The Eternal Return of Benign Colonialism

One of a pair of posts we will be featuring at The Disorder this weekend on the Third World Quarterly affair. This first contribution is from Naeem Inayatullah, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, who has visited with us before.

In “The Case for Colonialism” (2017), Bruce Gilley calls for a return to colonialism. He asserts that colonialism brought great benefits to Third World states, that these gains were squandered due to a premature granting of independence to the former colonies, and that only a re-colonization by Western states can develop lost capacities. Many scholars are outraged by Gilley’s publication. Some have called for its retraction while others demand that we ignore it altogether. I think we make a mistake in underestimating this event.

We need not express surprise by Gilley’s presentation. He is only the latest in a long line of scholars and policy makers that have made such claims for decades and for centuries.  For example, Robert Jackson’s Quasi-States (1990) makes similar arguments but without Gilley’s polemical bite. Jackson’s book itself expands on an influential article he wrote with Carl Rossberg, “Why Africa’s Weak States Persist,” (Jackson and Rossberg, 1982).  Indeed, the tone and substance of Gilley’s presentation is widespread in our time. We can find it in the work, for example, of Max Boot (2002), Robert F. Cooper (2002), Niall Ferguson (2008), Michael Ignatieff (2003), Robert Kagan (2002) and Robert D. Kaplan (2003). Some Marxists make comparable claims: Bill Warren in Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism (1980) argues that the Third world needs more, not less capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism, as capitalism’s pioneer first destroys and then reconfigures all other cultures. This creative destruction is the condition for moving the world to socialism and to communism. The political bent of these mostly academic writers can range from Marxist to liberal to conservative. But they all require former colonizing states to accept the responsibility of doing good for others via a benevolent imperialism/colonialism. Nor are eminent philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, short on praise for imperialism’s and colonialism’s value to subjected people (Blaney and Inayatullah 2010, chapters 5 and 6).

If our response is disbelief, we might wish to familiarize ourselves with the academy’s centrality in propagating a colonial praxis. Indeed, many have said that academia is an effect of empire, that King Leopold’s dream of creating universities to propagate and refine colonialism has been true for some time.

Three elements make Gilley’s article different from the usual.

First, that it is published in Third World Quarterly rather than by journals that we might think of as the usual suspects. I will have nothing to say about this. Others have written about this context. Second, compared to all those apologists who I mention above, Gilley’s is a poorly argued piece. On this too I have little to say beyond the following: absent are colonialism’s racialization and its genocide; its creation of a capitalist global political economy — a totality that makes shambles of his methodological nationalism; and, the question of whether colonialism can ever be done right. Further, key terms, like what does or does not count as “significant colonial history” (2) are left unaddressed.  Gilley systematically forecloses most opportunities for cultivating nuance and complexity.  His stirs this mixture with an impatient polemics. As a result, the work reads like a draft.  A robust review process might have raised it to the standard of publication.

Nevertheless, and third, it provides an opportunity. These claims are not going to go away. I believe they expresses positions that probably cannot be defeated by argument.  Perhaps they allude to the Western self’s desire to see itself as “good.” I want to think of the piece as scream, a vocalized expression of the deepest Western desire. And, I want to ask, what makes this scream necessary?

The first step my excavation is to read the piece as Gilley himself would want it read.  Such generosity is perhaps beyond me. Nevertheless, accepting the challenge seems somehow significant.

In that spirit, my first question is: What responsibility is Gilley discharging? What does he ‘know’ that he must share? What has he discerned that the rest of us don’t appreciate? He knows that colonialism is a force for good. He knows that Third World states can learn much by accepting a more balanced assessment of colonial history. The colonized state mustn’t treat its colonial history as leaden only with exploitation and destruction. If, instead, it can examine colonization as an encounter with a superior civilization, it can profit from the experience. He knows that a fairer assessment of the colonial past is the first step to producing a different relationship with Western states.  Third World states must entice former colonizers to return in order to shore up the former’s lagging state capacity – capacities such as “effective self-government,” upholding the rule of law, and delivering public services (7). He knows that Western states will return only if they are paid to do so; market processes can serve to institutionalize a Western re-colonizing that will overturn the disastrous post-World War II era of so called Third World “independence.” Such knowledge is the gift that Gilley requires himself to share.

