The Impossibility of Black Sovereignty

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

Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, in Amsterdam, 1975 (Dutch National Archives)

It is remarkable how enduring the symbolic threshold of independence remains to the imaginary of decolonization. The standard story goes like this: passing through the magic door of postcolonial statehood, anticolonial nationalism received its fullest expression and international society its final radius of expansion. Midcentury scholars came up with handy definitions to explain a rapid transition few had anticipated: empire had been a case of alien rule — metropolitan control over a subordinate periphery — and self-determination its overcoming. Though the midcentury celebration of anticolonial self-determination was short lived, the definition lingered. By the late 1970s, when the barometer of political modernity began to shift towards cosmopolitanism, postcolonial nationalisms were recast as irredeemably parochial for a globalized world even as the definition of empire-as-alien-rule stuck.

Scholars have been challenging this account for two decades, but Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination indicates we may finally have reached a tipping point in displacing it. In her rich yet compact telling, Getachew recovers the internationalist projects integral to the ambitions of anticolonial nationalists from the interwar period until the 1970s. Anticolonial leaders understood that mere accession to sovereign statehood in a racialized imperial order would not secure the end of their subjugation, so their nationalism was necessarily accompanied by antisystemic plans for world order. Grounding her account in the political thought of African and Caribbean leaders and their struggles in the United Nations, in their pursuit of regional federations, and in their proposals for a New International Economic Order, Getachew proves that the scope of postcolonial politics sought a revolution far beyond the formal end of imperial rule.

Instead, anticolonial efforts to realize a more egalitarian and redistributive world order through international institution-building should reorient us toward their “postcolonial cosmopolitanism.” The cosmopolitanism at stake here is not a lofty sentiment of global belonging, but a political tradition of global constitutional order. From the vantage point of postcolonial cosmopolitanism, the conventional theoretical division between a Westphalian regime of state sovereignty launched in the seventeenth century and a post-Westphalian order of global interdependence inaugurated in the late twentieth century obscures the long history of how global imperial economies violently integrated the world. Working within an experience of imperial subjugation led anticolonial thinkers to develop complex cosmopolitan critiques of interstate relations, Getachew argues, in which hierarchy was a consequence not of sovereignty’s truncation but its imperial lineage. Thus empire was not about excluding colonial territories from international society, but rather their “unequal integration” into it in ways that perpetuated global hierarchy. Without sufficient institutional safeguards at the international level, anticolonial nationalists understood they would never be able to overcome imperial domination.

Indeed, the idea of domination is crucial here. Getachew identifies the postcolonial cosmopolitan inflection of self-determination with the republican idea of liberty as nondomination, advanced most notably by Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner. Rather than liberty in the classic minimalist liberal definition as freedom from intentional interference (in this case the alien rule thesis of outright political control), republican nondomination conceives unfreedom to exist wherever arbitrary rather than only intentional power exists (here conditions of unequal integration). Though postcolonial cosmopolitanism is meant as an analytical lens capable of assessing anticolonial internationalism generally, Getachew attends specifically to its Black Atlantic manifestation. Like a neo-republican liberty whose central metaphor of unfreedom is slavery, Black Atlantic leaders critiqued empire as a form of enslavement, both a legacy of New World slavery as well as a metaphor of a racialized international hierarchical order. This understanding of self-determination as a search for nondomination thus underwrote the three worldmaking projects Getachew recovers: the fight to secure self-determination in the UN which achieved a legal barrier against domination in Resolution 1514; attempted regional federations in Africa and the Caribbean which would undermine economic domination by fostering autarky; and finally the New International Economic Order that directly challenged international economic hierarchy with insurgent proposals for a global redistributive economy.

As a theoretical account of anticolonial internationalism, this sophisticated telling dispels not just the alien rule thesis which has dominated political theory for decades, but also diffusionist historical accounts of liberal internationalism like Erez Manela’s. While I am sympathetic to the search for fuller theoretical analyses of self-determination, however, I still doubt whether republican nondomination is the best framework for understanding postcolonial, and especially Black internationalist politics. The problem of the alien rule thesis was its tendency to cast self-determination in the negative liberty tradition of a classic liberal understanding of freedom, reducing empire to the mere abolishing of colonial rule. While republican nondomination might allow greater scope for understanding constraint, it still is a fundamentally negative account of liberty, and the fullness of the integrated political, legal, and economic demands of postcolonial cosmopolitans exceeded both of these definitions.

