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Deneocolonize Your Syllabus

It hardly needs saying that the term “decolonize” once meant something wholly different than it does now. To put it not a little too bluntly, in the heyday of the anticolonial movement it was the colonies and the colonized that needed decolonizing, not the colonizers, but now even that need, as we like to say, has been “colonized.” Of course we understand that the “decolonize” in the slogan “decolonize your syllabus” is metaphorical, that it means diversify or “decenter” (as we also like to say), but that does little to allay the fact that, formally, rhetorically, it collapses the distinction between colonizer and colonized. Sometimes, decentering oneself and one’s syllabi means little more than absolving oneself of accountability for the colonial past. Just to give it a name, we might call this phenomenon “colonial narcissism.”

Early symptomatic expressions of this introjection of otherness to let oneself off the hook can be found in various sources, but if we were to pick one it might as well be Michel Foucault when he said “A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.”1 It is not that Foucault was wrong—innovations in exploitation are portable, forced and free migration complicate the geography of colonialism, domestic police occupations are not all that different from foreign military occupations, the consequences of colonialism are as much psychosocial as they are political and economic, etc.—but that is not really the issue. The “you” in the slogan “decolonize your syllabus” is not addressed to those existentially threatened by police violence and the like but instead to those—the professional managerial class, we might call us—who are its beneficiaries. This misunderstanding, it seems, stems from a kind of primal scene: a foundational misrecognition of the new shape of violent expropriation that emerged with the historical turn from colonialism to neocolonialism.

Colloquially, in other words, we consistently elide the difference between the terms colonialism and neocolonialism, but “neocolonialism” was never intended to stand merely for the continuation of the old European system of colonial rule by an indigenous comprador class, now with its European overseers working remotely. When Jean-Paul Sartre coined the term in 1956, for example, the neocolonialist he had in mind was not a cunning European banker or conspiring African finance minister, but instead the sort of do-gooder that we now associate most strongly with NGOs—“a fool who still believes that the colonial system can be overhauled,”2 or, as he had it in 1961, an “enlightened, liberal and sensitive soul” imagining that there were third-way solutions to the otherwise seemingly incontestable revelation that “Europeans have only been able to make themselves human beings by creating slaves and monsters” (84). It didn’t matter whether the reformer was earnest or cynical, colonialist or colonized, indigenist or évolué. It was simply the structure of reform that was the overarching ideological problem. As Sartre put it, “independence granted”—or the colonizer’s recognition of the political, economic and cultural autonomy of the colonized—“is merely a variation on servitude” (102) exacted by “the power and the ferocity of neocolonial trickery” (113). Neocolonialism grasped with new purpose and weaponized what, in 1960, he called “the contradiction of racism, colonialism and all forms of tyranny”—that “in order to treat a man like a dog, one must first recognise him as a man.”3

The term “neocolonialism” was picked up immediately by those working in the trenches of decolonization, including Kwame Nkrumah, who spoke about it regularly beginning in 1957. Nkrumah continued Sartre’s concern with the politics of recognition: “The rising tide of nationalism in the colonial territories,” he wrote in his 1965 book Neo-Colonialism, “was remarked by the shrewder operators of United States finance capital as America’s opportunity.”4 The U.S., he argued, had been cultivating cultural nationalism in Africa and elsewhere by using its own postcolonial past in order to present itself as a model “‘anti-colonial’ power in condemnation of British imperialism” and a model of cultural self-determination (NC 56). The Americans’ goal was simple, Nkrumah argued: to finally knock Europe out of the colonial business by backing anticolonialism so that it might move in on the former colonies with its own very different form of neocolonial exploitation.

At the center of the U.S. ploy, as he put it, was “talking about ‘freedom’”—in particular, the freedom of the new postcolonial nations to define themselves culturally—while launching a “new wave of predatory invasion of former colonies” through coercive economic policies, trade negotiations, aid packages and the like (NC 50). This emphasis on independent national culture rather than colonialism’s required subordination to imperial culture had been tremendously effective for building anticolonial movements and was clung to by the former colonies once they were reborn as fledgling states struggling to find their social, cultural, and political bearings, but it quickly devolved into a form of geopolitical gaslighting. The new calculus was simple, as George Kennan, the architect of the cold war, would explain to an audience at New York’s Museum of Modern Art three weeks after the April 1955 Bandung conference: “To the people in many other countries, for whom the prospects for material development are not so favorable as they are here,” Kennan said, “cultural life appears as the highest and the most hopeful form of human activity.”5

