The founding falsities of postcolonialism

By Lorenzo

In his discussion with anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman, evolutionary psychologist and YouTuber Gad Saad offers (at 8.48) the following:

By the way, in terms of generative grammar, whenever when I see the word ‘post’ before anything then that raises a flag that it’s bullshit. So post = bullshitpostmodernismpostcolonialismpost-structuralism. So, maybe Chomsky can one day weigh in on why the introduction of post implies that we are going to generate nonsense.

As it happens, Chomsky is not a fan of postmodernism: he is too much of a member of the Enlightenment left for that.

I have been less than impressed with my encounters with postcolonialism. It seems to be based on three fundamental errors: the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy.

The Marx Mistake

Marx’s conception of the state, so memorably set out in Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto (pdf) (1848) held that:

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

A useful (if somewhat grammatically challenged) summary-discussion of the Marxist approach to the state is here and a pithy summary is here. At its simplest, the underlying causal structure is that the production technology produces the class structure which produces the state. So that, while there is some scope for independent action by holders of state power, the class structure is prior to, and helps structure, the state.

Which is, for most of human history, simply false. For most of human history, the dominant creator of class structure was the state itself because the state was, until very recently, the dominant generator of surplus (that is, resources beyond the needs of basic subsistence) and surplus is the basis of social hierarchy.

Human societies, up until the break out of human productive capacity beginning in the 1820s, were basically Malthusian in their dynamics. More production led to more babies. The only way to systematically extract surplus was to extract resources before they were used to support more babies and, until very recently in human history, by far the dominant extractor of surplus was the state itself.

The state was originally an extractive parasite which needed to keep its host population controlled (or at least docile) and producing, as set out nicely in historical anthropologist James C. Scott‘s recent work Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earlist States. Political economist Omer Moav and his colleagues have been developing models of original states as using coercive extraction to get (pdf) around Malthusian constraints including the importance of how vulnerable crops were to expropriation (pdf).

As an aside, whether states have stopped, and to what degree, being extractive parasites requiring docile-and-producing populations is very much a live question. One can, for example, reasonably see the decay of Detroit as a parasitic (mainly city) state apparatus bleeding the life out of a weak civil society undermined by economic changes that the state impedes adjustment to.

Historically, the only competitors to state taxation in producing surplus was various forms of non-state labour bondage (serfdom and slavery) and trade. The former because key to labour bondage is to extract surplus from labour generally paid at subsistence levels; expropriating, as much as is practicable, any scarcity premium from labour. (There is some complexity with regard to use of slaves in more skilled situations [pdf], but it is still about coercive extraction of surplus.) Some of the surplus was then used to maintain the control over those in bondage, the rest to support elite social niches.

While this could create social groups that the state had reasons to bargain with, the support of the state itself was usually required to maintain the labour bondage. The Black Death (which greatly increased the scarcity value of labour because it killed people, not land, machines or coins) failed to see a return to serfdom in Western Europe as the various crowns failed to support the smaller landlords in their demands to re-impose serfdom because it was not in the various crowns’ interests to do so.

Trade also produced surplus because it was too variable (essentially, too risky) to be reliably babied-away and often required larger (i.e. surplus-including) social niches to operate.

Even in societies with significant non-state control of surplus, avoiding autocracy and tyranny was a perennial concern, precisely because of the continuing power of the state apparatus. But the entire issue of how to manage state power becomes a non-issue if one believes altering the class structure eliminates the problem, because the state “ultimately reflects” the underlying class structure. The entire history of Leninist tyranny flows from that misconception, in tandem with the necessity to hugely concentrate power to achieve the justifying social transformation.

By stripping away private economic activity, Leninist states were not being cutting edge modernisers, they were being profoundly atavistic. So much so, that the one remaining full-deal Leninist state is a hereditary theocratic autocracy (with deified rulers–an eternal President and eternal Secretary-General): the most atavistic version of the state.

So, a founding mistake of post-colonialism has been to fail to see the state as an structure with its own support and dynamics, not as some reflection of class or race. (Note that class-analysis is inherently superior to race-analysis because class analysis does actually connect to, or bundle together, things which could reasonably be causal units: race does not.)

The Lenin Error

The Lenin Error flows from the Marx Mistake. This was to see imperialism as primarily an economic-class phenomenon.

