‘60% of the Nigerian population is aged under 25.
‘That’s 60% of the population which, like me, did not witness colonisation.
We are the new generation. We are going to dispel prejudice
by rebuilding a new future through culture.’
If Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that colonialism is a thing of the past is true, then why the dehumanisation of POC at Yarlswood? Or the glorification of imperialists in our public places? In this blog, Tanzil Chowdhury considers the remaining work of the de-coloniser.
The beginning of the ‘end’ of colonialism and imperialism began roughly in the 1940s,[i] with the establishment of the United Nations. Self-Determination is cited in various provisions of the UN Charter, and the ICCPR and ICESCR as the main signifier in understanding the process toward decolonization.
10 colonies were ‘granted independence’ in 1940s, 11 in 1950s, 35 in the 1960s, and over 80 in total. Although 17 colonies remain on the UN’s list of euphemistically named ‘Non-Self-Governing Territories’[ii] less than 0.02% of the world’s population remain under the throes of a colonial power.
Surely this is ‘the Break’, as Nathaniel Berman calls it and to which Macron intimates, from the imperial era – a process which arguably began in 1648 with the creation of the nation state and the beginning of so-called sovereign equality. No longer would international affairs be the negotiations between warring empires but between sovereign and equal states. Indeed, this reached its zenith with the advent of the UN Charter, predicated on the rule of law, international peace and human rights.
Macron and many others are surely right. So what are people talking about when they say ‘yes, we must decolonise?’
The persistence of the colonial (also known as the continuity or inheritance thesis in post-colonial theory) challenges this idea of ‘the break’, that there is a separation between the colonial and the so-called post-colonial era. Instead, ‘the break’ is either a myth or was merely the end of particularly type, or articulation of imperial and colonial power.
Perhaps until the election of Trump, it did seem difficult to conflate the values of liberal capitalism with brute-force imperial power. But the values of liberalism and capitalism that define our age- the post-colonial zeitgeist- are not the break from empire that many envisaged but in fact continuous and coterminous with it.
Returning to Marcon’s France, Berman once again provides an important illustration of the intimacy between liberal capitalism and imperial power. May 8th 1945 was an important date in the European calendar. It was the day the Allies declared victory over the retreating and wounded Germans. It was the symbolic and material victory over fascism where a Parisian radio station, Le Monde, proclaimed ‘we have recovered the right to be free men.’ It cemented the triumph of liberal values, the triumph of sovereign equality, rule of law and all the other principles that would presage the creation of the UN.
On the very same day, as the Allied forces celebrated that victory and those values, Algerians dared to celebrate the Allied victory and link it to denunciations of French settler colonial rule. They held placards saying ‘long live the UN, long live the Atlantic charter, long live democracy, long live an independent Algeria.’ In Setif, Saal Bouzid ignored calls from the French police to lower the nationalist flag.
He was shot dead by French forces.
A riot ensued and thousands of Algerians were slaughtered. The French press, from left to right, condemned the Algerians as a fifth column and the demonstrators as ‘Hilterian inspiration.’
Was this just a coincidence or a significant culmination of events that illustrate the material connections between the imperial era and the values that define the so-called post-colonial period?
The continuity of colonial power describes the structural continuities between the colonial and the postcolonial. While acknowledging the legal end of imperial power, the great pan-Africanist and the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, shrewdly observed in the 1960s how the newly emerging hegemonic powers, such as the United States, were able to exercise decisive economic and monetary power through supra-national organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the World Trade Organisation – and who it was that dominated these organisations? This is what he coined neo-colonialism. So, while there may no longer be white settlers in South Africa, or pied-noirs in Algeria, one could problematise the role of the IMF and its structural adjustment programs of forced austerity and mass privatisation in Ghana or Angola . Indeed, to go back to Macron’s France, imperial continuities mean that Mali, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Gabon are still required to deposit two thirds of their foreign exchange surplus into French accounts while Mitterand, Chirac and Hollande have all deployed troops in ‘Francophone’ Africa. The limits of decolonisation that largely began in the 40s and 50s therefore, enabled local enfranchisement in exchange for the maintenance of the European ownership of the means of production, perhaps with a small comprador elite.
