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Annexing the Stars: Walcott, Rhodes, and Venezuela

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

Poet Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” provides a stirring glimpse into the perspectives and policies of British colonialists in the 20th century. Of course, the perspectives it reveals are temporally confined to British colonialism in Walcott’s poem: he was a native of Saint Lucia, a British colony or “possession” in the Caribbean; and he was writing about Kenya, a British colony or “possession” in Africa. But the mindset he reveals could easily be applied to the modern neocolonialists of the American empire, which succeeded the British empire after World War Two.

It was the British from whom the Americans inherited the imperial mandate. Imperialist enthusiast Sir Cecil Rhodes, the infamous South African magnate, understood the mutual interests of capitalism and imperialism, and how the latter was in fact a species of the former. Rhodes passionately believed expansionism was everything in capitalism and in nations. He once remarked, with a disarming frankness, “I would annex the stars if I could.”

Contrast this with a quote from Derek Walcott, who spoke of his native region with a different kind of enthusiasm, “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.” How curious a contrast—the native of a country with an embarrassment of natural riches, star-struck by its beauty, who understood it to be a palliative for the individual suffering under the ravages of colonialism. It acted like a physic on the soul; like a balm on the body. Walcott sensed the same visual medicine existed in Africa. In A Far Cry, he notes the “tawny pelt” and a “white dust of ibises” and the “…bloodstreams of the veldt” that mar this “paradise.”

A not inconsiderable part of the colonialism that visited social and ecological catastrophe on the Caribbean and Africa, threatening to destroy the natural beauties Walcott so loved, was the ideological justifications for the conquest. For Walcott, like African author Chinua Achebe, the rationales for colonial cruelty were almost as galling as the acts themselves. They revealed the inner workings of the hand that slew, the eye that hated, the mouth that cursed, the law that confined natives within the humiliating mews of servitude. There are connected justifications that Walcott notes in his poem.

Throughout the work, Walcott underscores the racist attitude the colonial British had toward their African subjects: “savages, expendable as Jews.” And later, “The gorilla wrestles with the superman”. These phrases reveal the history of colonial thought, dating back even to the Greeks, who were perhaps the first to externalize the ‘other’ as almost nonhuman. The Greeks called non-Greeks “barbarians.” Walcott suggests that this, too, was how the British saw Africans, as ‘savages’ and ‘gorillas’. This diminishing of the humanity of the African made it easier for the British to condone their colonial cruelties. For them, then, this was not a case of one human harming another. This was rather a case of humans necessarily exerting dominion over sub-humans, not simply as a byproduct of conquest, but rather as a mandate from heaven. This was the second justification. Indeed, the British believed they were civilizing the savages. Walcott saw this quite clearly. He writes, “The violence of beast on beast is read/As natural law, but upright man/Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain”. Perfectly put. Here we see the ideologies of racism, messianic religion, and social Darwinism merging into a deeply delusional reconfiguring of reality.

This is Orwellian in the truest sense. In 1984 Orwell imagined a state that taught that, “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Here Walcott describes a colonial regime that reinterprets enslavement as altruism. Walcott concludes, “Again brutish necessity wipes its hands/Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again”. That dirty cause is what needs cleaning up, what needs a rationale. That dirty cause Walcott laments is what author J.M. Coetzee wrote so memorably of in Waiting for the Barbarians:

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

The brutal exploitation of nations and peoples must be dulcified by subjugating it to a larger cultural project, in this case the civilizing of savages. In a sense, these are, at bottom, issues of language. Without the mental justification, would colonialism persist? Language here is the articulated embodiment of inner greed yoked to rationality, the former conditioning the latter.

Modern Incarnations

This is the story of Venezuela. Racism reveals itself in the character of the protagonists and the antagonists. Juan Guaido’s National Assembly is a whitebred clan of privileged ‘representatives’, representing little more than the interests of privilege. Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly is a cross-section of society, mostly comprised of people of color, working to imbue their constitution with a revolutionary array of rights for every citizen. Yet across Latin America, as Amy Chua has written, small bands of whites with European heritage tend to control the wealth of these societies. It is no different in Venezuela.

