Slavery and Capitalism in America

I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.


Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.

Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).


By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860,  Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).

“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).

In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.

“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).

Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”

That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.

What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”

With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”

The Ecology of Capitalism

This post is largely in response to this interview with the ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. Foster spends most of his time responding to criticisms of his work by Jason W. Moore.

I haven’t read Moore’s work, so I’m not sure whether the misunderstanding of Latour arose with him or with Foster’s characterization of the latters “constructionism” in the interview. Moore and/or Foster seem to reduce Latour to a social constructionist who thinks “nature is subsumed within society,” as Foster put it. I interpret Latour’s ontology through Whitehead’s, which is neither naively monist nor dualist, but pluralist. Not “neutral monism” but creative process, the many becoming one and being increased by one. In proper dialectical fashion, seems to me that Foster and the position he is critiquing need to be overcome. Yes, capitalist society can be distinguished from the earth metabolism for the purposes of analysis; but ultimately isn’t capitalist society’s metabolic rift with earth only comprehensible as a kind of cancerous tumor or autoimmune disease? Our species wasn’t parachuted in from a higher dimension so far as I know; rather, we grew out of geochemistry. The Whiteheadian trick, as I see it, is to push talk of “social construction” all the way down, such that agency and value are understood to permeate cosmogenesis rather than existing exclusively within the human domain. Reality is socially constructed by collective agencies operating at all levels. Latour’s modes of existence are important here as descriptions of different ways that humans and our closest non-human companions construct reality. Politics is one way humans have found to compose and decompose common worlds. Economics is another (as are science, religion, art, etc.). Translating between the modes happens all the time but is never complete. The modes are irreducible one to the other. No one mode can “subsume” the others. And yet it seems to many of us that “capitalism”–that is, the privatization of everything from healthcare and education to prisons and war, along with the externalization of hidden costs on people and earth–presents an existential threat, that it appears to be subsuming everything around it, converting the community of life on earth into use-and-dispose consumables for the sake of accumulating digits in some offshore bank account. Others disagree. It all depends on the signifier “capitalism,” which I admit verges on reification in some Marxist discourse.

For better or worse, actually existing capitalism is way ahead of our attempts to theorize about it. This makes political action in relation to it almost impossible. Indeed, more and more it seems like capitalism has gained a monopoly on possibility. Bernie’s “movement” (we will see in the next several months and longer if it deserves that name) may be an example of a new possibility for political action. In his live webcast last night, Bernie said:

In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.

Some of my more libertarian friends have been mocking this statement. It is hard to deny that magnifying the reach of agencies that operate in the style of the TSA and the DMV into our everyday lives is pretty frightening.  But still, I agree with Bernie that public projects are where we should be pouring our energy right now. Yes, government as it currently operates is almost always less efficient than the “free market,” but maybe a shift in priorities that drew more capable people into public office would improve the situation. We need to reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy that is draining our government at local, state, and federal levels of capable, honest people who cynically shun politics, because by doing so they are allowing that government to be taken over by increasingly incompetent and corrupt egomaniacs.

Some argue that “capitalism” will transform itself faster than government could ever hope to “fix it.” Maybe. But I worry that allowing the private sphere to subsume the public will leave our communities with little legal protection from the sorts of social and ecological injustices that capitalism has thrived upon (e.g., cotton slavery, fossil fuel industry, etc.). Shrinking the power of government and privatizing everything is only going to open the door to racist, nativist regression and further destroy ecosystems, since the metabolic forces that shape these social and ecological realities do not respect the abstract borders of our maps or the metaphysics of our money. As the #Occupy movement taught us, the concepts of “debt” and “ownership” need to be thoroughly reevaluated.

A talk on Ecodelic Philosophy at the Symbiosis Gathering

I’m headed back to the Symbiosis Gathering later this year. I’ll be offering a talk on the role of psychedelics–or “ecodelics” as author Richard Doyle refers to them–and the philosophical insights they engender that may be of service to steering through our planetary crisis.