The challenge of contemporary decolonial activists is identifying these new and ever-changing reformulations and re-articulations of colonial power. Further, because colonial power exists and operates as an impersonal force through different sites and channels, as Nkrumah states, in the absence of a visible coloniser, it becomes more insidious, harder to identify and therefore harder resist. To render matters more complex, the former-colonial subjects no longer just live in distant territories but in the beating heart of empire.
Identification however, can be done by tracing the genealogy between the colonial and the so-called post-colonial period. Let’s take policing as an example. The links between colonial-era and post-colonial policing have been well rehearsed. In dispelling the myth of black criminality Paul Gilroy, makes the link between Sir Kenneth Newman as the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan police and as the uniformed officer in the British Mandate of Palestine Police Force and the Deputy Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland. Gilroy also discusses how UK police officers routinely studied and practiced the manuals of militarised policing strategists that were deployed during The Troubles.
Anyone who reads about colonial policing as a practice, will understand that it is fundamentally about the making of docile, passive, subservient bodies. This had been the aim of modern policing since its establishment with the Metropolitan Police Act 1829- not to prevent crime but to manage and subvert working class dissent. The policing of educational spaces and the creation of students as docile, passive and subservient, and mareketised bodies is therefore a key struggle for contemporary decolonial activists. The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2016 for example, has introduced fuzzy boundaries as to what students can and cannot say lest they be reported for showing signs of ‘radicalism’- while effectively making lectures, doctors, nurses, teachers, an arm of the security state.
Decolonial activists have also enabled us to see the links between the dehumanisation of black and brown bodies in classic imperial conquest and the creation of the ‘hostile environment’ and the dehumanisation of bodies through borderisation in schools, hospitals, housing and higher education, or in Yarlswood detention centre or Calais.
Contemporary decolonial activists have also enabled the critical engagement on how history is represented in the UK. Statues and memorials for example, are indicative of the important role that individuals have played or are thought to have played in the national (and therefore imagined) memory. But statues of Joseph Chamberlain or Winston Churchill or Cecil Rhodes in a public place are never just symbols or mere cultural artefacts. To quote the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign (RMFC):
‘statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission of that.’
Statues therefore are not neutral representations of history but normative declarations. The RMFC challenged aesthetic judgments as neutral displays that transcend politics, but as products of how power is arranged and organised in society. It forced a difficult but important conversation about the politics of public statues, the entrenchment and complicity of British universities in imperialism, and, perhaps more importantly, the whitewashing of such. These are just a few examples of these continuities.
Given the sometimes mute and insidious renderings of what Nkrumah calls neo-colonialism, contemporary decolonial activism has to do two things.
Firstly, it has to explain what is meant by a colonial power a) in the absence of a visible coloniser and b) that which has taken place after the end of a particular expression of imperial power. How do contemporary decolonisation activists explain the pervasiveness of the colonial relationship in contemporary structures- from education, to the criminal justice system, to our immigration policy?
Secondly, it must tie decolonisation, at least in part, to a materialist analysis. The impulse for colonialism and imperial power wasn’t just about cultural hegemony but about accumulating capital, exploiting others’ resources, and creating new markets. The limits of 40s’/50s decolonisation largely maintained the same global structures of exploitation of labour. As Marx said, albeit did not pursue much in his later work (though this was the point from which Fanon picked up) ‘labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself until labour in black skin is free’.
For Macron, and many others, they suffer from what can be considered a post-colonial antinomy, in which they forget imperialism happened by imagining ‘new futures’, all the while benefitting from imperialism’s legacies and structural continuities that are often embedded in those very ‘futures’.
Tanzil Chowdhury is a Lecturer in Public Law, QMUL (@tchowdhury88) and a co-founder of the Northern Police Monitoring Project.
[i] Ignoring self-determination of the settler colonies in the Americas, and the disintergration of the Ottoman Empire.
[ii] This is separate from the work the UN’s Fourth Committee does on a range of issues including relief work for Palestinian refugees and Israeli Practices. < http://www.un.org/en/ga/fourth/>