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Abstract

This dissertation argues that factories acted as decisive yet under-recognized stages for political thought and practice in the Atlantic world from 1688 to 1807. From this historical study, I develop a new conceptual framework for understanding contemporary capitalism and confronting its longstanding structures of political domination, especially as these relate to transformations in the categories of labor, aesthetics, and race. My project challenges two significant paradigms through which a range of critical theorists and historians of political thought tend to interpret capitalism. First, it questions the accepted view that advanced capitalist societies have entered a “postindustrial” phase in which the factory system has been displaced by automated technologies. Second, it contests prevalent formulations of the capitalist economy as a detached and discrete market system, showing on the contrary that it was historically enmeshed in shifting, historical ideologies of labor, aesthetics, and race. In order to address these shortcomings, I turn to the texts and spaces in which capitalism was originally articulated and practiced, both by modern political thinkers and a range of political actors in the long eighteenth century. I organize my argument around four spaces of capitalist production as well as the discourses, practices, and ideas in their orbit. Each of these workplaces are an expression of what I call “factories of modernity”: the data center, the workhouse, the manufactory, and the colony. The rich reflections on the world economy and felt experiences of menial labor laid bare in these factories reveal that capitalism was and continues to be deeply imbricated in the development of discourses on aesthetics and race that propelled capitalist expansion by reconfiguring norms of artistic production and racial difference. By learning from these historical factories, I argue that contemporary critical theories of capitalist society can be made more responsive to the salient yet understudied sites, discourses, and mechanisms of capitalist exploitation in our present. I open in Chapter 1 by situating my study in the context of twentieth-century discourses about postindustrial society, automation, and technological progress that frame the factory as an obsolete space of production. Against these accounts, Chapter 2 brings to light the covert ways in which data centers in Silicon Valley rely on the political cycles and technical systems of production characteristic of the factory system to discipline, coerce, and control unskilled data workers. The ensuing chapters combine archival research with close textual readings to challenge standard narratives of capitalist society and offer an alternative understanding and critique of historical capitalism from a genealogy of the factory system across the Atlantic world in the long eighteenth century. In Chapter 3, I offer a new interpretation of the relationship between John Locke’s late economic thought and the nascent capitalist economy of his day. Drawing on an array of sources from social, economic, and intellectual history, I situate Locke’s theoretical positions on industry, labor, production, and economic growth in the context of export-oriented cycles of commodity manufacturing in the English countryside. I interpret Locke as an early theorist of the political regimes of labor discipline, capital accumulation, and imperial commerce that incited and sustained the workhouse system. In Chapter 4, I explore the factory’s relationship to aesthetics by looking to England’s manufactories of luxury goods as a way of reinterpreting debates on luxury and political economy from 1752 to 1795. I argue that David Hume conceived luxury as a link between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: the economic realm of the factory and the aesthetic domain of sentimentality, beauty, and art. Chapter 5 explores the historical entanglement of the factory, the colony, and the plantation in Africa in order to rethink the conceptual relationship between race, capitalism, and empire. The chapter focuses on a project by British abolitionists and industrialists to end slavery by colonizing Sierra Leone with free black setters from 1787 to 1807, which I interpret as a test-case for novel arrangements of racialized wage-labor and liberal models of imperial rule. I conclude by bringing the project back to the present moment in order to reflect on how my historical narrative of capitalist modernity is vital to our understanding of global patterns of racial exploitation today, patterns reproduced in Amazon’s giant fulfillment centers, or what I call “factories of fulfillment.”

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