3rd February 2021
4th Annual Stuart Hall Public Conversation - Movement and Stillness: Art in a Time of Crisis and Upheaval
Watch three of Britain’s leading artists and poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson and Jay Bernard as they came together to read and reflect on the role of art and poetry in our turbulent times.
Mission and vision
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political…"
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political…"
11th October 2020 / Article
The Coronavirus Pandemic and its Meanings
By: Michael Rustin
the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political…"
The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020
This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.
In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.___
The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).
How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.
Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.
There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.
It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.
It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.
These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.
Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.
The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.
It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.
A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.
The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.
We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).” These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.
Psychological Aspects of the Crisis
So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.
Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).
I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.
Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.
Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.
The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.
I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.
However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2). Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.
Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .
This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:
- The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
- In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
- In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
- In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.
Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.
And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?
- This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.
Adorno, T. (1951/1978) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951) reprinted in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Blackwell (1978) pp 118-137.
Bauman, Z. “Freudian Civilisation Revisited: or Whatever happened to the reality principle?” (2009) Journal of Anthropological Psychology No. 21, 2009, Department of Psychology Aarhus University pp 1-9. https://psy.au.dk/fileadmin/Psykologi/Forskning/Forskningsenheder/Journal_of_Anthropological_ Psychology/Volume_21/target.pdf
Beck,U. (2000) What is Globalisation? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bion, W.R. (1975) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.
Castells, M. (1998) The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, Vols 1, 2 and 3. Oxford: Blackwell.
Gellner E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement. London: Paladin.
Gellner, E. (1995) “Freud’s Social Contract”. in Anthropology and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 62-93.
Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hall, S. and Massey, D. (201) “Interpreting the Crisis”. Soundings 44, pp. 57-71.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law & order. Basingstone: Palgrave/Macmillan
Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell
Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.
Massey, D. (2002) ‘Globalisation: what does it mean for geography?’, Geography, 87, 4, 293-6 https://think-global.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/dea/documents/dej_9_2_massey.pdf
Nussbaum, M. and Sen. A. (eds.) (1993) The Quality of Life. Oxford:: Oxford University Press.|O’Toole, F. (2019) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London : Apollo.
Rosenberg, Justin (2013) “The ‘Philosophical Premises’ of Uneven and Combined Development.” Review of International Studies, 39 (3). pp. 569-597
Rustin, M.J. (2016) “Sociology and Psychoanalysis”, in A. Elliott and J. Prager (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. pp 259-277.
Rustin, M.J. (2019) “Is there an alternative to reactionary modernisation?” Soundings 71, pp 116-127.
Rustin, M.E. and M.J. (2017) Reading Klein. London: Routledge.
Segal, H. (1973/1988) Introduction to the Thought of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.
Trotsky,L. (1932/) The Russian Revolution. New York: Simon Schuster..
Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Williams, R. ((1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 128-136.
Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock
Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections
between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)
and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:
Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),
Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child
Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of
Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.
"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical…"
21st August 2020 / Article
By: Catherine Hall
"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical…"
21st August 2020 / Article
Doing Reparatory History: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home
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debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire
"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical…"
21st August 2020 / Article
Doing Reparatory History: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home
By: Catherine Hall
This article asks whether history writing can be reparatory. Opening with a discussion of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 and the national conversation that was created at that time, it goes on to reflect on contestations over memory and the significance of the emergence of reparations as a key term with which to think about the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair. It uses a discussion of the author’s individual and collaborative historical work to argue for the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.
Keywords: collective memory, disavowal, historical wrongs, Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, Macaulay, ‘race’, reparation, slavery
What is reparatory history?
What does it mean to do it in Britain?
This essay reflects on some of the ways in which the histories of ‘race’ and slavery have figured in the recent past in Britain. It argues that debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire that have been and are being produced. It utilises a discussion of some of my own work as a historian over the past twenty years to think about what history that was reparative might look like.
Creating a national conversation
The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 provoked what could be described as a ‘national conversation’ in the United Kingdom. This had happened before: at the end of the eighteenth century, pro-slavers and abolitionists engaged in fierce debate and polemic culminating in the abolition of the trade in 1807. The hope that once the trade had been dismantled slavery would disappear was soon shown to be an illusion, and this led to the activism of the 1820s, once again challenged by the pro-slavers. The major revolt of 1831 in Jamaica combined with popular pressure across the country brought about the Act of 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. During 2007, once again, the question of British responsibility for the enslavement of Africans became a subject of mainstream political and cultural debate. The context for this re-awakening was the major changes which had taken place in British society since the late 1940s, the scale of the African-Caribbean presence, the turbulent politics of race particularly in the wake of the killing of Stephen Lawrence (1993) and the Macpherson Report (1999) recognising the significance of institutional racism in the police, and the pressing questions from second and third generation young people as to whether it was possible to be black and British. In 2007 the bi-centenary provided an opportunity to re-open questions about the slave trade and slavery. Anti-racists had a number of different political agendas but were perhaps united in their hopes for new political and educational initiatives that would tackle persistent racism and repair historic wrongs.
Blair’s New Labour government looked to the future and advocated the idea of a modern multicultural Britain. The limits of their commitment were all too apparent, however, in the response to the Parekh Report of 2000, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which discussed ‘the many varieties of racism and exclusion that disfigure modern Britain and that have been woven into the fabric of British history for many centuries’. The report provoked a furore in the rightwing press. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary who had supported the establishment of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain by the Runnymede Trust, backtracked, effectively abandoning any efforts to follow up on the report’s more radical recommendations. The following year, at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, the British government did not support Caribbean nations’ claims for reparation for slavery and the Conference Declaration was limited to acknowledging the historical and contemporary practices of the slave trade and slavery as morally outrageous. That same year, Randall Robinson, an African-American lawyer, author and activist, published The Debt: what America owes to Blacks. This significant intervention in the US debate on reparation argued that responsibility for the terrible effects of slavery across generations, the destruction of a hereditary identity, lay with the US government and people. Restitution could and should be made. Questions about racisms, reparations and historical wrongs were increasingly present in public debate across the Atlantic world.
So when it came to 2007 the government felt the need to respond. ‘It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret’, as prime minister Tony Blair put it, ‘for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.’ He was very careful, however, as many pointed out, not to apologise; for an apology might have indicated historic responsibility and had material consequences. 2007 gave all Britons an opportunity, he argued, to reflect on ‘the spirit of freedom, justice and equality that characterised the efforts of the early abolitionists, the same spirit that drives our determination to fight injustice and inequality today’. We could ‘rejoice at the different and better times we live in today’. The government’s chosen focus was abolition, not slavery, echoing the narrative that had been established from the early nineteenth century. This was part of an updated version of the Whig story of progress, of Britain’s capacity to lead the world on issues of liberty and freedom. ‘There is a golden thread which runs through British history,’ said Gordon Brown, ‘that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 when arbitrary power was fully challenged with the Magna Carta, on to the first bill of rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country where parliament asserted power over the king,’ to the abolition of the slave trade and on to democratic reform. This was the narrative that informed the liberal humanitarian interventions of the Labour government, some of which had such disastrous effects.