Where colonialism had needed an elaborate infrastructure to keep its apparatus operational, neocolonialism would have little meaningful interest in that infrastructure. Instead of comprador corruption, its technique would be the one-two punch of cultural recognition and economic austerity. It would use the tools of the cultural cold war to inflate the international presence of a national culture together with the tools of foreign aid to balkanize and thus deflate any meaningful development of economic productivity. This, in turn, would create a sufficient degree of desperation for the former colonies to come begging for aid. With market forces in place, there was significantly less need for top-down integration of states and regions or the corruption of a class of bureaucrats as there had been under colonial rule.

Ideology was equally important for maintaining control in both systems, but if the putatively universal (if phased) project of “civilization” had been the ideological justification for European colonialism, “freedom” to express one’s own cultural identity was the new watchword for American neocolonialism. In Define and Rule, his 2012 book about the longer period of development for this strategy, Mahmood Mamdani says the primary ideological work of neocolonialism involves “a shift in language, from that of exclusion (civilized, not civilized) to one of inclusion (cultural difference)” with the aim “to manage and reproduce difference.”6 That management and reproduction soldiers on as the business of humanities and social science departments to this day. As Nkrumah would put it in 1968, referring retrospectively to the Non-Aligned Movement that he himself had helped form and was now disavowing, it is a model that produces “a kind of passivity, a non-participation, an opting out of the conflict between the two worlds of capitalism and socialism.” Such thinking, he said, “is a form of political escapism.”7

The work of deneocolonization, then, is very different than the work of decolonization in the metaphorical sense that is meant by the slogan “decolonize your syllabus.” Decolonization in its cultural sense contributes to the process of neocolonial political and economic exploitation by emphasizing differentiation, self-definition and other-recognition. Deneocolonization is the opposite. It sees difference not as freedom but instead as the unfreedom of managed differences. As Nkrumah put it, “The cajolement, the wheedlings, the seductions and the Trojan horses of neo-colonialism must be stoutly resisted, for neo-colonialism is a latter-day harpy, a monster which entices its victims with sweet music.”8 That sweet music is the honoring of cultural difference that was itself central to the process of decolonization. “Such methods,” in Nkrumah’s words, “aim to orientate the leaders of the liberation movements toward a brand of nationalism based on petty-minded and aggressive chauvinism.” Neocolonialism “usually resorts to all types of propaganda in order to highlight and exploit differences of religion, culture, race, outlook, and of political ideology among the oppressed masses, or between regions which share a long history of mutual commercial and cultural exchange” (RP 453). “Decolonization,” in the metaphorical sense used in the slogan “decolonize your syllabus”—in the sense of diversifying and decentering—also highlights “differences of religion, culture, race, outlook, and of political ideology among the oppressed masses” (RP 453). Deneocolonization, by contrast, is produced by solidarity. While culture is often used as a gatekeeper by those who misunderstand or actively prevent or merely feign interest in solidarity—that is, by those whose attachment to being right in their difference undermines any realistic possibility of achieving their ends by working with others—the basis of solidarity is never culture, at least not “culture” in the way we use the term today.

Neocolonialism has muddied our understanding of this question for the last 70 years. The “shrewder operators of United States finance capital,” that Nkrumah spoke of shifted us away from the European Enlightenment’s idea of “Culture” and towards the “rising tide of nationalism in the colonial territories” for a reason. Needless to say, the Americans’ European predecessors had made that shift easy with the offensive ruse about civilizing the natives, but it is simplistic and ahistorical to assume that enlightenment and colonization are nothing more than two sides of the same process, or that decolonization was not itself an ideological boon for rising American hegemony.

Any concept can be hollowed out and repurposed for opposite ends in the same way that anticolonialism’s crowbar of cultural difference has been turned into neocolonialism’s sledgehammer of political and economic exploitation. As Nkrumah put it, “Balkanisation is the major instrument of neo-colonialism and will be found wherever neo-colonialism is practised” (NC 14). Balkanization’s cultural and geopolitical divisions are the opposite of colonization’s cultural and geopolitical consolidation. The brilliance of the American neocolonial turn was the way it was able to divide the European notion of universal “Culture” from the anticolonial need for oppositional local and national “cultures” in order to conquer both, leaving us with little more than toothless ideas about lifestyle, “difference,” and “resistance,” and the seemingly endless distraction of ever-disenfranchising “culture politics.” The legacy of that triumphant division and conquest structures our syllabi as much as it has the direction that world history has headed in since decolonization.

