What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?
by James Livingston
Well, duh, or rather, Exactly! But that hypotactical bridge of “thus” leads nowhere this time, except toward the existential crisis of the master as explained by Hegel, then Freud. For the question of periodization—which is nothing more or less than the question of capitalism—arises here in the 19th century, at the moment of modern historical consciousness, when the identity of capital and labor under slavery begins to look anomalous if not unusual because “man as man” is assumed to be free, when masters, slaves, and servants part company, when the commodity form seems to have exceeded its proper bounds, and this according to the usual suspects, the fabulists and the philosophers, the romantic poets and the German Idealists and the left Hegelians, among whom we number the young Marx.
But in typical academic fashion I have left the primary suspect out of the lineup. That would be “the people,” who became the subject of History by making it. The people themselves objected to the identity of capital and labor—workers themselves, slave and free, refused to be priced as mere commodities. Hegel didn’t conjure the master-slave dialectic only as an answer to Adam Smith’s empiricism, or merely as a way of getting metaphysical about Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Jena. As Susan Buck-Morss suggests, he wrote that famous section of The Phenomenology as a close, astonished reader of the other French Revolution, the one Touissant L’Ouverture led in San Domingo—the great servile insurrection that was inconceivable because slaves were, by definition, incapable of deciding their own destiny.
Hegel knew as much about this “other” revolution as anybody on the European continent. Like his fellow fabulists and philosophers, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley among them, who meanwhile read and wondered about the great 1797 mutiny of British sailors at the Nore, and this almost a century before Herman Melville did in Billy Budd, he was a witness to astonishing events, none more so than the sudden end of subaltern silence (in the idiom of American historiography, this silence goes by the name of the “deference” that disappeared in the Revolution).
Was New World slavery a form of capitalism, or not? Walter Johnson argues, and I use this word carefully, that of course it was, “conventional political economy” notwithstanding; indeed he suggests that in North America it was the harbinger—the pure culture—of everything we hate most about contemporary capitalism, which would be hedonistic consumerism, financial chicanery, white male supremacy, reckless imperialism, and ecological carelessness [pp. 97-125, 209-43, 280-420]
But for God’s sake, who cares? What is the point of pressing the big question of periodization? So what if we all agree that slave society in the antebellum South was the epitome of 19th-century capitalism, and thus—there’s that word—the origin of our time and our failings? Walter Johnson believes that he has created a profoundly usable past by erasing any difference between then and now, between the before and after of the Civil War—between slavery and capitalism. Why not grant him his premise and accredit his purpose?
Because by eradicating any difference between the past and the present, he makes the study of history pointless: there’s no future in it. To suggest that slaveholders were the original capitalists is to claim that there is no difference worth discussing between the status of the slave and the standing of the wage laborer—it is to claim that capitalists, now as then, have legal rights to the very bodies of the people who work for them, which is a logical absurdity because it’s long since become a legal anachronism (along with its correlate in femme couverture, which gave husbands ownership of their wives).
To make that claim is to insult both the slaves who built America and the proletarians who believed in it (and still do)—the people who fought slavery, escaped slavery, destroyed slavery, the troops on the ground who sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they marched toward what they knew would be massacres, and the half-million participants in the General Strike, who never knew what the future would be, only that they could now shape it. Freedom waited on their exertions, and they knew it.
To suggest that slaveholders were the original capitalists is to claim, accordingly, that the Civil War made no difference in the making of America—that it was an unnecessary and inexplicable diversion from the inexorable development, the telos, of capitalism in the United States. It was a tragedy, pure and simple. And that is, again, to insult both the slaves who built America and the proletarians who believed in it. Then as now. It is also to indulge, unconsciously of course, in a puerile version of “exceptionalism,” because it treats the U.S. as a special case of historical development, then as now exempt from or immune to the rebellions and revolutions that wracked the body politic of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
To suggest that slavery was capitalism is, finally, to insult our intelligence as working historians, who know, going in, that there are differences between the present and the past, and that the past must appear to us, all of us, as both condition of and impediment to our present purposes. So, in keeping with the topic at hand, I will conclude these remarks by repeating myself, by saying that to reduce slavery to capitalism is also to repudiate modern historical consciousness.
Long before there was capitalism, there were markets, money, credit, debt, commodities, advertising, profits: go ahead, add what you want to the list, it doesn’t change the historical fact. You can find these “economic” dimensions of human civilization throughout recorded history—ask David Graeber—because, as Nietzsche surmised, thinking as such arose when equivalences had to be constructed out of differences, and money, the original metaphor, became useful on an everyday basis. (Paper money became useful, however, only in the 17th century, and mainly in the New World, the western hemisphere, where slavery flourished.)
Max Weber argued, always against Werner Sombart—the scholar who believed the “spirit of capitalism” was visible and measurable throughout recorded history—that the actual development of capitalism required the repression of the animal spirits expressed so cruelly, beautifully, and bountifully by Faulkner’s Sutpen, the man who arrived in Mississippi in June 1833 out of nowhere on a roan horse, during the boom times, and set his unseasoned slaves, still Africans, to clearing the hundred acres that would curse the Compsons, and with them all the rest of us, down to this day.
Here is how Weber introduced the argument against Sombart in 1904, from his ironically titled treatise, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
“The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. . . . It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or a at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.”
