The Racist Dawn of Capitalism

Unearthing the economy of bondage

By: Peter James Hudson

Books & Ideas

Book Review Word Cloud as a Concept

Empire of Cotton: A Global History
Sven Beckert
Vintage, $17.95 (paper)

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Edward E. Baptist
Basic Books, $35 (cloth)

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
Walter Johnson
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery
Nicholas Draper
Cambridge University Press, $34.99 (paper)

A decade before his assassination at the hands of a nationalist in 1914, French socialist Jean Jaurès completed a historical work that radically changed the study of the French Revolution. Where others had focused on disputes over politics and political ideology, Jaurès’s four-volume Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française took as its subject the transformations wrought by an emergent capitalism, foregrounding irruptions within the French economy. Through a Marxist lens, Jaurès emphasized the conflict between the ancien régime and the newly empowered bourgeoisie and excavated from the archives of the revolution the struggles of French workers and peasants.

Though discounted by later scholars anxious to distance themselves from Jaurès’s Marxism, the Histoire socialiste was history “from below” avant la lettre. Its analytical concerns also anticipated those of a historical subfield—the history of capitalism—now taking off on this side of the Atlantic. An energetic startup within the U.S. historical profession, the history of capitalism has grown rapidly over the past few years and won media attention most academics only dream of. Its popularity was sparked in part by the 2008 financial crisis, which renewed doubt about capitalism’s promises, and it emerges in the long wake of the demise of identity politics and the cultural turn within U.S. scholarship. It looks beyond supposedly narrow, sectarian concerns with particular groups left out of mainstream history—women and workers, peasants and slaves, blacks and gays. Some scholars have indeed argued for the capacious, democratic, and inclusive capabilities of this new field; others have been at pains to demonstrate that it is not a recapitulation of social history centered on the white male worker or business history fetishizing the white male capitalist. Even so, its institutional and ideological biases often shine through in its favored subjects and its anointed practitioners.

Jaurès’s vision of economic questions as the primary engine of social and political change, his linking of capitalism with modernity, his casting of elites as historical actors—all these concerns resurface in recent histories of capitalism. But perhaps most striking about the field is the way it both rehashes and disavows the radical intellectual tradition to which Jaurès belongs, one that derives historical questions as much from political commitments as from academic concerns. Jaurès shared this tradition with black writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the Trinidadian theorist and historian C. L. R. James, who wrote from within what Cedric Robinson has called the “black radical tradition.” Their interest in capitalism’s history was not merely academic: it was an integral part of the modern project of emancipation. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem. How does scholarship suffer when it disowns the radical origins—and uses—of its inquiries?

• • •

The new history of capitalism’s disavowal of radical scholarship is clearest in its treatments of slavery, which, for more than a century, has been a principal concern of scholars within the radical tradition. Jaurès, for instance, drew a line connecting the profits from the slave trade to the growth of the industries and ideologies of capitalism.

C. L. R. James reprised these claims in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). The book placed both Caribbean and European “masses” at the center of the Haitian Revolution, using it as a model for what James saw as the coming movement for African decolonization and sovereignty. James chastised Jaurès for insufficient attention to French colonialism, but still he cited from a twenty-two-page section of Histoire socialiste to demonstrate the economic importance of the Caribbean colonies to France’s early industrial growth. James quoted from Jaurès a statement capturing the apparent historical contradiction through which African enslavement led to European freedom: “Sad irony of human history. . . . The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave-trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.” A similar provocation appeared in James’s A History of Negro Revolt, a short monograph on global black resistance also published in 1938: “Negro slavery seemed the very basis of American capitalism.”

Such sad ironies were given fuller historical form by James’s ambitious former pupil Eric Williams, who would become the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Williams defended his Oxford dissertation in 1938; it was published as Capitalism and Slavery six years later. Although, as Caribbean political philosopher Aaron Kamugisha has described, James and Williams later diverged on political matters, Williams credited Black Jacobins for influencing his claim that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was a result of economic rationalizations—not humanitarianism and moral persuasion. Williams also asserted that the capital accumulation wrought from slavery financed the domestic expansion of agriculture, the growth of banking institutions and insurance firms, and the development of England’s early industrial infrastructure.

How does scholarship suffer when it disowns the radical origins—and uses—of its inquiries?

