Among the most enduring attacks on traditional American values is the notion that slavery was, in essence, the original incarnation of American capitalism, and the capitalist markets of today inherit the same cruel, exploitative elements under a pleasant disguise. As far back as the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that "capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad." The New York Times has also claimed, "to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation."
Is this accurate?
The capitalist approach to labor is typically understood as separate parties consenting to an agreement where a certain amount of work is done for a certain amount of pay according to agreed-upon terms. A slave, by contrast, is forced to work to suit someone else's needs under conditions that are decided for him.
Slavery, even in theory, is so antithetical to capitalism that many early objections to it were based on capitalist principles.
Scottish economist Adam Smith, sometimes called "the father of capitalism," opposed slavery not only on moral grounds, but industrial, seeing it as economically unproductive: "Slaves cultivate only for themselves; the surplus goes to the master, and therefore they are careless about cultivating the ground to the best advantage. A free man keeps as his own whatever is above his rent, and therefore has a motive to industry."
Founding Father and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who continually urged America's shift toward industrialization and trade, reflected capitalist ideas of independence and private ownership by noting, "The only distinction between freedom and slavery consists in this: in the former state a man is governed by the laws to which he has given his consent, either in person or by his representative; in the latter, he is governed by the will of another. In the one case, his life and property are his own; in the other, they depend upon the pleasure of his master. It is easy to discern which of these two states is preferable. No man in his senses can hesitate in choosing to be free, rather than a slave."
President Abraham Lincoln also critiqued slavery on the belief that no one but the laborer should decide what is done with the product of his labor; "I always thought the man that made the corn should eat the corn."
An Old Argument
Ironically, the first Americans who likened capitalism to slavery were supporters of real slavery and owners of slaves, many of whom used the Marxist term "wage slavery" to describe the market-based economy of the North, seeing a capitalist meritocracy as cruel and unforgiving. In defense of their own slave economy, Antebellum-era slavery apologists advocated a paternalistic relationship between all workers and the state, reflected by the relationship of slaves to their master, through which everyone's needs could be met. In this case, blacks were typically argued to be the fittest for the subordinate role.
South Carolina statesman and 7th vice president John C. Calhoun: "Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative. These small communities aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is equally represented and perfectly harmonized."
Social theorist George Fitzhugh: "Socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community of property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains."
Advocates of capitalism who valued individualism, independence, and a direct transfer of wealth to the earner couldn't help hating slavery. Those who valued collectivism, dependency, and redistribution of wealth couldn't help praising it.
Slavery’s True Legacy
If, as progressives claim, capitalism is essentially slavery, it follows that socialist governments and policies are the antidote, but the opposite is true. Not only did millions suffer and die in the forced labor camps of the German National Socialist Party, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, but socialism continues to legally enslave people today.
North Korea: A report in 2018 estimated that 1 in 10 North Koreans live under modern-day slavery, including "human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children," the majority of which are forced by the state. The state is "involved in forced labor both inside and outside the country."
China: China is estimated to have the second-highest slave population in the world. About one fifth of the world’s cotton is manufactured from China’s Xinjiang region, where Muslim-majority populations are under forced labor by the CCP.
Cuba: Under the Castro regime’s socialized healthcare system, medical professionals are forced to work while the state keeps the majority of their salary. When sent abroad, the state prevents them from defecting by holding their families hostage at home and maintaining constant security, surveillance, and isolation.
The logical conclusion of socialism, both in theory and in practice, is slavery. In every case, placing an outside entity in charge of what happens to the product of individual labor inevitably creates an authoritative "master class" capable of exploiting a helpless "slave class." Or, as Lincoln phrased, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it." The free market prevents this by securing the rights of the individual.