Saturday, April 11, 2009

American Slavery and Russian Serfdom

Two excellent books on human bondage are Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Fogel is a pioneer of cliometrics, the (particularly statistical) analysis of economic history. Both books are clearly written, tapping into a wealth of evidence.

I was originally interested in reading Kolchin’s book to try and get some indirect insight into medieval serfdom, but Kolchin makes very clear that Russian serfdom was much more like chattel slavery than its medieval precursor. Medieval serfs existed in much more complex social arrangements and generally had relatively static obligations. Russian serfs were literally owned and far more subject to the whims of their owners.

Kolchin characterises both American slavery and Russian serfdom as responses by elites on the periphery of the capitalist world to labour shortage coming from demand for products of labour coupled with low population density. In both cases, the cost of coercion ‘paid off’ economically, particularly as there was deemed to be no moral cost. Kolchin has an excellent sense of how differently embedded in their different societies American slavery and Russian serfdom were (for example, the slaves lived in a slaveholder’s world, the serf’s in a peasant’s world; American slaveholders were much more effective and empowered as a social group than Russian serfowners; American slavery was vibrant and expanding, Russian serfdom was a system in decay).
In the British colonies of North America, indentured servants were the more important response at first to labour shortage, slavery followed later. (Only around 7% of the 9.9m enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic went to what became the US.)

Yet labour shortage does not always lead to bondage. In post-Black Death C14th England, labour shortage speeded the end of bondage. In Russia, the state used its power – which was unrestrained either by geographical competition or institutional checks – to provide a coercive-monopoly solution to labour competition manifested through labour flight (peasants moving to the opened up frontier). In the Americas, importation on the basis of bondage was engaged in (local wage-earners in North America continued to earn well above European wage rates). Medieval England had a tradition of tenant-farming which provided a viable alternative, landowners were willing to compete across the barrier of freedom and the Crown was not sufficiently motivated to use its coercive power to hold the line. The unrestrained state of Tsarism did not offer such social complexity.

Fogel adds in an extra element for American slavery – the efficiency and effectiveness of the gang-system. Slavery was efficient without gangs, but in gangs it reached much higher levels of productivity than free labour for particular crops, notably cotton and sugar. Ironically, the Iberian tradition of transaction-cost-increasing-expansive-official-discretions undermined the efficiency of Latin American slavery, as it undermined economic efficiency generally, while the Anglo-American tradition of transaction-cost reducing legality aided slavery as it aided economic efficiency generally. The American South produced the only slave population which reproduced itself (indeed had high rates of natural population increase: though this may be exaggerated, see here) because it had better health conditions than the Caribbean colonies and more secure property rights than Latin America – slaves were property, were long-term assets, and treated as such. Indeed, American slaves ate better than European workers (and marginally better than American workers). Even West Indian slaves ate better than European peasants.

Only two systems of bondage were violently overthrown. Haiti, 1804 (the only abolition ‘from below’) and the southern US (the only case of large-scale confiscation of private property from citizens in US history). The US system remained viable, with rising slave prices and good economic growth, until the Civil War. But, it was not broadly modernising and increasingly under external assault.

Fogel’s economic grasp is, as one would expect, rather better than Kolchin’s. Kolchin at times talks as if the labour theory of value was correct and all profits are exploitation. Economists call profit residual income because it is just that – what’s left over after production and distribution has been paid for. Which could well be a negative (and often is). It is a great mistake to talk or think of commercial activity as if risk is not a factor.

Fogel goes into considerable detail about the British and American abolition campaigns. One of many ironies is that, in its origins, the British anti-slavery campaign was more dominated by religious sentiment than the American, though religious sentiment was deeply important in keeping the American cause alive. The American Revolution found slavery an insoluble conundrum – it was a revolution for natural equality and property rights, yet slaves were property which contradicted natural equality. Fogel notes that British radicals were suspicious of the anti-slavery campaign because it diverted attention from the plight of the British poor. Abolition did raise the price of sugar, with significant adverse effects on the food budgets of the working poor.

Conversely, Fogel documents how high immigration led to drops in the average height and life expectancy of native-born American workers. He sets out how the anti-slavery campaign forged a victorious political coalition (the Republican Party) on the back of directing worker-resentment away from manifesting as nativist xenophobia to anti-slavery and resentment of Southern ‘Slave Power’. There are some contemporary parallels for such political dynamics.

High immigration advantages new migrants (if they survive the passage) since they benefit from increased opportunities. It advantages owners of capital, whether land (since rents and land prices go up), manufacturing (downward pressure is put on wages while product demand increases), or intellectual (since the migrants are unlikely to compete and services demand goes up – the contemporary tendency of the owners of intellectual capital to attempt to form cartels excluding those with competing ideas increases this effect, since support for immigration is a marker for cartel membership). High immigration disadvantages resident sellers of labour, through downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on rents and land prices, crowding effects, increased crime and increased disease exposure: the combination of which can outweigh increased demand for labour's products in contemporary society and far outdid so in C19th America (when disease control and sanitation were much worse and rates of immigration extraordinarily high).

You could say that C19th resident American workers suffered a milder version of what the previous indigenous inhabitants had suffered from the arrival of a mass of newcomers. Which is not to deny that the US gained both power and dynamism from immigration. (Or, that, for example, the great restriction of US immigration from 1923 was not a major tragedy.)

John Howard’s politics of a sense of control (borders), endorsement and security (family policy, external threat) were not so different from Lincoln’s: Lincoln finessed nativism, Howard finesses general anti-immigration sentiment. Lincoln and co saw off the nativist xenophobia of the Know Nothings, Howard saw off Pauline Hauline. And the jihadis are real enemies.

Reading about actual slavery also brings home how offensive, stupid and intellectually poisonous the term ‘wage slavery’ is; a monstrous case of the common habit of exaggerating the downside, belittling the upside of what is; of dealing not in reality but in a validating fantasy. It was a common trope amongst proslavery advocates that being a wage-earner was ‘really’ like being a slave. Yet, did any ‘wage slaves’ seek to sell themselves into slavery? No. Did any slaves prefer that condition to ‘wage slavery’? No. That American slaves were better-fed than contemporary workers misses the point – people really do not live by bread alone. (The only significant historical instances of people selling themselves into bondage are in life-threatening situations: either sheer hunger – that includes debt bondage – or protection from state or other violent predation.)

That the first state created on the wage-slave rhetoric was also the first modern state to reintroduce actual slavery (the Soviet labour camp system cannot be regarded as anything other than a form of state slavery) probably expresses something deeper. The worship of instrumental utility over such constraints as truth no doubt made it easier, as did the overweening sense of the importance of their intentions. I suppose it does mark a release from constraints – for the new masters. But that is the problem with the radical Enlightenment vision of a utopian release from constraints – it misses the reality of constraints, how humanising they can be and how central to morality they are.

And discovering that slave-owners were generally very practical in their exercise of dominion over their slaves does not in the remotest justify that dominion.


  1. Very interesting. I quoted you here.

    1. Sorry, took me until now to notice and the post seems to have disappeared.

  2. This might interest you too.

  3. And

    1. I am much more sceptical than you that the counterfactual of Confederate independence would have been a better world.

    2. I don't know if it would except that 700,000 lives would have been saved. But wars are bad and unjust ones the devil.

    3. Harry Turtledove has explored a world where the Confederacy won. It has a certain grim plausibility. Nor am I sure that a free Union and a slave Confederacy would have peacefully coexisted. The "obvious" peaceful solution was to buy all the slaves, but that was not politically feasible.