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Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire

An introductory essay to the special issue, this paper describes key factors that govern, and, at the same time, reflect the resurrection and normalisation of empire today. It elaborates on the normalisation of empire through three modes of thought and practice - the entrenchment of imperial exceptionalism as a norm of governance or political reason; the neo-liberal, economistic rationale for imperial intervention; and the historiographic redemption of empire. After presenting an outline of "imperial indifference", an attitude and practice that perpetuates the legitimation of empire, it describes the focus of each essay in the issue, and concludes with some thoughts on the futures of empire.


Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire

Rohit Chopra

An introductory essay to the special issue, this paper describes key factors that govern, and, at the same time, reflect the resurrection and normalisation of empire today. It elaborates on the normalisation of empire through three modes of thought and practice – the entrenchment of imperial exceptionalism as a norm of governance or political reason; the neo-liberal, economistic rationale for imperial intervention; and the historiographic redemption of empire. After presenting an outline of “imperial indifference”, an attitude and practice that perpetuates the legitimation of empire, it describes the focus of each essay in the issue, and concludes with some thoughts on the futures of empire.

Rohit Chopra ( is at Santa Clara University, California, United States.

1 Introduction

n following the popular uprising in Egypt against the government of Hosni Mubarak, as covered on television, the internet and in print and contrasting the mainstream US media coverage of the events in Egypt – for instance, on CNN, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – with reports from journalists in the west Asian and European media and citizens on the ground, I have been struck by the myopic, ethnocentric tone of most American media commentators.1 The interests of the US and its allies, particularly Israel, appear to be the primary, obsessive concern of the pundits here. The discussions about the US’ immediate response and its long-term role in the region are interwoven with predictable Orientalist cliches about Arab rage and the closed Arab mind as well as prescriptions for democracy in the west Asia.2 There appears to be little discussion or even awareness among most US media experts about the US’ right to infl uence the outcome of events in Egypt or the wider region though it is neither a god-given right nor necessary from the perspective of promoting rights, democracy or political stability in the region.

That such an attitude, refl ecting the US’ history in the region and globally, might rightly be termed imperialistic is not a radical insight. What deserves attention, however, is the extent to which such an attitude has become normalised, indeed, rendered utterly banal and commonplace.3 It is not the case that critiques of US imperialism are lacking in the alternative media in the US, in south Asia, west Asia and Europe, or in academic and activist discourses. But empire and imperialism have been so thoroughly legitimised in our global present that imperial aspirations have been alchemised into a form of political common sense. Consequently, the will-to-empire has been placed beyond the reach of any critical examination in public and media discourse in nations such as the US as well as in nations such as India with their own aspirations to global ascendancy.4

This special issue of the Economic and Political Weekly focuses on the resurrection, legitimation and normalisation of imperialism and empire in the current moment. It addresses the pheno menon of empire redux, so to speak, in the realms of international affairs and politics, from the US presence in Iraq to the actions of the Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir. It looks at neo-liberal and imperial statist practices in such militarised zones. It engages with the attitudes that inform imperialism, from the impulses that compel the will to dominate others to the tropes (such as the idea of “frontier” zones) that hold the imperial imagination hostage. It assesses the forms of imperial intervention demanded by the nature of a globalised world, such as global health pandemics that imply the suspension of national sovereignty to effectively monitor suspect populations. And it looks at the complexities of

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digital and informational imperialism as they play out in our technologically interconnected globe.

In this introductory essay to the special issue, I describe key factors that govern, and, at the same time, reflect the resurrection and normalisation of empire in our times. I elaborate on the normalisation of empire through three modes of thought and practice

– the entrenchment of imperial exceptionalism as a norm of governance or political reason; the neo-liberal, economistic rationale for imperial intervention; and the historiographic redemption of empire. I present an outline of what I term “imperial indifference”, an attitude and practice that perpetuates the legitimation of empire. Describing the focus of each essay in the issue, I conclude with some thoughts on the futures of empire.

2 The Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire

As Suvir Kaul notes in his essay, the dissolution of apartheid in the 1990s marked a critical development in the “formal decolonisation” of the globe. In a post-cold war world, with nations no longer carved up into spheres of US and Soviet infl uence,

Empires of the most visible sort (those based on direct territorial control, the subordination of majority populations, and the extraction of surplus to enrich colonisers or the colonising nation) seemed a thing of the past. For a brief moment, it also seemed as if empire as an ideal of governance, or as a desirable model of economic organisation, no longer had currency or legitimacy.

