The Economist Book Review. Were All Slaves Vicitms? All Slaveowners Villains?

So The Economist posts an authorless review of a new book which supposedly looks at the role of slavery in the history of the development of capitalism in America: Editor’s Note: Our withdrawn review “Blood cotton”.

The reviewed book points out the simple fact that the slave trade, and the use of the cheap labor slavery provided, was the underpinning of the development of successful and profitable capitalism in America.

The review in the Economist, however, raises the question of the legitimacy of this assertion, since, after all, could the testimony of a few slaves regarding their harsh treatment honestly speak for all? (Emphasis added in the following.)

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Where to begin with these assertions?

We are talking about slavery. Human beings owned by other human beings. Families torn apart at auction. Human beings worked to death while expected to live on the barest subsistence provision of shelter and food. Human beings denied the right to learn to read, to be educated. Human beings subject to beating or execution at the whim of their White masters. Human beings treated as animals, no better than cattle.

I am honestly trying to understand just what part of this whoever was the author of the anonymous review and The Economist does not understand?

Here is what you now see on The Economist at the original link:

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We are therefore withdrawing the review but in the interests of transparency, anybody who wants to see the withdrawn review can click here (link to original article).

American slavery
Blood cotton
How slaves built American capitalism

I rest assured, though, that some will still defend the original article, despite the firestorm of negative reaction visible in the comments. Here is one of my favorite critical comments, in which the irony/sarcasm/snark is particularly strong.

But what about all the risk taken by the slave owner in furtherance of his enterprise? A slave could get sick and die, or run off — there goes your capital expenditure. No one understands the struggles of these brave entrepreneurs who were willing to risk so much in the name of American exceptionalism. They didn’t want to rape their slaves, but they knew the lighter skinned women would fetch a higher price. Putting food on the table for one’s legitimate wives and children might very well rest on one’s decision as to impregnatings a slave. Thank you Economist for finally standing up for the real victims in American history – white capitalists.
guest-sosinmw Sep 4th, 23:00

After all, the slave owners were making a profit. And for some, that is all that matters. That would certainly define our current economic situation, in which the corporate oligarchy and the 1% have tucked away trillions of dollars in cash, but are unable to raise the minimum wage or pay anything close to even half of the legally mandated tax rate they owe; not to speak of the money they have hidden away in off shore accounts to hide it completely from taxes.

Profit ueber alles. That is today’s capitalism in America.

To which I offer this antique colorized print of one of the most famous, iconic images of slavery in America, the slave who escaped in 1863 from Lousiana, and whose scarred back was recorded in a photo that has become one of the most enduring images of that era and that condition.

Although I know in the depths of my heart that some who view this will point out that this was just one slave, not all of them were beaten to this extent. And surely, somewhere, there was a kind White master who loved his slaves from the bottom of his heart. Fair and balanced, right?


Author: Ron