Edifices of Empire

For Dissent Magazine, I wrote an essay about racial capitalism, drawing on Peter Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean and Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands: “For Hall, his family, his class, his island—the color line was drawn inside them. It was a psychological legacy of the power held by slave owners. Racial thinking’s repercussions in the real world were only too concrete. […] The power of slave owners also had a significant material legacy—they were financially compensated for the loss of the enslaved human beings they had treated as units of production, who were suddenly abstracted into capital. As Hall explains, slave owners funneled the payments they received at emancipation into businesses—shipping, railways, merchant banking—that fueled Britain’s industrial transformation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hall juxtaposes this eclipsed history of racial capitalism with an exploration of the prejudices that misshaped so many lives in colonial plantation societies in the Caribbean to underscore the economic roots of all that internalized prejudice and self-loathing. Jamaican planters profited from both slavery and abolition; in self-vindication, they worked to instill “a continuing faith in the ‘truth’ of race” in the late-nineteenth century. On the ground, this manifested as an abiding “mental slavery” (to use Bob Marley’s famous words). The struggle for liberation from it was the task of Hall’s generation and continues urgently to be that of our own.”