While the official response to 2007 was to celebrate Britain’s record, others asked, how can we celebrate this? Establishment figures such as cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg and former Tory leader William Hague, albeit from different political perspectives, were united in their admiration for William Wilberforce, the saintly and iconic figurehead of the abolitionists whose evangelical Christianity was central to his struggle against both slavery in the Caribbean and vice at home. A rather different perspective informed the critique of what some called the Wilberfest. ‘Our object’, as Wilberforce had put it, ‘was by ameliorating regulations, and by stopping the influx of uninstructed savages, to advance slowly towards the period when these unhappy things might exchange their degraded state of slavery for that of free and industrious peasantry.’ This language of ‘uninstructed savages’ and ‘unhappy things’ is redolent of the ways in which much abolitionist discourse assumed white superiority, a discourse that has had powerful echoes into the present. At the same time, Wilberforce’s vision of ‘free and industrial peasants’ marked the gap between conservative abolitionists such as himself, who believed in class, gender and racial hierarchies, and those radicals, Robert Wedderburn and Elizabeth Heyrick, for example, who rejected his pastoral vision of everyone in their proper place and sought not only the ending of slavery but also a transformation of society and the creation of an egalitarian world.
The ‘national conversation’ was greatly facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s decision to commit a substantial sum, between 15 and 20 million pounds, to bi-centenary projects. The money made possible both large-scale projects such as the establishment of the New Centre for the Understanding of slavery in association with the Liverpool Museums and many small-scale initiatives, some of which have now been archived in an effort to conserve what was an extraordinary set of activities. ‘Remembering 1807’ (http://antislavery.ac.uk/remember- ing1807) reflects the ways in which hundreds of heritage groups and local organisations around the UK marked the anniversary. Museums, galleries, archives, community groups, churches, theatres and schools organised exhibitions, debates, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, film, carnivals and festivals. The BBC commissioned radio and TV programmes. Universities organised conferences, seminars and exhibitions. Artists produced new materials, such as Lubaina Himid’s ‘Swallow Hard: the Lancaster dinner service’. Himid collected plates, jugs, tureens and dishes from local shops in Lancaster and Whitehaven, significant ports for slaving vessels. She decorated them with images of traders, ships, sailors, buildings, servants, the enslaved, maps and goods, exploring the connections between the North West and the development and abolition of the slave trade. The dinner service was initially exhibited on the splendid mahogany dining table in the Judge’s Lodging in Lancaster, reminders both of the flourish- ing mahogany trade from Jamaica and Honduras and its importance to the development of eighteenth-century consumer society, and of the centrality of the law to class power in that period.
The ‘national conversation’ about the slave trade and slavery in 2007 marked a contestation over memory – what was to be remembered and how? It was Maurice Halbwachs in the period after the first world war who initiated much of the work on collective memory, drawing on his own experience and illuminating the ways in which memory is constructed, mediated and shaped in the social world. Individual and collective memory are always related; experiences and private recollections are tested by and shaped in encounters with collective memory. It is collective memory that constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating. ‘I have shown’, he argued, ‘that memory is a collective function … If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them.’ In 2007 the question that was being asked was what should be remembered? Was Wilberforce really the carrier of the story of abolition? Can trauma pass through generations affecting the descendants of the enslaved? If so, how? How can the different legacies be given weight and significance in the minds and cultures of people today? There will always be different perspectives and voices but which narratives would/should achieve cultural and political hegemony? Would it continue to be white abolitionists or those black abolitionists, men such as Ottobah Cugoano, kidnapped at 13 in West Africa, sold into slavery and eventually freed in England, who believed that redress would never be adequate, and drew attention to ‘the incommensurability between pain and compensation’. And what about the women? What about the practices of the trade and slavery itself, the hundreds and thousands of African men and women who had been transported across the Middle Passage, and sold to planters and merchants across the British Caribbean? What impact did all of this have on the lives of those in the UK? What kind of responsibility did Britons, generations later, have for those wrongs committed by their forbears? There was no common view, but many voices were raised, unsettling what had seemed to be settled narratives. In that sense 2007 was a reparative moment, marking new discoveries and provoking new questions.
There is a long history of claims for reparations for the wrongs associated with slavery. As early as the 1780s there were petitions from those who had previously been enslaved. Hundreds of Quakers both freed enslaved men and women and paid them compensation. Some abolitionists argued in the nineteenth century that freedom should include compensation, some challenged the payment of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. Arguments were made for compensation in the US after the civil war and Marcus Garvey sought payment to descendants as part of the back to Africa movement. Congressman John Conyers, who represents Detroit, has marked every session for the last twenty-five years by introducing a bill calling for the congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects and recommending remedies.
‘The subterranean stream of Western history’, Hannah Arendt wrote in the immediate postwar years, ‘has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our position. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of the future, are vain.’ Such a recognition of the weight of the past, ‘that subterranean stream’, marked a very different attitude from earlier periods. For Marx the past had weighed like a nightmare on the brain of the living: but it was to be transcended. It was not until the 1990s that the need to come to terms with the past and the insistence that the legacies of the past lived on in the present became more urgent. Notions of reparation and a demand for reparative justice became a global phenomenon. The Holocaust was the most powerful symbol of the impossibility of ignoring the misdeeds of the past, and of thinking about that past as catastrophic, for it was still a living memory. Holocaust survivors, slave labourers in Nazi camps, Australian aborigines, Native Americans in Canada, Maori in New Zealand, the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa were making claims on governments. Such claims implied a break with the idea of history as progress, that the future would always be better than the past, an idea heavily influenced by both Enlightenment stadial theory and Marxism. Now the emphasis is on reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present. Some have argued that this preoccupation with the past is a result of the decline of a more future-oriented and utopian politics. The combination of the horrors of Stalinism and of fascism, together with the end of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of nationalism, the unfinished work of decolonisation, the ‘failures’ of postcolonial states and the apparent triumph of global capitalism, have destroyed beliefs in the possibility of a transformative politics, the loss of a sense of common destiny, and a retreat into a growing concern with particular groups and claims, with victims and their rights. It may be that the crisis of neoliberalism and the growing critique of capitalism and the market that characterises one aspect of our contemporary world, albeit alongside the successes of authoritarian populism, will mark the onset of a very different political moment. Could re-thinking the past, taking responsibilities for its residues and legacies, be one way of challenging rightwing politics and imagining a different future?
In the aftermath of the first world war, the word reparations was associated with the punishing payments demanded by the victors from the defeated. Sometime after the second world war, the word was transformed from its original connotations with war reparations. Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt argued for the need for the German people as a whole to atone: the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of individual Nazis were in no sense an adequate response to what had happened. Reconstruction and restoration would require recognition of the full meaning of what had happened and its implications for the majority population. A shift took place from the language of perpetrators to the notion of beneficiaries, facilitating efforts to claim reparations for wrongs done in the past, for gross violations of human rights and their effects into the present. As Mahmood Mamdani put it in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Where the focus is on perpetrators, victims are necessarily defined as the minority of political activists; for the victimhood of the majority to be recognized, the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries. The difference is this: whereas the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice as criminal justice, that on beneficiaries shifts the focus to a notion of justice as social justice.
Responsibilities are then understood as belonging to nations and peoples, to ‘by- standers’, those who acquiesced or benefitted, as well as those who pressed the button. In a similar vein, Michael Rothberg, exploring what the legacies of slavery mean today in terms of justice and historical responsibility, has proposed the term ‘implicated subjects’. He argues that there is a need to develop a new cate- gory describing the implication of people in events that are temporally or spatially distant and in which they have not played a direct role either as perpetrators or victims. Those of us living in the rich societies of the West have all, albeit profoundly unequally, enjoyed the fruits of racial capitalism, we are all survivors of slavery, not just those who can directly trace their lineages.
