The Half Worth Telling

By the 1840s, the United States had grown into both an empire and a world economic power- the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world-all built on the back of cotton.

- Edward E Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (582)

In the present-day American self-image, slavery was one of those anachronisms inherited from the Old World, a backward evil that had to be excised, at great cost in lives, from a modernising, rapidly industrialising young democracy. Those living outside the slave states of the South were excused as Northern agrarians, merchants, or frontiersmen - men who made their living as free labour, and in doing so, the modern capitalist market-state. It is a complex though largely noble tale of the United States' difficult birth. Edward Baptist has reminded us of the half of the tale left untold - a half of the story that contains bitter truths about the origin of U.S. wealth, and with it, the American Dream.

Baptist has sought to reverse the "symbolic annihilation of history" (as he said in an interview with Salon last year) that distorts the annals of American history and political economy. As the historical records and personal testimonies that Baptist visits reveal, slavery that was anything but benign; a cruel extraction of the maximum capital - raw cotton bolls - that enslaved labour could pick, under threat of lash and sexual violence. Slavery was, Baptist tells us, a "modernist, capitalist, entrepreneurial, creative, destructive" economic system. A system that prioritised the rights of property and exploitation - and their ultimate modus operandi of profit - over human rights and dignity. It is never odd how often history repeats itself, or how the practices of the past have merely evolved.

Baptist's account of slavery rejects the facile logic that slavery would have withered away as the United States industrial revolution took off. Rather, slavery thrived off "new land, new credit sources, a new boom" that would reinvigorate the political and economic aspirations of the slave-owners. It was not only the slave-owners' boom: cotton fed the British textile mills and the rise of the working class and bourgeoisie alike, in the United Kingdom and in the U.S. North. Northern merchants and bankers reaped in the profits of the Southern slave labour camps (Baptist rejects the term "plantation" as superficial and revisionist). Baptist puts it quite bluntly: "The Northern economy's industrial sector was built on the backs of enslaved people".

What’s more, the whip catapulted the productivity of slaves far beyond the capacity of any free labour. By 1860, U.S. cotton accounted for 66% of world production and 61% of total U.S. exports. In the southwestern slave states, what we call the Deep South, productivity increased 361% over the period from 1811 - 1860. As Baptist notes, "there was no mechanical innovation of any kind to speed up the harvesting of cotton" in that time: it was pure manpower (and womanpower and childpower) motivated by the whip and an entrepreneurial system of torture and daily quotas.

Northerners bemoaned the subjugation of human beings, and in time and more critically, began to see the Southern economy as a drag on the health of the national economy. The latter belief emerged after a series of speculative bubbles erased the fortunes of Northern investors and Southern slave-owners. But nothing would prevent slavery from penetrating new territories and new profits, save for politics - and the growing popular fear, as two jeremiads said at the time, that "labor cannot be respected when any class of laborers is held in bondage".

So what would culminate in a civil war between North and South arose from a combination of sympathy for the enslaved blacks, fear of free white labour's political impotency at the federal level and a belief that waged "free labor”"was more productive and efficient than slave labour. Close but no cigar.

The challenge of memory today

The historical record therefore demonstrates that a radical nationwide project of Northern capitalist ideology and Southern white supremacist apologetics recast antebellum slavery as either (for the former) a pre-modern cancer extirpated from the national body or (for the latter) halcyon days of a paternalistic harmony between a prudent master and his well-fed slave. After all, like The Economist mused in a (retracted) editorial last year, surely slave owners "had a vested interest in keeping their 'hands' ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton".

But another of The Economist's musings is more critical here, and illustrates Baptist's argument. The popular liberal publication suggests that Baptist's work "is not history; it is advocacy", for "[a]lmost all of the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains". That such an editorial could even be conceived by an educated elite, let alone make it to publication, is testimony to the enduring power of ideology.

What emerges then is a central part of capitalist ideology today; capitalism may have winner and losers but it is a system bent toward morality. Yesterday's immigrants etched out a meagre existence so that their children could pursue greater futures. Today's working poor need only apply themselves as free entrepreneurs in a free market. Your only impediment is application; success requires hard work.

The present-day stigma of the working poor's failure to "make it" smacks of the same moralisation of the enslaved Africans as an ignorant and passive population. Mythologies of non-violent capitalist ingenuity supplant the realities of slavery and, treating the issue of labour more broadly, the working poor gathering in the cities of the U.S. North and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. As Chomsky has pointed out, the free labour movements of the nineteenth century equated wage slavery with chattel slavery; both were moral and economic wrongs.

Memory serves a dual purpose here: We commemorate the past in ways that reinforce the racial and political hierarchies of society today, and we endorse economic theories that, in fact, have a clear historical record of violence and subjugation. We need only look to the today's sweatshops of Asia, the chaotic rape of African resources, and similar stories on every populated continent.

Wherever our political and economic elites have dictated "free markets", we find the same exploitative, violent foundation for the generation of wealth - and, eerily familiar given Baptist's work, a general, however tenuous at times, acquiescence from the global middle classes. The Half Has Never Been Told plays an important role then in consciousness raising. The moral arc of universe can and must continue to bend towards realising free, dignified and empowered labour.

Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on July 25, 2015.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.