Capitalism is Genocide
Issue #66, February 2004
I've been accused of being lazy and hysterical. And no doubt-I am sure that I am. But I find both criticisms too easy, and certainly a form of self-defense — if not active denial-because of the discomfort caused by what I speak.
As an intellectual I am anything but lazy, but maybe always hysterical — I lead a very active life — I never stop thinking, reading, and moving around as an always raced-body in this increasingly "race-free" world we live in, and that can't help but produce hysteria. The denial of racism's impact on my body and mind does make me crazy.
But anyway ... I guess I'd call myself a leftist — though I'm not sure I really like it over there. It is far better than the happy-go-lucky imperialist vision of the Reagan/Bush right that currently shapes the global politics of the U.S., or the anti-immigrant liberalism of Western Europe's right (and center-left), or the shoot-first-peace-later mentality of many of the West's closest allies. The left of the West, at the very least, offers a place to perform a contestation of capitalism and colonialism. It is the place of Marx in all his glorious vulgar, and largely race-blind, class analysis. It is the location of Ngugi's rabidly anti-imperialist Marxism and proud, resistant cultural nationalisms. I can even comfortably place Silko's Almanac of the Dead on the left, with its blending of spirit, class, and race into a revolutionary praxis against empire, both internalized and external.
Whatever the state of the left in the West, I can't help but see empire as a defining category in today's world and manifest, most specifically for this essay, in the transnational capitalism of today. The global flows of capital vis-à-vis trade, budget deficits, loans, grants and so on represent the footprint of capitalism in this modern age. The multinational is the heart that circulates the lifeblood of those "fortunate" enough to be an enfranchised citizen of the G-8 and their minion nations.
And as several wise people, wise people like Jefferson, Locke, Hegel, Freud, and good old Marx himself have argued, it is the utopic logic of Western liberalism that will, ultimately, carry the day. They all contest the form and nature of the best of the West's liberalism, but, to quote Jim Morrison sin irony: "The West is the best." Narratives of progress and development are rooted deeply in the potential and promise of the West's best ideals and traditions. Whatever.
Folks at least as smart as these DWMs, folks who've had the good fortune to write from outside (more or less) the master's house, folks like Ngugi, Biko, Moraga, Anzaldua, Alexi, Deloria and so on, have all come to understand and articulate the Modern Western intellectual tradition as a significant problem for people of color and for women. But, I find the comments on "intellectual traditions" much less important for this paper than the accompanying practices of economic empire and the means of force used to keep these economic relations relatively static. Didn't Lenin, another favorite DWM of mine, have an analysis of the "highest stage of capitalism"? Ngugi seems to have read it and furthered it with a profound understanding of the unique impacts that capitalism has had on Kenya, as a raced and non-Western culture — an impact very different from Lenin's analysis of capitalism on the "lesser" white ethnics of Eastern Europe. The extermination and poverty enforced by colonial overlords armed with trains, cannon, guns, and a panache for using them in the true spirit of the duel against spears (I caricature, of course) has had a much different impact given people of color's non-inclusion into that happy space of eventual assimilation offered white ethnics.
Whatever the case, Ngugi's studies begin at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century! By then, imperialism is old, old hat in so far as Euro-America's global empire is concerned. Ngugi is eloquent in his lamentation of Europe's willful destruction of the cultural, economic, and spiritual life of East Africa — just check out The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, or Weep Not, Child. Rigoberta Menchu speaks as fluently of the U.S. funded holocaust in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — no matter what the nay sayers like Larry Rother, David Stoll, and Dinesh "Imperialism, the Best Thing for the Third World" D'Souza may argue. Menchu captures not only the costs in blood, but in spirit — and it is this later category that makes her stories necessarily serious reading. This Bridge Called My Back confronts the destruction women of color experience not only from a male dominated capitalism, but also from liberal, white feminists historically blind to issues of race. The three aforementioned scholars, and many, many others, have named and identified the simple reality that in today's world a country's wealth is built on the back, literally, of poorer nations and peoples. And these poorer nations and peoples are more often than not peoples of color. This is as much a domestic truth as a macro-economic imperative. It is so self-evident as to be as invisible as one's nose — or so it seems.
Those who have raged against the inequities of a not-so-post-colonial world — I don't deny resistance and glorious, glorious survival, but I have to witness the reality of global demographics and the relative costs in spirits and bodies — have been met with an equally eloquent paraphrase of Dylan Thomas urging a slow death. It often seems that those who'd like to name the past and the contemporary interrelationships of holocaust, racism, and capitalism must always stand at the door of the "important" intellectual and political debates and prove over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again that it did and is really happening: people of color are being exterminated in a global holocaust. At UC Berkeley, the field of Ethnic Studies — a field deeply rooted in the study of such interrelationships — exists somewhere beyond the serious fields of literature, philosophy, sociology and so on, somewhere out in the realm of politics, not scholarship, as if all scholarship is not politics? Racism must always be proved-and sadly, this is as often the case on the left as it is on the right. Racism is one of the world's greatest crimes without any perpetrators — I've never met a person honest enough to call herself or himself racist, have you? Or to even admit willing or unwilling complicity! This is an acute problem on the left. Many of us sit back and pour money into our 401(k)s invested in high performing pharmaceutical companies that refuse to forego profit for life, or in the increasingly privatized prison system, or global oil. At what cost, as measured in the destruction of lives and cultures, are all of these relatively well-to-do, organic eating, yoga stretching, Kenny G listening liberal folks, whose hearts are in the right place and heads in the wrong, securing their futures? In fact, I don't carry the same ire for conservatives — at least they are honest about their disregard for the rights of the poor, people of color, and women — they feel good about the destruction that secures their present and future.
