Capitalism, Slavery, and Resistance

"We’ve really got to reckon with these forces, these conglomerations of power that still exist, and are still driven by the legacy of slavery. That can’t be wiped away by white people having a change of heart."

AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability. Listen to it in its entirety:

On 20 December 2014, host Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio spoke with author and historian Edward Baptist about the continuing legacy of slavery and the ongoing sanitization and downright falsification of its history in the United States.

This conversation was timely when it took place, as protests over police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and all around the country had been escalating. Since neither the regular police murder of unarmed black men and women in the United States nor the white supremacist system that drives and condones it has ended, this conversation remains timely now, six months later, with the world’s eyes on Baltimore.

The conversations around lethal racist policing and the growing rebellion against it have continued to evolve over these six months, with some promising turns. While deeper investigations into the racial, institutional and economic history of Ferguson were not completely absent from media coverage of the police murder of Michael Brown, it seemed to happen primarily at a low frequency on the fringes of the discourse. The same could be said of alternative analyses of rioting as a legitimate response to state violence. But both of these avenues of thought have factored much more prominently in the coverage of Freddie Gray’s horrific beating murder by Baltimore cops and the ensuing uprising there.

Indeed, they have combined in a way. The relatively recent history of Baltimore’s economic abandonment has been used as further evidence of the hypocrisy of people who complain about broken windows but not broken spines. As the argument goes, they never complained about the broken windows, the broken homes, the broken communities that de-industrialization, white flight, the War on Drugs, and austerity produced in Baltimore. Just the ones broken by black rioters.

Good point. Yes, a crucial backdrop for the ongoing racial unrest in Baltimore and the rest of the United States is the economic suffering wrought by neoliberalism over the last half-century. But this system of violent racialized economic exploitation has been a feature of capitalism for much longer than that.

As obvious as this is, it is still something that has only recently begun to be discussed with any energy again since the disappointing reparations debates of the nineties. The legacy of slavery is still the elephant in the room. Here’s hoping that this becomes the next vital issue that moves from the fringes to the center of discourse as the Black Lives Matter and related movements continue to grow. If the anti-police brutality and low-wage worker movements make slavery reparations a central demand, it could bring about the powerful first of many justice-seeking redistributions of wealth needed to overcome capitalism worldwide. Just a thought.

“It’s almost as if slavery were an institution imposed by aliens who took all the profits and then left in their spaceships, leaving Americans to have an accidental war in which 750,000 people were killed.”

Chuck Mertz: The men who built America were not named Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, or Morgan. No, the people who built America, whether we like to admit it or not, were slaves.

Here to tell us about the inexorable link between American capitalism and slavery, Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Good morning, Ed.

Ed Baptist: Hey, Chuck.

CM: It’s great to have you on the show.

I want to talk about something that’s been in the headlines lately. When we see what’s going on in Ferguson, how does that relate to our history of slavery here in the United States?

EB: There are many connections. We could talk about them for a very long time, but I’ll just mention one. In this country, in the law and in the way that the law has been enforced, we’ve often seen—and we’re seeing today—that violence by the state against African Americans (both men and women) has simply not been recognized as a problem. It’s been seen as something the state needs to do to maintain stability—and in order to maintain white supremacy.

This denial is why so many Americans have been so eager to make the sorts of excuses that we see, not just for Darren Wilson but for an entire system of policing. And for an entire system of mass incarceration, for that matter. That’s one really significant way slavery continues to affect the way that people of African descent live in this country.

CM: I saw a review of your book by Charles Larson over at Counterpunch, and he was talking about the ways slavery has been sanitized in American history. But I think that all Americans accept the idea that slavery was horrible. We don’t have a positive view of slavery.

How is the horrible feeling we have about slavery today “sanitized,” in Larson’s words?

EB: After debating about this book with various people, I’m not sure that every American agrees with you that it was so awful. That’s something that’s come out from under its rock a little bit. We find lots of people willing to make excuses and suggest that it wasn’t so bad, that surely enslavers wouldn’t have mistreated their property. Which is a very…complex statement, let’s put it that way.

More broadly, I think we still sanitize it in that we aren’t so eager to talk about the connections between slavery in the past and present-day inequities—in particular the inequity between those who have wealth and those who do not. A lot of that divide, of course, is racialized. Recently we’ve seen a report suggesting that as of 2014, median white household wealth is fourteen times that of median black household wealth. That’s surely in part a product of slavery.

But even among whites, the systems, financial structures, and accumulations of wealth that began with slavery continue to reap rewards for those who have wealth—this is wealth that is ultimately traceable back to slavery—but not for those who don’t. Slavery continues to have an effect even on the wealth divide between whites.

CM: We had historian Rick Perlstein on our show back in August, on his book The Invisible Bridge, about conservatism from Nixon to Reagan. He pointed out we have this desire to have consensus in history. That is, we sanitize the differences out of our history in an attempt to give the impression that we’re all together.

