Capitalism & Slavery, Part II

A global perspective on slavery also feeds into the other big controversy the new literature:  how necessary was cotton grown by slaves to capitalism?  The capitalism and slavery literature is somewhat hampered by its lack of a clear definition, or really any definition, of capitalism.  In these books (see Part I) it is generally connected to industrialization, particularly British industrialization, and to economic growth and development in the United States.  But since the new history of capitalism does not stop to define capitalism more precisely, the debate has become mainly a methodological one.

If the claim is that slavery promoted industrialization by providing cheap cotton to British spinners, critics like Olmstead and Rhode argue, this is a counterfactual.  But for slave grown American cotton, then industrialization in Britain would not have happened.  Defenders of the history of capitalism and slavery camp argue that such counterfactuals miss the point.  It is not what would or would not have happened that they are writing about, but the way that history actually happened.  Slavery, cotton and industrialization were inextricably linked in actually occurring history.

At issue is the question of whether or not causal claims are always implicitly (if not explicitly) counterfactual.  To say that slave grown American cotton promoted industrialization is to say that if you removed slave grown cotton from history, there would be no industrialization.  This same sort of debate also occurred in the 1970s.  Before he turned to slavery, Robert Fogel wrote a counterfactual history of the railroads, where he proved that railroads were not in fact vital or necessary to American economic growth (Railroads and American Economic Growth)  Historians responded then too by saying that counterfactual history was simply a misguided enterprise.  Though others tried to take Fogel on his own terms and show how he had underestimated the actual impact of railroads (See here for example).

My daughter, who is a physicist, has to put up with people saying things like “Now I don’t know much about quantum theory, but…” followed by crackpot ideas that would be dispelled by one good physics class.  So at the risk of the same, let me say, I’m no philosopher, but it does seem that the counterfactual issue is poorly specified by not distinguishing between a counterfactual history and conditional claims about history.  When historians say that they are writing actual occurring history not counterfactual history and economists say that any causal statement about history is implicitly counterfactual, they are both misusing the word counterfactual.

A counterfactual history would take account of all the effects; first, second third…nth order of a change in one condition, and then replay history with the condition absent or altered.  The problem of course is that we cannot do that.  We cannot replay history nor can we realistically ever give a full account of all the interaction and knock-on effects.  Usually those trying to use counterfactuals stop when they have satisfied themselves that their hypothesis is proven; their stopping point is well short of the full impact of actually changing a condition.

So yes, in theory cotton was available elsewhere in the world absent American grown cotton; in theory non slave labor could have provided cotton for the mills of Manchester, etc.  But we do not know exactly how history would have played out in these alternative scenarios, we cannot control enough variables, especially as we have no laboratory to control them in.

Particularly with industrialization, many many historians and economists have wrestled and debated the issue of cause.  Two of the more important recent claims, one by Robert Allen and another by Philip Hoffman argue for a highly contingent process.  The industrialization of Britain and Europe more generally cannot be explained by strong internal structural factors, as other scholars have tried to do.  If the case for industrialization is highly contingent—it could easily have gone a different way—then changing a major part of the story is likely to have all sorts of highly unpredictable consequences.  Remember, what looks like a clear cut path to industrialization post hoc could easily have not occurred, if as these scholars argue, so much contingency was involved.

Historians are therefore right to be skeptical about counterfactual histories.  Indeed, causal claims made by social scientists are probabilistic, and probabilistic claims require many cases to determine likelihood.  History only gives us one case, the one that actually happened.  As a result the would be counterfactualist ends up substituting essentially subjective guess work on about what history would have been like differently; or producing lots of fictional cases in their head to establish probabilistic  causality.  These are projects that can easily go off the rails, so to speak.

But does that mean we can only recount what actually happened?  No modern historian would be totally satisfied with that answer either.  What actually happened is not just lying there on the surface waiting to be picked up.  We make choices and decisions about what evidence to use, what events to emphasize, how to connect those events to construct narratives.  And in each case historians deploy tools of analysis, making causal claims, adducing evidence for why this event, why this sequences, why this cause, just as in any other discipline.

So historians do make causal claims, and those claims are often conditional.  The claim being made is that “with slave grown American cotton, British spinners had a ready supply of raw materials needed for their capital intensive textile mills.”  We can affirm that without a ready supply of cotton British industrialists would have had a difficult time justifying the cost of building mills and buying or setting up machinery.  That is a reasonable claim (though not necessarily an indisputable one—a future historian or economist might discover that raw material supplies were not so important to British industrialists).  But, on the other hand, the counterfactual, “without slave grown American cotton, industrialization would not have happened,” is not reasonable.  There could well have been other sources of cotton or alternative ways of getting it.  It is the counterfactual claim that the historians of slavery and industrialization disavow.

To be clear, one can make a conditional claim about how slave grown American cotton fed the industrial revolution without being obligated to the counterfactual that without slave grown American cotton there would be no industrialization.  Historians of slavery and capitalism affirm the first but do not concern themselves with the second.

So what is the value of claiming that slave grown American cotton made or at least contributed to the industrial revolution if one is not also claiming that without American cotton there would be no industrial revolution?  What’s the value of history without counterfactual, in other words?

Historical narratives, as noted, have to be constructed, a process of putting together events and specifying processes, finding connections, uncovering new evidence, debating causes, consequences and patterns, with other historians.  A good narrative is both truthful (no one gets everything right the first time, but at least they try) but more than that it shows us something we did not see before.  It is both science and poetics.

By calling attention to patterns not before noticed or connections not fully exposed, good history advances knowledge.  That is what the historians of capitalism and slavery are doing.  First, they are bringing American slavery to the forefront of the national story (others before them had done much of this work, pushing aside older, racists histories that backgrounded the African American experience and the central place of slavery in American history).  Second, they are bringing it to the forefront of the national economic story in particular.  Third, they are placing that national and national economic story in a global context, showing for example, how merchants and industrialists and even plantation owners were aware of the supply chain that connected cotton with industrialization.  Finally, they are making a connection between British industrialization (and the rise of Europe more generally) and slavery.  Slave grown cotton may not have been the only way to feed British mills, but no one had a problem drawing on the slave grown cotton for their supply either. All parties were well aware of how the sides of the market connected up (there is a lot less about demand for cotton products in these books, but see this by Giorgio Riello).

By showing the connections, historians are not claiming anything about alterative histories and they are not establishing structural patterns about how industrialization must take place.  But there is a moral element to their projects.  That America’s growth and the growth of the industrial western world was inextricably connected to the extraction of people from Africa for slavery and the use of their labor, often under the most violent of conditions, for production.

Historians have struggled mightily to avoid losing the story of enslaved African Americans and their agency amidst abstract economic processes.  It’s all too easy to do as The Economist showed.  No doubt Baptist has unnecessarily pitted the violence of labor extraction against other factors, notably new strains of cotton developed and deployed by planters, when the two probably worked together.  New cotton increased the incentive of plantation owners to find new ways to get more productivity out of slaves, by whatever means necessary.  No doubt the “ratchet” system of demanding ever more poundage each day was only one, and maybe not the most common way this was accomplished.  But the fact is that slave owners were keeping close accounts of how much cotton was picked and who picked it on what day—a classic example of the calculating capitalist mind at work.  Decades ago Eric Williams tried to teach the First World how its involvement in slavery tainted even its most celebrated achievements.  Connecting slavery and capitalism is not something those who celebrate capitalism like to hear.


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