Rethinking the Legacies of Empire: A Report on the Postcolonial Workshop Series from the Spring 2013 Reed

Greg Grandin, Professor of History at New York University, speaking about “Empire in Latin America.”

John Coatsworth, Professor of History at Columbia University, serving as discussant at the “Empire in Southeast Asia” lecture.

Just what, one might ask, is so new about postcolonial and empire studies that they have once again become a rich source of debate and scholarship?

In the inaugural talk of After the Postcolonial Turn: Global Perspectives—a yearlong lecture series that seeks to answer this question—Louise Young, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, notes how two intellectual trends are driving new interest in an old subject. The first, according to Young, is the reassessment of British Imperial history by a new generation of scholars; the second is the placing of recent US history squarely within the imperial tradition.

In the British case, she notes how the older Cambridge school of historians, and those they trained, focused on the “acquired in a fit of absentmindedness” political narrative of British colonial history, as well as collaboration studies. Both approaches, she argues, tend to absolve the colonizer and to apportion blame between the colonizer and the colonized. She says that scholars engaged in “the new imperial history of the British Empire” are turning past assumptions upside down—in part by approaching British Empire studies through the “holy trinity” of race, class, and gender.

In the American case, Young notes how the culturalist factors of the Cold War debates left scholars unable even to decide even if America was in fact an empire. Could America, those scholars asked, be both a colony and a colonizer? Was the creating of markets and the spread of capitalism the equivalent of the older imperial projects?  According to Young, these older questions about America’s intentions and idealism have since given way to greater consensus that US history must be conceptualized within the imperial tradition.
What was most striking to Young was that the new scholarly debates on these two imperial centers—Great Britain and the United States—were largely isolated in different academic spheres. The After the Postcolonial Turn: Global Perspectives lecture series attempts to connect new scholarship on empire and colonialism by hosting talks on differing regional legacies of colonialism and empire.  The series, featuring six talks and spanning the 2012-2013 academic year, is hosted by a new collaborative initiative— known as Institutes Global Connections—between Columbia University’s seven regional institutes which seeks to integrate regional scholarship with broader global debates.


In her own lecture, “Empire in East Asia I,” Young examines the ways in which the new colonial histories can be fruitfully employed to reexamine the imperial legacy of Japan. “The legacies of empire have been sublimated into debates about the conduct of the war,” she notes. Unlike the scholarly reassessment of empire in Britain, current controversies in Japan over the presentation of World War II and visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine overshadow intellectual approaches to the legacy of empire. “There is a postwar Japan but not a post-imperial Japan,” she argues.
Mark Driscoll, an associate professor of International studies at the University of North Carolina, goes so far as to argue that postwar Japanese history is not a good fit for the postcolonial narrative since “decolonization is happening very late in East Asia.” He argues that the case studies on which much postcolonial theory are often drawn from the African and Indian experience, but that Latin America and East Asia are not such a good fit for these models.

In applying postcolonial theory, Driscoll takes on the existing assumptions about the colonial nature of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Referred to by some scholars as postcolonial Manchukuo, the Japanese political experiment, lasting from 1932-1945, is sometimes characterized today as a noncolonial project with no clear distinction between the colonizer and the colonized. It fits neither the butcher-and-bolt form of rapacious colonial adventurism nor the extractive economic model of shipping resources back to the colonizer’s homeland.

Driscoll, on the other hand, lays bare the exploitative nature of what he calls the “South Manchurian colony” through his examination of exploitative labor practices under the Japanese.  He describes how the institutions of government were set up largely to organize opium production and produce revenue for Japanese investors. Coming late to the discredited project of colonization, the Japanese rebranded this as a form of market-oriented capitalism that obscured the brutally exploitative nature of the colonial economy, according to Driscoll.

Driscoll found that approaching the Manchukuo experiment with postcolonial theory formulated from the study of Africa could be instructive. Yet, he notes the vastly different departure point for Japanese decolonization. If decolonization is a gradual movement toward global concerns, Japan simply does not fit this definition, he indicates. “How can there be a postcolonial East Asia when the main event of decolonization is nuclear terrorism?”