But the legacies of European colonialism have proved diffi cult to overcome, persisting in the form of profoundly unequal political, economic and cultural relations between formerly colonised nations and their erstwhile colonisers, between the global south and north, and between so-called developing and developed nations. With the invasions and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by a US-led coalition of nations over the last decade, empire resurrects and reimagines itself.5 Notwithstanding the interventions of post-colonial theory and the formidable body of work on colonialism and empire in any number of disciplines, the violence of colonialism and imperialism continues to evoke a disconcerting silence in academic and public consciousness (particularly in the global north).6 In addition, the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have given a renewed lease of life to old arguments in defence of empire, while inspiring new apologetics as well.

The logics of the normalisation of empire in the present are to a significant extent explained by, and reflect the particularities and peculiarities of the current geopolitical system.7 Key, overlapping characteristics of this system might be identified as follows.

  • (i) The globalised nature of the world, linked by fi nancial, media and communication networks.
  • (ii) A system of international relations reconfi gured in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, marked by the extensive use of policing and surveillance practices by states.
  • (iii) The ascendancy of neo-liberal ideology that, among other things, designates failed post-colonial states as pathological problem areas requiring some form of imperial intervention and medicine.

    (iv) A collective historical amnesia about empire and imperialism, reflected in both popular and academic consciousness.

    The normalisation of empire in these realms takes shape as an imperial exceptionalism that is increasingly becoming a norm of governance within and across states; as the right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations on neo-liberal, economic grounds; and as a revisionist historiography that seeks to efface or redeem the very idea of empire. There is no well-orchestrated imperial conspiracy across these arenas of thought and practice. But there are collusions in the ways that some bodies, peoples and histories are designated less worthy than others, lacking the right to govern themselves and deserving of imperial subordination.

    3 Imperial Exceptionalism and the New World Order

    Arjun Appadurai posits that the present global order can be understood in terms of fi ve flows (or “scapes”) that traverse national borders – financescapes or flows of capital; mediascapes or fl ows of media images; ideoscapes or fl ows of ideological themes such as “democracy” or “freedom” that resonate in multiple contexts; techno scapes or flows of technology; and ethno scapes, fl ows of people who form global diasporic communities (1996: 33-36). Appadurai’s argument does not imply that the nation state has become redundant; rather, it points out that nation states have to operate with (and against) forces beyond their traditional spheres of influence. One of the implications of Appadurai’s theorisation is that the dynamics of the global cultural economy will frequently result in situations where the limits of national sovereignty become obvious. A global health pandemic, caused by unprecedented flows of people across the globe in search of economic opportunity, and the existence of diasporic militant networks consisting of members holding diverse nationalities are two such possible cases.8 The absence of any agreed-upon set of rules for governing such situations (or the unwillingness of actors in the international arena to follow such rules) indicates the possibility of the suspension of sovereignty of some states or an arrogation of the right by a state to act unilaterally beyond its borders. It is precisely this possibility, seized and exercised by states, that signals the return and normalisation of empire in the present historical moment.

    3.1 Empire as a State of Exception

    In State of Exception (2005), Giorgio Agamben employs the concept of the state of exception to examine today’s global order. Formulated by legal theorist Carl Schmitt, a state of exception refers to the suspension of the rule of law for the purposes of maintaining order. In a world shaped by the war on terror, Agamben argues that “faced with the unstoppable progression of what has been called a ‘global civil war’, the state of exception increasingly tends to appear as the dominant paradigm in contemporary politics” (2005: 2). He goes on to note that the state of exception is articulated in the 13 November 2001 US presidential order authorising infinite detentions and trials by military commissions for noncitizens suspected of terrorism (2005: 3). The order “radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifi able being” (2005). Suspects arrested on these grounds, like those housed in Guantanamo, exist in a

    EPW is grateful to Rohit Chopra who has guest edited this special issue “Refl ections on Empire”.

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    legal and political limbo. “Neither prisoners nor persons accused”, they are representative of what Agamben calls “bare life” (2005: 3-4).

    I want to make two observations here about the importance of Agamben’s argument for the revival of empire in the present. One, the development that Agamben elucidates can be seen as a reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature in which predator states seek to emulate the actions of their terrorist prey. What distinguishes predator from prey, marking the former as imperial, is that its actions are sought to be justified by those very principles that it violates through a state of exception – rule of law, human rights, and so on. It is the ability to simultaneously use and violate the apparatus and tools of civilisation that distinguish the imperial power from those over whom it exercises its suzerainty.

