Capitalism On Trial
Caribbean reparations movement must put capitalism on trial
This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.
April 18, 2017—Why is the reparations movement in the Anglophone [English speaking] Caribbean not putting capitalism on trial in its campaign to force British imperialism to provide financial compensation for its industrial and agricultural capitalists’ enslavement of Africans? To what extent is capitalism such a sacred spirit or god whose name should not be publicly called in order to avoid attracting its vindictive and punishing rebuke? Are the advocates of reparations truly convinced that British imperialism’s payment of financial compensation for the enslavement of Africans would end the economic marginalization of the laboring classes who are toiling under capitalist regimes throughout the region? Why are we willing to place racism or white supremacy in the dock but not its creator—capitalism?
On December 17, 2007, the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution that made March 25 the annual commemorative International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This day should be used as a rallying point by people of good conscience to press the former major slaving states [including the U.S.] such as Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden to pay reparations for their participation in the economic exploitation and racist dehumanization of enslaved Africans. The General Assembly’s initiative is an acknowledgement of the over fifteen million Africans who landed in the Americas and the over thirty million captives who died during the process of catching and delivering them into the Holocaust of Enslavement.
Capitalism and slavery in the Caribbean
A key goal of all yearly progressive remembrance activities in the Caribbean and elsewhere should be to educate or remind people of the fact that capitalism was the primary force behind the extraction of the labor power of enslaved Africans. Of equal importance is the need to etch into the consciousness of the public that white supremacy or racism was simply an ideological tool used by the capitalist enslavers and various European states to morally justify the enslavement of Africans. Racism was deployed by these early capitalists and their respective national states to mask the purely economic motivation behind the development of an enslaved labor force.
In the seminal and classic book Capitalism and Slavery that was written by the late historian and statesman Dr. Eric Williams, he states that the brutal, exploitative and exacting labor condition of white indentured workers served as the template for the institution of African enslavement or slavery:
“Here then is the origin of [African] slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had not to do with the color of the laborer but the cheapness of the laborer….The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice, his ‘subhuman’ characteristics so widely pleaded, were only later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed and resorted to [African] labor because it was the cheapest and the best. This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter.”1
Williams asserts that slavery, as “basically an economic institution,” gave birth to racism. He further states that “Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.” Racism or white supremacy is now an autonomous system of oppression that intersects with patriarchy and capitalism to create differing degrees of labor exploitation within the ranks of the working-class.
The point that should be centered in the minds of revolutionaries and radicals in the Caribbean is that capitalism, the architect of racism, is still negatively impacting the lives of the working-class descendants of enslaved Africans as well as the societies that were built by their exploited labor. The late revolutionary, organic intellectual and historian, Dr. Walter Rodney, convincingly argues and documents in his ground-breaking text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that capitalism was the main contributor to the stagnation of Africa’s economic development (see Chapter 4 – “Europe and the Roots of Africa’s Underdevelopment – To 1885.”)
Rodney’s indictment of capitalism and its retardation of the potentiality of the greater portion of humanity (the laboring classes) should be duly noted by the reparations activists or advocates who are playing footsie with capitalism:
“… the peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profits from the human labor that always lies behind the machine. That contradicts other facets of development, especially viewed from the standpoint of those who suffered and still suffer to make capitalist achievements possible. This latter group are the majority of [humanity]. To advance, they must overthrow capitalism; and that is why at the moment capitalism stands in the path of further human development. To put it another way, the social (class) relations of capitalism are now outmoded, just as slave and feudal relations became outmoded in their time.”2
Dr. Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has written an excellent and easily comprehended book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. It is a must read for people who would like to understand the basis of the claim for reparations from Britain for its role in the enslavement of Africans and genocide against Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, Britain’s Black Debt has placed the misbegotten child of capitalism—racism—on trial, but not the inherently exploitative and soul destroying parent: capitalism. If we are going to throw the book at capitalism for chattel slavery, we are morally and politically obligated to do the same for the wage slavery of capitalism under which the Caribbean working-class is currently being exploited.
Caribbean states and reparations
Today, we are witnessing the unconscionable, but politically understandable behavior of the neocolonial states in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in divorcing their call for reparations from measures aimed at throwing capitalism into the cesspool of history. These member states of CARICOM are all committed to the implementation of social, economic and political policies that have enshrined capitalism in the region.
They are interested in reparations as a way to deal with their balance of payment, budgetary and development challenges as seen in the call for debt cancellation, technology transfer and a formal apology and not statements of regrets in this regional body’s Ten Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice.
While these governments are acting like capitalism was not the real culprit behind the economic exploitation of enslaved Africans, progressive civil society groups and individuals who are advocating for reparations should not be silent or conveniently forgetful of this historical fact. We should expect the liberal petite bourgeois or middle-class reparations advocates to not indict capitalism. Their class interests and aspirations are totally immersed and dependent on the continued existence of capitalism. The petite bourgeois elements, unlike the laboring classes, display high levels of class-consciousness and the former group tends to allow its class interests to guide its thoughts and actions.
