"Torture as a Factor of Production": Cotton and Capital

Andrew McKee

In the past two semesters I have had the opportunity to take part in two very different courses on capitalism. One course was housed in the always-classy Dodd Hall with Matthew Day, and the other, in the history department at FSU with Alexander Aviña. While differing in book lists (the only overlap was Specters of the Atlantic), and in methodological approach, both courses have prompted me to pay close attention to globalization, economic interests, nation-state creation, and, occasionally, religious studies. In my own research, the weaving together of these historical and historiographic details has been especially productive when thinking about how the influence of capitalist markets loomed large in considerations of empire making and Indian removal in the antebellum America. While these works do not explicitly focus on things “religious,” in my post for today, I want to discuss this focus by referencing three new, and, I think, helpful books on slavery and the ‘Cotton Empire” for teaching and researching (previously discussed at the blog here) at all these different interlocking intersections.

First off, Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, which encompasses an enormous history of the Mississippi Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century and argues that the systematic creation of a cotton frontier tied to global economy flows created an economic environment that was explosive, lively, and speculative. Johnson’s narrative critiques a vision of the Jeffersonian Republican ideal of the ‘yeoman’ farmer in highlighting the processes in which this vision itself was rooted in speculation, credit, and debt. The south, of which the Mississippi Valley played a defining role, gives Johnson’s narrative a clear focus on the processes by which slave labor and the mono cropping of cotton could and did take hold. Instead of questioning what ‘the South’ was, then, Johnson instead claims to ask, “where southerner’s thought they were going and how they thought they could pull it off in the first place” (16). 

From chapter one through roughly chapter nine, Johnson focuses on the Mississippi River, the language of being ‘sold down river,’ and how the river was ‘scaled up’ in a process that shifting a large percentage of the United States economy to the city of New Orleans by the early 1850s. The potential prosperity to be found along and on the river in visions of grandeur, however, was built on shaky grounds and a fear of unrest. Johnson argues that the Louisiana Purchase was, at least partially, a reactionary movement to the Haitian revolution and the fear of slave rebellion. Likewise, because the very crop upon which planters’ financial well being depended, that is cotton existed on a boom-bust cycle of both crop reliability and selling price, a feeling of unrest undergirded the entire system. Johnson captures this idea best in his overlapping discussion of American literature – in Twain and Melville, specifically – and in his linkage between the entire economic process and steamboat accidents, as he notes, “Danger was built into the boats.” 

The “second half” of Johnson’s work, builds upon this fear of failure that pervaded the Mississippi Valley as steamboats gave way to railroads, slavery increased in its intrastate trafficking, and cotton continued to be thrown into the commercial, global market place. As the Valley became more emblematic of problems associated with the south – under consumption of goods, mono cropping, slave based labor, and debt to outside entities – it, the southern United states, likewise grew more defensive of their institutional weaknesses. To secure their whiteness of a certain kind, however, the elite male planters of the south had to look outward, and indeed, they did so by speculating on the future of potential markets in and coming from the Caribbean. Or, as Johnson highlights in a chapter on William Walker, the assertion of a white racial order of labor rested upon a confidence in cotton, and a certainty of reopening the slave trade outside of the United States. 

The second book, Ed Baptist’s The Half that Has Never Been Told has already heavily discussed elsewhere, so I won’t dwell as long here. In brief, however, Baptist’s argument is based around “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth” (xxii). This, I think is an especially useful book given the many recent accounts of monsters haunting the country (here and here). If monstrosity is built into the very project of American capitalism as Baptist’s history points to, then how are we to make think about a system where, as he notes further, “we don’t usually see torture as a factor of production” (141).

Third, and, I’ll admit to not having read this one yet because it just came out yesterday, but Sven
Beckert’s Empire of Cotton sounds especially interesting for this conversation, at least judging by the blubs: “The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.” I’ll update the success of this as soon as I can track down a copy. 

And to end, if all of this has gotten you excited to finish all that grading so you can get retreat back to winter break reading, make sure to first take a minute and submit an abstract to the FSU graduate symposium (or get your students involved) so we can all hang out and talk about all this and more. (The more is Bruce Lincoln and Werewolves).


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