Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Recent Essays on Slavery and the "New" History of Capitalism

Robert Wright asked Does Enslaving Others Help the Economy or Not? at a Historians Against Slavery Symposium. He argues that the claim that slavery was the driving force behind economic growth is both wrong and potentially dangerous:

“These good folks are trying to lay the grounds for reparations but at the same time putting living people at increased risk of enslavement by providing developing world officials with yet another reason not to clamp down on human trafficking, debt peonage, child soldiering, and so forth. If slavery made the U.S. wealthy, as Baptist and his buddies claim, such officials reason, then aren’tantislavery efforts just another imperialist attempt to keep their nations impoverished? Perhaps slavery should even be encouraged. Maybe slavery is immoral, they reason, but the ends justify the means.”

I have previously addressed the argument that slave produced cotton as a driving force in American economic development. I would also say that it is not clear to me why the benefits to slaveholders, or non-slaveholders who benefited, are relevant to the issue of reparations. My understanding of the law (at least in countries with a common law tradition) is that compensation should be based on the damage done to the party that was harmed not on the benefit gained by the person that caused the harm. If your negligence causes an accident in which I am injured I seek compensation for the damage done to me: my medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc. It is no defense on your part to claim that you gained only minor benefit from your negligence.

The Racist Dawn of Capitalism by Peter James Hudson reviews books by Beckert, Baptist, Johnson, and Draper. On Baptist he writes

This “half” has, in fact, been told—multiple times and more often than not by black writers, some of whom are fleetingly mentioned in Baptist’s footnotes. But the claim that African Americans built the world is simply wrong. Baptist’s book is marked by such rhetorical excesses, which lend themselves to a blinkered and narcissistic American exceptionalism. The result is an oversimplified view of capitalism and slavery that ignores the historical contributions to modernity of Africans in the Caribbean and in Africa itself.

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