Background: Imperialism yesterday and today 2

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2003 - 11:44

From Workers' Liberty 63

Imperialism yesterday and today 2

The white man as cannibal

The decisive turning point in producing the present pattern of the world came in the 16th century. A new economic system - capitalism, the system of wage labour and of continuous accumulation and reinvestment of profits - emerged decisively from the neo-feudal societies of Western Europe. As yet, it was not industrial capitalism. The Industrial Revolution and large-scale factory production were still in the future. But this earlier capitalism - commercial capitalism - had its own technological revolution, with printing, more developed firearms and ocean navigation.
For centuries until then the central networks of trade had been the coastal shipping routes of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. But now the cities of the Arab world - until then the greatest on earth after China's - and those of Italy were eclipsed. As ships began sailing the open seas regularly and relatively easily, the new centres of trade were the seafaring powers of the Atlantic - Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England - who also established themselves in the Indian Ocean. Karl Marx summed this up as follows:
"The discovery of gold and silver in the Americas, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production [in the 16th century]... The colonies provided a market for the budding manufactures, and a vast increase in accumulation which was guaranteed by the mother country's monopoly of the market. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder flowed back into the mother-country and were turned into capital there."
The rise of capitalist civilisation in Western Europe thus went together with the destruction of previous civilisations in other parts of the world. Black Africa's particular blight was the slave trade. "To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule [i.e., from the late 15th to the late 19th century] is virtually to discuss slave trade," as Walter Rodney puts it. Millions of Africans were forced into the status of human cattle and shipped overseas. Probably more than 10 million arrived alive in the Americas or Europe; maybe as many again died en route. The population of Africa stagnated from 1650 to 1850, while Europe's nearly tripled and Asia's more than doubled. Africa had handicraft industries, and trade based on them. But the handicrafts could not compete. They were displaced by the new trade in human beings against European manufactured goods. The African peoples were split up into small warring groups and statelets, as rival chiefs would make war on each other in order to capture prisoners for the slave trade. With the European traders, from their coastal forts and bases, also encouraging these divisions, the African peoples had no chance of establishing relatively strong, large states such as had arisen in Europe.
The slave trade was also the underpinning of modern anti-black racism. Suspicion and fear of strangers dates back long before the 16th century, and anti-Jewish discrimination was already well established in Europe. Systematic, widespread prejudice and discrimination based on skin colour started with the slave trade (though it did not reach full pitch until the late 19th century). The white slave traders and slave owners, adjusting the ideology of the "rights of man" to fit in with their economic activity, declared that black people were naturally primitive and inferior. Even worse, some black people were bludgeoned into accepting this, or half-accepting it. Racism itself in turn became something of an economic factor in the underdevelopment of black Africa.
The slave trade declined in the first half of the nineteenth century, as industrial capitalism developed, creating a wider and more universal need for the more flexible and elastic wage labour. A new chapter opened in Africa. In a sudden "scramble" at the end of the 19th century, practically the whole continent was divided up as colonies for the European powers.
The economic system established under colonial rule had three main features: limited capitalist enterprise, cash crop farming linked to European trading concerns, and forced labour. Mines - gold and diamond in South Africa, copper in Zambia, etc. - and capitalist farms or estates (especially in the areas where many whites settled, like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya) employed wage labour. Railways and ports were also built. Rail networks were started in the 1880s and 1890s, and mostly completed by the early 1930s. Capital investment in black Africa was, however, much lower than elsewhere in the Third World. Up to 1930, for example, only 2% of British capitalism's overseas investment was in Africa, while 14% was in India, 43% in the rest of the Empire and 22% in South America.
The wage labour was often casual labour, and the methods primitive. The great majority of the African population were still formally independent peasants. But they were driven increasingly from traditional subsistence agriculture (i.e., producing mainly for their own consumption) towards cash crops. "The African peasant," as Walter Rodney records, "went in for cash crop farming for many reasons. A minority eagerly took up the opportunity to continue to acquire European goods... Many others... took to earning cash because they had to pay various taxes in money or because they were forced to work... Examples of Africans literally being forced to grow cash crops by gun and whip were to be found in Tanganyika under German rule, in Portuguese colonies, and in French Equatorial Africa and the French Sudan in the 1930s.... The laws and by-laws by which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state..." Forced labour was also used to build railways, roads and ports.
These elements were combined in different ways and in different proportions in different parts of the continent. But they meshed together in a single system - and one which had very little impetus towards raising productivity.
Force was required to tear Africans away from their traditional livelihoods and create a labour force for capitalist exploitation. But the forcible methods of the colonial regime did not completely destroy the traditional structures of the African economy, nor were they intended to. Collaboration with tribal chiefs provided the Europeans with a cheap method of administration. And the continuation of some subsistence farming allowed them to pay extremely low wages and prices for cash crops. Subsistence farming would keep the African workers alive, while wages or cash crops enabled them to pay their taxes and debts, and to buy a few European goods. The companies which controlled trade in the cash crops, like Unilever, brought huge profits back to Europe. Capitalist profiteers geared themselves into pre-capitalist forms of exploitation; they grabbed the proceeds of the peasants' surplus labour, done under pre-capitalist conditions, and, by selling the goods in Europe, transformed them into capital. The Africans suffered the evils both of capitalism and of pre-capitalist economic forms. They suffered the ruthless pressures and insecurity of the capitalist market economy, transmitted through the trading companies; and they suffered the isolation, primitive conditions, static technology and traditional hierarchies of pre-capitalist societies.
The Europeans brought little capitalist civilisation to Africa. Hardly any schools or hospitals were built for the black population until after the Second World War. In Nigeria in the 1930s, for example, there were 12 hospitals for 4,000 Europeans, and 52 hospitals for at least 40 million Africans. Although literacy was higher in Nigeria than in other colonies, still it stood at only 12% in 1952. There was a flurry of "development" spending after World War Two. Partly the colonial powers were responding to the fact that the old colonial economy was breaking down (under the impact of the drastic decline in primary-product prices in the 1930s) and something of a permanent wage-worker class had emerged. Also, they became convinced that independence was inevitable, and made efforts to create a reliable African middle class to which power could be transferred. But it was too little, too late, and not very useful anyway. After winning independence the new African states had a terrible heritage to overcome.