Continued from last post . . . Antonio Negri begins the third part of Empire with a quote from Cecil Rhodes, a man who embodied the British Empire's model of imperialist conquest. The man even had a country named after him, for fuck's sake.
* Zimbabwe's Independence Day is April 18, the day it officially stopped being called Rhodesia.
Here are Rhodes’ words in full.
“The world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered, and colonised. To think of these starts that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them to clear and yet so far.”
You may at first hear presumptuousness and ego. And those are certainly there. In Negri's context, he’s setting the stage for a discussion of capitalism’s expansionist nature.
An economy is capitalist in the broadest sense when its workers achieve a particular economic activity: they create more value than it takes to keep them working. That surplus has to go somewhere, and when the system works best, it goes to more investments in industry. That way, a society becomes more complex, prosperous.
Our modern economy, with such cartoonish facts as the Earth’s richest 62 people owning as much wealth as the entire bottom 3.7-billion of us, seems to be suffering from a problem of dead capital. Billions and trillions of dollars are just sitting in private accounts instead of being invested into industries around the world.
But Negri is writing that section about the history of capitalism in the late 1990s. He describes how the surplus reinvestment of capitalism fuels the expansion of markets. First, European investors convinced their state armies to occupy foreign lands and plunder their resources through employing slaves and serfs in mines and plantations.
Eventually, it becomes more profitable to empower the slaves and serfs to produce value-added goods for their own economies. Then an older capitalist region can trade with newer ones to build a global market. Everyone is now producing surplus, everyone is growing, and everyone is creating.
But when capitalist markets and labour structures cover every human population on Earth, there's nowhere left to expand. The only paths forward are reinvestment and storage.
Fine by itself. Yet there’ll always be this pressure, not just to make more capital, but to make more capitalism. Hence why men like Cecil Rhodes looked to the stars.
This is a foundational idea of science-fiction: the future of colonization. The narrative’s function in our own society has often been a critique of our own colonial history. Some famous examples in the tradition are Ursula K Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
|When Cecil Rhodes dreamed of humanity's
most wonderful imagined future, to live
among the stars, he was twisted enough
by the imperialism to which he gave his
name, that he could see interstellar
utopia only as annexation, theft.
Even beyond the major masterworks of the genre, colonization is a major idea throughout science-fiction’s history. The whole purpose of humanity’s exploration of space, through the entire Golden Age era, was to build colonies on other worlds.
We would expand through the stars. Even if it turns out that we can't go there in real life for centuries, the realization of Rhodes' most ambitious dream was a touchstone of our cultural imagination.
Negri doesn’t explore this direction at all, largely because that isn’t really his method. Negri sticks to philosophical traditions. In the chapter that opens with Rhodes’ quote, he sticks mostly to marxist theory.
Yet the idea of colonization animates enormous territory in our science-fictional imagination. As does its critique. Only the most naive works of the Golden Age era treated colonization of other worlds as a simple and worthy aspiration.
Those three works of the period when sci-fi overcame its pulp heritage definitively, they put colonization under a critical lens. Le Guin most obviously, but that goes for the books that treat colonization more positively.
Negri is part of a long tradition of the critique of colonization and imperialism in many forms. Some of it, I may continue with stories featuring my enlightened android Alice. . . . To be continued