Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Death Rattle of British Colonialism - Part 1 of 2

Its a cliché that British tourists expect everyone else to be able to speak English. The British abroad also seem to think that the answer to any failure to communicate is for them to simply continue speaking English but in ever louder voices, i.e. to shout at their interlocutors. So it seems with Brexit. The government, the Brexiteers, and the Brexit supporting sections of the media have taken a stance based upon the idea that Britain has only to decide what it wants, and the EU will then have to accommodate them. When the EU fail to comply, the British believe they must not have been understood, and so simply shout louder.

One of the reasons the British have failed to learn foreign languages, and instead expect everyone else to accommodate them, by speaking English, is because for a long time, the British colonial empire meant that they could impose such requirements on millions of people, living in dozens of countries across the globe. And, in the 19th century, when Britain dominated global commerce, even those that lived in countries outside the Empire had an incentive to learn English as the language of global business, just as they had to use the Pound as the global reserve currency, in which to conduct trade.

But, long before Britain became the leading industrial power, in the 19th century, it had been an important mercantile power. It is why, as Marx says, it was Mercantilist ideas which dominated economic thought in Britain, whereas, in France it was the ideas of the Physiocrats based on the source of surplus value in production, which dominated. The Tudors built up the British Navy, which enabled Elizabeth I to see off challenges from other significant mercantile powers such as Spain, and saw British pirates like Drake and Raleigh bring back loot, and establish colonial markets across the globe, along with the extension of the power of that British aristocracy to draw in rents from their foreign plantations, and for the British financial oligarchy to pull in interest on its money-lending activities to finance the trade.

The colonial policy comprised two elements. In some places, the land was simply colonised by British (and European) settlers – colons. In places like Canada, America, Australia and new Zealand, small native populations were subdued and the land was taken over by the colonists. In other places, like India, and other parts of Asia and Africa, large populations were effectively enslaved by the colonial power. In the first case, the colonists are themselves the producers, whereas in the second case, the enslaved people are the producers, who are exploited by the colonial power.

Once of the clearest manifestations of that was the slave trade itself, whereby slaves were taken from Africa to work on plantations in the Caribbean, and the American colonies. (A similar thing was effected in Australia via the transportation of British workers convicted of heinous crimes such as forming a trades union, or hunting rabbits on common land). At a time when the rise of this merchant class was beginning to cause a growth in bourgeois ideas that involved concepts such as liberty and equality, the forcible subjugation, and enslavement of millions of people raised awkward questions.

Under feudalism, and previous hierarchical systems, there was no reason to question the fact that some people, in society, were of a lower rank and lacked freedom. But, the ideological foundation of the bourgeois revolution was a rejection of that lack of individual liberty and equality. The contradiction was resolved by simply classifying all those that had been subdued and enslaved as in some way less than human. That was the basis for the development of racism, as described by the black US Marxist, Oliver Cromwell Cox, in “Caste, Class and Race”

In this work, Cox details the way, for example, it was quite common in pre-capitalist Portugal, for the black servants in rich households to marry the white widow, after the death of the husband. Similarly, in the Roman Empire, it was not race that was determinant of whether an individual was a free citizen, or what their rank in society was to be.

There is a similar need to justify inequality for women and other social groups, by defining them as in some way inferior, and so not deserving of equal status. And, of course, for such ideas to be of any use, they have to be absorbed by the rest of society, and particularly its largest component, the working-class.

For all those groups that, in some way, benefit from such an arrangement, the acceptance of discrimination is made easier. An entire British working-class that developed over centuries, could see itself as, in some sense, superior, and benefited from the colonial loot fed into the British economy, via the Triangle Trade, could convince itself that this was the natural order of things, indeed a form of natural selection. And, the advantages did not need to be that great. The relatively small advantages, in terms of status and economic gain, of white workers in South Africa, or Protestants in the North of Ireland, were enough to sustain their support for a discriminatory regime. The same is true, in terms of the advantages enjoyed by male workers over female workers.

Yet, the fact is that the rise of large-scale industrial capital, particularly of multinational capital after WWII, is antipathetic to these systems of discrimination. The old Mercantilist ruling classes obtained their revenues from various forms of unequal exchange, the most obvious form of which was colonial exploitation. But, industrial capital makes its profit from the creation of surplus value in production, and increasingly from the production of relative surplus value from continuously raising the level of social productivity, and sweeping away all of the old feudal and mercantilist monopolies, closed and restricted markets and frictions.

As Marx says in Capital III, Chapter 15,

“Given the necessary means of production, i.e. , a sufficient accumulation of capital, the creation of surplus-value is only limited by the labouring population if the rate of surplus-value, i.e. , the intensity of exploitation, is given; and no other limit but the intensity of exploitation if the labouring population is given. And the capitalist process of production consists essentially of the production of surplus-value, represented in the surplus-product or that aliquot portion of the produced commodities materialising unpaid labour. It must never be forgotten that the production of this surplus-value — and the reconversion of a portion of it into capital, or the accumulation, forms an integrate part of this production of surplus-value — is the immediate purpose and compelling motive of capitalist production.”

In other words, industrial capital is driven to produce surplus value. If the level of technology, and hence productivity/rate of surplus value is given, surplus value can only be raised by employing more workers, and any restrictions on that, by discrimination that limits the employment of women, workers of different ethnicities, religions, or sexual preference, stands in the way of that production of surplus value and capital accumulation. Industrial capital has two choices when it reaches a limit on its ability to produce additional surplus value (which arises where capital has been over accumulated). Either it must revolutionise technology, so as to raise social productivity and the organic composition of capital, thereby creating a relative surplus population, or else it must gain access to a much larger pool of readily exploitable labour – women, children, foreign workers.

Forward To Part 2

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