According to Weber, and for that matter Marx and Karl Polanyi, capitalism developed where the rationalization of abstract social labor under the auspices of capital was accomplished, but “capital” did not signify mere ownership of property or productive assets, or customary control of human labor. Instead, “capital” signified a new relation between property and labor. The feudal lord was no more a capitalist than the slaveholder of antiquity because in these cases, the owner of property extracted profit from his assets by exercising direct, armed control over the very bodies and the physical mobility of his labor force. As the dominus or paterfamilias, he exacted obedience and extracted a surplus in private, from within a household or manor he ruled as if the state were his province, where equality was impossible and freedom unknown.
Capitalism could not develop without detaching men and women from these prior restraints, particularly the “rural idiocy” of the household, which means that “capital” created new time and new space for the articulation of what both Hegel and Marx defined as human nature, that is, labor power, the capacity to produce value through work. And vice versa, which is why “free labor” became the slogan of what Barrington Moore, Jr., called the last capitalist revolution—the American Civil War. Primitive accumulation, so conceived, was the slaughterbench on which the modern notions of liberty and equality were carved from human bodies and dreams.
Marx explained this historic process in many ways and passages, for example in the Grundrisse:
“It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital. In the relations of slavery and serfdom this separation does not take place; rather, one part of society is treated by the other as merely an inorganic and natural condition of its own reproduction.”
And then again in Capital, volume 1:
“There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded on slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.”
This passage must be read in the context provided by Marx’s remarkably compressed periodization of capitalism in a footnote: “The capitalist epoch is therefore characterised by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently becomes wage labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”
So the bottom line is this. Capitalism developed, in North America as elsewhere, to the precise extent that proletarians and their allies were able not just to articulate but to establish what Marx called the “historical and moral element” in the determination of wages and standards of living, then to universalize that element—to say that the price system had a limit, and to mark it, year after year. In other words, capitalism developed and slavery receded to the precise extent that the scope of the commodity form was reduced by the efforts of those subject to its dictates. That category of subjects would include not just runaways and renegades and revolutionaries, not just strikers and sympathizers, but every slave and every scab, every scared working stiff who knew without thinking that he or she couldn’t be accounted for in the books the boss was keeping.
Capitalism emerged in North America not in spite but because of a strong, literate working class at the North that would not accept the equation of wage labor and slavery. Capitalism emerged in North America because the slaves, then the freedmen and women of the South, literate or not, willed it, because they refused to remain both capital and labor, both thing and not-thing: they refused to stay enslaved, they fled to Union lines, and so they won the Civil War without picking up a gun. These working people, North and South, didn’t know they were choosing capitalism by resisting and then destroying slavery. All they knew was that they would not be treated as things, dead matter with no volition of their own; to that extent they knew what we know, that wage labor is better than slavery—that being able to buy the right not to die by earning wages is better than being a thing. To be more scrupulous about it, they didn’t know even that—and neither does Walter Johnson. But they did know that they could speak for themselves; he does not.
With two remarkable books, Walter Johnson has demonstrated, contra Eugene Genovese, that antebellum slave society was a market society, through and through (something I have myself documented, along with James Oakes and others). What follows? That a market society is by definition a capitalist society?
If so, if capitalism haunts every passage of time, then Werner Sombart’s famously rhetorical question—“Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?”—answers itself, and the grand failure, or notable absence, of the American Left becomes not just explicable but self-evident. How could socialism emerge or survive under such historical circumstances, when the slaveholders themselves were innovative capitalists, where the market always ruled? How could any goodness come of an original sin so primal as to color every sentence uttered since Thomas Jefferson started lying to himself about equality? These are the questions Walter Johnson poses, and, with extraordinary eloquence and in excruciating detail, forces us to confront.
Still, I would like to think that I have a better, more urgent question. How and why do these implicit, merely rhetorical questions come as a comforting message to the American Left, so that the reception of this grimly, grotesquely stoic book has been more or less ecstatic? My guess is that the “how” is more etiologically significant than the “why,” but my analytical resources are, for now, insufficient to both tasks. So I will here venture an answer only to why.
It’s very simple, I believe. Leftists need to know that they’re marginal creatures, always outside the mainstream, ever in dissent. Otherwise they’d be just like the rest of us—they would no longer be exempt from and superior to the circumstances of their time, and they would thus be susceptible to, say, talk radio, or advertising, or television without the imprimatur of the brilliant, difficult men over at HBO, AMC, and FX. Otherwise they’d be chumps, in other words, willing to believe all that shit peddled by the culture industry. They would definitely not be speaking truth to power from outside its precincts, along with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
The answers to Walter Johnson’s questions are also very simple, but to believe in them requires some faith. And so, following Karl Lowith, we return to religion as the source of modern historical consciousness. Socialism emerges and survives not in spite but because of the development of capitalism—and slavery disappears in the South not in spite but because of the development of capitalism, at the North and elsewhere in the world.
America’s original sin was slavery. Americans, wherever they come from, redeem themselves not by acknowledging this fact, this sin—of course they’re all guilty, because wherever they come from, the atrocities could be worse—but by doing something about it, acting upon it, trying to make a difference, here and now.
Thus, I conclude. What is bewildering if not sinful, it seems to me, is the stoic resignation produced by Walter Johnson’s argument. He has set a place for our beautiful souls, as Hegel designated those who could abstain from the world as it is, and created an interior, intellectual space where we will find refuge from the slaughterbench of history. In the voice of righteous anger about slavery, Johnson has lulled us into political complacence about capitalism. There is nothing to be done, he suggests, because the past is not even past. We are all Compsons now.