The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth

It is not unusual for critics of United States foreign policy, whether or not they feel free to use the term “imperialism,” to express regret that a previously rational system has soured. Such sentiments are routine for liberals and hardly unknown among social democrats.

Such sentiments are, to anyone who cares to pursue a study of history, quite ahistorical. Violence, force and coercion — exemplified in widespread use of slave labor, imperialist conquests of peoples around the world and ruthless extraction of natural resources — pervades the entire history of capitalism. The rise of capitalism can’t be understood outside slavery, colonialism and plunder. To follow up on my previous article discussing how U.S. domination of the world is rooted in the stranglehold Washington has over the world’s financial institutions and its possession of the dominant currency, let’s conduct a further examination of the history of how capitalism functions, this time highlighting imperialism and violence.

My inspiration for this examination is my recent reading of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Mr. Perkins, for those not familiar with his book, provides a first-hand account of how the U.S. government employs debt, financial entanglements, bribes, threats and finally violence and assassinations of national leaders who won’t place their economies and resources under the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations. That is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the book became an improbable best seller, meaning there must have been many eyes opened. That can only be a positive development.

The conquest of the Incas (mural by FUEJXJDK)

But even Mr. Perkins, who is unsparing in drawing conclusions and under no illusions about what he and his fellow “economic hit men” were doing and on whose behalf, shows a measure of naïveté. He repeatedly draws upon the “ideals of the U.S. founding fathers” and laments that a republic dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has morphed into a global empire. Given the outstanding service he has provided in writing his book, and the physical danger that he put himself in to publish it (he postponed writing it multiple times fearing possible consequences), least of all do I want to imply criticism or raise any snarky accusations against Mr. Perkins. My point here is that even a strong critic of U.S. imperialism with eyes open can harbor illusions about the nature of capitalism. The all-encompassing pervasiveness of capitalist propaganda, and that the relentless dissemination of it across every conceivable media and institutional outlet, still leaves most people with a wistful idealization of some earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t.

Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Markets over people from the start

Although the relative weight that should be given to the two sides of the equation of how capitalism took root in feudal Europe — feudal lords pushing their peasants off the land to clear space for commodity agricultural products or the capital accumulated from trade by merchants growing large enough to create the surpluses capable of being converted into the capital necessary to start production on a scale larger than artisan production — is likely never to be definitively settled (and the two basic factors reinforced one another), force was a crucial midwife. English lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows to take advantage of the demand for wool, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours. The brutality of this process is glimpsed in this account by historian Michael Perelman, in his book The Invention of Capitalism:

Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Additional taking of the commons occurred in the early 19th century, when British industrialists sought to eliminate the remaining portions of any commons left so there would be no alternative to selling one’s labor power to capitalists for a pittance. As industrial resistance gathered steam, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity. That represented more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

Slavery critical to capitalist accumulation

Nor can the role of slavery in bootstrapping the rise of capitalism be ignored. The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems.

Sheep in a meadow (Eugène Verboeckhoven)

Spain’s slaughter of Indigenous peoples and Spanish use of the survivors as slaves to mine enormous amounts of gold and silver — the basis of money across Europe and Asia — also was a crucial contributor to the rise of European economies, both by swelling the amount of money available and enabling the importation of goods from China, which was not interested in buying European products but had a need of silver to stabilize its own economy. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, horrified at what he witnessed, wrote in 1542, “the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty — new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read of heard of — some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining.”

When the Spanish were kicked out by Latin America’s early 19th century wars of liberation, that did not mean real independence. The British replaced the Spanish, using more modern financial means to exploit the region. The era of direct colonialism, beginning with Spain’s massive extraction of gold and silver, was replaced by one-sided trading relationships following the region’s formal independence in the early nineteenth century. George Canning, an imperialist “free trader” who was the British foreign secretary, wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.” 

Canning was no idle boaster. At the same time, the French foreign minister lamented, “In the hour of emancipation the Spanish colonies turned into some sort of British colonies.” And lest we think this was simply European hubris, here is what the Argentine finance minister had to say: “We are not in a position to take measures against foreign trade, particularly British, because we are bound to that nation by large debts and would expose ourselves to a rupture which would cause much harm.” What had happened? Argentina flung its ports wide open to trade under British influence, flooding itself with a deluge of European goods sufficient to strangle nascent local production; when Argentina later attempted to escape dependency by imposing trade barriers in order to build up its own industry, British and French warships forced the country open again.

