Conflict and Context
Edited by Maija Utriainen
I have a problem with HISTORY. Or rather, its mystification.
We Europeans are raised to believe that Europe is the cradle of civilization. I am a GenZ Italian, and in high school, I was enlightened by the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers, Latin writers, and poets. I was taught about the birthplace of democracy and men who preferred death to a life without principles. We have all taken pride and recognized our values and common European identity in those roots.
However, we should feel much less proud of certain aspects of our history, which the narrative adopted in education tends to hide. Two summers ago, I was on holiday in Lisbon, observing the merciful figures of Vasco da Gama and the other navigators (Figure 1). I remember thinking: this monument is the perfect emblem of that ‘sense of adventure’ and ‘lust for pushing the boundaries’ emphasized by the teacher as a motive for the European colonization of the Americas. Not by chance does the statue bear the name “Monument of Discoveries” and not “Monument of Brutal Colonisers.”
Figure 1. Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal.
Image courtesy of Joachim G Pinkawa.
While in schools, the European curricula tend to romanticize the colonisations of the 15th and 16th centuries, key elements in the narrative of the Renaissance (1350-1500) are completely missed. The underlying economic system of this “Golden Age” and how it came to an end (spoiler: through abhorrent violence) are often underplayed.
When teaching the 20th century, anything that follows WWII focuses mainly on Europe and the USA from a Cold War perspective. The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) usually marks the end of the curricula, while the rest of contemporary history is packed into a one-hour class before the last bell rings, students sit their Diploma exams and head off for summer vacations. What happens outside the Western countries (the core) is largely ignored. Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia (the periphery) should be given more consideration in the 20th century narration. Gandhi’s liberation movement in India is covered as a proxy of the dismantlement of colonialism worldwide and the ensuing independence movement throughout former colonies.
The hegemonic image of Western colonizers that export “civilization” in the form of technical progress, literacy, and infrastructure really bothers me as it manages to erase the violence, abuses, and stealing of resources and labor inflicted on indigenous communities. Even more disturbing is that the ensemble of neocolonial institutions and asymmetric power relationships between the economic core and the periphery, which have remained tall and still after the official end of colonialism, gets no mention.
More generally, this patchwork narrative of history is inadequate to make sense of the present. It renders the objectives of studying history questionable. In the rest of the article, I will propose a narrative emphasizing historical imperial arrangements and power dynamics. The aim is to call our European (and Western, by extension) sense of pride into question while becoming active seekers of change. An overview of the history of capitalism is critical in understanding the origins of the significant challenges facing humanity today, from the massive global inequalities to the biophysical planetary crisis and the temperature rise.
Figure 2. The book cover of “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto” by W.W.Rostow (1960).
The book is the backbone of what we are taught in schools about poor countries
that need to advance through the stages of growth and “catch-up” to rich countries. Image courtesy of Amazon Books.
Let’s go chronologically. Throughout its history, the feudal system of oppression was challenged by peasant revolutions. These revolts were consistently repressed until the Black Death pandemic changed the balance of power in Europe, marking the ultimate collapse of feudalism. “Serfs became free farmers[…]with free access to commons: pasture for grazing, forests for game and timber, waterways for irrigation. They worked for wages if they wanted extra income - rarely under coercion.”[…]free peasants began to build a clear alternative: an egalitarian, co-operative society rooted in the principles of local self-sufficiency”1. The system of the commons allowed the population to flourish, achieving levels of welfare that would only be surpassed with the first Industrial Revolution while setting the ground for the cultural rebirth for which this period is often celebrated.
The commons caused the crisis of “deaccumulation” of the nobility, which ultimately forced the peasants off the land through violence and privatized the commons. This process, known as enclosure (widely adopted from the 1500s onwards), resulted in mass impoverishment. The population was proletarianized, forced to depend on wage labor for survival. Competition for productivity was spurred on by the threat of being replaced by the “reserve army of labor.” The enclosure movement was key to the consolidation of capitalism since it produced a cheap, exploitable, and highly productive labor force for capital.
To create a surplus, capitalism demands the cheapening of labor and nature. Within a closed economy, this will eventually lead to labor resistance and ecological rifts, undermining the very same inputs of capital reproduction. From this angle, colonization came in as a fix. The appropriation of silver, cotton, and sugar from the colonies allowed Europe to accumulate capital for the Industrial Revolution, build its military capacity, and free workers from agriculture to be employed in industry. The colonies then became captive markets for European finite goods. This all was achieved with incommensurable violence.
Mines and plantations were worked by the remainder of the enslaved indigenous population who survived the genocide (95% of indigenous Americans were wiped out in about 160 years). The Atlantic Slave Trade saw 15 million Africans shipped overseas. In India in the late 19th century, 30 million people died from starvation. At the same time, record amounts of grains were exported out of India. The dehumanization of indigenous peoples was rooted in the very same Descartian dualistic of inanimate nature that can be subjugated by man. The value of extracted labor and resources expropriated during the colonial period amounts to hundreds of trillions of USD (more than double global GDP in 2022 of +102 trillion).
When colonial countries started to gain formal independence during the 19th and 20th centuries, the West sponsored colonial elites to keep the colonial economy in place (export of cheap raw materials and labor and a captive market for Western output). In 1904, the Roosevelt Corollary stated openly that the U.S. would intervene in Latin American countries that refused to cooperate with U.S. interests. This is precisely what happened in Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, just to name a few. This cycle continued in the 70s in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, where, in the context of the Cold War, the US-backed far-right authoritarian coups prevented socialist governments. US-backed coups continued into the 2000s.