While James and Williams were writing in Europe, Du Bois was coming to similar conclusions concerning the impact and nature of slavery in the United States. His Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, published in 1935, centered African Americans within the drama and aftermath of the Civil War. For Du Bois, black freedom was not the gift of white benevolence; emancipation came about in large part through the resistance and struggles of black people. Recasting the slave as a worker, Du Bois demonstrated continuities between the organization of American slavery and the consolidation of American capitalism while dismissing beliefs, prevalent at the time, that the failure of Reconstruction was due to black ignorance, dishonesty, extravagance, laziness, and, ultimately, congenital inability for self-governance and a lack of preparation for freedom—all of which he deemed “the propaganda of history.” As Du Bois was well aware, Black Reconstruction was a full-out assault on the U.S. historical profession and the position of African Americans within American history.

These provocations were met with both doubt and anger. Capitalism and Slavery, while the subject of much debate, was often dismissed by historians, and Williams and Du Bois remained on the margins of professional scholarship (though it must be acknowledged that Williams’s real ambitions were in politics, despite the decade he spent at Howard University). The segregation of higher education meant that Du Bois was marginalized within the U.S. academy, and it took more than half a century for the basic premises of Black Reconstruction to garner serious consideration; today, eighty years after its publication, it is invoked but not read, cited but not mined, and noted but not engaged. In contemporary history of capitalism, the work, ideas, and arguments of Williams, Du Bois, and other radical scholars are selectively cited, completely ignored, or borrowed without acknowledgment of either the authors or the political-economic contexts in which they were produced and to which they responded. New books by U.S. historians Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist exemplify this trend.

• • •

Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is easily the most celebrated of recent work in the history of capitalism. It is a remarkable book in many ways. Writing in the genre of commodity studies pioneered by Harold Innis’s global histories of cod and Fernando Ortiz’s and Sidney Mintz’s research on sugar, Beckert retells the history of the modern world through the political economy of cotton. The “global” in his subtitle is not mere pretense: though he focuses on the expansion, rise, and fall of European domination of cotton production, his history stretches back thousands of years to the earliest attempts at domestication in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and China and the development of spinning and weaving in South Asia, Central America, and eastern Africa. He describes the growth of cotton cultivation and its early manufacturing technology and the shift from household to commercial production.

Though for Beckert the Islamic world provides but a historical step to the European age, Empire of Cotton stresses that cotton and capitalism were aggressively global from the beginning, as the search for markets and the quest for raw materials and labor transcended boundaries of land and sea. He supports this claim through an impressive mining of transnational archives and an array of secondary sources. Without sacrificing attention to local detail, whether that of Mexico or India, Western Europe or West Africa, Empire of Cotton narrates the multiple and simultaneous processes of historical transformation and conflict across the globe.

At the center of the book is an argument about what Beckert calls “war capitalism.” By this term Beckert denotes the bloody preamble to the emergence of mature capitalism, an early process of “rawness and violence”: wealth accumulation marked by African enslavement, the expropriation of aboriginal lands, coercion and killing as means of labor control and territorial conquest, and the rise of an imperial state whose laws and policies served an emergent capitalist class. “We usually think of capitalism, at least the globalized, mass-production type that we recognize today, as emerging around 1780 with the Industrial Revolution. But war capitalism, which began to develop in the sixteenth century, came long before machines and factories.” He continues, “When we think of capitalism, we think of wage workers, yet this prior phase of capitalism was based not on free labor but on slavery. We associate industrial capitalism with contracts and markets, but early capitalism was based as often as not on violence and bodily coercion.” Beckert describes this stage as an “important but often unrecognized phase in the development of capitalism” whose history has been “erase[d]” by those “craving a nobler, cleaner” account.

Yet who is this disembodied, deracialized “we”? Certainly many black historians do not hold such a view of capitalism. Perhaps Beckert had in mind the creation stories of scholars such as Jared Diamond, but it is misleading simply to say that “capitalism’s illiberal origins” have often gone unrecognized—and to take credit for correcting cheerier accounts—without probing the basis of such erasure. It is no coincidence that the many intellectuals who have recognized the coercive violence of early capitalism have often put their scholarship to political ends, yet these figures are left out of Beckert’s narrative. He may have coined the phrase “war capitalism,” and he does cite Williams and James in a few footnotes, but he fails to acknowledge outright in the body of his text the radical origins of the concept. The notion already appears fully formed in the final chapters of the first volume of Marx’s Capital under the guise of “primitive accumulation”:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

“These idyllic proceedings,” Marx continues, “are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.” So too were the rise of the factory system and the deployment of new legal regimes that dispossessed peasants and workers of their land and labor. Geographer David Harvey later described such processes as “accumulation by dispossession.” It is mystifying to find major elisions such as these in a book otherwise so elegantly crafted, but it speaks to a pattern of anxious engagement with radical historiography. The result is an oddly ahistorical version of historical inquiry, one that ignores the racialized and politicized contexts in which academic questions and concepts emerge.

