Slave Capitalism

Walter Johnson. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Harvard, January 2013.

In 1835, at the height of the Southern cotton boom, the master class of the Mississipi Delta region had an attack of its worst phobia: fear of slave rebellion. One slaveholder in the countryside saw some of her slaves acting unusually, seeming defiant, appearing to plot. She began to eavesdrop and overheard one slave fantasize about being “her own mistress.” In another conversation, she caught the word “kill.” Her son squeezed a slave for information and drew out details of a coming insurrection. The masters sounded the alarm: patrols were instituted, investigators fanned out, the countryside came alive with tipsters. Evidence invariably consisted of seeing slaves where they oughtn’t to have been—in the slaveholder phrase, “skulking around.” The suspects gave up under torture, confessing plans for securing arms, robbing banks, butchering masters. As the investigation wore on, the ruling class created an ad hoc executive committee, which generated, piece by piece, its own worst nightmare. Although “circumstantial” is too kind a word for the evidence, and the investigators enjoyed no formal legal status, they nonetheless executed twenty-three suspects without controversy.

This series of events, described in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, ought to jangle the nerves. It is, after all, an “if you see something, say something” story. Its main elements—racialized intelligence gathering, torture, extralegal investigation, and execution—are those of the shadow wars of the modern American imperium. What is astonishing about Johnson’s book is how consistently and convincingly he produces this sense of familiarity, wherever in the slave empire he turns. His narrative leaves you asking how contemporary Americans—with our own nightmare of resource wars and extraordinary renditions—will look with a little historical distance.

This sense of uncanny recognition is part of Johnson’s larger project of debunking the notion that slavery belongs to a distant past. Not only a sentiment held by whites to disavow genealogical connections with slavery (“My family never owned anyone”), the notion contains an assumption that slavery belongs to a society—the supposedly genteel antebellum South—whose quaint barbarity separates it decisively from our own age of “late” capitalism. Such historical discontinuity is pure fantasy. The present is not just implicated in the trauma of the past; slavery in many ways foreshadowed the neoliberal present.

For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.


Walter Johnson is not the first to seek analogies between the present and the enslaved past. Any historian looking to write a political economy of slavery faces a mountain of contesting theories—and towering above them all is the work of the recently deceased Eugene Genovese. Long after his arguments were fought with and supposedly overturned, Genovese—like Weber in sociology and Keynes in economics—remains the figure with whom one has to contend.

A historian who gradually moved from Marxist to reactionary, Genovese was throughout his life an idiosyncratic and enormously provocative character, whom few much liked or agreed with. Some scholarly careers are monuments: solid, carefully constructed, things from which to take direction. Genovese’s was more like an impact crater, and he inspired the words and energy of critics like no other historian. This was due less to his irascible personality than to his work’s extraordinary explanatory power. In his 1974 masterpiece Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Genovese offered the first deeply persuasive answers to the two long-standing questions about the Old South: Why did the slaves not revolt against their masters? And why did the masters revolt against their government?

To tackle these questions, Genovese used two intellectual tools: an orthodox Marxist economics, deployed to explain the Old South’s lack of economic development, and a brilliant, eclectic neo-Marxism that used Antonio Gramsci’s then-novel concept of “hegemony” to reconceive the master-slave relationship. Few noted, when Roll, Jordan, Roll came out, that Genovese had not only borrowed from Gramsci but also dramatically altered his ideas. In Gramsci’s terminology, hegemony was a comparative concept meant to differentiate the urban, industrial working classes of the wealthy liberal democracies from the various unfree subordinate classes of the backward rural despotisms. Hegemony appeared as the emergent outcome of innovations like universal suffrage, parliamentary representation, trade unionism, incipient welfare states, public education—in short, civil society. By settling for these concessions, the archetypal proletarians of cities like Turin, Chicago, and Manchester “consented” to ruling-class power. The idea’s purpose was to explain why revolution had broken out in backward Russia, where Russian aristocrats dominated workers and peasants by brute force, and so far failed to in the industrial heartlands of the West.

The violent oppression of American slaves bears a closer resemblance to the brute rule over Russian peasants than to the soft domination of the enfranchised, organized Western working class. Exposed to arbitrary violence, enjoying almost no standing in law or civil society, and often deprived even of family, that most basic hegemonizing institution, slaves had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as Chief Justice Roger Taney famously put it.

