U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

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

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?

James Livingston


I pose the rhetorical questions because recent versions of the “history of capitalism,” as the cultural history of economic practices associated with markets is now denominated, have tended toward a conflation of past and present. This conflation works two ways. On the one hand, historians write as if there is no significant difference between capitalism in the 19th and the 20th centuries—there was plenty of credit, interest, and debt back then, there was limitless greed, also stockjobbing, there was corruption, there were white-collar workers, rogue banks, con men, and, yes, even large corporations with attendant bureaucracies, so why not equate now and then?

On the other hand, historians write as if capitalism and slavery are not merely related or symbiotic phenomena in the 19th century, but are instead interchangeable parts of an already “globalized economy”—money, credit, markets, and profits drove every aspect of all economic behaviors in the antebellum South, so why not equate now and then? (The theorists who enable these equations are Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi and David Harvey, who see the same forces of financialized capital at work in 15th- century Genoa, 19th-century New Orleans, and 21st– century New York.)

The most important examples of this conflation, equation, or reduction of past to present, always in the name of the new “history of capitalism,” are to be found in two brilliant, prize-winning books of 2013, Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk (Princeton UP) and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard UP). Both authors write as if every facet of contemporary capitalism were already in full flower by mid-19th century, North to South, from force and fraud to fake financial reporting, on towards global empire in the name of higher profits. But I will leave Levy’s book aside for now, and concentrate my remaining remarks on Johnson’s monumental achievement.

I do so expediently, because Johnson is more forthright, or at least more angry, than Levy. He reduces antebellum slave society to modern financial capitalism by compressing time and space to the point of obliteration, and he does so by using the same implacable, imperial, abstractive diction David Harvey attributes to capital itself. This is the homogenizing diction of the General Land Office, which turned the variegated landscapes of Mississippi into maps; of the slave markets in New Orleans, which turned human beings of different shapes, sizes, colors, and ages into monetary values; of the wildcat banks of Louisiana, which turned every human possibility into a promissory note. But this is also the homogenizing—totalizing—diction of Johnson’s own argument, which turns any difference between then and now into a cruel joke. In the name of an escape from the abstractions of theory, in pursuit of a thoroughly empirical, materialist account of slavery, he has erased every difference we might learn from.

After the Introduction, the reduction of antebellum slave society to modern financial capitalism becomes routine in the crucial sense that hereafter it requires no reminder or reference. This reduction, having been secured by the inaudible or invisible rhetorical devices of the first seventeen pages, can now be repeated incidentally, for emotional effect on readers, as, for example, with the passing mentions of “racial capitalism” at p. 147, “agro-capitalism” at p. 154, or “capital and labor” at p. 249.

I say rhetorical devices, not sleight of hand. Walter Johnson is not trying to fool anybody, but the troubling beauty of his prose makes a case of its own, on its own—the silences, the images, the metaphors, the sardonic asides, even the conjunctions convey explanatory meaning, but always from the present to the past, as if he’s piloting a steamboat upstream, against the dark current of the Mississippi River, as if our proper destination is the past, not the future. Time runs backward in this book, to the point where the crimes of contemporary capitalism become indistinguishable from the atrocities of antebellum slavery.

I say emotional effect on readers because the reduction of the present to the past which Johnson accomplishes prosaically, metaphorically, and rhetorically, enacts a kind of transference—whereby the present stands in for the past, as the psycho-analyst does in evoking remembrance while constructing a narrative that converts random sequence to intelligible events, making her both the producer and the representative of the analysand’s past. When capitalism stands in for slavery in this manner, the emotional effect on readers is to wish for its abolition, just as the analysand wants to erase his origins, to become the mother and father of himself by turning on the analyst, who is today’s representative of his unbearable past.

(The identification thus purchased can’t work, but that’s what makes analysis interminable. I use the language of psychoanalysis advisedly, because Johnson himself does in describing the “displacement” of slaveholders’ fears about impending slave insurrection.)

In the Introduction, the key rhetorical device is the hypotactical bridge of the simple word “thus.”

As in: “Because the planters’ capital was human, their economy was particularly vulnerable to the sort of structural shock represented by the panic of 1837. In most capitalist economies, capital chases the leading sector. Over time, as more and more is invested in a single sector, returns diminish. [NB: the trans-Atlantic cotton trade was “the largest single sector of the global economy in the first half of the nineteenth century” (p. 10)] Often there is a crisis, a crash. Value in one sector is destroyed—acres go untilled, factories are left to rot, workers are laid off—and investment moves on. Thus, in our own time, overinvestment in information technology, software development, and web-based marketing gave way to overinvestment in real estate, mortgage-backed securities, ‘security’ technology, and defense contracting. Much of that capital has now been destroyed, leaving the world strewn with husks of prior cycles of boom-and-bust, of speculation, overinvestment, and crisis. But in the nineteenth-century South, capital could not so easily shift its shape, at least not when it came to slavery.” [pp. 12-13; all italics mine]

Notice the eradication of time and space accomplished by the use of one word, “Thus,” even after invoking change as the signature of history by saying “over time.” This usage also, and not incidentally, relieves the author of any explanatory burden as to how and why capitalism and slavery are identical. But notice, too, that these rhetorical results are worth remarking only because the author himself has already invoked the violently compressive space/time logic of capital itself, as per David Harvey, and, two pages earlier, has also mentioned the “long standing question of the relationship” between these two modes of production, capitalism and slavery.

