption of a relatively uniform conception of life and society, by their attitude at the time of great social conflicts, and by their impact on the various aspects of national life.” Belief in the “general will” of the people instead of direct democracy, in private property as the source of individual rights, in society’s self-sustaining equilibrium: these were the foundational ideologies of “the triumphant bourgeoisie”
In Marx and Engels’ formulation (1848) “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.”
Capitalism: Most broadly, the investment of money to make money. When production is financed in this way then we have capitalism proper. Wage labor is crucial to capitalism, and the source of surplus value in a capitalist system lies with the exploitation of “free labor”. The private ownership of capital in the hands of a class– the class of capitalists to the exclusion of the mass of the population– is the central feature of capitalism as a mode of production (way of organizing economic life, epoch). Capitalism is an historical term as well, one that can with some measure of accuracy be applied to the 15th century onwards. Other characteristics: production for sale, a market for labor power, the use of money, control of production by capitalists or their agents (as opposed to the “putting-out” system or coops), financial arrangements such as incurring debt (decisions workers are excluded from), competition between capitals.
The best short account of the rise of capitalism remains Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto (cited above. see the first section in particular).
16th and 17th centuries:
The flow of silver and gold from the Americas.
Forced labor in the Americas.
Production of sugar, tobacco, etc.
Subsequent inflation in Europe and thus lowering of real wages.
Enclosure acts in England. From Donald Lupton’s London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred into Severall Characters (1632): “Enclosures make fat Beasts, and leane poore people.”
Urbanization of Europe.
Rise of merchant and banking classes.
Move into Mercantilism or Merchant Capitalism, which lasts until the end of the 18th century, when the doctrine of Free Trade is espoused and implemented.
From Daniel Gaido, The Formative Period of American Capitalism, A Materialist Interpretation:
“American capitalism had its origins in settler colonialism– the extermination or enslavement of the native population of the colonies– and white supremacy– the colonialist version of modern racism” (3).
Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
Those empires that ran exploitation colonies rather than work colonies did not produce a solid basis for the development of capitalism.
The New World as a kind of empty theater for the capitalist experiment. The colonies are more productive than the metropoles because of the absence of ground rent, taxes, compulsory military service, etc.
“The peculiarities of European settler colonialism in North America were determined by the precocity of the capitalist development of the metropolis, by the agrarian character of English capitalism, by the early outbreak of the English bourgeois-democratic revolution, and last but not least, by the previous experience of colonialism in Ireland” (7).
The English had a revolution in the 17th century, as compared with other powers such as the French, who revolted against absolutist monarchy in the very late 18th century. This relatively early political development, in addition to the character of those who immigrated to the N. American colonies, produced a political situation in which “colonial legislatures retained control of the public finances and thanks to it were able to enjoy a large measure of self-government.”
The vestiges of feudalism were in an advanced state of decay in England by the 1600s. A much more highly developed bourgeoisie. It was tenant farmers, not landed serfs, who worked the fields, and when the Enclosure acts were passed, an entire segment of the population was thrust toward the cities or immigration.
The use of total war in Ireland– burning crops, destroying villages, targeting non-combatants– was introduced to the colonies in the fight against indigenes.
Mercantilism. The Age of Merchant Capital, ca. 16th-18th centuries. Basic features: the state uses “its power to implant and develop nascent capitalist trade and industry through the strict regulation of all aspects of economic life, the forced importation of precious metals to speed up the transition from natural to commodity-money economy, and the use of protectionist measures to defend the local bourgeoisie from foreign competition” (8).
In other words, mercantile economies such as England in the 17th century were rigidly protectionist.
Adam Smith: Four reasons for the rapid economic/demographic growth of the N.American colonies. 1) the form of land-tenure practiced, which encouraged individual land holders 2) low levels of taxation b/c a lack of state bureaucracy and militarism, a state church which takes tithes 3) early advent of a money economy due to relatively liberal English commercial policies (multiple ports, absence of true chartered monopolies) 4) absence of a colonial aristocracy/ greater degree of local autonomy led to a form of parliamentarianism.
In spite of this progressive situation, the colonies, in general, served primarily to enrich the metropolitan (London) upper classes. Imperial influence on colonial economy in terms of shipping, manufactures, etc. which attempted to stop the colonies from developing an export industry (shipbuilding excluded). The presence of mutual enemies prior to the 7 years war, however, ensured that these conflicts did not come to a boil.
