“You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!”
- Caliban, to colonial masters Prospero and Miranda, in Act 1 Scene 2 of The Tempest
In the last part of this series, we stated that WEB Du Bois, Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, and other Black radical historians have taken up and developed the Marxist position that racism is the by-product of modern capitalist relations. But any thoroughgoing account of the link between racism and capitalism must contend with deeper roots in the social and cultural histories of Europe, especially in the shift from medieval to Renaissance and Enlightenment worldviews – which is to say, in the cultural prelude to the modern world system.
As Geraldine Heng has argued, in “Race and Racism in the Middle Ages,” racism is best understood as a flexible, trans-historical strategy of power elites for managing demographic difference, rather than as a “substantive content,” or a specific set of historical ideas on racial groups. When we restrict racism’s definition to its modern variations, underwritten by Western pseudo-science of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, we miss its clear antecedents in the ethno-religious chauvinism of medieval Europe. Such as the ghettoization and subsequent expulsion of Jews from England in the late 13th century; or the classification of acts of murder against “Saracens” (racialized Muslims) as malicide – the murder of a malevolent being – instead of homicide, the murder of a human being, by medieval French jurisprudence.
Matthijs den Dulk has shown that the ethno-religious racism of the Middle Ages has roots extending back at least to the writings of the church father Origen (see “Origen of Alexandria and the History of Racism as a Theological Problem”). Ideas concerning the natural inferiority of foreign peoples can be traced back still further, to the Politics of Aristotle – whose dominance over the medieval church was so complete, that he was known simply as “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics. When the Spanish priest Sepulveda argued, on Aristotle’s authority, that Indigenous Americans were natural slaves, and so rightfully dispossessed of their lands (On the Just Causes of War With Indians, 1550), he therefore had more than a millennium’s worth of racist ideas backing his side of the debate with Bartholomew de Las Casas, his reformist contemporary.
But religious racism received a new impulse in the late fifteenth century, following Christian Europe’s final victory over the Umayyads of Cordoba, Spain, whose forces were largely African (Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism, 91-93, 96-97). The conclusion in 1492 of the Reconquista – the Euro-Christian reclamation of Spain and Portugal by white sovereigns, after seven hundred years of Afro-Muslim rule – witnessed the rise of a new national spirit in the Mediterranean; one cloaked in hoary hatreds, and racist at its root:
“A native [European] racialism had already displayed its usefulness for rationalizing social order, and with the advent of the Islamic intrusion into European history it had further proved its value by its transformation into an instrument of collective resistance and a negation of an unacceptable [Muslim-dominated] past.” (Robinson, 100)
The new racial regime went to work with alacrity and purpose, quickly reducing non-Christians to the sub-human status that their counterparts faced north of the Pyrenees. In fact, the category of race was first historically applied to the subjected minorities of Spain, whom their rulers had inscribed quite literally at an animal level: the Spanish term raza originally included Moors, Jews, horses, and dogs, but importantly it did not include Spanish Christians, nor their Christian neighbors to the north (Lewis Gordon, “Reasoning in Black,” 2-3).
Here already, in the theocentric nationalism of the West, was a warp in its worldview, that would throw their later encounters with nonwhite peoples down a destructive path. As Sylvia Wynter explains in her watershed essay, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being,” the modern West had embarked on its voyages of discovery armed not just with guns and swords, but also with the fanatical belief that non-Christians are the “enemies of Christ,” who by rejecting the Gospel, had thereby alienated their freedom, lands, and lives to His earthly representatives – the church and the crown (293-296).
This was how the literate classes in Spain and Portugal had initially justified all that carnage of bullet and blade, that cost Indigenous people some fifty million lives in the span of a century. Yet as apology for the genocide, land seizure, slavery, and lust for gold of Spain, it was a fairly weak sophism. How could nations that didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese truly understand, and in good faith accept or reject, the revealed word of the Christian God?
(Maybe this problem exercised the Spanish intelligentsia far more than it would have, had they been directly faced with the godless status quo in the colonies. Las Casas is celebrated today for defending the humanity of the indiyo and denouncing Spanish atrocities against them, in his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Whatever might be said of his moral qualities, though, his close proximity with “evangelism” in the Americas surely had something to do with his insight. But when as a rule have imperialists had the courage to really see the underside of their “civilizing” mission, even with their faces pressed right against it? In Algeria, in Kenya, in South Africa?)
Besides, as colonial plunder drained gold, silver, and sundry goods into Europe’s burgeoning markets, it also quietly laid many of the material preconditions for the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Though it did so at first with a generous boost from the treatises of Islamic and Jewish scholars.) The newfound social confidence of the mercantile capitalists in Lisbon and Madrid, later of the burghers in London and Paris, did not just reflect the spirit of scientific and cultural discovery in the West. It was also a byproduct of primitive accumulation processes in the New World, without which the modern European market could never have got off the ground (Andre Gunder Frank, World Accumulation: 1492-1789, pp. 39-41, 44).
