Slavery, The Economist, and the Worship of Capitalism

The Economist was dissapointed that historians are negelcting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks' charity.

The Economist was disappointed that historians are neglecting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks’ charity.

There are plenty of sanctimonious idiots in the world, and one of those idiots writes for the Economist. You’ve heard of that magazine, right? It’s pretty well-known, and despite its right-wing leanings, it generally publishes some reasonable content — I mean, it ain’t a shameless agglomeration of conservative verbal circle-jerkitude like the National Review, right? Maybe so, but the Economist still employ some idiots, and one of those idiots wrote an idiotic review of historian Ed Baptist’s non-idiotic new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Yep, an unnamed Economist troll caused a major internet ruckus when he wrote a review titled “Blood Cotton” (which has since been officially taken down but is still available for archival viewing) in which he criticizes Baptist for attributing the southern cotton boom of the late antebellum era to planters who pushed slaves to the limits of human endurance and beat the shit out of them (via the concept of “calibrated pain”) when they failed to produce the targeted cotton quotas. But this point didn’t sit well with the Economist’s intrepid reviewer. “Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity,” the unnamed doofus states, “slaves were valuable property, and…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.”

You got all that? The reviewer thinks that slaves worked harder because they were treated better. Oh, but that ain’t the worst part of the review. No sir-ee-Bob. The reviewer takes Baptist to task for being a communist, hippy, revisionist, affirmative-action promoter, concluding that, “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” This is sanctimonious, upper-crust douche-nozzle speak for, “why you gotta’ criticize white people like that?” Thankfully, the Twitter-verse caught wind of the review and launched the hashtag #economistbookreviews, wherein non-morons from all over the world (including yours-truly) parodied the Economist’s lame-brained logic. Check out the hashtag for a damn good chuckle.

The outrage from the Twitterz quickly shamed the Economist into withdrawing the numb-skulled review of Baptist’s book, and the magazine apologized by reiterating that, “Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.” In terms of historical observations, this one is about as close to common sense as you can get these days, but common sense has never been known to intrude on right-wing views of economics, history, and human power-relations. Baptist himself called the review’s questioning of slave testimonies “explicitly racist.”

The review and the subsequent outrage it sparked was particularly ridiculous because Baptist’s argument is hardly new, nor is it especially controversial. “Slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politic’s of the new [American] nation,” Baptist writes, “not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible.”* This isn’t a conclusion that would shock historians. Baptist is not the first scholar to connect slavery to capitalist expansion, but I suspect that for a good number of Americans, the idea that capitalism fostered slavery, and that slavery, in turn, built America, is unsettling.

The slave auction. This is what happened when capitalism won out over equality in America.

The slave auction. This is what happened when capitalism won out over equality in America.

Baptist notes that, “the idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear.”* And there’s the rub. After all, being an American means that, at some point in your life, you’ve had your head ceremoniously dipped in the baptismal pool of American Exceptionalism. And being American means that, on more than one occasion, you’ve genuflected before the altar of capitalism — even if you weren’t consciously aware of it. This is because American culture has long conflated capitalism and freedom to the point where it’s difficult for some people to step outside of the cultural church run by America’s bellicose, free-market pastors, ignore the spastic, floor-bound believers speaking in Milton Friedman tongues, and honestly question whether capitalism and freedom are one-in-the same.

Indeed, capitalism and democracy have had a strained co-existence since the beginning of the American republic, and they are not inherently compatible. In his behemoth book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, historian H.W. Brands notes that while democracy and capitalism ostensibly share the goal of maximizing individual freedom in politics and economics — in most other ways, the two systems are pretty antagonistic. “Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality. Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards,” Brands notes. The resulting clash of socio-economic ideals means that “tension between capitalism and democracy has characterized American life for two centuries, with one and then the other claiming temporary ascendance.”*

Thus, we come back to the Economist’s review of Baptist’s book. The reviewer, like so many Americans, worships capitalism. To those who sanctify the free-market, the mutual exchange of goods and services is tantamount to engaging in holy sacraments. The worship of capitalism transforms a socio-economic system designed by flawed human-beings into an incontestable secular gospel. Especially in the minds of American conservatives, those who benefit from capitalism deserve to benefit because the free-market, led by the deified Invisible Hand, has bequeathed unto them success. And in the same vein, those who fail at capitalism deserved to fail: the god of the marketplace smited them, and so shall they remain smoted.