And notice, finally, that the analytical syntax of this paragraph works in reverse. Or rather, to revise my earlier formulation, it moves both forward and backward in time, in synoptic, almost filmic fashion, on the Faulknerian assumption that there is no difference between the “panic of 1837” and the Great Recession of “our own time”: in other words, there is no difference between slaveholders in the 19th century and capitalists in the 21st. The night in which all cows are black covers us. The past is not even past: we are all Compsons now.

Clearly, then, the South under slavery was a capitalist economy, in which the major investors, those planters, chased the leading sector—the cotton trade and its entailment, slaves—but “because the planters’ capital was human,” they couldn’t just move on to the Next Big Thing when crisis struck. This “capital” was not merely human, it was foreign, even African, and prone to insurrection. So the planters and their bankers and their exegetes at DeBow’s Review were “caught between unsustainable expansion and unspeakable fear,” bound together by the logic of a market society that could commodify everything, human beings included. [pp. 12-14]

Thus were the science of political economy, the practicalities of the cotton market, and the exigencies of racial domination entangled with one another—aspects of a single problem, call it ‘slave racial capitalism’—as planters and merchants set about trying, first, to reform themselves and, failing that, to remap the course of world history. In order to survive, slaveholders had to expand. Like DeBow, they displaced their fear of slaves into aggression on a global scale.” [p. 14; italics mine]

Notice again the rhetorical results of that simple, hypotactical, conjunctive word, “Thus.” Its use lets the author throw up his figurative hands and announce that economic theory, markets, and racism were, then as now, so imbricated—the intellectual, the economic, and the cultural dimensions of this phenomenon were, then as now, so enmeshed with and determined by each other—that it’s impossible to sort them out: it’s a “single problem,” so call it capitalism. Notice, too, that the announcement comes as a parenthetical, interruptive moment, as an apologetic aside, between two strong, declarative phrases. And notice finally that, in this resumptive moment, the first person plural pronoun (“let us”) goes missing, but its ingratiating attitude of identification with the reader does not. The past is not even past: this night is so dark that all cows are black. We are all Compsons now.

So, modern historical consciousness as I have characterized it disappears in Walter Johnson’s extraordinary book, just as it does in the narrative delirium of William Faulkner’s great novel, Absalom, Absalom! In both texts, the differences determined by historical circumstances—the discoveries of time, the gradations of space—give way to a language without limits, to the implacable, imperial diction of a present so infinitely pliable as to inhabit any century, or a past so abiding as to be absolute. Under the spell of their languid, lengthy, often gorgeous sentences, which command your attention by denying any difference between past and present, you begin to think that nothing has ever changed.

No? Listen to old Compson, the family archivist, explaining to his descendant Quentin how the knowledge of just a sixteenth-part Negro blood would cause young Henry Sutpen to kill his half-brother Charles Bon, to prevent the marriage of this mulatto to his sister. Listen carefully as this frustrated historian admits that “something is missing,” and claims accordingly that “nothing happens,” because these figures from the past are “impervious to time and inexplicable.” Unlike William James, Old Compson knows that what we say about the past cannot matter, for the truth itself is unspeakable.

“It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Choctaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we see ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable—yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen, all of them. They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces, you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”

Like John Jeremiah Sullivan and Walter Johnson, and all other writers committed to the notion that there is no difference between past and present—it’s an exhausting imperative—Faulkner sometimes expresses impatience with his own rhetorical strategies: he “breaks,” as actors say, from the characters he has established as the narrators of this story. He pronounces from offstage, so to speak, in an authorial voice. In Absalom, Faulkner gives these exasperated, explanatory, metanarrative lines to Aunt Rosa Coldfield as well as old Compson:

“’Once there was—Do you mark [how] the wisteria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and appetitive progress from mote to mote on obscurity’s myriad components?  That is the substance of remembering—sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel—not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.’”

Sudden oracular exclamations like this are scattered throughout the dense thrumming of words that is Absalom, where the weight of the past registers as a genetic trait, a natural fact, a physical burden—“not mind, not thought”—as well as a psychic wound, probably because Faulkner himself knew that from time to time he had to find a verbal clearing, for himself and his readers, where they could rest, sip some water, then get on with his merciless, clear-cutting journey into the darkness at the heart of the American Dream.

