Fall 2001


The two sides of the island

David Hawkes

In ten days in Santo Domingo, I was robbed three times: a personal record. Once, a self-styled “guide” concluded our tour with a classic example of extortion by threat of violence. Once, a passing hooker grabbed my testicles, a time-honored distracting technique of pickpockets whose efficacy is not reduced by familiarity. And once, the hotel maid treated me to a demonstration of the traditional local trompe l’oeil known as the “vanishing travelers’ check.” Despite my discomfort, the common factor between these outrages forced itself upon me. Each crime had been perpetrated by someone exchanging, or offering to exchan­ge, their labor for my capital, and in each case the trick consisted in an unexpected violation of the normal terms of that exchange. I could take, I found, a crumb of consolation from the thought that my predicament was the expression in miniature of the economic Zeitgeist.

None of my assailants was hawking or producing anything material—each of them purported to be selling a service. The “service economy” is frequently presented as a postmodern phenomenon, but the services offered by these bandits were all very ancient. The status of workers in the ancient service economy was servile, which is to say they were slaves. And until late in the 20th century, thinkers of Left and Right alike were reluctant to consider the provision of “services” as truly proletarian labor, especially when those services were provided by women. According to a certain species of vulgar materialism, a proletarian must be engaged in the production of material things. For if there is no visible end-product to a worker’s labor, what has he or she really sold in exchange for his or her wages?

The answer to this question lays bare the true nature of all wage-labor. Proletarians are people who sell their labor-power for money. They do not sell the product of their labor, they sell their capacity for labor during a given period of time. What the proletarian sells is subjective activity itself. This is true of everyone who works for a salary, so that virtually everyone in the world today is a proletarian. But in the service sector, the nature of the transaction is more overt. No physical product is exchanged, and it therefore becomes clear that the worker is actually selling his or her time: his or her life and self. This blatant display of objectification led most societies to relegate those whose labor is servile and non-productive to the ranks of the un-free, legally defining them as such by class and gender.

It is commonplace to say that the class relations of early capitalism have become globalized, so that the 21st-century inhabitants of the northern hemisphere stand in relation to those of the south as 19th-century capitalists stood in relation to 19th-century proletarians. This development also entails a mystification of those relations. In Dickensian London, try as they might, those who lived by capital could not escape regular contact with those who lived by labor. But the only way to come into significant contact with the real proletariat of the 21st century is to travel, independently, to the “third world,” and this is an experience which many Westerners assiduously avoid.

They avoid it largely because they suspect, quite rightly, that their chances of being robbed are very high. Neo-liberal propaganda and IMF statistics notwithstanding, the most cursory stroll down the street in a city such as Santo Domingo or, more emphatically, Port-au-Prince confirms that globalization has been an utter disaster for the southern hemisphere. The proletarian continents of the postmodern economy are ten times more Hogarthian than the working-class districts of industrial London. Labor and capital confront each other as starkly as ever, but today the privileged partner in this dichotomy finds it easy to turn its back on the Other.

But the concept of the Other will not be altogether repressed. It returns, festooned with voguish trumpery, in the various outlandish forms of what Americans call “theory.” Unbeknownst to most theorists, the philosophical heritage of the Other is found in Aristotle’s dialectic of master and slave. A slave, for Aristotle, is one who does not live “for himself” but for an Other. The slave does not pursue his own proper ends, and he therefore does not meet the Greek definition of a human being. Instead, the slave serves the ends of the master: By performing physical labor, he makes it possible for the master to achieve full humanity, which is understood as the pursuit of a spiritual or intellectual telos.

The master/slave polarity is the historical and philosophical ancestor of the contradiction between capital and labor. Hegel’s great advance on Aristotle was to point out that the humanity of the master is actually dependent on the labor of the slave, so that the identity of the dichotomy’s privileged term depends upon that of the other term, rather than vice versa. In Marx, this breakthrough is refracted into the recognition that capital does not have an independent existence, but is merely objectified labor. Here we have the origin of the postmodern commonplaces that the self is defined by the Other, that identity depends upon difference, that existence precedes essence, and so on.

For obvious reasons, Western theorists usually do their best to forget the basis of this idea and scamper off in happy pursuit of its ramifications for what they call “gender,” “race,” and “sexuality”. Occasionally, however, circumstances press upon them the importance of more significant matters, and in the 1990s, the quincentennial anniversary of Colón’s arrival in the West Indies unleashed a flood of postmodernist reflections on the economic significance of the Other. In one such work, The Conquest of America: the Question of the Other, Tzvetan Todorov finds the root of the genocidal European reaction to the new world in Classical Greek philosophy where, he claims, “the fact of living with others, is not generally conceived as being necessary.”

