1619 Project “New History” of Capitalism Collapses Under Scrutiny

by | Dec 11, 2019 | History

Far from representing non-white scholarly voices and introducing challenges to a previously stagnant historiography of slavery, the NHC school is actually a stunning embodiment of everything it charges against its critics.

The New York Times’ 1619 Project is currently undergoing a new wave of scrutiny, spurred on – curiously enough – by the political left. Over the course of the last month, an obscure socialist website landed interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning historians James McPherson and Gordon Wood, as well as noted Civil War historian James Oakes, to solicit their opinions on the Times’ series. The trio of historians pulled no punches while subjecting the project to scrutiny. Wood chastised its general thrust for diminishing the antislavery elements of the American Revolution, while Oakes and McPherson took issue with its reinterpretation of American capitalism as an outgrowth of plantation slavery.

Many of these observations echo my own criticisms of the project’s misrepresentation of American economic history. But the trio of scholars also offer significantly harsher assessments of the Times’ initiative on the whole.

On certain narrow points this involves pressing beyond the available evidence. For example, Oakes accuses 1619 Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones of overstating Abraham Lincoln’s support for the colonization of slaves abroad (echoing a line McPherson has also used in his other works by downplaying Lincoln’s commitment to this policy). This is a subject on which I possess more than a passing familiarity, and I can say with certainty that Oakes and McPherson are in error. The general criticisms from Oakes, McPherson, and Wood nonetheless reflect substantive and thoughtful engagement with the 1619 Project’s narrative that – coming from distinguished sources – warrants a serious response.

It is therefore dismaying, although not surprising, to see McPherson, Wood, and Oakes being met with dismissive derision by many of the 1619 Project’s defenders. “Is [Gordon Wood] under the illusion that the [World Socialist Website is] doing anything other than using him to club Black scholars?” asked Seth Rockman, a historian who was consulted on the 1619 project’s depiction of American capitalism.

Similar comments from the history profession’s younger generations pointed out that the critics were “old white males.” Other academics, writing in this vein, accused them of excluding non-white and non-male scholars from their assessments of the materials involved – of effectively “liv[ing] in a silo” that refuses to engage “cutting edge” work by younger and minority scholars, as one historian put it. If you’ve noticed a pattern here, recall how Ana Lucia Araujo, another NHC supporter, responded to me back in August when I began scrutinizing the 1619 Project’s economic arguments. This crowd often flees from substantive engagement over disputed scholarly claims, but they’ll attack an interlocutor’s race, gender, or age in a heartbeat.

Still, the neglect of a segment of the scholarly community is a potentially serious charge, even as these examples seem to service the objective of dismissing the 1619 Project’s critics without actually engaging the substance of their criticisms. After all, a scholar’s professional obligations include maintaining a familiarity with the latest research in his or her field when offering comments as an authority in that same field.

But is the charge even an accurate reflection of the debate over the 1619 Project?

I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback to see this line of argument coming primarily from scholars who associate with the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) school of thought, Rockman among them. The 1619 Project’s editors relied almost entirely on NHC scholars for its treatment of slavery’s economics, which appeared in a feature article by sociologist Matthew Desmond. The dismissive attacks over race obscure additional fault with this editorial choice, as they set a standard that the NHC school itself does not meet.

Desmond’s piece has become an acute point of contention for the project’s critics, largely because he tries to weaponize the brutality of the plantation system to launch into a sweeping political attack on free market capitalism in the present day. This historical claim is fraught with errors of fact and evidence, yet its anti-capitalist ideology is also a dominant theme in several key works from the NHC genre – so dominant in fact that its claimed interest in the racial dimensions of history is largely subordinate to its economic interpretation.

There’s also a deeper irony at play though in the NHC backlash against McPherson, Wood, Oakes, and other 1619 Project critics. Far from representing non-white scholarly voices and introducing challenges to a previously stagnant historiography of slavery, the NHC school is actually a stunning embodiment of everything it charges against its critics.