John Jeremiah Sullivan understands this need to interrupt the juggernaut of memory unbound by the demands of the past tense: he pauses in his foreword to note that Southerners are “walking concatenations of stories, drawn or more often inherited from the chaos of the past, and invested here with a special doom-laden meaning, the nostalgia that borders on nausea.” Walter Johnson reaches the limits of his own patience in Chapter 9, toward the end of the book, where he finally tests the equation of capitalism and slavery he has assumed since the Introduction. By now the rhetorical exhaustion or exasperation is palpable, and the nausea is near, probably because, like Faulkner, he wants to leave the trees and see the forest of time from a new distance: “Few questions have occasioned the expenditure of so much ink in the service of so many circular arguments as the question of whether the planters who owned slaves and lived by their labor were capitalists.” [p. 252]

His voice already echoes Aunt Rosa Coldfield’s, for he’s been trying this whole book long to escape abstractions—to make us feel the specific material weight of each act, every exchange: “The history of Gossypium barbanese suggests that beneath the abstractions lies a history of bare-life processes and material exchanges so basic that they have escaped the attention of countless historians of slavery. The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.” [p. 9]

But, just like Faulkner, or for that matter any other writer, he has somehow to assign significance to these material life processes and reflexes, to put the muscular pulse of memory into the words that might make retrospective sense out of random or meaningless sequence: “There is something intimate about the knowledge shared by the fingers and eyes of those in Louisiana and those in in Liverpool, as they performed the capillary actions of the global economy of the nineteenth century at either end of its reach.” [pp. 249-50]

Just so. Fingers, eyes, blood: there is nothing abstract about these things, but the metaphor of the global body as a vascular system removes us from their physical immediacy and delivers us, by means of rhetorical fancy, to the plane of common knowledge.

And so it is here, at a moment of “something intimate,” that Johnson finally relents and engages the theoretical questions—the abstractions—he’s been postponing since the Introduction. He identifies two groups of historians, one that argues capitalism emerged in the 17th century according to the more or less Marxist specifications of primitive accumulation and the commodification of labor power; the other that argues it emerged in the 14th century as a global system of commerce and exchange which presupposed slavery in its modern, “new world” form. But he doesn’t care who wins the argument, because “in actual historical fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery.” He has no use for the “ideal types” produced by such arguments. These are worthy only of the name of dream. [pp. 252-54]

Johnson wants, instead, a “materialist and historical analysis,” as if these theoretical differences, those ideal types he has just invoked, are ghosts he can exorcise by enclosing them within new brick and mortar courses of empirical detail. But in another, more startling reversal, he then meets his own demand with a rhetorical question and yet another reduction of capitalism to behavior informed and determined by money, credit, and markets, as if these phenomena were not trans-historical dimensions of human civilization:

“What if we sought not to measure the extent to which ‘the market’ or ‘capitalism’ had penetrated the culture of cotton, but rather to understand more concretely and specifically the workings of this market—this way of employing capital—in this place at this point in time? What, that is to say, if we set aside prefabricated questions and threadbare tautologies, and simply began with a bale of cotton?” [p. 254, italics mine]

All right, then, what if? But the remainder of the chapter begs the question by saying “this way of employing capital”—that’s an answer, a tautology, already, in its reduction of capitalism to markets—and then adhering to its low-angle itinerary, observing the Mississippi from the standpoint of the cargo that made the river the country’s most important commercial artery.

It’s a tried and true rhetorical strategy. In Time on the Cross (1978), Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman avoided the big question of periodization by assuming the ubiquity of capitalism: if this mode of production is always already here and now, why bother to distinguish between market behaviors then and now? That’s why they offended so many historians on the Left. Walter Johnson makes the very same assumption but has become the darling of historians on the Left. What has changed? The market? The nature of capitalism? Or the history of capitalism?

Karl Marx engaged the big question of periodization by observing the market from the ground-level standpoint of commodities, that famous coat and those ten yards of linen, differently mundane items that contained equal exchange value; he concluded his canonical first chapter with an angry, funny dissertation on commodity fetishism, and he understood the historic departure residing in the capital-labor relation.

Johnson avoids the same question—his own “what if?”—by concluding the crucial chapter on cotton, capitalism, and slavery with a pronouncement about the very essence of antebellum Southern society: “Whereas in the conventional political economy the analytical separation of capital and labor is essential [essential to what?], in the Cotton Kingdom slaves served both purposes. Slaveholders stored their savings in slaves, and those slaves thus stood security for those who owned them.” [p. 279]

[Next: Part IV]

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is fabulous. It will oblige me to rethink if the history of capitalism is a progression “upwards” to the end of history, or an adolescent phase, on the way to civility.

  2. This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. There are two related issues here: one is the close reading of of syntax and rhetoric in the texts discussed to show how crucial such issues are to historical and ethical concerns. Secondly, speaking as an outsider and a nonprofessional I am struck by the oddness of this new view of history if it is a new view. ( I have read Time on The Cross but not Johnson. Absalom is one of my favorite novels, but strikes me as Faulkner diagnosing) It seems excessively holistic and would appear to deny the whole notion of discontinuity that was always the benchmark of how we thought of history. I am reminded of Carlo Ginzburg’s quote about how the obligation of the historian is to “destroy our false sense of proximity to the past”. But it appears here that the argument Livingston is critiquing is that capitalism is capitalism: “all cows are black”? Is this not a defense of a certain notion of History itself as a discipline?

    This seems to me a crisis in the periodization of history, to say nothing of a crisis in how we label and identify economic and historical development or change over time. It relates to debates about “presentism” and “Whiggism” and other notions or charges. Does Walter Johnson see himself as attacking comfortable and privileged capitalist notions of history as Whiggish? Does Livingston see himself as carrying on Ginzburg’s notion of an historian’s role? I’d be curious to see the exchanges over this one!

