According to Matthew Desmond's analysis, how does the Southern cotton planation represent the origins and a reflection of American industries today?

According to Matthew Desmond's analysis, the Southern cotton plantation established a blueprint for workplace management that was widely adopted in the era of industrialism in the North and continues to shape workplace practices in large businesses today. The parallels between the two include a speculative spirit, a disregard for human well-being, and above all the reduction of people to purely economic agents in the pursuit of profit.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, published an essay entitled "American Capitalism is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation" in the 1619 Project, a special publication of the New York Times , in 2019. As the title of his essay suggests, Desmond characterizes American capitalism...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, published an essay entitled "American Capitalism is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation" in the 1619 Project, a special publication of the New York Times, in 2019. As the title of his essay suggests, Desmond characterizes American capitalism as uniquely exploitative, "low-road capitalism." Drawing upon a great deal of relatively new scholarship on slavery and capitalism, he argues that slavery was essential to the formation and development of modern American capitalism, and that its "looming presence" can still be felt in modern America.

The technologies, methods, and rationales of modern capitalism were present on plantations. Plantation owners used modern accounting methods like depreciation, modern record-keeping techniques like spreadsheets, and rigorous data collection and analysis practices to calculate the value of the labor of enslaved people. Desmond argues that the "uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting" of the plantations came before industrialization, and that many of its most important elements are still present in the American workforce. Even the mortgage, one of the most salient instruments of modern capitalism, first came into widespread usage when enslavers took out loans using their human "property" as collateral. The frenzied speculation that preceded the housing bubble collapse in 2008 also had parallels on the plantation, as planters invested more and more money in enslaved people and lands and banks speculated in cotton. Economic collapses like the housing bubble resemble disasters rooted in the Panic of 1837, which had its origins in irresponsible speculations associated with slavery. In short, the ruthlessness, highly rationalized "data-driven" ethos and speculative drive that Desmond sees in modern capitalism can be traced to the culture surrounding the cotton plantation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Matthew Desmond, "the story of the ascendancy of American finance," and many other things that came with it, began during slavery. Those "other things" include the abuse of nature for profit, which led to decreasing biodiversity, the dependency of local economies on larger markets owing to the introduction of cash crops, the enrichment of Southern elites Northern elites through the symbiosis of cotton production and the textile industry, and most germane to the question at hand, a new way of managing labor.

This new way of managing labor, namely slave labor, on the plantations in the American South, argues Desmond, created the basis for modern workplace management. In order to make as much as possible, the planters produced on a large scale, investing great capital in the purchase of workers, gins, presses, and seed. In order to manage this large-scale enterprise, they had to develop complex hierarchies. These included "a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations." This rather sophisticated form of management was new and, at that time, could only be compared to government institutions.

Furthermore, in order to make as much as possible, the planters recognized that they needed to extract as much labor as possible from each worker. In order to do so, they meticulously monitored labor, kept records of inputs and outputs, calculated depreciation, and assessed the market value of enslaved workers. People were reduced to numbers long before industrialism in the North. In this sense, the enslaved workers of the plantations were the first modern workers.

Modern technology has allowed for the application of the same principles in today's service sector. For example, companies can monitor keystrokes and mouse clicks, capture screenshots, impose drug tests, track apps, use closed-circuit cameras, and read employees' outbound emails. While the technology is new, Desmond claims that the impulse is an old and familiar one, dating back to the plantation economy of the American South: "The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on