Imperialism: A Syllabus

From Public Books:

Opposition to imperialism unites the struggles of our times. From classrooms to city streets, it has never been more essential to engage with the continuing history of imperialism. The urgency of our imperial moment is at once fierce and everywhere to behold: in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements, opposition to heteropatriarchy, resistance against violent anti-Asian racism, global Black Lives Matter. While some would argue that empires are relics of the past, imperialism continues to shape our contemporary world.

Imperialism denotes the repertoires of power necessary for one entity to maintain control over subject territories and populations. Yesterday and today, the sharpest analyses of imperialism have come from those who have positioned themselves in opposition to empires, and so this syllabus—the product of a conversation between a historian of the United Kingdom and one of the United States—emphasizes approaches to empire that are anti-colonial. To borrow a formulation from the great anti-imperialist writer and intellectual Dionne Brand, no syllabus is neutral.

Many of imperialism’s critics have employed Marxism to explain the relationship between imperialism, capitalism, and racism. This makes sense, as Karl Marx was born into a world produced by imperialism and by resistance to it. His theory of history emphasized that human societies moved through progressive stages, and it was this framework that explained British dominance in India as a necessary transformation before a socialist revolution would be possible. V. I. Lenin argued that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism: as European finance capitalists extinguished internal markets, they sought consumers and raw materials outside Europe. As Lenin set to work on his influential pamphlet, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that Europe’s wealth derived “primarily from the darker nations of the world.” Eric Williams, the historian and the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, later pointed out that it was profits from Caribbean slavery that fueled the English industrial revolution. In Williams’s formulation, empire was not an outcome of capitalism, but created the foundations for it. Claudia Jones, meanwhile, centered gender and race in her theorizing of formal and informal imperialism. And Cedric Robinson, himself a chronicler of the Black radical tradition, contended that imperial expansion was an ultimate outcome of racial distinction and colonialism within Europe. To this day, thinkers working with Marx show how histories of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy are deeply intertwined with imperialism.

Empires are predicated on defining groups of people and distinguishing between them. In the Americas, the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the rise of chattel slavery demanded intricate distinctions of race and hierarchy. In maintaining racial order and perpetuating imperial power, white-supremacist ideologies were crucial. As Stuart Hall formulated, these ideologies of race operated on two registers: the biological and the cultural. From the dawn of transatlantic slavery, Europeans theorized human difference; many argued that the distinctions between races were based in the body. But racism could also operate on a cultural level, leading to distinctions of custom, habit, and tradition. And it is on these distinctions that modern imperialism depended in order to maintain rule.

By the late 19th century, European empires dominated the globe, but that dominance was increasingly challenged by colonial subjects. Dadabhai Naoroji, a wealthy merchant in India, argued that rather than benefiting Indians, British rule had drained India of its wealth. In England, C. L. R. James wrote about the importance of Haiti for Black anti-colonial resistance, while from the Caribbean Suzanne Césaire wrote about how racism and fascism were entangled in Europe. In China, Mao Zedong gave the peasantry pride of place in theorizing how imperialism might be undone. By the 1960s, campaigns for decolonization had transformed the political map, but Indigenous peoples throughout settler-colonial societies continued to contest the ongoing colonial relations between nation-states and what George Manuel called “the Fourth World.”

Today, struggles for decolonization occur within education, as well as in ongoing contestations for land, rights, and sovereignty. These struggles remind us that although we live in a world of nation-states, imperial relations continue to shape the operation of power. To recognize empire is to break the hold of the nation-state on our political imaginaries and take a necessary step toward a more just world.

. . . .

In the late 10th and early 11th century, the Persian poet Ferdowsi chronicled the mythical and historical kings of Persia and their encounters with neighboring empires. In Ferdowsi’s account, Sikander—or, as he is known in English, Alexander the Great—sought not only to conquer Persia, but to know it. Empire does not only entail the political subjugation of territory, but also requires the cultural incorporation of populations.

While we live in the aftermath of the European empires of the modern era, empires and imperialism are a much broader phenomenon in human history. Empires determine which places are deemed central and which places are marginal; for most of human history, the western end of the Eurasian landmass was insignificant compared to powerful imperial states that emerged and contended with each other elsewhere.

. . . .

One of modern imperialism’s foundational structures is settler colonialism. This entails, as George Manuel noted, Indigenous resistance to expropriation of land, denial of sovereignty, and attempted replacements of peoples and societies. Aspiring to Indigenous negation, settler colonialism is intertwined with other structures of power, such as capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and anti-Black racism.

