In today’s dollars, each slave in 1860 cost about $17,000. Wouldn’t whipping decrease work output and decrease resale value?

Question: “In today’s dollars, each slave in 1860 cost about $17,000. Wouldn’t whipping decrease work output and decrease resale value?”

You misunderstand how the system of slave based production on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South worked.

The work load for each slave laborer per day was set by the slave owner based upon the maximum output that could be achieved by the best hands with the most experience under the best conditions. Each slave was given an output quota that was a percentage of that…a quota that was the maximum that that hand could achieve based upon their experience.

Those maximum production figures were well known, being published in Planters’ Journals , Southern Slave Owners’ Newspapers subscribed to by the slave-owning classes. These journals described and promoted methods designed to get the greatest possible productivity out of the enslaved labor while spending as little as possible on their care and feeding. For some time those journals promoted the idea of feeding the enslaved workers on cotton seed waste. Cotton seed waste cost nothing. But it had NO nutritive value and as a sole source of nutrition would cause a man to starve to death.

The primary mechanism for increasing productivity on the slave plantations of the Deep South was the systematic application of violence and torture.

ANY slave who for any reason failed to meet their essentially arbitrarily assigned quota was whipped. These whippings were extremely painful. They were ordinarily administered by a sadist using a heavy braided stock whip intended to be used on animals. The whipping always resulted in torn and bleeding skin and were accompanied by loud uncontrollable involuntary screaming that could be heard hundreds of yards away. The diaries of the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted who spent a year on Southern Plantations notes that one of his most vivid memories from those plantations was the screams of men and women being whipped. Those whippings often caused men used to brutal conditions to lose consciousness from the pain.

The whippings were a management technique. They were purposely administered sadistically and publicly. The other slaves, exhausted from their labors but still required to fetch their own water and gather their own cooking fuel and spend hours preparing their own food before sleeping and being woken before dawn, were required to watch them.

Systematic whippings were used to increase productivity. Once the hands were generally able to achieve the set quota, the quota for everyone would be increased. Those who could not achieve the new quota would be whipped.

The Southern Slave-Owning Classes were both sadists and perverts. There was an obvious sexual sadism involved in these whippings. Southern men, who bragged to each other in their letters and journals of the number of female slaves they had raped, would whip the females when they were staked to the ground on their backs naked with their legs spread and whipped across their bellies and thighs.

Southern brutality was so extreme that both male and female slaves died in agony while being whipped. But Southern law specifically allowed a slaver to kill his own slave. There were no penalties for doing so. The only restriction on killing a slave applied when the murderer was not the slave’s owner. In such a case the killer was NOT guilty of or tried for murder. Rather he was required to make a cash payment to the dead slave’s owner for depriving him of his property.

When all of the hands could achieve the new higher arbitrary production quotas, the Best Hands, who were the most experienced and therefore had the highest productivity, would themselves be whipped to encourage them to achieve a super-human output. Then the quota system would be adjusted upwards based upon the output of these Best Hands and the whippings would continue.

How effective was this system of obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture? We have three objective indicators that this systematic torture greatly increased the wealth of the Southern Slave-Owning Classes.

  1. Picking cotton is a skilled task that is difficult to learn, requires eye-hand coordination to do well and quickly, and under the best conditions will result in bloodied hands. Believe me, you can’t do it. Yet many Black slaves learned to quickly and simultaneously pick cotton on two rows using both their right and left hands ambidextrously. This takes an almost impossible level of concentration, skill, and dexterity. But it was done by tired nearly-starving beaten people working from before dawn to dusk in the hot southern sun. The slaves learned to do the impossible to avoid being whipped.
  2. Before the Civil War these Slave Labor Plantations increased their productivity 2% each year, for 17 consecutive years, without any increase in capital investment or any change in production methods. This continuous increase in productivity without investment over that long a period in time is, from the point of view of a capitalist-investor, astounding! This increase in productivity was achieved through the systematic use of torture and violence by Southern White Slave Owners.
  3. After the Civil War and the Emancipation of the Slaves Southern White Planters resorted to using Paid White Labor for planting and picking cotton. That Paid White Labor was not able to achieve even ONE THIRD the average productivity of Black Slave Labor during the pre-war years.

