Liberty Matters

Disingenuous Anti-Capitalism and the New Histories of Capitalism

I extend my thanks to Michael Douma, Rachel Ferguson, and Bradley Birzer for their insightful commentaries on the New History of Capitalism (NHC). All hit on related themes that speak to the shortcomings of this academic literature. In an attempt to offer some structure for the evolving discussion, it may help to identify two specific lines of criticism of the NHC for further exploration.
The first issue is historiographical, and concerns the NHC’s position in the crowded field of academic work on slavery. As I noted in my original essay, the NHC literature has aggressively projected tenuous claims to what it depicts as “new” findings about slavery’s economic dimensions. Michael Douma’s essay extends these observations, calling attention to the tendency of NHC scholars to frame their exaggerated novelty in highly moralizing language about the claimed justice of their own work. I will add that these academics often direct their moral outrage against non-NHC assessments of slavery, even going so far as to imply that non-NHC scholarship is insufficiently opposed to the institution.
This is, of course, an absurd charge. Severe moral disapprobation of slavery is a near-universal feature of almost all modern scholarship of the subject, and rightly so given the dehumanizing barbarity of the institution. And yet the NHC has actively sought to position itself as having only recently broken the silence on this subject. The result is a game of nearly constant “social justice” one-upmanship, seen in the recently-trendy semantic games that Douma notes over the terminology of “slave” versus “enslaved person.” The forced and tedious phrasing of the latter term is a subordinate concern to its primary purpose, which is to signal that its user stakes a higher claim to expressing moral outrage over slavery than those who employ the more conventional term.
They do not, of course, and Rachel Ferguson reminds us that the moral condemnation of slavery has been at the heart of classical liberal philosophical reasoning for over two centuries. But the NHC school’s purpose here is not to interpret the past – it is to bludgeon it from a position of self-righteousness. The NHC-infused 1619 Project is highly symptomatic in this regard, frequently depicting its historical commentaries as a “suppressed” but “true” history of slavery in the United States while caricaturing its critics as defenders of an interpretation of slavery that is not only antiquated but morally blameworthy.
The result makes for historiographical disarray, often built on comically inept assessments of the prior literature by NHC scholars. Ed Baptist, for example, asserts that “most historians and economists have accepted” the comparative efficiency of free labor to slave labor as “a point of dogma,” suggesting that the pre-NHC literature depicted a late-antebellum plantation system in economic decline. Baptist’s purpose here is to position himself – in 2014 - as having finally challenged this viewpoint after centuries of uncritical repetition.
There’s a problem with Baptist’s historical rendering. In a classic study from 1958, economists Alfred Conrad and John Meyer empirically established the economic viability of plantation slavery on the eve of the Civil War. Although a debate continues over the crucial distinction between slavery’s profitability and its economic efficiency, the major point of Conrad and Meyer’s study has gained near-universal acceptance. This much was evident in a 1995 survey of economists by Robert Whaples, and is further attested in an update of the literature since then by Bradley A. Hansen. To find the position that Baptist assails requires ignoring over 60 years of empirical work from economic historians.
To make their position seem plausible, NHC scholars must turn not to economists but to the writings of historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877-1934), who portrayed antebellum slavery as an institution in natural and gradual decline. Although he was considered a leading historian of his generation as well as an apologist for the racial hierarchy of the old south, Phillips’s views were displaced long ago – including as a direct result of Conrad and Meyer’s empirical work in the 1950s and 60s.
This oversight places the NHC almost a century out of date. Instead of engaging with other recent non-NHC works, its practitioners concentrate their energies on litigating obsolete claims from the early 20th century Dunning School of historiography. It’s a convenient sleight of hand, as the Dunning School interpretation of slavery that the NHC installs as its foil has not had a champion of any note in many decades. The purpose here is not to counter an already-debunked interpretation though – it is to make Phillips and the Dunning School into a strawman for competing scholarship on slavery that falls outside of the NHC’s ideologically charged chamber.
