The Cotton Gin Paradox

cotton gin with slaves

The cotton gin dramatically increased the efficiency of processing cotton. Ironically, this labor-saving device created a huge demand for more slave labor.

It’s not hard to see that, when cars get better gas mileage, people feel that they can afford to drive more. Or that consumers think they can afford a bigger refrigerator if it’s Energy Star certified to use less electricity.

Blame it on Jevons’s Paradox that increasing the energy efficiency of machines doesn’t necessarily decrease the total amount of energy people use, but may actually do the opposite. As Jevons put it in 1885, when you can burn coal more efficiently, people burn more of it:

If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.

Now, in honor of the 15oth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, I’d like to consider the application of Jevons’s findings to the institution of slavery, where technology and human energy come together.

To the surprise of many, slavery is not a thing of the past. Instead, even though it’s illegal in every nation on earth, there are more slaves today than at any time in history. About 27 million people worldwide still labor without pay and without choice in a modern form of bondage.

It’s strange that there should be so many slaves today when slavery is outlawed everywhere than in days when many countries not only allowed but encouraged the institution. What’s also strange is that today there’s more labor-saving technology than at any time in history.  So why the huge demand for the cheapest human labor?

I call it the Cotton Gin Paradox.

A disastrous innovation

In the United States in the late eighteenth century, slavery appeared to be dying out on its own because slaves could not compete efficiently with free labor. Thomas Jefferson’s proposal in 1784 to prohibit slavery in all new American territories lost by only one vote. By 1804 all states north of the Mason-Dixon line had either emancipated their slaves or provided for their gradual emancipation and the U.S. outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. If things had continued in this direction, Southern states would probably have followed their Northern neighbors in abolishing the Peculiar Institution within decades.

slave sale poster

The U.S. slave population increased fivefold in the first half of the nineteenth century.

But then, in 1792 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which separated cotton lint from the seeds more quickly than by hand, making it dramatically less expensive to turn picked cotton into usable fiber for textiles.

Before the cotton gin, a slave could prepare only one pound of cotton per day. With the cotton gin, two slaves could process 50 pounds of cotton a day, representing a 25-fold increase in productivity per slave. Increased profitability rejuvenated the cotton trade and led planters to clear hundreds of new acres for the crop, creating the Cotton Kingdom in the Deep South states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Slaves were needed to clear all the new land and then plant, tend, harvest and process the cotton. As a result, the U.S. slave population increased five-fold by 1850. As historian Christopher Hammer puts it, for slaves, the cotton gin was a disastrous innovation:

It is possible that the adoption of the gin made the working hours of a few individual slaves somewhat less difficult. However, given the barbarity of slavery generally—rampant physical and sexual abuse, the separation of families, lives of forced labor in acute deprivation, and the overarching dehumanization that the system enforced—it seems clear that any invention that encouraged the growth and expansion of the institution increased the misery of slaves in the aggregate acutely. Given the cotton gin’s effects on the spread of large-scale cotton agriculture and the resultant growth in the institution of slavery in the first half of the 19th century, it is difficult to portray its introduction as anything other than a disaster from the perspective of enslaved African-Americans.

High-tech globalization: the new cotton gin

If we apply the Cotton Gin Paradox to today, is it possible that all the technology enabling a dynamic global economy, from cheaper and more efficient factory equipment to bigger container ships to faster computers to run everything, doesn’t replace cheap human labor so much as create a bigger demand for it?

Some people fear that, should all the world’s machines go silent in the future due to a collapse of society from debt crisis, oil crash or climate chaos, humans might revert to a world of slavery. After all, without industrial agriculture, you’d need a lot of cheap (or free) labor just to grow enough to feed people. Not to mention all the other work that machines do today but that humans would have to do in a world without machines.

But the Cotton Gin Paradox makes me wonder if it should be a foregone conclusion that a world without technology means a world with more slavery.

Today, with plenty of technology, we already have plenty of slavery. If it’s really technology that is creating today’s demand for cheap and slave labor, then is it possible we’d be able to free all the slaves once the machines were gone?

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Ingrid M. Heiene says

    A fascinating perspective and a paradox that more people should be aware of! (However, sadly, the conclusion that less technology would mean less slavery is probably too simple: In pre-industrial times with only the scarcest amounts of what we today think of as “technology”, they still had slavery: In Ireland before the viking settlements there were no towns and only two standardized forms of currency, namely cows and slave women, and when the steam engine was invented in ancient Greece, this technology was not put to productive use simply because the large population of slaves made it unnecessary.)

    • says

      Ingrid — You’re definitely right that there’s been slavery throughout human history and sadly, I don’t suppose we’ll ever shake bondage labor entirely. The relationship between slavery and technology is certainly a vexed one. It’s not simply that technology frees slaves as history books sometimes claim. It may be the opposite, that machinery crates new opportunities for slavery to grow. Now, without tech, will we have no slaves? Probably not. But could we have fewer slaves? I wonder…

  2. Jenna Payne says

    hey: doing a g.12 history essay about the effect of industrialization on slavery and slave life and was wondering where you and Ingrid got your information…I am having some issues finding the required amount of reputable sources…
    any help you can give me would great. Thanks!

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