When ingested in carefully crafted ceremonial containers, ecodelics reveal the deeper connections and interpenetration of all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They can allow us to remember, to reawaken to, the mysterious gift latent in each passing moment, a secret hidden in plain sight: that everything breathes together (as Plotinus said). Normally, ritualization is an gradual unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot transform itself from the roots up within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival into the 22nd century are slim.

See more at


The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture

Click here to view this essay at the publisher’s website, FunctionLab.

The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture

By Matthew David Segall, PhD
June 2016

“[The] relatedness between us and the world…which begins to exist wherever there is living structure is as important in the sphere of building as it is in the sphere of nature…[Our]…daily proximity with so many non-living structures—freeways, motels, traffic lights, office buildings—dominates our awareness, [cauterizing our] capacity to enter into this relatedness, to see it and feel it…[It] is the presence of living structure in our built world that decides the extent of our relatedness with earth.”

-Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Vol. 4: The Luminous Ground, 57.

The function of Reason, according to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “is to promote the art of life.”[1] In the context of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, Reason is no longer a uniquely human capacity to survey and judge the world as if from above the world.[2] Rather, Reason is implicated in the world-process and is a factor in the evolution of all life on earth. The involvement of Reason in the world-process would seem to conflict with Darwin’s doctrine of evolution by natural selection, a theory summed up by the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Organisms, so the theory goes, battle for position in a fixed environment with limited resources, and those organisms that happen to be most fit survive in greater numbers. Whitehead does not mean to contradict this theory of the origin of species. On the contrary, he celebrates it as “one of the great generalizations of science.”[3] The effect of the struggle for existence “stares us in the face.”[4] He only means to warn against the theory’s over-application.[5]

Unlike the methods of the specialized sciences, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme attempts to interpret all the evidence.[6] The evidence includes the upward trend of evolution: more complex organisms have evolved from less complex organisms. The doctrine of the survival of the fittest cannot account for this trend, since it is often the case that the most complex animals are deficient in survival power. “In fact,” writes Whitehead, “life itself is comparatively deficient in survival value. The art of persistence is to be dead.”[7] Living organisms did not appear on the earth because they were better at surviving than the rocks around them. To account for the urge of life toward complexity—that is, life’s tendency to increase the qualitative intensity of its existence—it is necessary to acknowledge an additional factor in evolution. In its human form, this factor is called “consciousness.” Moderns are discouraged from attributing consciousness to the non-human world. To do so is considered childish and regressive, a relapse into primitive animism. Whitehead invites us to consider the possibility that human consciousness is not a chance anomaly alone in the cosmos, but the most complex expression of an originally unconscious urge of life operative in lesser degrees throughout the physical universe.[8]

It is evident that the more complex organisms have not evolved simply by adapting themselves to the environment. Instead, according to Whitehead, “the upward trend has been accompanied by a growth of the converse relation. Animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves.”[9] The primary evolutionary function of Reason is thus to set to work transforming the environment so as to promote the art of life. In the case of human organisms, this task takes form through our building practices. Human architecture is one of the most advanced arts yet invented by earthly life. For much of our species’ history, architecture has functioned to shelter and enhance our various cultural activities so as to afford us not only more safety from untamed nature, but more social cohesion and religious awe. Structures were built for the purpose of facilitating human flourishing. But in the modern age, with the shift out of the ancient world-picture into the mechanistic view of the cosmos, a new approach to architecture has taken hold of our building practices. Because our modern imaginations have lost the ability to perceive the life animating the earth and wider cosmos, our built environment has been designed without life in mind. As the architect Christopher Alexander warns us in the epigraph that opens this essay, the more we deaden our environment by surrounding ourselves with non-living structures, the less capable we become of perceiving our relationship to the living earth. Worse, the more these dead structures are allowed to proliferate across the planet, the less life it is able to sustain.

