By Siri Gamage –
When we examine the political discourse in the post colony on the desired state and governance, there are several features that can be observed 1) they are focused on personalities i.e. Prime ministers and Presidents, 2) focused on local conflicts such as ethnic conflicts, farmer conflicts, human rights issues deriving from state oppression and reactions by resistance movements. 3) focused on norms and ideals such as liberal democracy, 4) take capitalist/free-market oriented authoritarian states from the region as desired model e.g. Singapore or S. Korea. 5) draw from liberal democratic, Marxist, dependency or to some extent anti-colonial theory and discourse. 6) do not draw directions and inspirations from postcolonial and/or decolonial theory and discourse/agenda.
While there are grounds for each of these discourses and platforms, it is now necessary that the political discourse in the post colony has to move forward by drawing directions and insights from the postcolonial and decolonial theories and discourses on one hand and the ground realities of the State, governance, political practice, ideologies of nation etc. rather than relying on Western theoretical constructs and frames such as Marxism per se which seems to have not progressed much from the days of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918 and the Chinese Cultural revolution of a bygone era. The aim of this article is to highlight this imperative for the benefit of those concerned about the plight of post-colonies in the global south and futuristic imaginations for a fair society.
Before I embark on commenting on the above-mentioned points, let me quote from Appadurai’s review of two recent books (2021) dealing with the question of geography, history and knowledge as well as grounded theory:
Two new books—On Decoloniality, by Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, and Out of the Dark Night, by Achille Mbembe—help remind us of the history behind our geographies, setting the history of regions and continents back into the context of colonialism and empire. To do so, both books consider the different paths out of decolonization, only to find that neither the kind of nation-state that emerged out of decolonization nor the recent version of globalized capitalism that has come to define these nation-states has truly fulfilled the liberatory promises of decolonization. The strongest part of both books is their grounding in the areas from which they emerge—Latin America and Africa, respectively—and their common recognition that the heaviest price extracted by colonizers on the colonized in the past 500 years was not in the currency of labor and resource extraction but in the realm of knowledge, where colonial subjects were classified as the other in Europe’s empire of reason.
According to Appadurai, ‘Both books also represent a radical critique of European dominion over the rest of the world through the various ages of empire, and both agree that materialist analyses of this dominion—by Marxists, dependency theorists, and world-systems theorists—have misunderstood both colonialism and the decolonization that followed’ (Appadurai 2021). Referring to the book by Mignolo and Walsh (2018) in particular, Appadurai says, ‘Their joint goal is to make the case for decoloniality, the idea that a different form of decolonization or anti-colonialism was and continues to be possible in the Global South—one that does not rest on Western forms of knowledge but instead on Indigenous epistemological styles and claims’ (2021). This is an important point to reflect on when we attempt to articulate what is happening with the postcolonial State in the Post colony in the global south, in particular our over-reliance on western frames of thought including Marxism and its variations. I wish to emphasise that I am not saying that Marxism and its variations have no value in analysing current state of affairs in the post colony. My argument is that it is limited in many ways. Postcolonial and Decolonial thought and discourse offer more relevant and sound analytical frameworks that we need to grasp if we are to move beyond the limitations of class analysis and the notion of Bourgeois State, working class and its liberation, infrastructure-super structure typical of Marxist thought/analysis. Some characterise such analysis as idealistic to say the least.
Political personalities are important to grasp the nature of specific regimes, their policies and programs, success and failures in terms of alleviating poverty, initiating development and education reforms, developing infrastructure such as roads and housing, or agriculture. When former colonies gained independence, such development was based primarily on the basis of western modernisation as a model to follow. In this effort, the leaders borrowed knowledge via experts, technology, financial and other assets from multilateral and bilateral agencies including States of the West. Various development and reform projects were launched with a finite timeframe and medium to long term goals. Politicians, beureacrats and professionals such as engineers, embraced such projects with both hands.
Governments changed along with the leaders and parties, coalition governments emerged out of the ashes of old parties and groups active in the political arena, and new regional players with political and economic significance emerged. E.g. China and India. New political and global concepts and philosophies emerged to account for the changes happening in the regions and the world e.g. globalisation, sustainability. Activist groups concerned about the negative effects of globalisation also emerged, especially by using new social media.
