Consumerism, another inheritance from the slavery system

 by Jorge Majfud

HowTheLightGetsIn Conference, Institute of Art and Ideas, London, September 2021

Translated by Andy Barton, Tlaxcala

Strategy and dogma

To declare the abolition of traditional slavery for their possessions in the Caribbean, the British envisioned a new type of enslavement that the new slaves would themselves desire. On 10th June 1833, Rigby Watson, a member of parliament, clearly summarised this idea: “To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what once were luxuries, gradually came, among all classes and conditions of men, to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the Negroes had to go through, and this was the sort of education to which they ought to be subject in their period of probation”.

In 1885, Henry Dawes, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts recognised as an expert in indigenous matters, gave a report on his most recent visit to the Cherokee territories that still remained. According to this report, “there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not own a dollar. It built its own capitol, and it built its schools and its hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go because they own their land in common … There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation. Til this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress…”. Naturally,the opinions of people like Dawes would prevail, in other words, those who manage others’ success, and the Cherokee territories would be divided up and generously offered back to their inhabitants as private property. The Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz would impose the same exact privatisation programme on the communal production system as a way to emulate the success of the United States, achieving the feat of leaving 80% of the rural population without any land of their own, something which would culminate in the Mexican Revolution many years later.

In 1929, Samuel Crowther, the journalist and prized asset of the United Fruit Company (and Henry Ford’s friend), reported that in Central America “people only work when they are forced to. They are not used to it because the land gives them what little they need… However, the desire for material things is something that must be cultivated… Our advertising is slowly having the same effect as in the United States —and it is reaching the mozos. For when a periodical is discarded, it is grabbed up, and its advertising pages turn up as wallpaper in the thatched huts. I have seen the insides of huts completely covered with American magazine pages and with the timetables and folders issued by our railroads… All of this is having its effect in awakening desires”. Samuel Crowther viewed the Caribbean as the lake of the U.S. empire, which protected and guided the destiny of its constituent countries towards glory and universal development.

The political defeat of the pro-slavery Confederacy around this time was avenged by various cultural and ideological victories. All passed by unnoticed. In record timing, hundreds of monuments to the defeated ‘heroes’ were erected, films were made idealising the proponents of slavery and the theories about a superior race in danger of extinction flooded the desks of politicians and army generals.

One of these secret victories consisted in idealising the masters and demonising the slaves. In modern terms: the owners and the salaried workers. For that reason, in the many generations that were to follow, the United States would celebrate “Memorial Day” (in memory of the casualties of war) and “Veterans Day” (in honour of the former soldiers in these imperialist wars), all in the name of defence and of freedom, a carbon copy of the rhetoric of the Southern slaveowners who forayed into indigenous, Mexican and overseas territories and created the new American empire.

“Memorial Day” is an abstract title; “Veterans Day” is overtly literal. For the workers, there would be no “Worker’s Day”. Even less likely was 1st May, the day on which the whole world would remember the massacre of those workers in Chicago, who demanded their right to an eight-hour workday just like the rest of the country. To forget this inconvenient detail, President Grover Cleveland would formalise “Labor Day” in September, nearly the polar opposite of May, as if there were work without workers. This would mean yet another hidden victory for the slaveowners defeated in the American Civil War. Not only are Black Americans, the poor, those below, and those that work all idle, inferior, and in the words of future American President Theodore Roosevelt, “perfectly stupid”; they are also the perfect threat. Especially on account of their numbers. Especially for their habit of proposing unions.

The masters (white Americans), those above, those sacrificed at the champagne altar, they are the ones who create employment with their investments. They are the ones who, every so often, must be protected by who they protect: churches and soldiers (in the U.S., with the cult of the veteran who “protects our liberty”, and in South America, with the soldiers who fix democracies’ mistakes with bloody dictatorships). In the eyes of the old slave-owning tradition, the masters of what was gone with the wind yet always returns, those who are really responsible for progress, stability, peace and civilisation are the plantation owners and the industry businessmen. In short, all those who control and immediately benefit from the hegemonic system. They are the chosen elite of the people, and they represent everything that the dirty and illiterate slaves (and then the salaried white workers from the poorer parts of Europe) want to destroy.

The origins of consumerism as an alternative expression of slavery were rapidly hidden by apparent defeats, such as in the American Civil War. After the trauma of the Nazis in the admired Germany of Adolf Hitler, the colonial powers of the North West (the rear-guard and the guarantors of such transnationals as the United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Nestlé, ITT, Ford, Pepsi, etc.) abandoned the old rhetoric justifying their invasions and interventions for the racial inferiority of the different Black and mestizo countries. While the colonial powers were distracted by war, a handful of South American countries, from Argentina to Guatemala, restored their democracies.

That was, until the new ‘help’ from Washington would end up imposing a new wave of dictatorships and the carrot of consumerism would impose itself upon every other dimension of human life as an act of faith, an incontrovertible dogma.


Micro-politics and demobilisation

During the Cold War, the victorious North Western powers deleted the word “blacks” from their discourse and substituted it for “communists”. The advantage of this linguistic manoeuvre was that it could be applied to anyone, at will, without the colour of their skin being an issue. It simultaneously avoided an inconvenient use of language, and thus the empires, which no longer wished known as such, could continue to do exactly as they had been for the last few centuries. Thanks to the militarisation of South American countries under Washington’s command, in under two decades, the region stifled its democratic revolutions, and a rabble of dictatorships were reinstalled in those countries to guarantee “order amid the chaos” (a linguistic artefact inherited from the time when the indigenous and Black populations were the problem), now as part of the doctrine of national security and in defence of freedom and democracy.