My point is not to undermine Beckert’s account of capitalism and slavery by aggregating the names of scholars or books he didn’t cite, for his claims, though hardly original, are well argued and convincing. Nor do I mean to fetishize the radical as an abstract and ill-defined oppositional force within a subterranean historical practice. But historiographical neglect, erasure, and absence only further marginalize already marginalized subfields and the intellectual communities that have nurtured them. What methodological limitations are brought on by such neglect? What do we lose when we disown engaged scholarship? How might a serious reading of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and the tradition of radical inquiry it represents have advanced both Empire of Cotton and our understanding of the history of capitalism more generally? And what politics and engagements are concealed through the pretenses of scholarly disinterestedness? Certain scholarly questions, perhaps, can only be asked from the outside, and unless they succumb to the suffocating tyranny of the mainstream, those on the margins of history and historiography are forced to consider new archives, new methods, new approaches. For Du Bois and others within the black radical tradition, this has meant stretching Marxism, as Frantz Fanon observed on the colonial question, to apprehend the indelibly racial nature of capitalism.

Mirroring Beckert’s deracialized historiography is his evasion of the role of race, racism, and white supremacy in the emergence and organization of the empire of cotton. While Beckert emphasizes the role of slavery in the rise of capitalism, he ignores the role of race in the emergence of both. Yet from the outset, his descriptions of the global hierarchy of labor and production that mark modern capitalism are clearly raced: his opening scene depicts white men in Manchester chuffing over the scope and profitability of their global industry. Beckert does not consider the significance of the whiteness of his white men; their race appears incidental.

Moreover, in a powerfully argued chapter, Beckert shows how the Civil War provoked a global crisis of “cotton capitalism” as it forced a desperate search for new land and new sources of labor in India, Egypt, and Argentina. But the war, and emancipation, were as much about the status of blacks in modern society as they were about a mode of economic organization. Indeed, Beckert uses a long quotation from a December 1865 essay in the London Economist that laments the fact of black emancipation. For the Economist, its repercussions threatened not only the economic order, but the racial order; white capitalists would no longer be able to draw on a pliant pool of “dark labourers” to do their bidding, under conditions of their choosing, and at prices they imposed. The Economist makes clear that, for the capitalists of the time, the race question was not, to borrow from James, subsidiary to the class question. These men of business understood that the protection of their economic interests was tied to the protection of their interests as white men. Race and capital were intertwined.

Similarly, more than once Beckert points out that white capitalists often saw black emancipation in the United States as another Saint-Domingue—another assertion of black sovereignty—but fails to draw out and analyze in detail the meaning of that analogy as signifying a “war of races,” as one cotton worker interpreted it. In Beckert’s telling, race and racism are only marginal concerns, even as we continue to experience their legacies today. They are explicitly invoked only a few times in Empire’s several hundred pages. In its deracialization of so much evidence with obvious racial significance, the book unwittingly shows that war capitalism, if we are to call it that, was undeniably a racial project—in effect, what Cedric Robinson has called racial capitalism.

• • •

At the heart of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is the claim that the profits and accumulations of slavery contributed to the formation of contemporary capitalism. Like Beckert, he turns to the history of the cotton industry, though he focuses on the United States from the colonial era to the end of the Civil War. Yet if Beckert’s story is the world the slave owners made, Baptist’s is the world made by the slave. “Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States,” he declares, “and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden.” We know the claim that enslaved African Americans built the modern United States is not new. This “half” has, in fact, been told—multiple times and more often than not by black writers, some of whom are fleetingly mentioned in Baptist’s footnotes. But the claim that African Americans built the world is simply wrong. Baptist’s book is marked by such rhetorical excesses, which lend themselves to a blinkered and narcissistic American exceptionalism. The result is an oversimplified view of capitalism and slavery that ignores the historical contributions to modernity of Africans in the Caribbean and in Africa itself.

