The Globalization of Apartheid

Presentation for the first Rethinking Economies workshop

‘Unequal development: the globalization of apartheid’

Goldsmiths College London, 24th March 2006

It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined.…that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities.

J.-J. Rousseau Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men

Cosmopolitan Right shall be limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality [the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory]….The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity.

Immanuel Kant Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch


Richard Cobden Frieze of the main auditorium, Free Trade Hall, Manchester

A world divided into compartments, a motionless Manicheistic world, a world of statues: this is the colonial world. The native is a being hemmed in; apartheid is simply one form of the division into compartments of the colonial world.

Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth

Apartheid as a universal social principle

In the Great Depression, Maynard Keynes offered a solution to national elites concerned that their governments would be overwhelmed by the poverty and unemployment generated by the economic collapse. It was to increase the purchasing power of the masses. The rich countries today are similarly cast adrift in a sea of human misery that includes most people alive. Marx used to say that the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the productive forces, by which he meant that capitalist markets could not organize machine production for the benefit of society as a whole. At the most inclusive level the main fetter on human development today is the administration of the world economy by nation-states who prevent the emergence of new forms of economic life more appropriate to the conditions of global integration into which we have so recently stumbled. This also, of course, prevents the implementation of a Keynesian programme aimed at alleviating world poverty by transnational redistribution of purchasing power.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen says that he doesn’t feel like eating out tonight because of all those starving millions in the Third World. The audience laughs, uneasily. The gesture rings false: why tonight and not every night? No-one could live consistently with that proposition — could they? We might well ask how people live with economic inequality. And the short answer is that they don’t, not if they can help it. Most human beings like to think of themselves as good (Kant). This normally involves being compassionate in the face of others’ suffering. The worst thing would be to be held responsible for that suffering in some way. Better to explain it away as having some other cause: perhaps the people deserve to suffer or are just pretending to be poor. Better still not to have to think about it in the first place. In the last resort we can ignore the problem by defining them as less than human (not like us). Distance (in every sense — physical, social, intellectual, emotional) is the answer to the unwelcome conflict between inequality and human compassion. And, while each of us engages in thousands of voluntary acts distancing ourselves from the suffering of others, the task is performed more reliably, at the communal level, by institutions.

An institution is an established practice in the life of a community or it is the organization that carries it out. (The root sta-, to stand or set up, is shared with ‘establish’ and, of course, with ‘state’, the institution that represents society as a single centralized agency). What they have in common is the idea of a place to stay, in opposition to the movement, flux and process of life itself. Institutions and agriculture go together. The conflict between fixing society in the ground and reinventing it on the move underlies our contemporary global crisis. The maintenance of inequality depends on controlling the movement of people. If the poor are to be kept at a proper distance, it would not do to have them invade the protected zones of privilege established by the rich. Better by far that they should know their place and stay there.

The two principal institutions for upholding inequality, therefore, are formal political organization (law enforcement by states) and informal customary practices widely shared by members of a community (culture). The most important task of both is to separate and divide people in the interest of maintaining rule by the privileged few. Classifying people is as old as language and society; and, as Durkheim and Mauss pointed out in Primitive Classification, it can help to define solidarity within and between groups. But, it is equally well-known that labeling people differently is a means of preventing them from combining. One of the main ways that modern ruling elites everywhere have come to terms with the anonymous masses they govern is to pigeon-hole them through systems of classification. The intellectuals have devoted themselves to devising and maintaining such categories. Social science itself would be impossible if individuals were not subordinated to these impersonal systems of thought and enumeration.

To the extent that society has become depersonalized interaction between strangers, an important class of categories rests on overt signs that can be recognized without prior knowledge of the persons involved. These are usually visual — physical and cultural characteristics like skin colour or dress; speech styles may also sometimes be taken as revealing social identity. Modern states are, of course, addicted to identity cards, preferably with a photograph of the bearer. By a standard symbolic logic, these sign systems are often taken to reveal personal character — trustworthiness, ability and much besides. On this arbitrary basis, personal destinies are decided, people are routinely included and excluded from society’s benefits, inequality is made legitimate and policed, the world is divided into an endless series of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and monstrous crimes against humanity (like genocide) are carried out.

