Category Archives: Empire

Drawing the Global Colour Line — Connecting White Supremacy

2551707Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds — such a good book. It charts how whiteness as an identity was constructed across the British Empire rather than just within individual colonies — it’s a brilliant examination of global formations of racism and its rhetoric, especially given the usual focus on a national context. I might quote with exaggerated enthusiasm here because much of this was new to me when I read it, though I realise it is much more familiar to those working in postcolonial theory. I’m catching up slowly.

This book argues, following Du Bois,  that the assertion of whiteness was born  in the  apprehension of imminent loss…and it charts the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, that was, as Du Bois noticed, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geo-political alliances and a subjective sense of self. (loc 73, 84)

This combination of the global and the personal, the connection between privilege and great fear of its loss, are shown to be key to understanding many of white racism’s dynamics, and it was eye-opening to read the constructions of racist beliefs growing in concert and conversation.

In recent scholarship, ‘whiteness studies’ have emerged as a productive new field of historical enquiry, but most investigations have conceptualised their subject within a national frame of analysis, identifying local dynamics at work within histories deemed distinctive or even exceptional.15 Studies that now acknowledge the necessity for a global context still confine their own analyses within a national interpretative frame and that has been especially the case with United States scholarship.16 But, as DuBois and contemporaries on the other side of the colour line saw clearly, the emergence of the ‘new religion’ of whiteness was a transnational
phenomenon and all the more powerful for that, inspiring in turn the formation of international movements of resistance, such as the pan-African and pan-Asian alliances… (loc 99)

A little more on the purpose of the book itself, its focus on racial technologies, and the nature of the global colour line. I find the authors most eloquent so these are long quotations:

In Drawing the Global Colour Line, We trace the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty. (loc 103)

Again, the importance of understanding what is happening at different scales, differences around particular implementations and histories but also to a great degree unified, particularly around a shared glorious racial past and the sharing of ‘best practices’.

Though recently established, white men’s countries sought legitimacy through locating themselves in the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon race history that dated back to the mythic glories of Hengist and Horsa. They shared an English-speaking culture and newly ascendant democratic politics, priding themselves, as Anglo-Saxons, on a distinctive capacity, indeed a genius, for self-government. It was their commitment to democratic equality that made racial homogeneity seem imperative. In the tradition of J. S. Mill, they argued that democracy could only survive in the absence of distinctions of caste and colour.

White men’s countries rested on the premise that multiracial democracy was an impossibility. (loc 139)

They used specific wordings to promote such ideas, which underline the geographies of race and democracy:

Colonial leaders preferred, however, to speak not of ‘local’, but of ‘self-government’, which they would later invoke to argue their sovereign right to racial homogeneity. (loc 614)

This connection between ideas of democracy and the need for racial homogeneity is a particularly important one to my own research, and seen over and over again. It is also one that continues to emerge in these days of ours, though often divorced from such openly racist rhetoric. Yet at the same time it is a connection glossed over or completely left out of most work on democracy and its workings.

They continue:

Previous studies have charted racial discourse across the British Empire or drawn attention to the links between the anti- Chinese policies of California and the Australian colonies, but few have analysed the inter-relationship of British and American racial regimes in the same analytical frame.29 Yet, crucially, the idea of the ‘white man’s country’ crossed and collapsed the imperial/republican divide, drawing on the discursive resources of both traditions to enshrine the dichotomy of white and not-white. The British Empire drew a distinction between ruling and ruled races; republican ideology drew a distinction between races fit and not fit for self-government. United States naturalisation law rested on the dichotomy of white and not-white.

In the figure of the white man, the imperialist became a democrat and the democrat an imperialist.
(loc 170)

Mills’ The Racial Contract is brilliant on exploring the underpinnings of this in terms of ideas of democracy, ‘social contract’ and race, but more on that later.

This worldview worked to simplify, to make binary a complex reality:

One indicator of the global ascendancy of the politics of whiteness was its ability to recast the previous multiplicity of nations, races and religions – Aryan, Caucasian, Chinese, Hindus, Kanakas, Islanders, Malays, Blacks, Lascars, Moslems, Japanese – in binary terms as ‘white’ or ‘not-white’. English-speaking countries were pace-setters in this regard. (loc 180)

We still suffer from this binary, still don’t quite have the words to deal with its falsity imposed over reality given it has wielded and continues to wield such force.

The Racialisation of Labour: Workers and Masculinity

There is clearly an important connection to be made here with masculinity as well as with democracy:

…when ‘glorious manhood asserts its elevation’, in the words of New South Wales republican poet, Daniel Deniehy, when pride of manhood found expression in pride of race to enshrine the white man as the model democrat. In the New World encounters of diverse peoples, the masculine democracies of North America and Australasia defined their identity and rights in racial terms: the right of Anglo-Saxons to self-government and the commitment of white workers to high wages and conditions, against those they saw as undermining their new-found status, whether they be aristocrats of ‘coolies’.

When glorious manhood asserted its elevation, white men monopolised the status of manhood itself. Coolies, Islanders, Asiatics and Blacks were cast as not simply deficient as workers, colonists and citizens, but also as men. They were docile, servile, dependent, unfree. Hence, the struggles of coloured and colonised men to achieve recognition, or restitution, of their manhood as well as national independence.
(loc 148)

So many remarkable interchanges occurred between countries despite the thousands of miles between them, as interesting as the differences.

Anti-Chinese agitation began to centre on complaints of cheap labour, low wages and unfair competition. Industrial employment as well as gold were claimed as the exclusive preserve of white men.

Agitation against the Chinese in Australia was frequently inspired by the example of California.14 A significant proportion of the miners on the Victorian fields had come directly from the lawless districts of the Pacific Slope and they often carried their preference for direct action with them. (loc 271)

Ah, the old spectre of grassroots violence. Makes it a bit harder to talk about the ‘grassroots’ as positively as we so often do.

Workers were in movement, and so were ideas, organising strategies and racism — here from California to Melbourne but drawing on anything useful, with labour pressuring the government to stop immigration (a familiar sort of current, I wish I could say differently today):

The Commission recommended a Californian-type tax to ‘check and diminish this influx’, but the Victorian government also introduced the first form of ‘immigration restriction’, utilising, at the suggestion of the Colonial Office, the British Passengers Act, that limited the number of passengers for health and safety reasons to one passenger for every two tons of ship’s burthen. (loc 300)

A goldfield in Australia called Jim Crow…Jesus:

Agitation against the Chinese continued. In 1857, for example, a public meeting at Geelong ‘numbering not less than one thousand persons’ sent a petition demanding the parliament ‘check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria’; the Local Court at Castlemaine presented a Memorial against the ‘Chinese influx’ while miners at a goldfield named ‘Jim Crow’ near Ballarat collected 345 signatures in favour of Chinese exclusion.23 (loc 315)

A transnational identity as a man and as a worker is being crafted here, but a racialised one:

When anti-Chinese activists thus campaigned against the Chinese as colonists, citizens and workers, they also impugned their manhood. ‘Rice-eating men’, declared Australians and Californians in chorus, had neither the rights nor responsibilities of masculine ‘beef-eating’ men. (loc 412)

I remember reading very similar phraseology at this same point in time from authors like Henry Mayhew writing about the Irish in London, and the ways they can live on a single potato or on nothing at all. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that it should be used independently or displaced against others, often by the Irish themselves.

The results:

International doctrines of freedom of movement thus collided with the ascendant democratic power of white manhood. In an age when “glorious manhood asserts its elevation”, in the words of republican Australian poet Daniel Deniehy, Chinese labour, represented as docile and servile, was cast as a profound threat to the new-found status of the independent, upright working man, a figure increasingly coded as ‘white’.47 (loc 415)

Workers were white men, and they were white men ‘under siege’:

In demanding the exclusion of Chinese workers, the labour movement increasingly defined the by his “civilized” standard of living. The difference between the Chinese worker and the white worker, said one supporter in the Victorian parliament, sounding an international theme, was the difference between ‘a rice-eating man and a beef-eating man”. “People who can subsist on a handful of rice and content themselves with the barest shelter are formidable opponents of European labor”, said a colleague.64 Moreover, the “unfairness of the competition is added to by the intense industry of these Asiatics. They stand in as little need of rest and recreation, apparently, as they do of a generous diet or wholesome housing…” (loc 473)

These constructions of masculinity were emerging both from workers and politicians, intertwining with more upper-class justifications and discourses of Empire:

Just as British statesmen looked to the United States as a future ally, so Americans looked to British imperialism as a model for a re-invigorated United States manhood. On a visit to Britain in 1895, the previously sceptical Lodge was impressed by the role of imperial government in building English manhood. ‘I am more than ever impressed with the vast difference between the Englishman who has travelled and governed abroad and those who have not’, he wrote on his return. ‘The latter are insular and self-absorbed and stiff as a rule and the former are almost always agreeable and worth meeting’.65 Imperialism was character-building, for man, nation and race. ‘I believe in the expansion of great nations’, Roosevelt affirmed to his friend, Spring Rice, in December 1899. India had done a great deal for ‘the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character’.66(loc 1569)

Women could only suffer in this equation, being pushed further into roles of pure motherhood to uphold the race. One example:

The Royal Commission placed the blame for the decline of the birth rate on the selfishness of women.64 A copy of the report was sent to the United States at the request of the Department of Commerce and Labor.65 White men’s countries shared the preoccupation with race suicide. (loc 2226)

The other tragic result? The focus in so many liberation movements on ‘recovering’ the masculinity of men of colour. We watched Marlon Riggs’ awesome documentary Black I is, Black I ain’t last night, which is eloquent in showing the cost of this to women of colour and to those finding themselves outside of definitions of masculinity through their sexuality or expressions. To those facing demands to conform or ostracisation.

Motherland v Colony: the complexities of Empire:

One of the most enlightening things for me were the differences, at least initially, in the attitudes and discourses (though not in levels of racism itself) of Britain as the coloniser of a far-flung empire, and its subjects who established settler colonies. I had never quite grasped the strength of the idea of a multi-racial commonwealth, all subject to the Queen. This created complex allegiances amongst the empire’s members, even in its highly imperfect state.

