U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity? (Part IV)

[Note to readers: this is the last in a four-part series of guest posts by James Livingston. See Part I, Part II, and Part III.]

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?

by James Livingston

IV

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.

33 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this enchanting series of posts. I must admit however, that I could not but feel that in several ways your prose functioned much as Johnson or Faulkner’s prose. It too was designed to mesmerize. And I mean this as a compliment. Faulkner’s ability to make the past haunt the present, at least for me serves as a call to action, knowing that the very foundations of this country are rotten lends itself to a radical critique of the US which refuses to submit to the narratives of enlightenment and nationalism. I don’s see it as a deterrent.
    Likewise Johnson, though I do not agree with many of his moves–especially his conceptualization of slave agency in “Soul by Soul”–he at the very least helps us recognize that the south was part and parcel of a west European colonial regime of belligerence and exploitation fueled by the spirit of capitalism (m-c-m)–if not by the exact material conditions that Marx perceived around him when he developed his analysis. In that sense I think that Arrighi and Wallerstein are of critical value.
    I do however heed your point as well. We must maintain our ability to distinguish between different economic systems and levels of exploitation and I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we have today in the US is better than slavery, otherwise we belittle the atrocities of slavery–and frustrate constructive programs that build on past accomplishments. So I guess that though these two views are mutually exclusive, there is a productive tension between them that I welcome. And the captivating prose–though at times a bit conceited–helps to bring them alive.

    • Thanks, Eran, I appreciate your attention to the prose: these rhetorical issues become more significant as our discipline loses the protection of the linguistic moats that have marked off popular from professional writing of history–that is, as the university loses its protections against the vicissitudes of the market. On the other hand, there is no prose that isn’t “conceited” in the sense that the writer must believe that he or she is composing sentences that are uniquely persuasive in both form and content.

      As for Arrighi and Wallerstein, yeah, they’re “of critical value,” but to whom, and to what purpose? Genoa, Amsterdam, London became early modern sites of precocious banking practices, financing new empires and so on, but the financialization of assets specific to the late-20th century is not legible in these places at the times they want to write about, because surplus capital didn’t appear until the late-19th century.

  2. It’s quite significant to keep in mind the differences between slave economy and neoliberal capitalism, this also made me think of how often the phrase “Gilded Age” is thrown out without much historical nuance to describe our present times. There’s a profound loss when historical difference is utterly collapsed, from an analytical perspective and from the perspective of political action. And for this, and for the importance put into reading the rhetoric of historiography, I am thankful for having read these posts.

    I am still left wondering to what extent does Johnson truly posit such a collapse of difference. In this regard, it seems to me that we are trapped in a question of emphasis: in underscoring certain elements that correspond to certain definitions of capitalism we can establish continuities between historical periods, while in underscoring other elements according to other definitions of capitalism we can establish a logic of discontinuity. A friend of mine mentioned theories of “uneven development” in connection to this question, theories that posit, as she said it herself, that “slavery was essential to the capitalist system, even if not all aspects of it conform to the classic definition of a capitalist society” (the classic definition used here being Marx’s).

    If it hasn’t happened already, it would be a great idea if S-USIH invited Walter Johnson to write a response, I would love to see how he would reply to this trenchant critique, especially in regards to how his analysis supposedly “has lulled us into political complacence about capitalism.” I personally do not include myself in this we (and I doubt other “Leftists” would). On the contrary, even when I take into consideration the slips into presentism that have been signaled here, I see his work as a source of political inspiration, particularly against such complacence. The drive to see contemporary links with the horrors of the slavery era, historically problematic or not, is connected to the drive to highlight the horrors of the present, particularly how racism is still intrinsic to US culture and politics.

    • I couldn’t agree more about the equation of the so-called Gilded Age and our own time. I’m on leave in the Fall to write up a critique of Piketty/Krugman with this very equation in mind.

      I have no objection to treating slavery in the wester hemisphere as a function of the development of capitalism–just as I have no objection to treating the “second serfdom” in Eastern Europe as an analogous function at the same historical moment.

      But I wouldn’t then insist that because Russian nobles reinvented serfdom as a way to meet the demands of a new world market for agricultural raw materials (hemp, flax, grain), I can designate them as capitalists, or can claim that Russia was a capitalist society, ca. 1550-1850. (I wrote on this long ago in a MA thesis.)

      On how to narrate the horrors of the present as against those of the past–where to place yourself on or about the slaughterbench– I tend toward an Augustinian position rather than the Stoical, Skeptical, or early Christian position I detect in the ability to erase the differences. Tacitus and Amminanus Marcellinus could write about the torture and treachery of their time as if it were always so. That attitude toward history produced a stoic resignation in and about the present–this cannot change, and to think otherwise is foolishness or faith.

      Augustine had a different attitude, and he wrote accordingly. Whether out of foolishness or faith, I’m on his side of the narrative boundary.

