This is the second part of a three-part review:
In 1938, rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke published a review of Thurman W. Arnold’s book, The Folklore of Capitalism. Entitled “The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking,” Burke held that the debunker “covertly restores important ingredients of thought that he has overtly annihilated” which describes Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Suicide of the West, perfectly. Goldberg attempts to put forth a number of big ideas which recast the history of capitalism in a new light, by drawing on evolutionary psychology among other things, but he cannot build his argument without re-enrolling ideas which he has told us he has abandoned. The result is a book that is completely incoherent. The most serious consequence of Goldberg’s covertly smuggling ideas back into his argument is when he addresses the tangled history of capitalism, racism, and slavery.
In my previous post, I outlined the main argument of Goldberg’s book: that we are hardwired to live a violent, tribal life; that capitalism and individualism oppose that hardwiring but are both under attack from our tribal nature that is being aided and abetted by ungrateful intellectuals. This post is about the second of Goldberg’s themes corruption:
Because capitalism is an unnatural state, it is open to “decay, rot, and putrification” (p. 15). Corruption is about “giving in to the seduction of human nature, the angry drumbeats of our primitive brains and inner whispers of our feelings” (p. 15). Tribal warfare, slavery, and poverty are always a threat that must be kept at bay by a constant renewal of the ideals of individualism and capitalism.
The question I will take up here is simply this: has capitalism been an effective shield against “tribal warfare, slavery, and poverty”? Is it in danger of corruption or has it been corrupt all along?
Tribal Warfare: Racism
According to Goldberg, the remarkable thing about The Miracle of the capitalist revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that it overcame our tribal nature. The idea that we are taught to hate The Other is, according to Goldberg, “laudable nonsense. We are, in a very real sense, born to hate…” (p. 25). We are programmed to associate with those like ourselves and The Miracle of capitalism is that it requires us to interact with other people as individuals rather than as members of a group: “Capitalism” he write, “is the most cooperative system ever created for the peaceful improvements of peoples’ lives” (p. 12). Anti-racism, according to Goldberg (quoting psychologist Paul Bloom), “is a modern insight; for most of human history nobody saw anything wrong with racism” (p. 25).
The reason Goldberg has to rely on a psychologist for the claim that racism was endemic for “most of human history” is that no historian of racism believes that. Racism is not simply ethnocentrism or a distrust of those unlike ourselves. Racism is commonly understood to be a specific ideology that holds:
- People can be classified into distinct biological groups on the basis of phenotypic features.
- Outer characteristics of people are linked to inner characteristics. In other words, a visible characteristic, such as skin color, can be a sign of inner mental or moral characteristics.
- These characteristics are inherited and innate.
- Races are fixed and immutable, either by nature or by God.
- These groups can be ranked on a hierarchy of value.
I have a long paper outlining why psychologists who claim that racism is innate and there is evidence for it in antiquity are wrong, wrong, wrong. Go read it if you want the full argument, but for now it is probably enough to know that ancient people did not see color as an important marker of difference, their ideas of organic form did not lock people into immutable kinds (pp. 302-4), and that Asian cultures were not racist before contact with Europeans (pp. 304-6). Hardcore racism largely arose as a post hoc justification for the racialized slavery of the Americas. Goldberg admits as much: “American racism stems from slavery, not the other way around” (p. 34), thus contradicting the position he took nine pages earlier when he argued that racism was ingrained in our tribal nature. As it happens, he’s right on page 34 and wrong on page 25. Slavery in the Americas was intimately entwined with the capitalist Miracle that Goldberg claims, against all evidence, was only a weapon against racialized slavery. But The Miracle embraced both sides of the slavery question.
Slavery and Capitalism: John Locke
Before we launch into the ugly story of slavery and capitalism let’s remember that Goldberg claims to be a thoroughgoing social constructionist regarding capitalism. As philosopher Ian Hacking argues, social constructionists are “against inevitability” (p. 6) and phrase perfectly captures Goldberg’s notions regarding capitalism. He explicitly rejects the idea that capitalism arose through some sort of natural consequence of human nature; this is what he means by the opening sentence of the book: “There is no God in this book…. We created the Miracle of modernity all on our own, and if we lose it, that will be our fault too” (p. 3). For Goldberg this means that there are no natural laws of economic behavior that make capitalism an inevitable consequence of human affairs, “The problem is that the market order is unnatural. It is a human invention, no less artificial because it was developed over countless generations” (p. 64).
To illustrate how Goldberg uses this kind of social construction, consider his treatment of philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Goldberg claims that Locke was responsible for the Lockean Revolution which was
a wide and deep change in popular attitudes. It held that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government; that the fruits of our labors belong to us; and that no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class. (p. 8-9)
But remember, there is no God in Goldberg’s book. He does not mean that our rights actually come from God, it is that people began believing that they did. Nor does Goldberg hold that America’s founders necessarily read and hewed closely to Locke’s writings. Locke himself was less important than “the story we tell about Locke” (p. 122). All this is a completely constructionist position about our social reality. It is a useful question to ask: what story does Goldberg think we told about Locke in the early nineteenth century and what story does Goldberg himself tell about Locke?