In fact, however, the precise reverse is the case. In Aristotle, the Other is absolutely necessary; it is impossible to live a fully human life without an Other. What Todorov probably means is that the humanity of the Self is predicated on the non-humanity—on the objectification—of the Other. And everything suggests that this is no barbaric doctrine now relegated to primeval history, but rather the constitutive principle on which the postmodern global economy operates. The objectification of labor in the form of capital is Aristotle’s master/slave dialectic writ large—so large, in fact, that its characters are obscure to our myopic vision.

The opposition between bourgeoisie and proletariat is not always or necessarily an opposition between classes. It is one external manifestation of the fundamental contradiction between labor and capital, or in other words, between slave and master. This contradiction operates within the psyche of the individual as much as between classes; it also mediates the relationships between Northern and Southern hemispheres, between men and women, between life and death.

The history and cultures of Hispaniola provide a microcosmic lens through which such global and cosmic polarities can be reduced to legible size. If the postmodern “West” relates to the “third world” as Marx’s “bourgeoisie” relates to his “proletariat,” then Haiti plays much the same role in relation to the Dominican Republic. Throughout their history, the Spanish-speaking, mulatto DR has consciously and openly constructed its Kreyol-speaking black neighbor as the Other in relation to which its own identity is formed.

A typical example, by no means the first but arguably the most influential, of this thinking is Jose Rodo’s Ariel (1900). The book’s crude implications can be inferred from its title. Rodo takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is the central myth through which the West has imagined its encounter with the third world. In this version, however, the global culture-clash is reinvented as taking place within the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominicans playing the part of the intellectual, spiritual Ariel, and the Haitians cast in the role of the physical, bestial Caliban. This, at least, was the reading preferred by Joaquin Balaguer, the blind tyrant who ruled the Dominican Republic for over thirty years until 1996. Balaguer’s most famous book is The Island in Reverse, in which he suggests that Dominicans are, by definition, everything that Haitians are not.

In 1996, the ninety-year-old Balaguer announced that Haiti and the Dominican Republic ought to “live like Siamese twins.” Presumably intended as conciliatory, the statement perfectly captured the predominant Dominican view of Haiti as a hideous, unnatural Other, grafted onto an otherwise healthy body by some cruel quirk of Nature. For over a hundred years, the Dominican Republic has turned its back on Haiti, turning it into the geopolitical equivalent of the Elephant in the Drawing Room. The fact of Haiti’s existence obviously determines every aspect of life and culture in the Dominican Republic, which responds to this overwhelming impact by refusing to acknowledge it, except through periodic campaigns to expel the thousands of Haitians who fuel Santo Domingo’s economy with their labor on the sugar plantations. Direct mail service between the two nations was established only in 1998. It is doubtful that many residents of Hispaniola take advantage of it.

Although he was hated by many of his subjects for his dictatorial rule, Balaguer’s views undeniably tapped a deep vein in the Dominican consciousness. For example, few Dominicans consider themselves “black,” although virtually all of them would have been seated firmly at the back of the bus in 1950s Mississippi, and many of them are as dark as any Ibo or Yoruba. Enquiries about the latter will be met with the reply that such people are “Haitian,” but the word refers to skin color rather than nationality, and is used for people whose families have been in the DR for generations. Conversely, in Haiti the term “blanc” means “foreigner” rather than “white”; it is frequently shouted at bemused UN troops who would indubitably be regarded as black in their homelands.

Of course, it is hardly news that race is a social construction. But it is still disorienting to visit an island where black is white and white is black. Although it is clearly unsustainable outside Hispaniola, as both Dominicans and Haitians quickly discover when they move to New York, the two nations’ understanding of the relation between themselves and their Other structures every aspect of life on the island. It has done so throughout history, often with appalling consequences. To take only one example, in 1937 the Dominican dictator Trujillo—possibly with the connivance of his foreign minister, the young Joaquin Balaguer—engaged in one of history’s more blatant attempts to purge the constitutive Other by murdering 40,000 people he considered “Haitian.” Whether or not they were actually Haitian citizens is debatable and in any case beside the point, which was that they were black. Their bodies were thrown into the river that marks the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which is called the River Massacre. But the river did not take its name from the massacre: It was already called that, either after a previous massacre or for more obscure reasons that no one on either side of the border wants to explain.

