You’ve probably had one of Those People say (usually after sidling up to you, looking around to see if anybody’s listening, and prefacing it with an “I’m not racist, but…” disclaimer) “Slavery was 150 years ago — they need to get over it!” Or maybe it’s ethnic cleansing episodes like Tulsa (“90 years ago”), or segregation (“50 years ago”). But one way or another, I’m sure you’ve heard it. Well, as it turns out Hillary Clinton is one of Those People. She actually said it in the context, not of American slavery, but of Western imperialism in Africa. And she didn’t whisper it after scouting out eavesdroppers, because it never occurred to her that a liberal like her could be one of Those People.
Clinton, in a speech as Secretary of State to a diplomatic forum on Africa back in 2010 (“Clinton: Africa must launch tough economic reforms,” Reuters, June 14, 2016), took a tone with Africa similar to that Bill Clinton took with Black Lives Matters activists in regard to the 90s crime bill and welfare reform and his wife’s “super-predator” comments. In other words, she basically said it’s time to stop coddling Africans and show them some tough love (sounds almost like Marvin Olasky, doesn’t she?). Specifically, Africans need to let go of the past and stop whining about the economic legacy of imperialism. “For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century. We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody.”
The problem is, Western imperialism isn’t something that ended “50, 100, 200 years ago.” I’d be interested in knowing what Clinton considers the last act of imperialism in Africa. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba (assuming that event even exists in her universe)? No — Western imperialism in Africa — like the structural legacy of slavery in the US — never stopped.
Apparently Clinton isn’t familiar with the concept of neo-colonialism, which points to the continuities between the present-day activities of Western governments and global capital in the former colonial world and the power relationships that existed under colonialism. The main difference is that the Third World is now nominally “independent,” and the responsibility falls on local governments to enforce Western capital’s rights to extract mineral wealth and engross land, and keep local sweatshop labor in line. And Western “foreign aid” and World Bank loans, as Kwame Nkrumah remarked decades ago, are what would have been called “direct foreign capital investment” under plain old colonialism.
If local governments are insufficiently enthusiastic in enforcing the rights of transnational corporations, the capitalist world’s second line of defense is IMF structural adjustment plans and other forms of discipline by “multilateral bodies.” And if all else fails, if someone like Mossadegh or Lumumba or Arbenz tries to return the stolen oil, mineral wealth and land to the people, there’s always the US military and CIA.
Just look at South Africa. Nelson Mandela was spirited from prison to an isolated English manor house for face-to-face talks with representatives of the Apartheid state and the world’s major mining companies, at which he was offered a pardon and a referendum on black majority rule — if, that is, the ANC would abandon its project of taking back those mines that had been developed with slave labor. Or look at the blood-soaked “conflict minerals” in your iPhone, extracted from Congo; the symbiosis between local mercenaries and Western corporations there is a direct continuation of events going back to the assassination of Lumumba and US support for Mobutu. Look at the mercenaries and death squads in Nigeria, funded by Shell Oil.
The irony is that we need only look at Clinton’s “economic reform” proposals for Africa for proof that imperialism is an ongoing phenomenon. She wants African nations to adopt a neoliberal legal regime that facilitates continuing Western extraction — looting — of their resources. When she talks about “structural reforms” and “lowering customs barriers,” it’s not even code — she flat-out means falsely so-called “Free Trade Agreements” like TPP (which she promoted as Secretary of State, and has developed temporary reservations about until after the election). In other words, it has nothing at all to do with free trade. It’s about enforcing the highly coercive and protectionist legal regime which allows global corporations to keep right on extracting wealth from Africa.
It’s about enforcing existing corporate titles to the stolen mines and oil wells. It’s about enforcing the titles of landed oligarchs and agribusiness corporations to enormous tracts of land that were stolen from peasants to grow cash crops on. It’s about enforcing the patents and trademarks that enable Western corporations to outsource production to sweatshops that pay starvation wages, while using their monopoly on disposal of the product to mark up retail prices at Walmart a thousand percent over production cost. It means “intellectual property” provisions in those so-called “Free Trade Agreements” that punish government offices and schools for using free software. It means punishing countries that allow production of generic forms of life-saving AIDS drugs.
In other words, what Clinton wants is the opposite of free trade. She wants to keep the wealth of Africa in hands of the heirs and assigns of the same people who stole it, under colonialism. She wants to enforce the monopolies that continue to squeeze the life blood out of Africa — literally, in the case of preventing competition in the supply of AIDS drugs. Imperialism didn’t happen a hundred years ago. In economic terms, the colonial conquest of the world was never undone — the victors still own the resources and markets of the world. Clinton wants to make sure they keep right on doing so.
Clinton complains about the “special interests” who oppose her neoliberal agenda. And when she says “special interests,” she’s not talking about the corporations that own the mines and oil wells, that fund the mercenaries who disrupt Congo, that hold the patents on life-saving drugs. But these are the special interests that have the blood of millions on their hands, and continue to murder every day.
Yes, Africa certainly does need free trade, if “free trade” simply means eliminating tariffs. Africa also needs free trade that includes abolishing legal monopolies like “intellectual property,” abolishing the thieves’ artificial title to stolen land and returning it to its rightful peasant owners, and taking the mines back from the slavers and genocides and giving them to the people whose sweat and blood built them. These things would all be genuine free trade. They would all be genuine economic reform. And they’re all things Clinton would commit mass murder to stop.