For Genovese, though, hegemony described the unusual way in which masters maintained their rule over slaves. He saw the South as a noncapitalist and nonbourgeois society—a romantic, chivalric, hot-blooded freak in an increasingly cold-blooded, utilitarian world. Planters ruled “organically,” with relatively little use for modern liberal abstractions like contract and state. The master class was “paternalist”: capable of flexibility in its relationship with its bonded workforce and sensible to its own reciprocal, custodial obligations. While careful never to call slavery gentle or fair, Genovese argued that to control the plantation, masters had to behave with some predictability, even leniency. In meeting this requirement, masters could imagine themselves benevolent patresfamilias. Because paternalism left slaves enough room to develop their own culture, and even to resist domination in certain limited ways, it stabilized slavery, and engendered a pervasive conservatism across Southern society. Slave society thus appeared as a closed circle in which slaves forced compromise on masters (“agency”), masters congratulated themselves on indulging slaves (“paternalism”), and relations between the two classes stayed essentially stable (“hegemony”). Rather than rapacious rulers and revolutionary subjects, Genovese saw a genteel, conservative elite, averse to social change and hateful of the commerce and economic development that brought such change, and a dormant subject class, which won enough minor victories to render it incapable of generating a genuine politics.

Looking back across forty years, the hidden coordinates of Genovese’s work become visible. Brooklyn-born, a Communist, son of a longshoreman, Genovese was, like many historians around him, a product of 1930s ethnic working-class radicalism. When he wrote Roll, Jordan, Roll, he was living through the peak and decline of that movement’s great achievements. The political unconscious of Genovese’s work was the experience of the 20th-century proletariat—its tremendous victories, and its final defeat. His history—like all histories, in one way or another—used actors from the past to restage the drama of its own times.

In Genovese’s account, the revolt that didn’t happen—against the masters—and the one that did—against Lincoln—both resulted from the political strength of the enslaved class, which had won for itself a standard of living that was too high. (Just like the New Left caricature of the sleepy working class of the 1950s and 1960s, bought off by dishwashers and Levittowns.) Such an organic, conservative order could not forever coexist with the North’s genuine bourgeoisie, explosively on the make. This tension, present from the outset of the republic, escalated as cotton planters exhausted the soil of their plantations and looked westward. Unable to bring themselves to solve their economic problems intensively—that is, through development, technological investment, and increased productivity—the planters instead had to do so extensively, by grabbing land for King Cotton. So they became locked on a collision course with the expansionist industrialists and farmers of the North, whose productivity also demanded a Western outlet for population and markets.

In forcing paternalism onto their masters, slaves generated the pervasive conservatism that marked off the plantocracy from the rising 19th-century bourgeoisie and set in train the desperate expansionary tendency that triggered war and emancipation. Two modes of production had reached the point of necessity; their opposite internal dynamics—the South’s willful stagnation, the North’s industrial takeoff—required of each the same external expansion onto a territory which could only support one or the other. Bourgeois and seigneur could no longer share the same continent and the same state. So force settled it.


Two decades of endless debate followedGenovese’s synthesis, recycling the basic concepts of “agency” and “hegemony” long after the midcentury social democratic moment that inspired them had disappeared. Maybe nobody agreed with Genovese anymore, but nobody knew what else to talk about in the left-wing midnight of the 1980s. Walter Johnson entered the academy as cultural history—the successor to social history, the dominant methodology of Genovese’s era—began to fully cohere in the 1990s, and his work is out to update our view of slavery, given everything that has changed since Genovese’s heyday. Agency and hegemony don’t work as ideas anymore, Johnson tells us, because the world they come from, with a working class supposedly too well-off to manifest its own political will, is long gone. Johnson’s methodology—broadly speaking, cultural history reinvigorated with a dose of political economy—is instead a strategic adaptation for the world since Reagan and Gorbachev: the world neoliberalism made.

