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  • Plantation/Empire
  • Leigh Anne Duck (bio)

Studies of globalization seek to understand, as anthropologist Aihwa Ong explains, not only the relationship between "a neoliberal North versus a South under siege" but also the connections and perforations between the two, the hybrid and mutating "zones" through which diverse configurations of economic and political practice shape the contemporary world (2006, 12). This exploration of breaks and continuities is conducted in the dimension of time as well as space, as investigators seek to understand how previous phases of globalization—including imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade—influence present-day forms of immiseration. In the United States, such discussions, whether popular or academic, often highlight the southern plantation, a socioeconomic form shared with many other colonized areas of the globe and recognized for its long-term impact on distribution of political power and material resources. As vividly demonstrated by Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, [End Page 77] released in 2004, such analyses illuminate how this local and historical system of production reverberates in transnational and emerging economic practices. Simultaneously, however, the film reflects the difficulties of developing insight into global relations through a trope that is deeply embedded in narratives—whether romantic or resistant—concerning national models of identity.

To be clear, suggesting that the plantation has been central to the development of the United States—and not a peripheral form contained in an isolated region—challenges nationalist histories as well as, implicitly, celebratory narratives of global modernity. Though recent chronicles, both popular and scholarly, describe how slavery was integrated into—and not merely anomalous within—the economics and politics of the early republic, the more recognized tradition in U.S. nationalism describes the southern plantation as an archaic colonial form that was slowly but surely eradicated by the progress of the modern nation.1 Such distancing facilitates the familiar claim that the United States constitutes an extraordinarily democratic and dynamic nation, declarations that also tend to associate capitalism with freedom and opportunity.2 In contrast, critical historiography insists that "the Atlantic circuit"—the trade in African slaves and "New World" commodities that yielded wealth for Europeans and colonists (and extended, of course, across other oceans as well)—"made coloniality constitutive of modernity"; here, the plantation comprises not a fixed, hierarchical agrarian anomaly amid an otherwise innovative and individualistic era but a principal site in the development of global capitalism (Mignolo 2002, 60). Such hemispheric approaches also disrupt exceptionalist approaches to U.S. identity, revealing, as Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn argue, "degrees of overlap between . . . the Yankee and the plantation"—which is to say, in terms of both past and present understandings of global economic history, between "economic organizations [that] encouraged the incorporation of the populace into economic and political life" and those "prone to create backward-looking oligarchs who retarded follow-on economic growth" (2004, 8; Frieden 2006, 98).

As a powerful image of how governments can permit and even facilitate obscene forms of labor exploitation, the plantation also remains vital to leftist critiques of neoliberalism. For Antonio Benítez-Rojo, whose analysis of [End Page 78] the Caribbean plantation includes, to some extent, those of South America and the southern United States, the trope of the "plantation machine" articulates an array of brutal extractive practices that vary in form across different eras in globalization (1992, 36, 8):

The Atlantic is today the Atlantic (NATO, World Bank, New York Stock Exchange, European Economic Community, etc.) because it was the painfully delivered child of the Caribbean, whose vagina was stretched between continental clamps, between the encomienda of Indians and the slaveholding plantation, between the servitude of the coolie and the discrimination toward the criollo, between commercial monopoly and piracy, between the runaway slave settlement and the governor's palace.


Analysts focusing chiefly on the neoliberalization of the United States note how southern labor relations—perhaps particularly during the post-slavery era, which was characterized by disfranchised workers, "paternalistic" or antiunion agriculture and industry, and juridical constraint in the form of convict leasing and antivagrancy laws—provided "a political greenhouse for conservative economic ideas" that have become prevalent across the nation (Cummings 1998, 6). Applying this model...


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