The 1619 Project, a collection of essays and articles published by The New York Times on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in America, “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
It’s not simply that The1619 Project reframes America’s founding in terms of black bondage instead of white liberty. It’s much more radical project is re-imagining African Americans as a greater force for pushing America closer to its democratic ideals than even its founding fathers (none of whom believed blacks or women were their equals in any way.)
Predictably, reactions from conservative media have ranged from sneers to hysteria. Among them is an article titled “Young capitalist completely torches prof’s attempt to link capitalism to slavery” from Campus Reform, a small, college-oriented political site striving to replicate the Breitbart formula. Under the heading “A Princeton University professor recently argued in a New York Times op-ed that capitalism was born out of slavery,” Senior Campus Correspondent Adam Sabes offers several comments on an essay in the 1619 collection entitled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” by Matthew Desmond.
Sabes’ summary of Desmond’s position, that “capitalism was born out of slavery,” is followed by statements heavy on conjecture and light on evidence or supporting arguments:
—”The professor attempts to paint America’s capitalistic system as unfair and uses the example of convicted felon Martin Shkreli to do so.”
—”To one end, the professor even quotes historians saying “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” to support his argument that slavery is connected to capitalism.”
—”Specifically, Desmond writes about how slaves “picked in long rows” while “overseers peered down from horses.””
—”The professor notes that cotton was “among the world’s most widely traded commodities,” and slaves were used to pick the cotton, which would, in turn, “make a killing” for the slave owners.”
—”“This is a capitalist society,” Desmond writes. “It’s a fatalistic mantra that seems to get repeated to anyone who questions why America can’t be more fair or equal.””
In actuality, the case Desmond makes in his essay is much more coherent than Sabes’ summary, so much so that it reflects poorly on Sabes’ as a commentator who can honestly and accurately summarize the opinions of someone with whom he disagrees. In my own work, the principles of intellectual charity are very important to me. Even if I totally disagree with claims and arguments made by others, it’s my duty to accurately and charitably represent and summarize their positions. That Sabes makes no real attempt at accurately presenting Desmond’s case is a true sign of a lack of intellectual virtue. The Breitbart model is indeed alive and well in Sabes’ corner of campus journalism.
“Morgan Zegers, founder of Young Americans Against Socialism, told Campus Reform that Desmond didn’t make a fair statement by linking the roots of capitalism to slavery.
“Mr. Desmond’s agenda here is clear: to deride capitalism at any cost, even to his own journalistic integrity,” Zegers said.
She argued that slavery is actually the exact opposite of what capitalism is, and in fact, more closely aligns with socialism.
“Slavery, by definition, is forced, unpaid labor: that means slavery is free labor. The defining principle of capitalism is that everything has value, nothing is free. This principle applies to labor,” Zegers said. “The defining principle of socialism is that things can be made ‘free,’ and this includes labor. The modern slave is the serf in the socialist nations, in a North Korean mine or on a Venezuelan farm, be it in China or Cuba: these citizens made into subjects in socialist and communist societies are the least free human beings in the modern day: the modern slave.””
American conservatives spend so much time and energy attacking what socialism isn’t that what socialism really is has been overshadowed by boogieman socialism—the only kind of socialism many of us care to pay attention to. This is not accidental. It’s not the product of ignorance or hysteria. Boogieman socialism persists in debates about how societies should be organized by design. Ever since elements of the American left began moving further left a few years ago, conservatives haven’t been interested at all in debating expanded versus limited government so that others can make their own reasoned decisions about the strengths and weaknesses of each system. They’ve been much more interested in delegitimizing any idea or policy they don’t agree with so that their supporters see no need for debate or deliberation at all.
Anyone who smears anything vaguely left as socialism has an advantage. Only 17% of Americans polled by Gallup in 2018 understand socialism as a political system in which the government controls the means of production. And just how many Americans know what “means of production” means is anyone’s guess. Confusion about socialism helps explain why right-wingers can call anything they don’t like “socialist” without much pushback from leftwingers who themselves might not be well-informed on what the word really means.
That said, what’s completely clear is that the duration of slavery as an American institution had no features at all that anyone could honestly identify as “socialist.” First, no government on earth in 1619 had the power, technology, or expertise to manage and control the production and sale of industrial goods in the way that, for example, Russian planners managed the production and sale of toothbrushes, jeans, and sofas in what was once the Soviet Union. Second, socialism as a political ideology didn’t emerge until more than 200 years after the first Africans arrived in America.
Both of these facts are enough to smash Zeger’s case to pieces.
