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.
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.”*
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.