A History Not Told: American Slavery & Capitalism

What is the half of the story we've not been told about slavery? Baptist explains that "America's first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement by telling a story about the nation's past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking" (p. xviii). Historians "of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations" (p. xix). The half not told, is how integral slavery was the rise of American power, and how it was driven by capitalism. However, the "idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." (p. xxiii-xxiv). The "the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism" (p. 421).

This is the argument made by Edward E. Baptist in "The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" (2014). The book is just well researched and extremely well written. The author uses narrative to bring to life statistics and uses the art of storytelling to convey this history in meaningful and powerful ways. A book this well researched, and this length (522 pages), is impossible to justly summarize in a short post. I am hopeful this peak into the book will inspire readers to pick it up. A highly recommended read.

Baptist draws on a wealth of historical records in telling the story of how slavery and financial capitalism became the "driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and other up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry" (p. 33). It is a story about how an economic system push for the expansion of slavery, and how a much broader population benefited from that – be they financiers far distanced from plantations or those engaged in the international trade of cotton. It is a story that challenges us to think about how injustice is not just by the one with the whip, but those who enable that system, benefit from it, and support its continuation. It also connects acts of oppression to the driving force of capitalist expansion – as indigenous peoples' lands were confiscated by the government, , including those for which they held title, "in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms" (p. 227). Investors and bankers played an enabling role from afar; "People who have money want to lend it if they can make still more money doing so, especially if they can feel certain about repayment. Lending to the South's cotton economy was an investment not just in the world's most widely traded commodity, but also in a set of producers who had shown a consistent ability to increase their productivity and revenue" (p. 245). He writes:

  • "For seventy years, southern and northern economic and political elites – and many average white citizens – had cooperated to extract profit and power from the forced movement and exploitation of enslaved people's bodies and minds. Always, the proslavery forces had made the rest of the United States choose between profitable expansion of the slave country or economic slowdown. Between slavery and disunion. Between supporting a party turned into a colonized host for viral proslavery dogma, or defeat in national elections. Between bills for expanding slavery into Kansas, or passing up the opportunity to build a transcontinental railroad" (p. 385).

As a story about slavery, this book is also about the brutalities – how torture was used as a factor of production. "For many southwestern whites, shipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions,' burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds." (p. 141). Even in moments of hope, such as the emergence of anti-slavery actions, the reality was less than hopeful. Baptist shows that freeing slaves and advocating for the abolishment of slavery was not "because of a belief in black equality" but to strengthen the political might of northern elites in response to the political bullying of southern politicians.

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Capitalism vs The Climate

Naomi Klien's "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014) is not a case for how climate change is real or important to consider, it is a call to action. From a research perspective, I was not overly impressed with the book. However, a few chapters into my reading I realized I had approached the book incorrectly. This is not a research book by a researcher; Naomi is an activist and this book is calling for action. It is a book about how the author thinks the public can change the ways things work. It is not the pragmatic, middle of the road argument. It is to "move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health" (p. 26).

The main reason why action has not yet occurred, despite the consensus about climate change, is "those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis" (p. 18). The solution, Klien argues, "is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious effort to respond to climate change" (p. 23). While the author makes a clear argument for the challenges that are value based, much of the book is a collection of examples of how we can transform not just those values, but also translate new values into actions.

Yet, it is not just climate change that is at issue. It is the ability for citizens to express their will using democratic systems. "The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate – whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or international level. It is this corroded state of our political systems – as fossilized as the fuel at the center of these battles – that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement." (p. 361). Change is possible, and change on this scale has happened before, and the author specifically highlights the responses made to the Great Depression, the abolition of slavey and the independence movements against colonial powers, as these not only included political shifts but also economic ones (p. 545-545).

The book makes two arguments for action: support the smallscale efforts (and many examples of this are given) and use your collective power as citizens to change the system (policies and programs). Where to start? "That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren't asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban designs that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies and obsolescences" (p. 91). Doing so "requires visionary long-term planning, tough regulation of business, higher level of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the change they desire." (p. 95).

