Saturday, June 05, 2010

If Slavery Hadn't Ended

My previous post spawned a long comment thread, in part on the question of whether, if the South had been permitted to secede, slavery would have died out anyway. One argument in favor is that it was gradually disappearing elsewhere. Another, offered by Hummel in his book, is that the northern states of the Confederacy would have had a hard time maintaining slavery, given the existence of a border across which slaves could escape with no risk of being returned.

There is, however, a disturbing possibility in the other direction, which I do not think anyone in the thread has mentioned. The literature on slavery suggests that how successful it was depended in part on the cost of monitoring slaves to make sure they were working hard at what the owner wanted them to work at. Some forms of agriculture, notably cotton and sugar production, could be done by gang labor—a lot of workers working together, all doing the same thing—making it relatively easy to identify and punish workers not doing their job. Other forms involved a lot more individual labor and individual decisions, making it harder for one supervisor to adequately control a lot of slave workers. In the latter forms, such as growing wheat, slavery was roughly competitive with free labor, meaning that if slaves were cheap and wages high it paid to use slaves, if slaves were relatively expensive and wages low it paid to hire free workers instead. In forms of agriculture suitable for gang labor, on the other hand, if slavery was an option, as it was in the southern states and the West Indies, free labor couldn't compete. The advantage—from the standpoint of the slave owner—of being able to work slaves harder than free workers without having to pay for the resulting disutility to the workers outweighed the disadvantages of using slaves.

Assembly line labor for industrial production, of which the famous early example is Ford motors (there were, of course, precursors), looks a lot like gang labor agriculture—a form of production in which it is easy to see whether or not each worker is doing his job. Ford's version was developed about fifty years after the Civil War ended slavery in the U.S. That suggests the possibility that if secession had been successful and slavery continued, the Confederacy might have ended up as a successful industrial society, with gang labor agriculture gradually replaced by assembly line production–still using slaves.


Anonymous said...

Interesting point of view, however you are forgetting one important cost. Even if the South had left the union, there would still be a prevailing, worldwide disapproval of slavery. That disapproval would eventually be a significant cost to southern manufacturers, via various mechanisms such as boycotts, economics sanctions and so forth.

Mike Linksvayer said...

It's hard (and distasteful) to believe slavery would have continued for long had the South successfully seceded, even harder to believe slaves working assembly lines a significant feature of the Southern economy, which was not an industrial pioneer.

But it is less hard to imagine a much different world in which legal, commercial slavery worldwide continued into mass industrial production and beyond, whether there had been no global movement against slavery in the 1800s or industrialization had somehow happened in Roman times.

There should be plenty of data on the productivity of assembly line slaves (though not necessarily the institution of legal commercial slavery) from communist and fascist jurisdictions last century.

Arthur B. said...

A data point suggests the profitable use of slaves in an industrial setting is unlikely.

Slave workers in german concentration camp were starving, it could very well be a deliberate sadistic choice but more likely the value of the production did not cover feeding costs.

Brian N. said...

Mr. Linksvayer, while not any sort of precise statistical data, Solzhenitsyn's account of the productivity of the prison labor system in the Soviet Union during the Gulag years from his central work on the subject (especially volume 2) indicates that - as a matter of survival for the prisoners - fraud, graft, and trickery were the norm. One example he uses is a description of how a combination of over-and-under reporting of yields at logging camps was used to simultaneously feed the prisoners and meet the impossible quotas. His description of the canal projects of the thirties provides a similar insight - industrial slavery was not, in the Soviet Union during those years, at all as productive as free labor elsewhere.

While we certainly do not arrive at any sort of apodictic law of human action, we do get a tantalizing clue as to what it might imply, in this case.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that slavery, even when it's easily-supervised slaves all doing the same thing, was ever more cost-effective than the fruit of willing laborers. Remember also that the South was better positioned to receive low-wage immigrant workers in the decades following the Civil War.

People seem to immediately think of slavery as a rational economic practice. I believe it is economically irrational; rather, slavery is nothing more than a display of racist or nationalist sadism.

Of course, this means that slavery probably would have persisted in the South, but it also means it would have been abandoned or at least greatly cut back as Confederate citizens realized they were basically starving themselves.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, shake mouth, you can believe it, but without any supporting evidence, you're not going to convince many people of your assessment.