  3. Jim, thank you for bringing this essay to S-USIH for serialization here at the blog. I’ll have a little bit more to say in a post next week about how this publishing project developed in this particular format and where I hope it might be headed. For now I just want to say thanks to you for being flexible with the publishing format and amenable to ongoing discussion with the commenters.

    And I’ll have a bit more to say next week about our wonderful commentariat’s input as well, but now they too — you too — deserve thanks. It’s a little risky to weigh in on an argument when you don’t know exactly where it’s headed, but the comments that came in week by week as this essay unfolded have been outstanding intellectual work in their own right. Watching this dialog unfold has been a privilege and a pleasure.

    So, more later — but, in the meantime, please comment away! And, aside from comments here, if anyone is interested in writing a longer response / rejoinder / rebuttal to this essay, please let me know. You don’t have to write 11,000 words — but you sure could if you felt like that’s what it needed.

    • Thank you, LD, for giving me the space, and thinking through what the serialization would mean. It’s been fun, and more than that, edifying–the comments have been uniformly rigorous and helpful in gauging the import of the arguments. Can’t wait to hear about the sequel.

  4. There’s really just so much here that I’m finding it difficult to make an entry point without leaving a dozen questions and problems unresolved. After reading all four of these posts, I’m dazzled (but also bewildered) by what you have to say here Jim, and yet still feeling like you’re arguing with a straw man, that nobody actually believes the position that you are imputing to Johnson. Since we don’t have Walter Johnson here to refute your argument (and I, too, use that word precisely!), I wonder if you might ventriloquize a little, and imagine what Johnson would say in response to your characterization of his position. Would he say “yes, you’ve nailed it. That’s my position.” ? I, for one, am certain that he would deny your description of his stance as one in which there is “no difference” between the capitalism of today and that of antebellum slavery. You seem to concede as much, but you suggest that whether that is his intent or not, it is both the tacit presumption and effective outcome of his book, that some kind of “spirit of the left intellectual” is working behind his back producing a kind of collapse of historical consciousness that validates the special critical sense of selfhood of the modern intellectual at the expense of the freedom agenda of some older version of the left. I’m not opposed to the idea that historians are not in full command or understanding of the way in which ideas and conceptions move through them or structure their thought in ways they are unaware of–In fact, I’m in favor of it. But you seem to conflate Johnson’s explicit intentions with a kind of “necessary logic of the argument” that suggests a position that is less attentive to what his text is trying to do–in claiming that Johnson (and by extension the historians of capitalism) reduce slavery to capitalism you deny all the parts of the text that don’t do this, that recognize basic differences between wage labor and slavery, but refuse to call that difference a difference between capitalism and non-capitalism.

    A couple of questions, since I really can’t get into the detail and problems in full that your complex essay addresses:

    1. Why do you use Johnson as a stand in for the entire new history of capitalism? There’s a lot of slippage here, but you seem willing to draw large conclusions from one text about an entire field. But even Jonathan Levy, who you point to and name, says something entirely different than Johnson about slavery and antislavery, something much more in line with the position you articulate: the idea of self ownership and fully payable life insurance was rooted in antislavery arguments–that as long as one’s life could be bought and sold by others, the double commodification of self ownership (ownership of one’s labor, but also ownership and commodification of the self that produced one’s labor) of modern conceptions of risk management and capitalist finance were not possible. You never really make the argument for Johnson’s representativeness of this body of literature, but seem willing to assert it and make larger claims about contemporary “left historians” on the basis of this one book.

    2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the authorities on the history of capitalism that recognize the basic difference you want to see recognized are three, all of whom have very distinguished legacies of thought that follow upon them: Weber, Marx, and “the people” (the last of whom appear to be virtuous and freedom-loving agents of their own destinies–there’s not a little old left sentimental populism here, I think). All three are products of the nineteenth century (“the people” maybe the 18th c.?): you are utilizing a moment of critique that arose in the very century you are saying we have not recognized as sufficiently past, and trying to call us back to the mode of thought that informed that critique and make it ours (for various values of “ours,” since I’m not sure I, for one, am included in the “we”.) In other words, you are providing a usable past of the “right” kind of historical consciousness in order to collapse the intellectual difference between historians today, like yourself, and the critiques of the nineteenth century, that got the story right, even before it was written or before it happened (given how the essay started, this might be a distinction without a difference). But why should Marx or Weber or “the people,” none of whom knew anything of what was yet to come–who could not see the forms of capitalism that the twentieth century invented–be our authority here, how could they “know,” what we need to know? If we want historical consciousness, don’t we need to situate them in their time and not collapse their aspirations, goals, and critical stances with the ones that make sense out of all the intervening developments?

