Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2020

John Clegg, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the deeper implications of Project 1619

Filed under: Jacobin,Project 1619,racism,reparations,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Most of the vitriol directed against Project 1619 centers on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, especially her observation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its allies hope to put Lincoln back on his pedestal and refute the notion that black Americans have tended to fight against racism on their own. All of this is subsumed under the opposition’s main idea that they are fighting “identity politics” that undermines class unity.

There is another beef that the class fundamentalists have against Project 1619 that has generated less commentary. They don’t care for Matthew Desmond’s support for the New History of Capitalism, as it has been dubbed. Or NHC, for short. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the article cites two of the key NHC’ers:

“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

For some academics, including Marxists, the idea that slavery is part of the DNA of American capitalism is a metaphor as objectionable as Hannah-Jones’s usage. They discount the importance of slavery as key to the growth of American capitalism and even go so far as to argue that it was a ball and chain on economic progress.

Writing for Jacobin in the sole article dealing with Project 1619, John Clegg, who disagrees with Charles Post’s analysis of slavery as “pre-capitalist”, describes the southern plantation as capitalist but concurs with Post’s description of it as retrograde. Unlike Sean Wilentz and company, Clegg is not that interested in a discussion of whether racism is in America’s DNA. Instead, his goal is to refute the NHC’ers Desmond cites:

Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that “it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.” Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejecte by specialists in the economic history of slavery.

If you click the link to “rejected” in the citation above, you will be directed to an article by economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that is the source of one of Clegg’s key rejoinders:

It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).

I understand that Clegg is an accomplished academic with a post in the U. of Chicago history department but I have to wonder if he bothered to do anything except take Olmstead and Rhode’s claim at face value. They wrote, “More than this, cotton was not even the nation’s most important agricultural commodity in terms of value—that distinction always went to corn.” They don’t back that up with statistics and Clegg follows suit.

Clegg also takes their findings on exports as a percentage of American GDP at face value, but did he bother to put that under the same kind of critical scrutiny as he puts the NHC’ers? As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the online Cambridge Historical Statistics that will likely never be checked by the Jacobin readers who walk away from Clegg’s article assuming that slavery was less important than corn in the take-off of American capitalism.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. The GDP that Olmstead and Rhode refer to was a product of their own research and not some independent data-gathering body. Since Olmstead is one of the six editors who put together the five-volume Cambridge series, it is entirely possible that his own biases might have crept into how the data is presented. It doesn’t help that one of the other editors is Gavin Wright, whose own attack on the NHC’ers is linked to in the word “widely” in Clegg’s citation above. Wright lets the impudent historians know that they are in for a good biffing: “Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.”

I should add that there was no government agency collecting data for GDP during slavery. If you do a search on “GDP” in the online Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will find the following disclaimer:

The official estimates of national income and product provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) begin in 1929. The broad interest in long-term trends has generated a number of attempts to estimate national product for the earlier period… It is important to note that all pre-1929 estimates are based on fragmentary data that were not originally collected for the purpose of making national product estimates. This means that the series are less precise than the official estimates.

In fact, prior to the publication of the Cambridge Historical Statistics, the only available data was from the census bureau but only beginning in 1869. In the essay on GDP in the Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will learn that economists have no uniform opinion on such matters. It even warns that Robert Gallman’s statistics on GDP dating back to 1839 “are not appropriate for studies of economic fluctuations or dynamics.” But never mind, let John Clegg cherry-pick the statistical findings in an article by Olmstead and Rhode that is congenial to his thesis that slavery retarded American capitalism. Others will dig deeper than the U. of Chicago sociologist.

All in all, reading Olmstead/Rhode and Wright reminds me of Sean Wilentz’s gate-keeping that keeps historians like Nicholas Guyatt beyond the pale. Wilentz huffs and puffs about how the impudent Hannah-Jones does not pay proper respects to Lincoln while the economists are beside themselves over the nerve of Sven Beckert and company exaggerating the importance of cotton and slavery. How dare they.

