Decolonial Federation: A Case for Political, Economic, and Cultural Nondomination

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

President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere with President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1977 (US National Archives)

Adom Getachew, in her excellent new book, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, reframes the political history of decolonization projects initiated by Black Anglophone politicians across the Black Atlantic following the Second World War. Central to her book is grappling with the historical specificity of what decolonization meant to political thinkers, like Michael Manley, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, Eric Williams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Kwame Nkrumah. According to Getachew, decolonization was not simply a project of nation-building, but rather, worldmaking. More than simply replicating the nation-state form, the anticolonial nationalists covered in this study were concerned with securing economic, political, and juridical structures of nondomination that would ideally dismantle international structures of unequal integration and racial hierarchy (2). With considerable archival research, Getachew illuminates the ways in which three decolonial projects — the institutionalization of self-determination as a right, rather than a privilege, in the United Nations; the formation of regional federations in Africa and the Caribbean; and the demand for a New International Economic Order — imagined a radical reconstitution of the international world order that Getachew conceptualizes as anticolonial worldmaking.

One of the many strengths of the text is how Getachew demonstrates how anticolonial nationalists appropriated Western political ideals but reinvented their meanings. Rather than an extension of the seemingly natural progression of postwar international society, anticolonial nationalists radically interrupted the persistent logics that connected the League of Nations and the United Nations. According to Getachew, this cohort of Black Atlantic nationalists reconstituted the postwar international world order though their decolonial logics and ideals — ideals that would have not been pursued otherwise. For example, she demonstrates how intellectuals and political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Nnamdi Azikiwe transformed self-determination from a secondary principle to a human right, “positioned it as a prerequisite to other human rights, and argued that it entailed an immediate end to colonial rule.” Decolonization was not the inevitable “realization of the principles underlying the United Nations and the culmination of a Westphalian regime of sovereignty” (74), but rather “the site of conceptual and political innovation” (75). Echoing the conceptualizations of David Scott, Getachew convincingly suggests that the appropriation of Western political ideals by anticolonial nationalists must be understood in the context of their particular problem-space. The politics of appropriation may appear as a problematic analytic to understand decolonization; however, Getachew’s detailed archival research illuminates the way “political thought and practice are responses to specific, historically situated questions” and rescues anticolonial nationalists from ahistorical critiques (77). This is not to suggest that Getachew is not critical of the limitations of these postwar decolonial projects. Rather, she is able to identify the ways Black Atlantic nationalists reconceptualized Western ideals of freedom and sovereignty for their particular conditions. Importantly, Getachew reveals that anticolonial nationalists were not fooled by nominal independence. Rather, they anticipated and identified the “postcolonial predicament” and organized their politics based on the shifting terrain of the postwar world. In chapter four, she uncovers the history of the decolonial projects of regional federation in the West Indies and Africa, and how anticolonial nationalists pursued federation as a way to secure political and economic independence.

In “Revisiting the Federalists of the Black Atlantic,” Getachew outlines both the structural contours of decolonial federation and the particularities of that formation as it was articulated by Eric Williams in the West Indies and by Kwame Nkrumah in Africa. Getachew reminds us that although the universalization of the nation-state form became the overriding symbol of independence, anticolonial nationalists were also invested in projects of regional federation as a strategy to secure international nondomination. Black Atlantic federalists believed that their smaller economies — financially tied to metropolitan and global markets — would have trouble exerting their independence as self-reliant economies on the national scale. A federation, on the other hand, “would create a larger, more diverse regional economy that would slowly begin to undercut relations of dependence and could pool resources for regional economic development” (108-109).

Getachew reveals that Black Atlantic federalists used the United States as “an exemplary model of postcolonial federation” (110). For both Williams and Nkrumah, the spirit of 1776 was important to think about the economic dimensions of colonialism. Both leaders invoked the American example of decolonization because it provided them an opportunity to critique the “postcolonial predicament” of state sovereignty and economic dependence within an international hierarchy. According to Nkrumah and Williams, the protections of state sovereignty were unevenly distributed to former colonies which signified the “vestiges of an imperial global economy” (113). The most effective way to resolve that predicament, argued Black Atlantic federalists, was through regional federation. They studied how, through the federation of states, the United States overcame the economic barriers and threat of external intervention that was inherent in any postcolonial predicament. Specifically, Williams and Nkrumah appropriated the example of The Federalist Papers, and focused on John Jay’s and Alexander Hamilton’s contributions about the external reasons for federation. Using Jay’s Federalist No. 2-5 and Hamilton’s Federalist No. 11-13, Williams and Nkrumah warned against the threat of external interference and political re-subordination through neocolonial economic relations with Europe and the emergent superpower of the US.

