The Third World Quarterly debacle

Helen Zille was the leader of South Africa’s second largest political party, the Democratic Alliance, until recently. Her praise of colonialism and the supposed “good” that the selfless and enlightened colonizers (including white South Africans) brought to colonized peoples may have disappeared from South African public debates after her half-hearted apology. It turns out, however, she has since become a hero of colonial apologists far beyond South Africa.

In “The Case for Colonialism,” an academic paper recently published by the British journal Third World Quarterly, Bruce Gilley, a political scientist from Portland State University in the United States, wrote it is time to stop looking at Western colonialism as something that brought chaos, oppression and unthinkable suffering. Rather, he argued, colonialism was “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.” He also calls for recolonization of many parts of the world that cannot and will not ever function and prosper on their own unless caring and altruistic white Westerners come to their rescue.

Gilley opened his article with praise for Zille, whom he sees as the voice of reason in the hostile and biased anti-colonial environment and the defender of “truth” and the European civilizing project. In line with Zille’s claims that colonialism brought many benefits to the colonized, Gilley notes that the West needs to figure out how to “unlock those benefits again.” He further argues that the world will remain a chaotic place unless the Western powers take up their “civilizing mission” once again and “reclaim the colonial toolkit and language as part of their commitment to effective governance and international order.”

For those not familiar with academic publishing, prominent peer-reviewed journals are not expected to publish garbage like this. Good academic journals have editors who rely on a blind peer-review process in order to ensure reliability, validity and academic rigor of the arguments and highlight any possible shortcomings of the research. If Third World Quarterly did this properly, Gilley’s piece would have never been published – not necessarily because the views and arguments in his paper are highly offensive to so many people but because it is full of inaccuracies, fallacies, unsubstantiated and wild claims and anecdotal evidence.

A lot has happened in the short period since the publication of Gilley’s paper a few weeks ago. Fifteen members of the editorial board of the Third World Quarterly (they include Mahmood Mamdani, Lisa Ann Richey and Vijay Prashad) have resigned in protest. It turns out the editorial board was not consulted in this instance and the peer reviewers rejected the paper, but the editor still decided to publish it. There is a petition that calls for retraction of the piece going around; others have expressed disdain for the invitation to academics by the journal’s editor-in-chief, Shahid Qadir, to submit counter arguments and engage in a debate about the benefits of colonialism. Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief of CurrentAffairs.org, wrote a “quick reminder of why colonialism was bad;” Vijay Prashad explained in Scroll.in why he resigned from the editorial board; political scientist Brandon Kendhammer, who researches Nigeria, published a post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog reminding everyone of colonialism’s ugly legacy; and Portia Roelofs and Max Gallien wrote in the LSE Impact Blog that Gilley’s piece is nothing but ‘travesty, the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes.’

Colonialism included the invasion and takeover of foreign lands, slavery, unthinkable brutality, subjugation of indigenous peoples, dispossession and economic exploitation through authoritarian and ruthless rule. It also included the use of knowledge and education to dehumanize colonized populations, diminish their cultures and humanity and maintain structural domination during and long after the colonial rule.

In Gilley’s entire piece, there is literally nothing about the mass murder, genocide, oppression, looting, exploitation and other evils that the European colonizers wrought all over the world. Nathan Robinson notes that instead of conducting a thorough evaluation of the colonial record, Gilley’s piece distorts the record and deliberately conceals the overwhelming evidence of horrific crimes. He adds that “the result is not only unscholarly, but is morally tantamount to Holocaust denial.”

Racism and the notion of white supremacy were at the core of the colonial project. Ramón Grosfoguel, who has extensively researched colonialism in the Caribbean, writes that European epistemology and patriarchy had been exported to the colonies “as the hegemonic criteria to racialize, classify and pathologize the rest of the world’s population in a hierarchy of superior and inferior races.” These are well-established facts. Yet, in his entire piece, Gilley doesn’t once mention racism or white supremacy.

Gilley argues that the Western colonial powers, through noble acts and “rational policy processes,” left behind functioning states, market economies and pluralistic and constitutional polities. All this was destroyed by unscrupulous and corrupt “anti-colonial agitators” in the years after independence. While it is true that many former colonies have suffered under bad leaders, it is a blatant lie that the colonialists left behind stable states and economies. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, “start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

Gilley claims that “the lack of state capacity to uphold the rule of law and deliver public services was the central tragedy of “independence” in the Third World.” Anyone who has read a thing or two about colonialism knows that building capacity in the colonies was never a priority of the European colonizers. What they did instead was destroy whatever structures and capacity they found in the colonies. After decades of looting, exploitation and racist denigration, dehumanization and oppression, they left behind empty shells.

For Gilley, problems in many African countries that have faced violent conflict and instability since independence have nothing to do with colonial policies, divide-and-rule tactics, arbitrary boundaries drawn up by the colonizers, manipulation of ethnic and other identities, or blatant economic exploitation and pillaging of the colonies, their resources and labor for the benefit of the colonizers. Rather, the former colonies are dysfunctional and underdeveloped solely because the people in these societies are not capable of governing and developing themselves and their economies.

According to Gilley, many of the formerly colonized societies are still uncivilized, their populations are not yet fully human and lack creativity and capacity for effective self-rule. This leads him to his grand proposal: ‘reclaim the colonial governance.’ He calls on the Western powers to recolonize the wretched in order to civilize them and bring to them much needed help, economic prosperity and good governance. How would this look like in practice? Create European states in Africa and bring hope, stability and economic prosperity to Africans. Or let former colonizers go back and “fix” their past possessions. As Gilley suggests in his paper, allow Belgians to rule the Congo again, as they have done so splendidly in the past.

That’s it. Gilley has found the solution to most of the world’s problems. Recolonize the world, impose Western ways of life, destroy any anti-colonial agitators that may resist this and we will have world peace.

We should not be surprised to see Gilley’s white supremacist propaganda masquerading as academic research. The anthropologist Vito Laterza – who wrote on this site about Zille’s praise for colonialism when she first made those claims – notes that the open and subtle racism, notions of white and Western superiority or the belief that colonialism was not all that bad have been the default positions of the Western academia for centuries. However, the current “shift from liberal racism to explicit white supremacy” in the United States and Europe have signaled to people like Gilley that it’s ok to come out and show their true racist colors.

There are many Gilley’s out there. Let them come out. Expose them and their racism, hatred, inhumanity, intellectual ineptitude, inferiority and deplorable propaganda and lies. And fight them.

Savo Heleta

Savo Heleta works at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

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