Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 1, 2021

The New History of Capitalism, its detractors, and the American Indian

Filed under: indigenous,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm
Is this our destiny?

For most people, Project 1619 is controversial because Nikole Hannah-Jones dissed Abe Lincoln, having the temerity to write that Lincoln regarded free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.

None of the other articles raised Sean Wilentz’s dander as much as this but there was another controversy that probably passed beneath the radar of the average NY Times reader, namely the project’s support for the New History of Capitalism (NHC) spearheaded by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson. One of articles assembled under the Project, written by Matthew Desmond, was titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation”. It cited Sven Beckert and fellow NHC’er Seth Rockman: “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism” and defended the proposition that slavery was essential to the birth of American capitalism. Clearly, this argument was not one that traditional historians, even those on the left, would accept.

John Oakes, who co-signed the letter with Sean Wilentz demanding that the Times “correct” Project 1619, weighed in on NHC in an interview with the sect-cult WSWS.org newspaper:

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

This is what they call a straw man, isn’t it?

Oakes also wrote a longer and more ostensibly scholarly attack on NHC for the Economic Historian blog that sought to discredit their work. Naturally, Oakes found himself on the same side as James Clegg and Charles Post who have also written attacks on the NHC:

Charles Post and John Clegg are both sociologists. Like myself, they are not economic historians. But although we arrive at different conclusions, we all start from Robert Brenner’s definition of capitalism as systemic market dependency. This definition is similar to the one that emerged separately some decades ago among historians who debated the transition to capitalism in the northern states in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Post is probably familiar to most of my readers since his articles have appeared frequently in Jacobin and other magazines of the Marxist left. Clegg is less well-known outside of the ranks of the professional historians and because of his preference for writing in JSTOR type journals. Both reject the idea that slavery was implanted in America’s DNA but disagree on whether slave plantations were capitalist. Post describes them as “pre-capitalist” while Clegg sees them as capitalist. It is hard to pin Post down on what “pre-capitalist” means since that would include 8th century Rome as well as the cotton plantation but let’s leave that aside for now. The important matter for both these muscular defenders of Marxist orthodoxy is that slavery was a fetter on the more authentic capitalism in the north that was ready to crush the south to make free wage labor inviolate. Without free wage labor, you can’t have Grade A capitalism, after all. That’s what Marx believed supposedly, even though on an off day he might mistakenly say something like “Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.”

Clegg wrote an article titled “Capitalism and Slavery” for the September 2015 Critical Historical Studies that is available online. His broadside against NHC had two main complaints. One was that it failed to provide a theoretical definition of the capitalist system. The other was that it overstated the roe of violence in expanding cotton production, the cornerstone of Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”. Clegg was more inclined to accept the findings of econometricians Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode’s October 2016 article “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that, like Oakes, was aimed at total annihilation of the NHC. They argue, “However, to agree that slavery was important and evil does not mean that it was economically essential for the Industrial Revolution, for American prosperity, or even for the production of cotton in the United States. The new literature makes spectacular but unsupported claims, relies on faulty reasoning, and introduces many factual inaccuracies.”

It is almost impossible to verify Olmstead and Rhode’s article since it relies on sources that are impossible to track down, even for people like me who have access to Columbia University’s online resources. For example, on page 18 they refer to a graph that lists American exports by value. Supposedly, cotton is unimportant:

Figure 2 graphs the values of cotton exports as a share the value of U.S. merchandise exports, and then both U.S. cotton and merchandise export values as shares of GDP.30 As the bottom line makes clear, cotton exports were a very small share of national product—less than 5 percent over much of the of the antebellum period (Engerman and Gallman 1983, p. 28).

Footnote 30 states, “The data are based on Series Ee571 (Value of Cotton Exports). Series Ee366 (Value of U.S. Merchandise Exports), Ca10 (Nominal GDP, as interpolated with Ca9 and Ca13 for 1821-29 and 1831-39) from Millennial Historical Statistics (Carter, et al. 2006).

