THERE’S NO VACATION FROM THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
I hadn’t planned it. It just happened. I’m not sure if it was coincidence or some deep-seated, subconscious sense of guilt that inspired me to bring along my old copy of Wallerstein’s The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century. I remember that my wife scoffed when she saw it. She actually scoffed my reading selection.
The truth is, I’ve read a lot about World-Systems Theory and World-Systems Analysis, but I’ve only ever read the original text sporadically. I decided it was time to read the whole thing as it was delivered.
Meanwhile, my wife planned a lovely and relaxing Caribbean cruise.
It just turned out that these two elements merged together in interesting ways.
Our first excursion was Haiti. The ship ported in Labadee. Labadee is a small peninsula leased by the cruise line on the northern coast of the island. Its main attraction is an expansive and beautiful beach of soft, white sand, replete with lounge chairs, cabanas, and hammocks¹. Small kiosks are dedicated to making sure that visitors are well lubricated with alcohol. Pineapples and coconuts can, upon request, be hollowed out and filled with rum. A fine refreshment indeed.
At the far end of the beach is a souvenir and beach supply store, owned by the cruise line. Behind that are independent vendors who rent spaces from the cruise line to sell their wares. They are skilled and assertive salespeople. In Labadee, you can take in the beauty of the nation in concert with the dynamic dance of capitalism. Labadee is, it turns out, a perfect model of the kind of global capitalism Wallerstein describes in his World-Systems Theory.
Labadee is leased from Haiti at what amounts to $12 per visiting tourist. Seems like a mutually beneficial relationship. But is it? Jade Wu, writing in the Baltimore Sun notes about his trip to Labadee, “just kilometers away, a sturdy fence, camouflaged by bushes, separated the haves from the have-nots. On the other side were Haitians living in shacks, scraping to make ends meet while crime and corruption continued.” Despite this clear contradiction, Wu describes the relationship as mutually beneficial, if not specifically in monetary ways, at least resident Haitians were exposed to good American “work ethic, discipline and understanding of American culture.” I mean, they are still living in shacks, and all, but at least they have that good ol’ American work ethic.
Turns out, this dichotomous, patronizing, relationship has a long history.
My family wanted to see something different from the synthetic, corporate designed, experience of Labadee. We wanted to see the other side of the fence, so to speak. We took a boat away from the kitschy beach and visited a village a few miles down the coast. There, the villagers, many of whom were servants and workers at Labadee working for or in relation to the cruise line, lived according to culture and tradition as influenced by global capitalism. In other words, they learn to make do.
Our guide offered us a history of the Origins of Haiti, focusing on the revolution from France. A point of great pride for the Haitian people, much like Americans take pride in our own revolutionary origin. After the brief history lesson, we visited a working model of a rural village. There, people lived in traditional mud huts, participated in traditional farming. Of course, there was a place where craftsmen sold their creations. According to the guide, about 1/3 of Haiti’s citizens, about 3 million people, live in this pre-modern condition.
But…you know…work ethic!
Labadee and its surrounding environment offer a spectral representation of modern global capitalism. At one end, a modern entertainment facility dedicated to serving tourists well off enough to afford the excursion. At the other end, people living in pre-modern conditions. Both ends of the spectrum serve the interests of the global capitalist class. Little value trickles down to the workers.
This is a profound irony as Haiti is, arguably, the birthplace of the modern world system of global capitalism. Only about fifteen miles to the southeast is where Columbus established the first European fort of the modern age in the Western Hemisphere before embarking back to Spain with his cargo of western resources and indigenous people. The fort was called La Navidad and was staffed by 39 men. In his journal, Columbus described the Taino people as, “…such good-hearted people, so free to give, anxious to let the Christians have all they wanted, and when visitors arrived, running to bring everything to them.” Apparently, there were limits to the Taino’s willingness to give. The fort at La Navidad did not survive the year. All thirty-nine men were slaughtered.
Indeed, the Taino had a great deal to give. Our image of a backward, barbaric people waiting for Europeans to arrive and bring civilization is not supported by the documents. According to Columbus’ journal, Haiti was comparable to the lands of Spain. “The island appeared to be very high land, not closed in with mountains, but with beautiful valleys, well cultivated, the crops appearing like wheat on the plain of Cordova in May.” He later recounted that “…all these lands are cultivated…all the trees were green and full of fruit, and the plants tall and covered with flowers. The roads were broad and good. The climate was like April in Castile (it was December when he wrote this).” These were not backward people. They were an advanced, agricultural society who cultivated fields, built roads and conducted trade.
