More on settler colonialism

More on settler colonialism

Disconcertingly, what appeared to be a random pile of books on my office floor, accumulated in book-buying splurges over the last few months, have turned out to be books largely concerned with settler colonialism or settler societies, in theory and in practice, as overviews and in focused studies, historically and contemporaneously… Two for discussion this week both have the word settler in their titles, but otherwise are chalk and cheese except that there is a curious omission from both of them. so there is a second thing they share. This latter is that although both plentifully use the word settler, neither reference the settler colonial theoretical literature, which has been highly influential in the decade or so that it has been on the scene and elsewhere has become standard, with this point returned to later.

For readers new to this area of work, a good overview of what ‘settler societies’ are, the development of those connected with Britain over the period 1783 to 1920, the differences between relationships in the contact zones between colonists and indigenes at the start and drastic changes in these over time, the sources of exploitation and takeover, and points of resistance and revolt, are all important aspects. Such an overview is interestingly provided in Cecilia Morgan’s (2017) Building Better Britains? Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920 (University of Toronto Press). The settler societies in question are Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and the book’s chapters deal with the initial period of arrival and settlement, the formation of governance, settler economies, civil society, and settler identities. As this indicates, each chapter has a comparative approach which picks out features in common across the societies concerned.

A historian and Canada specialist, the breadth of Morgan’s knowledge is deeply impressive. She conveys not just wide reading but also depth of understanding. There are only a very few times in relation to South Africa that the account given seems patchy or emphasises things a specialist would not or gives a slightly misleading impression. However, this is a small price to pay for what is an accomplished, well-written, even-handed discussion of the largely shared aspects of the development of settler societies. It is recommended reading.

What is lost is not surprising in a book that provides an overview, for having an eye on comparisons across these societies inevitably misses some things that are specifically important regarding each of them. These are actually different societies, their indigenous populations differed considerably on many grounds, different groups of colonists with different agendas arrived in very different numbers in each of them, their unfolding histories were very different, from earlier on there were great differences in their political, governmental and civil society aspects, and they differ greatly from each other now. This is not to deny the points in common and perhaps particularly factors around land and labour, but it is to emphasise that the differences exist and matter, and they have mattered from the first arrivals of white settlers. This is not a matter of South African exceptionalism, it is the exceptionalism of all societies, that they have differences from each other as well as similarities and the differences can be as important or more important.

It is its emphasis on land and labour that gives an analytical basis for comparisons in ‘the other‘ settler colonial literature, referred to in earlier blogs, which is more informed by a theoretical body of ideas. However, this is not referenced in Morgan’s book or indeed in the other book for discussion here, a point returned to later. The other book is Thiven Reddy’s (2015) South Africa, Settler Colonialism and the Failure of Liberal Democracy (London: Zed Books). This is focused specifically on South Africa, is by a South African political scientist, and is exceptionally well-written. It has a consistent and clearly articulated argument which is presented at the start, followed through on in the composing chapters, and repeated in the conclusion.

The opening sentence is that “South Africa is a society driven by guilt, fear and anger. In a society that is so clearly a product of injustice for so long, the past cannot but be deeply etched upon everything” (1). Why this is so in his view is then reinforced with the core statement, that “Modernity was imposed through settler colonialism, which should be conceived as distinct from the generic ‘colonialism’ written about in the postcolonial theory literature. Settler colonialism as it played itself out in Southern Africa…, especially its enforcement with the most extreme forms of violence and by the consequent forms of nationalist struggles, has contributed to this mode of politics… what we have in post-1994 South Africa are battles for hegemony under democratic conditions. In other words, in societies like South Africa that are marked by a particular type of modernity, captured in the category of settler colonialism, we witness a mode of politics that intrinsically involves power struggles over resources, recognition and ultimately who prevails in establishing the foundations of evaluation… the South African experience offers a unique lens through which to observe the global story of modernity…” (2).

