THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Kenan Malik examines how a critic of Western imperialism
has ended up supporting Western intervention in Bosnia
The myth of the 'Other'
In Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, one of the characters,
Saladin, finds himself in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Here,
all the inmates have been transformed into beasts - water buffalo, snakes,
manticores. 'How do they do it?', Saladin asks a fellow prisoner. 'They
describe us', comes the reply, 'that is all. They have the power of description
and we succumb to the pictures they construct'.
- Culture and Imperialism, Edward W Said, Chatto
& Windus, £20 hbk
Like the inmates of Rushdie's fictional immigration centre, contemporary
cultural theorists have a great fear of the 'power of description'. As Edward
Said observes in Culture and Imperialism, 'representation itself
[keeps] the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior' (p95).
Culture and Imperialism is a study of the role of Western culture
in maintaining the subordination of the non-Western world. Imperialism,
Said believes, is not just about physical subjugation. The power of the
West over the third world arises from its ability culturally to represent
the non-Western world as the 'Other'.
Western thought, argues Said, cannot allow anything to be defined in its
own terms. When Western intellectuals seek to understand the non-Western
world, they do so by creating such a world in terms of Western thought.
They create a world, not as it actually exists, but as they see it. In so
doing they rob non-Western people of the right to define themselves. Instead,
such people simply become the silent 'Other' in Western thinking, distinguished
solely through their antagonism to the dominant self:
'Without significant exception the universalising discourses of modern Europe
and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European
world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion; there is direct rule;
there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgement that
the colonised people should be heard from, their ideas known.' (p58)
This cultural appropriation of the other, argues Said, is akin to, and indeed
an indispensable part of, the physical occupation of foreign territory.
Just as the West's politicians and generals annex foreign lands, so its
intellectuals and philosophers colonise the field of knowledge.
At the heart of Said's argument in Culture and Imperialism is the
view that there is an unvarying way in which Europeans have always viewed
'Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their "others"
that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely
varied is that there is an "us" and a "them", each quite
settled, clear, unassailably self-evident.' (pxxviii)
The whole of Western culture, writes Said, has first prepared the ground
for, and subsequently validated, the quest of imperialism. Culture - literature,
philosophy, music, visual art - is therefore an integral part of Western
subjugation of the third world. Said trawls through the great works of the
Western canon - from Austen to Verdi, from Conrad to Camus - to demonstrate
their place in the imperial project.
An understanding of Western culture requires what Said calls a 'contrapuntal
reading' - in essence, reading a work with mind to its social and political
context. It means recognising when we read Conrad, for instance, that 'far
from Heart of Darkness and its image of Africa being "only"
literature, the work is extraordinarily caught up in, is indeed an organic
part of, the "scramble for Africa" that was contemporary with
Said's plea for contextual reading is useful. But rather than following
his own stricture, Said removes culture from its historical and social context.
He tries to force authors as different as Austen and Conrad, Defoe and Dickens
into a single framework with a single view of the 'other', and thereby loses
the particularity of each. You are left wondering why an author who extols
the virtues of contrapuntal reading has apparently opted not to use the
In reality, the European view of non-Europeans has been anything but 'settled,
clear and unassailably self-evident'. At different times over the past 500
years European society has viewed foreigners in many different ways.
Fifteenth-century Europe was a world characterised by its irrational premises,
static nature and parochial scope, where all manner of prejudices attached
themselves to anything out of the ordinary. In his book European Encounters
with the New World, Anthony Pagden relates the tale of Bemoin, a Wolof
prince from West Africa who in 1488 came to Portugal to ask for assistance
in a war in which he was engaged. While in Portugal, Bemoin converted to
Christianity, with the King and Queen acting as his godparents. Four days
later he was made a knight. 'In Portugal then', observes Pagden, 'he had
become a noble, a member of the Royal Household and a Christian Vassal of
the "Lord of Guinea". He had, that is, become, European in everything
but his skin colour'(p4).
Bemoin returned to West Africa with a fleet of ships, men and military equipment
to help him prosecute his war. When the fleet had almost reached its destination,
however, the Portuguese commander killed Bemoin and set sail back to Portugal.
'Once poor Bemoin had slipped away from the mouth of the Tagus', Pagden
concludes, 'he had, for all those in Portugal, already...become part of
Bemoin's story shows how society's view of strangers is more complex than
Said suggests - the Portuguese clearly did not treat Bemoin simply as the
'other' despite his strangeness in terms of colour, religion, dress, habits
and so on. At that moment in the development of European society, irrationality
underpinned social perceptions - Bemoin was one of 'us' so long as he was
in Portugal, but became a stranger during the course of travelling to Africa.
