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?
14. “Institutions like the City Bank and the Chase Bank established Caribbean branches and agencies, lent money to sugar planters and commercial exporters, funded sovereign debt, and took over central banking functions, their actions were shaped and structured by domestic patterns of racial thinking and racist perceptions. Their ‘profits’ came in the form of both shareholder dividends and the reproduction of global white supremacy.”
113. On Farnham’s testimony: “… A window into the City Bank’s ideas and beliefs concerning blacks, its perceptions of racial and cultural difference, its vision of white rule and self-government, and its understanding of racial capitalism in the Caribbean … shaped by a paternalistic view of Haitians and a naturalized sense of Haitian inferiority. He doubted their capacity for self-government and believed in the necessity of white intervention…”
182. “… Paragon of masculinity, the hypertrophic representation of the white race – and, by extension, the human embodiment of the financial genius, the genius of racial capitalism, embedded in” American economic institutions.