Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rhetorics of empire

The calendar tells me that today is United Nations Day: a fitting day for this post (for reasons that will become clear).
In Cosmopolitanism (Norton pb., 2007), Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
The independence movements of the post-1945 world that led to the end of Europe’s African and Asian empires were driven by the rhetoric that had guided the Allies’ own struggle against Germany and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This [i.e., the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements] wasn’t a conflict between values. It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values. (p. 80)
According to this view, the colonizers and the colonized framed their positions in the same language: both sides argued that they were upholding liberal principles. If so, did the colonizers genuinely believe that they were acting on behalf of such principles? No doubt some of them did, but that issue is beyond the scope of this post. The above-quoted passage from Appiah does, however, raise questions about the relation of words to concepts. Someone’s use of a word such as “freedom” does not necessarily indicate a commitment to anything that most people would recognize as freedom. A slaveholder in the act of beating a slave does not become a promoter of freedom simply by uttering the words “I am doing this because I believe in freedom.”

Admittedly this example is an exaggeration. In the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements, rhetoric was used in somewhat, but only somewhat, more subtle ways. The career of Jan Smuts (1870-1950) is instructive in this connection. In No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009), Mark Mazower devotes a lot of attention to Smuts, who was the leading South African politician of the first half of the twentieth century. Smuts viewed membership in the British Empire as a means to ensure the preservation and spread of white rule in southern Africa. During the first of his two terms as prime minister of South Africa (1919-1924), “the foundations of the future apartheid regime were being laid by eroding the last remnants of the native suffrage and introducing segregationist settlement restrictions.” (p. 51)

Smuts was also a believer in international organization. Among other things, he was a main drafter of the preamble to the UN Charter, which listed among the organization’s purposes the reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, …the dignity and worth of the human person, …the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small….” Mazower asks: “How could the new world body’s commitment to universal rights owe more than a little to the participation of a man whose segregationist policies back home paved the way for the apartheid state?” (No Enchanted Palace, p. 19) The answer – or at least an answer – is that for Smuts, and for some others involved in the UN’s founding, “fundamental human rights” did not in fact mean universal rights. Adhering to an “evolutionist paradigm of cosmic harmony under beneficent white guidance” (p. 57), Smuts saw “differential degrees of freedom and differential treatment of groups by the state [as] not merely reasonable but necessary for human progress.” (p. 64) As a young man, Smuts “had talked easily about the mission of ‘half a million whites’ to lift up ‘the vast dead weight of immemorial barbarism and animal savagery to the light and blessing of ordered civilisation,’” and he hoped the UN would be “a force for world order, under whose umbrella the British Empire – with South Africa as its principal dynamic agent on the continent – could continue to carry out its civilizing work.” (p. 65)

The UN Charter itself, as Mazower observes, did not specifically condemn colonialism, and few people of any prominence, except for W.E.B. Du Bois, objected to this omission at the time. Indeed an African journalist predicted that a new “scramble for coloured territories and spheres of influence” was in the offing, adding that “new life has been infused into predatory imperialism.” (quoted, p. 63)

However, the UN did not, as things turned out, conform to Smuts’s vision, nor did a new scramble for colonies occur. On the contrary, what Harold Macmillan called a wind of change (in his famous 1960 speech) was running strongly against the continuation of formal empire. This soon became evident within the UN itself. A complaint to the General Assembly about the treatment of Indians in South Africa, spearheaded by Nehru and first brought in 1946, presaged “the emergence in the General Assembly of an entirely new conception of world order – one premised on the breakup of empire rather than its continuation.” (Mazower, p. 185) The General Assembly’s December 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples called for quick independence for the remaining colonies, rejecting the argument that an alleged lack of readiness for self-government could justify delay.

The end of colonialism, an epochal change in world politics, represented an unusual case of a modern international institution becoming obsolete (cf. K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics [Cambridge U.P., 2004], p. 274). But although the institution became obsolete, the rhetoric associated with it has proven to be longer lived. Although virtually no one in authority extols, in Smutsian fashion, the superior wisdom of the “white race,” more nuanced versions of what Mazower calls imperial internationalism are still extant. In the context of the “war on terror,” references to “civilization” and “barbarism” have become common (see Mark Salter’s work on this); these words have overtones, whether intended or not, that cannot be fully grasped unless one remembers the once-widespread view that colonized peoples were “uncivilized.” The trope (to use a fashionable word) of civilization versus barbarism should not have been resurrected in recent years, no matter that the context is different. These words carry too many reminders of the old rhetorics of empire.

Note: For more on Smuts, see the sources listed in Mazower's notes. Also, Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire (Henry Holt, 2010) contains a couple of references to Smuts from a somewhat different perspective.


