I’m well into Greg Grandin’s fantastic Empire of Necessity and cannot say enough good things about it. As I’ve been reading, I’ve looked up Grandin’s other writings and stumbled upon his essay “Capitalism and Slavery” in The Nation. It’s a short piece and well worth reading, and it includes this stunning passage that I cannot stop thinking about:
Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals of self-creation, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. This process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. My point is that slavery was central to capitalist individuation, to the schism between inner and outer, which I believe accounts for the endurance of racism in American society, its quicksilver nature, as well as for its deniability.