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The Unbearable Futility of 'Whiteness'
It's the economy, stupid
It’s become fashionable among a certain crowd of ostensibly left-wing identitarians to follow traditional racists in making the claim that colonial capitalism, and by extension modernity, can be more or less unproblematically attributed to ‘white’ people or to the abstraction of ‘whiteness’. The argument rests on the idea that there is something about ‘whites’ as a group that causes them to behave in a certain pre-ordained way — some sort of racial essence, generally (but not always) repackaged in these modern times as something inherent and specific to ‘white culture’ or maybe something in their ‘epigenetics’. When racists make the claim, they argue that that essence, whatever it is, produced a civilization which effortlessly conquered the entire world in a few centuries, demonstrating a clear superiority on some genetic or spiritual level. When ‘anti’-racists make the claim, it’s more along the lines that as a people, ‘whites’ are out of touch with nature and ravenously consume all they encounter, unlike the ‘BIPOC’ global majority, who are heirs to timeless folkways promoting peace and sharing and who retain a special racial respect for Mother Earth. White people’s single-minded pursuit of profit drove them to invent colonialism and capitalism, and everyone else has been suffering ever since; and now, with the advent of global warming, we are all going to die because white people refuse to stop extracting resources and eating McDonalds.
Never mind that the individual ‘white’ person has exactly as much ability to affect the course of global affairs as the most wretchedly oppressed lithium miner in the Congo; or that there is no monolithic worldview or self-understanding among ‘white’ people and never has been and never could be; or that all of the behaviours and ideas often attributed to ‘whiteness’ are also, of course, found in other groups. The racialist claim that there is something about ‘whiteness’ that produced modernity and/or the end of the world has the cause and effect backward. By treating race as a material or sometimes spiritual fact, rather than an ideological construction, we miss that race isn’t what produced the conditions which caused capitalism and colonialism. Rather, the conditions that caused capitalism and colonialism also produced race. In a very real way, white people did not invent colonial capitalism; colonial capitalism invented white people.
Five hundred years ago in one corner of northwest Eurasia, people in one warlike group of medium-sized, relatively centralized states were developing a number of technological and social innovations which, due to a range of complex factors, enabled them to effectively project force abroad in new ways. This could have happened elsewhere, and certainly would have, given enough time, but as it turned out, it happened there and then. As a result of this shift, some of these states began to transition from feudal modes of production to mercantile and capitalist ones, increasing their productive capacity exponentially and propelling them into positions of enormous power. This sparked a snowballing process as all states and polities everywhere were eventually either overpowered and forcibly incorporated into the new system or compelled to adopt it themselves to avoid takeover. In the process some of the people in the epicentre of this change began to think of themselves as constituting a particular kind of human being, differentiated from others by their newfound power, their technological and martial success, and what they came to see an underlying, innate superiority.
In its effects, this massive growth of European power was dramatic and altered the world in profound ways. But it can and must be placed into a historical context; and when considered alongside the rest of human history, as a process it was neither unprecedented nor unique. It was one example in a long line of similar processes, in which a technological-economic innovation takes hold in one group of humans and as a result that group experiences a sustained expansion in its size, power and influence. This expansion can involve the colonization of unpopulated land, but usually happens at the expense of other groups, which are typically absorbed, subjugated or exterminated. Versions of this process have been happening since the beginning of our species, all over the world, again and again. The main thing that differentiates the Euroexpansion is that due to the nature of the technological-economic change involved, its effects were not limited to a specific region but instead came to encompass the entire planet. But in essence, it was just a somewhat bigger version of similar upheavals that have punctuated the history of humankind since its beginning. Some notable examples of similar episodes come from the ancient history of Europe itself, and have to do with agriculture and the domestication of herd animals.
