Newsletter #17: The Maladies of Colonial Capitalism, with Raj Patel and Rupa Marya

By Mack Penner 

As The Dig’s interview with Raj Patel and Rupa Marya makes clear, there are countless ways capitalism and colonialism are detrimental to human health. Accordingly, the interview and the book on which it is based, Patel and Marya’s Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, is many things at once: a history of health regimes and food systems under capitalism, a critique of the modern medical system, and an argument for decolonized medicine, to mention a few. 

Listening to the interview, I was thinking about the relationship between Patel and Marya’s arguments and the history of Canada. One of the key ideas in the interview is the notion that health is related to our “exposome,” or the totality of our encounters with the world around us the histories and structural logics that make our world what it is. As Marya explains in the interview, trauma is one of the most damaging aspects of the exposome, especially because it is transmitted across generations. The history of the Canadian settler colony, particularly its ongoing brutalization of its indigenous population, stands as evidence. 

On this point, a couple of recent works on Canadian colonialism and the health of indigenous peoples come to mind. In Clearing the Plain: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, a widely noted and awarded work first published in 2014, James Daschuk explains the awful contemporary disparities in health outcomes between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous Canadians. To do this, Daschuk scans a period of centuries in which dispossession, disease, and famine, brought by settlers and its state agents, combined to impose and entrench ill health in indigenous communities. 

The book is perhaps best known for the evidence it marshals to show that, in nineteenth-century western Canada, starvation was an intentionally imposed state policy used as a method of control to aid in settlement and the imposition of market capitalism in that region. It is common to acknowledge that Canadian settler colonialism entailed a form of “cultural genocide.” In fact, the qualifier is misleading. This history helps us understand the intergenerational toxicity of settler-colonial exposomes. 

For Dig listeners interested in exploring these questions further, Daschuk’s book would be well-complemented by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City, which is focused on the city of Winnipeg and the thirty-four hour period in 2008 during which Brian Sinclair, a non-status Anishinaabe man, was left neglected and untreated in an emergency room, eventually dying from a treatable infection. By historicizing Sinclair’s death, McCallum and Perry show how “structures of indifference” are core to the settler-colonial exposome and its very real, everyday effects in contemporary Canada. 

Listeners with access might be interested in the article “ Colonial Extractions: Oral Health Care and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, 1945-79” by historians Catherine Carstairs and Ian Mosby. 

On the matter of capitalism and health care, Gabriel Winant’s recent episode is a must. From further back in the archive, you might want to revisit Leo Beletsky’s interview on the opioid crisis (also a brutal feature of the settler-colonial exposome in Canada).