Peter James Hudson: On Banking Diasporas, Colonial Methods & Aesthetic Inquiry
We want to begin by thanking you for your work in the Boston Review and for your art writing, particularly on Mark Bradford, and for your pivotal book, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean. We have been learning so much from your tweets, your website, your words. We were incredibly struck by the arguments and histories presented in your book, how the reproductive mechanism of colonial to neocolonial rule is rooted in the normatizing system of finance industries. What struck us is how internationally transcendent—what you described as colonial methods—has become in all of the finance adjacent industries: museums, not-for-profits, education. And, to learn how Wall Street colonizes: nothing feels more urgent today.
Peter James Hudson: Thanks for the opportunity to discuss Bankers and Empire in the pages of contemptorary and for giving the book, and my other writing, such a considered, generous, and generative reading. You’ve provided a rare opportunity to place a monograph that could be read as a fairly specialized account of U.S.-Caribbean political-economic history into a much wider conversation about politics, cultural production, and the histories and policies of modern institutions, be they banks or museums.
contemptorary: We are so grateful and excited for this conversation, we wanted to start by asking you about the relationship between finance and art. You chart out imperial banking dynamics in the material history of BNH (Banque Nationale d’Haiti) from the 1880, beginning with the French, moving to the French-German, to the U.S. occupation, to the City Bank acquisition of BNRH in 1922. You write, “Despite its name, from the time it was chartered in 1880, the BNH served a foreign master. Its president and directors were French. Executive decisions were made in Paris at the Societe Generale de Credit Industriel et Commercial. Its profits were repatriated to Europe.” You reveal how the finance and banking industries worked to forge the continuums of a “viceroy” relationship, where flows of capital and the sense of repatriation for European and U.S. nationstates remained.
We were reminded of how the financial colonial structure of the BNH that you described parallel many of the current discussions surrounding museum franchising and repatriation. Chin-Tao Wu while describing the contemporary franchising efforts of the Guggenheim and other museums writes, “…multinational museums and multinational corporations have become in many ways inseparable bed-fellows. They share an insatiable appetite for improving their share of a competitive global market, and this ambition involves them in physical expansion and the occupation of space in other countries.” The ‘bed-fellowing’ Wu describes can be acutely witnessed on museum rosters, as boards and advisers of each other’s companies and galleries. Through your book we can learn that the ‘bed-fellowing’ of multinational museums and corporations are not “new” forms but rather, replications of ossified and prescribed colonial methodology. What do you see as contemporary manifestations of the colonial methods you discuss in your book?
PJH: It is certainly not new, this bed-fellowing. One of the major concerns of corporate reformers during the Progressive Era in the United States was the territorial expansion of powerful corporations and banks, the dangers of industrial monopoly to free-market competition, and the concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few. In this last sense, the bed-fellowing was seen in concerns over “interlocking directorates”: over the creation of a small group of company directors who sat on the boards of multiple companies, even those that were apparently competing with each other. There was a fear that such directorates enabled both the circulation of insider market information and the possibilities of collusion, stock manipulation, and price fixing at the expense of smaller businesses, the consumer, and the government. In 1912-13, there was a Congressional investigation into the “Money Trust,” as it was called, that found Wall Street to be effectively controlled by a cartel of bankers and industrialists, with an aging J.P. Morgan serving as the godfather. While the investigations led to some liberal regulatory reform, a more radical critique of concentration, collusion, and cartelization can of course be found in Lenin’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s writings on finance capitalism. And indeed, Chin-Tao Wu’s description seems almost drawn from Lenin’s classic polemic Imperialism.
