The new history of capitalism and the political economy of reproduction

by Prof. Katherine Paugh (Corpus Christi College, Oxford)

This blog post was written spasmodically in the rare moments I could seize in the midst of a global pandemic that has exposed for many working mothers, myself included, the instability of a capitalist world system that has long relied on the extraction of coerced reproductive labour. My hope in this essay is to affirm the need for the new history of capitalism to historicize the emergence of capitalist modes of governing reproduction and to affirm the persistent interdependence of paid and unpaid reproductive labour in the evolution of capitalist world systems. There is a great deal more to say in advocating for this approach than can be contained in a short blog post, but my particular goal here is to explore how the thread of thinking about reproduction that runs through debates on the origins of capitalism that arise in the readings offered in this special issue and its introduction, as well as some of the readings featured in the session of the reading group that I concocted, have suggested interesting questions about the political economy of reproduction that remain under-explored.

Women’s Work in Rural England 1500-1700 (montage of images) via Women’s Work in Rural England 1500-1700 Project website

Certainly, demography has frequently been a matter for debate among Marxist historians seeking the origins of capitalism. Studies of the origins of capitalism circulating in the context of the Brenner debate (and focused rather narrowly, I would say, on internal developments within Europe), revolved around questions of reproduction. Brenner’s and Bois’ criticisms of the Annales school (and particularly Le Roy Ladurie) focused on what they characterised as an ahistorical and overly rigid understanding of the laws of demography. Brenner complained that Ladurie’s arguments rested on a misguided ‘Malthusian-Ricardian’ assumption of cyclical demographic growth, when in fact working people organized social reproduction within historically shaped microeconomies that dictated demographic trends. Brenner thus argued that the transition to capitalism was prompted by shifting class relations in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which in turn prompted the English peasantry to make different decisions regarding reproduction.1 More specifically, the increasing exposure of agricultural labourers to land and labour markets during this period forced them to adopt more Smithian ‘rules of reproduction’ calculated to maximize profit, where previously their reproductive choices were shaped by the simple acquisition of subsistence. In his determination to see the organization of reproduction as shaped by historical forces rather than ahistorical laws, Brenner can in some ways be seen as adopting the approach of his contemporary, Gayle Rubin, in her provocative 1975 essay ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’, though I’ve no idea if Brenner had ever read Rubin’s work. Rubin proposed the need to historicize ‘sex-gender systems’, akin to Brenner’s ‘rules of reproduction’.2 Yet Brenner’s work focused on demographic abstractions like ‘subsistence’ that obscured the materiality of women’s caring work, and did not share the feminist concerns of later Social Reproduction Theory with the embodied experiences of women who came up against capitalism’s demands for economic and demographic growth.

Scholars who took a more global approach to the origins of capitalism also sometimes found themselves grappling with the problem of reproduction, though here again mothers and others who did caring work were rarely featured. Around the same time that participants in the Brenner debate were weighing the role of European demography in unleashing global capitalism, world systems theorists were coming to grips with the significance of reproduction on a broader scale. Wallerstein was well aware that the ebbs and flows of labour supply needed to be understood historically and globally. In a critical essay he published in 1976 assessing the work of Fogel, Engerman, and Genovese on slavery in the American South, Wallerstein chastised Fogel and Engerman for treating the decisions that Southern slave owners made about managing reproduction as driven by a Smithian, ahistorical tendency toward profit maximization.3 Wallerstein emphasized, instead, the need to understand reproduction in slave societies as historically situated alongside the fortunes of the Atlantic slave trade. Just as Brenner had suggested that the ‘rules of reproduction’ had changed for English peasants during the transition to capitalism, so Wallerstein argued that the end of the Atlantic slave trade had changed American slave owners’ decisions about reproduction—in particular, Wallerstein suggested that the end of the Atlantic slave trade had prompted slave owners to supply better ‘material conditions’ to the enslaved and to encourage the development of nuclear families. Moreover, the end of the Atlantic slave trade had actually prompted the end of slavery itself, ‘not because it was incompatible with capitalism…but because it was incompatible with a capitalist world-economy that no longer had an external arena to bear the bulk of the cost of slave breeding.’ The power of crises of reproduction to shape global capitalist systems thus served a pivotal role for Wallerstein in explaining the transition from slavery to other forms of semi-coerced and waged labour in the American South, and a pivotal role moreover in asserting that slavery was not a throwback to feudalism as Genovese would have it, but rather a crucial ingredient in the origins and continued functioning of capitalist world systems.

