Slavery Capitalism

Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

For obvious reasons, racism is on everyone’s mind. Like many people, I wanted to read more about black history, so I chose this to start. I wouldn’t say The Half is the greatest work of history I’ve ever read, but I was basically convinced by the thesis, even if I thought there were one or two weak areas.

There are two central ideas here: the first is that slavery was the driving factor behind US economic and later industrial expansion in the 19th century, and that, for that reason, African slaves and their descendants essentially built the country. This is something people understandably and justifiably claim, but Baptist does a good job of probing exactly how. It was not merely the South that saw dramatic economic expansion, but the North as well. Baptist estimates, for example, that in 1836, just before the panic and crash of 1837 (caused by the greed and irresponsibility of not only slaveowners but the global financial markets flaying value off the backs of the enslaved), cotton production in the southern states was responsible for almost half of all US economic activity.

The second of Baptist’s main theses was to me newer and more interesting. Traditional capitalist historiography assumes that slave labor was (and is) less efficient than free wage labor, and for that reason, slavery was premodern and destined to extinct itself anyway. This, Baptist argues most persuasively, is simply untrue. In fact, slave labor was many times more economically efficient than free labor, and that the “negative incentive” of torture was (and is) more effective and increasing worker productivity than the supposed positive incentives of the market.

Among the many insane facts Olmsted cites include the following: “In the 1850s, southern production of cotton doubled from 2 million to 4 million bales … the world’s consumption of cotton grew from 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion pounds, and at the end of the decade the hands of US fields were still picking two-thirds of all of it, and almost all of that which went to Western Europe’s factories” (756).

Cotton-picking productivity per slave is another astounding fact, demonstrating categorically that slave labor was at least as efficient as free labor, if not more. In 1801, the average amount of cotton picked per enslaved person per day was 28 pounds. By 1818, it was between 50 and 80 pounds. By 1828, up to 132, and in some plantations in the 1840s, as high as 341. Across the south, labor productivity grew at a rate of 2.1% per year from 1811 to 1860. In the newer states, like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, that increase was 2.6% per year, for a total increase of 361 percent over the period. To compare, in the same period “the efficiency of workers who tended spinning machines in Manchester cotton mills was about 400 percent. Meanwhile, the efficiency of workers in weaving mills improved by 600 to 1000 percent” over the same period. (All this 303-8.) 600 to 1000 percent increase may seem to confirm that free labor was more efficient than slave labor, but only because of the use of machines. The machinery of cotton picking did not improve meaningfully in the period between 1800 and 1860. The innovations that brought about this increase were non-mechanical but political: Southern enslavers perfected the most successful marriage of capitalism and totalitarianism in history.

The book is a perfect antidote, therefore, to the tired dogma that, unlike other failed modern ideologies, capitalism has been able to “successfully reform itself.” Rather, Baptist shows, in its most important moments, it has been people behaving in decidedly uncapitalist ways that has brought about such reforms. 1860s capitalism expected slavery to continue. Baptist ends with a reminder: toward the end of the civil war, the North was exhausted and wanted a settlement. It was the resistance and escape of slaves that broke the economic power of the South, and it was the morale of former slaves in the US army who pushed the country to victory and the eradication of slavery. Baptist ends with a paean to American black culture that is maybe a little simplistic, but he is right again in essence: we should remember who have always been at the front of the fight for the United States to live up to its ideals.

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