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Uncommon Wealth – review

Kojo Koram’s book cuts through tabloid headlines to examine the material legacy of colonialism: extreme wealth for an elite few; poverty for the rest. By Leah Cowan

5 to 6 minute read

Book cover image of Uncommon Wealth shows a lion roaring

Title: Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire

Author: Kojo Koram

Publisher: Hachette

Year: 2022

Statues, flags and street names. Given the recurrent topics and tenor of discussions about the British empire in tabloid headlines and parliamentary polemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are the sole focal points of British decolonial resistance in the 21st century.

Uncommon Wealth pushes back against the mission drift of popular debate, repositioning our viewfinder squarely on the material legacy of colonisation: extreme wealth for an elite few and poverty for many.

Author Kojo Koram, a lecturer with a background in social welfare law and youth work, grounds this well-researched chronicle of colonial wealth accumulation in his own experiences returning to Ghana for long summer holidays.

As a child he observed the narrative slippage in Britain’s re-telling of its murky history; at school he would learn about how Britain had ‘organically created the ideal political, economic and legal systems for wealth and stability’, while his time in Ghana subverted this singular story.

The reality, of course, is somewhat shadier than is portrayed in school textbooks. Uncommon Wealth outlines how Britain’s methods of colonial extraction laid the groundwork for corporatisation, offshore tax havens and state reliance on outsourcing in the present day.

Beyond ‘culture wars’

The author’s analysis of these sustained acts of economic violence contributes to the expansion of decolonial debate away from the realm of ‘culture wars’ and into a pragmatic examination of how the financial models of empire have continued to preserve structures of severe inequality. We learn that the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition, spurred on by revolts and rebellions, dovetails with the current goings-on of global financial centres.

For example, Koram explains that the existence of a ‘non-domiciled’ status, which enables people residing in the UK to dodge tax on their assets in other countries, was created as part of Britain’s imperial maneuverings, enabling businesses and landowners with assets in the colonies to reside in the UK while shirking tax on their overseas money-making schemes.

The ‘non-dom’ status came in useful for wealthy Brits who couldn’t handle the tropical heat and were cut down by malaria and unfamiliar pathogens; tax-dodging workarounds meant they could skulk in the clammy northern hemisphere while their bank balances were boosted from afar.

The transatlantic slave trade and its abolition dovetails with the current goings-on of global financial centres

The ‘outsourced state’ is a familiar topic in the same national news outlets that pontificate about statues and flags. ‘Outsourcing’ has become part of our popular lexicon; it is almost synonymous with cornercutting and a job done badly for the cheapest price.

It shows up across sectors and industries, from the UK’s immigration detention estate, where companies like Serco and G4S serve up abysmal conditions for people incarcerated indefinitely, to the government’s bungled attempt at a ‘test and trace’ system during the Covid-19 pandemic (in which Serco and G4S were also key beneficiaries).

The history under-girding what Koram describes as a ‘British instinctive reliance on the private sector to do the job of government’ brings us back to empire and the role of the state. Throughout Uncommon Wealth we discover a ‘conveyor belt of companies’ and ‘private profiteering’ that was a locomotive for imperial exploits, and still provides the bedrock of state operations today.

Smoke and mirrors

The book is successful in confirming that decolonisation is not an ‘outlier issue’, confined to the ivory tower of academia. The dismissal of decolonisation as something non-urgent, and unrelated to material concerns in the here and now is roundly rebutted.

That decolonisation is, as Koram notes, often downplayed as an issue championed by students with too much time on their hands is a narrative strategy that seeks to draw an equivalence in the collective imagination between talking about decolonisation and going on a bender in freshers’ week and stealing a traffic cone.

This is a willful use of smoke and mirrors, the author suggests. The current state of widespread poverty and economic instability after almost a decade of public funding cuts connects directly to the economic revolution and explosion of private debt in the 1980s, which links back to heavyweight debt placed on the global south in the same era as part of a huge worldwide economic restructure, as a means of beating back the waves of independence movements.

The fabrication of ‘debt’ owed by countries in the global south in this era helped build an idea in the collective imagination of countries that were hamstrung by the IMF and World Bank as inherently corrupt, irresponsible children with poor money-management skills.

The propaganda and PR spin around Live Aid and Oxfam ossified this story, pointing the finger of blame at ‘random’ natural disasters, with structural analysis of climate change absent from the scene.

Koram demonstrates that ‘all of us are bound up in and impacted by the aftermath of empire in our own ways’

The other group often associated with discussions about decolonisation is historians, the inference being that decolonisation is a niche incident of the past, which affected a distinct group of people in a defined time and place. Uncommon Wealth demonstrates, definitively, that ‘all of us are bound up in and impacted by the aftermath of empire in our own ways’.

Looking back on the emergence and development of empire and its fallout provides valuable lessons for today. The history of empire is one that flows forward into the present, where we have experienced (as the author notes) how national debt prefigures the emergence of waves of fascism.

The response to the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ (actually a crisis of humanitarian inaction) that peaked around 2015 led directly out of the Europe-wide austerity agenda following the 2008 financial crash. The scapegoating of migrant communities as a cover for the government’s hollowing-out of public services – the suggestion of a ‘scarcity’ of housing, health care and jobs due to people arriving on Europe’s shores – was a re-treading of narratives used by fascist regimes throughout history to justify their violence.

Pacey and absorbing

While Uncommon Wealth is thick with facts, figures, and case studies, it is a pacey and absorbing read, leaping through big chunks of history without getting bogged down in jargon – no mean feat in a book about the purposely impenetrable world of private profit and finance.

Koram’s work is welcoming and knowledgeable, threaded through with an appropriate degree of flair and wit (early on, the British state’s colonial history is described perfectly as ‘messy drama’).

The author writes that ‘[racism] is about how ideas and institutions reproduce power and it won’t go away if we just promise to never mention it’.

His book provides a vital tool for those committed to a politics of decolonisation, by presenting wealth inequality as fundamental to the living, breathing legacy of empire, and in turn providing a critical target for those working to build instead a world premised upon economic justice.

This article first appeared in Issue #235 Educate, Agitate, Organise! Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Leah Cowan is the author of Border Nation: A Story of Migration (Pluto Press, 2020)

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