    The destruction of the claim to subjecthood, effected through the relegation of individuals to bare life, is an erasure of the very possibility for the individuals so transformed to claim rights as subjects of a sovereign state.

    Two, the production of bare life marks the complicity of liberal reason in the production of imperial exceptionality. In an incisive description of the cunning of liberal reason, Talal Asad points out that liberal reason operates on the basis of a distinction between civilised life and savage life, embodied, for instance, in the fi gure of suspected terrorists. In the fight between the two, “all civilised rules may be set aside”, ironically in the name of protecting humanity from the barbarism of the uncivilised. Liberal discourse can accordingly transform the inhuman act of killing savages into a “humane” one (Asad 2007: 38). Imperial exceptionality, achored in liberal reason, can thus preserve for itself the right to annihilate its designated enemies as the enemies of civilisation itself.

    3.2 Globalisation and Colonial Exceptionality

    Partha Chatterjee has proposed an argument about exceptionalism in explaining the return of an imperialist project in the 20th century that is relevant here. This new notion of empire is not based on direct territorial conquest but stems from “the power to declare the colonial exception” (Chatterjee 2005: 495). Those who arrogate the right to decide that one nation but not another should possess nuclear weapons or that one state but not another must be invaded for supporting terrorism are guilty of such imperialism. The monopoly of the right to declare colonial exceptionality is closely linked to globalisation, that is, the reconfi guration of the world as a result of changes in international capital, advances in communications, and challenges to the ideas of sovereignty, citizenship and the nation state (Chatterjee 2005: 489-90). The imperial imperative – which remains a national imperative – must now work with the transnational apparatus of the global order, utilising the possibilities of control that it offers.

    The declaration of colonial exceptionality, Chatterjee argues, is typically followed by a project of imperial pedagogy, which involves “educating, disciplining, and training the colony” (2005: 496). Either the colonised must be subjected to force (a pedagogy of violence) or brought up to scratch through a civilising mission (a pedagogy of culture) (2005: 496). In an earlier work, Chatterjee suggests that imperial pedagogical projects necessarily fail in their professed objectives of raising the colonised to an equal

    44 status with the colonisers (Chatterjee 1993). The “rule of colonial difference”, as he terms it, is the main reason for the very existence of the colonial state (1993: 10). The colonial state can thus never fulfil its professed goal of levelling the playing field between colonial rulers and native subjects in terms of capacities (for example, intellect or rationality) as well as benefits (such as equal rights).

    These insights, as well as Asad’s observations about the distinction between the civilised and the savage so essential to liberal discourse, may explain the disproportionate use of force or excessive violence aimed at domestic populations in current wars or counter-insurgency operations. Imperial exceptionality is justified by the invocation of a state of war. The designation of certain areas of the world or nation as lawless, and hence undeserving of any of the considerations that apply elsewhere, paves the way for the use of drones and bombs, or excessive military actions in which the value of human life does not need to be measured against the standards of civilised life.9

    4 The Neo-liberal Right to Intervention

    In the present historical moment, experts in economics and development studies are also recommending forms of political, economic and social intervention in societies in the developing world that require the latter to voluntarily or involuntarily abdicate their sovereignty. The imperial imperative in this situation is symbolised by global technocratic communities and representatives of a few nations making decisions for a signifi cant proportion of humanity.

    Such arguments rest on the conceptualisation of the world into “problem” regions and peoples and, concomitantly, into areas and peoples that are deemed capable of providing solutions. This parallels the conceptualisation of the world into those who are unworthy of the privilege of sovereignty and those who must exercise it on their behalf. Problem areas and peoples are typically designated as global challenges. Global problems do not only have to do with matters that prick our proverbial global conscience or demand global responsibility, although the discourse is often framed in these terms. Global problems, rather, are problems out “there” in the overcrowded, poverty-ridden, resourcestarved rest of the world that affect us “here” in the privileged western or first world. These global problems, easy enough to identify, include poverty, health, immigration and terrorism. They imply threats of political unrest and resistance to markets across the globe, the spectre of hordes of unwanted foreigners streaming into fi rst world nations, the danger of epidemics such as swine flu or bird flu spreading across borders, and the everpresent possibility of terrorist attacks.