An example I would give is the idea that the vast majority of American citizens were against Nazism prior to World War II, when in fact on the east coast there were huge pro-Nazi rallies that attracted thousands of people, including a major rally in Madison Square Garden that overflowed with Nazi supporters right before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yes, the Greatest Generation had lots of Nazis among them.

Do you find the same desire for consensus when it comes to the history of slavery? Is that part of the problem with understanding US history when it comes to slavery? That we’re attempting to find a consensus?

EB: Yeah, it’s almost as if slavery were an institution that was imposed by a group of aliens who took all the profits from slavery and then left in their spaceships, leaving Americans to have an accidental war in which 750,000 people were killed.

But the reality is that a lot of the profits of slavery were distributed widely throughout the white population. And not just in the South, but also in the North and even overseas in Europe. The financial structure of the cotton trade and the massive worldwide investment in slave property in the South allowed the profit that was extracted from the labor and bodies of enslaved African Americans to be spread all around the Western world, where, as I suggested before, it persists and lasts today.

“Resistance was really important. Enslaved people looked around at each other and decided some important things. They decided that they were one people; that their primary allegiances would not be to their enslaver but to each other; and that they were going to figure out how to struggle against and how to survive the system that they were in.”

CM: Reading your book, it really shocked me to learn of the ways that people try to sanitize history so slavery won’t seem as bad. I never really noticed that in what I see on TV, or in documentaries or what have you.

Then as I’m reading your book, I look up at one of my monitors, and the History Channel is on. And there’s some professor from some university talking about how the country was built on hemp and tobacco, and they show this scene where there is a kindly powdered-wig-wearing gentleman showing seeds to somebody who is playing a slave. There are no chains. There are no tears in any of the clothes. It’s as if they’re having a cordial, constructive conversation.

What would that scene really look like, a plantation owner talking to a slave about how to plant a crop?

EB: Well, although everybody’s experience might have been slightly different, on the whole the experience of enslaved African Americans was fundamentally one of deprivation, poverty, and poor health. An eighteen-year-old African American man was on average about an inch to an inch and a half shorter than whites in the same area, which shows systematic malnutrition and lack of medical care over the years. Black infant mortality was higher than that of whites in the same areas.

Slavery was fundamentally a system of exploitation. It had lasting health effects on the people who endured it and who survived it. That alone undermines the History Channel image that you’re talking about being portrayed.

But more than those sins of commission, I think sins of omission are really the way slavery gets sanitized. It doesn’t get included in accounts of how the US became the largest economy in the world by the end of the 19th century, and already the second-largest industrial economy by 1860. Slavery doesn’t get included as a causal factor—much less as the causal factor, as I would argue.

In fact, when you look at most history textbooks, even those that are taught in college courses, there’s still a tendency to put the “Old South” in one chapter, and have other chapters about the development of the industrial economy. We’re literally segregating these two histories when in fact they were deeply intertwined.

CM: Getting back to the contemporary, do you think there is some connection between slave labor in the US cotton industry and the ongoing use of slave labor in the textile industry worldwide?

EB: There’s a great book that just came out, by Sven Beckert: a history of cotton worldwide, from the 1700s to the middle of the twentieth century. One of the things he shows is that in both the production of raw cotton and in textile mills, in both of those areas of economic activity which had been so important to the development of the world economy that we know today, there has constantly been pressure on the part of capital to disempower labor and to seek out new locations—new places to put cotton fields, new places to put textile factories—where workers can be exploited more effectively because they have less political power.

Workers in Bangladesh are sought out for making cotton cloth because they are not able to resist as effectively. The same thing happens even today with the growing of cotton; a huge portion of the world’s cotton crop is picked under conditions of unfree labor. Even now that there are these technological marvels—cotton harvesting machines—which harvest most of the crop in the US, there are places like Uzbekistan where every fall, two million children get literally herded out into the fields and forced to pick the cotton crop there.

So the process of unfree labor in cotton production continues, and is a crucial part—an unacknowledged and uncompensated part—of the world economy.

CM: You write about slave revolts, the most famous being the revolt Nat Turner led. How do you think the history of slavery would be viewed differently if more students in the US were taught how much the slaves actually resisted? We have this image of slaves’ complete acquiescence.

EB: That’s a great question. I was lucky enough to go to schools with lots of African American teachers and lots of African American students, and that was on the agenda in some classes and wasn’t in others. I know that continues to be the case throughout the United States, as you suggest.

I think talking about resistance is really important. In order to do justice to the historical subjects we’re talking about—both those who survived slavery and those who didn’t—I think we have to understand the conditions that they faced: a militarized society with a majority-white population which was heavily armed and, at different points in time, organized and reorganized into a more and more complex and comprehensive patrol system (as it was called) to prevent the sorts of revolts that we see in Nat Turner’s case.

“Slavery continues today. Forced labor is crucial to the world economy today. I don’t think we’ve seen a capitalist system that exists without forced labor and the radical disempowerment of hundreds of millions of working people around the globe.”