In his first book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999), Johnson took aim at paternalism, which Genovese had claimed was the organizing principle of the hegemonic social relation between master and slave. To the contrary, Johnson argued, paternalism—and the whole edifice of Southern elite culture—was a performance put on by the masters for one another. Paternalism, ostensibly an anachronism, was in fact an experience-commodity that the masters could buy, in what was seemingly the least benign, paternalist place around: the slave market. There, at the core of Southern capitalism, Johnson detailed how the masters performed a kind of ritual, conjuring their own whiteness and masculinity as they jockeyed for status at the slave pens. In turn, because so much of the master’s sense of his own self rested on the situation at the auction block, slaves had an opportunity to manipulate their buyers and sellers, and thereby their own fate. While the masters built their identities by performing for one another, the slaves preserved their lives by performing for their buyers—all morbid “advertisements for myself” in the charnel house of Southern consumerism.

Against the backdrop of the slave market, Genovese’s “organic” relationship between master and slave breaks down. Instead, Johnson’s slaveholder is plagued by an anxious urge that marks him as kinsman, not opposite, of other 19th-century bourgeois elites: the urge to marry commercial acumen to personal virtue and achievement. Slavery did not mark slaveholders as throwbacks to a premodern past—it was the field of activity for the masters’ budding utilitarianism.

Here, though, Johnson’s initial scholarship hit the limits of high cultural history. Like many post-Foucault works on the theatricality of power, Soul by Soul offered no historical route from point A to point B. “This history,” Johnson acknowledged, “is not organized around ‘change over time.’” No single book could be expected to explain every element of the life and death of American slavery, but as cultural history became the engine room of historiographic innovation, our understanding of history as a whole grew simultaneously more precise and less coherent. Soul by Soul did much damage to Genovese’s lingering categories of thought, but Johnson had little to say about the question Genovese could still so impressively address: why the master class rebelled against the North. If the masters really were the vanguard of capitalism, as Johnson and his cohort of young historians insisted, it became harder than ever to understand why they chose secession, or why their Northern brethren sustained a war.


Johnson approaches this second task in River of Dark Dreams, not by uncovering new sources but by layering new interpretations onto old evidence. His road from cultural history back to a critique of capitalism runs through the work of David Harvey. For Johnson, the classic period of the antebellum South was not just an endless performance of anxious white masculinity; it was also the site of a series of capitalist crises on the Harvey model. The crucial feature in the South’s political economy was the attempt to tidy the physical world of the lower Mississippi, its human and natural ecology, into a form abstract enough that it could make a stable bed for increasingly restless capital.

As Harvey has laid out, capital wants to be abstract, the way a river wants to flow downhill. Imagine some investor smells a new market. He sinks his capital into a factory full of machines (or he buys up a bunch of land and slaves). Capital goes from abstract—symbols on a piece of paper, data in a computer—to concrete. For this to occur, actual physical stuff—human bodies, supplies—has to get fitted to capital’s abstract account-sheet needs, to produce X amount of a product in Y time, at Z cost. People become labor-power; human communities are reorganized around the rhythms of the factory; forests and mountains become raw materials. In the ensuing production process, capital cycles through various forms: from resources, through supplies, machinery, workers, into the product. Each of these is a holding cell, a trap for value. Only when the product is finally sold does the invested value (plus surplus) return to the capitalist, again in its more comfortable abstract form—money. This dynamic tension, between concretion and abstraction, liquidity and solidity, lies for Harvey at the heart of the capitalist process and produces capitalism’s propensity for crisis.

Crisis is what happens when too much capital chases the leading prospect of investment. As excess capital piles up in solid form, its very solidity turns boom into bust. Capital might overproduce the once-valuable product, glutting the market, or exhaust the resources on which it depended, or give workers a tempting target to strike. One way or another, by becoming physically real, capital becomes vulnerable. Timeless in the abstract, it is forced to live in time and inevitably deteriorates. So capital finds it harder to successfully navigate the transition back to liquid form without taking a loss. The destruction of value results, and capital begins to flee elsewhere—a movement Harvey calls the “spatial fix.”

For Johnson, the story of the Cotton Kingdom begins, like many of the great capitalist booms and busts of the 19th century, with a speculative bubble in the assets of a just-conquered territory; it ends with an attempt at one of the largest spatial fixes in economic history. The lower Mississippi River was the bottleneck for biological detritus drained off from most of a continent. The region lying between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico, by consequence, boasted astonishing agricultural fertility. In the era of the early industrial revolution, the productive soil of the Old Southwest offered an oil field–like bonanza. The territory nominally passed into American hands in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, but only opened up for white farmers after US troops fought wars of extermination against the American Indians, permanently occupied New Orleans, and suppressed a major 1811 slave rebellion with gothic brutality.

