A technocratic reformulation of colonialism

The connections between technocratic development policies, neocolonialism, colonial denialism and the turn to the right in German public discourse.

Günter Nooke. Image credit M. Magunia via Deutsche Welle Flickr.

Recently, Günter Nooke, commissioner and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal representative for Africa in the German federal ministry for cooperation and development (BMZ), created a stir in several interviews in German and British media, putting forward a proposal that would, in practice if not in theory, bring colonial territories back. Critics rightfully condemned it as neocolonial; but it is also entangled in a broader discourse in Germany about the country’s own colonial past and tied to Germany’s current migration policy. The more immediate question is: Why would a German government official feel secure in proposing such radical racist measures in the wider public?

It started when Nooke gave an interview to the “Berliner Zeitung” in October, he claimed, among other things, that productivity in the construction sector in Africa was lower because of the heat, and that African women had too many children. He also engaged in colonial denialism, claiming that colonialism had “contributed to freeing the continent from archaic (social) structures” and that the Cold War had had a more negative impact on African countries than the colonial era. The most controversial was, however, his idea to buy 50-year leases of land from African countries, to establish whole cities managed as or similar to Special Economic Zones in which migrants trying to reach Europe would be relocated as (a potentially stateless) labor force.

Academics and opposition politicians called for him to resign over his racist comments. (Earlier, Nooke had defended Donald Trump’s “shithole” comments.) The historian Jürgen Zimmerer noted that it is a step backwards for Merkel’s current government, which was the first to note the necessity of critically reappraising Germany’s colonial past, to keep someone like Nooke in charge of its Africa policy.

What Nooke proposes in the interview (and repeated in an interview with the BBC in November is a technocratic reformulation of colonialism. This idea goes back to the “charter cities” model developed by one of this year’s economic Nobel prize winners, Paul Romer, who touted colonial Hong Kong as a model for how countries would gain by giving up sovereignty over an urban area to a “more advanced country,” which would implement institutions and “rules that are known to work well.” Romer himself proposed to house migrants in such cities, thus potentially making their inhabitants even more politically and legally disenfranchised than in the original model. The idea is, albeit a radical extension, not that far away from current German migration management and development aid strategies. They, in turn, are connected to a public discourse that has, long before the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015, veered increasingly to the right; but this process seems to have sped up significantly over the last year.

The racism and denial of colonial history in Nooke’s interview go hand in hand with his neocolonial proposal. It is a functional approach to African issues, determined largely by the German government’s policy problems at home (Nooke called it “Africa policy with a healthy dose of egoism”). Such an approach is, as Nooke so clearly demonstrates, connected to a politics of memory that, after some hopeful breakthroughs by civil society initiatives in 2017, seems to be on a roll back concurrent with a general move to the right in public discourse. It touches on material questions, particularly when it comes to reparations and the restitution of human remains and important cultural artifacts. But it also determines how Germans talk about their own violent colonial history, which has long been ignored. In the discussion, three recent strands of activism have come together to force a public debate on German colonial history and its crimes: one, the anti-racist groups who’ve researched and published on the deep rooted strands of colonialism in German politics, society and public culture; two, international activism and increased public awareness in Germany for Herero demands for reparations and the restitution of human remains; and three, the debate around the importance of provenance research and restitution of art and other objects that flared up after the decision to establish an enormous new museum in Berlin, the Humboldt Forum. In all three instances, the government and its institutions have declared their will to engage in the process, but shown themselves largely opaque and kept a tight control over such procedures, including choosing their own negotiation partners.

The debate touches on Germany’s self-image and national memory, as the project to exhibit the objects in the rooms of the recently reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss—itself an architecturally and aesthetically historistic project—explicitly recalls universalism and cosmopolitanism as values of the German enlightenment. To criticize the exploitative preconditions and the ideological othering on which these values rest is to disturb a process in which the post-reunification German public, having integrated the Shoah in its national lieux de mémoire, has been searching for a new foundational narrative for the “Berlin Republic.” Now, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has jumped on the process. It denounced a relationship with the German colonial past formed by “guilt” and wants to emphasize “positive aspects” of colonialism like an assumed “buildup of wealth” that German “industriousness” and “practical capability” had brought to Africa. This is a bit stronger than Nooke’s formulation, but he had also claimed that colonialism had “freed Africa from archaic structures.” Thus, with the AfD, a relatively small party has been able to stoke and attach itself to a larger turn to the right in German public discourse and society.

Looking at the way that the AfD talks about Africa and Africans, and at the policies of the German government vis-à-vis African countries, the connections between the continuities of German colonialism, the AfD’s particular combination of völkisch and neoliberal ideology, and the neoliberal trajectories of German foreign and development policy since the 2000s become much clearer.

The deeper racism at the core of the party’s ideology betrays their sympathies. For example, several of the far-right voices in the party have peddled racist pseudo-evolutionary theories popularized by alt-right media in the US. The broader Malthusian idea of African “overpopulation” has a longer history in development discourse, harkening back to the Club of Rome’s report on the “limits of growth.” Talking about the dangers of “overpopulation” has for a long time been a popular strategy for the far right to try and influence left and mainstream public discourse.

Because of this Malthusian emphasis on “overpopulation,” and the connected racist fear of migration and “Überfremdung” (roughly translated: foreign infiltration; another far right term that made it into mainstream discourse in the 1990s), the AfD sees Africa as the main target of its development policies. These are geared towards stopping migration while supporting German economic interests. The party promotes development strategies very much in tune with current government policy, as manifested e.g. in the “Marshall Plan for Africa.” Both demand a stronger involvement of German private enterprise and a selective approach to aid according to criteria such as financial sustainability, potential for success and financial involvement of receiving states. There is also sympathy in the AfD for demands of members of the coalition to link development aid payments to the receiving countries’ readiness to re-admit migrants deported from Germany. The party also demands the abolition of the BMZ, arguing that development aid should be managed by the Foreign Ministry.

The closeness of AfD policy proposals in this area to the government’s, while partly due to the party’s lack of policy competence outside of its core fields—harsh migration and social policies—also shows how far to the right the public debate about migration, global capitalism, and Africa has moved in the last years. Though the “migration shock” of 2015 led to a further curtailing of the asylum system even while officials were still celebrating Germany’s “welcome culture,” this process goes back to the de facto abolishment of the constitutionally guaranteed general right to political asylum supported by both major parties in 1993. The same goes for the government’s attitude towards development aid: the then BMZ minister, Dirk Niebel (FDP), openly stated in 2011 that development aid needed to be subjected to Germany’s foreign policy needs and the interests of private enterprise. With the “fight against migration,” German development policy has become even more of an instrument for both the country’s foreign and interior policies; now, it plays a crucial role in the “management of migration flows.”

Thus, in the midst of rightfully scandalizing Nooke’s racism and denialism, and discussing how it has become acceptable for government representatives to mull over openly neocolonialist models of migration control, it is also important to keep in mind that radical proposals like Nooke’s are very much embedded in technocratic, economically and geopolitically-driven migration and development policy strategies. These, in turn, interact with a public discourse that, under the influence of a growing far right, veers increasingly towards racism and economic nationalism.

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