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.
In Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, Petrus Liu problematizes the narrative of globalization, homonormativity and neoliberalism that dominates the study of sexuality. This "postsocialist" discourse minimizes the role that postwar communism played in shaping conceptions of sexuality unique to China and Chinese cultures. Though he only discusses these issues in relation to the mainland and Taiwan as a means of "historicizing the implications of their coexistence for queer practice" (4), Liu offers an alternative framework for defining sexual political consciousness in a "non-Western" context. Rather than positioning Chinese queerness as an imperfect carbon copy of the "original" gay liberation of the West (thus obscuring China's own history and agency in the development of its sexual politics), Liu pushes us to examine the interiority of our cultures and the theories forged within them.
Liu opens his second chapter ("Chinese Queer Theory") with an acerbic critique of ABC Aibai columnist Damien Lu. Lu scorns queer theory as a Western import that undermines "born this way" rhetoric, which he views as essential to the defense of the LGBT community. Liu calls out Lu's conflation of the nature/nurture debate (arguing the "innateness" of homoerotic desire as a means of promoting its acceptance) with the clash between essentialist/constructionist frameworks (maintaining that the definition of such desire is fixed) (35). Liu censures Lu, an American-educated sexologist, for promoting the medicalization of queer identities – an infamously "slippery slope" that has historically led to the pathologization of homosexuality (and may explain the proliferation of "gay conversion therapy" in Chinese societies). [Indeed, despite Lu's nationalism, his vehement promotion of "modern scientific thought" harkens back to a tradition of Chinese elites disparaging indigenous scientific frameworks in favor of the Western model.] Additionally, Liu challenges the basis of Lu's entire argument – questioning whether queer theory is inherently Western: "anyone writing in Chinese on queer topics ... is assumed to be working with a translated Western concept rather than articulating an original thought" (35).
Liu uses this second issue as a point of departure, entering a discussion of how capitalism has not so much "liberated" us, but constructed and fit us into easily definable identities ("liberal pluralism") and forced us to institutionalize these identities – thus assimilating into the "formal correctives" of the state, such as marriage. In opposition to this process, Liu describes how Chinese theorists have conceived of queerness as recontextualizing, boundless and relational to both "an unequal structure of power" (40) and to the myriad unnameable/unknowable manifestations of sexuality across cultures and time. Simultaneously, this queer Marxian tradition exists at the contested linguistic intersection of Chineseness and the appropriation of tongzhi, such that the latter term was first popularized in Hong Kong and Taiwan, "where a cultural Marxism, decoupled from state ideology and bureaucracy, flourished in a way that made it easier to imagine and articulate" (42).
I conclude with the question of how we direct this theorizing towards a specific end (as bell hooks stipulates). In "Constructing Sexual Citizenship: Theorizing Sexual Rights," Diane Richardson outlines what Liu would describe as a trinity of liberal pluralist practices: conduct-based rights claims (freedom of sexual practice), identity-based rights claims (the freedom of "self-definition"), and relationship-based rights claims (public validation of sexual relations) (2). How does queer Marxism disrupt the entirety of this framework – such that we would not be obligated to petition the state for "rights" on any basis? The amorphousness of theory is difficult to apply to our lived realities.
homoerotic persecution in Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China. Subordination within a gender hierarchy is intertwined with subordination (rather, dismissal and condescension) within a sexual hierarchy. Therefore, women detained in the eighties for "sex crimes" and "abnormalacy" received lenient treatment compared to their male counterparts (5).
Though political efforts centered around sexual civics were nothing new by the time of the Stonewall Uprising, the historic event did usher in gay liberation (what one might classify as the third wave of Western queer activisms). The "LGBT" political culture of the seventies was a stark contrast to the century of respectability politics that preceded it. Yet the AIDS epidemic soon became a grim reminder of the importance of legal protections and institutionalized identity (thus, ushering in a fourth wave). In Tiantian Zheng's Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China, the author asks a group of men in a cruising park within a major city center about gay marriage:
"[E]veryone looks startled and responds, 'Of course not!' The man sitting next to us says, 'No, this kind of thing cannot be brought into the daylight!' (zhengda guangming). Another man says, 'I haven't even thought [of marriage]. Two men together are just for play. It's different from the marriage between a male and a female. [The relationship] between two men is temporary and cannot be permanent." Tan adds, 'If you get married, you'll be the focus of the world's attention as one of the few gay married couples – of course no one wants that! How shameful it would be!' (duibu duiren a)." (2)
As is implied by this post's opening quote, however, Hong Kong's public debates about homosexuality were being brought to the fore in the eighties (characterizing Hong Kong's own first wave of tongzhi politics, as identified by the authors above). Like Stonewall, the MacLennan Incident's prominence was, in part, reliant upon shock factor and media coverage. Unlike Stonewall, the "Incident" was sparked by a single individual – a Scottish police inspector charged with gross indecency, who was either killed in a police cover-up or committed suicide (192). One event was characterized by collective triumph, the other, individual tragedy.
Kam herself notes a shift from the "social/collective to the private/individual" when it comes to sexuality in China (25) – a kind of de-institutionalization of "heteronormativity" and "family values" that belies expectations for China to "progress," "evolve," or "develop" in any manner similar to that of "the West." Compare, in Hong Kong, what Kong et al. refer to as "utilitarianistic familism" – a product of British laissez-faire economics that encouraged "productive" competition between Chinese family units – and "family biopolitics" – a kind of regulated, heterocentrist, biologically deterministic mechanism that "shifted the site of governance from the state to the family" (191). Politics, economics, gender and sexuality are clearly very bound up in one another. How has the West co-opted traditional Chinese values and conceptions of family to serve its economic and political gains? How will Hong Kong contend with present-day Chinese manifestations of "pink capitalism" (and its obvious issues), given these preexisting colonial influences?
Box 2 [Reel 71.1] Folder 8, Page 2b: "Twenty-Four Thousand Years in Jail for American Citizens: Our Secret Police" –Author Unidentified.
In the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana Papers (DG 011), Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
This satirical political cartoon was part of an advertisement for the American Freedom Convention (to be held in Chicago on September 25, 1919) and published Thursday, September 25, 1919. Read more here.
Box 2 [Reel 71.1] Folder 8, Page 2a: "Liberty & Peace" in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana Papers (DG 011), Swarthmore College Peace Collection.