John Torpey makes a helpful distinction between ‘reparations’ (plural) in the more literal meaning of rectifying past injustices (whether or not you are directly responsible for committing the wrongs), and ‘reparation’ (the singular noun), which covers the wider terrain of reparation politics. Transitional justice, with its many permutations of truth, justice, and reconstruction; the tropes of forgive- ness, apologies, and regret; efforts at reconciliation, memory, and communal memorialisation, all these can play a part in attempts to take responsibility for as well as hope to put wrongs right. While the word reparations generally means compensation of some kind, reparation has come to mean repair. People make reparation, states and corporations pay reparations. Reparation politics can include transitional justice, the legal mechanisms such as criminal trials and truth commis- sions which would mostly be concerned with perpetrators. ‘Transitional justice’, writes David Scott, ‘is the name of a post-Cold War development in liberal justice that, through the political technologies of successor trials and above all, historical truth commissions, aims to draw a line between the illiberal past and the liberalizing present.’ Then there is compensation and restitution of a material kind such as the German payments to Israel and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis. Reparation can include acknowledgement as in the case of the Japanese-American claims over internment, which involved token payments, apologies, as Blair refused in relation to slavery, some churches have made for sexual abuse, most recently Hollywood for misogyny/sexual harassment, or statements of regret. Efforts to reshape historical memory can also be made through history writing, school textbooks, exhibitions in museums, memorials, statues and commemorative plaques. Many of the activities associated with 2007 were indeed of this kind.
Claims from the Caribbean for reparation from the erstwhile empires were given new life by the publication of Hilary Beckles’s book Britain’s Black Debt in 2013, documenting the evidence of the destruction wreaked by slavery, the benefits that accrued to Britain, and the arguments for reparation. This was followed by the launch of the CARICOM ten-point programme in 2014, a claim from the regional states for reparatory justice from the European states ‘whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them’. A full apology was demanded alongside debt cancellation, development programmes, resources to tackle ill health and illiteracy and psychological forms of rehabilitation for those who were ‘denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and pal- aces of Europe’. The search was for a ‘path to reconciliation for victims of crimes against humanity and their descendants’ in the region. The CARICOM claim has been met with a deafening silence from European governments, has provoked criticism from Pan-Africanists for its failure to challenge the system of racial capitalism with its global reach, and from those in the wider diaspora for the exclusive focus on harms done in the Caribbean. Many black people are suspicious of the whole enterprise, many white people think that there is no reason to saddle them with responsibility for things they did not do. But might the reparations argument have the potential, as David Scott puts it, to
“redescribe the past’s relation to the present … to foreground the sense in which Caribbean debt is the other side of European theft – that the ‘persistent poverty’ of the Caribbean has been a constituting condition for ill-gotten European prosperity … The point is that this is not the story of a mere episode in a marginal history; it is the integrated story of the making of the modern world itself.”
It is to be hoped that the new Centre for Reparations that has been established at the University of the West Indies will be able to build a detailed case that European governments will not be able to ignore. The priority is to seek reparations for the descendants of the enslaved and of those indigenous peoples who suffered genocide. But as Robin Kelley has written in relation to the US, ‘The reparations campaign, despite its potential contribution to eliminating racism and remaking the world, can never be an end in itself … without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences.’
Reparation and the UK
Reparatory work in the UK needs to be connected with these wider struggles but also to be rooted in the locality. Anti-racists have been challenging the systemic racism that has blighted the lives of generations, tackling inequality and discrimination for decades. Historians, writers, visual artists and critical race theorists have been exploring colonialism and its legacies, challenging the silences on ‘race’ and slavery. In her brilliant essay on the apparent absence of ‘race’ in the American literary canon, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison analysed a range of texts, from Willa Cather to Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. ‘Her project’, she argued, ‘is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.’ She examined
“the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters.”
The recognition of white privilege, grasping the extent to which white identities have been built on the capacity to ‘other’ those who are defined as lesser is a crucial part of the work that is underway and needs to be sustained in Britain.
My own first effort to do something I have come to call ‘reparatory history’ began in the 1980s when questions about the politics of ‘race’ erupted angrily amongst feminists, with demands from black feminists that white women should think about themselves and the positions of privilege they/we occupied. I began to research the question of ‘race’, the ways its presence and significance had been denied and disavowed in British history, and what this meant for white populations, whether ‘at home’ or in the empire. Britain’s domestic history had been systematically demarcated from its imperial history as if the two had nothing to do with each other. My study became an investigation of the impact of colonial- ism on English identities in the period after the abolition of slavery, an exploration of the long historical links between England, particularly Birmingham, and Jamaica. What did it mean to be a coloniser: how central was that identity, that sense of power over others who were thought lesser, to notions of Englishness and Britishness? How were white identities constituted in relation to black? What were the distinctive characteristics of white masculinities and femininities? How was class articulated with this? What happened to thinking about ‘race’ in the wake of abolition? Once slavery, with its supposedly clear binary between white and black and assumption of black subjection, was abolished, other legitimations had to be found for the systematic forms of exploitation, expropriation, cruelty, terror, coercion, violence, abuse, destruction and hatred of ‘others’ that continued across different sites of empire. Othering could take many forms as has been clear from the treatment of the Irish, of Jews and of people of colour in the metropole. As Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht have argued, the demand for reparation put a particular purchase on history and the history of ‘race’. ‘It challenges the progressive onward march of freedom from below by demanding the recognition and repair of exploitation, expropriation and violence not just by building monuments or demanding financial payback.’
There is much work to be done: exploring the continuities between the racisms of the past and the present, investigating the history of the descendants of the enslaved, documenting resistance and exploring the constructions of ‘race’, including whiteness, across different sites of empire, investigating the role of states and corporations. We need histories of the enslaved and their survival, they argue, of the perpetrators and the beneficiaries, of those who refused the Manichean binaries of ‘race’. Reparatory history must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress: it begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss, but the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.
The attachment to the idea of abolition as a mark of Britain’s love of liberty and freedom was linked to a deep, yet disavowed, attachment in English culture to Britain’s imperial power. In the wake of decolonisation and the loss of Empire,Paul Gilroy diagnosed ‘postimperial melancholia’, marked by
“an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that followed the end of the Empire … Once the his- tory of the Empire became a source of discomfort, shame, and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside. Rather than work through those feelings, that unsettling history was diminished, denied, and then, if possible, actively forgotten.”
Such a denial has had profound moral and psychic costs, he suggested, not least shaping hostile responses to strangers and settlers, stirring up fears of ‘swamp- ing’ and invasion. ‘An anxious melancholic mood has become part of the cultural infrastructure’, he argued in 2004. Gilroy’s analysis recalls Freud’s emphasis in Mourning and Melancholia that if a loved object cannot be relinquished and mourn- ing completed, melancholia will ensue, akin to a state of paralysis. That melancholic mood has more recently been transposed into widescale resentment, an anger associated with the loss of an imagined time of purity, when England was white and her borders were secure.
Disavowal and evasion
The concept of disavowal, first articulated by Freud and subsequently developed by a range of other psychoanalytic thinkers has become central to me in my efforts to understand the erasure of ‘race’ and empire in much British history writing. Freud asked, how do we remember, forget and reconfigure the past, and how is it that we can make a thing appear never to have happened? We can ‘know’, according to this account, something unconsciously even as we are consciously ‘innocent’ of the knowledge. Freud’s thinking was based upon the idea that mind is always conflicted, and that we actively rid ourselves (sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves) of certain mental contents. The body may speak another ‘unconscious’ story: thus Freud described a hysterical patient who seemed to know nothing of sexual desire, yet whose hands conveyed a different drama: the one unbuttoning her clothes, the other doing them up. Others have investigated the ways we may misrecognise ourselves, avoid pain, bury our guilt, and disclaim our desires. Lacan’s famous reading of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, zeroed in upon a hidden object, the epistle in question, hidden in plain view, on a mantelpiece where nobody (except the alert detective) could see it. Hence the casual leaving of a secret in an accessible location may turn out to be, by and large, a brilliant hiding place. As historians are well aware, archives may be technically ‘open’, but nobody bothers to look in them, or they/we look with ‘blind eyes’, asking some questions, forgetting others. Freud’s emphasis is on an unconscious process, the rejection of a reality that is potentially traumatic. Forgetting is understood as actively produced, not just a matter of failed remembering, rather it is willed, unconsciously. Disavowal is connected with a denial of external realities, a refusal to think what is unthinkable, a wish to put aside what cannot be integrated. And this is as relevant in our intimate and interpersonal relations as in relation to forgotten histories. Statements of denial are assertions that something did not happen, does not exist, is not true, or is not known about. It can be argued that individuals or collectives, indeed whole states and societies can be engaged in it. Disavowal is the refusal to avow, the disclaiming of responsibility or knowledge of, repudiation or denial. It is often linked to the notion of a ‘blind eye’ or the refusal of something in plain sight, so carrying the implication of knowing and not knowing.
