What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?
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]