LFC said...

N asks me to clarify this sentence:
"The end of colonialism...
represented an unusual case of a modern international institution becoming obsolete."

Yes, it is less than crystal clear, b/c of the way I am using "institutions" (esp. in the context of a post about, inter alia, the UN). What I meant, borrowing from K.J. Holsti, is that of the "institutions" he considers in his Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in Int'l Politics -- which are (reading off from his table of contents): statehood, territoriality, sovereignty, int'l law, diplomacy, int'l trade, colonialism, and war -- the only one of these "institutions" that has become obsolete is colonialism.

I'm not sure exactly what this proves, if anything (except that his "institutions" tend to be persistent 'things'/sets of practices/etc.), and I apologize since my sentence is both somewhat tautological and opaque.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I get it now. No, it is not opaque or tautological.
Well, if we think about colonialism in terms of formal/juridical colonization, then yes, it is obsolete. But are other less visible practices associated with colonialism? If there are, are they still around?

LFC said...

Good questions, and since one -- not me, but someone -- could write a book about this, they're hard questions to address in a comment thread.

I could say the answer to both questions is "yes" and leave it at that, but, in a speculative or thinking-aloud vein, perhaps I can go a bit further. Maybe this will not be directly responsive, but...

It depends partly on what you think the essential feature of colonialism was. If it was 'exploitation' of poorer parts of the world by richer parts, then that's still going on (or so one could argue), and you are likely to think that the end of formal, juridical colonization was not such a big deal (cf. all the lit. on neo-colonialism etc.). If the essential feature of colonialism was racism, that hasn't disappeared either, obviously. And if you think the important thing is what 'imperial' arrangements, formal or informal, have in common ("rule" by intermediaries etc), then that is what you will emphasize (e.g., the US presence in Iraq had and has imperial characteristics even though it wasn't formal colonization: cf Nexon & Wright, "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate").

On the other hand, if you think that the creation of many new, at least formally independent states was a major event, then you will think that the end of juridical colonialism was a big deal, even if it didn't mean the end of exploitation, racism, paternalism, informal imperial arrangements, etc.

I think I will stop there, though I could continue maundering on.

Thanks for the comments & interest. Further thoughts welcome, of course.

dptrombly said...

Very interesting post. The UN is hardly a case of immaculate conception... the problem with the rhetoric of human rights is that they can never really be universal. The unification of human rights with "civilization" always enables a darker side, because those who threaten or violate them become enemies of humanity. That the cause of human rights has resurrected the rhetoric of civilization/barbarism, and with it, the possibility of something worse than the criminal or just enemy.

LFC said...

I see what you mean about enabling a 'darker' side, but I still think the civilization/barbarism rhetoric should be (in most cases at least) avoided.

hank_F_M said...


Intersting and well done.

I'm on the road, maybe will put up a comment this weekend.

LFC said...


Anonymous said...

Can the civilization/rhetoric divide be avoided? If one does this, it will mean acknowledging that one's values/rights/ideals are not transcendantal but rather historical and political products and thus subject to contestation. It will entail acknowledging that 'we' (think of this as the self in conceptual terms rather than as a particular actor)don't know what is best for others. It will mean acknowledging the colonial encounter as a constitutive vector in the formation of what we take to be the modern. It will mean acknowledging and understanding that certain figurations/understandings of the colonized are fundamental to the ways in which seminal theorists such as Hobbes, Smith, Kant and so on have produced their now-seminal ideas (I am thinking here of the work of Todorov, Mignolo, Stoler, Beate Jahn, Blaney and Inayatullah, marshall beier among others).
There is a lot at stake in the binary discourses of civilization/barbarism.
Does this make sense?

LFC said...

Yes, I think it does make sense; I might however phrase the first point a little differently.
I rather like Appiah's non-original (I'm sure) but lucid formulation (in 'Cosmpolitanism') of a sort of cosmopolitan pluralism when it comes to values: "our" (i.e. Western or Enlightenment or liberal) values are not ones we should impose on everyone, but at the same time we don't have to succumb to a complete relativism about values. There's a middle ground where we recognize a range of possible value systems that are "decent" (to use Rawls's term in The Law of Peoples [I think, haven't actually read it]) in the sense of not murderous or oppressive etc.

That's maybe a little different from saying "our values are not transcendental, they are subject to contestation; period." Instead: "our values are not transcendentally valid for everyone, but that doesn't mean that all possible values are necessarily equally worthy."

I don't think we disagree, I'm just phrasing things a bit differently.

Anonymous said...

Well said - I see your point. Yes, I agree that not all values are equally worthy.
You've given me something to think about (and some stuff to go read).
Thank you,