Slaves processing tobacco on a Virginian farm c. 1670, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In making this claim, Wallerstein built on the earlier work of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James, who insisted on the role of slavery in building capitalist economic systems that spanned across continents and empires, long before the current vogue among ‘new historians of capitalism’ for making such claims emerged.4 Wallerstein’s thinking on this front was also a rejection of Genovese’s attempts to characterize slavery as ‘pre-capitalist’. Genovese had attempted to craft a ‘Marxian’ approach to the history of American slavery that was compatible with the more orthodox Marxism espoused by historians such as Brenner, who insisted on linear understandings of the evolution of political economy and saw capitalism as strictly defined by wage-labour, and therefore claimed that colonial economies could not be considered as essentially capitalist. Wallerstein and his followers built instead on the ‘Black Marxist’ tradition of Williams and James by insisting on the fundamental role of slave societies (and peripheral economies more generally) in facilitating the industrial revolution and modelling new forms of labour discipline, and also, as Wallerstein claimed, developing new ways of contending with reproduction and global flows of labour. This approach to understanding how capitalist extraction has been dependent upon its ability to meld itself onto local labour regimes has since become a common thread in studies of colonial political economy, as is reflected in the articles by Graves and Patch included, alongside the Brenner debate, in the Past & Present virtual issue Capitalism in Global History.5 Yet, as in the Brenner debates, world systems theorists of Wallerstein’s generation tended to discuss the mechanisms of reproduction in wonkish, demographic terms rather than exploring the historical materiality of mothering and caring. Sidney Mintz, for example, in a 1978 essay that explored the interdependent roles of slavery and other forms of labour coercion in the emergent global economy, was interested in parsing the differing ways in which ‘maintenance’ was provided to workers under these different forms of labour organization. By this he clearly meant the costs of reproduction, but he didn’t articulate it that way or contemplate how these different organizations of ‘maintenance’ shaped the lives of enslaved and/or proletarian women.6

Most proponents of the ‘new history of capitalism’ have similarly failed to take seriously the possibility that thinking about reproduction allows us to more fully understand the complex and synergistic relationship between slavery in the Americas on the one hand and capitalist economic growth and labour discipline on the other. Historians writing the ‘new history of capitalism’ have given little attention to the impact of economic change on childbearing and child-rearing. Walter Johnson, for example, in his history of slavery in the antebellum American South, understands that the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States and subsequent reliance on an internal slave trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, followed by a campaign to bring the Atlantic slave trade to the U.S. back again in the 1850s, is a story about reproduction. But he has little interest in exploring how the shifting politics of reproduction played out in the lived experiences of enslaved mothers and children. Instead, he focuses primarily on how the reproduction of slaves functioned as a means for the reproduction of white men’s sense of themselves as masters.7

Ed Baptist’s history of slavery in the antebellum United States displays a similar disinterest in connecting global shifts in the history of capitalism with the sexual and reproductive economies of the American South. Instead, Baptist offers an ahistorical assessment of the motivations of white men in the antebellum South for perpetrating sexual violence on enslaved women and commodifying their sexuality. He chalks this violence and commodification up to some combination of evolutionary biology, anger at white women, and repressive sexual morality, as well as the need to display mastery over blacks by ‘fucking’ everything in sight. There is little acknowledgment that the expansion of cotton agriculture in the aftermath of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade was reflective of a particular moment in the history of global capitalism which required a shift toward homegrown reproduction and consequently the commodification of childbearing. Variation over space and time are thus elided by a picture of ahistorical white man lust that conflates eighteenth-century Jamaica and Virginia with nineteenth century New Orleans.8

Slaves Waiting for Sale in Richmond Virginia by Eyre Crowe (1853), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been a groundswell in recent years of work that emphasizes the extent to which the institution of slavery relied upon the reproductive labour of enslaved women—the foundational work in this vein was Jennifer Morgan’s, and the ‘Mothering Slaves’ research network led by Emily West, Diana Paton, and Maria Helena Machado, has done excellent work in bringing scholars in this growing field together. Recent books by Stephanie Jones Rogers, Daina Raimey Berry, and Sasha Bryson Turner provide just a few examples of the excellent work being done in this field, but the ‘new history of capitalism’ has made little effort to integrate these insights. It seems, in fact, that the ‘new history of capitalism’ is still suffering from some of the same problems with understanding the politics of reproduction historically and globally that Immanuel Wallerstein complained of in 1976 in his review of the work of Fogel, Engerman and Genovese.

I think that there is an opportunity to think more carefully about what the history of reproduction can reveal about the history of capitalism and slavery, and vice versa. Some examples of such work have appeared in the pages of Past & Present over the years. One excellent example is Judith Carney’s 1996 article ‘Rice Milling, Gender, and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina’. Carney took the insights about time and labour discipline that emerged out of E.P. Thompson’s classic 1967 Past and Present article and applied them to the unpaid labour regimes that emerged on rice plantations in colonial South Carolina. Carney revealed that rice milling, which had once been performed by West African women in accordance with the more gentle rhythms of household sustenance, was transformed by the emergence of international markets for rice into a gruelling task, performed by both men and women in accordance with the time and labour disciplines necessary to maximize the production of cash crops on new world plantations. Similarly, my own 2013 article, ‘The Politics of Childbearing in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World during the Age of Abolition, 1776-1838’, argued that a crisis of reproduction on Caribbean plantations caused by the disintegration of the Atlantic slave trade was pivotal in prompting the transition from unpaid to paid labour in the Caribbean, and that methods for disciplining reproductive labour that have persisted to this day in industrialized societies actually emerged at least partly out of the need to discipline reproduction in the slave societies of the British Caribbean.9

