Postcolonialism, Race, and International Relations in the Age of Racial Populism

Dr Randolph B. Persaud is Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Int’l Service, American University, Washington D.C. His publications include Counter-Hegemony and Foreign Policy (SUNY Press, 2001); R.B. Persaud & Alina Sajed (eds.) Race, Gender, and Culture in International Relations (Routledge, 2018); R.B. Persaud and N. Kumarakulasingam (eds.) Violence and the Third World in International Relations (Routledge, 2019). He has also published in Alternatives, Third World Quarterly, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Globalizations, Race and Class, Latin American Politics and Society; Connecticut Journal of International Law, Millennium; Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations; Korea Review of International Studies, Tamkang Journal of International Affairs, Foreign Policy, Journal of Narrative Politics.

Dr Persaud would like to thank Sankaran Krishna, Nivi Manchanda, and Rehana Paul for their valuable feedback.

“…knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, and more power requires knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.” (Edward Said, 1978, 36).

‘Isms’ are always difficult, slippery, and elusive. And yet they not only survive, but also thrive and proliferate to the point of becoming routine, even mundane. Unlike economic liberalism, which is linked to Locke or Smith, or political realism to Thucydides, Hobbes, or Machiavelli, postcolonialism is a kind of intellectual wanderer, coming through multiple intellectual genealogies and disciplines. No apodictic definition would do, and accordingly, it is perhaps best to identify the two main prongs of postcolonial thinking. 

Following John McLeod’s (2010) distinction, when post-colonialism is used with a hyphen it signifies an existing reality, namely, a temporal break in history. In this instance, national independence is the most important temporal marker. Without the hyphen, postcolonialism refers to perspectives about the world underpinned by a determined effort to lay bare the profound impact of colonialism on the human condition, and this, with devastating consequences for the Third World. Siba Grovogui (2013) succinctly captures the ambiguity of postcolonialism by describing it as ‘an attitude’, and a critical attitude at that. But critical of what, specifically? 

To avoid the bane of over-theoretical academia where nothing can be defined with consensus, I will quote Sankaran Krishna’s rendering, which reads as follows –

“Postcolonialism can be provisionally defined as the perspective or worldview …to understand today’s world only by foregrounding the history of colonialism defined…as the domination of certain societies and peoples by others-over the past five centuries” (Krishna, 2009).

Few will doubt that Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has played a pivotal role in the emergence of postcolonialism on a global scale. In this tour de force, Said developed a comprehensive intellectual apparatus aimed at ruining the prestige of Eurocentric knowledges which have occupied privileged positions in the academy, and in the public imagination. Said drew heavily on the political and cultural theory of Antonio Gramsci (1971), and to some extent the philosophy of Michel Foucault (1969; 1975), in systematically demonstrating the ways in which Western modernity emerged as an outcome of colonial relations of power. 

The principal method for constructing the world outside of Europe came through discourses articulated in literature, travel writing, missionary reports, accounts by explorers, as well as more formal knowledges produced for instance in anthropology, political theory, and political economy. These ‘knowledges’ have a remarkable unity in that the world is always divided between the ‘saved’ (the West), and the ‘dammed’ – Europe’s universal Other. The idea of the Other gained significant leverage especially because it allowed a more critical examination of the ways in which the conditions of the global majority (otherwise known as the Third World), were linked to contact with the West. In Said’s postcolonial schema, the Other is the logical condition of possibility for that which we know as the West. This same West began its career in modernity with violent conquest. Violence, both epistemological and physical, have been central to the making of this modernity.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of scholars in India began to critique the dominance of elite interpretations in the historical analyses of decolonization. Writers such as Ranajit Guha (1982) began to insist on a more bottom-up view of resistance to and transformation out of empire. In this new way of writing history, the subaltern social forces became active participants rather than background ‘material’ in the emancipatory and often bloody journey toward retrieving national sovereignty. In a now famous article – “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak (1983) went much further and located the precarity of the subaltern woman as trapped between the mission civilisatrice of foreign white men (and women too) who want to save them from the brown man, and the brown man, in turn, who avers that sati, the ritual act of widow immolation, is willingly committed. Beyond sati itself, Spivak offered a sustained critique of the linkages between research by outsiders and economic and political interest of the Westerner. 

The significant migration of Third World peoples to the West also informed some strands of postcolonialism. Stuart Hall (Hall et al, 1978), a Jamaican by birth, and professor of Sociology in the United Kingdom, began a thorough examination of the relationship between imperial identity and the cultural, ideological, and political ‘quarantine’ of those who immigrated from the former colonies to Britain. Much later, but along the same lines, Homi Bhabha (2000) redeveloped and employed the concepts of mimicry, hybridity, and ambivalence to interrogate both the limits and continuities of colonial power. Bhabha’s central argument is that colonizers have never been wholly successful in their projects of domination. Whether in the age of empire or now in neoliberal globalization, subaltern resistance is historically guaranteed. 

Since about the early 1990s, postcolonial critique has been establishing a notable presence in international studies, and more specifically in the discipline of International Relations (IR). While it is true that postcolonialism is still at the margins of the IR academy, it is equally true that there is now a critical mass of scholars and scholarship that will embolden fundamental changes on key questions relating to international security, international development, race and racism in the international system, the global politics of gender, global environmental politics, and more broadly the cultural politics of world order. Euro-centered narratives of humanity moving from bush and bramble to skyscrapers and mass consumption, all the while with democracy and human rights, are now facing robust challenges from post-colonial IR. Allow me to identify some of the key claims and propositions of postcolonial IR.

