Charisse Burden-Stelly: It is my distinct pleasure to be in conversation with Dr. Gerald Horne, with whom I coauthored W. E. B. Du Bois: A Life in American History, and whose work has been formative to my own.
As Dr. Horne details in The Dawning of the Apocalypse and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, apocalypse is both an ending and a beginning. In the context of the rise of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism, apocalypse represented, for African and indigenous folks, the end of life as they knew it—that is, a life free from enslavement, genocide, and ongoing violence wrought by the insatiable drive of the group that came to be known as “whites” for endless profit. This ending was simultaneously the beginning of a capitalist world economy rooted in racial hierarchy, imperial domination, and militarized social relations, of which neoliberalism is merely the most recent enunciation.
Gerald Horne: It is a pleasure to expand upon and embroider the illuminating remarks by my exceedingly perceptive comrade, Professor Burden-Stelly.
She kindly mentioned my book, The Dawning of the Apocalypse. Allow me to deploy that book as my jumping off point to explore the roots of neoliberalism. To wit, post-1492 Spain, which sponsored Columbus, had first mover’s advantage as this new stage in history unfolded. However, though it was barely glimpsed at the time, that advantage began to erode in 1517 when Martin Luther led his secession from Catholicism. For various reasons this departure was followed in London by the 1530s, igniting decades of intense religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. London, the scrappy underdog, resorted to desperate measures. When the Catholics were expropriated, part of the proceeds were shipped eastward to Madrid’s foe, the Ottoman Turks, who, in 1453, had sparked fear and loathing in Christendom by imposing Muslim rule on what is now Istanbul.
1492 also marked the concluding ouster of Muslims from Spain itself, though the legacy of the Muslim presence continued to haunt. This pivotal year also marked the acceleration of the Inquisition and the ouster of the Sephardim from Spain, who fled not only east to Turkey but also to Holland—and England itself. The latter site was ironic in that London had expelled its own Jewish population two centuries earlier. England had welcomed this fleeing minority under the gun and then was able to take advantage of diaspora networks in the ongoing contestation with the Catholic powers.
Still, in terms of the rise of neoliberalism and capitalism, a hinge moment arrives in 1591 when London aligns with predominantly Muslim Morocco in subduing the Songhay Empire, a potent polity not far distant from today’s Mali, which catalyzed the onrushing African Slave Trade, as this destabilization ricocheted and cascaded as far south as today’s Nigeria.
Then as detailed in my earlier book, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, after the beheading of the monarch in London, there arose Oliver Cromwell and the republican surge that was punctuated by the seizure of Jamaica in 1655. Simultaneously, the Portuguese were making a comeback in Brazil from which they had been ousted. This comeback caused Jewish planters, who had pioneered in the process of producing sugar from enslaved labor, to seek other climes due to justifiable fear of the arrival of the Inquisition by a Lisbon regime heavily influenced by Madrid. This minority fled then to Jamaica bringing their capital and skills with them, helping to ignite the sugar boom in Jamaica and Barbados and nearby islands, pouring enhanced revenues into the coffers of London. This migration, in a sense, plants the seeds of what is to emerge as capitalism, as these revenues allow for the building of more vessels, which allowed for the transplanting of more settlers westward and more slave ships southward in search of more enslaved laborers. This also increased the number of wage laborers in England, with more money to spend, creating a kind of circle of prosperity—for some.
By 1672 London had moved under the thumb of the restored monarch to systematize the African Slave Trade, which provided the initial impetus for capitalism by forming the Royal African Company. By 1683 external pressure was reduced on Western European Christendom when the Ottoman Turks were stopped at the gates of Vienna, which was followed in 1688 by the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in England, when the merchants elbowed their way into the ludicrously lucrative African Slave Trade.
In some ways, one of the earliest expressions of neoliberalism occurs, then, when the process of “Free Trade in Africans” and the acceleration of “market forces” in this odious commerce takes off like a rocket. In sum, merchants descend en masse on Africa with the manic energy of crazed bees, handcuffing and manacling every African in sight, dragging them across the Atlantic where they produced even more wealth, fattening purses of investors.
