Edward Baptiste’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism attempts to provide a material analysis of the development of Slavery in the United States leading up to the Civil War. In doing so he reveals the origin of capitalism, and Western Economic Supremacy, to be the Southern Slave Plantations, who provided Northern and English Capitalists with an endless supply of cheap cotton, picked by the hands of slaves. As Eric Foner of the New York Times said in his review of the text in 2014 “American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States” (Foner). Given the lack of analysis that has been done on the development of Capitalism in the United States, The Half Has Never Been Told, serves as an incredibly useful tool for American socialists who seek to understand the historical development of Western Capitalism, so that we may destroy it, and reconstruct a superior system.
Let us first quickly review Marx’s concept of Surplus Value, and his critique of Political Economy, in a manner that hopefully avoids putting the reader to sleep.
A common attack often levied at modern day economists, is that their field of study seems to have no place for historical analysis. To most Western Economists, capitalism’s laws are viewed as “natural.” The field has given very little thought to the historical development of capitalism, or the systems which predated it. In the 1800s, Karl Marx found this to be a major flaw in the works of Classical Economist David Ricardo. Marx argued in Capital Vol 1 “Ricardo never concerns himself with the origin of surplus-value. He treats it as an entity inherent in the capitalist mode of production, and in his eyes the latter is the natural form of social production” (Marx 651). Marx makes this critique of Ricardo, after he himself first laid out a lengthy history of the development of capitalism in Europe, which took place over hundreds of years. Marx’s analysis of production shows us that surplus value, or excess value beyond what society needs for survival, is not present in all modes of human production historically, nor is it exclusive to the capitalist mode of production. Marx draws our attention to the Egyptians, who’s advanced agricultural infrastructure allowed their society to produce what was needed to survive, while using their leftover time to construct giant pyramids in honor of the Egyptian monarchs. The pyramids themselves would be considered “surplus value”, however, they do NOT constitute the specifically capitalist form of surplus value. This is because the Pyramids were produced to show the power of monarchical rulers, and not to make money for a capitalist through their sale on a market. The domination of Private Property owners and giant global commodity markets would take years of development before coming about. Only after years of struggle between classes would capitalists finally wrench the means of production from the hands of monarchical rulers. These specific historical developments led to a change in how Surplus Value is produced. Now, rather than producing what is needed to maintain society, before using any extra time to construct surplus commodities for the monarchy, Surplus Value is produced through capitalists hiring workers, who then add value to a commodity, before selling that commodity on a market, at a price above it’s actual value. Under this capitalist mode of production, the creations of the working class, beyond what is needed for the survival of society, becomes the property of the capitalist class. This excess property appropriated by Capital is Surplus Value within a capitalist mode of production.
In his studies, Marx also found that the capitalist mode of production develops uniquely to every country and geographic location. In Capital, he often jumps around the world to look at the development of capitalism globally, but primarily narrows his analysis to the development of capitalist production in Europe. Here, Marx observed the rapid development of privately owned textile factories. An analysis of the productive output of these factories showed they had been producing commodities at an ever-increasing rate. This output of commodities was maintained and constantly increased by throwing young girls into the factories en masse. If girls died of overwork or succumbed to diseases contracted in the horrid factory conditions, capitalists looked to the newly created mass of unemployed workers to hire a replacement. Additionally, the machinery of production was constantly being improved. Factory owners were now competing with one another to sell the maximum number of products possible. The winners of this newly emergent capitalist competition were those who could produce the most while paying their workers the least. Capitalism becomes a race to produce surplus value, with no regard for the effects it has on the class of workers.