Hannah Arendt was no disciple of Freud, yet there are connections with her concept of thoughtlessness, characterised in part by the absence of internal dialogue. This was a crucial concept for her exploration of the imperial roots of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. She re-named Nazi rule ‘race imperialism’. The priority, she insisted was to examine the past ‘bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us – neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be or might have been.’ She saw the repetition of empty and trivial truths as a key aspect of ‘modern times’.
‘In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary dis- course’, Morrison wrote. ‘Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race.’ A similar argument can be made about history writing, a topic that I have been investigating in recent times. One case study has focused on Macaulay’s History of England, the great popular history of the nineteenth century, read across the globe. It was an epic story of progress from Elizabeth I to modern times, 1848. It covered the period of the conquest of Jamaica and the expansion of the slave trade and the development of colonial slavery. Macaulay’s father, Zachary, had a lifelong preoccupation with Africa and the Caribbean. An abolitionist, he had spent formative years as a bookkeeper in Jamaica and then time in Sierra Leone, and became Wilberforce’s right-hand man. Yet his son banished the slave trade and slavery to the uttermost margins of his volumes. The peoples and politics of the Atlantic were irrelevant to his vision of history as was the huge flow of wealth from Caribbean slavery and commerce. Despite the development of the Royal Africa Company under Charles II and James II there was no discussion of the slave trade or plantation slavery, the subjects that had occupied most of Zachary Macaulay’s waking hours. This was a startling silence. Sugar and slavery were becoming central to England’s wealth and power by the late seventeenth century. But slavery was a system that Macaulay preferred to forget. It was abolition that should be memorialised. This was a process that had begun in 1808, with the publication of Thomas Clarkson’s history, celebrating the actions of a group of humanitarian white men on both sides of the Atlantic: it was they who had effected abolition. The Wilberforce brothers’ hagiographic account of their father’s life confirmed this way of constructing England’s role: it was humanitarianism that was to be remembered, not the country’s investment in the slave trade and slavery.
In Macaulay’s mind there was nothing significant to be said about the Caribbean, those colonies had no History, with a capital H, History was a story of progress, the story England exemplified. The Caribbean was locked in what Dipesh Chakrabarty famously named ‘the waiting room of history’, possibly seeking entry at some future date. The ‘great experiment’ of emancipation was increasingly problematic in the 1840s, the years Macaulay was writing, the freed men and women had found no real freedom and were frequently in conflict with their erstwhile owners, the Caribbean islands no longer dominated sugar production and were increasingly irrelevant to global economics and politics. There was no story of progress there. Macaulay’s history was of the making of the multi-ethnic nation named England, with its inclusion, as lesser siblings, of the Scots, and, much more problematically, the partial inclusion of the Irish, who could not be comfortably assimilated in his imagination. England provided a model in his analysis, a successful example of the route to modernity, laying out a path which others could follow. His underlying assumption, rooted in his ethnocentrism, was that it was the route. In that sense his History purported to be a universal history.
Macaulay never chose to write a biography of his father, far from it. He preferred to distance himself from all that his father had most valued, evangelicalism and the struggle against slavery. We cannot think, as he had once proclaimed, as our fathers do. His disavowal of the significance of the slave trade and slavery to his nation’s history could be read as the most potent rejection of his father’s legacy. Abolition had been effected: in its wake he had no time for ‘impracticable, uncompromising reformers’, who never did good and led ‘miserable lives’ and he hated ‘negrophiles’ as much as ‘nigger drivers’. He disliked the whole subject of slavery, did not want to talk, think, or write about it, refused to act as the Vice- President of the Edinburgh Antislavery Society. It was a relief when the subject was avoided, as at a dinner with Sumner, the Massachusetts anti-slavery leader: ‘We had no talk about slavery, to my great joy.’ Avoiding subjects, blocking off difficulties, making the world in his own image: these were some of his strategies for keeping trouble at bay.
He had been in the House of Commons in the difficult days when the terms of abolition were being negotiated. He had done his duty to his father. The supreme authority of the ‘parent state’ had been enacted with the abolition of slavery in 1833 by the imperial parliament, in the face of opposition from the colonial assemblies. England had done its duty and so had he. Now he could put it aside. But putting it aside meant deliberately avoiding and forgetting: disavowal. Macaulay was well aware of the extent to which the slave trade and slavery had sustained the economy and society. He was a member of the government that negotiated compensation to the slave-owners: he knew what the payment of 20 million pounds meant in terms of the government’s overall expenditure. But he preferred not to know, he could not face reality. The West Indies rarely crossed his mind, peopled as they were by ‘stupid ungrateful’ gangs of ‘negroes’. He paid lip service to the abolitionists, but Africa and the Caribbean, effectively excluded from his history, only featured in one paragraph.
Yet what a paragraph: the tremor in his text was marked by the forgotten but not to be dispelled spectre of the slave trade and slavery. Evoking the terrible earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, he described ‘The fairest and wealthiest city which the English had yet built in the New World, renowned for its quays, for its warehouses, and for its stately streets, which were said to rival Cheapside.’ On that fateful day all ‘was turned into a mass of ruins’. Here the focus was on the city, built by Englishmen and brought into homely purview by being compared to Cheapside. The markets where the enslaved were sold as commodities, the wharves where the slavers docked, the Africans who peopled the island – none of these were in his line of vision. It was the impact on home that preoccupied him, the effect of the disaster on ‘the great mercantile houses of London and Bristol’. Thus Jamaica was domesticated and slavery disavowed. That earthquake signalled the eruption of repressed memories, for repression cannot always contain its troublesome baggage. Macaulay’s History marginalised slavery and empire in the nation’s story. The work of such an influential historian, read across generations, can tell us much about the construction of Anglophone visions of white civilisation. Unpicking that narrative, demonstrating how that marginalisation was effected, what and who were excluded, how the story is fundamentally changed once questions of gender, ‘race’ and class are opened up, exploitation and expropriation registered, is one way of attempting repair.
To focus on undoing the legacies of ‘great white men’ is one possible strategy. New understandings can never undo the devastation and loss that was suffered in the past and that lives on for descendants in the present. But thinking differently can perhaps awaken a sense of the responsibilities of ‘implicated subjects’ who have benefitted culturally, economically and politically from the hurts inflicted on others, in the hope that change can happen, racisms could be eradicated. Recognition matters. The reparation done for the Holocaust has made a difference – the absence of reparation for slavery means that the wound is still open for many people of African-Caribbean descent. Acknowledgement can mean that those implicated in oppression can align themselves with the oppressed and try to repair.