As for the argument that the Slave Owners might not want to diminish the resale value of their enslaved brutalized human property and would, therefore, refrain from whipping them: NO. there are two reasons why that was not true.

  1. The most productive slaves, those who worked on the First Gang, were strong-bodied healthy males aged between 16 and 27. After that because of the onerous nature of their work and poor diet and lack of medical care their productivity decreased markedly. It was, therefore, determined by the Southern Planter Class that the most economically rational course was to work a man to death. The average life expectancy of a healthy male, who by our standards would have the body and stamina of a pro athlete (!), on the First Gang of a cotton or sugar cane slave farm was at best 17 years.
  2. The slaves were NOT actually owned. On the slave plantations in the Deep South all of the slaves were mortgaged. Fractional shares of each slave were owned by investors. The Southern Slavers were extremely poor businessmen who routinely lived beyond their means and were perpetually in debt…for their unpaid-for land, for their mortgaged slaves, to the merchants, and to factors to whom they had sold their crop before it had been harvested.

Southern Slave Agriculture was unspeakably evil and incompetently managed. Its main feature was obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture.

I truly hate to show this picture. It sickens me. But THIS is how Southerners treated slaves.


The Militant South 1800–1861, John Hope Franklin

Without Consent or Contract-The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert William Fogel

Slave Nation, Alfred W. Blumrosen & Ruth G. Blumrosen

Spying on the South, Tony Horowitz

Confederate Reckoning, Stephanie McCurry

Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball

Lynching in the New South, Brundage

Fush Times & Fever Dreams-A History of Capitalism and Slavery, Joshua Rothman


Slave-based production was very profitable…as long as one was willing to accept systematic violence and torture. Towards the end of the Civil War slavery was being used by the South in industry and mining as well as agriculture. Slaves had already been colateralized and fractionally sold as bonds which were traded on the international market. In the pre-Civil war decade enslaved Blacks were the single biggest capital investment in the United States and cotton produced by slave labor was by far America’s most valuable export product.

In the decade prior to the Civil War a Black male slave between the age of 16 and 27 used for violence-based slave cotton or sugar production gave the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) of ANY investment.

Because of that I can see, lacking the American Civil War and Government Forced Slave Emancipation, violence-based slave production having continued into and through the 20th century not only in agriculture but in heavy industry and mining.

Note II:

There is a problem with the $17,000 figure cited in the question. No economist or historian would use that. It is a grossly misleading figure based upon a conversion of a different currency in a different age with a different pricing structure and different commodities and a completely different distribution of income and effectively no taxation. The only useful comparative figure would involve the number of hours of labor needed by a person of a given social class to obtain a needed commodity that had equal utility/desirability in 1855 and 2019.

The planter class in the Deep South was generally composed of the dissolute spoiled sons of planter/slavers on the Chesapeake. They were speculators who competed with each other for a valuable commodity, e.g. slaves, and had by the mid-1850s bid the price of a young male slave up to absurd levels.

They were able to do this because slaves were collateralized and, like American home buyers in the decade prior to 2008, borrowed money wildly thinking that the value of slaves would continue to rise forever and they could always refinance their debt. They only needed easily obtained credit, not cash, to buy slaves.

Nevertheless, the market determined a price for slaves that was always far less than the money that could be made by owning slaves, especially if you were base enough to barely feed them (slaves had to grow for themselves or hunt and then cook almost all of the vegetables and protein they consumed), clothe them in hand-me-down rags, and work them to death.

Without getting into arcane detail, we can at best say that by the 1850s the price of young males slaves in the Deep South had been bid up to high levels but that the market still thought that the price still had the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) available in the United States.

How David Graeber Changed the Way We See Money

The radical anthropologist was that rare figure: a scholar who was also an activist.