We can see how by looking at Desmond’s own article. By my count, Desmond interviewed seven current academic historians when framing his piece. All seven strongly associate with the NHC school. Several of its leading figures are among the consulted voices: Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson, Calvin Schermerhorn, and Rockman, as previously mentioned. Like Desmond himself, all seven of the consulted NHC historians are also white.

By contrast, the only black voices that speak in his piece at all are long-deceased scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois. To the extent that the article even relies on academic literature, it comes almost entirely from books by the aforementioned scholars – all of them white.

While a historian’s race (or gender or age) should not be used to determine the quality of his or her work, the deployment of this form of argument against the 1619 Project’s critics betrays a bizarre lack of self-awareness on the part of the NHC crowd. The modern NHC literature on capitalism and slavery contains very few, if any, non-white voices, and Desmond’s article in the 1619 project exemplifies this oversight. To borrow a little terminology from the critical theory-infused epistemology that this same school of historians often draws upon, it would appear that the New History of Capitalism has a “whiteness” problem.

The issues with the NHC complaints run deeper than its invoking of race to attack its critics though. These same scholars have made a habit of accusing their opponents of neglecting their own claimed insights to the history of slavery. That charge also runs strongly in the other direction. Despite their own self-promoted claims of “cutting edge” novelty, many of the NHC scholars actually inhabit an insular echo chamber of their own ideological compatriots.

These very same NHC scholars have attained notoriety in recent years for refusing to engage with or respond to academics in other disciplines who work on slavery, and even other historians who come from traditions outside the NHC ranks. Symptomatic of this insularity, the growing body of books and articles produced by NHC scholars often exhibit literature reviews that can only be described as ignorant or negligent of the past 50 years of scholarship on the subject, and particularly the work of economic historians.

Several academics from other branches of the slavery literature have documented this strange pattern of almost intentional disengagement from the rest of the literature by NHC historians. Economist Stanley Engerman pointed out as much in his review of the NHC genre. He specifically singled out Ed Baptist, who cut off communications with his critics after his 2015 book The Half Has Never Been Told came under scrutiny by economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. Baptist’s silence includes a failure to correct or even address a major statistical error in his work, despite its continued repetition by other scholars and journalists. As Engerman put it, Baptist’s book contains “surprising omissions from the writings on slavery of the past half-century.” He continues:

Major descriptions of slave life by, for example, Kenneth Stampp (1956), Eugene Genovese (1974), and Ira Berlin (1998), are given brief (if any) mention. He does not fully engage at all in what should be of major interest to him, the last decades of works concerning economic aspects of the slave economy by scholars such as Gavin Wright (2006), Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch (1977), and Claudia Goldin (1976), not to say Robert Fogel (1989) and Fogel and Engerman (1974), whose work is both drawn upon and harshly criticized elsewhere. These have been a major analytical and statistical battleground, but are not discussed in any detail. There is only some preemptory discussion towards the end of the book consistent with the recent outpouring of work on slave culture and agency, issues that some now consider central to understanding the lives of those enslaved.

Glaring literature review deficiencies of this sort extend to other works in the NHC genre. The late economic historian Richard Sutch noted similar oversights in a review essay of the economic literature, particularly as it concerned the voluminous scholarly debate precipitated by Engerman and Robert Fogel’s landmark 1974 study Time on the Cross:

Recently two historians of American slavery, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, dismiss their own neglect with a single sentence. “The economic history of slavery has labored in the shadows of the interpretative controversies surrounding … Time on the Cross” [2016: 10]. Presumably this excused them from critiquing the cliometric literature and freed them to contribute to and celebrate an alternative economic history of slavery and American economic development. Their loss (and ours) has become glaringly apparent in the recent discussion by cliometricians of what historians have come to call the “New History of Capitalism and Slavery”

In place of the necessary literature review, the NHC crowd frequently resorts to dismissiveness, derision, and ad hominem attacks. As Engerman reports, “the general response…by Baptist is to charge those who disagree with him, even when it is over what some might regard as ‘merely’ errors of historical fact and understanding, with racism.” As the NHC backlash against more recent criticism of the 1619 Project reveals, the invoking of race for this purpose appears to be something of a default response.

