The Past Which is Not Past

Past versus sort of present. France, 2017.

At one point in 1943, British Home Secretary Herbert Morrison claimed that conceding self-government to the colonies would be the equivalent of giving a child of ten “a latch key, a bank account, and a shotgun.”

This assertion, it must be said, was a little bit rich given that European civilization was the driving force in a war that would cost upwards of 70 million lives, its second mass conflagration in 30 years.

If the colonised people were “immature”, Europe’s example was hardly a compelling advertisement for maturity. Europe’s relationship to its colonial possessions always involved a toxic mix of hypocrisy and amnesia and, while the precise topography of the relationship between the two shifted over time, it certainly never disappeared.

In his new book, Empires of the Mind, the historian Robert Gildea provides a compelling account of the ways that the grim histories of colonialism, decolonization, and post-colonial neoliberalism have combined to shape modern Europe.

The last 30 years have seen a massive and valuable expansion of the literature on, and scholarly consciousness of, the effects of colonialism and decolonization on Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Gildea sets himself a different task: to illustrate the ways that these processes shaped the European states that drove the process.

Gildea provides a compact, yet thorough history of processes of colonization, as well as its collapse in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War. But it is what followed this latter process which provides the real substance of his narrative.

The states of the European metropole never acknowledged what the colonial system had been about.  In some places, like Belgium and Germany (although for different reasons) the former colonies were made the subject of organized policies of forgetting.

In Britain and France, by contrast, the end of colonialism proper, fraught as it was, was followed by attempts to build the former colonies into structures that would allow the metropolitan state to retain the glory and position that it had enjoyed in the decades before the World Wars.

But the real meat of Gildea’s narrative comes when he investigates the way that the lingering consequences of colonialism have shaped the internal and international politics of the former metropolitan states.

The 1950s and 1960s were a transitional period for European colonialist states. The boom that began in the early 1950s ameliorated, at least to some degree, the process of transformation of colonial possessions. Still, this was an intensely traumatic period, both for the colonies seeking self-determination and for the metropolitan states.

In France, there was a dual process following the war as the French state sought to recover from the intense divisions caused by the Vichy regime and to recover control of its colonial possessions.

The French fought two protracted, brutal wars, first in Indochina (1946-54) and then in Algeria (1954-62) in a futile effort to regain the international status that they had had prior to the world war. In their wake, France sought to retain connections with their former colonies in Africa, but also to cope with the influx of populations from North Africa after the end of the war in Algeria.

For Britain, the process was in many ways less openly violent, although not in the case of the brutal counterinsurgency conflict fought in Kenya against Mau Mau (1952-60). But politically the process was no less fraught.

From Africa to South Asia to the Caribbean, the end of overseas empire roiled domestic politics directly, while the reflux of populations from formerly colonized areas added in important ways to the identity crisis that Great Britain would suffer with ever-greater intensity after the end of the postwar economic expansion.

Gildea’s book is not so much a history of colonialism as a history of how colonialism was thought in France and Great Britain. The task that he sets for himself is to investigate, “how they fantasized about empire, came to terms with its loss and thought through the consequences of their colonial history.” For Gildea, the former colonial possessions have the quality of phantom limb, continuing to ache and to exert a presence even though absent.

The consequences of this are profound. The heritage, if so it can be termed, of the colonial history of France can be seen in the disenfranchised and disenchanted populations of the banlieues, where immigrants from former colonial possessions and their descendants live cut off from access, both economically and spatially, from the main circuits of French life.

Against the influences of the backwash of the colonial past, French metropolitan society has reacted by asserting the importance of laïcité, the tradition of secularism, which has the collateral effect of disciplining the religiously inflected cultures of immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere in the colonial world.

But the struggle to overcome the scars of the colonial past can also be seen in the rising power of the French right, especially in the rise of the Front National, with its thinly disguised racism and unapologetic cultural chauvinism.

The French project of developing a post-colonial identity in the decades since the end of World War II has led to increasing erosion of the cosmopolitan dimension of liberalism in the attempt to reinscribe an essentialist conception of national identity on the body politic.

Britain has seen a process similar in many ways, although its exit from colonialism was not marked by catastrophic defeat (and an attempted military coup) in the was France’s was. The process of post-colonial identity formation has profoundly shaped British political culture.

One important place that this can be seen, Gildea argues, is in the conflict over the Brexit. The attempt to assert a monocultural nationalism, once the province of the Tory right, has spread throughout many sectors of British politics and can be seen as the driving force behind the project of exiting the Eurozone.

Empires of the Mind presents a complex narrative that seeks to track the effects of the end of colonialism across a number of historical moments, from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberal internationalism in the decades after 1989.

Gildea illustrates the way that decolonisation produced a process of “colonialism in reverse,” in which the societies of the former colonial powers were subjected to reciprocal processes of influence and transformation, leading to new modes of political conflict and violence.

Recent scholarship in European history has strongly advanced the claim that it is impossible to properly analyze phenomena such as the Cold War without placing it in transnational and global contexts. Empires of the Mind constitutes a particularly effective effort to do so.

Rather than disengaging from their former colonies, or creating postcolonial ties that could be managed along paternalist or diplomatic lines, decolonization locked the former colonial powers into a range of pernicious and often violent relationships with the postcolonial world, while simultaneously intensifying the atavistic search for essential domestic cultures which only ever existed in the colonialist imaginary.

Empires of the Mind provides an important opportunity to think through the ways that the current conflicts, both within Europe and between it and the formerly colonized areas, are the continuation of long processes, the results of a colonial past that is never really past.

Photograph courtesy of champderose. Published under a Creative Commons license.