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postcolonial globalities Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004

 


REVIEW

Postcolonial Globalities

Himadeep Muppidi, The Politics of the Global (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press)


Priya Chacko
University of Adelaide

 

1. More than a decade ago Philip Darby and A.J Paolini wrote of the need to bridge the gap between International Relations (IR) and postcolonialism. They called for an end to the neglect of imperialism in IR and for recognition of knowledge and representation as important forms of power (Darby and Paolini 1994). The bridge-building, it seems, is finally well under way for the past few years have seen the publication of a number of pathbreaking works that have subjected this most provincial and Eurocentric of disciplines to postcolonial criticism (Ling 2002; Barkawi and Laffey 2002; Chowdrey and Nair 2002; Krishna 2001). This postcolonial approach to international relations takes advantage of the opening provided by the epistemological assault on the discipline by critical theorists and feminist scholars and also draws on the older class-based approach of Marxist scholars (Chowdhry and Nair 2002). This has allowed a unique exploration of the interconnected functioning of gender, race and class, particularly in relation to the ways in which the colonial/imperial projects continue to shape the postcolonial world and the production of postcolonial and western identities. Himadeep Muppidi’s The Politics of the Global, which is an excellent addition to this growing literature is especially concerned with the processes of identity production as they relate to India and the United States in the areas of global economic relations and security threats. The focus on these two countries allows Muppidi to explore the intersubjective production of the global while undertaking a postcolonial critique of the dominant discourses of globalization.

2. Where conventional approaches to IR present globalization as an objective process, Muppidi treats globalization as an intersubjective process whereby ‘the global’ is produced from multiple sites of imagination, involving various relations of power. As such, the constitution and institutionalization of systems of globality require a social negotiation of difference. However, the present dominant system of globality, Muppidi argues, is a colonial one – it produces the global in a way that fails to engage with the Other and deals with difference by silencing it. Useful critiques of the work of a wide range of prominent scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, Alexander Wendt and Stephen Gill show how narratives of IR theory reproduce this colonial globality leaving them "particularly provincial and relatively illiterate in their attempts to read the global" (3).

3. Colonial globalities, "rely on coercive power – the capacity to inflict violence and/or control the conditions of living – to be effective" and thus, "it is often only counterviolence that opens up a space for the acknowledgment of difference" (21). Given the contemporary world situation – the festering sore of Iraq for example – Muppidi’s characterisation is more than convincing. His exploration of the key player in this colonial globality – the United States – centres on the role of the Other in US claims to global leadership based on its self-image as a leading proponent of ‘freedom’ and democracy. However, "despite the crucial prominence of the idea of democracy in the US imaginary, US security and economic discourses hardly exhibit a dialogical or democratic relation to difference" (60). Rather, as Muppidi demonstrates through a close reading of scholarly work, media reports and government documents, contemporary US identity is exemplar of a liberal imaginary that is simultaneously colonial. This liberal-colonial imaginary is one in which "the global is consistently colonized by the American national" (74). It is dominated by the belief that "what is particular to the United States is actually universal" (65) and that "Others are never really rational enough, moral enough, or powerful enough to be seen as one’s equals" (67). The result is a colonial politics in which only two options – either elimination or education – are considered the appropriate forms of engagement with the Others of the world. When seen in this light, the recent calls for a "new imperialism" from those like Tony Blair’s former foreign policy advisor Robert Cooper do not seem so surprising for the deep disregard for the Other which permitted the old imperialism is still firmly entrenched.

4. The Self-Other binary, which is the key feature of both US identity and colonial globalities, also dominates the social imaginary of the postcolonial Indian state. Only, in this case the postcolonial Self is defined against the colonizing, exploiting foreign Other as well as against an internal, premodern India which constantly threatens to drag the modern Indian Self back to its atavistic past. Muppidi’s discussion of globalization in India focuses on its move toward economic liberalization in the early 1990s. This was a change that involved some creative negotiations of identity given that the narrative of India’s victimisation at the hands of outsiders in the past had made the need for self-reliance a central plank of its postcolonial Self. Muppidi’s explanation as to how this new formulation of identity was achieved – "in the deliberate rearticulation of Indianess from a predominantly territorial conception to an increasingly deterritorialized one" whereby the "economic success and cultural obduracy of NRIs (nonresident or diasporic Indians) in the modern West is read as proof of India’s potential success in dealing with Western forces" (56) – is an interesting one that could have been elaborated on but probably deserves a book of its own.

