On the politics of decolonization theory and practice

5 April 2024, 1000 EDT

The special issue makes an important and timely contribution to ongoing debates and struggles over the politics of knowledge and knowledge production, power and questions of (in) justice in the academy and in world politics. Jasmine Gani and Jenna Marshall have brought together and exceptional collection essays framed very well by their reflective, provocative and insightful introduction.

The volume as a whole demonstrates the extent to which struggles against injustices are rooted in colonial and imperial justifications of rule. As calls have increasingly been made for academics to engage with the ‘real world’ they demonstrate the extent to which the ‘real world’ has already been organized in ways that strategically presented colonial interests, logics and rule as ‘scientific knowledge’ not only but also through the Social Sciences and Humanities in the Academies of the United States, UK, Australia and Europe as detailed by Persaud.

Disarticulating knowledge from colonial violence

Linking to the contemporary context, Gani and Marshall caution on how the ‘research impact’ agenda of universities has the potential to continue to sustain attempts to disarticulate colonial violence from contemporary explanations of insecurities and injustices in the face of consistent challenges directed at both. Themes around the latter are critically addressed collectively, with a specific focus on interconnections between policy practitioners and the academy, including on the potential to cultivate and generate alternative approaches premised on repair and justice.

I would like to make a couple of supplementary observations on the impact of race and imperialism on the theory and practice of social and political relations, keeping the focus on the politics of knowledge production in the academy vis a vis political institutions and ‘practitioners’. In order to do this, I frame my analysis of IR as constituted in and through world politics.  By way of leading into this, though, I would like to draw on Edward Said’s critical insights about what common conceptions of the colonial project  were held among proponents despite their intercolonial rivalries.

What they [*the colonialists, NB] shared, however, was not only land or profit or rule; it was the kind of intellectual power I have been calling Orientalism. In a sense Orientalism was a library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held.

Is Modernization Theory racist?

Orientalist and racist framings that justified colonial violence with its material impacts still inform global and national public political histories.  These critical insights also apply to the League of Nations which has been conventionally held up as the harbinger of peace when its claims to moral and civilizational hierarchy rested on ‘normative inversion.’ The latter refers to framing those subjected to genocide as ‘uncivilized’ even as they defended their own more just social and political institutions and relations. Such framings as colonial strategy is also discernible in post-1945 explanations of causes of conflict, injustices and impoverishment in former colonies. Consider for example the following ‘inverted’ account of the causes of violence and conflict offered by one of Modernization Theory’s proponents:

The most ruthless pillaging of wealth and the greatest excesses of violence and bloodshed to which the developing countries have been subjected have resulted from the efforts of their own modernizing leaders, after the attainment of independence, to transform them from an agrarian to an industrial way of life.

Such ideological attempts to disarticulate colonial violence underpinning Modernization Theory more generally are also inflected to approaches that privilege state-centred analysis (intentional or not), engendering pernicious policy practices. The same approach and ideological biases have been at the basis of conventional theoretical premises of IR and inform international institutional approaches to development and security. Colonial and imperial violence and legacies are disarticulated by recourse to formal accounts of political units, ostensibly disconnected in time and space. One effect of such ‘knowledge’ has been to deny justice claims aimed at repair by the postcolonial states.

Native elites and counter-colonial knowledge production

Yet, as Shilliam reminds us, for instance Walter Rodney, John Saul and Giovanni Arrighi (among others) were already engaged in repair of colonial violence, not least through a concerted effort to counter colonial knowledge production in the Dar es Salaam University, Tanzania, where all of them attended a conference in 1967 and  “discussed what we might nowadays call “decolonizing the curriculum.” Rodney, Saul and Arrighi were challenging the colonial logics of knowledge that sustained persistent structures of colonial inequality and impoverishment, while supporting Julius Nyerere’s attempt to steer a more just postcolonial development project. As Shilliam notes, ‘Nyerere was precisely the kind of native elite that’ strategists for colonial interests such as ‘Malinoski, Shils and Pye feared.’

Development partitioners and enduring colonial logics

The collective insights of the authors of this special issue are so important, not least because international studies and indeed international development still pivots around state-centred analysis of global social and political change in the idiom of colonial logics.

The colonial project of knowledge production was grounded in violent expropriation

The challenge of the present, though, requires confronting colonial legacies and logics on two fronts: The global ideologically embedded explanatory framework of development and under-development that continues to inform international institutional policy and the violence of elites in many countries also across the global South intent on supressing knowledge production aimed at challenging social, economic and political injustices. The latter are not new challenges, they were faced, too, for instance, by Rodney, Saul and Arrighi more than five decades ago. 

Abandoning development?

Forms of racist populism and / or religious supremacist movements are governing through authoritarian rule from Sri Lanka to India to Turkey through to Afghanistan. The benefactors are for sure elites who thrive on fermenting racism not only for its own sake but also as a displacement-move with regard to the injustices of capitalism while impoverishment deepens globally, from the UK to the US to South Africa.

No inclusive political project can be had on the terms of colonial capitalist logics.

For example, as Ira Raja and Shaswati Mazumdar have recently argued with reference to the Indian context, the Modi governments right-wing and exclusionary rule strategically mobilizes an anti-elite discourse to discipline critical knowledge production in the academy.

Their primary objective has been to silence critical voices to make way for sweeping assaults on the rights of ordinary people to education, employment, social justice – even life itself. What is being pursued in the name of freeing India from the hold of the so-called elite is the conspicuously neo-colonial, neoliberal agenda of divesting the public of the public, a crime aided in no small measure by colonial-era laws.

Any meaningful inclusive political project cannot be had on the terms of colonial capitalist logics. Struggles of the past and the present demonstrate potential to retrieve commitments to universal entitlements to live in dignity without discrimination. The colonial project of knowledge production was grounded in violent expropriation of lands through racist discrimination and enslavement. Struggles against injustices are ongoing. The contours of our analysis must be adjusted to reflect shifts from emancipatory nationalism/ solidarist internationalism to authoritarian/racist populism also in the global South, even as they continue to be resisted.

Resisting exclusionary logics

Arjun Appadurai’s take on the BJPs crackdown of critical dissent from the Humanities in Indian universities as well as non-violent protest and the targeting of women protestors in particular is a chilling reminder of both enduring colonial legacies but also of how colonial logics are appropriated to serve elite power and rule.

… [W]riters, professors and scholars are feared and hated because they and their disciplines represent the power of non-violent opposition and its revolutionary possibilities. If Gandhi were alive today, he would not be co-opted. He would be tortured and imprisoned by a coalition of police, judiciary and bureaucracy, with no need for a Nathuram Godse.

These methods of rule reflect the colonial project and its logics, but then as now it is resisted. Fanon’s insights about not emulating the colonial project of violence and dispossession rings loud. It requires resisting exclusionary ‘boundary drawing’ in theory and practice, globally. Critical insights about how knowledge was produced to justify colonial violence must guide us to analyse how knowledge aligned to colonial logics of violence is organized and executed, but also always challenged globally.