Abstract: Capitalism, Slavery, Commodification

Caitlin Rosenthal


In the recent revival of interest in the history of capitalism, historians have tended to leave capitalism itself undefined. My paper offers a definition of capitalism based on the commodification of labor, a move that attempts to reconcile definitions of capitalism that focus on wage labor with the circumstances of slavery. From here, I examine three genres of valuation used by slave owners to convert the infinite variety of enslaved lives into abstract, measurable units of human capital: inventories, price lists, and fractional hands. Each of these reflects both the extent of commodification and its limits.