After the second world war, South Africa’s ruling National Party set out to institute what they called apartheid. Despite the close integration of people of European and African origin in the country’s economic system, they decided to separate the ‘races’, by allocating to ‘blacks’ a series of homelands (themselves fragmented according to ‘tribal’ origin) and denying them the right to reside in the cities, where the ‘whites’ mainly lived, except with a pass (work permit). Within the cities, black and white areas were kept apart and were unequally endowed with resources. Establishing and keeping up such a system required the systematic use of force, although collaborators were, as usual, not hard to find. Internal resistance built up gradually and the rest of the world expressed varying degrees of outrage, eventually translated into an intermittent boycott. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 signaled a retreat from this policy which culminated quite soon in African majority rule. But apartheid can’t be abolished by the stroke of a pen.

The South African experiment was ugly, but not the most extreme form of inhumanity known to the twentieth century. Stalin and Hitler between them were responsible for much worse; and, even as the ANC was being peacefully elected, a million people lost their lives in Rwanda, while Bosnia revealed that genocide was alive and kicking in Europe. Yet the Afrikaners managed to provoke the most coordinated international opposition since the second world war. Why? What they did was obnoxious, but was it so exceptional? Perhaps their main crime was to be explicit, even boastful about their method of maintaining inequality. For the same method could be said to operate everywhere, without being acknowledged so openly or practiced so violently.

I believe that South Africa became a symbol of a universal institution about which people were feeling generally uneasy. It offered a limited target, outside the societies of its international critics, which could be vilified and rejected as an alternative to more painful introspection. For do not people like to think of themselves as good? Opposing evil elsewhere is a way of displacing our ambivalence over how we handle inequality closer to home. In any case, after the official demise of apartheid in South Africa, something similar to it is the ruling principle everywhere by which the inequalities of world society are managed today.

This principle may be stated briefly as follows. Inequality is intrinsic to the functioning of the modern economy at all levels from the global to the local. The rich and poor are separated physically, kept apart in areas that differ greatly in their standards of living. It is impossible to prevent movement between the two areas in any absolute sense, if only for the fact that the rich need the poor to perform certain tasks for them on the spot (especially personal services and dirty work of all kinds). But movement of this sort is severely restricted, by the use of formal administrative procedures (state law) or by a variety of informal institutions based on cultural prejudice. These rest on systems of classification of which racism is the prototype and still the single most important means of inclusion and exclusion in our world.

There is a great lie at the heart of modern politics. We live in self-proclaimed democracies where all are equally free; and we are committed to these principles on a universal basis. Yet we must justify granting some people inferior rights; otherwise functional economic inequalities would be threatened. This double-think is enshrined at the heart of the modern nation-state. Nationalism is racism without the pretension to being as systematic or global. So-called nations, themselves often the outcome of centuries of unequal struggle, link cultural difference to birth and define citizens’ rights in opposition to all-comers. The resulting national consciousness, built on territorial segmentation and regulation of movement across borders, justifies the unfair treatment of non-citizens and makes people blind to the common interests of humanity. As long ago as the Algerian war of independence, Frantz Fanon identified “the pitfalls of national consciousness” as the main obstacle to political progress in our world.

There are other ways of classifying the poor, of course, besides visible signs of ‘natural’ difference encoded as race. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, region and class may be signaled in many other ways. But the pervasive dualism of modern economies derives from the need to keep apart people whose life-chances are profoundly unequal. Engels noticed it when he came to Manchester in the 1840s. In medieval cities, the rich and poor lived together. Here the rich lived in the suburbs and worked in the city centre; and they rode to and from their businesses along avenues whose facade of shops concealed the terrible housing conditions of the slums behind. Post-apartheid Johannesburg takes this to extremes, with its rich white Northern suburbs policed by private security firms and poor blacks still crowded in monochrome townships like Soweto. The apartheid principle is now to be found everywhere in local systems of discrimination, more or less blatant. It is ironic that Israel, a society formed in part by the worst racial attack in history, is seen by many outsiders as the most aggressive successor to the social experiment of the Afrikaners. Of course, passage though any of the world’s airports today shows how the ‘war against terrorism’ has universally strengthened state apparatuses in their attempts to control the movement of people.

Unequal development

In Doctrines of Development, Cowen and Shenton argue that, over the two centuries since the industrial revolution, ‘development’ theory has addressed two distinct, but related questions: what are the engines of capitalist growth? and how can the damage capitalism does be patched up? In the last half century, ‘development’ has come to mean the political relationship between rich and poor countries following the anti-colonial revolution against European empire. In the 50s and 60s a semi-serious attempt was made to help the poor countries develop in Cowen and Shenton’s first sense. But since the 70s, what passes for development aid has been at best sticking plaster for the victims of a world economy in recession, more often a self-serving tool of mercantilist control. Anthropologists concerned with development were mistaken to identify their project too closely with the development bureaucracy in a period of western decadence. In the twenty-first century there will be radically new forces to contend with and a different approach has already become essential.

