Capitalism Smeared as Slavery -- by Advocate of Slavery

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In the course of some research, I ran across a mendacious smear piece in the "1619 Project" of the New York Times.

The lengthy piece quite revealingly starts off with Martin Shkreli, the notorious scoundrel who gamed central planning (in the form of FDA rules) to charge extortionate prices to patients who needed a medication. Since the patents had long expired for this medication, it should have been available from multiple suppliers. And it would have been under capitalism, since that regulation would not have existed to impede the law of supply and demand.

It is Shkreli -- no capitalist, and whom the Times plainly regards as a criminal -- whom the Times happily elevates to a quotable authority:

[T]his is a capitalist society, a capitalist system and capitalist rules.
The rest of the article proceeds accordingly, as you might expect of a journalist who doesn't even bother to define the term he is plainly denouncing.

So let's take up that slack right now, before we go any further:
Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man's rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man's right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.
This definition comes from Ayn Rand, author of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Matthew Desmond chose someone he despises as a representative of capitalism: He has no room to complain about my choice.

With this out of the way, reading most of the rest of Desmond's hit piece will be like shooting fish in a barrel. Here are my notes on the rest of the piece:
  • The idea of there being different "varieties" of capitalism, (e.g., "democratic to unregulated") is ridiculous. Also, regulation is not part of capitalism, and democracy is mob rule. There are, however many different examples of mixed economies in the world. It is simply wrong to call any or all of these systems "capitalism."
  • The assertion that, "Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth." is highly debatable, to say the very least, plantation millionaires (the seen) for example, not withstanding. Despite the opulence of its rulers, find me a Venezuelan who calls their brand of slavery a "font of phenomenal wealth.")
  • The author gives a whirlwind tour of early American history, with emphasis on: (a) the brutality of slavery, (b) the fact that land speculators and plantation owners benefited from the often dishonest and inhumane treatment of Amerindians, (c) a quick portrait of the cotton economy, (d) the fact that many Northerners grew wealthy by trading with the plantation owners, and (e) assertions that many modern management techniques originated on plantations. This snow job proves absolutely nothing, except that the author wants us to think that "American capitalism" (whatever that's supposed to be) is a more or less direct descendant of the institution of slavery. (His discussions of management techniques read like he'd consign the world to starvation just because the Haber Process originated in Nazi Germany. [See Note below. --ed]) America is indeed scarred from its shameful legacy of slavery, but it is fatuous to damn it (or "capitalism") as if it has not made any meaningful progress since.
  • At one point, after calling slavery "America's first big business," he followed with a particularly graphic and disturbing description of the punishments meted out for slaves not making their quotas. This is a calculated ploy to cause readers -- who may be too shocked to remember that people don't receive this kind of treatment in America today -- to wrongly associate brutality with capitalism.
After all of this buildup comes the following paragraph, which may well sound aspirational to a reader, horrified at the brutality and overwhelmed by mostly irrelevant details by this point. In fact, it is quite ridiculous. It is about the "freedom" felt by poor whites who had been exposed to slavery. Like the rest of the piece, it mixes a grain of truth with an anti-capitalist agenda:
It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for [true --ed]; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains [also true --ed] but did not provide bread or shelter. [See below. --ed] It was a freedom far too easily pleased. [true --ed]
Pardon my French, but how in hell does an abstract concept like "freedom" "provide bread or shelter?"

It doesn't, as Ayn Rand points out in a discussion of individual rights, which are protected under (actual) capitalism:
Or pills, but competition would lead to prices that make sense. (Image by Amanda Jones, via Unsplash, license.)
There is no such thing as "a right to a job" -- there is only the right of free trade, that is: a man's right to take a job if another man chooses to hire him. There is no "right to a home," only the right of free trade: the right to build a home or to buy it. There are no "rights to a 'fair' wage or a 'fair' price" if no one chooses to pay it, to hire a man or to buy his product. There are no "rights of consumers" to milk, shoes, movies or champagne if no producers choose to manufacture such items (there is only the right to manufacture them oneself). There are no "rights" of special groups, there are no "rights of farmers, of workers, of businessmen, of employees, of employers, of the old, of the young, of the unborn." There are only the Rights of Man -- rights possessed by every individual man and by all men as individuals.
When one is free, one has the opportunity to create or trade for these things with other free men. Goods, like food and shelter are produced by individuals, working alone or cooperatively. The only institution that "gives" anyone such things without actual effort is a system that -- like slavery to a greater or lesser degree -- forcibly deprives other men of those things.