The problem for me is that GDP was not collected in the 19th century so where do their numbers come from? In 1934, Simon Kuznets developed the modern concept of GDP to use in a report to Congress in 1934. I suppose I could have gotten my hands on Carter’s Millennial Historical Statistics but the Columbia Library was shut down during the pandemic. What about people without such access? How could they verify this claim about cotton’s lesser role? They wouldn’t know where to begin. As for the Engerman and Gallman article, it is not in JSTOR and hence unavailable—at least until the pandemic is over.

Some scholars almost consider it an exercise in futility trying to extract national income figures before Kuznets. Angus Maddison was considered one of the leading experts on measuring national income. In his authoritative “Development Centre Studies : The World Economy: Historical Statistics” he writes that between 1800 and the First World War, there was a proliferation of national income estimates, but little improvement in their quality or comparability. They provided little help for serious analysis of economic growth, and there were significant differences in their coverage and methodology.

It is also worth noting that sometimes a close reading of the Olmstead-Rhode article can turn up anomalies that undermine their thesis. For example, on page five they make the case that Sven Beckert exaggerated the importance of cotton being picked by slaves in the Louisiana Purchase, claiming that farming was mostly done by yeomen who raised cattle and grain. The footnote to support this argument cites Columbia University economist Stuart Bruchey’s “Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy, 1790-1860.” Surely, they should have known that Bruchey’s view on cotton production was much closer to the NHC’ers than theirs. He saw the concentration of southern resources on exports, particularly cotton, as a dominant growth factor in pre-Civil War America since it stimulated the development of northern manufacturing and western agriculture. Export earnings enabled the South to purchase the manufactured goods and commercial services of the North and the food supplies and livestock of the West.

As for Post, he is just as convinced as Clegg that Olmstead and Rhode have the final word:

Baptist takes as his point of departure the striking finding of Alan J. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, in their pathbreaking studies on biological innovation and productivity growth in the antebellum cotton South,11 that during the first sixty years of so of the nineteenth century “cotton picked per slave quadrupled, with picking efficiency increasing at 2.3 percent per annum, substantially faster than the advance of labor productivity in the overall economy.”

Whether either one has had the motivation to critically examine Olmstead and Rhode is open to question. As often happens in these debates, you pick a side and then cherry-pick your scholarly resources to beat the other side into a bloody pulp.

It should hardly come as a surprise that there is a racial divide on the question of slavery’s contribution to capitalism. Foundational African-American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Eric Williams make the case that it was substantial while those minimizing its role tend to be white. There is one exception to this divide, of course. Black professor emeritus Adolph Reed Jr. is adamantly opposed to the idea that slavery was a midwife to capitalism, telling the sectarians at WSWS.org, who have crusaded against Project 1619:

What are the stakes that people imagine to be bound up with demonstrating that capitalism in this country emerged from slavery and racism, which are treated as two different labels for the same pathology? Ultimately, it’s a race reductionist argument.

Like other controversies I’ve engaged with, numbers not only play a major role but can often be wildly discrepant according to the side you identify with. Just one example. For those who have an unaccountably nostalgic affection for Stalin’s USSR, the numbers of Ukrainians who died during the forced collectivization tend to be close to the floor while Ukrainian scholars, especially nationalists, place them close to the ceiling. Additionally, they have different interpretations of what the numbers mean. For the Stalinophiles, they absolve the bureaucracy from the charge of genocide, arguing that the deaths were caused by a famine or by the wealthy peasants acting self-destructively in the face of a necessary social transformation. For Ukrainians, the numbers reflect Stalin’s genocidal commitment to breaking the back of Ukrainian national aspirations.

I would be loath to reduce the animosity Oakes, Post, Clegg, et al have toward the work of the NHC’ers (and implicitly, DuBois and those who follow in his footsteps) to racial insensitivity. However, it must be said that the political stakes over the relationship of slavery to the hegemonic growth of American capitalism are considerable. They relate to the question of whether reparations are in order. I wouldn’t read too much into both Post and Clegg having attacked the NHC’ers in Jacobin, a magazine whose publisher opposes reparations. However, I have seen the Black chairman of an African-American Studies department, who shall remain unnamed, use language against Jacobin on these matters that would make the face of a drunken sailor turn red.

