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Capitalism on Violent Frontiers
The frontier is different.
The rules of the frontier are different.
The United States started as a frontier and had an economically relevant frontier until the end of the nineteenth century.
Latin American countries all started as frontiers. They still have frontiers today.
Southeast Asia’s forests have historically been frontiers. So have their mountains. Southeast Asia has a lot of forested mountains.
Frontiers are violent.
The causes of the violence change the rules of capitalism.
The violence itself changes the rules of capitalism.
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Frontiers are actually integral to capitalism.
Ecological Marxists such as David Harvey, Stephen Bunker and Jason Moore correctly argue that capitalism routinely “uses up” its space and needs to expand into new territories in order to survive. Societies depend on both food to feed their people and raw materials with which to make what they need. (Jason Moore has a long and highly sophisticated breakdown of exactly what raw materials are needed.) The Green Marxists argue that both food and raw materials have to be extracted from nature.
Unfortunately, the natural endowments of any one place can become exhausted. Land if it is over-farmed dries up. Land becomes infertile and underproductive over time, even if that process is slowed down by chemical fertilization. Mines get mined out. Forests get cut down. Fishing stocks get fished out.
At some point, economic producers need new land. They need new territory that is fresh, unused and full of original resources. As a result, capitalism economically expands. Sometimes, that expansion is very local. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe, people drained nearby swamps or cut down nearby forests. They used this new land for farms and mines. Ultimately however, the stock of close and convenient land became exhausted. Europe expanded westward to the New World, and to a lesser extent, southward to Africa. Russia expanded eastward to the Pacific coast. China expanded westward and southward. Its citizens, expanded into Southeast Asia – often without the blessings of their home regime.
What changes when production moves to a frontier area?
The headline story is that frontiers tend to be violent places. Successful capitalist development by invading outsiders requires proficiency in violence just as much as it requires proficiency in economic activity. There is no separation between capital and coercion. A successful entrepreneur needs to have not only financial resources; he must have paramilitary or diplomatic resources as well.
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The Distinctive Properties of Frontier Capitalism
1. The land for settler economic activity needs to be expropriated from local residents. Land may not be scarce on the frontier. There may be room for everyone to function. However, when the intruders come, they will be using some space that was previously space used by indigenous people. That land gets taken away … possibly by amicable means. Possibly not.
2. On the frontier controlling labor is as important or more important than controlling land. Labor is scarce because of the low population density of frontier areas. Labor on frontiers however, serves a dual purpose as both a factor of production and a factor of coercion. One needs to have manpower in order to physically protect one’s enterprise from external threats. Your men are your workers. Your men are also your soldiers. Recruiting and retaining a large supply of worker/soldiers is critical. It is also not easy.
During the late phases of frontier development, land may become a scarce factor of production as well. This applies after substantial frontier development has already taken place and the land is beginning to fill up. It also applies if a particular location is associated with a rare resource such as a mine or a gas deposit. However, in the early going, land and space are plentiful. People are not.
The control of labor is complicated by the presence of vast amounts of surrounding un-capitalist space. If one doesn’t like one’s employer or one doesn’t like one’s ruler, one can flee. It is easy to live and maintain yourself in the sparsely populated interstices of a wilderness area. Slave revolts can lead to slave escapes. Unhappy workers just disappear.
As a result, employers on frontiers often make use of coerced or semi-coerced labor.
Mining companies run company stores to keep workers in debt peonage. Out and out slavery was not uncommon in pre-industrial Southeast Asia. Workers are brought into worksites by labor recruiters who pay the workers’ passage but force them to remain working until they pay off their transportation costs. Fraud and arbitrary charges would keep the workers working beyond their expected times.
Such tactics are counter-balanced by the strategic capacity of workers to flee. Managers need to take measures to prevent such flights from happening. Recruiting urbanites or peasants who don’t have the skills to survive in the wilderness is one approach. Using extreme physical punishment to deter escape is another.
A more common approach is to use vice. The employer provides alcohol. The employer provides opium. The employer provides prostitutes. The employer provides gambling. The goal is to make the camp a sufficiently attractive place that the workers involved don’t want to leave. If the alcohol, opium, prostitutes and gambling generate debts that tie down the worker, so much the better.
