Sunday, October 21, 2018

Accounting for Slavery

I got around to reading Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Rosenthal does not need me to sing her praises. Plenty of people will be doing that. I’m just doing it because I feel like it.

I do want to warn people that they should ignore some of the press for the book that suggests it is about how slavery inspired modern management. Rosenthal explicitly states that the book is not about the origins of modern management. She draws parallels with modern management practices, but she does not argue that they can be traced back to slavery.

I use the phrase management practices because the subtitle is more accurate than the title: the book is about much more than accounting. Rosenthal examines the techniques that slave holders developed to track productivity, record experiments, organize the flow of information up and down hierarchies, calculate the value of their investments, etc. She shows how these techniques were systematically disseminated through the publication of books with standardized forms, articles in periodicals, and what were essentially how-to manuals on plantation management.  She makes the case that an understanding of the degree to which slave owners developed sophisticated management practices that parallel those in modern management adds to our understanding of both business history and the history of slavery. In telling the story she also makes clear that she would like to bridge the divide that currently exists between some economist economic historians and some historian economic historians. If anyone has a chance of doing that it might be someone who had Sven Beckert and Claudia Goldin as dissertation advisers.

Early in the book Rosenthal introduces an organizational chart for a large sugar plantation, and she describes the parallel between the way she created the chart and the way that Alfred Chandler created organizational charts to demonstrate the development of management practices at large industrial firms. The parallel with Chandler can be extended. Chandler argued that management is an important element of technology. Institutions and developments in production technology in the United States created possibilities to profit from mass production, but to take advantage of these opportunities business people had to develop the techniques to manage these large business enterprises. Rosenthal shows that institutions (slavery) and technology (such as the cotton gin) created opportunities to profit from large scale agricultural production, but to take advantage of these opportunities business people had to develop techniques to manage these large agricultural enterprises.

No book is perfect. I think she slightly exaggerates the neglect of slavery by business historians. For instance, Blaszczyk and Scranton’s Major Problems in American Business History gives as many pages to business in the slaves south as it does to technology in the age of big business. Nevertheless, her overall point that the business of slavery has been treated as distinct from the main story is accurate. She also gives too much credit to Edward Baptist, though she at least relegates this to a footnote. I’ll write a separate post about why I disagree with her assessment of Baptist.  For now, I want to emphasize that I think this is an important book.

Finally, I want to note that it is one of the most well written books I have read in a while. If you are looking for a historian who wants to try to impress you with academic jargon or simply show you how many five dollar words they know, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you want to see what it looks like when an author strives to make complicated things as clear as possible you should take a look at this book.

If I were betting on future winners of the Hagley Prize for the best book in business history, I would put my money on Accounting for Slavery.

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