Orlando Patterson’s analyses of slavery as an intervention into debates around the political economy of the “Third World” in the 1970s

Monday, 19 April, 2021 - 16:00

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Abstract:  Orlando Patterson’s sociological and historical studies of slavery have had an enormous impact on the humanities and social sciences since the publication of his seminal Slavery and Social Death in 1982. The concept of “social death”, in particular, has been extremely influential both in social theory, most notably in so-called Afro-pessimist analyses of contemporary racism, and in the social sciences where it has been applied to phenomena as diverse as genocide, the modern prison system and dementia. The focus on the concept of “social death” as a generic existential condition of extreme depravation has, however, obscured the context in which Patterson’s study originally emerged. The British and American academy of the late-1960s through the 1970s saw a veritable explosion of neo-Marxist scholarly interest in pre-capitalist economic formations as a means of making sense conceptually of economic underdevelopment in the countries of the global South. It is in this context, I argue, that Patterson’s studies should be placed. Alongside countless neo-Marxist studies on peasants, the articulations of modes of production and the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the analysis of slavery was considered essential to understanding the integration of “traditional” and non-industrialized economies into global capitalism. By resituating the concept of “social death” in the the sets of contemporary debates related to the political economy of the “Third World” to which Patterson’s work was both drawing on and responding, I suggest that social scientists might more productively use Patterson’s work to ask crucial questions about the comparative historical development of capitalism than to construct social ontologies.

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