In the third edition of the college-level textbook Macroeconomics, the economists Andrew Abel and future Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke blithely assert that “since the earliest times almost all societies … have used money.” They say that money arises from the inefficiency of barter—of trading one good for another—because “finding someone who has the item you want and is willing to exchange that item for something you have is both difficult and time-consuming.”

The evolution from barter to money is an old story in economics, repeated down the centuries in one form or another, to the point that even children are aware of it. It also happens to be only that: a story, and one with precious little evidence to back it up outside the heads of those who tell it.

While some economists imagine primordial villages and basic agricultural systems where birds are exchanged for flowers to illustrate the history of money, Abel and Bernanke come up with something much more immediate: The economist is hungry.

Barter systems would indeed make it difficult for an economist to eat lunch. Would a restaurateur exchange his goods for a lecture on monetary policy? Perhaps not, and the meal goes unsold and the economist goes hungry. Thankfully, the economist has students to whom he can sell his knowledge for dollars, which then function as a medium of exchange with which he can purchase his meal. The restaurateur is paid, the economist is satiated, while the students have learned something worthwhile.

But the only people who pay Ben Bernanke directly for his thoughts are investors. Students do not. Perhaps instead they borrow money to pay for the lecture, along with other lectures, a place to live, and the associated administrative costs of providing lectures to students. The interest on the debt eats up most of the students’ subsequent income from the job market, leaving them with no chance of ever paying off the principal in a reasonable timeframe. The debt will stick with them forever, even shaving off dollars from their Social Security checks, and make the normal mileposts of adult life—marriage, children—difficult or impossible to achieve. Fed up with their narrowed prospects, they join a group of activists who have taken up space, literally, in the shadow of New York’s financial institutions and they start talking about what they have in common: their debt. And they decide to do something about it.

Now this story, like the one the economist tells about the origin of money, is a stylized one used to illustrate broader truths about the world. But unlike what economists have said about money, it largely accords with known facts, and for that we have to thank the radical anthropologist David Graeber, who died earlier this week at the age of 59.

“We owe David so much,” the filmmaker and debt organizer Astra Taylor told me, noting immediately how he would have disapproved of using the language of obligation to encapsulate his life’s work.

Graeber had a long and distinguished career as both an activist and academic when the publication of his magnum opus, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and his work helping organize Occupy Wall Street in 2011 made him that rare thing: a serious scholar and organizer who garnered respectful profiles in Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times. He spent the last decade-plus at Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics after Yale controversially cut him off from tenure, which he suggested was due to his being “quite active in the Global Justice Movement and other anarchist-inspired projects.”

“The thing to understand about David is that he really was someone who equally had a foot in social movements and intellectual scholarly production,” Taylor said. “There are people who are known as leftists through their writing and the internet and never do anything that qualifies as organizing.”

Graeber was a link not just between grassroots movements and the academic world, but between generations of leftist social movements. He was a veteran of the anti-globalization protests in the 1990s who helped start Occupy, one of the facilitators of a debtor movement that would influence the policy agendas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He was a supporter of the United Kingdom’s anti–tuition fee protests in 2010, which would be the seed of the Momentum movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance to the leadership of the Labour Party.

The question Debt sought to ask was one that seemed natural in the wake of a debt crisis that would claim millions of homes and thrust much of the industrialized world into first a sharp economic crisis, then a self-destructive series of austerity measures designed to stem the tide of sovereign debt.

What was debt? What was its history, where did it come from, and how did it take such a central role in our personal and economic lives? Why was our language of obligation and morality the same as the one used to describe our credit card bills? Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”?

To even begin to answer this question, Graeber had to start with money and the bad history used to explain it. Generations of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians had tried to find the origins of money (John Maynard Keynes referred to his own studies of money as his “Babylonian Madness”), but economists, especially in their textbooks, resorted to fancy. 

