Night-Vision: illuminating War & Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain by Butch Lee & Red Rover, Reviewed by Sunday Harrison of the Bulldozer Collective for Prison News Service

nightvisionJanuary/February 1994 marks another increase in the struggle against the new global economic assault. Among Mayans of Chiapas in southern Mexico, whose guerrilla offensive began January 1, and South Korean farmers marching 25,000 strong to the US consulate and battling 15,000 riot cops, the spirit of rebellion is fierce. The North American Free Trade Pact, according to the Zapatista movement leading the armed and political resistance, is a death sentence for aboriginal people. The dumping of cheap (subsidized) American corn will devastate the Chiapas region. In return for signing the trade pact with the U.S. and Canada, the Salinas government of Mexico eliminated its constitutional protection of communally-held Mayan lands in favour of multinational agribusiness’ access to these lands. .  In the chaotic free-fall into global economy, local elites and oligarchies must be more fully empowered by imperialism to maintain profitability. Some would say capital is entering a renewed phase of primitive acquisition, which demands a new and mind-boggling control of lands and peoples. Now, the use of captive labour remains more necessary than ever – and as invisible as ever.  How can the old colonialism be defeated, yet imperialism remain so “wickedly great”? By neo-colonialism: which “at its centre relies on women and children”, argues Butch Lee and Red Rover in Night- Vision: Illuminating War & Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain. But the time of identity politics is over:

The old anti-colonial unities of race or nation or gender are dysfunctional now, because the parasitic class relations of neo-colonialism have overridden everything. Parasitism is the knot that remains uncut awaiting new answers.

Night-Vision addresses the web of critical relations between races and genders, understanding both as classes created to fill imperialism’s demands. Like Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat and Bottomfish Blues: Women and Children in the Armed Struggle, its dual starting-place, this work combines style with substance – through the use of visual images and in choppy, in-your-face prose that communicates ideas freshly and with humour.Proceeding from an anti-colonial analysis based on the imperialist defeat in Vietnam, current class, race and gender dynamics are examined as nations are made and unmade in the image of imperialism’s war for profits.

A fight to decide what races, genders and nations mean exists because national liberation movements won on the world scene and forced de-colonization. We’re going to break this down starting with race and gender and working our way to nation.

…Races are neither just natural biological groupings nor are they just fiction. Liberals used to pretend that race was ‘only skin deep:’ only about unimportant skin colour and hair differences blown up by prejudice. It’s not like that. Capitalism created its races out of different peoples as building blocks of its culture, to carry out different assigned roles, as meta-classes.  While it is made clear that race is “real” enough to determine your life from cradle to grave, this point of race-as-class is illustrated by the strategy of the bourgeoisie in 19th century Amerika, who had up until that time defined “white” to mean Anglo-Amerikan. Quoting from J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, the imperialist strategy of “Americanization” is explained: 

The Eastern and Southern European national minorities were widely defined as non-white …it was often stated that these ‘races’ were prone to extreme and violent political behavior that the calm, business-like Anglo-Saxon had long since outgrown … In November, 1918, a private dinner meeting of some fifty of the largest employers of immigrant labor discussed Americanization (this was the phrase used at the time). It was agreed by those capitalists that the spread of ‘Bolshevism’ among the industrial immigrants was a real danger…. It was thus well understood by the bourgeoisie that these European workers’ consciousness of themselves as oppressed national minorities made them open to revolutionary ideas – and, on the other hand, their possible corruption into Amerikan citizens would make them more loyal to the u.s. Imperialism. The meeting formed the Inter-Racial Council … the ‘races’ being ‘uplifted’ were all European.

It is not intended that we should fall prey to the white left in its insistence on race-as-class for its own vanguardist purposes. In discussing colonialism as the source of capitalist industrialization, the authors note: 

The intellectual representatives of capitalism … want us to believe that the breakthrough to scientific civilization was generated within whitesville, by white entrepreneurial profits, by white technology. White “marxists” have said the same thing in different terms, saying that industrialization came from white people ruthlessly exploiting the white working class. Karl Marx himself, of course, wrote more than once that the world-shaking rise of industrial capitalism was completely based on Afrikan slavery.

