Post-Colonies and Capitalism: Why the Colonial Still Matters

by | 2 Dec 2010

At a recent workshop organised by the Westminster International Law and Theory Centre, Doreen Massey and David Harvey both spoke about space, spatiality, and politics. While there are many significant differences in the intellectual projects of these two sages of critical geography, they also agreed about many things. Thinking spatially offers us a way of understanding the profound relationality of ourselves and environments, and the multiplicity of our very being. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of these generative theories of space and spatiality is their theorisation of power, and the way in which social, economic and political relations are both a manifestation of spatial organisation and also actively shape the spaces that we inhabit.

Thinking about time and temporality was given little attention. Massey, however, did offer a compelling critique of the way in which ‘space’ is hijacked by a very impoverished conceptualisation of time; time understood as a sequential happening of events offers up a developmental view of history that robs us of the capacity to recognise each other in the here and now. Recognition of each other and our differences happens spatially, according to Massey, and it is by placing the cognition of others in an idiom of linear temporality that we elide the way in which we are actually responsible for recognising our proximity and difference to one another in the moments that we cross paths in the same space. So for instance, to describe the Taliban as medieval is to close off the space that exists for contestation, for developing an understanding of the Taliban as a contemporary political phenomenon, and to reject it on the grounds of its backwardness. It is space, rather than time, that allows us to recognise the very multiplicity of our being and our relations to others, although space for Massey is also a temporalised concept.

But what of the post-colonial, which obviously imports a temporal dimension into our understanding of political formations as they emerge in the 20th century? How do contemporary forms of colonial occupation turn our minds towards the ways in which temporality is as fragmented and multiple as space (conceptually and in political practices)? What would a geography of temporality look like in contemporary colonial formations?

Some of these musings led to me to ask a question about how the speakers might account for temporality in more depth, given contemporary forms of colonialism and their relationship to capitalist practices of dispossession. I drew on Harvey’s ever so brief reference to land grabs in Africa to ask how their theories of space could account for the multiple temporalities of dispossession, where land appropriation reminiscent of 19th century colonialism exists alongside or within neo-liberal forms of capitalism. How do they account for contexts in which practising a form of politics that relies on multiple temporalities is one of the few means of resisting spatial conditions of imprisonment? (Think about, for instance, Palestinian refugees who refuse to abandon the struggle for a right to return and all that it signifies in terms of origins, and at the same time actively intervene in the space of the camp as a present site of empowerment or praxis). The question was a plea of sorts, to consider how, by forefronting ‘the colonial’1By ‘the colonial’ I mean to indicate colonialism, in both its historical and contemporary manifestations as a political, social, and economic formation. By referring to ‘the colonial’ I mean to identify and define an analytic that accounts for the ways in which the emergence of modern political subjectivities were in part constituted by colonial relations of power; relations that also constituted forms of ownership, dispossession, and exchange. and the post-colonial in our analysis of global capitalism, current understandings of the latter might be transformed.

David Harvey gave a rather dismissive answer. After expressing his disdain for all and any ‘posts’ (post-feminism, post-coloniality, post-whatever), he testily announced that post-colonial theory had run its course, it had had its day. It was China who was purchasing all of the land in Africa, and thus, this was not really colonialism. He mentioned Nandigram as another example of dispossession; this dispossession of peasant farmers involved the indigenous Indian bourgeoisie, and therefore, was not colonial because it did not involve the direct imposition of a foreign power. No, colonialism was not an appropriate description for what is happening in these contexts, he prefers to identify these situations and others (the sub-prime mortgage crisis, for instance) as accumulation by dispossession.

What are we to make of Harvey’s wholesale dismissal of the relevance of the post-colonial to understandings of contemporary capitalism? There are several different ways that I could analyse his response. One way would be to analyse colonialism in a formalist fashion. I would define it in terms of its historical periodisation, main characteristics with regards to direct and indirect forms of rule, and the role played by the colonies in the industrial development of Europe. I could then compare ‘characteristics’ of colonialism to contemporary forms of dispossession and come to some conclusions as to whether Harvey is correct or incorrect in stating that colonialism, as a mode of description, sheds no light on contemporary capitalist relations.