What is innovative about Baptist’s work is not the tale but the telling. The Half Has Never Been Told deliberately tries to reach beyond academia to a wider audience. It is also experimental; it aims to undermine and revise the typical practices of historical writing. Baptist calls his style “evocative history,” intended to conjure through microhistorical vignettes, anecdotes, and speculative scenes the febrile sensorium of black life under capitalism and slavery. This narrative pastiche suggests a doubled layer of signification whose meaning in some cases is cued through coy nods and subtle winks.

The chapters of the book are named after parts of the human body, from head to feet and blood to seed; these are the tropes of Baptist’s historical analysis. Occasionally there is a disjuncture between Baptist’s language and his subjects: slavery, coercion, violence. These certainly do not require sanctimonious and overbearing prose, but at times Baptist’s frivolous language and conversational, intimate tone—including jarring shifts to the second person—undermine the gravity of his analysis. The chapter “Seed,” for instance, juxtaposes startling scenes of sexual violence and the emergence of banking to make a claim about the intertwined histories of fucking and finance:

When the enslaved men broke [the soil] open for the entrepreneur, he fucked this dirt with them as his tool. He fucked this field. He might fuck their wives out in the woods, or in the corn when it is high. Or their daughter in the kitchen. Then the next new girl he buys at New Orleans.



Baptist’s reading (if not his writing) draws on the radical work of black feminist literary scholars and historians such as Hortense Spillers, Deborah Gray White, and Jennifer L. Morgan to demonstrate the libidinal and erotic economies of slavery and the status of black women’s bodies in capitalism’s history. But Baptist’s stylizations rest on shaky ethical ground, and his occasionally over-aestheticized history precludes a more critical stance. His discussions of racial and sexual violence, for example, come off as alarmingly light; his repetition of the trope of a “one-eyed man” betrays a schoolboy puerility while masking an extended joke about raping black women.

One of Baptist’s aims is to reclaim and represent the interior lives of black people living in the past, to document historical black consciousness in real time. He is attempting not only to center black people in the history of capitalism and of modernity, but also to recover their voices, feelings, and thoughts—often at a synaptic level. It is a noble task, though in many ways a paternalistic one, and this style of historical interlocution risks sentimentality. It is always hazardous to enter into territory mastered by black women novelists, including Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, whose incandescent letters have burned through an archive of forgetting.

Baptist’s recovery of black consciousness is not the recovery of black resistance. Indeed, early in the book he dismisses claims concerning the prevalence of slave revolts in the United States. He also undermines arguments, popularized by historians such as Robin D. G. Kelley, about the modes of “hidden resistance” and “infrapolitics” through which black people survived the everyday trials of slavery, even if they were not moving to overthrow the system. That disavowal of resistance consolidates a liberal assimilationist narrative for blacks within the United States, whom Baptist positions as invariably becoming Americans. But what of Africa? Contrary to accounts such as Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987) and Walter C. Rucker’s Gold Coast Diasporas (2015), in which Africa is claimed as an independent source of black culture and consciousness, in Baptist’s portrayal of nineteenth-century black life in the United States, Africa exists as an exotic trace.

• • •

If Beckert and Baptist evade the radical historiography of slavery, recent books by historians Walter Johnson and Nicholas Draper approach it head on, showing how to build on its insights in productive directions.

Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams claims indebtedness to the radical tradition and intervenes directly into the capitalism-and-slavery debates. He argues that it is pointless to try to impose a theoretically pure abstraction of capitalism on its actual iterations, asserting that what often gets lost are the bare facts of what really happened:

A materialist and historical analysis—a focus on what happened, rather than on how what happened was different from what should have happened if Mississippi had, in fact, been a bit more like Manchester—begins from the premise that in actual historical fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery. However else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not develop that way.


For Johnson, race and white supremacy were essential to capitalism’s historical development.

Glossing Cedric Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism, Johnson argues that the historical and political-economic conflicts of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mississippi Valley can be viewed through the prism of “slave-racial capitalism”—a phrase that captures how white supremacy passes for an economic rationale, which in turn organizes a racial hierarchy. At the center of this rationale is cotton. Adopting Marx’s political-economic methodology for deciphering the “social hieroglyphic” of commodities, River of Dark Dreams describes the grim transubstantiations through which men are converted into machines, flesh and land turned into capital, and capital rendered as the very history of modernity.