The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs) (LBS) which seeks to put slavery back into British history, on which I was a principal researcher from 2009 to 2015, has also focused on individuals, but this time on a significant group, the slave-owners. The aim has been to shift the narrative of Britain’s relation to slavery from a focus on abolition to one on the benefits associated with the business of slavery and its importance to the making of modern Britain and in the process to contribute to undoing whitewashed histories. Little systematic attention had been paid to British slave-owners though there were invaluable case studies of particular families and Eric Williams had pointed the way in his attention to the absentee West Indian elite, living in Britain. We decided to use them as a lens through which to explore the tentacles of the slav- ery business in the metropole. Pro-slavers resisted emancipation as long as they could. Once they knew the battle was lost they used their parliamentary power to get the best terms possible for themselves. They drove a hard bargain. The 20 mil- lion pounds (16 billion in today’s money) paid to them in compensation for the loss of ‘their’ human property was combined with a system of apprenticeship, binding the freed men and women to working unpaid for their former masters for fixed hours over four to six years. The compensation records were meticulously collected in the wake of emancipation, providing a census of slave-owners at that time, a unique source. By documenting the 46,000 individual claims for compensation and detailing the legacies – commercial, financial, political, cultural and imperial of the absentees – those with addresses registered in Britain, the extent of Britons’ involvement in slave-ownership has been laid bare. Some of the wealthy slave-owners such as John Gladstone, William’s father, were well- known. But the 3,500+ who received compensation in the metropole were enormously varied, ranging from modest widows living on annuities that were funded by the labour of the enslaved to middle-range merchants, bankers and lawyers, and rich ‘West Indians’ based partially in Marylebone and enjoying a country residence. Twenty per cent of those who received compensation in Britain were women. The compensation records deal with individuals but they illuminate the structures of class and state power. It was the imperial parliament which legislated the ending of slavery, just as it had previously legislated the trade and the notion of an enslaved person as a commodity.
Tracking the legacies has meant looking at the West India lobby and its retention of significant political influence into the 1840s, protecting the interests of the planters. British railway and canal systems, merchant banks and insurance companies, urban developments in spa towns such as Leamington, all bear witness to wealth derived from slavery. British museums and galleries display the perquisites of slavery and empire, visitors to country houses can marvel at the riches associated with sugar. Enterprises in the new colonies of white settlement were partially built on the fruits of slave-ownership. Scrolling through the LBS documentation of slave-owners who contributed to philanthropic enterprises we dis- cover that they supported asylums and schools for the urban poor, hospitals and an Institute for the Blind, the Governesses Benevolent Society and the Lifeboat Institution, typical objects of middle- and upper-class charity. Modern Britain was better equipped to respond to ill-health, poverty and disability than were the lands and peoples it colonised.
Bringing slavery home means tracking all these material traces, following the money and the people, making visible the legacies of slave-ownership, excavating what has been suppressed and marginalised, re-inscribing the slavery business in modern British history in an effort to reshape what is understood as the truth of what has happened. The database provides the evidence of the webs of connections to slavery that continue into the present within the white British elite and key social and economic institutions. It confirms Eric Williams’ insistence on the contribution that slave wealth made to the development of capitalism. It is a resource opening up the entangled histories of Britain’s relation to the Caribbean and offering extensive refutations of that binary between black and white which the slave-owners tried to impose, the ‘race-making’ that was central to their power. It challenges the systemic disavowal, the knowing and not knowing of the realities of slavery that has characterised British history writing and British society. Anecdotal evidence from educational institutions, the media and public debates suggests that LBS has made a difference. The national narrative has shifted: it is impossible now to think about abolition without compensation. Furthermore, the empirical work has given people who are making political claims the historical grounding from which to do so.
LBS’s current project is documenting the structure and scale of Britons’ owner- ship in the Caribbean between 1763–1833, this time establishing patterns of land holding and levels of production when possible, uncovering the political, economic and cultural legacies, and utilising the Slave Registers to record the numbers of men, women and children who worked on the estates. Digitising these histories, in so far as we can, including locating estates on maps, means extensive additions to the database and new possibilities for family and local historians as well as academic researchers. Attempting to grasp the world of the planter historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, the subject of my current research, is greatly facilitated by this wider comparative context across the British Caribbean. I aim to situate him as a child growing up in a family whose plantations had been established in the 1650s, fill out the details of his twelve years on the island as a planter, grasp the significance of his authoritative work as a historian and his life amongst the West Indian elite as an influential pro-slaver in Marylebone and the home counties.
The hope is to understand more about how racial thinking works, what are its logics and its mechanics, how did slave-owners such as Long establish the practices that attempted to fix the binaries between black and white, master the world in which they lived? The ability to see and not see was fundamental to Long’s life, to disavow and deny realities. He relied on what Ann Stoler has called ‘imperial dispositions’ to legitimate his own behaviour, as a planter, a legislator in the House of Assembly, a writer and polemicist, and in the network of his family and kin. He learned to ignore, turn away, refuse to witness: these were the ‘well-tended conditions of disregard’ that enabled slave-owners to live with the contradictions of their practices. Long could be a loving family man and a buyer and seller of human property, valuing others only as commodities and relying on violence and coercion to extract their labour. This culture and the divisions between black and white were not ‘natural’, they had to be created and learned. This was the work of ‘making race’.
So can we think of such work as reparative? Its primary intention is not to seek new resources for education and health in the Caribbean, nor is it focused on the long-term effects of the slave trade on Africa. It is not about the politics of sur- vival and existential struggle under the conditions of ‘bare life’ as Vincent Brown evokes in his discussion of studies of slavery. It cannot offer the kinds of insights into the harshness of Jamaican plantation life that Diana Paton has been able to unearth in her study of slave courts or the complexities of the sex-gender system captured through a fragment in the life of a free woman of colour. My chosen focus is on the UK and the need to develop a different understanding here of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism. This means thinking about understandings of ‘race’ and difference. How significant were the ideas about ‘race’ which developed in the Caribbean to English/British under- standings of difference? Debates over slavery and abolition brought this material ‘home’: pro-slavers and abolitionists tried to marshal their forces and their organisations, worked hard to influence policy and practice. Anti-slavery activism was vital, but it did not always undermine notions of white superiority.
A decade after 2007 it is possible to make some assessment of what shifts have and have not taken place in the UK on the question of slavery and its legacies into the present. There have been some welcome changes in schools and universities, more scholarship produced, more materials made available, a sense that the story cannot any longer be told in quite the way it once was. Politically, ground has been lost. On his visit to Jamaica in 2015 the then prime minister David Cameron’s refusal to consider reparations together with his extraordinarily ill-judged promise of 25 million for a new prison on the island marked a low point. The harsh policies of the current Conservative government on immigration and deportation and of the police on stop and search leave little faith in platitudes about tolerance. The appalling statistics on African-Caribbean levels of inequality, whether in edu- cation, employment, prisons or mental health speak volumes about the persistence of racism.
Colin Prescod has recently recognised the work that has been done by archivists and curators on Black cultural heritage, but makes a powerful argument for mov- ing beyond including the Black experience to allowing Black agency in the making of the record. Black community groups have registered anger and frustration about the opportunities that have been lost, the disappointment of hopes raised in 2007 of changes that would be made, collaborations that would develop, more genuinely inclusive policies that would be implemented. It is just as urgent to insist that Black Lives Matter in the wake of Grenfell as it was in 2007, 1807 or 1833. Morrison’s call for a ‘serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters’ seems no less important in the current climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia, the abandonment of refugees as ‘disposable people’. We need to understand that we are dealing with deeply embedded assumptions in the UK, what Stuart Hall described as ‘a reservoir of unconscious feelings’ about ‘race’. There remains much reparatory work to be done: history writing can be one way in.
