Historians’ debate over capitalism is heating up

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, capitalism

It’s been two and a half years since the new history of capitalism marked its arrival with the full red carpet treatment in the New York Times. So it’s about time we saw some serious and constructive critiques of the project. Robin Blackburn’s lengthy review of Empire of Cotton goes some way to bringing that Bancroft-winner back down to earth, particularly by scrutinising the concept of “war capitalism.” But what I particularly want to share with Junto readers today is an article by the NYU sociologist John Clegg recently published in the Chicago-based journal, Critical Historical Studies.

Anyone who has read Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson, or is eagerly awaiting the forthcoming volume on Slavery’s Capitalism, ought to read what Clegg has to say. In earlier posts at The Junto, I’ve pointed out the way new historians of capitalism have made a feature out of their resistance to defining the primary term. Clegg puts that resistance at the centre of his critique. “None of them,” he writes, “seem interested in asking what capitalism is” (281). As a result, he argues, “these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system” (284). That makes it very difficult for them to “engage scholars in other fields and contribute to contemporary political and economic debates” (282).

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told comes in for a particularly compelling corrective. [1] One of the book’s core arguments was that the violent techniques of the slave-drivers’ “pushing system,” not improvements in fertility or seed stock, accounts for the nineteenth-century’s consistent increases in cotton productivity. Clegg demolishes that claim (however, see Baptist’s response in the comments below). For one thing, it doesn’t account for differences in Sea Island plantation productivity. Nor does it account for the high productivity of postbellum sharecroppers, who were not subject to the violence of slavery. But more important than either of those considerations is simply the question of capitalist logic—why would it take slavers half a century to reach maximum levels of violence?

Slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money. (294-5) ...

Read entire article at The Junto

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