The Economist: Still not entirely sure if slavery was good or bad, after all these years

The Economist: Still not entirely sure if slavery was good or bad, after all these years

An extraordinary furore has broken out over a rather bizarre book review in the current issue of The Economist. The review takes a unique view of slavery, of all things. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Throughout the world, for more than a hundred years, people interested in contemporary political and economic developments, as well as those eager to enjoy thoughtful, literate essays on everything from evolution to the IT revolution to art criticism, have been reading the Economist. Many people know the story of how Nelson Mandela once applied for and received permission to buy a weekly subscription to the Economist, even though he was still incarcerated on Robben Island, on the grounds that he was taking a UNISA correspondence course on economics and that magazine would be crucial research material for his course of study.

Not surprisingly, access to the Economist also gave Mandela and his fellow inmates access to a better understanding of world developments, especially as the collapse of the Soviet empire loomed ever closer towards the end of Mandela’s time behind bars. Beyond Robben Island, of course, many, many thousands of others have also read this periodical religiously for years because of its relentlessly elegant prose – and for all those hundreds of beautifully composed, thoughtful essays published in its pages every year.

As a result, it has come as a shock to discover that the Economist has been caught in a huge stumble (and some rather nasty egg on its editorial face) as a result of its just-published review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. In describing this book, the anonymous reviewer (virtually every bit of writing in the Economist bears no individual author’s name) ended the article with the astonishing lines: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” [Italics added] To most fair-minded readers, that sounds rather suspiciously like blaming the victim for his considerable misfortunes in allowing himself to become a slave – and attempting to make the argument that some of slavery’s very perpetrators were – themselves – the innocent victims of some great, implacable, historical economic machinery.

While the judgments in the review, let alone in the book in question, deserve discussion, the Economist’s editorial behaviour cannot go unremarked upon either. After an avalanche of criticism of the review washed over the magazine for this review (showing, among other things, that people really do read the reviews at the back of the book when they are in the Economist and that readers take the magazine’s judgements seriously), the Economist issued what amounted to an abject, grovelling apology for its review, saying, “In our review of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’ by Edward Baptist, we said: ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.’ There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.”

The editors then explained that they were withdrawing the review in apparent embarrassment. But, then, as if to open a little peephole on some private, prurient act, they then added rather curiously, “but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below ” – where anyone who hadn’t already read the review in the first place could now follow the link to do just that. Of course, nowadays, since anything on the Internet never really goes away for good, the review in question is being repeatedly forwarded to ever more eager, shocked, and astonished readers.

But then there is the magazine’s editorial brain-freeze moment to be considered as well. Throughout the media world, it has become commonplace to speak about the juniorisation of the news room, the gradual atrophying of sub-editing/copy editing responsibilities, and the flattening out of the management of those enterprises as contributing factors in the decline of rigorous, well-edited journalism.

And indeed, in small publications (such as this one), writers must inevitably take up more responsibility to ensure their writing meets the tests of content control such as fact checking and carrying out an assurance that the tone of an article is appropriate to the subject matter – especially if it is a highly critical one. But the Economist has a track record and a well-deserved reputation (as the author once heard its former editor Bill Emmott describe it) of being a carefully, highly edited publication, somewhat in the style of the US monthly opinion magazine, Commentary, was under its redoubtable former editor, Norman Podhoretz.

Given the evidence from the Economist’s review of Baptist’s book – the one that they first published, then repudiated and then slyly linked to on their website – perhaps there is now an urgent need to retune the apparently rather tin ear of its culture and arts section head. The problem for the Economist, unlike so many other publications, however, is that with very rare exceptions, everything between its covers is unattributed to a particular author. In effect, the editors must stand behind every word they publish – and every nuance and every reference – without the more usual crutch of saying the opinions expressed are those of the author.

But amazingly enough, this time around has not been the first time the Economist had demonstrated a gloriously tone-deaf approach to a topic like this. For years, its critics have maintained it has been an uncompromising (and effective) defender of that evil neo-liberal, Washington consensus-style, internationalist economic agenda. But Henry Farrell, writing in the Washington Post after this particular affair broke, has ferretted out an earlier, similarly egregiously stated response to human suffering, albeit one published some 150 years ago. As Farrell wrote in his opinion piece, “Even so, its extraordinary blindness to how real life economic power relations work is reminiscent of the magazine’s beginnings in the 19th century, when it fulminated at the very idea that the British government should do anything about the Irish famine that was happening on its doorstep. After all, it was the peasants’ own fault that they were starving.”

Farrell found the Economist’s response to the Irish potato famine that said, “…the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, [italics added] to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilisation.”

Farrell concludes that the Economist’s traditional admiration of laissez faire ideas, as demonstrated in this new review, still underlines “a shameful tendency to minimise the human costs of those at the wrong end of the system, whether it was those who suffered and were murdered beneath the whip of slavery or those who starved to death, in part thanks to The Economist’s own vigorous advocacy.” Whew, that’s pretty tough on the old girl.

But the Economist, in its review of Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, also managed to slide right around any discussion of the vast array of historical studies about slavery’s impact on African Americans and America more broadly. Moreover, it rolled right past a still on going, rumbling controversy about the economic impact of slavery that has been raging in academia since the early 1970s, following publication of “Time on the Cross” by economic historians Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman.

The crux of the Fogel/Engerman thesis – further explored in a companion volume of the econometric data and analysis related to the narrative of the original book – was that slaves represented such a significant investment for their owners that slave owners tended to treat their investments well (as they would have done with a prized brace of oxen or team of horses). As a result, slavery actually represented a largely profitable enterprise, rather than representing a dying economic system that would have soon been overwhelmed by the free enterprise system of the North, even if the Civil War hadn’t brought it to a rather abrupt end.

A whole range of scholars such as Kenneth Stampp, Eugene Genovese and Stanley Elkins have vociferously written in rebuttal to Engerman and Fogel’s approach. And, naturally enough, the very testimony of actual slaves – either those collected by the Library of Congress or as contained in some of the famous memoirs by ex-slaves such as Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave or Frederick Douglas in his Autobiography, among many others, have provided powerful first-hand testimony about the actual conditions of slavery in America.

Taken together, much of the first-hand evidence points to the obvious point that while some slave holders might well have been reasonable enough people (save for their belief and active participation in a deeply inhumane, immoral system, of course) and who weren’t given to psychotic rages and violence against their expensive “possessions”; nevertheless, some slave owners were just that. This was despite the presumed economic determinism that would have had slave owners maximise their agricultural production (and profit) through inducements to work hard and via the good treatment of their chattels. And further, none of this even takes into consideration the extraordinarily long-lived aftereffects of the legacy of slavery on American life and the economy.

In fact, who better than Abraham Lincoln to put the question of slavery’s beneficiaries into its proper perspective, when he said famously, “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” It might have been nice if the Economist’s editors had spent just a bit more time on their review contemplating the larger debate about the effect of slavery on America (or Brazil, South Africa – or Africa more generally). Then, perhaps, they wouldn’t be eating such a massive meal of crow right now. DM

Read more:

  • Our withdrawn review “Blood cotton” at the Economist

  • Review Essay: Comparing the Comparers: white supremacy in the United States and South Africa in the Journal of Social History

  • The Economist Admits Slavery Was Pretty ‘Evil’ After All at the Huffington Post

  • The True & Tragical History of ‘Time on the Cross’ at the New York Review of Books

  • When The Economist blamed Irish peasants for starving to death, in the Washington Post

  • Much more than 12 Years a Slave at the Daily Maverick

  • White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History in Foreign Affairs

Photo: A cover of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, and the front page of The Economist.


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