Edward E. Baptist. The Half has never been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books 2014.

 

I]

This book provides an important contribution to our understanding of Capitalism in America. The important contribution begins on page 301 and ends around page 395. The rest is well researched, informative, and inchoate, slathered in Poesy and weak in Methodology; Baptist is unwilling to pursue to the end the implications of his own subtitle.

Baptist bases much of his research on direct testimony from slaves and ex-slaves, and his grasp of the day-to-day feel of the slave experience is impressive—he calls this “evocative history.” Each chapter is headed by a body part that serves as a shifting signifier, uniting wildly disparate individual experiences under a single, flexible term. The chapter titled “Seed,” for instance, speaks of cotton seed and the sexual/masculine aspects of “planting” under slavery, among other things. The purple prose, unfortunately, is the author’s alone; it reminds me of those flights of cornpone Mark Twain mercilessly lampooned in the “plain talk” of James Fenimore Cooper's heroes:

[My sweetheart’s] in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain—in the dew on the open grass

By the time a dark night came in late May 1861, the moon had waxed and waned three thousand times over slavery in the South.

Of Cooper’s style Twain wrote:

When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune.

The same could be said of Baptist’s methodology: In September 2014 the Economist, ever watchful of besmirch on the purity of Capitalism, published a scathing, shallow review; Baptist responded with that “you’re a racist/sexist/communist and I’m not” rage I’ve witnessed many times from a challenged liberal professor, as if the issue was not what he’d implied about the evils of Capital but how he’s said it—his methodology, and specifically his use of slave and ex-slave narratives.

Baptist firmly sets himself against the

assumption that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North.[...] Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces.

Or again, against the assumption that

slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking and therefore a flawed economic system that was inherently less efficient than the free-labor capitalism developing in the North.

Instead he argues for the existence of

a new, dynamic form of slavery whose expansion would in turn drive the nation's growth... constructed first in the southwestern United States, this modern and modernizing process brought benefits and rights to ever wider groups of people while stripping them, with great violence, ever more radically from others.

As a recent article in the Journal of Management Studies explained, “American slavery has been wrongfully excluded from histories of management.” Aaaw.


II]

Starting in the late eighteenth century, then, slavery in the American Southwest was a radical departure from the earlier, better-known practices of the Eastern Seaboard—this is the “half” of the story that Baptist feels “has never been told,“ though in fact the basic outline of his argument was spelled out as early as 1847 by Karl Marx:

Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry…. [quoted in Lawrence 1972a.]

And again in 1867:

The Negro labor in the Southern States of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the Negro and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labor became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of production of surplus-labor itself. [quoted in Lawrence 1972a.]

II]

The American historians’ critique of Capitalism has become a growth industry over the past few years, a little academic Occupy in its own right; and like Occupy it’s fuzzy in the details, low on resolution, and high on that competitive spirit that maintains the Free Market. Marxists and other historians who might actually be critical of the capitalist system need not apply: Marx is mentioned only once in this book, in a trivial biographical detail, and there’s a brief reference to Engels in a footnote; you’d expect at least a bow to Eugene Genovese, the Marxist historian who, a few decades back, laid out the general outlines of Baptist’s thesis, and Marx’s, and ran with them. Baptist at least doesn’t fall into the chirpy mendacity of Joyce Appleby, Dean of the Capitalist Historians, who thinks “Capitalism” means buying and selling stuff; all the same, he’s got a weak grasp of the most fundamental concepts required for an understanding of Capitalism, this from a man who’s co-edited a reader on American Capitalism so help me: Baptist bandies words like “commodity” with the reckless abandon of an editor at October Magazine; he’s busy breaking down an open door, and in the process he slams into a few doorposts, first among them the so-called “Malthusian Trap.”