But to do this would be to repeat the error that Harvey made in his dismissal, which revealed a fairly impoverished understanding of colonial and post-colonial political formations and their legacies. Taking my cue from his dismissal, I want to reflect on two things: i). the perceived opposition between Marxist and post-colonial theories; and ii). to briefly consider why the colonial and the postcolonial still matter when thinking about contemporary forms of capitalism. Harvey’s dismissal seemed to place him in the camp of people on the left (I won’t engage the question of what variety of Marxist Harvey is) who maintain an opposition between questions of colonialism and post-coloniality on one hand, and Marxist analyses of capital on the other.

The opposition between Marxist critiques of political economy and post-colonial theory has a long history. In his book Age of Empire, Hobsbawm describes the gulf between non-Marxist and Marxist analyses of imperialism as stretching back into the 19th century, and as essentially saying the opposite of each other.2Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (London: Abacus, 2002) at p.61 If we take Historical Materialism as any kind of barometer of fairly orthodox (if not scientific) approaches to Marxist philosophy and theory, their recent attempt to account for the colonial at their 7th annual conference spoke volumes about the persistence of theoretical blindspots. On a panel entitled “Marx and the Global South’ some of the panelists literally enumerated all of the instances in which Marx mentions the colonies in his various works, as a way of providing evidence that he was not Eurocentric (with the brilliant exception of Jairus Banaji, it should be noted, Marxist historian par excellance, whose archival research on modes of production in pre-colonial India calls into question Marx’s theory of Asiatic modes of production). In Radical Philosophy, two recent pieces have addressed Marx’s alleged Eurocentrism,3 and the split between post-colonial theory and Marxist philosophy.4 The debate, with a few notable exceptions, seems to divide itself along the following lines: Marxist scholars who painstakingly analyse Marx’s writings in order to disavow claims that Marx’s analysis is Eurocentric; that his lifelong consideration of colonial economies and their foundational role in the development of European industrial capitalism is in part evidence of this. On the other side of the debate are post-colonial theorists who disavow Marxist structural economic analyses of capitalist development in the colonies because it posits the East (or Asia in particular) as lagging behind European nation-states in its political and economic development. Asia, with its pre-capitalist modes of production, has yet to enter modernity proper; its colonised populations are placed on a long teleological road where the referent point of arrival is always the European subject and its particular political formations.

There is a third variant, Marxist theory that accounts for colonialism and imperialism in a quasi-formalist sense. For instance, in his book Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law,5(Leiden: Brill, 2005) China Miéville argues that international law is imperial in its very form because it universalises a particular idea of the civilised nation state (an idea which becomes instantiated as a “juridical fact”). Recognition was the modus operandi of European nation states who were intent on enfolding colonies into a system of international law as they became independent throughout the 20th century. While I am for the most part sympathetic to this analysis, Miéville focuses on the recognition by imperial powers of ‘civilised’ and ‘semi-civilised’ peoples without accounting for how recognition is a dialectical phenomenon. He mentions, for instance, as an aside, that nationalist struggles were often won by “those on the sharp end of imperial violence”; but he argues that the decision to recognise colonised subjects as civilised or semi-civilised had little or nothing to do with the reality of life in the colonies. Rather, this recognition was driven purely by imperialist desires to construct a world according to their own economic imperatives. Miéville gives very short shrift to ‘post-modern’ understandings of international law, which rely on an ‘othering’ thesis that is according to him, a postmodern commonplace. Yet in not analysing how recognition, even in its juridical form, is a dialectical phenomenon, the native or colonial subject practically disappears from this view of imperialism.

Thus even though Miéville begins this chapter on imperialism by stating his wish to depart from a Marxist analysis that would only ever see imperialism as a tool used to further European capitalist interests, his analysis seems to elide the ways in which the legal form itself, with its attendant notion of the civilised subject, was constituted through the violence inflicted on colonised subjects. This is different than stating that the notion of the civilised subject was racist or Eurocentric (although it undoubtedly is both); rather, I wish to emphasise that the very constitution of the discourse of the civilised nation state and civilised subjectivity cannot be fully understood without accounting for the relation between colonial subjectivities (of native and settler) and the excess that always escapes it.