Much turns on why Third World states lack capacity. He does not directly address this absence. Here, an (appropriately) impatient reader might interpret Gilley to engage in racializing. But I bracket this possibility on the premise that this cannot be how he would want to be read.

As a quick aside, it is perhaps worth noting that World Systems theorists, Dependency theorist, and various strands of Marxists agree that Third World states lack capacity. Of course, they found this claim structurally in global capitalism. They show that such states are only notionally sovereign whereas the reality is that they are dependent economically, politically, and culturally on the capitalist global division of labor. They too make a “case for colonialism” – but as the problem, not as the solution. It is just this inversion that Gilley wishes to overturn.

What is his argument? Or rather, how might we reconstruct what remains implicit in his presentation? His first move is to assert the gains of colonialism for Third World states.  The list includes the following accomplishments:

Expanded education, improved public health, the abolition of slavery, widened employment opportunities, improved administration, the creation of basic infrastructure, female rights, enfranchisement of…excluded communities, fair taxation, access to capital, the generation of historical and cultural knowledge, and national identity formation, to mention just a few dimensions. (4)

These are impressive accomplishments. Monty Python’s famous scene from the comedic film Life of Brian (1979) produces a similar list in response to the following question sarcastically and derisively posed by the leader of the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ about the benefits of Empire: ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ To his surprise and frustration, his comrades produce a long list of Roman accomplishments in colonized Judea. The scene works as humor is because it does not suppress doubt.  It leaves open this question: even if it brings great gains, why might we still reject empire and colonialism?” This inquiry was central also to Hedley Bull’s work (see especially chapter 4, in 2012). Gilley closes his eyes to this matter although the concern hangs on the horizon of his analysis – like a full moon. Here, most clearly, the polemicist in him dominates what he would call the scientist.

We might ask, if colonialism was so great why was there such great resistance to it?  Gilley’s response is bold: such resistance has been exaggerated. Mostly, the colonized recognize and welcome the superior virtues of the colonizer. “Alien rule” he writes, “has often been legitimate in world history because it has provided better governance than the indigenous alternative” (4).

He laments that colonialism is usually seen in terms of theft and exploitation and as illegitimate in the eyes of the colonized. He blames this false perception of colonialism on what he calls “anti-colonial critique” (5). Anti-colonial critique’s most damaging failure is that it “weaponizes the colonial past” (5). Gilley deploys a quote from Harri Englund to express the costs of such weaponization:

To devote all scholarly attention to the question of how different actors during this period sought to end colonial rule is to succumb to a limiting meta-narrative of anti-colonialism, one that allows no conceptual space between colonial and anti-colonial agendas, and thereby keeps other possibilities inaccessible to the scholarly and moral imagination. (5)

This passage provides the opening that summons my generosity. As I read it, I think to myself: he is looking for a mutually beneficial encounter between colonizer and colonized. Turning the past into a weapon makes impossible a search for colonialism’s rewards. Gilley wants us to de-weaponize that past and thereby to keep an open mind about the possible advantages of colonialism. It is just such openness that allowed Britain to achieve robust state capacity and eventually colonial greatness. Britain “embraced,” “celebrated,” and was willing to receive its colonizers’ gifts:

Britain’s rise is surely inseparable from the ways that it embraced and celebrated its colonisers from the Romans through the Normans. If anti-colonial sentiments had gone unchallenged in Britain, the country today would be a backwater of druid worshippers. (Gilley 2017, 7)

Arguing that a properly instituted encounter can produce mutual gains strikes me as a principle worth charting. First, it seems to me that our “colonial present” (to borrow a phrase from Derek Gregory, 2004) is constituted by just this posture. Third World people have been mostly open to such encounters, despite the genocidal brutality of colonialism. Second, it points to what elsewhere I call “knowledge encounters” (Inayatullah in Edkins and Zehfuss, 2013). Gilley’s sense of responsibility emerges, I think, from this principle. It is, nevertheless, an ethic whose requirements he perhaps has not sufficiently thought through. Specifically, Gilley seems unable or unwilling to see it from both sides, to stretch within the tension of the encounter.

