Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Austerity as an Architect of the Abstract Slave

Solomon Geanet, The New School

The historical process of slavery in the Revolutionary and Antebellum eras, driven in part by Liberal-Republican philosophy, is a foundational element in the architecture of austerity policy in the United States. During moments of economic crisis and racial antagonism, this architecture reproduces both racial and economic inequities. In this way, white supremacy is endemic to American capital order (Mattei, 2022), hence its role in maintaining white hegemony during the Great Migration and the post-Civil Rights era—both times during which Black Americans experienced greater economic opportunity. Given this history, there is an urgent need to abrogate the notion of austerity in response to contemporary socio-economic crises in order to mitigate inequity. In this paper, I will critically analyze the economic theories of Paul Volker, Arthur Burns, and Milton Friedman in comparison to the revolutionary thought of Angela Davis and Huey Newton, in an effort to engage the dialectic between freedom and slavery. I believe Sara-Maria Sorentino’s proposal to replace the abstraction of labor with that of slavery (Sorentino, 2019, 19), has great potential to be useful for theorizing austerity’s reproduction of slavery and primitive accumulation in American capitalism. However, Sorentino’s accompanying concept of “social death” within slavery is too deterministic – its atemporality does not allow it to accurately reflect real social processes through space-time (Rhinehart, 2016, 31). To address this issue, I propose that Igor Kopytov’s ‘commodity-as-process’ framework (Kopytoff, 1986, 65) augments the concept of the abstract slave, so as to account for both real social processes and economic austerity as reproduction mechanisms within American capitalism.

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Keywords: Austerity, Neo-liberalism, liberalism, abstract slave, slavery, race relations, racism, racial capitalism, inequality