    • I’m not sure that we have reached the stage of crisis in the periodization of capitalism (or civilization more generally). But certainly the “globalization” of the discipline, the de-centering of the West in the “normal science” of narrative history, and the savage results of the Great Recession have caused us to rethink the nature and function of markets. All of us, I mean, not just historians–for the economic crisis of our time is also an intellectual impasse and a moral dilemma.
      The “new” view of capitalism as a trans-historical phenomenon isn’t exactly new, either: Maurice Dobb struggled mightily in the 1940s and after to prove that Sombart was wrong about its ubiquity.

  3. Jim–
    Let’s meet halfway and say this is the night when _some_ cows are black. I haven’t read Johnson’s _River of Dark Dreams_ yet, so I’m at a little disadvantage and can’t speak to it. I have, however, read _Freaks of Fortune_ and Johnson’s _Soul by Soul_, so I will base my comments on those books, and take my chances that Johnson reappears in a similar vein in _River of Dark Dreams_. I agree that in _Soul by Soul_ Johnson does two things (among others): 1. collapse the entire period from 1820 to 1860 into an undifferentiated and unchanging set of relations, so that a document from 1825 is treated as evidence for the same phenomenon as one from 1855. His story is a synchronic and structural one, in which an event (the act of exchange in the slave market) is a type that recurs in the same form over and over again. Nobody ever learns anything, and nothing ever changes. Until it does, and when it does, it’s a story of rupture–the end of slavery. There is no story of change otherwise. But this does not differentiate Johnson from the mainlines of already existing historiography, including Blassingame, Elkins, Genovese, Gutman, etc., all of whom established the mode of treating antebellum slavery as a structure rather than a dynamic entity in the 1970s. 2. In a revisionary move, challenges the notion that slavery is alien to capitalism, and attempts to organize the reader’s already assumed aversion to slavery into an aversion to capitalism and labor markets. In Johnson’s view, it is not the whip, but the wallet, that defines the institution of slavery. Moving from the plantation scene of violence and coerced labor (so common in the slave historiography of the 1970s), to the slave market scene and its logic of commodification, Johnson attempts to cast not just slavery, but market capitalism itself, in a new light.

    But here is where I disagree with you. I think the history of capitalism is not saying nothing ever changes. Rather, it is attempting to denaturalize and historicize capitalism, to show that there are features of capitalism that can be found in a variety of modern institutions, not all of which are the same, and many which have been assumed to have little in common with contemporary capitalism (e.g. slavery). The whole point of __Freaks of Fortune_ is to say that the naturalized ideology of risk and its management is an historical invention of relatively recent vintage (19th c.), and that prior to the 19th c. and the “double commodification” based on a new understanding of selfhood and self ownership and its capacity for alienation in the marketplace, the concept of risk was a very limited one. The very acceptance of risk and its management through financial instruments like life insurance, was, in Levy’s treatment, an historical novelty that had to overcome religious objections based on alternative cosmologies. I don’t see how this doesn’t represent the kind of historical consciousness you are in favor of. What these newer histories do argue is that these historically constituted forms have elements of continuity–e.g. there is continuity between the commodification of human labor under slavery and in contemporary labor markets. That doesn’t mean there is no difference. Don’t good historians aim to see both continuity and rupture, to see the long duree and the elements of the particular contingent event?

    • I think we converge here, Dan. I certainly agree with the two points you make about Walter Johnson: (1) he tells a story that is “synchronic and structural,” and (2) he “challenges the notion that slavery is alien to capitalism.” I suppose I would also agree that historians of slavery at the South have tended to treat it synoptically, as Hegel would put it (although Eugene Genovese, James Oakes, Steven Deyle, and others have emphasized how slavery changed as it colonized the New South of Alabama and Mississippi). So perhaps you’re right to suggest that Johnson isn’t a departure except at (2). But my complaint is less about the lack of movement or difference between 1820 and 1860 than the denial of movement or difference between 1850 and 2012.

      I would add that Steven Hahn’s recent book is evidence of new movement and fresh thinking about slavery from within what you call the “mainlines of existing historiography.” Hahn shows that slavery was indeed a “dynamic entity” because by the 1850s, the slaves themselves were carving slivers of freedom from their limited access to and use of markets. In this sense, he performs the same function that Maurice Dobb, M. M. Postan, E. Lipson, and Marion Gibb did in questioning the assumption that feudalism in the “Middle Ages” was a static interregnum.

      I’ll leave the defense of Jon Levy to you for now. I hope to return to that book on another occasion. But again, my concern is not that the author is unaware of intellectual innovation and economic change in the 19th century. Of course he is. My concern is that the huge differences between then and now are, shall we say, elided by Levy’s brilliant success in demonstrating the innovations and changes of the 19th century. That’s why I compared him to Walter Johnson.

      There’s a way to rethink the relation between markets, capitalism, and slavery which doesn’t require the conflation of these three historical phenomena. But it requires that you accept the distinction I have made between bourgeois society and capitalism in explaining Genovese’s Marxism. The longue duree indeed.

