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According to certain Marxist authors (Mostly Georgi Plekhanov (and some others), but I'm afraid I cannot quote because the text is not in electronic form and not in English.), slavery in US and latter in South America did not disappear because of enlightenment and abolitionist movements ("spiritual" reasons). Instead, there were purely materialistic (technological and economic) causes that made slavery non-profitable and obsolete. This economic pressure resulted not only in abolitionist movement, but also created rift in society, big enough to cause US civil war.

My question is are there any reliable economic data about profitability of slave plantations on one side, and plantations with payed labor on other side, immediately before and after US civil war. Slave plantations certainly had advantage of unpaid labor, but also had to feed, house and clothe slaves. Also, slaves had no incentive to work harder except for fear of physical punishment. On the other hand free paid workers had to earn money to take care of themselves and their families, so they were better motivated to work harder.

EDIT Upon request, I will add some quotes about Marxists perspective on US civil war . This is recurring theme in Marxist literature, it basically says that slavery was obsolete, and that Southern slave owning ruling class tried to protect their vanning influence by secession. On the other hand Northern capitalist ruling class wanted to convert whole US territory to their economic model.

From Marx himself :

The cultivation of the Southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., carried on by slaves, is only renumerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labor. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on fertility of the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labor, is contrary to the nature of slavery.

Also this :

[T]he number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than 300,000, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome’s extreme decline. Only by acquisition and the prospect of acquisition of new Territories, as well as by filibustering expeditions [i.e. conquests of other lands, such as in Central America—ISR], is it possible to square the interests of these “poor whites” with those of the slaveholders, to give their restless thirst for action a harmless direction and to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.

A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain, therefore, was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual extinction, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slaveholding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the “poor whites.” In accordance with the principle that any further extension of slave Territories was to be prohibited by law, the Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at its root. The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South. And this election victory, as already mentioned, was itself conditioned by the split in the Democratic camp.

But Marx was also critical about motivations of Northern capitalists

As a slave, the worker has exchange value, a value; as a free wage-worker he has no value; it is rather his power of disposing of his labor, effected by exchange with him which has value. It is not he who stands towards the capitalist as exchange value, but the capitalist towards him. His valuelessness and devaluation is the presupposition of capital precondition of free labor in general.27 In slave-labor, even that part of the working-day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, in fact, he works for himself alone, appears as labor for his master. All the slave's labor appears as unpaid labor. In wage-labor, on the contrary, even surplus labor, or unpaid labor, appears as paid. There the property-relation conceals the labor of the slave for himself; here the money-relation conceals the unrequited labor of the wage-laborer.28

Finally, even today socialists and left-leaning authors then to hold US civil war as a conflict between ruling classes primarily concerned about profit, not ethics:

From a Marxist perspective, here is the true cause of the main stage of the American Civil War. The Union, or the North, had developed an economy based on wage slavery; whereas, the Confederacy, or the South, had retained chattel slavery. These two economic system were both subdivisions of Capitalist economics, or the private ownership of the means of production. Theoretically, it is impossible for these two subsystems to coexist peacefully in any economy; so, an ultimate conflict to determine the future of capitalist production was inevitable. The remainder of the circumstances are naturally absorbed by this reality.

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    'According to certain Marxist authors' ...? It's generally better to actually name one or more specific authors (and ideally cite them using a quote from one or more of their works to support the assertion). – sempaiscuba Jan 27 at 21:16
  • @sempaiscuba Mostly Georgi Plekhanov (and some others), but I'm afraid I cannot quote because the text is not in electronic form and not in English. – rs.29 Jan 27 at 21:18
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    @rs.29 so you have the only printed copy and no-one else can do a translation .... post the correct references... – Solar Mike Jan 27 at 22:02
  • I decided to forgo Plekhanov because I found some quotes from Marx himself. Basically, it all goes to the same conclusion that slavery was economically obsolete, and that Northern capitalist wanted to introduce their system to the South . – rs.29 Jan 28 at 8:21
  • @MarkC.Wallace Yes, I have found tons of studies clamming that slavery was profitable (no surprise there) , although as you can see from the links I added Marx claimed otherwise. I'm actually interested in comparison of profitability between slave based plantations, and plantations with payed labor. – rs.29 Jan 28 at 8:24
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The Romans (well, a few stoic philosophers at least) already knew slavery was economically unsound. A slave needs to be housed, cared for, fed, medicated and supervised. Also during the hours the slave doesn't work. (Being sick, sleeping or whatever.) No matter if you manage them poorly or generously. Nobody likes to be a slave, it's quite common to work as little as possible. Hence the myth of lazy and stupid Africans. They weren't lazy or stupid, but appearing that way saved them a few lashes.