You see, Malthus understood that “food production could increase arithmetically at best, while population could expand geometrically,” leading inevitably to famine, pestilence and death—for some more than others, of course. Except the issue isn’t whether food production and population could diverge but whether they would, inevitably. Malthus thought the process was an iron, irreversible law of Nature; Marx argued the process was in part politically determined, thus susceptible to human intervention; that’s why Marx’s take on sustainable growth has recently resurfaced among the more clear-sighted Greens and ecologists. Baptist hasn’t got the twitter: he’s content to follow the curiously dated line that Capitalism jumped the Malthus around 1810, through the massive and systematic exploitation of human bodies rather than, say, more efficient technologies or increased access to raw resources. According to Malthusian theory the amount of food (or cotton) was limited by the amount of land available; sooner or later the farmer (or the slave-owner) was going to run out of land while the supply of cheap labor to farm it would increase—unless the State and its business allies stepped in to exterminate the Natives and buy or seize huge tracts of land in the Southeast and the Mississippi Valley, or maybe conquered Cuba in order to turn it over to the slave owners. That’s the story Baptist tells: a century and a half after Marx he discovers that the Old Virginny Plantation with its weeping willows and happy darkies and plunging productivity (Slavery 0.1) was also a plentiful supplier of cheap labor for the efficient and ruthless extraction of cotton in the Georgia gulags (Slavery 0.2).

Take the Georgia-Man. Please. The Georgia-Man was the odious character who, in the earlier days of the process, wandered from one broken-down Virginia plantation to another, buying up spare slaves and setting them on forced marches to the Southeast, where they’d be resold at a profit. There’s nothing particularly capitalistic about that, it’s a straightforward mercantile transaction; and Baptist is quite correct, in this context, in referring to the transported slaves as “commodities,” which after all is nothing but a fancy-pants term for “merchandise.” It was the supposedly gentler slaveholders of the Eastern Seaboard states who realized, circa 1790, that they were holding exchange-value, meaning their slaves were not mere tools to pick cotton or build houses [S1]: they could be traded for cash [S2]; From this moment on, Marx would have pointed out the two forms of value embodied in the slave (agent of labor and instrument of production) were potentially at odds in a dynamic, shifting relationship. The process did not turn each slave into a “uniform commodity” as Baptist suggests, but into a not-so-uniform instrument of production, a tool. Later on, he demonstrates, the slaves, now securely in place in the Southern gulags, became capital of a different sort [S3]: their cash-value (exchange-value) increased proportionately to their use-value (pick a bale of cotton). The narrative soars when Baptist shows how eventually the increased value of the land to be farmed by slaves was used to securitize loans [S4] that in turn were used to buy more land to be farmed by slaves, thereby driving up the demand for slaves and increasing their market price and driving a demand for yet more land to open up for speculation. These securities were widely traded throughout the Anglo-Saxon World and beyond. “Thus the market for human flesh funded a new economy that was to be less dependent on plantation-style production.

Italics mine. Because it wasn’t the market itself (the buying and selling of slaves, their treatment as commodities in other terms) that funded this new economy; it was their use as capital, and the same might be said of the new land being acquired. In fact, slaves did not become capital in a strict sense until 1827, almost a half-century after the Georgia-man system developed. That was the year when the planters began to mortgage, not the land but the slaves themselves, with payment in bonds issued by a private association of slaveholders and the State of Louisiana acting as a guarantor [S5]. Contemporary commentators referred to such speculators as “money capitalists” in opposition to those whose capital was in land, or human flesh. Baptist compares this type of speculation to the sub-prime lending frenzy of the past few years and shows how, like the sub-prime racket, the slave racket collapsed in 1837 when the international market for cotton became saturated. Unfortunately, he cannot answer the question begged by his own book’s title: was either of these collapses intrinsic to Capitalism? Is slavery (meaning labor coerced under one form or another) a necessary component of Capitalism, or merely contingent? Was the crisis of 1837 structurally similar to the crisis of 2008? When in his introduction Baptist contests the commonplace that “sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces" he draws out a syllogism that he himself refuses to resolve: if the New! Improved! slavery was thoroughly capitalistic, would slavery itself not then be subject to those historical forces that, sooner or later, have driven Capitalism into greater and greater crises?