  4. Jim, this is terrific. It makes me think, though, that your critique turns on genealogy. The problem you seem you seem to have with Johnson as a representative/brilliant instance of the “new” history of capitalism is that he takes the problem of the present and finds it, with little to no difference, in the past, which naturalizes formations of capitalism. Whereas, were his work, and more broadly this new history of capitalism, to proceed genealogically, then the contemporary conditions of capitalism, insofar as they seem culturally, politically, economically necessary, will fall apart, become denaturalized, strange, and thus (yes, thus) provide critical openings in the narratives of capital. It seems, too, that Johnson collapses past and present in the service of arguing that we live in the afterlives of slavery, yet potentially misses the point that the afterlives are not the lives of slavery, if that makes sense. I’m also totally intrigued by the move to Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner’s novel of many things, but among them incest. Of course, the prohibition of incest, that rule of rules, which constitutes us as humans, has long been deployed to collapse past and present, its variations perceived to be so many dilations on that same (a misreading, i would say, that ignores the Real and the Symbolic, but that is perhaps for another time). So the conjunction of Johnson/Faulkner, capitalism/slavery, is also, possibly, the constellation incest/capitalism, the supposedly universal and the supposedly totalizing.

    • Brian, thanks for this bracing reminder of how original sin works in these texts: the figurative logic Auerbach explained in Mimesis is still at work in their narratives. So, yes, I’d agree that Johnson is “naturalizing” capitalism, and thus (!) conflating slavery and wage labor–a 19th century attitude toward proletarianization which, not incidentally, regulates the “history of capitalism,” not to mention the history of the US. I’d therefore agree that the afterlife of slavery is NOT composed of the “lives of slavery.”

      The question then becomes, why do gifted historians like Walter Johnson follow Faulkner’s example and find “something intimate” in our relations with and to the past, so intimate that it’s not even past? Your invocation of the “rule of rules” and its effects in Absalom make me think that the development of capitalism both elicits and prohibits incest in a new manner because it recreates the family as a post-bourgeois social setting.

      And finally, I think I agree about how a genealogical approach would permit the admission of discontinuity in historical time, consciousness, and practice, if by this you mean a Foucauldian attitude toward history that allows for Kenneth Burke’s brand of stand-up comedy.

      • I don’t see any tension between Foucault and Burke’s comedic frame – isn’t that the point of genealogy, to open up future possibilities that only seem foreclosed by the seeming necessity of contemporary systems of knowledge? I also wonder to what extent one can modify the collapsing of past and present in these new hsitories of capitalism to make of them something else. I’m thinking here of Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic, where he takes Arrighi’s periodization and reworks it, seeing the origins of finance capital in the eighteenth century and slavery, but reads this through Benjamin and tells us that Liverpool is “a capital of the long twentieth century, linking finance capital, insurance, slavery, and the alienated position of the witness. What strikes me, of course, is that for someone like Baucom the theoretical, critical, methodological stakes are almost always at the forefront, which makes for a circuitous and at times lugubrious read but with a great deal of payoff for how we think modernity, temporality, history. Whereas Johnson and many other historians would tend to bury those concerns in favor of the hopefully beautiful sentence, the dense crystallization of “thus,” but then can’t account for the kind of critique you offer here. And this even in Johnson, who I think is more attuned than many to these kinds of questions…

  5. To do the “history of capitalism” I think it is helpful, indeed necessary, to start with a definition of capitalism. I gather some people don’t like definitions on grounds that they’re ‘essentialist’ or ‘reifying’ or ‘reductive’ or some such thing, but I don’t happen to be one of those people.

    Wallerstein, for example, if not so much in the first vol. of The Modern World-System as in his later work, defines capitalism as “a historical system defined by the priority of the endless accumulation of capital.” (World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, 2004, p.92, emphasis in orig.) The definition is obviously indebted to Marx (even if Marx might not have put it *exactly* that way).

    From this post, I gather Johnson does not bother explicitly to define capitalism; I noted the reference to his disdain for ‘ideal types’. So apparently he uses the word and lets the reader infer what his working definition is or probably is.

    I myself see no point in equating capitalism simply with the existence of markets. Markets of one sort or another have probably been around as long as ‘civilization’. Markets are also compatible with some forms of socialism. An organized transboundary system of commerce and exchange is another matter, and as the post notes one could take this as one (though I think not the only) defining feature of capitalism if so inclined.

    I’m not prepared to offer my own definition of capitalism in this comment box, but I do think historians doing the “history of capitalism” would prob. be well-advised to begin with one and to make it explicit.

  6. I’m all for defining capitalism, but pragmatically, which means historically. You don’t want to begin with a definition unless you’re Maurice Dobb in Studies in the Development of Capitalism. But if you start there, you’re talking about social relations of goods production, not profit motives, money, credit, greed, advertising, merchants, or “transboundary system[s] of commerce and exchange,” the last of which I take to mean a global market.

  7. I found this thought provoking and well written and I think it made me smarter to read, I spent most of the time reading it disagreeing. The riff on Hegel’s joke about all cows looking black at night struck me as ironic because you paint, in very broad brushtrokes, a picture of a lot of historians standing around in the dark. That seems to me an artifact of the painting, not the people depicted. Among other things, as I read Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, the book doesn’t depict 19th century capitalism as the same as today’s capitalism. The book argues that 19th century capitalism was different from early 20th century capitalism. How could it be that the book treats 19th century capitalism as the same as 21st century capitalism while also treating early 20th century capitalism as a departure from 19th century capitalism? (Incidentally, I met Levy a year or two before his book came out and among other things we argued collegially about whether or not slavery in the 19th century south was capitalist. I think it was, because I’m convinced by Walter Johnson and others about this. Levy said he didn’t think it was. I don’t see anything in Freaks of Fortune that indicates he’s changed his mind.)