These just-so stories about how money emerged from barter can evoke a kind of childish primitivism  (“You have roosters, but you want roses,” one textbook says) or use imaginary historical examples. Even the stalwart progressive Joseph Stiglitz uses “what appears to be an imaginary New England or Midwestern town,” Graeber writes, to explain how money can replace barter, in the form of farmer Henry selling his firewood to “someone else for money” and then buying shoes from Joshua.

Graeber, in contrast, identifies the origin of money as “the most important story ever told” for economists, tracing it back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and even to Aristotle. This was “the great founding myth of economics,” he writes, that money was not in fact the creation of governments. It followed that economics was its own form of inquiry, separate from other ways of thinking about social life.

Graeber points out this account “has little to do with anything we observe when we examine how economic life is actually conducted, in real communities and marketplaces, almost anywhere—where one is much more likely to discover everyone in debt to everyone else in a dozen different ways, and that most transactions take place without the use of currency.”

Whereas the traditional account puts barter before money and money before debt, Graeber reverses this, noting that barter tends to only emerge in pre-industrialized societies when exchange happens outside of a familiar cultural context.

In the historical record of ancient societies in Mesopotamia, for example, there are prices of things that may be denominated by “money” (what an economist would call the “unit of account”). But merchants “mostly did much of their dealings on credit,” and “ordinary people buying beer from the ‘ale women’ or local innkeepers  did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they had on hand.”

Where debt emerged in Sumeria, so did novel forms of social domination, whose eventual effects were so dire as to necessitate harsh management of its lenders. Those early Sumerian loans to peasants quickly led to peonage, with farmers “forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household.” Fields would go unsown or not be harvested as farmers would leave their homes in order to avoid collection. The result was periodic debt amnesties.

The book covers everything from Neil Bush’s divorce to speculation that the major world religions were responses to the coin-using great empires of the “Axial Age” of 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. (“It would be foolish to argue that all Axial Age philosophy was simply a meditation on the nature of coinage, but …” runs one especially expansive passage.) There is a reexamination of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs being spurred on by his own debt, and vignettes about the functioning of debt and money in Madagascar, where Graeber did field anthropological research.

Debt’s deep dive into the whole history of civilization had a paradigm-shifting political point. Graeber wanted to show that “war, conquest and slavery … played a central role in converting human economies into market ones,” and that “historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.”

He wanted to show that not only did money not arise from barter but also that states and markets worked hand in hand in its creation. And more than that, he wanted to interrogate an economic and historical worldview that tried to “reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined on the terms of a business deal.”

He ended Debt with a call for “some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt.” This would not only

relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also … would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.

Thanks to Debt’s almost absurd good timing, as well as his own involvement in Occupy, Graeber became one of the most prominent leaders in the post-Occupy anti-debt movement. Or rather, in the spirit of an anarchist activist, he enabled others to take the leadGraeber’s efforts in helping start what would later become the Debt Collective were more like being “a facilitator or putting a band together,” Taylor, one of the group’s leaders, said.

The initial group that Graeber helped organize, Strike Debt, instituted a “rolling jubilee,” buying up medical debt and forgiving it. The group evolved to organize challenges to student loan debt incurred at for-profit colleges and has claimed to have helped eliminate over $1 billion of debt. Its efforts garnered the respectful attention of The New Yorker, which described the jubilee as “one of the few Occupy offshoots that has had a tangible effect on people’s lives.”

Debt Collective’s work would be echoed directly by the dueling calls from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to cancel student loan debt during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The ideas in Debt also have been picked up by the Keynes-inspired thinkers that make up the school of Modern Monetary Theory, who see the state as a tool to mobilize the economy’s resources for the common good, unlimited by its ability to tax or take on debts and deficits. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referenced MMT when it came to funding the Green New Deal, and a leading MMT thinker, Stephanie Kelton, worked with Sanders. One of the brightest stars in the MMT firmament, Nathan Tankus, is an avid reader and admirer of Graeber.

If we end up winning the fight over debt, money, and deficits and manage to fundamentally reshape this society it will have been in no small part of because of Graeber’s work,” Tankus said.