The villain in his story, anti-colonial ideology, expresses itself in two ways: as the policy of some states and as state of mind of too many people. Anti-colonialism, says Gilley, is executed by “nationalist elites” and by “Third World despots” (6). Anti-colonialism “ravaged countries as nationalist elites, mobilized illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonizers” (5). Socialist states are also to blame for supporting anti-colonialism.  He singles out Cuba, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden. India, Brazil, and South Africa are admonished because they “continue to style themselves as enemies of Western colonialism” (6).

Turning to states of mind, Gilley claims that Third World foreign policy is driven by “victimhood” and “entitlement” rather than “rational self-interest” and “responsibility” (6-7). At the center of all this is the “parochial myth of self-governing capacity” (8). He means by this that Third World leaders and their academic supporters suffer the illusion that each state has to find an internal path specific to its nationhood. For Gilley, this myth keeps Third World despots and their supporters from seeing how external encounters, such as those with colonizers, can be advantageous.    

Self-governing capacity is always possible — as evidenced by the success of Western states. However, Western capacity was not generated “parochially” or “Indigenously.” Only an encounter with superior, colonizing others allowed such self-governing ability.  He asserts that to produce effective governance in Third World states requires increasing foreign involvement “in business, civil society and the public sector in order to bolster this capacity” (7). The colonizers must be invited back so that their knowledge can be accessed.

Gilley closes by posing two evident problems: how to convince Third World states to accept colonialism; and how to make a return to colonialism attractive to the former colonizers.

He acknowledges the difficulty of making colonialism acceptable to Third World peoples. If you ask them whether they would desire such interventions, they are likely to say no. They will fear the ulterior motives behind Western largesse. And, they will suspect that Western efforts will place them in the position of inferiors. Gilley cannot but ignores such misgivings. Instead, he declares that legitimacy will follow when colonizing states somehow “get the job done”:

One lesson from colonial legitimation is that at least in these initial phases, legitimacy will be demonstrated not by holding of a plebiscite or by the support of organized and broadly representative groups but simply by the ability of the intervening state to win compliance from key actors and get the job done. (9)

If plebiscites and representation are not in the cards, that is, if we are not going to ask Third World people whether they want a return to colonialism, how will the intervening state “win compliance” or “get the job done”? 

Forceful, unilateral intervention is one way around the rejection of the formerly colonized. This has been Western colonialism’s usual method for centuries. Interestingly, Gilley does not allow himself this move. He insists that “any colonial relationship requires a high degree of compliance from the local population” (9). Gilley is not formulating an ethical stance. Rather, what counts is utility: force results in resistance, which increases the costs of intervention, and decreases the incentives for Western states to re-colonize.

If not by plebiscite, nor by force, then how will the intervening Western state show what it can do for Third World people? Gilley provides no answer to this question. The cause of this floundering is his inability to anticipate how his agenda will be received. He foresees Third World refusal but not the deeper reasons for that rejection. 

To search for these deeper answers, all he needed was to move by the light of the full moon setting over his analysis. Namely, he could have considered that the fight and fury of anti-colonial ideology is founded not on their poor reading of the historical record, but on the plausible intuition that what is imposed from the outside can never be legitimate.  Even if the benefits are great. Does imposition make legitimizing colonization impossible? This is the question that Gilley and all those that proceed him are unable to bear. This is the doubt that must be ignored at all costs – even as it hovers low and bright on their horizon. It illuminates the tragic blemish on the Western self – a stain that can neither be removed nor admitted.


11 thoughts on “The Eternal Return of Benign Colonialism

  1. I don’t wish to defend bill warren’s work here but his argument seems to me more complex than this post suggests, ie. that colonialism was good in bringing about capitalism, only in the sense that, as Marx sometimes suggested, capitalism was more progressive than pre-capitalist modes of production


  2. “Namely, he could have considered that the fight and fury of anti-colonial ideology is founded not on their poor reading of the historical record, but on the plausible intuition that what is imposed from the outside can never be legitimate.”

