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Monday, 15 September 2014 07:10

The Economist Has a Slavery Problem

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aneconomistslavery(Photo: Internet Archive Book)

The Economist - the famed international magazine that is an inveterate cheerleader for global capitalism and the concept of neoliberal "free markets" - was recently forced by public pressure to remove a book review that posited that slavery was not all bad. Ironically, it ended up apologizing for the unsigned piece (review columns are normally not attributed in The Economist), yet paradoxically including a copy of the original repugnant review in its explanation of why it was no longer posting it.

The target of the review was the book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist, an associate professor at Cornell University.

The Economist asserted:

Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Baptist offered a lacerating response in a September 7 commentary in Politico:

In the last couple of decades, the Economist and its suspender-wearing core readers have usually been reliable allies of market fundamentalism—the idea that everything would be better if measured first and last by its efficiency at producing profit. I, on the other hand, argue in the book that U.S. cotton slavery created—and still taints—the modern capitalist economy which the Economist sometimes seems to prescribe as the cure for all ills. I’d like to think we all agree that slavery was evil. If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?

It is not the first time that the noted publication has shown a soft side for slavery. Greg Grandin, a professor at New York University, wrote scornfully in The Nation on September 9:

So a pattern is detected.... In the 1860s, The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern "Blood Cotton" (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. "The Economist was unusual," writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; "Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices."

Grandin understandably expresses disdain for The Economist's claim of a need for "balance" in understanding slavery: "The review itself was written in that smarmy style that makes US corporate managers and hedge funders swoon, identified some time ago by James Fallows as 'colonial cringe.'"

In fact, Grandin's book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, released earlier this year was also criticized by The Economist for being too "one-sided." The Empire of Necessity recounts the horrific slave trade and how US Northerners - not just Southerners - economically benefitted from the iniquitous system. Grandin sardonically noted:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: Whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist. 

The Economist, as Baptist noted, appears to have a problem reconciling the profitability of slavery as a trade and production system (primarily of cotton) with its moral debasement. One of the magazine's criticisms of Baptist's book was that it didn't acknowledge that the increase in southern cotton output prior to the war could have been attributed to plantation owners treating their slaves better (although this appears to be a theory limited to The Economist and Southern revisionists). This, The Economist proposed, could have been done by making the field slaves "fitter" and "stronger," as if they were livestock.

In its contemporary hedging on slavery, The Economist reflects the inherent conflict in advocating for a free market position in which the universal rights of people are secondary to the sacrosanct rights of property and asset consolidation. That position is reflected in the publication's support of the Confederacy during the Civil War - as well as its critique of books published in 2014 that expose the facts behind the horrifying industry of enslaving people for profit.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.