  5. Dear Jim, Your four part essay, though it is mostly about American historiography (Johnson) and the European philosophy of history that we both know pretty well (Hegel, Kant, Marx, Weber and both European and American pragmatists) makes an essential point about the contemporary Left — that it conflates current day global capitalism or, more precisely, different versions of capitalism, with the whole history of human society and especially modernity. Like you, I very much believe that it is important to try and understand the past as past — which of course is still interpretation — and that periodization is important because we see that there were many possiblke options in the past that created the present and perhaps even in the present many possible option that, if we do not understand the past as past, will be ignored in the future. I think you grasp what is wrong with Harvey et. al very well, but a point that you do not make is that one of the ways we understand the past is to see modernity and capitalism as two different processes, with modernity preceding industrial capitalism and also creating a critique of industrial capitalism (from the 19th to 21st century). Which is why in a sense, do you entitle your four part essay, historical consciousness (this part I get) at “the end of modernity.” I think we are still very much in modernity and that modern culture still allows the creation of critique that can perhaps tame neo-liberal capitalism. Not necessarily via the people (though of course social movements from below are necessary) but so is a ruling elite which is itself possessed of a sophisticated historical consciousness. Johnson and Harvey, by conflating capitalism with modernity, or with the whole of history (via ground rent in Harvey) also converge with neo-liberalism — in the belief that markets more or less exclusively determine the history of human society and “growth.” So why are we in late modernity and whatever that means, what factors — looking at both the past and the present — provide options beyond the capitalism(s) of the present. I see ecological limits; inequality creates underconsumption; debt and asset bubbles based on debt cannot endlessly deal with the problem of underconsumption; and, lastly, the education of the citizenry must be such as to provide a sophisticated historical consciousness to those who are literate (most people in the 21st century). My own set of models to see the past — and here is where your Piketty-Krugman work comes in — have to do not only with Hegel and Kant and the pragmatists and Weber — but also with Jane Austen and Burke, who in many ways express, at the moment of modernity in the first “modern” nation, how a reasonably good politics even in what Piketty calls a patrimonial society may be constructed. I will go no further than this for now, but only to say that I much prefer David Bromwich on Burke than Corey Robin on Burke (his book, the Reactionary Mind, may be the worst book I’ve read in 30 years or so). Wally Katz I respond here because I really like to avoid Facebook.

  6. I disagree with most of this but enjoyed it greatly and found it really thought provoking. In some places I’m unsure whether I disagree, misunderstand, use terms differently, or some combination thereof.

    You say that Johnson ‘eradicates any difference between the past and the present’ because he thinks 19th century slavery was capitalist. I can’t tell if I understand what you mean by ‘eradicates difference between past and present.’ On the face of it, the way I understand those words, that just seems straightforwardly wrong to me. That two times and places were both capitalist – 1990s Chicago and 1890s London, say – does not mean there are differences between them. This makes me think you may be using those words differently than I understand them. I dunno. I also can’t tell if you mean to say that any possible version of an argument for the claim ’19th century slavery was capitalist’ must eradicate this difference or if it’s the specific way Johnson makes this claim that eradicates this difference, in your view (that is, is there some way that Johnson and others could keep that claim but reformulate their arguments for it in a way that does not supposedly eradicate this difference)?

    “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.”

    Why do you think that? The only reason I can think of is because you think the only difference between slaves and wage laborers that is worth discussing is that the former is, in your view, noncapitalist and the latter is capitalist. I don’t see why this should be so, in part because it seems to me there are all kinds of things worth discussing about the differences between different kinds of waged labor even though those are all forms of labor that are capitalist in character.

    “To suggest that slaveholders were the original capitalists is to claim (…) that capitalists, now as then, have legal rights to the very bodies of the people who work for them.” Why?

    It seems to me that this is false because rights change over time, at least if rights means something like ideas codified in law such that legal claims can be made over them and such that some practices are authorized (ie, carried out in accord with someone’s rights) and some are unauthorized (something done without right, or done against the right of another). Workers have gained rights over time, and in at least one instance lost them (like Weingarten rights for non-union employees, they may be other examples).

    “To suggest that slaveholders were the original capitalists is to claim, accordingly, that the Civil War made no difference in the making of America”

    Why? If one things there are no salient difference between any two kinds of capitalism – and so, in a way, that there is fundamentally only one kind of capitalism, such that all capitalism is equally undesirable – then this makes sense. But if one says that some kinds of capitalism are preferable to others, then one could say plantation slavery was capitalist but also say the Civil War made a big difference, it was just an incredibly important transition from one kind of capitalism to another. Also – let’s say for the sake of argument that this is a consequence of Johnson’s argument. I don’t see why that consequence should shape our understanding of whether or not slavery was capitalist. That a claim has unpleasant ramifications isn’t an argument that the claim is false.

    “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.”

    I can’t tell if I misunderstand or disagree. Is this saying that waged labor is a social relationship with a ‘reduced scope for the commodity form’ relative to slavery? If so, I don’t get why. Being a slave seems obviously worse than being a waged laborer, but I don’t understand how being a waged laborer means living under a reduced scope of the commodity form. It seems to me rather that slaves and waged laborers live out different versions of life where the commodity form is central. Slaves were compelled to work, as you note, by force and threat of physical harm, and not by the need to acquire money. Slaves didn’t generally buy their means of subsistence, or at least they provided them themselves by non-market means to a degree substantially greater than did waged laborers — part of what compels waged labor is the need for money to buy commodified means of subsistence. None of which is to discount being sold and having one’s loved ones being sold, and the things that could be done legally to slaves, it’s just to say that I don’t see why that crucial difference is one of reduced scope of the commodity form.

