What Historians Missed about the Baptist Kerfuffle

From Edward Baptist’s, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphimisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton; an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000 year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. 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. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom. And slave labor surely was wasteful and unproductive. Its captives knew it wasted the days and years and centuries extorted from them. They would never get those days back. Yet those who actually endured those days knew the secret that, over time, drove cotton-picking to continually higher levels of efficiency. (pp. 130-31 [my emphasis])

Now read Jim Downs’s incredibly thoughtful response to Baptist’s central thesis and the controversy surrounding the review of his book at The Economist.

Discuss.

7 comments add yours

  1. I sympathize with many (but not all) of Jim Downs’ points. For example, he’s certainly right that more than just basic, cold marketplace whims went into the the construction of slavery, but this is true with a lot of capitalist enterprises. Consider advertising and the projection of one’s self onto a possible product to be purchased. Downs cites Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” to argue that environment was somewhat outside of regular market calculations, but he doesn’t cite Johnson’s “Soul by Soul” to show how potential slave-holders chose human property from the slave markets, department store-style, based on their own fantasies and projections — a key element of marketplace consumption.

    And what about Downs’ citing Berlin and Morgan (but not Mark Smith’s “Mastered by the Clock?”?) to point out how slavery varied by time and place. As Smith shows, slave labor could be adopted to fit industrial notions of time and profit — again, the influence of emerging industrial capitalism.

    I guess, for me personally, the general debate over whether or not slavery was compatible with capitalism has been settled for a while, even if the details provide plenty of room for more discussion.

    And, as an aside, I fear that Downs is being, shall we say, a bit naive when he urges people on the internet to, “Use the comments’ sections to offer suggestions to other readings or the long history of why such claims are problematic rather than incessantly indict The Economist.” I wonder how much time Downs actually spends on the internet đŸ˜‰

  2. I’m not sure I see the thoughtfulness. Or, rather, it’s thoughtful, but not in a particularly smart way. E.g.:

    Revel, however, in [slavery’s] peculiarity, its almost legendary reticence to be defined, and one won’t be able to easily denigrate its history to a morality play.

    Something can be complicated and complex and still be easily morally defined. That slavery wasn’t simple doesn’t mean that a simple judgment cannot apply.

    And this is just bad:

    Bordewich describes an excerpt in which Baptist detailed the execution of an enslaved man, Amar, and imagined the contents of the man’s head. “In his head, as he slumped and fell, were 50 billion neurons. They held the secrets of turning sugarcane sap into white crystals… The dancing electrons in Amar’s brain caressed forty-five years of words, pictures, feelings.'”

    While attempting to acknowledge the enslaved man’s knowledge and feelings, Baptist unwittingly plays into the 19th century fallacy of craniology, phrenology and other pseudo-scientific approaches that measured black people’s heads as a sign of their inferiority.

    No, Baptist isn’t, unless he’s trying to measure the size of Amar’s heads, and feel the bumps. He’s simply pointing out what the death meant in terms of lost memories and experiences. He’s not evaluating Amar’s worth as a human being by looking at skull size or the like, he’s making a larger point about what killing someone does. If Baptist had written about Amar’s hands as having harvested mass quantities of sugarcane, it wouldn’t be invoking palm-reading.

    I stopped reading after that latter comment, so perhaps I missed something later on, but the above does not–to me–offer a notable improvement over the Economist’s review.

    • I totally agree, David. While I’m not a huge fan of Baptist’s novelistic flourishes, Downs’ dismissal of Baptists metaphorical illustration of the lost life of a mind as somehow reinforcing 19th-century phrenology is, for me, just mind-boggling. ‘Way to totally miss the point, dude.’

      Overall, I found this review to be deeper but, frankly, just as whiny as the review from the Economist.

      • Fair enough. After thinking about it some more I also have some issues with a couple of his points. If I have time in the next few days I may try to write something up.

  3. What an odd essay Downs wrote. He never quite actually engages with what Baptist did, but what he imagines Baptist did. He never quite acknowledges that the Economist review was, in fact, racist and wrong in very obvious ways, and that the historians calling for its correction (nor does he acknowledge that the Economist, not the protesting historians, removed the article instead of opening up the debate he suggests) are precisely the same people whose complex and multiple understandings of slavery were enhanced by Baptist’s arguments.

    I’m not an Americanist, and it may be that I know a select and odd group of American historians, but it felt like he was attacking straw men, instead of real arguments.

  4. I haven’t picked up Baptist’s book but I wonder what is in there that isn’t covered by River of Dark Dreams. Also, Baptist’s writing is a little turgid.

  5. Getting pretty deep.. Review of review of review.. I think what baptist points out is that capitalism has evolved from ancient times.. At a period in time the main thread that eventually became modern capitalism passed thru the slave societies of England and the United States,.
    American capitalism changed in the twentieth century . Making peace with labor. And then since the 70s , transnational corporations, neoliberal globalization, Chicago school, has modulated world capitalism.

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