When agriculture was first developed in the Fertile Crescent, the people practicing it exploded in population. Having such large populations led to a number of technological innovations, such as writing and metallurgy, and a huge military advantage over their neighbours. Early farmers expanded out of the region in waves, including into Europe, where they completely overwhelmed the population of hunter-gatherers that had been there since the last Ice Age. By around 5,000 years ago, the farmers had settled throughout the continent, spreading their genes, their languages, and their mode of production, and hunting and gathering as the main subsistence strategy was no longer practiced. The process took over a thousand years, but it was inexorable; the sheer demographic advantage that agriculture conferred, along with the other technologies these farmers had access to, meant that older means of making a living simply couldn’t hold out forever against the influx. The aboriginal people of Europe either took up farming themselves and were incorporated into the new system or were pushed further and further to the margins, their populations making up a smaller and smaller proportion of the total until they disappeared.
In the meantime, people living on the Eurasian steppe, probably in what is now eastern Ukraine, had been busy domesticating horses. The earlier domestication of cattle had enabled herding, which was an important economic innovation giving access to large, stable quantities of meat and milk; the domestication of horses enabled horseback riding, which was an instant, profound game-changer for the entirety of the Old World. These mounted herders embarked on their own massive migration into Europe and elsewhere. They used the new technology of horseback riding, and associated technologies like chariots and wagons, to crush the farmers they encountered so thoroughly that modern Europeans carry no male-line DNA from the early farmers at all. They spoke proto-Indo-European, the language from which English descends, as do as around 400 other languages from Bengali to Icelandic. The impact of their expansion was so dramatic that today, almost half of the world’s population speaks a language descended from the one spoken by that one group of Copper Age steppe herders who figured out how to ride horses. The only language left in Europe descended from the languages the early farmers spoke is Basque.
These kinds of events also, of course, took place elsewhere in the world. In Africa, the Bantu expansion is a good example. People in western Africa thousands of years ago developed farming, and most likely ironworking, and subsequently spread across central Africa. A population of these people settled around the Great Lakes and developed forging technologies allowing them to produce steel; around this time they embarked on a second wave of expansion. These farmers killed and absorbed the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups they encountered until today, virtually the entire southern half of the continent is inhabited by farmers speaking Bantu languages. Sub-Saharan Africa has a population of over a billion; the indigenous Khoisan peoples and the groups known as Central African Foragers (‘pygmies’) now number, together, less than a million. They make up less than 0.1% of the population. The Central African Foragers remain particularly oppressed, with widespread reports of enslavement at the hands of Bantu masters and denial of citizenship by the states in whose territory they live.
Another illustrative case played out in southeast Asia, this time with a different material technology. Taiwan, along with the rest of maritime southeast Asia, was originally inhabited (as was everywhere else) by hunter-gatherers whose ancestors had walked there in distant prehistory when sea levels were lower. But sometime around 5,000 years ago a group of farmers from the nearby Chinese coast arrived by boat and the previous population mostly disappeared. A few thousand years later, apparently after having invented sophisticated sailing technologies such as the catamaran and a type of sail called the crab claw, these people burst out of Taiwan, colonizing islands to the south of them. A steady expansion followed, making use of unprecedented advances in sailing technology, until the descendants of these people, called the Austronesians, inhabited a huge swathe of the southern half of the planet, stretching from Madagascar off the coast of Africa, to the snowy tip of New Zealand’s South Island, to Easter Island, now part of Chile. Today almost 400 million people speak one of the Austronesian languages, which include Indonesian and Tagalog, as well as Malagasy, Maori and Hawaiian. They also brought rice with them to many of the places they settled, a crop which now accounts for a fifth of the calories consumed by human beings.
In the meantime, another set of technologies had been developing along the Yellow River in China, resulting in literate, centralized, highly populous states supported by intensive rice and millet agriculture. By around 2,300 years ago, the people inhabiting these Yellow River states had started to see themselves as a specific group, coming to refer to themselves as the huaxia. If you think the term ‘white’ contains an ethnocentric bias, it’s got nothing on huaxia, which is usually translated as the ‘Beautiful Grandeur’ and communicated the way that these people saw themselves as markedly superior to the ‘uncivilized’ people around them. These states expanded their power rapidly, forming kingdoms and then Imperial China, an entity which existed in one form or another for thousands of years. The ethnic group in question became the Han Chinese, who, especially in overseas Chinese communities, still often refer to themselves as the huaxia or hua (‘beautiful’) people. People in pre-modern Imperial China were the first to invent paper, printing, crossbows, guns, rocket launchers, banknotes, borehole mining, drilling rigs, oil wells, and hundreds of other technologies. They went on to conquer, colonize, absorb or dominate the peoples of an enormous part of East Asia, solidifying their identity as they went. Han people now make up about a sixth of the entire world’s population. Incidentally, the Austronesian inhabitants of Taiwan are now considered a minority indigenous group, and today make up less than 4% of the population there. The remainder are Han Chinese.