Firstly, the republican vocabulary of arbitrary power does not convey the full nature of empire. For neo-republicans, arbitrariness connotes an unconstrained possession of power, and so a thicker understanding of unfreedom than the mere absence of interference. In the canonical example of the master and slave, a slave is unfree even under a benevolent master who chooses not to exercise her power. Other theorists have identified numerous problems with this allegedly richer conception of freedom, but to borrow one from Patchen Markell, the problem of colonial power was not just that it was arbitrary and that colonial inhabitants were subject to its whims, but that it was unduly concentrated in imperial states. This is not a quibble about terminology: to miss this aspect of imperialism is to lose the anticolonial critique of the centralization of power in the state. The highly centralized, unitarist models of Pan-African and Pan-Caribbean federation of Kwame Nkrumah and Eric Williams, respectively, were sharply disputed by those who believed centralizing power in a federal center would replicate exactly the subjugation of centralized colonial authorities. These contests over competing models of centralized and decentralized statehood draw attention to what was at stake for postcolonial cosmopolitans beyond either direct or arbitrary forms of imperial power — a range of questions that included what form the postcolonial state itself should take.

Secondly, Getachew analyzes the slavery/freedom contrast that is central to both nondomination and Black Atlantic thought as a site of resonant convergence. Unlike most republican theorists for whom the symbology of slavery is central but its historical existence absent, Getachew powerfully situates specific invocations of the empire-as-enslavement critique, as with the League of Nations controversy over alleged slavery practices in Liberia and Ethiopia. From 1922 until 1935, European powers justified their attempts to institute mandates over these two countries in the language of humanitarian intervention to abolish slavery. While Ethiopia’s invasion has become a standard part of Black intellectual history for radicalizing an entire generation of African and diasporic leaders, Getachew provides an insightful reading of the overlap between a crisis over Black sovereignty submerged as one over Black slavery. Borrowing from Saidiya Hartman’s “burdened individuality” to describe emancipation, Getachew observes that Liberia and Ethiopia’s inclusion into international society was a “partial and burdened membership … a form of inclusion in international society where responsibilities and obligations were onerous and rights and entitlements limited and conditional.”

This is a poignant description of the continual circumscription of non-Western nations’ membership in international society, especially African ones. Part of what makes the Liberian and Ethiopian examples so instructive (and all her other examples) are their ability to highlight the way imperial interventions were conducted within international institutions designed to check arbitrary exercises of power. They prove that institutions of international governance could ostensibly remove empire’s arbitrariness by submitting them to the forms of regulation republicans are wont to endorse and yet preserve fundamental conditions of unequal integration and hierarchy. In fact, Liberia and Ethiopia’s fate highlight just how much such institutions could enhance imperial interventions in the name of restraining other sites of arbitrary power. In the African case especially, where slavery was envisaged as the originating political tutelage necessary to discipline unrestrained, arbitrary wills into membership in civil society, the continued impossibility of accepting Black sovereignty was paradoxically what drove forcible attempts to render it possible. Ultimately, the problem with republican liberty is that by enshrining arbitrariness as the value by which unfreedom is measured, it can never fully escape the domination that nondomination can sanction. As Getachew’s book prompts us to consider, this is more than just conceding that slavery, exploitative labor, mandation, structural adjustment, or any other strategies of imperial and international politics, were once envisioned as gradually emancipatory projects. It asks us to reckon with the willful conditions of the impossible sovereignty which they enshrine.

Ultimately, it is a testament to Getachew’s own skill rather than the resources embedded within republicanism that she identifies a more robust cosmopolitan theory of international relations beyond the sovereignty equality of states. She persuasively integrates them as interlocutors in the same theoretical space as Habermas or Rawls. But why do we need to be persuaded at all? That it takes such an effort to frame anticolonial thought as having insights into normative debates over sovereignty, political economy, citizenship, or constitutionalism suggests just how much partial and burdened membership conditions the status of anticolonial thought, too.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Merve Fejzula

Merve Fejzula is an intellectual and political historian of Africa and its diaspora in the twentieth century. She is a Preparing Future Faculty Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri, after completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation was funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust and examined the anglophone dissemination of negritude, the critical theory of race most associated with the Francophone Black world, which developed into a movement for racial consciousness in the later twentieth century. She is currently at work transforming this into a book manuscript about negritude’s African-anchored Black public sphere across Dakar, Paris, Ibadan, Lagos, and New York, which shall intertwine an intellectual history of negritude’s reinvention as well as an institutional story of the structural transformation of the Black public sphere from 1947-1977.

Comments on “The Impossibility of Black Sovereignty

  • Sovereignty is very difficulty for the black but not impossible.Human society is dynamic and change can occur.


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