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Commodification in America: Old and New

(The surrender of General Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. This a reproduction of a painting by Thomas Nast.)

And yet, today, we continue to engage in various forms of commodifying the human person, even if they are less visibly brutal and bloody.”

The night they drove old Dixie down, there were more than just bells ringing and people singing. There were people frantically buying and selling a once lucrative, extremely volatile good: people. On April 2, 1865, exactly one week before the remnants of Robert E. Lee’s once mighty Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox Court House, Robert Lumpkin, a prosperous slave trader in Richmond, Virginia, tried (and failed) to ship his 50 slaves from his creek bottom jail out of the burning Confederate capital. En route to Appomattox, a Confederate cavalryman encountered a troop of enterprising soldiers from Georgia purchasing slaves whom they hoped to move farther south under cover of Lee’s retreating army. 

Why, one asks, would defeated Confederates desperately try to retain possession over that which by the end of the Civil War so obviously could no longer be possessed? The reason, as University of Mississippi historian Robert K.D. Colby explains in his new book An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South, is that the slave trade remained an incredibly profitable (though increasingly unstable) market up to the very last days of the war. By 1860, enslavers valued the four million people they held in bondage at about $3 billion, an amount that surpassed the total value of America’s railroads and the capital the nation held in banks. Recirculated as slave-backed loans, mortgages, and securities, the slave economy directly benefited as much as 30% of the South’s white population. 

Although a catastrophic war waged primarily on southern lands—and a largely successful Union naval blockade—wrecked the Confederate economy, it did not destroy the slave trading industry, with thousands of sales occurring during the four-year conflict. If anything, the South’s declining fortunes only heightened the value slaveholders placed on their human property, given that slaves remained an important source of labor. They could also be sold to ambitious individuals hoping for an impressive return on investment if the “peculiar institution” were to survive. Indeed, of those enslaved at the beginning of the war, approximately 80 to 85% of them were still enslaved at the end, many having been moved to areas of the Confederacy insulated from Union armies.

Colby’s thesis that the internal slave trade was a “cornerstone of Confederate society” and a “bulwarks of the Rebel economy,” though admirably documented with years of extensive research, is not a terribly surprising one. “King Cotton” would never have been king—nor any of the South’s other major exports as lucrative—were it not for the millions of slaves coerced into labor. Thus, it is to be expected that during a time of economic crisis such as the Civil War, one of the few “goods” still abundant in the South would be bought, sold, and speculated upon. And when those “goods” were lost, many Southerners went bankrupt.

Of course, those “goods” were people with families, which were often broken up by slaveholders and slave traders for profit. Colby relates many such stories in heart-breaking detail. That so many Confederates who regularly claimed to be preserving an institution morally superior to the immigrant wage labor system of the North could so easily treat their slaves with the cool, detached calculus of a stock-trader obviously undermines their self-described narrative of noblesse oblige, in which slaveholders were generous, avuncular patriarchs. Slavery, whatever paeans its southern advocates sang in its honor, was ultimately about commodifying people.

A little more than a century-and-a-half removed from the end of slavery as a constitutionally-protected form of property, it is remarkable how much Americans are in agreement that the “commodification of persons” as manifested in the institution of slavery is an unequivocal evil. Colby, understandably, uses such language constantly: “the commodification and sale of laborers”; “Confederates’ desperate effort to cling to and manipulate commodified African Americans”; “years of commodification.” Yet it is worth asking what, precisely, Colby (and other historians) mean when they refer to slavery as “commodifying” people.

Perhaps because Colby is a historian rather than a philosopher, he never defines the term commodification. Nevertheless, one can presume based on context (and common sense) that he means something like this: To commodify people is to view them as instruments rather than persons with inherent dignity, and, by extension, they might be exploited against their will in a manner that effectively vitiates their humanity. Commodification, then, is a behavior that presumes a particular moral judgment, one based on the inherent dignity of persons and a certain inviolable character of their will. To commodify is not morally neutral; it is unreservedly wrong.

Yet, in our own day, the term commodification is often employed not only in regards to coercive labor but also to labor that—in some sense—undermines a person’s humanity. As such, it is not uncommon to hear about the “commodification of sex.” This often refers to the normalization of the sex industry, and especially pornography, otherwise called the “adult entertainment industry,” whose global market is now worth approximately $60 billion per year. The legal pornography industry has a history of hosting content that is decidedly coercive, and even that which is deemed “safe” and “legal” still can commodify the persons engaged in it. For example, Matt Fradd, author of the 2017 book The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography, argues: “Porn is wrong because it removes sexual intimacy from its natural context, turning it into a commodity to be bought and sold.” In effect, there is something about sexuality that, when commodified, cheapens and degrades it and its participants. 

Alternatively, critics of surrogacy also use the language of commodification to describe this increasingly popular form of conception, valued at more than $14 billion. In its April declaration Dignitas Infinita, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned surrogacy for turning the child into “a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others.” Similarly, Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, condemned the “exploitation and commercialization of the female body in the current media culture.” Surrogacy, like pornography, even when its participants are not coerced, still demeans them because the womb—and the child therein—possesses a certain dignity that cannot be commodified.

Others have used the language of commodification to describe the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) industry. As O. Carter Snead describes in his 2020 book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, the storage of one million human embryos in freezers in the United States is a reflection of the “growing market for gametes.” Elsewhere, Snead writes: “human bodies at all stages from embryonic to adult are recruited as instrumentalities of these personal projects. In some cases, the body and its parts are explicitly reduced to articles of commerce.” How can one not conclude this to be a commodification of human embryos, given the IVF industry’s use of language such as “quality control” and “defective” cases? Children, according to the premises of the IVF industry, are the “products” of conception.

In all of these examples, despite the language of commodification, there is not necessarily a clear manifestation of coercion. Women participating in the pornography industry may have been sexually abused as minors (as is often the case), but as adults they are not forced to participate in the instrumentalization of their bodies. Participants in the surrogacy industry are not coerced to bear another’s child and often enjoy significant remuneration for doing so. Only in IVF might the language of coercion (towards human embryos) be inevitable, though most Americans do not recognize unimplanted human embryos as persons possessing rights.

And, yet in all of these cases, humans are treated as commodities, whether they are willing participants or not. Despite the popularity and normalization of the sex industry, something inherent in us (what we might call a conscience informed by the “natural law”) cringes at the idea that sex is entirely reducible to the transactional forces of the free market. The same can be said for surrogacy: Even women who willingly participate in this growing industry make a sacrifice that can cause harm to their bodies and minds, while eviscerating a child’s right to be raised by the woman in whose womb he grew. And whatever one thinks of human embryos and their inherent dignity, their creation, sale, and use in scientific research cannot help but provoke fears of a dystopia in which children are little more than products.

The United States once engaged in a form of human commodification that was so clearly visible in its abhorrent ugliness. Millions of black people were not only enslaved but also sold and speculated upon as if they were no different from cotton or soy. And yet, today, we continue to engage in various forms of commodifying the human person, even if they are less visibly brutal and bloody. Colby ends his book stating that the stories of the slave trade and its victims “are now more essential than ever,” which, unfortunately, reads like the vacuous conclusion of a high-school essay. The sentiment, however, can be a commendable one if such narratives through their grim honesty and pathos can help us more clearly perceive the ways Americans continue to exploit, victimize, and commodify our fellow citizens.

Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at The Federalist and an editor and contributing editor at the New Oxford Review. He is the author, most recently, of The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity, which was released with Emmaus Road in 2023.

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