And while he is credited with coming up with the slogan “We are the 99 percent”—perhaps Occupy’s most enduring rhetorical legacy—he claimed that he could only be held responsible for “the 99 percent,” while “two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist” were responsible for “We,” and only later did a “food-not-bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them.”

This impulse to go beyond himself, to submerge himself in the collective, wasn’t foreign to his scholarly work, either. At the time of his death, Graeber was working with archaeologist David Wengrow on a history of social inequality. It’s supposed to cover the last 42,000 years.

Abraham Lincoln: Definition of Liberty (or Tyranny)

Address at Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Maryland [1]

April 18, 1864

Ladies and Gentlemen—Calling to mind that we are in Baltimore, we can not fail to note that the world moves. Looking upon these many people, assembled here, to serve, as they best may, the soldiers of the Union, it occurs at once that three years ago, the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. The change from then till now, is both great, and gratifying. Blessings on the brave men who have wrought the change, and the fair women who strive to reward them for it.

But Baltimore suggests more than could happen within Baltimore. The change within Baltimore is part only of a far wider change. When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected—how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes.

But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’sPage  302 labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

It is not very becoming for one in my position to make speeches at great length; but there is another subject upon which I feel that I ought to say a word. A painful rumor, true I fear, has reached us of the massacre, by the rebel forces, at Fort Pillow, in the West end of Tennessee, on the Mississippi river, of some three hundred colored soldiers and white officers, who had just been overpowered by their assailants. [2] There seems to be some anxiety in the public mind whether the government is doing it’s duty to the colored soldier, and to the service, at this point. At the beginning of the war, and for some time, the use of colored troops was not contemplated; and how the change of purpose was wrought, I will not now take time to explain. Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the christian world, to history, and on my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier. The difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it. It is a mistake to suppose the government is indiffe[re]nt to this matter, or is not doing the best it can in regard to it. We do not to-day know that a colored soldier, or white officer commanding colored soldiers, has been massacred by the rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it, believe it, I may say, but we do not know it. To take the life of one of their prisoners, on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel a mistake. We are having the Fort-Pillow affair thoroughlyPage  303 investigated; and such investigation will probably show conclusively how the truth is. If, after all that has been said, it shall turn out that there has been no massacre at Fort-Pillow, it will be almost safe to say there has been none, and will be none elsewhere. If there has been the massacre of three hundred there, or even the tenth part of three hundred, it will be conclusively proved; and being so proved, the retribution shall as surely come. It will be matter of grave consideration in what exact course to apply the retribution; but in the supposed case, it must come.


[1]   AD, The Rosenbach Company, Philadelphia and New York. A preliminary draft (infra) of the opening paragraph of this address is preserved in the Lincoln Papers.

[2]   See Lincoln’s communication to cabinet members and note, May 3, infra

Candidate’s Campaign Ad Is A MASSIVE Self-Own

A new ad for Republican Larry Elder’s recall campaign accuses California Governor Gavin Newsom of looking like a guy who stole your girlfriend in high school… what? Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur discuss on The Young Turks. Watch LIVE weekdays 6-8 pm ET.

“On Tuesday, voters in California will decide whether to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Recent polling indicates a majority will vote “no” on the recall, though the margins are too close for the governor’s comfort. In the event a majority votes “yes,” the winner will be chosen from a slate of candidates on the ballot. The winning candidate need only receive a plurality of votes to win.”

Debunking the myth of the Lost Cause: A lie embedded in American history – Karen L. Cox

Examine the myth of the Lost Cause: a campaign created by pro-Confederates after the Civil War to promote the lie that they seceded for state’s rights.

In the 1860’s, 11 southern states withdrew from the United States and formed the Confederacy. They seceded in response to the growing movement for the nationwide abolition of slavery. Yet barely a year after the Civil War ended, southern sources began claiming the conflict was about state’s rights. How did this revisionist history come about? Karen L. Cox examines the cultural myth of the Lost Cause.

Lesson by Karen L. Cox, directed by Anton Bogaty.