In his view, the lingering effects of the ongoing postcolonial process are a retrenchment of nationalism in East Asia. Driscoll’s lecture ultimately highlights the importance of confronting differing postcolonial experiences both individually and comparatively—and through diverse academic disciplines.


Charles Piot, Professor of Anthropology at Duke University,
discussing “Empire in Africa.”

Perhaps nowhere in the lecture series is the local connected to the global as well as in an anecdote told in the lecture “Empire in Africa” by Charles Piot, an anthropologist from Duke University who has worked for about a quarter century in villages in the northern part of Togo.

Piot argues that what is generally thought of as the postcolonial period—the period directly following decolonization and marked by the spread of political independence—really had much more in common with the colonial period than is commonly thought. The African independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s, he says, gave rise to bouts of euphoria over the political coming-of-age of the African continent and released pent-up aspirations for self-determination and the pride of ethnic identity. Yet, Piot points out that these independence movements were often hijacked by military figures who, under the banner of independence, established dictatorships.

Not only did these dictators fail to deliver on the promise of political participation, but, according to Piot, they also ruled through the established political structures of the former colonial powers. The people he studies in northern Togo, for example, were not only not tribal, but also had no name for themselves, at least until the German colonizers lent them one. Their German colonial rulers also established for the first time in the region a tribal hierarchy ruled by chieftains, a system alien to the local people.

These chieftains became the level of power in the traditional colonial system of indirect rule. Piot notes that they collected the taxes and organized men for labor and war. Even after Togo secured independence from France (which had inherited the colony after Germany’s defeat in World War I) in 1960, the system of authority established under colonialism continued. Rulers hailing from the local population exercised authority in a decentralized fashion through the same artificially created chieftainships and like the colonizers before them directed the spoils of the system into their own coffers.

These strongman rulers, like Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma, thrived during the Cold War, when allegiances were eagerly bought with foreign aid. Piot notes that Togo was the recipient of $50 million per year from the United States during the Cold War and given a rotating seat on the UN Security Council in the 1980s. “It was a tiny little country with an all-important vote,” Piot says. All of this changed, of course, at the end of the Cold War, and Piot notes that US aid to Togo today has dropped to $10,000 a year.

Piot makes a good case for rethinking the postcolonial legacy today in light of the tremendous changes the world has undergone since the end of Cold War. He argues that colonial rule in Togo followed by dictators using the same mechanisms of domination resulted in a thorough distrust of centralized power and even government itself. “The end of Cold War,” he says, “represents the real break from the colonial dynamic—rule through proxy and the end of decentralized despotism.”

In place of the old narratives used to create divisions in society, (rural/urban, nonnative/native, modern/traditional), there was a rejection of the dictatorial state and the old colonial system of dominance. “Power began to migrate away from the state to NGOs and Pentecostal churches who today really decide who will live and who will die,” Piot says.


To illustrate how this shift in the nature of political and social power has so radically altered society in Togo, Piot retells the story of a Ponzi scheme that swept through Lome̒, Togo’s capital, in 2010. “I want to use this as a cipher for thinking back through the colonial,” he says with an anthropologist’s enthusiasm for coaxing the deeper meaning out of events.

Piot does a marvelous job connecting the disillusionment with political independence during the Cold War with the forces shaping a Togolese society that was entirely distrustful of centralized authority. That cynicism toward government coincided with the arrival of new currents of global economic thinking. This was the great age of the neoliberal thinkers, who argued that government should be scaled back and markets unleashed.

In Togo, this resulted in what Piot calls “the hustle economy,” in which everyone was out to get theirs. In 2010, a year of rising oil prices and commodity inflation, a get-rich-quick scheme tapped into this new hustle economy. Organized by unknown figures, the pyramid scheme offered high returns for modest investments. Some 50,000 Togolese caught the fever, often investing in the scheme with borrowed capital to secure the promised 200% annual returns.

As the craze heated up, money from the Togolese diaspora also began flowing in with investors hoping to replace their remittances to relatives at home with the Ponzi scheme’s alluring lifetime monthly payouts. Finally, as more people borrowed to buy into the scheme, the government began to fear for the banking system, and by year’s end it closed down the pyramid scheme, and imprisoned the ringleaders.

