Friday, January 1, 2016

Rothman on Slavery and Capitalism

Joshua Rothman has written an essay on the new history of capitalism and slavery. In it he illustrates some of the fundamental problems with the recent work in this area.

First, he perpetuates the misleading historiography that claims the new historians of capitalism have overturned the old orthodoxy that slavery was apart from capitalism, pretending that economic historians had not been making that argument for over a half century.  

Second, although he acknowledges that there have been critics, rather than addressing their claims, he writes them off as a matter of dogma rather than analysis. Evidently it is dogma to oppose inaccurate historiography. And it is dogma to expect a historian not to make up evidence. I am willing to say that I subscribe to this dogma.

Yet, as Rothman points out, this work seems to appeal to many people. It seems particularly timely as people worry about the ongoing effects of financial crises, increasing inequality and racial discrimination. This appeal is in some ways the most fundamental problem with the new history of capitalism. “Like my book because I claim that capitalism was the driving force behind the brutality of slavery.” “Like my book because it shows that slavery was the driving force behind American economic growth.” Numerous fans of Baptist’s book have observed that he showed that slave grown cotton accounted for half of economic activity in 1836. But anyone no one who actually reads pages 321 and 322 can fail to see that the numbers are made up and then aggregated in ways that make no sense. People have, however, chosen to overlook that if they like the conclusion. And this is the most fundamental problem: people evaluating someone’s work based upon how well it fits their preconceptions rather than the actual quality of the work. 

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