And so it is that this piece has said something I think I can agree with: Desmond is clearly against capitalism and, based on what he has the gall to claim freedom should entail, for slavery.

-- CAV

Note: As a reader points out, the Haber(-Bosch) process actually originated before the Nazi regime. That said, the author appears to treat certain business processes as inherently evil simply because they originated on plantations. Any tool can be used for good or evil.


Today: Corrected some typos. 
11-20-19: Added Note.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "In the course of some research, I ran across a mendacious smear piece in the "1619 Project" of the New York Times." All I can say is "Dog bites man." Find one piece that's not and then you might have a non-superfluous sentence. Heh.

Gus Van Horn said...

I was afraid of that...

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Just an historical quibble; the Haber-Bosch process was invented in the 1st decade of the 20th century and therefore was done under the Imperial German State, rather than the Nazi regime.

Haber was indeed the father of chemical warfare, but never supported the Nazi regime given that both of his wives were Jewish converts to Christianity. He fled Germany for England because of these Nazi policies and died, while traveling on business, in Basel, Switzerland. Several members of his extended family were murdered in the death camps.

Bosch was blacklisted, as you point out, because of his opposition to Nazi policies.

Haber's stance on his support of the German war effort is found in his statement; "In peace, a scientist belongs to the world; in war, he belongs to his country."

In a way, that's something of a restatement of a classical American aphorism which has been attributed to numerous historical people; "My Country, may she ever be right, but my Country, right or wrong."

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for mentioning Bosch and the correction/reminder regarding Haber's role. Also, the different relationships these men had with the Nazi regime is worth mention.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "Also, the different relationships these men had with the Nazi regime is worth mention."

It all reminds me tangentially of something I witnessed a couple of decades or so ago. I was meeting a friend for coffee before going to dinner (not romantic--I was editing a dictionary she had written and she had indicated not knowing anything about Mexican food, and there was a fine restaurant I frequented run by a family from Nuevo León), and we agreed to meet at a coffee shop near the music school at the university and then discuss lexicographical matters over fajitas.

I arrived first and was enjoying a cuppajoe when two unkempt long-haired types started shouting. One of them complained about how he had been forced to sightread something in composition class by "that f*****' Nazi fascist Hindemith." I like Hindemith myself (he was a neoclassical composer of a motoric and somewhat thorny bent), so my ears pricked up. I was aware that he had had to take an oath of loyalty to the Nazis so's not to be disappeared as he looked for a way out of the country (he had a Jewish wife), and Hindemith was too famous for the Nazis simply to disappear him, so they eventually (1935, I think) sent him off to Turkey to teach composition, from where he and his wife moved to the US. I mean, the Nazis disliked him--he had written a comic opera, Neues vom Tage (The News of the Day) that had a soprano singing naked in a bathtub, which the Nazis considered degenerate, and his music in general was little more generate in their eyes--so did some ugly skeleton surface from his closet? Nope, it was because Hindemith was notorious for arguing that there was a biological basis for tonality.

So these two advocates of not quite sweetness and light continued arguing against...well, something for a while longer, and my friend and I left them in full swing. She asked me, "What happened? Weren't they about to fight?" I said, "No, they're composers. They were friends arguing about art." Being from Kazakhstan and fully familiar with Russian artists, she just smiled and said, "Ah, I see." (I mentioned it to another friend later, a soprano in the music school, and she said, "Was it that guy with the crappy scraggly blond hair halfway between the ears and the collar who looks too soft-shelled to take seriously? All he ever talks about is how much he hates tonality or else whines about the latest girlfriend to abuse him emotionally and dump him for someone less of a damp squib. We suspect he writes music the way he does so he can make everyone else share the personal grief of his private world.")

So yeah, believing tonality is not entirely arbitrary is not just fascism, it's Nazi fascism.

Gus Van Horn said...


You remind me of something offensive even farther off the original topic.

I am taking an unusually long time finding a favorite Mexican restaurant in my new home town, but it is not for lack of trying or lack of options. But...

One of the "options" -- and unfortunately the nearest-by -- is one of a chain called Tijuana Flats that bills itself a Tex-Mex. Their offerings are interesting and good for what they are, but the place commits two unforgivable sins of omission on its menu: It lacks BOTH fajitas AND margaritas. (!) I almost always want at least one of those things when I go to a Mexican place, so I will practically never go there again.

I will not pretend expertise in Mexican food, but know what I like...


Gus Van Horn said...

Read "good for what they are" as "What I had that one time was good, and my wife has liked what she had on a couple of visits."