For Marx, the crises of capital were inevitable because they derived from factors that were intrinsic to the system. One such factor is the principle that all forms of labor, of capital, of technology or land are interchangeable and as such, measurable. The survival of Capitalism demands that the instruments of production and relationships of production (between the slave, the land, the crop and the cash value of all) remain synchronous; sooner or later the simulacrum, the measurement of capital against capital without reference to actual objective conditions, runs up against the actual relations of production that it’s supposed to define and drive. In 1837 the worldwide demand for cotton reached a saturation point while the mirror images of increasing value for slaves and increasing value for land fed off of one another in an ever-irrational spiral; once the trend reversed the price of either fell as well: by 1837 a slave originally bought for $2000.00 might fetch $60.00; and according to Baptist there were about a hundred thousand such mortgaged slaves at the time. This crisis was exacerbated by the fact that the single, supposedly interchangeable component of these transaction habitually called a “slave” embodied a number of contradictory functions: contingent factors such as the exchange value of commodities and capital, their use-value, machinery, land availability, etc., and the one non-contingent producer of value: Human Agency.

Human beings, even when treated as slaves, are the only commodity whose fetish-character is not a superstition: they have agency. That is why as early as Aristotle, the slave was defined as someone without a soul, a mere tool, a “mechanick slave” in Shakespeare’s terms. Baptist carries on at great and interesting length about the “pushing system,” the technique by which slaves were consistently “pushed” to pick more and more cotton; he has much to say about the slaveowners’ obsession with the efficient use of their “machines.” He is eager to imply that it was the raw labor of the slaves that might have allowed the system (meaning the capitalist system of slave exploitation) to expand without end, though his own graphs (not available in the Kindle edition) suggest that production had begun to top off in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. He is, of course, committed to restoring their humanity to the slaves of the Southern Plantation, but unable as he is to understand the term “Humanity” outside of the Ideology of Capitalism, he reinserts the slaves into a narrative of virtuous self-improvement through work: Stakhanovites on the Old Plantation.

The innovation that flooded through the quarters of frontier labor camps… was driven by constant individual creativity… Individual creativity improved an enslaved African American's chance of survival, and not just by enabling him or her to find a faster way to pick a pound of protection from the whip.

The shame of slavery, according to Baptiste, is that slaves haven’t been included in the narrative of the “Industrious Revolution,” that delightful development when “Many in Western Europe began to work longer hours in order to get new commodities.” Baptist’s argument is weird to the edge of racism, with its implication that African men and women had to wait for the Great White Master to show them how to get “creative.” What he demonstrates, in fact, is that skilled techniques (for picking cotton faster in this instance) are, to the capitalist, interchangeable with advanced technology: yet another fantasy that capitalists share with Marxist-Leninists.

Baptiste, no doubt, feels obligated to join an argument that’s been a common bone of contention among slaveologists from Genovese down to Tarantino: whether slaves were capable of resistance to hideous forms of oppression. Baptist’s response is the logical resolution to an illogical syllogism of his own making, the common capitalist fantasy that labor (the use of his or her own body by the worker) can be equated with capital, the use of the body of the worker by another.

Only one who is the master of the labor of others will confuse labor power with any other form of agency for performing a task, because to him, steam, horse, water, or human muscle which turns his mill are viewed as equivalents, as 'factors of production.' For individuals who allocate their own labor (or a community which does the same), the difference between using labor power as against any other power is a difference upon which the entire 'economy' turns.

The constant in Capitalism, then, is the systematic devaluation of labor: as Harry Braverman argues, this dumbing-down is not a function of bureaucratization and efficiency (as Max Weber imagined, and as Baptist does, following suit): it's a function of class antagonisms under Capitalism. Baptist imagines that to show the experience of the black slave in all its dehumanization is to show the black slave as himself less than human; but he can only show the slave as human by showing him or her as a form of proto-bourgeois, that is, as someone whose “humanity” is preserved because, and not in spite of, his dehumanizing labor:

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.

Obviously the Taylorization of Industrial America and the “calibrated torture” of slaves in the nineteenth are widely divergent both in degree and in kind: but it’s not at all clear from Baptist’s own reading that Massah Ford’s Detroit Plantation is any more humane. After describing the Southern coffee-shops where slaves were traded and auctioned, Baptist concludes that they were "nothing like Starbucks." I’m not so sure…

III]

Back in 1977 the historian Richard H. King pointed out among historians the tendency "to equate the ‘moral’ with that which is historically ‘progressive’." If it wins it’s gotta be good: this is the implicit credo of the Triumph of Capital crowd—and, at least until recently, of the Marxist-Leninist crowd as well: because its implicit corollary is the “Restraint” Argument. According to this theory, because Capitalism is a force of Nature and beyond human control it does not emerge from specific historical conjunctures; rather, it’s development is made possible by the removal of restraints. This is where Baptist runs into a wall of his own construction: because if slavery is Capitalism, then how could its removal by the Civil War be explained as the lifting of all restraints on the Free Market in Human Labor?