- This essay was originally a talk at the ‘Reparatory Histories’ conference in Brighton in April 2017 and then at the Bluecoats conference in Liverpool in October Thanks to all the par- ticipants at those conferences for their thoughts and then to Sally Alexander, Nick Draper, Cora Kaplan, Keith McClelland, Rachel Lang and Diana Paton.
- Runnymede Trust, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), p.
- The Guardian, 12 October 2000.
- For a critical account of the Durban conference see Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: repara- tions for Caribbean slavery and native genocide (Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013).
- Randall Robinson, The Debt: what America owes to Blacks (New York: P. Dutton, 2000). There were echoes here of Orlando Patterson’s emphasis on the systematic alienation and social death associated with Atlantic slavery, Slavery and Social Death: a comparative study (Cambridge, MA, 1982).
- For a helpful discussion of the value of political apologies see Janna Thompson, ‘Is political apology a sorry affair?’, Social and Legal Studies 21, 2 (2012), pp. 215–25.
- Government Press Notice,
- John Oldfield, ‘Chords of Freedom’: commemoration, ritual and British transatlantic slavery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); ‘Repairing historical wrongs: public history and transatlantic slavery’, 21, no. 2 (2012), pp. 243–55.
- The Guardian, 27 February
- Toyin Agbetu intervened dramatically in the service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the bi-centenary which the Queen attended on 27 March 2007, saying that the service was an insult to those of African
- I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (abridged version) (Seeley: Burnside & Seeley, 1843), p. 501.
- For one of the volumes that came out of new research in 2007 see Cora Kaplan and John Oldfield, eds, Imagining Transatlantic Slavery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
- Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 183, quoted in Erika Apfelbaum, ‘Halbwachs and the social properties of memory’, in Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, eds, Memory. Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), pp. 77–92.
- Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Fugitive justice’, Representations 91, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1–12; Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999).
- For some of the reflections on 2007 see the special issue of Slavery and Abolition (30, 2 ), ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions; reflections on 2007 in international perspective’ (edited by Diana Paton and Jane Webster); Laurajane Smith et al., eds, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (London: Routledge, 2014).
- On the importance of discovery to possibilities of reparation see Karl Figlio, Remembering as Reparation: psychoanalysis and historical memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
- Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: slave-ownership, compensation and British society at the end of slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
- Hannah Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1973 ), p.
- See, for example, the discussions in John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: on reparation politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); David Scott, Omens of Adversity: tragedy, time, memory, justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Robert Meister, After Evil: a politics of human rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
- For an introduction to aspects of the complicated history of postwar responses in Germany see Geoff Eley, ‘Contemporary Germany and denial: is “Nazism” all there is to say?’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 44–66.
- Unpublished paper quoted in Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: transitional justice and the challenge of truth commissions (New York, 2001), p.
- Michal Rothberg, Unpublished paper, ‘On being a descendant: implicated subjects and the legacy of slavery’, Utrecht, June 2013. See also his book, Multidirectional Memory: remembering the Holocaust in the age of decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) which brings together holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, aiming to change thinking about collective memory and group identities. See also Elazar Bakan, Guilt of Nations: restitution and negotiating historical injustices (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).
- Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed. I have found Torpey’s discussion of reparations very helpful and have drawn on it in this
- Scott, Omens of Adversity, pp. 26–27.
- Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt; http://www.leighday.co.uk?News/March2014/Caricom- nations-unanimously-approve-10-point-plan.
- David Scott, ‘Debt, redress’, Small Axe 43 (2014), pp. 1–4.
- For an account of the scale of the politics of reparation movements see Robin Kelley, ‘A day of reckoning: dreams of reparations’, in Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 110–34.
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993 ), pp. 90, 11–12.
- Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-1867 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
- 17. Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht, ‘History, agency and the representation of “race” – an introduction’, Race & Class 57, 3 (2016), pp. 3–17.
- Paul Gilroy, After Empire: melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), 98.
- Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 14 (London: Vintage Classics, 2001) pp. 239–60.
- Max Hastings, well-known military historian, editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and one- time editor of the Evening Standard has recently commented on the disaster of producing a film such as Dunkirk in this conjuncture, the calamitous fantasies it encourages of Britain standing alone.
- I am quoting in this paragraph from a longer version of this argument: Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick, ‘Thinking about denial’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 1–23.
- Stan Cohen, States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
- Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, xviii.
- Morrison, Playing, p.9.
- For a longer account of Macaulay’s history writing see Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: archi- tects of imperial Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). The citation in the following paragraphs are drawn from
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
- The project was funded by the ESRC, and supported by the Department of History at
- See, for example, S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A family biography 1764-1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
- Draper, The Price of Emancipation.
- Catherine Hall, Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel Lang, The Legacies of British Slave-ownership and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
- This project has been funded by the ESRC and AHRC and supported by the History Department at The establishment of a Centre for the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL is now supported by the Hutchins Center, Harvard University.
- Anne Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 256.
- Vincent Brown, ‘Social death and political life in the study of slavery’, American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009), pp. 1231–49.
- Diana Paton, ‘Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica’, Journal of Social History 34, 4 (Summer 2001), pp. 923–54; ‘Mary Williamson’s Letter, or seeing women in the archives of Atlantic slavery’, lecture to the Royal Historical Society, 9 February 2018. The work of doing reparatory history will always be collective and collabora- tive, drawing on the many and varied skills of historians across the world, located in specific national, transnational and global contexts.
- Hall, Civilising Subjects; Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: the British campaigns 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).
- Any illusion that official understandings have changed could be dispelled by the Treasury tweet of 9 February about compensation that was ill-judged and See David Olusoga, ‘The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood’, The Guardian, 13 February 2018.
- Colin Prescod, ‘Archives, race, class and rage’, Race & Class 58, no. 4 (2017), pp. 76–84.
- Stuart Hall interviewed by Les Back, Darkmatter.101.org/site/2010/11/28/stuart-hall- in-conversation-with-les-back.
"The challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”"
"The challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”"
16th March 2020 / Article
Haitian immigrant artists in Brazil
By: Caetano Maschio Santos
The challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”
"The challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”"
Diasporic Negotiations of Belonging and Citizenship, Cosmopolitanism from Below and the Political Aesthetics of Migration
By Caetano Maschio Santos
Echoing W.E.B. Dubois, Stuart Hall once said that the fundamental challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”. In this brief excursion through parts of my work with the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I’ll try to showcase how music making provides us with valuable insights to reflect on how this specific black migration wave has spurred processes of negotiation and construction of cultural identities, and is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate part of Brazilian society. In the processes of creating its own spaces and pathways for political action, we find complex entanglements of Hall’s Fateful Triangle: race, ethnicity, and nation.
Haitian immigration to Brazil
Albeit still little known within the Global North, Haitian migration to Brazil has an important place within that which some name as the global “crisis” of migrants and refugees. In the Haitian case, a combination of the longue durée effects of colonialism and imperialism, restrictive immigration policies, internal political crisis (Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ousting in 2004), international occupation through United Nations’ MINUSTAH mission from 2004 to 2017, and natural catastrophes (the Port-au-Prince 2010 earthquake) has come to affect time-honoured migration routes to the US, Canada and France that stretched back at least to the 1950s, now bent towards South America, specially to Brazil and Chile. Scholars researching Haitian migration to Brazil have linked it to the country’s significant economic growth in the first decade of the millennium, its military presence in Haiti leading MINUSTAH, to Haitians perception of or belief in a cultural affinity between Haiti and Brazil (centred on the sharing of African roots) and to restrictive immigration policies in the Global North (Audebert, 2017).