    Economic solutions to these problems, or the structural causes perceived to be behind them, often directly propose an imperialist intervention or, at the very least, efface the history of empire and colonialism in advocating primarily economistic panaceas for complex social and political issues. An example of the former is economist Paul Romer’s idea of “charter cities”, where one nation administers a city within the territory of another nation, along the lines of the Hong Kong model. Theoretically, Romer’s model may allow for developing nations to administer cities in developed nations, but given that the purported idea behind the project is to “alleviate

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    global poverty”, and given the hostility in the first world to largescale immigration from the third world, it is plausible to assert that most charter cities are likely to be located in the developing world (“Charter Cities: About”). In a more direct argument, economist Paul Collier advocates military intervention as a legitimate strategy for addressing global poverty (2007).

    William Easterly, another economist, has critiqued Collier for wanting to “de facto recolonise the ‘bottom billion’” (2009b). But Easterly also proposes that the link between imperialism and free markets is tenuous and that it is state-led development that has colonial origins (2009a). In his book The White Man’s Burden, which assesses the failure of aid-centric development projects in the so-called developing world, Easterly presents a stronger critique of state-led and non-governmental organisation-led topdown development (2006). He makes a persuasive case that there are no magic solutions for social and economic problems and that large-scale interventionist projects seeking to transform societies are doomed to fail. But his relatively more utopian faith in markets and in what he calls searchers (entrepreneurial, smallscale, decentred and individual initiatives to fi ght poverty) as opposed to planners (centrist top-down projects of poverty alleviation) eschews any significant engagement with historical arguments about the complex relationship between capitalism and colonialism.10 If the perspectives of Romer and Collier conform in textbook fashion to the paradigm of imperial exceptionality as the norm, in Easterly’s understanding the legacy of colonialism withers away in the wake of material progress, driven not by the state but by the force of capitalism in the figure of the entrepreneur.

    5 The Historiographic Redemption of Empire

    The affirmation of imperial exceptionalism as a principle of political reason and the economistic neo-liberal rationale for imperial intervention are complemented by the redemption of empire in the domain of historiography. Assessing the revisionist effacement or redemption of empire in historiography offers a glimpse into the entanglements of historical categories, terms and definitions – ideoscapes such as empire, progress or freedom

    – in current world affairs. It also reveals how the inequalities that mark relations between sovereign states – or global north and south more generally – authorise a certain historiographic perspective on empire that, in turn, is mobilised in defence of imperial actions in the present.

    In recent years, redemptive accounts of empire and European imperialism have increasingly gained prominence in academia, media and public discussion. The renewed emphasis on empire mobilises, even as it reframes, older arguments about European imperial rule in proposing a historiography of empire that is both revisionist and restorative. Insisting on the supposed benefi ts imperialism brought colonised people, this historiography proposes that the initial contact between Europeans and non-Europeans was that of equals and that the violence of colonial rule was of a lesser order than that of fascism and national socialism, even as it locates the bad reputation of empire in the excesses of postcolonial theory. Often, this historiography emphasises the irreducible complexity and ungeneralisability of empire, about which, it contends, there must only be silence.11

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    Thus, Niall Ferguson, an outspoken advocate of empire, has insisted that the violence of empire was not of the same order as that of Stalinism.12 C A Bayly posits that while historians should take a moral standpoint on particular issues associated with empire (such as slavery or deaths due to famine), it is neither advisable nor possible to arrive at such a judgment about empire per se. Simply put, in Bayly’s view, methods of authentic historical scholarship and writing as well as the obligation of the responsible historian preclude him or her from taking such a view (2006). William Dalrymple has argued that scholars do not understand the degree and extent of “cultural assimilation” during the early phase of the East India Company; as such the idea that the 18th century British presence in India was an alien, exploitative force should be discounted.13

    Pointing out that the “conceit of historical ‘neutrality’” runs in history writing from the 19th century to the present moment, Nicholas Dirks offers a powerful critique of recent historiography that emphasises a “balanced” approach to empire (or in extreme cases, outright advocacy of empire) (2006: 329, 313-36). Exemplified by works such as The Oxford History of Empire and the writings of Ferguson, history writing in this vein creates a form of willed amnesia even as it gilds empire with a positive sheen. It exculpates empire from accountability for the exploitation it engenders, while legitimising empire as “a necessary form of rule and civilisational progress” (Dirks 2006: 335). Crucially, the revisionist historiography of empire perpetrates the academic containment of the violence of colonialism. Colonial violence is hived off as one unfortunate aspect of the imperial encounter. This perspective does not allow, in academic or public conversations, acknowledgement that colonialism itself was the violence – at once, cultural, epistemic, psychological and physical.

