Post-settlerism is not and would not be a good thing

by zunguzungu

It took me a long time to realize that the difference between settler colonialism and franchise/metropolitan/regular-old colonialism was the hinge for what I’m trying to do with the relationship between the United States and Kenya in my dissertation. In a very complicated way, of course; the problem with Kenya settlers is that they thought they were a settler colony when they actually weren‘t and couldn’t be, a problem they had in common with South African settlers, for whom the problem was not as grave but just as unsolvable. There just weren’t enough settlers, such that the colonial economy — and thus, the keys to the kingdom — always rested, in the final analysis, on African labor.  The white settler community wanted Kenya to be a “white man’s country,” like the United States and Australia, and they failed because they lost the demographic war they often didn’t even realize they were fighting.

The reason it took me so long to find that piece of the conceptual puzzle, I think, was because “post-colonialism,” to the extent one can generalize, had quite programmatically taught me not to observe the distinction. Theorists of colonialism and postcolonialism tend to treat “it” like it’s one thing, tend to act as if it had a definite historical form and anatomy about which a variety of generalizations can be made and from which all sorts of statements about culture can be derived. This is not surprising; the pantheon of postcolonialist thinkers who rose to prominence in the 80’s traded on that notion quite successfully — and wrote a lot of important work whose foundational statusis is more or less proven by the extent to which we’ve moved beyond it — yet to the extent that “postcolonialism” became a subject of knowledge, it tended to turn “empire” and “colonialism” into an increasingly singular thing.

Without attributing intention to the founders of that canon, it’s not surprising that it happened that way. In part, making “the colonial” into a very specific thing allowed us to enjoy a triumphalist sense of post-colonialism in the present, insulating us in time from the sins of the past, and in this way making postcolonialism a safe discourse for us now. And it is also insulated us in political space; since empire was a thing that Britain and France did, the American postcolonialists — which was most of them — could safely excoriate the sins of an empire with whose legacy their audience had almost nothing to do with. The more specifically you defined “the postcolonial,” after all, the fewer people you alienated.

But as a result, the vocabulary most people use for discussing “empire” here and now is quite limited. This exchange in the NLR, for example (which I’m taking from the good people here) is really typical of that impoverished vocabulary. In a critical review of Gabriel Piterberg’s The Returns of Zionism, for example, Zeev Sternhell argues, essentially, that because Zionist Jews didn’t create a society that looked like what he (Sternahall) takes for granted colonialism is, it couldn’t actually be that:

First of all, a colonization that is not comparable to any other colonial society in its social and economic structures cannot be called a colonization. If Mandate-era Jewish Palestine was not based on any of the characteristic features of a colonial society—the exploitation of a native work-force; the confiscation of the natural riches of the country; a monopoly of political power that created two different classes of inhabitants, citizens and others who had no rights—it could not have been a colonial society. The truth was rather the opposite: in order to build a nation, the Jews of Palestine formed themselves into a self-sufficient and closed society. The cult of manual labour and the necessity of creating an infrastructure for the reception of new immigrants helped to prevent the emergence of exploitative relationships.

But as Piterberg easily responds by pointing out, Sternhell’s reliance on the obviously “characteristic features of a colonial society” so utterly and completely misses the point that he inadvertently makes Piterberg’s actual argument without realizing it:

…the fundamental point about a white-settler colony—New England, Virginia, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina—is that it is predicated on white labour, on complete closure vis-à-vis the natives, on gradual territorial expansion, under the bayonets of a metropole colonial power for as long as necessary; and on the creation of a self-sufficient economy that can attract more settler immigration. Contrary to Sternhell’s allegation that this notion is ‘dated’, a buoyant field of comparative settler colonialism has produced some of the most penetrating new studies of these societies over the past decades. Their starting-point is the recognition that, from the 16th century on, European expansion and conquest produced two related but clearly distinguishable forms of colonialism. One was metropole colonialism, in which the European powers conquered and ruled vast territories, but without the emigration there of Europeans seeking to make these territories their national home: British India is a good example. The other type was settler colonialism, in which conquest brought with it substantial waves of European settlers who, with the passage of time, sought to make the colony their national patrimony.

In fetishizing the name, Sternhell misses the argument. But the distinction has enormous consequences. For example, Patrick Wolfe has described the structure of settler colonialism as a “logic of elimination,” in which the existence of the invader is premised on the non-existence of the indigenous peoples (here for example), and in this he is right to see a sharp distinction between the form of colonial practice in “classic” settler colonies like the USA or Australia and in colonial structures in which the exploitation of native labor was the entire point (Nigeria, India, Kenya from the perspective of London, etc). In the latter, for colonial labor to withdraw from the labor pool was toxic to the colonial state, and that fact gave organized labor in Africa incredible power; somewhere in this great book, for example, Frederick Cooper argues that preventing empire-wide general strikes by balkanizing labor populations in individual nation-states was a major motivating factor for decolonization (from the European perspective), but the more humble point is even easier: because the big European empires were all about getting colonial peoples to work for them, organized colonial labor became powerful.

By contrast, settler colonies don’t exploit indigenous labor, they exclude it. But since settler colonial labor markets are constructed from the start with the goal of excluding indigenous labor, indigenous people who withdraw their labor from the market trouble their conquerors not at all by doing so (as Wolfe puts it in this excellent podcast, the exploitation of indigenous labor is not unheard of,  it’s just a contradiction in the mode of production). The political stakes for both labor and culture are dramatically different. And while the twentieth century saw the collapse of Europe’s great colonial empires, it was also presided over by the most successful settler colony in history, the United States. Which is where the sly “(or is it?)” comes from, I suspect, in this passage from Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, in which he urges us to pay attention to the

…historical accident (or is it?) that the native founders of the postcolonial canon came from franchise or dependent – as opposed to settler or creole — colonies. This gave these guerilla theoreticians the advantage of speaking to an oppressed majority on the supply of whose labour a colonizing minority was vulnerably dependent. For Amalcar Cabral (1973:40) for instance, genocide of the natives could only be counterproductive, creating ’a void which empties foreign domination of its content and its object: the dominated people’. Analogously, (in this regard at least), when Frantz Fanon asserted (1967:47) that ’colonization and decolonization are simply a question of relative strength’, he was referring to relative capacities for violence, on which basis the colonizer was ultimately superfluous. Given certain African contexts, especially in the 1960’s, the material grounds for such optimism can reasonably be credited. But what if the colonizers are not dependent on native labour? — indeed, what if the natives themselves have been reduced to a small minority whose survival can hardly be seen to furnish the colonizing society with more than a remission from ideological embarrassment?”

The most chilling consequence of this distinction, however, is that whereas the post-colonial could seem to be inevitable, and (given the precariousness of the “great” European empires of the late 19th and early 20th) really was doomed and insubstantial by the standards of historical empires (see Cooper and Burbank’s new book on this point), defining “post-colonialism” strictly in terms of the colonial empires that had collapsed in the 1960’s prevents us from noticing, for example, that the endpoint of the two classic settler colonies (the US and Australia) has been complete and total success of the settler colonial project. And whereas post-colonial implies a triumphal narrative of de-colonization — as in this final riff on the term by Ato Quayson — “post-settler” implies the opposite, settler victory in a demographic — and, as such, effectively genocidal — struggle, one that ends when the victor can forget they were even fighting it.