Thursday, April 7, 2011

Colonized without Our Consent

  ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
      Who's castle is that?
  WOMAN:  King of the who?
  ARTHUR:  The Britons.
  WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?
  ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we're all Britons and I am your king.
  WOMAN:  I didn't know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous
  DENNIS:  You're fooling yourself.  We're living in a dictatorship.
      A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
  WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
  DENNIS:  That's what it's all about if only people would--
  ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives
      in that castle?
  WOMAN:  No one live there.
  ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?
  WOMAN:  We don't have a lord.
  ARTHUR:  What?
 Excerpt from Scene 3 from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

In Tuesday's post, I wrote about how corporations came into existence to allow aristocrats with property but no skills to participate in the mercantilist economy. Yesterday, I went further into the two characteristics of corporations, the profit motive and limited liability. Today, I'll get into the third characteristic, the imposition of a central authority into otherwise unregulated affairs.

The clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail perfectly illustrates process of subjugation, or more broadly, colonization. Dennis and Woman are peasants, who didn't even know they had a king, let alone agreed to be subjects. Their village (or anarcho-syndicalist commune) had it's own organization, that worked just fine before Arthur came along. The imposition of centralized authority from outside turned them into subjects, or subjugated them. The process is the same when a corporation inserts itself into existing person-to-person, lateral relationships. But here, the process is called colonization.

What exactly is colonization?

From Nebraska Invasive Species Project
Biologically speaking, colonization is the process of a species coming to inhabit an area. The species populates and cultivates the area for its own purposes, and usually changes the biogeography as a result. Think invasive species. Human colonization is similar in that settlers are going into a region with existing inhabits and the settlers are imposing themselves on the people, geography, governance, and social order.

Scholars in science and technology studies use the concept in a more abstract way (surprise!). Colonization occurs when people impose an order on an existing phenomenon. For example, physicists colonize the building blocks of matter when they invent categories such as "atoms," "forces," and "quarks." In this view, geography is the not the only thing that can be colonized. Cultural practices and social arrangements can as well. For example, for-profit companies have colonized the open source software movement.

What does this have to do with corporations?

More than just dominating a geography, corporations inject themselves into existing social and cultural arrangements, and they centralize our economy. One example of how our lives have been colonized by corporations is the nuclear family.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people lived primarily in rural areas with an agrarian lifestyle. Goods were produced on a small scale by cottage industries. Customers and producers were typically members of the same community and had relationships outside of commerce. Corporations built ever larger factories that allowed them to take advantage of large steam plants, scale up production, and use less skilled workers in assembly lines. Workers were required to live in the city, away from their families, because machines and corporations required them to do so. Young people living in the city fall in love, as they are wont to do, get married, and have babies. Thus, we have nuclear families, consisting of a only parents and children, living far away from other relatives. To be clear, a corporation didn't decide that nuclear families should exist, only that it was in their economic best interest to have workers living near the factories.

In other words, our lives have been twisted around to suit a corporation's bottom line. They turn human beings into investors, workers, consumers, etc., which ignores their agency as family members, citizens, and stewards of the environment.

Is colonization still happening?

These days, countries aren't colonized by invaders anymore. (This is not to say that invasions don't happen, just that colonization through settlers and military force doesn't happen any more.) It's too expensive, not cool, and not necessary. Colonization now occurs through economic means. Why bother taking over the government, when you can take over Main Street AND make money? If citizens are drinking Starbucks, watching Hollywood movies, and listening to Lady Gaga, then what does it matter who is the Prime Minister or President?

Furthermore, the scale of colonization continues to grow. Living in a dominant culture in the USA, it's hard to see the colonization in our own lives. Perspectives from the periphery, such as the global South and developing nations, can be very enlightening. Firoze Manji, a Kenyan, is the editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, an open-access, pan-African newsletter. In an interview, he was argued that the emphasis should be on emancipation, rather than economic development. He said:

I don't think the idea of development as the new name of colonialism is new: Nkrumah and others wrote about the process of neocolonialism – and the aid industry is very much part of the infrastructure of neocolonialism. What I think we should be outraged about is that what is called 'development' is in fact the use of public funds to subsidise and facilitate the work of the oligopolies, the transnational corporations who are the principal beneficiaries of functioning 'development'.

But I don't think this is colonialism: this is a form of imperialism, a way of extracting wealth from our countries, subsidised by public taxes. Imperialism has evolved over the last hundred years, and the accelerated financialisation of capital has created conditions in which there is a frantic drive for accumulation by dispossession. That is fundamentally what is going on.

And the aid industry is providing the oil to make that machinery work effectively in the interest of capital. Instead of using euphemisms like 'development', we should be calling it what it really is: Capitalism in the peripheries in the age of financialisation and the centralisation of capital on a global scale. This is important, because it allows clarity about what is going on, and at the same time poses the question: If accelerated pauperisation of the many is a characteristic of capitalism in the peripheries, what then should be the anti-capitalist alternative?

It seems that pauperisation doesn't occur only in the geographic peripheries, it's happening here to people who are on the periphery in other ways, such as wage, education, race, access to health care. What then should be the anti-corporatization alternatives? I'll be writing about those tomorrow.

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