Bemoin's story demonstrates how a society's view of outsiders is historically
contingent - a West African immigrant to Portugal today would clearly be
seen and treated very differently.
Three centuries later we find a very different conception of non-Europeans.
The Enlightenment, the intellectual wind of change that swept through Europe
in the eighteenth century, ushered in a new age of thought which tried to
bury the prejudices and superstitions of the past and to establish the study
of nature, humanity and society on a rational foundation. Unlike medieval
writers, Enlightenment thinkers like Wilhelm von Humboldt stressed not difference
and strangeness but 'our common humanity' and the need 'to treat all mankind
without reference to religion, nation or colour, as one fraternity, one
great community, fitted for the attainment of one object, the unrestrained
development of the psychical powers' (quoted in A Montagu, Man's Most
Dangerous Fallacy, p44).
This conception of humanity led to a radically new perception of non-Europeans.
In his book Persian Letters, published in 1721, the French philosopher,
Montesquieu, presents a series of fictional letters in which two Persian
visitors to France describe to a friend back home their impressions of a
strange society. Through these letters Montesquieu provides his readers
with a fresh understanding of their own society. For Montesquieu, Persians,
though foreign, were not 'other' at all. They were rational beings whose
insights and sensibility could shed light on his own society.
How very different is this view from that expressed by British naturalist,
Thomas Huxley, a century later. Huxley was a liberal, a humanitarian and
one of the most progressive men of his age. Yet his concept of the negro
as naturally inferior was diametrically opposed to the humanistic outlook
of Humboldt and Montesquieu:
'It is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and
our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor,
he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed
rival, in a contest that is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites.
The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be
within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary
that they should be restricted to the lowest.' (Lay Sermons, Addresses
and Reviews, p24)
Here at last we find a European view of the non-European that fits Said's
description. But it is one that is specific to its time. Understanding it,
and how it manifests itself in culture, requires a method that Said dispenses
with - examining social consciousness in its specificity.
Looking at imperialism in terms of 'the other' eternalises Western domination.
It also reduces the political and social processes of imperialism to the
level of ideas.
For Said, imperialism expresses not a social or economic relationship, but
a geographic one. More precisely, Said regards imperialism as the geographic
expression of the dominance of self over other. 'The enterprise of empire',
he argues, 'depends upon the idea of having an empire' (p10, emphasis
in the original). This is why 'culture is in advance of politics, military
history, or economic processes' (p241).
By seeing power as residing not in social relations, but in 'discourse',
'language' or 'representations', Said makes the material world disappear.
Language and culture become reified into the only reality while social beings
become illusions, constituted in the world of language and symbols. Viewed
in this fashion, knowledge itself can become oppressive.
Because knowledge is implicated in imperialism, science, as the high point
of knowledge, is at the forefront of Western domination:
'At the heart of European culture during the many decades of imperial expansion
lay an undeterred and unrelenting Eurocentrism. This accumulated experiences,
territories, peoples, histories, it studied them, it classified them, it
verified them...but above all it subordinated them by banishing their identities,
except as a lower order of being from the culture and indeed the very idea
of white Christian Europe....Eurocentric culture relentlessly codified and
observed everything about the non-European or peripheral world, and so thoroughly
and in so detailed a manner as to leave few items untouched, few cultures
unstudied, few peoples and spots of land unclaimed.' (pp267-68)
Said wants us to believe that there is an intimate connection between the
scientific method and the imperialist project, between 'Eurocentric' knowledge
and a racist outlook. But there is no such logical connection. The ability
of nineteenth-century European scientists 'to learn about other people,
to codify and disseminate knowledge, to characterise, transport, install,
and display instances of other cultures' (p130), far from being oppressive,
was a great step forward for humanity. Only by studying society can we have
the understanding necessary to change it.
The problem is not science, but its use by the capitalist class to legitimise
its rule. In the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie increasingly press-ganged
science into service, to justify capitalist society as 'natural'. Victorian
positivism held that society could not be any other way because it was governed
by natural laws. Scientific racism proclaimed the natural fitness of the
capitalist class to rule over the working class and of the white race to
rule over black. Such arguments demonstrate not the oppressive nature of
science, but the primacy of social forces over ideological ones.