The skyscraper is the structure most emblematic of the modern world-picture.[10] Architect Cass Gilbert described their main rationale: “The skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay.”[11] The function of the skyscraper is not to facilitate human flourishing, but to accumulate capitalist profits. Built of glass and steel, their structure is generally a standardized, repetitive series of floors designed to reach the maximal height with a minimum of materials. They are an expression of modern humanity’s technological power and dominance over nature. Indeed, no other built environment compares to the skyscraper in its ability to alienate its inhabitants from the life of the earth. Rather than dwelling on their alienating consequences, 20th century architects and their financiers understood these mammoth structures in terms of the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. The taller the building, the more successful the builders. From their perch in the clouds, businessmen look out, godlike, upon the world below, which from that height resembles a game of Monopoly. In Whitehead’s terms, the skyscraper embodies Reason in its function as “[the director] of the attack on the environment.”[12]

Nikos A. Salingaros, a close collaborator of Alexanders’, argues that industrialization ushered in a new method of building focused on copying form rather than generating form, the latter having been the norm in vernacular architecture for thousands of years. Industrial design therefore ignored local needs, conditions, and complexities to focus instead on the mass production and “monotonous alignment of identical copies”:

Monotony in our environment has profound consequences on our psyche. A worldview that exalts visual monotony has taken over an earlier environment shaped by the variety of natural forms. If industrial production tied to economic growth and prosperity necessarily generates monotony, then design variety is sure to be considered a drag on the operation of our economy.[13]

Organic form, while it also follows design templates (e.g., statistically lawful physical norms, DNA, etc.), never produces exact copies. Nature brings forth its forms anew with each generation, only succumbing to the “life-tedium” of repetition when the “urge toward novel contrast” has been thwarted.[14] The organic world evolves not to secure efficient survival power (the inorganic world is far more efficient in this respect), but to intensify its capacity for novel organization and experience.

As Whitehead describes it, the industrial age coincided with the canalization of the 17th century scientific outlook “content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method.”[15] Metaphysical speculation beyond the mechanical lawfulness of measurable material objects was forbidden. Modern industrial architects were thus driven to continue their work “in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity.”[16] The practical function of Reason thus overshadowed its speculative function. Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to think differently, a call to adventure beyond the steel glass boxes of modern industrial consciousness, beyond even the projected screens of postmodern electronic consciousness. Whitehead’s heresy is to re-assert the speculative function of Reason in an effort to awaken us not only from the monotony of the modern world-picture, but also from the nihilism of our postmodern rejection of all world-pictures. His efforts are not merely speculative, since they also have a pragmatic aim: to prevent our nascent planetary civilization from burying itself beneath the smoldering rubble of fallen skyscrapers.[17] Another world is possible, a world wherein evolution entails the enhancement of earthly life, rather than the attempt to escape from earth in shining elevators to the Sun.


Speculative Reason is no less heliocentric, but rather than attempting to “secure daylight” from darkness, its pragmatic attitude leads it to seek a mode of existence in concert with what Whitehead calls “The Way of Rhythm” pervading all life and indeed the physical universe itself.[18] On planet earth, there is no escape from the tidal rhythm of day and night: the daylight washes in, and then recedes revealing the subtler light of the Moon and other stars. The speculative philosopher is tasked with rescuing the facts as they are for the whole of our experience of life from the facts as they appear under the bright noon light of a work day:

[We] view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.[19]

Speculative Reason thus avoids the deadening monotone of modern industrial consciousness. It is “a tropism to the to the beckoning light—the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world.”[20]

Alexander leans on Whitehead’s new world-picture to argue “that we will not have a proper grasp of the universe and our place in it, until the self which we experience in ourselves, and the machinelike character of matter we see outside ourselves, can be united in a single picture.”[21] Our grasp of the evolution of the cosmos and of life on earth must make room for more than the collisions of material surfaces: it must include the creative interiors of things, that is, their life. Only then can we truly understand the relational patterns of wholeness that these living creatures enact in their collective bid for freedom: whether it be the atoms of hydrogen and helium that coalesced to generate the first stars, the proteins and nucleic acids that coalesced to generate the first cells, or the hunter-gatherers who coalesced to generate Gobekli Tepe, the earliest known human temple structure built approximately 12,000 years ago in modern day southeastern Turkey. If we fail to adapt our methods so as to include our experience of living process, our own and the earth’s, then we will continue to build dead structures, further deadening our souls and their earthly habitat. It is a vicious cycle of self-amplifying self-destruction. It is practical Reason run wild, undermining its own basis of survival by forgetting that no final separation exists between an organism and its environment. The life of our own body “is part of the external world, continuous with it…, just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud.”[22]


