Martin Thomas on The End of Empires and a World Remade

Martin Thomas on The End of Empires and a World Remade

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Empires, until recently, were everywhere. They shaped borders, stirred conflicts, and set the terms of international politics. With the collapse of empire came a fundamental reorganization of our world. Decolonization unfolded across territories as well as within them. Its struggles became internationalized and transnational, as much global campaigns of moral disarmament against colonial injustice as local contests of arms. In The End of Empires and a World Remade, Martin Thomas tells the story of decolonization and its intrinsic link to globalization. He traces the connections between these two transformative processes: the end of formal empire and the acceleration of global integration, market reorganization, cultural exchange, and migration.

What are some of the ideas behind The End of Empires and a World Remade?

MT: The book distils ideas about the nature of decolonization. Five stand out. First is what decolonization means, whether analytically as a concept, practically as an objective, or culturally as a phenomenon embedded in everything from global politics to everyday experiences of discrimination and exclusion. The second question follows from the first. However we think of decolonization, it’s clearly global in reach and impact. That means, it seems to me, that we can only learn so much by studying individual communities and groups, individual territories or even individual empires, no matter how much their experiences represent the wider global phenomenon of decolonization. Understanding that process requires us, at some stage, to bring micro-histories together with the macro approaches more familiar in social science and in international political economy and comparative politics especially. Interrogating decolonization means working across territories, empires and continents as much as within them.

This raises the third question, which is whether decolonization makes more sense as something integrative or disintegrative. The end of empires (the term, rather than the book) implies multiple ruptures—perhaps most obviously, in the authority structures of colonial governments, in patterns of imperial governance, in mechanisms of colonial exploitation and extraction. But decolonization also cemented new relationships: between individuals and groups resisting colonial governments, between ideological affiliates and sympathizers locally and overseas, between those previously marginalized, incarcerated, or otherwise denied a voice within empire. Many of these connections were transnational. All were in some way or other animated by rights questions. Hence, the welcome turn in global history towards the exploration of networks and nodes connecting those seeking an end to empire. Hence, too, the intensity of debates about the meaning and the relevance of human rights formulations and international laws as instruments of decolonization. 

The fourth issue that animates The End of Empires and a World Remade is what I describe in the book as ‘the violence question’. It’s easy to suggest that all decolonization was contested, and that violence was thereby embedded in the decolonization process. But can we go further. Was decolonization violence somehow distinctive, whether in its incidence, in its forms, and in its logic? I think so, and the book tries to explain why.

The fifth and final question behind The End of Empires and a World Remade concerns the interplay between decolonization and globalization. This connection has often been remarked upon, but analysts of globalization have tended to say more about it. One consequence is that decolonization has more generally been made to fit a story of inexorable globalization rather than the other way round. I don’t think things are quite so straightforward. Decolonization was accelerated by globalization. And in many ways the end of empires facilitated globalization’s multiple forms of economic, cultural and political linkage. But decolonization also made late twentieth century forms of globalization just as the imperial expansions of the long nineteenth century determined the wave of globalization that attended them.

Why do we need a global history of decolonization?

MT: To answer this question, it’s worth breaking down what empires were, what colonialism describes, and what imperialism means. Why? Because working through these definitions makes the case for a global history of decolonization.

Characterizing empire as something bounded and politically distinctive can be an analytical trap. Why? For one thing, because the ‘political control’ over territorial space fails to capture the fragilities of colonial governance, its unevenness across vast geographical areas whose territorial limits were often porous. For another thing, the continual movements of people, goods, money, ideas, and beliefs not only within communities but between societies were impossible to confine within a single colonial polity. This is where global approaches come into the picture. The tensions between movement and restriction, between cosmopolitanism and compliance, between private spheres of life beyond colonialism, and lives constrained by it, would lend decolonization local variegations that nationalist political schema rarely captured.

Another benefit of a more global approach to decolonization is that for most of those affected by it, opposing empire was more visceral than ideological. Colonialism was always unfair. Often, it was cruel. Increasingly, it was intolerable, whether locally or globally. Differently put, the constraint of rights and opportunities was part of something bigger, the restriction of freedoms—to move, to associate, to own certain things, to practice one’s culture. These limitations were, and are, what makes colonialism possible. But they always contained the seeds of its downfall. More a pervasive social condition than an exact political relationship, the colonialism of empire describes, not just the maintenance of unequal political relations between a controlling imperial power and a dependent society, but the socio-economic hierarchies, the cultural discriminations, and racial inequalities such relations entail. Crucially, the idea of colonialism as a social condition suggests something with generic applicability, something as much globally comparable as locally distinctive.

This brings us to imperialism, understood as the ideas and practices of empire, lingers on. So do numerous silences and occlusions surrounding it. Empires may no longer dominate global politics, but multiple colonial legacies endure. Some are so invidious that they cry out for our attention: acute inequalities of global wealth, uneven access to the resources essential to human security, and the persistence of societal racisms. In other ways, searching out colonialism’s imprint seems easier. Less than half a century ago, foreign colonial rulers were still geographically widespread. The job is to work out how much changed when they left or were compelled to go.

