Robin Einhorn’s review of Walter Johnson on slavery and cotton in the South

It is a decent review, but she doesn’t finish the thought in the review…

If all we mean by “capitalism” is exploitation for profit, then Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956) might have put an end to the discussion by demonstrating the profit-driven exploitation and cruelty of slavery. Johnson, however, has more in mind. Before turning directly to the production of cotton on plantations, he describes the violence of territorial conquest, the savagery of white responses to real and imagined slave revolts, and the ecological destruction of turning diverse natural landscapes into grids of cotton fields.

We never learn what the “more in mind” actually is!  I don’t think he actually has anything “more in mind” that is coherent.  Why interesting to me? Because in places like Burkina Faso, mining is booming, industrial and artisanal.  Academic writers always seem to have “more in mind” when they discuss mining in West Africa but in the end mining is like selling plastic buckets imported from China or growing cashew trees.  It is what it is, not something “more.”  Academic writing often specializes in creating the illusion that there is something more (and coining or deploying special jargon to describe the more, rather than using ordinary words, is part of the mystification).

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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