The historical relationship between the peoples of rich and poor countries is one of movement in both directions. This workshop will address systematic attempts to control such movement today and asks whose interest these policies serve. We hope to show that concerns with ‘immigration’ to countries like Britain are intrinsically tied to the ‘development’ of poor areas by the economic inequality on which contemporary world economy rests. Moreover, the situation is changing in unforeseen ways.

If the decades before the first world war were an era of ‘globalization’ marked by mass migration of Europeans to temperate lands of new settlement and of Asian ‘coolies’ to tropical colonies, our own period has seen restricted migration of the inhabitants of poor countries to the main western centres. Then western capital unified the world economy and the rise of large-scale machine industry encouraged the emergence of a high-wage economy at home separated from the cheap labour of the colonies. German and American capital made decisive inroads into Britain’s nineteenth-century monopoly of world trade and finance. Today the cheapest agricultural products come from Brazil, the cheapest manufactures from China, the cheapest information services from India, the cheapest migrant labour from the ruins of the Soviet empire. Following a wave of migration from what in Britain are known as ‘new Commonwealth’ countries and three decades of neo-liberal economic policies, western workers are facing increased competition both at home and abroad, just as capital has become truly global for the first time by diffusing to new zones of production and accumulation, notably in Asia.

South Africa was always central to globalization and remains so today. The need to keep high- and low-wage labour streams separate became acute in Natal in the late nineteenth century, where British and Indian migrants of similar levels of skill came into competition for the same jobs. The resulting discrimination in favour of whites was later adopted by the Union government as the basis for regulating the poor black majority in what became known, after the Afrikaners achieved their independence in 1948, as apartheid. This provoked the third wave of an international movement opposed to instituted inequality on a world scale. Following the movements to abolish slavery and to end colonialism, the anti-apartheid movement mobilized public opinion in the West, with the outcome we all know. But keeping high- and low-wage labour streams apart in systems of discrimination based overtly or implicitly on race has since then been elevated to a universal principle of world society, replicated at all levels more or less blatantly. This was to some extent obscured by treating apartheid as something those nasty Afrikaners were up to, but not ourselves.

The neo-liberal conservatives who have dominated world society for the last quarter-century had as their principal aim to dismantle the social democratic institutions (welfare states) that arose in the mid-twentieth century to protect national workers and their families. This was accompanied by engineering consistent downward pressure on wages through the threat of exporting capital to cheaper countries or importing cheap labour, latterly from eastern Europe. The result in the rich countries is racist xenophobia exacerbated by job insecurity and rising levels of poverty at home. This is the immediate context for the globalization of apartheid as a social principle. And it is echoed in increased security measures aimed at regulating movement in the name of the ‘war against terrorism’.

More than two centuries ago, Kant argued for the ‘cosmopolitan right’ of free movement everywhere. Our world seems to be the opposite of that now. But, sooner or later, economic and political crisis will force a reconsideration of the principles organizing world society. It is the task of anthropologists not only to show how people organize themselves in the face of global inequality today, but how society might be made more just. This involves a fundamental critique of current ideas and practices carried out in the name of ‘development’, seen here through the lens of the international movement of peoples.

Movement as a human right

What does it take to feel at home in the world today? How have recent changes in the means of transport and communication affected the ability of individuals to adapt the rhythms of their own inner worlds to those of the world outside? What distinctive patterns of residence and movement, work, recreation and identity are emerging in our time? If digital communications bring the world to each of us at home, parallel, but less spectacular improvements in transport allow us to join the movement of the world more cheaply and efficiently than before. How are these changes in human possibility, the chance to be more sedentary and more nomadic at the same time, being incorporated by individuals into the organization of their lives? For, in order to move, we must hold other aspects of our lives constant. The need for change or for something different entails the need for stability or for staying the same. This sameness-in-difference lies at the heart of the problem of personal identity; and modern communications offer some new means for resolving old contradictions.

Movement is predicated on some things staying as they are. And we all have need of stability in our lives. We need to feel at home. It is possible to do so while on the move, but generally speaking we build up durable attachments in particular places. Place and movement across distance are contradictory, in that they are hard to combine in practice. Reconciling our need for a stable home base with that for participation in the world at large (usually through movement) often poses acute dilemmas for individuals and for small groups who wish to stay together. Obviously, to the extent that virtual movement (communications) can be substituted for real movement, this dilemma would be reduced.

