07/17/2017

The Southern Slave Economy Was Anti-Capitalistic

Luis Pablo de la Horra, Foundation for Economic Education

The discussion around the political economy of slavery has been one of the central debates in the academic study of the Peculiar Institution in the Antebellum South. Traditionally, the Southern economy was considered non-capitalistic and pre-bourgeoise; a pre-industrialized economy that struggled to thrive due to the lack of incentives imposed by slave labor, the absence of a legal framework that stimulated the emergence of capitalism and a backward, agriculture-based economy.

Conflicting Views

The above view was defended by the so-called “South-as-non-capitalist” school, whose most prominent exponent was the slavery scholar Eugene Genovese.

According to Genovese, slaveholders “were pre-capitalist aristocrats imbued with an antibourgeois spirit with values and mores which subordinated the drive for profit to honor, luxury, ease accomplishment, and family.”

In other words, the South was an inefficient economy where the entrepreneurial search for profits typical of capitalist economies was secondary. Instead, a quasi-aristocratic class (the planters) acted like medieval landowners more concerned about their culture of honor, power, and appearances than maximizing profits.

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