After the revelations from the New World, that overturned the natural philosophy of the Scholastics; after the labors of Copernicus, Galileo, and Francis Bacon, learned opinion in Europe could no longer meekly accept the authority of the Bible, of Aristotle and Aquinas. The “unhappy consciousness” of the Middle Ages – its world-weary and fatalist outlook, result of the church’s preference for revelation over reason – was cracking on the shoulders of modern Man. A new humanist vision, that reflected their waxing sense of mastery over the natural world, was now on the agenda of the Western bourgeoisie.
At the same time, those intellectuals whose methods increasingly drew from the new sciences, also began rethinking the ethical and anthropological bases of Europe’s war on nonwhites. The resulting ‘invention of Man’ – that is, of the representative human being, the standard of judgment for all other human types – formed a constellation among its ideas on rationality, civilization, and sovereignty, that would later prove fateful for colonial subjects in the modern world system (Wynter, 284-289).
The Man1 genre of Western humanism, as Wynter calls it, averred that what is truly human is our capacity for suppressing the influence of brute passions in order to exercise our innate, God-given powers of reason (287-289). In this (quasi-divine) theoretical state, human beings are able to observe and describe nature as it really is, instead of the terrifying, chthonic face that it presents to pre-moderns. By our own efforts we can rise above our servile, animal level, strip away nature’s mysteries, and reshape her to the satisfaction and greater glory of Man.
For the fledgling political theory of the time, the bestial passions that rule human beings in our natural condition, must give way to a collective and rational agreement on “the common good” – the social status quo that is always threatened by lust, laziness, and the natural thirst for violence. The commonwealth ideal can only be realized in complex, highly centralized polities, where the sovereign’s power of life and death keeps unruly passions of the human mass from disrupting the commerce and conveniences of the city. The rationality of a people can be measured by their ability to read the language of natural law, which calls for terms of political order that suspiciously resemble those of European Christian states (Wynter, 287-289; Robinson, 99).
The nonwhite peoples of Africa and the New World, rather than being labeled heretics, were now adjudged “quarrelsome,” pre-political creatures, controlled as though outside of themselves by their own untamed natures. Hence less qualified to rule their own lands than reason’s emissaries, who were then washing up on their shores.
The Hobbesian-Lockean distinction, so pivotal for Western political theory of the seventeenth century, between a brutal and profligate state of nature, and a peaceful and “commodious” condition under the social contract, is thus the fruit of an inverted humanist project that predates the Enlightenment by over a century. A project that justifies slavery and colonialism under the novel ideational terms of Euro-modern science. So it’s unsurprising to find John Locke, the great advocate of natural liberty, justifying slavery on the grounds that warlike Africans had put themselves in a state of war with English travelers; or praising the industriousness and feeling for property of England, over the indolence of Native Americans:
“There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.” (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter Five: “Of Property”)
The racist aspect of this cultural shift is further testified in dramatic works from the period. The sensuous irrationality of the Moorish king, depicted in Lope de Vega’s late sixteenth century play, The Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, is no less suggestive for its contrast with the cool rationality of the Spanish king Ferdinand, than is the play’s very name (Wynter, 289-290). Lope was especially driven in his antiblack advocacy: even his idea of the Antichrist was the biracial offspring of a Spanish maiden and a Black Ottoman subject (see Anjel Maria Mescall’s “Staging the Moor: Turks, Moriscos, and Antichrists in Lope de Vega’s ‘El Otomano famoso’”).
The “irrationality” trope also appears in Shakespeare’s sketch of Caliban, colonial servant of Prospero in The Tempest, albeit in a more equivocal form (Henry, Caliban’s Reason, 4-5). Caliban’s tragedy lies in his mother’s defeat by Prospero’s magic – a stand-in for the Western science that now holds sway over his island – and in his ill treatment by his supposed teachers in civilization. The antiblackness imputed to the Venetians of Othello may or may not truly capture their ressentiment for the black-a-moors of Europe. But more surely it gives clues to contemporary antiblack attitudes in Shakespeare’s own English society.
The concept of racial capitalism offers both a material and an ontological explanation for the triumph of the profit motive over Black life. Social elites have constructed ethno-religious minorities and entire nations as racialized others, as sub-human, in order to justify and to enlist their own people in processes of large-scale dispossession that Marx would call “primitive accumulation,” but that predate the rise of capitalist productive relations by many centuries.
Without either of these factors – the ideological and ontological shift that reduced most of humanity to an animal level, below the color line; or the need of mercantile capitalism for new sources of gold, and any other resource that would give its rival nations a competitive edge – we cannot make sense of how world capitalism got off the ground, or why it must continually push Black faces to the ground. Or how we will get back up, where we rightfully belong.