3. State control of frontier areas is weak. Frontier areas are geographically far from centers of power. Michael Mann in his historical examination of the basis of government power noted that a critical factor limiting the role of the state are limits on the capacity of armies to travel. Until the development of the automobile, most armies on land could only move ten miles a day. There were heroic incidents of generals who were great logistical masterminds. These logistical masterminds on occasion could move their ground forces forty miles a day. This required flat terrain, no rivers to cross and soldiers whom one could afford to push to exhaustion. At the more typical rate of ten miles a day, it would take an imperial army a long, long time to get to a frontier.
This means that frontier areas were visited very rarely by the forces of central government.
The problems of distance are compounded by the problems of rough terrain. Imperial cities tend to be located in fertile lowlands. They support themselves with the agricultural output from those fertile low lands. The land is flat, facilitating land transportation. Rivers or a coastline permit water transportation.
The frontier is mountainous and forested. Transportation is much more difficult in peripheral areas than it is in the core. Mountains and forest not only slow down imperial armies; they facilitate guerilla resistance from the locals. The locals melt away into difficult terrain that they understand but the invaders do not. If the invaders wish to attack, they must often attack uphill where the defenders have the advantage of height and position. This makes imperial control of the frontier tenuous.
State control is also weakened by the proximity of other rival states. Frontier areas are often at the interstices between two or more larger powers. This gives local residents diplomatic options. They can seek assistance from Imperial Power 2 to protect themselves from Imperial Power 1. In Southeast Asia, locals negotiated autonomy by playing the British off against the Dutch or the Siamese against the Burmese. Unfortunately, diplomatic ploys did not always work. Sometimes the imperial forces just invaded anyway. If the imperial forces invaded anyway, this was very bad news for the locals.
Michael Mann observes that when empires have to make long and difficult expeditions to quell disobedience at the edges of their territories, those expeditions are accompanied by dramatic violence. Spectacular torture and mass executions of the cruelest kinds are used to remind the population of what would happen if a second trip to the frontier were to be needed. The Romans were known for large scale crucifixions. Crucifixions are a slow and inefficient way of killing people. They are, however, extraordinarily painful. The Thais and the Malays had their own gruesome methods of punishing rebels. I will leave these to the researches and the imagination of the reader.
The spectacular violence associated with states suppressing peripheral regions encouraged a culture of violence among the remaining residents. If the arrival of Imperial Forces could mean a fate worse than death, local residents prepared themselves militarily to fend off such an eventuality. Larger cruelties by mega-forces could promote smaller cruelties by locals.
4. Piracy and brigandage were the rule rather than the exception. As tough as the Imperial armies tried to be, the reality was that once the invading forces left, local populations were left to do as they pleased.
This was not always good news for the local population.
If the local populations could do as they pleased, so could the pirates and brigands who preyed on the local population.
The jungle returned to the law of the jungle.
The violence of the Emperor was replaced by the violence of thieves.
The absence of state control meant a general absence of policing of any kind.
The Straits of Malacca have long been a haven for pirates – a problem still exists in the present day. Modern Singapore maintains a navy for a reason. Pirates roamed the coast on both sides of the straits. Before the late nineteenth century pacification of piracy, individual cottagers and fishers kept their residences at least a quarter of a mile off the beach. This was to forestall midnight raids from the water. The cottagers and fishers had barely enough possessions to be worth stealing. However, since labor was scarce, the cottagers and fishers themselves were fair game. Slavery was widespread in pre-twentieth century Southeast Asia. Men were sold into forced labor; women were sold as sexual chattel. (This historical tradition of raiding and sexual slavery is the origin of sex trafficking in contemporary Southeast Asia.)
Inland areas had their own dangers. It was common in frontier areas of both Europe and Southeast Asia for local authorities or local residents to act as “transportation trolls”. Blockades would be set up on rivers or at mountain passes to intercept travelers passing through. Travelers were either charged fixed tolls (which ran towards the expensive), or had to donate a percentage of the goods in their possession. The cost of not paying was being attacked. Travelers were also attacked by brigands who were not running toll stations. It was just as easy to be taken into slavery by mountain bandits as it was by coastal pirates.
5. Mortality Rates Are High Due to Natural Predation. Labor scarcity is exacerbated by high mortality rates. Frontiers have predators.
Some predators are microscopic. Tropical forests have insects that carry lethal diseases.
Some predators are large. Forests have carnivores. Miners in nineteenth century Malaysia and Thailand were regularly picked off by tigers. It is estimated that over 1500 people died a year from tiger attacks in India, Nepal and Southeast Asia between 1800 and 2009. Elephant attacks on humans are a continuing issue in remote parts of Nepal. France, which was heavily forested throughout much of its early history had over 7500 cases of deaths from wolf attacks between 1362 and 1918.
