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