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Colonialism and the Nation-State

In essence, colonialism is the correct term to describe all politico-cartographic formations and the logic which, at a ‘high’ level, governs all hierarchical relations between communities.

We would split the term in two. On the one hand, ‘traditional’ colonialism, the conquest of resources and subjugation of communities at a distance from the home of the colonial power. On the other hand. ‘domestic’ colonialism, applied to distinct cultural formations subject to subsumption (of either an ‘integrated’ or federated form) into one nation-state.

In logical terms, the exploitation of subjugated classes of all/any cultural identities within a given meta-polity could ultimately also be described as a form of ‘domestic colonialism’, but is one we do not have space to deal with in these notes.

There is a relationship between the domination of given social and cultural groups over others within particular geographical boundaries (emerging nation-states) and the ability of these meta-polities to engage in international colonialist activity. It is no coincidence that the entities now known as Germany and Italy were attempting to unify a patchwork of regional identities into a common identity later or with more difficulty than Britain and France.

This led to a disparity in the size of empire between the two sets of nations, which was undoubtedly responsible (at least in part) for the Nazi pursuit of lebensraum, and may have helped account for the development of Italian fascism so soon after the notional centralising success of 19th century nationalism.

There is evidence of many complications and anomalies within this general picture, such as:

  • Britain’s domination of the island of Ireland and the long-term effects of using ‘mutually foreign’ (Scottish) religious dissenters to colonise Catholic farmland in the north.
  • Spain’s early loss of its Latin-American empire, subsequently re-colonised (nominally by corporation rather than State) by the US economy, despite the prior existence of independent nation-states in the sub-continent.
  • The specific economic value of the slave trade to a proportion of the early capitalist pre-united states in the north of America.
  • The British state’s use of criminals, many of them Irish (and thus of colonised descent themselves), in the bloody colonisation of Australia.
  • France’s decision to incorporate some colonies into the ‘metropole’, notably Martinique and Guadalupe in the Francophone Caribbean, treating these places for bureaucratic purposes as part of mainland France.
  • In the pre-capitalist era, the formation of the identity of the Roman Empire as a ‘work in perpetual development’, predicated on the cultural influence of each succeeding colonised entity.

The extent to which colonisers recognised their own actions as colonialism was often influenced by attitudes to land use and ownership on the part of the indigenous communities they subjugated. It has been noted that many Inuit communities missed out on revenue and resources when the land claims movement was instigated, because they did not regard the land as ‘theirs’, in the Western sense of private property. Lack of proof of title has also been an abiding problem for First Australian communities, whereas Maori communities in New Zealand, generally having been inclined to live settled rather than nomadic lives, were better placed to argue on terms more familiar to their colonisers.

What of Russia? If North America is a sub-continent, then Russia could be described as two (partial) sub-continents, and its programme to subjugate an astonishingly diverse range of communities and ethnicities under the meta-identity of “the Rus” has not deviated substantially from the imperial period, through Bolshevism, to the present day. Equally, China has pursued a similar trajectory through its own imperial and then Maoist periods, under the auspices of Han identity.

In both cases, the US is regarded as competition, and the Putin culture, based on a twin ruthlessness deriving from (a) a legacy of Soviet secret policing and (b) the brutality of post-Soviet ‘Wild West’ gangsterism, makes Russia a formidable adversary. China, whatever its notional ‘Communism’ continues to develop its industrial and consumer base at an astonishing speed, and seems disinclined to engage in much dialogue about the process. Han communities have also played a leading and contested part in the ruling classes of other South-East Asian nations.

In Europe and the Near/Middle East, the implications of what followed shortly before and after the end of the First World War cannot be overestimated, in terms of redrawing the political map of the world. The Treaty of Versailles and other initiatives in the second and third decades of the twentieth century led to:

  • The creation of Iraq, a forced marriage of three distinct cultures, the Sunni, Shia,and Kurdish populations, together with other cultures such as the Marsh Arabs.
  • The realignment of what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a strange melange of nation-states, creating strange bedfellows who, post-Sovietism, had greater opportunity to fight over historical territorial and other grievances.
  • The shrinkage of the Ottoman Empire into the nation-state of Turkey.
  • The Balfour Declaration, whose implications were horrendously mismanaged by the British at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.
  • An attempt to consolidate the autonomy of Poland after centuries of domination by Germany and Russia.
  • The crushing of the autonomous worker’s movement and the re-designation of the Alsace-Lorraine region as part of France, rather than Germany.

