Colonialism and Capitalism

Indi Samarajiva makes excellent points about how we in the west have choose to consistently treat atrocities against whites as worse than atrocities against non-whites.

But I would like to expand on this story because it is not merely about racism and skin color, but it is also about how to look at ideology.

Socialists e.g. had remarked on the brutality and injustice of colonialism for a long time. While I am no fan of either Carl Marx or Vladimir Lenin, I think one should be charitable enough to acknowledge that they both saw how western capitalist countries had amassed a lot of their wealth through colonial exploitation. There is an old preoccupation in socialist circles to speak of colonialism as where capitalism naturally leads.

While both the Nazis and the revolutionary Communists committed major attrocities, that was as Indi Samarajiva, in no way unique. What was different is the color of the skin of who was the subject of the atrocities.

I remember this disconnect well from growing up in 1980s Norway where the social democratic influence was strong and one definitely wanted to highlight the attrocities of western colonialism and exploitation. However it the explanation was entirely disconnected from ideology. It seemed as if it was just something white people naturally do to black and brown people.

This is also somewhat of what I object to Indi Samarajiva’s otherwise exellent piece. It mostly leaves out the ideology, as if skin color alone was the driving force. My point is that one cannot exclude from the analysis that the colonizers where running on a capitalist operating system bent on increasing profits and markets. Brown people did not fall victim of this merely by being brown but because they lived in countries technologically and militarily far behind European countries, having plenty of products and raw materials Europeans wanted and could profit from.

Europeans had plenty of experience exploiting each other. The Romans did it at large scale. The problems is when you encounter a country where citizens can fight back hard and there is nothing much of value to steal. The Romans hit got this problem when entering Germania. They got heir ass kicked repeatedly and Ceasar must have realized it was pointless to spend enormous amount of military resources to conquer an area which was not much besides miles of dense forrest. There was no silk, spices, gold mines, porcelain or anything else really of economic importance.

The same was true for the 1800s. Britain could certainly have invaded and tried to take my native country Norway. The problem is that we had modern weapons and could have fought back hard. Not enough to win, but enough to make it a rather wasted effort. There simply was not all that much of value in Norway. Not to mention it would have cause other European countries to ally against Britain for upsetting the status quo. A bad deal in other words.

Now India in contrast was an entirely different deal. Enormous wealth and trading opportunities available in a country which could be subdued with much less effort. Thus it was not because Indias where brown but because it offered the path of least resistance for a country operating on a profit seeking motive. How better is this examplified than the fact that it was not the British state which colonized India but a company: the East Indian Company. Colonization was a natural thing for a profit seeking company in a time period where armies and cannon boats could be bought much like any other goods and services.

So where am I going with this? Back to Norwegian school in the 1980s. I learned plenty of the horrors of ideology with examples of how millions died from starvation due to communist ideology under Stalin and Mao. Communism I was basically told, kills. Yet such analogy was not made for colonialism. People like Winston Churchill was heralded as heroes that saved democracy and freedom.

Norway owed a debt to Britain for our freedom and relied on our NATO membership. We could not villify our own allies and hence while history books was clear on condemning colonialism it entirely left out the role people we regarded as heroes played.

E.g. I was quite old when I learned that Winston Churchill was responsible for perhaps as many as 4 million people dying in India, when he diverted food from Bengal to Greece during WWII. As Dr Shashi Tharoor author of Inglorious Empire remarks:

“People started dying and Churchill said well it’s all their fault anyway for breeding like rabbits. He said ‘I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’.”

This of course was just one in a long list of attrocities committed by Winston Churchill. He was no better against people in his native Britain or Ireland getting over 600 striking minors shot dead in his brutal tactics.

Churchill was no defender of democracy and freedom. He was a powerplayer. For him WWII was about preserving British power and above all the British Empire. He was not primarily about saving democracy but about saving the British Empire.

It is most definitely ironic to speak of a man who supposedly saved us from the tyrrany of Fascism when he did it to be able to continue a tyrrany over hundreds of millions of people who simply did not look white.

Yet I was never taught any of this in school. Instead I was taught about the attrocities brought about by Mao and Stalin. Western colonlialism in contrast was faceless. There was no names or ideology attached to it. And so we are left with a world where whenever somebody tries to advocate say democratic socialism, they are immediately shot down with analogies about Stalin and Mao and their mass killings.

Capitalism in contrast is completely exempted for the atrocities committed in the name of profit seeking. We are told that socialist ideology was what drove Mao and Stalin to kill people. While the fact that capitalist countries engaged in colonialism had nothing to do with those atrocities.

Now my point with this is not to say that all forms of capitalism kills. Quite the contrary. My point is that there are forms of socialism and capitalism which kills. There is no reason to single out one over the other. There is a glorification in our history books of democratic capitalist countries which they don’t quite deserve. America is heralded as a country where people could start over without the tyrrany of Europe of old. Yet this was at the back of everybody else who was not European. The native population got mostly exterminated and their land taken. In Calefornia whites where even paid per native American they killed. Thus an organized mass killing of native Americans in many ways more barbaric than the Holocost. At least the Nazis where ashamed enough of what they did to attempt to hide it.

Imagine if the Nazis had publicly announced that anyone who went and shot a Jewish man, women or child would be paid by the state. The rest of Europe could not have ignored such explicit barbarism. But they where plenty happy to allow it to happen to native Americans.

My point is that by making colonialism into an issue merely about race, we are letting capitalism of the hook. It does not mean you cannot be capitalist country without being an evil colonizer but we should at least acknowledge the part it played. Acknowledge how a system driven by profit seeking above all else can lead to atrocities.

And perhaps it highlights or problems with telling stories. We like stories with heroes and vilains. It is hard to tell the story of WWII when there is no clear demarcation of who the heroes and vilains where. The story was already complicated by having Stalin on the side of the allies. It was not made better by Britain being led by a colonialist. And the US at the time being a country with strict laws of segretation. E.g. Charles de Gaulle was quite proud of his African Solider and wanted to march them into Paris after liberation as they had played an importan role. It was in fact Americans who put the foot down and objected. They demanded that only white soldiers should be shown.

Now this pops up in the culture wars where you see young conservatives who are angry about historical war movies because non-whites pop up. Hollywood liberalism they scream. When in fact they are frequently simply making the movies more realistic as colonial forces played a major role in both world wars .

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Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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