(Anti-)Imperialism, Knowledge Production, and Political Economy

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

Michael Manley, Prime Minister of Jamaica, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1977 (US National Archives)

In Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew brilliantly explicates anticolonial nationalism as a project of worldmaking emanating from histories of imperialism, racial hierarchy, and unequal integration into the capitalist world-system. Reading against dominant literature in international relations and political theory, the author challenges claims that anticolonial critics like W.E.B. Du Bois, Nnamdi Azikiwe, George Padmore, and Michael Manley sought to universalize the Westphalian order that prioritized the nation-state as the quintessential articulation of sovereignty and self-determination. Rather, she argues, these leaders “refigured decolonization as a radical rupture” and sought to remake the international order through the substantive redistribution of legislative and economic power to ensure nondomination (17). Getachew thus invites readers to consider imperialism as a racialized global structure meant to preserve the unequal and inegalitarian international order, and anticolonial nationalism as an anti-imperial project that harnessed national independence to the transformation of international society in the image of the majority. With this thesis, Worldmaking After Empire makes important interventions regarding knowledge production and political economy that are relevant to a number of fields, including Africana studies, political theory, and intellectual history.

In the area of knowledge production, Worldmaking After Empire’s most important intervention is in its shift of the “geography of reason” from Euro-America to anglophone Africa and the Caribbean. Getachew does this in two ways. First, she rejects the characterization of Black anglophone anticolonialism as the effort to realize Westphalian juridical, political, and economic imperatives. Instead, she contends, anticolonial worldmaking took a distinctive intellectual trajectory based on histories and experiences of trans-Atlantic enslavement, imperialism, and capitalist exploitation endemic in the international order. For example, Getachew argues that positioning anticolonial nationalism as a project extending from Western notions of liberal inclusion into the Westphalian order misrecognizes the aims of leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Eric Williams. These thinkers did not understand colonies as excluded from the international order, but rather argued that imperialism integrated them into the global system on unequal, racial hierarchical terms that produced “partial and burdened membership” (19). As such, their vision of self-determination rejected inclusion into extant international society and required the existing order to be refashioned into one that was democratic, developmental, and redistributive. Here, the achievement of national independence was the first step in a broader project of anti-imperial and anti-racist worldmaking. Thus, anticolonial nationalism was a site of Black Atlantic innovation “predicated on the revision and remaking of Eurocentric international society” (99).

Worldmaking After Empire also shifts the geography of reason by suturing Anglophone Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean as a modern “problem-space” requiring endogenous intellectual resources to resolve problems and contradictions that resulted from Euro-American domination. These included the contradiction between human rights as the provenance of the individual and self-determination as a collective right that prefigured the former’s realization; the undermining of national sovereignty by relations of international dependence; and the abrogation of political power by the absence of economic empowerment and wealth redistribution. Attempts to resolve these issues were likewise produced from this unique “postcolonial predicament.” Efforts at remedy, according to Getachew, included the transformation of self-determination from a principle into a right in the United Nations; the formation of regional federations; and the assertion of a New International Economic Order (NIEO). In effect, Worldmaking After Empire conveys that anticolonial worldmaking resulted not from attempts to achieve or universalize Euro-American values and ideas, but rather from a geography of reason in which it was understood that “national independence could be achieved only through internationalist projects” that upended imperialism, neocolonialism, and structural dependence (170).

In explicating imperialism as the structuring feature of the international order, and anti-imperialism as the primary means by which anticolonial nationalists sought to make the world anew, Worldmaking After Empire offers a framework to examine racial capitalism and superexploitation. In the text, Getachew “reconceive[s] empire as a process of unequal international integration that took on an increasingly racialized form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (9). This definition of empire is consonant with Cedric Robinson’s explication of racial capitalism as “the tendency of European civilization through capitalism … not to homogenize but to differentiate — to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial ones.’” Getachew explains, for instance, how Woodrow Wilson and Jan Smuts denied self-determination to the colonies after World War I to both preserve empire and to provide a counternarrative to Vladimir Lenin’s assertion that “subject nations” had the right to exist as separate states. Wilson and Smuts rationalized this “reassociation of self-determination” through appeals to racial hierarchy that constructed the colonized as historically backward, inferior to Euro-Americans, and incapable of self-government (37-52). In effect, these discourses preserved relations of racial capitalism in the colonies, which included forced labor for development projects, the conscription of unpaid labor by private corporations like Firestone, compulsory cultivation in the service of metropolitan trade, and the extraction of taxes by chiefs and colonial administrators to push peasants and farmers into the wage economy (52-66).

Moreover, while Worldmaking After Empire does not use the term “superexploitation,” it is implicit in the analysis of leaders like Julius Nyerere and Michael Manley who pushed for the transformation of the global economy to the benefit of dependent nations. The Black Radical Congress, echoing earlier positions offered by Black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones, and William Patterson, described superexploitation as the subjection of African descendants to corporate imperialism, land dispossession, depressed and unequal wages, and the denial of basic rights like unionization and collective bargaining. Racialized people, they argued, experienced a form of oppression over and above that of the white working class. Stated differently, anti-Blackness gave superexploitation its intensified character. As Getachew explicates, African and Caribbean leaders who conceptualized the NIEO offered a similar analysis, theorizing “the postcolonial world as the workers of the world” and “demand[ing] redistribution on the basis that postcolonial states had in fact produced the wealth the West enjoyed” (145). As well, anticolonial nationalists asserted a “political economy of self-determination” that required the “internationalization of welfarism” to remedy centuries of superexploitation wrought by imperial domination (144). In excavating the imbrication of imperialism, racial capitalism, and superexploitation, Worldmaking After Empire illuminates that an anti-imperial world requires not only political freedom, but also economic redistribution, the democratization of wealth, and working-class liberation.

In its sophisticated examination of imperialism and anti-imperialism, Worldmaking After Empire not only expands our understanding of knowledge production and political economy, but also opens up several areas of elaboration. One question that invites further exploration is, what does a worldmaking project look like when anticolonial nationalist women like Shirley Graham Du Bois, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and Vicki Garvin, who did not have state power but were respected comrades of postcolonial leaders, are at the center? Another line of inquiry might focus on collective and collaborative anti-imperial politics, including trade union mobilization and transnational grassroots organizing. Finally, more explicit theorizing about the close relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism might offer an alternative project of worldmaking in which upending racial capitalism is the unequivocal aim. Nonetheless, the exceptional interventions of Worldmaking After Empire deepen our insight into the predicaments and conundrums that continue to beleaguer our racialized, unequal, imperial present.

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Charisse Burden-Stelly

Charisse Burden-Stelly is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She received a PhD in African Diaspora Studies in 2016 from the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include race and political economy, Black political theory, antiblackness and anti-radicalism, and Black radical thought.

Comments on “(Anti-)Imperialism, Knowledge Production, and Political Economy

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    Dr. Burden-Shelly has given a brilliant explication of the book.

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