Imperialism and Capitalism: As American as Apple Pie?

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1765 ... February 17, 2019

Imperialism and Capitalism: As American as Apple Pie?

James Parisot

In the midst of the U.S. Civil War (1861 - 1865), as somewhere between half a million to three quarters of a million bodies lay dead from bullets and disease, Emanuel Leutze completed a painting titled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way for the U.S. Capitol. The painting celebrated empire as central to American history. Included in the final draft of the painting was a free black man, subordinate to the leadership of the white men forging the path of empire across the continent; supposedly saved from slavery with their leadership. Of course, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously discussed, central to the Civil War was the "general strike of the slaves"; their resistance... was key to abolition. Regardless, Leutze’s painting was one representative of the broader trend, going back to the initial creation of an independent American government, in which so-called democracy and freedom were felt through the vision of empire.

White settler colonialism, though, always had a complicated relationship with capitalism. While most Americans today embrace capitalism as normal, this was not always the case. It was to an extent in the South. In the beginnings of empire in the 1600s here, the Virginia Company’s investment capital led to the production of tobacco on a large scale for profit produced initially by white indentured servants and then black slaves. This led to a trajectory of racialized capitalist empire as state regulations were created to divided white from black, as, for instance, laws banning interracial marriage were put in place to organize social relations along racial lines so that the colony elite could build consent for their power among poorer whites who could insist, for all their troubles, ‘at least I am not black’.

But in the north, circumstances were different. Rather than elite gentlemen-capitalists, poor white servants, and slaves, middling families moved across the ocean, escaping pressures of land dispossession in England. The type of society that formed in the north meant that, as one historian put it, "the equality of the society was nothing less than the equality of economic interests which lies at the heart, not of modern pluralistic democracy, but of Marxist Leninist democracy." White settlers organized their communities around a communal orientation in which religious obedience triumphed over the power of capitalism. Production was not primarily oriented toward profit, but sustaining the colony. While some merchant activity did occur, it was done within the confines of what was acceptable to the religiously oriented social hierarchy. For instance, the prominent merchant Robert Keayne was repeatedly in trouble with colonial society, accused of overcharging for goods and he wrote his last will and testament defending himself against these charges. In general, land, housing, trade, and the movement of peoples were all regulated according to the moral economy of colonial society rather than the power of capitalism.

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