    The implications of such constructions of imperialism for our present are clearly identified by Dirks. “When imperial history loses any sense of what empire meant to the colonised”, he states, “it becomes complicit with the history of empire itself” (2006: 332). If we are to refrain from passing judgment on empires because of their complexity, what stance should our scholarly inquiries take towards the actions of the US-led coalition in Iraq or Afghanistan? Twenty, 50, 100 years later, how will the history of this present moment be remembered? Will the history of Iraq be described in terms of a deeply unfair choice between the benevolence of occupying powers and a spurious invocation of the “agency” of Iraqis (that is, the complicity of a people) in the invasion of their sovereign territory? In either narrative, the fundamentally colonial nature of the invasion and occupation would be denied.

    The developments described above also highlight some of the contradictions of imperialism in the present, which manifest themselves as natural limits to empire. The same apparatuses and ideologies of financial globalisation or the war on terror that support imperial ambition also stymie it under certain circumstances. Two examples of such contradictions and limits may be noted here. First, Chatterjee’s arguments imply that the universalist, professedly egalitarian projects associated with the present global system (for instance, free markets and the spread of freedom through military intervention) will necessarily be


    limited by the ongoing production of the rule of colonial difference. If the universalist claims and promises of these projects are contradicted by the practices and policies of imperial authority, their legitimacy will inevitably be contested. The failure of the US-led forces to stabilise Iraq and Afghanistan and to enable a functioning civil society in these societies testifies to this fact.

    Second, as Appadurai has argued, the scapes that structure the global cultural economy operate at odds with each other as they might work in collusion with one another. He notes that “even an elementary model of global political economy must take into account the deeply disjunctive relationships among human movements, technological flow, and financial transfers” (1996: 35). It is a truism to state that the structures of global capital and international finance, deemed essential to the economic functioning of capitalist democracies, are also utilised by militant and terrorist networks. The technological innovations and flows that enable states to develop ever more sophisticated techniques of monitoring citizens and non-citizens and to collect massive amounts of data on people may also be used to great effectiveness by critics of state power, such as whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

    6 On Imperial Indifference

    Drawing on the discussion above, I want to outline here a disposition that both underlies the normalisation of empire and perpetuates it. As Asad suggests, what is noteworthy about the use of torture by the US in the war on terror is not so much that a nation which prides itself as a beacon of enlightened political consciousness for the rest of the world should undertake such actions. What is more significant, he argues, is “the absence of any sustained public outrage in the democratic societies of the West” (2007: 33). It is the social, intellectual and cultural production of such a sentiment, at once material and psychological, that I term “imperial indifference”. Imperial indifference should not be mistaken for neglect, for it is inseparable from the very visible and interested acts of empire in the present historical juncture. Indeed, it is essential to these acts. It should not be seen as simple ignorance either, although one of its effects is to justify what Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak has called “sanctioned ignorance” through the authorisation of parochialism as a necessary political and moral attitude (1999: 164).

    Rather, imperial indifference is the result of an immense intellectual, political, cultural and social labour undertaken in diverse locations of social life and practice – from the content of school and college textbooks to the representation of ethnic minorities on television shows in India or the US, traversing the multiple tracks and channels of soft diplomacy and the realpolitik calculations of hawks, enshrined in the gendered and raced division of global labour and no less in the political economy of global information technology, communication channels and telecommunication networks. Imperial indifference is made possible by the relentless inscription of the lessness of some lives and bodies; when some lives, as Judith Butler suggests, are less

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    grievable than others (2006: 22). In various forms of social existence, in the banal stuff of everyday life as in the obviously “imperial” acts of powerful states, imperial difference enables as much as it reflects the normalisation of empire in the present historical moment.