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Kicking Away the Ladder

Cambridge professor of development studies, Ha-Joon Chang, is likely more known is the 'Global South' than within universities in North America or Europe – mainly because his writing takes a different approach, sometimes rather boldly so. Of his long list of publications, "Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective" (2002) is the most cited. The book explores policies and institutions that were used by 'now developed countries' in order to reach their current position, and compare that with what the international development community recommends / demands of currently developing countries. In many ways, Chang challenges an entire sector with this book – the findings "will undoubtedly disturb many people, both intellectually and morally" (p. 12), as assumptions and myths are busted. In this review I focus on policies (the institutions component is also good, but has been developed by others significantly since – to be explored in future posts).

The author summarizes the objective, and the main finding, in the first two pages, writing: "There is currently great pressure on developing countries from the developed world, and the international development policy establishment that it controls, to adopt a set of 'good policies' and 'good institutions' to foster their economic development… As we shall see later in the book, there have been heated debates on whether or not these recommended policies and institutions are in fact appropriate for today's developing countries. Curiously, however, many of those critics who question the applicability of these recommendations nevertheless take it for granted that these 'good' policies and institutions were used by the developed countries when they themselves were in the process of developing" (p. 1). "This book pieces together various elements of historical information which contradict the orthodox view of the history of capitalism, and provides a comprehensive but concise picture of the policies and institutions that the developed countries used when they themselves were developing countries. In other words, what this book is asking is: 'How did the rich countries really become rich?' The short answer to this question is that the developed countries did not get where they are now through the policies and the institutions that they recommend to developing countries today. Most of them actively used 'bad' trade and industrial policies" (p. 2).

The title of this book comes from Chang's description of how nations gain advantage, and then seek to disable other nations from attaining a level of comparative status to prevent competition. Change writes "the current policy orthodoxy does amount to 'kicking away the ladder'. Infant industry promotion (but not just tariff protection, I hasten to add) has been the key to the development of most nations, and the exceptions have been limited to small countries on, or very close to, the world's technological frontiers, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland. Preventing the developing countries from adopting these policies constitutes a serious constraint on their capacity to generate economic development" (p. 10). The basis of the argument draws from the fact that "virtually all NDCs [now developed countries] actively used interventionist industrial, trade and technology (ITT) policies that are aimed at promoting infant industries during their catch-up periods" (p. 18), but current 'good' policy bars such policy.

What role do the interventionist policies play? Primarily they serve to level the playing field. Chang writes "the common problem faced by all the catch-up economies is that eh shift to higher-value-added activities, which constitutes the key to the process of economic development, does not happen 'naturally'. This is because, for a variety of reasons, there exist discrepancies between social and individual returns to investments in the high-value-added activities, or infant industries, in the catch-up economies. Given such discrepancies, it becomes necessary to establish some mechanisms to socialize the risk involved in such investments" (p. 126).

The main finding of the book – that currently recommended policies for developing countries are not what now developed countries used to develop – begs an important question: "aren't the developed countries, under the guise of recommending 'good' policies and institutions, actually making it difficult for the developing countries to use policies and institutions which they themselves had used in order to develop economically in earlier times?" (p. 3). Chang further explains: "Once a country gets ahead of other countries, it has a natural incentive to use its economic and political powers to pull ahead even further. Britain's policies, especially those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are the best examples of this. What is disconcerting is that these policies have so many parallels with those pursued in our time by developed countries in relation to their developing counterparts" (p. 51). "The plain fact is that the Neo-Liberal 'policy reforms' have not been able to deliver their central promise – namely, economic growth. When they were implemented, we were told that, while these 'reforms' might increase inequality in the short term and possibly in the long run as well, they would generate faster growth and eventually life everyone up more effectively than the interventionist policies of the early postwar years had done. The records of the last two decades show that only the negative part of the prediction has been met. Income inequality did increase as predicted, but the acceleration in growth that had been promised never arrived" (p. 128).