Elsewhere, empire’s impact is more oblique but remains imminent even so. From the use of land and the extraction of resources to borders and administrative structures, the language and patterns of global commerce, and the social and cultural identifications that people make, our contemporary world is inflected with recent imperial history. This is where decolonization comes in as a global phenomenon. It stands alongside the twentieth century’s world wars, the Cold War, and the longer arc of globalization as one of the four great determinants of geopolitical change in living memory.

Why does the book connect globalization with decolonization?

MT: Globalization was a driver of decolonization because its components—cultural, economic, and demographic—could not be confined within a territorialized space, whether that was a nation-state, a colonized region, or an entire empire. Put another way, globalization’s impacts on cultural transmission, population movement, economic processes, and environmental change operated beyond the norms and procedures of the international system. Empires, individual governments, and multilateral agreements might affect globalization. But they could not control it.

By extension, taking globalization seriously is at odds with single nation, single colony, or single empire approaches to the study of decolonization. This conclusion sits with the transnational turn in imperial history, which prioritizes the agency of individuals, their patterns of connection, and the resulting social, cultural, and economic networks operating beneath, between, and beyond nation-states or colonial territories. National histories may still be explored within this global story but the point is that such national—and colonial—histories never unfolded in a vacuum.

As I mentioned earlier, decolonization worked as much across nations, empires, and boundaries as within them. It proceeded by forging new global connections that reordered relations between First World, Second World, and Third. Colonialism’s devastating impact on the ‘Fourth’ World of indigenous peoples and first nation communities was replicated in their sublimation within a broader ‘Third World’ designation. Decolonization, indeed, is why this three worlds construction came to be used in the first place. Usually portrayed as disintegrative, decolonization was anything but. Instead, decolonization is intrinsically connected to globalization, whether that is conceived as a process of increasing global connectivity or as competing ideological visions of how the world might be reconfigured through economic, cultural, and political exchange. The conditions and possibilities of globalization—or rival globalizations—assured the supporters of decolonization greater access to essential resources, to wider networks of influence, and to global audiences. But globalization could also hinder. Its neoliberal variant has reinforced economic inequalities and facilitated imperial forms of influence, making decolonization harder to complete. The End of Empires tries to explain why the deck was so heavily stacked against newly independent nations.

How significant were the independence transitions from late colonial rule to notionally decolonized nations?

MT: Decolonization required more than evicting colonial rulers; it meant governing in their place. So the impulse among anticolonial movements to act as a presumptive state was commensurately strong. The geopolitical theaters and ideational spaces in which these contests to win over states and publics took place expanded markedly after World War II. Increasing global connectivity, new media, and consequent growth in the opportunity to spread one’s message, whether in person, in print, or over the airwaves, helped make such guerrilla diplomacy not just an international phenomenon but a transnational one as well. Breaking the grip of established state actors over the instruments of formal diplomacy by asserting the rights and claims of colonized peoples became an essential part of the global decolonization story.

Decolonization as a global cause peaked somewhere between 1959 and 1974. The long 1960s that opened with the Cuban revolution of 1959, that continued with successive African decolonizations, and which sustained its radical intensity through the Third Worldism of the 1966 Tricontinental and transnational opposition to South African, Biafran, Palestinian, and Vietnamese suffering, ended with the post-oil shock failure of the New International Economic Order in 1974. But leading political actors in the decolonization story recognized that political independence was not enough. Meaningful self-determination for new nations, decolonizing communities, and individuals also demanded economic sovereignty and the capacity to sustain human security through enhanced economic and social rights. Numerous newly-independent countries of the global south found their sovereignty compromised by an international economic order, enshrined at Bretton Woods and hardened by Cold War rivalries, which condemned Third World states to subservience to the rich world’s economic demands.

Where do you place violence in this history of decolonization?

MT: Viewed globally, it seems pretty obvious that decolonization was a violent business. That proposition looks self-evident whether the focus is on the macro-level, the many wars of decolonization that have disfigured the past century or so, or on the micro-level, the workaday violence of exclusions, compulsions, and indignities that made discriminatory imperial rule tangible. Some of that violence was inter-personal and physical. Some of it was psychological, derived from the refusal by some in charge to recognize the shared humanity of those they subordinated. As the everyday presence of discrimination suggests, colonial violence was also structural. It was evident in colonial practices that left environments despoiled, communities evicted, moral universes disrupted.

Even if we accept that empires were violent places, does that take us very far? Plenty of non-imperial spaces and different political systems could be just as violent, often more so. Some inflicted violence systematically, whether to remove opponents, to coerce compliance, or to hasten the social transformations that their governing ideologies demanded. This, of course, takes us into the realm of ontology, of trying to establish what, if anything, set colonial violence apart and gave it meaning. The challenge for us is how we might configure violence as a dynamic of decolonization: was it the motor or simply one among many types of fuel? Did violence propel change or merely alter its rate of advance, either slowing things down, usually through repressive crackdowns, or speeding things up, as, for example, through the adverse local and global reactions such clampdowns provoked? The End of Empires and a World Remade suggests that we can only find answers to these questions by focusing on the unarmed civilians at decolonization’s violent epicenter.

Adapted from an interview with Miguel Bandeira Jéronimo and José-Pedro Monteiro of the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Martin Thomas is professor of imperial history and director of the Centre for Histories of Violence and Conflict at the University of Exeter. A fellow of the Leverhulme Trust and the Independent Social Research Foundation, he is the author of Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918–1940; Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and the Roads from Empire; and other books.