Fuck You, It’s Not Time To Get Over Colonialism
A six-year-old video of Hillary Clinton has been making the rounds on social media recently thanks to the 2016 Democratic primary — in it, then-Secretary of State Clinton implores the peoples and nations of Africa to “get over” colonialism, exasperation evident in her voice. You can see the video, which I had never seen before, for yourself here:
The quote that has people stirred up is this one:
“For goodness’ sakes, this is the 21st century. We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody. That’s the best way to try to create some new energy and some new growth in Africa,”
Simply put: fuck no.
In rebutting this awful piece of Washington Consensus common wisdom, however, I don’t want to make this just about Hillary Clinton. This is a problem that goes way beyond the Clintons, way beyond even trade policy between the United States and Africa. This is about the value of history itself; this is actually a debate between remembering and forgetting, a debate about our collective epistemology and our ontology. Is history a form of knowledge? Does the exploration of the past give us meaningful information? Do we believe that the past has a role in making the present? How did our world come to exist? Does the specificity of history demand specificity of action in the present? All these questions, and others, are wrapped up in Clinton’s glib, arrogant dismissal of the real, factual history of colonialism. The demand to “get over” colonialism is nothing less than a demand to relinquish knowledge, to destroy information, to forget the things we know about how our world came to be. The implication, of course, is that this forgetting is actually more useful than remembering, that ignorance is superior to knowledge. It is an insane position. It is the position of people who have something to hide.
There’s so much wrong with the pro-ignorance “get over it” position that it can be hard to know where to start — so let’s start with morality, apart from policy. The questions of moral responsibility and ethical behavior establish the scope of the issue and a fundamental framework for judging the history of colonialism and how it matters in our present moment. We need that framework before we can even begin to debate the granular aspects of policy.
The “get over it” stance implies, quite clearly, that the history of colonialism has no moral import. Sure, it might be worth paying lip-service to, worth an acknowledgement that colonialism was wrong, but it is not a question of sufficient moral weight to play into questions of policy, of action. If colonialism were to require restitution — a moral question — then “getting over it” wouldn’t make much sense. Thus, we can only conclude that the neoliberal, free-trade stance that Clinton expounded in 2010 is a stance which rejects any moral claim Africans (and others) might make on the history of colonialism. In this view, either crimes between nations ought not to carry consequences, or colonialism was not sufficiently criminal to merit consequences. Either implication is, of course, an absurdity.
Why shouldn’t Europe and America be on the hook for damages wrought by colonialism? Why shouldn’t we pay reparations, regardless of what the technocrats think? The “get over it” position wants us to ignore these questions entirely. Again, it is a position of deliberate ignorance, of willful blindness. But these questions need to be asked, because the crime of colonialism was one of the greatest ever committed, and it is abhorrent that the nations responsible have never been held accountable for that crime. But, for all our enlightenment, we in the West still have too much of the White Man’s Burden in us to ever acknowledge the simple truth that, for centuries, Europe and the United States were not a force for good in the world.
Quite to the contrary, for most of the modern age, Europe was a continental engine of rape and pillage that terrorized the globe. Westerners put memories of the Huns and the Mongols to shame. Never before in human history had a region exported slaughter, looting, and tyranny on such a scale — not only in terms of human life lost, but also in terms of wealth stolen and the duration of the brutality.
If that seems an extreme description, consider the very beginning of the European colonial project — Columbus. By now, Americans are much more familiar with the real historical legacy of Christopher Columbus. Many of us acknowledge that he was not simply an explorer, but a psychopathic tyrant who enslaved the native population of Hispaniola and instituted a reign of terror that included systematic rape, mutilation, and murder, and ultimately resulted in the arguably the only totally-successful genocide in human history. This was how Europe began its metamorphosis into the central location of global power — with slavery and the genocide of more than two hundred thousand Arawaks. These were people that Columbus himself described thusly:
They are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.
And he slaughtered them, in unimaginable brutal ways that often involved the removal of limbs, branding with hot irons, rape, and a variety of ingenious methods of torture. All so that he might procure gold and slaves.
