The 1619 Project’s Confusion on Capitalism

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A pervasive sense of confusion characterizes Hulu’s new 1619 Project episode on “capitalism,” beginning with the basic definition of its titular term. Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones opens the episode by conceding that “I don’t feel like most of us actually know what capitalism means.” This should have provided her an opportunity for self-reflection on how the embattled project has, over the last three years, trudged its way through the economic dimensions of slavery.

The original New York Times version of the project assigned the topic 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, 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.

And thus, we return to the matter of definitions. Seeking a succinct explanation of “capitalism,” Hannah-Jones first consults historian Seth Rockman of Brown University. Rockman is an unusual choice, not only as a fellow traveler of Baptist’s embattled NHC school but for his own definitional confusions about the same term. He wrote a widely referenced 2014 article asserting that the NHC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism” while simultaneously insisting that slavery is “integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.” Capitalism cannot even be defined, but it is definitionally wedded to slavery. And so goes Rockman’s answer in the docuseries. After brushing aside a common dictionary’s association of the term with “a system of private property in which the free market coordinates buyers and sellers,” he settles on “it’s not really clear.” Nonetheless, capitalism, in his mind, still clearly encompasses slavery, with no further explanation needed.

This article was published by American Institute for Economic Research and is reproduced with permission.


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