Civilization is an elitist concept deployed as an ideological tool to mask the processes of class and state formation. It’s a way of organizing reality that legitimizes hierarchies and inequalities by naturalizing them and concealing the real exploitative relations and their historical development. It’s a narrative of history which propels “civilized” powers, such as the United States, to an unfolding goal by some immanent drive such as progress, democracy, liberty and revolution.
Eric Wolf argues that the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes and that a proper global history must take into account, in material terms, how some relationships gained ascendancy over others at each juncture. He poses the question: If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things? This is precisely the sort of static reading rendered by the civilization narrative.
Thomas Patterson examines the deployment of “Western civilization” as a discourse on power to create false heritages. He claims that the idea of civilization was forged in societies whose ruling classes were obsessed with hierarchy, and wanted to ensure that inequalities were perpetuated. Thus, ruling class intellectuals have used civilization discourses to explain how the existing power relations came to be and why they are legitimate.
History books in schools teach of an entity called the West, a society and a civilization independent of — and in opposition to — other societies. Western civilization is even said to have a genealogy according to which “ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry, crossed with democracy, in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
[AdSense-B] – [AdSense-B]
Civilization is, therefore, granted a unique agency that places it outside of history and social relations. History then becomes a moral success story in which the winners prove that they are virtuous and good by winning. Similarly, the history of “colonization” cannot be read as a general imperial process with laws or monarchical decision-making that govern it but rather as a changeable and specific set of relations being formed due to the forces driving the expansion of capital.
The constant tension between the imperatives of capitalism and the demands of territorial imperialism shaped the economic and political forms of the resulting states, and not some civilizational drive of the colonies themselves (such as the “American Revolution”). The same holds for when the former colonies themselves are drawn inexorably into the imperative of capitalist expansion and use discourses of Manifest Destiny and the “superiority of civilization” to legitimize new forms of imperial coercion. Ellen Wood discusses this overseas expansion of economic imperatives in her book ‘Empire of Capital’. She contends that capital cannot survive without constant accumulation and these imperatives relentlessly drive it to expand its geographic scope beyond national boundaries. Capitalism creates a drive for expansion because it compels propertyless workers to sell their labour for a wage and then subjects appropriators to the compulsions of the market, which oblige them to compete and accumulate ultimately beyond the borders of the nation-states.
What it means, therefore, is that “colonization” is an abstraction of a dynamic network of relationships taking place at a global scale and to conceptually split them apart into discrete bundles and grant agency to them in the name of “colony,” “nation” or “society” is to construct a false reality, usually to the benefit of the elite.
For instance, the logic of Britain’s domestic capitalism did not play itself out in the same ways and degrees everywhere in North America, but developed particular economic relationships based on the material conditions of the area. Canada, for example, began as a trading colony associated with the Hudson Bay Company for the purpose of providing fur to Britain. Settlement was not a priority and was even a liability to the fur trade, which was the Company’s main concern. Thus the most profitable form of social property was one that did not detract from the fur trade by organizing land into privately-owned parcels. It was only after Britain conquered the French territories in America and acquired a large territorial empire in Canada that the settlement increased.
“Colonization” obscures the reality and makes Canada appear as the exception to the rule, whereas actually, Canada follows the only “rule” of colonization, which is that the determinate economic forms of the colonies depend on the interaction between the conditions of production in the colony and the colonizer’s demand for surplus. Based on Canadian material conditions, the most efficient form of value-extraction was a freelance, loosely organized “work force” of trappers and traders, and settlement only to the extent that it didn’t detract from the available land resources.
The Southern Colonies (the future United States), however, were never intended to serve as trading posts. This is because, unlike Canada, the Southern Colonies contained fertile land for agricultural production. Thus, the material conditions of the colony interacted with the desire of colonial capitalists to set up an economic system to maximize profits, which produced the resultant form of property. Thus the colonial capitalists circumnavigated the domestic form, wage-labour, in favour of slave-labour, the form of extraction best-suited to agricultural mass production of single commodities.
The first major colonies in Virginia and in Maryland were based explicitly on the principles of profit and “improvement” based on production. The objective was to develop and exploit land intensively by cultivating marketable crops, using the colonies as laboratories for domestic projects. Imperial powers try to organize labour and property in a way that is most profitable to them. This requires a state to administrate this economic form, but that state’s impulse is to extract more labour than the domestic form of production could. Thus, the distinct form of property, resulting class-stratification and corresponding political forms, which developed in the American colonies, were a result of the specific ways in which Britain’s impulse to accumulate played itself out in the colonies of the future United States.
However, the original imperial plan for a diversified commercial economy in the Southern Colonies failed and was soon overtaken by the production of a single, extremely profitable crop — tobacco. The specialization in tobacco required lots of land and an intensively exploited labour force. To fulfil this need, in the beginning, indentured servants were used. But as the demand for labour increased, there was a rapid influx of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean slave plantations. This dramatically accelerated the infamous slave trade. Thus, colonies develop their own specific mode of commercial exploitation and the form it took in the southern United States was dominated by a wealthy planter class and worked by slaves.
The expropriation of land from the Native Americans received legitimization and theoretical elaboration at the hands of John Locke who devised a labour theory of property which stated that the creation of value is the basis of the right to property. Hence, unoccupied or unused land could rightfully be appropriated by those who would render it fruitful. Hunting/gathering could not establish the right of property or even cultivated land worked by Indians because it was not sufficiently productive (according to the logic of “civilization”) and profitable by standards of English agrarian capitalism. Thus, land in America was open to colonization.
To justify the gap between the extremes of liberal values and the realities of slavery, racism was deployed as an ideological tool which masked the exploitative social relations. In Chapter 5 of “Second Treatise of Government” Locke claims that “we acquire property in something when we ‘mix’ our labour with it.” So, to legitimize slavery, slaves themselves needed to be re-inscribed into the notion of property. Slavery became a permanent hereditary condition based on colour and underwent complete commodification as chattels.
While elite philosophers such as Locke were declaring that men were, by nature, free and equal, slaves were placed outside the normal universe of natural freedom and equality in order to justify their permanent subordination. We can see from a proper reading of colonial North America that the notion of “colonization” is a false abstraction for a network of specific economic and social relation informed by the material conditions and the capitalist impulse for expansion. Ideology builds around these economic relations to justify them or hide their true exploitative nature. Thus colonial expansion is legitimized by civilization discourses and liberal notions of progress, while in reality progress is solely defined by the economic profit going to the capitalist.
Civilization is used as an explanation which paints progress as the inevitable development from barbarian to civil society, when in reality the economic form the colony takes depends on the rate at which surplus value is extracted. The use of civilization as an ideological construction to justify colonial ventures is captured perfectly in the words of French political economist Abbé Baudeau, “Land ownership…constitutes a very important step toward the most perfect form of civilization.”