Slavery persists to this day. By some estimates there are more slaves now than at any time in history. That is related to overall world population increase, of course. I would be very surprised if the percentage of slaves is higher than ever. I'm not sure worldwide disapproval has as much leverage as we would hope.

If American slavery had persisted, the economies of the western territories might have been different.

Dilettante said...

Free workers have to be watched only during working hours whereas slaves have to be watched 24/7 to make sure they don't escape. That's additional cost of slavery although I'm not sure how big a factor it is.

SheetWise said...

Assistant Village Idiot --

Are you counting voluntary enslavement as slavery?

Jonathan said...

I doubt that slavery would have survived for fifty years in an independent CSA, but my doubts will fail to impress anyone who thinks differently.

The generation that believed in slavery (a generalization: not all of them did) would have been replaced by another generation less convinced; conscious of the country's isolation in the civilized world in general, and the English-speaking world in particular. Children often question the attitudes of their parents.

However, had slavery survived long enough, then yes, I suppose slaves could have been used on production lines. There's some scope for a dark alternate-history novel.

William Newman said...

I doubt running mass production with slave workers is as practical in practice as it sounds in theory here. As others have pointed out, it doesn't seem to have worked all that well in practice (modulo great uncertainty in comparing reported output from totalitarian states with performance of freer economies). Also, I have it from a number of sources that transplanting a production system from one site to another tends to be much harder than it looks, and for this and other reasons it seems to me that people tend to underestimate how much unwritten and informal knowledge, good sense, and cooperation goes into making most production processes efficient and reliable. To the extent that a production process depends on such things, using slaves seems to invite a lot of friction and waste. Of course, things like unwritten informality create agency problems with free labor too, but it seems to me that imperfectly though freer labor institutions cope with things like agency problems, they still do better than slave institutions. (Slave bankers, policement, and judges, anyone?)

Sufficiently powerful computers, sensors, and communications might suffice to make the problem manageable for slavery-based manufacturing. I rather suspect, though, that electronics sufficiently advanced to control a flexible slavery-based production process are also sufficiently advanced to do even better by just constructing AI-based artificial workers from scratch. (Shades of "if we could solve public goods problems, then we could use government to solve public goods problems.":-)

Les Cargill said...

The problem with slavery wasn't particularly economic - it was that the decision process for determining which states were to be slave and which were to be free resulted in an astable balance of power at the Federal level. Once the leadership of the South began to believe the South was to be marginalized, the die was cast.

Secondarily, Antebellum states had more invested in trade with Britain than the North. Expansion of railroads doubtless would have shifted that, but the British textile powerhouse drew a lot of water for a long time. But this made common cause between the Free Soilers in the North and say, Marx.

Using the Carribean British possessions as a model, the South would have likely followed roughly the same curve that the Reconstruction transition drew. By the time of the Greenville Flood, it would have become irrelevant.

Former3L said...

I continue to be impressed by the evident will to believe (in the absence of evidence supportin the conclusion) that the CSA would have given up slavery easily. Cuba didn't--that required a civil war (the Ten Years' War) with a relative death toll similar to that of the US Civil War.

In the US (and, I think, in an independent CSA) the "isolation in the civilized world in general, and the English-speaking world in particular" has not been a very effective means of producing political change. The USA has declined either to end the death penalty or to tighten its gun laws, for instance, despite being an outlier on both issues. (Parenthetically, and irrelevantly, I don't think the US should change either policy).

Data about slave factories in the Third Reich is of very limited utility in assessing hypothetical slave factories in an independent CSA; the CSA's slaves would not have been recently enslaved people hoping (with good reason) for the military defeat of their captors.

Had the CSA lasted long enough to apply assembly-line methods, the factories would have been set up based on the CSA's extensive previous experience with slave labor in factories (e.g. the Tredegar Iron Works). These factories would probably have found their own methods of mixing free and slave labor, according to the differing needs of factories of different sizes and configurations. No close analogues to these factories were ever developed in actual history, due to the military defeat of the CSA.

Anonymous said...

The claims about the inevitable demise of slavery in an independent CSA are rather decisively refuted by the fact that de facto slavery was restored in the South after the end of Reconstruction, and lasted at least until WWII. If slavery could be restored and persist for another century after the CSA lost, then what greater reason would there be for it to fade away if the CSA had won? See the recent book "Slavery By Another Name" on this.