Francis Jennings, The Creation of America:
“War against Indians made possible the seizure of lands that was the colonists’ reason for being in America. Virginians had conquered the Powhatans; South Carolinians wiped out the Yamasees; Marylanders joined Virginians to attack Susquehannocks; New Englanders massacred Pequots and Narragansetts; New Yorkers negotiated with Iroquois to war against New France. Only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania renounced war against INdians, in Rhode Island’s case partly from prudence; in Pennsylvania’s from principle”
American colonists revolted against Imperial rule, in part, because they wanted to dispossess indigenes and take their land, a project England was rather more circumspect about.
George Washington’s name among the Iroquois was Ha-no-da-ga-ne-ars, meaning “Destroyer of Towns”.
Pressed to pay debts incurred by the Seven Years’ War, the British government imposed higher taxes and tightened mercantile restrictions on the colonies, increased enforcement of smuggling.
“The Revolution resulted in the establishment of what historians now term a Herrenvolk (ruling people or race) democracy, in which immigrants from Europe were turned into “whites” and granted political rights while Indians and slaves were excluded from the category of citizens” (11).
Relative to European revolutions, the urban plebian class did not have a disproportionate influence on events. Due to the colonies’ position in a global division of labor, their cities were relatively underdeveloped and on the eve of the Revolution only 5 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Boston, NY, Philadelphia the three largest urban centers. The most numerous wage-laboring segment was composed of merchant seamen. According to Gaido, this dearth of urban workers doomed the Revolution to stall out in its “first moderate stage” (12). “The leadership of the movement remained firmly in the hands of a united front of Northern merchants and Southern slaveowners. The political form of the entente between these two potentially antagonistic dominant classes was the federalist character of the Union, which secured the slaveowners’ property rights in the Southern states.” Most of the fighters came from a rural petty bourgeoisie– free holders (Jefferson’s yeomanry).
Capitalism does not need democracy. Economic liberalism does not presuppose political freedom. For example, China or Chile under Pinochet.
Yet economic liberalism (free trade) and the demand for democratic forms of government (always excluding the enslaved, non-”whites”, women, etc.) arose at the same time. The coincidence of their advent should not be taken as a logical, interdependent relationship.
The philosophical justification for the latter (political freedom) emanate from the work of– among others– John Locke, who argued that when a government or sovereign infringes on property rights he may be resisted and even overthrown.
From A History of Capitalism:
In the 18th century an intensification of “pillage and exploitation of the colonies” (45) which led to
an increase in precious metals extracted– “from 1720-1780 gold production in New Spain averages 20 tons” per annum vs. 10 in the 17th century
higher sugar production– a very important source of wealth, particularly for the English
more slaves shipped from West Africa to the colonies– 55,000 per year for the century as compared with 2,000 per year for the 1500s, sometimes reaching as high as 100,000 per year.
The rise of the bourgeoisie, the ascendant ruling class that would largely displace the aristocracy and gain political power, was founded on unpaid labor.
A massive surplus value was released by slavery, one that was “appropriated in monetary form mainly by the traders, manufacturers, bankers, and financiers of England”
Forced labor led to private enrichment and “an increase in purchasing power in the rest of the world, especially in Asia.”
After the Seven Years’ War England became a truly dominant world power. Its enlarged territory meant a larger market, an increase in accumulation.
“Sovereignty of the people, the general will, freedom: the great themes of bourgeois revolution were in place. Sovereignty of the people, direct democracy, freedom: the great themes of the popular movements were there too” (57).
Rousseau (from his article in the Encyclopedia titled “Political Economy”):
“You need me, for I am rich and you are poor; let us then make an agreement between ourselves; I will grant you the honor of serving me, on the condition that you give me the little you have left for the trouble I will take to order you about.”
“The rich man ‘does not find it strange that profit is in inverse relation to work and that an idler, hard and voluptuous, gets fat from the sweat of a million wretches, exhausted from fatigue and need.’”
Voltaire’s definition of capitalism: the system which obliges the rich to make the poor continually work harder and longer.
The emergence of a system of mills. Still pre-industrial, though that is changing.
In England, Enclosure Acts continue unabated. Those forced off the land or stifled by large landowners became the labor pool for mines and manufacturing.
The production of coal grows rapidly: from 2.5 to 5 million tons at the beginning of the 18th century to 10 million tons in 1800, 2/3 of Europe’s total.
Technological innovations in spinning and weaving, new sources of energy: hydropower, eventually steam power. Iron production processes refined: rails in 1776, first bridge in 1779, first iron boat in 1789.
