Apocalypse of Our Times

Against the Current, No. 198, January/February 2019

John Woodford

Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism:
The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Capitalism
in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean
By Gerald Horne
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018, 260 pages, paper $25

AN APOCALYPSE IS “damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale,” and Gerald Horne traces the transcontinental social devastation wrought in the 17th century both by the usual-suspect perpetrators — slave traders and owners — and by their unindicted co-conspirators, champions of mercantile and political freedoms in the British Isles and prerevolutionary American colonies.

Horne, professor of African-American history at the University of Houston, is an unusually multifaceted scholar, not only a historian but also a lawyer, and the prolific author of some 30 books. In this work he argues that profit lust and racialist ideology linked — and still link — the seemingly contradictory impulses of reactionaries on one hand and champions of democratic freedoms on the other.

In his powerful introduction to this book of eight chapters (all densely packed with facts, figures and footnoted source material), Horne trumpets the book’s theme in a moving exordium, in classical rhetorical terms, that swells with the power and felicity of a Bach prelude:

“The years between 1603 and 1714 were perhaps the most decisive in English history. At the onset of the seventeenth century, the sceptered isle was a second-class power but the Great Britain that emerged by the beginning of the eighteenth century was, in many ways, the planet’s reigning superpower. It then passed the baton to its revolting spawn the United States, which has carried global dominance into the present century.”

What a delicious and potent pun: its “revolting spawn”! Yes, there was revolution, more than one – and in their wake were revoltin’ developments!

Horne shows how the 17th century antimonarchists (who became successful king-beheaders in 1649 under Oliver Cromwell in what was soon afterwards to become Great Britain in 1707) and the monarchists who reinstalled a king in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, were united by their desires for freedom. But freedom to do what?

The ascendant merchant class wanted the freedom to seize, sell, displace and enslave millions of human beings in Africa, Asia and the Americas. A chief target and casualty over the course of both of those upheavals was the Royal African Company, the main corporation through which the monarchy had dominated the slave trade.

Colonial Expansion and Rivalries

The leading American revolutionaries of 1775 followed a similar pattern because, in Horne’s view, the colonial elites were motivated less by the desire to build a democratic republic and carry forward the humane aspects of the Enlightenment than by a desperate and daring greed. Most wanted to seize control of and expand the slave trade, and to end the British regime’s regulation of how much American Indian lands they could take by force.

The British throne (i.e., the merchants and Parliament now propping up the figurehead) had been striving to monopolize both of those Big Business endeavors by constraining colonial competitors. The metropole wanted to keep Britain great; the Americans wanted the latitude to prosper in “free trade.”

Horne shows how these transformations were embedded in a world of colonial expansion marked by pandemics of devastating wars embroiling England, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, France, the Ottoman Turks, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Ukraine, Austria, North Africa, West Africa, Indigenous America and more.

Indeed, the climactic, bloody birth of capitalism out of feudalism in the 17th century saw no more than ten years of relative peace. The impact on Britain was typical:

“A quarter or perhaps even a third of the adult male population may have been in arms in the British Isles during this period. Casualties were astronomical, higher as a proportion of population than the catastrophic figures of the First World War. The figures for Scotland in the 1640s were even higher and those of Ireland higher still.”

Horne tracks how the global power struggles between and within kingdoms and empires segued into colonialism and into forms of forced labor that crystallized into racialized slavery, and also into religious and racialist justifications for the seizure of the lands of indigenes.

While continually warring among themselves, predatory European states were unified in their focus on plundering African societies in search of free labor to extract raw materials, raise various valued crops and maximize manufacturing and trade advantages.

Gilded Myths and Ugly Realities

Throughout Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, Horne foreshadows the ways in which the gilded myth of the origins and goals of the American Revolution of 1776 — the banal blandishments of the ways in which America Is Great, then or now — blind many people to the ugly underlying realities that mark the 1600s.

Time and again he points out that it was not just Southerners who amassed wealth via slavery, but also the richest residents of New England, New York and Pennsylvania.

The wealthy and powerful opportunists of the 17th century developed an ideology and legal system that protected slavery by supplanting the previously reigning religious divisions within West European societies with a more broadly unifying notion of “whiteness” — a category that included not just feuding Protestants and Catholics but also, though to a more porous extent, wealthy Jews and Muslims.

England’s takeover of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and ouster of the Dutch from Manhattan in 1664 provided tactical models that the American Colonists followed in the 18th century.

In both instances, Horne shows, whiteness was used to unite hitherto hostile factions of European elites and to offer sustenance and prospects for economic security, if not advancement, to indentured “whites” and “white” workers who had tended to become rebellious in the colonies, and to align sometimes with Africans and Indians along class lines.

This era saw the emergence of laws barring “whites” from meeting or marrying members of the population assigned to the bottom castes. Becoming an armed servant or overseer with material and social benefits was an offer most European settlers couldn’t refuse if they wanted to avoid poverty, prison or banishment to even harsher environments.