Again from Settlers

Africans were the landless, propertyless, permanent workers of the u.s. Empire. They were not just slaves – the Afrikan nation as a whole served as a proletariat for the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation

Night-Vision comments: 

The productive New Afrikan Nation’s polar opposite was the “United States”, which from its inception was a criminal society of parasites. This isn’t racism we’re talking about. The u.s.a. was a specific type of nation, a white settler empire: a nation whose male citizens were imported garrison for an invading euro- capitalism; a nation whose only territory is the Land they conquered and cleared by genocide; a nation that is really an empire containing many captive nations on the continent and abroad.

The writings of Franz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah are examined for insights into the shifting position of imperialism from colonialism to neo-colonialism in the mid-20th century. 

To Cabral’s insight, the weakness of colonialism was that it united whole populations against it by even denying its own native allies and servants their class ambition. It squashed society into a horizontal structure, a “nation-class.” Neo-colonialism, he saw, tried to correct this weakness by giving way or even pushing some sort of national liberation!

Kwame Nkrumah’s 1965 study of neo-colonialism was another landmark text (Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Capitalism was the U.S.’s “Satanic Verses” of the time, causing its government to “react sharply… holding the government of Ghana fully responsible for whatever consequences the book’s publication may have”) which gave this definition of neo-colonialism: 

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside …The neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous state.

As a Pan-Afrikanist Nkrumah saw unity in the form of a ‘literal merger of the entire Black continent under one state’ as the necessary condition for defeating the neo-colonial strategy of divide and rule. But in his own entry into the power structure of the newly independent Ghana he lost the support of the market women who had organized the Party. Night-Vision quotes a conservative critic of Nkrumah, who wrote: 

There was another social feature of Gold Coast life, which was specifically African and was to prove of enormous importance to the revolution. For the great mass of the common people the centre of African life has always been the market. … the traders for generations have been women … in action in the market, meeting tens of thousands of their fellow citizens every day. … Nkrumah realized at a very early stage in his political career … that ‘as go the women, so goes Ghana’, and applied himself to assiduously to cultivate their goodwill, their love and their purses. ‘From the beginning,’ admits Nkrumah, ‘women have been the chief field organizers. … and have been responsible for the most part in bringing about the solidarity and cohesion of the Party.’ … It was when the women – the market women – began to complain bitterly about the unbearable conditions of life in the country, and to display publicly a hostile attitude towards Nkrumah’s regime that most Ghanaians knew, perhaps for the first time, that Nkrumah had reached the end of the political road.

Night-Vision, while making clear that Nkrumah was overthrown by a military coup with CI.A. links, comments: 

No one thinks of women such as the powerful market women of Ghana as a “new” class, since women are the oldest class of all. In most accounts of anti-colonialism, which zoom in on male leaders and armies, colonized women are a minor note. You know, “faithful supporters” and “good helpers.” Truth is that rebellious women made the anti-colonial revolutions. Without the rising of women there would have been few anti-colonial victories on any continent.

Here is where Night-Vision proposes a new synthesis, and where it qualitatively enlarges the territory delineated by its mother-texts, Settlers and Bottomfish Blues. Settlers stayed clear of gender, excepting a few comments on white feminism as a reformation of the petit-bourgeois impulse to add its former critics to its loyal ranks. Bottomfish Blues laid out the gender arguments within the class/race con- text, drawing from German sociologist Maria Mies’ landmark book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World ScaleNight-Vision advances the idea, sometimes with knifepoint precision, that the labour, paid and unpaid, of women and children form imperialism’s deepest well: that women and children as classes make possible the colonization and neo-colonization of races and nations.