For some, there’s good reasons to cheer on Olmstead and Rhode since their debunking of the NHC’ers has the added value of rendering the need for reparations obsolete. If slavery did not turbocharge capitalism, why should black people be entitled to reparations? Maybe they should be paying back American corporations to compensate for lost profits under slavery.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Nikole Hannah-Jones said:

If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?

The WSWS, a bastion of opposition to Project 1619, will have none of this. “But the race-based interpretation advanced by the 1619 Project, reflecting the social aspirations of the more affluent sections of the African-American middle class, serves to bolster demands for reparation payments. This is not incidental to the Project’s aims. Hannah-Jones has already announced that her forthcoming project will be a demand for racially based reparations.”

Opposition to reparations also comes from the rightwing cesspool, just as was the case with Project 1619. When both the National Review and WSWS line up against Project 1619, you have to ask what the hell is going on. Same thing with the NHC and reparations. On August 26, 2019, an article appeared in National Review that gloated over Olmstead and Rhode’s “stinging rebuke” of NHC historian Edward Baptist. Since Baptist’s work was cited by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in a call for reparations, naturally the government will have to say, no thank you.

Bhaskar Sunkara also came out against reparations in The Guardian but without the WSWS’s vitriolic class-fundamentalism or the National Review’s obvious white supremacist baggage. Instead, he finds the idea of reparations beyond the capability of government agencies to administer and unfair to non-black citizens who will be getting short shrift (the reference to Coates below is Ta-Nahisi Coate’s 2014 article in the Atlantic calling for reparations):

But what kind of bureaucratic process would be necessary to identify who gets to receive the reparations Coates supports? It can’t simply be race, because recent immigrants from Africa wouldn’t qualify, nor would the descendants of slaves held in former French or British colonies. Would we need a new bureau to establish ancestry? Is that overhead and the work it will involve for black Americans to prove that they qualify worth it compared to creating a universal program that will most help the marginalized anyway?

Or consider this dilemma: money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from? Reparations wouldn’t be quite such a zero-sum game, but it would hard to shake the perception. Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?

A blogger named Paul Sowers, about whom I know nothing, took exception to Sunkara in an article titled “Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations.” He begins by pointing out that the New York State county that Sunkara grew up in was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group. It made the case that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

He caustically added: “Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people.”

He then lets the hammer drop:

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”?

In my view, the assault on both the NHC and on reparations demonstrates that racism remains part of the DNA of the U.S.A. as Nikole Hannah-Jones points out. In keeping with his undying loyalty to Bernie Sanders, Sunkara used his opposition to reparations as a cudgel against Elizabeth Warren.

Although I have all sorts of problems with Ta-Nehisi Coates, he makes some very good points in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”. Like is the case with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reflections on her father’s experiences in her Project 1619 essay, Coates examines the costs racism extracted from a black man named Clyde Ross, who was born into a family fortunate enough to own 40-acres as promised by the Radical Republicans.

Unfortunately, his father was swindled out of his land by racists:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know any-one at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

Coates offers an impassioned case for reparations in contrast to Sunkara’s pettifoggery. It makes a good companion-piece to the articles that appeared in the Project 1619 special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. If you have trouble getting past Atlantic’s paywall, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you a copy.


  1. GDP measures the *market values* of goods and services.

    Cotton produced by slave labor can be sold at cheaper prices (lower market value) than the cotton produced by wage laborers. So, cotton produced by slave labor registers at a lower percentage of the GDP.

    However, this cheaper cotton is either sold abroad at *higher profits* or sold to cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, and then turned into yarn or cloth and sold at a *higher profit* compared to yarn or cloth made with cotton produced by wage laborers.

    So, this thing that started as a lower percentage of GDP actually helps to *accelerate* the accumulation of capital, be it manufacturing capital or mercantile capital.

