Muriam Haleh Davis’s new book Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism in Algeria explores the colonial roots of Algeria’s transition into a modern capitalist economy. But it is more than that; it is a critical examination of how race and racialisation by French authorities formed the development of the North African country. Throughout the last 2 centuries, a triumphalist narrative has been told to us about the development of capitalism in Europe, which converted a backwater into a modern, rational, scientific and rich part of the world. Other parts of the world were held back from progress but, if they adopt the same model, they too can be great. However, this is the story of capitalism that not only excludes the voices of the average worker in the West, it also ignores how the development of capitalism in the West was made possible by exploitation of non-Western peoples. Analysing how capitalism impacted non-Europeans, political scientist, Cedric J. Robinson, coined the theory of racial capitalism, which argued that since capitalism is about accumulation (of goods and services) it must rely on exploiting inequalities among human groups and assign different values to them. Capitalism arose in 17th century Europe during slavery, war and imperialism. Its DNA is linked to i, and, thus, all forms of capitalism are racial.
Since Robinson wrote his thesis in the 1980s, a wealth of scholarship has appeared around the concept of racial capitalism. Muriam Haleh Davis builds out of this scholarship and turns her attention to the French rule of Algeria. She argues that skin colour was not the only way Europeans differentiated groups and placed them into racial categories, the French came to see Islam as not merely a religion but a racial category of its own. “The French state progressively occupied Algerian territory over the course of the nineteenth century, establishing a system of rule in which religion represented a set of origins and imagined bloodlines that structured access to property, citizenship, and livelihood.” In other words, through policy, law and control of institutions, the French racialised Islam and made it into an ethnic category. Conceptualising Islam this way enabled the French to not only deny Muslim Algerians equal citizenship, but also enabled them to think about all economic theory and practise in terms of religious difference. Europeans, in the French imagination, were individualistic, rational and able to act in the self-interests of the market; Muslims were fatalistic, anti-rational and ill-disciplined. Although widely debated, Muslims were seen as unable to run a modern economy without the Europeans.
As soon as the French took control over Algeria in the 19th century, they “wasted little time in introducing economic measures that dispossessed Algerian natives”. Following on from the Ottoman policy that unused land could be placed into the public dominion, the French not only seized all such lands, but also seized properties not under the control of religious trusts. Paris justified this by claiming the land was going to waste and not being used to full potential, as Muslims lacked the aptitude to utilise it. “It was not uncommon for colonial officials and settlers to describe Arabs as ignorant, lazy or fanatical.” French officials went further than this and constructed a racial hierarchy, “Writing in 1847, the director of the Ministry of Arab Affairs, Eugene Daumas, and his colleague, Paul Fabar, claimed it was possible to distinguish between Arab and Kabyle [Berber people] physiognomy through facial shapes as well as through eyes and skin colour. They concluded that physical traits corresponded to certain moral tendencies and argued that Arabs were essentially lazy and repulsed by labour.”
Muriam Haleh Davis’s book provides a detailed analysis of how racialisation of Islam and the creation of racial hierarchies in Algeria shaped the country’s transition into modern capitalism. Dispossession, exploitation and racist assumptions made about Arab and Muslims societies is something we still do not fully understand or appreciate today. While the French Empire ended 60 years ago, its legacy remains unburied and we can still see the impact of it today in Algeria and elsewhere. Markets of Civilization is a much needed scholarly intervention into the connections between race, capital and economics, and enables us to think about racial capitalism outside of, but very much connected to, a Euro-American framework. An essential read for anyone interested in the story of capitalism as others experienced it.