But wait! There’s more!
For reasons explored shortly, there’s a certain type of right-winger like Zegers who wants us to fantasize that slaves were laborers who plied their trade for free. The problem for Zegers and anyone who thinks slavery was socialism is that slaves weren’t laborers. Slaves were property. They were bought, sold, and owned humans. Their purpose was to produce returns on investment as a mule or plow would. Property that produces returns for owners is known as capital. A slave was capital. A slave produced capital. There was absolutely nothing socialist about the slavery industrial complex. It simply could not have been possible without markets, monetary exchange, pricing mechanisms, insurance, and the prospects of creating profit. There’s nothing anyone could ever call this system but capitalism.
In characterizing slavery as socialist, Zegers gets so much more wrong—particularly when she says “Slavery, by definition, is forced, unpaid labor: that means slavery is free labor.” Slavery was forced and unpaid, but it was by no means free. In Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Kevin Bales reminds us that “In 1850, an average slave in the American South cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money.” Slaveowners had to feed and shelter their property. They hired poor whites as overseers to protect their property. As Desmond notes throughout his essay, the slavery industrial complex could not function without inputs and investments that were recorded, tracked, and managed using many of the business methods and practices (such as the spreadsheet) that we use today.
This is why Zegers’ comparison of American slaves to serfs (“the modern slave is the serf in the socialist nations”) makes no sense. European serfdom was a feature of feudalism. Like slaves, serfs did not work for free. They worked a nobleman’s land in exchange for food, lodging, and protection. But they were not owned. They were not property. They were not capital. America’s slavery industrial complex as we understand it with the benefit of history could not have been possible in any other economic system than capitalism. Though the difference between being a European serf and an American slave is one of kind and not at all of degree, certain white conservatives continue to make false equivalences between slavery and serfdom. Such statements are as intellectually bankrupt as claims about “Irish slavery” in America and the complicity of Africans in the growth of the slave trade. These ideas have been deployed by the right to dilute, downplay and dismiss the weight of African American history on America’s conscience.
I suspect Sades knows he’s made nothing that looks like an argument supporting his analysis. I also suspect Zegers knows her argument is defective. But I don’t think either cares that much. As I’ve examined and critiqued more and more bad arguments and claims that aren’t even arguments, I’ve come to wonder about the tendency for right-wingers like them to make claims they should know are weak and sometimes silly, such as “slaves were free labor.”
Sadly, strong arguments and winning on the merits of sound argumentation are not really the point anymore for certain kinds of conservative pundits, commentators, and operatives. For what I call performance conservatives, power rather than knowledge has become the highest good produced by political discourse. If one can win with a good argument—great. But if half-truths, factlessness, false history, and alternative facts can win the day—well, that’s great, too. In this particular case, a website for right-leaning college students in the Breibart mold, and what seems to be a one-woman operation dedicated to saving young people from whatever it thinks socialism is, neither Sades nor Zegers really wants to honestly and thoughtfully engage with the 1619 Project. Instead, their task is to smear and defame it with extreme and baseless statements that encourage their readers to form opinions about it without ever engaging with it. This is exactly what college is NOT supposed to be about.
To say the least, white conservatives have a long history of not engaging well with most black people. For the performance conservatives among right-wing operatives, the politics of race in America has been a zero-sum game in which a win for black people is necessarily a loss for them. The need to preserve power, privilege, and advantage gets less rational as the stakes get higher. Logic and reason can be sacrificed without regret if the goal is to dissuade followers from honestly considering Desmond’s arguments.
However, I’m coming around to a deeper, darker take on performance conservatism in the Trump era. Not only does it seem that some conservatives will say just about anything to win a debate, score points, or “own the libs.” Cynicism itself has become a mode of governance and a feature of how conservatism survives in the midst of demographic decline and accelerating cultural change.
Not every conservative engages in performance conservatism. George Will, Tyler Cowen, Brett Stephens, Ross Douthat, John Podhoretz, Glenn Lowry, and Peter Thiel are among a shrinking few to whom I pay attention. Though I don’t always agree with them, they remind me that conservatism is at its best when it upholds institutions and ideas that need and are worth defending. Conservatism makes the most sense when it’s defending principles and policies that have worked in the past and will likely work in the future because they’ve stood the test of time in the right way. When conservativism gets radical—or worse, cynical—it inevitably becomes either dangerous or ridiculous. But when conservatism is genuinely conservative it has a good chance of being right on more issues than progressives may be willing to admit.
Image Source: George N. Barnard [Public domain]