The mill was a new form of production. No longer limited to individual families, small shops. Centralized in large brick buildings. New workers, most of whom were children, had to be disciplined into adapting to the new rhythms of labor. New laws to protect the rise of the mills: it was a capital offense to destroy machinery or buildings. Troop sent to break up riots and uprisings. Illegal to form associations seeking better pay or improvements in working conditions.
“Thus began in England the capitalist transformation of production, one aspect of which will later be stressed under the name of the industrial revolution: colonial domination, worldwide trade, and merchant capitalism, with the development of exchange, an increasing supply of primary products (tea, sugar, cotton) and an increase in market outlets (textiles, manufactured products); enclosures and the first modernization of agriculture supplied an uprooted and available proletariat; the scientific spirit and techniques applied to production led to a series of inventtions which grew one upon the other; available capital, especially from commerce and agriculture, allowed for the construction of mills. Production increased tremendously, the system of wage payments for workers was extended, and workers’ struggles multiplied and became organized”(73).
At this moment in the development of Merchant Capitalism, the bourgeoisie grows by a process of fusion: the aristocracy enages in commerce, owns farms, operates mines. Merchants and financiers purchase vast estates. Merchants become manufacturers, mill owners, they open banks. At this time 450,000 men had the right to vote in England. The laws that were passed during the period (enclosure acts, poor laws, anti-labor laws, etc.) reflected their class interests. The role of the bourgeoisie became so influential that William Pitt, the prime minister would say, “British policy is British trade.”
What we have in this period then is the intersection of new economic realities and liberal (free trade) ideas. Self interest will become the gyroscope of society.
David Hume: “Their greed must be made insatiable, their ambition beyond measure, and all their vices profitable for the public good.” Egoism and self-interest will produce social harmony.
Adam Smith: “An invisible hand… make[s] the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy their share of all that it produces.”
The welfare of humanity is then a matter of Providence (a key term for Equiano)– from the Latin pro-video, looking forward. Somehow, the intersection of self interest in the domain of the market will ensure that all are provided for.
According to Smith:
“the sovereign has only three duties to attend to”:
defend from foreign aggression
establish a system of justice which protects subjects from one another
certain public works
Smith directly contradicts the tenets of mercantilism with this formulation. Merchant capitalism meant the Sovereign’s absolute involvement in trade as an arm of the State.
The logic of this form of economy would move beyond mere commercial exchange to a system that took money, converted it to capital in the form of means of production and labor power which then produced commodities that upon sale produced a larger sum of money than was originally invested. Where would this surplus come from? Labor, in the form of longer working hours and higher intensity for the same pay. That increase in wealth would soon take the form of still more mills, machines, raw materials, and other forms of productive capital.
The byword of the ascendant ruling class was freedom, and by freedom was meant “above all economic freedom: freedom of trade and production, as well as freedom to pay for labor power at the lowest possible price, and so to defend itself against workers’ alliances and revolts” (80).
Still, for those living through this transition the change was not at all apparent. They had no idea that they were at a crucial turning point in human history.
Notes on Ross J. Pudaloff, “No Change Without Purchase: Olaudah Equiano and the Economies of Self and Market.” Early American Literature, 40.3 (Fall 2005): p.499 (29)
The rise of industrial capitalism entailed a certain degree of commodification for wage laborers. It was their ability to labor that mattered most to employers, and in this regard they shared something with those enslaved for agricultural production, who were seen by slave-masters first and foremost as units of production.
Slavery then will become a powerful metaphor with which to describe the plight of others hungering for freedom: the women’s movement will liken the condition of women under patriarchy as a form of slavery. Wage labor will be deemed “white slavery” and “wage slavery.” White slavery will return to the foreground of political discourse at the turn into the 20th century as we have seen, though it will be almost entirely shorn of its class content.
The self, the individual subject, becomes a commodity.
Against this 19th century sense of alienation we can posit the status of the chattel slave, whose status has been likened to one who is socially dead. The slave has no status. She is instead property.
“Praise for commerce and manufacturing emanating from many eighteenth-century radicals… drew upon a logic that exchange and commodification could produce a subject where none had heretofore existed, indeed where there had been no place for that subject to stand or be” (500).
Connection between radical politics and commercialization. Voluntary association. A new space for the formation and assertion of identity: the market, in the act of trade.
Exchange as a means of entering the public realm: women in Indian captivity narratives…
Equiano as an object of commercial exchange. Prizing the moral faculty of “sensibility”.
He gains his freedom by purchasing himself. This financial transaction produces him as a “free” subject.
His narrative ends with a call for an increase in commerce between Africa and England:
“in proportion to the civilization, so will be the consumption of British manufactures.”