    “Capitalism emerged in North America because the slaves, then the freedmen and women of the South, literate or not, willed it”

    Does this mean there wasn’t capitalism in the United States prior to the Civil War? That’s how I read it. I would have thought that even if we see slavery as noncapitalist then that would mean capitalism and noncapitalism co-existed in the US, such that the North’s victory was a victory of capitalism over noncapitalism. But this reads to me like the North wasn’t capitalist either until after the Civil War. Do I misunderstand?

    “Walter Johnson has demonstrated (…) that antebellum slave society was a market society, through and through (…) What follows? That a market society is by definition a capitalist society? If so, if capitalism haunts every passage of time…”
    The phrase ‘if capitalism haunts….’ trips me up here because it reads to me like you’re saying that if capitalism=market society then capitalism haunts every passage of time, which is to say, it reads to me like you’re saying every society has been a market society, but only some market societies have been capitalist societies. Do I understand you right?

    “How could socialism emerge or survive under such historical circumstances, when the slaveholders themselves were innovative capitalists, where the market always ruled?”

    I’ve heard Noel Ignatiev and others say that the legacy of slavery, in the form of white supremacy/structural racism has been the key factor maintaining capitalism in the United States, such that socialism can’t emerge until white supremacy is dismantled. That’s compatible with a view that slavery was capitalist (a view I believe Ignatiev holds).

    “How and why do these implicit, merely rhetorical questions come as a comforting message to the American Left”
    I don’t think they’re comforting. I think they’re disturbing.

    “the stoic resignation produced by Walter Johnson’s argument (…) Johnson has lulled us into political complacence about capitalism. There is nothing to be done, he suggests, because the past is not even past.”
    I don’t get that from Johnson. I also don’t think this is the necessary result of any argument that plantation slavery was capitalist. I take the opposite response. Capitalist society is one in which, in certain circumstances, the brutalization of human beings can get mind-bogglingly appalling. Those circumstances might recur. Preventing that recurrence while capitalism exists is an incredibly important task, and the definitive prevention of that recurrence would be to end capitalism and replace it with a better society. I don’t think the argument that plantation slavery was capitalist *has* to have that rhetorical force, but I think it’s just as capable of having that rhetorical force as it is capable of be a force for complacency here as you say.

    Finally, people interested in questions about capitalism and/or slavery might enjoy this article by Heide Gerstenberger in a recent issue of Viewpoint — https://viewpointmag.com/2014/09/02/the-political-economy-of-capitalist-labor/ The gist is a disagreement with Marx’s assessment that there is some close relationship between capitalism, formal freedom, and lack of direct constraint (as distinct from indirect constraint via markets/commodification of means of subsistence).

    • @Nate, let me be specific. There are no sentences that can stand alone, not even Emerson’s or Nietzsche’s. Yet you read this essay as if it’s the sum of its parts, as if each sentence must carry the entire weight of the argument. So you sound like an analytical philosopher in training, the earnest empiricist who doesn’t believe in forests, only trees.

      When you ask “why?” of these discrete sentences, you think you’re exposing gaps in the logic of the argument, but in fact all you’re doing is announcing that you don’t share my premises or conclusions. That’s fine, as long as you grant me the right to say, “Why not?”

      Yes, capitalism has an internal history, so London in the 1890s and Chicago in the 1990s can be different phases or versions of capitalism. So what? I’m arguing that, like the second serfdom in Eastern Europe, slavery in the western hemisphere was caused by and indispensable to the rise of capitalism, ca. 1650-1850, but was not itself a version of capitalism. Why is that so hard to understand?

      I’m also arguing that a market society like the slave South is not necessarily a capitalist society. Genovese used to say that the antebellum South had a market economy but was not a market society. Johnson among others have proved him wrong. It doesn’t follow that it was a capitalist society, but Johnson among others have claimed it must be.

      • I apologize if my replies have annoyed you, Jim, though I understand why. I appreciated your essay despite, and in a way because of, my disagreement because I found figuring out why I disagree to be clarifying. That apparently wasn’t mutual, which is unfortunate, but not the end of the world. I have an urge to express a bit of further disagreement and/or restate a couple points here, but I won’t do so.

        I did have one further thought that I wanted to share. After posting my last comment, I asked myself what I see as some positive take-away points from your, my disagreements notwithstanding. One such point for me is that arguments about the continuity of power relations, like ‘the transition from slavery to waged labor was a transition between two kinds of capitalist labor relations’ are only part of the story. These stories either need to be supplemented with other stories about, or else need to include themselves accounts of, the actions and aspirations of people like you mention in your essay, such as the slaves who fought slavery. That strikes me as important.

