Tag Archives: capitalism

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…

Save

Save

Reading Vandana Shiva for the first time

Vandana Shiva - Making Peace With the EarthVandana Shiva is pretty amazing. She makes a radical reframing of the environmental and social justice problems we face feel effortless. You can tell she’s been talking about this a while.

The struggle of a life.

The cover looks a little hippy of course, reading it on the train I imagine few people knew that the first chapter sub-title was something like ‘Eco-Apartheid as War’. I keep trying to give up my binaries, but the simplicity and clarity of this war is good for struggle, for knowing what you are fighting for:

There are two different paradigms for, and approaches to, the green economy. One is the corporate-centered green economy which means:

(a) Green Washing – one has just to look at the achievements of Shell and Chevron on how they are “green”

(b) Bringing nature into markets and the world of commodification. This includes privatisation of the earth’s resources, i.e., patenting seeds, biodiversity and life forms, and commodifying nature….(15)

Commodification and privatisation are based and promoted on the flawed belief that price equals value…

The second paradigm of the green economy is earth-centred and people-centred. the resources of the earth vital to life — biodiversity, water, air — are a commons for the common good for all, and a green economy is based on a recovery of the commons and the intrinsic value of the earth and all her species. (17)

I didn’t need the schooling on all the death-dealing and life-destroying actions of corporations in India to agree with that, but I did need to know more about what is actually happening — what other basis can we build solidarity in struggle upon? There is much here requiring tears and rage, and so much struggle to support and learn from. In these stories from India you can see that it is a war — that is often hidden from us here in the U.S., particularly those of us in cities already far removed from the earth and how we are killing it by siphoning off and centralising all of its resources.

Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free-market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.

Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The way against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and criminalisation of activists and movements. (21)

Through their struggle against this, they are blazing the way forward for all of us and we need to not just challenge any attempt to criminalise it, but support and learn from it.

One of the key things I think is this:

LAND IS LIFE. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the third world, and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy… Land, for most people in the world, is people’s identity, it is the ground of culture and economy. (30)

This attachment, love, need for land and home that goes far beyond sale price is something many academics (planners, capitalists) don’t understand. This is something I am so infuriated and also fascinated by — a little more than Shiva is. But of course competing understandings of land and value and their rootedness in histories and capitalism are needed to understand the present conflict and so they are here scattered through the book. Like this:

In India, land-grab is facilitated by a toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investment and commerce through neoliberal policies, and the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land… (30-31)

This fundamental fact that almost no one publishing articles and books and displacing people seems to understand at all:

Money cannot compensate for the alienation of land. (31)

It goes far back, this idea that land is to be used to generate wealth — this is an amazing quote from Puritan settler of North America John Winthrop:

Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (113)

That’s it in a nutshell really. Then there’s the East India Company, looking at land and its resources only for profit and conquest:

As Stebbing reported in 1805, a dispatch was received from the Court of Directors of the East India Company enquiring to what extent the King’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. Thus, the first real interest aroused in the forests of India originated from the colonial centre and the cause was the same as that which had kept forestry in the forefront of England through three centuries — the safety of the Empire, which depended upon its “wooden walls” — its supremacy at sea. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did so rapaciously… (116)

She looks at ideas of value, where they come from:

As the ‘trade’ metaphor has come to replace the metaphor of ‘home’, economic value itself has undergone a shift. Value, which means ‘worth’, is redefined as ‘exchange and trade’, so unless somethings is traded it has no economic value…The ‘trade’ metaphor has also rendered nature’s economy valueless; the marginalisation of both women’s work and nature’s work are linked to how ‘home’ is now perceived as a place where nothing of economic value is produced.

This shift in the understanding of economic value is central to the ecological crisis and is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term ‘resource’. ‘Resource’ originally implied life…With the advent of industrialization and colonialism, however, a conceptual break  occurred. ‘Natural resources’ became those elements of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.

