slavery and capitalism

Written by Hammad Khan 12:10 pm Current Affairs, Published Content, Research Papers

Is There a Link Between Slavery and Capitalism?

The paper critically examines the essence of capitalism and how it functions in the many social systems across the world. It also looks into the relationship between capitalism and slavery, and whether or not capitalism has any characteristics that are similar to slavery.
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Hammad Khan is a freelance writer. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Peshawar.


The industrial revolution brought about the emergence of the capitalist regime, which followed the slave-system society. With the abolition of slavery, some are of the opinion that capitalism changed slave trade to a slave-in-trade system.1 They are, however, not identified as slaves or slave owners in our modern world system.

Using Marx’s critique of capitalism, he claimed that the capital-wage-labour relation, which he considered to be the core structure of capitalism, was a more effective method of exploitation than “pure and simple” slavery. Apart from that, Marx maintained that the dynamic logic of capitalism’s protracted reproduction was such that, while slavery was critical in the establishment of capitalism, it would become obsolete after capitalism had achieved economic dominance.2

It is necessary to critically examine the nature of orientation or conditioning of the working class and masters, or, to put it another way, the exploitatory class in order to debate whether slavery exists in the current world system. Consequently, in today’s social structure, the distinction between classes is so blurred that the subversive position of workers or the working class is taken for granted as a natural and inevitability of economic conditions; they are no longer referred to be slaves.

However, because of how the present world order is rationalised, it has moulded both the labourers and the masters in such a way that we no longer view it as slavery. In many ways, it is the same as what occurred with slaves back in the 18th century, only worse.

Their condition in the social system was regarded as natural and inevitable, and they were never referred to as slaves by those who lived at the time. They believed it was their responsibility to care for the lands of their lords or masters, and their endurance in their social system was regarded as natural and inevitable.

Slavery as a Building Block to the Modern Capitalism

Several empires, such as the Dutch East India Company, established joint-stock businesses across the world between the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, resulting in a more complicated international economic structure. Maritime empires and major corporations collaborated to create the conditions that eventually led to the development of the current economic system of capitalism.

The proponents of the capitalist system think and declare that the phenomenon of free markets in commodities and labour will prove to be of great value to the international market and convert the globe into a better place due to the capitalist system’s implementation. During this time frame, it was noted that the slave trade was on the rise.

Slaves were regarded as legal property rather than human beings, and they proved to be a significant source of revenue. Throughout this period of time, the need for enslaved labour expanded in tandem with the expansion of the plantation’s operations. Approximately 10 to 12 million individuals were enslaved and transported over the Atlantic ocean to the Americas, most of whom were from Africa.3

Instead of being treated as humans, these slaves were treated as property in European and American nations. According to historians, the most substantial slave trade occurred in the 18th century to the Americas, with an estimated three-fifths of the overall transatlantic slave trade occurring during this time period in the Americas.

Even though these enslaved people lived in abject poverty, they proved to be a crucial component of the capitalist economic structure, which we now refer to as the plantation system. These slaves were never compensated for their labour, were forced to live in appalling conditions, and created enormous profits for their masters, who were legally entitled to do so.

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According to Eric Williams, the capitalist economic model displaced slavery as the dominant economic paradigm. It is believed that the two systems – plantation and slavery – were established around the same time and in the same geographical area of the world. Another historian, Blackburn, agrees with Williams’s assessment of the role played by slavery’s surplus capital in the acceleration of industrialisation in the European metropole.

On the other hand, Blackburn does not agree with Williams that capitalism is a replacement for slavery; instead, he believes that slavery has been absorbed into every nook and corner of contemporary capitalism. He also contends that slavery developed the whole concept of capitalism, which includes contemporary nation-states, tax systems, financial sectors, consumer economies, and other political, ideological, economic, and cultural developments, all of which were formed by slavery.

The dispute over the interdependence of these two systems is being seen all over the world by historians of all backgrounds. Slavery had already played a significant role in the establishment and fuelling of the capitalist economy by the late nineteenth century throughout most of the region of America and Europe, despite the fact that it had been criminalised in many parts of the region.4

Some argue that capitalism was the driving force behind slavery’s demise as well as the establishment of a free market, including the provision of free commodities and labour, while others argue that slavery played an essential role in the development of the modern capitalist economy. In any case, both of these concepts are still under consideration.