However, I’m not sure I would describe the colonial methods described in Bankers and Empire as “ossified.” They are certainly prescribed – and as ancient as capitalism itself – but they are also incredibly dynamic, developing, and volatile. They are always being updated, refined, and perfected; they are constantly being reshaped according to new political-economic circumstances and to new forms of pushback, resistance, and regulation. In my research, I think I was most struck by Wall Street’s understanding of colonial methods as legal methods and their use of corporate law firms as the sort of organic intellectuals of finance capital, attempting to create shell companies, corporate proxies, and financial affiliates that were able to circumvent both banking regulation and local sovereignties in order to facilitate the transnational accumulation of capital. Today, these colonial/legal methods have become only that much more inscrutable and arcane as corporations, hedge funds, and banks are more reliant on the “off-shore” geographies of places like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and the Bahamas to park their capital and avoid taxation. Meanwhile, the scale and scope of contemporary accumulation far exceeds anything from the Gilded Age and the era of the Robber Barons. Not only are companies like Amazon, Walmart, Alphabet/Google, and Apple far richer than their progenitors like Standard Oil or U.S. Steel or Armour and Co., but they are more pervasive, more deeply embedded in contemporary culture and contemporary consciousness. They have gone beyond mere territorial expansion and a simple buffering of consumer practices to the surveillance, monitoring, and exploitation of personal preferences, of daily routines, of individual bio-rhythms and bodily functions, and, arguably, of the unconscious. Given this, how can we speak of freedom and what are the terms of resistance to these neocolonial methods? How does one decolonize the mind, to borrow from Ngugi wa-Thiong’o, after Google and Facebook?
contemptorary: Yes, wow: not the ossified but the prescribed. And the colonial as legal methodology! This is all very frightening to learn about but also, incredibly necessary to chart. We want to ask more about methods. In your chapter on “Colonial Methods” you describe Samuel Miller Jarvis, the once vice president of the North American Trust company (NATC), and his imperial banking pursuits, which you describe are how we can witness the development and structure of colonial methods in the late 19th century in Cuba and the Caribbean. You write, “Jarvis’s institutions offered bankers the first contact with the people and markets beyond the borders of the United States and introduced them to the methods of imperial banking” and how “…Jarvis’s institutions produced what was effectively a banking diaspora…” The “banking diaspora” is now advertised as the foundation and source of financial convenience and luxury: one (and one’s companies) can travel to xyz and use the same ATMs or banks, and never be declined! Additionally “banking diaspora” has replicated to all kinds of economic and corporate diasporas, including not-for-profit diasporas and artistic diasporas.
Art historian Jane Blocker has theorized that a certain strain of modernist and postmodernist art fundamentally derives artistic methods from finance. In her essay, “Aestheticizing Risk in Wartime: The SLA to Iraq” she argues that we can witness this in the financial method of “risk transfer” in particular. Finance is interested in the profit that could be derived by transferring risk: but not the risk or the damage itself. Blocker makes the argument that such is the case in the works of Richard Serra, Marcel Duchamp and the likes in this tradition: there is risk being moved with no regard for how the damage remains. However, her argument begins and ends with financial capitalism. You write that, “The crisis of finance capitalism in the United States was a crisis of racial capitalism in the Caribbean.” Your synthesis of the the frameworks and vocabulary utilized to describe crisis economics is the stricture we want to use when thinking about the replication (or metamorphosis) of colonial and financial methodology in the arts, but further: how might you describe the phenomenon of crisis of racial capitalism in aesthetics and contemporary art?
PJH: For me, a “banking diaspora” emerged through the dispersal of those bankers who trained with the pioneering international financial institutions of Samuel Miller Jarvis—the Jarvis-Conklin Mortgage Company, the North American Trust Company, the Banco Nacional de Cuba, the Banco Nacional de Santo Domingo—and later found themselves working in the international departments of institutions like the Chase National Bank or the City Bank, the precursors to today’s JPMorganChase and Citigroup, respectively. But as you suggest, this is also a diaspora of ideas and values: of the replication and transference across generations and between institutions of the geographical, racial, legal, managerial, and political-economic knowledge and practices that constituted U.S. imperial banking.