Goldberg tells us that Locke believed that political and economic equality were indivisible. All rights began with property rights and the right to own yourself was the basis of all political rights: “Economic and political liberties were indivisible” (p. 157). This resulted in an American society that erased all those aristocratic and class differences that plagued Europe. What about the fact that the country was based on racialized slavery and disenfranchisement of women? Goldberg quickly dismisses this as a failure to extend Lockean ideals to everyone: “heredity slavery excepted unfortunately” (p. 148). The past never measures up to the present and Goldberg admits it is hard to praise the Lockean revolution without adding “except for slavery or except for women” (p. 160). What we find, however is Goldberg will re-enroll slavery into the Lockean revolution, but covertly smuggling back into his argument that which he has overtly disavowed.
Before we get to the that smuggling move let us admit that Goldberg is partially right: Locke’s arguments were used to attack slavery. What he doesn’t tell you is that they were also used to defend slavery and that Locke himself was tied up with the slave trade. Half a century ago, in his magnificent The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture historian David Brion Davis noted that John Locke transcribed the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina which expressly granted masters absolute authority over their slaves:
There is no evidence that he found these provisions objectionable; indeed, he was to become an investor in the Royal African Company, and clearly regarded Negro slavery as a justifiable institution. (p. 118)
Thomas Dew’s famous defense of slavery invoked Locke (p. 19) and it was followed by many other defenses of slavery in the nineteenth century that recruited Locke to defend slavery. Both antislavery and proslavery arguments were liberal in Goldberg’s sense in that they appealed to “personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values” (p. 14). So, the Lockean Revolution was just as much about justifying slavery as it was about abolishing it.
Stories, Goldberg tells us, are important. And the story Goldberg tells us about John Locke is misleading. Racialized slavery was not an exception to the Lockean Revolution: it was part and parcel of it. It wasn’t just an ideological justification: slavery was built into the capitalist system itself.
Slavery and Capitalism: Actual Capitalism
In the past, people have come up with all kinds of excuses for carving slavery out of American capitalism. Many go back to Adam Smith’s distinction between pure capitalism and mercantilism in the hope that the distinction absolves capitalism of the sin of slavery. Others have claimed that the American south was agrarian, not capitalist and thus slavery was outside the mechanisms of capitalism. And we have already seen Goldberg rather clumsily tell us”except for slavery” as a way of signaling that slavery lies outside the Lockean revolution he is describing.
Goldberg points to the fact that slavery has existed since antiquity to acquit capitalism of aiding and abetting it and capitalism was responsible for ending slavery. He quotes economist Don Boudreaux on this: “Slavery was destroyed by capitalism” (p. 35), This quotation is from a letter to the editor Boudreaux that he reprinted on a libertarian blog. We might be forgiven in thinking that this evidence is not the last word on the subject. If he had dug a little deeper than that, he would have found that American slavery was always embedded in a capitalist system.
At least since 1974, historians have found that slavery was capitalist in nature. As one recent review put it:
Generations have passed since any professional historian of slavery has contended that chattel bondage was not about profit. And many, many historians…have emphasized the centrality of liberal capitalism to slavery. (p. 411)
The case for American slavery as a capitalist system of production has been bolstered by a spate of recent books by Walter Johnson, Edward E. Baptist, and Sven Beckert. Collectively these books show that slave owners were motivated by making a profit, that there were extensive commercial links that tied slavery into a vast Atlantic world of production, and that the slaves themselves were important commodities in the nineteenth century.
Goldberg attempts to defend capitalism against this vast body of scholarship. First he argues that slavery was universal in human history. For this he goes, not to a historian, but to economist Thomas Sowell, a move necessitated by the fact that no historian believes that slavery was not a capitalist enterprise in the United States. The historical ubiquity of slavery is irrelevant when it comes to explaining the unique features of American slavery:
A glance at the historical record is enough to show that there is in fact no analogy between precapitalist peasant households and antebellum slave plantations in terms of their relation to the market. Slave owners in the United States could not fall back on subsistence agriculture, living off the labor their slaves, even if they had wanted to. For they had to purchase land and slaves on markets, typically on credit, and they faced fixed monetary costs in interest, taxes, and the wages of overseers. Therefore, antebellum slave plantations specialized for the market much more than small yeoman farmers. Their dependence on competitive markets for both inputs and outputs meant that slave owners were compelled to minimize costs by adopting the most productive techniques. As a result, both the productivity and price of slaves rose over time. (p. 285)
Goldberg’s other defense of capitalism is to argue a counterfactual: That slavery wasn’t necessary to America’s capitalistic growth; it could have happened another way. He again cites another of Boudreeaux’s letters-to-the-editor reposted as a blog entry (p. 102) to show that cotton prices actually went up after the Civil War, thus slavery could not have been part of a capitalist system motivated by profit. But, the fact that it could have developed some other way in no way disproves that it developed in the manner it did:
The North’s familiar forms of entrepreneurship, innovation, and market competition beg the counterfactual claim that the American economic takeoff could have happened without slavery. Perhaps it might have, but the fact remains that it didn’t. Nor does it matter that we can locate other capitalist societies that developed without slavery, or other slave societies that possessed few traits of capitalism. As capitalism expanded from within the world market it had created, slavery came to play a central, even decisive, role first in the Caribbean and Latin America, and then in North America tightly connected to the world-altering Industrial Revolution and the so-called Great Divergence. By virtue of our nation’s history, American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism. (p. 3)
Thus, turning to free market economists like Sowell and Bordeaux cannot disprove the historical reality that racialized American slavery was utterly capitalist in nature. But, the final proof that is was so is that Goldberg, and every other free market economist I’ve seen, covertly tells us so when they begin calculating the wealth that capitalism generated in the nineteenth century.