With this in mind, the anonymous Economist reviewer simply can’t fathom how capitalism — a system he views as freedom in its very essence and therefore, inherently just towards all who participate in it — could foster a system so antithetical to freedom that it established a society of slaves and masters.

But if you think of capitalism and democracy as being perpetually in tension with each other, then the idea that capitalism=freedom seems far more ludicrous. Back in 1840, the great French historian Alexis de Tocqueville succinctly observed how these two systems were at odds in America. “The principle of equality, which makes men independent of each other, gives them a habit and a taste for following in their private actions no other guide than their own will,” he wrote. The independence created by equality can lead to a dangerous demand for extreme individualism — and capitalism is all too ready to facilitate such a demand. Any independent American, de Tocqueville wrote, “will soonest conceive and most highly value that government whose head he has himself elected and whose administration he may control.”*

Historian Ed Baptist, feeling vindicated, baby!

Historian Ed Baptist, feeling vindicated, baby!

Therein you see how the seeds of rampant inequality — watered by capitalism — can sprout an American society that strays from democratic, egalitarian ideals to embrace rule by the few at the expense of the many. From the First Gilded Age to our current one, unregulated capitalism has threatened American democracy by concentrating wealth and, by extension, power, into the hands of a few (whether they be J.P. Morgan or the Koch Brothers) who have sought to elect and control governments for their own narrow purposes, democracy be damned.

This is what the Economist just doesn’t get in its assertion that slavery wasn’t all bad because it was built on capitalism — and capitalism is perfect. So effective is unchecked capitalism at creating disturbingly unequal power-relations that it helped build and perpetuate an American society in which a small ruling-class of white slave-holders, with the support of those whites of lesser-means, exercised total dominance over black people. This element of the American past offers a cautionary tale that warns against worshipping capitalism to the point where you become an apologist for its worst excesses. Capitalism has no moral compass; it will commodify anything if you let it — including human beings — and if you worship capitalism, you’ll end up claiming that the commodification of human beings wasn’t all that bad.

If the American Civil War was nothing else, it was, first-and-foremost, a broad-based, multi-forced, cataclysmic reaction between the colliding forces of capitalism and equality. And the still-ongoing, multi-generational rebuilding of American society in the Civil War’s wake has represented democracy’s various attempts to regain its cultural ascendance. In this long struggle, equality has perhaps lost as many battles as it has won. But at least democracy did win — however imperfectly — the battle over slavery that threatened to forever submit equality to the domineering whims of the marketplace. Plenty of Americans understand this fact. It’s too bad the Economist doesn’t.

* See Edward J. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014), xxi-xxii.

* See H.W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (New York: Anchor, 2010), 5.

* See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Vintage, 1840, 1990), 287.

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18 Comments

  1. But Tocqueville also pointed out that socialism was hostile towards democracy and that socialism was actually opposed to liberty. As numerous thinkers have pointed out, there’s definitely a conflict between liberty and equality. Why were left-wingers so sympathetic to Stalin and Mao? Because they prioritized equality over liberty.
    A certain amount of inequality is necessary for economic growth and unfortunately, some of it is going to be unfair. There needs to be a balance between liberty and equality. We’ve definitely moved too far right-wing in the past few decades, since we’ve created a society where people’s trajectory in life depends too much on their birth. But don’t pretend there isn’t a conflict between liberty and equality- look at hate speech laws in Europe for a modern example.

    • I pretty much agree with everything you said. Of course there will always be conflict between liberty and equality. My point was that when you fetishize capitalism, you’ll fail to see how it can actually be an impediment to liberty, just like every other socio-economic system created by humans, including socialism. Smart people recognize this fact. The rest just read “Atlas Shrugged” and end it there.

  2. Agreed. Although getting back to slavery, it is ironic that some scholars argue that the convict leasing system was WORSE because the slave-owners had a profit incentive not to let their property die in large numbers, while in the convict leasing system the “labor” was rented from the state. I’m not sure I buy that argument (for starters, the children of the victims of the convict labor system were “free”, while the children of slaves were slaves) but it something to think about.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. I suppose that some scholars view the convict-lease system as “worse” than slavery because of the treatment alone. But the ownership of human beings, regardless of treatment, is pretty much the worst thing I can think of because it denies the fundamental right to individual liberty. That said, the convict-lease system was REALLY bad; then again, so was being sold down to the Mississippi Delta in 1850.