So the digital revolution in communications is crucial for two reasons: it brings the world closer to each of us and it makes society at distance possible without disturbing our commitment to particular places. This is the latest phase of a machine revolution, only two centuries old, that bears comparison in human history with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Indeed our task is to understand the relationship between the two revolutions. We think of ourselves as moderns who have made a decisive break with the past as a result of mechanization. But in reality we are still struggling to emancipate ourselves from habits formed through millennia of agrarian civilization. Chief of these is the idea that individuals relate principally to society through their work. The communications revolution allows for the exchange of meanings at distance through electronic media. Civilization rests increasingly on the services that human beings perform for each other and as a result the economy is less concerned with material production. This contrast with agriculture and early industrialization echoes the priorities of the peoples who live as hunter-gatherers, a condition evocative of humanity before we settled down to cultivate the land. In any case, buying and selling with money (markets) and cultural communication (language) are converging. It is now possible to imagine machines as instruments of human freedom rather than the opposite, to be a means of feeling more at home in the world.

Once people roamed freely around the world, like the animals, and the evidence of their contemporary successors suggests that they did not experience their relations with nature and each other to be oppositional. Their economic mechanism was sharing of the product in consumption and their daily lives were infused with the spirits they took to share the world with them. Society had its fixed reference points, places whose importance lasted through time; but it was significantly translocal, existing across place and to some extent independently of it.

After settling down to produce food, human beings became wedded to place, since plants expect to get their nourishment while being fixed to one spot and farmers had to stay and look after their plants. They domesticated animals in order to bring them under a similar regime of protection. One consequence of this move to agriculture 10,000 years ago is that the world no longer appeared undivided to its occupants. There was the domesticated part brought precariously under our control and the rest, the wild, a term including untamed thickets, fierce animals, human predators and vengeful spirits. Somehow we must transcend the limitations of this inherited worldview.

The world has never been more connected or more unequal than now. The reason for both is the global freedom enjoyed by capital at this time. Just as the nineteenth-century liberal state imposed the freedom of capital on others as their unfreedom (Polanyi), today’s neo-liberal world economy imposes its own forms of coercion on the vast bulk of humanity. Inequality is administered by territorial states, one of whose principal functions is to restrict the movement of people, especially from the poor areas to the rich. This attempt to maintain two zones of labour, one high-paid and one low-paid, has its origins, as we have seen, in the imperialism of the decades before the first world war. It persists in the organization of the world economy as an apartheid system where inequality is represented through a semiotics of race. Resistance to globalization often understandably takes the form of seeking to reinforce national boundaries against the predations of capital. But this plays into the hands of racists and fascists.

What is needed is a new free trade movement seeking to dismantle the institutions of national privilege and insisting on movement as a human right. Only then will the better off see any reason to engage with the world outside their fortified enclaves. The philosophical inspiration for this program is late Kant in such works as The Perpetual Peace and the Anthropology. The world belongs to all human beings and each of us has a right to move in it as we wish. An injury to one person anywhere affects us all. The last and most difficult task of humanity is to construct a universal system of justice. A modified Keynesian programme for the world economy might be one step in that direction, redistributing purchasing power to the impoverished masses. Global capital will only be checked effectively when popular forces are able to mobilize freely. The internet has increased this possibility of late; but dismantling state jurisdiction over international movement is as essential for us now as the repeal of the corn laws was a century and a half ago.


the act of moving

changing places

tendency or trend

material flux or flow

political effort to a common goal

section of a musical composition

suggested motion of a design

evacuation of the bowels

military manoeuvre

mechanism of a watch

poetic rhythm or structure

emotion, a feeling of excitement

process, a series of actions with a result

The state is a state,

a fixed idea ;

movement is life.


  1. Daniel says:

    Please note Apartheid and segregation is the same thing. Segregation as was challenged by Rosa Parks was enforced in USA same as in South Africa. South Africa had homelands same as Indian Reservations – the Sharpvile massacre (a tragic piece of history) compares but is dwarfed by the millions of Native Americans killed (also a tragedy). However it’s easier to blame and ridicule from the outside. More white farmers (boers) has been brutally tortured and killed in their homes by aggressive attackers than American Soldiers killed in the Iraq war, both equally tragic..

    • keith says:

      Daniel, thanks very much for this contribution. The history of racism in the US and South Africa has some common causes, even if the two societies are in many respects very different. In South Africa segregation was the policy long before apartheid was officially launched. My use of the term here was intended to draw attention to the generality of segregation while pointing out that South Africa was an extreme case, but not unique. The same could be said of the USA before the 60s. We need language that helps us to link up different cases while insisting on their distinctiveness.

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