However, radical and revolutionary reparations activists and supporters have no business not putting capitalism on the stand in their activism and general public education initiatives. As political activists who are committed to ending inequity and exploitation that are rooted in the social, economic, political and cultural structures of society’s principal institutions, they should know that capitalist economic relations and practices are a major source of oppression.
As such, they ought to educate the public on the reality that the capitalism that exploited the labor of enslaved Africans is the same capitalism that exploited them as wage slaves after the end of slavery. Capitalism is still exploiting Caribbean workers and taking the lion’s share of the profit that comes from the labor power of the working-class.
CARICOM’s ten-point reparations proposal is implicitly using the societies in the global North as the model of social and economic development. The mature capitalist societies in North America and Europe are characterized by widespread income inequality and concentration of wealth as well as the political marginalization of the working-class. How can such societies in good conscience serve as the standard of social, political and economic development for the Caribbean?
Reparatory justice for social transformation and dual power
In the Caribbean, the revolutionaries and radicals must advance a reparations agenda that demands Britain/Europe’s financial compensation for the economic exploitation and racist dehumanization of enslaved Africans. It has been estimated that Britain’s reparations payment to Africans in the Caribbean would be in the region of £7.5 trillion.3 The £20 million paid to the enslavers of Africans after the 1838 abolition of slavery in the British Empire would be worth about £200 billion in today’s currency.4
The proposals below ought to be a part of the Caribbean reparations movement’s program and be seen as a part of the general class struggle. The neocolonial Caribbean states do not need the immediate payment of reparations to undertake some of these demands. The social movements in the region must organize around these demands as a part of a dual power strategy or infrastructure of dissent or anarchist transfer cultures:5
Promote labor self-management and economic democracy: The governments in the Caribbean must capitalize national and regional worker self-management and entrepreneurship funds from allotments out of the respective annual national budgets. These funds would be controlled by progressive civil society forces. These financial resources would be used to finance and support worker cooperatives and other labor self-managed companies as well as the work of the support organizations and structures that are necessary to ensure the viability of the workers’ ownership, control and management of their workplace.
It would be the duty of the revolutionary and radical organizers to ensure that a critical mass of the worker-cooperators embrace labor self-management as a part of the class struggle and the fight for socialism. The worker’s democratic control of the workplace combined with popular assemblies would be the laboratory or training ground for the self-management of the future stateless, classless and self-organized (communist) society.
Include labor self-management in school curriculum: The governments in the Caribbean should restructure the curriculum and place at its center knowledge of the oppressive nature of chattel slavery and wage slavery as systems of labor extraction and exploitation. Of equal importance is the strategic need to adequately educate the students in primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions about workers’ control, ownership and management of the workplace.
Further, the students would be equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to collectively self-manage worker cooperatives and other worker self-managed companies. We must challenge the public education curriculum that prepares learners, at public expense, to work in capitalist enterprises. The worker self-management ideas and practices should be integrated throughout the curriculum.
Develop comprehensive land reform program: According to Tony Weis in the paper “Restructuring and Redundancy: The Impacts and Illogic of Neoliberal Agricultural Reforms in Jamaica,” “Jamaica’s landscape still bears the scars of the most ferocious form of agricultural production ever devised, as plantations kept their vice-like grip on the best land after Emancipation in 1838, with all subsequent distribution program only ever acting on the margins of these inhumanly constructed yet sacrosanct institutions.”6 The preceding state of affairs is essentially the situation in the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean.
The governments in the Caribbean must undertake a comprehensive land reform program that puts flat, arable land in the hands of the laboring classes. Enslaved Africans and indentured South Asians and the Indigenous peoples worked the land and their descendants must now exercise stewardship and control over it.
In order for them to take land out of the capitalist speculative market and to end the idea of the ownership of land by individuals, these governments must create the legislative framework for the establishment of community land trust (CLT). CLTs are structures that are used to protect land from the rise or fall in the value of land based on speculation or the whims and fancies of capitalist demand and supply of land and housing. The access to land should be based on the right of collective use or usufructuary rights and not the right of private ownership. Each generation should be the steward of land and not its owners as under capitalism.
Create a cooperative housing program: The condition of a large proportion of the housing stock in the Caribbean is an assault on human decency, especially for those who live in urban squatter settlements or overcrowded, ill-repaired housing in urban and rural communities. The state must create national funding program to support the development and maintenance of cooperative housing by the people through their organizations.
Cooperative housing is a way to engender popular, democratic and collective control and management over the housing by the people who live in these units and to undermine the idea of housing as a tradeable commodity. The members of cooperative housing would have security of tenure but would not be able to pass on the property to their heirs.
Establish working-class friendly labor laws: The system of chattel slavery in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas was a very vile form of labor exploitation. The slave masters did not simply exercise power over the labor power and the fruit of the labor (profit) of the enslaved African workforce. These capitalists also owned the enslaved Africans.