  3. Very well articulated. The fact that capitalism is amoral needs to be pointed out a little more often.

    What I find fascinating is that these conservative critics of historians (and most other scholars as well) is how personal they take it; it’s as if Prof Baptist accused all white capitalists living today of being complicit in the international slave trade. Same thing with Indians–bring up Andrew Jackson and they freak out, spewing stuff about how the Indians were actually quite cruel, etc. etc. The neo-Confederates are as bad as any. You’d think when we say “the war was about slavery, and the Confederacy fought to protect and extend it,” they act as if we were accusing them of fighting for slavery. There’s no sense of separation. I guess Faulkner was right. Either that, or Hamlet was: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”

    • “You’d think when we say “the war was about slavery, and the Confederacy fought to protect and extend it,” they act as if we were accusing them of fighting for slavery. There’s no sense of separation.”

      But that’s what “heritage” is, Chris — it’s a two-way exchange with the past, where the modern person projects his own vision of himself onto ancestors he never knew, and in return basks in the reflected glory of those long-read people. It’s all framed in historical events, but its narrative is never bound or restricted by historical evidence.

      • It all comes back to maintaining long-held power-structures. Historians point out that the traditional institutions in American society, which bolstered an (let’s face it) almost entirely white power-structure have not been entirely beneficial to other groups. Conservatives fear this type of scholarly inquiry because they think that it provides the historical justification for challenging CURRENT unfair power-structures. And you know what? They’re right about that. Which is, of course, why they take it so personally.

  4. Reblogged this on The True Blue Federalist and commented:
    The term is over, I am off to Northern California for some casual debauchery. I will finish my series on Lincoln and race when I get back. But in the meanwhile, he’s Jarret Ruminski’s great post on the hapless book review in “The Economist.” Enjoy!

  5. Capitalism is not amoral. It is simply a system where people conduct their business. Whether THEY are moral or immoral is what determines the outcomes. That is true of any system. Any system or tool can be amused by immoral people.

    There will be no “perfect” system as long as people are themselves imperfect. Republican Capitalism (the system, not the political party) is actually your best bet until someone else comes along we haven’t thought of.

    The argument that Capitalism somehow created slavery or that slavery was “encouraged” by our Constitution and Capitalism is blatantly misguided. We FAILED to apply freedom to everyone and we FAILED to recognize the slaves as participants in the market.

    It isn’t exactly fair to blame a system when it ISN’T used or when it is used PARTIALLY or INCORRECTLY. Often the counterpart put up against Capitalism is Socialism or Communism. However, a straw man argument is made for them whereby Cronyism (government corruption warping and destroying Capitalism by collusion and fraud) is substituted as Capitalism. Meanwhile, Socialist and Communist failures are detached from reality, explained away as “Well that wasn’t REAL Socialism. If you had REAL Socialism it would work.”

    I’m not claiming anyone here is Socialist or Communist per se, but those who criticize Capitalism should have a viable, practical alternative to suggest that would solve all of these shortcomings. Simply blaming a neutral system for the failures of a corrupt people is short sighted and absolves the PEOPLE involved of their sins by giving them convenient cover for their vile motivations.

    Slave owners didn’t trade slaves because they were Capitalist or American. There are plenty out there still today who are NEITHER and still trade slaves! They bought and sold slaves because they chose to do so.

    One final point. Where did those slaves come from? White slave traders never chased black people into the jungles in Africa. That’s revisionist myth.

    They bought them at huge slave markets that already existing in African cities. Throughout history, from Ancient Times to Today the slave trade has existed where people didn’t have inalienable rights. Slavery was in fact WORSE the less economic and social freedom people had.

    Even today, aren’t the illegal immigrants essentially being tricked into being slaves? Encouraged not to apply legally for work visas and passports? Told that everything will be milk and honey… and then scared into submission at low wages invisible and denied public protections?

    That’s not Capitalism or Democracy doing that. That’s greedy, immoral people. It’s easy to blame a system and not have to point fingers at individuals. However, systems don’t act. PEOPLE do.

    • Everything you say has elements of truth, but what you’re essentially trying to do is to divorce human actions from the systems that human actions create, which ain’t gonna fly. Of course slavery existed since time immemorial and before modern capitalism, but modern capitalism proved itself perfectly amenable to slavery. My point was not that slavery created capitalism: of course it didn’t. But nonetheless, the slave traders and the slave-holders commodofied human beings for the purpose of market transaction. Sure, African tribes participated in the slave trade, but then again, what’s your point? No one forced European slave traders to seek labor from Africa, now did they? But they went to Africa anyway, of course, because slaves were valuable commodities.