Of course, as Marx points out elsewhere, it’s precisely because the Capitalist imagines that human labor is simply another factor of production that she repeatedly encounters a “Falling Rate of Profit,” as human productivity fails to keep pace with technological development. This leads to the commonly accepted theory that slavery was bound to fail because of its over-reliance on unskilled labor as against machinery; but if slavery was more efficient than the Free Market then its destruction by the forces of the Free Market represents a regression, rather than progress, in the inevitable march of Capitalism:

This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient.

Baptist has it backwards: in fact a wide range of “abolitionists”—a wide range of opponents of slavery, for that matter—had grave doubts as to whether the free labor system was much more moral than slavery; a series of catastrophic economic crises like that of 1857 had led them to doubt the economic efficiency of the Free Market system as well. It’s unfortunate that Baptist never mentions the writings of George Fitzhugh, the perspicuous, pernicious apologist for slavery who argued precisely these points; and disturbing that he refers to Frederick Law Olmsted writings on the economics of slavery but ignores the “Steamboat” Letter (the same letter I’ve discussed elsewhere) in which the future landscape designer, who was researching the economics of slavery for the New York Times, admits with some bitterness that the Southern Institution is no more than a disguised form of Capitalism, as against its hypocritical claims:

It seemed to me that what had made these Southern gentlemen Democrats was the perception that mere Democracy as they understand it (no checks or laws upon the country more than can be helped) was the best system for their class. It gave capital every advantage in the pursuit of wealth.

IV]

And yet, it’s in trying to extricate himself that Baptist comes up with a brilliant, cogent justification for his thesis, and a damning one for American Capitalism. Any overall discussion of slavery must include a rational explanation of the causes of the Civil War. “It was fought to free the slaves” won’t cut it. “It was fought to lift restraints on capital” won’t work too well if, as Baptist insists, there was plenty of capital involved in the plantation system. “It was fought because the irreconcilable conflict between two forms of capitalization made co-existence impossible within one nation” makes a lot more sense, so long as one remembers that land itself was seen as capital, not as a factor of production. As Olmsted states, it was the slaveholders who demanded that Northern restraints on slavery be removed in order to promote a “democratic” market. And, lest we forget, it was the South that insisted on Secession, having decided long before Lincoln that a house divided could not stand.

The architect of the Southern Strategy was John C. Calhoun, quondam US Representative, Senator, Vice-President, etc, and the major intellectual architect of white privilege down to the present day. Also the architect of what came to be known as the Lochner Theory. In February of 1847, Calhoun dropped the F-(for Free-Market) Bomb on the Senate Floor. You see, said C., the Fifth Amendment says you can’t be deprived of property without due process. What could that possibly mean except that Property is a substantive concept, it comes before the Constitution, it can only be limited through the strictest legal and constitutional proceedings. Likewise, the slavers argued, referring to John Locke, slavery was the extension of property rights to human bodies, and as such was inviolate. The Federal Government could not, by fiat, deprive some citizens of their right to own slaves while allowing it to others:

The theories that Calhoun was developing to justify further expansion were actually modern, tailored to a market economy that saw economic entities as "people," that measured people as factors of production, and whose most innovative actors believed that entrepreneurs should be able to wield private property without restraint.

Of course there is no such right in the US Constitution; though the principle was approved by the Supreme in 1905 it was rescinded in 1937. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory.” This hasn’t stopped right-wingers, free-market nutters and other assorted fruitflies from flitting around down to this day, claiming that everything from Obamacare to Social Security to unions to free museum admissions constitutes Government “interference,” just as the previous generation of slave traders did. Once again, Baptist has it backward: before a market economy can see economic entities as people it must see people as mere economic entities. Slavery was not, as Baptist would like to believe, an unfortunate blip in the full flowering of Capital; rather slavery, with its insistence that all human beings are no more than economic entities, was and is the purest expression of Free-Market Capitalism, end of story Q. E. D.

January 10, 2015; last revised January 16, 2015.

 

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