The Metamorphoses of Colonialism

Jeremy Seabrook


©2001 Jeremy Seabrook. All Rights Reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of Globalization. Seabrook, Jeremy. "The Metamorphoses of Colonialism." Globalization. 1.1 (Fall 2001).
The creation of a working class in the early industrial era involved a breaking of the sensibility of an agricultural population, the reworking of the psyche of a people whose lives were articulated to the rhythms of the seasons, and the refashioning of that sensibility in the interests of organised manufacture. This inflicted great violence on the people, who were uprooted and disoriented by processes never known before. The number of lunatic asylums in England and Wales increased from around forty at the end of the 18th century, to over 4000 in the 1840s; evidence of the coercive, driven changes and ways of life was experienced as dispossession; it was, in its way, a form of proto-colonialism.

That this occurred simultaneously with the expansion of empire is not fortuitious. The holding down of the indigenous populations of empire was similar to the containment by force of the restive peoples at home--the domestic penal code, with its large number of trivial offences, the Combination Acts, the readiness with which transportation was resorted to in Britain--suggest that there was little more tenderness for the domestic working class than there was for the inhabitants of those outlandish places to which Britain took the shining light of its civilisation. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century, explicit connections were made between Darkest London, the unexplored life of the poor in the manufacturing districts, the strange half-wild inhabitants of the mining areas, and the occupation of those more distant lands usurped by Britain for its plans of perpetual expansion and growth. Both at home and abroad, the people were seen as violent, intractable, not amenable to forms of civility and culture which emanated only from the ruling castes and their subordinates.

The most urgent issue became the pacification of the refractory domestic population; not least because, over time, many came to feel their kinship with the oppressed, subjugated peoples of the empire. When Gandhi visited the East End of London in the twenties, he was greeted as a hero.

The application of some of the surplus gained from overseas served to attach the British working class, both to its betters and to acquiescence in the necessity of empire. The appearance among the poorer classes of small luxuries, consolations and addictions, most of them the fruits of colonial appropriation, were ideal for this purpose. From the earliest imperial excursions, the produce of those countries were significant in placating the people. For instance, so great had become the dependency upon tea, that poor families who couldn’t afford it, poured boiling water on crumbs of blackened toast, to simulate the colour of tea. The presence of tobacco, snuff, pepper, rum, coffee, chocolate, rice for milk-puddings, and later, tinned tropical fruits, especially pineapple and peaches, the existence of nutmeg, cloves for toothache and apple pies, laudanum for calming children, and cheap canned meat and fish, corned beef – all contributed, however modestly, to a growing sense of well-being within an otherwise still impoverished working class life.

The forcible extraction of such commodities, along with many others from the empire, particularly what were seen as “raw materials” for industrial expansion, formed the rudiments of another form of colonisation of the people of the West themselves; what was to become the most comprehensive pacification of all, the culture of consumerism. The old working class sensibility – created with such severity and violence – was destined to be broken once more, and recreated in the image of the merchandising of commodities. That this appeared a less brutal breaking and reconstruction of the psyche is an illusion: its consequences may be read in the indices of unhappiness in the Western heartlands in the second half of the 20th century – crime statistics, addictions, the breakdown of relationships, the dissolution of family, fear of strangers, xenophobia, racism, assaults upon women and children, mental and emotional stress, streets deserted to the predations of robbers, muggers, vandals and molesters. These are not manifestations of “human nature”, in the narrow, reductive version of this now invoked by capitalist ideology; they are the results of destructive and coercive social change.

In this way, domestic and foreign colonialism are far more connected than has been hitherto thought. The resonances are more clear, the relationship closer, the echoes and correspondences startling.

What the West practised abroad to such effect faltered in the mid-twentieth century, as the subjugated lands fought for, and won their freedom. The experience acquired from this upheaval was, however, repatriated, and reapplied at home with great care and skill. This time, so successful has been the domestic achievement, that it is now being re-exported again, in a far more systematic and efficient way, to the once-free sovereign states of Africa, Asia and South America; this time, in the guise of economic reform packages, where the West appears now as bringer of enlightenment, charity and humanity, promising to share with its sometime captive subjects the secrets of its wealth-creation. This fresh mutation makes all earlier colonial experiments seem crude and archaic.

