Before Eric Williams’ seminal text Capitalism and Slavery (1944) which made the profound argument that slavery was the foundation for the Industrial Revolution and industrial capitalism, W.E.B. Du Bois repositioned slavery in American capitalism in his essay Black Reconstruction in America (1935). This scholarship and others like it, seek to expose how the project of naturalizing the connection between slavery and race obfuscates the relationship between slavery and capitalism. “We have so fully inherited the narratives of slavery and the slave trade crafted for us by 18th century abolitionists, that we don’t always understand how slavery and the slave trade were deeply embedded in the emergence of late medieval and early modern notions of trade, of value and exchange, currency and the relationship between population, the accumulation of wealth and the nation state – all of which comprise early modern capitalism and capitalist formations,” says Jennifer L. Morgan, a professor at New York University.
These arguments are certainly not new, but there is a renewed interest on the subject with books like Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of Economic Development published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2016. Typically, these insights rarely travel beyond the academe and barring a few exceptions, most people simply shrug at the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade – unable to connect the history of slavery and capitalism to their current lived experience. Yet, even for those who believe that there is much that stands between us and enslaved peoples from the African continent some 200 or more years ago, the reality is that certain key practices on slave plantations in the Americas are the bedrock of modern management currently practiced in business entities across the globe.
This is the thesis of Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (2018) which explores how business innovation can be a byproduct of bondage. Rosenthal worked for consulting giants McKinsey and Company before returning to Harvard to do her PhD on business management. As she trawled through old documents and balance sheets, she was struck by how slave plantations invented financial instruments such as bonds, which began by using slaves as collateral – it is worth noting that 40% of mortgages were collateralized by slaves. Rosenthal argues that slave owners were not just part of a premodern ‘feudal system’ but were in fact businessmen who were capitalist innovators, at the cutting edge of developing new accounting practices. “These careful records tracked the daily tasks of the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people they enslaved, all with an eye to maximizing profits,” Rosenthal writes. “The accounts monitored the output of plantations as well as the ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’ of laborers, slaveholders’ chilling economic shorthand for births and deaths.” These observations challenge the way that productivity enabled by data-driven analysis is seen not a as a marker of degradation, but as one of progress instead.
Rosenthal states that “Even as the data illuminated productivity, it obscured other aspects of plantation life. It hid the immense human costs of slavery. Plantation owners could pore over data looking for opportunities to tweak production and increase profits without thinking much about the violence of the system. In a sense, slaveholders’ reports were dashboards that synthesized information into ‘key performance indicators’ so that owners could monitor assets from afar. They could manage assets and maximize value without considering the horrifying violence of plantation life. They could calculate how to accelerate production without considering the exploitative conditions that made this speedup possible.”
Methods like these have clearly survived abolition and people continue to be represented by numbers and statistics in ways that are more widespread when compared to even the peak of slavery in the Americas. The common narrative follows the idea that modern management techniques were developed in factories in England and the industrialized Northern American states – something that is more palatable. But Accounting for Slavery argues that the conditions of slavery permitted a more scientific approach than the factories did.
This can be hard to believe considering that the term scientific management itself would not be coined until the early 20th century with Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Taylor’s breakthrough promised that management could be turned into a science and workers of all kind could be turned into cogs in the industrial machine. Taylorism has just three rules: break complex jobs into simple ones, measure everything workers do and link pay to performance (bonuses to high achievers, firing others). While this, no doubt, fits in perfectly with our modern lens where efficiency is prioritized, one need only consider two significant works of the 20th century to understand the backlash against Taylorism: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Both works depict a society that believes in unlimited progress guided by science and planning. Taylorism preceded Fordism and Huxleyan scholar, James Sexton, notes, “The problem with Taylor’s time and motion efficiency schemes and Ford’s rational and efficient systematizing is that Ford and Taylor approached the organization mechanistically, seeing the organization member as a mere instrument of production to be handled as easily as any other tool, and failing to consider the individual’s emotions or aspirations.”
These days it may seem that employee emotions and aspirations are a key driver in recruiting millennials and Gen Z. But no amount of mental health awareness days, laid back dressing, and signing off emails with preferred pronouns in parenthesis, is going to change the fact that modern corporations care solely about revenue, profits and their shareholders. Woke-washing does not alter the very basic corporate structure built on a usurious foundation and this will not change until real alternatives to trade and doing business are practiced and implemented. Until then, the majority of employees will live under the legacy of scientific management. This legacy is particularly barbaric when its history underpinned by slavery is considered. Perhaps what is most terrifying is that not even Huxley could have predicted the position data-driven analysis would come to occupy given the leaps in technology and the rise of social media. As Rosenthal reminds us, “Considering data at a distance makes it perilously easy to overlook the stories the data does not tell.”