CBS: Akin to what Dr. Horne is outlying, in his 1944 text Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams analyzed the economic imperatives of African enslavement in the capitalist world economy. Williams argues that the structural and material conditions of the modern world, especially the ascendance of the sugar plantation, created the conditions for the enslavement of Africans. The subsequent subordination, domination, and abjection of Black people were imperative and were critical technologies of legitimating the exploitation of their labor and negating their central role in the development of the modern world. Williams writes, “Negro slavery therefore was only a solution, in certain historical circumstances, of the Caribbean labor problem. Sugar meant labor—at times that labor has been slave, at other times nominally free. . . . Slavery in no way implied, in any scientific sense, the inferiority of the Negro. Without it the great development of the Caribbean sugar plantations, between 1640 and 1850, would have been impossible.”
Capitalism and Slavery demonstrates and highlights the connection between transatlantic enslavement and the imperative of a specific type of labor in the mercantilist and plantation regime of capitalist accumulation. In an identical manner, under neoliberalism, the requirements of global capital for a reserve pool of labor to satisfy its fluctuating demands ground the discursive production and reproduction of Black and African inferiority for the satisfaction of these requirements.
Apocalypse is both beginning and ending. This double meaning is manifested in the reality that, notwithstanding the significant differences between racial slavery, which spanned the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, and Black incorporation into neoliberal regimes of labor global capital, which started in the 1980s, both racial slavery and neoliberalism are equally dependent on Black abjection, marginalization, and exploitation.
GH: Apocalypse necessarily contains fierce struggle. In one of the more dramatic examples of class struggle, the enslaved workers began to rebel furiously, inducing many settlers to make the “Great Trek” to the North American mainland from the Caribbean. Yet, as I have written about before, this flight did not rescue settlers from militant resistance by the enslaved, as evidenced by the revolt in New York City in 1712 and South Carolina in 1739. Intriguingly, the nation that came to symbolize neoliberalism—the United States—was born despite the opposition of the most exploited sector of workers (i.e., enslaved Africans). These workers did not enclose in class collaboration and join hands with their so-called slave masters—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al.—in revolting against London’s rule in 1776.
African (and indigenous) resisters were prescient, for the newly born republic quickly replaced London as the captain of the African Slave Trade, leading this hateful category in Cuba by the 1790s and in Brazil by the 1840s, all the while resisting domestic and global pressure to halt this iniquitous business not least by relying upon tropes about “free markets” and “market forces.” Again, what interrupted this reverie was the exploited themselves, as with the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804, which at once instigated a general crisis of the entire slave system that could only be resolved with its collapse. I examine this process of world historical proportions in an earlier work. London was thereby pushed toward abolition and metamorphosed as the cop on the beat seeking to restrain the African Slave Trade over the vigorous opposition of the purported “revolutionary republic”—the United States. This handicapped to a degree the operation of the “free market in Africans” that had been operating for centuries and laid the foundations for capitalism and neoliberalism alike.
CBS: A word about neoliberalism here. As a political, economic, social, and ideological project, neoliberalism, as it emerged in the late 1970s and consolidated in the 1980s, is predicated on the unrelenting belief in a rational free market. The sole function of the liberal state is to ensure the best possible conditions for profitable competition. Neoliberal policy and practice are rooted in the idea that the market, not the state, should be charged with making key political and social decisions, that the state had no place in the economy except, of course, to protect capital. It is assumed that the state should reduce its role in the economy—that is, reduce regulation; that corporations should be free to do as they please, and that the state should absorb their losses; that unions should be significantly weakened to keep labor costs down; and that citizens should be given less social protection and increase “personal responsibility.” In this apocalyptic regime, according to Stuart Hall, market metaphors began to overdetermine public discourse, and “the market [became] hypostacized: it ‘thinks’ this, ‘does’ that, ‘feels’ the other, ‘gets panicky,’ ‘loses confidence,’ ‘believes’ . . . Every social relation [could] be bought and sold, ha[d] its ‘price’ and its ‘costs.’ Everything [became] a commodity. Nothing escape[d] the ‘discipline’ of the ‘bottom line.’ Exchange value [became] value . . . Exercising ‘consumer choice’ [was] the next best thing to freedom itself.”
GH: A century before the rise of a new ruling class in the epoch of neoliberalism, there was the fall of the slaveocracy—another key moment of apocalyptic capitalism in the United States. The US Civil War liquidated the slaveholding class. The class collaboration that inhered in settler colonialism, whereby Europeans of lesser socioeconomic backgrounds united with the economic royalists for their mutual gain, was on display once again as the bulk of the fighters for the so-called “Confederate States of America” were not slaveowners. Perhaps many of them hoped to become members of this doomed class or maybe they wished to preserve their caste-like privileges. Whatever the case, this disturbing trend was consistent with past praxis.
