Tag Archives: Albert Memmi

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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Albert Memmi on Racism

565510([1982] 1999) University of Minnesota Press
(Original review from 14 June, 2013)

A brilliant, short and deceptively simple exposition on the nature of racism and what anti-racist struggle should look like. It was written by Albert Memmi, a novelist and intellectual who participated in the Tunisian struggle for independence from France but was forced to leave his home country in 1956 after their victory, suspect due to his studies in France and his Jewish heritage. An outsider, neither Arab nor French, he yet remains committed to struggle and thus I think, to a reduction of complexity, a focus on essence and concrete ideas about how change can happen. This is a treasure really, and a book I wish I had read long ago, during my first attempt to look at race and racism intellectually rather than a few years down the line.

It makes me want to re-read everything in its light as there is so much I love about it but I worry about this very absence of complexity. But I think its structure is sound, and so much else I’ve read simply fills in details and particularities, gives it nuance and shading.

A common core to everything of course, is that racism is not based on any fundamental characteristics of the group discriminated against, it is not rational in that way, it is culturally constructed but it is a practical construction, and thus often contradictory. Memmi writes:

The thinkers and militants rely on logic and reasoning because they believe they are dealing with an opposing logic and reasoning. But racism is not simply of the order of reason; its real meaning does not reside in its apparent coherence. It is a discourse, at once both functional and naïve, that is called forth and maintained, in its essence and its goals, by something other that itself.

What is that other reason? ‘Whatever its little detours may be, ultimately, the goal of racism is dominance’. [55]

I like his distinction between his own line of thought and Marxism – recognising the great (and increasing) diversity in Marxist thinking

An objection that Marxism might raise, should perhaps be addressed. For most Marxists, the diversity of racism’s social advantages is a deception, in the strong sense of the term. “Man” is, essentially, an economic animal, driven principally by economic needs. The rest is diversion, ruse, and ideology. In these terms, racism is fundamentally an economic weapon. Racist discourse becomes an alibi disguising an interminable appropriation of natural resources and, more to the point, the “exploitation of man by man.” According to the familiar formula “economics is the ultimate motor of history.”

I am in partial agreement with the Marxists here. They are right to suspect that racism seeks another end, behind all its disparagements and attacks. I am quite convinced that there are usually two levels to a discourse — an explicit content and a hidden meaning. …

The Marxists are not wrong, either, in suspecting contemporary racism of economic motivation. …

My agreement with Marxists ends there. I think they are wrong to think that privilege always reduces itself to economic advantage–even as “ultimate determinant,” according to their customary expression. only [61] … Human reality is more complex; pne could not know for certain what unique factor governs all the rest, nor could one know even if such a thing exists. Human needs are multiple, even if they are not endlessly multiplied. Priorities are variable and fluid. The need for security or the need for love, is often as important as the need for nourishment. In short, one might adopt a racist stance for many different reasons, and not simply for calculable economic return — even though, for all, the mechanism whereby those gains are achieved may be the same. [62]

Thus Memmi demands that we always look for the work that racism does. This is one way it can work:

To exteriorize evil by incarnating it in another separates it from society and renders it less threatening. It can be manipulated, managed, destroyed by fire. The common denominator must be understood: fire purifies all, including ourselves … but only by burning the other. That is where it is most economical. [64]

And of course, one of its foundations: colonialism:

The boundary between colonization and premeditated murder is created and sustained by the needs of the colonizer. Without that, it reduces to death and genocide. For example, the first European settlers in the Americas decimated the Indians because they did not have a way of using them …

This is why, to understand any given form of racism, one must inquire into what benefit a particular racist group gains over the particular group they have picked as a target, as their prey. That is, beyond general mechanisms, what does the anti-Semite seek in anti-Semitism, the masculinist man through masculinism, the colonialist through colonization? And what is each of them looking for at any particular historical moment? [70]

This is the key social and structural foundation of racism. But Memmi also looks at how it works and functions on an individual level, and how this interacts with the larger collective feeling. He recognises within human beings an innate fear and distrust of difference, and sees racism as only one aspect of this larger heterophobia, one based on some kind of visible difference such as skin colour or something such as the shape of the nose. It is not intellectual, but lived, and he argues:

It is easier to contest an argument than an emotion; it is much easier to refute a discourse than an experience. That racism finds its genesis and its nourishment in ordinary experience should not be reassuring. On the contrary, its opacity and tenacity are enhanced by the banality of its sources. [22]

Thus, it is natural to notice difference, people then assign values to these differences, ‘Ultimately, one becomes racist only with the inclusion of the third point: the deployment of a difference to denigrate the other, to the end of gaining [37] privilege or benefit through stigmatization.’ This is a tricky point for me, this point of where exactly racism starts. This is where I need to think more about it. But it seems that this might be a good start towards being able to think through how difference works, and how differences can work together. We need to become a society that can thrive in difference, can celebrate it, while also eradicating racism. It reminded me of an essay by Stuart Hall contrasting the essentialisms of the 1960s and 70s struggles and Black Power, which really needed to embrace difference, yet through embracing difference have seemed to lose something of their strength and power for resistance against racism that we need to find and build in another way.