Chang does not leave readers to read between the lines in suggesting parallels with current and colonial practices. "By demanding from developing countries institutional standards that they themselves never attained at comparable levels of development, the NDCs are effectively adopting double standards, and hurting the developing countries by imposing on them many institutions that they neither need nor can afford' (p. 135). The author concludes that "the currently recommended package of 'good policies', which emphasizes the benefits of free trade and other laissez-faire ITT policies, seems at odds with historical experience" (p. 127) and that in numerous accounts the 'good' development policy is, in fact, 'kicking away the ladder' and hindering economic growth in developing countries.

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Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Two of the prominent front runners of the US presidential election positions themselves as "anti-establishment" and campaigned to take away the power of the elites and return that power to the people. Reich's recent book "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few" (2015) took on many of the issues; essentially questions about democracy, power, law and justice. This book outlines what the rules that structure capitalism are, how they are used, and what impact they have. And, optimistically looks at how different rules better serve the majority.

Reich presents an accessible book, written for a non-expert audience, presenting how the 'rules of the game' of capitalism can benefit a powerful elite or the majority. And, it provides examples from the American context of how these struggles have been navigated in history. In general, the author presents a story of how the rules that govern corporate activity were adjusted to include the majority in the past (not always easily, but in the end). However, in the recent decades, these shifts / re-adjustments have not taken place. Inequality has rapidly risen, earnings (wages) have stagnated for average workers, and a minority of a minority has become extremely, unfathomably wealthy. "My solution" the author writes "and I am hardly along in suggesting this – has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes to the needy… I've come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs" (p. xii-xiii). The way forward: "the only way to reverse course it for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago" (p. xv).

Before delving into some of the specifics of Reich's arguments and evidence, based on the above summary I wish to make the following note: The author does an excellent job identifying the issues and providing concrete examples of what the rules of the game mean and how they are manipulated. While there are ideas about what new rules might look like, there are fewer ideas of how 'the people' will organize and unify to make change. Those that are presented (create/support third political parties, create/support unions) are ones that are difficult to establish because of the way the current system operates. For books that explore in greater detail how power can be disrupted and redistributed, one might read Green's (2016) How Change Happens or Alinsky's (1971) Rules for Radicals.

Throughout much of Reich's book, the author tries to break down the myth that the real issue is more/less government involved in the market. Rather, it is the rules that exist in either case. "The "free market" is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking who they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the "free market" and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results" (p. 6-7).

The book offers plenty of examples of how the rules of the game are rigged. I'll repeat one of them: "Monsanto has the distinction of spending more on lobbying – nearly $7 million in 2013 alone – than any other agribusiness. And Monsanto's former (and future) employees frequently inhabit top posts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, they staff congressional committees that deal with agriculture policy, and they become advisors to congressional leaders and the White House. Two Monsanto lobbyists are former congressman Vic Fazio and former senator Blanche Lincoln. Even Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was at one time an attorney for Monsanto. Monsanto, like any new monopoly, has strategically used its economic power to gain political power and used its political power to entrench its market power" (p. 35-36).

The problem is a shift of who has power, and the solution is re-shifting that power. Reich writes: "The underlying problem, then, is not that average working Americans are "worth" less in the market than they had been, or that they have been living beyond their means. The problem is that they have steadily lost the bargaining power needed to receive as large a portion of the economy's gains as they commanded in the first three decades after World War II" (p. 131). "The essential challenge" therefore "is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind that control" (p. 168). The book ends with:

"The coming challenge is not to technology or to economics. It is a challenge to democracy. The critical debate for the future is not about the size of government; it is about who government is for. The central choice is not between the "free market" and the government; it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top. The pertinent issue is not how much is to be taxed away from the wealthy and redistributed to those who are not; it is how to design the rules of the market so that the economy generates what most people would consider a fair distribution on its own, without necessitating large redistributions after the fact. The vast majority of the nation's citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again." (p. 219)

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Logan Cochrane

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