Johnson’s luminescent prose lends moral weight to the harrowed tribulations of the past, but he also has a keen geographical imagination that captures the spatial upheavals, the recurring conflicts and contradictions over land and water, that marked the history of slavery and capitalism in the Mississippi Valley. Johnson writes of how the revolutionary transformations of steamship technology continually pushed the possibilities of profit-making to the point of saturation and collapse. He describes the ecological strafing through which the Mississippi Valley was reordered and remapped onto the grid of capitalism. He narrates the creation of a carceral landscape wherein the plantation became a panopticon, surveillance, punishment, and policing forcing the black body into a constant state of furtiveness and fugitivity.

Of the body of the “slave,” Johnson writes with little romance: it was debased and violated at the hands of whites as black women and black men became the vehicles and vessels for white capital accumulation. This is not to say that Johnson elides black resistance. He gives it a fuller treatment than Baptist does, and he asserts the fact of black “agency”—a word, he points out, that is fraught, misapplied, and abused. Resistance, for Johnson, takes the form of revolt: the history of resistance needs to be written “with a sense of its bruising satisfactions,” found in black accounts of defensive and emancipatory violence. But also, critically, resistance emerges in and through labor itself, as the repetition of tasks—no matter how coerced, alienated, or mind-numbing—produced in the black worker expertise, knowledge, and intellectual prowess necessary for survival. Even so, to the liberal query that wonders whether whites saw blacks as humans during slavery, Johnson chillingly suggests that they did. “A better way to think about slavery,” he writes, “might be as a concerted effort to dishumanize enslaved people.” This dishumanization, this stripping of human power while maintaining the humanity of the subject, seems doubly cruel, doubly invidious—worse even than dehumanization.

Johnson writes against a liberal narrative of the Civil War that sees the South as a homogeneous, spatially defined and geographically consolidated unit. Instead, Johnson shows how, in the attempts to maintain slavery and white supremacy—especially against the specter of race war—Southerners adopted an expansionist ideology. Economic and racial crisis led to the emergence of Southern imperialism and attempts to incorporate Cuba and Nicaragua into an empire of bondage as energetic and muscular as Jefferson’s empire of liberty—itself, as Johnson points out, saturated by the ideology of white supremacy. This imperial vision was most pronounced through Southern efforts to reopen the slave trade in the 1850s. These failed efforts and the defeat of the Confederacy did not, however, guarantee the prospects for black freedom after black emancipation.

• • •

The question of emancipation is at the heart of Nicholas Draper’s The Price of Emancipation, a book pivoting on a single moment in time: August 1, 1834, the date of emancipation in the British colonies. Drawing on the archival holdings of the Slave Compensation Commission—a government agency created to handle claims from slaveholders for the loss of their enslaved property due to emancipation—Draper studies the effects of slavery not on enslaved Africans but on the mostly white gentry and elite in England. While the formerly enslaved received nothing, the government bailout of slaveholders became the single largest state payout in English history, amounting to more than 40,000 awards and £20 million (worth nearly £17 billion today).

The Price of Emancipation lends empirical and archival ballast to Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery by precisely demonstrating the value of slavery to the English economy. Draper is methodical and deliberate; there is no rhetorical overreach, only careful dissections of the arguments against and limits of Williams’s thesis. He does not, for instance, claim that slavery was a unique and unilateral force in spurring England’s industrialization and the growth of English capitalism. Rather, he argues that it was important for the development of parts of the modern economy. As such, The Price of Emancipation acts as a white paper for the contemporary reparations claims of England’s West Indian former colonies, a charge led by the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, historian Hilary Beckles.

Draper’s research is part of a collective archival and historical project for both England and the Caribbean. Alongside historian Catherine Hall and a team at the University College London, Draper has created the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, an online database of the Slave Compensation Commission records. In it, one finds not only the nature of compensation claims but also the names and genealogies of slaveholders and the formerly enslaved and a hoard of information—continually growing through crowdsourced contributions—on the history, culture, society, and political economy of nineteenth-century life in the Caribbean and England. Neither speculative nor rhetorical, the database provides a textured cross section of historical detail demonstrating both the enduring presence of slavery’s past in contemporary capitalism and the continuing importance of the questions asked from within the radical tradition.

Peter James Hudson, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at UCLA, is author of the forthcoming Banking on Empire: Wall Street and the West Indies, 1873–1933.

March 14, 2016, Boston Review


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