    Also, GDP is a measure that applies to a specific period (quarters, or a year), therefore does not take into account the *cumulative* nature of capitalist accumulation. In one year the value of cotton produced by slave labor may be low, but it adds to the already accumulated wealth of the previous periods.

    Isn’t that the case? Or, am I completely wrong?

    People in the know please inform!

    Comment by Reza — February 18, 2020 @ 1:18 am

  2. I would think that, if there are to be reparations, one has to be specific about the things about which reparations are due and to whom those reparations are due. Would reparations be due for slavery only, for subsequent Jim Crow policies or for both? And, then the question arises about who ought be entitled to reparations.

    My gut reaction – as I do not have hardened views on the matter – is that one has to draw a sharp distinction between discriminatory policies and slavery. I think, by analogy from Europe and Asia, Jews were the object of discrimination and persecution for substantially more than a thousand years. At the same time, there were a number of punctuating events (e.g., the expulsions from and/or massacres in England and France and Spain, the expulsions from most Arab countries and the Holocaust), for which only the Holocaust has been treated as, for those directly impacted, an event for which reparations are due.

    In the US, I would think, with the above as predicate, that there is a strong case for reparations related to slavery but a much weaker one for reparations due to discrimination and persecution – things that are, unfortunately, commonplace in the history of the world, so much so that the US has been, historically, a major magnet for those seeking to escape discrimination and persecution.

    I think that slavery can certainly be readily argued to be the sort of beyond the pale horror worthy of reparations. It might also be noted that, in essence, such was the view of the radical Republicans in the 1860’s.

    The major problem with the argument today, however, is the passage of time, so that the right to reparations is being treated as something inheritable. And, that leads to advocates for reparations using the existence of ongoing discrimination and persecution to justify reparations as inheritable. That, however, creates a backlash, including from people with families who have suffered persecution and discrimination.

    So, whatever the merits in the abstract of providing reparations for slavery, the passage of time makes the claim more difficult.

    With respect to the 1619 project, it suffers from historical infirmity. Slavery was a worldwide problem in 1619. The Southern states – most particularly those in the far south – wanted to preserve slavery. They likely would not have sided with the Northern states against the UK if the North had sought an end to slavery as part of that war. But, that is a far cry from meaning that a country’s DNA is slavery (notwithstanding the fact that slavery ended in the US in the 1860’s) and that such is a constant over time. That claim is fundamentally anti-historical, amounting to essentialism.

    Meanwhile, the beginnings of opposition to slavery came into being around the time that the Revolutionary War ended. And, that created the ultimate collision that played out in the 1860’s, called the Civil War. And, there have been forces supporting oppression and persecution and forces against that oppression and persecution ever since. But, the question of actual slavery in the US ended in the 1860’s, along with the lives of 600,000 people among the millions who fought a war over the issue.

    As for racism, it is certainly an ongoing force in the US. Is the US unique in that regard? No. Race or equivalent notions that divide people by ascribed characteristics are part and parcel of mankind since the beginning of recorded history. I don’t think that makes it part of humanity’s DNA. But, racism is certainly a force in human history.

    Comment by Neal — February 21, 2020 @ 4:23 pm

  3. There is accurate info on corn and cotton in the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s 1860 Census of Agriculture: http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus/censusParts.do?year=1860

    The census was used by the Union Army to gauge how much cattle and hogs could be ‘liberated’ from Southern farms during Sherman’s 1864 March through Georgia.

    Comment by CS — February 21, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

  4. This is very interesting but aggregating from the various counties into usable totals would be a huge chore.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 21, 2020 @ 8:17 pm

  5. What about the benefits blacks had from living in a country who was build mostly by white institutions, science and technology for which they contributed so little?

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — February 22, 2020 @ 2:53 am

  6. I forgot to add: what about reparations for the people who bought slaves from Arab traders or directly from tribe chieftains?

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — February 22, 2020 @ 2:58 am

  7. Pusceddu, you are obviously a white supremacist. I am willing to put up with leftist trolls but not you.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 22, 2020 @ 4:01 am

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