Abstract

capitalist proponents and orthodox Marxists alike tend to agree that capitalism entails a significant break from systems of chattel slavery: both claim that there is a significant, substantive difference between a system that commands and oppresses labor directly and one that commands labor indirectly through the private ownership of capital, although Marxists would deny that the latter is any less oppressive that the former. Apologists for capitalism commonly claim that the rise of that system ended slavery and that the overthrow of slavery by “free labor” is the clearest evidence of capitalism’s moral superiority over other economic systems. Orthodox Marxists, such as Eugene Genovese, concur that slavery in the Americas was “precapitalist,”(45) and that capitalism brought it to an end, although they would maintain more continuities between the two systems than capitalism’s defenders would admit, and deny any moral advantage to “wage slavery” over chattel slavery. Defenders of capitalism are wrong on this matter for several reasons, but what I wish to focus upon in this paper is how a Weberian understanding of capitalism as a “spirit” or ethos, rather than in terms of a set of economic institutions and practices, demonstrates how the Caribbean slave trade was an early manifestation of capitalism rather than its antithesis.

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