There’s been a series in the New York Times about slavery and its legacy that featured an article about how the plantation grounds the forms of capitalism we find today in the US. Phillip Magness has written a response to at least part of that series in an article, “The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery“, in which he proposes that slavery was an essentially socialist solution, not a capitalist one.
So, this response is strange to me. The strangeness is not that someone at a libertarian center like the American Institute for Economic Research would defend capitalism. What’s strange is the assumption that the original NYT article was attacking capitalism. It wasn’t. It took pains at the beginning to point out that there were many forms of capitalism around the world that did not have the character of the American form, and that the specifically American form could be explained, at least in part, by looking at the slave economy, and in particular the plantation economy.
That this was not mentioned by the author is telling. It speaks to the tendency to want to group things under large-scale categories. Libertarians (and I think rightly, but for different reasons than I would have) think that the term “capitalism” has outlived its usefulness. They tend, though, to be quite happy to use the term “socialism” despite its myriad definitions and in many cases tired assumptions. These are always nice big concepts that can be pitted against each other in an epic battle for supremacy. Just read the comments section to Magness’s article – it quickly devolves into how white guys were really the good guys all along and saved the world. And, what is more telling, how “capitalism”, however we are going to define that (mostly as “free markets”, another problematic and loaded term) can do no wrong and when allowed to operate by their own devices (I keep running into assumptions I want to question; there’s another one) everyone’s freedom will be maximized and we will march towards utopia or at least a higher standard of living.
The Achilles Heel of this kind of libertarianism is, I think, its religious nature. It isn’t explicitly religious, of course (often quite anti-religious), but what I mean is the evangelical faith in the abilities of a “free” market to effect all good in the world, and the source of all evil becomes the restrictions on those markets. The evidence is all post-hoc, in the manner that the evidence for evangelical claims is post-hoc. Your child was healed? That’s because God intervened. Your child wasn’t healed? You didn’t pray hard enough, or maybe God has another plan, or maybe the forces of evil are on the rise in the world and we have to do more to ward them off.
Now, I know, them’s fightin’ words. But my point here is not to rehearse the same old debates that have been going on since the 19th century. In fact, I think a lot of the discussion today remains mired in 19th century assumptions about things like markets, freedom, individuality, action, and so forth. That’s what I have the problem with. Markets are networks. We understand networks better than we used to, and we also understand things like emergent conditions within networks, autopoietic production that does not hinge on or depend on the Howard Roarks rising above the masses and manfully striding above the economy, mastering the chaos and bending the world to his will.
We understand that cognition happens within sociality, within groups, and those come before, during, and after individual decisions. We understand that groups can act as individuals. We understand that there is not just one market, but many, all operating in a time and place and across times and places. We can see now that the bifurcation between “free” actions (by individuals exchanging things) and “unfree” actions (by governments, by rules and regulations) is an artificial and loaded distinction. Governments can express the will of the people, or they can stand as separate entities. Individuals can act only in their own interests, or they can engage in rent-seeking, that is, use their existing social or economic power to change the structure of a market to suit their own interests at the expense of others. There is no one network at work here, but multiple ones, engaged transversally with each other, connecting at points, abrading at other points, producing new and unexpected results. Free action does not only come from an individual, but can come from groups both small and large (and the logic of how that will emerges is of course complex). That’s why, for instance, I don’t see unions as inimical to the market, but as legitimate actors in it.
That means that the fantasy of the “free” market is a snapshot taken of that networked engagement, and evangelical libertarianism sees its god there, every time. But that’s just based on a snapshot, and tells us no more about how these networks work (and where they will go) than looking at a fly in amber tells us about later evolution). We can look back and make pronouncements on what ended slavery, or what produced a higher standard of living, but using this to predict the future is as reliable as trying to predict speciation in evolution based on what has come before. It’s not that we don’t know enough, it’s that the intersection of networks produce effects not reducible to the logic of the existing networks. Autopoiesis happens, but it is explained away after the fact.
Why is it so hard to recognize the fundamental damage that plantation economies did to the US, and continue to do to this day? Why pick out one writer who uses the term “socialism”, ignore the racism inherent in almost all those who stood to gain from the existing economic structure, and make this into a point in a war about economic structures defined by concepts long out of date? Is this another gotcha point, look, if something is bad it must have come from socialism, and if it is good it must have come from free markets? Why not recognize that the writers weren’t actually arguing against capitalism at all, but against the American form of it? Are we really so ethnocentric to still think that the American form is the most advanced and sophisticated version of capitalism the world has ever seen? I’m not buying it.
So, here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that markets do not have a significant role in raising standards of living. Sure they do, but as I’ve argued, markets are not the simplistic things people seem to think they are. I’m not saying that an account of the legacy of slavery is easily told and has clear bad guys and good guys. That ship sailed decades ago – capitalism, socialism, religion, humanism, all these things had ways of justifying and supporting slavery, and all had ways of seeing the limits and ultimate injustice of slavery. Often it was Africans and the African diaspora who had to point out how these things actually led us to reject slavery (and a lot more, such as inequality and all forms of racism), but the point is that I’m rejecting the gotcha move of pinning the bad stuff on the other guys, and absolving one’s own view of the world yet again. We all have our hands dirty. It’s only the evangelicals who can’t see that, and who have not developed the tools of self-critique to see past their own assumptions.
I grew up evangelical. I can smell it a mile away. I can smell the impulse to start from an unassailable and unquestionable belief in one or more ideas, and then reason from there to everything else. The logic past that starting point might be sound, empirically based, and sophisticated, but the starting point is still a problem. One can be religious and not be evangelical; one can recognize the power of markets and not be bound by the assumption that a particular configuration and approach to them are the solution for every problem.