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Social Sci LibreTexts

9.1: The Basics of Postcolonialism

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  • Postcolonialism has specifically drawn attention to IR theory’s neglect of the critical intersections of empire, race/ethnicity, gender and class (among other factors) in the workings of global power that reproduce a hierarchical IR. This hierarchy is centred not on striving for a more equal distribution of power among peoples and states but on the concentration of power.

    A key theme to postcolonialism is that Western perceptions of the non-West are a result of the legacies of European colonisation and imperialism. Discourses – primarily things that are written or spoken – constructed nonWestern states and peoples as ‘other’ or different to the West, usually in a way that made them appear to be inferior. In doing so, they helped European powers justify their domination over other peoples in the name of bringing civilisation or progress.

    To better understand postcolonialism we can consider the discourses that make certain power relations seem natural or even inevitable. Postcolonialism views key issues in International Relations as constituting discourses of power. This notion of a discourse allows scholars to utilise a frame of reference for thinking about the world and its problems that does not merely reside in the empirically verifiable and ‘fact’-based inquiry that drives traditional IR theories such as realism and liberalism. Take, for example, the issue of global inequality. Postcolonialism suggests that in order to better understand how global class relations emerge and are maintained we must address ideas about why these relations appear normal. This approach points to how characterisations of global poverty are often accompanied by images and narratives of non-Western governments and societies as simultaneously primitive, hyper-masculine, aggressive, childlike and effeminate. In short, postcolonialism argues that addressing and finding solutions to poverty and global inequality come up against representations of the other that make it difficult for Western policymakers to shed their biases and address the underlying global structural factors such as how capital and resources are accumulated and flow around the world generating inequality. For this reason, solutions often focus only on intervening to support a seemingly less developed state, rather than addressing the underlying causes of global inequality.

    In analysing how key concepts such as power, the state and security serve to reproduce the status quo, postcolonialism proposes a more complex view of such concepts than is characteristic of traditional theories. For example, the concept of sovereignty, and with it the contours of the modern state, were imposed on the colonial world by European powers. Yet it is a concept that is usually taken for granted by scholars of realism and liberalism. Postcolonialism also challenges the Marxist perspective that class struggle is at the root of historical change – instead demonstrating how race shapes history. Analyses that focus only on class fail to consider how the identification of the ‘Third World’ (a term developed during the Cold War to describe those states unaligned to the United States or the Soviet Union) as ‘backward’, ‘primitive’ or ‘non-rational’ are linked to persistent economic marginalisation. Similarly, while mainstream IR theories see the international system as an anarchy, postcolonial scholars see it as a hierarchy. Colonialism and imperialism fostered a long process of continued domination of the West over the rest of the world and cultural, economic and political domination still characterise global politics.

    Postcolonialism also demonstrates how Western views about Islam and its adherents are a manifestation of the West’s own insecurities. The rise of political Islam across the Muslim world – watermarked by Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 – not only confronted neo-imperialist interventions but also revealed the impacts of core cultural and social shifts accompanying a more interconnected global economy. In the West, however, the view of this resurgence has been interpreted by prominent policymakers and academics as heralding a ‘clash of civilizations’ (Huntington 1993) and worse, constituting a direct threat to Western civilization. Edward Said (1997) showed how Western media, film, academia and policy elites rely on a distorted lens or framework used to describe the history and culture of Arab peoples and adherents of Islam. He called it Orientalism because it constructs a particular idea of the so-called ‘Orient’ that is distinct from the West and that in a binary or dualistic way of thinking ascribes to the Orient and its inhabitants characteristics that are essentially the opposite of the West. For instance, people of the Orient may be characterised as being exotic, emotional, feminine, backward, hedonistic, non-rational and so forth. This is in contrast to the more positive attributes usually associated with the West such as rationality, masculinity, civilization and modernity.

    Many postcolonial scholars emphasise how orientalist discourses are still visible in Western representations today. Representations and perceptions matter to postcolonial theorists because they dictate what comes to be seen as normal or as making sense.

    Postcolonialism owes a significant debt to Edward Said for his work on developing Orientalism. Yet Said himself was influenced by the writing of anticolonial and nationalist thinkers such as Frantz Fanon (1967) and Albert Memmi (1991) whose works discuss the power of ‘othering’. For example, Fanon shows how race shapes the way that the coloniser relates to the colonised and vice versa by capturing how some people under colonial rule began to internalise – that is, identify with – ideas of racial difference that saw ‘others’ as inferior to white Europeans. Fanon explains that the ‘black man’ is made to believe in his inferiority to the ‘white colonisers’ through psychological aspects of colonisation, such as the imposition of the coloniser’s language, culture, religion and education systems. Through such impositions, the colonised come to believe they are a culturally inferior other. This internalisation made it easier for colonisers to justify and maintain their rule. Postcolonialism thus brings into focus how racial binaries – that is, how races are constructed as different, opposite or ‘other’ – continue even after the end of formal colonial rule. It highlights how racialised othering frames not just history, but contemporary debates such as national security, nuclear politics, nationalism, culture, immigration, international aid and the struggle for indigenous rights.

    An example of racialised othering can be found in discourses around nuclear non-proliferation. In such discourses, countries and their leaders in the Global South are usually deemed not to be trusted with nuclear weapons. These dominant discourses construct these states as dangerous, unpredictable or unaccountable and as violating basic norms on human rights. One need only look at how North Korea and Iran, two states that have pursued nuclear proliferation, are portrayed as rogue states in US foreign policy discourse. Yet, for decades, the West’s disregard for human rights may be seen in uranium mining that has often taken place on lands that are populated by indigenous peoples around the world – including in the United States – and has caused death, illness and environmental degradation. Most importantly, what is often missing from the nuclear debate is the fact that the United States is the only power to have ever used nuclear weapons (aside from testing), when it dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, with horrific and devastating loss of life.

    Therefore, for postcolonial scholars such as Shampa Biswas (2014), the notion that some states can be trusted with nuclear weapons while others cannot because they are less developed, less mature in their approach to human life or less rational is a racialised discourse. In debates such as these, postcolonialism asks not who can be trusted with such weapons, but rather who determines who can be trusted – and why? Simply looking at the competition between states to accrue nuclear weapons will not tell us enough about the workings of power in international relations – such as how a nuclear arms race is underpinned by the power of some states to construct other states so that they are deemed not capable of having any such weapons at all.