Continuing the Debate on Slavery and Capitalism

Fig-6-Picking-cottonIt’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)

Clegg also takes on the question of what these historians mean when they say slavery was central or essential to capitalism. Without slavery, could there have been no capitalism? Beckert and Baptist both seem to claim as much. In that sense, they are successors to Eric Williams. As Clegg makes clear, however, such a claim is hard to substantiate. What can more easily be said is, in fact, the opposite. “While it is questionable that British and Northern industry were dependent on Southern slavery,” Clegg writes, “the reverse does not hold.” As Robin Blackburn has suggested, “there would have been no African slaves in the New World had European markets not existed for the products of their labor, but capitalism in Europe gave a new lease of life to slavery in the Americas” (298-9).

Slavery was indeed integral to the history of capitalism, and violence was indeed fundamental to slavery. But if we want to understand just how those things related to each other, we still need to get to grips with just what capitalism means to us. To do that, we might need to engage more closely with the work of theorists and others in the social sciences. It may be that in the process, historians of capitalism can no longer avoid the question of political commitment, or the spectre of Marx.

[N.B. See also Edward Baptist’s guest post, responding to this post; and see John Clegg’s response to Baptist in the comments.]


[1] See also a roundtable review of The Half Has Never Been Told in the Journal of Economic History, 75.3 (September 2015), 919-931.

43 responses

  1. In spite of looking at the previous posts you link to, I feel I’m missing some sort of subtext in this argument. Is it about defining the term capitalism in a way that reflects other disciplines’ usage? Isn’t there some danger that usage in other disciplines is ahistorical and freighted with presentist ideology?

    This is an interesting thread, and I’ll try to get up to speed on the arguments. Not that it’s not important in its own right, but is the debate over slavery in capitalism a continuation of the argument over the market transition undertaken years ago by Merrill, Appleby, Clark, Kulikoff, Rothenberg and others? Should we try to historicize how the themes in this argument have evolved?

    • All good questions, Dan. Would love to hear you expand on the connections you see between the market transition debates and the slavery-and-capitalism debate.

  2. Right off the bat, I read an interpretation above that does not account for developmental aspects of slavery, suggesting that from the very first, owners of enslaved people knew all “techniques” for exacting maximum profit/output. I believe Baptist in particular, does a credible job showing the developmental trajectory, including the “pushing system.” Possibly Clegg read a different book than I did.

    • I think it’s more a question of which kind of techniques were subject to development. Clegg (citing earlier work by Rhode and Olmstead) points to plant-breeding, for example, as one source of productivity improvement over time. That is developmental. On the other hand, Baptist doesn’t to my knowledge give good evidence that slavers’ methods or intensity of violence changed over time; and he explicitly acknowledges that the way cotton was actually picked didn’t change.

      • Actually, I argue that they adopt a new system around 1800, more or less, as evidenced by the narratives of survivors, which is supported by the very existence of systematic cotton-picking data itself. (It’s unclear, in Olmstead and Rohde’s argument) why their data even exists.) I further argue that this system of exploitation and extraction is dynamic enough to continually drive increases in picking rates up to the 1850s. Although you would never know this from the critics, I do suggest that new breeds of cotton may have increased the possibility of high picking rates, but I insist that enslavers certainly do not seem to think that was enough by itself to increase rates. Clegg rejects the possibility that a system of gradually raising quotas could spur a gradual increase in picking, but essentially this is the axiomatic claim “It’s just not possible.” For me, I don’t find that a persuasive claim without clear evidence that demonstrates that increases in quotas backed with powerful negative incentives _do not_ lead to increased efficiency. Others may disagree, but I suspect they don’t work in Amazon warehouses or anywhere else touched by similar practices. Now: I will post one more comment and then I will confine my energies and my reading of this to the later response offered to me by Tom Cutterham. I will instead take my spouse out to dinner, since we are in Paris. 🙂

    • Baptist’s evidence of increased productivity actually comes from Rhode and Olmstead, yet he selectively omits evidence that supports their interpretation not his. Specifically, Rhode and Olmstead argue that improvements in cotton plants were the primary cause of increases in productivity. They show that the improvements in productivity were much more significant in places that grew upland cotton, for which there was considerable biological innovation, than they were in places that grew sea island cotton, in which there was less biological innovation. Improved techniques for coercion, Baptist’s argument, would not have had a geographic restriction; all slaveholders would have adopted them. Although baptist relies on Rhode and Olmstead’s data, he omits the difference between upland and sea island cotton that would have contradicted his claim. Clegg points out that evidence on slave productivity in the West Indies is also inconsistent with Baptist’s argument.

