and the Narcosis of Historical Consciousness
TEXT AND CLASS
Dinesh D'Souza's narrative ("Two Cheers for Colonialism," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 May 2002) belongs to a new genre of postmodern tales re-legitimizing imperialism and written by both right-wing storytellers (for instance Paul Johnson's "Colonialism Is Back, and Not a Moment Too Soon", New York Times Sunday Magazine, 18 April 1993) and the post-marxist left (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire, 2000). Using the seductive and reassuring tones of triumphalist capitalism, these stories suspend the contradictions of capital and labor and lull readers into a zone of political desire and ethical fantasy. They are narratives of narcosis that numb the historical consciousness.
My interest here is in the right-wing narratives, especially D'Souza's story. The narrative arcs of these yarns are constructed around an ideological night raid: they all isolate the "facts" from their material conditions, and then, within the historical closures they have fabricated, they construct tales of a self-made West whose wealth and power is obtained by its own, mostly cultural, practices. In these narcotic narratives, "The West", as D'Souza puts it, does not become "rich and powerful through colonial oppression". The West is represented as a self-invention: it emerges into affluence and supremacy autonomously without exploiting any external material resources. It always acts ethically and in the interest of liberty.
This story of the West as civilization is a reproduction of the culturally powerful myth of the entrepreneur as "self-made man"the anthropological model for all capitalist stories of self-causing individualities. What is especially attractive about this archenarrative for the postmodern apologists of imperialism and colonialism is its rhetorical strategies, which substitute anecdotes of human interest for a rigorous historical materialist inquiry into practices. In D'Souza's story they take the form of anecdotes about himself and his grandfather, as if the behavior, feelings, and sentiments of particular individuals in any way explain the structure of the systems within which we live.
D'Souza claims that the West became so "affluent and dominant in the modern era" because it "invented three institutions: science, democracy, and capitalism". His ordering of the three expresses the dominant theory of neo-imperialism in both the postmodern right wing and leftist narratives of empire. They all assert that, in David Landes' words, "culture makes almost all the difference". In D'Souza's tale, "science" and "democracy" are tropes of this culturalism, which assumes that ideas, habits and customs are the dynamics of the emergence of capitalism. The right-wing narratives marginalize labor and its antagonism with capital in various adaptations of Weberian theories in which religion was said to be the shaping force of capitalism.
The culturalist theories of capitalism remove from the scene of explanation the argument that the exploitation of labor and not ideas is the source for the accumulation of capital ("profit") and that colonialism is, therefore, an integral part of capitalism. However, even the most cursory familiarity with the history of capitalism and its emergence will make it clear that without colonialism the West would not be what it is today. In fact, capitalism emerges out of the violence of a class-cleansing of the countryside and depopulation of villages in a form of internal colonizationnamely the enclosures during the early Tudor period by which the rich hedged in the open fields and commons. The enclosures constituted "a revolution of the rich against the poor" in which the rich, according to Karl Polanyi, robbed "the poor of their share in the common" (The Great Transformation 35) and disrupted, as all colonizers do, the fabric of social life.
D'Souza mystifies the dependence of capitalism on colonialism by diverting the argument to whether "there were" any "rubber trees in Malaya,... cocoa trees in West Africa,... tea in India" before the colonizers brought them there. He implies that it is the rubber tree, the cocoa tree, and the tea that produce wealth. They do not. What produces wealth is the labor of the workers who toil over them. The British were not interested in landscaping Malaya, West Africa or India. They brought the trees and plants to localities where they could seize cheap or free labor. Colonialism is this act of seizure. It is an economic device by which capitalism expropriates the labor of the other and expands its markets through a brutal and relentless violence that is masked by the high-culture of the West: "Indian children," D'Souza writes in praise of colonialism, "were exposed to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hobbes and Locke" and learned about "'liberty', 'sovereignty', 'rights'". If anything this demonstrates how culture follows and serves the economic interests of the ruling classes. But neither Shakespeare nor the formal equality implied in "rights" can rewrite the history that shows, in Marx's words, that "...capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt" (Capital 926).