I remember a strange loyalty to this idea puzzling me to some extent in Gandhi’s biography when I read it very long ago, and I am fascinated by quite what that meant, and how it shifted along with power, technologies of exploitation and discourse:

But the imperial status in which Gandhi invested so much – the status of British subject – was fast being eclipsed in the self-governing colonies by the ascendant dichotomy of white
and not-white. In making an argument that Natal should follow New South Wales rather than the United States and declare explicitly against the immigration of Asiatics, one member of parliament was moved to observe that colonists should forget about Colonial Office objections on behalf of coloured British subjects, for ‘the idea of the British subject was fading more and more every year’. (loc 1905)

This kind of attitude was made possible by the nature of empire, by governing from a  country that remained white, an illuminating quote:

The shoe doesn’t pinch us; for in the first place each Asiatic in Natal must be multiplied by eight hundred to produce a proportionate effect on the population at home; and secondly this country being already fully populated, a relatively large influx of a foreign element could only be brought about by a corresponding displacement of the native element.36

Racial hierarchies existed within these limited categories of colonial subject, though all as a rule were seen as unfit for the duties and responsibilities of white men:

But there was a further problem in Natal: the presence of several hundred thousand ‘natives’. Even if a few Indians were to be granted self-government, they could not be trusted to govern blacks. The Colonial Office noted the impossibility of one subject race being governed by another:

In the contingency which this Bill deals with – that of Asiatics becoming the majority in a tiny electorate – a result would appear, which no-one ever contemplated, and which would be most anomalous and perhaps hazardous in itself viz the Government of a subject Race, which itself does not understand and is permanently unfit for representative Government, by another Race which does not understand it either which has no experience of it, and whose capacity to work it must be doubtful representative government is the monopoly of the European Races.37 (loc 1754)

Yet they remained subjects — a limited status yet one that settler colonies demanded be stripped. Thus it was the colonies that drove this process, and remarkably late in a sense — the end of the 1800s, which also saw the end of reconstruction in the US and the rise of Jim Crow:

The Australian legislation of 1896, in dividing the world’s peoples between white and not-white, regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects, marked a radical new departure in international relations. But the move was a logical development of the binary thinking that governed British imperial rule – the division between Crown colonies and self-governing Dominions or between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ races – and United States naturalisation law, that divided the world’s peoples into white and not-white. White Australia was produced in a convergence of these binary classification systems with the result that a vast range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Moslems, Negroes, Indians, Malays and Pacific Islanders – were lumped together (loc 2036)

Again, this underlines how this growing understanding of whiteness as identity, the creation of whiteness came from both bottom up and top down as it were, to return to the workers:

The project of White Australia was thus a contest over the meaning of civilisation itself. Much Labor vitriol was directed at the Japanese demand to be recognised as a civilised power. The Australian Worker reported the story of a confrontation between a local Labor man determined to ‘take down’ ‘a Jap standing outside a laundry’, who dressed above his station:

There you are looking like a crow decked out with peacock’s feathers thinking, I suppose, that you represent an up-to-date and enlightened nation. A great Power you call yourself, with your navy and your army, that you haven’t paid for yet, and your factories and other such western civilised innovations wherein you don’t earn enough in a week to keep a white man in beer and tobacco for the same period. (loc 2148)

But it’s all happening a bit later than I usually think of it, though the roots go very deep. We see Labour taking up the rhetoric of justice and democracy only when both are restricted racially:

In the new Commonwealth of Australia, Liberal and Labor parties agreed on the necessity of the state protecting the wages and conditions of white working men, an approach given expression in the policy of New Protection, so named because tariff protection would depend on employers paying workers a fair and reasonable wage. Deakin explicitly theorised White Australia as an exercise in social justice: ‘it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women – it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages’.55 (loc 2171)

I hate seeing words social justice appearing in sentences like the one above. This was not, of course, only happening in Australia, and it became part of a political toolbox, part of the increasingly hegemonic mix of ideas through strong-held faith alongside canny manipulation and political operating within and between nations:

Above all, metropolitan governments realised that here was an issue capable of mobilising whole communities and creating new transnational ones, of changing voting behaviour and political allegiances . The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, noted ‘an identity of feeling and of interests (real or supposed)’ between the Canadian inhabitants of the Pacific Coast and their neighbours in the United States.86 Washington and Ottawa talked about the possible secession of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California – “where the same question is agitating the public mind, and threatens to combine all classes, irrespective of boundaries, in one common cause” – leading to their amalgamation into a new republic.87 The British government feared that the United States would stand forth as the leader and protector of white men’s interests… (loc 2606)

I had to pause a moment to imagine the ‘what if’ of a west coast nation, especially given the onset of Trump. But really what is important is that it should be international rivalry in leadership pushing the British Empire to move away from earlier ideas that bestowed some rights and some degree of humanity within the term ‘subject’:

The British, too, worried about the Empire disintegrating, Britain being marginalised and the United States assuming leadership of a new white men’s alliance. In his paper ‘Suggestions as to Coloured Immigration into the Self-Governing Dominions’, prepared for the Colonial Office, Charles Lucas observed that this was ‘a question second to none in difficulty and importance’ for the Empire. The British government should endeavour therefore to show some leadership on the question:

There is also to my mind a constant and serious danger that, if we do not take the initiative, the United States may stand out on and through this question as the leaders of the English-speaking peoples in the Pacific as against the coloured races. This is not my own view alone.92 (loc 2621)

Roosevelt’s world tour with his ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1907 helped to establish US naval power while also consolidating  ideas and a solidarity amongst the white settler nations, working to push England to a similar position.

Provocatively, he told a correspondent of the New York Times that the visits (New Zealand was added to the itinerary) were intended to ‘show England – I cannot say a “renegade” mother-country – that those colonies are white man’s country’.33

The drive towards this conception in the colonies was, of course, a lot about the white ownership of land…

Whites in California had been critical of Japanese arrivals, even while they appeared as birds of passage, but their concern turned to alarm when the new settlers established themselves as successful farmers in settled communities. As Yamato Ichihasi observed, agitation in parliament and the press continued unabated. By 1913, it concentrated on the question of ownership and control of land. The claim to be a white man’s country was fundamentally a proprietorial assertion. Senator J. D. Phelan, who had become the most powerful figure in the state Democratic Party machine, set out his case for forcing the Japanese from the farming districts in an article published in the New York journal, the Independent, the same journal, ironically, that had published W. E. B. DuBois’ ‘Souls of White Folk’ on the claims of whiteness to the ownership of the earth forever and ever.

The second post looks more at the intellectual architects and popularisers of ideologies to support conquest, settlement, white democracy and genocide. I’ll end this terribly long one with some timely thoughts on some of the results on whites themselves:

According to a Frenchman, Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, who had been to the fore in summoning the second Hague conference in 1907, the brutality of imperial rule was not only destructive to the colonised, but rebounded on white men themselves and their ‘mother-states’:

Where is the white man, however excellent, who can be perfectly certain that in the great wide spaces of our various European colonies he will be able to resist the terribly demoralising effect of unlimited power, conjoined with the influences of solitude and climate? Where is the white man who has not in Africa and Asia felt himself to be more or less master, with power to act as he will, with power to oppress? There is . . . a regrettable and retrograde tendency among white men once left to their own devices to cultivate and foster deliberately a brutality whose evil traditions they then bring back with them to their mother-state.45 (loc 3338)

 

 

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Vijay Prashad: Polyculturalism and Kung Fu

17608Kung Fu! Finally we learn some lessons from one of my favourite things… Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asan Connection and the Myth of Cultural Purity lives up to its name, and provides much food for thought as it tries to uncover a useful antiractist ideological framework that destroys the standard binaries of Black and white. It starts (and ends) with the idea of polyculturalism:

Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages–the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions. (xii)

I like his use of adjectives, and of course this comes much closer to capturing the reality of our lives, the intersectionalities we all experience.
On Xenophobia as Opposed to Racism
Like Albert Memmi on racism, this book goes back a little ways to try and untangle what we actually mean by it.  Back in the old days before the rise of slavery, what we faced was a little  different. Prashad explores this through a look at the Indian Ocean where many cultures had come together to trade for many centuries:

It would be inaccurate to reduce this ethnocentrism or xenophobia to racism, mainly because there was little sense that the difference was predicated on the body (biological determinism) and that those who are biologically inferior can be put to work in the service of their biological betters. (4)

Thus, while there were ‘undoubtedly fear and feelings of superiority in the face of difference…’ (5) among the various cultural contacts and even empires that have arisen over our history, what has arisen in modern times is qualitatively different.

Modern notions of “race” and modern, capitalist racist institutions render most of the fluidity of cultural difference moot. From da Gama’s arrival onward, traditions of xenophobia in the Indian Ocean world were transformed into the hidebound theories of race that emerge from Europe’s experiments with the enslavement of human beings for profit, most notably in the Atlantic slave trade, With the invention of race and the advent of racism, the Afro-Asian world would alter dramatically. (6)

He places the origins of these new theories of race here, where ‘Two sixteenth-century developments indicate the beginnings of raciology: the Iberian Inquisition and the slave trade’ (15). The Inquisition required tests for the purity of blood, and the justification of slavery, the fundamental difference of African peoples. These distinctions lie at the birth of a new era:

Columbus and da Gama operate as metaphors for how our world entered modernity: by the genocide in the New World (Columbus) and by the end to the cosmopolitanism of the Old World (da Gama). (35)

The antidote, as it were, consists in moving beyond all of this rather than embracing it —  ‘raciology’ has not been limited to whites (though of course, they have wielded it in dominance):

The Brahmin accommodation to, and the Diopian reversal of, the Aryan Myth shows us how those outside the camp of whiteness nourished the categories of raciology, and, more specifically, of white supremacy. Atlantic racism, then, is not the special inheritance and legacy of those who deep themselves to be “white.” (19)

So we move from xenophobia through raciology to modern racism, and from there to fascism:

Fascism (in the European and U.S. core) and colonialism (in the Asian and African periphery) exemplify the highest stage of racist statecraft. (20)

I like this distinguishing of different kinds of racism, different kinds of fascism groups around a core of ideas:

While all fascisms are not identical, there is something Gilroy call the unanimist principle that unites most fascisms, whereby the “people” are one, division is not integral to social relations, and the members of a nation are interchangeable and disposable. Furthermore, the unanimist principle perverts the idea of democracy into a racial hierarchy of the population in which those who sit atop the totem are seen as chosen by God or destiny. (20-21)

Specifically for our purposes, fascism or a movement with fascistic tendencies has at its core hierarchy, racism and militarism. (21)

An oppositional politics requires a new model that will move beyond the challengers already failed — essentialised identity politics and multiculturalism:

The desire to go beyond skin does not necessarily mean to plunge oneself into the socially impossible world of individuality. We are social beings who make communities with an urgency…human identity is constructed…multifaceted and multivalent…(36)

On The American Ideology:

We have come some way since da Gama and Columbus, in analysing it, Prashad reworks the famous phrase from de Bois in ways that I am still thinking through.

neocolonialism was replaced by the theory of neoliberalism in which freedom came to mean liberty of the moneyed to act unburdened by notions of justice and democracy. Neoliberalism threatens us with the reproach of equality, and forbids us to create organizational platforms based on our historical and current oppression. To fight against racism is twisted into a racist act, for to invoke race even in a progressive antiracist agenda is seen as divisive.

