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.

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