Liberalism, Capitalism, and European Powers in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

by Rikke From, Davit Gasparyan and Greyson Young

In the spirit of the recent campus initiative marking 400 years since the arrival of enslaved Africans to the English colonies in North America, IES hosted a panel discussion on  “Capitalism and Freedom: Perspectives on Slavery and its Ties to Economic and Political Liberalism in Europe.” The discussion featured professors Caitlin Rosenthal (History, UC Berkeley) and Tyler Stovall (Dean of the Humanities at UC Santa Cruz). 

Stovall began by introducing a fundamental issue with liberal democracy: how can it exist when liberalism is based on the rights of the individual, while democracy is based on the rights of the collectivity? And how are individual rights reflected in the representation of the populace? Then Stovall pointed out how racialization was used to address this inconsistency in the early days of modern liberal democracies, drawing a rapidly emerging distinction between white citizens and non-white subjects. The rise of liberal democracy also coincided with the rise of heavily race-focused empires, namely Britain and France.

Offering the example of the Statue of Liberty, Stovall argued that the monument was conceived as the product of the struggles between republic and empire in France, and that it is a symbol for white freedom--not ultimately freedom for all. French anti-slavery activist Édouard René de Laboulaye originally envisioned Lady Liberty as a militant revolutionary carrying broken chains and wearing a cap symbolizing freed slaves; the final version of the statue lacked these aspects. Laboulaye saw the US as a shining model of liberal democracy, with slavery being the exception to that ideal.

Rosenthal continued the discussion by reframing the question of the relationship between capitalism and slavery. One could ask, did slavery cause capitalism? But a better question would be, how did slavery shape capitalism? And how did slavery become so capitalistic? She concluded that slavery and capitalism are at least highly compatible with each other, and that capitalist mechanism emerged through slavery as division of labor, highly complex hierarchical organization of labor, monitor techniques and productivity measuring and management, and calculation of appreciation. Slavery made it essential to interrogate the relationship between capitalism and freedom: freedom for what and freedom for whom? Capitalism with slavery, Rosenthal argued, was capitalism completely unregulated, with anything up for grabs, even people as capital.

The informative Q&A with an audience of 40 touched on definitions of freedom and how these often interacted with ideas of property ownership and class. The speakers also discussed mercantilism and its effects on capitalism. Other questions concerned counting techniques of slaves and the inhumane ideas behind them, the south and its form of capitalism, and incorporation of ideas of slavery in labor movements.