The New Columbus

Here in the US, it’s “Columbus day”, a federally recognized holiday. Jason W Moore and I take a dim view of Columbus.  We’re sympathetic with the move to rename today “Indigenous peoples day” but, if that doesn’t suit, we’ve got an alternative suggestion…

 Source/Photographer Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection (The Met object ID 437645)

Source/Photographer
Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection (The Met object ID 437645)

Murder, kidnapping, slavery, ethnic cleansing. The crimes with which Christopher Columbus might be charged today are reason enough for his reputation to lie in tatters. But his greatest act was to inaugurate a change so enormous, powerful and transformative that it isn’t considered a crime at all: Columbus’ arrival made modern capitalism possible.

To be clear, Columbus didn’t invent double-entry bookkeeping, nor the maps that made possible global commerce and conquest. He wasn’t even the first to apply slave labor to industrial plantations for profit. Portuguese entrepreneurs had been doing that since the mid 1400s. But Columbus opened the imagination of Europe’s great rulers — and the bankers who financed them – to something entirely unprecedented. The possibility not just empire and not just riches, but global empire, and global wealth, a way of making money that depended on the planetary ownership and control of resources and workers.

Columbus talked backers into lending him the capital to chart, claim and exploit new frontiers. He was also a creative manager, using a range of incentives to motivate his workers. On board the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, he offered a silk doublet and a handsome annuity to the person to see land.  A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana spotted the New World at 2 am on October 12, 1492. Columbus kept the reward, which was delivered to him until his death and funded by a tax on the butchers of Seville. The government was ever kind to Columbus.

Once in the Caribbean, the search for riches began in earnest. On the eighth day after landfall he found a cape that he recorded in his diary as “Cabo Hermoso [Beautiful cape], because it is so. . .. I can never tire my eyes in looking at such lovely vegetation, so different from ours. I believe there are many herbs and many trees that are worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines but I do not know them, and this causes me great sorrow.” He cast his eye on nature and was frustrated that he couldn’t instantly see money.

He did, however, see money in the humans in the New World. Having grown up in Genoa, where five per cent of the population were slaves, he knew how to appraise the people of what he mistakenly thought was India. Columbus’ second voyage was a colonial one with seventeen ships and twelve hundred me, returning with gold, new flora and fauna, and indigenous Americans.  “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold“, he wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand after his second voyage.

Think of Columbus as a man who could talk venture capitalists into paroxysms of speculative delight at the opening of a new frontier, someone keen to keep costs down even if at the expense of employees near and far, and you come closer to understanding his spiritual descendants. The new Columbuses are entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Both Musk and Bezos have their eye on new frontiers, both looking to, in Bezos’ words, “can lower the cost of access to space … that there can be a dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space” or, in Musk’s case, to colonize Mars. In order to build up their fortunes, they have parlayed their visions into investment. While neither Tesla nor Amazon has yet posted a consistent profit, they don’t have to. Stories of the new frontiers are powerful substitutes.

Both Musk and Bezos couldn’t succeed without getting the most out of their workers, for the least amount of outlay – and both have come under fire for the way they treat those whose labour makes their fortunes possible. Both Amazon and Tesla attracting the attention of the National Labor Relations Board.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (right) speaks with Jeff Bezos, Founder, Chairman & CEO of Amazon.com (second from left) and head of Defense Digital Service Chris Lynch(left) as they visit the Defense Digital Service as Bezos visits the Pentagon May 5 , 2016. (DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

Perhaps most pernicious, both new Columbuses are dependent not just on heavy doses of marketing to financiers, but also to the rich mix of wage, slave and entrepreneurial labor. No, neither Musk nor Bezos are slavers. But they profit from modern slavery as we all do. The cellphone in your pocket is made possible by the exploitation of workers in, among other places, the Democratic Republic of Congo, working under fear of death to provide the coltan in consumer electronics so that Alexa can hear our shopping wants while we shower. There are 40 million people, 71% women, living in conditions of modern slavery, working in homes, construction sites, fields and mines to make the economy work.

Given the bloody history of the discovery and colonization of the Americas, we aren’t surprised that many cities and states have dispensed with Columbus Day, or renamed it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We approve. But if that feels like too much of a concession to genocide, there’s always an alternative. Just rename it “Capitalism Day”.