It only got worse from there. It’s impossible to go into any real depth in one article, but the major points are beyond horrific. As many as 90 million Native Americans (across all the Americas) died from disease and war. Around 12 million Africans were brought across the Atlantic to serve as plantation slaves in the Americas, of which about 10.5 million completed the journey. No one knows exactly how many were enslaved in Africa and died before boarding European ships, and how many died in warfare that was fueled by European demand for slaves and weapons exports, but estimates range as high as 25 million Africans lost their lives in slave-trade-related events. Whatever the true number, the continent was undeniably devastated. From 1600 to 1850, the population of Africa actually declined, from 114 million to 111 million by historical estimates. Consider that in the same period, Europe and Asia experienced more than a doubling of their populations. The cost of the slave trade alone to the economic and political development of African states can hardly be over-estimated.
Latin America fought bloody independence wars that destabilized most of the region for decades beginning in 1809, with Mexico in particular experiencing an economic contraction of as much as 50% of GDP per capita from independence to 1860, including the damage wrought through wars with France and the U.S. after independence (that war with the U.S. of course resulting in Mexico’s loss of virtually the entire American West). Haiti fought for 13 years to secure independence, devastated multiple times in wars with France, and economically isolated by Europe and the U.S. afterwards. India experienced significantly more famine under British rule than ever before, resulting in millions of deaths over the course of colonial rule (the infamous 1943 Bengal famine alone resulted in as many as four million deaths, with Churchill declaring “If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”). The Belgian Congo under Leopold II’s rule saw as many as 15 million deaths in the a regime as tyrannical and horrific as any seen before or since on the continent.
This is, of course, just a bare minimum when considering the scale of crimes Europe and the United States committed against most of the nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Nevermind the unequal trade arrangements enforced at the barrel of a gun, the deliberate destruction of native cultures, the imposition of tyrannical local governments whose legacy cripples many post-colonial institutions to this day, or the hundreds of millions of people coerced into forced labor for the benefit of colonizers.
So, again: why shouldn’t the nations of the West be held to account for this? Why shouldn’t we make some form of restitution? Before we can even begin the technical policy debate, that question must be answered — unless, of course, you demand that the formerly colonized “get over it.” That is, unless you demand that history be deliberately forgotten, that the truth of how the world came to exist as it does today be wiped away.
Let me be clear: if you think Africa needs to “get over” colonialism, you are necessarily arguing for the destruction of the truth. You are arguing for deliberate ignorance, for a campaign to wipe out our knowledge of the past. Because if we simply learn the truth of the past, it becomes clear that the moral questions arising therein must be dealt with. They can’t be glibly dismissed. Only if we engage in a collective act of truth-destroying can such a thing be overlooked.
But the past also has technical lessons. Even if, after serious consideration, the nations of the world decided that Europe and the U.S. need not make restitution for their crimes, the colonial past is essential to making good policy going forward.
First, there’s the general argument: How can you know how to fix the problems facing a nation if you don’t know how they began? This is a common-sense argument anyone should be able to understand, and virtually all of us agree with. Knowing how something started, and knowing how it evolved, is necessary to understand how to change it going forward. This is simple stuff. Presumably the legendarily wonkish Secretary Clinton would agree with this. For someone who is consistently lauded for her breadth of knowledge, presumably she must ascribe some inherent value to information.
How then, to make sense of the “get over it” position being so integral to the free-trade technocrats’ worldview? After all, it necessarily implies that the history of colonialism is unnecessary to understand the problems of the post-colonial world today, and irrelevant to how we prescribe solutions. I can think of no internally consistent way to make sense of this within the results-oriented, data-driven worldview of the Washington Consensus. Again, simply understanding the nature of colonialism — the staggering extent to which it changed the peoples and nations subjected to it — would lead anyone to believe that it has shaped the world in lasting ways.
Only by ignorance of the history of colonialism can one conclude that it is irrelevant to understanding the present-day institutions, politics, and economics of Africa (and Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and South Asia, and the Caribbean, and the Middle East). Only by the deliberate destruction of knowledge could one conclude that the sweeping global changes wrought by colonialism have no effect on our present.
