Reading Eugene Genovese in the Age of Occupy

Eugene D. Genovese—leading historian of slavery, son of Bensonhurst, graduate of Brooklyn College—died in September at age 82. Although many remembrances of Genovese have focused on his political transition from card-carrying Communist to Catholic cultural conservative, a close look at a concept underlying his work reveals more continuity than change. He clung to a dichotomous understanding of capitalism versus non-capitalism, with slavery the distinct foundation of a non-capitalist social world. That static binary holds clues to his later political transformation, which, in short, was less transformative than it appears. He remained a committed anti-capitalist, more or less, until the end, certain that capitalism’s most baneful symptoms continued to be its sundering of tradition and atomization of collectivities. But after the collapse of Really Existing Socialism, Genovese, the great historian of slavery, found the exemplary alternative to capitalism in the plantocracy and the peculiar world of Southern slaveholders. His celebration of that world’s protection of traditional values found a ready audience among political conservatives.

Genovese joined together theories of social life derived from Marxism with a sharp reading of the archives of American slavery. He thereby overturned many of the inherited scholarly understandings of the South and the Civil War developed in the century after emancipation. But it was Genovese’s defense of what he viewed as slaveholders’ paternalism that inspired many subsequent historians to take aim at his work.

In the long shadow of his 1965 The Political Economy of Slavery, subsequent historians have had to engage with or have tacitly adopted Genovese’s insistence that slavery was not simply an economic system but rather had ramified political, cultural, ideological, psychological, and other effects. In this way of thinking, all flowed from the particularity of the master-slave relationship; a “special civilization” was built on it. Slaveholders had a worldview all their own that derived from the non-capitalist, “irrational” character of plantation production. In contrast to historians who preceded Genovese, however, he saw the social world of the enslaved and the masters as a unity, even if fundamentally cleaved. The chief difference between this non-capitalist system and capitalism is that slaveholders could not shrink their labor force without losing their investment in those enslaved bodies. In contrast, under capitalist competition shedding workers is key to maintaining or increasing profitability. Under capitalism, productivity increases are enabled by introduction of labor-saving machines, whereas to increase productivity under slavery, according to Genovese, slaveholders had to add bodies or more closely surveil and abuse the enslaved. Because the South thus lacked the economic dynamism associated with capitalism, it fell behind the North and could expand only extensively into new territories, rather than intensively, as the North did, through technological innovation.

By the 1850s, this need for territorial expansion would be met with intractable resistance among Northern Republicans, which precipitated the crisis whose outcome was the Civil War. Additionally, Genovese argues that planters held the firm sense that the South’s destiny was not that of the North, that it could remain non-capitalist in a capitalist world. The “insoluble problem” was that to allow industrial development and the creation of a home market in the South, thereby diversifying the economy, would have meant eviscerating the rule of the very class that was to benefit from this diversification, by eroding the master-slave relationship upon which all was constructed.

Genovese’s subsequent Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) would be dedicated to a deep investigation of how that rule came into being and was sustained. Here again, the distinction between non-capitalist production and capitalism is decisive. What animated this monumental study—which even its most ardent critic, historian Walter Johnson, calls the “locus classicus” for subsequent discussions of slavery—are the questions of how and why naked force and the clear exploitation of enslaved people did not result in the overthrow of the planters’ rule. In contrast, the explanation of capitalism’s endurance is actually clearer for materialist analysis: Its exploitation occurs in what Karl Marx called the “hidden abode of production” and its unequal transactions are mediated by cash rather than force wrapped in enticement.

