Rejecting the idea that European imperialism disappeared with the colonies, Allison Welty looks into contemporary systems of oppression.
There is perhaps no greater symbol of the British Empire than Winston Churchill. He believed so strongly in the right of England to rule South Africa that he almost gave his life to the cause fighting in the Boer wars, bragged about killing three “savages” in the Sudan and he jeopardised the allied relationship in 1941 by contesting Franklin Roosevelt’s view that India should be given its freedom and right of self-determination.
Closer analysis of Churchill’s history reveals a lengthy record of racism, bigotry, and an inherent belief in the superiority of the British over their colonial subjects, a belief he defended until his death. And while this history is well documented, contemporary public perception of Churchill often ignores this aspect of his life or worse, characterises them as acceptable flaws that should not discount the leadership he displayed during WWII.
The revisionist history surrounding Churchill is especially conspicuous, or perhaps less so, in London’s Parliament Square, where Churchill is immortalised alongside colonial independence leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It seems that a gross oversight is behind the decision to memorialise these figures in the same space. However, the likelier explanation is that those responsible feel this history has been reconciled, that the injustices of the Imperial mission ended with independence, and specific brand of bigotry and elitism to which Churchill ascribed exists only in the past. The issue, of course, is that it hasn’t.
Capitalism is the new imperialism
For decades, academics have been quietly voicing concerns that the age of Empire did not die with Churchill and quietly building a body of research to show how global capitalism is simply the next phase of Imperialism; and by most markers, their argument makes sense.
If we understand Imperialism as the political oppression and disenfranchisement of a population for the extraction of labour and resources, and compare the current balance of power between what was once known as the West and East, the practices are infinitely more modern, but not drastically different. Almost every Apple iPhone or MacBook is made with a rare metal called Tantalum, mined primarily from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where UNICEF reported that children as young as 6 are working in these mines. These metals are mined, and then sent to factories in China for assembly, where workers are paid around £ 1.30 an hour. Apple, who made close to $ 230 million last year alone, then consolidates all of these profits and what is not kept in off shore tax havens is then used to build Western economies.
And it is not only tech facing this issue. There have been issues regarding the fair pay and safety of garment factory workers for decades. Public outrage over a factory fire in Bangladesh that killed over 100 people briefly captured public outrage and attention in 2012, but failed to accomplish greater oversight of the fast fashion industry that might have prevented a garment building collapse five months later that killed 1134 people. And just last year, the Spanish fashion giant Zara made headlines after reports of customers finding desperate notes from workers sewn into their clothing, reading “I made this item you are going to buy, but didn’t get paid for it,” all while the founder of Zara’s parent company, Amancio Ortego, boasts a personal net worth of almost $70 million. And while these notes and the press coverage around them express outrage and demand a change in the labour condition, it seems we have already forgotten that similar notes were found in Primark’s clothing four years ago.
And if we are to ignore market indicators for this and focus instead on the rhetoric of Empire, the inherent belief in the West’s benevolence is surprisingly similar. What are the justifications for the invasion and “liberation” of Iraq if not a poorly concealed and modern “civilising mission” similar to those Churchill would have championed. In this context, the proxy wars fought during the Cold War to save sovereign countries like Vietnam or Korea from the Soviet “Evil Empire” and communism were justified with a different rhetoric but similar Imperial pretext. More recent efforts to spread democracy through state building, even the more widely accepted incentives offered by the European Union for accession depend on a sovereign state conforming to a specific practice of governance and have already begun to transform territories like the Western Balkans into a European likeness.
Oppression and the myth of progress
The Western world is still very much engaging in the practice of Empire, so why don’t we recognise it as such? Why are we so willing to ignore the evidence in front of us and continue to believe that Empire died with Churchill?
It is all too easy to look back on history and believe humanity is more compassionate and moral than when the “new world” was discovered 200 years ago. To make the argument of progress or to simply believe that increasing modernity automatically creates a more just society is not only incorrect, it’s dangerous. We have collectively bought into this myth of progress without questioning if previous systems of oppression are still in operation. To understand the many ways in which our current comforts are made possible by the oppressions of another’s rights would require us to stop believing that the inequality of our time is somehow disconnected to the injustice of the past.
We differentiate between the forced labour of the Congolese under King Leopold II of Belgium and the current forced labour that sustain our hunger for iPhones, not because they are inherently different, but because to accept them as the same would be to accept culpability. It should bother each and every one of us that Mandela and Churchill are memorialised in the same square, because it ignored that one would have gladly taken the other’s life without hesitation.
Right now, our collective memory for history and injustice is dangerously short
We are currently living through a time of increased fear and political turmoil, but also an incredible time of increased activism and more readily heard calls for justice. However, these calls only create change if they are accurate in identifying a problem. Right now, our collective memory for history and injustice is dangerously short.
Cover Photo: Arthur Osipyan