A Five Books Best Economics Book of the Year A Politico Great Weekend Read
“Absolutely compelling.” —Diane Coyle
“The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity… But capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves.” —Forbes
The story of modern management generally looks to the factories of England and New England for its genesis. But after scouring through old accounting books, Caitlin Rosenthal discovered that Southern planter-capitalists practiced an early form of scientific management. They took meticulous notes, carefully recording daily profits and productivity, and subjected their slaves to experiments and incentive strategies comprised of rewards and brutal punishment. Challenging the traditional depiction of slavery as a barrier to innovation, Accounting for Slavery shows how elite planters turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. The result is a groundbreaking investigation of business practices in Southern and West Indian plantations and an essential contribution to our understanding of slavery’s relationship with capitalism.
“Slavery in the United States was a business. A morally reprehensible—and very profitable business… Rosenthal argues that slaveholders…were using advanced management and accounting techniques long before their northern counterparts. Techniques that are still used by businesses today.” —Marketplace (American Public Media)
“Rosenthal pored over hundreds of account books from U.S. and West Indian plantations… She found that their owners employed advanced accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics.” —Harvard Business Review
What happens if we abandon the assumption that a person is a discrete, world-making agent who acts on and creates place? This, Monique Allewaert contends, is precisely what occurred on eighteenth-century American plantations, where labor practices and ecological particularities threatened the literal and conceptual boundaries that separated persons from the natural world.
Integrating political philosophy and ecocriticism with literary analysis, Ariel’s Ecology explores the forms of personhood that developed out of New World plantations, from Georgia and Florida through Jamaica to Haiti and extending into colonial metropoles such as Philadelphia. Allewaert’s examination of the writings of naturalists, novelists, and poets; the oral stories of Africans in the diaspora; and Afro-American fetish artifacts shows that persons in American plantation spaces were pulled into a web of environmental stresses, ranging from humidity to the demand for sugar. This in turn gave rise to modes of personhood explicitly attuned to human beings’ interrelation with nonhuman forces in a process we might call ecological.
Certainly the possibility that colonial life revokes human agency haunts works from Shakespeare’s Tempest and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws to Spivak’s theories of subalternity. In Allewaert’s interpretation, the transformation of colonial subjectivity into ecological personhood is not a nightmare; it is, rather, a mode of existence until now only glimmering in Che Guevara’s dictum that postcolonial resistance is synonymous with “perfect knowledge of the ground.”
When residents and tourists visit sites of slavery, whose stories are told? All too often the lives of slaveowners are centered, obscuring the lives of enslaved people. Behind the Big House gives readers a candid, behind-the-scenes look at what it really takes to interpret the difficult history of slavery in the U.S. South. The book explores Jodi Skipper’s eight-year collaboration with the Behind the Big House program, a community-based model used at local historic sites to address slavery in the collective narrative of U.S. history and culture.
In laying out her experiences through an autoethnographic approach, Skipper seeks to help other activist scholars of color negotiate the nuances of place, the academic public sphere, and its ambiguous systems of reward, recognition, and evaluation.
Owing to Yucatan’s relative isolation, many assume that the history and economy of the peninsula have evolved in a distinctive way, apart from the central government in Mexico City and insulated from world social and economic factors. The essays in this volume suggest that this has not been the case: the process of development in Yucatan has been linked firmly to national and global forces of change over the past two centuries. The essays are by U.S., Mexican, Canadian, and Belizean social scientists representing both well-established and younger scholars. The result is a perspective on Yucatan’s historical development that is at once international, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational.
In this volume, all of the contributors are genuinely comfortable with the theories and approaches of several disciplines—economics, history, and anthropology, and sociology. All have used largely untapped, primary, archival sources, and the result is a fascinating offering of new information.
Michael Taussig University of Chicago Press, 2018 Library of Congress SB299.P3T38 2018 | Dewey Decimal 338.17385109861
“It is the contemporary elixir from which all manner of being emerges, the metamorphic sublime, an alchemist’s dream.” So begins Palma Africana, the latest attempt by anthropologist Michael Taussig to make sense of the contemporary moment. But to what elixir does he refer?