The problem of the twenty-first century, then, is the problem of the colorblind. (38)

I am still thinking about whether I find this useful, or if it might not be better to cleave to the problem of the ‘color line’ from de Bois’s original formulation. Not that I disagree with any of the ways he formulates the problem of colourblindness, which seeks to understand racism as nothing more than wrong-headed individual actions rather than ‘the coagulation of socioeconomic injustice against groups.’ (38) I rather like that definition. I also like this description of its effects:

Color-blind justice privatizes inequality and racism, and it removes itself from the project of redistributive and anti-racist justice. This is the genteel racism of our new millennium. (38)

It sounds so elegant — I am not sure I quite know what the privatization of inequality and racism look like, I need to think about that more too. But it becomes a little more clear further on:

Since the state deems the differences within civil society as “nonpolitical distinctions,” it is able to arrogate for itself the role of being above those very distinctions. The formal democratic state can then manage difference with such strategies as “unity in difference,” or, much later, in the United States, as multiculturalism. (57-58)

Thus the state becomes a manager above the justice fray, and multiculturalism becomes its management method.

Beyond the color blind and the primordial is the problem of multiculturalism. (39)

Why problematic? Because this idea of multiculturalism arose to ‘undercut the radicalism of antiracism.’ The difference between the two:

The difference between antiracism and diversity management, then, is that the former is militantly against frozen privilege and the latter is in favor of the status quo.(63)

So we need something different, something that is not primordial and essential, something not colourblind, something not just a management of difference in support of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top.

The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture.

He draws from Robin Kelley’s idea of polyculturalism which plays with the idea of polyrhythms, bringing together multiple drummers…

A polyculturalism sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect… (67)

This is a world that is changing, growing, becoming.

A broad antiracist platform would not (like liberal multiculturalism) invest itself in the management of difference, but it would (like a socialist polyculturalism) struggle to dismantle and redistribute unequal resources and racist structures.

Instead it concentrates on the project of creating our humanity. “Human” is an “unfinished product,” one divided by social forces that must be overcome for “human” to be made manifest. In the nineteenth century near Delhi, Akbar Illahabadi intoned that we are born people, but with great difficulty we become human (aadmi tha, bari muskil se insan hua). (69)

Coolie Purana — chapter title for this look at polyculturalism in action. There are lots of little awesome facts in here, like this one on the origin of thug:

“to cover up” in Hindustani, but came to mean “deceiver” in the nineteenth century when the British colonial officials identified certain brigands as thuggees. (70)

On the working class, where this idea of polyculturalism is rounded out and given a little more flesh:

not syncretic (two distinct entities melding with a consciousness of difference), but forged together from the beginning through the byways of Jamaica, the streets of Hartford, the avenues of New York, the dole queues of London, and beyond. Polyculturalism exists most vividly among the poor and working class. (71)

There are, of course, tons of examples. All of his are very different from the ones I grew up with, there is a lot that resonates but border culture is rather different that the crazy mixings that emerged out of the British Empire. I never knew this though:

from 1834-1916, British took almost half a million East Indian people to work as indentured labour in Caribbean and South American plantations. (87)

I’d never heard of Albertha Husbands leading domestic workers on strike — she was amazing, I found a little more from this article from the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian on women’s labour.

But I love this point about struggle in Trinidad — the leaders approach was ‘that in struggle cultural forms would be reshaped to accord with the need for popular dignity.’ Rastafarianism is one example. (87)

I like to be thinking with terms that allow for this change to happen, this growth and becoming are part of the term rather than bending or breaking it. Prashad argues that this bottom-up lived experience of polyculturalism is often greater than its leaders understand…

The will of the polycultural working class, then, drew from, and exceeded, the attempts by Gandhi and Garvey to retain the boundaries set up by imperialism. (95)

It’s not always that simple of course, and some of the dangers and obstacles are explored in the chapter on Merchants — starting with the importance of place to culture and identity:

If there is nothing else to own, at least I own my own body and I have my ‘hood. The anti-Jewish and anti-Korean tendencies in the ‘hood come from this profound desire for dignity among the working class who labor for others, but who do not have the means to produce the services to run their own territories. (115)

I have to think more about this, think more about status and turf and power, but also topophilia and the importance of living well and coming to know intimately the place you live in for survival, the importance of transforming neighborhoods into positive places. Still, this rings very true.

When the working poor has lost every other asset, it holds on to its place of residence and life as the most precious resource ever… a subaltern nationalism, one that demands the protection of territorial sovereignty as the only resource at one’s command. When all else has been stripped away, it is land (place) that must be defended.

And it is often the immigrant who is seen as colonizer, against whom the battle rages… (121)

Kung Fusion:

The final chapter, the hopeful chapter, the chapter I realised I had no idea Bruce Lee had written a book and was ashamed of that. Quoting Lee’s The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art, Prashad writes:

Kung Fu, Bruce pointed out in his sociology of the art, “serves to cultivate the mind, to promote health, and to provide a most effective means of self-protection against any attacks.” It “develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.”

I am educated further on the women stars in martial arts world — Pauline Short, Ruby Lozano, Graciela Casillas (Bellflower!), Judith Brown. Prashad quotes Jim Kelley, describes solidarities — Aoki with the Black Panthers, Ho Chi Minh in Garveyite Halls in Harlem and swapping stories about it with Tobert F. Williams, Nkrumah hanging out with Stokely Carmichael. Quotes Nehru speaking at the Bandung conference, 1955:

There is nothing more terrible, there is nothing more horrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years. When I think of it, everything else pales into insignificance; that infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of them were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere, the way they were treated, the way they were taken away, 50 percent dying in the galleys. We have to bear that burden, all of us. We did not do it ourselves, but the world has to bear it. We talk about this country and that little country in Africa or outside, but let us remember this Infinite Tragedy.

To end with a little inspiration:

History is made in struggle and past memories of solidarity are inspiration for that struggle. Indeed, the Afro-Asian and polycultural struggles of today allow us to redeem a past that has been carved up along ethnic lines by historians. To remember Bruce as I do, staring at a poster of him ca. 1974, is not to wane into nostalgia for the past. My Bruce is alive, and like the men and women before him, still in the fight. (149)

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Julius K Nyerere — Ujamaa

41enDxo8l6LUjamaa by Julius K Nyerere, is a collection of essays and pamphlets, a mix of ideals and strategies for establishing the new Tanzania on a socialist foundation of mutual aid and equality. It is a very different kind of work than Freire’s quite intellectual theorisations of the role of struggle and popular education, or Myles Horton’s storytelling, yet all three contain very similar and inspiring understandings of radical and revolutionary change. Perhaps my favourite quote encapsulates for me a key aspect of the world I would like to build, and in doing so highlights one of the things I hate most about the world as we have built it to date:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

Thinking about it, seems like much of the nastiness of rich people comes from the various rationalisations they have invented to avoid feeling this shame.

From the preface:

The primary purpose of this book is to make this material available in a convenient form for use by the leaders and educators of the new Tanzania. Its secondary purpose is to contribute to the growth of a wider international understanding of the aspirations and purposes of the Tanzanian people, and perhaps to promote further discussion about the relevance and requirements of socialism in relation to mankind’s march to the future.
— J. K. Nyerere, July 1968 (viii)

This is an exciting moment where everything is possible, yet an immensely challenging time where everything must be done in the face of great opposition. Nyerere was a teacher before he became prime minister, first of Tanganyika, and then the new formation of Tanzania as it joined with Zanzibar. He held power until 1985 in a one party state, so this post is looking much more at the ideals than at a more tarnished and controversial reality that I don’t know enough about. It does seem though, especially given the failure to transfer power which signals a failure to develop other leaders, that Nyerere’s life did not quite embody these ideals the way that Horton and Freire’s did. I will have to come back to that, and the very real pressures from the U.S. and international lending agencies and the warning to all Socialist leaders through Lumumba’s assasination and etc, but I look forward to exploring more the histories of ujamaa communities. Reading Ella Baker’s biography I found out that Bob Moses of SNCC was there as a teacher for a couple of years, in the early 70s, but I haven’t found out more yet. From Highlander to Tanzania, though I know a lot happened in between.

Here Nyerere describes a process of building socialism on Tanzania’s cultural base,  starting where people are and moving forward, recovering from the past what should be recovered to build a new society. For Nyerere:

Socialism–like democracy–is an attitude of mind. In a socialist society it is the socialist attitude of mind, and not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern, which is needed to ensure that the people care for each other’s welfare.
(‘Ujamaa — The Basis of African Socialism’ – 1)

There is much in Tanzania’s heritage that Nyerere is able to look to in building a better future, and such clear common sense that it makes me even more ashamed of the constant fear-mongering and ever present greed in the US, and growing in the UK:

Apart from the anti-social effects of the accumulation of personal wealth, the very desire to accumulate it must be interpreted as a vote of “no confidence” in the social system. For when a society is so organized that it cares about its individuals, then, provided he is willing to work, no individual within that society should worry about what will happen to him tomorrow if he does not hoard wealth today. Society should look after him, or his widow, or his orphans. That is exactly what traditional African society succeeded in doing. (3)

This sense of community is one key here, of taking care of each other. A second is holding land in common, and understanding its use value above its land value:

And in rejecting the capitalist attitude of mind which colonialism brought into Africa, we must reject also the capitalist methods which go with it. One of these is the individual ownership of land. To us in Africa land was always recognized as belonging to the community. Each individual within our society had a right to the use of land, because otherwise he could not earn his living and one cannot have the right to life without also having the right to some means of maintaining life. (7)

The TANU Government must go back to the traditional African custom of land-holding. That is to say a member of society will be entitled to a piece of land on condition that he uses it. (8)

I quite love his critique of actually-existing socialism, some things never change I suppose — the following quotes are all from The Varied Paths to Socialism (Address to Cairo University, 10 April 1967):

Unfortunately, however, there has grown up what I can only call a ‘theology of socialism’…the true doctrine… (76)

Even better:

It is imperative that socialists continue thinking.  (77)

And best of all:

For socialism the basic purpose is the well-being of the people, and the basic assumption is an acceptance of human equality. For socialism there must be a belief that every individual man or woman, whatever, colour, shape, race, creed, religion, or sex, is an equal member of society, with equal rights in the society and equal duties to it.

A person who does not accept this may accept many policies pursued by socialists; but he cannot be a socialist. (78)

It is perhaps the headings of the various sections that give the clearest idea of not just the vision, but how he believes it can be achieved through flexible, adaptable, place-specific actions holding key principles constant: ‘Socialism is against Exploitation and Injustice’ (79), ‘Group or Communal Ownership’ (82), ‘The Purpose of Socialist Organization must be the Central Factor’ (84), ‘Socialist Policies will vary from Place to Place’ (87). Above all — and this is how it connects with Freire, Horton and others — is that:

First and foremost, there must be, among the leadership, a desire and a determination to serve alongside of, and in complete identification with, the masses. the people must be, and know themselves to be, sovereign. Socialism cannot be imposed upon people; they can be guided; they can be led. But ultimately they must be involved.