Until the civil war, resistance couldn’t take the form of a successful mass revolt because of white power and the willingness of whites to use it. But resistance was really important. Enslaved people looked around at each other and they decided some important things. They decided that they were one people; that their primary allegiances would not be to their enslaver but to each other; and they decided that they were going to figure out how to struggle against and how to survive the system that they were in.

The ideas that they came up with, the ways of talking critically about slavery they came up with, became tremendously important not just to maintaining their own solidarity but as a message that was passed on to black and white abolitionists in the North, to become the basis of their arguments against slavery. And that, in turn, helped to bring on the civil war.

Of course, when the civil war happens, enslaved people do not stay in slavery. Every time the Union Army comes near, they free themselves. They leave the slave labor camps in droves, they enlist en masse in the Union Army, and they help to bring down slavery. That story is the great story of the civil war that is told far less often than it should be.

CM: So why wasn’t slavery too big to fail? If recent memory is any indication, it would seem like the entire country, both the Union and the South, would have been doing everything they could to make sure that it would not fail, because it would do so much damage to the existing economic order.

EB: Well, that’s why there was so much effort to avert a secession and a civil war crisis. We see this again and again in the American political system. Even though Southern enslavers and the politicians who represent them are extremely aggressive and demand a kind of power in the US government that aggravates Northern voters and Northern politicians again and again, those Northern politicians are consistently willing to work to avert a final break.

They do it in 1819, again in the 1830s, and in 1850. And they’re still trying to do it in 1860. They’re still trying to do it, in fact, when the Confederates decide to start lobbing shells at Fort Sumter. So slavery, from the perspective of the Northern economic system—certainly its leaders—was too big to fail, and they were terrified of seeing it fail.

CM: So we’ve talked a little about how “good” slavery was for the US economy at the beginning. But how bad is slavery as a business model within capitalism?

EB: Slavery continues today. Forced labor is crucial to the world economy today. It’s been crucial in the years since 1865, and not just in the form of chattel slavery that persisted in Cuba and Brazil for another twenty years after it ended in the US. It continues to be absolutely crucial.

I don’t think we’ve seen a capitalist system that exists without forced labor and without the radical disempowerment of hundreds of millions of working people around the globe. It would be nice to see capitalism try to make a go of it without those phenomena.

If that would happen, we could finally, truly measure whether slavery is good or bad for capitalism. Adam Smith argued that slavery was bad for his idea of a good economy, which he didn’t call capitalism. He argued that it was bad because enslaved people didn’t have a positive incentive to work hard. Ever since then we’ve had advocates for capitalism saying slavery is not an “efficient” economic system.

But on the other hand there are these historic phenomena in which whole economies are making huge profits and growing rapidly, with forced labor and slavery as key parts of that growth. We haven’t had the real test, yet. We haven’t had a capitalism that exists outside of systems of forced labor and slavery.

CM: How much do you think the idea of a “post-racial America” is rooted in a denial of the history of slavery?

EB: One hundred percent. It’s not possible without an implicit—and sometimes explicit—denial of the long term and complex effects of slavery. It assumes that we don’t need to talk about the long term wealth effects generated by slavery, for instance. It assumes that all of the effects of slavery can be wiped away by a “change of heart” on the part of white Americans.

White Americans have been changing their hearts ever since they first started to listen to people like Charles Ball, who I talk about in my book. His story is that of many of the people who brought the message of what was going on in cotton slavery north to the abolitionist movement. When white abolitionists heard that message, their hearts changed.

And that was great. Without that, I’m not sure that slavery would have ended. Certainly not by 1865. That was very important. But simply a few changed minds or even a lot of changed minds did not wipe out the long term effects of what Charles Ball had been through. He’d had thirty years of his life stolen in slavery. He had his family stolen from him. And the wealth that his work and his body had produced was still out there, and would be used to delegitimize his experience.

We’ve really got to reckon with that. Those forces, those conglomerations of power still exist, and they’re still driven in part by the legacy of slavery. That can’t be wiped away by any number of white people having a change of heart.

CM: Ed, one last question for you, and it’s the Question from Hell, the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate the response. You write, “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 are necessarily happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”

There was an Emmy-winning History Channel series in 2012 called The Men Who Built America, which featured weekly profiles of such people as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan. How would you compare what those five white men did to build the US with what millions of black slaves did to build the US?

EB: Well, those five men could obviously only do what they did because of the exploitation of millions of enslaved people and the theft of millions of acres of land from Native Americans. It’s not to say that those men were not clever entrepreneurs. It’s not to say that they were bad through and through. I don’t know what was in all their hearts. I’m sure they endowed some very nice churches with their names.

But we’re not telling the truth about those men and what they did if we don’t also tell the truth about slavery. We will be telling a lie to ourselves if we don’t tell the truth about slavery. And we’ll know that we are. We’ll know, even if we don’t admit it.

CM: And that’s the creepy part.

Ed, thank you so much for this book, and thanks for being on our show this morning.

EB: Thanks for having me.

Featured image source: The Red Phoenix, in their reprint of an important 2008 article by Maya Schenwar about modern-day plantation prisons in the American South.

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