Afterlives of Empire: Koram’s Uncommon Wealth

by | 28 Mar 2022

This book tells a story of uncommon breath, woven together with uncommon ease and lightness of touch (and not a few enviable turns of phrase). Using the metaphor of history as a boomerang – and by ‘criss-crossing the oceans…from the Caribbean to West Africa, from Singapore to the City of London’ (234), and ‘zipping back and forth between then and now’ (19) – Uncommon Wealth illustrates the British empire’s ‘aftermath’ (or afterlife) in the ‘legal and economic systems that produce vast wealth disparities’ – and ‘precarious lives’ – ‘both at home and abroad’ (6). Despite its historical ‘criss-crossing[s]’, and disciplinary cross-stitchings, Koram’s Uncommon Wealth is an account of ‘decolonisation’ and global inequality that is – at once – theoretically sophisticated and enjoyable to read. The book deserves a very wide audience.  

The first two substantive chapters (‘The State’ and ‘The Company’) tell the story of the projection of sovereignty globally by the British Empire and the shadow of corporate power that followed (and at times preceded and outlasted) it. In doing so, Uncommon Wealth adds an important gloss to Ngugi wa Thiongo’s observation that ‘the colonial period proper was an interregnum in the continuing march of corporate rule’; namely that this ‘imperial corporonialism’ came home, through the outsourcing of state functions, the corporate ‘cannibalisation’ of the public realm (and ‘sovereignty’ itself), and the ‘corporatisation of life’ more generally. 

The Chapters on ‘The Border’ and ‘The Tax’ weave together the role of empire in constructing the international legal and economic regimes that enable some (mostly white) bodies to move and violently ‘border’ in others, on the one hand, while at the same time ensuring the freedom of movement of capital, wealth and property, on the other. In this respect Koram’s discussion of Enoch Powell is particularly illuminating, for at least two reasons. First, Koram rightfully concatenates Powell’s racial project of keeping Britain ‘white’ through border control and forced deportations (typified by his infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech) and his less well-known economic project – through the Institute of Economic Affairs – to ensure that, through de-regulation and abandoning fixed exchange rates, ‘money, property and assets were free to move as they wish’. Second, in foregrounding the narcotising function of Powell’s ‘spectacular’ white supremacy – how, as Rankine and Loffreda put it, when it comes to race ‘scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction’ – it brought to mind the way that the contemporary racial border project of ‘Fortress Europe’ is hidden behind the spectacular acts of individual far-right politicians or individual border guards, while white supremacy is ‘laundered’ through ‘nationality’ and institutionalised through the EU’s Commission Vice-President for Protecting our European Way of Life (formerly the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship). 

The Chapter on ‘The Debt’ brings together the failed efforts of newly ‘decolonised’ states to remake the world – and the global economic order in particular – and the ‘crushing austerity policies’ of contemporary Britain, triangulating the key role of sovereign and individual debt in both. This chapter brought to mind Saidiya’s Hartman’s account of how, in the post-bellum US, the emancipated subject was resubordinated through the ‘fabulation of debt’ – figurative and literal – which demanded abstinence in the present and mortgaged the future (as Koram notes: ‘The best type of debt is one that can never be paid’). As such, by focussing on Jamaica – once the location of Britain’s most profitable slave plantations – Koram surfaces how the afterlives of slavery and empire (and the ‘nonevents’ of emancipation and decolonisation) are entwined, undermining ongoing efforts to ‘edit out’ Britain’s history of plantation slavery. The final substantive chapter (‘The City’) illustrates how these nested threads of cannibalised sovereignty, corporate power, bordering and segregation, debt and tax produce obscene wealth and increasingly precarious lives in ‘Global cities’ like London, New York and Singapore.

There is much one could say about Uncommon Wealth, however I want to briefly highlight two aspects of the book that remained with me. The first was Koram’s repeated illustration, in each of the episodes, of how the wilful forgetting or distorting of empire and decolonisation – or confining the terms of recollection and debate to the cultural and symbolic realm – not only masks the residual or even ongoing conditions of inequality or relations of domination, but more importantly how these continue to be ‘adapted and remade’ in the present. In this sense the book is less about the aftermath of empire and more about its afterlives (both terms are used at different points), which – as Hartman employs the term – would connote empire’s ‘enduring and seemingly interminable clutch’ on the present, and ‘ongoing processes of dispossession, accumulation, and extermination’: ‘not a melancholy relation to the past but a structural one’. 

Second, and related to this, I was most persuaded by Koram’s limning of these enduring, interminable and ongoing afterlives in the present through ‘racial capitalism’a term that does not appear in the book but hovers, spectre-like over it (particularly in its concluding chapter). By ‘racial capitalism’ I mean the ‘articulations’ of white supremacy and global capitalism in the way that Stuart Hall developed the term, as the ‘joining up’ – historically and theoretically – of regimes of racial and economic domination which ‘require to be linked because, though connected, they are not the same’, yet are ‘articulated into a complex unity’. Or, to paraphrase Koram, the co-constitution of the British Empire’s racial and economic projects of ‘being mean to brown people’ and ‘extracting resources and hoarding wealth’ (18).

For example, as Koram shows, while they were connected in many respects, neither the expansion of ‘sovereignty’ globally nor its (almost immediate) dilution and cannibalisation through debt, privatisation and corporatisation were evenly distributed between Europe and its ‘others’, nor where their effects; and the racialized tropes of lazy, idle, ungrateful, unrestrained, incompetent, profligate peoples were mobilised throughout this process, both internationally and domestically. Similarly, ‘persistent, darker ideas about which racial groups were suitable to be trusted with global finance’ (along with settler colonial loot converted in stocks, bonds and trust funds) led to the Cayman Islands ascendence as the haven for offshore wealth; while the same tropes are being deployed today to redirect public anger at the effects of this ‘off-shoring’ and the boomerang of privatisation, deregulation and corporatisation towards racialized communities at home. Moreover, while the regime in which ‘borders are for people not for property’ now produces precarious lives everywhere, it doesn’t do so evenly, as Koram’s examples of the tragic death of Dexter Bristol and the brutal murder of Jimmy Kelenda Mubenga illustrates: while ‘suit-and-tie wearing’ business were reclining in first class of a British Airways flight to Luanda, Mubenga (a forty-six-year-old father of five) was being suffocated in the back of the plane by ‘the private security guards hired by the British government to do the dirty work of putting poor black life back in its proper place’ (111). 

For these and many other reasons Uncommon Wealth is to be read and shared, engaged and wrestled with, both by those who want to better understand how things came to be the way they are, and those who hold out hope that they might yet be different. 

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