The ways that this continues on into our worldview today:

Planners do not see our rivers as rivers of life, they see them as 20,000 megawatts of hydro-power. (92)

The ways this shifts everything:

World Bank loan conditionalities have many paradigm shifts built into them — the shift from “water for life” to “water for profits”; from “water democracy” to “water apartheid”; from “some for all” to “all for some”. (84)

The ways that this has shifted through the globalisation of capital and changing nature of corporations and profit-making is here as well, along with it’s impact on local and state sovereignty (things that most Americans never have to worry about, even as they are shifting these relationships around the world):

The Gopalpur steel plant is a product not of the “development” era, but of the globalisation era. Globalisation demands that local communities sacrifice their lives and livelihoods for corporate profit, development demanded that local communities give up their claim to resources and their sovereignty for national sovereignty. Globalisation demands that local communities and the country should both give up their sovereign rights for the benefit of global free trade. (40)

The companies making profits on land are very familiar:

Morgan Stanley purchased 40,000 ha. of farmland in Ukraine, and Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008. Blackrock has set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund, of which $30 million will acquire farmland. (157)

Their speculation in food is causing famine, and if you needed more than that, there’s a whole range of other evil and horrible things happening. There’s a whole lot I didn’t really know about GMOs about biofuels (instinctively you feel they must be better than oil, but think again).

At least 30 per cent of the global food price rise in 2008 was due to biofuels… (163)

On GMOs

the term ” high yielding varieties” is a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the new seeds, however, is that they are highly receptive to certain key inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation. Palmer therefore suggested the term “high responsive varieties” (HRV) be used instead. (141)

Genetic engineering has failed as a tool to control and has instead created super pests and super weeds, because it is based on a violence that ruptures the resilience and metabolism of the plant and introduces genes for producing or tolerating higher doses of toxins.  (148)

The peaceful coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops is a myth: environmental contamination via cross-pollination, which poses a serious threat to biodiversity, is unavoidable. (186)

On industrial production:

Overall, in energy terms, industrial agriculture is a negative energy system, using ten units of input to produce one unit of output. Industrial agriculture in the US uses 380 times more energy per ha. to produce rice than a traditional farm in the Philippines…(142)

On fertilisers, and the violence of industrial agriculture:

Fertilisers come from explosives factories. In recent years, in Oklahoma and Afghanistan, in Mumbai and Oslo, explosives factories were retooled to make fertiliser bombs. (148)

These are the fertilisers required to grow Monsanto’s crops, also required are pesticides. The violence there, apart from long terms damage to farmers and the planet and everything in the earth and water and air:

The pesticides which had created debt also became the source for ending indebted lives. Those who survive suicide in Punjab are dying of cancer. (149)

A farmer’s organisation presented information on 2,860 farmer suicides at public hearing on 8 September, 2006

All this when traditional and organic farming almost doubles the carbon sequestration efficiency, uses a tenth of the water. All this despite the reality that when we step outside the warped logics of capital, we know what’s what:

The solutions for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis are the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems. (154)

It is, as so many have explored, claimed, stated, based on diversity, interconnectedness, networks.

As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community: (a) living and non-living systems are all dynamically interconnected, with the consequence that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network; (b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death; (c) living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way. (190)

Above all this is a book of struggle, of movements fighting back and learning from them what needs to be part of this struggle:

An ecological and feminist agenda for trade needs to be evolved based on the ecological limits and social criteria that economic activity must adhere to, if it is to respect the environmental principle pf sustainability and the ethical principle of justice. This requires that the full ecological and social costs of economic activity and trade be made visible and taken into account. Globalisation that erases ecological and social costs is inconsistent with the need to minimise environmental destruction and human suffering. Localisation – based on stronger democratic decision-making at local levels, building up to national and global levels — is an imperative for conservation as well as democracy. (257)

It holds the voices of different groups asserting different kinds of knowledges and ways of being on the earth that we must now look to for the future:

We, the forest people of the world–living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forst land, roaming around with our herds — have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests and forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.
–Excerpt from the Declaration of Nation Forum for Forest people and Forest Workers (69)

The need for new structures

Self-rule of communities is the basis for indigenous self-determination, for sustainable agriculture, and for democratic pluralism. (27)

I do love how Vandana Shiva wraps it all up (something I always struggle with). I know things are always messy, but I think in a struggle like this this is the kind of clarity most useful:

Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we continue to obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings? The laws for maximising corporate profits are based on:

  1. Privatising the earth
  2. Enclosing the commons
  3. Externalising the costs of ecological destruction
  4. Creating corporate economies of death and destriction
  5. Destroying democracy
  6. Destroying cultural  diversity

The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:

  1. respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological processe
  2. Recovery of the commons
  3. Internalising ecological costs
  4. Creating living economies
  5. Creating living democracies
  6. Creating living cultures (264-265)

Save

Fritjof Capra: the hidden connections

Fritjof CapraIn this book I propose to extend the new understanding of life that has emerged from complexity theory to the social domain. To do so, I present a conceptual framework that integrates life’s biological , cognitive and social dimensions. My aim is not only to offer a unified view of life, mind and society, but also to develop a coherent, systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time. (xii)

