Defining Capitalism in the ‘New History of Capitalism’

Reposts from the Junto


by Tom Cutterham

It’s been two and a half years since the new history of capitalism marked its arrival with the full red carpet treatment in the New York Times. So it’s about time we saw some serious and constructive critiques of the project. Robin Blackburn’s lengthy review of Empire of Cotton goes some way to bringing that Bancroft-winner back down to earth, particularly by scrutinising the concept of “war capitalism.” But what I particularly want to share with Junto readers today is an article by the NYU sociologist John Clegg recently published in the Chicago-based journal, Critical Historical Studies.

Anyone who has read Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson, or is eagerly awaiting the forthcoming volume on Slavery’s Capitalism, ought to read what Clegg has to say. In earlier posts at The Junto, I’ve pointed out the way new historians of capitalism have made a feature out of their resistance to defining the primary term. Clegg puts that resistance at the centre of his critique. “None of them,” he writes, “seem interested in asking what capitalism is” (281). As a result, he argues, “these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system” (284). That makes it very difficult for them to “engage scholars in other fields and contribute to contemporary political and economic debates” (282).

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told comes in for a particularly compelling corrective. [1] One of the book’s core arguments was that the violent techniques of the slave-drivers’ “pushing system,” not improvements in fertility or seed stock, accounts for the nineteenth-century’s consistent increases in cotton productivity. Clegg demolishes that claim (however, see Baptist’s response in the comments below). For one thing, it doesn’t account for differences in Sea Island plantation productivity. Nor does it account for the high productivity of postbellum sharecroppers, who were not subject to the violence of slavery. But more important than either of those considerations is simply the question of capitalist logic—why would it take slavers half a century to reach maximum levels of violence?

Slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money. (294-5)

Clegg also takes on the question of what these historians mean when they say slavery was central or essential to capitalism. Without slavery, could there have been no capitalism? Beckert and Baptist both seem to claim as much. In that sense, they are successors to Eric Williams. As Clegg makes clear, however, such a claim is hard to substantiate. What can more easily be said is, in fact, the opposite. “While it is questionable that British and Northern industry were dependent on Southern slavery,” Clegg writes, “the reverse does not hold.” As Robin Blackburn has suggested, “there would have been no African slaves in the New World had European markets not existed for the products of their labor, but capitalism in Europe gave a new lease of life to slavery in the Americas” (298-9).

Slavery was indeed integral to the history of capitalism, and violence was indeed fundamental to slavery. But if we want to understand just how those things related to each other, we still need to get to grips with just what capitalism means to us. To do that, we might need to engage more closely with the work of theorists and others in the social sciences. It may be that in the process, historians of capitalism can no longer avoid the question of political commitment, or the spectre of Marx.

[N.B. See also Edward Baptist’s guest post, responding to this post; and see John Clegg’s response to Baptist in the comments.]


Guest Post: Correcting an Incorrect “Corrective”

by Tom Cutterham

Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. He would like to “thank Joshua Rothman, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, and David Silbey for advice on this piece of writing, and The Junto for letting me publish in their space.”
How was an immense increase in the “efficiency” of cotton production achieved in the nineteenth century? The question cuts to the heart of the debates over the history of U.S. slavery.

Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a “corrective.” Clegg attacks my argument that intense coercion drove a 400% increase in the efficiency of cotton-picking slave labor in the U.S. South between 1800 and 1860. His critiques directly build on the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. In a series of essays, they asserted that efficiency actually increased because of improved seeds. In a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History, Olmstead appears somewhat displeased that I disagree with their assertions.

But “correctives” had better be correct. In this critique of The Half, there are holes big enough to push a bale of cotton through.

I’ll focus on just one here. This hole tunnels back to a fundamental error in Olmstead and Rhode’s story about cotton picking. I place great value on their documentary research, because it maps the upward quantitative trend of picking rates in U.S. short-staple cotton. By 1860 ever-growing cotton-picking efficiency helped drop the real price of the world’s most crucial commodity to 25% of what it had been in 1800.

While Olmstead and Rhode attribute the efficiency increase to enslavers’ adoption, especially from the 1820s onward, of new, more “pickable” breeds of upland cotton, I interpret the data very differently. I argue in my book that improvements in cotton seeds are likely to have been part–but only part—of the reason for this increase. On slavery’s cotton frontier, slavery’s survivors reported, torture as a labor-management strategy was the ultimate cause of increased efficiency.