      Moreover, capitalism is most certainly NOT a “neutral” system. To claim that a system that works precisely because it runs on greed, and to then try to claim that it’s somehow separate from human greed, is foolhardy. Trying to apologize for capitalism’s excesses by claiming that people are just bad is a cop-out; because at its worst, capitalism encourages excessive greed and commodification. Heck, you often see people trying to justify excessive greed and exploitation precisely BECAUSE of capitalism. Complain about bad labor conditions, wage theft, environmental degradation, etc., and the pro free-market response if often, “well, that’s what capitalism demands, and if you complain, you must be a socialist.” No, I’m not a socialist, I’m a person who understands that capitalism quite often facilitates excessive greed and indifference to human life, and that’s something worth complaining about.

      Finally, you wrote that, “It isn’t exactly fair to blame a system when it ISN’T used or when it is used PARTIALLY or INCORRECTLY. Often the counterpart put up against Capitalism is Socialism or Communism. However, a straw man argument is made for them whereby Cronyism (government corruption warping and destroying Capitalism by collusion and fraud) is substituted as Capitalism. Meanwhile, Socialist and Communist failures are detached from reality, explained away as “Well that wasn’t REAL Socialism. If you had REAL Socialism it would work.”

      Fair enough, but aren’t you guilty of doing exactly what you’re criticizng others for here? You’re merely explaining away capitalism’s faults by saying that those faults are the result of capitalism being used “partially” or “incorrectly,” but where excatly is it written that capitalism must be practiced in a single, universal manner? What is the one, true version of capitalism that all societies must practice? That doesn’t exist. What you’re doing is precisely what apologists for Stalinism were doing: saying that their preferred system wasn’t at fault, instead, people were applying it “incorrectly.” You’re basically saying that capitalism’s faults aren’t “real capitalism” just as others have said that socialism’s faults aren’t “REAL Socialism'”

      Look, I’m not anti-capitalist per say; but neither am I going to excuse its worst excesses by saying that, “well, people are just bad.” Capitalism, like any other system, doesn’t exist apart from human actions: it’s a PRODUCT OF human actions, and must be judged as such. So, to conclude: of course capitalism didn’t create modern slavery, but it certianly faciliatated it. And true, I don’t have a “replacement” for capitalism yet, but complaining about a situation is the first step towards making change. Thanks for the comment.

      • You assume that self interest and greed are the same thing. That is the same as saying desire and lust are the same, or that hunger and gluttony are identical.

        GREED is excessive self interest taken to a fault. We need to drink and eat to survive. We need shelter. Those are requirements that we have an interest and desire to acquire.

        There is nothing about Capitalism that tells you you have to overeat or build a mansion the size of Al Gore’s. That is your choice.

        That’s like when people say “money is evil.” No, money is a thing. It is simply a medium of exchange. It simply symbolizes something else conveniently.

        Buying bad things with it is bad. Buying good things with it is good. It simply IS.

        The same is true of Capitalism. At its very core Capitalism is the voluntary exchange of goods between consenting adults. That’s what it IS.

        Anything other than that is by definition not truly Capitalism. Turning one of those participants in the exchange into a COMMODITY without choice destroys the exchange and perverts it into a different sort.

        There exists trade beyond Capitalism of course. Not all trades are equal. Not all are among equals. A basic feudal exchange of food for freedom at the point of a sword is still a “trade” but it’s not Capitalism.

        Greed is not created by Capitalism any more than a dollar bill sitting on a table creates Greed. it comes from the individual, and greed exists in EVERY system that human beings are a part.

        No choice no Capitalism.

        Slavery involves a lack of choice, so ergo it can’t be Capitalism. It’s TRADE, but it’s not FREE TRADE. It’s not Capitalism.

        And who granted the land, resources and trade route permissions to the traders, favoring the slave traders over other trade without subsidies?

        Government maybe? Who supported slavery in the South? A Government.

        Who led the Abolitionist movement against slavery? Voluntary civic and religious groups.

        The individual has more freedom the less government is involved and the freer the trade is.

        • So, basically, you’re saying that if we just had a “perfect” capitalism, things would be fine. I fail to see how a system created by imperfect humans could ever be perfect. It’s very easy to see things in black and white: hence: government=bad; markets=good, as if the two things have ever been, or will ever be, entirely separate. That’s not going to happen. Capitalists in the South used their government to justify slavery, true. But it wasn’t just “voluntary civic and religious groups” that ended slavery, it was the force of the state and its armies, which those groups lobbied relentlessly.