I always worry about coherent systemic approaches to all things, just as I worry about the straightforward application of theories evolved through physical and life sciences to social science — they often throw up interesting things, as Emergence did, but still they remain problematic. Fritjof Capra does not escape my critique entirely, but his coherent, systematic approach is based upon an understanding of networks, of relationships between things being as fundamental as things themselves (how dialectical of him really, though there is not a ounce of dialectics otherwise), of constant change and never a full knowledge of the whole, of humility in scientific inquiry, of anti-capitalism in the sense that we must substitute new values for that of profit above all that exists now and has brought us almost to to the brink of destruction.

He is also rigorous and smart, and my critiques of the sections on social science are offset by my appreciation that he actually read and grappled with Manuel Castells’ three volumes on networks.

I also like that he tries to bring together the material and the social — the geographers are missing from his account, but I forgive him, as I too think this is key.

My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. this is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter…In the future, this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century — for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else — will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions — their material and social structures — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. (xv)

Clearly how we think about cities, housing, transportation, infrastructure and &c. are key to survival of ourselves as a species and the planet as we know it now. Of course, if we destroy ourselves, I have every confidence that life will continue to emerge and flourish. Life is pretty amazing.

The first section of this book is on life itself, with some thought-provoking concepts, like autopoiesis – ‘self-making’. Capra writes that on a cellular level, life is present where there is both physical boundary and a metabolic network. Living systems as autopoietic networks ‘means that the phenomenon of life has to be understood as a property of the system as a whole’. (9)

For a long while scientists thought genes fixed, determinative, this idea fitted so neatly into racist and classist and sexist ideas of place and station, our understandings of society. I love, love, how that has all been turned on its head, with little fixed at all:

A key insight of the new understanding of life has been that biological forms and functions are not simply determined by a genetic blueprint but are emergent properties of the entire epigenetic network. (10)

I love too, the idea of emergence, that things are created through a collective relationship, and often great than the whole:

This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life. It is technically known as self-organization and is often referred to simply as ’emergence’. (12)

He comes back to this, writing

The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops. (102)

He describes, for example, the crisis faced by quantum physicists in 1920s as their experiments and observations pushed the limits of our understandings of reality. It is something we know today, without being able to well conceive of what it must have felt like. Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book was this amazing quote from Werner Heisenberg, on the cost of emergence, and how it is in fact greater than any one man but emerges from collective work and thinking:

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? (103)

They did not stop the experiments but continued on, pushing against the certainties of our knowledge. Allowing that the world might be greater, wilder than we had ever imagined it. It is the findings of quantum physics, in some ways, that have opened up every other field. They have shown the world is not as we thought it was, that by the very act of studying it we enter into a relationship with it and thereby change or fix its behaviour.

In the very simplest of ways, biology reminds us that it is in the relationships between one thing and another that some of their properties are determined:

When carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms bond in a certain way to form sugar, the resulting compound has a sweet taste. The sweetness resides neither in the C, nor in the O, nor in the H, it resides in the patterns that emerges from their interaction. It is an emergent property. Moreover, strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds… (36)

He brings up Saussure here, as you would, the structuralist view that words obtain meaning only in relation to other words, to phrases. No Voloshinov though, to further complicate things with the ways that meanings are further contested.  Ah well.

I also like being reminded of the wonder and unimaginable timescale of our emergence.

memory became encoded in macromolecules, and ‘the membrane bounded chemical networks acquired all the essential characteristics of today’s bacterial cells. This major signpost in the origin of life established itself perhaps 3.8 billion years ago. (24)

So I suppose in the great scheme of things it is not so terrible that we have been stuck imagining things as static and fixed for some time, when in fact they are growing and learning.

The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realize that mind and consciousness are not things but processes. (29)

Being a social scientist (of a sort, I suppose), I found the sections on the social a little less interesting in terms of expanding my own thinking, but still quite interesting in thinking about how someone from the hard sciences approaches some of those topics we wrestle with. Power was the most interesting, so much has been written on power, Capra’s choices of definition and source are quite fascinating:

One of the most striking characteristics of social reality is the phenomenon of power. In the words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it…Power can be socially malign; it is also socially essential.’ The essential role of power in social organizations is linked to inevitable conflicts of interest. Because of our ability to affirm preferences and make choices accordingly, conflicts of interest will appear in any human community, and power is the means by which these conflicts are resolved. (76-77)

The origin of power, then, lies in culturally defined positions of authority on which the community relies for the resolution of conflicts and for decisions about how to act wisely and effectively. In other words, true authority consists in empowering others to act. (77)

That is an interesting definition, one with which many a social scientist might be happy to contest (or better said, complicate). No Foucault, no Lukes or Gaventa, no Guevara, no Agamben. There’s a key liberal in that list I am forgetting, but the list of people writing about power is in truth a very long one. Though few would deny the truth of this:

Thus, power plays a central role in the emergence of social structures. (78)

I like this boiling down of things to simple definitions. If only because I then want to complicate them anew.

