Monday, November 05, 2007

Clash of civilizations, genocide, and a large island in the south Pacific

The reliquaries of imperialist history are being shuffled through again. Not a single myth forged in defense of colonialism is left unexamined, in the hope of its re-usability. Whether its Ferguson and his cash nexus, neocons insisting that slavery wasn't as bad as everyone makes out, or Sarkozy (the alleged Mossad operative) restoring the doctrine of the unhistorical society, the details don't matter. All that is needed is to dust off the old theses, add a few innovations, fix the evidence around them (you know that phrase don't you?), and raunch them up a bit for televisual consumption. The BBC 2 programme 'Clash of the Worlds' has so far managed to explain two savage episodes of imperialist history in terms of a clash between "the Christian West" and "Islamic fundamentalism" (the Indian Rebellion and the Mahdi rebellion) and seeks next week to explain the Nakba in similar terms (yes, really!). It is not that colonialism is blameless, but that it is construed through a thetic frame that cannot but exonerate it of most its worst crimes: it is depicted as an 'encounter', a cultural face-to-face which is characterised by misunderstanding and fear and - oh dear - fanaticism.

I think it's worth stepping back from this particular argument and considering a broader sweep. Linda Colley points out in Captives that Europeans have historically spent much more time destroying one another than destroying the rest of the world. This doesn't diminish the savagery of colonialism - on the contrary, it highlights the fact that what was unprecedented barbarism for an aboriginal of whichever continent was being stolen, was in fact part of the means by which savagely despotic and hierarchical European states had built up their strength and conducted normal interstate as well as domestic relations. Mass murder, rape, pillage, enslavement and so on was ordinary to a European coloniser in a way that it wasn't to its New World victims. What colonialism represented to some extent was the ability to externalise the extraordinary savagery of the European states-system. It was not a 'clash of civilizations' but the expansion of decivilization. The next step in this process is obviously the construction of 'race' which takes shape as contact with indigenous people becomes increasingly characterised by military combat. This alone permits decivilization to be understood as its opposite. It legitimises forms of aggression and subordination that are increasingly under attack in Europe - so that while Europe's lower classes resist impressment, enslavement or serfdom, the attempt to drive an Atlantic (and increasingly Pacific) expansion through the enslavement of Africans is represented as itself a humanitarian process. But of course when there are things such as slave rebellions and anticolonial struggles, the mood turns sour: no longer are we assisting these people, but defending ourselves against fanaticism and obscurants and mystics. It becomes a 'race war', as per the vicious struggle between the US and Japan, for example. But their struggles succeed to some extent - the colonised acquire states, challenge racist ideology and attempt to overcome their subordinate status. Yet still we try to bomb them, invade them, IMF them, keep them in line. So now it's a 'clash of civilizations'.

One aspect of the current installation of that 'clash' drama is that (as per Sarkozy), genocide is something that happens on the other side, perpetrated by commies or 'Serbofascists' (Yugoslavia) or 'Islamofascists' (Sudan) and so on, and for which the imperial powers bear no responsibility. It is, of course, reasonably well known among those who know that modern genocide originates to a large extent in colonialism (although in fact comparatively little research is done in this vein). It includes systematic extermination not only of Native Americans (often in the form of a holy war, or 'clash of civilisations' as it might also be known), but of course also of the aboriginal population of Tasmania and the Maori of New Zealand.. And, as Colin Tatz argues, there is the matter of genocide against Australian aboriginals, fuelled by the old colonial bromides. This is what the British High Commissioner wrote to Gladstone in 1883:

The habit of regarding the natives as vermin, to be cleared off the face of the earth, has given the average Queenslander a tone of brutality and cruelty in dealing with 'blacks' which it is very difficult to anyone who does not know it, as I do, to realise. I have heard men of culture and refinement, of the greatest humanity and kindness to their fellow whites, and who when you meet them here at home you would pronounce incapable of such deeds, talk, not only of the wholesale butchery of (for the iniquity of that may sometimes be disguised from themselves) but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day's sport, or having to kill some troublesome animal.

And indeed, the occupation of towns and cities seemed to follow massacres, often referred to as 'dispersals'. It was widely believed that 'the white race' could not absorbe the aboriginals and so would have to exterminate them. When the Australian colonies formed a union in 1901, it was a commonplace supposition that multiracial democracy was simply impossible - a conviction drawn from the American experience. The United States had attempted during the Civil War to expel every last African American slave, a plan that had substantial bipartisan support, but which failed because they couldn't persuade the British or any other colonial power to buy them. One of the first acts of the Commonwealth of Australia was to successfully deport bonded black labourers (many of whom had come from the United States) en masse. Actually, much of the capital and political leadership that went into the future 'White Only' Australia had come from the United States, and the colonising as well as pacifying of the country was in part an American effort, so the kinship was redoubled in various ways early on. Meanwhile, the development of the country's agriculture, whether in cotton production or sugar cane, was led by overseers and colonisers from the Carribean and parts of Africa. Those who wanted to profit from 'blackbirding' (the enslavement of Pacific Islanders and African Americans) did not agree with the 'White Australia' doctrine from its foundation, but as in the foundation of the United States, seditious republicanism in Australia was bound up with ideas of white supremacy. And there were substantial sectors of capital which feared that continuing the institution of slavery in an Australian commonwealth would produce endless social strife and eventually something like the American Civil War, which cost millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. And so, on the basis of colonial racism, fears about social antagonism and class struggle and Britain's worry that it would lose possession of Australia unless it granted quasi-independence, the commonwealth was launched and white Australians continued a genocidal process that had begun as a multinational enterprise.

In fact, some of the Australian government's worst segregationist policies in this regard were seen as efforts to protect aboriginals from white settler violence, in much the same way that American politicians considered the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII a humanitarian process, and Woodrow Wilson considered Jim Crow policies a positive benefit to African Americans. Aboriginals were made 'wards' of white men who regulated their labour, travel, consumption, sexual activity, wages (held down way below the 'basic wage') and so on. The Protectors were frequently the agents of attempted extermination. For example, O A Neville, Chief Protector of the West (1915-1940) imposed a system of managing 'full-blood' aboriginals (who would die out), 'half-castes' (who would be removed from their aboriginal parents) and 'quadroons' or 'quarter-bloods' (who could apply for citizenship) - with a mixture of policies based on race theory and eugenics, Australia would be made 'white'. Of course, even those who acquired citizenship could revert to subordinate status if a white person made a complaint that impugned their conduct as unbecoming a civilised Australian. Of course, this genocide, which took place over a prolonged period, and involved violent extermination as well as bureaucratic efforts with intent to destroy a population, is the topic of denial. Mainstream Australian politicians do not admit to such a process, and compare the 'forced transfer' of children to the sending of whites to boarding school. Restitution is as unthinkable to white politicians in Australia as it is to American senators. The structures created by the genocide are being firmly kept intact.

So, here is a process of extermination, in which are implicated not various fanaticisms, but cold egotistical calculation, exploitation, slavery, theft, and finally the construction of a modern state. It is not only one that exemplifies various trends in Euro-American world dominance, but also was decisive in consolidating it. It is not only denied by its measures are given legitimacy by mainstream politicians. Indeed, genocidal processes seem to be inbuilt into colonial wars, past and present. From Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam to Central America and Iraq, the tendency of ordinary American conquest to tip over into annihilation, fuelled by racism, is hardly disputable. And of course, of all the currently regnant capitalist states, most have a record of involvement in genocide at some level, colonial or otherwise. It's odd, the ease with which one of the most common forms of Western violence is externalised.