The classic version of imperialism, as practise by the Europeans in the 19th century involved the crushing and denial of the identity of the colonised. Indigenous values, culture, tradition were inferiorised, diminished, forbidden expression. Attempts were made to substitute the values and beliefs of their masters, the better to gain acceptance for the imposition of their will. Movements for independence and liberation involved a popular recuperation and revalidation of this undermined sense of self.

The trophies of empire ornament the museums and national shrines of Britain, France, the Netherlands – the jewels, artefacts, works of craftsmanship, treasures and booty plundered from the occupied territories were the tangible emblems of their enrichment. But the Western imperium took other lessons from its piratical excursions across the world which have proved to be even more enduring treasures. It is these which have been applied AT HOME, within the past forty years or so; a process which more or less coincides with the dissolution of the old empires.

In the West, we have seen a colonising of the supposed beneficiaries of empire, the people of the West itself; those who once formed a dangerous and threatening working class, those whose destiny formerly appeared to be a continuous impoverishment that could be terminated only by their own seizure of the agency of their dispossession. The pacification of the people in the West has been accomplished with even greater thoroughness and systematic attention to detail than anything which occurred in the sometime colonies.

For in the countries of the West, all cultural identity has been pared away; not crushed and denied, but reduced, interrupted, as it were, at source. Individuals (oh. Cherished individual, beloved of the West!) have been cut down to their most irreducible characteristic – there is nothing more basic than being black or white, female or male, old or young, gay or straight. This process has been accompanied by a “freedom of choice”, the more resonant because it means the freedom to reconstitute a cultural identity which has been removed from us; and that process of reassembling the fractured identity is through buying in all the precious, given, cultural features that ought to have been our birthright, the gift of all earlier generations to its children. These transmissions have been halted, interrupted. The identities which might have been constituted through them have been peeled away; the shared culture has melted down, and the individual, alone, naked, stripped of all attributes, is invited to “choose” whatever she or he wants in order to make whole the aching absences and voids, the spaces occupied by what has been taken for granted in all other societies, all other cultures. In this sense, the more obvious violence of the assault upon the identity of people in the former occupied territories has been avoided. Children have been the objects of vast a effort of deculturation, erasure, obliteration of the cultural attributes of region, locality and function, the better to be invaded by market culture, money-culture, the buy-in ethic.

Identity, mangled in this way, desegregated and dispersed, must then be reassembled in a kind of do-it-yourself socialisation, a sort of Lego of the spirit. Having been cut down (to the dimensions of individual), robbed of collective, solidaristic, shared features we stand naked, shivering, wretched, before the array of commodities, services, adornments, experiences, sensations of the global marketplace; freedom indeed.

In the market we find, not only the displaced, objectified features of our own culture, but all the ornaments and plunder that have been taken from others all over the globe. This is another way in which western economic colonialism links our destiny with that of the poor of the earth: they must be dispossessed of their necessities that we might acquire ours; even though our necessities are filtered now through an elaborate, cumbersome mechanism of provision that makes them so much more difficult of attainment (and so much more expensive). Socialisation in our culture means orgiastic merchandising. Children – to whom our most valuable and priceless bequest should be the rootedness of who they are – are invited to be what they want, who they choose; but what they want and who they choose must be mediated through the markets. This is why so many parents have an obscure sense of their own deskilling; and find they are enabling agents, increasingly agitated at the periphery of their children’s progression through time, desperately seeking to provide them with what they want; and what they want exists in the overwhelming inputs, to use a term from the economic system which supplies them, to their sensory apparatus. Since the abduction and murder of the toddler in Liverpool in February 1993, the shopping malls have been haunted by a poignant spectacle: parents attached to their children by reins, leashes, pieces of plastic tied to the wrist of the parent and the wrist of the child. This physical tying is metaphor; for the truth is that as the infants are walked around the shopping spaces, they are actually in the presence of the commodities which will be the means whereby they become separated from their parents; their appetites and expanding needs are fed there; the needs which have to be bought in, and which the parents in their love will strive desperately to provide, are also a form of estrangement, a kind of abduction of the spirit, of the hear.

