The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.


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