The scene that ensued, memorialized in the beginning of Absalom, Absalom!, was one of vicious exertions, in which fertile lands and human bodies were wrenched from their concrete forms into marketable abstractions. For Faulkner, it’s a story of atavistic human malice: the central plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, “torn violently” from nature.

Johnson rereads this violence as the cutting edge of modern technique. First came the surveyors, to parcel out the forests and swamps so the Land Office could put them up for auction. “The work of the Land Office,” Johnson writes, “was to make the concrete landscape abstract: to turn this salt lick into a salt lick; to turn a trail blazed through the woods into field notes in a field book; to turn the surveyors’ recorded experience into maps to be sent to Washington; to turn those maps into an ‘offering,’ which could be represented in the space of several printed pages, and then circulated to potential buyers, wherever they were.”

Parceling out the conquered territory produced commensurable, gridded symbol-units of land: commodities where there had been none. Johnson calls this process “simplification.” Concrete ecological consequences followed, as the forest was stripped, the underbrush burned, the meadows fenced, and herds of cows, sheep, and pigs set loose on what remained. Without a thick coat of vegetation, the soil had nothing to hold it together. Erosion sped up, and flooding increased. Masters threw up levees, squeezing increasingly aggravated floods further downriver. Above all, planters—or rather, slaves—worked the denuded dirt into row upon row of cotton, fitting a whole tract of the continent into one uniform. “From the air,” Johnson writes, “the face of the landscape would have presented a visual image of the whole of nature arrayed in the service of a single plant.”

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

The simplification of bodies and the simplification of nature went together. A well-controlled labor force did the work of clearing and maintaining the physical geography of the Cotton Kingdom. In turn, a controlled landscape allowed for controlled labor. The planter’s power extended, in a sense, only as far as he could see; he or his overseer—note the word—thus removed all visual obstructions and patrolled the fields on horseback, the cotton rows serving as “a visual grid they could use to measure their slaves’ labor.” In turn, a slave’s most reliable strategy was to go “off the grid,” to hide out in the swamps and forests. (Recall: “skulking around.”) Going to ground like this, more often than making a dash for the Mason-Dixon Line, was what it meant to run away. Constant, brutal violence maintained the grid’s disciplinary force. The Cotton Kingdom, by consequence, was less “a fixed bastion of slaveholding power than an excruciating becoming: a landscape being fiercely cleared in a counterinsurgency campaign to which there could be no end.”

This attention to slavery’s physical sensorium gives River of Dark Dreams much of its power. Genovese approached slavery first from the question of ideology: what people thought. Johnson tries to re-create how slavery felt. He is at his best when stripping away the slaveholders’ rhetoric from the daily physical operations of the slave system, revealing “bare-life processes.” Instead of as questions of agency or hegemony, slavery appears here as a system of flows: of energy (solar, floral, faunal, human, and riverine), of money, of bodies, and of information. The result is historical prose of unusual pungency, veering only occasionally into macho bluster: “The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.” The book succeeds as a fusion of cultural history, with its characteristic focus on the body, and Marxist political economy by proposing that slave capitalism consisted of these physical flows. What profit required, above all, was smoothing their passage, making the constituent particles—units of labor, money, material—more “simplified,” less likely to accrete, snag, or clog somewhere in the circulation process, so they had no chance to slow the operation down or, in a moment of capitalist crisis, bring it to a halt.


Much of River of Dark Dreams concerns slaveholders’ attempts to keep these flows moving. The liquid capital put out by the Cotton Kingdom had to go somewhere. Its major destination was New Orleans, the Old South’s great entrepôt and marketplace. In an increasingly feverish circulation, British money flowed in, exchanged against cotton shipped downriver; cotton traders used the returns to buy slaves, food, and other inland-produced commodities for the plantations, which paid for them on credit borrowed from their New Orleans creditors and, beyond them, British ones. It was gold and silver that technically underlay the money supply in these years, but the real bases of the Southern commercial system were not rare metals but cotton crops and black bodies.

As markets boomed in land, cotton, and human flesh, too much liquid capital pooled atop these physical foundations of black people and white gold. By the late 1830s, the Cotton Kingdom, with its dramatically undiversified economy, had become locked in a cycle of booms and busts. When one of America’s earliest major financial crises, the Panic of 1837, struck, it resulted in foreclosed plantations throughout the region, which passed into the hands of creditors. As the South was integrated into the British-dominated Atlantic system, in which cotton was the crucial commodity, it became increasingly subject to the jolts of the world market.