That is something that needs building collectively I think, but I like this line of initial thought:

In effect, the real stakes against racism, which must also inform anti-racism, do not concern difference itself but the use of difference as a weapon against its victim, to the advantage of the victimizer. [51]

At the end, after iteration and iteration, he comes to his clear definition of racism:

Racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the on subjected to that act of definition, whose purpose is to justify (social or physical) hostility and assault. [100]

He also manages to see this as a pyramid, not black and white but multicultural – he uses the phrase of ‘pyramid of tyrannies’ [106] where groups jostle for position always setting themselves above the group beneath them.

So in a nutshell slightly larger than the definition (the way this book always seems to circle around and expand upon the essences of the thing):

Though racism has some roots in a person’s emotional structure and sensibilities, its basic formulation is social. Racism is a cultural discourse that surrounds each person from childhood on, in the air one breathes, in parental advice and thinking, in one’s cultural rituals. One is exposed to it in school, in the streets and the newspapers, even in the writings of people one is supposed to admire and who might otherwise be admirable… [112]

Thus, racism is always both a discourse and an action; it is a discourse that prepares an action, and an action that legitimates itself through a discourse. [142]

Racism is a form of war. And there we glimpse its real face behind all of its shadowy disguises. Up to now, we have disregarded the innateness of agressivity. We can no longer afford to do that if we wish to look to the future. [144]

And even better, it contains some thinking of what must be done in a beautiful section so lacking in so many academic works — Practical lessons:

1. First and foremost, we must be conscious of racism, not just in others but in ourselves, individually and collectively. [146]
What is needed is an exercise of empathy, which means training ourselves in the difficult task of participating in the other. [147]

2. The struggle against racism requires a continual pedagogy, from infancy to death. [149]
Since the apprehension on real or imagined evil is one of the ingredients of aggressiveness, anything that diminishes fear will have a beneficial effect.

3. The core of all teaching is an individual relation to the student, even when the teaching occurs in large groups. But teaching must also address itself to the social, to the collective, and that is the role of politics. Politics is a collective form of behaviour in the name of certain values and in view of greater efficacy. [151]

The struggle against racism coincides, at least in part, with the struggle against all oppressions. There will always be the necessity for struggle. Racism is a perverted sentiment that is the result, the expression, and the matrix of real situations that must be changed if it is to be brought to an end. In order for racism to disappear, it will be necessary that the oppressed cease to be oppressed, that is, recognised as the convenient victim, as the incarnation of an image the [154] oppressor had invented. But it will also be necessary that the oppressor cease to be an oppressor, cease to require that others be under his thumb… [155]

The political fight must be planned around a separate analysis of each context. Who benefits from the arguments justifying racism? What privilege or act of aggression does it prepare for or conceal? Then, if we really want to get at racism, we must tackle this concrete relationship, this implicit or explicit oppression [182]

Is this how I understand politics? I’m not sure? But I think this is a good way to start looking at racism in any given society with an aim to eradicate it.

The final paragraph of this short book I found surprisingly provocative. It summarises much of what has come before, but is perhaps at Memmi’s most clear in terms of human nature and what we are really up against. He writes

How is one to struggle effectively against racism? Moral indignation and attempts at persuasion have shown themselves to be clearly insufficient. One must take full account of racism’s roots in fear, in financial insecurity, in economic avarice, which are in humans the sources of aggressivity and a tendency toward domination. One must struggle against such aggressions and dominations, and prevent them. It is racism that is natural and anti-racism that is not; anti-racism can only be something that is acquired, as all that is cultural is acquired, at the end of long and arduous struggles, which are never free from the possibility of being reversed. [196]

Is racism natural, anti-racism unnatural? I’ve been thinking about that, I’m still not sure of where I stand. But unquestionably, the way in which our society has developed and is structured, particularly in the United States which is where I grew up, and Britain where I live, racism is in the very air we breathe. But like Gilroy in his work on Post-Colonial Melancholia, I see great hope also – in London much more than anywhere I have lived. Just walking around the street you can see the lines of race breaking down in beautiful ways, the rise of a working class conviviality where mixed race couples almost seem to be the rule and so much daily life is shared. The splits are still there and racism is still there, but what I see makes me believe we can actually get past it in the future, a different world is possible. This seems a most organic thing the way it is happening, one that seems to show racism is perhaps not so natural a thing. But I wonder if it could be reversed, if one group could suddenly be rejected the way a new Tunisia rejected some of its freedom fighters…

This is a book to come back to more than once, I feel this is something of a jumble of thoughts that need a lot more going through, particularly in application. But I love that intellectually I can see where to apply them in my work, I can see how, and I can see that it will improve what I do…

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