On April 25 Robinson Crusoe would have been 300 years old. Had he lived, of course, rather than being a literary character created by Daniel Defoe.

Most people in the English-speaking world have known Crusoe from childhood. Only the Bible has been translated more than this story of the bearded castaway making the best of things on a desert island. Less appreciated is that Crusoe has played a major symbolic role in economies from the global to the local.

His story set up the myth of the entrepreneurial self-made man, which in turn engendered the countless rip-offs and derivatives called Robinsonades, all centred on economic thrift and technological ingenuity. It is a central concept in the British colonialist and eventually imperialist project, in all its purported glory and undeniable devastation.

The irony is supreme, as April 25 might have turned out to be close to Brexit, when Britain would retreat to its island, there to fend for itself against the barbarians intent on breaching its shores.

Crusoe has become the default villain of postcolonial studies. It cannot be otherwise, with the quite overt setting up of the master-slave relationship between him and the only other inhabitant of the island on which he gets shipwrecked, the black man he names Friday. It is a specific view of interpersonal economic relations that would later be elaborated in other classical works, such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, with its message that colonial hierarchies are inevitable; part and parcel of human nature.

The original saved Defoe’s faltering prospects in a career of debt and bankruptcy and adopting aliases to avoid creditors. One way to survive was to exploit the success of Robinson Crusoe with the kind of manual for survival that today helps prop up the vast self-help and do-it-yourself industry, an enduring feature in Western consumerism and nuclear family-based life.

But Defoe also contributed a set of writings that quite blatantly put forward colonialism as a project of brutal conquest and suppression in which the figure of the English trader is the driving force. In The Complete English Tradesman he describes this person as more gentlemanly than any aristocrat, hard-working, beholden to equality, cosmopolitan — Defoe predicted a mongrel, half-bred society — and very English; other European nations somehow were unable to master the job.

Defoe promoted new ways of looking at women (as in his novel Moll Flanders) and believed the poor fared better in merchant society. Had he lived today he might have had a column in Business Day.

But Defoe also believed the poor should be handled with force, even calling for begging to be banned. And the aristocracy he so scorned did serve a key purpose: spreading the message of peaceful trading through the world in wars of conquest as a last resort.

In Robinson Crusoe our hero first leaves the visiting cannibals alone, but when they want to sacrifice one of their number he does not hesitate to slaughter all of them, with the rescued man then becoming his virtual slave. In other words, colonies should be settled by force, because the resultant mercantile society would be beneficial to everybody.

From Defoe there is a straight line to the arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, Western consumerism and the invasion of Iraq by Halliburton under the guise of dislodging “eastern tyrants”, also one of Defoe’s bugbears. What apologists for colonialism such as Helen Zille miss is that no matter how fair and liberal the postcolonial result is, it is still built on 18th-century ideas of war and subjugation.

A next generation of business writers, such as the father of economics, Adam Smith, rejected Defoe’s hard merchant template. While Smith was also an apologist for commercial society and consumerism, force, as a mechanism to spread trade, was anathema to him: “The inevitable result would be animosity, war, and cruel slave-owning empires,” as historian David Priestland sums up his qualms.

Indeed, by the end of the 19th century “as rulers of much more powerful nation-states, with vast armies, [the merchant-warrior alliance] were able to wreak far greater destruction than ever before” in two world wars. It is only in the late 20th century that history as Robinsonade was finally abandoned.

In Western literature, it took almost two and a half centuries for the myth to be effectively challenged. Michel Tournier, the French novelist, turned the situation on its head by making Friday the inventive member of the partnership, restlessly coming up with new ideas, many of which fail like those of the Greek mythical engineer Daedalus. But in the end, when a ship turns up to rescue them, it earns him a berth to Europe where he can develop his talent. The simpleton Crusoe is happy to remain on his island, fearing the complexities of the “civilised” life he had shucked off.

JM Coetzee focused our attention on the hidden, unpriced factor in centuries of economics; women and the work they do to enable male adventurism of body and mind. His Susan Barton in the novel Foe (which was Defoe’s birth name) has become a heroine of postcolonial studies. Coetzee lets Crusoe die on the island but his fellow castaway Barton takes his story, Friday in tow, to London to try to escape poverty by persuading a writer to turn it into what we today call pulp fiction.

Friday’s tongue has been cut off, nobody knows by whom, a visceral symbol of the silencing of the proletariat and the third world subaltern.

Tournier’s inversion is echoed in the work of South African historians such as Timothy Keegan in his book Rural Transformations. His research showed that far from being clever McGyver types, many farmers depended on the inherited skills of their workers. (As the risque joke goes, “die boer maak ’n plan, but the darkie already has one”).

It has become common to decry the mysterious inability of black farmers to make a success of state-granted land, but many do on privately bought land, and just as many white farmers fail under a state that has systematically broken down the subsidy-based system that had made SA agriculture competitive globally.

Defoe’s harsh disdain for the below-merchant classes showed in his “proof” that England was the superior country because the poor lived so well that press gangs had to be used to get them to join in foreign excursions. He decried welfare provided by the state since it would boost their propensity not to work. This class rigidity was transplanted to the colonies.

Hendrik Verwoerd has been made the scapegoat for the racist claim that black people are only fit for work, but he was repeating an idea that was held by Defoe and Robinson Crusoe, and its many readers long before the 1950s. SA’s history is a sustained effort to keep black people out of the merchant ranks — as Sol Plaatje showed, the 1913 Land Act was more about destroying the nascent sharecropper class than fears of land invasions. Colonial and apartheid laws made it all but impossible for black businesses to grow outside the homelands.

In recent times the realisation has dawned that modern economies are unable to price in such intangibles as the labour performed by women, or environmental costs, and the brain drain from developing countries has once and for all laid to rest the Robinsonade treatment of the colonial native as fit for labour only. And under Cyril Ramaphosa, there is a much greater appreciation that small black businesses need to be rescued from the islands on which they had been cast away by apartheid and ANC misrule.

• Pienaar is a journalist and author.