      • First of all, I think saying that I selectively omit evidence is far over the top, and, well, a highly selective reading. Disagreeing with the interpretation of the evidence and showing that it is incorrect by bringing additional evidence to bear is a different sort of analytical process than the mere use of evidence, whether full or selective. Olmstead and Rohde have very interesting and important large-scale evidence of the increase in cotton-picking rates, which confirms other such findings. Kudos to them. I appreciate their work deeply–indeed we all should. But in their explanation, they explicitly assume that there is no major change in labor systems in the upcountry. Ex-slave sources consistently refute that claim. One can dismiss those sources, if one wants, but to do so is a choice and in my opinion the wrong one. Secondly, I do address the difference between Sea island and upland cotton in my discussion of the very different labor systems in use in the lowcountry and the upcountry/cotton frontier. Clegg acknowledges that, though he doesn’t acknowledge the various reasons which I (and even more explicitly, historians like Coclanis, Joyner, Wood, Faust, and P. Morgan) give to explain the willingness of sea-island growers to persist in their less dynamic, indeed unchanging from the late 1700s onward, labor system. You say, “he omits the difference between upland and sea island cotton.” I actually noted the difference right away and see it as not a strength but a weakness of the Olmstead/Rhode argument. I’ll have more to say later, in a response post, such as Tom Cutterham suggested elsewhere.

  3. One problem here is the critique of the cotton productivity argument. Post bellum sharecropping was actually notoriously unproductive. See Fogel, who calculates a 40% drop in productivity. Moreover the literature of low country slavery is also clear; their system of labor extraction was quite different from that further inland, and one resistant to productivity increase. I’m surprised we’re arguing this; these are elements of historiographical consensus,

    • Great to have your response, Prof Baptist. I’ll put a link to this comment up in the main post to make sure readers are aware. I fully expect there to be a third round to this discussion in which those under critique make their responses. Gradually we should be able to reduce the problem of talking at cross-purposes.

    • I don’t think I would call it a consensus. Ransom and Sutch, for instance, argue that labor supply decreased but productivity increased. Among those who believe that productivity declined there is no consensus about why. There is also a problem of comparability of the data before and after the war. The picking books used by Rhode and Olmstead show picking per person per day. If I remember correctly the estimates of post war productivity are based on more aggregated data. Though Trevon Logan has an interesting paper based on his family’s picking books. It makes you wonder how many more of these family records are out there.

      • If memory serves, I actually do address this. My argument is about the upland cotton region. I argue, and I think, quite clearly demonstrate (using slave narratives and decades of scholarship on low country production systems) that upland cotton had a very different system of production than sea island cotton in the low country.

        • Sorry, this went to the wrong place. My apologies But I will note that Fogel and his fellow scholars, to my mind, showed that the problem with Ransom and Sutch’s argument (which was itself brilliant and a crucial leap forward) was in making the numerator too big, as it were. Gavin Wright has a different argument for cause, but also concurs that there are big problems with productivity. But reading all of this data through 1) the social, history of cotton production in the late-19th century South and 2) the understanding that picking is the bottleneck of production AND women and children were still picking cotton in the late 19th c. convinces me that not only is Fogel’s numerical analysis correct, but that slower cotton-picking is a possible cause. The seeds, however, are the same.

        • I don’t recall seeing that in your book. I recall discussions of differences in production between rice and tobacco and cotton, but I do not recall a discussion of why some cotton producers would choose to increase productivity through more intense coercion and others would not based upon the variety of cotton that they grew. I just searched the book on Amazon, and the only use of upland that it found was in the title of a paper in the references. Perhaps their search function isn’t working well.

  4. I remember studying in college George Fitzhugh’s Sociology of the South and it would appear from that 19th-century primary document that at least Fitzhugh did not see Capitalism as a vital part of the slave economy. In fact, as I remember, he’s high critical of it and its “wage-slavery.”

    It appears, in many ways, that Sven’s War Capitalism, is simply a spin on the totalitarian school labeling the Marxist experience as War Communism.

    I would also say that one has to redefine commonly used terms to fit this revisionist history, revisionism as expressed in historiography, Capitalism has innately more in common with mercantilism and I would say the slave economy has more in common with any form of serfdom than any traditional use of Capitalism much like the peasant communes of Russia in the early 20th century.

    Furthermore, if the slave economy produces a commodity and it places on the market, how is that to be construed as capitalism? The slave economy is centered around land owners–not entrepreneurs and wages. Merchants may benefit but they certainly aren’t a driving factor. The argument by its thesis is absurd.