The “right” to force opium on China to maintain profits

Imperialism was not confined to any single continent. Consider Britain’s treatment of China in the latter half of the 19th century. (We are concentrating on Britain for the moment because it was the leading capitalist power at this time.) British warships were sent to China to force the Chinese to import opium, a drug that was illegal back home. This was done under the rubric of Britain’s alleged “right to trade.” Under this doctrine, underdeveloped countries had no choice but to buy products from more powerful capitalist countries, even products that caused widespread injury to the country’s people. This could also be considered a “right” to force opium on China. Where else but under capitalism could such a preposterous “right” be conjured? U.S. smugglers also made enormous fortunes selling opium to Chinese as well.

A 2015 Medium article detailing the background and results of the two opium wars, noted the huge amounts of money that were made:

“Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the ‘world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.’ Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, ‘The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium. … [A] procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America.’ ”

Eventually, Chinese authorities ordered foreigners, mainly British and U.S., to hand over all opium. After a refusal, Chinese authorities destroyed all the opium they could find. In response, British warships were sent to bombard coastal cities until China agreed to the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, in which it was forced to pay Britain an indemnity of millions, to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to trade, where foreigners were not subject to Chinese law or authorities.

When further demands were refused, the British, French and U.S. navies launched the second opium war, attacking coastal and interior cities. They invaded Beijing, “chased the emperor out of town, and, in an orgy of fine-art and jewelry looting, destroyed the Versailles of China, the old Summer Palace.” A new treaty, more unequal than the first, was imposed, forcing open the entire country. A British lawyer enlisted to provide justification for this behavior wrote, as the first opium war was developing, “Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be ‘our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.’ Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence — or series of offences — which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.” 

Fantastic profits for European capital; death for Africans

Nor was Africa spared exploitation. Far from it. The exact number of Africans kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic will never be known, but scholars’ estimates tend to range from about ten million to twelve million. The human toll, however, is still higher because, simultaneous with those who were successfully kidnapped, millions more were killed or maimed, and thus not shipped across the Atlantic. This level of inhumanity cannot be accomplished without an accompanying ideology. 

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding contribution to understanding lagging development in the South, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that although racism and other hatreds, including anti-Semitism, long existed across Europe, racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to their accumulations of wealth.  “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons,” Dr. Rodney wrote. “European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

Exploitation did not end with the end of slavery in the 19th century, Dr. Rodney pointed out. Colonial powers confiscated huge areas of arable land in Africa, then sold it at nominal prices to the well-connected. In Kenya, for example, the British declared the fertile highlands “crown lands” and sold blocks of land as large as 550 square miles (1,400 square kilometers). These massive land confiscations not only enabled the creation of massively profitable plantations, but created the conditions that forced newly landless Africans to become low-wage agricultural workers and to pay taxes to the colonial power. Laws were passed forbidding Africans from growing cash crops in plantation regions, a system of compulsion summed up by a British colonel who became a settler in Kenya: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” In other parts of colonial Africa, where land remained in African hands, colonial governments slapped money taxes on cattle, land, houses and the people themselves; subsistence farmers don’t have money to pay money taxes so farmers were forced to grow cash crops, for which they were paid very little.

The alternative to farming was to go to work in the mines, where wages were set at starvation levels. European and North American mining and trading companies made fantastic profits (sometimes as high as 90 percent) and raw materials could be exploited at similar levels. (A U.S. rubber company, from 1940 to 1965, took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia while the Liberian government received eight million dollars.) Another method of extracting wealth was through forced labor — French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colonial governments required Africans to perform unpaid labor on railroads and other infrastructure projects. The French were particularly vicious in their use of forced labor (each year throughout the 1920s, 10,000 new people were put to work on a single railroad and at least 25 percent of the railroad’s forced laborers died from starvation or disease). These railroads did not benefit Africans when independence came in the mid-20th century because they were laid down to bring raw materials to a port and had no relationship to the trading or geographical patterns of the new countries or their neighbors.

The entire territory that today constitutes the Democratic Republic of Congo was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the personal possession of Belgium’s king, Leopold II. At least 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of Belgian authorities eager to extract rubber and other resources at any cost. This genocidal plunder — the loss of life halved the local population — rested on a system of terror and slave labor. This system included forced labor requiring work in mines day and night, the chopping off of hands as punishment and “the burning of countless villages and cities where every individual who was found was killed.”