    This is where I feel anti-colonial thinking often loses it’s way. Because if power imposed from the outside delegitimizes a regime then nearly all regimes through human history (including current ones) are illegitimate. From the rural Highlands of New Guinea to modern China the vast majority of people are on the outside of political power – whether through family bloodlines, race, or economic power. To argue this is usually to ascribe to nationalist, racist, or religious doctrines that unite people into a tribe that deserves self-governance. But such definitions of insider and outsider are always in flux.

    Before the British came, India wasn’t rules by and for Indians. Much of it was ruled by the Mughals at the expense of tribes such as the Durrani and the Rohilla. This explains why the Durrani and Rohilla fought for the British. They may have been nervous about the incursion of foreigners but the Mughals were enemy number one. They were the ones imposing daily pain and suffering. Of course the British simply replaced the Mughals and became another “outside power”. But during nascent Indian nationalism those appealing to a standard of Indian self determination were (knowingly or unknowingly) disguising the past.

    The same could be said for the South American tribes fighting with the Spanish conquistadors against the Aztecs. Or the Eastern European kingdoms aligning themselves with the Mongols against their neighbors. They weren’t sacrificing self governance for colonial rule. They were simply replacing one class of ruler with another. And with it the notion of who was an “insider” and who was an “outsider” gradually shifted.

    What I’m saying is that Western colonialism is no different than any other type of empire building. By throwing off colonialism we aren’t (necessarily) moving toward self-determination. We are swapping one group of rulers for another. I think those rulers should be evaluated on their merit and not on their classification as an “outsider”.


    • The complexity of the inside/outside boundary does not rule out the “authenticity” of a particular “inside” and “outside” designation — no matter that these categories are dynamic and historically constructed.

      The “should” in your last sentence stands as an assertion, yes? On your argument, your assessment of Earth ruled by aliens (say, by visitors from the other side of the Milky Way), would depend on the merits of such rule, yes? Even Gilley recognizes that ruler “merit” has some connection to legitimacy.


      • I guess I do think an alien government on Earth should be evaluated on its merits though I’ll acknowledge that I have the reflexive response of not liking the idea. But if the aliens brought a cure for cancer, an end to war, or other major benefits I think I could get used to it.

        If they waged a bloody war to cement their rule I don’t know how easy it would be for me to accept. I suppose it would depend on many particulars like how bloody the war was and how many live were improved or saved afterwards.


  3. But the colonizers never left. The British and the French still control nigeria and the Congo (former Zaire) through their surrogate elites, whom they arm with deadly weapons in order to enable them to subdue the people, steal their resources, and hide the proceeds in banks in their respective countries or in their master’s chosen tax shelters (“legalized” corruption and tax shelters are a part of colonialism and Western “civilization”) In many ways most sub-saharan African countries are worse off today than before the European and Arab-Islamic colonial invasions-morally, culturally, psychologically, and even politically. Read Olaudo Equiano (The Interesting Narratives, 1789) and Chinweizu (The West and the Rest of US, 1975) It will take Blacks a long time to recover from the socio-political, economic, cultural, religious, and psychological damage and mayhem that the Europeans and the Arabs inflicted on Blacks. Sadly, Mr. Gilley is employing similar arguments as the apologists for slavery over a century and half ago. But if he is really serious about his thesis, I am willing to be his Slave Master for the rest of his life.


    • Your first sentence seals the deal, doesn’t it? Yes, of course, the Europeans never left. That is the structural argument in a nut-shell. If so, the question becomes: why cannot we get others to see this?

      Your last line is meant to be humorous, yes? But I don’t believe you would be willing to be a Slave Master. The costs of occupying this position are steep. As we can see by the massive dosage of denial that the Master finds necessary to keep his “benign” self pristine. This last point is more or less the implicit center of my commentary.


  4. Pingback: Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent | The Disorder Of Things

  5. Pingback: The TQW affair on The Disorder of Things – Spatial Machinations

  6. if colonialism is benign, let’s try it the other way, let’s have India run britian for a couple centuries; let’s see how well that does; no proponent of the british empire ever wants American, Irish, Indian, Arab or other such colonization of Britian; that’s funny, almost like the veil of ignorence rules out colonialism


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