Sometimes people make similar points to my own in an attempt to downplay the ethical significance of Euro colonialism: it wasn’t that bad because other people did it too. But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. It was very bad; it resulted in amazing amounts of suffering and dehumanization, which reverberate to this day. The point, rather, has to do with the causes of this kind of thing in human history. Specifically, while people’s ideologies and identities and moral beliefs certainly play a role in how things shake out, over the long term, a much more determinant role tends to be played by technologies and the way they interact with production — in other words, by the economy. Dominant ideologies and identities tend to follow from the economy, rather than the other way around, and economic and technological innovations that provide some sort of military or demographic advantage have a very, very strong tendency to assert themselves regardless of anyone’s ideology.
This is simply because anyone who adopts them first will rapidly be in a position to dictate what the dominant ideology should be. The first people to domesticate horses might have been deeply opposed to riding them, for example. This is only a hypothetical example, but we can imagine that maybe they had religious prohibitions about riding them, and that they might have used them only for meat and milk. Maybe it remained that way for a long time, for a thousand years. But as soon as one group of outcasts or rebels or rivals said fuck the priests and went for it, it was game over for everybody else. Within a few generations, anybody who said you couldn’t ride horses would be living in the past, seeing as they would now be ruled by a new mounted elite who could defeat any military force, could travel exponentially faster than anyone else, and had hugely improved their economic position by being able to keep much larger herds and range them much farther than before. Very soon, the dominant ideology would glorify the riding of horses (and probably also the use of horses to conquer the lands of the contemptible seed-eaters), and almost certainly a new ethnic identity based around horsemanship would begin to emerge.
A few points follow from this observation. The first is that it’s not surprising that ideologies justifying and celebrating domination and extraction would come to prevail in a society ruled by elites experiencing a massive expansion of their power via the process of domination and extraction. Indeed what you would expect is that any ideological brakes on that process of domination and extraction would quickly be supplanted by ideologies that facilitate it. And that’s exactly what we see in European history, where Catholic leaders were constantly admonishing adventurers abroad to convert people instead of slaughtering them, and were insisting that as long as everybody got baptized, you weren’t allowed to enslave them and steal all of their belongings. Race ideology rapidly came to occupy an important role because it provided a way to circumvent the comparatively universalist sentiments of the Church. If these people weren’t really people in the same way that the newly minted ‘white’ people were, then it was, conveniently, basically alright to continue to do the things that were making Euro elites extraordinarily wealthy and powerful. With a little tweaking, it was possible to argue that maybe it was actually good, necessary even. Bringing the guidance of the Church to the benighted heathens was all well and good, but the problem was that once you succeeded, they were supposed to be granted a certain number of rights. Bringing the guidance and discipline of the ‘White Race’ to the inferior, childlike peoples of the world was a much more useful framework. As many historians of race have noticed, in many ways the English colonization of Ireland was the test-run for race as a tool of empire; the heavily religious Irish were clearly Christians, so another framework was needed to justify their wholesale dispossession.
A second, related point, is that there never was a unifying position on any of this stuff among Euros (or anyone else). Like any large cultural region, Europe and its colonies have always been full of teeming disagreements, constantly throwing up different sects, schools, philosophies, heresies, tendencies and ideologies. Anti-racist ideas among Euros have existed for as long as racist ones have. There have always been strong currents in Euro thought deeply opposed to slavery and other forms of coerced labour. Opposition to capitalism has also always been a constant — Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto almost 200 years ago now, and their work was itself part of a current of socialist and proto-socialist thought stretching back through the utopian socialists like de Saint-Simon all the way to the English Diggers of the 1600s. Ideas about nature have also varied widely, from Prussian forestry authorities trying (and failing) to ‘rationalize’ nature by replanting forests in neat rows, to mystical thinkers proposing various versions of cosmic unity and the Gaia hypothesis, to folk beliefs about sacred groves and so on. Again, I’m not pointing any of this out to ‘get white people off the hook’ or anything as shallow as that. The point here is that the ideological positions usually attributed to ‘whiteness’ (often both by racist and ‘anti’-racist identitarians) were not the immutable or innate characteristics of a monolithic ‘racial’ type. They were always only the dominant strains within a complex and dynamic ideoscape, being given force by the emerging economic conditions of the societies they existed in.