The brutal legacy of exploitation of African workers continued after Emancipation in 1838. In the Anglophone Caribbean of today, progressive organizations ought to develop broad national and regional campaigns to force these neocolonial governments to create worker-friendly labor laws that make it easier for workers to join or form trade unions. Severe or prohibitive fines must be levied against employers who violate the rights of workers to form or join trade unions. It is hypocritical of governments to demand reparations from British imperialism for slavery, while facilitating the exploitation of workers through laws that titled against the power of workers in the workforce.
The rate of unionization is very low in the Caribbean and it must become a priority of progressive social movement organizations, socialist organizations, the revolutionary petite bourgeoisie and trade unions to push for legislation that will give workers a greater level of bargaining power in the workplace-based class struggle.
Establish popular, democratic and horizontal assemblies of the oppressed: The revolutionary and radical forces in the Caribbean’s reparations movement must work with other progressive forces throughout society to establish a federated system of popular, democratic and horizontal assemblies of the oppressed. These assemblies would function as the direct democratic structures of political self-management that seek to approximate the communist self-organizing concept of “the administration of things and not the governance of people.”
The assemblies would be the local, regional and national organs through which the laboring classes discuss, plan and determine their economic and social priorities. The masses would implement their main concerns through their alternative and oppositional institution as well as organize and impose them on existing and dominating economic, social, cultural and political institutions. In this contestation for power, the people’s organizations would use all available and ethical means to advance their liberation.
Perry Mars documents in his book Ideology and Change: The Transformation of the Caribbean Left that a section of the the Left in the Caribbean has a tradition of using or advocating the deployment of assemblies to connect with the people: “What these parties have in common is their strong advocacy of what are called variously ‘people’s parliament’ or ‘people’s assembly’ representing mass democratic participation in grass roots self organizations.”7
Further, the Left sees assemblies as political instruments that compensate for the fact that the liberal capitalist democracies in the region are not responsive or representative of the needs of the people. Assemblies should not be used as consultative or information-sharing bodies by nationalist and socialist revolutionaries or radicals.
These political assemblies are supposed to be proactive and positive structures that familiarize the people with the idea and practice of shaping all decisions that impact their lives. Mars notes that in the Caribbean “The problem with the ‘people’s assembly’ is that the implementation does not necessarily eliminate the tendencies towards political centralization and elitism as far as leadership of the movement is concerned.”8
From the period of chattel slavery to the current period of neocolonial flag independence, the Caribbean laboring classes have yet to exercise substantive power over the political institutions that govern their lives. A system of popular assemblies with the capacity to challenge the authoritarian liberal capitalist democracies for power would be the one of the best expressions of reparatory justice in the Caribbean.
The struggle for reparations in the Caribbean should become a site of the class struggle and organizing the people for socialism or communism. Capitalism must be put on trial for aiding and abetting the enslavement of Africans and genocide against the Indigenous peoples.
The proposals that are outlined above for adoption by the Caribbean reparations will not become a reality in the absence of national campaigns that organize the people into their self-organized class-based and other popular organizations. We are seeking to build a counter-hegemonic force or alternative power bloc to contest the existing forces of domination and to advance the long-term struggle of putting them out of business.
The neocolonial governments have jumped in front of the reparations bandwagon and are trying to set the agenda. It is incumbent on the popular forces to organize the people in order to wrest the agenda-setting initiative from the state and impose their program of action on the state through the organizing of the laboring classes and other oppressed groups within its ranks.
It is critically necessary for the organizers who are organizing the people from below to do everything possible to utilize all available opportunity to build the capacity of the oppressed to challenge and undermine the existing white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist political order. It is for this reason that a dual power strategy must build the embryonic economic, social and political structures of the future socialist society, while engaging and contesting the existing institutions of power.
It is in this light that the development of worker self-management over their workplaces and the establishment of a system of popular assemblies as the seat of working-class political power become necessary. The reparations movement can play an important catalytic role in helping to ideologically prepare the people for the completion of the Second Emancipation in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas.
Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is a writer, organizer, educator and a lecturer in the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies.
—Black Agenda Report, April 18, 2017
1 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 18-19. Available online at: https://urbanartiphax.com/ebooks/files/Eric-Williams-Capitalism-Slavery.pdf
2 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), 10. Available online at: abahlali.org/files/3295358-walter-rodney.pdf
3 Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2013), 175
4 Ibid. 144.
5 Jeff Shantz, Re-thinking Revolution: A Social Anarchist Perspective, Philosophers for Change, Accessed on April 6, 2017, https://philosophersforchange.org/2012/03/07/re-thinking-revolution-a-so....Shantz is opposed to using the concept “dual power” but his preference for “infrastructure of dissent” or “anarchist transfer cultures” is not a variance with a dual power strategy that focuses on self-organization of the working-class and oppressed identity groups within that class.
6 Tony Weis in the paper “Restructuring and Redundancy: The Impacts and Illogic of Neoliberal Agricultural Reforms in Jamaica,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 4, no. 4, (October 2004): 463.
7 Perry Mars, Ideology and Change: The Transformation of the Caribbean Left, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 113.
8 Ibid. 113.