This is a peculiar charge, as the main critics of the NHC literature make no arguments that could reasonably be described as racist. They in no way deny the violent brutality of slavery. Nor do they downplay its horrors or economic scale, asking only that such assessments remain rooted in evidence. The NHC grievance, then, appears to consist of lashing out against scholars from other schools and other disciplines who find their own arguments wanting due to issues of historical accuracy and, in some cases, unambiguous empirical errors.

In a final stroke of irony, the same group of NHC scholars recently came under fire from on older historiographical tradition on the left for appropriating and misconstruing the work of its own leading scholars. In their effort to weaponize the history of slavery against modern capitalism, many NHC scholars have wrapped themselves in the mantle of Eric Williams, a black radical from the mid-20th century Marxian tradition. His 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery is often invoked as a forerunner to today’s NHC scholarship, though incorrectly so. Aside from the titular similarity, there’s actually very little evidence that the NHC scholars engage with or meaningfully draw upon Williams’ thesis. If anything, they cite it for its pairing of the words “capitalism” and “slavery” and then unintentionally invert its thesis.

Williams’ most famous argument aimed to cast doubt upon conventional depictions of the abolitionist movement as a moral cause. Rather, he maintained that the rise of industrial capitalism rendered its earlier mercantile form obsolete, and with it undermined the Atlantic slave trade. The impetus for emancipation was thus a self-interested act of the capitalists, and still attached to colonial subjugation through their economic and political systems. Thus, whereas British industrial capitalism served as a self-interested agent of slavery’s demise in Williams’ telling, the NHC literature almost unwittingly flips the claim such that slavery becomes the mechanism of industrial capitalism’s American ascendance.

Non-NHC scholars who come from Williams’ school of thought, as well as traditional Marxists in general, are none too pleased at the “new” historians’ appropriation. Indeed, the World Socialist Website’s eagerness to host interviews with McPherson, Wood, and Oakes likely reflects the website’s operators attempts to position themselves as a contesting claimant to the history of slavery on the far left. While the deterministic economic arguments of the Williams thesis have not fared well in subsequent historical evaluation, they are historiographically important and, along with his mentor C.L.R. James, form the basis of a Caribbean-centric black radical school of historical thought that is now in direct tension with the predominantly white and Ivy League-centric NHC school.

Enter H. Reuben Neptune, a historian of the postcolonial Caribbean who comes from the same historiographical tradition as Williams and James. In a recent issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, Neptune painstakingly documents how several leading works in the NHC genre incorrectly invoke Williams as their own precursor while only engaging his text at a superficial level. Beckert, Baptist, Johnson, and other NHC scholars thus end up “throwing scholarly shade” upon Williams’ thesis, misrepresenting its purposes to their own ends.

Thus do we arrive at the unenviable position where scholars in the NHC genre are guilty of the very same faults that they invoke to dismiss critics of the 1619 Project. We arrive at a new historiographical body of scholars that operate in their own echo chamber, that misrepresent or completely neglect scholarly works from outside of that echo chamber, and that recklessly dismiss their critics on account of a racial demography that has an even more pronounced presence in their own ranks. Furthermore, in doing so, they lay mistaken claim to a competing black radical historiographic tradition, essentially botching its most famous arguments in the process through a careless and politicized reading.

The Times’ 1619 Project remains an evolving work, and its other contributions extend beyond the current debate over its treatment of slavery and capitalism. But notice that the project’s studies of the 20th and 21st centuries have attracted far less controversy than the Desmond article or the slavery and capitalism debate.

That debate is a flashpoint for criticism precisely because of its overreliance on the flawed “New History of Capitalism” school. Until its authors and editors recognize this skew and substantively engage with the deep factual and historiographical problems that afflict this literature, they can expect to face similar criticisms from the broader scholarly world outside of the NHC genre.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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