In the end, what Nkrumah calls “Balkanization” plays a role that’s analogous in a certain sense to that played by “alienation” in Marx’s writings, insofar as both name the largely unrecognized experience of domination under conditions of apparent equality through the indirect rule of market value rather than the direct rule of a superior power. Capitalism always develops in two stages, Marx said, a stage of “primitive” accumulation and then one of “spectral” or systemic exploitation. The primitive phase requires a process of active subordination by a state or other power whereas the spectral phase is able to extract wealth with much less direct force by redefining social relations through the common currency of value. Because value expresses a relation between things (“what the market will bear”) and not a relation between people, its net effect is to inhibit social organization. This effect automatically tilts the playing field toward the owners of land, capital, and other forms of wealth, and away from workers whose negotiating power comes from their capacity to organize.9 Balkanization promoted in the neocolonial context through the recognition of autonomous national cultures, like alienation in the labor market promoted by recognition of the freedom of the laborer to enter and leave a labor contract, creates the structural conditions that inhibit organization. Where colonialism’s cultural theory of civilization expressed the needs of “primitive” direct rule through its hierarchical distinction between Europeans and non-Europeans, neocolonialism’s theory of cultural difference is an extension of “spectral” indirect rule based on a structurally equivalent, commodified notion of cultural value.

“Here again,” Michael Heinrich explains, referring to this second order of alienation, “we see the relevance of the fetishism that structures the spontaneous perceptions of the actors in capitalist production.” The “‘whole’ of capital and labor encompassed by the state” is “invoked as the nation, as an imaginary community of fate of a ‘people’ that is constructed through an alleged ‘common’ history and culture,” he says, “since this is the only common welfare possible under capitalist social relations.”10 Arguing with Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1964 book On African Socialism, among others, Nkrumah would challenge the adoption of what he called “tribal, national, or racial socialisms” (by which he meant “nationalism” in the more capacious sense that we use with terms like “black nationalism” and Heinrich’s “imaginary community”) as the abandonment of “objectivity in favour of chauvinism” and the abandonment of real socialism and the freedom it promises in favor of being a dupe for capitalist neocolonialism (RP 445). By many accounts, this would only worsen with time. As Vijay Prashad puts it, an “upshot” of the “demise of the Third World agenda was the growth of forms of cultural nationalism in the darker nations. Atavisms of all kinds emerged to fill the space.”11 It is the aura of that cultural nationalism, more than the Third World agenda that it replaced, that haunts the “decolonize your syllabus” movement now.

The only effective means for countering “spectral” indirect rule is solidarity. Solidarity is an economic category first—think unions—and a political category second—think parties. Culture has no meaningful place in its substantive political and economic questions, but it does play a pivotal role as gatekeeper. It either enables or disables solidarity; it either opens a political and economic question to a winning popular majority or it closes down that opening, leaving a righteous but resentful minority. When the latter happens, culture wins and popular rule over political and economic questions is displaced. The enduring meaning of art as a discrete category is that it stands for holding culture apart from economics and politics so that they can be seen and acted upon with objectivity and critical distance, rather than everything being folded together in a righteous cultural swoon. We have had a long run now with the rich getting richer, the middle class shrinking, and the poor getting poorer, together with evermore talk about diversity. It only seems that it will worsen. This may be because today’s American plutocrats are more skilled exploiters than the Europeans they displaced; or it could be that the neocolonial concept of culture they bequeathed to us—and we swallowed hook, line and sinker—has worked.

Enough with cultural politics. It hasn’t worked for a reason. Deneocolonize your syllabus.


1.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 103.
2.  Jean-Paul Sartre, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (London: Routledge, 2001), 19. Hereafter cited in the text followed by the page number.
3.  Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles, ed. Jonathan Ree, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London: Verso, 2004), 111.
4.  Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 57. Hereafter cited in the text as NC followed by the page number.
5.  George F. Kennan (presentation, International Exchange and the Arts Symposium sponsored by the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 12, 1955).
6.  Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), 44.
7.  Kwame Nkrumah, Revolutionary Path (Bedford, UK: PANAF Books, 1973), 435. Hereafter cited in the text as RP followed by the page number.
8.  Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-Colonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 105.
9.  See Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
10.  Heinrich, Introduction, 213.
11.  Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York and London: The New Press, 2007), xviii.
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