Oddly enough, the big gun DWMs we all have to read from grade school to grad school introduce the specter of race in some vitally unique ways, ways imagined from the "white" side of the colonial line. These individuals introduced people of color into a world and history dominated (to borrow from a concept from Ranajit Guha, and to clarify most people of color never consented to the oppression so, please, don't call it hegemony) economically by a history that, again simply put never had folks of color's interest at heart. All that Judeo-Christian rhetoric about religiosity and civilizing is simply too bloody for an easy sell — justifying the "real benefits" of Western liberalism in the Americas, Africa, and so on is where the non-hystero-lazy must dance the dance denying continuous holocaust around the world. I can only hope at the end of the day the music these holocaust deniers must dance to is all Uptown Top Ranking: the West is gonna get it.
But, I digress, if one goes back to the days of the initial contact of Modernity with the "savage", or "Other", or "post-colonial subject", or blah, blah, blah, one must deal with the serious contradictions between the enlightened liberalism at the root of today's right and left with the equally fundamental practice of holocaust. De Guzman stretched "savage" hide for an assortment of furniture — and even paper I think: how very rational! Oñate, in a moment of baroque genius, severed limbs as a didactic marker of the greater value of white life over red. The English sold the savages to the Sugar Islands — can't you just see the syllogism unfold: A) shortage of labor in the sugar fields + B) too many damn savages sullying up this great, uninhabited land of plenty = C) ship the savages to the fields to work and yield more plenty for the Motherland! Simple. Clean. Logic. The Spanish shipped Yeomem from Sonora to the Yucatan. Soon, the Atlantic became the Middle Passage as the West Coast of Africa was dragged into the "Modern" married to a slave economy. All of this high minded reason invokes what David Stannard has righteously termed the "American Holocaust." And Stannard's study does not even account for lands beyond the Americas. Can't one see the Judeo-Christian spirit of reason and salvation that had Indigenous America's and Africa's best interest at heart? Just like liberalism today . . . .
While liberalism extracted blood in the brave new world of empire, capital flowed into the coffers of Euro-America. The arts and philosophical boom of the 16th century, otherwise known as the Renaissance, might have been merely a whimper if not for the guts of the Americas and Africa that appeared as gold leaf and increased leisure time in Europe. The 1600s most certainly — the seeds of Enlightenment — would have fallen far short of its cultural apex without the genocidal economics of empire. And finally, maturity in the Enlightenment with its middle class revolts in North America and France, Locke's wise, wise (and very empire friendly) articulation of property rights, the racist Humanism of Kant, and the imperial economic logics of Smith may never have happened without the imperial wealth of their patrons. What strikes me as simply amazing is how dependent, and how smoothly packaged within, the Catholic Doctrine of Discovery all of these secular humanist philosophies are; those who'd see God's demise thought this a wise divine edict? Anyway, during this Age of "Man", the money rolled right in; national wealth became so abundant that it could trickle down into the classes of the formally disenfranchised, a trickle that slowly fomented the liberal middle class revolutions of Enlightenment (starting the road right into the Chicago School's theory of assimilation). In short, Euro-America and its people became, well, rich. Five centuries of economies rooted in mass murder paid off in the pockets of its colonial overlords, and those employed in the national economies.
If one takes even a lightening quick glance at current flows of global wealth, as measured in goods and services, one would see a stark resemblance (maybe even worse?) to the capital flows of colonial Euro-America. Do I really need to cite statistics on daily incomes? Standards of living? Life expectancy? Literacy rates? Infant mortality? Caloric intakes? (Is it really any surprise that the U.S. is the fattest nation on the planet?) And how all this breaks down racially? In terms of gender? Let's be direct, essentialist, and maybe even lazy: the white world still possess the lion's share of the wealth, health, and opportunity in the world. I do lament my essentialism, my lack of theoretical sophistication, and an underemployment of playful language. However, I often find the lack of essentialism and the employment of theory and play obfuscation — it is a fancy way of saying nothing, or of saying everything to the point of emptiness. The theoretical language of today's left is tricky business, and honestly, I share Fela Kuti's concerns about the introduction of ideas that are cloaks for the saddle of a second slavery. The language of theory, more often than not, fails to speak to those it supposedly champions. Maybe I'm an anti-intellectual or just plain stupid (Kant said it best when he argued that people of color would, at best, only be able to parrot the white man); never-the-less, such is the literal face, and theoretical logic, of our new found post-Colonial European empire.