We will also look at whether capitalism and slavery were mutually exclusive notions or if they were mutually dependent on one another. Assume that capitalism and slavery are diametrically opposite systems. Slavery on plantations was part of an older method of organising labour, according to this historical understanding. Then came capitalism, crushing it.

Is this an authentic portrayal of events? Slave labour is discouraged by capitalism, as economic freedom is one of its guiding principles. A buyer and seller are free to negotiate without assistance and both parties will agree upon a fair price. Work is divided equally according to capitalism. Regardless of one’s financial condition, one should be able to demand the maximum recompense for their work.

Abolitionists argue that capitalism discourages labour. He “owns” you and will not pay you for your effort or valuable advice. Why bother? Slavery was historically inefficient compared to a system where workers were paid and could advance in rank. So, wage labourers in the north were more efficient than slaves in the south, stated Eugene Genovese and Mary Beard.

Slavery was defeated by capitalism in the American Civil War. As a result, historians have relied on the following two arguments to support the notion that capitalism put an end to slavery. First and foremost, they argue that wage work was a superior system that made free nations stronger than cultures that relied on enslaved labour. Secondly, they believe that those who lived in capitalist, industrial civilizations were by nature anti-slavery activists.

However, the data implies that capitalism and slavery were more compatible than this. Apart from open markets, proponents of capitalism claim that making a profit is essential. People expect a return on their investment when they invest money. Many historians have pointed out that the slave trade in the Atlantic was highly profitable. People in the United Kingdom and beyond made a fortune by investing in slave trade firms.

They may have used these gains to launch additional companies and support many of the scientific and technological discoveries that enabled industrialisation and the fast development of capitalism, as historian Eric Williams and others have claimed. It was possible for plantations that relied on the forced labour of enslaved people to be highly profitable at times.

According to several historians writing in the last decade, including Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist, slave farms had a role in the development of the contemporary capitalist world, contrary to what earlier historians had said. Cotton was one of the most important crops produced by enslaved labour during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Johnson points out that cotton was the raw material for the textile machines that powered some of the world’s most important capitalist businesses during the nineteenth century.5

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As the vast majority of that cotton was produced by slave labour, it was slavery that enabled this significant portion of industrialisation to take place. Historians contend that capitalism and slavery were inextricably linked, more like siblings who supported each other rather than competing. For capitalists, the slave trade and the plantation system brought in revenues, and the plantation system even contributed to the development and inspiration of new industrial processes for later capitalists.

Economic and Social Functions of Slavery

A small number of slaves worked as domestic servants in a planter’s main house, doing things like cooking, nursemaiding, sewing, and acting as coachmen. Carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths were among the labourers and craftspeople, accounting for an even lower percentage of the workforce.

It was usual for “spare” slaves to work as mill or factory employees, and skilled artisans may have been sent out by their masters to work on other estates as a result of their education. The vast majority of slaves, on the other hand, toiled in the fields, picking cotton, and cultivating and harvesting rice, tobacco, and sugar cane, among other crops.

Slave occupations reflected the character of the South’s economy and society, which was predominantly agricultural and rural in comparison to the North, with minimal industry and urbanisation. Slavery, regardless of the job slaves did, was a successful business.6 Compared to the value of the items produced by slaves, landowners’ expenses were little.

Various figures exist, but the costs associated with one field hand probably were half of what the owner gained from the slave’s labour. Profitability grew because cash crop prices climbed gradually, while slave labour costs remained steady in the first half of the nineteenth century. The slaves themselves were good investments, and slave prices rose in lockstep with the rise in cotton production and demand for slaves.

Men in their late teens and early twenties who were skilled in the fields received the most significant wages. However, women with equivalent skills were regularly sold for the same amount. The enterprising slave owner bought and sold slaves to boost his income. Besides the economic function of slavery, the social function and the impacts of slavery on several societies are also significant.

What does it imply to you? To put it simply, it refers to any culture in which slave labour—specifically, where the definition of work and the definition of the relationship between ownership and labour—is determined by the institution of slavery. Human bondage is defined as a relationship that lasts from birth to death—and some would argue from birth to death and beyond.

