Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The REAL task of decolonisation

Too few people seem to take the work of those two inimitably emancipatory thinkers, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, seriously. And I am not talking about those nit-picking academics who engage with them at an analytic level to argue about whether they got Marx right, or Foucault, or Deleuze, and so on. What I mean is that too few people seem to take seriously their attempts to disabuse one of the notion that the present global political, economic, cultural and social state of affairs is “the best possible world”, against which they argue that it is a deeply flawed one, and requires the committed resistance of every human being who values freedom, and would like to liberate global society from this scourge, the so-called new global order, or “Empire”, as they call it.

In this regard it is imperative to shift one’s attention from the narrow focus on “decolonisation” in the sense of removing all vestiges of erstwhile colonial powers from university curricula, and concentrate instead on the colonisation process that is still going on right under the noses of those calling for decolonisation – the on-going economic colonisation of the world by global capital, which brings with it not only dependence on the all-powerful global market, but also casts one into subordination to the economic, political and military domination of the world by the capitalist states comprising Empire.

The history of colonisation in the modern world is complex, and cannot be dwelt on at length here; suffice it to say that, after centuries of European exploitation of colonial territories in terms of mineral resources and labour to grease the wheels of capitalism, the era of imperialist colonisation of the world by European powers unravelled after the Second World War. From the late 17th to the later 19th century it was aided, ironically, by productive slave labour in America, which was tolerated, if not welcomed, by capital despite it being predicated on the idea of “free labour”, until it became untenable for the future of capitalist production itself (Hardt and Negri, Empire, 2001, pp. 120-124; 244-249).

As everyone familiar with the Marxist principle, that economic processes constitute the foundation of all social and political ones knows, the process of “decolonisation” that was set in motion in the 20th-century postwar period, and that is associated with the role of liberation organisations such as the Mau-Mau in Kenya during the 1950s, cannot be divorced from economic events either. But instead of restricting this to a local context, Hardt and Negri place it in a global economic perspective (p. 244-245):

“As a result of the project of economic and social reform under U.S. hegemony, the imperialist politics of the dominant capitalist countries was transformed in the postwar period. The new global scene was defined and organized primarily around three mechanisms or apparatuses: (1) the process of decolonization that gradually recomposed the world market along hierarchical lines branching out from the United States; (2) the gradual decentralization of production; and (3) the construction of a framework of international relations that spread across the globe the disciplinary productive regime and disciplinary society in its successive evolutions. Each of these aspects constitutes a step in the evolution from imperialism to Empire.”

This historical decolonisation process did not occur in a vacuum, but unfolded in tandem with the Cold War between the Soviet Union and America, which meant that liberation organisations had to choose between these ideologically and economically divergent world powers and what they represented. With the end of the Vietnam War, which concluded the American “imperialist” role inherited by it, and given the eventual triumph of neoliberal capitalism when the USSR collapsed in 1989, in effect this meant that the new “global order” of Empire could start emerging.

For the proponents of decolonisation at South African universities it is crucial to understand the following (p. 246): “Little by little, after the Vietnam War the new world market was organized: a world market that destroyed the fixed boundaries and hierarchical procedures of European imperialisms. In other words, the completion of the decolonization process signaled the point of arrival of a new world hierarchization of the relations of domination – and the keys were firmly in the hands of the United States. The bitter and ferocious history of the first period of decolonization opened onto a second phase in which the army of command wielded its power less through military hardware and more through the dollar”.

The reason why this is imperative to understand for SA “decolonisers”, is to be able to grasp their own position vis-á-vis the present, global colonising power, neoliberal Empire, and simultaneously, that the grounds for their demands are less political than economic: they are really disempowered by the fact that they – like millions of other people in the world – do not have an equitable share in the wealth produced by the world economy (see in this regard Hardt and Negri’s Multitude of 2005). Nor should this surprise them – the dominant discourse today is that of neoliberalism, which blatantly rules the world through the structures of Empire. There is no political leader in the world today who is not in thrall to neoliberal capitalism.

Where they discuss the second mechanism that organised the emerging new order in the postwar period, namely “the gradual decentralization of production”, they allow one to perceive the shape of the present order, particularly in the fact that (p. 246-247): “…transnational corporations…became the fundamental motor of the economic and political transformation of postcolonial countries and subordinated regions. In the first place, they served to transfer the technology that was essential for constructing the new productive axis of the subordinate countries [including those in Africa]; second, they mobilized the labor force and local productive capacities in these countries; and finally, the transnationals collected the flows of wealth that began to circulate on an enlarged base across the globe [which they still do, now more than ever]…Furthermore, the constitution of capitalist interests tied to the new postcolonial nation-states, far from opposing the intervention of transnationals, developed on the terrain of the transnationals themselves and tended to be formed under their control”.

The third mechanism, “the construction of a framework of international relations”, which accompanied the structuring function of the other two, entailed – in terms borrowed from Foucault – “the spread of disciplinary forms of production and government across the world…In the postcolonial countries, discipline required first of all transforming the massive popular mobilization for liberation into a mobilization for production. Peasants throughout the world were uprooted from their fields and villages and thrown into the burning forge of world production” (p. 247).

If one sees apartheid as an extension of colonialism, then South Africa today (and for the last 22 years) is no exception to this rule. Ironically, the model for this disciplinary regime, which was essential for sustained production, was American, namely the Fordist model. Importantly, however, while it entailed high wages in First World countries, in the “subordinated” countries (including South Africa), this was not the case (pp. 247-248). All of this happened under the ideological aegis of “modernization and development” – an ideology that, as Hardt and Negri stress, has been almost exclusively that of the postcolonial elites.

Against this backdrop the irony of the oft-heard call, in South Africa, for “economic liberation”, should be clear: what it means in the context of a neoliberal economy, is that economically disempowered people should be “developed” and given their place in the capitalist sun. Why ironic? Because buying into neoliberalism does not bring liberation – on the contrary, it brings enslavement to the transnational corporations. Only what Hardt and Negri (and others) call an “alternative globalisation movement”, which puts economic power back into the hands of ordinary people, can bring true, economic decolonisation. And if you think that is impossible, think again – the election of Donald Trump (however misguided and ironic) as president of the US is symptomatic of people turning in this direction, away from the political and economic elites.

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