Social systems produce nonmaterial as well as material structures. The processes that sustain a social network are processes of communication, which generate shared meaning and rules of behaviour (the network’s culture), as well as a shared body of knowledge. The rules of behaviour whether formal or informal, are called social structures. (79)

Back to dialectics

The biological structure of an organism corresponds to the material infrastructure of a society, which embodies the society’s culture. As the culture evolves, so does its infrastructure — they coevolve through continual mutual influences. (80)

There is a strange section about corporations, and management’s interest in his work as a way to repair these massive and ailing behemoths. I feel that management, like science, once held a very precise view of our ability to impose our will on the world which hasn’t quite shifted fully.

To run properly, a machine must be controlled by its operators, so that it will function according to their instructions. Accordingly, the whole thrust of classical management theory is to achieve efficient operations through top-down control. Living beings, on the other hand, act autonomously. They can never be controlled like machines. To try and do so is to deprive them of their aliveness. (91)

But there are some looking at how autonomous human beings create for themselves the networks and support they require. Capra cites Etienne Wenger, and his definition of ‘communities of practice’ as

self-generating social networks, referring to the common context of meaning rather than to the pattern of of organization through which the meaning is generated. (94)

A community of practice has three main features: ‘mutual engagement of its members, a joint enterprise and, over time, a shared repertoire of routines, tacit rules of conduct and knowledge. (95)

These are networks that emerge, take on lives and structures without (at least in the beginning) formal directives or top-down demands. They have the ability to be horizontal. Capra writes:

Although it may seem that in an ecosystem some species are more powerful than others, the concept of power is not appropriate, because non-human species (with the exception of some primates) do not force individuals to act in accordance with preconceived goals. There is dominance, but it is always acted out within a larger context of cooperation…The manifold species in an ecosystem do not form hierarchies, as is often erroneously stated, but exist in networks nested within networks. (133)

After this framing of the key nature of networks and relationships in both biology and social science, the book moves towards what sustainability should look like, how we can achieve it based on this new knowledge.

One of the subtitles is ‘Life as the Ultimate Commodity’ (174) — I had not realised in my youth that the Human Genome Project was actually a race against time, a social collective trying to map the genome for public knowledge before a consortium of corporations did it first so that they could patent it. They won, I had no idea of the drama of that victory, or how much was saved. Capra writes:

underlying all evaluations is the basic principle of unfettered capitalism: that money-making should always be valued higher than democracy, human rights, environmental protection or any other value. Changing the game means, first and foremost, changing this basic principle. (185)

In some ways, the new nature of genetics we are discovering is on our side in this, the patenting of genes doesn’t work very well given that there has been

A profound shift of emphasis, from the structure of genetic sequences to the organization of metabolic networks, from genetics to epigenetics is taking place. (143)

It doesn’t stop Monsanto and others from trying, however. Still, this is a call for a new kind of science, one that does not seek arrogant mastery but works with the concept of emergence:

We can imagine a radically different kind of biotechnology. It would start with the desire to learn from nature rather than control her, using nature as a mentor rather than merely as a source of raw materials. Instead of treating the web of life as a commodity, we would respect it as the context of our existence.

This is key to our survival, as is understanding sustainability:

The concept of sustainability was introduced in the early 1980s by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, who defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. (200)

Specifically, there are six principles of ecology that are critical to sustaining life: networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance. (201)

Above all, sustainability is achieved through a network of healthy interdependent relationships:

In order to combine respect for these human rights with the ethics of ecological sustainability, we need to realize that sustainability — in ecosystems as well as in human society — is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships: it involves a whole community. A sustainable human community interacts with other living systems — human and nonhuman — in ways that enable those systems to live and develop according to their nature. In the human realm sustainability is fully consistent with the respect of cultural integrity, cultural diversity and the basic right of communities to self-determination and self-organization. (188)

How do we get there? You know I liked this:

According to Sociologist Manuel Castells, social change in the society does not originate within the traditional institutions of civil society but develops from identities based on the rejection of society’s dominant values — patriarchy, the domination and control of nature, unlimited economic growth and material consumption, and so on. (191)

We build connections, networks, challenge capitalism and arrogance. We look to increase diversity, decrease consumption and above all increase our own ability to work together to increase our abilities to collectively change and shape our world.