These self-anointed rulers must vindicate their behaviors in some fashion. Today we here extremists like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio declaring the need to defend the persecuted people of Venezuela from their own elected leader; the responsibility to nobly restore democracy (read market capitalism) to a nation that has made stunning social strides underneath the banner of Bolivarian socialism. This modern fake faith in democracy is not unlike the old ruse of disguising colonialism as missionary work. Both rationales cloak an underlying madness of capitalist imperialism: as cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, capitalism is, “…a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”

But unlike the heavy-handed imperial Britain that Walcott wrote of, the imperialism of the United States has found a modern method of conquest and rule, a more opaque template that looks to leave a lighter footprint, less evidence of its own barbarity, the better to project it onto the victim. As many alternative media outlets have explained, Venezuela’s economic and social problems are principally the product of economic warfare against it by the United States, and only secondarily an expression of the ham-fisted economic management of the Maduro government (I nearly wrote ‘Maduro regime’. It is never wise to discount the effects of mainstream media on the unconscious.).

The U.S. has instanced a variety of brutal economic and clandestine measures to destabilize the legitimate government in Caracas under the guise of democracy promotion. They include the use of destructive sanctions that prevent the Maduro government from attaining international loans, of importing precious medical supplies and agricultural products, as well as necessary resources to process its petroleum; the confiscation of Venezuelan gold (by the British government) and the revenues of its North American oil supplier Citgo (by the U.S. government); the de facto banning of Venezuela from using the SWIFT system of international payments; the funding of violent opposition by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); the use of public relations stunts like the sham humanitarian aid deliveries to the Venezuelan borders, organized by convicted gunrunner Elliot Abrams (indelibly exposed by Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar in Congressional hearings); the backing of coup d’états (one temporarily succeeded in 2002, another foiled in the planning stages in 2014, the latest a slow-motion series of mishaps); and last but not least, the massive undeclared media campaign to establish the narrative that Maduro was a dictator hellbent on destroying his own society through purblind socialist economics and authoritarian brutality to suppress resistance; and finally the threat of military invasion if these efforts fail to dislodge the Bolivarian movement. All of this to install a racist ingenue in the presidency, backed by a phalanx of neoliberal technocrats who will unravel the Bolivarian achievements to reintroduce the laissez-faire hellscape that the socialist movement lifted Venezuela out of.

The Othering of Men and Women

It is, in the end, a politics of the ‘other’. By rationalizing conquest as a necessary conquest of ‘other’, ‘lesser’ humans, we allow ourselves to conduct it with little cognitive dissonance. This might be sufficient for the continuation of subjugation until enslaved populations rise up and throw off their chains. But what occurs in all colonial settings is that the colonizer intermingles with the colonized and produces a new community of people that contain within them elements of both. This changes both the colonized and the colonizing nations, and gives the lie to the notion that one is superior to the other. Derek Walcott was a member of this co-mingled community, and in his final stanza of “Far Cry”, rather than issuing a fierce call for resistance (which would have been perfectly valid), he calls into view his own being. He had white and black grandparents. He was a subject of a British colony and yet a master of the colonial language. This contradictions within his own person troubled him, even as a new social realm emerged from the interplay of conquest and resistance.

We see this clearly enough in Europe and America today. The colonization of North Africa, the conquest of half of Mexico, the neocolonial conquests in the Middle East and Central America–all produce their refugees, seeking shelter within the walls of the empire, beneath the gun turrets themselves. There is safety at the metropole. It is an unsettling paradox: in the heart of evil, the evil only echoes at a distance. Yet this is the proverbial nightmare scenario for men like President Trump and Abrams and Rubio, who see refugees as desperadoes come to rape and pillage our pristine societies. This feverish vision—like the regime change wars themselves—is merely the unconscious mind projecting its own unacceptable behavior onto those it violates. This capacity for self-delusion and the delusional rationalization of savagery is one of the deepest dilemmas of the human species. We are, in this respect, no further along the road to peaceful cohabitation than we were in the days of satraps and the Raj, only that our barbarities are better shielded from view. We are better dissimulators than we once were; we are better magicians of the unreal. The more one considers this, the more plausible it seems that our material advances in civilization have been offset by a moral recidivism for which we have few comprehensive solutions. But if capitalism has been shown to exacerbate that dilemma, why are we once again backing the proposed plunder of another sovereign nation, for which we will again have to invent false narratives to appease our agitated conscience?

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Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.  

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