The presence of large natural predators mean that frontier residents need to possess weapons and they need to know how to use them. They may need to use larger and more deadly weapons than they would otherwise use for hunting or to obtain meat. The frontier is universally armed. That means, when conflicts occur, they are very likely to be murderous.
6. Transportation difficulties require products to have high value relative to their weight. Traffic in high-value low-weight products encourages crime. Forestry is an exception to the present generalization. If one is going to the frontier to chop down trees, logs are products of intermediate value. Otherwise, products created on the frontier need to be highly valuable to justify working in such remote locations. In the early nineteenth century, the primary product on both the Canadian and Northern United States frontiers was fur. This was the primary business of both the Hudson Bay Trading Company and John Jacob Astor. In Thailand, the earliest jungle products were jewels or exotic forest materials used in Chinese medicine. In the nineteenth century, in both Thailand and Malaysia, the primary jungle product was tin. Tin would generate constant civil wars and riots among the miners. The issue was less one of raiding shipments of tin as they passed, but of seizing land that could be used for tin mining in the first place. The high value of a tin mine encouraged settling questions of mining rights with force. In the late nineteenth century, the great jungle product, big both in the Brazilian Amazon and in Malaya was rubber. Rubber was bulkier, harder to transport and of lower value than tin. It did not generate the same level of crime and social conflict as did tin.
7. The population of frontiers is comprised of young unattached males. Men are macho. They like to drink. They like to fight. Reputation matters to men. Honor matters to men. Conflicts are likely to be resolved with physical force.
The gender imbalance among frontier invaders promotes violence in other ways too. The relative absence of women also means the relative absence of family units. The relative absence of family units means the relative absence of children. One of the major forces working to mitigate social violence is mothers attempting to protect their own children from harm. As frontiers develop, more women migrate into town, family units get created, the initial miners or plantation workers age, and the settlement evolves into a normal rural village. Schools get built. Religious structures get built. Social order reasserts itself. But the all-male structures of the early periods lack the wives, children and routine social institutions that produce social order. Early frontier towns are driven by testosterone.
One consequence of the “fraternity house” composition of frontier towns is that these towns are dominated by vice. Thai and Malayan mining towns had widespread consumption of opium, widespread consumption of alcohol, widespread gambling and endemic prostitution. In the Southeast Asian case, the vice industries were all run by the mine owners. In Malaya, the receipts from the vice industries were the primary source of revenue for the Straits and Federated Malay colonies. The British granted annual licenses to sell opium, alcohol and run gambling parlors; these were granted to mine owners on the basis of competitive auctions that were repeated every year. Widespread public drunkenness and intoxication did not do much to alleviate any social tensions that developed. The prostitutes themselves were probably tough women in their own right, and not exactly angels of moderation or pacifism.
In Malaysia and Thailand, the jungle tin miners were Chinese immigrants. Most were young males. Many were brought in by labor recruiters explicitly to work in the mines. The customary arrangement would be for the miner to “work off” the expenses of his passage and then keep the proceed from any further mining he did after that. However, a substantial proportion of miners were members of Chinese secret societies. The secret societies had previously organized political rebellions in China and lost. Their members were literally fleeing to Malaya. They arrived in the Thai or Malaysian jungles as highly trained members of combat organizations with experience in political struggle. These were not exactly gentle souls.
Secret societies came to be responsible for a large number of riots against colonial authorities or the mining authorities, a large number of raids on mines controlled by rival groups and a large number of ordinary melees as one secret society fought another. The secret societies defended their members from underpayment by mine owners, violently resisted price hikes in the supply of food or opium, and fought off colonial regulation of their ritual activities. They were also fighting other societies for control of lucrative tin locations. They fought for the honor and reputation that would come from beating the pulp out of a rival gang. Some of the violence on the Southeast Asian frontier was akin to English football hooliganism – brawls between supporters of opposing clubs.
The Chinese secret society experience was not that atypical. In Brazil, some residents of the frontier were escaped slaves who had fought in slave rebellions. Some of the men who migrated to the American or Canadian frontiers were criminals, who were dodging the law. Some may have been members of criminal gangs back in the city. The men who came out to the frontier were not only guys; they were tough guys. Many of them had experiencing brawling and fighting back home.