As for crisis, there’s a number of ways it can be thought about. For historians, crisis provides one of the critical apertures through which to understand historical change. Here, crisis appears as both social, political, and cultural instability and historical conjuncture or rupture. Archives, the material of the historian, are created from crisis: the organization of commissions, inquiries, hearings, etc. investigating a given crisis provide a forensic account of the immediate past and generate the source documents for the historian. (The investigative reports into bank liquidation created by the Cuban government after the banking crisis of 1920-21 were critical to Bankers and Empire as were the reports and archive of the Pecora Investigations into the U.S. financial crisis of the late 1920s/early 1930s). At the same time, the figure of crisis has an important place within political-economy. Here, crisis is examined through the fiscal, geographic, and social effects of a falling rate of profit caused by overaccumulation and economic stagnation. The impact of crisis can be felt in layoffs, modes of austerity, disinvestment, and the “return” of racism—although those of us who are not white know that racism does not disappear during periods of capitalist tranquility. The solution to crisis, as figures from Charles A. Conant to W.E.B. DuBois argued, was to be found in geography: in expansion, colonialism, empire, and war. In the conquest of new territories that could be outlets for capital and goods and whose labor and resources could be secured on the cheap.
Yet on the peripheries of capitalism, crisis—both political and economic—is the norm. Crisis, emergency, exception are the normative conditions of both colonial and neocolonial subjects and metropolitan minorities for they are dealing with both the insecurity of the dependent economy and the insecurity of a non-sovereign polity. Metropolitan economic tremors are felt as an earthquake in the periphery. Meanwhile, an apparatus of repression (replete with avenues of cooption) must be deployed to maintain the status quo—not for citizens, but for investors. It is the crisis of everyday life. But with repression there is always resistance and crisis also forces modes of self-reckoning and awareness. One of my undergraduate mentors, the poet and editor Roy Miki, always said something to the effect that crises always generate new, innovative modes of writing. As J. Michael Dash has argued, the crisis of the U.S. Occupation in Haiti led to the development of a noiriste sensibility, led by Jean Price-Mars and others. Today, I think we can see the relationship between crisis and aesthetic experimentation in a crop of incredible poets who have emerged in the United States over the past few years, their languages battering the accreted histories of racial, sexual, and gendered violence that have shaped the current moment. Claudia Rankine is perhaps the best known figure in this regard, but there is also Safiya Sinclair, Aracelis Grimay, and Nikki Wallschlaeger. I’m not sure how they would feel being lumped together, but individually they write using an innovative poetics that represents both the desecration and renewal of language, the powerful summoning of testimony and witness, a mode of aesthetic inquiry that is elegiac and utopian, and a politics that is fiercely autonomous.
contemptorary: Thanks for reminding us that there is a tradition that relies not on the transfer of financial and colonial methodologies to maintain its value, but ruptures and invents the possibilities of aesthetic and political forms. And speaking of aesthetic and political forms, we wanted to ask you about the recent debates regarding history and aesthetics, particularly how certain kinds of histories become monumentalized as sculpture. In discussing City Bank’s “debased imperial architecture” you write that, “55 Wall Street stood as an elegant monument to the City Bank’s cruel imperial history.” Further describing the architecture,
“Its neoclassical detailing and Romanesque veneers cloaked the City Bank’s financial labors within the domestic economy, shrouded its modern office technologies, obscured its ties to the exploitations of oil and railroads and cotton and steel, and veiled its connections to the oligopolistic corporations using the bank as their private financier. But hidden behind 55 Wall Street’s facade of neoclassicism was another imperial enterprise: an enterprise of banking finance, and empire whose ambitions and expansions were braided through the U.S. colonial and neocolonial projects of the early twentieth century.”
The connection from neoclassical architecture to the politics of imperial histories are abound. Page duBois has written that, “Advocates, defenders, and apologists for slavery, past and present, find solace in ancient Israel as well as in Greece and Rome for their views.” We wanted to ask you about the relationship between a certain kind of aesthetics—of confederate statues or bank buildings—and the politics of their keeping: the aesthetics and politics from which so much of the world has, as you put, “never recovered.”