If the people are not involved in public ownership, and cannot control the policies followed, the public ownership can lead to fascism, not socialism. If the people are not sovereign, they they can suffer dreadful tyranny imposed in their name. If the people are not honestly served by those to whom they have entrusted responsibility, then corruption can negate all their efforts and make them abandon their socialist ideals. (89)

The USSR showed what such dreadful tyranny could be.

The question becomes then, how people are involved in building Socialism and in public ownership, and what is necessary for that to happen. First, there is a policy of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’ (policy booklet published March 1967). There is a need to reject the current idea of education as preparation for a profession, or to inculcate values of the colonial society, with all of its emphasis and encouragement of the individualistic instincts of mankind where wealth establishes worth. Instead, education should be seen as the way in which we:

transmit from one generation to the next the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the society, and to prepare the young people for their future membership of the society and their active participation in its maintenance or development. (45)

And for the purpose of building a new world, this is what education must accomplish:

The education provided must therefore encourage the development in each citizen of three things: an inquiring mind; an ability to learn from what others do, and reject or adapt it to his own needs; and a basic confidence in his own position as a free and equal member of the society, who values others and is valued by them for what he does and not for what he obtains. (53)

Nyerere looked to the creation of what he called ‘ujaama villages’, cooperative villages where socialism could be practiced and perfected. From ‘Progress in the Rural Area’ (speech to University College branch of TANU Youth league, 21 Jan 1968)

In the past we worked together because that was the custom; now we have to do it deliberately and to do it in such a manner that modern knowledge can be utilized for the common good. (181)

An acknowledgment that people learn through doing, through committing to action and then reflecting on that action:

In villages ‘people must be allowed to make their own decisions; people must be allowed to make their own mistakes. Only if we accept this are we really accepting the philosophy of socialism…

It notes that sometimes people get it right and experts get it wrong.

Progress needs leadership, but not of the bullying, intimidating kind… A good leader will explain, teach and inspire. In an ujamaa village he will do more. he will lead by doing. (183)

More on leadership:

You can lead the people only by being one of them, but just being more active as well as more thoughtful, and more willing to teach as well a more willing to learn–from them and others. (184)

‘Socialism and Rural Development’ (Policy booklet published Sept 1967) outlines the underpinnings of traditional ujamaa living:

The first of these basic assumptions, or principles of life, I have sometimes described as ‘love’, but that word is so often used to imply a deep personal affection that it can give a false impression. A better word is perhaps ‘respect’, for it was–and is–really a recognition of mutual involvement in one another, and may or may not involve any affection deeper than that of familiarity. (107)

The second:

…the second related to property. It was that all the basic goods were held in common, and shared among all members of the unit. There was an acceptance that whatever one person had in the way of basic necessities, they all had; no one could go hungry while others hoarded food, and no one could be denied shelter if others had space to share. (107)

The third:

Finally, and as a necessary third principle, was the fact that everyone had an obligation to work. (108)

These are villages founded on the full equality of all residents, and with self-government in all matters concerning their own affairs. Some issues will have to be decided through cooperation with villages near by, and a few through democratic structures at an even larger scale:

National defence, education, marketing, health, communications, large industries — for all these things and many more, all of Tanzania has to work together. The job of Government would therefore be to help these self-reliant communities and to organize their co-operation with others.  (129)

These communities mast also address the inadequacies of traditional system, especially the treatment of women. Nyerere writes ‘it is essential that our women live on terms of full equality with their fellow citizens who are men.’ The second change is that poverty must be improved, they cannot remain with an equality maintained at a very low level. (109)

Above all people learn by doing, step by step, in their own time.

All of this has to achieved through persuasion and choice, rather than force. Looking at step-by-step transformation, carrying out little by little, testing out, evaluating

Village democracy must operate from the beginning; there is no alternative if this system is to succeed…It does not matter if the discussion takes a long time; we are building a nation, and this is not a short-term thing. For the point about decisions by an ujamaa village is not just whether the members do or do not decide to dig a well or clear a new shamba. The point is that by making this decision, and then acting upon it, they will be building up a whole way of life–a socialist way fo life. Nothing is more important than that, and it is not the work of a few days, nor of a few people. An ujamaa village is the village of the members, and the life there is their life. Therefore everything which relates exclusively to their village, and their life in it, must be decided by them and not by anyone else. (136)

I liked that Nyerere admits mistakes.

This does not mean that the Government should build modern expensive houses and complete villages for the new settlers to move into. that assumption has been our mistake in the past. (137)

For those places where land is no longer available, young people must start new communities elsewhere, but those established can develop cooperative structures where they are:

People move in stages, clear land, build themselves. Should practice working cooperatively, and this may not be in agriculture, but in an industrial or service project that serves good of all. (139)

It is here that the revolutionary learning through collective praxis exists.

To finish on a slightly different note, I also liked the outlining of how development should work in a newly liberated country awake and aware and trying to grow without growing into a neo-colonial relationship. I liked the explanationations and the refinements of the Arusha Declaration from ‘The Purpose is Man’ (Speech given at Dar es Salaam University College, 5 August 1967). It looks back at the Arusha Document, with its policies of self reliance, and outline of self development goals best adapted to their economic, cultural, environmental circumstances. It seems to me these are no bad places to start in thinking about models of support for development today:

We shall remain Tanzanians

Growth must come out of our own roots… (92)

Commitment to a Quality of Life

It is based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one man to dominate or to exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in society as a free man able to lead a decent life in conditions of peace with his neighbours. (92)

Freedom must be maintained (93)

no foreign groups to own substantial industry or land

Progress by Evolution (93)

It does not accept remaining in poverty. ‘What we are attempting is a telescoped evolution of our economy and of our society.’ (94)

Integrated Programme based on Linked Principles (94)

Combination of self-reliance and socialist principles

The implications of self-reliance (95)

…it means that for our development we have to depend on ourselves and our own resources. (95)

Development through Agriculture (96)

And Appropriate Agricultural Methods (97)

This means improvement of the tools they now use and cooperative systems of production — He later expands on these last few points and how by moving little by little to better systems of agriculture and development they remain rooted in people’s skills, will be easier to adapt and retool, and will generate no debt as they would require very little capital up front.

It seems such common sense, yet it is the exact opposite of the decades of advice and demands from the World Bank, IMF and etc…

Small Industries, Factory Sites, Trade with Others, Capital Assistance

Overseas capital will also be welcome for any project where it can make our own efforts more effective — where it acts as a catalyst for Tanzanian activity. (100).

Skilled People are also needed. No False Pride in this Matter.

Human Equality–the Essence of Socialism.

The Challenge

My favourite quote again, just because:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

He further develops the ideas of self-reliance in ‘After the Arusha Declaration’ (presidential Address to the TANU National Conference, 17 Oct 1967)

In fact, self-reliance is not really against anything or anyone, unless there are people who want to re-colonize us. Self-reliance is a positive affirmation that we shall depend on ourselves for the development of Tanzania, and that we shall use the resources we have for that purpose… (149)

And self-reliance at a local level:

For a community, self-reliance means that they will use the resources and the skills they jointly posses for their own welfare and their own development. They will not take the attitude that the Government, or Local Council, or anyone else, must come and do this or that for them before they make any progress. There will be things for which outside assistance in the form of skilled advice or a capital loan is necessary, but they will realize that this has to be paid for, directly or indirectly, by them and their fellow citizens. (152)

Emphasizing again

Leaders cannot do anything FOR the people. We can only provide the necessary information, guidance and organization for the people to build their own country for themselves. (157)

Just a final quote because I like it…

But works of art and the achievements of science are the products of the intellect–which, like land, is one of God’s gifts to man. And I cannot believe that God is so careless as to have made the use of one of His gifts depend on the misuse of another! (2)

Nyerere, Julius K. (1974) Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press.

For more on popular education and community development…

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Remnants of Polish Empire: Milosz and Sienkiewicz

The Polish Empire…I confess my ignorance, immense ignorance, and thus shamefaced astonishment to find such an empire existed once. I realise anew how parochial US education is. Perhaps in high school’s elective class on European History there was a mention, but I remember Poland above all as a tragedy, a land of both centrality and flatness, leading to repeated invasions by countries and peoples bigger and stronger and bent on a vastness of domination. I am not sure how much is my failure and how much faulty interpretation U.S. style, where Polish jokes were sadly legion through my growing up and our own history of conquest and empire (and fear of decline) so steadfastly ignored. Both of which perhaps explain avoidance of presenting this history and its aftermath alongside the tragedy (which is no less true for the existence of the commonwealth).

A map of the changing borders:

Territorial-changes-of-Poland-1635-2009-small
By Esemono – Own work, Public Domain

 

I am going to Poland! It is a good year for going places, given unemployment and a wonderful partner who I can trail after like the discombobulation of stars behind a comet. Hopefully at some point here we will start trading off who gets to be the comet and who the (poetic rather than realistic) discombobulation. Anyway, I came up with a list to read as I always do, and started in chronological order, now slightly broken but happily. I find Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884 — translated by Jeremiah Curtain in 1898) more interesting since reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) because of the way one echoes in curious ways the subjects of the other.

5145F9XFZ9LOf course, all of With Fire and Sword takes place in Central Ukraine, based on the historical uprising of the Cossacks against the land’s occupation by Polish nobility. That was initially a bit disappointing, but almost made up for by some splendid descriptions of Chigirin, giving it such a border town feel but also doing much to show the diversity of connections between town and wilderness and agriculture and the meeting of different cultures that I have become so interested in. Also, in this case, the machines of war.

Barabash pointed to the market-square and to the people moving around upon it. The whole square was thronged with great gray oxen on the way to Korsún for the army; and with the oxen went a crowd of herdsmen (Chabani), who passed their whole lives in the steppe and Wilderness,–men perfectly wild, professing no religion, (“religionis nullius,” as the Voevoda Kisel said). Among them were forms more like robbers than herdsmen,–fierce, terrible, covered with remnants of various garments. The greater part of them were dressed in sheepskin doublets or in untanned skins with the wool outside, open in front and showing, even in winter, the naked breast embrowned by the winds of the steppe. All were armed, but with the greatest variety of weapons. Some had bows and quivers on their shoulders; some muskets or “squealers” (so called by the Cossacks); some had Tartar sabres, some scythes; and finally, there were those who had only sticks with horse-jaws fastened on the ends. Among them mingled the no less wild, though better armed men from the lower country, taking to the camp for sale dried fish, game, and mutton fat. Farther on were the Chumaki (ox-drivers) with salt, bee-keepers from the steppes and forest, wax-bleachers with honey, forest-dwellers with tar and pitch, peasants with wagons, registered Cossacks, Tartars from Bélgorod, and God knows what tramps and “vampires” from the ends of the earth.

It continues with some of the persistent and matter-of-fact contextual anti-Jewish sentiment that shouldn’t have surprised me yet did.

The blaze from the piles on the square spread such a glare over the town that all Chigirin seemed burning. The bustle and shouts increased with the approach of night. The Jews did not peep from their houses.