  7. this is a great piece, and i’m sympathetic to your criticisms of Johnson and his more enthusiastic readers (the scholarly reviews have been quite negative actually). but it’s not clear to me what definition of capitalism you are employing here. you quote Marx who says “it is only from this moment [the emergence of wage labor] that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.” but Marx elsewhere refers to american slave plantations as capitalist, and they certainly seem to have universally produced commodities. It’s also possible to point to many instances of coerced labor in apparently capitalist 20th century economies (e.g. illegal immigrants whose bosses hold their passports).

    You seem to suggest that it was specifically the resistance of wage labor (e.g. the fight for termination-at-will labor contracts) that was essential to capitalism. why? is it because wages tend to rise and this stimulates demand and product innovation? that the same rising wages stimulate labor-saving process innovations? something else? i’d be fascinated to hear more.

    • I’m not sure I understand your questions and concerns here, but the exchanges between Louis and me here at the comments section might begin to clarify. Let me know if not.

      • yes it did, thanks.

        i would argue that identifying capitalism with wage labor is arbitrary it you don’t specify how other widely agreed upon features of capitalist societies, such a continuous productivity growth and the spread of markets, are explained by prevalence of wage labor. dobb tries to do this, but brenner shows that his argument also applies to market-dependent tenant farmers, such that you get capitalism in the early modern english countryside without wage labor. if, as seems to be the case, southern plantations also saw continuous productivity growth and expanding markets why wouldn’t the same logic apply?

        there is also another question about the definition of wage labor – how free it has to be to count as wage labor. when the wages of wives and daughters are approriated by fathers how different is this from slaveowners renting out their slaves?

      • note the point about continuous productivity growth doesn’t apply to the second serfdom in Eastern Europe, although those serfs also produced for global markets. on the contrary serf labor became less productive over time. thus by brenner’s criteria the second serfdom wasn’t capitalist, but the second slavery may well have been.

  8. I’ll try to be brief since so many have commented. Well I’ve finally read all of the posts in the series, and even all of the comments. It was a lot to process. I am biased because I essentially agree with Livingston. The evidence seems overwhelming to me:
    “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”.
    I don’t think it could be said better. Marx, among others would be happy. I suspect the motive behind this “new history” of capitalism is a kind of Manichaeism, an attempt to divide all of social life between the egalitarian and just on the one hand (whether ever realized in practice or not) and the inegalitarian and unjust on the other hand and call the latter History. Now that might seem elegant, hell even “scientific” and properly ethical but it just seems to me reductionist and some other harsher things I could say but won’t, well, ahistorical.

    • It’s interesting–or just plain cool–that you would cite Manichaeism in this context, since I’m trying to take an Augustinian attitude toward the relation between past and present, trying, that is, to get beyond the notion that good and evil are unchanging forces.

  9. Dan Wickberg, thank you for your sly deconstruction of my argument. Herewith my rejoinder.

    As I understand you, your points, in order, are that (1) Nobody actually believes the position I impute to Johnson, not even Walter himself. (2) My argument may nevertheless be valid because my method refuses authorial intention in favor of “tacit presumption and [the] effective outcome of his book.” (3) My argument may, on the other hand, be specious because I “deny all the parts of [Johnson’s] text that don’t do this [reduce slavery to capitalism], that recognize basic differences between wage labor and slavery, but refuse to call that difference a difference between capitalism and non-capitalism.” (4) Without making the case, I let Johnson’s book “stand in for the entire new history of capitalism,” which is unfair to Jonathan Levy among others. (5) By enlisting Marx, Weber, and “the people” as my authorities in differentiating the 19th century from the 20th, I’m “utilizing a moment of critique that arose in the very century you are saying we have not recognized as sufficiently past, and trying to call us back to that mode of thought”—how, you ask in concluding, could they know what we need to know if Johnson among others is wrong to ignore the differences between capitalism then and now?

    My rejoinder, also in order:

    (1) Plenty of people believe it, as demonstrated by (a) the comments here, including your own; (b) my experience at Facebook defending Tim Shenk’s review essay in The Nation; (c) my personal experience with the founding fathers and mothers of the new “history of capitalism,” at three separate conferences; (d) the unlikely outcome of the Dobb-Sweezy debate, recapitulated in the Brenner debate, which makes Arrighi, Wallerstein, and Harvey the presiding spirits of contemporary attitudes toward capitalism in and as history.

    (2) Yes, my approach to the book was rhetorical or discursive, the questions being, what are the emotional effects on readers of these conjunctive, hypotactical moments, how does the content of this argument become memorable and persuasive because it takes a certain form? I used to say that the difference between fiction (including poetry and song) and non-fiction is that the former persuades covertly, invisibly, without argument, and this even after reading Hayden White and Kenneth Burke. I don’t say that anymore. So of course, I’m probing a structure of feeling, a sensibility, that shapes our writing and reading without our knowledge.

    (3) The difference between wage labor and slavery just is the difference between capitalism and slavery. These days, too few historians and political theorists and philosophers can acknowledge that wage labor was, and is, a vast improvement on slavery—that the market in labor was a liberating device as well as an ugly alternative to the patriarchal hierarchies of the household. From what you say here, you’re in the majority you claim doesn’t exist: you don’t see a significant difference between chattel slavery and wage slavery (see [1] above).