Post-Civil War slave labor was used in various types of industrial production in the South, such as mining, logging, turpentine production, etc. US Steel owned some of the mines that used slave labor.

The notion of the inevitable demise of slavery if only the Union had allowed the CSA to remain independent is a pro-slavery myth. In fact, if the Union had simply let the CSA go and let itself become a haven for runaway slaves, then the CSA would've declared war upon the Union to put a stop to that. The CSA already had plans to expand its slave empire to the West and South. They tried to make California into a slave state, with slaves working the gold mines, they tried to conquer Nicaragua, they wanted to annex Cuba, and the Knights of the Golden Circle wanted to turn the entire rim of the Mediterranean into a slave empire. With the Dred Scott decision, they were going to extend slavery into the north. What would prevent them from trying to do that militarily after secession?

Tim Starr

Henry said...


"In the US (and, I think, in an independent CSA) the "isolation in the civilized world in general, and the English-speaking world in particular" has not been a very effective means of producing political change. The USA has declined either to end the death penalty or to tighten its gun laws, for instance, despite being an outlier on both issues."

It's a matter of degree. While a lot of people oppose the death penalty, few beyond hard-core humans rights activists find it intolerably evil to execute convicted murderers. South Africa under apartheid, however, was hurt by substantial economic sanctions.

Jonathan said...

It's rather a waste of time arguing about how long slavery would have persisted in an independent CSA, because nobody knows and there's no way anyone could know. We all have different beliefs but there's no way of convincing anyone. As a result of the argument, I now feel somewhat less confident in my own belief; but that's as much as can be achieved.

The idea of the CSA waging aggressive war on the USA in support of slavery seems rather a fantasy to me. Yes, it's possible that the Confederates could have been belligerent and arrogant enough to do such a stupid thing; but they would have got bloody noses pretty quickly.

The Confederacy fought its war under huge disadvantages that wouldn't have gone away quickly. It had far fewer people to recruit from, very little industry, no navy, a poor railway system, bickering among the states, etc.

It was able to prolong the war for four years because it had better leaders (in the east) and because it was on the strategic defensive and had only to defend itself. On the strategic offensive, it would have spent its scarce resources of men much faster, and got nowhere.

jimbino said...

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country to do so. That indicates to me that slavery in the South, absent the War between the States, would have died out about then as well.

After all, Brazil, with its grand harvests of cane, cotton and coffee, was more suited to exploitation of slave labor than was the South.

I would be curious to know whether those Georgians who fled after the War to settle in Americana in São Paulo actually owned slaves there.

montestruc said...

Regarding the comment by jimbino about slave ownership in Brazil by ex-confederates

Out of over 10,000 immigrants Alcides Gussi, an independent researcher of State University of Campinas, found that only four families owned a total of 66 slaves from 1868 to 1875. Most of the immigrants were from the states of Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina.

In other words, yes they did, but very few compared to what they had owned before.

Miguel Madeira said...

There are any studies about the productivity of prison labor?

montestruc said...

There is a lot to your comment David. In fact on relatively small scales during the early to mid 19th century south, successful experiments in use of slave labor for manufacturing had been done.

"The situation came to an head in 1842, when during an economic depression Anderson contracted with his workers for five years "to instruct hired men, apprentices, or servants as may at any time be placed in the establishment". Any white workers who did not comply with the terms were fired. As the five years plan expired, Anderson began to move slaves into skilled positions at the furnace. It had the desired effect of reducing costs. Richmond, having no guidelines on the treatment of employed slaves, became the only industrialised city to utilise slaves successfully in factories. The precedent had been set by the head of the Tredegar Iron Works Joseph Anderson."

In addition to the cost advantage (not all that large) he had a huge advantage in that the slaves could not quit and take trade secrets with them.

Miguel Madeira said...

But slavery has a disadvantage: it is difficult to fire workers during a downturn (even if you free them, or starve them, you already pay "their wages" in advance when you bought them)

markm said...

Slavery came to dominate southern cotton and tobacco agriculture not because of it's economic efficiency, but because in the colonial era (at least), it was the only way the plantations could keep a labor force. They tried hiring free laborers; most of these eventually walked away and took up their own farms to the west. Higher pay didn't solve the problem for long; it would likely be saved so they could afford their own farm sooner!