During the time of capitalism's original development, the textile capitalist’s most important raw material was cotton. Thankfully for these European capitalists, they would find an abundant source of cotton at ever affordable prices directly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Edward Baptiste’s The half has Never Been Told may as well be a contribution to Marxist theory for those of us living here in the US, the world’s capitalist stronghold. Upon its release, Baptiste’s book was lambasted by those who Marx would have referred to as ‘bourgeois economists.’ One article from The Economist was removed after the Publication received backlash over their critique that “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the white’s villains” (The Economist). Perhaps economists in the United States have not yet been made aware that the capitalist mode of production they claim to study so closely developed slowly out of a system of chattel slavery, which specifically targeted those with black skin. However, someone should make these folks aware that throughout the 19th-century, capitalists in the Northern United States, Europe, and anywhere else the capitalist mode of production had taken hold, were profiting greatly from cotton picked by black slaves in the southern United States. Despite what our modern-day economists would have you believe, black people were in fact victimized by white owners of capital. These white landowners did all they could to commodify the black body in order to create for themselves an endless source of labour power. This labour could theoretically provide capital with an endless source of surplus value, so long as that labor could be combined with land, which of course was quickly being acquired through the genocide and forced removal of native populations.
Painstakingly conducted research from Baptiste and others reveals Southern Slavery to be its own specific mode of production. So, while Southern Slavery had unique elements which made it distinguishable from Capitalism, they also shared many of the same features. Therefore, the class of Southern slave owners did not have the same motivations as the previously mentioned ruling class of Egypt, who also produced goods under relations of slavery. Instead, plantation owners in the south were subjected to the same market forces as their capitalist counterparts in Europe. Slave owners produced incredible amounts of surplus value through selling their cotton on a world market which provided endless demand for their commodity. Unlike Egyptian enslavers, the surplus value of southern plantation owners did not come in the form of giant stone creations, or sculptures to the gods. The surplus value appropriated by enslavers instead came in the form of money. Much of which was then reinvested in expanding production through purchasing more slaves, plantations, and land. This money used to make more money is what Marx labeled as ‘Capital.’
The endeavors of these Southern enslaver capitalists were heavily financed by banks in Europe and the Northern United States. These financial institutions simultaneously bank rolled massive campaigns of forced removal or genocide of Native peoples, aimed at divorcing them from the land and allowing market-based production to expand. The Native people’s own unique Mode of production had to be destroyed in order to make room for the production of capitalist’s surplus value. The enslavers of the United States essentially functioned as capitalists, subject to the same market forces as the factory owners who Marx studied in Europe. However, plantation owners held a unique economic power that would come to be enforced by the state. This power was the legal ‘right’ not just to commodify human labour power, but the source of that labour power. Human Beings. Through the legal commodification of human beings with black skin, Southern Enslavers used the labor of black bodies to produce obscene quantities of cotton. The sale of these commodities on the Global Market allowed plantation owners to accumulate massive hoards of wealth, and continue their expansion by endlessly investing capital. The brutality of these enslavers was either ignored or justified by capitalists around the globe who saw the South as an endless source of cheap cotton.
Black slaves existed under relations of slavery, while also being subjected to market forces that are usually associated with capitalism. These specific economic conditions incentivized white plantation owners to subject those who toiled in their fields to some of the most horrific crimes in human history. Similar to European capitalists who were consistently working children to death in order to maximize output, Southern slave owners sought any methods possible to increase the quantity of cotton they could produce. Because slave owners had legally enforced ownership of the physical bodies in their labor force, torture became the primary method used to force slaves into increasing the speed of cotton production. Baptiste draws on an analogy from former Politician, and fierce ideological advocate of slavery Henry Clay, who describes a “whipping machine” used to torture enslaved people and make them work faster. Baptiste explains it is unlikely the whipping machine was a real device that existed in the Southern United States. He instead argues that the machine is a metaphor for the use of torture which was the primary technology used by enslavers to increase their production of cotton. While technological innovations such as the cotton gin allowed for an increase in the amount of cotton which could be separated and worked into commodities, far less technology was developed to aid in the process of actually picking the cotton. Therefore, in order for slave owning capitalists to increase the speed of cotton picking on their plantations, the use of torture was systematized and ramped up to an unimaginable degree. Torture was to the slave owner, what developments in machine production were to the factory owner: a tactic for continually increasing the Rate of Exploitation, or the quantity of commodities produced by a given number of workers, in order to produce an increased number of goods for sale on a market, which brings the capitalist his surplus value.