The Civil War also led to an exponential increase in dispossessions of the indigenous population—another manifestation of apocalypse—not least through the infamous Homestead Act, promulgated early on during the Lincoln regime, whereby Native Americans were expropriated for the benefit of Euro-Americans across class lines, from the robber barons and their railroads to agribusiness to farmers. Lincoln himself jumpstarted this ugly process when he presided over the mass hangings of Native Americans in Minnesota early in his administration, a crime that has not been forgotten by our indigenous comrades and helps to underscore why efforts are underway in both San Francisco and Chicago to reevaluate the statues erected in his honor.
Such horrors continued in the Pacific basin in the postwar era, where US enslavers moved to inaugurate a similar forced labor regime known as “blackbirding,” a horrid process recounted in my book, The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War. And, as I recount in Fighting in Paradise: Labor Unions, Racism and Communists in the Making of Modern Hawaii, in an early victory for US imperialism, a key vehicle of apocalypse, by the 1890s, Washington had toppled the Honolulu regime and imposed—as was its wont—a form of apartheid that proved sturdy until confronted by the Communist influenced International Warehouse and Longshore Union beginning in the 1930s. Of course, this Communist trend was a direct outgrowth of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which—inter alia—forced the Class Question on to the agenda and led directly to the organizing of the US Communist Party soon thereafter. This, in turn, spurred the organizing of industrial unions, e.g., the United Auto Workers. Working class power acted as a kind of restraint on the excesses of apocalyptic capitalism and its attendant structures of domination.
In that context, World War II had a differentiating impact on the fortunes of liberalism and capitalism. For a while, the antifascist character of the war seemed to give a boost to socialist oriented forces. However, in the United States, the Cold War liberals pushed back mightily against unions, inaugurating a Red Scare and the ouster from influence of the most class-conscious elements, most likely to resist the attack on the working class that capitalism demanded.
CBS: Indeed, the foundations of the neoliberal apocalypse lie, ironically, in the turn to embedded liberalism in the United States and developmentalism in the Global South after World War II, not least because racial logics inhered in both of these economic formations. The development project was rooted in the myth that the Global South could and needed to develop along the path taken by the Global North. In this way, the latter became the archetype of civilization and progress. Developmentalism assumed an ideal model of the world defined through European materialist standards. It imposed a path to economic betterment on all peoples of the world, irrespective of location, with the white Euro-Americans leading the way and the racialized world following suit.
Additionally, development paradigms assumed that newly decolonized nations simply could—and should—mimic the Euro-American approach to industrialization, replete with its economic, political, cultural, and social underpinnings, and aid and assistance from the developed to the developing world was predicated on rigid constraints emanating from this assumption. As such, developmentalism was grounded in ideological understandings of who was and was not “modern.” It legitimized domination and control by those deemed “modern,” and justified their intervention in all aspects of the lives of racialized “others.” African Caribbean nations were perceived as suffering from not only economic underdevelopment, but also political and social backwardness. Therefore, the “need” to develop, and thus development policy, applied exclusively to the nations historically subjected to colonialism and imperialism—that is, those that lie[d] outside the North Atlantic and the descendants of Western Europe. The latter located themselves at the top of the development hierarchy, and “others” fell in descending order based on their proximity to the Western European ideal.
The foundations of such an arrangement were both racialized and ethnocentric. The primary aim was not to bring African and Caribbean countries and peoples to the same level as Europe, but rather to reproduce the superiority of whiteness in order to rationalize Euro-American economic and political hegemony. The possibility of “development” was effectively negated at the outset not only because of apocalyptic assumptions about the inferiority of those on the darker side of the color-line, but also because the accumulation of wealth in the West rested on forms of oligarchic control grounded in exploitation and exclusion. The claims proposed by developmentalist discourse that intensity or efficiency of effort would lead to prosperity were patently false. The impossibility of its fulfillment rendered any struggle for self-determination organized around developmentalism as a condition of wealth accumulation infeasible and self-defeating. The failure to achieve the material standards of the Global North not only reified the ideology of white superiority, but also legitimated modes of international interaction dictated by militarism, violence, and force because resistance was interpreted not only as indisputable evidence of irredeemable Black inferiority, but also as danger and threat to the security of the North Atlantic. As well, resistance was used to explain and rationalize the resource and income gap between North and South.