Rise from Slave Trade to Slave-in-Trade

Slavery was accepted in the United States for 250 years. Slaves were viewed as mere objects and denied even the most fundamental human rights. President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in 1865 in order to emancipate all slaves and stop prejudice towards blacks: “neither slavery nor Involuntary slavery… shall exist inside the United States of America or any other country subject to their authority”.

However, even after slavery was abolished, there were still racial structures and laws in place that allowed slavery to continue to exist. This included the Jim Crow laws, lasting from 1877 to the 1960s, that established a racial caste system and the legitimacy of racial caste division.7 Following the emergence of many civil rights movements among the black community, Jim Crow laws ended in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. 

Has slavery been absolutely abolished? It is argued that new forms of slavery have arisen since the advent of capitalism. Many scholars have observed that slavery was never truly abolished; rather, it evolved into other forms.8 One expression of this is worker exploitation. Capitalism has resulted in widespread exploitation of factory workers, who are forced to work long hours in extremely difficult conditions to support the wealthy’s luxuries. Indeed, they are almost slave labourers.

Capitalism has also resulted in the enslavement of the jail population. In the United States, private organisations profit from the prison population. In the United States, governments are awarding contracts to private businesses to build prisons, resulting in a dramatic increase in incarceration rates, disproportionately affecting minority communities. For the purpose of profit, people are imprisoned for minor offences and utilised as cheap labour for other businesses.

Does Slavery Exist Among Us?

Slaves in our time are not limited to factory and workshop workers who must completely sell themselves into the power of factory and foundry owners in order to exist; nearly all agricultural labourers are slaves, working ceaselessly to grow another’s corn on another’s field and gathering it into another’s barn.

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Additionally, slaves include the countless footmen, chefs, porters, housemaids, coachmen, and waiters who spend their entire lives performing activities that are unnatural for a human being and that they themselves despise. Slavery remains in full force, but we are unaware of it, much as serfdom slavery was not noticed in late-eighteenth-century Europe.9

In the modern world system, the position of the labourer is regarded as a natural and unavoidable economic condition, not referred to as slavery. The question of modern slavery is in the same phase as was the question of serfdom in late-eighteenth-century Europe. Slavery of employees is only now being acknowledged by advanced members of our society; the majority remain convinced that slavery does not exist among us.


As a tentative conclusion, slavery and capitalism are best understood as being inextricably linked to one another but simultaneously being irreducibly different from one another. They must be regarded as both distinct and permanently related at the same time. There are some features of each system that are similar to one another, while other aspects of each system appear to be distinct.

Though it is tempting to consider either institution as a fully coherent system with a solid set of principles, ideological roots, or defined operating norms, this is a misinterpretation of the situation. Since capitalism and slavery are characterised by contingencies, possibilities, and fluid variations, it is necessary to describe both ideas with extreme care and a thorough understanding of their internal complexities and diverse elements, which shift dramatically across different temporal and spatial domains.

As absolutely important as our current political requirements are, the tale of slavery and capitalism must be more than just a helpful story; it must also be exact in order to be effective. The incomparable horrors of slavery and the transformational rupture of emancipation necessitate this understanding. In their haste to write ‘the new history of capitalism,’ historians would be good to keep in mind the past of the capitalist system as well.

The pre-capitalist period is as essential to understanding as the period where slavery and capitalism together evolved in a single social setup. However, critically examining the modern capitalist political and economic system, one can relate the current relation of the working class and bourgeois class to the 15th to 19th-century slaves and their masters. 


1 Sogani Capitalism and the Rise of New Slavery: From Slave Trade to Slave in Trade

2 Nielson and Peter Capitalism’s slavery

3 Horton and Horton Slavery and the Making of America, pg 13

4 Roberts A system built on slavery |  

5 Joshua D. Rothman Capitalism’s Slavery

6 Deborah Roberts A System Built on Slavery, 2012

7 Sogani Capitalism and the Rise of New Slavery: From Slave Trade to Slave in Trade, 2019

8 Tolstoy, Leo The Slavery Of Our Times | The Anarchist Library, 1900

9 Kevin Bales Slavery in its Contemporary Manifestations, 2012


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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