The Taino were also right to be wary of the intentions of their new, European guests. Observing the wealth of this land, the beauty and graciousness of the people and their apparent defenselessness, Columbus’ goals were clear. In his own words…
…your Highnesses [the king and queen of Spain] may believe that this island, and all the others, is as much yours as Castile. Here there is only wanting a settlement and the order to the people to do what is required. For I, with the force that I have under me, which is not large, could march over all these islands without opposition…They have no arms, and are without warlike instinct. They all go naked, and are so timid that a thousand would not stand before three of our men. So that they are good to be ordered about, to work and sow, and do all that may be necessary, and to build towns, and they should be taught to go about clothed and to adopt our customs.
Maybe being clothed in the tropics was too much of an ask. The Taino resisted. Their uprising, however, was in vain. The following year, Columbus established the colony of La Isabella, the first permanent settlement of the Western Hemisphere in the Modern World System. The colony was established specifically for capitalistic purposes, to find gold. It was an investment with the expectation of a return. When gold turned out to be a failed investment, the Spaniards resorted to exploiting another resource. People. Thus, capitalism was born in the blood of its first victims.
When you travel along the coast of Haiti today, you do not see the verdant fields and broad roads and dense villages of the beautiful Taino people. Behind the beauty of the land, you see a world that has experienced a half-millennium of exploitation and plunder. The birthplace of global capitalism is a land of scar tissue.
The capital that was the brick and mortar of the modern world system was extracted from the new world and used to fund the armies of absolute monarchs. This capital also contributed to the rise of Europe’s merchant class or bourgeoisie. These were the progenitors of the modern corporate elite. Haiti, or what was then called La Isla Española, or Hispaniola, was among the greatest sources of wealth, of capital accumulation, in the world. This wealth produced by the fertile land at the hands of slaves accumulated in Europe, at first in Spain, then in France, leaving the sources of this wealth ruined. The land was used up and despoiled and the people were driven to extinction and replaced. Almost without exception, those places that served as the sources of Euro-American capital suffered the same fate.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Taino, universally recognized as beautiful and generous, were driven to extinction. Many of the Taino succumbed to disease. This was not necessarily the fault of Europeans who were ignorant of germ theory and transmission. It was, however, a factor that Europeans actively took advantage of in their conquest of the western hemisphere. This was intentional. Disease weakened indigenous cultures. Instead of providing aid, as required by Christian tradition, the Spanish took advantage of their strategic position to conquer and enslave the afflicted.
The Taino saw their fields taken, their men and children kidnapped, their women raped. What little resistance they could offer was met with brutality heretofore unseen on this idyllic island. The Spanish subjected the indigenous people to slow, brutal torture, including burning, dismemberment, and even infanticide. Those Taino who survived Spanish depravity became refugees, leaving their lands to be incorporated into other cultures.
In the seventeenth century, France took over the spoils of Western Hispaniola, renaming the island Saint-Domingue. The French accelerated the importation of African slaves to their Caribbean possessions. At one point, Haiti accounted for fully 1/3 of the Atlantic slave trade. The robust Taino agriculture was replaced with ecologically draining monocultural farming, namely coffee and sugar, crops chosen for the accumulation of capital, not for their nutritional value. Vast fertile farmlands were dedicated to crops the people could not eat. Gone were the vast planes of food crops growing like wheat. Gone were
the multitude of fruits growing in the trees. By the late eighteenth century, Haiti accounted for sixty percent of all coffee and forty percent of sugar exports. It was the Pearl of the Antilles, the wealthiest colony in the world. Haiti’s resources, its rich farmland, and its forced, unpaid labor produced one of the greatest caches of capital in the world. Instead of being used to enrich the Haitian people who produced the surplus value, this vast wealth accumulated in French banks to enrich the French elite. The elite then squandered this wealth on wars and royal largess. Even most of the French people were denied access to this capital. Despite all of the wealth produced by this exceptionally productive colony, average French citizens found themselves almost as destitute and desperate as their enslaved counterparts of Saint Domingue.
The combined body blows of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars offered Haitian slaves the opportunity to break free from their shackles. In 1791, while King Louis XVI was busy trying to suppress a revolution that would ultimately take his head, Haitian slaves rose up against their slave masters. Though French revolutionaries were dedicated to “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” this mantra did not translate to sympathy for their Haitian brethren. Under the leadership of general François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Haitians fought against the King’s armies, the multiple armies of various French republics and the mighty armies of Napoleon I. A dozen years of bloody, brutal, disease-ridden warfare left Haiti tattered, crops ruined, infrastructure destroyed–but free. It was the first successful slave uprising in history.
One would think that the United States, the nation of origin of most of those oiled up sunbathers at Labadee the day of my visit, would have embraced a revolutionary young republic in its very own back yard. One would be wrong. The United States did negotiate some very one-sided trade deals with the desperate new nation. However, the United States always viewed its southern brother with suspicion. The plantation aristocracy, always paranoid that forces might propel their own slaves to rise against them hated the prospects of a republic of liberated slaves serving as an example for their own oppressed workers.