Alien values are implanted into the lives of the people, precisely through the children; alien, not merely in the sense of foreign or exotic, but alien to humanity: a commerciogenic identity is formed. At first it was partly resisted, but with time, it became more and more acceptable, until it has now become a major determinant on the lives of the young, displacing all earlier forms of acculturation, other ways of answering need, other ways of being in the world. This process of forgetting, beyond recall, but perhaps not quite beyond reclamation, is a form of colonialism far more effective than that which held so much of the world in thrall in an earlier empire.

The colonised people of the West have been so deeply installed within its compulsions that they can no longer name it, or recognise it for what it is. They have been the minor beneficiaries of an imperial project upon which they have become so dependent, and by which they have been so depowered, that they are unable to identify with resistances and freedom struggles that occur elsewhere in the world. The serviceable distraction of racism acts as a further impermeable barrier to recognition, to perceiving the sameness of the processes which unroll globally, as they once unfolded domestically within any one of the so-called metropolitan countries.

This colonialism, like any other, involves an abridgement of freedoms, an undermining of autonomy; but since these things do not acknowledge themselves, all the protests at it come out in deviant, symbolic and involuted ways – like crime, “mindless” or arbitrary violence, addiction, social and emotional dislocation. All these can be ascribed to defective or faulty individuals, and are not properly located in the economic and social processes which are no longer, within the colonised universe, biddable, or even, within this enclosed, fabricated cosmos, susceptible to human intervention.

This colonialism substitutes the distant, the remote, the centralised for all that is local, domestic and familiar. In the towns and cities of the Western world, the people haunt the shopping centres, because these are the bringers of answers, both surrogate and real, to need. Fewer and fewer basic necessities are provided locally. Almost nothing is any longer produced, created, or made where it is needed; but must be brought in; and because these have become the constituents of young identities, the children see their formation as coming from elsewhere: NO wonder they say there is nothing to do in the places where they live; they say they are bored, uninterested; teenagers cannot wait to get away, to grow up, to leave home, to get away, to escape; above all “to find themselves”; selves dispersed and untraceable in the markets that have become the dominant agent of their dispossession.

In the reconstitution of the shattered identities of the people in the West, we acquire an increasingly oppressive clutter of experiences, sensations, commodities which weighs down the spirit, and burdens the individual with its freight of inert, borrowed, exogenous symbols; all is external. It is not surprising is so many people complain they feel empty inside.

For we have been the sites of battles that are not ours; we bear the scars of obliterations and uprootings that can be more or less healed only by trying to keep pace with the buying back of our expropriated substance: that means through a kind of leaseback: a buying in of needs that can now be answered only in one way, that is the market. This is truly, in spite of its sham and shadow diversity, a monoculture. Indeed, it also helps to explain the meaning of poverty, despite the excess of wealth in western society in the last half-century: poor are those who, fashioned for a dynamic and ever more penetrating buy-in culture, do not have the means even to begin to keep pace with the rate of their expropriation, of that which is being taken away from them.

The industrialised world has for 200 years subjected its own peoples to a long and persistent development that has taken a single direction: the extirpation of all previous ways of answering need and its supersession by the market. It is not wonder that we invest the market with a veneration bordering on idolatry, and see it as vehicle of salvation, arbiter of destiny and embodiment of morality. Not for the first time, human beings make a cult of that which is destroying them, even as the wealth accumulates around us, and the iconography of luxury and ease bid us assent to the endless expropriations to which our daily experience is witness.

For the development of this alien culture leads to a paradox: which is that the process that robs and removes from our own grasp our capacity to do and make and answer need for ourselves and each other itself becomes a culture in the end; and what is more, one that now seeks to extend its imperium once more, in what it calls a single global economy. There is something infinitely malleabla, mobile, inventive about this nimble colonialism, ripe for export once more; in the seductive guise of an iconography of luxury and ease which is now projected electronically across the world, and in which the depowering and dispossessing core is dissimulated in the exotic paraphernalia of consumption and enjoyment.