When it comes to political discourses in the post-colonies, much of the analysis and explanations were focused on personalities rather than the national or provincial systems as such. Failures in development projects modelled along the prescriptions of Western capitalist states and economies (or their equivalents in Asia, Africa, Middle East or Latin America) were also blamed on local political players or parties. Masses were taught to rely on the leaders to solve all problems in the post colony and they were treated as super heroes who could produce magical solutions. The leaders on the other hand have gone to donor countries and agencies with the begging bowl. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, a Sri Lankan inrtellectual, playwright and literary critic once wrote a novel titled ‘With the begging Bowl where he characterises this phenomenon and his experience being Sri Lanka’s ambassador to France. Modern day ambassadors from the post colony – instead of writing such novels seem to keep writing project proposals for further borrowing or at least promoting the same so that the dependency continues but the fortunes of ruling political class are ensured? It is even astonishing to see the Marxist intellectuals have failed to understand the nature and content of such political class in the post colony in a grounded way – other than to characterise them as personalities or by means of old theoretical categories that were popular in the past.
There was a period when the political and social movements were guided either by the model of other capitalist states that were considered as model states e.g. Hong Kong, S. Korea, Singapore or the anti-hegemonic movements that drew inspiration from Marxist theory and its variants or liberation movements elsewhere. E.g. Vietnam war. The idea was that the socio-economic ills of the third world countries can be alleviated if they followed the example of such cases. For example, Sri Lanka liberalised its economy in 1977 with the UNP government gaining a large majority in the parliament. The regime concerned not only liberalised the economy permitting foreign investment and trade but it changed the make-up of the governance system by introducing an executive style President directly elected by the people and concentrating the State power in the hands of one individual. This system continues with some amendments but there is also a continuing critique of the system in place by various intellectuals, political leaders, and sections of the population. If we take the example of Sri Lanka, the experiment on both fronts has failed i.e. economic and political. Human liberties have been increasingly curtailed, power of a few media outlets in determining election results increased, concentration of power in the hands of a few magnified, corruption and waste multiplied, accountability became a thing of the past, and the foreign debt and servicing of the same have become a national problem nearing the level of a crisis.
As the experiment of successful capitalist-free-market oriented state becomes unviable and further dependencies on countries like China, India, USA or the EU are inevitable, the local intelligentsia searching for solutions rely on alternative readings of the situation and dynamics at play-mostly ahistorical – by drawing from Western theories such as Marxism or allied political theories of the past. Some trade unionists also seek explanations and solutions from similar theoretical discourses and writings. Of course, contemporary political discourse in the post-colony is also informed by key events in each colony such as confrontations with the state security forces, particular decisions made by governments impacting on the people, alienation of national assets to borrow from the powerful countries or multilateral agencies. However, such discourses are not able to interpret or explain the various forms of dependencies that have been created as a result of neo-colonial and postcolonial manipulations of economies, states, education, agriculture, communication and technology and various other fields. As a result, there is a tendency for the political discourse to go in circles corresponding to the election cycle where there are nominal elections or when the end of rule by ageing rulers come nearer as was in Zimbabwe. At times of natural calamities also some new discourses emerge but they evaporate into thin air when the immediate problem is partially solved and life returns to normality.
What is the outcome of such a scenario both in intellectual and political terms? Firstly, the political class comprising of old or new elites (business, military, traditional, religious, bureaucratic, academic) continue to enjoy power in the name of democracy, freedom, nation, development/progress, security, stability, and sovereignty. They enjoy many material and symbolic privileges often legitimised through the parliamentary processes or where they are absent through other forms of governance processes. A technocratic and bureaucratic layer supports the plans and projects of the ruling political class with muted mouths and eyes plus compliance and silence. Majority of the populations suffer in hierarchically organised systems of control (not governance) that keep the ruling political classes in power sufficient enough for them and their families, friends and close supporters to emasculate the system for personal gain by using nationalistic rhetoric of one sort or another. Voices of the marginalised majorities are circulating through the social media and in local discourses during weddings, funerals and other social occasions but very few political parties exist articulating the voices and concerns of the oppressed. Such parties have not been able to win power at least partially in such a context where the elitist political players backed by controlling media, big business, corporate sector, and the deal culture make the level playing field impossible for minor parties and groups to compete.
In this context, how should the parties and groups advocating on behalf of the masses negatively affected by so-called ‘dependent’ and Western-centric development policies and programs in various fields such as agriculture, education, health, commerce, communication and trade move forward[i]?Will the reliance on Marxist theory and its variants or the example of model capitalist state from the region concerned be sufficient?
