Skip to main content

Eugene Genovese and modes of production

Eugene Genovese has passed away. He was a historian of American slavery, and his views were not particularly popular or discussed in economics courses, as far as I know. Mainstream, quantitative historians suggested that his view that slavery in the South was not profitable was incorrect (in particular Engerman and Fogel, the latter a Bank of Sweden prize, also known as the Nobel, winner). The other reason, I imagine, that made his work particularly difficult for mainstream authors was his use of Marxist categories, including one that I still find essential for historical analysis, namely: the notion of mode of production.

Genevose (I read only his The Political Economy of Slavery and not the classic Roll, Jordan, Roll, often praised as his best work) argued that slavery was an economic drag to the Master class, and that the system remained a pre-capitalist formation, with the profit motive having a secondary role in the process of social reproduction. The idea was that, even if the South was connected by trade (cotton mostly) with the capitalist production in England (and New England too), the commercial relations where not central for the relations of production in the plantation system [I find his argument very unconvincing, by the way].

In other words, very much like Dobb, in the Transition debate with Sweezy, Genovese argued that the trade link was not central and could not define the South as part of the capitalist mode of production. In this sense, Southern slavery was for him a distinctive mode of production, one that was seen increasingly from a positive angle by Genovese, as he became more conservative and remained, interestingly, critical of the capitalist mode of production (which in a sense makes him more in tune with old conservatives that also repudiated the mercantilization of social relations).

Note that Genovese, like Engerman and Fogel in this case, thought that the peculiar institution was quite more benign that it is usually thought. In this sense, he reminds me of the quintessential Brazilian analysis of slavery in The Masters and the Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre, who also, even if for different theoretical reasons, saw Brazilian (not Southern, even if he saw similarities) slavery as benign and helped create the myth of Brazil as a racial democracy.

PS: On the slavery debates Nate Cline suggests this paper by Wallerstein (subscription required).


  1. The Wallerstein piece is really magnificent.

    1. I didn't know it myself until Nate pointed it out.

  2. Baran and make the commercial link to the industrial north central in Monoply Capital.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What is the 'Classical Dichotomy'?

A few brief comments on Brexit and the postmortem of the European Union

Another end of the world is possible
There will be a lot of postmortems for the European Union (EU) after Brexit. Many will suggest that this was a victory against the neoliberal policies of the European Union. See, for example, the first three paragraphs of Paul Mason's column here. And it is true, large contingents of working class people, that have suffered with 'free-market' economics, voted for leaving the union. The union, rightly or wrongly, has been seen as undemocratic and responsible for the economics woes of Europe.

The problem is that while it is true that the EU leaders have been part of the problem and have pursued the neoliberal policies within the framework of the union, sometimes with treaties like the Fiscal Compact, it is far from clear that Brexit and the possible demise of the union, if the fever spreads to France, Germany and other countries with their populations demanding their own referenda, will lead to the abandonment of neoliberal policies. Aust…

A brief note on Venezuela and the turn to the right in Latin America

So besides the coup in Brazil (which was all but confirmed by the last revelations, if you had any doubts), and the electoral victory of Macri in Argentina, the crisis in Venezuela is reaching a critical level, and it would not be surprising if the Maduro administration is recalled, even though right now the referendum is not scheduled yet.

The economy in Venezuela has collapsed (GDP has fallen by about 14% or so in the last two years), inflation has accelerated (to three digit levels; 450% or so according to the IMF), there are shortages of essential goods, recurrent energy blackouts, and all of these aggravated by persistent violence. Contrary to what the press suggests, these events are not new or specific to left of center governments. Similar events occurred in the late 1980s, in the infamous Caracazo, when the fall in oil prices caused an external crisis, inflation, and food shortages, which eventually, after the announcement of a neoliberal economic package that included the i…