Firstly, postcolonialism has set in motion a longue durée program of ‘strategic counterhegemony’. Counterhegemony refers to a comprehensive intellectual assault on the central pillars of what Anibal Quijano (2000) has called the coloniality of power, meaning the continuation of imperial domination albeit in different forms in the post-independence period. The strategic dimension is to be found in the suturing of seemingly disparate structural grievances and attendant social forces into a coherent effort at transforming the social order domestically, and world order at the global level. Postcolonial and decolonial scholars have been engaged in unmasking the colonial foundations of the current world order. The aim is not only to reveal the continuity of coloniality but to also democratize key international institutions as well as the domestic structures that perpetuate a range of inequalities. Most Western states continue to put up resistance to the call for change.  Only recently, for example, US President, Donald Trump, threatened to defund California’s federal education grants if schools in the state use materials from the New York Times“1619 Project” which “…reframes American history around the date of August 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores.” 

Secondly, postcolonial IR insists on investigating the centrality of race and racism in the making of actually existing global capitalism, and the successive world orders in the modern international system. World order here refers to the major ideas, institutions, and material structures that underwrite the international political economy and system of global governance (Robert W. Cox, 1981). An edited volume by Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda, and Robbie Shilliam – Race and Racism in International Relations (2015) is indicative of the new counterhegemonic oeuvre. A notable feature of this book and current postcolonial scholarship is the wide range of sources, places, histories, and issues covered or better yet, articulated. The writings of scholars such as Frantz Fanon or W.E.B. Dubois, hitherto ignored in IR, are now engaged at length. 

Thirdly, postcolonial IR rejects the fixation on states or the state system as the default units or level of analysis. Accordingly, the Treaty of Westphalia which is otherwise taken as an uncontested point of departure is treated as a specific development within the European states’ system and balance of power. The treaty was a religious settlement, and whatever sovereignty emerged in its aftermath was restricted to Europe. The postcolonial argument is straightforward. Rather than the universal applicability usually accorded the Treaty of Westphalia, postcolonial IR sees it as a regional moment in global historical development. By the time 1648 ‘rolled-around’, the globe was already heavily penetrated by imperial powers through settler colonialism and other forms of imperial domination. If anything, state sovereignty facilitated even greater conquest and domination of the world outside Europe.  

Fourthly, postcolonial analyses insist that the exercise of colonial domination cannot be properly understood unless gendered relations of power are systematically incorporated. Sex, sexuality, and sexism have been integral to the colonizing will and its reproduction over time. The bodies of the colonized woman have served not only for purposes of economic exploitation, but also as a site of colonial lust and assault. The modern form exists in the global sex industry where Third World women are still objects of the colonial gaze. Postcolonial feminist scholars have shown the complicated relationship among manhood, violence, and imperial ambition. And though not a postcolonial scholar, John Hope Franklin demonstrated how slavery in the American South fomented an ideology of honor based on virile manhood, violence, and the will to fight (Franklin, 1954). President Theodore Roosevelt equated expansion into the American west, and foreign conquest with ‘muscular Christianity’, or put differently, Christian manhood.  

Fifth, and finally, it must be emphasized that postcolonialism is not only interested in analyzing discourses of domination or the performative constitution of identities, but to also demonstrate the centrality of systematic imperial violence in the making of the modern world. Achille Mbembe’s (2001) idea of ‘founding violence’ is especially apposite because it describes the original contact between Europe and the rest, as well as the continuation of that violence until today. Violence has not only been ongoing since 1492, it has also been the most predictable aspect of North-South relations. 

Postcolonialism has its critics, of course. Some, such as Vivek Chibber (2013), dismiss postcolonialism and especially the subaltern variant, as poor political theory, and poor historical methodology. On the former, Chibber takes aim at Guha for being trapped in the European Enlightenment. With respect to the latter, the problem is with historicism, which Chibber sees as either suffering from “historical teleology” or “structural essentialism”. Even more broadly, for him, postcolonialism is postmaterialist, and accordingly amounts to a form of philosophical idealism. 

Another source of criticism comes in the form of friendly-fire, namely, decolonial critique. Decoloniality is grounded in the work of Anibal Quijano, but most forcefully prosecuted by Walter Mignolo. The charges are many, but the most important is that postcolonialism is still operating within the intellectual womb of European modernity. Further, for Mignolo (2005), postcolonialism offers a different interpretation of historical development, while decoloniality offers a different perspective.  Differences in interpretation assume common rules and grounds in knowledge construction. Differences in perspective are based on fragmentation of the rules and on the in the geo-historical location of power. Accordingly, and against South Asian subalternity, Latin America and Caribbean, along with Africa are more strategic places through which to propound epistemological delinking from the Western weltanschauung. These criticisms notwithstanding, most postcolonial scholars move quite seamlessly between the post and decolonial perspectives. 

It should be clear that while there is no fixed definition of postcolonialism, there is widespread consensus among its adherents that the fight against the coloniality of power must continue unabated. These struggles will persist, as they must, in the classroom, the academy, and in the streets. 

The task of postcolonialism is to enjoin these theatres seeking socio-economic change and cultural transformation. More recently, the inequalities that have emerged under neoliberal globalization, combined with the global rise of what I shall call racial populism, have spawned new forms of intellectual and practical solidarities among seemingly disparate anti-racist, abolitionist, and anti-colonial social forces. In the United States in particular, African American anti-racist movements and diaspora communities are bringing to life the potential for generative disturbance that writers such as Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha hinted at some decades ago. If there is an internal leitmotiv in the postcolonial movement, it is that there shall be no privileged center from which the world is ruled, or even governed.

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