Hottest subfield in history today may be the history of capitalism ... but The Nation wonders what happens if growth stalls (or if we're better off if it does)

Historians in the News
tags: capitalism

This article discusses the work of Sven Beckert, Christine Desan, Edward E. Baptist, Walter Johnson, Bethany Moreton, and Louis Hyman.

... The search for growth’s prehistory has turned up a surprising ancestor: slavery, long regarded as an obstacle to commercial progress, now cast as a potent engine of development. An emphasis on slavery’s productivity has become accepted among scholars of the distant past, and still more so among students of comparatively recent history. Accenting the significance of slavery is not by itself novel. In the nineteenth century, Marx was only one of many who required no persuasion on this point. According to his succinct formulation, “Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.” Yet even those convinced of slavery’s indispensable role in capitalism’s ascent could consider the system a relic of a bygone era that was fated to die out with time.

No group has done more to undermine that reassuring belief than historians of capitalism. Though built on scholarship reaching back decades, a once controversial thesis has become conventional wisdom with remarkable speed. In the last year alone, three of the most impressive works of American history in many years have bolstered this interpretation: Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told; Beckert’s Empire of Cotton; and from Beckert’s Harvard colleague Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams. Divergent in crucial respects, these books all depict slavery in the antebellum South as dynamic, thriving and thoroughly capitalist.

This shift has taken place not because historians unearthed a previously hidden industrial economy, but because the criteria used to define capitalism have changed. Foregrounding abstract categories like economic growth and productivity brings otherwise conflicting social orders into a common analytic frame, minimizing the differences that earlier scholars considered immense. When historians turn to particulars, they are far more likely than in the past to highlight the figures whose livelihoods depended on yoking together Northerners and Southerners, like the merchants who, in Beckert’s words, “made capitalism whole.” While the South lacked the hallmarks of industrialization, more capital was concentrated in its slave population—that is, in its ownership of people—than in all of the nation’s industrial investments combined, including banks, factories and railroads. Slaves commanded high prices because they supplied the labor necessary for the production of cotton, arguably the central commodity of the Industrial Revolution. It was little wonder that the South, bound to international networks of trade and holding gargantuan amounts of capital, went on to develop a financial system of extraordinary sophistication. Taken together, these features make the South an exemplary model of capitalism—different from what was developing in the North, to be sure, but a variation on a common theme.

But recent histories of slavery aim to do more than prove that the institution was growing; they want to show that it was indispensable to the emergence of modern economic growth itself. Baptist provides the crispest exposition of this argument: “the move from arithmetical to geometric economic growth,” he contends, “would have been short-circuited if embryo industries had run out of cotton fiber,” which could have occurred if not for an astonishing rise in productivity among the slaves who labored in the cotton fields of the South. Historians already know that productivity climbed during these years, but Baptist offers a novel explanation for this upswing: torture of the enslaved, a process refined over the decades by planters (or, as Baptist refers to them, “entrepreneurs”) desperate to satisfy the demands of cotton markets and keep ahead of their otherwise crippling levels of debt. This is the ultimate payoff of interweaving slavery and capitalism: a history that puts slavery not just at the center of our understanding of the South, or of the United States, but of global capitalism.

That shared project, however, can accommodate a variety of contradictory impulses. The sharpest example of this divergence comes in the work of two authors whose paychecks issue from the same university. Although both Johnson and Beckert share Marxist sympathies, that is where their intellectual similarities end. For Johnson, the essence of what he labels “slave racial capitalism” appears when typologies are put aside and a particular market is investigated “concretely and specifically.” In part for this reason, Johnson has distanced himself from what he refers to as “the end-of-historiography enthusiasm for the ‘new’ history of capitalism.” According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism....

Economic growth has real benefits—right now, in Europe and the United States, especially for the rich, but also for anyone who depends on a sound basis for the welfare state. But the increase of per capita productivity and population captured by the gross domestic product is just one way of measuring prosperity, and a deceptive one at that. Though economic growth’s limitations were easier to see before its canonization in the middle of the twentieth century, they are again coming into sight.

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth....

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