At the same time that British finance was bringing the cotton plantations under its influence and subjecting them to its vicissitudes, New Orleans itself was developing into the hub of an extended inland commercial network. The American interior, along the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri river systems, had rapidly become one of the world’s most important agricultural export zones. For decades, the produce of Ohio and Illinois farmers flowed downriver to New Orleans, where it mixed and exchanged with the capital produced by the planters. This system flourished as the industrial revolution took off, thanks to that pinnacle of early Victorian technology, the steamboat.

The network of steamboat commerce went into decline, however, in what Johnson describes as a classic overaccumulation process. The trading system hit its environmental limit when every little stream deep enough for a steamboat route got one, and the rewards for investing in these large, increasingly accident-prone chunks of capital began to decline. Meanwhile, the east-west railroads began to crosscut the north-south Mississippian system. So, in the same years that financial instability became a fact of life in New Orleans and on the plantations, the threat of commercial decline appeared as well.

In the aftermath of the bust, Southern elites began a discussion of how to address the “derangement of the currency and exchanges of the country.” The main problem, they believed, was the South’s balance of trade. Southern cotton accounted, by far, for the largest share of American exports. Yet Southern imports were insignificant, and the domestic consumer market was enfeebled by the forcibly lowered standard of subsistence imposed on the enslaved millions. Johnson tersely sums up the South’s predicament: “Reliance on a single staple crop, dependence upon outside capital, overinvestment in land and slaves, absence of a manufacturing sector, limited networks for mercantile distribution.”


By presenting a South fraught with intense economic turbulence, accumulating debt, and increasingly violent labor discipline, Johnson finally begins to suggest an explanation for why a fully modern, capitalist South would have gone to war. Genovese’s account of the slaveholders’ rebellion and defeat emerged from what he saw as their system’s stagnation. Johnson’s response is to show slave society as fundamentally volatile.

Johnson dispenses with the usual presentiments of secession, the master class’s growing alienation from Washington in the decades preceding the Civil War. Instead of revisiting the well-trod path to war, with familiar stops at the Compromise of 1850 and Bleeding Kansas, Johnson turns to the colonialist desires of reformist planters in the final antebellum decades. These slaveholder intellectuals were determined to develop the South out of its dependent status. Above all, they blamed federal economic intervention for putting Northern industry ahead of Southern commercial interests. New Orleans, by this way of thinking, had long been unfairly reduced to a colonial outpost of New York. As the South lost its commercial network to the Northern railroads, its general position would slip still further. Johnson follows the Southern leadership as it sought to resolve its crisis by turning outward, to a new global slave empire.

Genovese had claimed that cultural and political entrenchment beset the South on the eve of war, but the opposite took place: an efflorescence of master-class political and intellectual innovation. Southern ideologues imagined a spatial fix to their problems on a hemispheric scale. Slave society would have to generate its own free-trade empire to combat a slipping position in the national economy. New Orleans could again be preeminent, if only Southern traders could connect the American agrarian exporter to the markets of Latin America and Asia. “The business of commerce presents no law, which forbids the Southern merchant to exchange his flour in Rio for the coffee of Brazil,” one particularly global-minded trader wrote, “or to barter in Valparaiso and Lima, his produce for the copper of Chili and Peru; and this again for tea and silks in China.” Perhaps Southern capital could build its own railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. Slaves might be implanted in the Amazon to turn the worthless forests into productive plantations—“the African, with the American axe in his hand.” Southern schemers planned a political system and commercial network that would extend across the continent, perhaps someday the planet.

These Southerners saw themselves as engaged in a struggle for the future of the world. The slave system represented the natural way of things, they believed, not because it was a holdover they wished to preserve, but because it was the endpoint of social evolution, the condition of universality toward which all societies aspired. Slavery’s appearance across historical time was a version of Hegel’s “cunning of reason,” the spirit of history making cameos, foreshadowing the future. In the antebellum period, Yankee interests were grossly bottling up slavery. New York needed artificial linkages—railroads, tariffs—to control the robust Mississippi commercial system. Abolitionism and wage labor were the unhealthy symptoms of Northern society’s unnatural form. The Southern intellectuals saw the North rather as a later American elite saw the Soviet Union—a twisted version of modernity, progress gone down the wrong path. The problem for the South was not that they were dominated by Northern capitalists but that their own capitalist ambitions had come under the thumb of that Frankenstein’s monster of the North, free society.