In the middle of the 20th century, progressive and radical anti-colonial movements in Global South countries (known as the Non-Aligned Movement) began to rise against the imperial legacy by planning policies and production around national needs rather than for the needs of the Global North (including land reforms and workers' wage raises). These policies, while increasing per capita income at 3.2% (1960-1970s), exported inflation to the Global North. Inflation exacerbated by OPEC's demand for fairer fossil fuel export prices triggered a major capital accumulation crisis in the Global North.
In the US, the 20% rise in interest rates to counteract such inflation caused a “Third World Debt Crisis” that in the 80s gave the occasion for Global North super-powers to reimpose the imperial arrangement. The IMF and the World Bank (colonial institutions) inflicted Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), forcing indebted countries to privatize national industries and resources and slash social spending budgets to honor the debts they owed to the Global North. The effects of SAPs were disastrous and created dependence in the Global South on foreign capital and imports of patented technologies and produced goods due to the disinvestments in their own universities, research, and innovation.
In school, we learn that democracy means one head, one vote. That does not hold true in prominent international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the United Nations, where one dollar in GDP gets one vote. This vastly skews majorities in the Global North, who have the most significant share of global GDP. This is why the NO-vote of Global South countries did not have the power to stop the SAPs.
SAPs (1981-2004) were imposed in 132 countries, 82% of the world population. Extreme poverty skyrocketed while the increase in per-capita income soared in the core. While the Global South was the net loser from SAPs (see Figure 3), the neoliberal turn of privatization and capital deregulation affected Global North countries, too, with the working class paying the price and the internal inequality gap increasing. Resistance by Global South countries to SAPs was neutralized, such as in the case of Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara, who, after advocating for all African countries defaulting on their debt, was murdered in a Western-backed coup.
Figure 3. The graph shows the divergence in GDP change between the core
and the periphery as a result of SAPs.
Figure 4. Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara.
Image courtesy of Global Social Theory.
The impact of neoliberal globalization on the Global South was a “race to the bottom” in terms of the cost of labor and nature (including lifting environmental regulations), resulting from dampening prices in the Global South to benefit the Global North. Price inequalities produced unequal exchange (for every unit of embodied labor and resources the Global South imports, they must export many more units to pay for it). Unequal exchange today primarily occurs via supply chains and is responsible for large net flows towards the Global North. For every dollar of aid the South receives, they lose 30 USD in drain through unequal exchange. This dynamic is also at the root of the atmospheric colonization by the Global North, through offshoring impacts of their own consumption to countries in the Global South.
When we begin to see the world through the lens of a long history of colonial violence and core-periphery power dynamics, it is easier to comprehend where the apparent madness of the West supporting the current genocide of Palestinians and the war against children in Gaza is rooted. In school, we learn little about the +75 years of occupation of Palestine and the Western maneuvers in the Middle East to pursue imperial interests.
In the outbreak of Israeli bombardments on Gaza, I stumbled upon this declaration by German chancellor Olaf Scholz: “Our own history, our responsibility arising from the Holocaust, makes it a perpetual task for us to stand up for the security of the state of Israel.”. This reminded me of how history is once again weaponized AGAINST humanity. At the same time, it should represent our common heritage against violence and abuse. Therefore, as a European (and descendent of those ancient men who preferred death to a life without principles), it is my duty to be a custodian of that history that helps foster humanity. Today, the history FOR humanity unfolds on the streets and in virtual spaces around the world, where new pages are being created, and its custodians scream “Free Palestine”.
An economy is closed when inputs for production can only be sourced within the national borders and there is no trade with other nations.
Colonisers redirected colonies to production and export of raw materials while forcing indigenous craftsmanship of fine goods to close down.
The Descartian philosophy is the backbone of the narrative that glorifies the development of techniques enabling the exploitation of nature. In light of the current ecological crisis, a more critical teaching of the Descartian legacy to modern thinking is necessary in European schools.
I have sourced mostly from the classes and the book by J.Hickel “Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World”, which I have also used as a source in my first article for JA, about book Degrowth indeed. Again, I cannot recommend the book enough.
1. Hickel, J. (2022). Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Windmill Books. 43-44.
2. Sullivan,D. and Hickel,J. (2022). Capitalism and extreme poverty. World Development. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2022.106026
3. Reséndez, A. (2016). The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. HarperCollins.
4. Wikipedia contributors. (2023, November 24). Atlantic slave trade. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade
5. Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso.
6. Statista. (2023, November 24). Global gross domestic product (GDP). Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/268750/global-gross-domestic-product-gdp/
7. Stansfield, S. (2022). 21st Century U.S. coups and attempted coups in Latin America. Monthly Review Online. https://mronline.org/2022/01/09/21st-century-u-s-coups-and-attempted-coups-in-latin-america/
8. Hickel, J. (2022). Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Windmill Books. 96.
9. Global Inequality. (2023, November 24). Structural Adjustment. Global Inequality. https://globalinequality.org/structural-adjustment/
11. Hickel, J., Dorninger, C., Wieland, H., & Suwandi, I. (2022). Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990–2015. Global Environmental Change, 73, 102467.
12. Euronews. (2023, November 3). Europe aiding and assisting Israel's war in Gaza with vital weapons. Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2023/11/03/europe-aiding-and-assisting-israels-war-in-gaza-with-vital-weapons
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