Piot asks some probing questions about this phenomenon and its connection to the breakdown of the colonial order, exercised up through the early postcolonial period. Were neoliberal economics in part to blame? Was not the global privileging of wealth in the post-Cold War World furthering the breakdown of societal bonds, even as it made people more global in their outlook? Wasn’t the Togolese movement of capital—the hedging, borrowing and speculating—exactly what was occurring in advanced industrial economies through more respected institutions?

The hustle economy, Piot notes, had already created a Togolese society used to finessing tiny margins, by dipping and borrowing from different tills to scrape by. This highly unstable financial model does indeed seem to mirror the global financial trends (what Piot calls Ponzi economics) that resulted in a global financial collapse.

In Togo, the appeal of the pyramid scheme of 2010 was aided by some other surprising factors, according to Piot. While neoliberalism spread the creed of capitalism, the Pentecostal church and the NGOs were eroding factors that might have restrained the behavior of the scheme’s participants. While the Pentecostal church and the NGOs might have had very different ambitions for Togolese society, they were both promising a future based on new sources of power and the end of the traditions of tribe and village. Both focused on the responsibility for everyday people for their future and their well-being, and these narratives fit right into the Togolese distrust of government that had lingered since the colonial era.

Indeed, not only was the Pentecostal church “driving a stake through the heart of village religion,” in Piot’s words, but it was also normalizing narratives of vice and scandal. The very moral obsessions that the church preached against became normalized features of life in Togo, just as neocolonial thinking was encouraging the hustle economy. So too did the NGOs offer a future based on self-reliance, sometimes woefully unconnected to the historic and cultural legacies of the local scene.

What emerged as the dominant trend, argues Piot, was a “preoccupation with the future and the miraculous.” New sources of power had cropped up to replace the distrusted power of the state: a new religion, self-evident human rights, and the moral legitimacy of the pursuit of wealth. The unintended consequence, says Piot, was “governance without government,” and the wildly popular appeal of a pyramid scheme that tapped into both religious and earthly desires for a prosperous future.

Piot concludes by noting how postcolonial theory comes up short when attempting to address new realities in the postcolonial world. “I find the theoretical tools of that moment inadequate to the present, and feel that today’s ethnographic terrain with its new sovereignties, its emergent forms of power,” he says. “This calls for a different set of critical theories.”


Rashid Khalidi, Professor of History at Columbia University,
giving a talk on “Empire in the Middle East.”

It is just that type of reconceptualization of the fundamental questions that drives these talks. Rashid Khalidi, for example, in his talk “Empire in the Middle East,” notes that the series operates under the assumption that the postcolonial world is in a new phase that this is causing a complete reorientation of scholarly inquiry into the subject.

Like Piot, Khalidi argues that something fundamental happened in the post-Cold War world. For the Middle East, in Khalidi’s view, the testing ground was what the Bush administration called the “global war on terror.” While he says that US involvement in the Middle East is not a classical example of colonialism, he argues that it does represent a new phase in a historical trajectory.

It is both a story of continuity and change. To show continuity between the British and American imperial projects, Khalidi tells an interesting anecdote about tribal legal codes in Iraq. After the British in India drew up separate legal codes for townspeople and the tribal areas of British India, they then applied this two-tiered legal system to Iraq, although it had functioned under a single legal code during the Ottoman Empire. When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, they dug up the British tribal laws and applied them to various groups that they saw as too fragmented to be administered by a single code—and in one simple step resurrecting a historical resentment.

Yet, Khalidi also argues that US power, while clearly within the Western imperial tradition, is providing some new challenges for the conceptualization of empire. Ultimately, he believes that new answers will be found only when scholars are able to cross disciplines and broaden their inquiry. “What may be needed,” he says, “is comparative work done in multiple regions.”

His prescription for new approaches to varying colonial legacies is a doubling down on the hard work of focused regional scholarship—through the study of languages, histories, cultures—but also the imperative of connecting these disparate parts into a larger narrative, in part by bringing scholars of different regions together in forums like this.



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