issue 167 - January 1987
Get rich quick
The lands colonized by white settlers - Canada, Australia,
Aotearoa (NZ) and the US- have prospered, those with large black
populations -in Africa, Asia or South America - have done badly.
There are racist explantions for this. Mike Rose refutes them.
In the preview of a recent TV series on the Third World, a drunken bigot sits in a pub ruminating as drunks often do on the state of the world. Ready to opine on everything under the sun, he has firm views about the plight of the South. 'No wonder them people are so poor' he drones. 'All they do all day is sit on their arses and have lots of kids.' Reflective pause. 'Maybe they can't help it. They haven't got it up here' he concludes, tapping his cranium, an omniscient leer on his face.
The message could hardly be clearer non-whites are not only lazy but inherently inferior. TV fans could well imagine the extension of this idea in a popular comedy series in which the bigoted white anti-hero harangues the audience with his reactionary views. 'What's all this about colonial exploitation?' Alf Garnett would ask. 'Them Yanks and Aussies were colonial subjects of His Majesty's Government, but it didn't seem to do them any harm. They weren't lazy like yer nig-nogs. Got up off their bums and worked hard. More intelligent too. It's racial, you know. You can't beat good white stock' the bumptious Alf would conclude, slobbering over his beer and chips.
It might all be white supremacist claptrap, but then again, how do you challenge the shibboleths when former colonies predominantly peopled by whites apparently conform to our bigot's assertion? The US, Australia, Canada and Aotearoa (NZ) are all former British colonies. Yet to claim they are none the worse for it would be the understatement of the century. They are among the wealthiest nations in the world with enviable living standards.
But, you might justifiably respond, what about the plight of the indigenous peoples, the Aborigines, the Maoris, the numerous original peoples of North America? Haven't they had a raw deal? Undeniably true. But you still can't deny the achievements of the whites, the overwhelming majority.
This seems to put a large question mark over the plethora of arguments which basically hold that imperialism was a greedy, blood-sucking beast which raped and pillaged, leaving its colonies devastated and wasted. Many Marxists now admit that such emotive arguments are simplistic. Indeed, there are some who have gone so far as to argue that rather than too much imperialism, there wasn't enough of it. If capitalism had spread thoroughly throughout the colonized areas, goes this argument, they would be better off today for having set off the dynamics which lead to development and improved living standards.
This debate on imperialism is likely to run and run, with most people adhering to those arguments which most closely conform to their political standpoint. Yet the key to understanding imperialism is to realize that it has never been uniform in its effects. These depended to a considerable degree on the combination of social, political and economic factors in the colonized area itself, those 'social relations of production' about which Marxists are so fond of talking.
So what were these 'social relations of production' which gave white colonies such an advantage? Among the most important was the early introduction of wage labour as the dominant form of economic exploitation, along with its political and economic repercussions.
It's commonly accepted that capitalism and wage labour develop a society's wealth-creating potential so that there is more for all, although the riches are never evenly distributed. Politically, workers group together to form trades unions and political parties to fight for their rights.
By their might, based on technological superiority in the art of warfare, European powers gained control of large areas of the world. When possible, they forced local peoples to work for them, usually undermining the viable social structures based on communal rather than private property. A good example is the old Inca empire of the Andes where a paternalistic King who was believed by his subjects to be a god incarnate ensured good nutritional levels for all at a time when most Europeans lived in penury. The destruction of the Inca empire by the Spaniards has meant a considerable reduction of nutritional standards in the region.
But in the white colonies, the indigenous peoples were neither available in sufficient quantities, nor were they suitable for exploitation. Mainly hunter-gatherers unaccustomed to the routine work of fixed settlement, they proved difficult to 'civilize'. So they were either exterminated or chased into marginal areas in the name of progress.
Even then the development of these colonies was far from straightforward, their future success was in no way predestined. Much depended on how the potential of the colonies coincided with the needs of their European masters. This in turn dictated the extent to which the colonies had to organise themselves.
In the southern part of the US, slavery became predominant as European hunger for first sugar and then cotton was satisfied by a system of forced labour using imported black people. The nature of this system meant the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few white overlords, who spent their riches on expensive imports. Unwaged blacks were unable to purchase goods which would have generated the growth of an internal market and local production.
In Australia, the convict system provided cheap labour during the initial years of colonization. When the British government announced the abolition of convict transportation, there was uproar in Australia among the landed elites, the squatters who had developed a thriving export trade in wool. Thwarted in their attempts to get more convicts, they then arranged for cheap indentured labour to be shipped over from the Indian sub-continent and China.
Had the squatters not been defeated by a combination of British and imperial needs, internal agitation and the fortuitous timing of the gold discoveries, Australia today could have been an elite plantation economy with a repressive government, keeping cheap labour in place; one example of how colonial tutelage, in keeping squatters in check, was beneficial for the country's development.
The behaviour of the US planters and the Aussie squatters explodes popular myths about 'enlightened Anglo-Saxon elites' and the Protestant work ethic. No doubt Canada and Aotearoa (NZ) have similar tales to tell.
It is hardly a coincidence that the region which led the North American rise to global supremacy was the North East corner of the US - New England, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. Rather than the Protestant ethic, it was the conditions the new settlers encountered which determined its development. Lacking precious metals and unable to produce tropical crops, land was quickly divided into private homesteads to provide a living. Yeoman farming with its widespread distribution of land ownership became the norm.
The absence of an indigenous labour force meant that settlers had to employ white labourers and pay them well. Wage labour, the basis of capitalist relations of production, quickly became widespread, generating local production for a growing market.
Capitalism prevailed early in white colonies, partly because there was no other form of domination to impose. It soon engendered its own conflicts. Among the most important was the struggle of workers for better pay and conditions, leading to the growth of trades unions and, in some cases, labour parties.
The battle for workers' rights was an important element in the growth of demands for democracy in these societies. To the extent that such developments led to genuine improvements in the welfare of the people, capitalism can be seen to have been beneficial - maybe even the imperialism that imposed it.
But while most whites have prospered, many Aborigines, Maoris and North American Indians have been forced to live in the never-never land - never to return to their old ways, never to integrate into modern society as equals. That is the tragic effect of imperialism in these white ex-colonies. Deprivation and alienation are found in the midst of abundance.
Mike Rose has just completed doctoral research on the political economies of Argentina and Australia. He is a writer and researcher, specialising in Latin America.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7