The half that will never be told. . .
from David Ruccio
Certainly not by mainstream economists—not if they continue to defend their turf and to attack the new literature on “Slavery’s Capitalism” with the vehemence they’ve recently displayed.
It makes me want to forget I ever obtained my Ph.D. in economics and the fact that I’ve spent much of my life working in and around the discipline.
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja] highlights Edward E. Baptist’s novel book, The Half Has Never Been Told (which I wrote about back in 2014), and some of the outrageous ways it has been criticized by mainstream economists—first in a review in the Economist (which was so over-the-top it was subsequently retracted) and then in a group of reviews published in the Journal of Economic History (unfortunately, behind a paywall).
In my view, this is not a clash between two disciplines (as the Chronicle would have it), but rather a fundamental incompatibility between mainstream economic theory and a group of historians who have refused to adhere to the epistemological and methodological protocols established and defended—with a remarkable degree of ignorance and intolerance—by mainstream economists.
What is at stake is a particular view of slavery in relation to U.S. capitalism—as well as a way of producing economic history (of slavery, capitalism, and much else).
Baptist’s argument, in a nutshell, is that slavery was central to the development of U.S. capitalism (“not just shaping but dominating it”) and systematic torture (a “whipping machine”) was one of the principal means slaveowners used to increase the productivity of cotton-picking slaves and thus boost the surplus they were able to extract from them.
Mainstream economists hold a quite different view—that slavery was an outdated, inefficient system that had little to do with the growth of capitalism in North America, and increased productivity in cotton production was due to biological innovation (improved varieties of seeds that yielded more pickable cotton) not torture in the labor process.
They also use different frameworks of analysis: whereas Baptist relies on slave narratives and contingent historical explanations, mainstream economists fetishize quantitative methods and invoke universal (transcultural and transhistorical) modes of individual decision-making.
Those are the two major differences that separate Baptist (and other “Slavery’s Capitalism” historians) and mainstream economists.
This is how one mainstream economist, Alan L. Olmstead, begins his review:
Edward Baptist’s study of capitalism and slavery is flawed beyond repair.
Olmstead then proceeds to accuse Baptist of being careless with the numbers, of “making things up,” and “misunderstanding economic logic,” all of which leads to “a vast overstatement of cotton’s and slavery’s ‘role’ on the wider economy and on capitalist development.”
All and all, Baptist’s arguments on the sources of slave productivity growth and on the essentiality of slavery for the rise of capitalism have little historical foundation, raise bewildering and unanswered contradictions, selectively ignore conflicting evidence, and are error-ridden.
Baptist, for his part, has responded to Olmstead’s scathing attack (as well as critical reviews by others) in the following fashion:
Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.
That’s a problem for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics: mainstream economists are simply unwilling to give up on homo economicus and doggedly refuse to examine either the economic effects of the brutal system of torture that was central to U.S. slavery or the role slave cotton played in the development of U.S. capitalism. Not to mention their arrogance in responding to the work of anyone who argues otherwise.
And that’s why the other half of the story will never be told by mainstream economists.