There are many ways in which capitalists can increase their rate of exploitation. The specific function of the whipping machine was to increase what Marx called the ‘intensity of labour,’ i.e., an increase in the expenditure of labour and quantity of commodities created by the workers within a given time period. For example, a slave owner hitting a field worker with a whip until the worker picks double the cotton. This would be an increase in the intensity of labour. There are many ways for capitalists to increase the rate of exploitation without increasing intensity of labour. Two common techniques used by non-slave owning capitalists at the time were increasing the productivity of their machinery and increasing the length of the working day. As was discussed previously, very few technological innovations were created in the realm of cotton harvesting during the time of Southern Slavery. Additionally, the Slave Owners already had free reign to work their labour as long as they pleased, and an extension of the working day would serve them no purpose. Slave owning capitalists had a choice to either give up their pursuit of surplus value or use torture on a mass scale to increase the speed at which their workers produced. Of course, the capitalists chose torture, and the market rewarded those capitalists who refined their torture techniques the furthest. Market competition compelled most all Southern capitalists to adopt torture as an incentive of production or be pushed out of business by those who did. The innovation of the market at work!
Slavery would only die in the United States after a long and protracted struggle between opposing classes culminating in the Civil War. Baptiste details this struggle in his book and in the process refutes the utopian historical myth that the labor of slaves was simply less efficient than wage-laborers, which is what led to the implementation of capitalism. Baptiste instead shows how Northern Capitalists came into a political conflict with the Southern Enslavers. Northerners began challenging the southern capitalist’s unique ‘right’ to own human beings. By the Civil War plantation owners had long been expanding into Mexico while continuing to steal land from Native Americans. Now running low on conquerable land, the enslavers sought to expand their control to various US colonies, or even extend slavery into the Northern US. This brought Southern Slave Capital into a direct conflict with Northern Capital.
By 1860 The North had developed a diversified industrial economy, albeit with the help of cotton picked by slaves. The South on the other hand had seen moderate industrial development, but mostly served as a giant cotton colony for the rest of the world’s capitalists. This limited diversification in the cotton dependent Southern economy and left them slightly less prepared for war. This, among other factors, allowed the Union to win the Civil War replacing slave relations with capitalist ones. Additionally, the Slaves and many workers who hated the Southern Plantation Oligarchy would take up arms and join the Union Army. We see in the civil war the intensification of struggles between classes, which reached its climax in armed conflict between the warring classes. Whether he’s done so intentionally or not, Edward Baptiste’s history of slavery has provided great evidence for Karl Marx’s theory that struggles between classes are what drive history through various modes of production.
For those of us living in the United States who wish to wage a struggle against our current mode of production, the history of Southern slavery is necessary to understand. Marx conducted his historical analysis of the development of Capitalism in England with the explicit goal of helping workers to understand their current situation and how to change it. Similarly to Marx, American socialists have the imperative to understand the historical development of our own capitalist mode of production. A history that shows without question that the propertied class in this country has consistently used race as a tool for maximizing their own surplus value. The commodification of a specific race being the ultimate form of this. Today, capital seeks to sow racial divisions among the diverse mass of working people. This is done to distract the labourers of society from the forces of markets, our relations of production, and designed to maximize our exploitation for the enrichment of a small number of people who do not work, the capitalists. The union army destroyed the uniquely evil mutation of capitalist production that was southern slavery. Let us continue this struggle today by attacking capitalist production at its roots, and take power from the class who exploits us, and the markets which throw our lives into anarchy.
The Economist. “Our withdrawn review "Blood Cotton."” The Economist, 5 September 2014, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2014/09/05/our-withdrawn-review-blood-cotton. Accessed 29 06 2021.
Foner, Eric. A Brutal Process. New York Times, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/the-half-has-never-been-told-by-edward-e-baptist.html. Accessed 02 07 2021.
Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. Penguin Classics, 1976. 3 vols.
Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a co-founder and editor of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. He is currently a graduate student, assistant, and wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.