The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a piece on the ongoing tussle between quantitative economic historians and “historians of capitalism” over a recent spate of books claiming that slavery was crucial for the development of capitalism—especially The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist, but also Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert.
First a disclaimer. I read Empire of Cotton and found it wonderful. Not every page convinced me, but the depth and sweep of the research was awe-inspiring, and the overall story (as I interpreted it, more on this in a moment) seemed right to me. I put down The Half well before I had read half. It was tendentiously written, with more concern for political performativity than argumentation, and it was obvious that Baptist was prone to error and exaggeration. The last thing I’m looking for in a history treatise is an unreliable narrator.
The main point I want to make here, however, is that the Chronicle serves us a false dichotomy, either a history informed by culture that explains the inner logic of capitalist development or a reductionist, statistically-driven exercise in model-fitting that adheres to a rather narrow conception of science. Either we infer from the sequence of events by which slavery in its later stages coevolved with capitalism the intrinsic necessity of that process, or we test counterfactuals to determine whether capitalism could have emerged in a hypothetical world in which slavery had never existed.
No and no.
The core problem here is reification, treating both slavery and capitalism as if they were discrete, homogeneous things instead of rather loose categories we assign to social and economic systems that differ across a multitude of dimensions. Would some form of capitalism have developed in the US and other countries without the contributions of slavery? Almost certainly. Would it look and feel just like the capitalism we have today? Almost certainly not.
From this perspective, Beckert’s superiority over Baptist is obvious. Baptist does argue that slavery was essential to capitalist development, while Beckert, if you read him carefully, doesn’t. In fact, Beckert’s story is one of constant improvisation and experimentation as the conditions for a global-scale market in textile inputs and outputs were painstakingly assembled. It not only could have happened in other ways; it did. And it is a mistake to read determinism into Beckert’s account of “war capitalism” (an unfortunate phrase), in which the use of imperial force and direct labor coercion were commingled with market formation, as if the entire history of trade embedded in force (the Vikings, anyone?) had never existed, and early modern capitalists could simply invent an economic order from scratch.
I’ll sign up as a loyal devotee of model-fitting and a student of the contingency of human history embedded in a cultural nexus.
Incidentally, I’m struck by the willingness of people who should know better to defend Baptist. (The two examples of his methodological errors cited in the Chronicle piece are devastating.) My hunch is that this is a product of the “good begets good” heuristic, or more precisely its “bad begets bad” corollary. People have a tendency to think that if something is good it is good in all respects, and similarly if something is bad. Slavery is bad. Left historians want to argue that capitalism is bad. Therefore, showing that slavery begot capitalism demonstrates that capitalism is bad. Of course, logically it’s all nonsense: good can beget bad and bad can beget good, as they do all the time. If the purpose is historical understanding, however, the issue is not good or bad, but how and why.