The cruel rhetoric of denialism

Image: Alessandro Oliverio


Commentary on an article by Deirdre N. McCloskey, columnist for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo

Deirdre N. McCloskey, newspaper columnist Folha de S. Paul, is a recognized scholar of economic methodology. In her articles on the subject, she argues that economic discourse must be carefully examined and deconstructed. She also questions the unrestricted use of the “mathematical way of speaking”, because when the “crusades' faith” sets the tone, the “sincere and intelligent intention to contribute to the dialogue” becomes a “striding conversation”.

His article “Who Profited from Slavery?” (Folha de S. Paul, 14/02) could not be more offensive to good economics rhetoric. Without explaining concepts and sources, Deirdre N. McCloskey says there is no relationship between capitalism and modern slavery. Although several authors point out that black slavery in the Americas produced immense profits and that these profits are at the root of capitalism, Deirdre N. McCloskey argues that it did not. Those who took the lion's share would have been the African warlords, as they monopolized the capture and sale of the enslaved. As there is no robust economy in Africa today, the author concludes, it would also prove that the profit of slavery is not conducive to capitalism. That simple.

Deirdre N. McCloskey understands profit as extraordinary gains generated by innovation and creativity (her examples are Harry Potter and oil exploration). Otherwise, we have normal wages and profits. This is our daily bread, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Or rather: most eat the bread that the competition kneaded. So me, you and the author. So do the slave producers of the Americas and the slave traders. But are we all in the same bag?

Dozens of studies of economic history show that coffee producers in Brazil, cotton in the United States and sugar in Cuba obtained, in the XNUMXth century, rates of return equal to or greater than the best yields available at the time.

The slave traders then, it is not even mentioned. The journey of a tumbeiro between Bahia and Sierra Leone in the 1810s could generate a return of more than 200% on invested capital. What banker wouldn't grow his eyes on such an operation? The second Banco do Brasil was born with capital from the slave trade and lived on loans to slaveholders. But he is not our jabuticaba. Wall Street heavyweights Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and JP Morgan also made money from trafficking and slavery.

Large slaveholders made huge profits because they exercised monopoly power. They held the best lands, as they obtained their credit in the form of slave stocks. Thus they flooded the world markets of tropical articles. In the case of traffickers, a few families controlled more than half of the slave market in Rio de Janeiro. This is not the monopoly of Schumpeterian creativity. It is the monopoly that uses force to guarantee strategic access to capital, to human labor in its cruelest form, and to ecology. Look around you: you will see analogous examples today.

The columnist avoids the word capitalism, seeming to consider it a mere synonym for the market. Historian Fernand Braudel teaches, on the contrary, that capitalism is the upper layer of our economy, the anti-market space, where private monopoly allies with the State to produce high rates of return. Deirdre N. McCloskey also makes the mistake of conceiving the market as an ahistorical and universal entity. Karl Polanyi refutes this thesis by showing that, before the XNUMXth century, much of the world practiced trade without a market, without the law of supply and demand, as prices were relatively fixed.

Deirdre N. McCloskey's oratory is laden with ideology, false moralism and historical denialism. Capitalism that doesn't bear its bloodstain sounds better in JK Rowling's fantasy world. Or the president of the Brazilian Central Bank, “bob fields grandson”, for whom the interest rate is a price defined by the market that brings gains to all, as if it were not influenced by the monopoly of high finance, which suffocates small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and even government revenues. In real life, however, theexpect patronum” of the financial world is reserved for the few. To the others, it is the kingdom of darkness.

*Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa is professor of economic history at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP). Author, among other books, of Developmentalist Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida (Mall).

*Tamis Parron é professor of history at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of The Politics of Slavery in the Empire of Brazil (Brazilian Civilization).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul.

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