The Liberating Power of the Dismal Science

I’m reading Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics (1975), which had a major influence on Clarence Thomas. Sowell is a black conservative economist. In his chapter on slavery, Sowell writes:

Although a slave-owner’s power to punish a slave was virtually unlimited by either law or custom, there were economic limits on the profits to be derived in this way.

In many respects unremarkable, the passage nevertheless gives a sense of what a disenchanted black radical like Thomas, searching in the 1970s for a way past the impasse of the Black Freedom movements, might have found in Sowell’s conservative and economistic mode of thinking. For what Sowell is suggesting is that the one power that stood above or beyond that of the white slaveholder was the power of economics itself. While law and custom put no constraint on the slaveholder—that claim of political impotence would have echoed throughout the disillusioned left of the 1970s—the economic imperative did. Profit and loss was the one force that transcended and trumped the white master’s personal authority over the black slave. It’s not too much a jump, I think, to see how Thomas might have seen in this vision of the market’s disciplining force a way past the power of the white man, an ally in the struggle against the white man.


  1. troy grant June 17, 2015 at 5:52 pm | #

    That only works when the white man needs a black man to do all the physical labor. When he can offshore it cheaper, not so much. When he can imprison a black man to keep him from voting, not so much. Sowell and Thomas are talking from their ivory towers.

  2. Joel in Oakland June 17, 2015 at 6:16 pm | #

    The concept that profit might trump power and caprice seems dubious. Doing something awful to one person in order to keep everyone else in line isn’t apt to be bad economics. Terrorism may not foster creativity – banjo playing may suffer – but it fosters plenty of top-down authority structure.

    On the other hand the left-brained, slow thinking, rational consideration of profit isn’t likely to check someone with impulse control issues.

    • lazycat1984 June 18, 2015 at 1:52 am | #

      You stole my thunder. I can only add that there have been countless instances in the past where the most brutal forms of slavery were practiced and made profitable. If you want to call it that. This may be a peculiarly American form of apologia for slavery, this liberal economic/rational actor notion where the slave master wouldn’t harm his slaves because it’s not economically sensible. Those Caribbean sugar plantation owners in the 1500s didn’t seem to be worrying about it all that much. Or the Nazis who were running the rocket factories or salt mines. Maybe the people who use this rational actor thing should be reminded that when supply far outstrips demand, the guys with the guns, whips and dogs can be as savage as they want to be.

  3. aindriu June 17, 2015 at 6:17 pm | #

    Let’s change white man to capitalist then.

  4. jonnybutter June 17, 2015 at 6:39 pm | #

    This is an interesting insight. In light of factory slavery (e.g. in Haiti), Sowell’s remark works only on a technicality, since that practice was precisely about *strategically* shortening the lives of slaves. Yes, there were ‘limits’ – you could only starve someone so fast if you were to get the maximum amount of work for the least economic input.

    But you can see the yearning for some sort of moral order outside of religion, or along with religion..economics as ‘deus ex machina’

  5. jonnybutter June 17, 2015 at 6:49 pm | #

    just clarifying: I’m not taking the Sowell quote literally to somehow show that the insight about Thomas is bogus. It’s immaterial to that; and I think the insight stands. I just think Sowell and Thomas are just so ridiculously wrong!

  6. eric brandom June 17, 2015 at 9:09 pm | #

    isn’t this partly the argument–put very differently–of *The Passions and the Interests*?

  7. Bill Michtom June 18, 2015 at 2:56 am | #

    The problem I have with this supposition is that Thomas has totally subsumed himself to, and depended on, white power (John Danforth and, of course, Scalia! I just met a judge named Scalia!)

  8. Benjamin David Steele June 18, 2015 at 8:23 am | #

    The economic vision ignores the fact that slavery or anything similar is and must always be a social system first. Profits aren’t necessary for a stable social order, but a stable social order is necessary for profits. A ruling elite will be as violent as they need to be in order to maintain the functioning of the status quo.

  9. MaxSpeak June 20, 2015 at 1:22 pm | #

    Sowell once flirted with Marxism too, if memory serves.

  10. Voltarine DeCleyre June 20, 2015 at 7:07 pm | #

    Capitalism and “pre-capitalist/primitive accumulation” regimes like chattel slavery are systems of power. Capitalists and slavers will take a short-term bath in order to fortify relations of political inequality. Rulers also don’t always agree on how to balance making money today and extending/deepening their rule in the future.

    I guess one could surmise that the prospect of (1) having to face down the most powerful social forces on earth, e.g., capitalism, military, the police, and (2) having to work with b/Black people to do that was too much for Sowell and his protégé. For some (e.g., Obama), it’s more personally satisfying to find a cozy spot in a system of oppression than help relatively powerless people develop historical agency. At least, unlike Obama, Sowell and Thomas don’t claim a representational mantle.

  11. Jara Handala June 22, 2015 at 7:33 am | #

    The mediated social disciplinary force:

    “Their [persons] relations are the relations of their real life-process. How does it happen that their relations assume an independent existence over against them?[,] and that the forces of their own life become superior to them?”

    This demonstrates the emergent quality of the social, onticly different from the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, the groupal, and the intergroupal. It shows that much talk of ‘the social’ fails to recognise this, mistaking it for, and reducing it to, the immediacy of persons and groups of persons.

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