Recent Read: “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

Don’t miss this impressive (and enlightening) article by Princeton’s Matthew Desmond from NYT’s new “1619 Project.” Some highlights:

 

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.

When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.

Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points.

Today modern technology has facilitated unremitting workplace supervision, particularly in the service sector. Companies have developed software that records workers’ keystrokes and mouse clicks, along with randomly capturing screenshots multiple times a day. Modern-day workers are subjected to a wide variety of surveillance strategies, from drug tests and closed-circuit video monitoring to tracking apps and even devices that sense heat and motion. A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.

Even academic historians, who from their very first graduate course are taught to shun presentism and accept history on its own terms, haven’t been able to resist drawing parallels between the Panic of 1837 and the 2008 financial crisis. All the ingredients are there: mystifying financial instruments that hide risk while connecting bankers, investors and families around the globe; fantastic profits amassed overnight; the normalization of speculation and breathless risk-taking; stacks of paper money printed on the myth that some institution (cotton, housing) is unshakable; considered and intentional exploitation of black people; and impunity for the profiteers when it all falls apart — the borrowers were bailed out after 1837, the banks after 2008.

During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.

 

 

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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