In pouring through articles that touch upon the slavery and capitalism nexus, I took a look at James Parisot’s “The Two Hundred and Fifty Year Transition: How the American Empire Became Capitalist: How the American Empire Became Capitalist”. Parisot is also the author of “How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and The Conquest Of The West”, a book that shares the perspective of the NHC but is much more engaged with Marxist theory.

In 2019, Parisot gave a presentation on his book at a Historical Materialism conference in New York, with Post and Clegg as discussants. I came away with a very favorable impression of his approach and hope to find the time before long to read his book. In the meantime, I was anxious to read the article, which Parisot told me was a capsule version of the arguments in his book. Since the word “Empire” is in the article’s title, it made me sit up and take notice. Wasn’t it entirely possible that the axis of discussion had to be expanded to take into account the total ensemble of territorial grabs that made capitalism possible? When Thomas Jefferson spoke about an “Empire of Liberty,” he used the word Empire advisedly. It anticipated the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny and every other murderous scheme that would allow the USA to replace Britain as the world’s hegemonic power.

The abstract for Parisot’s article reads:

This paper aims to rethink United States history from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction by examining how capitalism and empire joined together as the logic of expansion increasingly became driven by the logic of capital over approximately two hundred and fifty years. Specifically, it argues that (what became) the United States originated as a ‘society with capitalism’ and became a ‘capitalist society’. This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism, but a variety, depending on the historical circumstance.

In my view, there is an element of combined and uneven development that is hinted at in his formulation “This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism.” Essentially, Parisot sees forced labor and “free labor” as existing on a continuum rather than as mutually exclusive. This formulation bears this out: “While Marx’s overall analysis of the capitalist mode of production centered on wage labor, his methodology permits an analysis of capital’s exploitation of a variety of labor forms into an analysis of capitalism’s systemic dynamics. In this way, for example, while not all slavery throughout world history was necessarily capitalist, plantation slavery was capitalist due to the structuration of the social relations of production and the ways in which surplus value was generated through forced labor.”

Working my way through his 30-page article, I came across a passage that finally resolved some misgivings I had about the slavery and capitalism connection, even though it was unintended by the author. In fact, it was my somewhat negative reaction to the passage that led to some insights about what has been missing from the debate.

On page 599 of Parisot’s article, he discusses Livingston Manor, a huge (250 square miles) feudal-like parcel of land the Crown had bestowed on Robert Livingston in the 18th century. Even though tenant farming prevailed, it was combined with capitalist profit-making. Parisot writes:

New York manors operating for profit by using tenant farmers blurs the categories between a non-capitalist and capitalist mode of production. Tenancy forced farmers to produce commodities to sell on markets to obtain some goods. Additionally, the results of their la- bor (for example, one tenth of their wheat in the case of the Livingston manor) went to the head of the manor, who then sold it for a profit. Overall, this seems to be a case of household production sub- ordinated to the law of value in a capitalistic way. It is something much more complex and closer to capitalism than ‘quasi’ feudalism.

While Lord Livingston’s manor was enormous, there was another entity called Livingston Manor that, despite the name, ended up as a tiny village in Sullivan County about 15 miles from where I grew up. Both the big Livingston Manor and the tiny one were tied to the same family. My high school used to play and beat their basketball team on a regular basis.

While I completely understand why Parisot would dwell on this example, it stirred up a different train of thought for me. As many of you know from my past posts, Sullivan County was home to the Munsee Indians for hundreds of years before the arrival of white men like Robert Livingston. A subgroup of the Lenape (also known as the Delaware) Indians lived along the Hudson River Valley that includes the foothills of the Catskills where I grew up. Like the Pumas that gave the mountains its name (Kaaterskill is Dutch for cat+river, with kill meaning the Hudson, not the claws of the Puma.) They were driven out of Sullivan County in the 1700s, just as Indians were ethnically cleansed throughout the state around the same time. As for the name of the county, that dubious distinction belongs to General Sullivan who conducted a genocidal war against the Iroquois tribes that backed the British against the colonists.

Without the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians in New York and Massachusetts, could capitalism have “taken off”? The problem with equating the origins of capitalism in the USA with either slavery (per the NHC’ers) or Post’s plucky yeoman farmers and manufacturers of the north who became Radical Republicans is that it effaces the native peoples who stood in the way of both cotton plantations and textile mills.