          What you’re doing is precisely what my post railed against: excusing capitalism’s flaws based on the claim that somehow, in some alternate reality, capitalism could exist in a pure, perfect form apart from the imperfect states and people that create and support it, and if only that could happen, everything would be just fine. THAT is worshipping capitalism, and it’s a position that is a-historical and dangerous. By the way, modern, multi-national, multi-conglomerate industrial capitalism is hardly the same thing as a simple exchange of goods and services. Moreover, you’re argument essentially boils down to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: i.e, “Proposed counter-examples to a theory are dismissed as irrelevant solely because they are counter-examples, but purportedly because they are not what the theory is about.” That’s what you’re doing here by saying that capitalism is this one thing that you say it is, and anything else isn’t true capitalism. Capitalism has changed into many forms large and small over the centuries in different places and time-periods. It is no more static than any other kind of human behavior.

          • Nope. Not at all. It won’t be “perfect.” In fact you echo my original post =-)

            I said it’s the most likely to preserve liberty and freedom. Best of our imperfect choices. Not perfect.

            It accomplishes its mission better than alternate forms of exchange while preserving the most freedom in the process. Trying to “improve” the market through government regulation beyond a basic framework of civil rights only makes it worse.

            As George Washington said, Government is like fire, a useful servant but a terrible master.

            That’s why the Constitution was set up so simply and minimally. I don’t excuse Capitalism’s faults if they’re not inherent within it.

            Markets are BETTER at maintaining freedoms yes, within a framework of civil rights. Again it goes back to the FREE market, not just A market.

            It’s not Free Market Capitalism without a FREE market. It’s not about worshipping anything. It is recognizing that the market is better due to its nature.

            How often do you vote?
            Once a year?
            Once every four years?
            Six years?

            How often do you go shopping?
            Every time you shop you are voting on the vendor, the product, and your personal priorities.

            Voting one person every few years cannot be as responsive to personal needs and changing situations than choosing with dollars multiple times a day.

            THAT is why the markets are superior. They are what people want, when they want. Government, even a well intentioned government cannot be that flexible.

            And yes, civic groups forced government into action. It was not in the interest of the politicians to take any action to end slavery.
            Slavery as a large part of the Southern economy was on its way out anyway due to mechanization of agriculture.
            Without a need for lots of human muscle power, what good are slaves? Slavery isn’t even all that cost effective as many historians have pointed out.
            Slaves (since they’re not free agents) have VERY low productivity and are a lot of maintenance. Low skilled labor hired as needed is much more effective, productive and responsive to needs. (You can’t just “fire” slaves when the business is in a slump. You can sell them, but only if there’s a market Otherwise you are stuck with them.)

            Large scale slavery only exists in limited economic situations and with the support of an oppressive authoritarian government and a stratified society.

            Those are anathema to a productive free market society. Rome’s productivity fell as more slaves entered the Empire, paradoxically. So did Sparta.
            The more slaves they had, the less work was accomplished.

            If the government hadn’t propped up the institution, the market would have gotten rid of slavery. And even then they weren’t totally FREE markets as we’re speaking about now.

            Trade systems yes, but not Free Markets.

          • I think that we actually agree on a lot of basic stuff, but I draw the line at the libertarian position that claims that, “Trying to ‘improve’ the market through government regulation beyond a basic framework of civil rights only makes it worse.” This is the kind of absolutist position that doesn’t work in real life. Yes, markets are good things, of course, but they aren’t beyond criticism. There’s no such thing as a truly “free” market, since markets are subject to the whims of the people who create them: that is where I think you’re invoking perfection where it can’t exist, although some markets can, of course, be freer than others. A society in which large-scale corporations reigned unchallenged, and in which citizens had no recourse to appeal to their representative government on their own behalf to address the abuses of market forces, would be hell on earth: a society in which thousands of private tyrannies limited the freedoms of the general population. We’ll have to agree to disagree I guess.

            One more note however: when you say that, “If the government hadn’t propped up the institution, the market would have gotten rid of slavery,” you should be aware that decades of historical scholarship on American slavery have shown that claim to be 100 percent false.

          • Just an aside I like the debate here and appreciate your opinion 🙂
            Thanks for engaging with me on friendly terms.

          • No problem. It’s so easy to adopt a nasty tone online when you disagree, and I often fall into the trap without even realizing it. I like debating with acquaintances who don’t agree with me. It’s fun. And even if they don’t see the eternal wisdom that I possess, oh well, it’s still fun to talk about interesting subjects 😉

          • Haha. Indeed. There is no point in tryimg to argue with someone who agrees with you!
            I’ll keep that immense wisdom in mind 😉

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