This week’s readings offer two main points of emphasis. The first is that this settler form of colonialism unfolds in ongoing struggle with Indigenous peoples and knowledges. It is a structure, but one that needs to be constantly remade in response to Indigenous challenges to its totalizing project. These challenges occur in transnational registers and affinities, through Indigenous politics of refusal and resurgence, and through confrontation with imperial states and extractive economies. At the same time, Indigenous and settler struggles span multiple geographies, as we see in the colonial relations of transnational lives, in Pacific contextualizations of Māori identity, and in settler-colonial formations across Latin America, on the African continent, and in Israel and Palestine.

The second thematic emphasis this week is that while settler colonialism operates by its own logics, it isn’t a singular structure. Instead, it derives its power from its entanglement with other terms of racial, gendered, and place-based imperial order. By preparing the ground for already emergent forms of racial capitalism, and by facilitating the theft of Indigenous land while simultaneously constituting it as property, settler colonialism also reworks economic and racial relations. To challenge settler colonialism, then, is to take on an array of interlocking structures of power.

. . . .

In his video installation Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah meditates on the beauty and terror of the ocean, and the way the ocean has served as a site of human suffering, in the past and the present. Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved man who became an advocate for abolition, serves as a witness to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and its contemporary resonances in migrant voyages.

An Atlantic plantation complex, in which slaveholders and imperial states brutally exploited enslaved people to produce commodities for an expanding European market, propelled the growth of modern European empires. The first voyage recorded in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database occurred in 1520, between Portuguese Guinea and San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the time Haiti declared its independence as an abolitionist nation, in 1804, slavery stretched from Nova Scotia to Rió de la Plata. It would take 84 more years before Brazil would become the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery. In that time, enslavers forced over 12 million Africans to embark on transatlantic slave voyages. More than 1.5 million died before seeing the Americas.

The history of slavery is more than a history of numbers. The enslaved were forcibly transported but carried with them their beliefs, their culture, and their politics. In the Caribbean, enslaved Africans waged constant battle against their enslavers, drawing on ties of ethnicity and political allegiance from the African continent. The experience of slavery was gendered, and enslavers valued enslaved women both for their agricultural labor and their reproduction of an enslaved workforce. Gendered difference was a crucial component of the racial ideologies that emerged from and justified slavery. Gendered histories of slavery from around the Atlantic World expand our understandings of resistance and freedom.

Emancipation occurred across the Americas throughout the 19th century. However, imperial ideologies and economic exploitation continued to limit the freedom of Black communities around and beyond the Atlantic world. Black resistance pushed the question of abolition, both in gradual efforts in British North American colonies and in the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the first abolitionist state in the Americas. After the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, in 1807, discourses of humanitarianism propelled the creation of African colonies to resettle the formerly enslaved. In Jamaica, post-emancipation colonial governance revealed a question at the heart of imperial liberalism: Could the formerly enslaved be free moral subjects, or did they continue to require imperial protection? The racial ideologies that emerged in the post-emancipation moment shaped colonial accounts of Black political capacity well into the era of decolonization, and into our own.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG will comment only briefly.

The problem with imperialism as a topic is that it almost inevitably becomes entangled with Marxism and communism. In its 20th and 21st century instantiations, imperialism was principally a construct created by Marxists to serve as a perpetual enemy.

In terms of enslavement and exploitation of the less-powerful, PG posits that the Marxist/communist powers, large and small, of the last hundred years have engaged in far more enslavement and oppression of more people than any power that can be remotely described as imperialist.

Russia and its satellites have had a hundred years of communism. How did that work out? Is there anything good that can be said about Cuba? In terms of oppression of disfavored racial and ethnic groups, is there any place in western Europe or North America that compares to China?

Is there any political/economic means of organization that is perfect when viewed from the standpoint of perfect political freedom and meaningful economic opportunity for every single person?

No. PG tends to believe than none will appear in the near-term future.

One standard PG tends to apply is which direction are the emigrants/refugees flowing?

Are boat people escaping from Florida regularly picked up off the coast of Cuba? Are citizens of Colombia fleeing across the border into Bolivarian/Marxist Venezuela?

And are residents of Hong Kong are staying or leaving for Australia, Canada, the UK, the US and elsewhere? Is there any countervailing large flow of Australians into Hong Kong or China to start new lives there?

Undoubtedly, there are people who will declare that the UK, Australia, Canada and Columbia are imperialists. (PG has spent a lot of time in Florida and can’t claim to have encountered anyone that he could say remotely resembled an imperialist.)

But, on the good/evil scale, where do people want to live if they have any sort of choice on the subject?

11 thoughts on “Imperialism: A Syllabus”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis, which is based on fact, not emotion. Another example might be: Did West Germans attempt to escape into East Germany?

  2. There’s a new age of actual empire building coming but it will be empires of colonization, not conquest or displacement. In space.
    The best model of what is coming is THE EXPANSE, where techies and entrepreneurials moved out and let the Levelers in all their variants have the mudball all to themselves.
    No need to debate the clueless, just let them stew in their own mess.

