Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

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Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

 

*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.

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Banksy, “Untitled” (2009)

On first glance, liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Let me explain. In the article I referred to yesterday, conservative Arthur Brooks invokes the “dignity of labor” as the reason anything and everything should be done to stem the fall in the labor-force participation rate of white men and get them back to work.

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

Some may ask whether making people necessary is an appropriate role for government. The answer is yes: indeed, it represents a catastrophic failure of government that millions of Americans depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others. However, it’s not enough to merely make people feel that they are needed; they must become more authentically, objectively necessary.

The single most important part of a “neededness agenda” is putting more people to work.

Well, as it turns out, one of Brooks’s liberal critics, Lane Kenworthy, actually agrees that working for someone else and producing more than one needs has “significant virtues”:*

It imposes regularity and discipline on people’s lives. It can be a source o mental stimulation. It helps to fulfill the widespread desire to contribute to, and be integrated in, the larger society. It shapes identity and can boost self-­esteem. With neighborhood and family ties weakening, the office or factory can be a key site of social interaction. Lack of employment tends to be associated with feelings of social exclusion, discouragement, boredom, and unhappiness. Societies also need a significant majority of people in paid work to help fund government programs.

No matter the fundamental differences in the policies they advocate, Brooks and Kenworthy are in fundamental agreement that people should believe in the dignity of work and government policy should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the white working-class—get back to work.

I have already dealt numerous times (e.g, here, here, and here) with the argument that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified. But the question remains, why should the government be brought in—in the eyes of by both conservatives and liberals—to make sure people are forced to have the freedom to acquire that dignity?

The answer actually lies in an unexpected source. According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither Brooks nor Kenworthy can count himself among those with such insight.

*This is even after Kenworthy admits “employment is not always a good thing.”

The need for a paycheck can trap people in careers that divert them from more productive or rewarding pursuits. Paid work can be physically or emotionally stressful. It can be monotonous, boring, alienating. Some jobs require a degree of indiference, meanness, or dishonesty toward customers or subordinates that eats away at one’s humanity. And work can interfere with family life.

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Certainly not by mainstream economists—not if they continue to defend their turf and to attack the new literature on “Slavery’s Capitalism” with the vehemence they’ve recently displayed.

It makes me want to forget I ever obtained my Ph.D. in economics and the fact that I’ve spent much of my life working in and around the discipline.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja] highlights Edward E. Baptist’s novel book, The Half Has Never Been Told (which I wrote about back in 2014), and some of the outrageous ways it has been criticized by mainstream economists—first in a review in the Economist (which was so over-the-top it was subsequently retracted) and then in a group of reviews published in the Journal of Economic History (unfortunately, behind a paywall).

In my view, this is not a clash between two disciplines (as the Chronicle would have it), but rather a fundamental incompatibility between mainstream economic theory and a group of historians who have refused to adhere to the epistemological and methodological protocols established and defended—with a remarkable degree of ignorance and intolerance—by mainstream economists.

What is at stake is a particular view of slavery in relation to U.S. capitalism—as well as a way of producing economic history (of slavery, capitalism, and much else).

Baptist’s argument, in a nutshell, is that slavery was central to the development of U.S. capitalism (“not just shaping but dominating it”) and systematic torture (a “whipping machine”) was one of the principal means slaveowners used to increase the productivity of cotton-picking slaves and thus boost the surplus they were able to extract from them.

Mainstream economists hold a quite different view—that slavery was an outdated, inefficient system that had little to do with the growth of capitalism in North America, and increased productivity in cotton production was due to biological innovation (improved varieties of seeds that yielded more pickable cotton) not torture in the labor process.

They also use different frameworks of analysis: whereas Baptist relies on slave narratives and contingent historical explanations, mainstream economists fetishize quantitative methods and invoke universal (transcultural and transhistorical) modes of individual decision-making.

Those are the two major differences that separate Baptist (and other “Slavery’s Capitalism” historians) and mainstream economists.

This is how one mainstream economist, Alan L. Olmstead, begins his review:

Edward Baptist’s study of capitalism and slavery is flawed beyond repair.

Olmstead then proceeds to accuse Baptist of being careless with the numbers, of “making things up,” and “misunderstanding economic logic,” all of which leads to “a vast overstatement of cotton’s and slavery’s ‘role’ on the wider economy and on capitalist development.”

He concludes:

All and all, Baptist’s arguments on the sources of slave productivity growth and on the essentiality of slavery for the rise of capitalism have little historical foundation, raise bewildering and unanswered contradictions, selectively ignore conflicting evidence, and are error-ridden.

Baptist, for his part, has responded to Olmstead’s scathing attack (as well as critical reviews by others) in the following fashion:

Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.

That’s a problem for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics: mainstream economists are simply unwilling to give up on homo economicus and doggedly refuse to examine either the economic effects of the brutal system of torture that was central to U.S. slavery or the role slave cotton played in the development of U.S. capitalism. Not to mention their arrogance in responding to the work of anyone who argues otherwise.

And that’s why the other half of the story will never be told by mainstream economists.