Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2014

Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: Academia,economics,slavery — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

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Timothy Shenk

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s an article by Timothy Shenk titled “Apostles of Growth” that is a review of recent books making the case that slavery was integral to the rise of American capitalism, as well as a platform for some questionable theorizing about economic growth. Since the article is nearly 10,000 words long, one wonders how a mere dissertation student can exercise such clout. (Then again the editorial judgment of the magazine is suspect, demonstrated most recently by its urging a vote for Andrew Cuomo.)

This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was also notable for a hefty word count and its confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote:

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

You find the same misunderstanding of Marx in his latest article. He writes: “In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse.” Although Shenk is a dissertation student, he has apparently not learned the need for citation. Where would you find Marx saying anything like “capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse”? I doubt that you could find such sentiments in Capital. (I just checked on www.marxists.org. There aren’t any.)

In fact the idea that capitalism will collapse because of internal structural defects like the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a crude reading best described as vulgar Marxism. Ernest Mandel, who was widely regarded as the foremost Marxist economist of his time, had a far more nuanced analysis in his 1990 “Karl Marx”:

Does Marx’s theory of crisis imply a theory of an inevitable final collapse of capitalism through purely economic mechanisms? A controversy has raged around this issue, called the `collapse’ or `breakdown’ controversy. Marx’s own remarks on the matter are supposed to be enigmatic. They are essentially contained in the famous chapter 32 of volume I of Capital entitled `The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation’, a section culminating in the battle cry: `The expropriators are expropriated’. But the relevant paragraphs of that chapter describe in a clearly non-enigmatic way, an interplay of `objective’ and `subjective’ transformations to bring about a downfall of capitalism, and not a purely economic process. They list among the causes of the overthrow of capitalism not only economic crisis and growing centralisation of capital, but also the growth of exploitation of the workers and their indignation and revolt in the face of that exploitation, as well as the growing level of skill, organisation and unity of the working class. Beyond these general remarks, Marx, however, does not go.

Turning to Shenk’s critique of the books under review, it is worth noting that although he rejects their premise, it is not from the “Political Marxism” perspective—one which describes the plantation system as “precapitalist”.

For Shenk, the new books, such as Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, are defined by their shared belief that capitalism can be defined as a system based on economic growth:

Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.

Although I have yet to read Baptist or the other books under review, it seems unlikely to me that they were attempting to theorize capitalism. These are historians much more interested in identifying the role that slavery played in capital accumulation in the 18th and 19th century. For example, there’s not a single entry for Marx in Baptist’s index and a cursory examination of the pages indexed under “capitalism” reveals nothing of theoretical consequence. I suspect that the real importance of works such as his and Walter Johnson’s is the empirical data that will help confirm Eric Williams’s original hypothesis that without slavery capitalism could have not taken off in Britain and the USA. These are works that rest on the minutiae of receipts and tax records, not theorizing. At a certain point, Shenk has to admit as such:

According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.

It is too bad that Shenk found matters of cotton less interesting than “grand abstractions” of the sort that mesmerize him. If he had given more time to the authors’ research than his own agenda, the review would have served some use.

Understanding that the books got short shrift, let’s turn to some of our dissertation student’s Grand Theorizing, which was really the main focus of the nearly 10,000-word article.

The real agenda of the article is to investigate the possibilities for “economic growth” in the 21st century. He writes:

But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.

In this section, he makes sure to misrepresent Marxists once again:

A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? Where in the world does he encounter such vulgar Marxist formulations? The New Left Review? Socialist Register? Unless he is reading material I am unfamiliar with, the only collapse noted by Marxists with a functioning brain is the one gripping the socialist left, a movement much more in a state of collapse than capitalism. After the financial crisis of 2007, there was suffering across the planet, especially in southern Europe. But who in their right mind would have argued that capitalism in Greece was about to collapse under its own weight?

Most people with a background in Marxist politics—unlike Shenk—understand the importance of the subjective factor. With a divided left in Greece, one in which the Communists stubbornly refuse to back Syriza and anarchists hurl Molotov cocktails as if flames can destroy commodity production, who thinks that the system will collapse? In 1914, the European bourgeoisie were ready to destroy billions of dollars in property and the lives of millions of working-class soldiers to protect their own narrow interests. If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the miserable war might have lasted for another decade. As Mao Zedong once said, “It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” (Probably the only useful thing he ever said.)

Despite the article’s focus on economic growth, there’s little indication of how Shenk thinks this is possible or even if it is worthwhile. Flirting with the “no growth” current of the environmental movement, he writes:

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.

Missing from this gargantuan article is any consideration of the real measure of an economic system. It is not simply a question of a rising GDP. Class society is marked by violence both explicit and implicit. In South Africa striking workers are gunned down. In the USA, striking workers might not get gunned down but their factory might disappear to another country if the boss so decides. In my view people are far less interested in growth than they are in security and the right to live in dignity. I suspect that the well-heeled, Democratic Party supporting owners of the Nation Magazine had everything to gain by giving such ample space to an “expert” on Karl Marx who had so little interest in such questions.



  1. Whilst it is absolutely the case that the overthrow of capitalism has to be a conscious political decision of the working class, that does not mean that somehow if the working class never makes that decision capitalism can somehow just plod on forever. No, its degeneration continues apace and we are in the end game. Beyond globalisation under the tutelage of a single hegemonic power (never quite achieved because impossible and now disintegrating rapidly) capitalism cannot go. Unlike when Trotsky was writing in the run up to the Second World War when he felt obliged to point out that though he was expecting the war to usher in the final confrontation between the classes the powerful American imperialist class was waiting in the wings to bang a few heads together and could possibly forge the new political economic conditions for a new period of capitalist growth. Thanks to the collaboration of Stalinism this happened but not before it had been obliged to spread across half the planet to head off the revolutionary upsurge. There is no saviour waiting in the wings this time. This is the terminal crisis. It is socialism or barbarism. We will not be able to say don’t worry if we don’t do it this time there’ll be another chance in thirty years and then another after that ad infinitum. There won’t. So I suggest people stop comforting themselves with that thought and get down to business.

    Comment by davidellis987 — November 10, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  2. David, All my attempts to stir up conversations concerning revolutionary organizing theory meet with silence on all sites. Capitalism has both triumphed and entered its and humanity’s end game. The globalized capitalist system has captured humanity in mind as well as body, and so barbarism and perhaps extinction loom.

    Socialism? That would require some radical intellectual energy–open, critical minds–and all I can find on the “left” these days is a dogmatic recycling of 19th century Marxism and/or a retreat into liberalism. This reflects that globalized capitalist enclosure of the human mind I noted.

    So, do you have any ideas as to how to “get down to business? I’d be interested. As for myself, I employ the new sciences of life’s organizational relations to nature, communism, and revolution, as would Marx and Engels, were they alive to engage and use them. I’m a red-green revolutionary and I’m apparently alone, save for revolutionary séances with Judi Bari.

    The current state of the “left” is profoundly depressing. No bangs–just whimpers. Well, at least I have a semi-excellent dog.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — November 12, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

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