The violence in nineteenth century Malaya was particularly well orchestrated. But frontier towns are good locations for a general all-purpose rumble. Miners, cowboys and lumbermen all love to fight. Sometimes they fight over real issues. Sometimes they fight just to win.
8. Frontier Capitalists Support and Promote Such Violence Because They Need a Fighting Force to Protect Their Enterprises. Institutional economists traditionally argue that economic development requires a stable environment with guarantees of property rights and confidence that contracts will be honored. Guarantees of the personal safety of owners, managers and workers are desirable as well. Under normal conditions, property rights, contracts and personal safety are enforced by the state. In a frontier setting, the absence of the state means there are no guarantee of any of these. The owner has to take the protection of his enterprise and often his own life into his own hands.
We have discussed the non-trivial problem of wild animals. However, the larger and more pressing concern are pirates and brigands. There is constant risk of raids on the productive facilities themselves and equal risk of raids on the product as it is being brought to market.
Of course, there is no rule that says that force only has to be used for defense. Just as one has to defend oneself against raids and violence from rival enterprises, one can use one’s own raids and violence to take assets away from rival enterprises. Malaysian mine operators frequently organized assaults on rival companies for the precise purpose of adding to the number of tin mines that they controlled.
Paramilitary force is also used to defend companies against claims of local populations the enterprise has displaced. The land on which plantations or mines are located was not necessarily empty. Local residents lived on that land and used that land. Those residents do not always acquiesce passively to displacement. They may also not acquiesce to having their water sullied nor to the forest resources they use being destroyed. If frontier development is also associated with forced labor or an increase in sexual trafficking, it becomes an even greater motivation for armed resistance.
The owners may be using force to take these resources away from the locals. The owners may be using force to fend off local residents taking back what was once theirs.
Such struggles are the basis of the long series of frontier wars that have characterized twentieth century Colombian history. The Indian wars of the United States and Canada also follow this pattern.
Force is also used to protect the enterprise against the incursion of the state. The company workers are often enthusiastic supporters of these battles. Governments want to collect taxes from frontier companies. No taxes means more money for management and worker alike. In colonial settings, frontier fighting groups represent the potential nucleus of armies of national liberation. Any kind of grievance concerning colonial governance can be the basis of riots and protest – often with the enthusiastic support of the owners.
9. Violence leads to the formation of teams, which increases the saliency of ethnic and other origins-based ties. It is neither safe nor wise to be a loner in a combat zone. Safety comes in numbers. Safety comes in arrangements for mutual defense. Prosperity comes in arrangements for mutual offense. All of this increases the need for creating tight teams with mutual solidarity. When few people around you can be trusted, you need to surround yourself with people you really can trust.
The most natural unit for mutual defense is that of the clan or family. Indigenous people on frontiers have access to family ties. Invading entrepreneurs and workers do not. They are migrants coming from elsewhere – generally without women. There may be some fathers and sons or some brothers among them. But generally, family ties are attenuated among frontier settlers.
Frontiersmen have to fall back on the next-best basis of social solidarity – ethnicity or common place of origin. Ethnicity serves two parallel functions on the frontier. The first is that it is a marker for those who can be trusted. Ethnic groups have common norms, Ethnic groups have ethnic associations, with leaders, rules and systems for the enforcement of those rules. Ethnic groups have common ideals and common ways of seeing the world. They are more likely to instinctively agree with each other. If they disagree with each other, they have internal institutions that allow for the peaceful adjudication of those grievances. They can make commitments to each other that will be honored.
Ethnicity also defines who is a socially acceptable victim. When settlers make contact with indigenous people, defining the indigenes as “savages” or “barbarians” makes it easier to justify taking their land or resources. Defining them as “heathens” removes them from the protection that would normally be extended to people who share one’s religion or moral codes. Among competing groups of settlers, ethnic identity marks who is “raid-worthy” using justifications of everything that is wrong with the group in question.
Ethnicity was massively important in the Thai and Malaysian jungles. Most of the miners were Chinese – which distinguished them from both Malays and from colonial powers. Within the Chinese, there was absolute segmentation based on province of origin. There were multiple violent conflicts between groups from different regions.
10. Linguistic diversity further exacerbates conflict. Frontier areas are veritable Towers of Babel. Multiple linguistic groups interact in the same space – creating multiple opportunities for miscommunication.
The indigenous people often speak a wide variety of languages. Transportation difficulties inhibit the kind of long-distance communication that would lead to standardization of language patterns. As a result, it is not uncommon for every micro-area to have its own dialect.