If what I’m arguing is true, then what we could expect to see is that ideological perspectives similar to those of ‘whiteness’ would tend to take hold and dominate wherever economic conditions favoured the growth of a capitalist/colonialist ruling class, and, significantly, that actually being ‘white’ would not be a prerequisite. ‘Whiteness’ is a thoroughly muddy concept but some of these ideological characteristics, historically, might include a sense of superiority strongly tied to technological and economic dominance; a belief in the moral rightness or at least the necessity of the colonial model, possibly combined with a belief in the ‘civilizing mission’; and a tendency to categorize human beings into groups with quite distinct political rights, based on whether or not they come from the dominant culture or the subjugated one. Certainly the collaborators who did much of the administrative work in colonial empires internalized some of these values. But more concretely we can find various examples of ruling groups adopting Euro technological-economic models themselves. And when they do, what happens is exactly what we would expect.
In the 1800s, large numbers of formerly enslaved people from the US ‘returned’ to West Africa, a place almost none of them had ever been. They were English-speaking Christians from a highly stratified plantation-based settler colony who, upon arriving in Africa, immediately set up a new English-speaking, Christian, highly stratified plantation-based settler colony, which they called Liberia. The Americo-Liberians controlled the country’s economy and politics and ruled as a small colonial minority, over time forming a new ethnic group which considered itself superior to the indigenous Africans. This elite withheld citizenship and economic opportunities from the natives, embarked on a ‘civilizing mission’ to convert them to Christianity, and often forced them into coerced labour, including slavery, on their plantations. This situation continued until a coup in 1980 carried out by soldiers from indigenous ethnic groups kicked off a series of spectacularly bloody conflicts which ended with the power of the Americo-Liberians being broken and huge numbers of them leaving the country.
Let’s take another example, that of the Sinosphere, or the Chinese world. For thousands of years China sat in the centre of a periphery of other states which it largely dominated completely which were heavily influenced by Chinese culture, politics and technology, countries like Korea, Japan, Vietnam and so on. China’s cultural gravity was such that even when it was invaded and taken over by outsiders, which happened a few times, the new ruling elite became very culturally Chinese within a generation or two. China was in a somewhat unique position because its huge size, more or less undisputed dominance in the region, and very steep hierarchies meant that a single person, the Emperor, historically could decide the course of the whole region with reasonable effectiveness. It was resistant to modernizing along Euro lines because of the conservative ideological positions held by the Emperor and the ruling class of the late Qing dynasty, who wished to maintain the basis of their traditional hold on power. In Europe, many smaller states were constantly competing, so any edge that could be adopted was adopted, typically quite quickly. In China, it was easier for the ruling class to clamp down on change they deemed unnecessary or disruptive. Further, even though China had suffered a number of humiliating defeats against encroaching Euro powers, who had forced unequal treaties on China and snapped up coastal cities to use as trade bases, the empire, with a population of over 400 million, was still big and strong enough to prevent easy wholesale annexation by the Western powers during the colonial period.
