David Kazanjian’s Mercantile Exchanges, Mercantilist Enclosures

Kazanjian, David. “Mercantile Exchanges, Mercantilist Enclosures: Racial Capitalism in the Black Mariner Narratives of Venture Smith and John Jea.” CR: The New Centennial Review. 3. 1 (2003): 147-178.


While Balibar’s focus on the Nation formation as an alternative “origins” myth to Marx’s “Primitive Accumulation”, David Kazanjian sees the capacity both in Marx and in Balibar to acknowledge that there are multiple causes of capital accumulation, all of them concomitant with the rise of racial, national and gender formations. The stakes for this argument are especially high, for while it may be speculative to posit that the Nation Form gave rise to racial exclusion, as Balibar does, the idea that prejudiced formations occur in multiple causes—not a one of them free from the synchronous “origins” of capital accumulation—thus ties the refinement of capitalism in an irrevocable bind with the formations of racial, gender and national prejudice.

The first homology that Kazanjian points out between Mercantilism and the ideological biases inherent in Capitalism is the State’s intervention with mercantilist policies, which are instituted based on nationalist doctrine. As Kazanjian says, the creators of these policies, “Madison, Ames, and Hamilton offer a formula for the creation of a precise logic of equality that would take the political form of citizenship—the very logic and form that Marx…calls the value form” (36). The tariffs imposed on mercantile travelers were done in the name of an egalitarian universalism restricted to national citizens, creating a range of rational abstraction that forced its equivalence upon the particulars of the nation. According to Marx, moments of private accumulation turn into vast accretions of capital through “the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield” (915). The commercial war begins with the rights of citizens and their imposed favor with national tariffs, while the war on the globe turns into that of mercantile capitalism.

Limited by the scope of official histories corrupted more or less by the powers that Kazanjian seeks to dissect, Kazanjian instead utilizes literary texts, which he refers to as “texts of subjection, texts that vividly perform the paradoxical simultaneity of the subordination by power and the creation of subjectivity” (43). In Marxian language, Kazanjian seeks to provide subjective examples of the equalization present within the value form, and the limits of universal abstraction that still, to the subject’s bewilderment, relies upon the differences in the particular to structure itself. Kazanjian shows the simultaneity of equalization by humanitarian ideals—freedom, equality, citizenship—with subordination. He begins with Equiano’s narrative, in which the Black sailor is only “free” insofar as he keeps to his ship and builds capital. Similarly, John Jea’s narrative reveals that he must become a trickster of his own identity in order to accumulate capital, sometimes disguising himself as a slave and sometimes as a citizen, yet his identity must remain mobile—he can never consistently be a free citizen. Likewise, with George Henry’s narrative shows that the racial subject in mercantilism must do women’s work while onboard ships, as he attempts to regain “an individuated masculinity…to compensate for his feminized labor on the sea by turning against shoreside femininity” (82). The perception of mercantilism as “manly”, the forced guises of slave and citizen, and the reliance on the ship itself to prove the freedom of the racial subject, are all examples of “formative moment[s] in which race, nation, gender, and equality are paradoxically constitutive of one another, forming what Eteinne Balibar has called a ‘historical articulation’” (84).

All of these subjective texts that Kazanjian uses show “an emerging understanding of equality as entirely consistent with the codification of racial and national identities,” and their accounts, specifically Equiano’s, “suggests that mercantilism played a role in articulating this consistency” (56). Though their accumulation of capital was performed with the promise of a free identity, these racial subjects inevitably discover that this free identity is abstract and lacking of any real substance, where Equiano is only “free” on his ship, and George Henry only free so long as he does “women’s labor”. By pairing the value form with mercantilism in the beginning of the essay, Kazanjian thus shows that capitalism itself breaks down “current ways of giving value to social relations, while simultaneously instituting new ways of giving value to social relations” (86). The particular identities of these black racial subjects are thus exchanged for a formal and abstract identity that is ultimately lacking in substance—the real substance is in the new, particular identities that the subject unknowingly accepts through this process of exchange: that of race, nationality and gender.

Kazanjian presents mercantilism then not as an alternative to the origins story present in Marx and to an extent in Balibar, but rather he offers mercantilism as one of many phenomena that refined capitalism into the highly prejudiced capitalism that Marx witnessed when he wrote Capital. As Kazanjian says, “for Balibar…capitalism emerged and even thrived under a variety of political forms,” and “mercantilism can be thought of as discursive practice that gave a national shape to merchant capital at the beginnings of historical capitalism” (42).  The sea was a symbol for mercantile non-capitalists in the way that the factory is a symbol for industrial non-capitalists, that is, as space resembling the means to become inducted into the ranks of a free and equal humanity, into a formalized egalitarianism that will free the worker from their more primitive roots and accept them as a player in the game of global accumulation—as a human, more or less. Yet this total equalization can never be realized, and while the subject may be acquiring capital for equality—because such a system of accumulation relies solely on the subjects remaining in new particular subject positions—their entire “performance” of capital accumulation occurs as if for its own sake. Marx says that the effects of primitive accumulation are, overall, the “making of profit as the ultimate and the sole purpose of mankind” (918). Capitalism then becomes a semi-autonomous force, accreting capital for its own ends, rather than for the ends of the workers who seek a better life.

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