Unfree Labor

It’s twenty years old, but somehow Amazon’s recommending software told me I would enjoy Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom and the software was correct.

The comparative perspective serves to put the subject in an interesting light. The creation of the serf economy and the plantation slave economy happened at roughly the same time, and under what were in some ways broadly similar circumstances — the expansion of European peoples into a vast new periphery. Under normal circumstances, large scale landownership was sufficient to make a local elite rich. But under conditions of territorial expansion, the value of land relative to labor was too low for a conventional rent-based strategy to work. You needed to own the workforce to prevent them from setting out for more vacant pastures. But while the basic economic logic was similar in both cases, the social realities were quite different. Russian serfs were Russian orthodox peasants in a country primarily inhabited by Russian orthodox peasants, and landlord absenteeism meant that in a day-to-day sense peasant communities were substantially self-governing. American slaves were, by contrast, a closely supervised and highly visible minority suffering from intense disruption of pre-existing social and cultural networks. Conversely, material living standards on American plantations were higher than on Russian estates including for the unfree work forces. These two factors seem to have combined to make the Dixie slave economy considerably more robust. Russian serfdom sort of goes out with whimper in the 1850s and 60s with public opinion strongly believing that it’s holding the rural economy back. American slavery, by contrast, obviously goes out with a bang with white southerners quite committed to its continued social and economic benefits.

My one qualm is that I wanted to hear more about the underlying economics. How is the surplus created by unfree labor divided between his current owner, his current owner’s customers, and the original enslaver of the unfree worker’s ancestors?

The book’s footnotes also led me to the fact that the Works Progress Administration compiled oral histories of surviving slaves in the 1930s and Amazon has them available for free download. There are various problems with them as historical sources, but they’re very interesting reading.