Noir Interlude

371023Just a quote from Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case: I’ve finished Mark’s stash of three three-book omnibi, and am a little forlorn I confess…

She stood squarely in front of him in a deliberately ugly posture, one hip out, her breasts thrust forward under the white shirt, and at the same time sharp and tender. She didn’t seem to be drunk, but there was a hot moist glitter in her eyes. Her eyes were large and violet, and should have been beautiful. With dark circles under them, and heavy eye-shadow on the upper lids, they were like two spreading bruises. (6)

I do find amusing many of Macdonald’s descriptions of breasts and their emotional ways as if they’re somehow independent of their owners. I’m reading Lanark by Alasdair Grey and funnily enough, he sees breasts in the same way.

Still, I love Macdonald’s language, it is the texture of noir itself at its best. I’ll miss not having a novel sitting here for me to read on the weekend.

The Listening Ear was full of dark blue light and light blue music.

The description of a beat night club is brilliant, as is the poet as is the plot itself with yet another psychological twist showing the terrible things that money does to families (but also, what the lack of it can do).

For one more quote, you can go here.

Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

More on similar stories…

Marshall Berman on the Intellectual

I separated out this little section from Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air because in a way it is a little more personal, cuts a little more closely to the bone. I completed my PhD only a couple of weeks ago from an institution that is, for the most part, churning out highly educated kids of privileged background to fill positions in investment banks and other major corporations. There is still some wonderful research emerging from the place, and I still enjoyed teaching students where they engaged in learning. Yet in my quest for a position as an intellectual and a teacher that I hope will contribute to changing the world for the better, and yet will allow me to afford more than a tiny cold room in someone else’s flat while also helping to support my mum living in a stone-age society, so much of being an academic troubles me so deeply. Berman spoke in some really interesting ways to this conflict I see in my work and my politics. In discussing Marx he highlights this:

To bring out one of the paradoxes of their historical role: even though they tend to pride themselves on their emancipated and thoroughly secular minds, they turn out to be just about the only moderns who really believe that they are called to their vocations and that their work is holy. It is obvious to any reader of Marx that in his commitment to his work he shares this faith. And yet he is suggesting here that in some sense it is a bad faith, a self-deception.

The basic fact of life for these intellectuals, as Marx sees them, is that they are “paid wage-laborers” of the bourgeoisie, members of “the modern working class, the proletariat.” (116)

It can’t be denied I worry that my best efforts and greatest labours of love will be not just in vain, but also coopted and utilised. This points to the ways we need to seriously think about how we do our work and what work it is we do:

Bourgeois society, through its insatiable drive for destruction and development, and its need to satisfy the insatiable needs it creates, inevitably produced radical ideas and movements aimed to destroy it. But its very capacity for development enables it to negate its own inner negations: to nourish itself and thrive on opposition, to become stronger amid pressure and crisis than it could ever be in peace, to transform enmity into intimacy and attackers into inadvertent allies (119).

Not that Berman really has any answers, but I suppose this will do for a start:

As for the orthodox modernists who avoid Marxists thought for fear that it might strip them of their haloes, they need to learn that it could give them back something better in exchange: a heightened capacity to imagine and express the endlessly rich, complex and ironic relationships between them and the “modern bourgeois society” that they try to deny or defy (122).

The rest of my thoughts on Berman can be found here. I apologise for the overabundance of the word ‘love’, but I can’t be bothered to go change it.

London: The Biography

1800059This book is a massive undertaking, both for the author and the reader, and the amount of extraordinary, fascinating and brilliant detail in here is mind-boggling. It pulls from an awe-inspiring number of primary sources to provide the most delectable quotes on everything from pubs to fashion to murders to popular food. In fact, I can’t think of a subject that isn’t in here, and it’s all woven together in a form that is almost like fiction. It muses, ponders, revels in minutiae. This is the first book I started reading after my father died about a year and a half ago, I hadn’t been able to read anything at all for a month or two and this was perfect for getting back into it, reading a couple of chapters at a time, setting down, coming back to. I loved loved loved so much of it, both the tidbits of history, but also the ways in which Ackroyd combined them, sometimes by theme or period or area. It’s changed how I walked around London streets, how I see the Thames every time I cross it, the ways I contrast old and new and am always seeking out the echoes of past times. I was a bit that way before, I confess, but now I have a much better feeling for what might be there and understanding of what I find.

