Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies

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It is certainly true that, over the course of the twentieth century, oppressed groups within the US have been able to access greater legal protections. But these changes have occurred on ideological terms shaped by the dominant majority. Unlike colonized peoples abroad, blacks, American Indians, Mexicans, and others have never been able to impose within the United States an actual conscious moment of colonial accounting.

There has been no symbolic raising of a new flag or writing of a new governing text, let alone imposition of the type of sustained policies — such as those of reparations, land return, meaningful sovereignty, and systematic resource redistribution — that defined actual decolonization efforts elsewhere. The result, although clearly a move away from classic settler norms, has been mostly to broaden the composition of socially privileged groups at the top rather than to undermine privilege as such or to eliminate its racially inflected character.

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Thus the country can have a nonwhite person as president, secretary of state, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff without any expectation that this individual will challenge the basic parameters of economic and racial hierarchy or of American interventionism abroad. Furthermore, all of this occurs in the context of an expansive bureaucratic state, a lasting institutional legacy of mid-twentieth century American political development.

This administrative state is organized around an increasingly centralized presidential system and is both infused with corporate interests as well as insulated from mobilized popular pressure. I should note that I am avowedly statist in my politics; I believe strongly in the democratic potential of both the state and its bureaucratic infrastructure.

Susan Pedersen | Wilson Center

So the problem for me is not state power as such, but the corporatist mode of state power that dominates American politics. How do you respond to the criticism that your concept of settler freedom is nostalgic or exculpatory?

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What do you gain by arguing that there is something emancipatory about settlerism that might be severed from its brutalizing legacies? Broadly stated the book has received two types of pushback. The first is different from the criticism you raise and comes from scholars who are deeply suspicious of the rise of settler colonial accounts of American life in history, literature, and political theory.

Their basic critique is that the concept is too mono-causal and teleological. It seems to explain everything and in the process discounts the complexity of the historical record and events on the ground. My response is that perceiving structures and continuities in the face of complexity is precisely the purpose of such concepts. For me, the settler rubric allows one to appreciate how seemingly disparate social experiences slavery, native expropriation, relatively open European migration practices but combined with Chinese exclusion were tied together by a coherent vision of power and sovereignty.

Although the lens is inevitably selective as to some elements of the past, it allows us to recognize institutional features and ongoing dynamics that are otherwise ignored. In my view, it is no different than many other concepts: capitalism, neoliberalism, white supremacy, empire. All of these concepts — by their very nature — reduce complexity, but if employed well, each tells us something about the interconnected relationship between seemingly distinct social practices.

The second type of pushback is that by describing the internal practice of self-rule within settler society as a rich account of freedom, I am, in effect, legitimating settler practices the concern you highlight. My basic theoretical position is that freedom and subordination are inextricably connected to one another in any historical context. Moreover, groups understand the meaning of freedom in particular conditions in relation to those modes of oppression that are prevalent on the ground.

For me, the expansive notion of freedom as self-rule — as a condition of popular authority over economic and political life — which emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century, developed precisely out of close proximity to its living negations: slavery and native expropriation. Settler laborers in particular came to see freedom as more than just formal political and legal rights, but actual control over the conditions of production, economic independence, and democratic self-government.

This was a robust vision, albeit deeply circumscribed given that the heart of settler ideology was that such freedom at root required native removal and exploited labor. Thus, to universalize settler liberty — as I argue for in the book — would require a fundamental restructuring of American life.

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This is something radical critics themselves perceived at various moments in American history. It would mean thinking about how a democratic principle could actually govern all institutional sites and provide all communities with meaningful economic and political power.

Such an effort would transform, root and branch, settler legacies and living practices: from recognizing Indian sovereignty to fundamentally altering the structure of the economy to challenging the border as a closed barrier. The key thing to note is that such freedom, although emerging from a settler past, would no longer perpetuate settlerism.

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This speaks to what I see as the dialectical character of freedom, where the conflict between an initial account of liberty and its opposition produces something new. Rather, in keeping with the dialectical vision, even successful projects of emancipation generate new legal and political orders that knit together secured liberties with emerging hierarchies.

In other words, the struggle for freedom is ongoing; it requires an aspiration to utopia but is never completely redeemed in history. These histories open up the possibility of transformation — they give us tools to imagine utopias — but they can never be completely overcome. This also underscores why my argument is not nostalgic, despite its discussion of the emancipatory dimensions of settler freedom. Those emancipatory elements were grounded in extreme violence.

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This history of extreme violence means that there is no past we need to find a way back to; the settler experience offers no golden age before modern American imperialism. This acknowledgment perhaps distinguishes my views from those of critics like Christopher Lasch or even William Appleman Williams. If anything, for me, the two logics of empire — settler colonization and global police power — cannot be thought of as distinct historical periods.

They are deeply interlinked and fold into one another rather than marking clear breaks or ruptures in time. Why does this discussion of settler freedom as integral to US conceptions of sovereignty and governance matter for something called the Left today?

First, a remarkable feature of US domestic conversations about capitalism and economic inequality is the extent to which they are often separated from conversations about the application of US power abroad. As just one example, take the issue of immigration and immigrant rights, a focal point of new labor organizing on the one hand and conservative reaction on the other. The overwhelming tendency is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place.

The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied to patterns of colonization and empire that stitch together the Global North and the Global South, as well as to the recent security politics of the US and Europe across the post-colonial world. A key effect is the decline of a self-conscious and committed internationalist sensibility among economic reformers in the US. Thinking of inequality in isolation from colonialism or from exercises of American hegemony essentially leaves uncontested the security ends of the US state, ends that feed back in direct and indirect ways precisely into sustaining corporate power and class hierarchies at home.

It should be noted that during the heyday of the labor movement or of black radicalism, activists very clearly articulated an independent foreign policy grounded above all in the interests of oppressed communities — one that emphasized solidarities abroad between workers or colonized peoples and that directly challenged the security state itself. The second reason for bringing the legacies of settler empire back into our discussions of capitalism has to do with specifically American roadblocks to social democracy.

Thomas Piketty notes that the United States in the nineteenth century was marked by far greater white economic equality than European counterparts. But he spends less time on the essentially colonial explanation for this fact. And many of the great American struggles to replace capitalism with a more humane political economy have foundered precisely on questions of membership.

Chi siamo Dove siamo Help Ricerca Avanzata. Genere: Libro. Editore: Routledge.

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  5. Note Editore. Postcolonial states and metropolitan societies still grapple today with the divisive and difficult legacies unleashed by settler colonialism. Whether they were settled for trade or geopolitical reasons, these settler communities had in common their shaping of landholding, laws, and race relations in colonies throughout the world. Jeremy Silvester.