To explain slavery’s persistence in the first half of the 19th century, Genovese analyzes planters’ “hegemony” and their discourse of “paternalism.” Hegemony describes the mixture of coercion and consent slaveholders relied upon to keep the “special civilization” alive. Genovese’s focus on the production process under slavery, and its contrasts with factories populated by the emergent industrial proletariat, contained an embedded critique of wage-workers’ compulsion to labor. His discussion of the ideology of paternalism was meant to explain why enslaved people did not revolt en masse. For him, individual resistance to masters did not rise to the level of collective rebellion, as would be possible for wage laborers. But critics question how much consent could really have existed among the enslaved. His assessment of paternalism, the way slaveholders described their rule in terms of a fatherly devotion that necessitated strict enforcement of rules, is seen as containing the lineaments of his later cultural conservatism.

But I would argue that at the root of Genovese’s analysis of hegemony is his simple dichotomy of capitalism and non-capitalism, which comes to be mapped as a spatially and temporally static divide. Only non-capitalist production could require paternalism. Under capitalism, workers are compelled to work, or seek work, not by the lash, nor by loyalty, but by a lack of alternatives. To do otherwise is to risk starvation, even in lands of plenty. Nowadays, “to slave” is a colloquialism that signals difficult and perhaps dangerous work, long hours, and insufficient remuneration. But slavery studies in the wake of Genovese has begun to suggest that the economic echoes of slavery in the present are less in the world of work than in the abstractions of money, a realization impeded by the binary thinking Genovese offers.

Among current historians, there are two sharp, related rejoinders to his argument about paternalism, which destabilize the binary. First, after the outlawing of the Atlantic trade of enslaved people, an “internal” trade exploded. Although this trade coincided with the rise of the paternalism discourse, aimed as it was toward defending slavery against abolitionists’ attacks, Genovese mostly downplayed it. The rhetoric of master-slave family ties was never strong enough to prevent the severing of actual family ties among the enslaved. Far more than fear of the lash, enslaved people lived in fear of being sold, argues Johnson. Second, given the importance of this market, and the expertise of planters and traders in its operation, it becomes increasingly untenable to consider the whole of slavery to have been non-capitalist. More than just in a capitalist world-system that depended on Southern cotton shipped to Lancashire looms, against Genovese, scholars today argue slavery was of it.

This analytic concern with the commodification of bodies as such—what it was like for enslaved people to inhabit the very contradiction of formal abstract equivalence assigned by a monetary value despite each person’s specific individuality and active ability to resist commensuration—has gained traction after the last three decades’ insinuation of market rule into aspects of the life-world previously insulated from the market. Historians’ expanded view of capitalism’s workings before the Civil War reflects a recognition of its multiple directions and new routes of profit-making today. In 1965, at the time of Genovese’s initial elaboration, after almost two decades of the strongest rate of economic growth in world history, aided by countercyclical spending, unionization, and even efforts toward full employment, a definition of capitalism based strictly on wage labor resonated. Today, perspectives have shifted.

Our present is one of cascading underemployment and unemployment. The labor-saving machines central to the “qualitative,” intensive expansions of industry Genovese emphasized have been so successful, industrial workers are largely redundant. And whereas finance in the 1960s was insignificant, accounting for only 10 percent or so of profits, today something like 40 percent of profits in the U.S. economy come from the financial sector, with its relatively tiny labor force. Giants of U.S. industry like GM or GE became financial speculators that dabbled in manufacturing on the side. It therefore makes sense to put aside Genovese’s view, in order to ask questions about the past better suited to the present. For example, scholars Michael Ralph, Sharon Ann Murphy, and Ian Baucom have investigated the insurance slaveholders and shippers took out on enslaved people. Here the cotton field is distant from their analytic field.