It’s hard to judge a work of this size and scope with so much that is amazing in it. But as I read I became increasingly critical of the celebration of commercialism. It all comes to a head in the final chapters which left me angry. A sort of mystical view of London steadily emerged, a sort of organic living creature of a city with its own requirements and demands of its inhabitants. I liked playing with ideas about the ways in which a city shapes its residents, but was disappointed to find Ackroyd’s jubilation at the financial centres surviving the blitz as proof that the living beating heart of London might well be commerce and finance. There is a celebration of Thatcher’s big bang of 1986 loosing regulations on bangs — that would ultimately lead to our current economic crisis. And he writes

If the city had a voice it might be saying: There will always be those who fail or who are unfortunate, just as there will always be those who cannot cope with the world as presently constituted, but I can encompass them all.
…Lincoln’s Inn Fields was occupied once more by the homeless, after an interval of 150 years, while areas like Waterloo Bridge and the Embankment became the setting for what were known as ‘cardboard cities’. … Despite civic and government initiatives, they are still there. They are now part of the recognisable population; they are Londoners, joining the endless parade. Or perhaps, by sitting upon the sidelines, they remind everyone else that it is a parade.

I threw the book across the room. As though the homeless and the masses of poor are a natural phenomenon like weather, and not caused by deindustrialisation, the roll back of the welfare state and Thatcher’s own policies channeling wealth away from them towards the already wealthy. As though they are separate from ‘us’,  there for ‘our’ amusement. That Lincoln’s Inn field should have been free of the homeless for 150 years was an accomplishment of society hard fought and bitterly won. Their return is an indictment of our current direction, not an ornament to London’s wealth, or a gaze that seeks to remind the well-to-do of how wonderful they are.

Had I only stopped reading with the Blitz I would have unqualifiedly loved this book, as it is I am torn between giving it a five and giving it a one. I look back and wonder how much of this view seeped into the history. I am sure it did in celebrating trade, muting struggle and resistance. But in terms of how theatre changed over time, the love of jellied eels and pies, the roles of gravediggers, the building of churches, the vast panoply of literary views and all such topics,this is quite wonderful.

Save

Milton Friedman, hack

Milton Friedman - Capitalism and FreedomMilton Friedman has constructed an airtight bubble of neoliberal thought where freedom is the greatest value, and everything makes sense and fits together rationally only because it has no connection whatsoever to any kind of historical context, much less the current social and political realities of our time. None. Period. It is as though neither history nor reality as it is experienced by the poor exist, an astonishing tour de force to explain why those with extreme wealth should feel happy and content and not the least bit guilty because exploitation really is to the benefit of all.

It depressed me to read this, and made me go back and give Hayek more credit. Much as I disagreed with him and was saddened by his reduction of all socialist thought to what was essentially Stalinism, I could at least see him grappling with the very real issues of our world with some kind of integrity.

There is no integrity here I’m afraid. Instead Friedman says absurd things like

“This is a role of inequality of wealth in preserving political freedom that is seldom noted — the role of the patron.” [17]

With these ideas he’ll never lack one.

“children are at one and the same time consumer goods and potentially responsible members of society” [33]

Consumer goods…I don’t even have a comeback to that one. Luckily I don’t need one.

“It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a ‘taste’ of others that one does not share.” [110]

Good god, don’t get me started on his views on race and why white people shouldn’t have to interact with a Negro in their local store if they don’t want to.

How unions harm the world at large [124]. The end of child labour and the 8 hour day are enough to start with as a riposte I think…

The evils of requiring medical doctors to be licensed. [149] Yep. Apparently one in a thousand quacks is actually on to something, and licensing reduces their abilities to experiment [157]. But now I begin to see why we need a large pool of really poor people.

And of course, the old familiar and expected standbys lifted directly from this book into attempts at policy — the evils of public housing, minimum wage causing poverty (and sadly not in the correct sense that in the US working for minimum wage leaves you under the poverty line), social security as an invasion of our lives…and etc. To be fair, I did expect the unions are evil bit. But the rest was an enlightening surprise.

To cap it all off he writes

Humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom… [188]

Believe me, the last thing this book is characterised by is humility.

Save

Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

Save

Save

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

Save