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Of Human Bondage | The Nation

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Of Human Bondage

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Dubois's books appear at a quite different moment from James's classic. Whereas The Black Jacobins heralded the dawn of anticolonialism, Dubois's studies appear at a time when the false romance and real misery of empire are being rediscovered in Baghdad and, once again, in Port-au-Prince. In Iraq the Anglo-American coalition unleashed further havoc by dismantling the Iraqi Army. In Haiti the occupying forces of the Organization of American States are contending with the legacy of a previous US occupation, nearly a decade ago, that restored Aristide without an army, and on condition that he impose an austerity package. At the time of an earlier US occupation a Haitian critic noted the failure to let the country's people learn their own lessons, quoting the local saying: Tambour prêté pas fait bon danse ("The borrowed drum doesn't make a good dance").

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Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

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In earlier times the Haitian people were both protected and burdened by an army that barred the way to conquest and recolonization. Napoleon instructed Leclerc to remove every "colored person...who has worn an epaulette." The people of Haiti needed to be able to defend their newly won liberty in a still hostile environment, but the new republic struggled to meet the cost of a standing army and of foreign loans. The army might have done more to earn its keep if it had restricted the overworking of the land, prevented the destruction of forests and rehabilitated the irrigation system, established by French military engineers, which had boosted the fertility of colonial Saint Domingue. Haiti's misfortune was to have a state and mercantile elite that was strong enough to exploit the small farmers but too ineffective to develop the country. The indigenous elite has presided over the country's immiseration along with foreign powers.

Dubois suggests that the soul of Haiti is found in a religious ceremony, not in a declaration of independence, a Constitution or a Panthéon. The spirit of the revolution lives on in the people but not yet--despite the efforts of such reformist leaders as Anténor Firmin, Jean Price-Mars or Aristide--in the formal trappings of the state. Though Haiti is dirt poor, its people are not defined by employment and consumption. In Haiti the legacy of the descendants of slaves and rebels comprises echoes of both a precapitalist past and of a mighty refusal of the first global experiment in labor-intensive outsourcing. Those who have seen Jonathan Demme's tremendous movie The Agronomist, will know that Haiti still produces men and women of extraordinary courage, tenacity and spirit, true heirs of those who established the first American state to end slavery.

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