Important Reads and Important to Think About

A quote to start the day:

As Harvey has laid out, capital wants to be abstract, the way a river wants to flow downhill. Imagine some investor smells a new market. He sinks his capital into a factory full of machines (or he buys up a bunch of land and slaves). Capital goes from abstract—symbols on a piece of paper, data in a computer—to concrete. For this to occur, actual physical stuff—human bodies, supplies—has to get fitted to capital’s abstract account-sheet needs, to produce X amount of a product in Y time, at Z cost. People become labor-power; human communities are reorganized around the rhythms of the factory; forests and mountains become raw materials. In the ensuing production process, capital cycles through various forms: from resources, through supplies, machinery, workers, into the product. Each of these is a holding cell, a trap for value. Only when the product is finally sold does the invested value (plus surplus) return to the capitalist, again in its more comfortable abstract form—money. This dynamic tension, between concretion and abstraction, liquidity and solidity, lies for Harvey at the heart of the capitalist process and produces capitalism’s propensity for crisis.

The above is from “Slave Capitalism” by Gabriel Winant over at N+1, a review of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams:  Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013).  I think it nicely summarizes processes associated with primitive accumulation (though, I prefer the term original accumulation) and the expansion of capital.  Johnson’s book, of course, is not about capitalism in an abstract sense, but is an exploration and analysis of the development of slavery within American capitalism and empire, which experienced/deployed the processes enumerated by Harvey.  Winant’s summary of how Johnson characterizes American slavery’s deployment of such processes is on point and wrenching:

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

According to Winant, one of the strengths of Johnson’s work in River of Dreams lays in the ways he highlights specific ties between two different eras:  that of the “cotton kingdom” and that of today, a continuity created via the persistence of liberal capitalism, the system slavery was intricately a part of, that it was a product and producer of.  As I think the above quotes suggests, its a continuity revealed through shared practices and habits of mind.

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