The problems arising from Said's methodology are not simply matters of academic
concern. The political consequence of Said's approach can be seen in his
discussion of the relationship between culture and the anti-imperialist
struggle. Having removed imperialism from its social and political context,
and reduced it to the cultural appropriation of the 'other', Said is forced
to view anti-imperialism in a similar fashion. The struggle against imperialism,
too, is removed from the real world and becomes an issue not of political
or social liberation, but of challenging 'discourse' and 'reclaiming' culture.
The project of anti-imperialism, writes Said, lies in 'the rediscovery and
repatriation of what had been suppressed in the natives' past by the processes
of imperialism' (p253). Anti-imperialist movements need to 'rechart and
then occupy the place in imperial cultural forms reserved for subordination,
to occupy it self-consciously, fighting for it on the very same territory
once ruled by a consciousness that assumed the subordination of the designated
inferior Other' (p253).
Anti-imperialism used to mean the struggle against Western domination of,
and intervention in, third world states. Liberation was acknowledged as
political, economic and social emancipation. In Said's hands, it means reclaiming
history and liberating the 'other'. In transforming the meaning of liberation
in this fashion, Said signals his willingness to accept the inevitability
of imperialist domination:
'There is the possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision of the
world, in which imperialism courses on, as it were, belatedly in different
forms (the North-South polarity of our own time is one), and the relationship
of domination continues, but the opportunities for liberation are open.'
In practical terms, Said's accommodation to 'the relationship of domination'
can been seen in Palestine. A leading member of the Palestine National Council,
Said has been a key figure in urging Palestinians to recognise the state
of Israel, to give up the struggle for liberation and to accept 'autonomy'
on the West Bank. In place of self-determination, Said settles for 'space'
within the imperialist framework.
But it is in relation to the current struggle in Bosnia that the reactionary
consequences of Said's understanding of imperialism are best revealed. As
a member of the Committee to Save Bosnia-Herzegovina, Said recently signed
a letter which called on the West to arm the Muslims in Bosnia. 'The United
Nations, the United States and the European Community bear a heavy responsibility',
the letter argued, 'for pursuing a policy of pseudo-evenhandedness that
has, in fact, strengthened the side of aggressive Serbian expansionism'.
In the place of 'pseudo-evenhandedness', the authors made a plea for 'a
progressive US foreign policy and a just and democratic international order'.
Suddenly, half a millennium of an 'undeterred and unrelenting Eurocentrism'
is forgotten. The system which 'subordinated' the non-Western peoples by
'banishing their identities except as a lower order of being' has now become
a potential champion of Muslim rights in Bosnia, and one that can be 'progressive',
'democratic' and 'just'.
There is no contradiction between Said's academic critique of imperialism
and his practical support for Western military action. His call for Western
intervention is the logical outcome of his idealist concept of imperialism.
For all his insistence on the centrality of imperialism to Western society,
Said regards imperialist domination less as the historical necessity of
capitalism in the twentieth century than as a policy option pursued by certain
governments. If only the major powers would stop seeing the rest of the
world as the 'other', he suggests, then it would be possible for them to
pursue a progressive foreign policy.
The corollary of this is that once imperialism is stripped of its historical
specificity, any act of aggression can be seen as imperialist. Thus the
actions of Serbia, an impoverished, isolated rump of a backward Stalinist
regime, are seen as a greater threat to peace than the military firepower
of the most powerful nations on Earth. Since, according to Said, Serbian
nationalists view Muslims as the 'other', then their actions in the Bosnian
conflict are the equivalent of American atrocities in Vietnam or German
treatment of Jews. Meanwhile, the nations who, just two years ago slaughtered
thousands of Iraqis and reduced their country to rubble, are seen as potential
friends of Bosnian Muslims. This is a grotesque inversion of reality.
Said's idealist methodology leads in practice to an accommodation with imperialism.
It should be a warning that debates about theory and method are not arcane
and academic, but can have ominous practical consequences. The concept of
the 'other', which seems at first reading to fix its sights upon imperialism,
is in the end a barrier to understanding and opposing it.
Gerald Segal, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic
Studies and editor of the Pacific Review, like many other commentators
on Hong Kong, believes that the fate of the British colony could change
the way China is governed. This is putting the cart before the horse. The
hope that Hong Kong could drag China towards democratic capitalism is just
the hope for a 'white knight' to come and save the world economy from recession.
- The Fate of Hong Kong, Gerald
Segal, Simon & Schuster, £16.99 hbk
Segal places far too much emphasis on Britain's role in Hong Kong's fate.
