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Eve's Review

Capitalism and Slavery

“The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”
Gerald Horne
Monthly Review Press, 256 pages
$25

Eve Ottenberg

The world is awash in the blood of innocents. Nothing makes this clearer than Gerald Horne’s recently published “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism,” which puts the genocide of indigenous Americans at about 90 percent of their population’s total. The book also estimates that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans and five million indigenous Americans were enslaved by Europeans in the new world, a predicament that proved fatal for many of them. He refers to “the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, white supremacy and capitalism,” while throughout this volume, he relates the construction of a new racial identity, whiteness, and white identity politics.

Horne emphasizes the hypocrisy of a slaver merchant class that cloaked its interests in bombast about liberty. In the seventeenth century, London “merchants unleashed a steady fire of propaganda, portraying their unhindered entry into the slave trade as a matter of the nation’s life and death.” Cromwell’s merchant supporters won the propaganda war, as they muscled their way into the slave trade. “This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom, as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy, which nevertheless bamboozled generations to follow, including those who styled themselves as radical.” Horne also levels this criticism at the American Revolution of 1776.

The slavers did not always have an easy time of it. “Between 1673 and 1694 Jamaica experienced at least six major slave revolts of the enslaved, followed by eruptions in 1702 and 1704.” Slaves often employed arson against their oppressors and rebelled on their transport ships, too. In the mid-seventeenth century, more than 300 slave revolts occurred on Dutch ships. Also, Horne tells how Africans and indigenous Americans cleverly played different European powers against each other and joined with indentured Europeans in uprisings. But as “whiteness” was constructed as the new and paramount racial category, these tactics foundered, according to Horne. Early on, religious bigotry divided Europeans, Horne writes, but by the close of the seventeenth century, race determined everything.

Once established, a racially-based caste system was difficult to overthrow. Though the United States eventually abolished slavery, the world’s north-south color line today matches the one between the haves and the have nots. To the extent that color-caste has gone global, the slave trade – which, Horne writes, ransacked the healthy adult population of parts of Africa, thus crippling large swathes of that continent – is largely to blame. Hence Horne’s call for reparations at the end of his book.

This call is reasonable. Germany pays reparations to Jews whose lives were destroyed by the holocaust. Surely a multi-trillion dollar economy, that of the U.S. and European Union combined, can do the same. Unfortunately, under the current Washington regime, such a move seems unlikely. White supremacy has surged lately in the U.S., legitimized by a president who regards open racists as “fine people.”

One point that cannot be stressed enough is the symbiosis of capitalism and slavery. The southern United States was built on unpaid labor. Slavery was big business for merchants and the bandits who engaged in the slave trade stooped to any trick, promoted any lie, to increase their profits. Things haven’t changed all that much. Take the climate catastrophe today. As the planet burns from global warming and as freak weather events kill thousands, stupendously wealthy fossil fuel corporations pump out lies about their product having no role in the current ecocide. Their propaganda dominates U.S. media and government, making sane, civilized, scientifically informed discourse nearly impossible. Thus it was in the seventeenth century with slavery.

What slavery illustrated with painful clarity was that capitalism is about profit and regards the workers who create that profit as disposable. That has not changed; for proof just look at the sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and elsewhere today. With its tyrannical structure, the capitalist corporation ensures that the people it exploits have no say.

At his book's end, Horne mentions the Haitian Revolution’s challenge to the slave system and thus white supremacy. Later, across the ocean, the Bolshevik Revolution eroded “the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with ‘race’” by replacing it with the concept of class. Moscow’s threat, Horne writes, engendered Western entente with China, and thence we reach today’s juncture, with communist-led China surpassing the United States economically. “This represents a crisis for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the seventeenth century – white supremacy and capitalism not least.” As this comes about, Washington will resist. But the tide has turned: the current flows now toward a multi-polar world, not one dominated by a single, capitalist superpower. And the economic leaders in that world may very likely not be white.
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