I’ve blogged about The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism before. It’s a very impressive book. I think the “most helpful critical review” on Amazon is revealing. For context, The Economist actually had to apologize for how racist its review of the book was:
Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.
The Amazon review is written by a certain “Chad,” who was happy to see Ben Carson do his Uncle Tom duties railing against “political correctness,” but disappointed that Ben Carson is also clearly an idiot, as a Young Earth creationist. If only smarter black people were available as race-traitors!
The review is called “What I Wish I’d Known Before Buying This Book.” He has three objections.
1) The book is “well written” in that its author has a strong command of prose, perhaps too strong for his own good. At many points in the book, which sometimes reads far more like a novel than a non-fiction piece, he waxes eloquent about the ‘seed which with latent potential bursts up through the sweat soaked soil to break upon the new morning in foreign white crests etc. etc.’ While that was a paraphrasing of the author’s words it is not far off. The author often goes on for several paragraphs in poetic verse about the difficulties of slavery or the beauty of some natural process or anything else that comes up. While this is not a terrible thing, and there is a time and a place for it, I felt the author was far too free with his verse when he should have been conveying facts. Many times I found myself rolling my eyes and saying: “yeah yeah I get it, now let’s get back to the subject matter again.”
To me, this is amazing. You can get a great summary of the book and a sense of its sources from watching the first 13 minutes of Edward Baptist’s talk at Google.
Obviously, Baptist is trying to convey the human reality of what happened by telling the stories of real slaves, mixed with all kinds of contemporary source material. The stories in the book are facts. Those things happened to real people. The point is that those people were (and are) considered subhuman, so their lives aren’t “facts” in the same way that the accounting records of slave owners are “facts.” Black people are only relevant to the “subject matter” as objects.
For unexplained reasons, there’s something wrong with poetic writing about the “difficulties of slavery” or “the beauty of some natural process.” Who cares about those things, right?
What Chad objects to is the idea that the agony of being kidnapped from your loved ones by “Georgia Men” doesn’t fit into the charts and tables of economists. That’s exactly why those things were included in the book. Economists are monstrous in their dehumanization of others, and the book tries to correct that. The main thrust of the book is that the Industrial Revolution was a revolution in textiles, and the rate-limiting step was the cotton-picking, and the cotton-picking sped up dramatically with ever-increasing quotas and whippings as the only “technological innovations.” The machines are pointless without more and more cotton to process. Not including torture as a factor in our history distorts our understanding of it. Chad wishes to preserve that state of affairs.
2) He treats his subject material as extremely malleable when it comes to “what actually happened.” Due to his tendency to wax eloquent as mentioned in (1) he often prefers to ‘tell stories’ rather than relate facts. This leads to him picking up the trail of a few actual slaves and conveying what happened to them personally. Unfortunately the accounts are imperfect and incomplete and so he obligingly fills in the gaps. However, he does so seamlessly and as a reader I often found myself unsure of what can be said to have actually happened and what was mere fantasy placed in prose to connect the dots. This is aggravated by his penchant to tell hypothetical stories which are completely made up and filled with a plethora of “perhaps” as he recounts the “typical day in the life of” moments of a hypothetical ‘average’ slave man or woman. As above, none of this is wrong or entirely damning, it merely detracts from the subject matter and puts the reader in the difficult position of having to evaluate each new piece of information to parse whether it is reliable or merely another questionable anecdote meant to engage the reader’s emotions.
Chad doesn’t understand that the book is based on the first-person accounts of actual slaves. If he does, he doesn’t explain what’s so questionable about them. They come from black people, maybe?
It’s also interesting what does and doesn’t count as “the reader’s emotions.” What he objects to are uncomfortable feelings of empathy. It’s not like the economics literature doesn’t provide emotional benefits for its audience: feelings of mastery and cleverness, identity-reinforcing fantasy, greed and the anticipation of money. Emotions are for pussies. Therefore, those things are not emotions.
3) The title is largely misleading. I bought this book expecting a text on: “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” What I found was instead: “Another Book of Slave Stories and a Text on how Slavery was Worse than You Thought.” Once more, I’m not saying that it wasn’t a good book to write, but I found myself increasingly frustrated as the author made almost no attempt whatsoever to connect slavery to “The Making of American Capitalism” outside of saying “people benefited from having slave labor and therefore made money.” That is true, but hardly revolutionary. One chapter discussed the creation of fiat money, the spread of credit, and other significant economic events but completely stopped discussing slavery for the duration of the chapter except for occasionally mentioning “and then people used credit/paper money to buy slaves” (just as they of course did to buy literally everything else). The rest of the book discusses slavery and it’s horrors in great detail, but makes no attempt to discuss economics even in passing. Again, although this doesn’t mean the book is necessarily a poor one it does mean that it is other than what it appears to be.
That is, the book is all about the history of capitalism. It’s all about how banks, especially European banks, made innovations specifically for the purpose of investing in slavery. See here. People didn’t use credit to buy “everything else.” They used credit to buy land and slaves. Even today, businesses depend on credit to keep operating.
Again, the trick of racism is that black lives don’t matter. We’re talking about money, here? What’s with all the stuff about niggers and their feelings? It’s all bullshit you can’t trust, made up by liberals. I mean, one guy got tortured to death. Who cares?
This is Chad again, in the comments on his review:
Yes slavery was part of the economy of the south and to a lesser degree the north. However, that statement sums up the author’s connection between “slavery and the making of American capitalism” in a single sentence. Your argument is that slavers sought to increase the productivity of their slaves because they wanted more capital benefit from them. All I can do is shrug.
The point is so obvious that it really doesn’t need saying. How does that have anything to do with the “Making of American Capitalism”?
The point is so obvious that it needs saying in plain language, which it rarely is. What does Chad think it means to “increase the productivity of their slaves because they wanted more capital benefit from them?” In a single sentence, the point of the book is that they did so very successfully by large-scale intensified torture. All he can do is shrug, because he’s an enemy of human decency.
The difficulty here appears to be that people read this book and feel it is “important” in some vague way because it discusses the persecution of blacks under the slave system. As I said above, I agree that this is an important topic which on no account ought to be ignored, but this author is overly prosaic, loose with his facts, and discusses the horror of slavery to a high degree while ignoring the questions raised by his own subtitle.
Chad can’t wrap his head around the idea that capitalism is and has always been the persecution of black people, not whatever he thought it was before.
Under the values of the Old South, saying this sort of shit to someone’s face meant you were asking them to beat your ass. Only if they were white, though. When you really think about it, there’s something grotesque about the way white and black people are allowed to talk about each other’s ancestors in public. 76 of 96 people thought Chad’s review was helpful.