Jews hide in their houses throughout this book in fact. The (simplified and partial) explanation for people’s own understanding of this is given by Hmelmitski, leader of the rebellion:

I want no war with the king, I want no war with the Commonwealth! It is the mother, and he is the father. The king is a merciful lord; but the kinglets!–with them it is impossible for us to live; their extortions, their rents, meadow-taxes, mill-taxes, eye and horn taxes, their tyranny and oppression exercised through the agency of Jews, cry for vengeance.

Sienkiewicz writes, of course, in celebration of the Polish kinglets vital to the existence of the Commonwealth. He tries for balance occasionally, but passages like the following occur over and over again expressing a belief in the requirements of progress through the civilization of the wilderness (we meet once again these tropes), and support for the unspeakable levels of violence acceptable for its achievement, though this is often sorrowful.

Order reigned in all the lands of the prince, with plenty, justice, peace, but also terror,–for in case of the slightest opposition the prince knew no bounds to his anger and to the punishments he inflicted; to such a degree was magnanimity joined with severity in his nature. But in those times and in those regions that severity alone permitted life and the labor of men to thrive and continue. Thanks to it alone, towns and villages rose, the agriculturist took the place of the highwayman, the merchant sold his wares in peace, bells called the devout in safety to prayer, the enemy dared not cross the boundaries, crowds of thieves perished, empaled on stakes, or were changed into regular soldiers, and the wilderness bloomed.

A wild country and its wild inhabitants needed such a hand…

Impalings and the destruction of entire villages along with each of their inhabitants…there is no ‘civilian’ in these battles. Nothing sacred. No woman unraped, no field unburned, no child spared. No cruelty too extreme.

They saw on both sides of the road a long row of “Cossack candles,”–that is, people with hands raised above their heads, and tied to stakes driven into the ground, wound around with straw steeped in pitch and set on fire at the hands.

A little thought and you realise the peasants must have quite a lot of grievances to have embarked on a course of rebellion.

“Why do you croak, grandfather, like a raven?” asked an old peasant. “We believe that the black hour is coming on the lords; and there will be neither on the Russian nor Tartar bank lords or princes,–only Cossacks, free people; there will be neither land-rent, nor barrel-tax, nor mill-tax, nor transport-tax, nor any more Jews, for thus does it stand in the letter from Christ which you yourself spoke of. And Hmelnitski is as strong as the prince. Let them go at it!

Again, the a long list that has me nodding my head until we reach the Jews. The violence shown by peasants in the revolt is treated very differently by Sienkiewicz of course:

Through the broken windows Skshetuski saw the multitude of drunken peasants, bloody, with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, going from house to house, from cellar to cellar, and searching all corners, garrets, lofts; from time to time a terrible noise announced that a nobleman, a Jew, a man, a woman, or a child had been found. The victim was dragged to the square and gloated over in the most fearful manner. The crowd fought with one another for the remnants of the bodies; with delight they rubbed the blood on their faces and breasts, and wound the still steaming entrails around their necks.

It is terrifying to read the battle cries on every side: Kill! Slay! It is full of irony to hear bemoaned on the one hand the terrible betrayal of the Cossacks joining with the Tartars in their uprising, and then on the other to celebrate the mercenary Tartar regiments of the crown putting down the rebellion.

Above all is the weight of contempt heaped upon non-Polish peasantry. I present you a short selection among so so many phrases:

in his ears the words of Yeremi were roaring: “Better for us not to live, than to live in captivity under peasants and trash.”

Or:

The peasant breaths, filled with the odor of gorailka, came upon the faces of those nobles of high birth, for whom the pressure of those sweating hands was as unendurable as an affront. Threatenings also were not lacking among the expressions of vulgar cordiality.

Or:

Would not every dog-brother of them be better at home, working his serfage peaceably for his land? What fault is it of ours if God has made us nobles and them trash, and commanded them to obey? Tfu! I am beside myself with rage. I am a mild-mannered man, soft as a plaster; but let them not rouse me to anger! They have had too much freedom, too much bread; they have multiplied like mice in a barn; and now they are dying to get at the cats. Ah, wait! There is one cat here called Yeremi, and another called Zagloba.

I have not started on the misogyny. I don’t think I will. I don’t know enough to argue that Sienkiewicz necessarily agreed with all of these views expressed through the mouths of characters and sympathetic narration. But the overwhelming feeling is their promotion, alongside a fierce nationalism tied to land and a certain kind of honour. Written, as well, in a period where Poland as a country did not officially exist.

So many of the better parts of the book engage in lyrical descriptions embodying a love of land, of crops, of wildlife. An understanding of seasons. A desire to create a peaceful land of fertility and beauty. This is partly what it shares in common with The Issa Valley, maybe why I kept reading. It could also be just the absurd knightly adventures with swords and romance.

9780349123318-uk-300Milosz’s memoir of the Issa Valley is lyrical, lovely, haunted. Its rural community remains divided, separate and ranked along the same lines established by the Commonwealth. A Polish ruling class still sits in position over Lithuanian ‘peasants’ (though Sienkiewicz’s account numbers a Lithuanian knight amongst the heroes. A man capable of cutting off three heads at once and splitting people down the middle a-la Song of Roland).

I found this about Czeslaw Milosz — In Memoriam, from the University of California, Berkeley:

Czesław Miłosz (d. 14 August 2004), Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the University of California, Berkeley’s only Nobel Prize winner from the Division of Arts and Humanities, was witness to much that was central to the history of the twentieth century. He was born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie/Šateiniai, a small town in rural Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Aleksander and Weronika (née Kunat), were members of the long polonized lesser Lithuanian nobility. Miłosz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance—not Polish enough for some, certainly not Lithuanian to others—would give rise to controversies about him that have not ceased with his death in either country.

Again there is a narrative of colonization, of civilization of empty wilderness (but without the swords and scythes and impalings):

Starting in the sixteenth century, the Issa Valley had been colonized by settlers lured there by the Princes Radziwill, and the Bukowskis had come from the Kingdom of Poland in their covered wagons, through forests, across fords and uncharted wilderness, before reaching their destination in the virgin forests of Lithuania. Many fell on distant fields of battle — in the wars against the Swedes, the Turks, and the Russians. (92)

Covered wagons and virgin forests almost left me speechless, confused about the parallels with, or borrowings of, US mythologies. Again there is a constant divide between Polish (Polonized?) nobility and Lithuanian peasantry:

Masiulis, the wizard, sat with his back against the farmhouse wall, smoking his pipe. They were not on the best of terms. The magician laid claim to as much land as Romuald, but he was a peasant — a Lithuanian peasant. (93)

Or

But no Bukowski had ever married a peasant. (172)

Though this Bukowski did in fact end up marrying the peasant.

Thomas, the young boy of the story, comes of age and grows into the immensity of the distance between himself and the peasants who surround him, despite his love of the land, his knowledge of the harvest, threshing, hunting, fishing. He is increasingly separate, which he feels with sadness and longing and his family bolster with pride and constant vigilance. The book opens with pages of factual moving to lyrical description of the place, love and memory constantly well up through every phrase throughout the whole of the novel:

I should begin with the Land of Lakes…This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north. The soil is sandy and rocky and suitable only for growing potatoes, rue, oats and flax. This explains why such care was taken not to spoil the forests, which helped to soften the climate and offered protection against the Baltic winds. The forests are [predominantly of pine and spruce, though birch, oak, and hornbeam are also in abundance… (1)

This continues to be a world where everyone has their scythe. This continues to be a world of peasant uprising and violence — a grenade is thrown through the mansion’s window. It fails to explode, and comes to rest under Thomas’s bed. This is the time of land reform — resented by the narrator’s family who use money and corruption to try to preserve their lands. The Deluge is remembered in the form of The Swedish Mounds, great earthworks from the 17th century battles.

I am a third of the way through Vol. 1 of Sienkiewicz’s second volume The Deluge, though I am a little at a loss as to quite why…

The other thing the two books share in common is the uncanny, which I quite love. An example or two from Milosz:

The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils. (3)

And this brilliant thing that recalls another aspect of history:

…he was visited by a monster. Shatybelko described it as a sort of bumpy log that moved sideways, level with the ground, and which was mounted with three heads — all with Tartar features, he said — baring their teeth in hideous grimaces. (41)

With Fire and Sword, however, has Horpyna. A beautiful giantess dressed as a man and valiant, who shows promise of great supernatural powers.

I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. ‘A vaunt! disappear!’ and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.”

“Are there so many vampires in Wallachia, father?”

“Every other Wallachian after death becomes a vampire, and the Wallachian vampires are the worst of all. They call them brukolaki.”

“And who is stronger, father,–the werewolf or the vampire?”

“The werewolf is stronger, but the vampire is more stubborn. If you are able to get the upper hand of the werewolf, he will serve you, but vampires are good for nothing except to follow blood. The werewolf is always ataman over the vampires.”

“And Horpyna commands the werewolves?”

“Yes, surely. As long as she lives she will command them. If she had not power over them, then the ataman would not give her his cuckoo, for werewolves thirst for maiden’s blood above all.”

Vampires! Werewolves! Still:

The giantess herself who guards the princess is a powerful witch, intimate with devils who may warn her against us. I have, it is true, a bullet, which I moulded on consecrated wheat, for a common one would not take her; but besides there are probably whole regiments of vampires who guard the entrance.

I was so hoping for a supernatural turn and a novel all about Horpyna, yet these are left only as stories. Still, I greatly desire a visit to Wallachia, part of Romania.

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Fredrika Bremer: Sketches of Sweden and its Aristocracy

Fredrika BremerFredrika Bremer (1801 – 1865) was a Swedish writer and feminist reformer. Wikipedia (which I was forced to turn to as the 1844 introduction to the book spoke only of translation, not the author herself) states she is she is regarded as ‘the Swedish Jane Austen’ and further that ‘her novel Hertha prompted a social movement that granted all Swedish women legal majority at the age of 25 and established Högre Lärarinneseminariet, Sweden’s first female tertiary school.’ Also that in ‘1884, she became the namesake of the Fredrika Bremer Association, the first women’s rights organization in Sweden.’

Worth a read, then.

Fredrika Bremer -- New Sketches of Everyday LifeNew sketches of every-day life: a diary as translated by her contemporary Mary Howitt (released in 1844 in its English edition)  is widely available for free, which is why it is the book I have read. It is quite an enjoyable romance, complete with women’s rights and corruption in the regiments bringing ruin onto ‘good’ families and evil old rakes, and I enjoyed the form of diary entries. While I hate that people call her the Swedish Jane Austen (and she is far more romantically and grandly melodramatic), yet there is quite a similarity in morals and manners along with a sprightly heroine. I suppose this isn’t surprising given how interwoven European monarchies were, and the centrality of French culture. But how curious that apart from a host of references particular to Sweden and descriptions of scenery, I should never have guessed this did not take place in England or France.

