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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > Winter 2017 > Abolition as Market Regulation

Abolition as Market Regulation

WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD WE use when we talk about slavery? Walter Johnson takes historians to task for using the word “dehumanize.” While I am skeptical about the dangers of the word itself, I strongly agree that the discourse about slavery should not be artificially separated from conversations about modern capitalism. How does the history of slavery look if we make more use of the language of capitalism?

One place to begin is to describe the abolition of slavery not as a human-rights measure but as a form of market regulation. In the abstract, this shift makes sense: abolition not only stripped slaveholders of their property, it also restricted property rights. It prevented men and women from being sold (or selling themselves) into bondage. Abolition also outlawed certain kinds of transactions and, as a regulation of “bonds,” it restricted the right to contract.

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About Boston Review

Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.