As the U.S. grew to prominence, becoming a leading capitalist power itself as the 20th century began, overthrowing governments to ensure undisputed “profitable investment” became routine. The U.S., incidentally, was the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim to Congo.

If it’s your “backyard” you do what you want to do

The U.S. has long considered Latin America its “backyard.” Cuba’s economy was based on slave-produced sugar cane under Spanish rule, and when a series of rebellions finally succeeded in freeing the country from Spanish colonial rule, Cuban independence was formal only as the United States quickly became a colonial master in all but name. U.S. forces left Cuba in 1902 after a four-year occupation but not before dictating that Cubans agree to the Platt Amendment. The amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution as the price for U.S. withdrawal, gave the U.S. control over Cuban foreign and economic policies and the right to intervene with military force to protect U.S. corporate interests. By 1905, U.S. interests owned 60 percent of Cuba’s land and controlled most of its industry. Just four months after the 1959 revolution took power, the U.S. government was already viewing the potential success of the revolution as a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America. The U.S. State Department defined U.S. goals in Cuba as “receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade” and “access by the United States to essential Cuban resources.” Those goals have not changed to this day.

That follows naturally from what the pre-revolution U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, had said of the island country: “I ran Cuba from the sixth floor of the US embassy. The Cubans’ job was to grow sugar and shut up.”

When a strike broke out against the United Fruit Company in Colombia in 1929, the action was put down through a massacre of the workers. The U.S. embassy in Bogotá cabled the State Department in Washington this triumphant message: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” Honor. Think about that.

For much of the 20th century, the effective ruler of Guatemala and Honduras was the United Fruit Company. The company owned vast plantations in eight countries, and toppled governments in Guatemala and Honduras. For many years, United Fruit had an especially sweet deal in Guatemala. The company paid no taxes, imported equipment without paying duties and was guaranteed low wages. The company also possessed a monopoly on Guatemalan railroads, ocean ports and the telegraph. When a president, Jacobo Arbenz, moved to end this exploitation and orient Guatemala’s economy toward benefiting Guatemalans through mild reforms, the CIA overthrew him. U.S. intelligence agencies declared Arbenz’s program had to be reversed because loosening the United Fruit Company’s domination of the country was against U.S. interests. The U.S. instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

The U.S. invaded and occupied Nicaragua multiple times. One of these occasions, in 1909, came as a result of a Nicaraguan president accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers, then opening negotiations with Germany and Japan to build a new canal to rival the Panama Canal. The U.S. installed a dictatorship, and President Taft placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control. The disapproved British loan was refinanced through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward. These developments were not an accident, for President Taft had already declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad.

All these atrocities — and countless others — all happened before the assassinations in Ecuador, Iran and Panama of heads of state who refused to do as they were ordered to by U.S. government operatives (and, in the case of Omar Torrijos, refusing the bribes that were the first tactic to get local leaders on side) recounted by Mr. Perkins in Confessions. No, those atrocities — and the author leaves us in no doubt that those were not “accidents” but were assassinations carried out by the U.S. government — do not represent an unprecedented turn to the dark side. Those acts, as are the present-day sanctions that kill in the hundreds of thousands, are business as usual for the U.S. government and the capitalism it imposes around the world. Imperialism, brutality and violence are nothing new; they are essential tools long wielded in abundance.

Far more examples could be cited; the above represents a minuscule fraction of atrocities that could be told. Such a long history of systematic violence and brutality speaks for itself as to the “morality” of capitalism.

9 comments on “The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth

  1. tubularsock says:

    It appears to Tubularsock that the CIA opium interests in Afghanistan is the main reason that no President can move troops out of that “war zone”.

    Capitalism is as wretched as Christianity on the world stage. Pox on both their houses!

    Cheers.

  2. dylanfreak says:

    Thank you for such an admirably detailed and eloquent post.

    Your quote from Marx (about the “congenital blood stain on one cheek) inspired me to reference it in a blog page I’m writing, which I would like to share with you when I finish it.

    I think the use of violence, through inevitable given the degree of exploitation in which empire engages, is also self-destructive. For example, putting the Shah in power in Iran ultimately led to the victory there of Islamic fundamentalism, which was extremely detrimental to U.S. capitalism’s interests.