The NHC cohort has not responded well to challenges that call attention to its own deficient literature reviews on the economics of slavery. Their default pattern is to offer a tendentious and self-serving assertion of a new academic consensus on slavery that conveniently confirms their own work.
A characteristic example may be seen in Seth Rockman’s defense of Matthew Desmond’s NHC-based 1619 Project essay. Although Rockman makes almost no attempt to engage non-NHC literature from economic historians in his own work, he charges his critics with being “disconnected from educational research literature, as well as recent scholarship on slavery and capitalism in American economic development.” By “literature,” he really means a circular self-citation “consensus” of other NHC scholars, all of whom axiomatically accept the union of capitalism and slavery.
Rockman’s attempts to specify examples of the alleged disconnect accordingly fall flat. In a revealing passage, he suggests that NHC opponents, and particularly those of us who criticized Matthew Desmond’s 1619 Project essay, have failed to engage with Caitlin Rosenthal’s book Accounting for Slavery. This is a peculiar charge, given that Rockman names me personally among those critics. One of my first published works on the 1619 Project documents how Desmond badly misrepresents a key interpretation from Rosenthal’s book.
Next he charges Desmond’s critics with failing to offer “sustained engagement with scholarship in African American history, beginning with Eric Williams’s famous Capitalism and Slavery (1944).” I’ve actually discussed the Williams thesis at length in this context. More importantly though, Rockman himself is guilty of precisely what he alleges of his critics. As H. Rueben Neptune exhaustively documented, the NHC literature does little more than name-drop Williams while sidestepping or even misstating the particulars of his arguments. Neptune even singles out Rockman’s own co-authored work with Sven Beckert, describing its engagement with Williams as “notably contradictory.” As he elaborates,
[Rockman and Beckert] admit that Williams’s “powerful” argument has been “often ignored,” then turn around and claim also that it has “often [been] universalized to assert that nothing new remains to be discovered about slavery’s centrality to American capitalism.” There is no citation for Americanist scholars who have done this universalizing.
Contrary to its self-depiction as a new consensus of leading scholarship, the NHC literature has now repeatedly demonstrated that it is out of touch with basic historiography on the subject it purports to study.
Sadly, these considerations appear to be subordinate to the second problem I have endeavored to convey about the NHC, its overt anti-capitalist ideological bias. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the NHC quest to link capitalism with slavery is an explicit political strategy for shaping economic policy in the present day.
Ferguson and Birzer call attention to particular complications with this narrative – the historical association between abolitionists and classical liberal theorists of what we now call capitalism, the capitalistic economic arguments for free labor that diagnosed and assailed slavery’s labor system in the nineteenth century, and the empirical observation that economic prosperity defies the notion of a zero-sum-game of Marxian struggle over material resources.
Here too, the NHC literature’s modern ideological commitments place them at direct odds with historical fact. A revealing example may be found in a recent claim by NHC-adjacent historian Manisha Sinha, who spells out the strange associational logic of their position in a 2020 essay:
If slavery is capitalism, as the currently fashionable historical interpretation has it, the movement to abolish it is, at the very least, its obverse. The history of capitalism illustrates that it has rarely marched in lockstep with democracy.
Note that Sinha’s historical reasoning works exactly backward. She starts by asserting a false modern consensus from the NHC about slavery and capitalism. From there, it follows that historical abolitionists are anti-capitalists with motivations that conveniently map onto modern NHC political beliefs. As Ferguson and Birzer have shown us, this conclusion requires directly contradicting abolitionist political affiliations in their own time (see e.g. Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Richard Cobden) and the explicitly free-market arguments they deployed against slave labor.
In a functional academic environment, these two points of evidence would be sufficient to condemn the NHC as little more than an incompetently executed political fad. But NHC adherents are unbothered by the explicit contradictions created by their inattention to historical detail and evidence. Instead, the signaled narrative in relation to the present day is all that seems to matter.