On Colonialism and Colleagues

I will set down an encounter (from the early 1990s) with a colleague at Northeastern University that carries some useful lessons about how our views of history can be shaped by our kinship to it.

Even in academic circles, conversations remain fairly mundane in this country. Politics, which is the first and, often, the only subject of conversation in Pakistan, almost never comes up for discussion here. Momentous events pass unremarked. I would never have found out from talking to my colleagues, whether at lunch or in the corridors, that there were changes taking place in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or China which would alter the world forever.

The conversations I hear are usually about more local events. Most of the talk is about the affairs of the department, the university, the city or state, usually in that order of importance. This is perhaps as it should be. It reflects a pragmatism in American culture, evincing a greater solicitude for events that concern them directly, affairs they participate in and can hope to influence. We find this narrowness to be irksome. It shows a provincialism which we find constricting. We even feel a certain superiority in our concern for larger, global events. But our heated debates about politics, I suspect, are a substitute for social involvement. We will work ourselves into a rage over what goes on halfway around the world, as if the outcome of those events depended on the positions that we would be taking. I have noted that we get more worked up over things that are usually beyond us. It excuses us from not doing the things that we can do.

And now to return to the encounter. A few days back, I made some remarks on how colonialism had produced many of the problems poor countries faced today. The subject had been on my mind since I had been teaching a course on the economic history of developing countries; and I aired the proposition that colonial rule had hurt economic development in the Third World. I ventured that a case could be made that had they not been colonized, at least some of today’s poor countries might have industrialized sooner. I did not believe that the absence of formal colonization would have guaranteed industrial progress, but historical evidence is quite convincing on the point that only sovereign countries developed any substantial industries–at least till the end of the Second World War.

While I made these remarks, one of my colleagues, a specialist in the economics of developing countries, was conveying strong signals of disagreement with his body language. Later, when I had finished, he eagerly proposed the opposite view, stating that he could not see how any Third World country could have done any better without colonialism. Colonial governments were not inherently worse than the indigenous governments they had replaced. And nearly always, they were better managed than those that had now succeeded them.

I took the liberty of pointing out what should have been obvious. Colonialism was bad for colonized peoples because it set over them a tyranny, a government of foreigners, appointed by and accountable to some distant metropolitan power. Moreover, as foreigners, the colonial rulers could feel little natural sympathy for the people over whom they ruled. Afraid that a modicum of sympathy might develop over time, good colonial policy everywhere demanded that the rulers live apart from the natives; they lived in colonial enclaves to which natives were admitted only as servants. In addition, to prevent the colonial rulers from acquiring a personal interest in the colonies, their service rules demanded that they return to the ‘mother country’ upon retirement. Not to forget, most colonials came to the colonies with attitudes that could scarcely have allowed them to associate with the ‘inferior’ natives, even if colonial life did not prevent such intercourse.

If we took a measure of all these conditions that were common in the colonies, it is difficult to see how colonial rule could have worked to the advantage of the colonized peoples. Neither their political nor social circumstances could persuade the colonial rulers to take more than a perfunctory interest in the lives or welfare of ordinary people in the colonies. They could only promote the interests of the superiors who employed them or the people they met socially in the colonies: other expatriates from the ‘mother country.’ As a result, the colonial rulers could normally be expected to ensure that capital from the ‘mother country’–that is, the mother country of the colonial rulers–would have free and privileged access to the colonies. All capital and skills not connected to the ‘mother country,’ including those from the colonies, would be discouraged or prevented legally from competing with the favored children of the ‘mother country.’

Admittedly, fear of local insurrections might have given pause to such colonial policy. It might place a check on the rapacity of colonial rulers. But since they enjoyed an overwhelming military superiority over the natives, a superiority that would be maintained well into the middle of the twentieth century, the colonial rulers generally preferred repression to accommodation. In many colonies, this policy was aided by the largest native landowners, a partnership that worked to the advantage of both. In other colonies, the best agricultural lands were parceled out amongst white settlers who drafted natives to work them for their own profit. Aside from a very few exceptions, then, the colonized peoples were pushed to the margins of their societies–as peasants, plantation and mine workers, coolies, domestic servants, soldiers, and clerks.

My colleague remained unconvinced. He could not see that a tyranny imposed from outside could be more harmful to a country’s economic interests than one imposed by local despots. I then proposed the following question. Everything else being equal, I asked if a government by rulers of alien vintage–who retire to their countries of origins–would be more repugnant to the dignity of a colonized people than an indigenous oligarchy. He did not think it should make any difference. At this point I suspected, for a moment, that my colleague might be pulling my leg. But he was quite serious.

Though we in the Third World recognize that the pieties about the West’s civilizing mission for what they are–a cover for their plunder of colored peoples–Western audiences have for long taken them at face value. Most of them still believe in their own innate goodness and superiority. A good people–it follows-can only use their superior powers to help the less fortunate. This sums up their faith in the civilizing mission. Colonial conquests and colonial rule were missions of mercy to the benighted peoples inhabiting the tropics. All this and more they were taught by many of their best philosophers and poets.

Perhaps, there was another explanation for my colleague’s obtuseness. Since colonial rule was Western, talk of the harm is seen as signaling animus towards the West. When this talk comes from people of color, it sounds even more reprehensible to Western ears. I have also seen this with my students. It appears to them that the ‘whites’ today are being accused for their past misdeeds. It appears that the responsibility, the guilt, of our underdevelopment is being passed on to them. This ‘shirking’ of responsibility by people of color–passing the buck, in American lingo–is also seen as unmanly, cowardly, for a culture that teaches people to take responsibility for their actions.

To this day, scholars, editors, columnists and talk-show hosts in the West engage in a great deal of polemic to show how good they have been to people of color. To show that developing countries were incapable of developing on their own. Incredibly, this was also Karl Marx’s position. Colonialism was engaged in the historic mission of destroying the archaic institutions that had for long blocked progress, and which these societies could not dislodge on their own. Colonialism, howsoever brutal, was reintegrating these peoples into the great stream of world history whose deep waters always flow through the West.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University, and author of Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on America’s ‘War Against Islam’ (IPI Publications: 2006 forthcoming). He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.




M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.