This is in turn pushed home by Reddy stating that “A distinctive feature of South African modernity turned on the settler minority both relying on the majority’s labour and lands and excluding blacks from the political community since the period of colonial conquest. The necessary black acquiescence for its capitalist modernity was acquired largely through a monopoly of violence enshrined in the modern bureaucratic state, and the exercise of force… In addition, the dominant‘s close interaction with and systematic cultural negativity towards everything associated with the dominated, which is another key feature of settler colonialism in Africa, historically characterised the political, ideological and cultural aspects of South Africa‘s unfolding modernity… Ultimately the monopoly on violence waged by the state was counterbalanced by the mass mobilisation of the majority… [but] although the period of white supremacist privilege enshrined in law was brought to a formal close, the cultural idioms associated with the emergence, formation and constitution of the mass political subject, subjected to colonial violence, continue to resonate today“ (5),

Reddy refers to this package of large-scale inward migration, land-grabbing, colonial state- and economy-formation, monopolisation of force and “the imposition of racial capitalist relations and dominant values” (4) as giving rise to a Manichean world-view, of literally seeing everything in black and white terms and with good mapped onto white only. However, what comes across after nearly 200 pages is that the iron-grid of Reddy’s interpretive framework is itself Manichean, except that in value terms bad maps onto white. It all started with the colonialists, the colonial state was a kind of absolutist one, how things were for the majority of people can be read off from analytical ideas drawn from theorists (Agamben, Foucault, Arendt, Gramsci, Chatterjee, as well as Fanon).

Reddy’s book is very well written and its key arguments clearly spelled out, so it all seems entirely plausible at the level of abstractions. But – and it is a very large but – it wasn’t and isn’t an abstraction, but a messy, complicated, changing, contradictory and confusing reality. Faced with the everyday realities of the society, and also its historical record exemplifying the mess and the complications as well as the stark brutalities, is to feel a radical disjuncture between the Manichean South Africa that is depicted in this book and the one of experience. The strength of book is that Reddy’s argument about settler colonialism being a distinctive form of modernity is clear and carried through, that South Africa “can best be understood by locating the development of the South African state and society historically in the settler-colonial mode of domination. I interpreted this mode as a particular variant of modernity… based on radical difference and violence” (187). Its problem is that its Manichean vision makes it difficult to respond to it in anything other than a ‘fully accept’ or ‘entirely reject’ kind of way. A sentence in the conclusion indicates the problem: “The students’ protests were directly traceable to settler colonialism” (191). This is treated as de facto proven by the symbolic targeting of the statute of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town, an alarmingly off-the-cuff way of responding to events with so complicated a history and set of origins as the University protests of 2015 and 2016.

Various of these issues come together around Reddy’s concluding comments about the term ‘settler colonialism’ and the specificity of settler-colonial modernity. The term, he observes, has not been given much attention in the academic study of South African politics. However, it has been given much attention as a body of theory and, increasingly, theory put into practice in detailed substantive research. His restatement of the core theme, “In South Africa, the state, the nation and its modern identity came from colonial conquest and the organisation of social relations on the basis of ‘native‘ and ‘settler‘, and it is grounded in violence“ (192), provides a succinct summary. It could also easily have been written by the author of the book discussed in the 18 January blog, Patrick Wolfe, in one of his more absolutist moments rather than in the book in question, which does frequently allude to complications ‘on the ground’.

Both Morgan’s Making Better Britons? Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920 and Reddy’s South Africa, Settler Colonialism and the Failures of Liberal Democracy share the fact, then, that for neither of these otherwise extremely well-read authors has the settler colonial theoretical-and-substantive literature come to attention. Just to mention the best known names, no Patrick Wolfe, no Lorenzo Veracini, no Edward Cavanagh, no Settler Colonial Studies journal and, strikingly, no Donald Denoon either. How to explain this curious absence? The most likely explanation is that each of them is operating within a particular academic network with its own points of reference and key literature, Morgan in a colonial history frame, Reddy in a political science one, with this other body of settler colonial work operating in an interdisciplinary and more theoretically-inclined one. Do gaps in referencing appear on the other side as well? Interestingly on this, Morgan’s book is reviewed in Settler Colonial Studies, although there is no mention of Reddy’s.

A final thought for now. Given the capacities for easy web searches through Google Scholar and also the many academic databases, it seems likely that the somewhat closed character of academic networks is beginning to change and there is much more of a willingness to think and read sans frontieres, of which the rise of the interdisciplines was an early sign. Searching ‘settler colonialism‘ would have a similar effect.

Last updated:  2 February 2018


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