Poverty and Capitalism
It is money that matters, according to Goldberg. The success of The Miracle in the United States is evidenced by the tremendous growth in wealth. “In the century and a half following the Revolution, America experienced the greatest run-up in material prosperity of any nation in human history” (p. 160). Goldberg gives credit for this incredible growth in wealth to good old Yankee ingenuity but also, “The explosive growth of resources owed much to plentiful natural resources, especially land” (p. 159). Goldberg doesn’t mention that there were people on this land before Europeans and that the seizure of their land and their subsequent impoverishment were perfectly in line with Locke’s ideas. Goldberg shows himself to be a true Lockean when he paints Native Americans as primitives who resisted the modernity offered by the colonists because “there is something deeply seductive about tribal life. The Western way takes a lot of work” (p. 13). These people were savages who tortured their prisoners or fattened them up before eating them (p. 31). They were slave holders (p. 33). And, since Goldberg absolutely believes that “some cultures are better than others” (p. 6), he finds little in Native American culture worth saving.
But what makes Goldberg’s view of Native Americans Lockean is his view of property. I’ve written about this before; Locke held that land became one’s property when you mixed your labor with it. As Goldberg explains: “God gave us trees but when a person chops down a tree and turns it into a table, it becomes property” (p. 129).Native Americans, he explains, have no conception of ownership, seeing themselves as “intergenerational caretakers of the soil” rather than seeing the land as their property (p. 92). Thus, European settlers were perfectly justified in seizing land that nomadic tribes were not actively working since, according to Locke, is was not their property. Goldberg explicitly endorses Locke’s reasoning because Native Americans were just sitting around and not creating wealth as they should have been:
The tribes of America might be exotic and fascinating but it was nonetheless the case that a “King of a large and fruitful territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day labourer in England.” (p. 129).
“The story we tell about Locke” is indeed important and the story Goldberg tells is the one that justified a great deal of violence and murder all in the name of the Lockean Revolution.
Which brings us back to slavery. Remember, Goldberg explicitly carved out slavery as part of the The Miracle. He then covertly smuggles it back in when it is time to tot up the numbers and show the great wealth The Miracle brought.
Goldberg gives us a simple chart that notes the incredibly rapid rise in wealth since 1800 (p. 8). Only capitalism made such a sudden rise possible. In an appendix, Goldberg gives us more figures that note this rabid rise. That rise in wealth is mirrored in the growth of slavery: “American slavery exhibited rapid and continuous productivity growth; a unique characteristic of capitalist societies” (p. 282). In other words, when calculating the wealth generated by capitalism, Goldberg takes credit (or blame) for slavery. At least one of his sources is explicit about this: Deirdre McCoskey, notes that part of that wealth resulted from “plantation exploitation of slaves” (p. 5).
Enslaved people were perhaps the greatest source of wealth in the United States up until the Civil War. In the first half of the nineteenth century the aggregate values of enslaved bodies “is never less than six trillion 2016 dollars and, at the time of Emancipation, was close to thirteen trillion 2016 dollars.” And those trillions are the bodies alone, it does not count the cotton itself, the jobs at the mills that processed the cotton, the bankers who financed it all, etc. All those regrets Goldberg expressed about how unfortunate that slaves were “excepted” from the Lockean revolution are overwhelmed by his glee at showing off the wealth created by capitalism in which slavery’s wealth is smuggled back in and declared part of the victory.
Goldberg uncomfortably admits that “enormous profits were made from both slavery and empire” (p. 103) but attempts to address the problem by arguing that those were not necessary features of capitalism. But, as a social constructionist, Goldberg cannot apply this test to slavery at this point: of course slavery was a contingent part of capitalism. It is not important to show it must have happened, it is enough to show that it did happen. Could it have looked differently? Perhaps. But it didn’t.
Goldberg worries that capitalism is prone to corruption because of our “tribal nature.” I submit that capitalism is in far more danger for disingenuous histories like Goldberg’s. It is a tremendous ethical error to simultaneously claim that The Miracle freed the slaves while counting all of slavery’s wealth as the greatest accomplishment of the The Miracle.
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