The early Americanist internet exploded last night with the news that The Economist had given a negative review to Ed Baptist’s magisterial new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The shocking part is that the main criticism of the book is that “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Although this is the most damning quote, the whole review is pretty breathtaking; the anonymous reviewer’s main complaint seems to be that Baptist failed to consider the possibility that maybe slaves were treated well because “Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.” Despite the fact that all existing evidence argues against this hypothesis, the reviewer seems to think that there might be some magical never-before-seen document that Baptist could have consulted to somehow show that this was the case. The review was withdrawn today, thankfully, amid much speculation about what could have caused The Economist to publish it in the first place.
On reading this review, I felt the same sense of outrage that universally washed over my colleagues; as I put it on Facebook, “Yeah, when you spend your time surrounded by smart, thoughtful historians, you can kind of forget the vicious purposes to which the morally bankrupt can put their misuse of history.” But I was also confused, about why The Economist would print such a thing, but also, and more especially, why the review’s weird criticisms didn’t seem to address Baptist’s main argument, which is that slavery was the form of wealth that undergirded nineteenth century American capitalism, and that it provided the testbed for the exploitative techniques that made possible capitalism’s triumph. I guess questioning the treatment of slaves is kind-of-sort-of a critique of that second point, but even if it is, it’s an incredibly oblique one. Why write a review that’s basically guaranteed to piss off the whole world and then waste it on quibbling over a relative detail?
Here’s my theory: among magazines, The Economist is perhaps the most articulate, erudite defender of the neoliberal capitalist order. They are too smart to waste their time as Laffer curve snake-oil salesmen or crude economic nationalists (cough cough, Wall Street Journal, cough cough), but nevertheless, the main commitment of their reporting and their commentary is to defend late modern global capitalism as an economic and moral good. Think Davos, not the Tea Party. And that’s why they don’t like Baptist’s book: it demonstrates unequivocally that modern capitalism was born in blood. Let me say that again: whatever else you might say about capitalism, it took on its characteristic modern forms of capital accumulation and labor “management” in the context of American slavery. For a group of journalists with a deep, largely unarticulated commitment to modern capitalism’s fundamental benevolence, this is an uncomfortable truth indeed.
Hence the critical review, and the particular nature of The Economist‘s criticisms. The book has to be wrong, because if it isn’t, then capitalism isn’t an inherently moral economic system. And it has to be wrong specifically in its description of how capitalism exploits labor. The review has to hold out hope that slavery provided incentives for slaveowners to treat their slaves better, that “the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment,” because otherwise, the book gets uncomfortably close to the reality that modern capitalism gets its increases in productivity at the expense of its workers, too. That last point is pretty obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention since 2008 (well, and since the 1970s), but it’s one that The Economist‘s ideological commitments can’t allow it to confront. And that’s why we got such an ugly and weird review of Baptist’s book … and why they withdrew it, with such apparent bewilderment.