Felix in the mean time is better, but his health appeared deranged by the irregular life which he has led. He recovers slowly. Lennartson endeavours to animate his mind, and to cheer his spirits. He often spends the evenings in reading Sir Walter Scott’s romances to him. (250)

Does Scott explain everything?

I am reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters on Sweden at the same time, which is fascinating. Bremer actually shares more with her, I think, both in terms of judgments laid upon polite society, as well as the exclamatory sentimentality afforded to emotions, especially those raised in relation to love, friendship and scenery.

I am leaving for Sweden today! Hurrah!

I am not above exclamation points myself. I have been reading much in preparation, as I enjoy, so there shall be a slew of Swedishness upcoming. But back to Bremer.

On Women

Women and the romanticism of their connections to nature, and much on the constraints of society (though quite a bit on its joys as well):

…I was a violent child, and in my whole being the opposite of the lovely and the agreeable, which my stepmother so highly valued, and of which she unceasingly spoke in quotations from the romances of Madame Genlis. I was compared with the enchantresses in these romances, and set down in proportion. In one word my stepmother could not rightly endure me, and I could not endure—Madame Genlis and her graces, who occasioned me so much torment. Ah! the sunburnt, wild girl grown up in the ‘moors’ of Finland, whose life had passed in woods and heaths, among rocks and streams, and amid dreams as wild and wonderful as the natural scenery amongst which she grew; this girl was in truth no being for the salon, for a French Grace. Transplanted from the fresh wilderness of her childhood into the magnificent capital, where huge mirrors on every side reflected every movement, and seemed scornfully to mimic every free outbreak which was not stamped by grace,—she was afraid, afraid of herself, afraid of everybody, and especially of the goddess of the palace. The governess and the servants called me ‘the Tartar-girl, ‘ ‘the young Tartar.’ (18-19)

I like how she describes two periods in relation to her step-mother, the ‘period of my adulation’, from 11-15 and the ‘epoch of opposition’  during her later teens. The ‘diary’ starts with her having returned after an unnamed disappointment at the age of 30. She is admired:

My stepmother said I was exactly at the handsome, ‘modern age,’ for a charming woman; in one word, ‘la femme la trente ans, la femme de Balsac;’  (26)

There are remarks throughout praising kindness, simplicity and virtue, and noting its absence in many women of society:

The Baroness Bella B., the Beauty, and Helfrid O Rittersvard, paid us a visit. Afterwards, Ake Sparrskold, Felix, and others. ‘The Beauty’ expatiated (quite mal-a-prapos, methinks) on the unhappiness and disagreeableness of ugliness. She pities ‘from her heart, plain people;’ but they must at least know that they are plain, and must stop nicely at home, and not exhibit themselves out in the world, and in society, where they can awaken only disagreeable feelings. I was provoked at this speech (93)

Thus it is, that the meoldrama emerges from ugliness underneath — what she likens to a volcano more than once:

Among all these dissipations, which reign in the house; amid all those beautiful toilets and artificial flowers, and all these so-called pleasures, still strange symptoms break forth, which testify of the volcanic soil upon which they dance. (142)

Hers remains a terribly romanticised vision of women’s place, and the happiness they may attain.

I now know very well that I never can love Felix properly, because I cannot highly esteem him, as I will and must highly esteem my husband; but”
“But what, my sweet Selma?”
“If I can make him and others happy, then—neither shall I myself be unhappy. And then—God will give me, perhaps, a child, which I can love, and in which I can have pleasure in the world.”
“With this Selma wept quite softly, leaning on my shoulder. (141)

But not all of them…there is another kind of life possible for women, one more of the mind and culture. There is a desire independence here, though clearly it requires independence of money and position:

I like Brenner greatly; but not so much as I love my own independence, the peace of my soul, and the prospect of a peaceful and care-free future. I will be his friend, but no more. I dread marriage; I dread that compulsion, that dark deep suffering, which the power of one being over another so often exhibits. I have seen so much of it. (191)

Thus class and gender intersect, though Bremer would claim all the suffering for the wealthy even as she acknowledges the poverty around her — though this is one of the very few places she does so:

On the long ill-built street, I saw a herd of ragged, pale children, old women and aged men, living pictures of sickness, of poverty, and age; and I contemplated misery in all gradations of human life—in all its weeping shadows. And amid all these shadow-figures there yet probably was not one who would have exchanged his lot with mine, if he could have seen into my heart. Ah! the severest kind of-wretchedness is not that which exhibits its rags in the streets, and at night conceals itself in great deserted buildings — it is that which smiles in polite companies, which shews to the world a joyful exterior whilst sorrow gnaws its heart. (222)

Fredrika Bremer is herself of this wealthy class, of course.

fredrika bremer

On the Country

I love these descriptions of nature, and pearls! Who knew these could be found there…

On the shore where I was born, on the alder- fringed streams of Kautua, I often went, as a child, pearl-fishing, when the heat of the sun had abated the rigour of the water. I fancy still that the clear cool waves wash my feet; I fancy still that I see the pearl muscles [sic mussels they must be] which the waterfall had thrown together in heaps in the sand of the little green islands. Whole heaps of these muscles I collected together on the shore, and if I found one pearl among them what joy! (23)

On Stockholm

We dwelt upon the Blasieholm, exactly upon the limits of the fields planted with trees, where the Delagarde Palace, with its towers, had elevated itself for centuries, and had been burnt down in one night. I look out from my window, and see and hear the roaring of the broad stream which separates the city from Norrmalm, and on whose shores have been fought so many bloody battles; on the haven, the bridge of boats, the royal castle, with the Lion Hill; the river promenade, further on, beneath the north-bridge; and on the other side of the island of the Holy Ghost, the blue water of the Malar, and the southern mountains. From among the masses of houses upon the different islands, raise themselves the bold spires of the church-towers. To the left I have that of St. Catharine; to the right, that of St. James; and further off, the royal gardens, with their rich alleys, and I should never come to an end, were I to name all that I have and govern—from my window. And in my chamber, I have my pencils, my books, and myself. (29)

The older sections:

…over the bridge and through the streets into the city. There are the oldest memories of Stockholm; here is the heart of the Stockholm city, which also has the form of a heart; here flowed the blood of the nobles of Sweden in streams from the hand of Christiern; here the streets are narrow, the lanes dark; but here also is the Castle of Stockholm; and here lift themselves even now, a mass of houses, which shew by their inscriptions cut in stone, the strong fear of God which built up in ancient times the realm of Sweden. (169)

And this, on what a city, particularly a capital city of a hierarchical and cultured society, should be:

Once saw I a chief-city without any towers, with- out any one building exceeding in beauty and size the rest; all were equal, and people said, ‘see here the image of a true social community.’

But no! thus appears it not. When a people come to the consciousness of its full life, its cities and its buildings will testify of it: there must the flaming spires of the temples ascend to the sky; there must columns of honour stand in memorial of great men; there must magnificent palaces (not private ones!) express the sense of greatness in a noble public spirit; there must the beautiful express in manifold forms the good in the life of the state. (89-90)

On the pageantry of the aristocracy’s life

This is ongoing — glittering balls in glittering palaces and a parade of notables in beautiful dresses.

I confess, I love the dresses.

She makes much of the sledges, and I could almost wish we were going at a time when we could have done something similar

Felix wished to drive Selma, and St. Orme invited Flora to his sledge. This was to be covered with tiger-skins, and would be drawn by fiery piebalds, which Flora had seen, and found much to her liking. This sledge was to lead the procession, which was to drive through the principal streets of the city to the park, where they were to dine, and after that were to dance, and so on. (74)

There is more:

Yet is it a purely-northern enjoyment, which a purely northern life has—such a pleasure-excursion as this in the clear winter air, under the bright blue heaven, upon the snow-white earth! They fly away so gaily and lightly,—the open ones covered with skins and with white nets, which flutter over fiery, foaming horses, they fly along so fleetly to the play of the jingling bells. And it feels so irresistibly pleasant thus to drive away over the earth in a train of joyous people, and by the side of a friend who participates in every feeling, every impression. (195)

On even the Swedish benefiting from the ‘adventure’ of colonialism

I think this means Brenner joined the French Foreign Legion, and helped conquer Algeria…and this saved him.

at the time when France made war on the States of Barbary. Lennartson managed so with Brenner’s connexions that he should take part in this campaign, and fitted him out at his own expense, though at that time he was anything but rich. Lennartson, in his plan, had rightly judged of his friend, and accomplished his salvation.

With strong natures there is only one step between despair and heroism. With a lock of Lennartson’s hair upon his breast, and his image deeply stamped upon his soul, the young Brenner plunged forward upon a path on which dangers of every kind called him forth to combat. To him, there was more than the conquering of people and kingdoms; to him, there was the winning again of honour; the winning again the esteem of himself, of his friends, and of his fatherland. And with the most joyful mad-bravery, he ventured his life for that purpose. The young Swede divided dangers and laurels with the Frenchmen. And upon the wild sea waves, in battle before the walls of Algiers, in combats with Arabs and Kabyles on the soil of Africa, the French learned highly to esteem a bravery equal to their own (a greater is impossible), and to love a humanity towards vanquished foes, with which they are not so well acquainted.

Afterwards, Brenner accompanied some French learned men on their dangerous journey into the interior of Africa. (67)

I am bewildered at the gap by what she imagines his travels in Algeria and Africa to have been, and the harsh reality of conquest as they actually were. Small wonder he rarely spoke of them:

Many times I request that he should call forth some remembrances out of his restless life, pictures of another climate, of seas and wildernesses, of glowing Africa and strange Egypt; scenes from the battle-fields around Atlas. It is rare that he will relate anything of this; but how curiously and desiringly do I not then listen! These pictures are so grand, and, I acknowledge, something grand also in the nature which has conceived them. (134)

This anecdote serves as such a brilliant metaphor for Europe’s colonial legacy:

Brenner now related— “It was in Egypt, near to Thebes. I rambled one  morning out into the surrounding desert to hunt, and happened to see a vulture sitting not far from me, among the ruins of fallen monuments. This bird is known for its strong power of life, and is dangerous to approach when it is wounded; it has a strength almost incredible. I shot at him, and hit him on the breast, and as I believed mortally. He remained however sitting quietly in his place, and I rushed to him that I might complete my work, but in that same moment the bird raised itself, and mounted upwards. Blood streamed from his breast, and a part of his entrails fell out, but notwithstanding this he continued to ascend still higher and higher, in wider and wider circles. A few shots which I fired after him produced no effect. It was beautiful, in the vast silent wilderness to see this bird, mortally wounded and dyeing the sand with his blood, silently circling upon his monstrous wings higher and ever higher; the last circuit which he made was unquestionably a quarter of a mile in extent; then I lost sight of him in the blue space of heaven.” (272-273)

While the company are impressed with such a strange story, it somehow causes them to think even better of Bremer. How better to explain colonialism and orientalism — the European admires great strength and beauty, shoots it, and then admires it still more as it struggles through its death throes.