In the context of the post-WWII United States, policies emanating from embedded liberalism, such as urban renewal, home ownership programs, and suburbanization, contributed to the construction of white identity by destroying ethnically specified Euro-American neighborhoods and by largely excluding Black people from new concentrations of whiteness. Because of their racialized application, Black people benefitted far less than whites from New Deal and Great Society programs. Like countries in the Global South that “failed” to develop, Blacks in the United States were blamed for their “failure” to adequately take advantage of these benefits. When these programs came under increasing attack by neoconservatives, it compounded Black material dispossession and the discourses that legitimated it insofar as the racialized disparities emanating from policy and practice spanning roughly 1945-1980 were greatly exacerbated by the apocalyptic neoliberal and neoconservative Reagan and Bush administrations. Thus, this moment represented an end to the modicum of progress being made by Black Americans and the beginning of a new regime of structurally induced suffering.
GH: There is more to the story of developmentalism and embedded liberalism on the domestic front. At the same time that there was retreat on the class front, there was an advance on the “race” front, for in the midst of a curtailment of civil liberties, civil rights were expanded. However, the “Compromise of 1954” came with a heavy price compelling the Black liberation movement to throw overboard its most militant and class-conscious warriors, as I have recounted elsewhere. This meant that the heralded civil rights movement was handicapped from its inception and was bound to be forced into suffocating compromise as the most degraded sector of the working class won the “right” to check into certain hotels but—contrary to the New Deal promise of 1944—did not gain the wherewithal to pay the bill.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there was a certain uplift of a sector of the working class, steeling it—at least in theory—to confront neoliberalism. But the preexisting assault on labor via the Red Scare harmed labor education and inaugurated a trend from which we have yet to escape that witnesses a good deal of the Euro-American working class voting for the most retrograde political forces. Thus, by 1980, one espies the all-out assault of the most hawkish wing of the US ruling elite with the election of Ronald Reagan, who in one of the earliest measures of his regime, sought to destroy the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union. This move signaled an all-out assault on labor, accompanied by deregulation and evangelizing on behalf of the “market.”
CBS: Thus, the apocalypse of neoliberalism was set to work by the oil shocks of 1973-1974 and 1979-1980 and the Mexican debt default of 1982, which shattered the global order organized around the developmentalist state. These events inaugurated a new regime of accumulation for some and suffering for many predicated on international governance. Structural adjustment was its most effective instrumentality. The doubling of import commodity prices, quadrupling of oil prices, 43 percent increase in imports, and severely depressed prices and export volumes created the conditions for the adoption of structural adjustment policies in the Caribbean. What resulted were IMF and World Bank imposed conditionalities in exchange for foreign exchange and development assistance. This assistance took the form of policies of monetary controls; the setting of quantitative macroeconomic targets; imposed contraction of credit to curb domestic demand; the lowering of state expenditure to reduce public sector deficits; revenue increase through increase in personal income taxes; trade liberalization and liberal concessions to foreign investors; and alignment of domestic prices with world market prices. In Africa, the debt crisis also forced the majority of countries to seek structural adjustment assistance on the identical terms governed by the neoliberal logic of privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, tax cuts, and reduction in public expenditures. The adoption of structural adjustment policies was catastrophic for the overwhelming majority of the population and ultimately intensified underdevelopment throughout the Global South.
The apocalypse of structural adjustment inaugurated a form of “global governance without global government.” Powerful financial and commercial interests—in collaboration with international institutions and banks—were able to dictate policies in Africa and the Caribbean that facilitated increased capitalist penetration, exploitation, expropriation, and dispossession. With increases in accumulation, economic growth, and profitability in the Global North came impoverishment and stagnation in Africa and most of the Global South. Structurally adjusted states found their sovereignty severely compromised as they became accountable to a global system whose beneficiaries were located elsewhere. This ushered in an apocalyptic form of coloniality, one that entrenched the racialized peoples and countries in the “shadows” of globalization. Structural adjustment, like other articulations of apocalypse, represented a beginning and an ending: the beginning of an oppressive economic regime that signaled the end to a brief but powerful era in which self-determination and a new mode of international relations seemed to be on the horizon.