    As a final thought on the matter, imperial indifference and the normalisation of empire in the present are not restricted to any particular region or nation.14 On the contrary, they can be seen in various political contexts, including among those nations that claim the mantle of post-colonial societies.15 Indeed, one of the features of the resurgent model of empire in the present is the collusion that it invites from nations with their own imperialist ambitions, who cynically and strategically draw on and endorse the imperialist actions of powerful states like the US, even as they might challenge other actions of these states. The US, as global hegemon, might well provide the template and vocabulary for such actions on the part of other states. But the imperialistic sentiments and actions of such states are not exhausted by the US example or US influence. To insist on empire as the preserve of the US (or the west) paradoxically reinforces an American (or western) exceptionalism touted by the more imperialisticminded voices in these locations.16 Provincialising empire might be the first step towards demystifying and critiquing it and envisioning an alternative.

    7 Essays in the Special Issue

    Against this backdrop of the general themes and concerns informing the special issue, I now briefly describe the focus of each essay. While the various essays in the issue share many concerns and are in conversation with each other in all kinds of interesting and intriguing ways, they may be broadly categorised on the basis of their themes or approaches.

    Two essays emphasise the imperial impulse and imagination. In his study, “Taming the Imperial Impulse: Realising a Pragmatic Moral Vision in National Politics and International Relations”, Abdullahi An-Na’im argues that imperialism will persist at all levels of human relationships, from the local to the national and global, as long as the “imperial impulse”, that is, the tendency to dominate and exploit others, continues to inform human existence. An-Na’im proposes – and offers an argument and methodology for – making the imperial impulse theoretically unjustifi able and unworkable at every level of social life. He calls for a way to reconceive realpolitik, as he terms it, by rendering empire unimaginable through mobilising resources in human rights and international law as an alternative to militaristic options.

    In “Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Historiographic Imagination”, Manan Ahmed examines the imperial anxiety about the frontier that simultaneously sees the frontier as a known object and an unknowable terrain. Describing how the regions of Waziristan, Baluchistan and lower Sindh act as the internal frontiers of the US empire, Ahmed argues that the designation of the frontier as outside the reach of law is what allows drones to dispense “justice” without the explicit need of trial, juries or judges. Reading frontier texts from the regions, Ahmed reorients the relationship between the frontier and the imperial gaze, presenting a compelling counterpoint to the mystifications about the

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    frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan seen in the hawkish pronouncements of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

    Two other essays engage with imperial and neocolonial state practices, assessing the impact of such practices on subject populations. Centred on an analysis of the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination, Suvir Kaul’s “Indian Empire (and the Case of Kashmir)” considers what the history of modern empire can teach us about the functioning of the state in decolonised nations like India. Kaul assesses some of the profoundly undemocratic imperatives and neocolonial ambitions of the present-day postcolonial nation state. The essay also describes how the Indian state has inherited and revived crucial modes of governance from its colonial predecessor, particularly in relations between the militarised state and its subject populations.

    Chandra Mohanty’s essay, “Imperial Democracies, Militarised Zones, Feminist Engagements”, examines three specifi c geopolitical sites – the US-Mexico border struggles around immigration (Arizona Law SB 1070) and cross-border indigenous rights in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas; Israel’s rule over the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza; and India’s military occupation of the Kashmir Valley – as zones of normalised violence. At these sites, Mohanty shows, militarised imperial state practices are supported by development, peacekeeping and humanitarian projects. Raising crucial questions about the current forms of imperial violence in relation to the body, land, labour and citizenship, Mohanty points to the prospects for solidarity in the face of these empires of occupation.

    Another pair of essays in the special issue engage with the complexities of informational imperialism and digital imperialism in the neo-liberal, globalised world of the present. In “Rethinking News Agencies, National Development and Information Imperialism”, Oliver Boyd-Bar rett revisits the 1970s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)-sponsored New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate on the role of news agencies in the global order of communication as instruments of informational imperialism and sites of potential reform. Boyd-Barrett argues that national news agencies continue to perform important operations for development communication, but primarily at an infrastructural level. Describing how the paradigmatic shift to the market-economy nation has had a positive impact on the lives of many hundreds of millions, he argues that the concerns of the NWICO discourse still remain relevant, and that the relative decline of national sovereignty does not signify the end of struggles over informational imperialism.

    Radhika Gajjala and Anca Birzescu, in their essay “Digital Imperialism through Online Social/Financial Networks” examine microfinance in online social networked settings to show how the social networked online space and the micro-transactional abilities of the interface work together to further enhance the fi nancialisation of the globe. Online socially networked microcredit websites – visually and through the use of multiple tools – make it seem as if the subaltern is indeed participating in these networks. The authors of the essay argue that the staging of the subaltern presence as a participant online continues the legacy of digital imperialism fostered by the logic of digital capitalism.