They tried bondservants (whites who sold themselves into slavery for a limited time). Many of them ran away and got lost among all the other penniless frontier settlers (there were no photographs to use in printing wanted posters). I also don't see how enough strong men would ever be so desperate as to sign those contracts. So finally they came down to one last possible labor source - slaves from Africa who could be kidnapped in whatever numbers the market required, and who could not run away and hide in the crowd.

Once the frontier was distant enough, slavery was probably no longer economically advantageous. But slavery has insidious effects on the slaveowners; they come to need the slaves not just as a labor force but as the affirmation of their own high position. The economics didn't matter against the dislocation of their way of life that freeing the slaves would entail.

In most of the world, slavery and serfdom ended when industrialization and other economic changes reduced the landed nobility from the strongest pillar of their society to an anachronism. They little understood electoral politics and were simply outvoted. For such places as the West Indies, slavery was ended by fiat from a distant government. But the aristocrats of the southern USA understood that they had to be effective politicians, and became very good at it. They were supported by a sizable middle class, who often owned just a few slaves as maids and gardeners. They managed to manipulate the poor white masses of their own states into voting and even dying for the aristocrats' interests. And until 1860, they even maintained an influence at the national level that far exceeded the southern states' share of the population.

montestruc said...

markm wrote

"Slavery came to dominate southern cotton and tobacco agriculture not because of it's economic efficiency, but because in the colonial era (at least), it was the only way the plantations could keep a labor force. "

In what conceivable way is that not an economic issue? Reliability of labor is a critical factor in capital-labor relations. Always has been, always will be.

That free labor was unreliable in that environment is exactly why slave labor was very economical in that situation. In fact the racism of slavery can be traced to the fact that their were almost no free persons of recent African ancestry in the colonies and one can usually quickly tell such a person from a native and from a person of European ancestry.

That made it much harder for black African slaves to run away successfully, and so made the run away and recapture costs of slave owners less for those slaves. Which drove their prices up.

The object lesson is that slavery will rear it's ugly head any time it is permitted to.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the thread, but since no one else mentioned it, I will mention S.M. Stirling's Draka books, where the bad guys set up a working system of industrial slavery and prosper thereby.

I think it is possible that in the next few decades the western welfare states--especially the U.S.--will be tempted to enslave their underclasses under the name of "workfare".

Anonymous said...

The big reason slaves weren't used in factories was racism. Many people believed they weren't smart enough and white workers were offended by working alongside slaves. It still happened. A few factories in the South rented slaves.

They were also afraid of slaves learning "ideas" from whites and freed blacks.

But the South was strongly attached to slavery and it was the main reason for secession. Giving up slavery would've felt like "betrying the revolution" to the Southern whites. They would've eventually gotten over their prejudice about using industrial slaves but would've probably had laws requiring factories that use slaves not to hire them alongside whites and free blacks. Certain sectors of industry might've even been labeled "black" or "white" or "slave" and "free".

But history is clear that the slaves did want to be free even though they were careful not to display this around their masters. With socialist ideas spreading everywhere in the late 1800s white workers would've probably joined with the slaves and had a socialist revolution and that's when slavery would've been abolished.

The United States would have fought the Cold War right on its own border, and there's a good chance they would've taken Latin America with them. Or the US could've even been absorbed in this revolution, especially if it happened early enough to enlist the help of the Sioux.

Anonymous said...

Slavery was a dying institution by mid 1800's. A small percentage of southerners even had slaves, slavery WAS not sustaining southern economy

Sigis said...

Russians unsuccessfully experimented with the use of unfree labor.

In 1861 90% of workers in iron factories were serfs. The industry was noncompetitive: within few decades Russian global iron market share dropped from 35% to just 4%.

Russia used serfs in army and lost Crimean war in 1856 (this actually triggered emancipation).

jg said...

Actually we do have a comparative! In Brazil, still during slavery times, the older coffee fields were using slaves, while the newer were depending on free migrant labor. The newer fields out produced the older, and that pushed for general abolition in 1888.

Anonymous said...

And yet, the U.S. Constitution still protects penal labor . . . to this day. Which makes me doubt very much that slavery would have ended without the Civil War.