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Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Beyond Borders

Interview With Nandita Sharma

October 8, 2020

In the second print issue of Spectre, to be mailed out to subscribers on November 7, editor Zachary Levenson interviewed Nandita Sharma about the politics of anti-nationalism she develops in her new book Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020). What follows is material that was cut from the final version.

Dr. Sharma teaches sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. In addition to Home Rule, she has published Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of “Migrant Workers” in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2005).

If you still need to subscribe to Spectre, you can do so here. The print issue contains an additional 11,000 words of this interview.

It seems to me that in your book Home Rule, you’re trying to do something a bit counterintuitive: you want to subsume a typically valorized postcolonial form of thought under the rubric of capitalist modernization, pointing out how anti-colonialism and nationalism are inextricably linked.

That’s right.

This politics, you argue, contains otherwise revolutionary and liberatory demands. While I found your argument persuasive, it also breaks with much recent writing on the anti-colonial imagination. I’m thinking here of Adom Getachew’s work1Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). with regard to the Anglophone world and recent books2Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). by Gary Wilder and Frederick Cooper on Francophone anti-colonialism. These authors emphasize how anti-colonial thinkers, many of whom you deal with in your book, dreamt beyond the nation-state. By contrast, you emphasize the nationalist effects of their political projects, as well as the distinctly capitalist effects. Can you talk a bit about this argument?

Adom Getachew’s book Worldmaking After Empire makes an important contribution to the intellectual history of anti-colonialism. However, I disagree with its thesis in a number of ways. First, “decolonization” as she understands it – the formal independence of colonies and the anti-racist thinking of some new heads of state – proved itself to not be revolutionary. It certainly helped to end the age of empires and, of course, this enormous feat is to be celebrated. It mattered that people ousted imperial rulers. But what did they get in their stead?

First, there was no revolution in the ownership and control of people’s means of production and subsistence. People did not get free access to land (and water and air). The exploitation of their labor did not end. There was no levelling of hierarchies. Indeed, there was more expropriation and intensified exploitation.

Nor was there a revolution in the relationships between people. A shared political status of “national citizen” did not lead to equality in social or economic status. Despite the rhetoric of “liberation” and “equality” espoused by nationalists in the imperial colonies, nationalism covered over the deep – indeed growing – imbalance of power and wealth in the new national liberation states.

Secondly, while there was support for a project seen as “going beyond” nationalism, such as pan-Africanism, these projects actually helped to further entrench the separation of Natives and Migrants. In particular, the pan-Africanist project of “indigenizing Africa” was the basis for the targeting and later expulsion of those not regarded as “African” – for instance, “Asians” in East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. The project of “indigenization” didn’t stop there but continued to narrow the basis for political community across Africa and the rest of the world.

In any case, each of the anti-colonial leaders that Getachew discusses came to preside over a state that was very much national in its form. In Home Rule, I discuss the rule of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of postcolonial Ghana. In 1958, only one year after national independence, Nkrumah outlawed labor strikes, passed the Preventive Detention Act that gave the state enormous powers to arrest and detain people for up to five years without charge, and established the powerful and brutal National Security Service.

Nkrumah eliminated even the pretense of (liberal) democracy by declaring that only his Convention People’s Party could stand for election. This transformed the new Ghanaian nation-state into a de facto dictatorship. He did all of this in the name of “national unity” and “national development,” even as it was obvious that those in Nkrumah’s entourage stood to be personally enriched.

Nkrumah, like many heads of national liberation states, made major infrastructural development projects such as the Volta River Dam (now called the Akosombo Dam), key to the “development” of Ghana. A symbol of “progress,” its construction, funded in part by the World Bank, flooded an enormous area where approximately 80,000 people lived, most of them subsistence farmers. The flooding was contained within Lake Volta, the largest human-made lake in the world, covering almost 4 percent of the land area of Ghana. Approximately 700 villages were destroyed, and the tens of thousands of people displaced and dispossessed by the dam were moved by the state to 52 new “resettlement villages.” The long-term effects have been devastating to both people and the environment.

Most of the electricity first generated by the Akosombo Dam went to the aluminum industry. The building of an initial aluminum smelter to process imported alumina was directed by Kaiser Aluminum, a US-based corporation. Once Nkrumah’s government assured financiers that the smelter would be exempt from taxes on trade and would also receive discounted electricity from the dam, the Export-Import Bank of Washington, D.C. supported its funding.

After a visit to the Soviet Union in late 1961, Nkrumah ordered state control over much of the private sector. Most of Nkrumah’s new Seven Year for state investment could not be met. Instead, there were major cuts in government expenditures. Funds for housing, social services, and other government services, were reduced the most. Both for the (largely) subsistence farmers displaced by dam construction and others whose means of social reproduction was greatly reduced, national liberation was hollow.

Nkrumah penned his theory of “neocolonialism” the same year that the Akosombo dam opened. As I argue in my book, the concept of “neocolonialism” was much beloved by the heads of national liberation states, for it allowed them to rest the blame for their failings on “foreigners” (“foreign capital,” as well as “migrants” within the new nation-states). It also allowed them to continue to present themselves as the agents of decolonization. It allowed the national liberation states to conceal their support for the extension of capital and the nation-state into more and more areas of people’s lives (and livelihoods) and the resulting immiseration of people in whose name the state purportedly ruled. It thus provided the heads of national liberation states with an alibi for why people in their territories were not liberated.

Frederick Cooper’s work on anti-colonialism in the French Empire in Africa, on the other hand, demonstrates that many people advanced real anti-colonial alternatives to national sovereignty. Some “natives of the colonies” fought for equality within the imperial state. For instance, workers in the French Empire’s colonies fought to be paid the same as workers in the French metropole.

Gary Wilder’s work discusses this further by looking at efforts, like those of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, to end colonialism by transforming imperial France into a democratic federation in which former colonies would become autonomous members of a transcontinental political formation. Scholarship on communist and anarchist anti-colonial struggles also demonstrate that many had goals far beyond national territorial sovereignty1Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (New York: Verso, 2005)..

However, each of these movements lost to the nationalist version of anti-colonialism. Nationalists promised that “self-determination” would be exercised for the benefit of the “nation.” They lied. They well knew that the cross-class project of nationalism could not produce equality among those granted nationality in the new state. The only “equality” nationalists sought was the equality between “sovereigns.” They didn’t get this either of course, because the global system of nation-states was not designed to produce even this paltry outcome (hence, the utility of the concept of “neocolonialism”).

Today we tend to think of borders as inevitable, a fact on the ground, so to speak. But you point out that they’re simply one feature of the project of nationalizing sovereignty – a project which was really consolidated in the postwar period. We can’t simply assume that what currently exists can be projected backward into eternity. So, what did this political project of nationalizing sovereignty entail? And how can understanding that this isn’t eternal or natural but instead the consequence of a concerted political project help us to consolidate a politics of anti-nationalism today?

For Dr. Sharma’s answer to this question, as well as the rest of our back and forth, subscribe to Spectre in time for issue no. 2. It will be mailed out on November 7. As long as you subscribe by the end of November, you’ll receive the issue.

  1. Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
  2. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
  3. Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (New York: Verso, 2005).
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