This is how the West is now ready for its next major assault on a backward, impoverished, helpless, depowered, dependent, corrupt, venal Third World. First time around, it was all a little too crude. Now, refinements of technique have been long practised at home. Expansion is on the agenda once more, this time into the almost limitless territories of heart and spirit and mind. What vistas beckon; what uncharted continents are ripe this time for the explorers and adventurers, the merchant princes, the colonisers and buccaneers. All earlier conquests look archaic and clumsy beside this newest mutation of domination. The objects of this new phase of empire-building welcome it with open arms; old freedom struggles melt away; old nationalisms are forgotten; ancient antagonisms laid to rest. This is the triumphal march of western wealth, the most powerful colonising agent of all, its promises, its worldwide iconography of liberation; for it promises emancipation undreamed of in all previous partial, discredited and fallen ideologies of deliverance.

The undermining of the reluctantly conceded political freedoms to the peoples of Africa and Asia makes them ready once more to accept new prescriptions emanating from the heart of the imperium.

Of course, the simplicity of the underlying dynamic is not expressed in this way. It must be embodied in far more mystifying and convoluted forms. And what more opaque and impenetrable than the dazzling mirrors of Western economic success, the light from which appears to have blinded a majority of the world’s leaders to the impossibility, the non-replicability of the Western economic system.

It is no accident that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund became the agencies whereby Western mirages of wealth have been exported to the South; any more than that the GATT negotiations, with the new monster to which it is to give birth, the World Trade Organisation, should have been the means of institutionalising the global inequalities with the West has no real intention of changing. Alas, those who have power in the world, have rarely forborne to use it, and have seldom hesitated to assert their supremacy over those whose lives they control; and in this, Western magnanimity to the poor should not be taken at face value.

The euphoria in the West over the “successful outcome” of the Uruguay Round was well founded. For this represents perhaps the greatest triumph yet in five centuries of imperial conquest, and apparently without bloodshed. For the West, by the relentless projection of its affluence and wealth around the world, has now induced the countries of the south to AUTOCOLONISE in its interests.

The GATT agreement merely formalises what has long been an established reality: the governments of the South are ready to police their own people in the interests of the global possessing classes.

Do the governments of the South know what they are doing? Are they willing parties to these alien interests? Or are they acting in good faith, accepting at face value the blandishments of the West?

Of course, no government is going to admit to being coerced, bullied or blackmailed, because it is not in the nature of bodies, ruling elites or dominant cliques to admit error. But all over the South governments admit the truth, when they say “We have no choice but to be part of the global trading system”. For to have no choice is to be unfree. But that they will never concede. Hence, they are compelled to rationalise.

Since their own interests are never at stake -- foreign bank accounts in sage havens abroad see to that -- governments have a powerful incentive to justify their choiceless policies. And after all, no evil in human history has ever been so monstrous that it was unable to summon supporters among the great and the good, who have rushed to demonstrate why it was both moral and necessary. The slave-owners, for instance, described slavery as morally superior to free labour, saying that the slave-owner had a direct interest in maintaining his slaves in a condition that rendered them fit to perform their daily tasks adequately, which no mere payer of wages was under any obligation to do.

And so it is with those who have led the people of Brazil, the Philippines, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, India, and all the others into new forms of bondage.

To autocolonise means to impose upon one’s own country an economic model imported from elsewhere, a model that is not in the interests of a majority of the people. What the West once applied by force to the entire imperium under its rule, the rulers of the South will now willingly practice against their own people.

The enormous advantage to the West of autocolonisation is obvious, because it can dissociate itself from the cruelties this involves and especially from the inevitable violence that must follow. The governments themselves will now have to carry full responsibility for what will happen.

Autocolonisation is a far more subtle and palatable project than those special relationships with Western-friendly dictatorships in the 1970s: the TV images of popular uprisings against a Marcos, a Pinochet or a Viola were too disturbing. Whatever occurs now will all take place under democratic regimes, so no one can accuse the West of installing its surrogates in foreign capitals.

The truth is, however, that the laws of India, of Thailand, of Malaysia, of Venezuela, of Peru, of Ghana, have now been superseded by the superior laws of the market, and they must incline themselves accordingly. Perhaps the most tragic recent example is South Africa, whose heroic liberation struggle has delivered the people to a freely elected government which has been obliged to promise to conduct its affairs by “sound market principles”.