Imperialism is fundamentally a state phenomenon. Imperialism is what states do, whenever they able to do so in an extraction-positive way. States of all types of social arrangements and economic bases have engaged in imperialism. As soon as there was states, there was imperialism.

As historian Niall Ferguson has observed, imperialism is the least distinctive feature of Western civilisation. The remarkable things about Western territorial imperialism are:

  1. How successful it was.
  2. How comparatively little effort that success required.
  3. How much richer post-Imperial Western societies became.

Atlantic littoral European states (plus Russia) managed to occupy, directly or via neo-Europes, most of the globe. That is a striking level of success, unparalleled in human history.

Yet, at no stage, was the major military effort of any European society deployed against a non-European or neo-European society. European global expansion was achieved while European military forces mostly faced off against other European military forces.

Both these features are products of the same feature: Europe developed incredibly effective states. Since imperialism is what states do, those European states with avenues of geographic expansion (Atlantic littoral states and Russia) produced very, very successful imperialism. Hence also the greatest danger to European states being other European states, and so being where most European military effort was focused.

Looking at the alliance structure among the European Great Powers prior to the Dynasts’ War (1914-1918), if extra-European imperialism was the key thing, Britain should not have been allied to France and Russia, who were its main imperial rivals outside Europe. It was internal European state dynamics which drove the alliance structure because the biggest threat to any European state was other European states.

And what happened when the European states abandoned those territorial empires? They got richer. Indeed, some of the richest European states never had any colonial possessions outside Europe (Switzerland being the most striking example). While the state with the longest extra-European empire (Portugal) was one of the least-rich of European societies by the time it lost its empire.

Imperialism had much less to do with the wealth of European societies than trade (which did not require an empire; though sufficient state effectiveness and military power could certainly motivate imperial expansion to capture revenue from trade) and production within Europe (which also did not require an extra-European empire).

If we see imperialism for what it is, a manifestation of state action, then the history of European imperialism becomes much more explicable. Moreover, one can see that European imperialism is an unusual manifestation of imperialism (albeit still state-based), which is a much wider historical phenomenon that has no intrinsic connection to being European, to “whiteness”, or to capitalism.

Not that Western states entirely gave up imperialism as they gave up their colonies. It is just that Westerners were, and remain, much better revenue-extraction targets than non-Westerners, so Western states shifted more to colonising their own societies. That Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), as Chancellor of the Second Reich, and Eduard von Taffe (1833-1895), as Minister-President of the Austrian Empire, were founders of the welfare state is something to pay a bit more attention to.

Successful imperialism came late to Euro-Mediterranean Christendom cum Western Civilisation. From the C7th to the C16th, it mostly lost ground to a civilisation genuinely structured, from its origins, for imperialism, Islam. But, if one is committed to the Lenin error of imperialism as an economic-class phenomenon, then the imperialism of Islam vanishes from sight, as it is based on religion; particularly Sharia (from its origins, and in its nature, an imperial legal system), marriage laws and the consequences of polygyny in generating predatory males with no local wife prospects whose external aggression was then sanctified (including expropriating infidel women). Hence Islam, which was born in imperialism, aggressing against every culture and civilisation it came up against in its first millennia: something it never rejected, it just came up against European states who had (after a millennia) evolved into better predators. Mainstream Islam is a religion of dominance: which is the source of all the difficulties Islam is currently generating.

The Fanon Fallacy

The Fanon fallacy comes from Frantz Fanon‘s (1925-1961) writings, particularly his The Wretched of the Earth (1961): some apposite quotes are here. The Fanon Fallacy is to mistake rhetorical justification for something’s underlying nature. In particular, to see imperialism as a “white” phenomenon.

First, race is not a causal actor. It does not even bundle causal units together in a useful way. Plenty of Europeans were the victims of imperialism by European states (the Irish, Highland Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Ukrainians …).  Hardly surprising, as imperialism is what states do, not races.

Indeed, the Dynasts’ War (1914-1918) was not sparked by extra-European imperialism, it was sparked by intra-European imperialism.

I call it the Dynasts’ War because it was sparked by dynastic regimes under pressure from social changes, regimes that attempted to harness mass sentiment to preserve their regimes and ended up being swallowed by those sentiments: having mobilised mass sentiment requiring vindication-by-victory  they were then trapped by those same sentiments, so forced to continue the war to the bitter end (of their regimes). I dislike the term World War because the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) were at least as global as the 1914-1918 conflict.