  5. Let me make one final point. I like John Clegg a lot. He’s a great young scholar, and though I disagree with many points and believe he hasn’t always read my book carefully (or represented it accurately) on some very specific matters, he has launched a great debate and I appreciate that. However, I must say this. He claims that I “mock” Olmstead and Rhode specifically by stating (sorry, I have to quote myself here) “We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture,
    one component of “S,” or supply).” Behzad Diba, my econ teacher at Georgetown, might have fair cause for complaint. (He was actually a great teacher.) But to say that I call out O & R here is just not right. Instead, I’m calling out _all of us, myself included_, who study the history of slavery, for not taking the role of violence seriously enough. And now, off to my Parisian dinner with my beautiful spouse. In this case, I am taunting–but dear readers, please don’t take it too hard. In a day I will be back in upstate New York, winter will be coming, and many of you will have every opportunity for schadenfreude. That’s the last I will write on this till I respond to Clegg’s very interesting review, which I promise to do in these pages.

    • “A recent attempt by two economists to measure the increase in productive efficiency assembled a vast quantity of data that revealed that such increases existed. They credited it entirely to planters’ prowess at improving the quality of the cotton plant. Something that apparently never came to mind was the possibility that enslaved people were picking faster.”
      I assume that when you wrote this in Capitalism Takes Command that you weren’t mocking; you were calling out all of us, including yourself

  6. Ed Baptist says,

    “One problem here is the critique of the cotton productivity argument. Post bellum sharecropping was actually notoriously unproductive. See Fogel, who calculates a 40% drop in productivity.”

    Fogel cites Moen from Volume 2 (Technical Papers) of Without Consent or Contract. According to Moen’s calculations the drop in total factor productivity between 1860 and 1880 is 13% (primal method) to 35% (dual method).

    But if Baptist accepts these figures, then he has conceded the argument of his critics. The drop in TFP relative to 1860, that can be potentially attributed to emancipation is 13-35%. And therefore that is logically what you can attribute to the pushing system, also. But remember, the productivity of cotton picking increased 400% between 1800 and 1860. If Baptist accepts 13-35%, then the pushing system must have had a small effect, at best.

    13-35% is less than what I myself guessed was reasonable to attribute to the pushing system in my own post criticising Baptist ( ! I had put an upper bound of 100% out of the 400%.

    Of course, the problem with these comparisons is this: the Olmstead & Rhode figure of 400% is increase in output PER WORKER PER DAY, whereas Moen computes total factor productivity which takes into consideration into work hours. No one knows what the number of work hours devoted to cotton picking in 1800 or 1820 or 1840 was. So we are actually talking about incommensurable measures, the O&R productivity data and the Moen productivity data. That was also part of my argument in my post criticing Baptist. For all we know, the increase in cotton picked per day was achieved by increasing hours worked per day between 1800 and 1860, not necessarily in making slaves pick more cotton per hour.

    • Anyway, we don’t need to know whether cotton productivity increased or decreased after emancipation; nor how much, nor the reasons for the increase/decline in productivity. What we know is that emancipation did not have a dramatic effect on anything other than the quantity of labour supplied by African-Americans, and productivity fell much much less than it increased from 1800 to 1860. Baptist is thus refuted.

      • and productivity fell much much less than it increased from 1800 to 1860. Baptist is thus refuted.

        Because the techniques that slaves had figured out under threat of being tortured immediately vanished from their minds when they were freed?

        • What we know is that emancipation did not have a dramatic effect on anything other than the quantity of labour supplied by African-Americans, and productivity fell much much less than it increased from 1800 to 1860.

          In fact, it strikes me that this is exactly what you would expect if Baptist’s argument is true. You can beat someone until they’re an expert cotton picker, and when you stop beating them, that expertise doesn’t disappear, but they may not drive themselves to incapacity picking.

          • ” it strikes me that this is exactly what you would expect if Baptist’s argument is true”

            It may strike you that way, but the reality is precisely the opposite.

            Fogel’s argument to which Baptist now appeals (despite saying nothing about it in the book) is that Southern gang plantations squeezed more labour out of slaves for any given hour of work, than did small slave farms, free southern farms, and northern farms out of their work forces. In (= more intensive labour utilisation). To the extent that cotton output fell because slaves reduced their overall hours of work per year, it is a win for Olmstead & Rhode’s botanical argument, and a loss for Baptist.