    Cindy Patton’s essay, “Pandemic, Empire, and the Permanent State of Exception”, shares key thematic elements with the other contributions that examine the fate of sovereignty and subjecthood in a globalised world where the role of nation states, while by no means redundant, has been recognisably altered. The essay considers the brief moment of controversy over the expected global outbreak of influenza in 2009, especially the attack on the World Health Organisation (WHO) by the European Council, as an example of the type of struggle for sovereignty “post-empire”. Patton argues that the concept of “world” health follows the early 20th century era of major interventions on the part of the British, Russian, Chinese and Japanese empires to combat disease when national (but scientifically similar) systems of public health services were created in each of these nations and across their empires. Through an examination of the influenza controversy, Patton considers whether the structure of consciousness about global disease exemplified by the earlier national-imperial arrangements vanish with the decline of empires, or whether they are transformed into new mechanisms of control on behalf of a different type of translocal force.

    8 Conclusion: The Futures of Empire

    Some weeks ago, the business publication, Forbes, carried an astonishing article by Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative of Indian origin, which levelled a series of charges against Barack Obama (2010). One of these was that Obama, the son of a Kenyan father, shared his father’s “anti-colonial” world view and politics. This, in D’Souza’s view, was the root cause of Obama’s hostility to business and his support for the controversial mosque proposed near Ground Zero. Obama, D’Souza went on, viewed “some of the Muslims who are fi ghting against America abroad as resisters of US imperialism”. He explained his privileged access into Obama’s thought processes thus, “I know a great deal about anti-colonialism, because I am a native of Mumbai, India. I am part of the fi rst Indian generation to be born after my country’s independence from the British” (2010). D’Souza’s article was an exceptionally scurrilous and poor piece of writing, its claims easily rubbished. More importantly for our purposes here, though, the article, its subsequent endorsement by Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker of the US Congress, and the media coverage of the controversy perfectly illustrate the arguments proposed in this essay about the return and normalisation of empire in the present (Pareene 2010).

    While D’Souza’s and Gingrich’s statements met with broad condemnation in the mainstream media, there was very little suggesting that being “anti-colonial” was not necessarily a bad thing. There was indeed not much of a conversation about colonialism at all.17 The questioning of Obama’s loyalty to his nation and the accusation that he was less than wholly American – as a result of his race, the nationality of his father, and his father’s political views – indicated the ways in which discourses of citizenship and nationality continue to be haunted by the spectre of imperialism. No less disconcerting was the peculiar relationship between D’Souza and Gingrich, with D’Souza willing to play the loyal native servant testifying to the lack of loyalty of another native and Gingrich readily assuming the role of colonial master.

    48 The historical amnesia betrayed by D’Souza and Gingrich also testified to the normalisation of empire in our times. D’Souza revealed his ignorance of the history of colonialism and the anti-colonial struggle in India. Gingrich, who professes to be a student of history, seemed unaware that the founding fathers of the US might be described as anti-colonial in their relationship to the UK. Curiously, however, D’Souza forgot to mention in his article the personal anti-colonial gesture with which Obama began his presidency. Obama returned to the British the bust of Winston Churchill they had lent George W Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 as a gesture of solidarity. Obama’s lack of interest in keeping the bust was apparently because the British colonial regime, under Churchill’s watch as premier, had tortured Kenyans during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion (Shipman 2009).

    And yet, if ignorance of colonialism and anti-colonialism seemed to be the normative state of affairs in the mainstream US media, another conversation was taking place beyond their purview. As with the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the popular uprising in Egypt, on blogs and websites from across the world one could find a range of voices, perspectives and debates on the matter. To be sure, utopian claims made by technolibertarians about the radical democratic potential of the internet are exaggerated. And the internet reflects as well as exacerbates social and digital divides. But the real mobilisation of the internet by the countless individuals and communities engaged with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the protests in Egypt showed that the logic of internet usage across the world did not easily conform to any straightforward model of media or cultural imperialism.

    On the internet, the mainstream US media has been unable to impose its vision of the wars or the priority of US interests in Egypt as a globally authoritative version of events. Though one finds hardly any sustained engagement with Asian, African or even European perspectives about global events in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Atlantic Monthly, the coverage and opinions of world affairs in these publications are relentlessly provincialised online, juxtaposed as they are against differing perspectives and analyses from publications and voices across the world.