Hiring non slaves is initially more expensive, but you don't have to pay for housing, caring, feeding and medicating. You do have to supervise your employees, but no where near the level you need for slaves. You only pay them for the time you use them. How to keep themselves alive is their problem.

I agree that a lot depends on specific circumstances, but compare it with a modern taxi. Per km driven far more expensive than owning a car. If you consider all costs of a car (parking in a garage, insurance, maintenance, etc.) it's cheaper than owning a car. You only pay per km you actually are driven.

  • Depends in large part on how you treat the slaves, what you use them for, etc. etc. And of course on the scarcity of free labour, especially CHEAP free labour. – jwenting Jan 28 at 6:48
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    It's not completely clear to me that a taxi is cheaper than a car in all circumstances. I think it works only if you live in a city (where both parking space is more expensive and the distances are smaller) – Denis Nardin Jan 28 at 9:01
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    The general reasonment in this answer makes sense, but it doesn't address the slaves- or free workers- plantations in the US nor provides data for comparing their rentability. – Evargalo Jan 28 at 9:03
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    This answer suffers from poor logic on a couple of fronts. 1) how does appearing lazy save you from lashes? 2) hiring workers is less expensive, up front, than buying a slave. 3) what does ride sharing have to do with slavery? If it's fixed vs. variable costs, see number 2. 4) Roman slavery was quite different than North American Slavery. For instance, it was not based on race. Lastly, if slavery wasn't profitable, it wouldn't have survived for so long in so many places. In the American south, slavery was so profitable that war was preferable to ending it (racism notwithstanding). – dwstein Jan 28 at 14:45
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    If you don’t pay enough to support themselves, they would move somewhere else or just die out. If they do this during harvest season, you would be ruined economically. And speaking about modern taxi: commuting to work modest 20 miles one-way would cost you $20-30K per year. You might don’t need a car if you live and work in NYC, but we are talking about America, don’t we? – Alexander Barhavin Feb 3 at 20:12
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In this course taught by David Blight, he explains that slavery was extremely profitable.

EDIT Per comments, Blight explains that slavery was profitable enough to warrant, among other things: 1) a free soil political movement in the North and 2) a willingness, in the South, to secede from from the Union and engage in a brutal civil war.

I don’t remember the micro economics of plantations, but slaves were valuable. This value derived from their economic value (as opposed to simply luxury or status).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/course/the-civil-war-and-reconstruction-era-1845-1877/id733019681

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    Good link, but I'm mostly interested in comparison of profitability . – rs.29 Jan 28 at 8:27
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    I've listened to that podcast/course several times over the last couple of years. It's really good. – Tombo Jan 28 at 14:30
  • Answers on stackexchange are generally expected to be self-contained. This is just a link, not an answer. How about summarizing what you learned from this podcast? – Ben Crowell Jan 29 at 1:54
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“My question is are there any reliable economic data about profitability of slave plantations on one side, and plantations with payed labor on other side, immediately before and after US civil war”

I don’t think there are some direct data to compare, because slave plantations ceased to exist immediately after Civil War, and I am not aware of significant number of plantations with payed labor before Civil War . However, I think that in general antebellum South slave plantations were more profitable - otherwise planters would sell or free majority of their slaves and hire laborers (who could be the same former slaves).

Generally speaking, slave labor could be more profitable comparing with other types of labor within some technology level boundaries. It is not profitable to own slaves if they can not produce significantly more than they consume themselves; it could be more profitable to hire skilled worker to operate complicated machinery than invest in training of the slave. In between, slavery could be more profitable than alternative. By the mid-XIX century technology was high enough to make payed labor more profitable. However, the were some loopholes, and the huge one was raw cotton production in US South after cotton gin introduction.

According to “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery “ by Robert Fogel (Nobel Laureate in economics) and Stanley Engerman, South plantations were about 20-30% more profitable than free labor farms on both North and South (don’t have this book on hand and can not quote exect pages and numbers).

Antebellum plantation slave labor profitability depended on specific crop, on market demand, and on market competition. It is why american raw cotton dominated world market and constituted huge majority of US exports, while american raw sugar was predominantly consumed on the South, could not compete with better and less expensive caribbean sugar on international market, and was barely profitable only due to protectionists 24% tariffs.