            I’m not sure people appreciate the irony. In the Fogel estimates, slaves worked fewer days per year and fewer hours per year than northern farmers, but slaves were worked more intensely. That’s most of the reason for the productivity advantage of the slave plantations. To the extent that slaves had longer working years and longer working years, their productivity advantage erodes.

            • You mistake my point, though perhaps it was vaguely made. Slaves under observation and threat of lash are likely to work more intensively per hour (faster, for example) while using techniques they have figured out/learned. After slavery, the violent direct oversight goes away (to a large extent) but the techniques don’t. Thus the productive intensity drops (they’re not sprinting through the fields), but not as much as it had gained.

              Fogel’s argument to which Baptist now appeals (despite saying nothing about it in the book)

              I see multiple citations of Fogel and discussions of his work in Baptist’s book (quick search on Google as my copy is elsewhere).

              • I did not say Fogel was never cited by Baptist. (It’s Beckert who never once mentions Fogel.) I said that Baptist never cites Fogel on this particular point — the intensity of labour utilisation as the hallmark of the gang plantation system.

                • And you’re using this as a “gotcha” moment now because why? Baptist is clearly deeply aware of Fogel’s work — that you’re calling him out for not using it in exactly the citation you wished is more of a rhetorical trick than a genuine point.

                  But again — if your central argument above is that the productivity did not drop back in post 1865 to where it had been in 1800 and that this invalidates Baptist’s argument, what is your response to my contention that it is quite likely that the ex-slaves were still more skilled at working the fields (and a skill developed driven by decades of violent abuse) but less inclined to work harder *each hour* than they had when there was an overseer with a whip watching them?

                • No, Baptist was clearly NOT “deeply aware of Fogel’s work” when he was writing the book, because if he had been, he would have cited the key portions of Without Consent and Contract that are relevant to the Baptist thesis. He is citing some of them now because he has been finally alerted to them in the face of multiple criticisms. But even now, Baptist does not quite understand the various measures of productivity which featured in the Time on the Cross debate of the 1970s.

                  As for your theory about skills, I’d have to think about it.

                • No, Baptist was clearly NOT “deeply aware of Fogel’s work” when he was writing the book, because if he had been, he would have cited the key portions of Without Consent and Contract that are relevant to the Baptist thesis

                  Not citing things in exactly the way and when you want them cited is more your problem than his.

                • I am hardly the first to observe that these new-fangled historians of capitalism are not terribly familiar with the cliometric debates of the 1970s and 1980s that are obviously relevant to their work today.

                • Clegg, the one who occasioned this post at the Junto blog, says: “However, the wounds of this old Methodenstreit have not all healed, and the names Fogel and Engerman still conjure up sour feelings among some historians. We can see evidence of this in these new works, none of which even mention Time on the Cross, despite its centrality to the economic history of slavery. Yet one of the central claims of these works—that slavery was modern, profitable, and capitalist—was also the central claim of Time on the Cross.”

                • By the way, I want to point out the the conversation so far has been:

                  pseudoerasumus: With these statistics, Baptist has conceded to his critics. Baptist is REFUTED!
                  pseudoerasmus: The reality is PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE!
                  pseudoerasmus: I’d have to think about that.
                  Total900: Uh-huh.

                  With that, I’m out. I’m entirely uninterested in waiting for you to “think about” it.

                • (Let’s try that again)

                  By the way, I want to note that the conversation so far has been:

                  pseudoerasumus: With these statistics, Baptist has conceded to his critics. Baptist is REFUTED!
                  Total900: (points out interpretation that fits with Baptist)
                  pseudoerasmus: (misunderstands point) The reality is PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE!
                  Total900: (reexplains the point, patiently)
                  pseudoerasmus: I’d have to think about that.
                  Total900: Uh-huh.

                  With that, I’m out. I’m entirely uninterested in waiting for you to “think about” it.

                • I have thought about it. The productivity advantage of gang labour, according to Fogel, was achieved through a combination of eliminating spare movement, the division of labour & specialisation, and accelerated picking. Quite consistent with Baptist’s claim of a scientific management system. But the productivity advantage appears for farms above the size of 15 slaves. But why would skills matter only for gang labour plantations ?

  7. It is hard to make a case that European Capitalism gave a “new lease in life” to American Slavery. The evidence of slaves moving to Kentucky and Tennessee alone early after the American Revolution tells a different tale, perhaps. Also, I agree that the four-fold increase in production, 1800 -1860, is unlikely to be accounted for by one factor…however, what are the multiple factors that lead to this increase? a better question, I think.

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