The settlers come from multiple locations. Each of these locations has its own language. If there are colonial rulers or a central state, that larger power may have its own urban language. If the frontier area is between rival states, intruders may come from either state, speaking either language.
Living on the Texas frontier in the mid-nineteenth century required the ability to speak English, Spanish, Kickapoo and Comanche.
A tin entrepreneur in Malaysia would have been exposed to multiple regional dialects of Chinese, as well as Malay, and English. There would have been the occasional need for Dutch, Siamese, and East Indian languages as well.
Linguistic barriers almost certainly increased the frequency of accidental miscommunications. Linguistic barriers would have led to mutual misunderstandings. Oral agreements would seem to be violated if both parties left the negotiations with different understandings of what had been agreed to. Negotiators could insist on impossible demands if they could not understand why what they were asking for was intrinsically unreasonable.
Linguistic barriers also aggravated the tendency for people to divide among ethnic or regional-origin lines. It was hard to speak to or deal with people from other ethnic groups. Social interaction was only easy if such interaction was with someone who already spoke a language you understood.
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Frontier development is development predicated on violence. That violence is based on
a. The need to alienate land that is occupied by indigenous people
b. The need to control labor when labor is a very scarce factor of production
c. The absence of an effective state implying the absence of effective policing
d. Widespread piracy and brigandage because of this absence of effective policing
e. The bearing of arms being a practical necessity given the presence of animal predators.
f. Transportation difficulties creating trolls at strategic points of passage demanding their share of travelers’ goods.
g. Products being of high value relative to their weight creating incentives for banditry.
h. Frontier populations being disproportionately comprised of young single men – with traditional male tastes for macho, fighting, drunkenness and vice.
i. Frontier capitalists having to maintain defensive forces to cover for the previous dangers. Forces that can defend are also forces that can attack.
j. Ethnic differences becoming increasingly salient as a basis for social organization with a concomitant increase in ethnic rivalry
k. Linguistic diversity further dividing populations and leading to conflicts stemming from verbal misunderstandings.
All of this would just be a footnote in economic history – except that frontier development is an intrinsic and fundamental feature of global capitalism. Global capitalism survives by expansion. Expansion means endless incorporation of new frontiers into international markets.
Frontiers are not exceptions. They are the rule.
And frontiers have few rules.
For More Information
On expanding frontiers of production theory, see Bunker, Stephen. 1988. Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange and the Failure of the Modern State. Chicago, Jason Moore and Rev Patel. 2018. History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. California, and the back sections of David Harvey’s 1982 Limits to Capital. Verso.
The best general discussion of frontier settlements that is particularly strong on migratory and gender composition issues is Rex Lucas 1971. Minetown, Milltown, Railtown: Life in Canadian Communities of Single Industry. Toronto.
My analyses of the microdynamics of jungle settlements in Malaysia and Thailand are drawn from Ken, Wong Lin. 1965. Malayan Tin Industry to 1914. Arizona, Mackay, Colin Robert. 2013. History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region. White Lotus, and Wilfred Blythe. 1969. Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya. Oxford.
On labor scarcity in the Malayan jungle, see T. E. Smith. 1952. Population Growth in Malaya: Analysis of Recent Trends. Royal Institute of International Affairs.
My analyses of the Texas frontier come from Douglas Swanson’s 2021. Cult of Glory: Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers. Penguin.
On the mobility limits of traditional non-motorized armies, see Michael Mann’s 1986. Sources of Social Power. Volume I. Cambridge.
On elephant attacks on humans, see Ram et. al.’s article in the 2021 Ecology and Evolution “Patterns and Determinants of Elephant Attacks in Nepal”.
On tiger attacks see Nyhus, P. J.; Dufraine, C. E.; Ambrogi, M. C.; Hart, S. E.; Carroll, C.; Tilson, R. (2010). "Human–tiger conflict over time". In Tilson, R.; Nyhus, P. J. (eds.). Tigers of the world: The science, politics, and conservation of Panthera tigris (2nd ed.). Burlington, Massachusetts: Academic Press. pp. 132–135.
On wolf attacks, see Jean-Marc Moriceau’s book in French, On the Trail of the Wolf: a Tour of France and a Historical and Cultural Atlas of the Wolf from the Middle Ages to Modern Times. (Montbel, 2013).
The claim that ethnic groups are defined to justify the maltreatment of the weaker group is of course a fundamental tenet of critical race theory.