For a final hilarious, and slightly ill-judged sentence:

Even the larva of suffering can receive wings, can fly in the night, and be lighted by its stars, and bathe in its dew. (233)

Perhaps it suffers in translation. The whole introduction sheds an interesting light on the ongoing problems of translations not rceieving enough pay, not being credited, of being stolen and violently edited down and released in cheap editions that can never earn enough royalties to pay for the translator’s time — if indeed there were ever an intention of paying for it.  Some things never change, this is from Mary Howitt the translator:

And what have we got instead, from this advocate of public good? An importation and reprint of anonymous abridgments of these works, got up and curtailed, both in style and quantity, into the limits suited to the American cheap market, and abounding with Americanisms, which all well-educated persons will be careful not to introduce into their families; as “she is a going”—” vanity belittles a woman”—”sleighs, and sleds, and sleighing,” for sledges and sledging—”surroundings,” for environs; with such Yankee slang as “he got mad in love, and she gave him the bag,” etc.; as any one may convince himself who looks into these eye-destroying small prints. (vii)
— Mary Howitt, 1843, The Grange, Upper Clapton

[Bremer, Fredrika (1844) New sketches of every-day life: a diary. Vol. 1 Tr. [from the Swedish] by Mary Howitt. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans]

 

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Les Blancs: Lorraine Hansberry at the National Theatre

Les Blancs/ The Whites, by Lorraine Hansberry
Final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff
Directed by Yaël Farber
National Theatre, opened 30 March, 2016

This was amazingly raw and powerful as a production. At some point in life I made a shift from someone who never cried ever to someone who cries all the damn time, still, the ending of this wrung more tears from me than any other play I have seen I think. The audience applauded and stood and applauded some more and I sat there and cried.

Les Blancs, National Theatre

I don’t know if it’s possible to hate colonialism more than I already did, but this rounded it out a little, gave it a little more depth.

There was much to love in here, Hansberry herself thought it the most powerful of her plays. It demolishes liberal white hopes and expectations that if the past might just be erased and started all over again, people can just be friends. The violence can just stop. Things can just carry on as they are and people content themselves with gradual improvements achieved through democratic forms. Through responses to the character of the American journalist it exposes how all of these ideas break down in the face of a violent and murderous reality — and I love that people get to tell him what they think of him. Refuse his questions, his attempts to create an immediate intimacy, his mixture of motives that he thinks of as well-meaning.

One of my favourite moments was his explanation of his quest, the time he and his friends from Twin Forks Junction Nebraska had gone to see Black people for the first time, a troop of soldiers. His anger and despair that though he had gone to see them, none of them had returned his gaze, acknowledged him, seen him. The whole of his life an effort to be seen by the other.

Tshembe makes the journalist call him Mr Makoseh. His own bitterness in the futility of struggle, attempted escape to London and a European wife and a child only to be dragged back through the death of his father into the middle of the rebellion. His confrontation with his friends, his half-brother, his full brother now become a priest and betrayer.

The white doctor who knows that everything he has done has been in service to colonialism and genocide. So he drinks.

The Major George Rice, who tortures and kills to protect white women and children, and the land he considers his home. The land he loves, and sees as beautiful. The land he and most other white settlers own and do not see as stolen. Their utter inability to see any validity in the contestation of their rights, any humanity in those they oppress.

The old woman who knew her missionary husband had many good qualities, but his deep racism caused the death of her best friend, raped by a white man and bearing what the man of god considered an abomination.

The troubled self-medicating son who is tortured by his identity.

They are all so powerful. As was the staging, the simple wood construction of the mission and the dust upon the floor.

Les Blancs Book 1I need to read it, because while absolutely caught up in the thing while watching it, thinking about it after I remembered the few twinges I had, the questions.

So many of the insights are spoken by whites, I imagine this was purposeful, to better allow white audiences to actually hear them, process them. I think this is carefully crafted to provoke an ongoing internal critique of people’s own racism with all of its assumptions as well as an external discussion of colonialism, and I appreciated that craft.

Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre. Directed by Yael Farber. (Opening 30-03-16) ©Tristram Kenton 03/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre.
©Tristram Kenton 03/16
tristram@tristramkenton.com

Yet it is a slightly disturbing fact that Black women have no real voice in the production. They are symbolized by the servant constantly carrying and endlessly sweeping — she never really comes alive to us though her husband finally does. So there is the servants and a gaunt figure who presides over scene after scene. From our position far far away in the back I imagined her as skeletal, a product of hunger and never-ending labour. I see pictures of her as she would have been seen from the expensive seats and she is more a model. She is supposed to represent Africa, to haunt Tshembe. But she does not speak.

Also interesting, as we talked about it later, was the centering of the mission within the ring of stones and the darkness surrounding it — this is where the Africans live, where they emerge from and go back to. They are mostly impassive, unreadable — all the characteristics of the orientalized figure. They too rarely speak. It was hard to tell if this was more pronounced because of how it had been staged and directed, or the way it was written.

So there seemed much also problematic and with clear limitations, but it remains a powerful view into the lived experience of struggle over colonial Africa.

For more on race and empire…

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Language and Violence — The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault InvestigationI quite loved The Meursault Investigation, an evocative and angry wrenching away of anonymity from those murdered under colonial rule. A stinging refusal to allow the focus to remain on the problems and tragedies of the murderer to search them out instead in the man murdered, the hole he left behind, the impact of those who we were close to him. The very power of Camus’s words rendered the violence he inflicted on the stranger all the greater.

It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name…So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you…(7)

The Meursault Investigation is about how we understand things, how we construct naratives around events. How European narratives erase non-whites, push them into the background, into the scenery, into simple provocations or plot twists that facilitate the drama experienced by white males.

The way counter-narratives must be constructed.

Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud. (21)

There is so much here about language, the differences between Arabic and French, the limitations and liberations of each. In this it shares space with Assia Djebar, though from such different perspectives I love how they each grapple with the same questions.

Language and the construction of narrative.

For a long time, not a year passed without my mother swearing she’d found Musa’s body, heard his breathing or his footstep…And for a long time, that would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her–and later, it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me. Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in… I had to learn a language other than that one. To survive…Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words. (37)

She tells and retells, invents and reinvents narratives around his brother — they are so strong they smother him, contain him so that he cannot be himself, must always live in his brother’s shadow. One aspect of the violence of language, brought to life through loss and longing and obsession.

This explores another violence that can be found in words, in silences, in storytelling:

But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. (46)

A violence possible only through the construction of other, through conquest. What the colonised share in common around the world conquered by whites:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,”… (60)

These strangers for the narrator are the Meursaults, the numberless faceless figures of occupation and oppression.

And reminiscent of Fanon, there is yet another kind of violence, what could be a redemptive violence:

On that hot night, nothing had suggested that a murder was about to happen. You’re asking me what I felt afterward? Huge relief. A kind of worthiness, but without honor. Something deep inside me sat down, curled up into a ball, took its head in its hands, and sighed so profoundly that I was touched and tears sprang to my eyes. Then I raised them and looked around me. Again I was surprised by the extent of the courtyard where I had just executed an unknown person. It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night. When my heart regained its place, all other objects did the same. (78)

But it is not that simple of course, just as the competing narratives, the claims on identity, the nature of family, the complexes existing between a man and his mother, nothing is simple.

Well, after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. (90)

After the murder he is imprisoned, will possibly be executed through the new state’s state-sanctioned violence for killing outside of the liberation struggle he is despised for not having joined.

Algeria lives in a different way in this story, Algiers both concrete and abstracted:

…but I loved the virile, almost comforting roar of the engine that was snatching us, my mother and me, out of an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs. For the two of us, the city would always be the scene of the crime, or the place where something pure and ancient was lost. (21)

Funny the way that this is specific and yet non-specific, belonging to a national and urban geography, yet individuals have been erased from them.

…there’s no point inn your going to the cemetery, or to Bab-el-Oued, or to the beach. You won’t find anything… This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond.

Don’t do any geographical searching — that’s the point I’m trying to make. (57)

There is much more to The Meursault Investigation, more on language and identity, sexuality and relationships, nation and colonialism and struggle. Much of it is not at all subtle. A book that repays rereading I imagine, a good book for teaching. At the same time it has an intellectual feel, an abstracted feel not entirely due to the form of tales told a researcher in a bar. I am not quite sure why, in some ways the violence is as abstract as it is for Camus, as removed. It does not have the emotional power of Djebar’s Algerian White, cannot touch Mouloud Feraoun’s recollections before his assassination, or even the more rigorous incandescence of Fanon.

[Daoud, Kamel. 2015. The Meursault Investigation. London: Oneworld Publications.]

 

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Artists and Empire at the Tate

Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:

At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.

This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:

In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.

A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.

So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:

painting1‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.

So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.

But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):

f570898501aecc7d8c8d30de3ebde0c9
Gill, c 1945

They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)

I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.

largeA picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.

Sir_john_hawkins_early_arms_colour

2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of  these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.

In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.

Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West
Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West

The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765
George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765

3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.

Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
General Gordon's Last Stand - George William Joy
General Gordon’s Last Stand – George William Joy

There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.

'The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis', 1792.
‘The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis’, 1792. Oil on canvas by Robert Home (1752-1834), c1793

Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.

4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.

5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.

victoria
Yoruba artist, Nigeria, Figure of Queen Victoria, c.1898, Wood.

I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.

6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire

Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.

One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).

artistandempire2511a3

I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.

Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.

I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.

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Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

For more on race and empire…

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Walter Rodney on Europe and Africa

Walter RodneyI like it when classic texts blow you away. Walter Rodney had some of the same impact as Fanon or C.L.R. James, all of them writing from a Afro-Carribean perspective. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1942, Walter Rodney’s parents were part of the People’s Progressive Party, a Marxist and multiracial group… I imagine they were proud of their son. In 1963 he won a scholarship to SOAS, and became part of the group around C.L.R. James (ah, can you imagine how awesome that must have been?). Rodney taught in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then in Jamaica until he was expelled for his politics. He traveled, but moved back to Guyana in 1974 where he worked for the positive transformation of his country, helping to centralise the Working people’s Alliance in the face of intense oppression, beatings, torture and assassinations. On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney’s car exploded, bombed, his voice silenced.

