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Uncommon Wealth—the toxic legacy of empire

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In a new book Kojo Koram explores how empire has shaped politics today. Isabel Ringrose looks at this insightful work and its relevance for activists now
Issue 2801
The legacy of empire is still plain to see

The Empire Windrush ship

You ­“cannot hope to change the system significantly without grappling with empire’s aftermath.” This is the conclusion of Kojo Koram’s Uncommon Wealth—Britain and the aftermath of Empire.

It argues that Britain, after empire, came out on top in a battle with its former colonies to carve a place in a changing world. It investigates economic and political history to argue that the Empire’s formation and the way it disintegrated caused the unequal world we now live.

Koram uses chapters on State, Company, Borders, Debt, Tax and the City to argue a boomerang effect is now haunting Britain. The pandemic, protests and growing poverty in recent years has “reminded us how different the interests of capital had become from the ­interests of people”.

There is a backlash against those that link the toxic experience of empire to life now. The Tories agree working class children are left behind. But they say this is not due to cuts but because they are supposedly harmed by terms such as “white privilege”. And poverty in countries in the Global South are deemed their own fault.

Koram’s analysis of Britain after empire powerfully debunks this, even if his suggestions on winning change have limitations. He argues that capitalism was born out of empire rather than the other way around. Uncommon Wealth brings together the clashes between colonised countries and their colonisers as empire died.

On the African west coast, calls for sovereignty were ­growing louder as the Western ruling classes clung to a disintegrating empire. In the aftermath of two world wars questions of independence from British rule were unavoidable. A key theme Koram explores is “a wilful amnesia about this crucial turning point”.

In order to “ease the trauma of decolonisation” a lie was invented that Britain had not set out to conquer the world but was landed with colonies. Koram writes, “Britain’s ­political class was denying not only that the empire had ­mattered but, in some cases, that it had even existed.” The ruling elite still pumps out the tale of Britain as an independent, pioneering nation. If there was no empire, there is no need to examine decolonisation.

Koram traces the roots of the relationship between the state and its dependence on private companies back to the days of empire. Mighty firms, such as the East India Company, didn’t follow the state’s rules. But they ­managed private corporate interests on behalf of the state. The legal and financial hubs overseeing these dealings are still stationed in the City of London. The chapter entitled “Company” explores how the British Empire gave birth to multinationals.

It uses the example of oil giant BP in what was known as Persia, now Iran, which once functioned to expand Britain’s imperialist reach. Shareholders could invest in stocks and enjoy the wealth plundered from overseas.

There was never a clean ­separation between the state and colonial companies. As they spread across the globe, companies needed the might of military force to defend their interests against competitors. And a web of interests linked the state and corporations. Directors were also MPs—hence streets and buildings are named after the bloody figures of empire.

Before the mid-1800s ­companies needed royal permission to form and had to show they operated for the wider benefit of society. So slave traders, for example, needed the camouflage of ­philanthropy and good deeds. “Their charity was a necessary requirement to be able to sin in the first place,” Koram says—a narrative that has stuck today. Newly decolonised states were forced to reach a standards that were often ignored by their former colonisers.

As the book puts it, “Having struggled so hard for their independence, the former colonies were now free to do as they were told.” To safeguard big business, the British made sure sovereignty was diluted, and ­corporate laws liberalised. Newly independent states raced to provide a ­welcoming environment for corporations. One consequence today is the network of post-empire ­counties offering themselves as tax havens.

Koram says that Britain treated its companies like a family dog allowed to bite outside the home but made to behave within limits internally. Uncommon Wealth then argues that the Empire’s loss of its crown jewel, India, in 1947 necessitated the need for a new narrative of Britain as a great civilising power. After the Second World War Britain’s borders were opened to encourage workers to meet the labour shortage and fill the jobs in the newly created National Health Serivce.

The Caribbean Windrush generation and people from many other colonial countries were invited to work here but expected to leave after ­filling the gap.“Politicians wanted to import labour, but what they received were living, breathing human beings,” Koram writes.

The newly arrived soon came up against enhanced state racism. During the 1960s a wave of immigration legislation made it ever harder for black workers from abroad to settle in Britain.

Citizens of former and current British colonies were viewed not just as non-British, but treated as if they had never had any connection. The so-called threat of mass immigration spouted by far right figures, such as Enoch Powell, are today repeated by the likes of Nigel Farage. “In this worldview, people do not come to Britain because empire created links with so much of the globe,” Koram explains.

“People only come to Britain because it is a soft touch. Human lives are at the mercy of casino capitalism”—as the same financial speculation that leads to global crashes is blamed on the people forced to look for better lives. The book explores how Britain and the banks used debt to discipline counties.

“Debt proved to be effective at throwing cold water onto the potential threat of mass sovereignty that had been created by decolonisation,” Koram writes. Countries in the Global South were fighting to redraw the rules of global trade to give them political and economic independence.

But they came up against the interests of multinational companies and world leaders that glorified privatisation and mobility for capital. After every ­economic shock and downturn, weaker countries turned to banks for help out of fear of isolation and economic ruin.

Secretive offshore havens also rose out of empire to help propel inequality. British Overseas Territories benefited from British jurisdiction and legal protection but paid nothing back to the state.

By treating the Commonwealth as a “family friendly reunion”, rulers can ignore and distance themselves from how remnants of empire are central to capital’s movement across the world.

Governments cut public ­services while turning a blind eye to the off-shoring of private companies that they also had interest in. The final chapter compares the rise of Singapore as a city state to the increased wealth and desperate poverty in another global city—London. Precarious workers, ­labouring as cooks or cleaners for the rich, are at the heart of this inequality, Koram says.

“In order to help this ­workforce better meet the needs of their employers, they will have little to no control over their lives—no bargaining power, no security of contract, no right to demand improved working conditions.”

He argues that those who have been “left behind” by globalisation need to take back control from “those with capital”. Koram says that issues of empire aren’t just about ­tearing down statues but people ­grappling with how to exert pressure on capitalism.

He correctly identifies that we’re fed a lie that some of us can be saved if we turn on each other and fight it out. He ends his investigation by arguing that unaccountable corporate power, off-shoring, borders and debt cannot be explained without confronting the aftermath of empire.

Koram concludes that Britain can “help to drive a ­commitment to remaking the global order”. But capitalism—even ­without empire and its legacy —is a system of poverty and inequality for most. It’s true that empire aided the development of ­capitalism—it grew out of funds from ­looting and plundering across the world. Capitalism grew from a complex interaction of “primitive accumulation”—money from slavery and early imperial adventures then funded ­industrial expansion.

But the biggest and most ­lasting profits came from the imperialists’ home countries. Tackling “the ­relentlessness of modern capitalism” in Britain, as Koram proposes, requires more than the state shaking off empire. Nevertheless, Uncommon Wealth does teach essential lessons about how Britain today is built on a violent empire that decimated and devastated countries across the world.

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