For someone with the left-wing political and philosophical sensibilities I have, you’d probably find it surprising that I never got all that into postcolonial theory.
|From Ghanaian Independence Day celebrations. Ending|
the colonial empires of Europe weren't the end of the
world's freedom struggles.
I knew about it, of course. In my first semester of university, I was fortunate that my introductory-level history course focussed on decolonization. It was a course labelled “History of the 20th Century” and our professor Mac considered the independence of over 100 new countries the most important historical phenomenon of those 100 years.
The thing is, Mac knew that we had all learned about the World Wars and the Cold War in high school and our popular culture. I started university in 2001, and pretty much everyone in my generation had seen Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List.
If you think a university education should educate people, then your first step as a teacher should be to bring your students ideas and histories that our popular culture and general education hasn't really touched. The end of imperialism was the biggest such idea.
It was definitely a turbulent period, and one that we were never taught much about. So often in the politics of postcolonial Africa and Asia, the Western leadership that was purely heroic fighting Nazism and Stalinism supported oppression, dictatorship, and genocide.
In the name of anti-communism that became fear of any left-leaning politician, CIA operatives helped overthrow democratically elected leaders like Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh, Chile’s Salvador Allende, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. These are only a few examples from coups and civil wars throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
|Patrice Lumumba was another victim of ridiculous|
anti-communist meddling in Africa, replaced with a
ruthless dictator who brutalized the people of the
Congo for decades.
All of these socialist-leaning leaders were overthrown with brutal dictatorships, whose ruthless suppression of their people was acceptable to democratic America because their leaders stood against the Soviet Union.
Add to that, decades of French and then American war against Vietnam and Cambodia, whose people became victims of genocide and ecocide, all in the name of anti-communism.
Even with all this interference and malevolence, the new kind of empire spreading across the globe wasn’t old fashioned imperialism. Imperialism was naked military occupation and conquest.
The United States didn't invade Vietnam to conquer it and make the country an overseas territory or a new state in the union. Britain invaded India so that India would become part of India. British people and leaders considered the colonies to be actually British territory.
This notion is at the heart of postcolonial theory, as Antonio Negri describes it. For the same reason, he describes its limitations. See, after my initial encounter with postcolonial history, I didn't really expose myself to much of the philosophy until around 2006 and 2007.
This was when I first read Frantz Fanon, the novels of V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, and when a friend sent me some essays by folks like Nelson Maldonado-Torres. But it was also the same time I read Negri's Empire for the first time.
And he had a blistering critique of postcolonial philosophy. Here’s how I’d put it most simply. Postcolonial writers correctly understand that overthrowing their conquerors is a form of liberation.
Conquest brings a foreign state over a faraway territory to control it. This control is a matter of sovereignty. To take the most egregiously ridiculous example, every population of the entire Indian subcontinent (so that includes modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) was enfolded in the sovereign power of a state based on a small, cold, island of pasty white people.
|The pink territory was Britain. Quite simply Britain.|
The battle for freedom, says Negri, doesn’t end with overthrowing your conqueror. Sending the British packing out of India, Nigeria, and the rest of their far-flung conquests (and doing the same to the French in Algeria and Vietnam, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, and the Dutch in Indonesia) is one kind of liberation.
But when you replace a faraway state’s sovereign control and police administration of your people and territory with a local state's sovereign control and police administration of your people and territory . . . is it really much of a change?
Cold War superpower meddling aside, few of the newly “free" countries of the postcolonial world escaped dictatorship, authoritarianism, and the police state.
And aside from this, there was a whole new model of power and domination that was just as opposed to state sovereignty as the world's movements for national liberation. The power of the global network . . . To be continued.
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