He built connections all over the world, but this book was introduced and edited by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill, and Bill Strickland of the Institute of the Black World based in Atlanta. These connections in struggle inspire… from the Caribbean to the U.S., Africa to Europe. They are not just oppressions — more and more I see that to fully understand the functioning of racism in one place, you must understand the others, go back to the source and the ways that Imperialism has connected them all over time and space. The way it has connected us. Harding, Hill and Strickland write:

Without rehearsing all the old political arguments about coalitions and alliances, neither forgetting the past nor being bound by it, we must find some way to respond to them and to allow them to come in touch with us. This is no passing luxury, in the old “race relations” style. Rather, we now realize that the children of the oppressed and the children of the oppressors are involved in a dialectical relationship that is deeper than most of us choose to recognize, and that there is no fundamental development for one without the other. (xxiii)

This is Rodney’s fundamental insight in this book as well — that Africa and Europe are dialectically related, that the development of one is related directly to the undevelopment of the other, the wealth of one built on the exploitation of the other. What does that mean for the undoing of things? Hopefully we are better than it being just a case of chickens coming home to roost, though he does use that phrase. It would be nice if the poor and the working classes of all countries might benefit from rearrangements.

Here is an exploration of his arguments under the chapter headings.

1: Some Questions on Development

There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities. Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. Above all, capitalism has intensified its own political contradictions in trying to subjugate nations and continents outside of Europe, so that workers and peasants in every part of the globe have become self-conscious and are determined to take their destiny into their own hands. (10)

Understanding underdevelopment:

At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one.

A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. (14)

And why might we mistake underdevelopment based on exploitation to anything else?

Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem either from prejudiced thinking or from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped economy. The true explanation lies in seeking out the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and in recognising that it is a relationship of exploitation. (22)

Always look to the relationships between things. Those relationships between Africa and Europe? Slavery, domination of trade, ownership of the means of production, foreign investment in the form of loans and interest:

The things which bring Africa into the capitalist market system are trade, colonial domination and capitalist investment… African economies are integrated into the very structure of the developed capitalist economies; and they are integrated in a manner that is unfavourable to Africa and ensures that Africa is dependent on the big capitalist countries. Indeed, structural dependence is one of the characteristics of underdevelopment. (25)

‘At the social and cultural level, there are many features which aid in keeping underdeveloped countries integrated into the capitalist system…’ (26) the church, language, music, the political system at first overtly through colonial rule and then through puppet governments

And perhaps the most important point in thinking about ‘underdeveloped’ countries today, across Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean:

Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context…If economic power is centred outside of national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centred outside… (27)

That seems so simple, yet most people working in development now fail to get it.

So, the nitty gritty of how this development on one side based upon the underdevelopment of the other worked — slavery almost makes it seem too obvious yet it is still so much ignored.

3: Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development — the Pre-Colonial Period & 4: Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment — to 1885

The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa. (75)

To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade. Strictly speaking, the African only became a slave when he reached a society where he worked as a slave. Before that, he was first a free man and then a captive. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to talk about the trade in slaves to refer to the shipment of captives from Africa to various other parts of the world where they were to live and work as the property of Europeans. The title of this section is deliberately chosen to call attention to the fact that the shipments were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else. (95)

The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women (96) … African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss. For instance, when the inhabitants of a given area were reduced below a certain number in an environment where tsetse fly was present, the remaining few had to abandon the area. In effect, enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature — a battle which is at the basis of development. (98)

The changeover to warlike activities and kidnapping must have affected all branches of economic activity, and agriculture in particular (99) … Therefore, there was what can be called ‘technological arrest’ or stagnation, and in some instances actual regression, since people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. … What Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance. (105)

Interesting note about land — and how it was never a commodity.

At no stage in the independent history of these interlacustrine states did land become purely a personal possession, to be monopolised by a given class, as in the classic European feudal model. Scholars frequently demand this feature before they concede that feudalism has arrived; (123)

What contact with Europe really meant for Africa:

It is clearly ridiculous to assert that contacts with Europe built or benefited Africa in the pre-colonial period. Nor does it represent reality to suggest (as President Leopold Senghor once did) that the slave trade swept Africa like a bush fire, leaving nothing standing. The truth is that a developing Africa went into slave trading and European commercial relations as into a gale-force wind, which shipwrecked a few societies, set many others off course, and generally slowed down the rate of advance. (135)

On the connections between capitalism and imperialism

To elucidate the main thesis of this study, it is necessary to follow not only the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa, but also to understand how those two combined in a single system — that of capitalist imperialism. (135)

The growing technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarise wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes.

European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting gain control over raw materials, markets and means of communications. They also fought to be the first to invest in new profitable undertakings related to their line of business — whether it be inside or outside their countries. Indeed, after the scope for expansion became limited inside of their national economies, their main attention was turned to those countries whose economies were less developed and who would therefore offer little or no opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism. That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late 19th century onwards is what we call ‘imperialism’.

Imperialism meant capitalist expansion. It meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment. The centuries of trade with Africa contributed greatly to that state of affairs where European capitalists were faced with the necessity to expand in a big way outside of their national economies. (136)

The development of arms and military technologies that allowed the complete conquest of the continent from the very resources of the continent itself:

Pre-colonial trade in slaves, ivory, gold, etc., was conducted from the coasts of Africa. On the coasts, European ships could dominate the scene, and if necessary forts could be built. Before the 19th century, Europe was incapable of penetrating the African continent, because the balance of force c their disposal was inadequate. But the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. (137)

5: Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe — the Colonial Period

There was a great expatriation of African surplus under colonialism. This was partly through European trading companies, but

Channels for the exploitation of surplus were not exhausted by the trading companies and the industrial concerns. The shipping companies constituted an exploitative channel that cannot be overlooked. The largest shipping companies were those under the flags of the colonising nations, especially the British. The shippers were virtually a law unto themselves, (161)

In the background of the colonial scene hovered the banks, insurance companies, maritime underwriters and other financial houses. One can say ‘in the background’ because the peasant never dealt directly with such institutions, and was generally ignorant of their exploiting functions (162)

The seizure of land also created a labour force — Walter Rodney doesn’t make the connection to its similarities to the pillaging of the commons back in England as explored by Linebaugh and Rediker, but I couldn’t get away from it.

When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive.(165)

And then there was always force.

Finally, when all else failed, colonial powers resorted widely to the physical coercion of labour – backed up of course by legal sanctions, since anything which the colonial government chose to do was ‘legal’. The laws and by-laws which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash-crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state, although they are not normally considered under the heading of ‘forced labour’.

The simplest form of forced labour was that which colonial governments exacted to carry out ‘public works’. Labour for a given number of days per year had to be given free for these ‘public works’ – building castles for governors, prisons for Africans, barracks for troops, and bungalows for colonial officials. A great deal of this forced labour went into the construction of roads, railways and ports to provide the infrastructure for private capitalist investment and to facilitate the export of cash-crops. Taking only one example from the British colony of Sierra Leone, one finds that the railway which started at the end of the 19th century required forced labour from thousands of peasants driven from the villages. (166)

Fucking hell you say.

I bet it was hell.

It wasn’t just about money though, it was about technology and innovation. Seems like academics are still ‘discovering’ this, yet here’s Rodney laying it all out there decades ago.

But, Africa’s contribution to European capitalism was far greater than mere monetary returns. The colonial system permitted the rapid development of technology and skills within the metropolitan sectors of imperialism. It also allowed for the elaboration of the modern organisational techniques of the capitalist firm and of imperialism as a whole. Indeed, colonialism gave capitalism an added lease of life and prolonged its existence in Western Europe, which had been the cradle of capitalism. (173)

Then, of course, the US began expanding its influence, particularly after WWII while Europe lay in ruins. Another key point of Rodney’s is that imperialism does not require the same relationship as colonialism:

Colonialism was based on alien political rule and was restricted to some parts of the world. Imperialism, however, underlay all colonies, extended all over the world (except where replaced by Socialist revolutions), and it allowed the participation of all capitalist nations. Therefore, lack of colonies on the part of any capitalist nation was not a barrier to enjoying the fruits of exploiting the colonial and semi-colonial world, which was the backyard of metropolitan capitalism. (189)

More ways that colonialism was vital to the survival of capitalism, and more of what the colonial relationship actually stripped from Africa to give to Europe:

Over the last few decades of colonialism, colonial possessions served capitalism as a safety-valve in time of crisis. The first major occasion when this was displayed was during the great economic depression of 1929-34. During that period, forced labour was increased in Africa and the prices paid to Africans for their crops were reduced. Workers were paid less and imported goods cost a great deal more. That was a time when workers in the metropolitan countries also suffered terribly; but the colonialists did the best they could to transfer the burdens of the depression away from Europe and on to the colonies. (195)

The second major occasion on which the colonies had to bail out the metropoles was during the last World War. As noted earlier, the African people were required to make huge sacrifices and to supply vital raw materials at little cost to the metropoles. (195-196)

6: Colonialism as a System for Underdeveloping Africa

I love how he devastates that whole ‘pro and con’ argument over colonialism that I have heard so many damn times…and I am still meeting people who think there are more pros:

However, they would then urge that another issue to be resolved is how much Europeans did for Africans, and that it is necessary to draw up a ‘balance sheet of colonialism’. On that balance sheet, they place both the ‘credits’ and the ‘debits’, and quite often conclude that the good outweighed the bad…It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand — it was a one-armed bandit. (205)

I have only copied the arguments here, not the many proofs offered by Rodney in the text. I’ll just give one as illustration, as if a long hard look at Africa over the past 60 years weren’t enough:

At the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilising ‘African natives’, the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in Eastern Angola was less than 30 years. (206)

There is so much more here on slavery, direct exploitation and forced labour, killing, rape, poverty, malnutrition, limited education through church (and mostly for manual labour), trains that led from industrial and natural resources to ports and nowhere else, shanty towns, absence of hospitals, the stripping of natural resources and the witholding of technology and expertise…

Part 2 will look more at the arguments around all of this and the development of racism, its connections to fascism and how both articulate with capitalism.

I had some critique, and it is less of Rodney and more of Marxist theory at the time he was writing —  particularly Marxist arguments on the evolution of societies, and the trajectory through feudalism to capitalism and on to socialism. Walter Rodney’s work is much more nuanced on this than many, because he is fucking smart and it is starting where people are, respecting their differences. I read it now in view of climate change and in face of a reality that our ‘advanced’ civilization is actually on the brink of destroying itself, and see there is quite a lot in here about the wealth of knowledge in African cultures about other ways of life that he notes, but still places broadly within this ‘improving’ trajectory. Just one example:

There was no single dam or aqueduct comparable to those in Asia or ancient Rome, but countless small streams were diverted and made to flow around hills, in a manner that indicated an awareness of the scientific principles governing the motion of water. In effect, the people of Zimbabwe had produced ‘hidrologists’, through their understanding of the material environment. (66)

These are things we should be learning from. But of course, for Rodney I think, damns and factories and mining and its technologies were still marks of progress. Left unexamined by him (but noted) is the terrible environmental costs of European extractions. Their cost born by the poorest people in the poorest countries, the wealth in exporting metals and precious stones as well as all the technology and development they enabled going to Europeans:

The mining that went on in Africa left holes in the ground, and the pattern of agricultural production left African soils impoverished; but, in Europe, agricultural and mineral imports built a massive industrial complex.(180)