Postcolonial Theory and the Postcolonial World

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The 1980s and ’90s saw the emergence of Postcolonial theory and its many avatars. But is it as radical as its proponents claim, or does it instead promote ‘racial essentialism’ in the guise of radicalism?


The twentieth century witnessed the rise and deepening of two momentous movements across the world — the socialist working-class movement and the mobilization in the Global South against colonial rule. For a brief period, the two developed along parallel tracks. Labor and socialist organizations were almost exclusively in the North at the turn of the twentieth century, while in the South, the vehicles for anti-colonial demands had almost no connection to organizations of the laboring classes. They were overwhelmingly dominated by elite groups — professionals, businessmen, landlords and the like. Hence, the anti-colonial movement started out everywhere as small lobbying organizations pressing for more opportunities for the educated and elite classes within the colonial order, rather than demanding full emancipation from Western rule. Correspondingly, while socialist parties in the West evinced sympathy toward the demands of the colonial populations, they did not immediately develop links with them, and, in some cases, even took a pro-colonial stance.

For the South, the anti-colonial aspirations remained limited and quite muted during the early years of the independence movement. This was the direct and quite natural result of their elite nature and rather limited demands. As long as the demand was for better opportunities for the domestic elite, the vast majority of the population remained rather uninterested in giving it their backing. And as long as the masses remained aloof from the mobilization, the organizations had no recourse but to lobby and seek patronage from the very state from which they were seeking redress. Not surprisingly, the colonial authorities showed little or no interest in taking them seriously. This was the impasse that confronted anti-colonial elites across the South.

The unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the Palestinian condition, in fact, draws upon the very phenomena that the new-fangled ethnic essentialists deny, what ordinary people in New York, Amman, Sau Paolo or Cape Town are able to draw upon when they see the images streaming out of Gaza — the understanding that underneath the sundry cultural differences that we routinely observe, there is a cluster of needs and aspirations that we all have.


The Great Convergence

The breakthrough for anti-colonial agitations came when they broke out of their elite origins and actively sought the support of the broader populations. But for this to happen, they had to change the content of their demands. As long as they lobbied for more upward mobility for professionals, better support for indigenous businesses or lower taxes for rural elites, they would attract only the tiniest support. So the turn to the masses came with a transformation of the program — which now included demands for lower agrarian rents, economic rights for workers, land reform, and the like. The anti-colonial agitations became mass movements only after they took up demands for economic justice.

Once these movements emerged, it not only changed the social ecology of the anti-colonial struggle, but also tore down the wall separating the two great global movements — socialist in the North and anti-colonial in the South. Across the colonial world, the growth of the mass movement developed pari passu with the growth of the socialist and secular Left. It was the latter that soon evolved into the vanguard of the fight for independence in many countries. Not everywhere, by any means. A more elite and conservative anti-colonialism retained its hegemony in many instances. But even where left-wing forces failed to capture the lead, their demands and ideology gained a lot of currency — enough so that progressive anti-colonialism came to be identified with a secular and broadly socialist outlook.

By the 1970s, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, a broadly Marxist socialism was perhaps the most influential political ideology in the Global South. In country after country, even where they failed to assume political leadership, organizations of the Left sank deep roots in peasant movements, labor organizations, civil society, universities, schools etc. There was no inkling that the ideas they espoused were “western”, or foreign to the culture. After all, those ideas had passed the most stringent test imaginable — they had attracted hundreds of millions to their banner, regardless of religion, race or gender. They not only achieved great success in procuring material gains for their constituency, but they also generated reams and reams of new knowledge — about indigenous history, social structure, and economic development, all of which were put to use in very successful organizing.

All this progress — material and ideological — rested on the conviction that, even though the colonial world was culturally and economically distinct from Europe, its people shared certain needs and aspirations that bound them with the downtrodden in the West. And conversely, that even though their own elites were culturally and religiously different, they were no less brutal in their treatment of the domestic laboring classes than the white overlords had been. Certain universal interests bound together the poor regardless of culture, and which brought together the elites irrespective of creed.


The Great Reversal

Around the middle of the 1980s, this long-standing conviction that ordinary people in the global South and the North shared some basic needs and goals came under attack. Now, this wasn’t the first time that such universalistic commitments had been denied. But over the course of the twentieth century, the denial of these common aspirations had always been associated with the conservative and backward-looking cultural nationalists in the colonial world, and with racist ideologies of the West. In these circles, it was common to assert that there were deep and unbridgeable cultural and even cognitive divisions between the colonized and colonizer. It wasn’t just that they had different cultures — nobody denied that. It was that they had different sorts of cognitive make-ups — they thought differently.

Now, what you made of that depended on which of the two you were — a Western racist or a colonial conservative. For the racists, it meant that modern notions of human rights, sovereignty, democratic politics and the like were alien to the East. They were, in fact, projections by Western liberals, which wrongly assumed that the natives had the same desire for these ends that Western cultures did. And since the natives were not motivated by these goals, the criticisms of colonialism by liberal intellectuals were misplaced. Anti-colonial progressives sought to provide colonial subjects with a “freedom” that was alien and unwanted by them. This imparted a specific responsibility to colonial rulers. Far from evacuating the captured lands, they were obliged to stay on, so that they might teach the natives the values that represented Western enlightenment — they had to tutor the colonial world on the virtues of Western culture.

For the indigenous conservative intellectuals — who were uniformly from native elite classes — the denial of universal needs was no less obvious than it was to the colonial masters. But whereas the latter group took it as a sign of western superiority, the indigenous elites turned it around. They presented it as evidence of the West’s inferiority. The West’s embrace of individual rights was simply a symptom of its individualism; its secularism was a component part of its loss of spirituality; its egalitarianism was simply an expression of its contempt for order and stability — and insofar as Eastern culture was founded on the community, spirituality and organic hierarchy, it was, in fact, superior to the West. The objection to colonialism was, therefore, founded on an embrace of the very values that liberal intellectuals denigrated. The conservatives did want independence, but not to bring the East into modernity — it was to better preserve what they insisted was the authentic local culture.