    I don’t see anything in Johnson or Levy’s books, or any of the other work that argues that there are some forms of slave-based capitalism, that’s incompatible with the assumptions central to ‘modern historical consciousness, that you identify, namely “that the future will be different from the present” and that “the future will be determined by the purposeful efforts of social movements.” So where’s the supposed break with modern historical consciousness? Certainly nothing about the statement “the slave south was capitalist in character” entails rejecting that pair of assumptions.

    It seems to me that despite the mention of Hegel this essay works with attenuated notions of sameness and difference. Sameness and difference are relationships, not absolutes. It is not the case that X and Y are either similar or they are different. It is that they are, according to some criteria, identifiable as similar and for others different. To say two times and places are capitalist is not necessarily to say they are the same, as long as we think places can be capitalist while still varying over place and time. So to say two places are or were capitalist is only to say they share some qualities in common, not to say they are simply and only the same. Claims about sameness are not per se exhaustive or incompatible with claims about difference. Indeed, the positing of similarity rests on a backdrop of difference. Difference makes similarity identifiable (this book and that book are identifiable as different books because they are both books). Likewise similarity makes difference identifiable – genuinely absolute difference is not even identifiable as difference because to have the predicate ‘identifiable as different’ is to also have – and to share with sameness – the predicate ‘identifiable in some capacity.’

    I would think flexibility about interpretive perspectives – that identification of qualities like similarity and difference is something people do, not something given immediately by objects themselves – would go along with your riff on Nietzsche and James to say ‘it’s all fables, really.’ But it doesn’t. The essay reads as an effort to rein in one kind of fable-making, because the only sorts of fables acceptable is one in which slavery and capitalism are mutually exclusive terms. Why? I can’t tell from anything said here, except that you seem to think that slavery and capitalism are different such that slave-based capitalism is a contradiction in terms (rather than an one institutional variation within the set of variations on capitalist societies that are possible.)

    You refers to “the cultural function of the modern historian,” singular, with a definite article. Why just one? Why not have many relationships between present and past, and many cultural uses for each of those relationships? It seems to me that this singular function sets up the singular requirement, that historians “begin by acknowledging our differences rather than to proceed as if the past and the present are the same?” It struck me here that difference is a founding assumption, an axiomatic point of departure, rather than something subject to investigation. To even ask ‘was there a similarity’ is to depart from the historian’s cultural function.

    If faced with two choices, ‘if historians are to be truly historians, must they treat the past the same as the present, or as different from the present?’ I’m inclined to pick some third choice, which doesn’t involve treating sameness and difference as so starkly opposed. I think we can walk, chew gum, or both. It seems to me a lot of your argument hangs to a large extent on denying that there is a choice here. Emphasize difference, not similarity, or else abandon the cultural function of the historian as well as commit conflation. In your essay ‘was the south capitalist?’ begins to sound like a question you think real historians wouldn’t even pose in the first place, rather than one you actually answer in the negative.

    • From my own parochial experience, I can say that most of us can walk, chew gum, talk, and think, all at the same time. Your hilarious invocation of sameness vs. difference as the regulative binary of my argument convinces me that you’ve read an essay I didn’t write.

      The question that modern historical consciousness and method must address is, given the obvious and measurable differences between past and present, how can we render these moments as commensurable (NOT the same)?

      My complaint against Walter Johnson is that he reduces the past to the present, and vice versa–he makes it the same. So I’m not offering you, the historian and the reader, a choice between sameness and difference, I’m refusing it. I don’t want to stumble around in the night where all cows are black.

      Your devotion to fluidity, flexibility, pluralism, or “pliability” as Schiller praised it, is admirable. But for God’s sake, don’t scold me for using the singular when I characterize the cultural function of the modern historian. It makes you sound like a post-structuralist who despises rhetoric, not a good intellectual mix.

      But sure, I’m arguing against the notion of slave-based capitalism. See Part IV.

  8. hi Jim,

    I’ll definitely read part IV, I’m excited to do so when it’s posted.

    I didn’t intend to scold you about the singularity of the cultural function of the historian, I just meant to express disagreement. I don’t think there’s a single cultural function of the historian. Hence I don’t think there’s a single imperative to doing history in keeping with a historian’s cultural function. I took your rhetorical question to imply that there was.

    As for sameness and difference, you make that Hegel joke near the start of your essay. All cows look black at night. The point of the joke for Hegel, and in your essay, is to argue that some people – for you, new historians of capitalism – have taken up an interpretive perspective which posits a similarity that’s not present. These cows aren’t actually all black, they’re just standing in the dark.

    Below is a list of quotes where you make claims about sameness and difference. I read those bits as expressing a strong concern with sameness and difference. I read all of these quotes as making a variation on the point made via the Hegel joke, saying that there is a mistaking positing of sameness or that there is a mistaken choice to emphasize sameness rather than difference. If you say your essay’s not about sameness and difference, fair enough. I still think that in these particular lines, and in your claims about Johnson et al, you draw the difference between sameness and difference too starkly.

