Tools of Oppression: A Historical Mapping

Written By Kanishka Sikri

We live in a system of power relations and oppressor/oppressed dynamics. These power and relational dynamics are exercised through and by adherence to the logic of our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy; injustices, inequalities, and exploitation expand as processes out of this system. These technologies (processes) of oppression refer to the manifestation of power relations and hierarchies of superordinate/subordinates in everyday social systems including but not limited to, modern states, social norms, “common sense”, education infrastructure, media representations/symbolic discourse, and police/legal institutions.

In this regard, the processes of oppression—technology, surveillance, policing, discipline, violence—have flowed, moved, and been manipulated for the different social and political climates they are expressed in. The preceding surveillance and technologies of oppression are changing even when the systems of oppression have stayed in tact. This system—colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy—determines a social order which then changes over time as there are technological improvements, migration and transnational developments, and infrastructure and institutional changes, thus determining different social processes. Our social order is then a racist colonial capitalist patriarchal one because it is based on a colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchal system.

Utilizing a postcolonial feminist and transnational intersectionality frame, I interrogate the socio-political processes through which oppression is reproduced, and elucidate the birth of these systems including the ways in which they have been transformed by, for, and throughout the various historical periods they find themselves in. Critical of analyzing these regimes as homogeneous one dimensional systems of either or, I do not wish to reify purely economic, technological or scientific understandings of current structures but to re-conceptualize and trace their evolution throughout history from this postcolonial feminist praxis. This mapping then serves to situate contemporary history into four major regimes/periods which showcase how and through which mechanisms the tools and technologies of oppression have manifested in the form of our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy.

These tools of oppression, and the systems they birth from, originated from the general advancement of society from a natural, primitive state to a civil one. The agreement of individuals to band as a collective, adhering to certain laws, norms, and doctrines they have willingly chosen to engage in, marks the beginning of contemporary oppression. The process through which citizens entered this social contract is marked by two key characteristics: a) the agreement to abide by certain laws and doctrines thereby sacrificing some individual freedom for collective freedom, and b) the hunt not only for individual (which was already present in a state of nature) but collective power—social, economic, and physical—as a nation state. Without the entry of Europe into a civil society, power would have been confined to the individual and familial level, not to a nation state. In this capacity, individual power would be isolated to their respective locales, and external expansion would not have occurred in the capacity it has. This hunt for power, backed by both ideology and technological capacity of the time, brought society into the space of coloniality, which paved the path for other oppressive systems to embed themselves in modern society. ​

Economic gain at this stage of technology, which was very little, was possible only through the physical control of land, resources and people. This justified physical expansion to the Americas which would provide Europeans the necessary power they were hunting for as they bond themselves as a nation—this was the beginning of colonialism in the civil world. Beyond just economic gain, Europeans needed some reason to justify this domination to themselves and their collectives—this led to the social stratification of society by race which was indicated on the basis of skin colour and differences in physical characteristics; whereby Indigenous peoples were placed at the bottom, right before the lowest of the low: black peoples. This was to maintain white as virtuous, pure, and clean compared to those of darker skin tones—maintaining the white saviour and superiority complex.

However, racial stratification was not enough as male Europeans wanted to dominate Indigenous women as well. This cultivated in the stratification and eventual gendered divide alongside and through racial hierarchies. Indigenous men were placed on top of their fellow women but below white women who were dominated by white men. The patriarchal society of Europe which placed men over women, during the feudal age, gave European men the necessary hierarchy to impose along with differences imposed through stratification based on skin colour. This enabled a different dimension of oppression to women of colour by the white man—sexual. Simultaneously, through the forced labour of Indigenous peoples, and the exploitation of their lands and resources, the accumulation of wealth from colonial labour flowed to the hands of Europeans who invested majority of that economic surplus into technological advancement. This advancement gave way to the creation of advanced ships and archival/record keeping technology which could supply labour transnationally, thus enabling the slave trade to take place.