PJH: The “never recovered” line is from the last sentence in the book. I’m paraphrasing Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism. Cesaire offers a warning to those who see the U.S. as providing a different, more enlightened form of colonialism than the European powers. He writes:
And there we are, ready to run the great Yankee risk.
So, once again, be careful!
American domination—the only domination from which one never recovers. I mean from which one never recovers unscarred.
I wanted to end with Cesaire a way of invoking the Caribbean anticolonial writers—Cesaire, Fanon, Padmore, etc.—who really served as inspiration for my critique but to also suggest that the project of post-War Caribbean decolonization was very much determined (and circumscribed) by the pre-War years of U.S. imperialism covered in the book.
But I guess such monuments, be they buildings or sculptures, are less the “scars” of colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism, than their living embodiments; capillaries circulating their traditions, ideas, and practices in the present. I’m not necessarily for tearing them down—though I wouldn’t stand in the way of those who were for it—but I feel that the semiotic disruption of toppling tacky representations of Robert E. Lee or renaming dorms named after the Daughters of the Confederacy doesn’t address the major structural imbalances and the issues of racial equity that are really the foundations for these monuments. We can’t mistake a symbolic victory for structural transformation.
contemptorary: Yes, thank you! There’s been quite a bit of energy thrusted into toppling over and renaming campaigns—symbolic fights, but the work of structural transformation is another thing entirely.
Our last question is, you wrote a powerful catalog essay on Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day at the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Your essay began with the history of the pavilion’s design and architecture as intertwined with slavery and fascism. You conjure up these histories as the context in which Bradford’s work is to be exhibited and understood. We were struck by your reading and analysis of the exhibition’s politics as one that’s pessimistic and full. Bradford’s U.S. representation at the biennale is in no way an arrival at a happy ending but a departure point toward what’s ahead. Could we ask you about this current political and aesthetic juncture: the pessimism that could move?
PJH: I think we have to figure out if the current U.S. regime is really that different than prior regimes. We need to get over both our repulsion from a certain kind vulgarity—and our seduction by a certain kind of etiquette. Both represent U.S. power and the only sure way of evaluating the differences is by counting the bodies: the deported, the detained, the droned, the drowned, the dead. And if we don’t believe that freedom comes with a party victory, we will understand that the struggle is always ongoing. That’s both my pessimism and my hope.
contemptorary: Thank you so much…this makes us want to ask so many more questions but we said that the above was our last! The for real last question: who are some of the other contemporary artists/projects you are following and would like to tell us about?
PJH: Three off the top of my head: Martine Syms, James Crosby, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. All three are project based, bending form and genre to political, social, intellectual, and aesthetic questions. Syms and Crosby are based in LA. Syms is a sort of one-woman multi-media atelier and archive with an interest in radical history and politics. Crosby creates brooding and tactile conceptual pieces that evoke the technologies and apparati of race and Blackness. Abbas and Abou-Rahme create beautiful pieces about insurgency and imagination. I’ve also just started reading The Sovereign, Andrew Colarusso’s utterly original experimental novel of U.S. colonialism and Puerto Rican resistance.
Peter James Hudson is an historian who obtained his Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University and currently teaches in the departments of history and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research interests are in the history of capitalism, white supremacy, and U.S. imperialism; the intellectual and political-economic history of the Caribbean and the Black world; and the history of Black radicalism and global anti-imperialism. Hudson’s essays and reviews have appeared in Black Agenda Report, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, Radical History Review, Race & Class: A Journal on Racism, Globalisation, and Empire, Haitï Liberté, the CLR James Journal, Chimurenga, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Review of Books, Transition: An International Review, and elsewhere. He is editor of North: New African Canadian Writing (a special issue of West Coast Line), and is co-editor special issue of the CLR James Journal: The Journal of the Caribbean Philosophical Association on “Black Canadian Thought.” Hudson also edits the digital history resource The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times (thepublicarchive.com). He is the author of Banking on Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago, 2017).