In a recent brief exchange between Oscar Guardiola Rivera and Walter Mignolo, responding to an impossibly broad question about Europe’s current crisis, Guardiola Rivera quipped that Europe was colonising itself. Just think, he said, of the racialisation of Greek, Spanish and Italian people: lazy and corrupt. And with that the debate moved on. But his thought of Europe colonising itself has haunted me: as a diagnosis it is chillingly brilliant.
We have known for many years that the major neoliberal international institutions – the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, etc – were developed to impose massive economic reforms on ‘failing’ states. It has also long been noted that the imposition of neoliberal reforms in Latin America and South East Asia was a form of economic colonialism. Down the barrel of a gun, ‘the West’ imposed changes that destroyed domestic protections and lead to economic collapse for ordinary people. Crucially, these reforms were colonial or neo-colonial because they facilitated the flows of capital which benefited and were controlled by the West. In this way, old sovereign relations of colonial power were reinscribed through the market.
However, in the last fifty years there has been a material shift away from corporations with a national base and outlook. The multinational, while often retaining symbolic connections with particular states (Coca-cola, Starbucks, Mercedes), looks to a global stage for both material production and consumption. The corporation, and capital more generally, has de-territorialised in the sense that it is no longer deeply bound to its original geographic bases. This de-territorialisation means that there is nothing necessary about the relation between Europe/USA (as metropole) and the rest of the world (as periphery). There is no longer a clear territorially determined colonialism, where the rape of India would fund the economic stability of Britain in the 19th century. In essence, the colonial metropole is no longer a territorially defined entity.
Colonialism was never simply a destructive phenomenon. Throughout its bloody history, it sought to create docile subjects. In the simplest of senses, there was always the necessity of determining the ‘good natives’ who throw themselves into the colonial administration, from the ‘savage’. Colonialism was the violent reorganisation of power relations, which allowed for the inscription of a ‘more efficient’ domination in society. The ‘savage’ was seen as inhuman, part of the furniture. He was libidinous, free of society, and slave to his nature. He took pleasure when he wanted it, and thought nought of the consequences. This was contrasted with the ‘good native’ who subjected himself properly to the master and so became ‘civilised’.
As the IMF and the ECB institute their neoliberal reforms on an ever-widening number of European countries, we increasingly witness colonial logics in operation. In Ireland or Greece, we have seen the portrayal of peoples enslaved to their passions. We hear barely coded racialised suggestions: The Greeks are feckless and lazy, corrupt and incapable of paying taxation. The Irish let their libidinal drives go, they all partied and now they must pay for it. There was a suggestion, in the Guardian and beyond, soon after the crash, that it was a pity the UK had let Éire go, as it was evidently incapable of managing its own destiny. Ireland is now portrayed as a model: the ‘good natives’ crush any domestic dissensus and impose eye-watering austerity. They are taking their medicine. Greece, on the other hand, is putting up a spirited resistance. They are the bad natives. We hear they are de-socialised; in some sort of natural self-interested state; incapable of acts in the public good. Both of these narratives are cover for massive reorganisation of Greek and Irish society. Welfare state protections are dismantled, and instead there is a massive social reorganisation which facilitates international flows and the accumulation of capital.
What goes unmentioned in the simple narrative of austerity, belt-tightening, and medicine-taking, is that this is precisely the constellation of processes, discourses and power relations developed in the context of subjugating the peoples of Africa, the Americas and beyond. (Of course, the destructive and rapacious truth of European ‘civilisation’ was always most opaque in the colonial metropole.) What the middle-classes of Europe are waking up to is something that colonial peoples have known for a long time: that is, the experience of being the object and not the agent of neo-colonial power. Of course, those at ‘the bottom of society’ have long known what it is to be talked for, ignored and managed, but that is a different story. The sooner we wake up to this and start listening to those of our brothers and sisters who have lived under the neo-colonial state of emergency, the sooner we will get to grips with our current situation.