But alas, liberalism allows the white world a means to distance itself from the not so distant past, and contemporary practice, of holocaust in the modern "post-colonial" world. The West's mantra begins with the idea of development — that magical, and universally accessible, trajectory that carried the countries of European extraction by their boot straps and elbow grease into the economic stratosphere of today. Nations of color, the "Third World", need to be patient, industrious, and do it all without the benefit of centuries of economies based in settler-colonialism and extermination. If these nations falter, it's just because they're lazy, right? Or still too savage, maybe? After all, the days of chattel slavery are over — just go ask the Ole' South and those in love with their heritage.
Anyway, all I'm trying to say in a simple way is that it curiously appears that direct, asymmetrical, colonial (whatever you want to call it) economic rule never ended. I mean, I could be wrong but all I really know how to do is follow the CASH MONEY. But anyway, if everyone just pulls hard enough on her or his bootstraps . . . I think more often than not they break.
This isn't utter nihilism — no, I don't want a return to that crazy, suburban punk rock of the 70s and 80s. Hopelessness simply doesn't cut it anymore. Africa has been freed politically — well at least as much as any country who must depend upon nations that first stole the wealth returned as loans for survival: so if that's free? The same holds true in Latin America, Southern Asia, some of the Middle East (with Israel and some Gulf states as exceptions), parts of the Balkans, some former Soviet Republics, Micro/Macronesia, and on and on. There are countries that, simply put, have (or live under the wing of those who do). They by-and-large toe a Western philosophical, and most importantly economic, line — it's all about histories tied into a Euro-American colonial economy and racial mentality. For me, the questions we ask today should focus on the economic practices, and accompanying socio-cultural trappings, of contemporary empire. And sadly, these questions are questions of survival. I don't mean just spiritual or cultural survival. I am keenly aware of the histories of holocaust that are incurably perpetrated by Euro-American empire building and have taken the very breath out of who knows how many histories — histories with no survivors to urge us to never forget. These questions of survival will not be answered quickly enough for millions. The costs of empire building has always placed an incredible strain on survival — survival can be tenuous even in a context of non-stop resistance.
Even the richest of the rich understand that they must always earn, invest, budget, and so on. Economic wealth is finite and it's hoarded. And it needn't be-a more humane, or compassionate (to quote the President of the United States) way must exist. The G-8 and its agent nations basically hold the world hostage through debt, more debt, and life-saving technology. And what they do, time and again, in the name of development is sell tickets to further dependence in the guise of development. For instance, I still have not heard of a really good defense of the genetically altered seed that is both sterile and sterilizes? How does that help when nations have to buy tons of seed at an inflationary rate of exchange? How is the developed world helping the "underdeveloped" by holding double-digit percentages of GDP hostage in the form of loan repayment? Especially in a context of unequal currency exchange? And in a context of a preemptive right to change rȧimes if you don't want to play by the rules — or if you play by them all too well? (Mugabe? Saddam?) This does not even touch on the previously alluded to politics around AIDS medications — we are currently witnessing an aspect of holocaust that has the potential to surpass previous understandings of the concept. In the climate of a profit first mentality, the pharmaceutical industry and the governments that back them are perpetrating a willful extermination, readily justified within the logic of Euro-American liberal economic philosophy, of staggering percentages of the population of Africa, Asia, and increasingly Latin America. Empire building is a dirty business and at some point it becomes a question of whose people do the powerful wish to live.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not about to call folks out into the street to throw dynamite — I'd be the last person to do that, violence sucks and it's the relatively innocent who always seem to pay. But what I think wholly appropriate (and awfully easy from my cozy Tempe apartment) is to say simply that holocaust is happening now and it is a logical extension of current economic practice — in fact, current economic practice demands it just as it was demanded during centuries of direct colonial expansion and rule. The world we live in, again, I know this so general that it may be a lazy or a hysterical statement, is an empire run for and by the interest of the few. And, at least in the U.S., most of Europe, and those nations within the Western fold those of us sitting reading this are, at the very least, complicit — though I may not agree entirely with Ward Churchill's invocation of Eichmann and 9/11, I certainly see a logic of empire in it and a justifiable anger rooted in centuries of denying the nose in front of us all. The stock brokers, bankers, and the others who trade the world deal in bodies, however mediated. They traded in blood, starvation, war, and death on a genocidal scale — a scale that disproportionately affects those who are not white — and it's been the same story for over 500 years. Like Eichmann, the perpetrators deny any and all responsibility because, gulp, they are just doing their jobs — no matter the staggering cost in human lives, if they can even acknowledge such a connection.
Where we go from there, I have no idea nor do I care to speculate because we are so seemingly far from that discussion at any practical level. I prefer to hope for a more honest moment leading to the fruition of those dreams dreamed by those who see beyond holocaust as an everyday practice. Until then, wealth built is simply unholy. We'd best get honest, figure something out, or else some day things will change. And for the sake of those peoples that have been on the bottom for centuries, for those never granted the painful right of assimilation, for those who die so a few can gorge, I hope the change is soon.
Robert Soza is a regular contributor to Bad Subjects.
Credit: Dream of Champions from Fade to Black Sweatshop Olympics.