The original New York Times version of the project assigned the topic [of the economics of slavery] to Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, a novice without any scholarly expertise or methodological training in one of economic history’s most thoroughly scrutinized topics. The resulting essay blended empirical error with a basic misreading of the academic literature to almost comical ends. He casually repeated a thoroughly debunked statistical claim from a “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) scholar Ed Baptist, who erroneously attributes the growth of the antebellum cotton industry’s crop yield to the increased beating of slaves (it was actually due to improved seed technology). At one point, Desmond even asserted a lineal descent from plantation accounting books to Microsoft Excel — the result of misreading a passage in another book that explicitly disavowed this same connection.
Desmond is conspicuously absent from the new Hulu episode, although Amazon warehouses do apparently supplant Microsoft as the modern-day iteration of plantation economics — a message repeatedly emphasized as the camera shots flash between historical photographs of slaves working in the cotton fields of the antebellum South and footage of an Amazon distribution center. The cinematic juxtaposition is intended to provoke. Instead, it simply ventures into morally offensive analogy, stripped of any sense of proportion or understanding of slavery’s abject brutality. Though she stops just short of saying as much, [Nikole] Hannah-Jones wishes for her viewers to identify an hourly-wage job with the internet retail giant as a modern “capitalist” continuation of chattel slavery.
Hannah-Jones’s semantic exercise shifts as she brings in a new consultant to the 1619 Project, UCLA historian Robin D. G. Kelley. Unlike Rockman’s self-contradictory equivocation, Kelley minces no words: “The reality is that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor. It’s that simple.” And with that assertion, the 1619 Project episode further stumbles through its investigation of “capitalism” by adopting an unvarnished Marxist conceptualization of the term.
Equating capitalism with the exploitation of workers certainly serves the purpose of designating chattel slavery as a capitalistic institution, but it is simply not an accurate — or even functional — definition of the concept. Ancient Roman slavery, medieval feudalism, Soviet-era gulags, and North Korean prison camps today would also qualify as “capitalism” if we reduce the concept to exploitative worker conditions, and indeed that is how Hannah-Jones, under Kelley’s aggressively ideological guidance, proceeds.
Economists have long rejected the class of monocausal development theories that purport to find the economic engine of an entire epoch in a single good or product, such as oil or railroads in more recent times. Aside from seldom exceeding single-digit shares of economic output, one-industry theories of economic development must contend with the counterfactual presented by the allegedly dominant industry’s closest substitutes. In the case of cotton, alternative sources could be found outside of the American South — and indeed they were during the Civil War, when the blockade induced the textile mills of Europe to turn to Egypt, India, and South America for their raw materials. In this respect, the 1619 Project repeats the same economic error that led the Confederacy to mistakenly proclaim that “cotton is king,” assuming none would dare make war upon its plantation system for risk of amputating the alleged source of their own wealth. In practice, King Cotton was but a garish pretender to an economic throne that did not even exist.
Although the 1619 Project’s anti-capitalism arises from ideological roots, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the series’s elementary misrepresentations of American economic history arise from the abject ignorance of its creator and her chosen guests.
Hannah-Jones nods in agreement, volunteering her own declarative assessment that unionization and civil rights are synonymous causes. In doing so, she repeats what historian Paul Moreno dubs “one of the hoariest myths in the history of the American labor movement” — the notion that racial animus is externally imposed on the working class to keep it divided and weak. In reality, the long history of unionization in the United States is replete with homegrown racism, as organized labor has sought to increase white workers’ wages by driving African Americans out of the competitive workforce. Many early-20th-century union initiatives, including working-hour restrictions, minimum wages, and collectively codified seniority privileges for existing workers allowed organizers to cartelize white labor against wage competition from African Americans and immigrants. The mostly white union sector benefited from artificially higher pay under these measures, whereas blacks found themselves excluded from employment entirely.
The informed viewer cannot help but notice an element of accident in Hannah-Jones’s economic misadventures. Progressive policy aims characterized the 1619 Project from the beginning, to be sure, but its confused economics left the project’s creator adrift in a sea of withering criticism. As she cast about for new sources to salvage her narrative, she eventually landed in the fringes of academic Marxism. But there’s no reason for outrage over the many errors of fact and economic reasoning that result from this witless embrace of anti-capitalist crankery. The incoherent narrative that the 1619 Project builds in its attempt to link modern Amazon warehouses to slavery offers no meaningful insights about the history or economic workings of either institution. But it is sufficiently self-discrediting to dissuade most viewers outside of the already converted.
They alleged: I had used racist language. I had misgendered Brittney Griner. I had repeatedly confused the names of two black students. My body language harmed them. I hadn’t corrected facts that were harmful to hear when the (now-purged) students introduced them in class. I invited them to think about the reasoning of both sides of an argument, when only one side was correct. The students ended with a demand: In light of all the harms they had suffered, they could only continue in the class if I abandoned the seminar format and instead lectured each day about anti-blackness, correcting any of them who questioned orthodoxy. The only critical perspectives they were receiving during the summer, they claimed, were from Keisha. A white girl—the one with all the snails—punctuated their point: “Keisha speaks for me: She says everything I think better than I ever could.”
Keisha is uniquely talented at performing her role, but she isn’t the author of the play. Pushing anti-racism to its limits, what we reach isn’t just hollow doctrine, but abuse: Pathological relationships that cut us off from the world, from the give-and-take of reasons and feelings unfolding over time that makes up life in the world. We see this crystal clear in the paradoxes that I encountered: The experience was supposed to be organized around a “transformative justice,” rather than a punitive model, yet the community managed to expel two of its members. Students continually voiced their desire to find practical actions to help change the world, but after four weeks, they had learned to say that anti-blackness is so foundational, the world could never change. The students wanted freedom, for themselves and for all, but they started to say that the only route to freedom is indoctrination: having me tell them what to think.
The people determined to reduce the Twitter Files into a partisan pissing match are doing so precisely because the real targets of these stories aren’t parties, but the FBI, DHS, DOD, and other massive state entities who’ve been improperly meddling in domestic speech.