However, Clegg and Olmstead, who dismiss ex-slaves’ testimony as mere “anecdote,” believe they have a trump card. In contrast to the rise in picking efficiency in the interior, Olmstead and Rhode’s data from a handful of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia plantations that grew Sea-Island cotton shows no change in picking rate between 1800 and 1860. Assuming that labor management in both lowcountry and upcountry was essentially the same, they conclude that the increase in upland cotton-picking rates can only be attributed to improved seeds. Clegg echoes this claim, asserting that it refutes my argument.

By this point anyone familiar with the history of slavery in the pre-Civil War South has probably spotted the error. It’s a doozy. It invalidates Clegg’s “corrective.” It reveals a flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s reasoning, refuting their attempt to demonstrate a non-anecdotal correlation between cotton seeds and cotton picking.

Some of the best-known historians of U.S. slavery have exquisitely documented the way enslavers in the Carolina-Georgia lowcountry extracted labor. In rice and in sea-island cotton production, enslavers assigned enslaved people a “task” or specific quantity of work to accomplish before the end of the day. So many rice seedlings to replant, so many pounds of sea-island cotton to pick, etc. If they accomplished the task, lowcountry slaves could go home, tend to their own gardens, or help family members finish their own tasks. Task done, day done.

Historians have not only demonstrated that the labor output demanded by these tasks hardly changed before emancipation. They’ve also—and Clegg will be interested to hear this—explained why that was so. For one thing, long-established lowcountry slave communities resisted increases in labor requirements.

Historians of slavery have also known for decades that enslavers used a very different system to extract, supervise, and measure slave labor in “upland” cotton. Outside the lowcountry, enslaved people had to work till sundown, and they did so under direct surveillance and threat of violence. As my book demonstrates, in the new, non-lowcountry areas, enslavers often demanded a specific number of pounds of cotton as a minimum, but pickers had to keep going until dark. Poundage in deficit led to whippings. Poundage in excess of one’s quota led to increases in the quota.

Because the labor systems in the two cotton regimes were profoundly different we simply cannot demonstrate that different kinds of seeds, rather than different labor systems, caused the difference between sea-island cotton-picking rates and “upland” cotton-picking rates. Olmstead and Rhode’s postulate, crucial also to Clegg’s “corrective,” assumes everything it has to prove and is therefore irrelevant.

But this logic fail isn’t just an error. It’s also a revelation: Clegg, Olmstead, and Rhode haven’t thought carefully about (and may be unfamiliar with) historical work on the lowcountry task system. Otherwise, Olmstead and Rhode would not be advancing an untenable argument, nor would Clegg be building untenable critiques on their work.

It’s unclear why economists and sociologists would publish articles about slave labor—let alone pass scathing judgment on books for their account of historical slave labor—when they apparently haven’t done basic reading on the history of slave labor. The difference between task and gang systems is so basic that AP U.S. History students learn it—you can even get flash cards.

Yet here’s what is clear. 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.

I’m not going to dismiss Clegg’s review, although I will correct some of its other incorrect “correctives” elsewhere. And in contrast to Olmstead’s claim that The Half Has Never Been Told is “flawed beyond repair,” I’m not going to level that kind of judgment at his work, either. After all, I couldn’t do my own work nearly as effectively without his and Rhode’s basic finding of increasing cotton-picking efficiency under slavery. But if economists and sociologists are going to make claims about the history of slavery, they should familiarize themselves with the work done by historians of slavery.

John Clegg’s RESPONSE:

I’m happy to see that Baptist has responded to one of my criticisms, and I look forward to his promised response to my other arguments. I hope to soon write a guest post on this blog, reflecting on the wider implications of this debate, but first I want to directly respond to Baptist’s response, which boils down to the suggestion that the task system might explain low productivity growth on low-country cotton plantations.

I think this suggestion is worth taking seriously. Despite being a mere sociologist, I’m aware of the literature on the task system, as are the economists Olmstead and Rhode, who refer to it in their work. Our difference with Baptist is not a matter of differing sources but of differing interpretations. It is plausible that a less productive system of labor management was preserved on lowland plantations growing long staple Sea Island cotton (which was marketed separately from short staple upland varieties). But existing scholarship does not provide unambiguous support for such a conclusion. Nor can it explain why productivity on upland plantations rose by a factor of four.

