Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean traces the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti by the United States through banking institutions. Much Like LaFeber’s The New Empire, Hudson finds economic conquest grew up in tandem with American imperial interests between 1890 and 1930, as bankers sought to acquire new overseas markets and investment opportunities free from the constraints and responsibilities of total administrative dominion. Reading “along the archival grain,” Hudson interweaves the stories of various white male actors whose politics and self-interest, losses and successes gave way to a “staggered incursion” – rather than an “inevitable hegemony of the United States in the Caribbean” (152).
Indeed, the United States government did not consistently wield capitalism as a tool of domination, as the agendas of Washington and Wall Street did not always align (65). As Hudson describes, what “was meant to be a systematic and rational approach to internationalization was prone to poor judgment, human error, vanity, and the frissons of cultural difference” (137). As William Leuchtenburg points out in “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916,” Progressive ideals and actions were seemingly at odds – “a concern for democratic processes at home and a disregard of them abroad … antagonism to financial empires in America and encouragement of them overseas” (497). While the Spanish-American War was viewed as a dual battle against Spanish tyranny and Wall Street’s greed, Leuchtenburg finds that “imperialism and progressivism flourished together … since the United States was the land of free institutions, any extension of its domain was per se an extension of freedom and democracy” (500). This confluence of humanism and nationalism (503) mirrors Immerman’s discussion of ethnocentric American freedoms in Empire for Liberty. Even still, Hudson describes how protests on the ground against the presence of American economic institutions signified a larger struggle against American imperialism as a whole (266). This presents the fatal flaw of reading “along the archival grain” – the absence of subaltern experiences, perceptions and reactions. How could a "bottom-up" history of this same topic counter Hudson's "top-down" approach?
I am interested in what Hudson calls “racial capitalism”* throughout the book. Much like Beckert’s “war capitalism” in Empire of Cotton, the phrase (while useful in emphasizing a particular facet of capitalism itself) risks detracting from a holistic conception of capitalism as inherently racist and violent. However, Hudson defines his term as a way of acknowledging the mutuality of racism and capitalism (13). In that sense, what differentiates “racial capitalism” from “economic racism” or “capitalistic racism?” Is there a way of writing these histories without rendering one or the other identity politic a secondary narrative? We also find that notions of race and racism are complicated by the dual exploitation and (de)valuation of Black labor, as foreign domination was critiqued because of “the presence of the black labor brought in by foreign capital” – “the fight against imperialism in Cuba [was] a fight against both foreign banks and foreign workers” (274). Blackness was cast as oppositional to Caribbean sovereignty and indigeneity. Did this detract from an overarching class-racial consciousness that could upend white supremacist forces? Does this run parallel to the scapegoating of Blackness in the United States when white laborers turned against enslaved people in lieu of uniting against white planters?
Lastly, I am also interested in the notion of “gentlemanly” bankers that Hudson borrows from Cain and Hopkins’ British Imperialism and Pak’s Gentleman Bankers (283). He uses descriptors like “elegant, discreet” (207), “ethereal” (255), “effete and gentlemanly” when describing “the international financial elite” (182) and the “world of high finance” (207). He also describes the” brash and vulgar hucksterism of the barker, the salesman, and the bond retailer” (207), as well as the “roguish, Rooseveltian self-fashioning of the frontier banker” who engaged in sport, went on daring adventures, and braved inhospitable environments (182). How much is gender related to the “on the ground” politics of race and class? The role of space – proximity to and engagement with the rabble, hard labor, and Otherness – seems important.
* Below, some passages that allude to or mention this phrase. In what ways can we extrapolate how racism and capitalism (constructions of racial categories and typologies, and the allocation of labor and means, in addition to class, social and political status) are interwoven in these examples?
Honing in on a single good or product, historians can transcend the internal polities of nation-states. By tracing movement and exchange, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton does just this – drawing connections across national borders and illustrating the ebbs and flows of global commerce. Footnotes in the book's introduction cite Eric Williams’ 1944 Capitalism and Slavery as “vibrant literature” and C. L. R. James’ 1938 The Black Jacobins as one of many examples of how global history does not constitute a new wave of scholarship.** Indeed, Williams’ “Laissez Faire, Sugar and Slavery” (written over sixty years before Beckert’s work) engages the same global scope, rise and demise of imperial domination and production schemes – “To the capitalists the distinction between free-grown and slave-grown produce was humbug. Britain depended for her very existence on the slave-grown cotton of the United States … British capitalism had fostered West Indian slavery and destroyed West Indian slavery – all in the interests of British capitalism. But it continued to thrive on Brazilian, Cuban and American slavery” (71, 85). Williams acerbically confronted the mythos built up by Western historiography from within, much like C. L. R. James.
Beckert’s analysis in Empire of Cotton relies on violence as an analytic. “Colonialism, the embrace of slavery, the expropriation of lands – war capitalism, in short – had enabled the rise of industrial capitalism … [which relied] on a combination of capital and state power – creating markets and mobilizing capital and labor in novel ways” (173). Violence – and, by association, war capitalism – was portable (93). For centuries, people toiled as slaves, feudal dependents, or self-sufficient agents. But exchanging labor power for wages versus required a large-scale mobilization and restructuring of human labor (179). The coercive domination of bodies and geography by imperial powers led to industrial capitalism. Through this “highly aggressive, outwardly oriented capitalism … Europeans came to dominate the centuries-old worlds of cotton, merge them … and invent the global economy we take for granted today” (xvi).
Everything from unsavory working conditions, self-policing factories, lock-ins, corporeal punishment, and the beginnings of the prison-industrial complex were devoted to cotton production around the world. Beckert cites an Estonian newspaper describing environments that took “no more care of the people than [did] a slave-owner of his Negro slaves” (192). There are passing references throughout the book that graze the racial dynamics of the cotton empire without ever really delving into the linkages between race, racism, capitalism and slavery.*** Beckert claims to decenter the nation-state and focus on the “networks, identities, and processes that transcend political boundaries” (xxi). Yet he does not engage the paradoxes that comprise racial typologies, universalized and imposed by Western powers. Were they born of capitalism? I think his thesis could have been strengthened by engaging what I have previously referenced – the transmutation of slavery into sharecropping into the prison-industrial complex.
* How do we define global commerce in a way that excludes trade and economic exchanges that precede European transatlantic? Indeed, what is global? If globalism is something that transcends artificial geographic boundaries, and if nation-states are modern and ever-changing constructs, then globalism has always existed (merely dependent on scope). Was the Silk Road part of global commerce; was contact between indigenous tribes global? [Also of note: Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s Plumes takes a similar approach to Beckert, centering her analysis on ostrich feathers.]
** Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery is also transnational in scope and subverted Western historiography’s preoccupation with its own progressive exceptionalism, illustrating its reliance on slave labor and failed economic system. Descriptions of the work today claim Williams was “years ahead of his time,” but what does that even mean? By whose standards? I think this connects well to what Dr. Harvey Neptune has called epistemic/historiographical gentrification.
*** Excerpts below.