Accounting for Slavery. Mastery, Management and American Capitalism

Thursday, October 29, 2020 11:30to13:00
Online event.
Free. Registration mandatory.

The entire McGill Law Community is invited to join Professor Ignacio Cofone’s BUS 365 Business Associations’ class for a guest lecture by Professor Caitlin Rosenthal, U. California, for the second Slavery & The Law lecture in this year’s series.

To participate and receive the Zoom link, kindly RSVP to lldrl.law [at] mcgill.ca.

Caitlin Rosenthal's book, Accounting for Slavery. Mastery, Management and American Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2018), is a unique contribution to the decades-long effort to understand New World slavery’s complex relationship with capitalism. Through careful analysis of plantation records, Caitlin Rosenthal explores the development of quantitative management practices on West Indian and Southern plantations. She shows how planter-capitalists built sophisticated organizational structures and even practiced an early form of scientific management. They subjected enslaved people to experiments, such as allocating and reallocating labour from crop to crop, planning meals and lodging, and carefully recording daily productivity. The incentive strategies they crafted offered rewards, but also threatened brutal punishment.

The traditional story of modern management focuses on the factories of England and New England, but Rosenthal demonstrates that investors in West Indian and Southern plantations used complex accounting practices, sometimes before their Northern counterparts. For example, some planters depreciated their human capital decades before the practice was a widely used accounting technique. Contrary to narratives that depict slavery as a barrier to innovation, Accounting for Slavery explains how elite planters turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. The brutality of slavery was readily compatible with the development of new quantitative techniques for workforce organization.

By showing the many ways that business innovation can be a by-product of bondage, Rosenthal further erodes the false boundary between capitalism and slavery and illuminates deep parallels between the outlooks of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slaveholders and the ethical dilemmas facing twenty-first-century businesses.

About the speaker

Caitlin C. Rosenthal is an associate professor in the Department of History at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the development of management practices, especially those based on data analysis. Methodologically, she seeks to blend qualitative and quantitative methods and to combine insights from business history, economic history, and labour history.

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