Apocalypse also set in for racialized and oppressed populations in the United States, which, by the 1980s, began to experience a decline in rates of profit as a result of relatively high wages to compensate for high productivity and high corporate taxes. The adaptation of new information technology by corporations for the purpose of increasing profit and efficiency produced a shift from hierarchical forms of managerial capitalism to a system of lean production that required less labor, less space, less investment, and less time to produce a greater variety of products. The change in production style relied much less on the unskilled and semi-skilled labor, and upon the cadre of middle managers. It created new job opportunities for the highly skilled and educated located at the top. This had consequential effects on Black aspirations for material betterment offered up by the developmentalist and welfarist state. The history of racial discrimination in the private sector had forced Blacks to seek government and public positions disproportionate to their numbers. As a result, the rollback of the state and cuts in public-sector spending were particularly detrimental to Black workers.
The mantra of the neoliberal apocalypse, “individual responsibility,” was particularly damaging for those who relied on welfarist transfers from the state. Black people became particularly vulnerable because of their disproportionate dependence on these transfers. The intensification of conditions of Black dispossession resulting from neoliberalization were very similar in the Global North and the Global South. Deindustrialization in the “developed” world, and debt crises and the slowing down of investment in the “developing” world, gradually reversed the gains achieved through the closing of income and wealth gaps in the 1950s and 1960s because the drive to maintain and increase profit margins was met by the elimination of jobs and the reduction of wages and salaries. More specifically, deindustrialization in the United States produced a reversal of gains made by Black Americans as a result of civil rights legislation as factories began moving to a semi-periphery of industrializing countries in the Global South. The apocalyptic structural changes in the global political economy that we call neoliberalism had dire racialized effects.
Throughout the African Diaspora, the apocalyptic neoliberal state actually became more regulatory and imposing when its role shifted to protecting the interests of multinational corporations. As the state ceased to provide protections and entitlements to meet the demands of the new global agenda, the rhetoric of “personal responsibility” relieved the state of its responsibility to its citizens. This became possible not only by pathologizing the poor, but also by casting them as undeserving of the support previously provided through welfare and other forms of transfers. Discourse about state and society centered on the market and its ability to organize and rationalize society. The welfarist function of the state was quickly replaced by one of “containment.” Poverty became increasingly criminalized and associated with immorality rather than class exploitation and racism. With the rationalization of policing and punitive justice, money once spent on health care and education became diverted to law enforcement. In the United States, for example, starting in the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s law and order agenda in general, and the “war on drugs” in particular, led to the hyper-incarceration of Black males.
The undeniable link between state policy toward crime, the private sector, prison industries, and disparities in the criminal justice system—the prison industrial complex—disproportionately affected Black people. These policies and practices of criminalization spread from the United States and became a multinational project. Transnationally, Black people, indigenous populations, and women became overrepresented in a rapidly expanding prison industrial complex. Privatization and incarceration became increasingly entangled as the necessity of warehousing surplus labor produced by neoliberal policies grew. In the North Atlantic, the privatization of prisons was justified on the grounds that it would ostensibly curb overcrowding and reduce human rights violations. In the Global South, private prisons came to signify modernization and development because they were modeled along the lines of US practice. This was similar to the replacement of welfare policies by a war on drugs, by the adoption of law-and-order policies, and by the replacement of programs geared toward income redistribution and poverty alleviation with programs aimed at strengthening the criminal justice systems. Rendered immobile and disenfranchised, the criminalization of this group of nonunionized, exploited workers was predicated directly upon their growing position as redundant labor. Sites of production, manufacturing, and farming were converted into prisons and jails to satisfy the growing demand for incarceration created by neoliberalization.
GH: We continue to live in the shadow of 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the neoliberals and market maniacs danced happily on its grave. Numerous developing nations were likewise left to the none-too-tender mercies of the imperialist powers.
CBS: The wide-ranging catastrophic effects of neoliberalism on Black populations throughout the world have indeed been, and continue to be, apocalyptic. And, because the current conjuncture is merely the most recent enunciation of a long apocalypse starting in the fifteenth century, it is only through a complete overhaul of the extant racial capitalist system that this long history of human suffering will come to an end.
GH: On a more hopeful note, January 6, 2021 might have marked another milestone in the ongoing struggle against neoliberalism, as even the ordinarily somnolent may have realized there is an impulse in neoliberalism that twists inexorably toward fascism. Yet, I am confident that this malign and malignant trend will be resisted as labor and the Black liberation movement continue to revive—and resist.