As recent discussions in the broader academic literature illustrate, the economic dimensions of American slavery remain a lively area of scholarly investigation and debate. Much of the current debate revolves around an emergent historiographical school. Usually referred to as the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC), this school has produced a sizable body of research contending that the institution of slavery was a central building block of American capitalism. At the same time however, the NHC literature has come under intense criticism from economic historians who have long studied the same subject, and who question both its use of evidence and its conclusions.
I will preface this comment by acknowledging that I rank among the NHC’s critics. At the same time however, I approach the subject of slavery in my own work as someone who believes there is substantial room for dialogue between economists and historians, and laments the tendency of each discipline to silo itself. Economists bear some of the blame for this outcome, particularly as it applies to the high barriers imposed by the econometric techniques at the heart of their work. My comment here, however, will look at three areas where I believe the NHC literature has cluttered rather than advanced the discussion around this important subject.
I. The Definition Problem
As numerous other scholars have pointed out, much of the debate around the NHC literature stems from the issue of how it defines capitalism. While definitional disputes have a tendency to become bogged down in tedium, they have become an unavoidable feature of the NHC discussion on account of an intentional flexibility with how its scholars use and invoke the term. We see this practice openly acknowledged in an influential review essay by NHC scholar Seth Rockman, who declares that this new line of inquiry “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism.” Rather than building outward from a conceptual commitment around a fixed term, he explains, NHC scholars are willing to “let capitalism float as a placeholder while they look for ground-level evidence of a system in operation.”
This fluid definitional approach might not be problematic in itself, except that it is invoked inconsistently throughout the NHC literature, including in ways that impede scholarly engagement with non-NHC interpretations of slavery’s economic dimensions. Indeed, Rockman himself sneaks in one such definitional commitment only seconds after stating this literature’s “disavowal of theoretical definitions” for the term by simply asserting that “the new scholarship recognizes slavery as integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.”
The rest of this piece can be found at The Economic Historian.