Thanks to Tom Cutterham at the Junto for blogging about the Capitalism and Slavery session at the meeting of the Organization of American Historians.
I have been very critical of the “New History of Capitalism” NHC, which is the label that has been applied to much of the recent work in this area. Mostly, I have criticized it because it is bad history. The worst problems are that they tend to provide misleading historiography and simply make things up. The description of Beckert’s talk doesn’t do anything to alleviate these concerns.
It is particularly ironic that Beckert should point to “an active act of forgetting” since that is largely what he has been promoting. Rather than developing a truly novel argument, Beckert has simply tried to wipe out the work of earlier historians. The role of force has been prominent in the work of numerous scholars from Carlo Cippola’s Guns, Sails and Empire, to O’Rourke and Findlay’s Power and Plenty, and even Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. The use of force to maximize profits is the essence of Fogel’s analysis of slavery, which he repeatedly referred to as a dynamic capitalist system. It is not just traditional economic historians that actively forgotten, John Clegg and Peter James Hudson show how Beckert and Baptist also disregard the work of radical scholars.
The work of Edward Baptist is built on an even more misleading myth, the myth that he is telling the half that has never been told. Rather than responding to criticisms of his argument and evidence claims that people who disagree with him refuse to accept the legitimacy of slave testimony. Ed Baptist speaks for the enslaved, like the Lorax speaks for the trees. If you disagree with him you are denying the voice of enslaved people. The fundamental problem with Baptist’s claim is that the story has been told. Unlike the trees, enslaved people spoke for themselves. Charles Ball and Solomon Northrup don’t need to be filtered through Baptist. The half has been told. If you haven’t heard it, it’s because you chose not to listen until a professor at a prestigious university said it. Moreover, the economic historians that disagree with Baptist have not at any point rejected the statements of former slaves about the brutality of slaveholders. Their arguments are premised on the belief that enslaved people were brutally beaten to force them to work at maximum effort. Instead they argue that these accounts by former slaves to not provide evidence that increases in productivity were the result of improvements in torture that led to improvements in picking techniques over time.
Even if the most prominent authors in this field were not doing really bad history, one can question the extent to which capitalism is a useful construct for analysis. In this regard, Caitlin Rosenthal’s attempt to define capitalism is an interesting development among new historians of capitalism and I am curious to see how it plays out. It is new development because to the extent that other historians follow her, I think it will force people to confront the more fundamental question: Is capitalism a useful concept for the analysis of societies?
Up to this point NHC have acted as if it is, but it is not clear to me that the work supports this conclusion. Beckert provides a good illustration of the problem. Beckert asserts that capitalism is not necessarily characterized by the things people normally associate with it: wage labor, markets and contracts, property rights, and the rule of law. Sometimes it is associated with these things, but sometimes it is not. There are different capitalisms with different characteristics. But what makes a system capitalist as opposed to something else? When discussing the expansion of cotton production in the Soviet Union, he explains that “Such recourse to the state in postcolonial and postcapitalist societies was not a return to the war capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but a sharpening of the tools and an enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” (page 436) If the Soviet Union provides an illustration of industrial capitalism I’m left wondering if there is anything that is not capitalism. And if everything is capitalism what does the concept add to our understanding? Rather than using it as a tool, Beckert seems to toss the word capitalism in every once and a while, occasionally changing the adjective in front of it, to add a little flavor to the dish. I think it is this sort of use of capitalism that prompted Lou Galambos to suggest that the NHC was primarily a clever marketing ploy.
Personally, I am skeptical of the extent to which capitalism can be a useful analytical concept. Economists, economic historians, and business historians do not seem to me to have had much success with it as a tool for analysis. Economics departments used to frequently have courses on Comparative Economic Systems, which were largely about comparing capitalism and socialism. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s turn toward markets these courses seemed to be running into a dead end. The differences among the capitalist and socialist countries often seemed more relevant the similarities. Economists generally turned to the analysis of specific institutions, rather than trying to classify entire systems. It seems to me that much of the recent work in economic history has tended to undermine simple notions about capitalism. Things like individualism and private property seem to predate what had been thought of as the emergence of capitalism in England, and a lot of work since Pomeranz Great Divergence has challenged conventional notions about the significant differences between the West and the Rest.
I am not suggesting that historians abandon the study of capitalism. Historians can’t really avoid studying capitalism. “Capitalism” is a term that people have used for a long time to express their beliefs about certain kinds of economic systems since the early 19th century (according to my very old copy of Raymond Williams Keywords). To the extent that ideas about “capitalism” have played an important role in shaping people’s thoughts and actions historians must study “capitalism.” But, at least for the most part, this hasn’t been what the “new historians of capitalism” have been doing. The NHC treat capitalism as an analytic concept. They write as if there is an objective thing called capitalism that by means of historical analysis they can make concrete statements about.