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“A Torture Machine”

The Violent Story of Slavery and the Beginning of American Capitalism

T.W. Walker is a Southern activist, mostly as a rank-and-file public-sector clerical worker helping organize a non-majority union.
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 528 pages, $35, hardcover.

For an estimated hundreds of thousands of people, including some 60,000 workers who had served notice to their bosses, April 15, 2015, was strike day—reportedly the largest mobilization of low-wage workers since May Day of 1886, when a half million workers and their families (10 percent of the population at the time) struck for the eight-hour work day. Hundreds of us from here in Tennessee joined fast food workers, adjuncts, and home and child-care workers in the morning for strike actions, and many of us boarded buses to St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, for a Black Lives Matter protest that brought together strikers and supporters from all across the region. It was an intense and exact showcase of the irrevocable knot of violent and permanent racism in this country, and its broadening (and racialized) wealth and income gap and the deepening, permanent poverty of working-class life.

The Ferguson event brought together these issues in a seamless way. I do not know who tactically decided to bring those struggles together for this day, but everyone I talked with understood how they were connected. I heard a lot of the fast food workers who had gone on strike, and who were mostly African American, plainly talk about the brutality, violence, and discipline they routinely faced at school from teachers and school officers, on the job from bosses, on the streets from police—everywhere. State violence is as basic and pervasive to black working-class life as poverty.

Because written history is always a weapon of the dominant class, revolutionaries need credible history that explains this reality, and helps orient us in changing it. How did we get here? Who played what role? What are the forces that can make change, and why?

There is no legitimate history of this nation’s past and present that can deny the twin realities of extreme economic exploitation of people of color, especially African Americans, and the incredible violence perpetrated against them. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told draws these two realities together in his contribution to the new set of histories of U.S. capitalism, slavery, and cotton, which include Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. The heretofore largely Marxist genre of accounts, which laid bare the genesis of U.S. racialized capitalism, including the eminent and fundamental work of Herbert Gutman and Lerone Bennet, Jr., is substantially expanded by these non-explicitly Marxist additions, not least of all because they corroborate and enrich our dire critique of this ruthless system, rather than serve as its liberal apologia.

Baptist has cleverly organized his book around a series of anatomical metaphors built from an image borrowed from Ralph Ellison of U.S. history as a “drama…enacted on the body of a Negro giant, trussed like Gulliver.” His chapters are each parts of that body—”Heads,” “Hands,” “Backs,” etc.—rather than topics or specific chronological periods. The book tells the story of where the wealth that enabled capitalism came from. Baptist writes, “the key to all the commodities sold at Maspero’s,” a slave market in New Orleans, “was flesh.” Labor, as it were, creates all value.

At its heart, Baptist’s book is a carefully constructed argument that slavery was not capitalism’s outdated if horrific prequel, but its undeniable beginning, with terror and violence at its core. In this way, it is a kind of labor history, and one that takes the words of the laborers as its main guide. He certainly does not ignore the record of whom he describes as “the most powerful”—slave traders, politicians, bankers—but the voices of the least powerful, the slaves, are Baptist’s most substantial source.

For example, it is from the testimony of slaves, including Baptist’s central protagonist, Charles Bell, that we comprehend “driving,” “pushing,” and other innovations in labor practices that increased productivity and efficiency. These are the systems that between 1800 and 1860 actually accelerated cotton picking, increasing it by some 400 percent, and which made slavery more efficient than free labor. This is some of the main evidence for Baptist’s important task of disproving the traditional assertion that slavery was an inefficient and parochial system ended by a dynamic and modernizing industrial capitalism, and establishing instead that they share the same story. It was not the industrial technology of the cotton gin that enabled the boom in cotton; instead, it was the rapidly accelerating picking rate of labor.

Baptist’s methodological elevation of slaves’ experiences is not just to add an emotionally charged human angle to his admittedly prosaic book, but is rather among the key ways he discovers and demonstrates the dynamic, adaptive nature of slavery—one of his most critical and substantial insights. That is to say, the book fundamentally benefits from knowing that it is invaluable that we learn what we are up against and what needs to change by listening to the ones who this system most dispossesses; they are more likely to understand just what that system is because they have been where they can see it most clearly, whether it was then, or now.

It is in exactly this way that the book comes to do a series of reframes as it works to understand reality from the history of the slaves rather than those who owned them, exploited them, and protected the slave system. In Baptist’s work, “plantations” become “labor camps,” and “violence”—one of his main themes—becomes “torture.”

Violence is too conceptual and not intimate enough for Baptist, who is relying on the people who were subjected to it as his informants. They did not “experience violence,” but were tortured. They survived to tell the stories, and Baptist is listening to them. He tells them to us again and again, like in the recurring accounts of slaves who dreaded and feared going into the Deep South, or the account by the slave Henry Clay of a “torture machine.” Baptist doubts that such a machine really existed, but validates its implicit truth that while violence was incomprehensively sadistic, it was not at all random; it was a basic and fundamental part of the system, the machine. This “machine,” he writes, was “crucial…to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world.” Clay, a slave from the Carolinas, said it turned people “into blistered, bloody jelly.” It was capitalism’s start.

Baptist’s claim that violence, torture, helped facilitate capitalism’s development, and that he locates one of violence’s most operative sites in the labor process itself are corroborations of most Marxists’ understanding of history. “We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production,” he writes; not to be glib, but I think the “we” he is referring to are not socialists, who have a decidedly negative view of the way capitalism extracts value through production. But what Baptist misses or omits is the way that torture also functioned as part of the mechanics of establishing and maintaining a system of racial difference, hierarchy, and control—the defining and essential feature of U.S. capitalism.

I doubt Baptist would disagree with that; his whole book’s claim is that the violent enslavement of African Americans created and initiated U.S. capitalism and wealth. But, critically, the voices of black people from slavery until right now demonstrate that state violence and torture are not just germane to the class struggle, and the struggle against racism and white supremacy. It is a disappointment that Baptist does not really foreground this dynamic.

This is nothing new to African Americans who are far removed in time from those days. Shermale, a McDonald’s worker from Ferguson, Missouri, who came to Tennessee to build support for the April 15 strikes, said she thought police violence was meant “to keep us in our place.” She worked so close to where Mike Brown was shot, she heard the sirens while she was on the clock. Shermale has been going out on strike in the Fight for Fifteen (fight for the $15 minimum wage); she has also been part of the Black Lives Matter protests, including and starting on West Florissant, where it all began. One of the reasons it is so important to appreciate that reality is because it is how we know—those of us who have not lived it—that capitalism and white supremacy do not and cannot come apart, not anywhere, and especially not in the United States.

If the point is not just to understand the world but to change it, histories which contend with and explain current political questions are those that understand the partisanship of history, and have chosen a side. Baptist’s history does not identify itself as a weapon for those of us who want to abolish white supremacy and class society, but that is exactly what it is, because the story it tells emerges as an indictment of this system’s beginnings and thus its present. We have a system based on the torture of people of color, particularly and especially black people, and that has continued from slavery all the way to the present—encompassing the so-called “Redemption,” including lynchings and Jim Crow, all the way up to the systems of mass incarceration and police violence that have been well documented—which has kept them, as Shermale and every other fast food worker I have talked to have understood, in their place, at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Even if the relationship between state violence and the exploitation of black people is less immediate today than under slavery and Jim Crow, it is still the true stuff of U.S. capitalism, and its historical persistence (witness police killings of blacks and the New Jim Crow of the prison system) is proof enough that it will take a revolution to end it.

2015, Volume 67, Number 6 (November)
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