The new excuse of a fight against communism, irrelevant in the region, was paired with another substitute for the old racism: the underdeveloped nations had “diseased cultures” and “twisted roots”. Anyone who decided to stand up for the colonised cultures, such as my friend Eduardo Galeano, was branded the “perfect Latin American idiot” and was made responsible for the underdevelopment of those countries. Even the repeated argument from the old-school expansionist days of the United States, the continued self-victimisation of “they attacked us first; we were forced to defend ourselves” was hurled over the colonised like yet another bombing campaign, as if the colonised had a mental illness: the underdeveloped, the poor, they are like this because they victimise themselves. Not so much as a word on the imperialism, the multiple military and economic interventions, the embargos and the exploitation, however.

In the United States, the Hispanic community was not even allowed their own “Malcom X”. Anyone who came from a distance, anyone who thought differently and dared publish it was demonised as a ‘communist’ or ‘anti-American’. The ‘coloured hybrids’ were indoctrinated by discourses about success, freedom and democracy, without it mattering that the large majority of them never experienced either; instead, they received a handful of dogmatic and propagandistic ideologies brimming with hatred towards their brothers and sisters that stayed in the banana republics, with more hatred for the poor from the South, “the illegal aliens who want to invade this great nation”.

It was not always this way. A century ago, the United States was home to organisations such as the American Anti-Imperialist League, which protested against the invasions of Cuba and the Philippines, even adopting a stance in favour of Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua. Among the ranks of the anti-imperialists were writers such as Mark Twain, feminists like Jane Addams, and even a millionaire like Andrew Carnegie. More recently, the Vietnam War provoked diverse protests and mobilisations that did have a certain degree of impact, but they were quickly neutralised by the reactionary neoconservatives under the force of millions of dollars and a powerful network rooted in big corporations, various churches and the government.

Presently, these movements have all but ceased to exist, despite the fact that the mobilisations demanding greater racial justice have increased. One factor has been the demobilisation of the international consciousness. As the boxer Mohammed Ali summarised in his time: “why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’’ On the contrary, there are rappers who now sell a convenient rebellion, rebellions of cocaine and toxic obscenities, who do nothing but boast in their songs about how they have millions of dollars and how the losers have nothing. It almost has the whiff of another multi-million-dollar campaign by U.S. intelligence services in the oeuvre of those we already know so much about. Now, the anti-racist campaigns in the United States do not organise marches or protests against the international racism of the global powers that interfere at will in weaker nations, as if everything had been resolved. This divorce is strategic, just like the fragmentation of society and of thought, distracted in the problems of micro-politics.

This is not new. Shortly before the American Revolution, the governors were clear in their minds, and they wrote it in their letters: to avoid the dangerous continued coexistence and shared workplaces of the poor Black, indigenous and white people, hatred was bred between the different the races. This way, the poor whites could see the skin colour of their neighbours more clearly than they could the oppressive social conditions to which both were subjected. The rebellions of the oppressed were dissipated, substituting them for racial hatred promoted by those above.

The other strategy, curiously planned out in this case, consisted in hijacking legitimate demands: in the 19th century, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a feminist, educator and senator for 24 hours in 1922, advocated the lynching en masse of Black Americans so that they would not tempt the country’s fair white maidens. In the 20th century, Edward Bernays, the publicist and manipulator of public opinion, hijacked the feminist movement to sell cigarettes with his “torches of freedom”. More recently, Washington advocated for and financed previously dangerous indigenous movements, this time in opposition to ‘disobedient’ governments, such as those in Ecuador and Bolivia. In the rest of the continent, the CIA hijacked rebel movements, financing ‘free unions’, collectives of dissident students, centre-left books and media outlets, and university courses to “produce responsible leaders”.

The same strategy of divide-and-hijack continues to take place today in rebel groups. To resolve the historical racial conflict, global inequality, which was historically sustained by racism, but always served the interests of the lightest skin colours, is discarded without a second thought. One aspect of the rhetoric of white supremacy was substituted for nationalist hate. Micropolitics’ causes (the right to use this or another bathroom, support for a Black mathematician discriminated against in NASA, homosexuals’ right to be in the army) are usually legitimate and necessary, but they have lost all global consciousness and any semblance of a general framework that incorporates their legitimate demands.

Consumerism is another fragmentation and restricting of thoughts, emotions and desires within a narrow framework. Not only does it prevent thinking about the suffering of other nations; it also prevents any kind of individual change within those nations that supposedly benefit from this poison, as it is primarily an addiction that numbs the senses. Similarly, international racism and classism are reproduced in forgotten catastrophes, such as the oil spills in poor countries in Africa or in South America. They are reproduced in the public opinion’s amnesia about the destruction of the environment due to climate change, caused by the global powers and suffered, above all, by poorer countries. They are reproduced in the hatred for those displaced by wars, by cosying up to dictatorships and by an economy that discards human beings when they are no longer profitable. They are reproduced in the perennially convenient hatred among those below, who do not reach the glorious consumption promised by the dogma and the advertising.

JM, May 2021