The market now has prior claim to the resources of India and elsewhere, over and above the needs of the millions of people whose very existence depends upon their access to those same resources. They will have to be dispossessed of what they has always considered their heritage. A recent World Bank report on poverty put it more tactfully, when it stated that growing numbers of the rural poor migrated to the cities. This means that industrialised agriculture will continue to deprive people of their traditional livelihoods; people who will then be expected meekly to uproot themselves and be gone, to add, no doubt to the slum populations of such agreeable urban environments as Calcutta, Bogota or Nouakchott.

But because subsistence farmers, fishing communities and indigenous peoples can see no other future than in the ecological niches where they have worked for centuries, they will resist violent displacement by “economic forces.” The term is apt: economic forces are an invisible army of occupation, forcibly evicting whole communities from settled ways of life, from their sole means of survival. When the people resist, the sophisticated weaponry of the modern State will be deployed against them. An obliging and craven media will call the people terrorists, unsocial elements, Naxalites, Communists, and will applaud the repression that follows.

Nor is this some remote future scenario. It already occurs routinely. Human rights are, in fact, the first causality of this economic war, a war not made by the poor, but one for which they are universally blamed and criminalised. The abuse of human rights is built into the supremacy of the rights of the market. No amount of specious theorising about the market economy having some “ultimate” goal of plenty for all can conceal the reality that wealth is not created by miracles, but by exploitation, sweat, coercion and blood.

Of course, autocolonisation is accompanied by a seductive lexicon of big words borrowed from Western ideological creditors – “liberalisation”, “efficiency”, “upgradation of technology.” These all have their shadow meanings – efficiency at disemploying people, the degradation of traditional and ecologically benign skills. As for “liberalisation”, can anyone looking at India or Thailand or the Philippines really believe that more insecurity, lower wages and unemployment for those already on the edge of survival is really what a needy, wanting population needs most?

The lessons of all this have not, however, been lost upon the peoples of the unhappy countries now experiencing the rigours of autocolonisation. In India, for example, the resistance is coming from where the pressure is greatest. The popular movements which are now placing the right to life at the forefront of their concerns are on the strongest ground: this is one of the fundamental issues raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan; what is the point of the West preaching human rights to those whose right even to exist is snuffed out at source?

Those actively fighting to retain control over the resource-base upon which they depend are equally in the forefront of resistance. The Chilka Bachao Andolan (Save Chilika Movement) for example, comprises two hundred thousand people living around the magnificent brackish-water lake in Orissa, who are defending their way of life against export demand for industrially cultivated prawns.

Then there are those resisting the next phase of colonial penetration, like the farmers of North Karnataka. With their seed “satyagraha”, the farmers have affirmed their right to store, maintain and develop seeds, independently of the market and of Western-dictated intellectual property regimes.

All over India – and indeed in every country under this new tyranny disguised as benevolence – opposition to these developments is stirring; from the Chattisgarh liberation movement, with its noble endeavour of employment and sufficiency for all, to the innumberable local fights by women against liquor.

Indian leaders will set their face against all such movements. Indeed, it is within the logic of the system they have embraced that such struggles be suppressed. Several leaders of people’s organisations have been beaten up, threatened with death, and in the case of Niyogi in Chattishgarh, and human rights lawyers in Andhra Pradesh, murdered.

This, then, is the battleground determined by the autocolonisers on behalf of their absent, unseen masters. The outcome of this new twist in the long history of domination remains to be seen. Nothing, however, is static in human affairs. Certainly, autocolonisation presents a difficult task to those who seek liberation, in both the West and the South; for whoever heard of liberation struggles against democratically elected governments?

Yet this is the paradox for many people in the world now. As the interests of leaders and people diverge more dramatically, dissent and resistance will increase. The autocolonisers should understand that if things go wrong for them, the West, which has lured them into the present predicament, will not come to their aid. The Western countries will be too preoccupied maintaining such social peace as they can with their own fractious, rising, popular opposition at home.


Seabrook, Jeremy. Dominance of the West over the Rest. Penang, Malaysia: Just World Trust, 1995. 22-33.

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