The Economist defends America's enslavement of Africans

When The Economist reviewed The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, its anonymous reviewer condemned it, sticking up for America's legacy of slavery as a means of wealth creation, saying "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."

At the core of the reviewer's complaint is that the book's author, Cornell history professor Edward Baptist, carefully and methodically shows that the roots of American capitalism are in the kidnapping, rape, murder and forced labor of Africans. But as this is unequivocally irrefutable, the reviewer couldn't fault it, so instead he took issue with the fact that Baptist didn't consider that because they were treated as property, the slaves must have gotten a better deal (because property rights solve all problems!): "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."

In the reviewer's eyes, slavery gives workers a better deal than employment, because employees can be discarded but slaves -- as property -- must be tended and mended. This is not only profoundly immoral, it's also profoundly ahistorical and wrong as a matter of fact. In early America, land was plentiful and workers to work that land were scarce. As a consequence -- as is carefully documented by Piketty with deep data-sets -- workers were able to command much higher salaries, and it was only through slavery -- forced labor -- that the capital owners were able to build their wildly profitable empires. In other words, this review in The Economist denies the law of supply and demand.

After a barrage of public complaint, The Economist disclaimed the review, but not before a viral hashtag was born: #Economistbookreviews, which features capsule reviews of famous texts on slavery in the style of The Economist, like "Mr. Douglass never considers how much teaching slaves to read impacts plantation productivity" ( @suppressthis referring to Frederick Douglass's "Life") and ""At no point does the Diary of Anne Frank mention the daily tribulations of ordinary hardworking Wehrmacht." (from @oceanclub).

Understanding why The Economist did something so fucking dunderheaded is a challenge. One theory from historian Will Mackintosh seems plausible:

Here’s my theory: as a magazine, 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 nationalist (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, almost 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 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.

Joey DeVilla has done a great job of rounding up links to the controversy and a good selection of #economistbookreview tweets:

The “slavery wasn’t THAT bad!” book review in The Economist, the hashtag that came from it, and some observations [Joey DeVilla/Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century]