Article // Why We Must Decolonise the Economy

In October 2019, Guppi wrote a FIRE article on why we must decolonise economics for the New Economics Foundation zine.

This is a crosspost, you can read the full zine here.


We are sold many myths about the economy which we accept as truths: that the economy is something objective, that only the experts can understand it, and that economic and social inequality are separate problems with separate causes. But when we look at the etymology of the word ‘economy’ this picture changes. ‘Eco’  means ‘home’ and ‘nomy’ means ‘management’. So ‘economy’ can simply be expressed as ‘the way that society (that’s you and I folks!) decides how to manage its resources’. 

As a racial justice activist, thinking about the economy in this way this tells me that: 

a) The economy is the result of political decisions created by those with social capital and power;

b) The economy is a driver of inequality that impacts marginalised communities in many ways, such as the £3.2 billion racial pay gap;

c) Political education is essential for any movement wanting to change the rules of the economy, and really attend to their roots through the solutions we build. 

These three lessons are the central message in workshops I deliver with my partner-in-crime, Nonhlanhla Makuyana, on Decolonising Economics. Because we are both absolute geeks, the work we enjoy the most is digging into our colonial pasts to create more meaningful stories for the facts and figures behind today’s interrelated inequalities. That’s what decolonising economics is about: it unearths the colonial roots of our current economic system, and interrogates the power systems at play within our economic and social policy ideas. A central building block of the neoliberal capitalist system that we live in today is white supremacy, its foundation laid by centuries of colonialism. 

Critical race scholar Frances Lee Ansley says that white supremacy is not only “the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups” but “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”  We have to understand how white supremacy and colonialism helped shape all parts of our economy: from wealth distribution, to financial instruments and the narratives we hold around marginalised communities. 

Looking back to move forwards

We find a starting point to unearth the roots of racial inequality in the economy  in the 19th century. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1833, the government pledged £20 million to reimburse slave owners for their loss of income. This bailout, known as the Slave Compensation Scheme, made up 40% of government expenditure in 1834, and enabled 46,000 individuals who profited from slave-owning to maintain their wealth, social status and political influence. The Slave Compensation Scheme was the second largest public bailout in British history (after the 2009 bank bailout) and was only paid off by the Treasury in 2018. 

Despite the huge compensation for slave owners, the British government has actively dismissed calls for reparations for those who were kidnapped, enslaved, indentured or continued to live in Britain without rights or freedoms. The white supremacist culture means that the concerns of people of colour are dismissed, which creates not only the  racial wealth gap, but other injustices like those impacting the Windrush Generation and residents of Grenfell Tower

Looking back to the colonial era again, the history of our European banking system, including our contemporary financial instruments, developed as a direct response to the expansion of plantations and the trading system that came with it. Financing this profit-driven system were some well known highstreet banks such as Lloyds and Barclays.  They underwrote the expeditions of the 16th and 17th Century which would bring back a ‘cargo’ of enslaved African people. Insurance ensured shareholders of private companies profited above all else, even human life. Even after slavery was made illegal, the system of insurance continued to peddle racial stereotypes, that meant even within the process of insurance provision, Black people were charged higher premiums. These racialised practices persist in today’s insurance industry. 

At the forefront of Britain’s colonial expansion were private, profit-making bodies like the Royal African Company and the East India Company who were often conferred by Royal Charter (a fancy way of saying that their violent practices were sanctioned by the British state). These companies heavily influenced the development of the financial systems around them in order to compete economically with their other European counterparts. Early capitalism was driven by the goal of accumulating wealth, and this logic flowed into the financial practices that developed from it such as speculation, shares, and derivatives.  The racist justifications for the capture of indigenous land and exploitation of Black and indigenous communities  were used to support actions which enabled these companies to flourish.  

During the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent years of austerity, BAME communities continued to be the most impacted by  cuts to public spending.  Structural inequality today is rooted in colonial legacy, and across all social indicators people of colour show up worse than their white counterparts. The financial and insurance systems evolved out of colonial projects which exploited Black and indigenous people across the globe. Why would we assume that these systems would support people of colour today? 

Challenging all those norms 

Black feminist writer Adrienne Maree Brown says: “Colonialism stole our capacity to imagine a different future by determining our past for us” If the rules for how we programme the economy originated in systems and techniques that emerged during colonialism, this means we need to understand colonial history if we want to  rewrite the rules for a new economy that centres racial justice.

But decolonising economics must take us further than thinking about race alone.

The intersection of oppressed identies that are controlled in neoliberal capitalism are given a framework through what bell hooks calls ‘the capitalist white supremacist imperialist patriarchy’. Like many Black feminists before and after, she recognises how the entanglement of white, male, global north superiority, and the pursuit of individual property and profit, is a driver of multiple structural inequalities. 

During the development of capitalism, Europeans categorised all bodies according to whether they were the beneficiaries of or the tools for profit. This is how our society became laden with binaries, dividing people into Black or white, young or old, man or woman. Key to this was the belief that the only use for Black bodies was to be the engines of production under slavery, or to be imprisoned – but never free.  At the same time, participation in society was dictated by your capacity to contribute to the workforce – either with your own hands or through reproduction of the workforce through childbirth and rearing. As such, disabled people and LGBTQi+ folks were deemed either useless or immoral, which these communities struggle against to this day. 

If anything,  the colonial mindset has been strengthened by capitalism’s dominance as an economic ideology that is also fuelled by our far-right political environment. All of us, including those working to build a new economy, are influenced by the narratives we hear and the assumptions that lay beneath them.  We need to understand this in order to work to dismantle it. 

Getting strategy right

Like all good learning processes, my journey in decolonising has been non-linear, and has emerged through a constant questioning of my own position. Understanding how each of us uphold the colonial mindset by taking an unquestioned view of history is a huge task, let alone working as a collective to move beyond it. If we’re going to change some rules, let’s begin with the ones we’ve embedded in our own organising. We can do this work by ensuring social power and privilege isn’t seen as a separate and less immediate concern to single issue campaigns like climate change or corporate power. ‘Diversity and inclusion’ practices within NGOs need to become central to the design and delivery of our work. 

A practical way forward is to seek leadership from queer liberation, disability justice and racial equity movements and acknowledge their work. These movements hold the key to imagining a different way of being, through organising practices, narratives, strategies and envisioning a world where we are thriving. For example: the first credit union was started by Afro-Caribbean migrants in Britain in 1967. Solidarity economy practices emerged from landless farm workers in Latin America who collectively organised in the wake of the debt crisis and structural adjustment programmes to take ownership of factories and farms. Frontline communities should not be seen as ‘the most impacted’, but as people who are already changing the rules of the economy through their own creativity, commitment and need to survive. 

Decolonising economics will bring more depth and integrity to our work. By ensuring we have the right understanding of the history of our economy, we will know when we are moving towards one that is based on justice and equity. It requires us to look more deeply at the roots of the system, so that we know we’re undoing the injustices of the past as we begin to build the future. Decolonising is not about returning to a place where colonialism didn’t exist, it’s about respecting the histories of colonised people, and taking their leadership for a vision of a new economy. 


 The BBC’s “Racism; A history” provides hours of compelling background on this very subject.

Movement Generation have shown how we can completely flip the way we identify groups of people, and challenge where these constructs derive from, and how they have been developed to divide and minimise the social value we bring to the world.