If you want to understand why governments in the formerly colonial world so often struggle with corruption, it’s worth considering how those governments were built on institutions left behind by the colonizers. And it’s worth considering how those institutions were in turn built not to serve the colonized people, but to extract resource wealth and labor from them to the personal benefit of the colonial elite and foreign businesses. Perhaps that legacy might shape the political institutions we see today in the post-colonial world.
Further, it is interesting how the free-trade prescription given by Western nations and institutions to the developing world — and Africa in particular — bear little historical resemblance to how the West itself developed. If we remember colonialism, then we realize that the West built its wealth on decidedly unequal and unfree terms of trade, both with their colonies and even among each other. Britain procured cotton for its textile industry, which was its primary driver of industrialization, from the U.S., where it was grown by slaves, and from India, where British monopolies kept the prices artificially low. In both cases, colonialism shaped the reality of cheap industrial inputs that helped drive Britain’s modernization. The same is true for tea, sugar, rubber, mineral wealth, and labor. Europe and the United States depressed the price of commodities and industrial inputs through the use of violence and tyranny in the colonized world. That is simply the reality.
The West also engaged in protectionist trade policies. They deliberately prevented the development of manufacturing and the spread of manufacturing technologies in their colonies (and in Africa and Southeast Asia even before the 19th century colonial scramble), in order to protect their own manufacturing. The U.S., upon achieving its independence, similarly engaged in protectionist policies to make its smaller, less advanced manufacturing sector competitive with superior British imports. Subsidies were (and still are) an essential component of government support of industry.
Simply put, the West did not achieve its high standard of living through free trade. It achieved its high standard of living through liberalized trade, yes, at least relative to the pre-modern era, but not fully free trade by any means. It was a system of trade whose rules were explicitly and deliberately geared to the production and stimulation of domestic industries, and which further benefited from the political domination of the colonized.
Yet the development path we propose for African nations is not the development path we ourselves undertook. These remarks of Clinton’s, from 2010, were given in a speech supporting the African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed in 2000 under her husband. This act establishes free trade relationships between the U.S. and many African states — but only if those states meet U.S. standards for trade liberalization. It isn’t a trade relationship between equals. It is a carrot-and-stick tool of paternalism by which the U.S. hopes to mold African economies into things amenable to our own interests. It is decidedly an unequal relationship, and not skewed in the favor of African nations, but rather our own. It is nothing like the trade relationships the U.S. had when it became an industrial superpower. It is, if anything, a clear echo of the colonial arrangement. There’s a reason people talk about “neo-colonialism” — it’s not just jargon.
If the U.S. and Europe were really concerned, altruistically, with building up the economies of Africa and the developing world generally, we would give them uneven trade deals skewed in their interest, designed to protect their native industries from competition with Western businesses and which would provide them with cheap raw inputs. We would use our resources to build up the capital stock of those nations, no-strings-attached. Instead of loaning money to build toll-highways too expensive for the locals to actually use and too large for governments to maintain, we would build power plants and electrical grids, for free. We would help farmers secure land rights and titles and build irrigation, acquire capital goods like tractors, and so on. We would finance the construction of factories for local businesses at below-market rates. We would do all these things without imposing “structural adjustments” as the cost of our aid. That is, if we actually cared about “the best way to try to create some new energy and some new growth in Africa.”
But, despite the overtures of Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal consensus generally, that is not what we care about. What we really care about is maintaining an unequal trade relationship with the developing world that allows us to exert political and economic power over these nations to our economic advantage — or, at least, to the economic advantage of our wealthiest citizens.
And that, in the end, is what the “get over it” stance is about. It’s about destroying history so that today’s neoliberal trade agenda can be passed off as a boon to the developing world, freely given, rather than what it is — an extension of the colonial order of unequal power between the West and the Rest, and a false panacea totally unrelated to the specific struggles of specific nations and which doesn’t even mimic our own historical path to prosperity. This is why the “get over it” crowd wants to destroy history — because history reveals their policy for what it is.
When someone tells you to destroy knowledge, they’re trying to hide something. So, no, I won’t fucking get over it.