It is true that racial arguments came to be used (mostly after the fact of conquest) to explain and justify European and neo-European imperialism. But justificatory rhetoric says something about audience for the rhetoric and the purposes of those using the rhetoric, it does not explain the underlying thing. Moreover, it is normal for imperialisms to have a central group who are mobilised to support the imperial project by status, career, resources and rhetoric.

In particular, it is normal for imperial state societies to generate justificatory rhetoric which exults the imperial culture and denigrates external or peripheral cultures. Chinese intellectuals, for example, did so for millennia; something that James C. Scott discusses in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

The Fanon Fallacy takes the (largely ex-post) imperial rationalisation and sees it as structurally central: it functionally accepts (though morally reversing) the racial framing of later European imperialism and mistakes it for the underlying causal reality.

In fact, race is a counter-productive rhetoric for imperialism to adopt, as it seriously impedes incorporating the conquered into the imperial project. Racial conceptions of imperialism–compared to, say, religious or cultural ones–generate a much sharper contrast between conquerors and conquered while obscuring the nature of imperial conquest, turning it from a state action into a race action.

What destroyed European territorial imperialism was the consequences of the Dictators’ War (1939-1945), particularly the interruption of colonial control due to conquest of European metropoles and Japanese expansion and Nazi imperialism giving imperialism a bad name among the populations of imperial powers while validating resistance to imperialism. Other factors included: the increased cost (both physical and moral) of control due to the spread of communication, transport and military technology; the falling benefit of territorial control due to both the expansion of communication and transport technology and (despite the two great wars) continuing expansion of productive capacity in Europe and the neo-Europes relative to many imperial holdings (particularly in Africa).

US naval hegemony providing a guarantee of access to oceanic trade also helped to reduce the benefit of extra-European territorial control. Inside Europe, the consolidation of ethnic nations meant that states could achieve a higher revenue/expenditure trade-off if their citizens shared a common language and culture. All of which was about the dynamics of states and domestic politics and nothing to do with race.

Between the Marx Mistake of failing to see that states have generally been central to class structures (a pattern that Leninist states, ironically returned to and exemplified), the Lenin Error of seeing imperialism as class-economic phenomenon rather than first and foremost a state one and the Fanon Fallacy of mistaking the largely ex-post imperial rationalisation of race as a causal feature of imperialism, it is not surprising that I have been serially underwhelmed by post-colonialism as a basis for analysis.

The Wiped Slate

But wait, there’s more. There is considerable scholarly evidence that pre-colonial patterns and institutions have continuing effects on contemporary human societies (see herehereherehere, and here). Including that whether a culture used plough-based farming or not influences contemporary attitudes on the status of women. Or that the length of time since a human population adopted farming has a significant long-term impact on average life expectancy.

This is not to claim imperialism and colonialism had no continuing effects–see here (pdf) for a study on how being ruled by the Ottomans continues to have adverse institutional effects. But there is an obvious importance gain for postcolonial studies to talk up the effect of colonialism on previously subject peoples. Which leads to what we might call the Wiped Slate Effect: treating colonialism as if it was by far the dominant moulding experience of colonial societies and that experience as unrelievedly negative. Clearly not true–Afghanistan (until the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989), Iran (apart from the brief Anglo-Soviet occupation 1941-6) and Thailand were never subject to European territorial occupation, yet are hardly profoundly different from their neighbours, who were subject to such occupation.

The Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy both encourage tendencies to the Wiped Slate Effect. But so does Marx’s view of modes of production being socially dominant, as in this 1853 piece on British rule in India:

All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. …

Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Lenin, of course, derived his analysis from Marx.

Which is not to say that Marx in anyway romanticised what the British found in India:

we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

The British were part of the arc of history heading in the proper direction:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

Here we see Marx the historicist, who did so much to infect the social science and humanities with the bug of moralised ideology, where approved (typically highly moralised) framing dominate fact and evidence, whose proponents look for footnotes to fit in with the framing rather than following the evidence wherever it leads. Framing dominating fact is something that the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy are all manifestations of and which post-colonialist analysis is pervaded with.

Fortunately, there is still plenty of empirical scholarship out there which is far more useful in understanding the world around us than any amount of portentous post-colonialism parading as useful scholarship.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. Posted January 9, 2018 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Sheesh .. long read ..

  2. Posted January 16, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    David JH @1 . There’s lots of errors. 🙂

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