Conservative nationalists started out as the unquestioned and hegemonic voice of colonial resistance. The reason they lost traction had to do with their political base — they were everywhere hitched to the native ruling classes, and hence could not garner very much support. The emergence of mass independence movements was linked to the rejection of their economic and political conservatism, and, hence, soon after, also the rejection of their “reverse Orientalism”. This was perhaps most evident in the case of India, where the Indian National Congress remained little more than an annual meeting of lawyers and landlords — “three-day ‘tamashas’” — from its inception in 1885 to the 1910s. Its emergence as an organization with any weight happened only after it took up economic issues that touched the lives of masses of Indians in the years after World War I. The same logic could be found in African colonies, where nationalist parties started out as elite groupings asking for less discrimination by the colonial state; only some of them graduated to becoming mass organizations, and these were the ones that established roots in the laboring masses — whether in rural areas or cities.

What was distinctive about the intellectual development of the 1980s and ’90s was that, for the first time, the central tenets of imperial racism and indigenous conservatism were being promoted under the guise of radicalism. This was the birth of “postcolonial theory” or “postcolonial studies”, soon to be followed by “decolonial theory”, “indigenous studies”, and the like. Its putative radicalism lay in its claim that the groupings that had been wearing that mantle thus far — the traditional left associated with socialism — were, in fact, only a wrinkle within a larger historical force that had subjugated and dominated the colonial world. That force was, of course, Europe, and whatever the left’s self-image might be, the fact was — this new theory claimed — that it partook of the same ideas and convictions that had been behind the colonial project.

So, what was this mysterious common ground that was shared between the colonial masters and the socialists? It was the grounding in “Western discourse:” Both believed in science, rationality, individual rights, reason, historical progress, etc. It was just that the colonizers thought that the darker populations had to be schooled in it, while the left thought that the colonized populations already had what it took to understand it. But precisely because the left hewed to these Western ideas, it failed to realize that these ideas were what was behind the colonial project, and in so far as it tried to spread them more widely, it was party to the erasure of genuinely “Eastern” values and cultures. And in so far as it helped erase the real “Eastern values,” it was a card-carrying member of the imperial club. Many of the most famous intellectuals in this strand of theory were from the Global South — Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, Anibal Quijano, and others. What bound them together, despite their many differences, was the idea that the traditional socialist Left was not only unable to understand the dynamics of colonial and postcolonial culture, but was, in fact, part of the imperial project. The socialist tradition was part of the Western imperial domination. And this was because the very goals that it pursued were of no interest to the “darker peoples”.


There is no Progressivism without Universalism

For many in the Global South, the emergence of postcolonial theory and its avatars came as a shock. It was startling to see a self-branded “radical” theory espousing the same tropes that imperialist ideologues had propounded for two hundred years. But the 1990s were a time of dramatic and unprecedented retreat for the left globally, and with this came a loss of confidence and conviction. It took some time, but by the 2010s, there was a small but significant response by progressive intellectuals. It did not by any means roll back or undo all the damage that the new theories had wrought. But events over the past decade or so have combined to not just bring about the revival of more traditional left ideas, but also the absurdity of the ethnic essentialism of postcolonial theory.

Let’s take two of the most obvious. The first was the explosion of the Arab Spring in 2010–11. Over a span of a few months, movements broke out all over the Middle East against the reigning political elites. What was most striking about them was that they occurred in what is routinely called “the Muslim World”, the beating heart of non-Western, non-secular culture, and the core demands of these movements were for the very things that postcolonial theory insisted were alien to them — wages, bread, individual freedoms, and free elections. These were the largest movements in more than five decades, and they were centered around the very issues that the new radical theories predicted could not motivate non-western people. It is, of course, true that, for the most part, these movements were defeated. But not because they were pressing for “western” values. It was, in fact, because the very traditional elites, many of whom were shrouded in Islamic rhetoric — were able to muster a level of organizational, economic and military resources that the movements lacked.

Second, as this article goes to press, the most visible colonial project in the world, that of Israel — is waging a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. What stands out again is that across the world, in the support for the Palestinian cause, whether it is in the United Nations, the press, or in the street, one of the most common descriptions of Israel’s actions is that they amount to a “denial of Palestinian humanity”; appeals for support are routinely invoking “our common humanity” with the Palestinians. This is not empty rhetoric. The unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the Palestinian condition, in fact, draws upon the very phenomena that the new-fangled ethnic essentialists deny, what ordinary people in New York, Amman, Sau Paolo or Cape Town are able to draw upon when they see the images streaming out of Gaza — the understanding that underneath the sundry cultural differences that we routinely observe, there is a cluster of needs and aspirations that we all have. And these common needs comprise the foundation for a common set of interests, which, if brought together in some kind of political vehicle, can fuel the fight for a more humane world. Not just for this or that ethnicity or race, but for everyone.

Much has changed in the political culture since the early 2000s, when postcolonial theory reigned supreme and was able to pass off racial essentialism as some sort of radicalism. The small but very visible movements for social justice are managing to shake off the accumulated detritus of the past two generations. There is, of course, no guarantee that we will ever capture the same spirit and achieve anything like the same weight that the left had a century ago. But if it is to happen, it will require a return to the universalism that sustained emancipatory politics in its heyday – and that, in turn, will entail a rejection — root and branch — of the racialism embraced by postcolonial theory.

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