Palm oil. Saturating everything from potato chips to nail polish, palm oil has made its way into half of the packaged goods in our supermarkets. By 2020, world production will be double what it was in 2000. In Colombia, palm oil plantations are covering over one-time cornucopias of animal, bird, and plant life. Over time, they threaten indigenous livelihoods and give rise to abusive labor conditions and major human rights violations. The list of entwined horrors—climatic, biological, social—is long. But Taussig takes no comfort in our usual labels: “habitat loss,” “human rights abuses,” “climate change.” The shock of these words has passed; nowadays it is all a blur. Hence, Taussig’s keen attention to words and writing throughout this work. He takes cues from precursors’ ruminations: Roland Barthes’s suggestion that trees form an alphabet in which the palm tree is the loveliest; William Burroughs’s retort to critics that for him words are alive like animals and don’t like to be kept in pages—cut them and the words are let free.
Steeped in a lifetime of philosophical and ethnographic exploration, Palma Africana undercuts the banality of the destruction taking place all around us and offers a penetrating vision of the global condition. Richly illustrated and written with experimental verve, this book is Taussig’s Tristes Tropiques for the twenty-first century.
After the 1854 abolition of slavery in Peru, a new generation of plantation owners turned to a system of peasant tenantry to maintain cotton production through the use of cheap labor. In Peasants on Plantations Vincent C. Peloso analyzes the changing social and economic relationships governing the production of cotton in the Pisco Valley, a little-studied area of Peru’s south coast. Challenging widely held assumptions about the system of relations that tied peasants to the land, Peloso’s work examines the interdependence of the planters, managers, and peasants—and the various strategies used by peasants in their struggle to resist control by the owners.
Grounded in the theoretical perspectives of subaltern studies and drawing on an extremely complete archive of landed estates that includes detailed regular reports by plantation managers on all aspects of farming life, Peasants on Plantations reveals the intricate ways peasants, managers, and owners manipulated each other to benefit their own interests. As Peloso demonstrates, rather than a simple case of domination of the peasants by the owners, both parties realized that negotiation was the key to successful growth, often with the result that peasants cooperated with plantation growth strategies in order to participate in a market economy. Long-term contracts gave tenants and sharecroppers many opportunities to make farming choices, to assert claims on the land, compete among themselves, and participate in plantation expansion. At the same time, owners strove to keep the peasants in debt and well aware of who maintained ultimate control.
Peasants on Plantations offers a largely untold view of the monumental struggle between planters and peasants that was fundamental in shaping the agrarian history of Peru. It will interest those engaged in Latin American studies, anthropology, and peasant and agrarian studies.
As with any enterprise involving violence and lots of money, running a plantation in early British America was a serious and brutal enterprise. In the contentious Planters, Merchants, and Slaves, Burnard argues that white men did not choose to develop and maintain the plantation system out of virulent racism or sadism, but rather out of economic logic because—to speak bluntly—it worked. These economically successful and ethically monstrous plantations required racial divisions to exist, but their successes were measured in gold, rather than skin or blood. Sure to be controversial, this book is a major intervention in the scholarship on slavery, economic development, and political power in early British America, mounting a powerful and original argument that boldly challenges historical orthodoxy.
This important study of Ponce, a major sugar-producing district in Puerto Rico, examines in detail the processes by which a predominantly peasant economy an society was transformed into a plantation system. Scarano’s work, one of the first full investigations into Puerto Rico’s nineteenth-century economic history, dispels the long-held belief that slavery was an inconsequential factor in this society; indeed, he finds that the new plantation system was fully dependent on African slave labor, and that the initial stimuli for economic change came from immigrants.
International migration between countries in Latin America became increasingly important during the twentieth century, but for a long time it was the subject of only limited research. Whiteford sets the Argentina-Bolivia experience in historical perspective by examining the macrolevel factors that influenced social change in both countries and brought streams of migration into Argentina. Seasonal labor, the expansion of capitalist agriculture, international migration, and urbanization are central topics in this in-depth study of Bolivian migrants in Northwest Argentina. Whiteford’s vivid portrayal of the lives and working conditions of the migrants is based on two years of research during which he lived with the workers on a sugar plantation and, after the harvest, accompanied them to other farms and to the city of Salta in their search for more work. He traces the development of plantation agriculture in Northwest Argentina and the processes by which the plantation gained access to cheap labor and maintained control over it. As Bolivians migrated to Argentina in ever greater numbers, many recruited for the harvest remained. Whiteford’s analysis of the diverse strategies employed by workers and their families to support themselves during the post-harvest season is a major contribution to migration literature. The four distinct but related patterns of migration that he describes created a labor reserve that transcends rural/urban designations, one that is utilized by employers in both the countryside and the city.