It is Theoretical Monday and I have to tell you that I have been reading Edward Baptist's THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD. I find it to be an important and horrifying book dealing with slavery up close and personal and detailing its relationship to capitalism not as exceptional but as "normal," while also overturning the old argument that slave labor was inefficient labor.
I have been "reminded" by various friends that the central importance of slavery to the capitalist system has long been understood by Marxists. Maybe, maybe not. To me it seems there is far more to Baptist's analysis than that provided by Marx and Engels. In fact, Engels wrote,
Slavery in the United States of America was based far less on force than on the English cotton industry; in those districts where no cotton was grown or which, unlike the borders states, did not breed slaves for the cotton-growing states, it died out of itself without any force being used, simply because it did not pay.
While this may be true to some extent (though not, I think to the extent Engels makes it sound), it seems irrelevant since cotton WAS king as slavery moved west (as slaves were force marched), and since not just border states, but Virginia, the Carolinas etc DID breed slaves. Further, as Baptist makes clear, there were "petty capitalists" or "entrepreneurs" (as Baptist describes them) who made fortunes transporting and selling African American human beings and that a whole finance system developed around all this, while the "whip" in the cotton states did act as a new productive device and increased productivity and the like. Baptist, to me, makes clear the point that not only did slavery help lay the groundwork for capitalism to develop (as part of primitive accumulation and the like), it was capitalism in action (in its USA form). There is a sad, bizarre and insightful section of the book where one finds an unsettling correspondence between banking, credit, finance, bubbles, and the like in slavery and in late 20th and early 21st century capitalism. Did you realize slaves were sometimes mortgaged, sometimes the subject of foreclosures? The speculation that we saw recently in the housing markets was not unlike the speculation we saw in slave markets. Incredible.
I would be remiss if I failed to point out here that Baptist also makes very plain the connection between capitalism and slavery, and the theft of American Indian lands and the genocide committed against them. It is so obvious that this country is built on the triad of slavery, theft, and genocide (all rolled up into an ideology of white supremacy) that one cannot help but be overwhelmed with disgust while reading of it in the historical and personal terms with which it is related in this book.
Anyway, there is much more to the book, to the history and analysis Baptist presents than I can relate here. I think that Baptist's analysis is much more thorough and documented then that of Marxists with which I am familiar. Of course, Marx's analysis was really a part of his overall analysis of capitalism, while Baptist is concentrating on slavery itself (and then on capital). Maybe apples and oranges.
Screw it, just read the book. The stories, the personal stories themselves make the read more than worthwhile. I am going to post a review of the book from CounterPunch and an interview with the author from Salon below.
Here I would like to end with something Chauncey DeVega says in his own discussion of the book. He writes:
At the conclusion of the interview, Baptist offers up a beautiful and direct observation about the relationship between whiteness, white supremacy, and America's original sin of black chattel slavery.
As a historian, do you feel that slavery is an original sin that the United States will never be able to overcome? Or is there some seed of hope in what you’re writing?
Let’s think about original sin. Original sin is something that, theologically, we can never escape, because we’re not angels, right? We can’t stop being human beings and start being angels. But we can stop being white. By that I mean, not that we can change our pigmentation, but that we can stop consciously and unconsciously demanding the privileges of whiteness, and we can act in affirmative ways to undermine the privileges of whiteness. And that’s the way that the country will get past it, by abandoning white supremacy as a constitutive way in which our politics and our economics and our culture were ordered.
This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow; it’s not going to happen, obviously, because we elected Barack Obama, or something like that. It’s a far, far deeper set of transformations. That’s how we can move to the point where we can see that the country has redeemed itself in some ways from this legacy.
Black and brown folks possess an almost preternatural understanding of whiteness and the dynamics of white racial identity because those are required skills for successfully negotiating life in a society structured around the maintenance and furthering of white supremacy. However, our truth-telling is usually ignored by most white folks because the bubble of Whiteness, by definition, is almost wholly immune to interventions made by those outside of it.
Ultimately, as I told Janice Graham on Our Common Grounds, I am of the belief that white Americans need to clean up their own house of white privilege and white supremacy from within. It is white people who need to do some truth-telling to their white brothers and sisters about the social evils of white supremacy and white privilege if those forces are ever to be fully purged from American life, culture, and society.
While black and brown people may suffer from and under white racism and white supremacy, it is White America that possesses the philosophical and moral problem that is white racism.
In thinking about the existential conundrum that is the color line's relationship to black Americans, the brilliant W.E.B. Du Bois asked, "how does it feel to be a problem?"
White folks are rarely asked, "what does it feel like to be The problem?"
Baptist's closing observations in his interview at Salon about American slavery and whiteness are a good start from which to formulate an answer to that question. Noel Ignatiev's incisive claim that "treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity" is more than a slogan. Rather, it is a life mantra.
Perhaps Baptist's soft, yet piercing like a dagger comments should be a footnote or auxiliary guide to helping white folks come to terms with their relationship to how the past lives in the present in an American society that is still structured around maintaining white supremacy.
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
“Not long after they heard the first clink of iron, the boys and girls in the cornfield would have been able to smell the grownups’ bodies, perhaps even before they saw the double line coming around the bend. Hurrying in locked step, the thirty-old men came down the dirt road like a giant machine. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck to neck and wrist-to-wrist, binding them all together. Ragged strips flapped stiffly from their clothes like dead-air pennants. On the men’s heads, hair stood out in growing dreads or lay in dust-caked mats. As they moved, some looked down like catatonics. Others stared at something a thousand yards ahead. And now, behind the clanking men, followed a marching crowd of women loosely roped, the same vacancy in their expressions, endurance standing out in the rigid strings of muscle that had replaced their calves in the weeks since they left Maryland. Behind them all swayed a white man on a gray walking horse.”