A cultural pessimism grips this country, so says Peter Coclanis, the Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The dismantling of standards, the leveling distinction, the drive to sameness of the diversity, equity, and inclusion crowd—if not to the conferral of special privileges—has set up the conviction that this civilization is in the throes of irreversible decline. Dr. Coclanis has in mind the decision reached by Princeton University in 2021 to exempt the Classical Studies from the study of Greek or Latin; by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which has embarked on lighting the way to “social justice” in the bestowing of all grants; and by the Hewlett Foundation, which has its special province the giving of grants centered on that ever-so-fuzzy word “neoliberalism.”
In particular, Coclanis, an AHI Academic Adviser, has trained his fire against Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect of The 1619 Project, which sought a fundamental reframing of American history along racial lines. This “deeply flawed project,” where ideology paraded around as scholarship, won for Hannah-Jones the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020. “In so doing,” observed Coclanis, “the principal drivers of the project tarnish our founding principles, besmirch our ‘Founding Fathers,’ and denounce the capitalist development path the U.S. has followed, a path that in their view was inextricably linked to, bolstered by, and dependent upon racial slavery.”
Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University, has the longest essay in Hannah-Jones’s concoction. He made a name for himself in the study of “evictions and homelessness in contemporary America,” and, indeed, he is director of something called the “Evictions Lab” at Princeton. Whereas Marxists and neo-classical economists have regarded capitalism “as a liberal, liberating, and progressive historical force (albeit for different reasons),” Desmond and the new history of capitalism which he represents has depicted nightmarish racial oppression. What’s more, he alleges the form of capitalism has overspread its southern base. A considerable portion of southern profits were raked off by “northern bankers, merchants, insurers, and textile manufacturers.” According to Desmond’s (defective) capital accounting, “the wellspring of the ‘financialization’ of the US” flowed over its sectional base.
But Coclanis, one of the best economic historians of his generation, has a bone to pick with Desmond. Heedless of protocols, Desmond accepts the cotton “constituted a huge proportion of the antebellum U.S. economy—as much as 40 percent or even more of U.S. GDP—when in reality the staple generally accounted for about 5 or 6 percent.” In estimating the value of cotton in the national economy, “the new historians of capitalism and their sympathizers erroneously factor in the value of all of the inputs involved in the production of cotton when these inputs are already incorporated into the total value of cotton output.”
Peter Coclanis’s essay is part of more extended version in the Spring 2022 issue of The Independent Review.