    (4) I do let Johnson stand in for the “history of capitalism” because I think the key move of that new genre is to project the salient features of contemporary capitalism onto the 19th-century past, which includes slavery at the South, and even further into the past, unto the 15th century. I think you’re right to suggest that Jonathan Levy isn’t Walter Johnson. I think their theoretical informants—Arrighi, Wallersten, Harvey—permit a synoptic reading of, say, the “financialization of assets,” that erases the difference between the wildcat banks of the 1850s and the deregulated banks of the early 21st century. That reading leaves out the momentous changes of the mid-19th century we call the Civil War, but also the momentous changes of the 20th century we associate with the rise of corporate capitalism.

    (5) You’re right, I do want to recall us to a “mode of thought” that seems missing from contemporary debates. From my standpoint, to cite Marx, a man of the 19th century, seems no more impertinent or pointless, in view of my argument, than citing Lincoln, or Shakespeare, or Augustine. But let’s ask your question, how could they know what we need to know—why would anybody in the present think they might learn something from these men from the past, whose times were so different as to be incomparable to ours? Don’t we have to assume that they were the same as we are to make them part of a “usable past”?

    Fuck, no.

    No, we can’t learn from them unless we assume that they were different, and fundamentally. We can learn about them, but that’s not what modern historical consciousness has taught us to do—to live with and hope for discontinuity, the differences we experience between past, present, and future. Also the differences between us and the strangers who crowd our lives, our cities, our superegos, our own minds.

    That figure of hope is what has gone missing in the new “history of capitalism.” We’ve convinced ourselves, in spite of our complaints about the End of History, that the future looks irredeemable because it’s just larger doses of the past. The random violence that the shooters and the terrorists deliver with monotonous regularity seems inexplicable. The organized violence that states visit upon unarmed people every day, everywhere, seems inevitable. Meanwhile capitalism extends it rule of the earth, right down to the level where natural gas hides in rock formations.

    Nothing can change, so the study of history becomes the discovery of what hasn’t.

    In this sense, the “history of capitalism” is Stoicism reborn. It presupposes and ratifies what Hegel called the “beautiful soul” of late imperial Rome, when Christianity became the epitome of slave morality, when retreat or abstention from an oppressive, violent world became rational and necessary, for everyone capable of it.

    Augustine, who straddled the fourth and fifth centuries, was one of those beautiful souls: he wrote The City of God, a map of the place that never intersects with an earthly itinerary, as consolation for the fall of Rome at the hands of those barbarians. But earlier, he wrote his Confessions. And here he enunciated the principle of hope that “the people” still represent for me, as a matter of faith. You can see how at politicsandletters.wordpress.com.

    In Part I, you may recall, I claimed that modern historical consciousness was predicated on the end of subaltern silence or deference, which was itself a moment in a belated debate on the meaning of the revolutions that had consumed the late-18th century.

    I was claiming that modern historical consciousness is animated by—indeed, impossible without—the idea that the future will be determined by social movements, not kings and warriors, nor gods and demons. But this change of moral and rhetorical climate took almost two millennia. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the idea became an assumption, first by way of romantic poetry and philosophy, then in the literary revolution that made everyone the potential author of his or her own life.

    I also suggested that this assumption is itself a principle of hope. And I claimed, following Erich Auerbach, that the principle derived from, is legible in, and is amplified by the rhetoric of the New Testament and the Reformation, movements of faith that made every soul worthy of representation. But that rhetorical principle of hope presupposed a social force that we, as modern historians, can’t seem to find in the contemporary firmament of reality. Yes, we have lost faith in “the people,” and we have, accordingly, lost faith in the future.

    But how could they know what we need to know, these random, uneducated individuals, let alone the grand theorists I invoke? I confess my ignorance, except for this.

    The rhetoric that “collapses historical time,” as John Jeremiah Sullivan characterizes William Faulkner’s approach to the atrocity of slavery, and as I have characterized Walter Johnson’s approach to the same phenomenon, can let us, no, make us believe, that nothing has ever changed, and that our purpose in life is therefore to get used to a past that is not even past—just like the rhetoric that allowed classical writers like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus to convince their educated readers that nothing could change, and that the purpose of life was to remain stoic, resilient, resolute, even as Fortune destroyed their hopes.

    Augustine knew things could change and were changing. He could see social forces, subaltern depths, techtonic plates that were remaking the world, rather than mere vices and virtues, successes and mistakes, as the classical style rendered every event. That Augustinian insight is what I think, or believe, I mean when I invoke “the people” as the missing element in the new “history of capitalism.”

    • Thanks for the response Jim. I’m not sure that it satisfactorily addresses my questions, but it does clarify a great deal. Ultimately, it seems that this comes down to a difference in historical sensibilities–the one tragic (you call “Stoic”), the other comic (some might call Progressive, you call “hope”). I think the historians of capitalism, as a group, are on the side of a progressive narrative–all will end well. You don’t. I, on the other hand, have a preference for tragedy. But I’m a liberal and not “the left.”

