Beyond and against capitalism: abolitionism and the moral dimension of humanitarian practice

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How do we understand the origins of modern humanitarianism and what can these origins tell us about the study of humanitarianism in general? Here I revisit a critical juncture of the formation of modern humanitarianism, the late 18th-century movement to abolish the British slave trade, through the lens of a prevailing paradigm that has explained it as deriving from the logic of capitalist development. A closer look at this early phase of abolitionism within its historical context reveals the implausibility of the economy as the most salient explanatory factor for the origin and success of the abolitionist project. Instead, this project emerged at the interstices of a complex causal entanglement between the areas of economic and moral action. I conclude by drawing out the larger implications of this historical complexity for the study of humanitarianism at large. The complex causal dynamics that produced early abolitionism urges us to be more attentive to the manifold forms of humanitarian practice and to situate them in a proper causal context instead of assuming that humanitarianism is an epiphenomenal manifestation of allegedly deeper structural forces, such as the economy. Reversing this assumption and directing attention to the casual influence of humanitarianism on other areas of social life opens up a promising field of scholarly inquiry.
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International Social Science Journal, 2014, 65 (215-216), pp.: 25-35.