Once enlisted in the settler-colony project, whether directly in the capture and control of slaves, and whether willingly or simply to avoid worsening of the conditions of their own bondage, “whites” were conditioned to new ways of thinking about the world and their place in it.

The process has taken a devastating psychic toll on the Europeans who were incorporated into the “white” project. Some have been desensitized from identifying with the pain and suffering of the “other.” Some are gripped by fears and hatred resulting from their realization that the “other” may pose a justly vengeful threat to their own well-being.

Horne lifts his eyes from the past on regular occasions to tie the experiences of 17th-century “whites” to the political behavior of their generational offspring 300 years later:

“Out of this crucible [i.e. being transformed from conscripted dissidents to “overseers or soldiers” to keep Africans and indigenous peoples in check — JW] emerged the renewed and more toxic racial identity that was “whiteness,” which also involved an alliance among Europeans of various class backgrounds, all bound by petrified unity in reaction to the prospect of a slave rebellion that would liquidate them all.

“. . .This noxious cross-class unity, in other words, metastasized as it traversed North America, where it became unified by the prospect of excluding, if not plundering, those not inducted into the hallowed halls of whiteness, a trait manifested as recently as November 2016.”

Problematic Judgment

Despite, however, the meticulous evidence Horne presents that affords a deeper understanding of the underbelly of advances in individual rights, working-class organization and political participation, his concluding analysis addresses none of those achievements.

Horne has compiled a powerful and convincing indictment in “Apocalypse Now,” the book’s last chapter, but when he assumes the role of judge in the case, I find his assessment unsatisfactory. Readers hoping for insights into how they might build a more just and humane society here in the USA or anywhere else won’t get much help.

Let me first declare that I find the notion that the experiences of any human group — regardless of ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, gender identity or race — destine them for a uniquely apocalyptic suffering or divinely conferred greatness, to be morally toxic and analytically myopic.

This sort of mythic delusion can be useful in uniting groups, to be sure, but it lays the seeds for new forms of bias, disunity and discord. This credo colors my disappointment in Horne’s closing analysis when he writes:

“Fortunately, the world has changed and the room for maneuver for white supremacy and capitalism in the United States is not as capacious as it was in North America and the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. This raises the distinct possibility for a decisive turning of the tide <i>against this malignant force<i> at some point in the twenty-first century.” [Emphasis added — JW]

“This malignant force:” The referent is ambiguous. The term seems to apply to “white supremacy and capitalism,” but the grammatical force centers on “the United States” and the commentary that follows supports the feeling that it is the United States itself that is demonized in Horne’s apocalyptic vision.

He says that overcoming “this malignant force” in a timely fashion will “require at least an acknowledgment” (he doesn’t say by whom, but by implication we and they somehow know who they are) that the “great leap forward for those Europeans who were enriched” through settler colonialism constituted “nothing short of an apocalypse” for “Africans and the indigenous.”

I don’t think requiring Euro-Americans to utter some sort of confession of guilt, and/or proof of what many today call “wokeness,” can advance coalition-building in a progressive cause. It amounts to a hazing initiation.

Stances that presume moral superiority can cause a reverse effect — resentment and opposition — in those who are targeted. An unenforceable call for some sort of recognition of apocalyptic suffering inflicted by one’s own group is only doubling-down on a bet that playing an ace victim card will win out in a game of identity politics.

It was and is, after all, an identity con game that has woven the destructive “white” alliances Horne shows to have been so damaging not only to the interests of exploited Africans and indigenous people in this hemisphere but also to their potential “white” allies.

Should Americans, presumably “white” ones, be called upon (and by whom?) to confess that their national creation myth ignores the country’s foundation in slavery and dispossession? Undergoing even that therapy would offer little to them in Horne’s counseling, because even if they do “confront the ugly reality” of What Has Made/Makes America Great Again, he says that that insight would “induce persistent sleeplessness interrupted by haunted dreams.”

So they’re damned if they fess up to the “malignancy” and damned if they don’t.

Where to Find Allies?

Returning to history from his prophetic incantation, Horne finds that two world-historic events have undermined that “malignant force” now more openly revealed to be the United States itself.

The first such event was the “general crisis of the entire slave system … ignited” by the Haitian Revolution of 1791. (Whether the Haitians’ victory was indeed the key to ending legalized slavery and undermining white-supremacist ideology in the Western Hemisphere is debatable; if it really fomented a “corollary crisis for white supremacy,” as Horne asserts, the Haitians have wound up in an unenviable situation.)

The second such event, Horne continues, was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which led to the rise of the Soviet Union as a rival of the MFing (Malignant-Forcing) United States.

The USSR thrust “the question of class onto center stage,” Horne notes, and “reflexively” helped to “erode the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with race.”

Furthermore, Moscow’s ascendance as a pole organized around a different sort of political economy “forced Washington to work out an entente with China some four odd decades ago.”