Primitive accumulation, the sine qua non for capitalism, begins with both slavery and removal of indigenous peoples. Trying to make slavery the starting point for the origins of capitalism is problematic. Don’t ever forget what Marx wrote in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital, the aptly titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”:

The treatment of the aborigines was, naturally, most frightful in plantation-colonies destined for export trade only, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called, the Christian character of primitive accumulation did not belie itself. Those sober virtuosi of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, in 1703, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured red-skin: in 1720 a premium of £100 on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts-Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards £100 (new currency), for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50. Some decades later, the colonial system took its revenge on the descendants of the pious pilgrim fathers, who had grown seditious in the meantime. At English instigation and for English pay they were tomahawked by red-skins. The British Parliament proclaimed bloodhounds and scalping as “means that God and Nature had given into its hand.”

Without this kind of “treatment”, New York, Massachusetts, and Mississippi never would have become the ideal seed bed for capitalism. Remember that scene at the end of Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist”, when the family’s travails come from having built (as well as sold) a house over an American Indian burial ground? While the descendants of those who drove them off their land (Robert Livingston was an ancestor of the Bush family) deserve punishment like in “Poltergeist”, we’d be much better off carrying out a socialist revolution that would put the ecological values of the Munsee and all the other indigenous peoples into practice once again.


  1. Sent from my iPhone I found it too shallow for Louis Proyect’s time. I resent time wasted beating straw horses back to death.


    Comment by peggydobbins — March 1, 2021 @ 11:39 pm

  2. Peggy, don’t post stupid shit again.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 1, 2021 @ 11:47 pm

  3. Thank you Louis, for this great piece of research and writing.

    As a foreigner in this country I have always wondered how it is that the U.S. left so easily overlooks (or ignores) the importance of the genocide (and “removal”) of the American Indians as an irrelevant factor in the development of capitalism and a unified national market in the United States. Thank you for expanding the larger picture of the looting and the dispossession that helped the development of American capitalism.

    On the smaller picture of the role of cotton production … The 5% of GDP sighted, even if that were correct, is by no means an insignificant number. First of all, according to the “Contribution of the Automobile Industry to the Economies of all Fifty State and the United States”:

    “The auto industry is one of the most important industries in the United States. It historically has contributed 3 – 3.5 percent to the overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

    3 to 3.5%. That’s it. Yet, I doubt anybody would argue that the auto industry is an insignificant portion of the U.S. economy as a whole. Obviously a lot of other industries go into the auto industry (plastics, fiberglass, rubber, metals, chemicals, computer chips, etc.). With cotton, it’s the other way around: cotton is the raw material used in other industries. And, naturally, all those other industries benefit from much higher profit margins (more surplus value) as a result of access to cheaper cotton as opposed to more expensive cotton produced by wage laborers. So, even if cotton production itself was “only” 5% of the GDP of the 18th and 19th century economies, it contributed hugely to an astonishing amount of capital accumulation for other industries that surely are purely capitalist by any scholar’s definition.

    Thank you again for this great piece.

    Comment by Reza — March 2, 2021 @ 12:28 am

  4. The summer when I was 17 years-old I worked as a busboy (hired illegally at that age, but through family connections for I was expected to be grateful) at the Waldmere Hotel In Livingston Manor, NY. I recall that the weekly wage was about $30, some statutory minimum, but the real draw was the possibility of sizeable tips, from which kids with sufficient hustle could make a bundle. I didn’t have it, and my tips were meager. My deficiencies as a busboy were most in evidence on holiday weekends and the 1000-seat dining room was at its capacity and I was assigned to 4 or 5 tables of 8-10 assorted sybarites, fressers and adult babies. The work was exhausting, and lasted up to 12 hours a day with interruptions that could be used for recreation and “entertaining” the guests, unless, like me, you didn’t use it all up in the post-meal cleanup (sweeping, washing cutlery) that everyone else seemed to accomplish rapidly. I wouldn’t want to compare my ordeal that summer to the kinds of labor that occurred at Livingston Manor and elsewhere in pre-Civil War America discussed in this article, but the summer netted me less than $1000 (in the early ’60s), and was the closest I ever came personally to those conditions.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — March 2, 2021 @ 1:17 am