5. By examining these two case studies together, Muppidi traces the interconnections and disjunctures in the politics of globality produced in the United States and in India looking specifically at the computer industry and issue of nuclear disarmament. While both employ a common language of globalization, the demands of rearticulating their particular national identities mean that this language still ends up producing rather different social imaginaries. For instance, the enthusiasm shown by some political leaders in India for neo-liberal economic practices still remains firmly "within the parameters of a postcolonial Indian identity dominated by concerns about colonialism" (85). Neo-liberal economic policies also find favour among most American politicians and they too position their discourse in ways that conform to a liberal-colonial imaginary with an insistence on the primacy of the United States (82).

6. Similarly, on the issue of nuclear weapons, while India has had a long-held commitment to nuclear disarmament, its refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is another example of the disjunctures that are prevalent under the surface of the apparently universal language of globalization. Muppidi reads India’s failure to sign the CTBT as indicative of India’s ambivalence toward the global. Whereas for the US the CTBT was a global security structure institutionalising shared norms, India’s understanding of global security went beyond a regime of nonproliferation and rather, entailed a program of universal nuclear disarmament. The CTBT was seen as reproducing a colonial global order in which the status quo with regard to nuclear weapons was maintained without any serious commitment to complete disarmament. At the same time however, this ambivalence only goes so far in resisting the colonial global order for "...the postcolonial imaginary does not necessarily transform the resistance into a sustained anticolonial revolt..." (91). Rather, "positioned between the colonizer and the colonized, splitting its sympathies with both, a postcolonial imaginary complicates, at best, the easy reproduction of colonial global orders" (91).

7. Clearly however, such ‘complications’ barely make a dent in the power of these colonial global orders and this hints at a broader failure on the part of anti-colonial movements to articulate genuine alternatives. Their adoption of the ideology of nationalism as the method of resistance to colonial rule was the originary act that set up a dialectic between mimicry and resistance that the postcolonial subject has found difficult to shake off. This dialectic has conditioned the development of postcolonial identity as one torn between replicating the practices of the colonizer while constantly seeking to repudiate them with assertions of difference. Thus, when the postcolonial Indian state tested nuclear weapons and gave as one of its reasons a resistance to the "nuclear apartheid" of a system in which it is only legitimate for one group of countries to possess such weaponry, it committed at the same time the ultimate act of mimicry. It signaled as Muppidi notes, "an increasing willingness on the part of Indian policy makers o accept membership in a global order that they themselves condemned as colonial" (94).

8. Just as illusory as forms of resistance to the dominant colonial globality, according to Muppidi, are some of the seemingly radical leftist critiques of globalization. He illustrates his argument by an examination of an advertisement put out by a group of NGOs in the lead-up to the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting in Seattle. Muppidi sees in the advertisement, which protests the emergence of a "global monoculture", a social imaginary that contains "some very troubling assumptions of culture, identity, political community, and practice" (97). In particular, the use of binary and rigid conceptions of Self and Other, an understanding of the political community as ultimately limited to national borders and the lack of agency attributed to the Other leaves this "alternative" discourse firmly within the ambit of the dominant globalization discourse it seeks to oppose. This is a persuasive argument that would have been stronger had a variety of examples been drawn upon. Nonetheless, it emphasises the impoverished colonial imaginary that shapes contemporary political discourse both mainstream and alternative.

9. While The Politics of the Global contains a thorough critique of the dominant "colonizing" discourses of globalization, it is also good introduction to the possibilities of transcending such failures of imagination. Hope remains for the emergence of postcolonial globalities in which diversity would be both acknowledged and respected and difference would be dealt with through "democratic engagement and dialogue". Such conceptions of the global, which Muppidi finds in the work of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, would be empowered by an ability to work "in and through our historically given spaces of the local and the national to produce alternative forms of global solidarities". This would "encourage a self-reflexivity that engages and seeks to learn from various Others" – something that dominant conceptions of the global do not and cannot – given their colonial nature – provide.

 

Priya Chacko is a PhD candidate at the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. Her thesis is entitled "Decolonising International Relations:
Indian Foreign Policy and the Politics of Postcolonial Identity". She has previously
been published in the Flinders Journal of History and Politics. Email: priya.chacko@adelaide.edu.au

Bibliography

Barkawi, Tarak, and Mark Laffey. "Retrieving the Imperial: Empire and International Relations." Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31, no. 1 (2002): 109-127.

Chowdhry, Geeta , and Sheila Nair. "Introduction: Power in a Postcolonial World: Race, Gender and Class in International Relations." In Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender and Class, edited by Chowdhry, Geeta and Sheila Nair, 1-32. London: Routledge, 2002.

Darby, Phillip, and Albert J. Paolini. "Bridging International Relations and Postcolonialism." Alternatives 19 (1994): 371-397.

Krishna, Sankaran. "Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations." Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 26, no. 4 (2001): 401-423.

Ling, L.H.M. Postcolonial International Relations: Conquest and Desire between Asia and the West. New York: Palgrave, 2002.


© borderlands ejournal 2004

 

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