In the borderline between economic migration and climate refuge, Haitians arriving in Brazil have been granted a special humanitarian visa that affords them right to work and reside, and the possibility of bringing relatives through family reunification processes. Even though a significant percentage of migrants held higher education degrees, the staggering majority ended
up taking very precarious work, becoming cheap labour force, in activities such as civil construction and meat processing. Whilst many have worked their way out of this, one is reminded of Hall’s powerful suggestion on how race is the modality through which classed is lived – something true not only for Haitians but also for Afro-Brazilians even today, more than a century after the abolition of slavery, as income statistics continue to demonstrate the structured racial and gender inequalities in Brazilian society. Last but not least, scholars studying Haitian migration have shown how a racializing gaze has been determinant in forging the native/other divide in Brazil (Uebel, 2015), and a common experience to Haitian migrants has been the sudden confrontation with the fact of their own blackness, underscoring once more the continuing importance of the work of Frantz Fanon.
Music and Migration: Haitian artists in Brazil
As it seems to be the case with most diasporas, with Haitians also came along music, or, shall I say, an overwhelming diversity of Haitian and Caribbean musics: konpa, rap kreyòl, reggae, bachata, reggaeton, merengue, twoubadou, gospel music, etc. Haitian immigrant artists’ music making is a noteworthy grassroots cultural industry, despite still barely visible (and audible), and has gradually increased its output and sophistication, specially during the last 3 years. It is all the more surprising if we stop to consider the intense work routine that most of these artists/workers live on a daily basis, having to find the time to compose and record, the latter mostly carried out in the home studios that they have been setting up through patient savings and collective efforts. Within the remarkable diversity of this diasporic musical output, what I wish to stress here is Haitian artists’ significant engagement with Brazilian reality, a reflexive and dialogic engagement that denotes the work of truly organic intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense, through the commentary, critique and interpretation of their own lived reality in Brazil. It’s the kind of intellectual workings of what Stuart Hall called a diasporic consciousness – of those who have one foot in and one foot out, are both here and there, constantly living in translation and remaking themselves (Hall & Werbner, 2008). Particularly, I’d like to briefly comment on two specific cases to illustrate what I’ve just said.
The first one is the song “Lula livre”, by Surprise69. Surprise69 is a musical group formed by Mariolove, Elnegroflow, and RealBlack, artistic names of three Haitians migrants living in São Paulo. According to them, Surprise69’s main aim is to help Haitian immigrants within and outside Brazil through art, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and vocations. In the final weeks of the 2018 presidential campaign, as right-wing candidate and now president Jair Bolsonaro approached victory, Surprise69 released in social media and Haitian WhatsApp groups a new song and video clip entitled “Lula livre” (Free Lula). Mixing freestyle hip hop verses and a sort of political campaign jingle chorus over a digitalized breakdance beat, the song was an overt manifestation of support for Workers Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, and also a critique of Lula’s questionable imprisonment due to operation Car Wash. As a participant in some of the digital networks of the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I was then witnessing Haitians’ apparent unease with Bolsonaro’s likely victory, and the compelling critiques they addressed him, facts connected to his openly xenophobic, racist and anti-minority posture. Surprise 69’s song, despite circulating mainly within the circles of the Haitian diaspora, nonetheless succeeded in converting a reading of the political moment into music that sought to enable political action, aligning itself with a powerful tradition of politically engaged music making in Haitian history known as mizik angaje (Averill, 1997), one of the most distinguished marks of cultural resistance against the Duvalier dictatorship. Since as migrants Haitians are dispossessed of the right to vote, Surprise69s’ musical agency can be viewed as manifesting a type of cultural and sonic citizenship, stemming from their own conjunctural reading and using the available means to craft belonging and make themselves heard as politically conscious subjects.
The second case I’d like to address here is overwhelmingly infused with particularities. It concerns the individual articulation of cultural identity through music by Alix Georges, a Haitian migrant living in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. It concerns his strategic use of a popular regional song through lyric quotation in daily conversation and his translation of the song to French. The song, “Canto Alegretense” by the family-based ensemble “Os Fagundes”, refers their native town of Alegrete, close to the border with Argentina and Uruguay, and can be seen to stand as a synecdoche to the state’s hegemonic narrative of cultural identity, one in which discourses surrounding the symbolic figure of the gaúcho (the horse rider and ranch peon of the countryside) have historically invisibilized the state’s black population and culture, and highlighted amongst other things the conflicting qualities of hospitality and defense against foreign invaders (Oliven, 1996). Alix’s development of a personal identification with what is known as “gaúcho regional music” (Lucas, 2000) since his first years living in the state has rendered him able to articulate his belonging in a social and cultural environment significantly marked by the hegemony of Eurocentric and white cultural standards.
The main impulse for his use of the song came from daily intercultural encounters, in which his blackness would be the focus of racializing and othering gazes, epitomized by the question of: “Where are you from?”. In these dialogues framed by what Judith Butler has called “normative schemes of intelligibility” (Butler, 2005), in the crossroads of axis of race, ethnicity and nation, Alix’s answer with the initial lines of the song (“Don’t ask me where Alegrete is, follow the path of your own heart”) resulted in a powerful and effective claim to his right to be and to belong, momentarily disrupting power relations and his own othering as a black migrant through a form of conversational sampling (Roth-Gordon, 2012). He even came up with a hybrid identity moniker to mark the uniqueness of his position: Haitiúcho, a combination of Haitian and gaúcho. The final product of this process, his translated version of the song, achieved considerable popularity within the state, and, as a consequence, got him to know the composers of the song and get their authorization to include it free of copyright charge in his CD. Significantly, he later was invited to Alegrete and awarded the official prize of “Black Star of Alegrete” by the city’s municipal chamber, as part of the celebrations of the Brazilian Black Consciousness day. This second example allows us to see how, through the able use of what is regarded as an authentic asset of regional cultural identity, Alix musically played with identity through difference, effectively countering the binary native/migrant divide. This might be seen as a consequence of his cosmopolitan outlook and engagement with local culture, a cosmopolitanism from below, of those who had little or no choice as to whether become cosmopolitans, as Hall once said (Werbner & Hall, 2008). Amongst other things, then, Alix’s musical agency speaks loudly to Stuart Hall’s comments on cultural identity within the Caribbean diaspora (Hall, 1992): the matter of “becoming” as well as “being”, the unstable points of suture made within practices of representation, within discourses of history and culture – made through a politics of positioning affected by unequal power relations.
Despite having had set aside many of the complexities of these examples, in way of conclusion I wish to stress that the black labor migrant wave that characterizes the demographics of Brazil in the last decade, of which Haitians are perhaps the most significant part, has brought to the fore issues of race and identity in a unique way, questioning the hegemonic understanding of racial relations in Brazilian society, still today marked by the ideal of racial democracy, the harmonious interracial model of the three races owed to the thinking of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s – consequences that, I might say, I’m not really sure that Freyre would unhesitatingly accept. However, in real life one is confronted by the enactment of a racially marked regime of differentiated citizenship, structurally lived and enforced, both formally and informally, affecting the daily lives of Afro-Brazilians and black migrants such as Haitians. It is in such a context that the musical production of Haitian artists such as Surprise69 and Alix Georges attests to what ethnomusicologist Phillip Bohlman has named the political aesthetics of migration (Bohlman, 2011), and stands out as a significant engaged grassroots musical phenomenon. In a global context of escalating nationalism, authoritarian and conservative right-wing populism, Haitian migrants’ aesthetic agency is providing us with valuable lessons on how to learn to live with difference.
- The song can be viewed at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTsE7oJIIgo> [16/03/2020].
- Alix’s version can be viewed at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRHKvQJQ80I> [16/03/2020].