The master class believed it was on the golden road to the future, but also understood that slavery had suffered a series of political defeats in the early 19th century: the Haitian Revolution; the end of the Atlantic slave trade; the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and the American North. For the commercial network of New Orleans to be reborn on the global, free-trading scale the slaveholders imagined, they would have to deal a political, even military, reversal to these developments.

Slaveholders backed invasions of Texas, Cuba (twice), and Nicaragua (three times) to realize their fantasies. This adventurism, called “filibustering,” wrote the New Orleans newspaperman who was briefly installed as Nicaragua’s president, “is the necessity of all progressive races.” There was even a movement, on the eve of secession, to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. Historians have long known about all this, but it’s typically written off as a kind of folly, the ideological profligacy of extremist elements in an indolent, decaying elite.

Johnson argues that all the South’s efforts must be understood not as an idiosyncratic adventurism but as an empire of bondage in the becoming: foreclosed avenues to an enslaved world that might have been. Secession itself was both an adaptation to the failure of these efforts to break the vise, and a final attempt to do so. The Confederate state as a political project expressed the same strains of commercial—even “progressive”—imperialism that the filibusters had put into action.

The result of this imagined imperium, a free-trading commercial utopia based on military expansionism and bonded labor, would be the strengthening of ties among white people across lines of gender and class. A consumerist utopia was in the offing: high standards of living would hold together whites everywhere. Globalized exchange, and the unseen toil of the bonded races of the world, would make the whole thing possible. The result would be a final equilibrium—the end of history. It’s no accident that Johnson’s picture of the Southern utopia looks familiar.


In left-wing thought, there’s always been a powerful emancipatory possibility associated with understanding the past; the specific opposite of false consciousness is historical consciousness. To see yourself in time is to grasp the way the world is in flux. Anyone who has ever done any kind of political organizing learns this intuitively: the work of mobilizing is always in urging people to un-forget, to see how their circumstances came to be, how others responded to similar circumstances, and how they might also—now, today. To engage in political struggle is necessarily to do history. Multiple rounds of upheaval in the historical profession since the 1960s—accompanying political upheavals at large—have sharpened this weapon in the hands of the left.

But like everything else, historical interpretation must live in time. Any understanding of history, articulated in the terms of its own age, eventually fades. The inescapably engaged nature of historical inquiry is why for Genovese, writing at midcentury, the slaves mapped onto the docile Western proletariat while slaveholders looked something like the captains of late-Fordist industry, doling out high wages and benefits to keep the lower orders in line. And why for Johnson, trying to give expression to how the past looks from our own moment, the slaves look like the policed, starved, terrorized underclass of global capitalist enterprise; and the slaveholders, or more properly “slave society,” become practically everyone who buys into this world order. Whether the leaders of neoliberal capitalism or the average beneficiaries of cheap commodities—who have something in common with the “poor whites” that planter ideologues hoped to win to their side by making the slave empire large enough to benefit white people across class lines—the white race as such appears out of the shared experience of imperial bounty. Slavery as we’ve come to remember it is the ideological residue of this social order, a memory recycled and processed into a romantic form, in order to quiet contemporary anxieties of dominance.

The enlightening, progressive force of liberalism has carried us far from slavery, we like to think. We are not those people and never could have been. In River of Dark Dreams, we are reminded that between the slave empire and our own age lies only a handful of generations. Johnson shows the historical meaning of this proximity. We are connected not just through the shortness of time but through the persistence of the liberal capitalist tradition itself. The form of freedom fantasized by the slaveholding South, in turn, is the freedom of our own society: ensuring a standard of living sufficient to confirm our self-image and limit domestic conflict; built upon ecological degradation, the conquest of darker nations by international bureaucracies, their enslavement by debt, their forcible integration into a global commercial network; enforced by our own armies of the night, surveilling, killing, torturing without oversight. The myth of our great distance from slavery—of the old South’s fundamental illiberalism—exists precisely to give us a way of managing our experience of this continuity, and to let us continue to enact it.

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