While an opposition between lowland “task” and upland “gang” labor may be adequate for AP history flashcards, specialists tend to guard against such a simplistic dichotomy. Both Edmund Morgan and Peter Coclanis (the authors Baptist linked in his response) acknowledge that some upland cotton plantations were completely organized along task lines (including, it appears, Hammond’s Silver Bluff plantation, a discussion of which Baptist also links to, apparently unaware that it was an upland plantation). While all agree that planting and cultivation on upland plantations tended to be organized in gangs, *cotton picking* (the subject of this discussion) was generally tasked in both regions. Indeed, what Baptist calls “the pushing system” in upland cotton picking is itself a variant of tasking, albeit one where slaves were punished for going under the task rather than rewarded with free time for going over it. Baptist is essentially claiming that upland planters set the task as a minimum and allowed it to vary among slaves and over time, whilst lowland planters set the task as a more or less constant maximum. As Brad Hansen points out above, if this is true it is unclear why Sea Island planters meticulously recorded the daily pickings of individual slaves in the account books that Olmstead and Rhode have digitized. Yet this hypothesis is not implausible given what we know about other differences between upland and lowland work cultures. Unfortunately studies of lowland plantations tend to focus on rice, and more research will be needed to establish whether Sea Island cotton was indeed picked in a systematically different manner.

However, even if Baptist is right that cotton picking was organized entirely differently on lowland cotton plantations (e.g. if slaves were typically rewarded with free time during the harvest) this wouldn’t necessarily explain the stagnant productivity observed on them. Morgan argues that Sea Island planters adopted the task system because it proved a more efficient way to extract cotton from slaves—by providing them with greater incentives—rather than because slave resistance prevented them from introducing the more productive labor management techniques employed in the uplands. If Morgan is right (and he remains the foremost authority on the subject) then Baptist’s alternative hypothesis becomes less plausible.

Lastly, even if Baptist is right that labor organization alone explains low productivity on Sea Island plantations, this cannot save his main argument that torture was the “ultimate cause” of the fourfold labor productivity growth on *upland* plantations from 1800 to 1860. The Sea Island contrast was only one of a number of criticisms that have been made of this argument (by Olmstead, Hansen, Pseudoerasmus and myself). To briefly reiterate these:
1. Baptist fails to explain why slaveowners in 1800 were willing to accept a quarter of the daily output of cotton they received in 1860, when according to him all they needed to do was to apply more violence. Were they too bound by moral feeling for their slaves?
2. Baptist would presumably say no. Instead his claim is that it took slaves a long time to adapt to “the pushing system.” But he fails to account for why it took 50-60 years. Studies of the labor process often find that “learning by doing” can be a major factor in productivity growth. But with technology held constant this effect is usually found to play out over months or years, not generations.
3. While Baptist’s description of a uniform “system” of continually increasing quotas is consistent with the increase of average annual picking rates in Olmstead and Rhode’s data, it is not consistent with sub-annual trends and cross-sectional variation. As Olmstead points out in his response, there is a lot of day-to-day variation in picking rates, as well as periods of decline towards the end of the season. This suggests that the “ratcheting effect” described by Baptist (due to enforced competition) was inoperative in the short term. There was also a tremendous amount of variation in average picking rates between plantations, and this variation increased over time, suggesting there was not much systematicity to “the pushing system.”
4. If torture were all that was required to reach high levels of productivity growth how do we explain centuries of stagnant productivity on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil? Historians of these regions would be surprised to learn that slaveowners there had any qualms about torturing slaves.
5. Daily picking rates from the early twentieth century, from sharecroppers who used the same primitive technology as slaves but were not whipped, are 25 to 50% higher than in 1860. At a minimum this demonstrates that torture is not necessary to achieve productivity growth beyond the level Baptist is trying to explain (of course this is not to suggest that torture was unnecessary under slavery, just that it could be substituted with other “free labor” incentives and/or biological innovation. Baptist, in a comment to an earlier post, cited evidence of total productivity decline in the aftermath of the civil war, but this data does not consist of cotton picking rates, and the best study (Ransom and Sutch) attributes it to a reduction in labor time).

Baptist has still not responded to any of these objections.