    Saying 19th century US plantation slavery had a capitalist character posits a similarity between then and now, it doesn’t say the the 19th century US and the 21st century US had no differences whatsoever. Including two items in one category does not necessarily entail a claim that the two items contain no salient differences, it just highlights similarities rather than highlighting differences. So I think you overstate your claims. You point to people who point to similarity and you say ‘they think nothing is different about the present and past, they deny difference!’.

    “the new “history of capitalism,” [is] a field convened by the denial of elementary differences”

    “if the future will be the same as the present, there is no reason to study the past”

    To act in line with “the cultural function of the modern historian” is “to begin by acknowledging our differences rather than to proceed as if the past and the present are the same”

    “theorists (…) who see the same forces of financialized capital at work in 15th- century Genoa, 19th-century New Orleans, and 21st- century New York.”

    “historians write as if there is no significant difference between capitalism in the 19th and the 20th centuries”

    “Johnson’s (…) argument (…) turns any difference between then and now into a cruel joke. (…) he has erased every difference we might learn from. (…) there is no difference between slaveholders in the 19th century and capitalists in the 21st. The night in which all cows are black covers us.”

    “Walter Johnson, and all other writers committed to the notion that there is no difference between past and present”

    “recent versions of the (…) cultural history of economic practices associated with markets (…) have tended toward a conflation of past and present (…) as if there is no significant difference between capitalism in the 19th and the 20th centuries.” These historians “equate now and then” and treat “capitalism and slavery” as “interchangeable parts.”

  9. Sorry, I hit the ‘post comment’ button a moment too soon. You criticize Johnson et al for not emphasizing/for overlooking differences we might learn from. It seems to me that part of the claim that’s at least implied in the work your criticizing is that there are similarities we might learn from. I don’t think saying ‘we might learn from these similarities’ means saying ‘there are no differences we might learn from.’ Failing to say ‘there are instructive differences’ is not the same as saying ‘there are no instructive differences.’

  10. This is an edifying clarification of your concerns, Nate, not mine, but I thank you for it, nevertheless, for two reasons. First, it illustrates how rhetoric produces intellectual affect.

    You’re responding to and acting on an antiquated, politically charged trope I don’t deploy, no matter how many times you can quote me using the words “difference” and “same.” The affect induced by your inappropriate assimilation of the trope is to charge me with offering an either/or choice between sameness and difference, when in fact I was criticizing historians for doing just that.

    Our choice, as historians and citizens, is not to treat the present and past as either totally different or just the same. If we think that’s the choice before us, our imaginations have atrophied, and our methods have failed us. That is my central claim, which I make repeatedly. Part II of the essay makes commensurability, not sameness, the issue.

    So, my only explanation for your urge to place me with those who want to make this choice is not that you’re stupid—you’re clearly not—but that you can’t hear what I’m saying, and that my argument is inaudible to you because, in the intellectual space you inhabit, the trope of sameness/difference produces sounds I don’t make.

    I don’t think there’s any way around the acknowledgment of difference between past and present as the salient dimension of modern historical consciousness and method. But that doesn’t deny or erase the continuities you invoke, and I depend on, to reassure us that there is some coherence—some cumulative meaning—in the short but significant part of the past we call human history.

    Still, I criticize Walter Johnson and appreciate William Faulkner for treating the past as if it’s the present—for denying any difference between antebellum slavery and contemporary capitalism. If you think that mutual denial isn’t manifestly displayed in River of Dark Dreams and Absalom, Absalom!, if you think these writers are just pointing out some interesting similarities, then I’d have to say you’ve forgotten their purpose and their prose—their rhetoric.

    Second, the similarity between the past and present you want me to acknowledge is less than specious because it’s offered innocently. You say, “US plantation slavery had a capitalist character,” as if that’s a self-evident proposition. Why? How? Because greed, markets, money, and credit permeated the slave society of the antebellum South? Like language, these are trans-historical traits and cultural devices of the human species. What follows? That all human civilizations had a capitalist character?

    My answer to that question is No, and I’d like to think in thunder. But like I said at the start of this series, where I cited Hegel to make fun of the night when all cows are black–that would happen when History was over, when slavery, feudalism, and every other goddamn thing becomes just another instance of capitalism as we experience it– maybe the joke’s on me.

    • I really appreciate you defending your case in these discussions. When I was growing up it was just a standard and settled matter that Capitalism and slavery were fundamentally opposite in character. That was the view of the Marxists, some of whom taught me at that time, and it was sort of Liberal consensus as well, having to so with stages of History and all of that. Perhaps that was too simple. But how far are people willing to go to demolish it?

      It seemed some kind of moral progress to have contracts that parties could dispute and argue over and people selling their labor power for a limited amount of time rather than being outright owned by some individual or family for limitless amount of a whole lifetime. I think in this sense I disagree with the Anarchist position, which I think is one form the slavery=capitalism trope takes.
      Quite frankly I am shocked by the claims of these new historians. I don’t deny their intelligence or sincerity but I tend to side with Livingston on this one. This is not to give Capitalism a free pass or see that there are not evils attached to it – God knows the opposite is true. But I don’t see all of this continuity over such disparate ages as 1850, 1930 and 2012. It strikes me as what used to be called an ahistorical argument if that formulation has any relevance. But then again I am an outsider to these discussions and I appreciate them.