“Federal protection was a lifeline for an industry that could not openly compete with its rivals in the Caribbean. The sugar duty guaranteed reasonably good profits of 6 to 12 percent and offset the notoriously heavy cost of cane sugar production” The Fair Trade Fraud, by James Bovard, NY 1991, ISBN 0-312-06193-5, Page 71

It is due to high cotton profitability planters sometimes preferred to buy other agriculture products from North rather than divert slave labor and soil:

“the chief articles imported are bacon and mules from the Northern States. The only article sold is cotton” North America, its agriculture and climate, by Robert Russell, Edinburgh 1857, p. 289-291

It is because cotton profitability due to huge demand by industrial development, Southern morality turned from labeling slavery as necessary evil to praising it as positive good. It is why three biggest US protestant denominations were split on southern and northern branches between cotton gin introduction and secession. “The prevailing ideas entertained by him (Thomas Jefferson) and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong” Alexander H. Stephens, “Cornerсtone Speech", March 21, 1861

“Finally, even today socialists and left-leaning authors then to hold US civil war as a conflict between ruling classes primarily concerned about profit, not ethics: From a Marxist perspective, here is the true cause of the main stage of the American Civil War. The Union, or the North, had developed an economy based on wage slavery; whereas, the Confederacy, or the South, had retained chattel slavery. These two economic system were both subdivisions of Capitalist economics, or the private ownership of the means of production. Theoretically, it is impossible for these two subsystems to coexist peacefully in any economy; so, an ultimate conflict to determine the future of capitalist production was inevitable”

I don't think this is correct. Conflict was not about profit: slave South and manufacturing North were mutually profitable, and could still profitable until demand on cotton was high and cotton harvesting was not mechanized (both middle of XX century)**. So from economics point of view, they could coexist peacefully for a long time. The problem was political: most ambitious southerners wanted to control not just their plantations, but whole country, and it did not work anymore.

** Table 3, pages 6-8, of following source http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/17862820-1969ch01.pdf https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/machines_15.html

UPDATE After reading comments, I would like to clarify the last point of my answer, that the immediate problem planters were going to solve by trying to expand slavery and by subsequent secession was not economical but mostly political. In 1787, they did not want to join the Union until 2/3 clause granted them preferential treatment in House and presidential elections. By 1860 all this was lost, so they did not want to stay in the same Union being hopeless minority in all branches of government. It is why they insisted on slavery expantion to territories, hoping that new slave states would give them if not majority, but at least parity in Senate.

  • Good answer, although I'm not sure why comparison between profitability of same plantation(s) before and after the war could not be made. They presumably had similar level of technology, same crop (cotton) , maybe even same workers (former slaves now as paid labor) . Also, if slavery was so profitable, why would slavers want to expand it to other territories (new states) ? They could just keep status quo in existing slave states and reap profits. – rs.29 Feb 1 at 3:32
  • @rs.29 To estimate plantation profitability, you just need planter’s expenses and income. With sharecropping, you need expenses and income not just landowner, but all sharecroppers as well; this is much more complicated, and some info could be not possible to get. “why would slavers want to expand it to other territories (new states) ?” As I said, they wanted to keep controlling the country, and only way to do it was to have more senators in US Congress, so they wanted more slave states. – Alexander Barhavin Feb 1 at 5:15
  • I'm not particularly interested in sharecroppers profit, I'm only interested in profit of land owner, i.e. would slave owning be more profitable for him then hiring labor (or sharecropping) . As for your argument, I don't think slave owners would push for secession so violently if they were profitable in existing slave states. After all, before the war no serious politician (including Lincoln) proposed complete ban on slavery throughout entire US, including "old" slave states. – rs.29 Feb 1 at 8:39
  • @rs.29 see Update for clarification why slave owners pushed for slavery expansion and secession if they were profitable in existing slave states. As of comparing slave vs hiring labor profitability, good starting point would be “Time on the Cross" reading. However, ignoring that half century increase of cotton demand and production did not produce noticeable successful attempts to replace slave plantation with hired labor would not make any answer more convincing. – Alexander Barhavin Feb 2 at 0:42
  • You still didn't explain why slave owners didn't want to remain minority in government, and why did they go for such desperate gamble as succession, if they could profit in existing slave states, and if institution of slavery was not jeopardized in those states. – rs.29 Feb 2 at 16:09

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