Britain may have ensured the condi-tions for Hong Kong's success - by maintaining
a repressive system of colonial rule for the past 100 years - but Britain
cannot influence its future. That much was shown when governor Chris Patten
kow-towed to China's gerontocracy over his proposed democratic reforms.
Segal does not answer the key question - why should Britain want to introduce
democracy less than five years before handing Hong Kong over to China? He
merely parrots what Patten and the British government say: that for some
(unstated) reason a democratic Hong Kong would have more chance of survival
as an independent part of China than it would with its present non-elected
In fact, Britain wants to demonstrate the moral superiority of capitalism
over Chinese 'communism'. This is a last gasp of the Cold War - the sort
of crusade that is designed to make a worn-out country like Britain look
like it counts for something in the world. Unfortunately for Patten, Deng
Xiaoping is less of a pushover than Neil Kinnock or John Smith. Anyone can
look hard berating the Labour Party; taking on China is not so easy.
Segal leaves us with a choice of scenario for the future of Hong Kong. He
places his bet on the slowing down of Hong Kong's economy to match that
of the Shenzen Special Economic Zone and the eventual convergence of Hong
Kong with China. This area would then become a new 'Natural Economic Territory'
and 'develop into the next economic powerhouse in East Asia'. But every
indication is that the development of the market in China's free enterprise
zones is tearing the country apart.
This book is a useful introduction to the continent that time forgot. While
most of the capitalist world celebrated the eighties boom, Latin America
dubbed those years the 'lost decade'. The same image of Latin America prevailed
in Europe and the USA - the only things that seemed to boom there were government
debt and the drug trade. Yet the changes that have hit the world in recent
years have not failed to touch Latin America.
- Latin America in the Time of Cholera: Electoral
Politics, Market Economics and Permanent Crisis, James Petras
and Morris Morley, Routledge, £35 hbk £12.99 pbk
The collapse of socialist visions of society gave a boost to economic liberalism.
From Pinochet's Chile to Castro's Cuba, politicians, technocrats and intellectuals
discovered the advantages of the market. But, as Petras and Morley show,
10 years of free market discipline have delivered plummeting production
and living standards instead of the promised prosperity. Political liberalisation,
often encouraged by the old dictatorial regimes, gave credibility to austerity
measures and left the repressive state structures intact. The effects of
letting capitalism loose are shown by the growth of casual labour - to over
80 per cent of the region's workforce according to the authors - and by the
appearance of diseases, as with the cholera epidemic in Peru, not seen for
The flipside of the triumph of capitalist ideology is the weakening of American
power. Petras and Morley point out that 'whereas in the 1950s and 1960s
Washington provided large-scale economic aid to allied regimes pursuing
"appropriate" development models, today it demands massive changes
to benefit US capital and commerce in return for historically low levels
of funding support' (p70). Latin America was a net exporter of capital in
the 1980s. US dominance is increasingly exerted not through the power of
its investment, but through ideological and military campaigns like the
invasion of Panama in 1989.
Latin America in the Time of Cholera is a useful examination of the
collapse of the left and the consequences of the free market. But Petras
and Morley condemn the role of Western governments in sponsoring militarism
throughout the region, and at the same time demand the West put the Latin
American 'state terrorists' on trial.
The process of unifying Europe has probably found its ideal commentator
in Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction. Derrida makes a virtue
of prevarication, thinking that to be conclusive is necessarily dogmatic.
Just as European countries edge towards unity, interrupted by setbacks and
conflicts, so Derrida ruminates over his doubts and worries about whether
Europe is too definitive and exclusive a proposition.
- The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's
Europe, Jacques Derrida, Indiana University Press, £13.95
Derrida has been promising an investigation of nationalism for some time.
Last year he published a 'Prolegemona to an hypothesis' on the 'Onto-theology
of national humanism' in the Oxford Literary Review (Vol14). Before
that he worried, in Of Spirit, about the Nazi affiliations of the
philosopher Martin Heidegger, in other respects an influence upon Derrida.
Now in The Other Heading he returns to a supra-nationalism of
Derrida is keen to avoid the politically correct debate in which his ideas
have been implicated to date. So he distances himself from the 'exhausted
programmes of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism' (p13). His cynicism about
Europe is quite intelligent in that he sees Europe as the outcome of national
strategies rather than an unalloyed pan-Europeanism. He parodies Europeanism
thus: 'I am all the more national for being European' (p48). But Derrida
prevaricates to the end, protesting that 'I am not, nor do I feel, European
in every part, that is European through and through' (p82). His personal
ambiguity about the project is a poor analysis, but an accurate reflection
of today's Europe.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993