Young Third World women are at the overseas production base of many corporations. This is well known. The key is not that Third World women are super-exploited but that they are themselves a commodity, property. The invisible commodity that, like the Afrikan slavery before them, defines the entire system above them.

…It is in the nature of wage-labor for workers to sell their working lives, their labor power, as a commodity alienated from themselves, to capitalism. On the surface, this is what these sisters do as an everyday survival deal-what’s assumed to be a poorer version of you or me. There’sa qualitative difference. Third World women have been pushed further downward in country after country as part of neo-colonialism’s modern development process.

Night-Vision traces this trend in the most developed capitalist economies of the Third World – Bangladesh (the sixth largest supplier of apparel to Amerika, considered the “cheapest country” for the garment industry employing mostly young women working for as little as $13 a month), the Philippines (under the neo-colonial Aquino government, “exported”” women according to one Filipino expert, “one of our top ten foreign-exchange earners, more than sugar or mining”) , South Korea and Thailand (one out of every six South Korean women between 15 and 35 is in the sex industry, according to a women’s project estimate, and figures may be higher in Thailand where tourism is the biggest source of foreign exchange) and Hong Kong (in the electronics industry, they say to women over 25, Grandma, where are your glasses? As ‘after three or four years of peering through a microscope, a worker’s vision begins to blur.’). The authors sum up:

Out of these Third World women’s labour and lives is made the computer-chips, the televisions, the VCRs and other electronic consumer goods, the levis, industrial products, the always in season fruits and vegetables… the kind of profits that the multi-national corporations make out of $15 or $25 a month women haven’t been seen since chattel slavery. This is the commodity that above all others determines the culture of the neo- colonial world order.

A short discussion follows on the unwaged labour provided by women and children, as

All waged labour rests upon the greater foundation of women’s unwaged labor. This is why outlines of class structure based solely upon waged labor aren’t accurate. No more than they would have been in the Old Slave ‘South. ((This argument was taken up by an activist campaign known as Wages for Housework, started in Britain and inspired by a one-day general strike of women in Reykjavik, Iceland in the early 80s. As the theory went, capitalism would collapse if forced to pay for the maintenance of its workforce done by workers in the home, whether or not they are also employed outside the home.))

Night-Vision concentrates on the economic roots rather than social symptoms of male supremacy. There is little or no mention of the construction of compulsory heterosexuality, nor the role of religion in defining gender behaviour, roles, rights and privileges. In fact, mention of religion as a force shaping gender is confined to almost gratuitous comments about Islam, even as the authors examine the Christian European witch-burnings. Night-Vision quotes from Women and Children in the Armed Struggle:

The patriarchy’s Witchhunt was in the first place directly economic, a means of unwaged capital accumulation. … it was independent women who were the main targets. … unmarried women, who were not owned by a man, were a majority of those burned as witches, with widows being 45-50% of the victims. … all the property of arrested women belonged to the State, [and] the lion’s share of this wealth minted from slaughtering women went to the State treasuries. It paid for the armies of men who produced nothing useful, for highways to carry trade, for expeditions to ‘discover’ the Third World – in short, the pro-conditions for capitalism to grow. … Women were euro- capitalism’s first colony, the “inner colony”…

Industrial super-exploitation and sexual slavery of women under both colonialism and neo-colonialism still relate to the earlier making of women into a class. In Christian euro-capitalism’s primitive acquisition of “pagan” lands, the living connection of women to those lands was key. Even under neo-colonial restructuring, at least two-thirds of all agricultural work is done by women. Night-Vision:

The u.n. says that 2/3 of the world’s food production is by women. In many societies, women as a gender equals the people who grow the food. Women are historically the farming class, to put it another way. But as soon as capitalist development infects agriculture, with farming as a cash export business, then the ruling class reassigns land and farming to men as part of their gender identity. … Everywhere women are being driven off the land – and Nature has nothing to do with it. … You can dream a nightmare world so irrational that your local supermarket is secretly stocked each night with products from an auschwitz: Then you wake up, and discover it wasn’t a dream.

