Friday, September 15, 2017

On The Case For Colonialism

There's a piece a lot of people are talking about called The Case For Colonialism. It is really not very good. I'm not signing the petition to have it retracted for the reasons outlined at the end of the piece here. It's also just worth reading the linked piece there as well for dismantling the argumentative strategies of The Case For Colonialism. But I do think there will be some concerted campaign to paint the reaction to this article as one of leftists being unwilling to engage in fair consideration of the facts, so I just want to have some place I can write down my own reaction to this piece for ease of reference. I will focus in particular on the first section, wherein it is claimed we should reappraise the total effects of colonial rule and would thereby realise it was net beneficial.  (The second section is an extended argument to the effect that various post-colonial governments have been awful. No argument from me on that front, though of course a better article than that under consideration would have spent more time reflecting on the kind of conditions that lead people to such desperate straits as to throw their weight behind the various wannabe tyrants who cropped up in the wake of colonialism - this would in fact also be relevant to the argument's claims about `subjective legitimacy', discussed below.  Also the role of both Western and Soviet neocolonialism in maintaining many such regimes would need discussing. The third section is an argument for `recolonisation' in some circumstances which largely depends on you buying that colonialism is a net good, and thus depends on the first section.) Much but not all of what follows can be found in the piece just linked to, but occasionally I would have put emphasis on different points or phrased things in a different manner, so I wanted to write my own take on things.

  • The Case For Colonialism contains historical infelicities. Guatemala, Libya, and Haiti are referred to as places that did not have a significant colonial history, a claim genuinely so bizarre I wonder what it could mean since charity forbids me from taking it on its face. It is at least suggested that Amílcar Cabral was involved in post-independence mismanagement of Guinea-Bissau, despite being assassinated before independence was achieved. Attention is restricted to various European colonies from the early-19th to mid-20th century; what about all the rest of colonial history, most especially and obviously the genocide in the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade this spurred? If one wants to re-evaluate the history of colonialism then to treat the actual history in so shoddy and loose a fashion immediately undercuts the entire purported point of the article.
  • As picked up by most commentators as the most striking point, it is morally pretty horrendous to call for Belgian reoccupation of the Congo, as the article does, albeit briefly and in passing. But it is worth noting just how bizarre the argument for this was. As far as I could tell it consisted entirely of noting that the government of the Congo has not ever managed to organise as efficient an army as the occupying Belgian forces once maintained. People have called it akin to Holocaust denial, and that seems fair to me -- but it's more specifically akin to defending German actions in Poland on the basis that damn was that Blitzkrieg effective.
  • In general for an article that purports to engage in or call for a `cost-benefit analysis' of colonialism, the weighing of the costs was very obviously inadequate. Genocidal wars of annihilation as in the Americas or the Australasian continent are not discussed at all; the various forms of slavery, forced labour, and gulags on the scale of nations, barely discussed; the lasting effects of various `divide and conquer' occupation tactics not mentioned; nary a word on the wars spurred by imperial competition. And so on. This does not read like a serious attempt at the task it purportedly sets itself.
  • It is a little bit unclear to me whether the article purports to be actually engaging in the cost-benefit analysis, or calling on others to do so. It seems to suggest that it knows what the outcome of this would be, thus suggesting that the author feels the cost-benefit analysis has been carried out. Most people have read it that way, in which case the above criticism is activated -- it's a poor cost-benefit analysis that does not actually take into account costs. If, on the other hand, the claim is rather that somebody should carry out a cost-benefit analysis on colonialism; then first it never actually defends the claim that we should engage in this activity directly, and one may object to this on Kantian grounds; but in any case, if this is what is going on the article can be faulted for the more prosaic reason that it would then be simultaneously calling for the fair minded consideration of a question and announcing in advance of this consideration what it takes the answer to be!
  • Relatedly, the author often notes that the European colonists did good things too in the process of colonisation. But I am reminded of Condorcet's response to this defence of colonialism in his own day: plainly it's not the case that the only way to spread technologies and ideas is through invasion and occupation and resource extraction, it does not excuse the latter to note that you did the former, since by trade and the peaceable commerce of nations and peoples you could have achieved those goods without bringing about those bads. Despite this being a rebuttal to various `civilising mission' defences of colonialism already available in the 18th century, the author of The Case For Colonialism never considers it. 
  • This actually feeds into another complaint; the appeal to counter-factual reasoning was both spurious and barely thought through. As part of the defence of colonialism, the author thinks we ought think about how history would have gone absent colonialism. The method they propose for doing this is to compare the condition of nations that were colonised to those that were not. Many of the nations they propose specifically as counter-points were in fact colonised; it is in this context that Haiti is named as a nation with no significant colonial history, for instance. But even setting that aside, those that weren't are often nations that were repeatedly invaded and menaced by colonial powers - China and Ethiopia are named, for instance. Taking this together with the above complaint about peaceable methods of cultural exchange never being considered, one is thus led to think that the rather bizarre counter-factual being set up thus seems to be as follows: suppose the European nations had not colonised the various nations they did, but had engaged in any other sort of looting and invasion -- if there is ever a situation in which colonial rule seems preferable to this, then score-one-for-colonialism. Here, to be clear, I am engaging in some speculative positing as to what they are proposing, since the author (true to form in this poorly written and argued piece) has not precisely spelled out how we are to carry out their counter-factual reasoning. In my defence, it is genuinely hard to see what the relevant counter-factual is supposed to be wherein we are to consider the fate of China as it is now as a guide to Asanteman as it would be were it not for colonisation, and see in this a defence of colonialism.
  • The argument for the legitimacy of colonialism in the minds of the governs consists of two observations. One, after being conquered people in the occupied territories would make use of the services that existed therein and take the jobs available. Second, testimony from a former governor of the Gold Coast to the effect that those under his sway quite liked the regime. The second of these is barely worth mentioning (should we assess the popular legitimacy of the Soviet occupation of Hungary by asking what a chief apparatchik thought of it?) and the first of those would be an argument in favour of the popular legitimacy of nearly every tyranny the world has ever seen. 

So we have an appraisal of historical events that gets basic parts of the history wrong, ignores or passes over key events, purports to be a cost-benefit analysis while not actually factoring in costs, is  naively credulous as to tyrant's self-affirmation, and advocates a mode of counter-factual reasoning that is both underspecified and from what can be discerned amounts to a non-sequitur. This is not good scholarship. I'll end here. This is more effort into this than I really intended, but I have now seen so many people saying that the arguments of the piece aren't being given consideration but people are rushing to condemn that I thought this worth setting out. I take this aspect of philosophy seriously, and think that a significant public role we should play is holding people to argumentative standards. For whatever that is worth, The Case For Colonialism does not meet those standards. 


  1. You’re quite right about all of this.

    I read this paper out of curiosity and found it very frustrating. Personally I think that it would be possible to make some case along these lines – not necessarily correct or compelling, but worthy of consideration; however this case is not made. If one seriously wished to make this case it would be necessary to engage with the worst of colonialism in a serious and sustained, rather than glib, way.

    There are also a few aspects of the paper that are bizarre and hint at deliberate wind-up: if you set out to create a case for a revival of colonialism the Belgian Congo would certainly not be where you would start.

  2. Thank you for this considered review. I hope you sent it to the original journal as well as Current Affairs. Based on reading your comments, I cannot imagine how the original got published in the first place.