The end of Soviet colonialism led to the re-fragmentation of the Balkan region. This was not the first example of the unravelling of a colonial force specifically designed to challenge fissiparous tendencies. For example, Spain was effectively created at the end of the fifteenth century in order to both impose a Castilian identity on non-Portuguese Iberia (the now-Spanish regions of Leon and Galicia had previously been involved in the rule of Portugal for a spell) and rationalise the re-Christianisation project, by driving out the North African Muslims and expelling the Jews. Madrid, the new capital, was symbolically sited in the middle of the land-mass.

Franco later located most major non-agrarian industry in two of the most vocally regionalist areas (Cataluña and Euskadi/the Basque Country), both of which historically lay claim to a transnational identity, embracing parts of Southern France. Cataluña is an interesting case history as a region that had colonised Sardinia and Sicily in its own right.

Unsurprisingly, as a general guide, the benchmark for sustainable independence is the size and strength of the economy that is considering secession, and these have been the issues putting a brake on Cataluña taking the final step towards total economic autonomy.

Regionalism has latterly become almost ubiquitous in Spain, and takes in both regions with distinctly non-Castilian languages (including Galicia) and others with arguably much closer cultural affinities with Castile (Andalucia).

In Britain, devolution for Scotland has become a major issue, while many people in Wales, despite the country overall pursuing a strong Welsh-language movement, have effectively resigned themselves to being paired with England. The north of Ireland is complicated, and a long-term result is still hard to call. Some kind of federated status (rather than either total independence or incorporation into the Republic) is not out of the question.

European continental identity is problematic for many Britons. The nation is notionally European, but views ranging from separatism to supporting an arms-length involvement with the European Union are commonplace. Unsurprisingly, this suspicion is reciprocated by nation-states across Europe.

The period since September 2001 has brought the issue of Islamic fundamentalism into salience across the globe. Two themes concern us here in relation to the challenge that such movements pose to modern capitalism, its Western variations in particular.

The first is allegiance to a transnational identity that is accorded more importance than loyalty to any one nation-state. A number of Gulf states, including those that include Wahabist Islamists among their rulers, do not hesitate to exploit ‘fellow’ Muslims from other countries, via the importation of what is often effectively indentured servitude.

The historical weakness of more ‘ethnic’ versions of Arab nationalism went hand in hand with vast US support to Israel in enabling them to shore up their power base. The more traditional (and secular) Palestinian nationalism of the PLO/Fatah earned Arafat a seat at the table with Israeli and US heads of state, and its current formally co-equal status with Hamas creates a spectacularised threat that both plays into the hands of Israeli aggression and has the added characteristic of being aligned, by association, with a direct threat to the US interest.

In any event, cultural identities that do not recognise traditional nationalist views in relation to identity with given or speculated politico-cartographic territories (‘internationalist nationalisms’) are of themselves deemed threatening to capitalism, a fact that many nomadic communities will attest to, from ex-Soviet Russia to Australia.

An equal or greater challenge resides in the lack of a shared ‘set of rules’ or language of discourse that could be used by Islamists and secular capitalists. It is little surprise that the appeal of Islamism is often strongest among the communities who perceive themselves as having experienced the greatest oppression as a result of Western-derived capitalism, and in lacking the financial ability to say one thing and do another, are sincere in their animus towards the capitalist economy. To this is added a suspicion of politically (as distinct from economically) liberal values, which are regarded as the inevitable adjunct of the capitalist economic model, eg, a notionally more equitable treatment of women by men, etc.

The challenge to capitalism’s energy resource base from Islamic fundamentalism is leading to the committal of ever-greater ecological risks in order to avoid reliance on, eg, oil supplies based within socially-volatile nations. Standard capitalist short-termism is being telescoped into progressively more frantic exploitation of the environment, and it is not alarmist to posit the end of a habitable planet for humans in the foreseeable future.