    Also, José Manuel Fortuny, a Guatemalan Communist friend of Jacobo Arbenz, has indicated that pressure by United Fruit was not the only or even the most important reason Arbenz was overthrown. Fortuny seemed to imply that they did so simply because the U.S. realized that they couldn’t dominate Arbenz: the American ambassador in Guatemala demanded of Arbenz that he cut ties with Fortuny, but he (respectfully) refused. This was enough to make the U.S. determined to oust him. This is an important point, because I want to write a script about Arbenz’ tragic fall and death.

    I think a significant flaw of Marxist thought is that it generally ascribes mostly or entirely rational reasons for exploitation and atrocity: namely, the desire for wealth and resources. Almost equally important, in my view, is the irrational will to dominate. This tends to lead, throughout history, to a lot of behavior by nations that is nonsensical or even plain crazy if viewed through a rationalist lens.

    Your thoughts?
    .
    Jack

    • I’ll look forward to seeing your results, Jack.

      As to Marxism, it applies less stress to economics than is generally believed. Engels once remarked that he regretted he and Marx had put so much stress on economics, and thus were misinterpreted, but did so because there was such heavy resistance to economics being considered a major consideration that needed to be countered. In my book It’s Not Over, I summarized the philosophy this way:

      “[H]istory, and social development, do not consist of discrete steps or stages. Philosophical, political and religious ideas (which are built on the materials of their predecessors); the prevailing culture (which include traditions shaped in the conditions of the past that have survived into the present); and local geographic factors influence not only each other and but also influence economic conditions. What was a cause can become an effect, and an effect can become a cause. These forces are given concrete form within a state, the form of which (including its legal structure) is based on the material conditions of life — the economic structure is the foundation on which society is built and which therefore shapes social consciousness.

      There are many factors that go into the construction of a society, and the weight of those factors differ among different societies. These factors are “rational” in the sense that people at the apex benefit. From the standpoint of U.S. capital, overthrowing governments is “rational” because large sums of money and profit are at stake. For working people, these tend to be irrational, but the totality of the alignment of social forces is what tends to dictate. Rationality differs based on one’s perspective.

  3. […] The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth — Systemic Disorder […]

  4. […] Pete Dolack Writer, Dandelion Salad Systemic Disorder, Apr. 7, 2021 April 8, […]

  5. Thought you might be interested in a different perspective on capitalism. It seems to fit with the times… https://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/seeing-wetiko-on-capitalism-mind-viruses-and-antidotes-for-a-world-in-transition/

    • There is much to think about in the article to which you linked, Carol. Thank you for sharing, and I encourage readers to take a look. From the article:

      “For those who prefer their science more empirical, the growing field of epigenetics provides some intellectual concrete. Epigenetics studies changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than any physical alteration of the gene itself. In other words, how traits vary from generation to generation is not solely a question of material biology but is partly determined by environmental and contextual factors that affected our ancestors and then are triggered within our genetic sequence through activation events in our life. …

      We would presumably all agree that the behavior of the European colonialists in North America can be described as cannibalistic. Their drive for conquest and material accumulation was a violent act of consumption. The engine of the invading culture sucked in the lives and resources of millions of humans and other animals, and turned them into wealth and power for themselves. The figures are still disputed, but it is safe to place the numbers of humans killed in the ‘founding of the New World’ at tens of millions. It was certainly one of the most brutal genocides in history. And the impact on more-than-human life was equally vast. These heinous acts were enacted with a moral certainty rationalizing the destruction in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’ ”

      The concept of “memes” as ideas that are replicated from person to person certainly has merit; I would argue that we can’t understand the persistence of capitalism without the concept. “There is no alternative” has proven to be an extraordinarily powerful force, albeit a “meme” that wouldn’t have the power it has without all that has been done to destroy alternatives to capitalism. However we wish to delineate the various factors behind the making and persistence of our world, ideas are a powerful psychological social force.

      • Thank you so much for your thoughtful, substantive reply, Pete. I wondered at the wisdom of sharing my comment. As someone who has always lived in the space between cultures, it is often the case that other ways of thinking or understanding the world are so easily dismissed. I frequently question them myself given the still prevailing positivistic objectivity that underlies research. Yet that never feels complete from an Ojibwe sense that life is based on inextricably interwoven relationships that defy superficial ways of observing, measuring, and categorizing what we cannot see or understand.

        My early years living on a commune showed me how powerful memes are to overcome…

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