Capitalism & Slavery, Redux



Part I of a Two Part Blog

The debate on capitalism and slavery heats up, once again.  It was nearly half a century ago that Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross appeared on the scene, with a similar argument.  Another case of “history doesn’t repeat itself, but historians do?”

Not quite the same though.  F&E argued that slave masters were rational actors who made profitable investments and that slaves were productive workers.  Southern cotton production earned a higher return than any alternative—at least taking conditions as static, which was a big assumption.

The new books on capitalism and slavery, notably Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, and Ed Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, agree with many of these points.  But they do not necessarily find economic rationality the sole force at work.  Johnson sees the South as often wasteful and inefficient when it came to new technologies such as steamboats; Beckert believes that power and politics more than markets drove the cotton economy and slavery forward.  Most interestingly Baptist vehemently disagrees with F&E’s argument that a rational slaveholder would limit the amount of violence deployed against slaves.  F&E claimed that it would not be in the slave-owners interest to harm or demoralize his labor force, at least not too much.  Baptist, on the contrary, sees violence at the heart of slavery as a production system.  Whippings, punishment, and terror were deployed liberally to increase labor productivity.  The debate is a good example of the limits of the word “rationality.”  Is more rational to restrain the whip hand of the overseer in the interest of the long term value of your human property?  Or is it more profitable to use every means possible to extract as much value now?

That depends, well on everything:  environmental and disease environment; prices of slaves and cotton; availability of slaves;  slave demography; not to mention politics, fear and sadism.  Cliometricians in the F&E tradition, like economists in general, tend to see market forces a relatively benign, often just, and usually rational, at least in some sense of that word.  Historians of capitalism, on the other hand, are looking at an overall economic, or political-economic, or even cultural-political-economic  system, one in which economic decisions are always embedded in a deeper context.  Their use of the word “capitalism” is the signal that economic decisions cannot be limited to short term exercises in optimization under constraint—microeconomics 101.  Cliometricians, both in the F&E era and now, tend to avoid the word capitalism perhaps for this very reason.

A good sense of the difference can be seen in the thorough critique given to the three slavery and capitalism works by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, The “New History of Capitalism” and Slavery.  Interestingly enough, there is less controversy now than in F&E’s era over what constitutes the proper way of doing history.  Then cliometricians argued that the only way was positivist social science, as practiced circa 1970.  Historians tended to push back by arguing that hermeneutics of reading texts and sources were the discipline’s stock and trade.  Merely culling archives for data to be fed into an economic model violated the principles of historicism, a critique that became much more forceful in the 1980s and beyond after the cultural turn took on the entire idea of “the social.”  Olmstead and Rhode are still very much social scientists, but they engage in some impressive source criticism when they attack the historians of capitalism in their own stronghold, the archives, as in this version of their critique, Cotton, Slavery and the New History of Capitalism.

One thing that has changed since the days of F&E is that slavery must now be written from a much more global perspective.  Latin American and Caribbean historians who exposed the grim epidemiological and demographic realities of life and death on a sugar plantation make strictly US-centric work seem provisional and misguided.  Once we understood how sugar plantations made slavery into a holocaust for Africans, that opened the door to American historians of slavery, who began to find plenty of examples of brutal and ruthless exploitation in North America as well:  families sold and torn apart, rape and sexual abuse, high infant mortality, disease and deformity among slave children deprived of the care of their mothers working in the fields.  Baptist’s violence-based labor system fits into this historiography.  Slave owners’ “economic interest” not only failed to restrain violence, it could easily encourage violence when violence was profitable, as if often was.

But whether or not violence was the sole or even key factor in the productive efficiency of slave plantations, and whether that productivity led to modern capitalism, is another story.

End of Part I



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