In avoiding the central mistake of white feminist analysis which universalizes white women’s conditions (in much the same way that the northamerican “left” universalizes, uses as a reference point, the conditions of white male euro-american workers), Night- Vision points the way – but then takes the back road – to the site of the “inner colony” Agriculture and food supply, even among nomadic peoples, was the major defining cultural link between tribes, nations and peoples – textiles, utensils, tools and shelter all reflect the centrality of local materials and seed itself was selected over many generations for adaptability to local climates and microclimates. From the land and its ability to support the people came the traditional rituals and ceremonies defining the tribe and nation. Women’s relationship to land and agriculture is alluded to throughout Night-Vision, but while the authors understand “land theft” as the original strategy of white settler Amerikkka they seem not to directly perceive that a) it is current and ongoing, both within and outside the continent, and b) that this theft relates directly to the colonization of women throughout history. Like other radical theorists of the northamerican continent outside of Indian territory, “land” is seen as another part of the commodity system rather than at its root, and “land struggles” a quaint or nostalgic preoccupation. In many indigenous nations, it is the women who are the decision-makers when it comes to the land. From the famous Cheyenne quote “the nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground” to the Azanian women’s chant “when you strike the women, you have struck a rock”, indigenous nations that are still located at the place of their ancestors depend on women’s relationship to the land-and by extension to the rest of the nation.The “supermarket stocked by an auschwitz” nightmare is indeed real. But ‘reassigning land and farming to men’ just scrapes the surface. The connection must be more fully made between the “well over 100 million people [who] have perished so far in this worldwide restructuring of agriculture into the commodity system” and the women who form the “farming class” and the “first colony”. Yet the glimmerings of a truly synthesized understanding show through the wide cracks. Night-Vision can be thanked for an all-too-rare mention of the Rockefeller Institute’s “Green Revolution” (“as opposed to the .socialist Red revolution”) started in the 1970s, which has resulted in a global transfer of agricultural expertise and seed from the Third World into imperialist hands, which is then sold back as patented, sterile, ‘hybrid’ seed able to be cultivated only with chemical fertilizers in the intensive monoculture proven to cause topsoil destruction, but ‘efficient’ in capitalist terms. Additionally, factors like increased water use for beef production have changed local economies and ecosystems beyond recognition. At the bottom of this, agricultural products (as well as timber and mineral resources) generate huge profits for imperialism while ensuring mass starvation in food-exporting countries as they are forced to pay the so-called “debt” created by finance capital. The international illegal drug trade is also woven into this agro-economic web, examined but not at length in Night-Vision.

Peasant rebels in Chiapas and militant farmers in South Korea are the ones doing the revolutionary work of resisting that which literally steals survival from the mouths of the next generation, if not the current one. Mexican corn and Asian rice are but two of the targets of agro-imperialism in its quest for total domination of the world’s food supply, and while radicals debate whether we are in the “petroleum age” or the “silicon age”, people who suffer from the U.S. dumping of its agricultural product and destruction of local economies are the ones leading the militant resistance at this moment. It’s not just about taking over the factories anymore, and like Night-Vision says, the old anti-colonial unities of race or nation or gender are dysfunctional now. It’s about returning to life. Everybody knows it, revolutionaries and even ordinary rebels know it but haven’t put our finger on where to depart from the old anti-colonial political formulas.

The final two chapters of Night-Vision leave us caught in an apocalyptic moment with little to anchor ourselves in the coming phase. Perhaps written in a hurry to finish off the text, the segment on the liberal strategy of “multiculturalism” and the use of Blade Runner as an analogy for neo-colonial (post-colonial, really) society runs the risk of becoming almost cavalier. No direction for further study is concretely indicated, although overall the stimulation has been provided, and the gap between gender, race and class analysis in the neo-colonial age is narrower for Night-Vision’s fresh insights.


K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.