    Whether the rag-tag communities of sentiment, interest, or happenstance that form and wither away on the internet can pose a real challenge to the power of states remains to be seen. And Obama has continued with his predecessor’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding his personal lack of enthusiasm for Churchill. Both these facts, however, point to possibilities, even if faint, for imagining a world devoid of the imperial imperative and one that resists the normalisation of empire. And as long as such possibilities remain, alternative futures are within the grasp of reality.


    1 While writing the final version of this essay as of 6 February 2011. The protests against the Mubarak regime began on 25 January 2011. For a critique of the US media coverage, see “Egypt through the US Media Lens” (2011).

    2 Roger Cohen’s op-ed columns in the New York Times are a case in point. See, for instance, Cohen (2011).

    3 In his discussion of the legitimation of the British empire in India as a “normal

    march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

    state project” during the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings in the late 18th century, Nicholas B Dirks observes that the “very normalisation of empire also made empire seem less interesting, both less destabilising and less important” (Dirks 2006: 126).

    4 Such an absence of critical interrogation would be familiar to those who have followed the mainstream US media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the invasions of both countries by the US. For a comprehensive critique of how the US media framed and have responded to the war in Iraq, see Mitchell (2008) and DiMaggio (2009).

    5 Although US President Barack Obama declared combat operations in Afghanistan over some months ago, US troops still retain a signifi cant presence in the country (Cooper and Stolberg 2010).

    6 Hence Edward Said’s anguished plea: “We allow justly that the Holocaust has permanently altered the consciousness of our time: Why do we not accord the same epistemological mutation in what imperialism has done, and what Orientalism continues to do?” (Said 2003: xxiii).

    7 The logics of normalising empire in the present also echo attitudes and actions of 19th and 20th century European colonial administrators. As Gary Younge notes, “Arguments for maintaining colonial rule in India are almost identical to the justifications offered for the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq and escalation of the war” (2007). I am not suggesting, of course, that there exists an essentialist and ahistorical mode of imperialist thought and practice that applies across different imperial projects in time and space.

    8 If terror is a key ideological theme or ideoscape of our times, so is the anti-US sentiment that often motivates religious fundamentalist and radical political discourses. Cindy Patton’s essay in this special issue addresses, among other things, the implications of treatments of global health pandemics for the notion of sovereignty. 9 I owe this insight to Manan Ahmed.

    10 For an account of the relationship between capitalism and colonialism in the context of the British colonial encounter with India, see Sen (1998). 11 For a critique of such recent revisionist accounts,

    see Prakash (2007). 12 For an argument about the nature of colonial violence between Niall Ferguson and Johann Hari, see Hari (2006a), Ferguson (2006), and Hari (2006b). 13 On the nature of the initial colonial encounter between the British and Indians, see the discussion between Pankaj Mishra and William Dalrymple in Mishra (2005), Dalrymple (2005) and Mishra (2006). 14 “There may be something Eurocentric”, Spivak reminds us, “in the assumption that imperialism began with Europe” (Spivak 1999: 289, n 137). 15 The specific sense in which the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the policies of the Indian state regarding Kashmir, the relationship of China and Tibet, and the former Soviet Union are/were colonial and imperial would require a longer discussion. Nevertheless, as essays in this special issue reveal, there are clear and compelling reasons to consider certain actions and policies of Israel and India as imperial, colonial or neocolonial. For a thoughtful account of the applicability of the terms colonial and post-colonial to contexts beyond the “standard Anglo-Franco cases” such as Russia and the Soviet Union, see Moore (2001). Moore argues that “the specifi c modalities of Russo-Soviet control, as well as their post-Soviet reverberations, have differed from the standard Anglo-Franco cases. But then again, to privilege the Anglo-Franco cases as the colonising standard and to call the Russo-Soviet experiences deviations, as I have done so far, is wrongly to perpetuate the already superannuated

    centrality of the western or Anglo-Franco world” (2001: 123).

    16 To make this point is not to deny the historical specificity of experiences of colonialism and imperialism through the attribution of a spurious biological or culturally essentialist will-to-empire to all human groups. Such a position can all too easily descend into an apologistic justifi cation for imperialism.

    17 It is unlikely that someone holding public offi ce in the US would have been similarly accused of being anti-slavery or anti-fascism. It is also unlikely that the sentiment would have been similarly ignored in the mainstream media.


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    Economic & Political Weekly

    march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

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