The plantation elite wasn’t wrong to be concerned. In 1800, inspired by the Haitian Revolution, Denmark Vessey’s conspiracy was unraveled before it could start. Just over ten years later, Charles Deslondes led over a hundred former slaves on a march to New Orleans, ransacking and pillaging plantations along the way. When his army was stopped and rounded up, their heads were stuck on poles and left to rot on the road to New Orleans. About ten years later, Nat Turner lead his own slave uprising. Abolitionist John Brown’s body moldered in its grave after being hanged for trying to lead a slave uprising before the Civil War. The United States did not recognize the Haitian republic until 1862.
So, despite the Monroe Doctrine, it should come as no surprise when the United States stood by and did nothing in 1825 when a French navy under the restored monarchy held Haiti hostage and demanded reparations for “property lost” twenty years earlier. Payments were to be made in gold. As can be recalled from earlier in this post, gold was not a resource that the Haitians had at hand. This opened the island nation up to exploitative economic arrangements with wealthy nations like the United States, England, Germany and, of course, France. Brian Concannon, of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations, “For an entire century, Haiti geared its economy to paying back the French debt and missed out on industrialization, education, and development of its government and democratic institutions…It really couldn’t develop.” When economic complications and political instability threatened the return on foreign “investments” in Haiti, the military was called in. In 1914, the United States Marines literally pillaged the Haitian National Bank.
This was just a year before the U.S. invasion and twenty-year occupation of Haiti. What? You don’t remember filling in bubbles about this in your high school United States History class? Curious.
In 1915 the United States Marines invaded and occupied this now hopelessly unstable nation under the premise of protecting U.S. business interests. Strange how United States business interests could exist side by side with abject poverty and political instability. Regardless, Amy Wilentz, writing in The Nation summarizes the U.S. occupation thus…
While improving Haiti’s infrastructure, the occupation opened the country up for “foreign investment,” which meant, essentially, the severe exploitation (including chain gangs) of Haitian labor, the appropriation of lands by US groups, the manipulation (which continues) of Haitian elections, the takeover of the lucrative Haitian sugar industry and of Haitian banks, and a national move away from self-sufficient subsistence agriculture into a cash economy that continues to be responsible for repeated food shortages and economic decline. How to become a shithole: the Americans will help.
This exploitation of a nation, the extraction of resources, either directly or indirectly, contributes to an ongoing downward spiral of poverty. One example of this is ongoing environmental degradation of what was once a thriving and diverse agriculture. Impoverished Haitians do what they’ve always done, they get by on what they can even if doing so contributes to the downward spiral.
My family and I witnessed one such example. While we were traveling the Haitian coast we noticed smoke settling along the bay. Our guide told us not to worry. The smoke was caused by one of the village’s primary
commodities–charcoal. Charcoal, according to the guide, is one of the primary sources of fuel for the countryside. This black currency can be sold and traded for goods and services. Charcoal is, of course, produced from smoldering wood in a low oxygen system. As a wood intensive local industry, the cost is Haiti’s once lush forests.
Deforestation is one of Haiti’s biggest issues. The tall trees, laden with fruit, described by Columbus are gone. Deforestation leads to soil erosion, making farming more water intensive, more dependent upon added fertilizers, more expensive and less productive. Just what a nation facing a GINI of .6 needs. In the meantime, American tourists can order those pineapples filled with rum.
According to Index Mundi, “Haiti is a free market economy with low labor costs and tariff-free access to the US for many of its exports.” This free market and open border do nothing for the Haitian people. The Index points out that unemployment stands at about 40% with more than two-thirds of the population without “formal jobs.” Poverty is around 60%. Its public debt is over $3 billion, much of which is owed in dollars. This means that Haiti has little choice but to remain open to the United States. American pundits often bend over backward to equate Venezuela to the perils of socialism. By that metric, Haiti should certainly be a warning to the world about the perils of capitalism.
This means great deals for my family as we dock in Labadee with pocketsful of U.S. dollars. Most of the dollars we spent in Labadee, however, simply cycled right back to the cruise line. This remains the economic story of Haiti. Since its founding, Haiti has lacked the power to negotiate its own economic best interests. It is locked in a cycle of debt and desperation, forcing it to accept exploitative terms from companies like Royal Caribbean, which only serve to drain more of Haiti’s resources. The resulting poverty brings with it the same concurrent social ills it brings to every society, social and political instability, a criminal underclass, violence, and environmental degradation.
- The word “hammock” is from the Taino language. The Taino was the dominant native culture in the Caribbean, including Haiti.