My view is that those concerned about the plight of the people-in particular subalterns[ii] – in the post colony shall obtain directions from the postcolonial and decolonial theory and discourse – including Southern theory and subaltern theory – in order to:
1) understand and explain the global and regional dynamics at play with enough attention to the history over last 500 years plus the plight of post colony.
2) articulate an anti-hegemonic political discourse and agenda grounded in contemporary realities for specific countries
3) collaborate with like-minded groups, organisations and movements in the regions of the global south.
This is essential because decolonisation of the mind and body in the post colony is an essential task in order to engage politically, intellectually and imaginatively. Many of the writings that have come out from such thinking and discourses in the last few decades from Africa, Latin America, the Middle east and Asia to some extent are inspiring and informative to say the least. There is an emerging movement of scholars working in these fields exchanging views and experiences through Zoom seminars, regular conferences, internet based groups, workshops, books, journals and keynote speeches. Those in the post colonies concerned about the political and economic trends as well as culturally compatible and sustainable future can benefit from accessing these resources.
Finally, let me quote from Walter Mignolo – a Latin American decolonial theorist on Decoloniality:
Decoloniality means first to delink (to detach) from that overall structure of knowledge in order to engage in an epistemic reconstitution. Reconstitution of what? Of ways of thinking, languages, ways of life and being in the world that the rhetoric of modernity disavowed and the logic of coloniality implement. The failure of decolonization during the Cold War was due, mainly, to the fact that the decolonization did not question the terms of the conversation, that is, did not question the structures of knowledge and subject formation (desires, beliefs, expectations) that were implanted in the colonies by the former colonizers.
Today, epistemic reconstitution is taking place in many places and in many forms. But this is not a task you can find in the state and inter-state relations. This is a task of what I would call the emerging global political society: people taking their/our destinies in their/our own hands because the states as well as international institutions (IMF, World Bank) etc. are not to serve the people but to mediate between states, corporations and banks.
(Source: E-international Relations interview with Mignolo)
Appadurai, A. 2021. Beyond Domination: the future and past of Decolonization, The Nation, March 22/23 issue. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/achille-mbembe-walter-mignolo-catherine-walsh-decolonization/
DALZIEL, A.2019. Why is Southeast Asia lacking in postcolonial perspectives? Jakartha Post, Jan.30. https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2019/01/30/why-is-southeast-asia-lacking-in-postcolonial-perspectives.html
Brooks, H. Ngwane, T. Runciman, C. 2019. Decolonising and re-theorising the meaning of democracy: A south African perspective, The Sociological Perspective, 68(1), pp.17-32. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0038026119878097
Laffan, M. Prakash. 2018. The Postcolonial Moment in South and Southeast Asia, Bloomsbury Academic.
Mignolo, W. 2017. Interview with Walter Mignolo/Part 2: key Concepts in E-intrnational Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2017/01/21/interview-walter-mignolopart-2-key-concepts/ Accessed 31 July 2021.
Mignolo, W. Walsh, C.E. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, Durham and London, Duke University Press.
Sarachchandra, E.2013. With the Begging Bowl, Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa Publishers.
Shastri, A.2001. Introduction-Postcolonial States in South Asia: democracy, Identity, development and Security, In: Shastri A., Wilson A.J. (eds) The Post-Colonial States of South Asia, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Shastri, A. 2018. Political Parties in Sri Lanka: change and continuity, Oxford University Press (Also Talk, Institute of South Asia institute, Berkley https://southasia.berkeley.edu/amita-shastri
Sheng, A.2020. Asia’s Post-Colonial Journey, The Statesman. https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/asias-post-colonial-journey-1502923498.html
Uyangoda, J. 2018. Decolonial Thinking, Southern Theory, and the Search for Alternative Epistemologies in the Social Sciences, Colombo Arts, Biannual Refereed Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. Volume II |Issue 3
Useful Internet Groups
Postcolonial/decolonial thought in the global south
Decolonisation of education/higher education in the global south
Sociology Today (for the subalterns and post colony)
Asia thinkers and Writers
Multicultural society: myths and realities
[i] China with Chinese aid and loans have entered the scene today and this needs to be dealt with separately with the question as to whether it is a different kind of intervention or a different form of capitalist intervention?