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.
This past week Mattie Rice, who was a descendant of Weary Clyburn passed away. Over the past few year I wrote extensively about the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ and United Daughters of the Confederacy’s efforts to distort the history of Clyburn.
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The following description of a slave auction in New Orleans comes from Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
The moment was here, the one that made trees fall, cotton bales strain against their ropes, filled the stores with goods, sailed paper across oceans and back again, made the world believe. (p. 94)
This book is fascinating not so much in terms of its central thesis, but in the way that Baptist crafts his narrative. It is at times dizzying and confusing as he illustrates the speed at which this country expanded on the backs of slaves and the interconnectedness of everything that went on domestically and internationally to make it happen. What a ride.
Many of you may remember that this past school year I accompanied 35 students on a civil rights trip from Atlanta to Memphis. I was asked to accompany the instructor who organized it, but this year my school is requesting that I lead a trip for what we call Exploration Week, which takes place in March. It should come as no surprise that I am thinking of a Civil War trip for about 15 to 20 students – going small for the first year. What I have is little more than a sketchy outline of some of the sites that I want to visit, but they will likely fall between Gettysburg and Fredericksburg. [click to continue…]
My copy of Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, arrived and I’ve managed to finish the first chapter. The book is incredibly well written and thought provoking. Baptist places the spread of slavery at the center of the expansion of capitalism from the period immediately following the Revolution through the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular opinion, slavery was not antithetical to American capitalism, but its driving force. No, Baptist is not the first historian to suggest this, but it is likely that this particular book will enjoy a wider readership given its publication by a popular press and the recent controversy surrounding a review that appeared in The Economist. [click to continue…]