This is my response to the commentaries graciously provided by Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, Luke De Noronha, Rick Saull, and Lisa Tilley, who also organized the forum.
Sara’s contribution geographically extended my focus on British empire to an engagement with Dutch empire. I found it especially telling that her thoughts on the white-middle-class as the postcolonial container of the national subject implicated white degeneracy in the preservation of empire. My friend, artist Denise LeDeatte, wrote in her art-piece African Violet that the Achilles heel of white supremacy has always been white poverty. I find this observation even more telling after reading Sara’s exacting intervention. I wonder if it’s possible to develop a critique of white poverty that speaks across the diversity of European empires and their postcolonial legacies.
Naeem directed our attention towards the relationship (or not) between hierarchies of race and hierarchies of meritocracy. Naeem and David Blaney’s work on postcolonial political economy has been extremely important to me. What I am always struck by is their commitment to take the claims and logics of late eighteenth century moral philosophy deadly seriously in the formation of political economy critique. This commitment underwrites Naeem’s comments on my book. I think he is implicitly asking: where does it leave us, intellectually and politically, if it is indeed the case that race so exhaustively frames the most influential modern calculus of ethical concern? I provide a partial answer below.
Luke applied the deserving/undeserving distinction to mobility and settlement. I find his intervention arresting. Chapter four of my book focuses on post-war commonwealth migration and the problem, as e.g. Enoch Powell saw it, of settlement. Luke reminds us that the status of being “settled” is always dependent upon others having the status of “immigrant”. The history of settlement is never settled; deserving/undeserving distinctions are continually made through immigrant/settled dyads as much as – or, in intersection with – Black/white divides. Luke’s comments demonstrate the need to develop more capacious understandings of the ways in which sedimented demographics now (always did) structure the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.
Rick drew attention to genealogies and trajectories of working class resistance against empire and racism. His critique focuses upon the need to account for the contradictions of working class agency when addressing the relationship between neoliberalism and far right forces. I’ll engage in more detail with Rick’s challenge below; but right now, I will just say that, to my mind, the urgency of his critique necessarily grates against the task of accumulating historical evidence, which is a core aim of my book. I can defend the reasons for writing the book as I did, but I can’t deny that his commentary is right to argue that the place in which my argument finishes injects an uncertainty into political action.
Lisa’s contribution is a beautifully understated yet profound critique of white feminism’s complicity in empire. I say understated because the level of her argument requires no grand protagonists to clarify the stakes at play. It is the “ordinary”, the “working class” woman who must – for right or wrong – comply or rebel against the preservation of imperial rule and its attendant racisms. I think that, when it comes to intellectual work, it is this pitch of register and argument that will tilt the balance in the coming years rather than the high abstract, grand figure-style writing that comes more comfortably to the political economist’s pen. I do wonder where my book falls on this continuum.
All of these commentaries stand on their own as edifying contributions. All raise further questions about the contemporary articulation of race, class, gender and nation – at least as it pertains to Britain/Europe. But I want to respond to three particular provocations.