Social stratification by race and sex ultimately placed black peoples, and black women in particular, at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Since technology was now available and advanced enough through Indigenous exploitation to begin importing and exporting labour transnationally, the slave trade was both justified by white supremacist ideals and had the means to be exercised. The mass upheaval of Africans from their homes to the Americas and Europe was characterized by a new type of colonization—one that did not have to operate in the locale of those being exploited. Instead, it could be conducted on a global scale. This gave way to division between people of colour communities who were being exploited, allowing Indigenous peoples to hold rights over black Africans who were forced into work in the Americas. Thus, even though colonization gave way for the social order necessary for the slave trade, Europeans still utilized racial hierarchies to dismantle solidarity and collective resistance between people of colour who were being subjected to the white man’s rule.

Furthermore, the slave trade predicating itself on the gendered hierarchies established during the time of initial colonization enabled the sexual and physical exploitation of black women. The dynamic of the slave-slave owner, particularly in the sexual sense, allowed for some black women to survive through utilizing sexual appeal as a mechanism to gain power over their oppressors. These powers, while giving them an edge in relational power to other fellow black women, did not change the hierarchy that placed them at the bottom. Instead, the slave trade and the commodification of certain bodies performing labour relied on women—particularly women of colour’s reproductive labour to sustain the future labouring populations—the slaves. Black women were not just placed below for social and ideological justification, but were economically necessary to be placed at this level so they would not gain any power that would hinder their ability to be readily available for social and physical reproduction for the white man’s economic gain. 

Additionally, the enclosure and co-opting of the fruits of black people’s labour led to a massive accumulation of wealth in Europe and the Americas which provided white peoples the capacity to invest in technology and begin the development process and transition from a feudal society to an industrial one. This accumulation of wealth during slavery is what made Europe and the Americas the industrial power houses they are today. The necessary industrial and technological advancements for capitalism to operate was done through the labour and backs of people of colour, and in particular women of colour. Capitalism, and the advancement of the “First World” could not rise in the capacity it had without the institution of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy—these systems are then embedded into one another for their collective and individual survival. For example, James Watts, the innovator of the steam engine, acknowledged and heavily thanked his fellow slave owners in the West Indies for their economic investment and funding into his technological projects. These mechanisms—the accumulation of wealth during slavery and the exploitation of Indigenous communities gave way and paved the path for the Industrial Revolution to take place, and for capitalism to come into existence; which employed a new type of slavery, one that began and ended within the workplace.

The rise and continuation of capitalism and the industrial revolution in the western world produced economic gain for capitalists in unprecedented capacities. At the same time, as abolition politics were fighting against slavery and the continued colonization of Africa, the upkeep—both social and economic—of slaves began to increase while the cost of hiring “consensual” labour from populations who were ready, willing, and able to supply labour was decreasing as unemployment started soaring. This employment scarcity was also in line with the displacement of peoples from their labour through the introduction of machinery and technology. This pushed the wages labourers were willing to accept quite low, to the point where slavery was contradictory to economic prosperity for capitalists and slave owners. This began a shift in thinking of labour away from that of lived slavery to that of slavery that began and ended in the workplace. 

Furthermore, racial hierarchies manufactured and imposed during the time of colonization and the slave trades had to be both restructured in this changing socio-political climate and implemented in various capacities to shift the changing perception of commodified labour from the locale to the global. White supremacist ideals then began to shape hierarchies beyond racial divide, but into the divides of civility and othered, as had been slowly spewing during the times of slavery. Supremacy prescribed upon global structures the understandings of certain locales on the global as uncivilized and deemed worthy for extraction of labour and resources alone. This justified further colonization throughout the word beyond Africa and the initial Americas, into almost every locale in physical existence at the time. The “third word” emerged in this regard to justify the first world’s interventions and deliberate extraction of their physical land, resources, and peoples. Colonial expansion was both then justified by white supremacist ideals that were restructured by the “first world” through markers of civility, and the economic need of western capitalists to continue their prosperity and accumulate further wealth.