What would it mean to build with the earth, rather than against it and beyond it? It would mean entering into conversation with the river, the mountain, and the wind before breaking ground in the rush to build a towering monument to solitary power that is deaf and dumb to the life processes of its environment. It would mean building ecologically at an earthly pace for the purpose of human flourishing, rather than mechanically at an industrial scale for the sake of economic mastery. Unfortunately, even today, a hundred years after Whitehead’s writing, our theory of political economy remains “under a cloud,” since “it limits its view to the ‘economic man,’”[23]—the individual worker-consumer monetarily isolated from family and community, psychologically alienated from their own labor and physically dispossessed of the very ground upon which they walk. The built environment of our civilization’s great cities reflects the economic values of the industrial growth society, values ignorant of the need all species have of remaining in intimate relationship with their earthly habitats. For now, according to Alexander, “Whitehead’s rift remains.”[24]

Though still drowned out by the cacophonous light of electrified cities, increasingly lucid intimations of a new world-picture continue to flicker on in the night sky above us. It is possible that these lights will constellate into a new cosmological vision to guide our planetary civilization through the coming ecological bottleneck, and that this realization will come with such a sudden “shock” that it will “[transmit itself] through the whole sociological structure of technical methods and of institutions” within the span of a single generation.[25] If human beings are to survive—and, more importantly, if we are to thrive—we must become aware, upon considering the evolutionary history of the earth, that “the struggle for existence gives no hint why there should be cities.”[26] We must become aware that some “counter-agency” to entropy in the universe and in ourselves is the only factor that could explain the evolutionary emergence of novel complexities like stars and cells, temples and cities. Only with this awareness of the cosmic extent of our own creativity can we “convert the decay of [our present] order into the birth of its successor.”[27] Today, the function of Reason must become the recovery of an earthly architecture: in all our building we must promote and exemplify the art of life. The other option is extinction.


[1] The Function of Reason, 4.

[2] The Function of Reason, 9-10.

[3] The Function of Reason, 6.

[4] The Function of Reason, 4.

[5] The Function of Reason, 5.

[6] “…the trained body of physiologists under the influence of the ideas germane to their successful methodology entirely ignore the whole mass of adverse evidence. We have here a colossal example of anti-empirical dogmatism arising from a successful methodology. Evidence which lies outside the method simply does not count…The brilliant success of this method is admitted. But you cannot limit a problem by reason of a method of attack” (The Function of Reason, 15).

[7] The Function of Reason, 4.

[8] The Function of Reason, 24-25.

[9] The Function of Reason, 7.

[10] See “The End of Tall Buildings,” By James Howard Kunstler and Nikos A. Salingaros. Accessed 6/4/2016:

[11] Sharon Irish. “A ‘Machine That Makes the Land Pay’: The West Street Building in New York.” Technology and Culture 30 (April 1989): 376-397.

[12] The Function of Reason, 8.

[13] “The 21st Century Needs Its Own Paradigm Shift in Architecture,” Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 6/5/2016:

[14] The Function of Reason, 20.

[15] The Function of Reason, 65-66.

[16] The Function of Reason, 66.

[17] “It has been urged in these pages that there is no true stability. What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay. The stable universe is slipping away from under us” (The Function of Reason, 82).

[18] The Function of Reason, 21.

[19] Adventures of Ideas, 155.

[20] The Function of Reason, 65.

[21] The Luminous Ground, 13.

[22] Modes of Thought, 21.

[23] The Function of Reason, 75.

[24] The Luminous Ground, 17.

[25] The Function of Reason, 87.

[26] The Function of Reason, 89.

[27] The Function of Reason, 90.