The rise of China, “this sprawling nation led by a communist party,” has placed it “in the passing lane” in its race with the USA, Horne concludes, and in doing so China poses a crisis “for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the 17th century — white supremacy and capitalism not least.”

As with the significance that he loads onto the Haitian Revolution, here too I am leery of his assumption that the American public now being ripped off by the super-rich “One Percenters” would come out better if they were traveling along in that passing lane in the car China is driving. (China’s car is running right over union organizers, free speech champions, religious dissidents, environmentalists, ethnic minorities, women’s groups et al.)

Horne maintains that those Americans who are struggling in the USA today against “nefarious domestic trends” — especially those who are “descendants of enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenes” — would be “better served by spending less time debating with the American Civil Liberties Union about the ‘rights’ of fascists and more time conversing with actual allies in Beijing, Moscow, Havana, Brussels, Pretoria and elsewhere.”

Huh? Bypass anyone and everyone in Washington DC altogether? Forgo domestic politics? And how “actual” are those putative allies? I think it is to our peril to ignore the struggle over the rights of those labeled fascists.

Once we supplant the Trumpite reactionaries with a better set of politicians, we will foul our own nest if we say that those we label as “fascists” have no rights. If we weaken our Bill of Rights to destroy our political opponents, we will merely furnish future governments not to our liking to use the same tactics against us.

We already are seeing how the Trumpites have seized and expanded upon some questionable methods of the Obama administration. We must not just “go high when they go low,” as Michelle Obama has noted, we must also make people understand why this must be so.

Horne says that the aim of those Americans most damaged by the manifold injustices in our nation’s past should be to work toward a “massive program of reparations that — I trust — will accelerate in coming decades.”

Accelerate? That program hasn’t even pulled out into the slow lane, let alone into that passing lane. The question of reparations is but one of the political issues in the cart, but what’s needed first is finding a horse to pull it. Progressive political organizations need to figure out how to connect and grow so we can put our political representatives in office.

Reparations and other corrective measures will have to be worked out in an appropriate agenda. Regardless of how such arrangements may come about, African Americans will have to have a lot more on their minds and in their sights than reparations.

The Importance of Movements

Horne’s powerful survey of the complex political and military conflicts of the 17th century world — particularly his tracking of the recorded legal, punitive and ideological evidence of racialized oppression wrought by settler colonialism and the slave trade — actually undercuts his “apocalypso”-exceptionalist argument.

He shows why our country and world face a number of greed-caused ailments and challenges, but he ignores or slights progressive movements. In several places in this book he constructs a straw man of progressives or radicals whom he chastises roundly but doesn’t identify.

He accuses them — presumably scholars, textbook writers and that sort — of denying or ignoring the ugly aspects of the forces that gave rise to the Enlightenment and to the American Revolution. He describes them only generically as “radicals,” “progressives,” contingents of “the left.”

True, in 1688 and again in 1776, the rallying cry of “freedom” and liberty” often masked a drive for economic gain to be amassed by slavery and by displacement of American Indians. And yes, Puritans were as much involved as Planters. But are we to put blinders on and assume that that is the sum total of what “liberty” and “freedom” meant to any and all who sought to break away from England?

The campaigns of revolutionary democrats like Thomas Paine or of the abolitionists in the 19th century are almost entirely absent from this book. Only abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner is permitted an appearance, with his observation from 1853 concerning the enslavement of whites on the Barbary Coast of Africa:

“New Englanders being enslaved by Africans seemed to do little to sour these settlers on enslavement; to the contrary it seemed to ignite an opposing reaction. . . . [Sumner] railed against this ‘inconsistency” among Euro-Americans: “using the best of their endeavors for the freedom of their white people’ but busily enslaving others. He declaimed, ‘Every word of reprobation which they fastened upon the piratical slaveholding Algerians’ somehow ‘return[ed] in eternal judgment against themselves.’”

This book contains no other reference to the inspired, sustained and courageous progressive movements not only among American revolutionaries but also later among “white” abolitionists, war resisters, anti-colonialists, civil rights campaigners, trade union organizers, defenders of the rights of Asian and Latino immigrants and citizens, feminists, anti-monopolists, ecologists and the like.

The hard truth is that no minority nationality of 10-20% can make a revolution on its own. Coalitions and alliances are needed, and political ideologies and programs need to help support or open the way to such formations. And that means engaging with as many of those who call themselves “white” as possible, and fostering respect, cooperation, fairness and good will towards one another on a humanistic basis.

The greatest contribution Horne has made in his delineation of the “apocalypse” is his richly documented refutation of the notion that our country’s past furnishes examples of how America can be Made Great either Again or Soon.

Looking back at the precolonial, preindustrial societies in Africa, the Americas, Asia or Europe will furnish few models for celebration or imitation. Violence, repression and injustice were everywhere. We’ve got to move ahead and make our own way.

January-February 2019, ATC 198