There is much talk in the United States today of “cultural pessimism”. Such talk may or may not reflect the general mood of the country, but there is certainly much about the state of intellectual life and university culture that is despairing. Princeton’s 2021 decision to stop requiring students in its Classics track to take either Greek or Latin is an example of this, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 2020 decision to prioritize to social justice in all of its grants is another. Then there’s the Hewlett Foundation’s new grant initiative to stamp out “neoliberalism.”
As distressing as these examples are, another is even more distressing: the buzz and acclaim given to the Project 1619 and its “creator”, the famous journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Ever since this deeply flawed project first surfaced in New York Times Review in August 2019, he was rarely out of the news. The 2021 book resulting from the project is a bestseller, as is born on the water, the “lyrical picture book in verse” that accompanies it. All this, despite the project’s reductionist and tendentious approach and its interpretation of slavery and race relations in the United States.
Faced with the “herd of independent minds” – to use Harold Rosenberg’s scathing description – singing the praises of 1619, a smaller number of distinguished scholars have raised serious questions about the inspiration and execution of the project. Part polemic, part morality tale, 1619 is intended to flip the script of American history by interpreting our history from the outset almost entirely through the prism of race or, more specifically, the exploitation of African Americans by white people. In doing so, the main drivers of the project tarnish our founding principles, smear our “founding fathers” and denounce the capitalist development path followed by the United States, a path which they believe was inextricably linked, reinforced and dependent on the racial slavery. Such luminaries as Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz have effectively refuted the 1619 support the founding (and founders) of our nation, but a few words are in order regarding American slavery, American capitalism, and the relationship between the two.
The main author on slavery and capitalism in 1619 is Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton, best known for a 2016 book on evictions and homelessness in contemporary America. He is director of Princeton’s “Eviction Lab”, whose charge, according to his website, is “[b]witness to the deportation epidemic in the United States. Desmond, who has also written about race and race relations as well as fighting wildfires in the Southwest, believes there is a singular cause for the diverse and diverse pathologies of American history: capitalism. . Drawing on the ideas of the movements among leftist historians known as the “new history of capitalism” and “racial capitalism”, both of which argue that racial oppression is inherent in capitalism, Desmond believes that capitalism and slavery in America grew hand in hand.
These two intellectual movements approach capitalism in a very different and much more critical way than the traditional economic historians (with a neoclassical orientation) and the previous generations of Marxists. While the latter groups have generally viewed capitalism as a liberal, liberating, and progressive historical force (albeit for different reasons), proponents of the new history of capitalism and racial capitalism view capitalism as an illiberal development. Capitalism has been informed and dominated from the outset by selfish Europeans and European Americans exercising their economic will through asymmetries of power, force, violence, exploitation, expropriation and racial oppression. Indeed, according to them, capitalism has always been informed and dominated by these characteristics.
In 1619, Desmond alleges that the form of capitalism that took hold in the slave-owning South was a particularly pernicious variant he calls “low-end” capitalism, which he argues represents the system at its worst. And the effects of this vile and despicable system were hardly confined to the region. Desmond argues that the exploitation and expropriation associated with Southern plantation slavery proved vital not only to the economic rise of the South, but also to the development of the United States as a whole. A considerable share of the profits made possible by the export of slave-produced cotton and other staple crops ended up in the hands of northern bankers, merchants, insurers, and textile manufacturers.
Following closely the textbook of the new history of capitalism, Desmond argues that the Southern economy was extremely advanced for its time. The planters and business intermediaries with whom the slaveholders worked developed and employed sophisticated financial practices, tools, and methods, including capital accounting and the concept of capital depreciation. These “southern” developments served as a source for the “financialization” of the American economy later. Desmond even attempts to link Southern planters to recent financial crises such as the Great Recession and notorious 21st century con artists such as ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli.
To say the least, there are many problems with Desmond’s imaginative argument. To begin with, he vastly overestimates the importance of slavery, cotton, and the South to the American economy as a whole in the prewar period. In doing so, he unhesitatingly accepts manifestly flawed quantitative methods associated with the new history of capitalism, in particular a profound misunderstanding of national income accounting protocols. In this regard, Desmond accepts the claim of these historians that cotton constituted a huge proportion of the pre-war American economy – as much as 40% or even more of the American GDP – when in reality, the Staple food generally accounted for around 5 or 6%. Why the gap? In estimating the value of cotton in the American economy, the new historians of capitalism and their sympathizers mistakenly take into account the value of all the inputs involved in the production of cotton when these inputs are already incorporated into the total value of the cotton production.
As for finance and financial practices, Desmond fails to appreciate the fact that nearly all the financial phenomena he writes about emerged earlier and developed further in the pre-war North than in the South. Like some of the new historians of capitalism, Desmond makes false claims about the prevalence (or even the existence) of sophisticated capital accounting practices among antebellum Southern planters.
At first glance, the idea of linking slavery and finance so closely will seem curious, even a little bizarre. The association begins to make more sense, however, when one realizes that the new story of capitalism was born during the finance-led “Great Recession” of 2007-2009. This event has led enthusiasts of the new history of capitalism to seek the roots of “financialization”, “neoliberalism” and “low-level” capitalism at earlier times in US history, than analogues whether they really existed or not. As psychologist Abraham Maslow so aptly put it in 1966, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. In effect.
Ultimately, Desmond’s main problems – and the main problems of the scholars he depends on – stem from the fact that, whether intentionally or not, they generally avoid considering large bodies of slavery studies. , finance, and The economic history of the United States produced by legions of talented economists and economic historians over several generations. In particular, they overlook the work of scholars whose mastery of sources and ease with numbers enabled them to provide authoritative quantitative answers to questions about slavery, cotton, and the importance of the South to the American economy as a whole.
These answers, in no uncertain terms, belie Desmond’s argument and, therefore, the veracity of 1619position on slavery. Focusing on truthfulness may be missing the point of 1619however, for historical accuracy regarding the moral enormity that slavery was does not seem the central concern of the 1619 project. These advocates seem committed not to historical accuracy, but to what Shelby Steele called “poetic truth,” a distorted, partisan version of reality in order to promote a cause or make a preferred outcome inspired by history more likely. ‘ideology. By 1619 By Butler Nikole Hannah-Jones’ own admission, the intention of the project was from the start to serve as a tool for obtaining reparations from the American people, with “history” contributing to that instrumental end. And there are few things that evoke cultural pessimism more than that.