    (But they should take care to start by controlling the high orbitals. Containment is still the best strategy to deal with authoritarians.)

  3. And now both the US and China have their robots on Mars. As in Foundation, the robots are the vanguard.

    Imperialism started when those Africans left home 50-70 thousands years back. Settler colonialists.

    • Yup.
      The first civilizations were all settler empires.
      And they all were expansionist.

      As for the ChineseMars lander, I’m waiting to see actual video instead of renders. After all, would the CCP admit it crashed? On their 100th anniversary?

      I’ll wait.

      • Well, no. The first civilizations were all expansionist, all right, and they grew by settlement; but they were not empires. People had been living in cities for several thousand years before they developed any polity larger than the city-state. The idea of being ruled by a king hundreds of miles away from you was very slow to catch on.

        Of course, according to your bog-standard Marxian anti-imperialists, it doesn’t count as an empire unless the ruler is white and lives on the other side of a large body of water. That’s why the Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Ottoman Empires weren’t really empires at all.

        • It depends on the definition of empire.
          The one I see most commonly among the (non-marxist inspired sources) is that it is a political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.

          The Indus Valley civilization qualifies and it goes back around 6000 years. There is a very strong uniformity to their cities which were by the times both enormous and sophisticated. The uniformity argues for centralized coordination along their vast trading network. To me that’s an empire. (Egypt was a more traditional empire of conquest and water control. Also runs to the same general era.)

          It is an oddity in that while the cities were well walled there is as yet no sign of militarism. The walls were to all indications for flood protection. Apparently the lack of close neighbors allowed peaceful growth and expansion. So, a monolithic culture spread over vast territory in an age of city states meets my definition of empire, especially given its millenia of existence.

          There’s also evidence of another vast civilization or two in central asia and siberia which was the breeding ground for the waves of migrations south (Dorians, Aryans, etc). There is some evidence they had a writing system before Sumer. And Amazons. 🙂


          Lots of early civilizations remain lost.
          More are being found regularly from orbit with ground penetrating radar. The one I’m most curious to see found is Tartasus. That one we know existed but not where. Truly a lost civilization.

  4. PG’s comment on direction of emigration as a measure of the success of a social and government system interests me. I observe that ideology is secondary, personal safety and standard of living are the desires that move people from one country to another.

    My central and western European great grandparents said they moved to the U.S. for the promise of cheap productive land to farm without worrying about lawless big landowners making trouble. I never heard a word of political abstraction from my emigrant elders, but a lot about safety and standard of living. Mexicans, Central, and South Americans move to the U.S. for safety and to make money, or so they say when I ask them.

    Now that China is surging ahead economically (they are the largest automobile market in the world now) the Chinese diaspora appears to be beginning to return to China. I expect that China will be turning a lot of would-be non-Chinese emigrants away at their borders if they continue on their current trajectory of economic success. Chinese traditionally have never welcomed foreigners and I don’t see any evidence of that sentiment changing.

  5. This is the Princess Bride problem.

    The OP keeps using that word. I do not think it means what the OP thinks it does. The ills that it describes are far less “imperialism” than they are “totalitarianism” and/or “authoritarianism” — which also fits PG’s take on the matter much better.

    I’m not going to try to discuss “theocracy” and its relationship to “totalitarianism,” “authoritarianism,” and/or “imperialism.” In this shark’s first profession (which he abandoned for law because law was much less confrontational, much less dominated by narcissistic buffoons, and much less likely to require writing letters to strangers beginning “I regret to inform you…”), he was directly and professionally — “concerned,” I think, is a minimally confrontational description — with certain theocracies and their interface with the national security of the US. At least since the 1880s, that has actually been an even greater issue than anything resembling “imperialism.” If, that is, one can manage to distinguish them.

    • A more precise term in the OP might have been “colonization”, as in “immigration without assimilation” as practiced in California and the french suburbs or perhaps “hegemonization by debt trap” as practiced by the euros in the nineteenth century and the Chinese “Belt and Road” in the 21st.

      But neither would conform with Marxist lexicon.
      Imperialism by itself is too vague to convey much meaning after a century of misuse.

      • I wish people would stop blaming the world’s political ills (many of which are very real) on 1950s-1980s Sweden — the only government that actually followed Marxist precepts through multiple leaders. The Soviet Union was only marginally Marxist/Communist. If one took away all of the place and personal names, one would have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing the economies and governments in 1940 of the Soviet Union and Germany; one of them is never accused of being “Marxist” or “Communist”… big hint: “collective planning of the economy” is not a “Marxist”/”Communist”-unique thing.

        And that, really, is my point about “imperialism” (or whatever — even my preferred targets of “theocracy” and “totalitarianism”): If you’re going to blame Ideology X for the world’s ills, make sure you’re accurately portraying and labeling Ideology X (or acknowledging that there’s controversy at the edges).

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