Baucom, in his Specters of the Atlantic (2005), explores the mass murder of 133 enslaved people, thrown overboard from the slave ship Zong in 1781. The story is straightforward. The ship’s cargo was insured. As the enslaved grew ill, the captain reasoned that to save the remainder, he had to rid the ship of the sickly bodies. He did so. Had the enslaved died on the ship, no insurance claim could be made. Because the captain committed murder to protect the other human cargo, the insurance contract made the murder a sound financial decision. The insurance was a form of social practice that, in Baucom’s words, “entirely sundered the expression of value from the existence of things”: the sickly bodies retained full, speculative value only through their destruction. After all, the first systematic manual of insurance, published that same year, lumped into one “common hazardous” risk-based category: brushes, butter, candles, glue, hair, hats, silks, slaves, soap, vellum, vermicelli, wax, etc. For Baucom, “the conversion of endless variety into a single, general equivalent: money,” was laid bare in the massacre. Thus, this event, rather than the French Revolution (as Kant would have it), inaugurates the modern era, or the modern way of thinking, in which formal, universal equality among persons depends on the negation of their specifics.

Furthermore, Ralph and Murphy have examined the way the modern life insurance industry came into being in part through the insurance of highly skilled enslaved laborers in antebellum Southern cities. As some planters in border states sold their chattel laborers in the internal market, others rented them to employers for dangerous occupations. For slaveholders ever wary of losing their investment, Northern insurance firms entered the breach and innovated new practices of indemnity. The unique relations of contract, credit, debt, insurance, and speculation that crossed the slaving Atlantic catalyzed innovations in commensuration under whose sign we live today.

If Genovese’s slide toward cultural conservatism was enabled by his sense that the plantocracy actually was a bulwark against capitalism’s erasure of tradition, then what are we to do with radical dreams of finding pockets of resistant culture outside the system today? Radicals and progressives frequently imagine or attempt to construct a simple outside to capitalism, external to or alongside it, where traditions and alternatives can flourish. Even if these supposed outsides are always at risk of destruction by the market juggernaut, whether through the dread co-optation or by more brutal force, for the Occupy movement and the yuppie locavore alike, the possibility retains allure. Yet I see a parallel between this anti-capitalist construct and Genovese’s binary of non-capitalism and capitalism. His determination to explore slavery from the standpoint of factory workers thrust the system of slavery into capitalism’s prehistory. That perspective can absolve us of having to confront their simultaneity.

Genovese never shrank from declaring the relevance of his interpretations of the past to his critique of the present. Scholars such as Johnson, Baucom, Ralph, and Murphy may be less brash, but in detailing what Genovese did not they illuminate present transformations. As the Occupy movement demonstrated, there is a cost of removing capitalism from the terms of political debate, and a clear benefit to its inclusion. But capitalism today resides not simply in the money the boss pockets by exploiting workers. Instead, we might join W.E.B. DuBois’s reinterpretation of the phrase “general strike,” used in relation to the actions of the enslaved as the Civil War broke out (the collective revolt Genovese claimed had never occurred), to the apparently diffuse actions of enslaved men and women in the markets of the internal trade. On display as items for sale, enslaved people feigned illness, talked back, and asserted familial bonds to prevent their sale. Scholars have begun elucidating this determination to resist substitutability and equivalence, to resist the assignment of a monetary price. Such a practice might be better seen as like a general strike, but outside the old-fashioned production process. It constituted a dispersed collective action against capitalism’s logic of formal equivalence—and against valuing people in terms of their potential to make money for owners. The question raised by Occupy, to which only hints of answers have emerged, is how the unemployed, debtors, students, service workers, and the disfranchised might act collectively, as had once been both possible and necessary for workers brought together in industrial production.

Instead of pinning hopes on the necessary but ultimately insufficient attempts to get outside or around capitalism through prefiguration of non-capitalist social life as in Occupy encampments, which the police in any case did not allow to come into full bloom, we can take a different lesson from the arc of slavery studies since 1965. The struggle for freedom must recognize the full, insidious scope of unfreedom under capitalism, the myriad different forms it takes, and how, as made plain by Baucom’s analysis of the murder of enslaved people in order to collect insurance payments, the past accumulates in the present.

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Stuart Schrader

STUART SCHRADER is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in American Studies at N.Y.U. whose dissertation analyzes links between 1960s Cold War counterinsurgency and domestic policing in the United States. His article on punk rock, "A Rotten Legacy?," appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of the Rail.