Cornell University historian Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is an unapologetic, damning, and grisly account of slavery’s foundational place in the emergence of America as a global superpower.
If you work in an office you probably recognize the management technique that a supervisor named Mr. Belfer once used on a young man named Israel Campbell. Belfer established a productivity quota tailored to Campbell’s level of training. If Campbell’s “metrics” didn’t reveal enough work output, Belfer would evaluate him negatively. If Campbell could meet the target, Belfer would raise Campbell’s quota even higher, and they’d go through the whole process again.
Of course, Belfer invented this system back in 1825, at a Mississippi slave labor camp, not a cube farm or call center. His business was selling cotton, not debugging software or cold-calling to make sales of paper products. Campbell wasn’t trying to make enough money to stay out of Mom’s basement and put a dent in his student loans. He was enslaved. When sundown came and Campbell’s “pick sack” didn’t contain at least 100 pounds of cotton picked since daybreak, Belfer didn’t sentence him to a performance improvement plan. Instead, he was whipped: one blood-drawing, back-muscle-cutting lash with the bullhide whip for each pound Campbell came up short.
You can find Campbell’s 1861 autobiography at the website Documenting the American South (produced by the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library.) This site makes available over 100 enslaved people’s autobiographies, including Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s memoir, with its story of Patsey—who was played to Oscar-winning effect on the big screen by Lupita N’yongo. The cotton field and the call center are different places. Still, the work done by enslaved African-Americans is the direct ancestor of the modern world of work experienced by the majority of people employed by today’s corporations and major institutions.
As I explain in my book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic), the constant productivity gains of enslaved people like Campbell built the modern economy we live in today. We like to think that the industrialization that lifted the Western world from rural backwardness to our contemporary consumer paradise was created by clever inventors, factory workers, and captains of industry. But the transformations that made the modern world were also made in cotton fields. The most widely traded commodity of the 19th century was cotton. By 1860, slave labor produced that essential commodity at 25% of the 1800 price and enabled the accumulation of massive concentrations of wealth, far beyond the South. And that slave-made wealth is still with us.
At the same time, most of us are managed by techniques that enslavers first invented—for instance, the now-ubiquitous workplace surveillance or the computer-generated measurement of people’s daily output. The management of work today derives directly from the methods and skills enslavers developed for managing and coercing human beings. Belfer set targets that would be unreachable unless Campbell created new, faster ways to move up and down the cotton rows.
A similar use of metrics, backed by negative incentives, like the soft bullying of human resources professionals and more direct means like pay cuts and “termination,” is now employed by modern executives to create “flat” workplaces. They are supposedly less hierarchical, but they actually extract continuous increases in productivity from employees. That’s the gospel of efficiency, the belief that making more stuff with less time and fewer laborers trumps all other considerations about how people could and should be treated.
From economy-of-motion studies and the gospel of efficiency to the new technological capacities and financial accumulations that human beings continue to build, slavery made the modern world. It made much of the wealth from which we all benefit, albeit unequally. And even if our days in the modern workplace are not slavery, far too many us are still miserable.