But China itself was not the only state in the Sinosphere. In the past, this hadn’t mattered much; China could typically crush its neighbours in any serious altercation. But this time things were a bit different. In one region of the Sinosphere, Japan, a power struggle resulted in elements who wanted to pursue modernization coming to power, and suddenly Japan began to rush to ‘catch up’ with the Euro countries. The new rulers felt that recent events had demonstrated that the Euro empires were not temporary blips, but a new type of world order which spelled the end of the traditional balance of power in the region. They rationalized their military along Western lines, industrialized as rapidly as possible, and abandoned their isolationist foreign policy. Already having a centralized state with a large, settled, literate population effectively ruled by soldiers and bureaucrats, this was much less difficult than it otherwise would have been. Japan then embarked on the construction of a mercantile colonial empire in the image of the Euro ones it felt threatened by. It won a series of decisive military engagements, including marching troops into Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion and routing the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War. It annexed its neighbour Korea and invaded Manchuria, a large region in northeast China about the size of Germany, in order to build up a sphere of influence and to secure access to industrial raw materials, a prelude to a more thorough conquest of China to come. More democratic and more authoritarian factions vied for power in the new system of government, in more or less exactly the same way things were playing out in the other imperial metropoles; some factions wanted to grant more rights to conquered peoples and expand democracy, while others wanted a more aggressive foreign policy and autocracy. Militarist and expansionist ideas won out, and in the following decades Japanese elites elaborated their own theory of Japanese racial supremacy and expanded their empire rapidly, until they controlled most of east and southeast Asia.
And so with the Sinosphere we see a region in which the main power has both the willingness and, unusually, the strength to hold modernity at bay for a while. But the ideas and technology associated with modernity take hold in one part of the region; and that regional state, formerly on the periphery, then becomes the main power. The new ideology of its elites then becomes dominant through the whole region and the formerly dominant ideology becomes discredited and obsolete. Before long, the whole region is transformed from a rigid traditional absolute monarchy with various vassals and tributaries ringing its periphery, into the colonial empire of a new capitalist industrial power. Almost in fast-forward the familiar pattern of decolonization plays out, with communists and nationalists in the conquered countries staging revolts against the new ruling power and struggling between each other, then forming their own republics aligned with different political blocs: North Korea and South Korea, the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. And when the dust settles, very little trace of the previous economic or political systems exist.
These examples serve to demonstrate that the ideological trappings of ‘whiteness’ flow not from such a thing as the ‘white race’, which does not exist; but rather, from a certain set of economic conditions, conditions which first appeared in the northwest tip of the Eurasian continent, and then expanded until most people in the world had been incorporated in one way or another into the new paradigm. Where elites were able to set up ethnically delineated colonial states, a set of supremacist and extractivist beliefs followed and became dominant. As they became dominant and associated with prestige, wealth and power many people across the world assimilated these beliefs for obvious reasons. Today, no matter what anyone’s traditional beliefs might say, ruling elites all over the planet are happy to think of the natural world as not much more than a stockpile of resources, to treat human beings as just so many labourers and consumers, to oppress minorities and monopolize power, to flaunt their own strength and superiority. At the same time, this paradigm has always been challenged, from within and from without, and has never enjoyed total support anywhere, whether within the heart of empire, where Marx worked, or in the furthest peripheries, where movements against the colonial powers were constantly erupting and where strong revolutionary movements still exist today.
If we want to build a world in which ‘whiteness’ does not dominate, then, paradoxically, we cannot focus on ‘white people’. The thing that will end ‘whiteness’ is an end to the economic conditions that produce it. Furthermore, there is no going ‘backwards’, so to speak; history shows us pretty clearly that once a certain technological level is reached, it is not abandoned, except through catastrophic collapse. The future is high-tech. But it is a future in which economies are not controlled by tiny, far-off elites, but democratically by the people who work in them; where the rational planning of production can ensure that the environment is not plundered for the benefit of a few cold-hearted usurers; where the resources and labour of one country are not appropriated by any ruling class, whether at home or abroad. It’s a future where the economy is set up so that one’s ancestry can have very little bearing on one’s station, so that distinctions of so-called ‘race’ cease to have any real meaning beyond an old-timey way of describing the range of features human beings have.
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I use ‘Euro’ to refer to Europe plus its settler colonies, particularly the United States.
Geographers often divide the world into different overlapping cultural zones such as the Indosphere, the Dar, the Malay World and so on. The Sinosphere refers to China and its periphery, particularly those countries that at one point or another paid tribute to Beijing, were deeply influenced by Chinese philosophical schools, and used Chinese characters to write.