The notion of the civilised subject of humanity in the structural, Marxist view becomes an instrument, ideologically loaded, to further the interests of capital; the rest of the story is missing. And the rest of the story reveals the complexities of how and why a dialectical phenomenon such as recognition could be resolutely non-dialectical in the colonial and imperial contexts. The constitution and continual re-instantiation of legal forms such as an international law that appears to have not lost its imperial character to any great degree; or the legal form that land dispossession takes; or the juridical form of the refugee camp all exemplify the way in which legal forms are constituted in relation to bodies, subjectivities, affect, and desires that bleed out beyond Marxist analytical categories; categories that fail, without the necessary interventions, to account for the specificities of the constitutive relationship between capital and the colonial.

I could go on, but it’s getting late. I don’t think that post-colonial theory that does account for the relationship between the colonial, the postcolony and circuits of value production has had its day.  (See the work of Himani Bannerji, E San Juan Jr., Fred Moten, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Irene Watson, amongst others, for reference). I want to conclude by briefly explaining why the colonial is crucial to thinking about contemporary forms of capitalism. To do this, I refer to anti-colonial Marxist writers who understood that capitalism and colonialism were not only not separate phenomena, but that private property (to take one pillar of capitalist relations) and raciality (another pillar) are co-constitutive. Recognition of the ‘civilised’ and ‘semi-civilised’ were non-dialectical because, as Fanon wrote, the conditions for mutual recognition were absent. The categories of black and white were premised on a radical negation of the very being of the colonised subject. Private property ownership was constituted along with properties (whiteness, for instance) that circulated globally and were attached to particular bodies. How do we even begin to think about dispossession, the production and accumulation of surplus value, and the legal forms that these relations take, without accounting for the ways in which they were and are constituted with and through raciality as it was and is produced by the colonial?

A critical, post-colonial Marxist approach, in the tradition of anti-colonial writers such as Fanon, Cabral, Césaire, and others, subjects analytical concepts such as ‘mode of production’, ‘accumulation by dispossession’, ‘surplus value’, etc… to a trembling that enables an expansion, perhaps even an implosion, of Marx’s analysis of capital to account for ongoing forms of colonial violence. The recent subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. impacted black and minority communities in significantly higher proportion than white homeowners. To say that predatory lending policies were ‘racist’ certainly fails to capture the relationship between wealth extraction and raciality that finds its roots in colonial formations. The careful, nuanced, political theory and praxis of Marxist, anti-colonial theorists seem to remain marginal to those on the left who at times seem to talk about colonialism without talking about colonialism. In the words of C.L.R. James:

Our opponents [who in this case are also our allies] are stuck in their own roots. They adopt ideas, but they remain stuck in their own “sources and principles” and they use new ideas solely for argument’s sake and to preseve their own position. Over and over again I see them doing it. It is testimony, however, to the strength of our new ideas. 6C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (London: Allison and Busby Limited, 1980) 13

  • 1
    By ‘the colonial’ I mean to indicate colonialism, in both its historical and contemporary manifestations as a political, social, and economic formation. By referring to ‘the colonial’ I mean to identify and define an analytic that accounts for the ways in which the emergence of modern political subjectivities were in part constituted by colonial relations of power; relations that also constituted forms of ownership, dispossession, and exchange.
  • 2
    Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (London: Abacus, 2002) at p.61
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
    (Leiden: Brill, 2005)
  • 6
    C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (London: Allison and Busby Limited, 1980) 13


  1. This is a thought provoking piece, at a lot of levels. What I learnt from it is at least two things (a) that perhaps it is useful to rethink the terms in which we address certain problematics (and I don’t mean this only in theory ) such as colonialism, but without outright dismissing the term itself. After all is not just a term it is an apparatus, which is in its application amongst other things it bars us from the potentiality not to be, to resist, or refuse. (b) to try and make visible what remains operative in this term and kills. Dispossession for example, at a psychic, linguistic and material levels is one of the practices of this tool that has not been blocked or been ‘utilised’ in way that is captured back from ‘those’ that have the monopoly over its use. Taking up spaces or time, stopping the use of such terms because x is in a position of authority to do so, even in an intellectual pedagogic environment, (take Harvey for example, an authority in his field), is one of the ways in which colonialism operates.
    So thank you for a wonderful piece…

  2. I agree with Elena. It is soo great, thanks B. reading it…aghgghg……why does it look that is it all about value? is it not precisely the “account” of the difference what the colonial enterprise was/is about?


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