Art work by Emily Kray
An Analysis Based on The New Imperialism
The New Imperialism (2003) by David Harvey is crucial to his conceptual framework of neoliberal Marxist theory and highlights the anxieties around the accumulation crisis which led to shifts in capitalist structures and societies all across, especially since the 1970s, as he mentions. Marxism as a framework forms the society into the base economy and the superstructure – the superstructure grows from the base and is a reflection of the dominant and, often, the ruling ideologies and the class. The base holds the means and basis of production, and the superstructure includes the cultural and the educational ideology. The infrastructure lies between the two of them, and is where the crux of the society lays – the labor and the proletariat; it is the centre of the dialectical relationship between the base and the superstructure.
Harvey’s work, especially his concept about Accumulation by Dispossession, often draws references to colonial policy, referencing Rosa Luxemburg, identifying the colonial system of economic performance as “force, fraud, oppression”. At a later stage, he invokes Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “original sin of simple robbery”. To elaborate, this idea refers to a forced separation of direct producers from basic means of production. Both these ideas are visible in the colonial quest starting from the early eighteenth century, and that is the context Harvey is invoking them in. The process of colonizing countries, taking over their resources and markets, taking away their production from the labors and oppressing them to use them in market spaces the colonizers require (the concept of latent reserves) – as soldiers during World War II by the British, for instance – are all instances of how imperialism and capitalism work as a dual system to rob resources and in turn, autonomy.
This system still exists; it did not run out of relevance with the end of imperialist era as some seem to think. The distinction is that instead of referring to it as colonization, we term it as “soft hegemony”, especially in reference to US. The influence of markets – of spending surplus capital by investing in production and selling said surplus production to foreign markets is a tool of capital power and political control. Markets like US and China constantly perform this on countries like India, and the concept of fraud and robbery is still operated on middle-eastern countries, with regards to oil. The colonial and capitalist narratives have, thus, been given up on only in theory. The ways have changed, and so have the connotations, but political and economic still go hand in hand – colonial and capitalist forces still oppress the third world.
The Black Sheep by Italo Calvino is, in some ways, a narrative that relates to one of the beginnings of a colonial and capitalist idea. A society where everyone steals from everyone – an illusion of harmony and equality, the entrance of an ‘honest’ man, an imbalance in the economic scale – the rise of the ‘rich and poor’, the formation of classes and wages and employment – it is a narrative where people first steal, then as one man refuses to steal, some people steal but don’t get stolen from. As a result, they get richer, so they pay others to steal for them. Those who go to the ‘honest’ man’s house to steal don’t find anything to steal since everything has been stolen already, so they grow poorer. The chain goes on and the same people become richer to the point where they don’t need to steal anymore – but the poor don’t have anyone to steal from now, since the rich have employed people to protect their wealth, so the society is in a state of imbalance and continues to be so.
The narrative of open invasion, a fraud government, then invasion as employment and then desperate robbery coincide, in a way, with the narrative of oppression and fraud that Harvey mentions. Arendt’s idea of “original sin of simple robbery” seems to appear quite literally in the beginning of the narrative as well. It is a narrative of organized crime.
A narrative comparison that could be made is between Harvey’s framework of Marxism, with a reference to Calvino’s The Black Sheep and the Marxist interpretation of Bertolt Brecht highlighted in his play The Good Person of Szechuan (1941). References could be drawn between Shen Teh, the ‘good person’ mentioned in the title of the play by Brecht, and the ‘honest man’ in Calvino’s narrative.
Both Shen Teh and the honest man could be viewed as the “external” system that Harvey mentions capitalism seeks to stabilize itself. The point to be noted here is that external does not refer “outside” of the capitalism society – it could certainly be an external apparatus set up by capitalism itself.
Shen Teh, to put the comparison in perspective, is the protagonist – she is blessed with money by the Gods for providing them shelter, and she opens a tobacco shop with the money. But she is incapable of surviving in the capitalist society for she keeps on providing free shelter, food and tobacco to people – her shop becomes a pot-house of people and attracts tension from neighbours and police. She loses money instead of earning, becomes unable to pay the rent and has to bring her cousin Shui Ta into the picture to clear the picture. Shui Ta is a strong headed, vicious man – he is ruthless and will not be altruistic at the cost of his money. The narrative is an interplay between the two until in the end it is revealed Shui Ta is Shen Teh’s doppelganger, and the Gods learn that the world has changed with money.
Shen Teh and the honest man can then be considered the “black sheep” since they are unable to understand and operate within the existing system that they are dropped into – and the honest man in a way leads to the creation of a certain kind of idea of capitalism, Shen Teh constantly reinforces the idea that the existing model of capitalism is the safest way to survive and to attempt to challenge it is a hard existence. When it is revealed in the end that Shen Teh is actually Shui Ta herself, it strengthens the idea of the existing capitalist structure even more, for Shen Teh herself chose to live within the apparatus.
