Featured image courtesy of Polyp.org.uk
CW: Pictures and discussion of racism, famine, poverty, and death.
In my all too frequent procrastinatory forays into social media, I am regularly challenged when I link colonialism, capitalism, and the plight of refugees and other migrants. It can become tedious having to repeat oneself so much, so I want to address this in a little more depth. What follows is adapted from some of the answers I have given on this topic; why do I, and many like me, believe migration, whether for reasons of asylum or economy, is an inevitable consequence of capitalism? Why do we think that this stems from the colonial era? What is neo-colonialism? Naturally these are questions with very long and complicated answers, but I will attempt to give a very brief overview of how and why colonialism continues to have particularly tangible repercussions to this day. Because this is a very brief account, there is a lot that will not be covered. I will generally steer clear of specific examples, and I will also not address the role of racism. This is not because it is not important, but because it plays such a huge role that it cannot be adequately addressed here, so whilst I could talk for an age on the transatlantic slave trade, this will be for a later piece. Note also, that I’m not referring exclusively to the British, although the British were particularly accomplished at their subjugation of native peoples.
It is pretty well documented of course, that beginning around the year 1500, Europe became unusually violent (the anthropologist David Graeber talks interestingly about this in his book “Debt: The First 5000 Years”). The European colonial powers began a determined process of going to non-European lands, and colonising them. That invariably means violently conquering whoever lives there, and claiming the land, people, and resources as possessions of the conquering colonial power. Of course, the European colonialists were not the first empire builders, but nobody had ever done it on the scale they had before, and few had employed such dehumanising ideological methods.
One of the most important things to bear in mind when building an empire, is how you’re going to pay for it, which is why being able to extract wealth from your colonies is so important. This stage of capitalism is known as ‘primitive accumulation’ because it is a fairly basic, or ‘primitive’ form of accumulating wealth. With primitive accumulation, you begin to see pretty stark separations forming between individuals, peoples, and nations based on how much money each has. Being the stage that is most intimately involved with imperialism, as you can imagine, most of that wealth flows from those getting poorer, to those getting richer, and includes for example, laws to enforce land grabs whereby previously communally owned land that was farmed by peasant communities, is taken and given to those who are gaining wealth. Naturally, when you’re a member of a conquering power, you’re going to end up with this land, whilst the native people who had previously lived on and farmed it, end up with nothing, but are now forced to sell their labour for considerably less than they need to survive. This process happens to the peasantry within self-governing capitalist nations as well, which is partly why working-class leftists in Britain for example, would say they have more in common with the working-classes in other nations, than they do with the capitalist class in their own.
Now let’s fast forward a few hundred years to post WWII, where more and more countries are demanding their independence and Britain and the other colonial powers can no longer administer such huge burdensome empires, particularly after a disastrous war. They begin to withdraw and the colonies gain their independence, but what they’re left with are countries where the main source of income is from raw resources because all major manufacturing or oil production, or whatever it may be, is owned by foreign companies (often owned by the former colonialist state). The best way to make money is to produce cash crops like coffee or cocoa, so that’s what most do. The problem with that is that an overabundance drives down the price, so whilst this is good for the former colonial countries because, hey cheap coffee, it’s terrible for the young former colonies, and pretty soon they’re out of cash. Luckily though, there are two main ways your country is helped in its hour of need (Jason Hickel is good on this). The first is foreign aid, where the former colonial countries so benevolently spend 0.7% of their GDP on targeted projects in your country. Of course the fact that those same countries successfully lobby the World Trade Organisation to allow illicit financial flows such as trade misinvoicing, is neither here nor there, even though this contributes to the fact that for every $1 going into the global south in aid, they’re losing $24 in the opposite direction. Which leads us to the second way your country can be helped in its hour of need: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The IMF and World Bank will give you a loan if you fulfil the conditions of one of their ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’. Structural Adjustment Programmes rewrite your rules for you. You may have been democratically elected to serve the people, but these rules take precedence, and if you don’t like that, the IMF and World Bank have the military might of the USA (and others) to show you the error of your ways. Now the first of these rules is that you have to balance your budgets, so a programme of extreme austerity is implemented. Instantly all social programmes, education, healthcare, anything like that, vanish. Taxes are raised and the currency devalued so that straight away, the long term growth of the country is jeopardised. Then they start to make demands about things that run deeper. Privatisation of any state businesses, liberalisation of the markets, and weirdly, focusing on export of raw resources, which as we have seen, is extremely bad for a developing economy.
What happens with all of this, is that your country is trapped in a spiral of debt with no way to get out, and often, that leads to poverty, starvation, military coups, and war. Finally, this in turn leads to refugees and ‘economic migrants’, each and every one of them the victim of hundreds of years of colonialist and capitalist oppression. At this point, we have to ask ourselves not whether we should be helping these people, but why we aren’t helping them enough, and that brings us to the topic of propaganda and media bias, which shall have to wait for another time.