As part of its “1619 Project” on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in North America, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay with the somewhat radical message in its title: “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation” (Matthew Desmond, 8/14/19). But how will studying slavery help us understand modern concerns like rising inequality? After all, America banned slavery long ago; not even Nazis want to bring it back.
Desmond’s first thesis is indisputable – American capitalism is brutal. As he points out, workers in the USA are poorly paid, harshly punished, easily fired, and weakly organized. However, Desmond is quick to add: “….there are many types of capitalist societies, ranging from liberating to exploitative.”
So not all capitalism is brutal. Apparently, if you have a union and can fight for a living wage and fair work conditions, like in Italy or Canada, capitalism can even be “liberating.” Is this true? Desmond doesn’t say anything about how Canadian or Italian workers actually live. Nor does he mention the fact that the unionization of workers everywhere in the world was a reaction to the brutal conditions of work everywhere. Why do they need unions in the first place if capitalism is so nice there?
Desmond quietly drops this question about which countries have a less miserable working class. He isn’t interested in capitalism – what it is, its necessities, how it works – only “our nation’s peculiarly brutal economy.” His argument is that modern American capitalism treats workers like shit, American slavery treated workers like shit, so there must be a connection. Somehow, American business got a taste for brutality and couldn’t give it up.
Does Desmond really think that slavery is the reason for millions of working poor in the USA? Or for the steady decline of unions over the past few decades? Ultimately, this line of reasoning puts the blame for the brutality of working class life in America today – with all its racism – on the practices of the distant past rather than on the normal everyday capitalism of today.
Desmond finds “eery” parallels between the business and financial structures of today and those that were developed in slavery. For instance, Desmond cites new research to show that the accounting techniques used on the plantations were more sophisticated than previously thought. But so what? Accounting is a necessity of any money-making business; keeping track of unit costs and the profits expected on the life of an asset and its depreciation is not specific to slavery, except that with slavery the profit-makers calculated with a workforce they owned as an asset. This proves nothing except that they were concerned with getting the most for their money.
What this shows is that the slave economy was a way of making money, not another way of doing capitalism. There’s a big difference. Capitalist exploitation is based on buying and selling, on universal free market access according to how much money you have – or don’t have. The slave economy is not like that; the slave is not a free legal entity who participates in general economic life to the extent of his or her means. By insisting on the continuity between slavery and real capitalism, Desmond seems to forget that these two forms of exploitation proved incompatible.
Desmond’s evidence undermines his own case. First, he talks about how southern plantation owners ruined their land by the agricultural practice of getting the most production out of their land as fast as possible without replenishing its fertility, so the land would lose value and they would then have to find other land. If, say, an Amazon fulfillment center used this method, it would have to move to a new city every year to produce the same stuff. Real capital uses depreciation in financial accounting to balance out the books between the amount of money that has to be paid to replace and maintain the means of production, or the fixed capital. For Southern land owners, this was just a short term means that was used up.
Second, and more importantly, Desmond talks about how cotton productivity increased over the period of slavery, but not how it was increased. There was only one means to lower the unit cost of the product: increase the intensity of labor. If the slave is slow, beat him. That was it; slave managers couldn’t lengthen the working day because the slaves already worked from sun-up to sundown; they couldn’t lengthen the growing season because it was agriculture; they couldn’t give slaves better tools because the slaves would intentionally break them; and last but not least, they couldn’t negotiate over the wage to lower or replace part of the cost of the workforce with machines.
All the ways that the powers inherent in money work to destroy labor in all these methods of normal capitalistic uses – from speeding up labor to replacing workers with machines, thereby depriving them of a livelihood – were not available to the slave owners. Slavery was money-making without being able to call on the power of capital to take control of the workplace and mold it in its own image by all the means that capital has access to.
In normal capitalism, when winter comes, if the workforce has nothing to do, the owner can simply fire them; they are not his problem. Slave owners had to care about the life span of the slave because they owned the use value of labor power. The only question for a capitalist is: does he have workers to start and end the day doing work? The next day under slavery is no concern. This is why the lives of many former slaves became even more brutal after being released into capitalism as wage workers.
Desmond is clear that he doesn’t want to say that all money making is brutal. He says that workers can resist brutality and that an enlightened state can reduce the brutality if it sees fit. So another question needs to be asked: why and when does a state show concern for the condition of its working class? In 19th century England, for example, the parliamentary reports on the condition of working class which led the first laws protecting workers (Marx cites these extensively in Capital) found that England was in danger of losing its working class – they were too malnourished, overworked, and sick to serve as functional human resources. In the USA, there was no such thing as losing its working class because it was able to import workers by the millions as needed. And when they were not needed, they were let go; as free individuals, they could go back to Europe or go west. This helps explain the difference between America and countries with Desmond’s allegedly less brutal, “high road” capitalism and why America has been so exceptionally free to disregard the condition of its working class.
Desmond’s research draws from the work of a new historical school called “The New History of Capitalism” which contends that capitalism either existed in slavery or was generated out of slavery. This is seen as an indictment of capitalism. But why? Isn’t capitalism brutal enough to be criticized on its own terms, for what it actually is? These academics seem to think it can only be criticized in connection with the most extreme brutality. They end up turning slavery into a metaphor. And just as they have no interest in understanding capitalism, they have no interest in understanding slavery either.
They never ask the simple question: why was slavery necessary in the south? They just take it for granted. Its as if some particularly brutal people happened to settle in the Mississippi valley. But why wasn’t free wage labor used? It wasn’t that stuff couldn’t be grown in the south with this form of labor service. The calculation didn’t work because free labor only managed to keep itself alive, not create a surplus. What worked was: “I am buying you, you will work crazy conditions from morning to night that no free worker would do, I give you some grub, partly you feed yourself, and I work you to death.” Slavery was used because it made profits that justified the investment.
Another question that isn’t asked: why did the northern states want the slave economy of the south as part of the new nation? The northern states were fine with slave labor in the south for almost a century, even though it violated their notion of making money with free labor, and the southerners were fine with the northern demand to put tariffs on foreign goods, which was against their interests. Yet they created a contradictory form of rule in the new nation with two modes of production because there was something that was more important. What was it? Again: slavery was profitable.
The USA was founded by people who regarded all restrictions on profit-making as a horror. Regulations on prices, trade and merchandizing, monopolies being granted instead of free competition, laws against lending money – these were the atrocities that violated the rights of man. The real difference between America and the rest of the world is that America was founded by people who had one thing on their brain: making money. If this required slavery, fine. It was easy to come up with the ideology to fit the facts: Africans are inferior and slavery is doing them a favor. This was no problem for them.
The “1619 Project” sees itself as part of a movement to integrate what is considered a horrible part of American history and to somehow to make a better America in the process. The goal is to make a new, rehabilitated American nationalism that comes to terms with the past instead of denying and burying it. It does not want to say that slavery was a necessary part of American history that made America great. Rather, it wants to say that slavery was a horrible way of generating wealth and that it was important for the future and current success of America. In this sense, the slaves should be recognized as important victims.
The goal of elevating the contribution of black people to America’s success sounds nice, but its a perverse argument: black Americans can be proud of their origins in slavery because they contributed to the amazing wealth of America. The “1619 Project” wants to say: America can do better than this; the brutality of slavery is somehow in the nature of America, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In other words, it wants to critically incorporate slavery as a necessary part of America’s development but without saying what the necessity for slavery was. It only looks at the result – slavery made a lot of money – but without drawing the conclusion: making money is the whole point of the USA.