Oxford students are currently leading the “Rhodes Must Fall Movement”. They demand that the statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from its niche at Oriel College (to which he gave substantial endowments) above Oxford High Street. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) is one of the greatest – “great in the sense of big, not necessarily in the sense of good – iconic figures of both global capitalism and British imperialism. He is especially known for his business and political exploits in sub-Saharan Africa. The erstwhile British colony of Rhodesia, which became an unrecognized state following the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by a white minority government between 1965 and 1979, was named after him; it is now called Zimbabwe.
As the British empire – over which ultimately the sun never set – spread across continents, there was some debate among its promoters about its principal motivation and goal. Surely, the imperial ideologues argued, it was not just materialistic greed. Was it not more about patriotism aiming to bring to the world the benefits of British civilization? “Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed,” intoned Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem first published in 1899. Rhodes’ undaunted belief in English racial superiority can be illustrated by many quotes, including: “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.” Rhodes’ combining capitalism and imperialism is succinctly and encapsulated in one of his famous aphorisms: “patriotism is fine, but patriotism plus five percent is even better”!
Cecil Rhodes was a capitalist, an imperialist and a racist. Of course, these are grounds to tear down the statue. But why stop there? Should one not also tear down all statues and portraits of Queen Victoria (aka Empress of India), who reigned from 1837 to 1901, covering a span of over four decades during which Britain dramatically extended its empire, including through the Opium Wars in China (1839-1860), the brutal suppression of the Indian Rebellion (1857) and the Scramble for Africa (from 1881), and hence its subjection of peoples, throughout much of Asia and Africa?
Moving across the Atlantic, what on earth is the Washington monument doing there given the fact that he too was a slave-owning racist? And what about the Jefferson memorial? Thomas Jefferson’s highfalutin discourse about democracy notwithstanding, he too was a slave owner, who certainly did not extend democratic rights to his slaves. Hypocrite!
While history is highly complex, the reality remains that the US would not have become the great – again in the sense of big, not in the sense of good – power that it did had it respected the land rights of Native Americans or the human rights of slaves. The forceful expropriation of the Cherokees, Sioux, Choctaw, Apache APA +4.76%, etc Amerindians “opened up” the land for the cultivation of commodities – notably cotton on which the fortunes of American and by extension Western capitalism were founded – in plantations profitably exploited through the enslavement of imported black African labor.
In his outstanding book on the abolitionist movement (Bury the Chains, 2005) author Adam Hochschild describes how the great difficulties initially of the abolitionists was to persuade people – including the Church of England which owned lucrative sugar plantations in the Caribbean – that slavery was evil. It was so “normal”, so much part of the global landscape. Hochschild estimates that at the beginning of the 19th century some 20% of humanity were enslaved in one form or another.
Slavery, land expropriation, torture, mercantilism and war were the foundation stones upon which Western capitalism and hence Western power and prosperity were built. Although smug Westerners like to believe that ingenuity and the spirit of scientific enquiry provided the momentum, in fact a good deal of alleged “Western” innovations were the result of “importing” technologies especially from India and China in what today would be called flagrant violation of intellectual property rights.
In his commanding and highly impressive opus on the history of cotton (Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, 2014) author Sven Beckert demonstrates how British advantage in the manufacture of textiles and cotton in particular, which provided the foundations for the Industrial Revolution, was in good part derived from stealing Indian technology in the 17th and 18th centuries. (There was no intellectual property right legislation, let alone organization, at the time!)
There was no suggestion or even pretense that trade was a zero-sum game: indeed for most of the second millennium, as so ably described in the opus by Ronald Findlay & Kevin H. O’Rourke (Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, 2009) trade was offensive, consisting of protectionism in the home markets while imposing access to markets of weaker states. In a nutshell, in this practice lies the cause why, in the words of Beckert, India, which had been the great textile power for centuries, “experienced the world’s most rapid and cataclysmic deindustrialization ever”, while “eventually becoming the world’s largest market for British cotton exports” (pp 171/172).
While one refers to “Western” capitalism, as it was the only variant in the global town for some time, other countries that have become capitalist powers, notably Japan in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, followed the Western “model” of exploitation of labor, expropriation of land, foreign conquest, and violation of intellectual property rights.
In his book Beckert distinguishes between “war capitalism” – invading, looting, stealing, expropriating, enslaving, plantations, embargoes, blockading, protectionist barriers, etc, etc – which by-and-large prevailed well into the early decades of the 20th century, and the emergence in the second half of the 19th century of “industrial capitalism”, which sees the emergence of the capitalist world pretty much as we know it today. It is characterized by institution-building, rule-making, capital accumulation, state-industry collaboration and international economic exchange.
So, we no longer grab territory by expelling and/or exploiting the local inhabitants, we no longer enslave people, we no longer egregiously steal others’ intellectual properties, and we no longer unilaterally impose blockades on trading partners – with the exception of course of occasional sanctions against alleged “rogue” states, such as Cuba! – but we play according to the rules that seek to prevent and prohibit all these nasty things.
The rules, however, have been written, as critics and cynics allege, by those who gained power and now seek to prevent the aspiring capitalist powers from using similar tools to dislodge them from their positions of power. After having imposed stringent protectionist policies in their domestic markets for decades, the Western capitalist powers now seek to force developing economies to practice “free trade”.
So much for the past, where do we go from here?
We can tear down Rhodes’ statue and that might make us feel better, but it won’t change anything. Besides, why stop, as I have suggested, with Cecil Rhodes? Ultimately the whole capitalist edifice should perhaps be torn down – as communists and fascists sought to do last century: but then what?
It is the case, however paradoxical, that, no matter how traumatic their past may be, capitalist societies tend to be not only more prosperous than non-capitalist societies, but also more just. Socialist East Germans sought to join capitalist West Germany after the Berlin Wall forcefully came tumbling down in 1989, not vice-versa. Would you rather live in capitalist South Korea or the “People’s” (!) Republic of North Korea? Or, compare life in China during the socialist “Utopia” of Mao Zedong, with life under the current post-Deng regime of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” … or whatever you want to call it!
On balance, the world today is a far better place than it was fifty years ago, let alone one hundred or one-hundred and fifty years ago – just a year after the end of the American civil war. Having said it is far better, however, by no means can imply that that is good enough. Exploitation, enslavement and expropriation continue in different parts of the world. Even where the social environment is less brutal – including in virtually all of today’s advanced capitalist societies as well as developing countries, such as India – there is great inequality and great injustice.
The great challenge of this century is to evolve another metamorphosis of capitalism: following war capitalism and industrial capitalism, we need, somehow, to create a system of “humanistic capitalism” – as much of an oxymoron as it may sound. The current situation may be better than it was, but it remains highly fragile and still, in many respects, ugly. Unless there is a major change in the prevailing values of capitalism, not just the statue of Cecil Rhodes, but the entire edifice of global capitalism risks being torn down.
We must be conscious of the past – and especially those of us from the rich world must recognize the great injustices and indignities that had to be endured by so many for us to become rich. We must not forget the past, or else we risk repeating it. But we cannot spend our time lamenting the past: what is done is done; Cecil Rhodes is dead. What we must urgently do is build a better, more just, more humane, more sustainable capitalist edifice.
We need to have a dream … and realize it.-FORBES