  10. Jim, it wouldn’t have been sporting of me to comment on your essay as the sections went up week by week since I knew the end from the beginning (!), but I think it’s all right to weigh in now. And, given your repeated invocations of Augustine, with whom I go way back (indeed, in many ways we all go way back with Augustine, and I think that’s part of the problem here – “here” being your essay, and also, modernity), I feel like I maybe ought to say something. But all I can offer at the moment is, “You’ve found the Augustine you’re looking for, and he looks an awful lot like William James.” Now, this may be an improvement — an improvement upon Augustine, or William James, or both. And so, if it is an improvement, your reading is justified on pragmatic grounds — which are, not incidentally, the very same grounds you’re trying to historicize with such a reading. That’s a bit tricky, don’t you think?

    • Yes, LD, like Luther I found the Augustine I was hoping for, looking for, but I wasn’t prepared for him when I “went back” to him. And I must say that he never looked much like William James to me–more like Josiah Royce.

      What I find in Augustine is what Luther, Hegel, and Auerbach found there, a principle of hope that doesn’t reside in and flow from your own erudition. I’ll quote Auerbach from chapter 2 of Mimesis to make my point.

      “What considerable portions of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles describe, what Paul’s Epistles often reflect, is unmistakably the beginning of a deep subsurface movement, the unfolding of historical forces.”

      This is what Augustine takes for granted. And yet he’s the one who insists that “in interiore homine habitat veritas” He writes out the slave morality of Christianity by moving the material foreground of the classical and the Manichean narratives to the ineffable background of the inner life.

      That is the difference he makes. He knows, and he wants us to know, that the moral of the story he tells about himself depends on the outcome of the social struggle to which he bears witness.

  11. James Livingston is critical of Walter Johnson’s historical analysis of capitalism, which he makes some cogent points. However, Eric Williams, a Trinidadian, is never mentioned. The interlinkage between the slave trade and capitalism, capitalist machinery-the cotton gin to name only one- aided, enabled the American version of capitalism to succeed and grow. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery” brutally documented these facts building upon Williams. Finally, no mention of Orlando Patterson’s trenchant analysis of Hegel in “Slavery and Social Death.” So let put it out here, why ignore Caribbean and Black Scholars in American Intellectual History?

    • I ignored a lot of scholars, including Edward Baptist, who built on the foundations laid by Fogel & Engerman, who built on the foundations laid by Williams . . . and so on.

      I agree of course that Eric Williams has been neglected–he was a central figure when I was in grad school–but then he never equated capitalism and slavery. (For what it’s worth, James Oakes and I are co-teaching a course on capitalism this fall at the CUNY Grad Center, in which we’ll be reading Williams, Paul Gilroy, and Cedric Robinson.)

      As for my silence on Patterson, well, I don’t cite anybody as a trenchant analyst of Hegel except myself–oh, and the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts, but that’s just to illustrate the point about how, according to this intellectual tradition, human nature and self-consciousness reside in work (“He grasps labour as the essence of Man”).

      Again, I think that the rise of a world market elicited several forms of bondage on the “periphery” of the emergent world system, slavery in the western hemisphere, serfdom eats of the Elbe. But it doesn’t follow that capitalism–wage labor as the regulative social relation of goods production–is identical to slavery or serfdom.

  12. A few brief comments:

    (1) When I suggested in an earlier comment that it would be helpful to posit a definition of capitalism, James Livingston replied along the lines of “yes, but pragmatically and historically”. Turns out he does of course have a succinct definition of capitalism, and it’s right here in this thread: “wage labor as the regulative social relation of goods production.” (Whether this definition is ‘historical’, as opposed to other definitions, I’m not entirely sure, though clearly Livingston thinks it is.)

    (2) If J. Livingston dislikes Arrighi, Wallerstein, and Harvey, he would completely hate the view in the later work of Andre Gunder Frank, who argued for “the continuous history and development of a single world system in Afro-Eurasia for at least 5,000 years.” (R. Denemark et al., eds., World System History [Routledge, 2000], p.3)

    (3) If someone asked me, a complete non-expert on American slavery, if slavery in the South was a version of capitalism, I’d probably answer: no, I don’t think so. If someone then asked me: do you think an argument that slavery *was* a version of capitalism de-fangs efforts at social change, represents a species of hopelessness and resignation, collapses past and present, and channels the Stoicism of Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius (or whoever), I’d say: not really, but go read these posts/comments by J. Livingston, because he does. (Anyway, this discussion has been interesting, if occasionally somewhat beyond me.)

    • Louis, thanks yet again for clarifying–for zeroing in on that definition of capitalism, which I take from Marx by way of Dobb (also Weber, Polanyi, Hill, Hilton . . .). Yeah, that’s the bottom line.