One could also point to the work of other Marxist feminists who have focused on American slave societies, in producing work that acknowledges how political economy has shaped the historical evolution of ideas about gendered labour while also attending to the ways that unpaid labour has historically contributed to the accumulation of capital and the production of goods for profit in global markets—the work of Amy Dru Stanley, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Stephanie McCurry comes to mind. Some of the foundational texts of Social Reproduction Theory also suggested the need to understand the history of slavery and reproduction in relationship in relationship to the history of global capitalism, although such texts also sometimes suffered from a tendency to see unpaid reproductive labour as the appropriate focus of social reproduction theory’s critical praxis. Silvia Federici, for example, was prompted by the work of historians Hilary Beckles and Barbara Bush to point out that attempts to manipulate enslaved Afro-Caribbean women’s reproductive lives had helped to lay the foundations for the capitalist governance of reproduction.10 Yet Federici was guided by her argument that women had been increasingly excluded from waged labour and driven into the home during the transition to capitalism, and so did not attend to the impact that the transition to wage labour had on Caribbean women. Some more recent work that explicitly fixes its sights on Social Reproduction Theory has explored the origins and persistence of waged reproductive labour’s synergy with unpaid reproductive labour. An essay by Carmen Teeple Hopkins, for example, in the recent collection of essays on social reproduction theory edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, contemplates black feminist thinking about the difficulties of comprehending unpaid reproductive labour under American slavery, and centres the need to reconfigure dichotomies of ‘home’ and ‘work’ which inhabit more orthodox Marxist approaches to reproductive labour, which too often counterpose men’s wage labour with women’s unpaid labour, and so are insufficient for thinking about women’s unpaid reproductive labour in slave societies. Hopkins suggests that these insights might apply more broadly to the work of social reproduction theorists seeking to comprehend the intricacies of paid and unpaid domestic labour.11

“Capitalism also depends on domestic labour”, Plan C sticker on Pershore Road lamppost, photo by Josh Allen (2019)

It is past time that historians of capitalism (whether they consider themselves old or new) acknowledge that the history of reproduction is not tangential but essential to understanding their field, and that, in particular, the flows and crises of slave trading shaped global economies, whilst simultaneously reverberating materially in the lives of enslaved women. Equally, there is an opportunity for social reproduction theorists to attend more carefully to the mutual constitution of paid and unpaid reproductive labour as interdependent components of capitalist economies, just as surely as historians working in Black Marxist and world systems theory approaches have explored the mutual interdependence of wage labour and slavery. A social reproduction theory that ignores this interdependence and advocates for a move toward more paid or more unpaid reproductive labour, I would suggest, embeds some of the same false assumptions about linear economic development that informed early work on the history and origins of capitalism that failed to fully regard the interdependence of European and colonial economies.

This piece is part of a series on Political Economy and Culture in Global History, derived from a collective discussion project of the same name, supported by the Past & Present Society (among others). You can read an introduction to the series here. These pieces accompany a virtual special issue of the journal Past & Present, published in late 2020.


1Brenner, Robert, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe”, Past & Present 70 (1976), 30–75; Bois, Guy. “Against the Neo-Malthusian Orthodoxy”. Past & Present 79 (1978), 60–69. See also Brenner, R. (2007). “Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong”. Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-first Century. C. Wickham. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

2Rubin, G. (1975). “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York, Monthly Review Press: 157-210.

3Engerman, Stanley, and Robert Fogel, (1974). Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York, W.W. Norton & Company; Genovese, E. (1974). Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York, Pantheon Books; Wallerstein, I. (1976). “American Slavery and the Capitalist World-Economy.” American Journal of Sociology 81(5): 1199-1213.

4Williams, E. (1961). Capitalism & Slavery. New York, Russell & Russell; James, C. L. R. (1963 [originally published in 1938]). The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York, Vintage Books.

5Graves, Adrian, “Truck and Gifts: Melanesian Immigrants and the Trade Box System in Colonial Queensland”, Past & Present 101 (1983), 87–124; Patch, Robert W., ‘Imperial Politics and Local Economy in Colonial Central America, 1670-1770), Past & Present 143 (1994), 77–107.

6Mintz, S. “Was the Plantation Slave a Proletarian?” Review 2(1): 81-98.

7Johnson, W. (2013). River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, Chapter 14.

8Baptist, E. (2014). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York, Basic Books, Chapter 7.

9Carney, J. (1996). “Rice Milling, Gender, and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina”, Past & Present 153(1): 108-134; Paugh, K. (2013). “The Politics of Childbearing in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World during the Age of Abolition, 1776-1838.” Ibid.: 119-160.

10Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York, Autonomedia.

11Hopkins, C. T. (2017). Mostly Work, Little Play: Social Reproduction, Migration, and Paid Domestic Work in Montreal. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. T. Bhattacharya, Pluto Press.

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