Global Colonial Commodities and Hidden Social Relations: From Slavery to the Digital Age

Ricarda Hammer, UC Berkeley
Tina M. Park, Brown University

This article formulates a theory of colonial commodities as a central feature for a global historical sociology of racialization. Marx famously described the commodity as encompassing social relations of labor, which get naturalized in an inanimate object, thereby divorcing us from the conditions of its very making. This commodity fetishism suggests that there are social relations beyond the visible material world, as every object we exchange contains human labor. In a similar vein, Du Bois formulates a theory of colonial commodities, whereby objects we encounter conceal not just a social relationship of labor but one of racialized colonial exploitation, dehumanization and oppression. Commodities’ emergence in the metropole get divorced from their colonial origins, thus contributing to empire’s governing technologies of analytically bifurcating the “us” and “them.” Analyzing commodities through the Du Boisian lens suggests that we not only naturalize a labor relationship but also racialized labor exploitations, around which colonial political systems operate. This article explicates Du Bois’ theory of colonial commodities through a series of case studies of goods that have become divorced from their colonial origins. Specifically, it focuses on the distribution of stimulant goods across Western Europe, including sugar, tobacco and cocoa, and the ways in which the origins of these goods were at once celebrated or silenced. This analysis draws out how Western European industrialization not only relied on colonial ties economically but also how these goods relied on imperial analytical bifurcations and the denial of these links of exploitation.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 142. Race and Power in Transoceanic Circuits