      But it’s not that I dislike Arrighi and Wallerstein. Instead, I think their grand narratives lack explanatory adequacy, particularly when applied to the 19th and 20th centuries. I have elsewhere written that their notion of “world systems” is the amplification of dependency theory as Frank, Amin, et al. articulated it. And also, I must say, as Adam Smith understood the asymmetrical relation produced by trade between countries with manufactures and without: as a zero-sum game.

      Dependency theory makes perfect sense of the world until investment rather than trade becomes the central feature of imperialism (cf. Leroy-Beaulieu, Hobson, Conant, Lenin). At that point, ca. 1890s and after, all bets are off.

      And yeah, it’s a rhetorical reach on my part to juxtapose the coarsening of late imperial discourse from the 4th and the 21st centuries. I blame Erich Auerbach for this move, which, if I were a close reader of the essay like, say, Nate, I would cite as evidence of the “collapsing of time” that I criticize throughout. But I have my reasons. Or at least a rhetorical strategy.

      • Jim, since you’ve given us a close reading of Johnson, right down to the conjunctive adverbs, I don’t see how you have much room to complain about people giving your essay here a close reading. And your leap from the 4th century to the 21st century (with a pit-stop in Shakespeare) is, in fact, a startling compression of time, and one of the main weaknesses of this essay.

  13. P.s. I just want to add that this post, Part IV, is, as I think others have already said, superbly written (quite apart from the substance and what one may think about it). I like the quotes from Marx and Weber (though I never thought of the title of The Protestant Ethic as ironic; maybe I should have), and also the reference to Moore (Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy).

  14. At the risk of seeming unfair to the evidence you do marshall for your points about Walter Johnson (or worse, seeming like an acolyte), I’d suggest that this piece could be strongly improved by taking into consideration the writing that Walter Johnson has done about what slavery means after emancipation rather than reading too much between the lines in his book about slavery before emancipation. There are at least three pieces worth looking at:

    1.) “Slavery, Reparations, and the Mythic March of Freedom” in _Raritan_
    2.) A similar piece in a book entitled _Slavery’s Ghost_, co-edited with Richard Follett and Eric Foner.
    3.) And probably worth reconsidering some of the stuff in the “On Agency” article from _Journal of Social History_.

    There is plenty in those three to suggest that Johnson doesn’t collapse the wage labor/slavery distinction. He does other stuff that you might find as evidence for a kind of pessimism. As is, your piece reads Johnson with a kind of Straussian tendency to find hidden meanings where there are none.

    • Whoa, Straussian, there’s a trigger warning for you! I don’t think there’s anything hidden about Walter Johnson’s tendency to conflate the antebellum South and contemporary times, which is to say slavery and capitalism (construed as cultural systems) at their ugly extremes. I’m very careful about the citations from River of Dark Dreams.

      But I think you may be questioning my reliance on a close reading of his rhetoric. That’s a different issue.

    • Johnson’s “Slavery, Reparations and the Mythic March to Freedom” in Raritan V27/2 began as another piece: “Freedom’s Servant: Slavery, Freedom and Reparations as a Theory of History” in 2005, which in turn contains some of “The Pedestal and the Veil” from 2004. Plenty of this is in River of Dark Dreams. Livingston read it there.

      Johnson’s contribution to Slavery’s Ghost (2011) was an essay on Herbert Gutman called “Agency: A Ghost Story”, which recalls another iteration “On Agency” that you mentioned from 2003. I’m not sure what you thought Livingston could learn from it, but I don’t see the connection to what we’re talking about here.

      “On Agency” is — as, sooner or later, everything Johnson does is — about Genovese. In this case it was to take issue with The Don’s paradigmatic use of cultural hegemony. I doubt there is anything there that Livingston hasn’t read and responded too at least once; See “Marxism and the Politics of History”, Radical History Review (2004) which was mentioned earlier.

      I do not see where Livingston “read” at all, much less “too much” between the lines, nor do I see that he went looking for any “hidden meanings”. As I read it, the problem for Livingston begins with the fact that Johnson conflates slavery and capitalism. He did it in the earlier work you cite and he’s doing it now. There’s nothing hidden about it. Here is Johnson from “The Pedestal and the Veil” in The Journal of the Early Republic:

      ” If slavery was not capitalism how do we explain its commercial character: the excrescence of money changers and cotton factors in southern cities who yearly handled millions and millions of pounds of foreign exchange; the mercantile ambitions of southern slaveholders who wanted to take over Cuba and Mexico and Nicaragua so as to insure their commercial dominance and greatness; the thriving slave markets at the centers of their cities where prices tracked those that were being paid for cotton thousands of miles away?”

      So, what? As Livingston says “there was plenty of credit, interest, and debt back then, there was limitless greed, also stock jobbing . . ” There was plenty of commerce – not capitalism.

      It’s been hinted at here before that Livingston’s reading of Johnson’s rhetoric is too close. I find that amusing because. . . well, just read Johnson on Marx’s use of the word “whilst” in “The Pedestal and the Veil”. It is always “thus” with close readers.

      And what’s wrong with acolytes anyway?

  15. @J. Livingston
    Thanks for your reply (above), esp. the point about dependency theory and world-systems (which I will think about).

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