But leaving aside these reasons to doubt Baptist’s argument, the biggest problem with it is the sheer paucity of evidence he presents in its defense. He cites data from only one plantation (the Prudhomme plantation of Natchitoches Louisiana), where he claims the introduction of the pushing system led average picking rates to more than double between the 1830s and 1850s. Not only do we have no reason to take this single case as representative, but there is evidence of picking rates on this plantation for only one year in the 1830s, hardly enough to estimate a decennial average. Moreover, in examining Prudhomme letters and account books I have been unable to find any mention of the new system of labor discipline that Baptist claims was introduced between the 1830s and 50s.

It is this supposed evidence, and not the testimony of ex-slaves, that I criticized in my review as “anecdotal.” Which brings me to the thorny issue of Baptist’s rhetorical tactics. Baptist has repeatedly suggested that his critics are either dismissing the experience of formerly enslaved people or denying that coercion played a central role in the slave labor process. In fact, with the exception of a scurrilous review that the Economist was forced to retract, his critics have done no such thing. In my review I drew on a comprehensive analysis of interviews with former slaves, as well as published slave narratives. My comments on Baptist’s work were framed by an argument about the compatibility of capitalism and violence, as well as a criticism of Fogel and Engerman for downplaying the essential brutality of slavery. My critique of Baptist is not that he overestimates the extent of slaveowner violence in the fully-fledged cotton kingdom of the 1850s, but that in order to make violence the central cause of productivity growth he ends up *underestimating* the extent of violence in 1800. Olmstead makes essentially the same point in his review: “Slavery was a disgustingly vicious institution in 1860, but it was also a disgustingly vicious institution in 1800.”

Yet Baptist continues to frame this debate as about “seeds vs. coercion” and “numbers vs. testimony”, in spite of the fact that both are false oppositions. Everyone agrees that brutal coercion lay at the bleeding heart of the slave labor process, and that without such coercion productivity would have been lower than it was. But it does not follow that a new technique of coercion caused a fourfold increase in productivity over 50-60 years. Numbers and testimony can both provide vital information, and as far as I know none of the scholars who have criticized Baptist’s handling of numbers have questioned any of the testimony he has presented. But then it’s striking that Baptist never seems to provide any actual citations of the testimony on which his argument are supposedly based in these exchanges with his critics. If he were to do so it would perhaps allow us to have a more rewarding discussion of these important sources.

The issue of testimony raises questions about the goal of history writing. There are of course multiple legitimate goals. Baptist’s technique of “evocative history” combines slave narratives and interviews to create what he call “composite characters”. Several commentators, including Trevor Burnard and Trevor Logan, have strongly criticized this technique, accusing Baptist of “ventriloquizing” formerly enslaved people and using the experience of survivors as vehicles for rhetorical ends. More charitably, we might interpret Baptist’s use of testimony as primarily descriptive rather than explanatory. This technique allows Baptist to depicts the horrors of slavery in all their gruesomeness, and his argument about torture draws on the moral outrage that every reader will appropriately feel when confronted with these horrors. But evocative writing and an earnest moral stand should not be confused with convincing explanation. The idea that torture is the “ultimate cause” of long-run productivity increases may be morally satisfying, for it allows us to focus on one of the most awful features of a deeply repugnant institution. But with the meager evidence Baptist has provided, this argument does not bear critical scrutiny. In my forthcoming post I will put forward an alternative explanation and try to show why I think this debate has important implications for our understanding of capitalism, both past and present.



Let me make one final point. I like John Clegg a lot. He’s a great young scholar, and though I disagree with many points and believe he hasn’t always read my book carefully (or represented it accurately) on some very specific matters, he has launched a great debate and I appreciate that. However, I must say this. He claims that I “mock” Olmstead and Rhode specifically by stating (sorry, I have to quote myself here) “We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture,
one component of “S,” or supply).” Behzad Diba, my econ teacher at Georgetown, might have fair cause for complaint. (He was actually a great teacher.) But to say that I call out O & R here is just not right. Instead, I’m calling out _all of us, myself included_, who study the history of slavery, for not taking the role of violence seriously enough. And now, off to my Parisian dinner with my beautiful spouse. In this case, I am taunting–but dear readers, please don’t take it too hard. In a day I will be back in upstate New York, winter will be coming, and many of you will have every opportunity for schadenfreude. That’s the last I will write on this till I respond to Clegg’s very interesting review, which I promise to do in these pages.


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