  5. Louis, I follow your writings, but I am concerned that your use of the term “sectarian” to describe the WSWS is a bit worn. Obviously their intervention on the 1619 campaign, whether we agree with their points or not, shows they are not sectarian. That’s just the reality now. They were able to make many of the most powerful capitalist papers in the world (NYT, WSJ, FT, etc.) address their arguments. They were the ones who led the initiative, and the fact that they received support from people like Jim (not John) Oakes, James McPherson, Vikki Bynum, Richard Carwardine, Gordon Woods, Adolph Reed and others shows that many of the world’s most renowned historians were willing to work with them. Call them what we want, but “sectarian” they are not. Actually, I recently bought the book they published on the 1619 project and you should read the endorsements on the inset and back. It includes Daniel Walker Howe, Sean Wilentz, and Peter Kolchin. Recordings of their public meetings have thousands of viewers. The problem is that the “sectarians” seem to be gaining a mass audience. What do you make of this?

    Comment by S.D. — March 2, 2021 @ 3:56 pm

  6. The term “sectarian” does not apply to their opposition to Project 1619. It applies to their attacks on the left outside their group as “pseudo” this and “pseudo” that. It is a style of politics that helped to destroy the 1960s revolutionary movement.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 2, 2021 @ 4:35 pm

  7. One of the best arguments for reparations is how slave labor contributed to the nation’s wealth and infrastructure. After, emancipation they became free labor and had no rights or ownshership to the massive agricultural industry that slave labor had produced. The Chattel Principle by Walter Johnson, gave an estimate of three billion dollars worth of capital held in slaves in 1860. It was three times greater than the amount of capital in the manufacturing sector nationwide, seven times the value of all the currency in circulation in the economy and federal expenditures. David Roedinger’s book Seizing Freedom, where I came across all this, also quotes Steven Deyle’s book on the domestic slave trade, Carry Me Back, that suggests this made slaves greater than the capital value of almost any other type of property held in the United States and the value of real estate and slaves combined, as they often were, was 20% greater in the south than the real estate value of the north.

    Comment by aaron — March 5, 2021 @ 10:11 pm

  8. “Export earnings enabled the South to purchase the manufactured goods and commercial services of the North and the food supplies and livestock of the West.”

    Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism
    Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode
    October 2016

    But the slave system itself also caused the plantation south to under-specialize in cotton. As Ralph Anderson and Robert Gallman demonstrated forty years ago, planters treated their chattel as a fixed, rather than variable, costs of production (the interest cost on the investment in slaves and most of the cost maintaining slaves existed whether or not the slaves worked). This meant planters had an incentive to create a year around work schedule to use slave labor in low peak-load seasons. This led to the “over production” of foodstuffs (Anderson and Johnson 1977, pp. 24-46).

    The broader issue is that trade and specialization are not necessarily bad as Johnson implies; to the contrary, they are generally major contributors to economic growth. Moreover, Johnsons’ argument about antebellum South’s dependency on northern foodstuffs has long been refuted by the economic history literature showing the southern plantations were largely self-sufficient in food production (Atack and Passell 1994, pp. 160-64).

    Atack, Jeremy and Peter Passell. 1994. A New Economic View of American History: From Colonial Times to 1940 2nd ed. (New York: Norton).

    Comment by David Green — March 6, 2021 @ 10:00 pm

  9. You fucking idiot. I already stated in my article that it is impossible to verify Olmstead and Rhode’s data. What am I supposed to do? Take their reference to Ralph Anderson and Robert Gallman as gospel? I already stated in my article that it is impossible to check Gallman. If all you can do is copy and paste, you need to take some Prevagen to help stimulate your brain. Take a look at Reza’s comment #3. That’s what a serious comment looks like. I don’t give a shit if you are into Olmstead and Rhode. I only ask that you refrain from making comments that lead up a blind alley. Do it one more time and I will ban you. I still remember how you used to pull the same shit on Syria, posting articles that were impossible for me to refute point by point. I sometimes (actually, always) get the idea that you are a coward politically.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2021 @ 10:14 pm

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