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Audebert, Cedric. The recent geodynamics of Haitian migration in the Americas: refugees or economic migrants?. Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População. Belo Horizonte, vol. 34, n. 1, jan./abr. 2017, pp. (55-71). Available at: <http://www.scielo.br/pdf/rbepop/v34n1/0102-3098-rbepop-34-01-00055.pdf>. [04/11/2018]
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Roth-Gordon, Jennifer. “Linguistic Techniques of the Self: The Intertextual Language of Racial Empowerment in Politically Conscious Brazilian Hip Hop.” Language and Communication, 32.1 (2012): 36-47.
Uebel, Roberto Rodolfo Georg. Analysis of the sociospacial profile of international migration to Rio Grande do Sul in the beginning of the 21st century: networks, actors and scenarios of Haitian and Senegalese immigration. Master thesis, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Geography Graduate Program, Brazil, 2015.
"We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic…"
20th July 2020 / Article
By: Catherine Hall
"We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic…"
20th July 2020 / Article
Thinking About the Slavery Business and its Legacies
By: Catherine Hall
We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic activities associated with British slavery.
"We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic…"
The news that major institutions from the Bank of England, a number of universities and Oriel College Oxford, to companies such as Lloyds of London and Greene King have acknowledged their varied links to the slave trade, slavery and empire and announced their intentions to take down portraits and statues, provide money to redress inequalities and be more inclusive in their practices is most welcome. It has been a long time coming. Attempts to address Britain’s historic engagement with the slavery business and its life into the present have been going on for decades. Visual artists, film makers, writers, activists and historians have worked to unpick the national story of a liberty loving and humanitarian people who led the world in the abolition of slavery, and challenge the assumption that race and slavery are problems for the US, not here. The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 kick-started an unfinished and unresolved national conversation about the meanings and legacies of race and slavery. This time the serious protest movement in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, under the banners of Black Lives Matter, ‘end racial injustices’ and ‘we can’t breathe’, has forced another reckoning. There are huge differences – not least the scale of the angry, passionate and energetic involvement now of young people – black, brown and white – and the role of social media in mobilising protest. In 2007 Blair refused to apologise for Britain’s slave trading past. This time the scale of the major demonstrations alongside public recognition of the disproportionate number of South Asian and black deaths due to Covid-19 have forced responses from institutions and companies that have had the information available as to their shameful histories for years but have chosen to ignore it.
The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs), was made public in 2012, and we have been adding material to it ever since. The recent press coverage of Lloyds, Greene King etc has drawn directly on the research conducted by the LBS team, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board and supported by UCL. Public money has produced public history. The initial research concerned the 20m paid in compensation to the slave-owners when their human property, enslaved men and women across the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape, were emancipated in 1834. Slave-owners were paid a proportion of what was deemed to be the market value of these 300,000+ persons. People who had been bought and sold were now for the last time priced as commodities and the money went to the slaveholders. They invested their spoils in a whole range of economic, political and cultural activities – from building railways and developing merchant banks to buying art works some of which now grace our national collections, refurbishing country houses some of which the National Trust and English Heritage preserve, and investing their capital, both human and mobile, in the development of the new colonies of white settlement in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Emancipated men and women, meanwhile, struggled with their varied conditions of limited freedom. Our subsequent research has focused on the Britons who owned property in land and people in the Caribbean from the mid-eighteenth century to 1833 – opening up the long histories of white families who lived off the exploitation of enslaved people over generations. Our aim has been to provide unequivocal evidence of the ways in which white Britons have benefitted from the slavery business and how practices of racial injustice are historically embedded in British society and culture, how the past lives on in the present.
We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic activities associated with British slavery. There is confusion in many people’s minds between the slave trade – the capture of men, women and children, mainly in west Africa, their sale to European traders in exchange for guns, textiles etc, their terrible forced crossings of the Atlantic and sale in the New World – and slavery, the condition of being enslaved, working on plantations, in stock-breeding pens and as urban workers, in the Caribbean, producing the sugar which had become part of British life, treasured not least for that iconic English cup of tea. Both the slave trade and slavery were supported by a host of other activities which were crucial to the development of the British economy in the late C18 and early C19. Merchants provided the credit lines for both traders and plantation owners, the metal industries produced guns, fetters, bolts, nails, all manner of iron work necessary for the plantation economy, the famous firm of Boulton and Watt sent some of their earliest steam engines to Jamaica, the shipbuilding industry, the dockworkers, the sailors, the sugar refining industry, the grocers who sold to the consumers – and so it went on. And none of this stopped after emancipation, when British capital moved into cotton and fed the massive expansion of US slavery in the South, the extensive use of indentured labour on the tea plantations in India and for sugar in the Caribbean.
The history of Greene King gives one glimpse into some of these entanglements. Benjamin Greene was the son of a draper and apprenticed to the leading brewing firm of Whitbread in London. In 1801 he moved to the country town of Bury St Edmunds and established a partnership with William Buck, the father-in-law of the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. A neighbour, Sir Patrick Blake, owned estates in St Kitts and when he died childless Greene became the manager of the estates. In due course he inherited the estates from Blake’s widow and he also took over the management of properties belonging to a Norfolk family. There were many West Indians, as they were called, absentee slave-owners living off their Caribbean estates, not to speak of the widows enjoying annuities funded by enslaved labour. Greene became an active pro-slaver, and in 1828 bought the Bury and Suffolk Herald to use as a platform for his ultra-Tory views. He steadfastly opposed parliamentary reform, attacked Thomas Clarkson and defended the West India interest. He was one of the c4,000 in Britain (20% of whom were women) who received compensation. His share was £4,000 for 1,396 enslaved men and women in St Kitts and Montserrat.
In 1829 he had sent his oldest son Benjamin Buck Greene to manage the estates and he gained a great reputation as a successful planter. By the time he returned in 1836 there were 18 properties and he had substantially increased the family fortunes. His father moved to London that same year and established a shipping and sugar importing firm in Mincing Lane. Benjamin Buck Greene married the daughter of a man with extensive trading and sugar interests in Mauritius and a new partnership, Blyth and Greene, became a leading London merchant house dealing in colonial merchandise and shipping. Benjamin Buck Greene gained recognition as a most respectable entrepeneur, public man and philanthropist, ‘a pattern of what an English merchant should be’. He was appointed a deputy governor of the Bank of England in 1850 and served as Governor from 1873-5. Meanwhile the brewery flourished under the management of his brother Edward Greene, later to partner with King, and the Caribbean estates continued to be profitable up to the 1840s.
A younger son of Benjamin Greene, Charles had been dispatched to St Kitts aged 16 to look after the estates but died 3 years later having fathered, it was believed, 13 illegitimate children. The novelist Graham Greene, his great-nephew, wrote powerful depictions of the closing years of empire in his fiction, peopled with disillusioned colonial officials and whisky sodden priests, one of the traces of a long history of connection between metropolitan and colonial worlds. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, published in 1971 Greene does not mention slavery but records his encounters with ‘coloured Greenes’, one of the many legacies of British slave- ownership. His family’s activities as slave-owners and merchants, buttressed by inheritance, strategic marriages and partnerships, had secured their fortunes for generations. The ‘coloured Greenes’, alongside the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured on their plantations bear witness to the unequal legacies of racial capitalism as it was practiced across the empire.
In the next phase of our work we aim to aim to establish a new database documenting the enslaved of the British Caribbean in the last decades before emancipation, thus facilitating tracking connections between named men and women, the slaveholders and the estates and properties. between 1817-33. Who knows what connections into the present will emerge from this work and what demands it will be possible to make on the basis of new evidence?