The strength of Getachew’s work is found not only in her extensive archival research, but also her attention to the historical specificity of the Black Atlantic federalist projects. Indeed, “it is unsettling that anti-imperialists … would model their vision of an egalitarian postcolonial federation on the United States”; however, they operated in two specific political contexts that informed their decisions. Williams and Nkrumah were part of the Anglo-American political landscape that celebrated the US and it’s “exemplary political institutions and foreclosed alternative models” (117). Moreover, Getachew argues that their federalist projects emerged at a time when the US positioned itself as an anti-imperial nation and circulated their model of constitutional governance. The hegemony of the US political system blinded Black Atlantic federalists to the differences between their projects from that of the 1776 American federalists. In short, appropriating the example of the postcolonial United States “obscured the distinctively imperial ambitions and consequences that were part and parcel of the American federalist project” (118). Yet Getachew argues that Nkrumah and Williams “were not fully conscripted by their choice of example,” and that they recognized the hypocrisies of the American example. For Williams and Nkrumah, the invocation of the US was “a selective and strategic appropriation” to garner the support of the superpower to their cause (120). They also used the US as a way to argue against racist critics that suggested the failure of postcolonial African and Caribbean states was a matter of culture. On the contrary, Williams and Nkrumah highlighted that the postcolonial success of the US was not a result of American exceptionalism or racial endowment, but because they adopted “an institutional form that successfully overcame the postcolonial predicament,” and thus Africans and West Indians should follow a similar path. Getachew details the fault lines upon which the West Indian and African debates fell, particularly the balance between union and autonomy in the West Indies, and the attention, or lack thereof, to the internal pluralism of African societies. In the end, however, the antifederalists won the debates as Nkrumah and Williams struggled to answer their critics with substantial answers and proposals. While the West Indian Federation lasted for four years, 1958–1962, it succumbed to a referendum vote in Jamaica against federation, which sparked its demise. The Union of African States began and ended with the Ghana-Guinea union in 1958. And while Mali joined in 1960, most African states favored the Organization of African Unity, which was a treaty organization that preserved state sovereignty over a central federal government, like that advocated by Nkrumah.

Getachew’s text is a fascinating history, and reframing of the postwar anticolonial nationalists across the Black Atlantic. Her attention to the projects of regional federation are vital in thinking about the political, juridical, and economic possibilities and limitations of postcolonial independence and solidarity. Yet, I want to suggest that the cultural realm, and a desire for cultural nondomination, was also part of this moment of West Indian and Caribbean decolonial projects, particularly around ideas of regional cooperation. Indeed, for Black populations across the African diaspora, the cultural realm has served as one of the more generative sites of Black politics, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. Accordingly, we may also put the West Indies cricket team and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in conversation with the desires and projects of Black Atlantic federalists that sought international structures of equality and nondomination. Michael Manley of Jamaica and Nkrumah were equally invested in the political significance of sport and its unifying and decolonial power. It may be critical, then, to revisit the cultural arena of sports as a practice and site to secure nondomination. Nevertheless, this text serves as an important history to interrogate the complexity of postcolonialism, and the inherent imbrication of freedom and domination.

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Jermaine Scott

Jermaine Scott is Assistant Professor of history at Mississippi State University and is currently the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow and the University of Virginia. His research interests include the cultural politics of sport, Black politics, Black diaspora studies, and modernity/coloniality theory. His dissertation sought to understand the ways in which Black athletic collectives in the African Diaspora negotiate the colonial and racial constitution of modern sports, and football/soccer in particular. His writings have been included in ESPN’s The Undefeated and the Journal of Sports History, and he is an active member of the American Studies Association’s Sports Studies Caucus. Follow him on Twitter @itsjermaine.