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Transcending the Capitalism and Slavery Debate: Slavery and World Geographies of Accumulation

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The capitalism and slavery debate is among the most significant in world historiography. This essay suggests that its main perspectives still use nation-based approaches and employ analytical categories of classical and neoclassical economics that obscure the very notion of capital. As a result, the material relations of slavery are reduced to the problem of profitability within national or colonial contexts, an approach that depicts the nineteenth-century nexus between slavery and capitalism as a transhistorical one. Against this backdrop, this essay proposes that the rise and fall of slavery can be better understood by examining the changing material composition of capital as well as its equally changing cluster of global circuits. Based on critical value theory, it argues that industrialization consistently reshaped spatial and material relations between town and country, capital and labor, and production and consumption, engendering world geographies of accumulation that both fueled and challenged the reproduction of slave labor in the Americas.

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  1. This literature is unfathomably large. Since my goal is to discuss conceptual assumptions in key authors, for a more comprehensive bibliographical overview I refer the reader to Connerman and Zeuske (2020).

  2. Pro-Williams scholars were then making an analytical move that Latin American scholars had already made decades earlier, but without mentioning them probably due to the unequal exchange of knowledge within world academia (Cox 1987; Novais 1972, 1979).

  3. It would be worth examining to what extent these features also shape the agrarian capitalism approach laid out in the special issue “Capitalism and American Empire,” (Parisot, 2020), but this is beyond my scope here.


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This study was funded by Capes-Print 41/2017 (grant number 88881.310263/2018–00) and FAPERJ Jovem Cientista do Nosso Estado (grant number E-26/201.462/2022).

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Parron, T. Transcending the Capitalism and Slavery Debate: Slavery and World Geographies of Accumulation. Theor Soc 52, 677–709 (2023).

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