D'Souza's narco-narrative clouds the historical consciousness by attributing the emergence of capitalism (in a repetition of Adam Smith's fantasy) to innate human naturewhat Smith, in his own archenarrative, The Wealth of Nations, called the human "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange." For D'Souza it is "trade" (not labor) that is the source of wealth, and the desire to "trade" is in human nature. Capitalism, in other words, is transhistorical; he sees it as a "natural" development, free from what he considers historical "accidents" such as colonialism. Having assumed this, then the entire human post-history, for D'Souza, becomes a narrative of gradually removing social obstacles to allow this innate human endowment to be fully actualized in the form of a free, frictionless entrepreneurship. Human history, for D'Souza, is the story of liberty as the de-regulation of trade. I leave aside here that capitalism, far from being the outcome of the removal of regulations, is, in large part, the consequence of aggressive state intervention in the market by regulating in favor of the owners.
D'Souza's "evidence"that capitalism is the product of the "natural" human propensity to trade and not the consequence of the contradictions of labor and capital, which inevitably relies on imperialism and colonialismis that markets have always existed in human history. However, as Karl Polanyi has shown in his The Great Transformation, there is a fundamental difference between societies with markets and a "market society." Market society is based on the commodification and exchange of labor itself, which is another way of saying that in market society the social relations are themselves commodified and subjugated by the market. Social relations become market relations. "Instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system" (57). Polanyi is, of course, elaborating a version of Marx's notion of commodity fetishism.
Capitalism cannot survive without constantly expanding its market in which labor itself is commodified. Colonialism is a means for the expansion of the market and increased access to labor in order to prevent the general tendencies of the falling rate of profit in capitalist economies. Colonialism is an essential part of capitalism. The means of colonizing have changed somewhat throughout history: violence and brutality have taken more subtle forms in times of prosperity. However, at moments of great crisis when the rate of profit falls drasticallysuch as the one we are now inall subtleties disappear and the raw character of imperialism (the military mechanism of colonialism) returns.
The imperialist war in Central Asia now is a case in point. The war is only nominally related to what is called terrorism. In times of prosperity, when the rate of profit has been high, terrorism has been treated as a criminal act and dealt with thorough police practices. The on-going imperialist war in Central Asia is the postmodern version of colonialismthe goal of which is access to the cheap labor of the workers in the region and to the oil. To be more clear, as the cost of labor has dramatically increased in those parts of the world previously exploited by capitalism (such as Korea, India and even Bangladesh), global capitalism now needs to find new sources for cheap labor and other resources. In addition to its long-term gains, the colonial war in Central Asia is making immediate profits for capital. The U.S. recession is being covered up by war spending and huge sums of money are being transferred to corporations. Boeing alone is appropriating billions of public funds through a deal in which it loans the U.S. government aircraft for aerial-fueling of military planes.
The dynamics of capitalism is not trade. Trade does not produce valueit simply re-distributes in the market the wealth that is produced by human labor. Far from being a cultural invention, capitalism is the direct outcome of the appropriation of labor, and colonialism is an instance of such appropriation. "Science" is the product, not of ideas, but of the workers' surplus-labor that provides for the social division of labor. Democracy is not the pre-condition for capitalism. Rather, it is the civil gendarme of capitalismit makes sure that the elected government remains the executive committee of the ruling class.
The West is not a closural space in
which wealth is self-produced; it is the name of a practicethe
practice of extracting surplus labor from the workers of the world.
Modern science is an effect of these exploitations, and democracy
is the political guarantee that those who have nothing but their labor
to sell will never command the state apparatuses.
Colonialism, secured by imperialism, is fundamental to this
regime. Without it, capitalism
would never have become global and monopolisticwhich are simply the means for
maintaining a high rate of profit through the expropriation of cheap
labor. The West becomes rich and
powerful not through self-invention but through colonial oppression: the
exploitation of the labor of the workers of the world.
Polanyi, Karl. The
Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.
 Marx, Karl. Capital Vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1977.