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A Fraught Century

Colonies and the political economy are two sides of the same coin. In The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean (Monthly Review Press, 2018), historian Gerald Horne reveals the actors and factors behind the origin of a racial capitalism that haunts us now.

It is no easy task, but Horne is up to it. His new nine-chapter book with near 50 pages of notes arrives as Pres. Trump bashes black athletes and brown immigrants to juice up his white base for the November elections. Such cruelty did not fall from the sky.

Race, a category with no scientific basis, rose in the cauldron of geopolitics and class relations in the 17th century. This was something new. Horne’s scholarship drills down on the whys and wherefores of a process that birthed the capitalist economy and its “handmaiden of white supremacy,” a recurring phrase of his.

The scope of racial slavery’s brutality is stunning. “From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans were brutally snatched from their homelands, enslaved, and forced to toil for the greater good of European and Euro-American powers, London not least,” Horne writes. “Roughly two to four million Native Americans also were enslaved and traded by European settlers in the Americas, English and Scots not least.”

All this took place as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The pivotal changes in the mode of production, how and what people do at work to create the world around them, required a new system of governance. A case in point is the Royal African Company under the Crown in England that held a monopoly on a peculiar form of capital, living human beings captured in Africa and North America to labor as chattel slaves.

Enslavement of Africans and indigenous Americans drove a new social order that spawned unheard-of wealth accumulation in cotton, sugar and tobacco. A rising class of merchants proclaiming a dawn of liberty and freedom won a deregulation of the slave trade in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, entering this profitable market. Horne sheds useful light on this revolutionary history.

An ideology to justify the lucrative slave trade emerged out of religious conflicts, e.g., Catholic versus Protestant and Muslim against Christian. Meanwhile, a merchant class grabbed economic and political power. The idea and practice of “whiteness” gained ground as the enslaved resisted oppression in the Caribbean and North America, Horne documents.

Their resistance was involved with a cross-class alliance of whites to rule over the restive Africans and indigenes whose stolen labor and lives grew Euro-American industries such as finance, manufactures and shipbuilding. This ruling class concession to white settlers was a kind of “combat pay,” according to Horne. At the same time, the oppressed fought their oppressors, pitting one colonial power off another when conditions allowed.

This violent process of armed conquest unfolded amid protracted struggles between colonial powers. England, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain battled for the top spot to take land, labor and resources of nonwhites in Africa and North America. In Horne’s hands, we discover in detail what Marx calls primary accumulation of capital based on murder and theft, so central to the birth of capitalism and the USA.

In 2018, the festering socioeconomic crisis, in part the fading of a whiteness premium for US citizenship (think deindustrialization and the opioid crisis), is a symptom of an old order steeped in racism, imperialism and militarism, Rev. MLK’s triple evils. Horne, an advocate of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans and indigenes, calls upon transnational solidarity as the way forward out of the worsening social conditions that produced Pres. Trump. To be sure, that is easier to say than to do.

In sum, the history of racial capitalism matters in a milieu of fake news, social media and precarious labor. To this end, Horne’s book situates the current chaos of economics and politics, inequality and poverty, into a clear narrative. The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism is a book for our troubled age.

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Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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