Volume 1 No. 1 Spring 2017

Slavery & the New History of Capitalism

  • Charles Post

The New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) claim that their refusal to “define” capitalism is a historical and theoretical virtue. In reality, NHC do have a concept of capitalism — a system of trade, finance and extra-economic coercion and dispossession. Unfortunately, these social processes have existed trans- historically. The problems with such an approach are particularly evident when the NHC turns to the discussion of plantation slavery in the United States. Recent works by Johnson, Baptist and Beckert clearly establish that the southern planters had to “sell to survive” and were compelled to maximize profits. However, their confusion of capitalism with trade, finance and compulsion leads to numerous historical errors, an inability to analyze the specific dynamics of commercial plantation slavery and ultimately, to explain the origins of the US Civil War.

Walter Johnson
River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. 526 pp. $35 cloth.
Edward Baptist
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
New York: Basic Books, 2014. 498 + xxvii pp. $35 cloth.
Sven Beckert
Empire of Cotton: A Global History.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 615 + xxii. $35 cloth. $35 cloth.

The financial crisis of 2008, which initiated a global slump in profitability and accumulation, profoundly shook the neoliberal consensus. Waves of bankruptcies, stagnant output, and growing unemployment challenged the blind faith in unregulated markets and produced a renewed interest in critical accounts of capitalism, exemplified by the astounding success of Piketty’s provocative Capital in the Twenty-First Century.1Perhaps most strikingly, Karl Marx, long dismissed as a utopian thinker whose alternative to capitalism failed with the collapse of the bureaucratic economies, experienced a very real rehabilitation. Even TIME admitted that “if you leave aside the prophetic, prescriptive parts of Marx’s writings, there’s a trenchant diagnosis of the underlying problems of a market economy that is surprisingly relevant even today.”2

Against this newly favorable backdrop, the New York Times recently declared that “a specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism.”3The Times was referring to the growing intellectual influence of the “New Historians of Capitalism” (NHC) group across academia and their assumption of strategic positions in prestigious history departments such as Harvard, Cornell, Brown, and the New School. Long neglected during the “linguistic turn” of the historical profession away from the systematic investigation of social and economic structures and processes, capitalism had once again become an object of serious historical inquiry thanks to the NHC.

The New Historians promise to reinvent the study of capitalism, yet they insist that the best way to accomplish this is to refuse, at least for the time being, to specify what they mean by it. As Seth Rockman of Brown University, a central figure in the new movement, puts it:

If the goal is to figure out what capitalism is and how it has operated historically, scholars seem willing to let capitalism float as a placeholder while they look for ground-level evidence of a system in operation. The empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories. . . . Recent work shows little interest in demarcating certain economic activities or actors as pre-capitalist or proto-capitalist relative to a predetermined standard of actual capitalism. By extension, “transitions” are not overarching preoccupations of the recent scholarship, with less attention given to the timing of a “market revolution,” shifts between modes of production . . . . the turmoil of the current global economy has revealed a system wildly inconsistent with theorized accounts of “pure” capitalism.4

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