Concurrently, women in the third world were further stigmatized and othered in order to extract surplus from their reproductive labour and ability for social care. Capitalist and supremacist ideals necessary for colonial expansion predicated itself on the embedded disengagement of women from formal labour markets; which in itself is a consequence of a system that not only allows but depends on the unpaid social care and reproductive labour of women. This unpaid labour of women in the third world is the foundation through which capitalism is able to assert itself as a tool to accumulate immense capital in the first world and has thus been built into the very logic of social realities. 

Shifts in the process and mentality of western thought happened without regard to the necessities of capitalism for constant restructuring and the need to obtain more, which will always be done through enclosure, entrenchment and commodification of everyday life. While all tools of oppression have a role and play out in the construction of each regime, we can see in this third regime that capitalism fueled by supremacy overtly manifested itself in the way coloniality and patriarchy played out and had been (re)structured.

As countries began to demand independence from the first world in its continuous exploitation and genocide of its populations, colonization began to replace itself with a new form of interference and surveillance—neoliberal development. In this merging of capitalism and colonialist oppression, countries of the south were bounded to the north through structural and institutional dependency both economic and political. This dependency was not as salient as during relations of colonization seen in the preceding regime(s), but latently exhibited through the deliberate manufacturing of colonialist institutions which would situate the south as forever dependant on the north. This included several different mechanisms from structural adjustment programs to the establishment of western hegemonic bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank. 

Coupled with the constant capitalist accumulation that is ever changing in its design, capitalism and white supremacist ideals began to insert themselves as a path for development the south to aspire to. Placing the north as the ultimate result of centuries of progress, the south was placed as a mere object in a race of advancement with the north as the end goal. This justified development missions sanctioned by hegemonic entities to keep up the surveillance, policing and discipline of the south under the guise of aid and advancement. The deliberate ignorance on the part of the north allowed for the maintaining of it’s supremacy by arguing forth that the third word has not the knowledge to dictate its own advancement but needs guidance in forming its “development”; a paradoxical form of aid in which the beneficiaries are not included in its process but as mere recipients of its actions.

These development missions also pursued and furthered the othering of third world women who were distinguished as needing saving from their male counterparts through separate development missions; which in the name of diversity and inclusion served to exclude women from the primary beneficiaries of development: men. Women’s needs and bodies were and are deemed as secondary, enabling the patriarchal development initiatives which further isolate women from progress whether it be through disengagement from development programs, dispossession from formal labour, continued political repression, and/or violence against women from development institutions and practitioners themselves. 

Even without the term of colonized-colonizer which was replaced with independence, the north still has neo-imperial control of the south, whether it is through neoliberal economic policy, wars and political infringement including military bases, or infiltration into the social norms and orders the south should aspire to. The north maintains its distinction and dominance as the oppressor in this new relationship, regardless of whether it follows the titles as traditionally prescribed by colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

This mapping attends to the way oppression has unfolded throughout history, and how it has been legitimized by and through different relations of power. Through a postcolonial and transnational intersectionality frame, this mapping does not serve to explain what oppression is so much as to attend to how it has been manufactured, and why it exists in the capacity it does today. The specificity of the technologies of oppression—referring to the capacities in which oppression manifests in different structures, such as technology, education, legal infrastructure, etc can now be analyzed by and through the systems and tools that prescribe it legitimacy. 

We currently live in a colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy which has been “relationally solidified” (Christian & Namaganda, 2018) through and by the social-political-economic fabrics of individual regimes which have differed, deepened, and extended upon the foundations of their preceding regime(s). Our current regime, the fourth as I have posited, has built upon the structures, institutions, and technologies structured in the preceding three regimes, but has been restructured and manifested within different capacities to both define and refine specific power and surveillance relations. As we can see, each individual system has a flow, a woven string that connects and builds off of the imprints of the last. The connectivity of these four systems—colonialism, supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy—is such that through their individual flows, they begin to embed one in another into their backbones. Each system depends on the others for survival and their institution. We can never dismantle one system of oppression without demanding the restructuring of the others.

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