Such ironies would be comic were they not so sanguinary, just as the mutual antipathy between Haitians and Dominicans would be laughable if its practical consequences were not so pronounced. As with all such dichotomies, the binary opposition between the two nations is unequal. Listening to a Dominican discussing Haitians is exactly like listening to an aging white resident of Washington Heights discussing Dominicans. They are black; they are uncivilized; they sell drugs; they are prostitutes; they spread AIDS. Above all, they are Other: a deeply foreign, illegitimate and illegal presence the very recognition of which seems to demand its immediate expulsion.1

According to the mythology, Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are doing one of two things: The men are working in the sugar cane fields, and the women are prostitutes. Like all such myths, this one contains a kernel of truth. That truth may or may not be empirical, but it is certainly ideological. From the Dominican perspective, what Haitians represent is the carnal, the bodily. Physical labor, performed by proletarian or prostitute, is intimately identified by Dominicans with Haitians. For one hundred and fifty years, and still today, this psychological homology has been expressed in the fact that many Haitians in the DR are quite literally slaves. The major political conflict between the two governments concerns the plight of the Haitian sugar cane workers, who are often coerced, sometimes imprisoned, and frequently unpaid. This situation would be impossible without the underlying ideology by which Haitians are understood to fit the characteristics of Aristotle’s “natural” slaves.

In his epochal study of race consciousness, Black Skins, White Masks, Franz Fanon argues that Hegel’s version of the master/slave polarity does not apply to the enslavement of Africans by Europeans:

I hope I have shown that here the master differs basically from the master described by Hegel. For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work.

Fanon evidently does not understand that “work,” which in this context means alienated labor, is itself the form of recognition demanded by the master. In fact, it is the labor of the slave that brings the master into being. Capital is objectified labor, but labor is not subjectified capital: Without labor, capital would simply not exist. As Hegel puts it, “The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the slave.”

There is, then, a sense in which the Dominican Republic would not, and could not, exist without Haiti. Dominican identity is nothing more than the antithesis of Haiti. Of course, all identity is predicated upon an Other. But what is unusual, and instructive, about Hispaniola is the fact that this process of identity-formation is carried out deliberately and consciously. Dominicans will readily and proudly admit that their personal and national identities are constructed through the forcible expulsion of everything Haitian.

In turn, the Haitians have evolved a complex mythological understanding of their role in this polarity. The concept of the zombie underlies all Haitian popular culture, because it expresses a profound truth about Haitian identity. A zombie is brought into existence in order to work, and the figure of the zombie reveals the true nature of alienated labor. Labor objectified in the form of capital is dead labor, dead human activity, dead life—in other words, Death itself. We could have no concept or understanding of what we call “life” if we did not also have a notion to express the Other of life, which we call “death.” Life could not exist without death, any more than the master could exist without the slave, or Santo Domingo could exist without Port-au-Prince. The revolutionary breakthrough in human consciousness will arrive when Prospero’s final comment on Caliban—“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”—ceases to signify a claim to possession and becomes a recognition of the Other’s constitutive role within the Self.

It is perhaps a defining characteristic of postmodernity that the opposition between capital and labor is internalized. This process is hardly mysterious. Just as capital and labor are accompanied by distinct ideologies when they are embodied in social classes, so they prompt discordant ideas within the psyches of individuals who, like most individuals in the Western world, are simultaneously proletarian and bourgeois. They also structure encounters between individuals. We are no longer, as Georg Lukacs has said, an “integrated civilization” that sees the destiny of the individual reflected in the movements of the stars. But we can still discern the tentacles of capitalism in the fingers of a pickpocket.

  1. Of course, such an expulsion would be impossible, either economically or psychologically. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud remarks on “the peculiar fact that peoples whose territories are adjacent, and are otherwise closely related, are always at feud with and ridiculing each other, as, for instance, the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the North and South Germans, the English and the Scotch, and so on. I gave it the name of ‘narcissism in respect of minor differences,’ which does not do much to explain it.” Freud is quite correct in his evaluation of his own theory here. The myth of Narcissus, and of his love for Echo, is indeed inadequate to describe the form of identity, which is founded not on similarity but on difference. Narcissus and Echo were unable to distinguish between Self and Other. As Michele Wucker’s recent study of Hispaniola, Why the Cocks Fight, reminds us, Haitians and Dominicans experience no such difficulty. This is because there is a constitutive imbalance in their relationship, an imbalance which brings us back to the fundamental paradigm of master and slave.

David Hawkes is associate professor of English at Lehigh University and the author of Ideology.

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