If we go back to Harvey’s essay and Arendt’s point about the British imperialist expansion and the ‘superfluous’ money it caused, leading to gambling instead of investment thus breaking the cycle of the economy, we could look into both Calvino and Brecht’s narrative’s for similar breaks.
The economy works in a cyclic pattern – production (earning), consumption (spending) and investment, which leads way for more and new ways for production. The example given by Arendt leads to a break in this cycle since gambling leads to money going out of the economical system – there was no investment, but gambling and swindling led to “exported money”, as Arendt puts it. In Brecht’s play, the “good” is a wordplay, which can be extended to Calvino’s story as well, if you consider the honest man to be the equivalent of the good person. The “good” has no monetary value on its own, until it is of some utility to the society. Shen Teh and the honest man, both, become tools of rupture to themselves since they have little value through time.
In Brecht’s play, we can find this systemic break in many characters – from the elderly couple who take home in Shen Teh’s shop for free to the old prostitute lady who does not want to work anymore – but specifically an old man who periodically appears to “buy” a cigarette from Shen Teh, except he never has money to pay. Throughout the play, even when other characters have an attempt at a redemption arc, the old man comes in penniless and with no guilt or regrets about it. Shen Teh express her concern for the man, while Shui Ta expresses his anger.
In Calvino’s narrative, it is harder to find a break. We could find a small temporal break – the phase when the rich took the habit of going to the bridge like the honest man. In this narrative, however, opportunities of investment are not developed yet. So, conventional investment – towards base production has not been highlighted yet.
Brecht’s play becomes important with regards to Harvey’s concept of privatization when he situates his instances within China. He talks at length about privatization in China, and calls it the “cutting edge of accumulation by dispossession”. This becomes relevant especially in the context of The Good Person of Szechuan for the play, set in China, bases itself off of Shen Teh setting up a private business. The Black Sheep also, highlights systemic privatization by bringing to point the apparatus of private security – “…that meant setting up a a police force and building prisons”.
According to Harvey, privatization makes a lot of sense in dealing with the chronic difficult of over accumulation that capitalism constantly faces, and so, the narrative of China on a mission to privatization mentioned both in the essay and highlighted in Brecht’s play becomes a legitimate tool. The idea of privatization as a major tool of capitalism apparatus is crucial even today – privatization of the education sector, defense, technology – ensure that resources stay condensed into the hands of those who rule the economy.
Harvey’s essay provides a framework to understand capitalism within, Calvino’s narrative provides a possible fictional analysis of the conception of the capitalistic idea while Brecht’s play provide’s a direct critique of the capitalist structure. Probably the most concerning and stark difference between Harvey and Brecht is the directness of their narratives. Harvey acknowledges the “cannibalistic” tendencies of capitalism, but there is an underlying attempt to understand and formulate a framework within which to operate the system of capitalism. Brecht, on the other hand, is quick to associate ‘injustice’ with ‘buying’ and ‘starvation’ with ‘selling’, critiquing the relationship between the two economic classes within one single sentence.
Shen Teh’s recurring question – “Why can’t the Gods do the buying and selling?” changes the narrativization from theodicy to Marxism. Harvey sticks to figures, and occasionally dives into philosophy, while Brecht and Calvino ground themselves in fictional literature to form their ideologies about an economy and its functions.
Calvino’s first line “There was a country where they were all thieves.” stands true in the light of Brecht’s play, for everyone was robbed, in a way or the other – Shen Teh was constantly robbed of her money, Shui Ta robbed people who robbed Shen Teh, Yang Sun robbed Shen Teh and in the end, the Gods, as it were, were robbed of their ‘worldview’. The lawlessness of the society is highlighted through this.
In contrast, Shen Teh’s words, “The good can’t defend themselves.” hold a lot of weight for the honest man who died of hunger shortly after arriving into the town, for he could not protect himself against his own honesty.
Thus, Shen Teh and the honest man are the “external” systems used to stabilize capitalism, and Shui Ta and the other people of the country at large are the system themselves. Harvey, Calvino and Brecht are all, then, dealing with economic models in their own ways, reaching one or the same point – the capitalist apparatuses may change over time, but somewhere still remain the same. A sense of fraud and oppression identifiable with the colonial era will always be present in the capitalist model at a functional level.
To conclude, the honest man and Shen Teh could both have acted as apparatuses of rupture to the system, but they lacked resources and instead ended up acting as reinforcers.
Azad, Md. Jahidul. "'Alienation Techniques' in Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan: A Critical Observation." International Research Journal of Humanities, Language and Literature (Associated Asia Research Foundation Publication) 13, no. 7 (2016): 1-13.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Good Person of Szechwan. Translated by John Willett. Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2015.