      • On that question of the moral progress contained in contracts, etc., you’re right, Mitch, something got lost in the transition to the “history of capitalism.” I raise it in Part IV, but I’m afraid I don’t address it fully enough. Meanwhile, the usable past is in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, paragraphs 67 and 80, and make sure you read the Additions at the back of the book.

  11. Thanks Jim.

    I intended to say basically “I think you’re finding entailments in these historians’ arguments that I don’t think are there” and I think I hear you saying a version of that back to me about your arguments. That’s clarifying and I appreciate it. I’m going to think more about this stuff on sameness and difference in response to your reply.

    As for why I think 19th century plantation slavery’s capitalist, that’s a fair question. I’m excited to hear your take on this in part IV, because I think your writing on business and economic history/political economy is fantastic. Not having read that part yet, I’m hesitant to get into it here. Since you asked, though, the short answer is that I’m convinced by what I’ve read on that question, like Walter Johnson, Dale Tomich, and Heide Gerstenberger. I was convinced despite myself, as I was invested in that argument being wrong, and the conclusion definitely wasn’t obvious to me.

    A slightly longer version of the answer is that I think Marx’s descriptions of capitalist enterprises in v1 of Capital and his description of the … circuits? serieses? I forget his terms, the movements, I guess, of capitalism in the beginning of v2 of Capital apply to plantation slavery. On Marx’s account capitalists purchase commodified labor power and other commodities to be used in production, then set that labor power to work (ie order those people to work with those other commodities) producing new commodities that capitalists sell for more than the total purchase costs. That increment between between initial outlay and final income is what he calls surplus value. I know you know all that, I’m just laying out my reasoning. Marx says that this only applies to waged labor-based enterprises. He doesn’t make an argument for that, though, as I read him, I think he just asserts the point. I think plantation owners in the 19th century US engaged in this same process. With a lot of incredibly important differences related to the fact they bought commodified labor power via slavery instead of buying it via waged labor. But it seems to me that the character of this difference is one of ‘doing capitalism differently’, ie, really significant institutional differences, rather than a difference of ‘only one of these is capitalism.’ I don’t think this entails that capitalism is trans-historical. Like you I reject that view and think that rejection is really important. I don’t think seeing 19th century plantation slavery entails seeing capitalism as trans-histrical. I apologize if I’m jumping the gun here, what with post IV not being up yet.

  12. Reading this post and the comments has been an exhilarating experience, it has made me rethink my assumptions about the links between sIavery and modern capitalism; I can’t wait for the grand finale! The idea of the transhistorical–represented by capitalism as a structural force–is central in this discussion. What Johnson’s seemingly presentist rhetoric does is to signal transhistorical convergences–which is not necessarily an argument about “similarities.” The critique of the language Johnson uses is masterful, I appreciate such type of criticism, as a literature scholar. At the same time, I ask myself if there’s any room for the transhistorical in a historically nuanced analysis—not only structural continuities, but, what a Deleuzean would diagnose as repetitions marked by difference, or a Derridean as the spectres of history, or a Benjaminean as its Angelus Novus (Johnson’s model, as described here and as I have read it in his analysis of Ferguson, appears to echo the melancholic thrust of Benjamin’s take on history).

    • I don’t see why it’s trans-historical or maybe I’m using that term differnetly. As I understand the term, trans-historical means present in all historically existing human societies. So, something is (pretty much) trans-historical when the set of times and places in which that something appears is (pretty much) all times and places where human societies has existed. Language is trans-historical in this sense, as far as I know, though specific languages are historical. It’s certainly possible to say ’19th century US plantation slavery was capitalist, because capitalism is trans-historical.’ But it’s also possible to say ’19th century US plantation slavery was capitalist’ without saying capitalism was trans-historical. That expands the set of times and places within which capitalism exists but does not expand it to include (pretty much) all human societies.

      About the role of trans-historical concepts in historical analysis, I think Marx has interesting remarks on this, in the first chapter of the Grundrisse. He lays out what he takes to be general trans-historical categories (trans-historical in the sense I use the term here) in relation to historical ones.

      • To observe that transhistorical convergences exist does not necessarily lead to the suggestion that these convergences must exist in all historical moments: transhistoricity merely signals that which goes beyond a historical context or period. In asking about the transhistorical I am not suggesting that history should be subsumed to x or y trascendental idea, but to take into consideration the possibility of their interaction, as we delineate our own limited periodizations of capitalism, slavery, et al. I am not sure if Marx helps in this regard, though dialectical thought certainly can.

      • Thanks Kahlil. I don’t have an argument on that so much as I think we’re just using the term differently. Trans-historical is a word I’ve picked up in use, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a definition of it, and I don’t have a sense of what consensus is (if there is on) on how to use the term. Like I said, I think of the term as referring to phenomena present across the scope of all historical time. If I understand you correctly, you’re using it to refer to phenomena present across multiple periods, what I would want to call trans-epochal I suppose. That’s a fine use as well. I don’t have a terminological agenda so much as I just understood the term differently and I think we need different terms for phenomena of different temporal scope (present in all historical societies, present in many, present in some, etc).

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