Stephanie McCurry reviews Slavery’s Capitalism in the Times Literary Supplement. She raises interesting questions about the implications of the treatment of capitalism and slavery in the New History of Capitalism. I, however, find myself in pretty much complete disagreement with her about two of the essays.
She declares that
“Baptist's argument about enslaved labour in cotton "labor camps" as bodily torture is completely persuasive. Walter Johnson made a very similar case, also powerfully, in River of Dark Dreams (2012). There is nothing to argue with here. Neo-classical economic historians beg to differ and have taken Baptist to task, insisting that efficiencies were the result of the introduction of superior strains of cotton seed. That technical fight goes on, but it is largely beside the point.”
I can’t figure out what she could possibly mean by “beside the point.” Isn’t the point to create interpretations of the past based upon the available evidence? That is what “the Neo-classical economists” have done and Baptist has not. It has long been known that productivity in cotton production was increasing. Why? Olmstead and Rhode collected a large amount of evidence to try to answer the question. They concluded that slaveholders used violence to coerce maximum effort from slaves and then used innovation in seeds to increase the amount of cotton that could be produced from that maximum effort. McCurry seems to simply buy Baptist’s lie that Olmstead and Rhode, as well as other economists deny the role of violence in the system. I am not going to repeat all the elements of the argument here, but you can read my earlier blog post to see why I believe Baptist’s argument is about as far away from persuasive as an essay can get. The bottom line is that Baptistic history should never in anyway be encouraged. History needs a big sign that says “Do Not Feed the Baptist.”
McCurry also writes that
“Slaves were not compelled by the power of the dollar - that is to say of capital - but by the whip.”
The problem with this statement is that the first part is contradicted by a considerable amount of evidence. There is, of course, plenty of evidence that the second part it true: slaves were motivated by the whip. But there is also a lot of evidence rewards were used as well. I am sure that my saying this will be taken out of context by some people and used to show that economists don’t believe that slaves were tortured, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whipping and other forms of physical assault were obviously widely used. There is, however, plenty of evidence that rewards, including money, were used as well. See, for instance, Kathleen Hilliard’s Master, Slaves and Exchange. If I remember correctly A Slave No More also has an interesting description of an arrangement in which John Washington was hired out to a tobacco factory. His owner got a fixed payment, and Washington got a piece rate for everything that he produced above a specified amount. The point I am trying to make here is that, while we should never downplay the brutality of slavery, it is also a disservice to the history of African American people to deny the diversity of their experiences. Slave states occupied a very large territory with diverse environments. If you include the rest of the Americas the diversity is even greater. Slaves produced a wide array of crops, manufactured a variety of goods, and performed many different services. The one thing they all had in common is that they were not free. Even if they were well treated, continuing in that condition depended on the continuing goodwill of their master (not to mention his continuing good health and economic success).
McCurry finds Baptist persuasive, but when John Majewski asks
“why Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery if the South was as capitalist, modern, diversified, thriving and innovative as the North”
she finds that
The answer he offers is not only unpersuasive; it provides a good basis for the contrary view. The North, Majewski concludes, differed from even the most modern part of the South in one important respect: "the democratization of education and innovation". "Slavery created a political economy antithetical to long-term development", which explained why Northern Republicans fought the expansion of slavery into the territories. Far from securing the kind of material and ideological convergence that is crucial to slavery's capitalism, Majewski's argument, like Shankman's, seems to confirm that slavery could generate enormous profit for Northerners while retaining a distinct political economy that served as a brake on national capitalist development.
Majewski provides considerable evidence that even in areas along the border with very similar geography, slave states invested less in education and produced less innovation. He shows that Republicans were aware of these differences and regarded them negatively.
McCurry does not provide any evidence to contradict this argument. She declares that
the critical issue in 1860 was not that Republicans saw slavery as a problem, but that slaveholding Southerners saw free labour and industrial capitalism as an existential threat. The slaveholders had once called the shots in US politics. But by 1860 the slave South was not the leading edge of anything except pro-slavery nationalism. It seceded and provoked a civil war over the future of the nation and of slavery in it.
But wasn’t it both? If Republicans had not opposed the spread of slavery into new territories, would Southerners have viewed them as a threat to the existence of slavery?
Gavin Wright’s review for EH.net remains the most insightful review of Slavery’s Capitalism
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