Postcolonial thought

The Politics of Postcolonialism: Empire, Nation and Resistance
By Rumina Sethi
Pluto Press, London. 
Pages 181. £60

Reviewed by Pankaj K.Singh

The questioning or re-examination of postcolonial theory began almost as early as it gained ascendancy in the academia, mainly in the departments of English. Close on the heels of the famous The Empire Writes Back (1989) came Arun Mukherjee’s interrogation of the simplistic paradigms of postcolonialism in 1990 in a hard-hitting article, "Whose Postcolonialism and Whose Postmodernism?", in World Literature Written in English. She contested the "totalisations" of both the postcolonialists and the postmodernists that end up "assimilating and homogenising non-Western texts within a eurocentric cultural economy".

Two decades later, in the context of increasing globalisation, Rumina Sethi reiterates, emphatically and effectively, the need to reconceptualise the postcolonial theory as it is being practised in the Western academia, particularly in the US, to make it address meaningfully the issues plaguing the postcolonial societies.

In the face of the growing threat of US-sponsored globalisation and the postcolonial societies actually becoming sites of neocolonialism, of ruthless imperialism through economic control, there is no doubt an urgent need to re-examine the validity of postcolonial studies.

Sethi’s call to recast postcolonial theory springs from the anxiety that due to its close affinity with postmodernism, it has become such a "discourse" fixated discipline that the real world outside almost ceases to exist and the "text" gets prioritised over the "context". Far from focusing on the facts of exploitation and resistance, central to postcolonial societies, the postcolonial theory currently canters on culturalist studies of hybridity, migration, diaspora, multiculturalism, etc.

Interestingly, while the contemporary postcolonial literatures remain rooted in political activism, the postcolonial theory prefers to focus on apolitical ambivalences, melting boundaries of nations and indeterminate subjectivities in the mode of postmodernism. It is highly ironical that postcolonial studies, which began as an offshoot of cultural studies that was grounded in Marxism to begin with and insisted on political readings of all texts, has not only remained distant from Marxism but has become complicit with global capitalism, disavowing any political inclinations.

Tracing the connections between postcolonialism, nationalism and globalisation, the book provides an incisive analysis of the nation-state in the context of a transnational global world, the rise of the new empire the United States, and the local struggles of resistance across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The chapter "The End of the Nation?" is a brilliant examination of the shifting role of the nation-state. Nation "as a cultural construct" had played a significant role in the freedom struggles during colonial rule, whereas "nation-state" as a "political entity" in the postcolonial world has a dubious, at best an ambiguous role to play.

With the economic dominance of transnational corporations, the national sovereignty has became ambivalent with the nation-states reduced to being merely market units. Ironically, the shift to a capitalist economy is ushered in by the nation-state itself, whose complicit heads of the state seem untroubled by the ruin of local economies.

The author also examines the fallacies of postcolonialism and insists that the rhetoric of neoliberalism and globalisation and the dominance of the US, IMF, World Bank and TNCs need to be countered by prominently addressing acts of dissent and activism, of protest and resistance by local marginalities in the postcolonial societies.

The chapter "The United States and Postcolonialism" brings into focus the imperial strides of the US whose military primarily exists to aid its economy and whose national security questions are essentially economic in nature as is evident in the US invasion of Iraq. Post-9/11 a new excuse "war on terror" has been coined to invade other countries for economic and political gains.

A veritable stocktaking of postcolonial theory till date, it cautions us against the complicit politics of current postcolonial studies and also suggests new directions to make it more relevant. Not to disturb the rigour and force of her arguments Sethi, relegates her incisive scrutiny of the plethora of postcolonial theory to notes at the end, which are indeed extensive and substantial.

To make postcolonial theory relevant to the material reality, the author insists on including in it a Marxist perspective, by discovering "points of intersection between postcolonialism and Marxism" in the wake of unbridled advance of global capitalism. Among the possibilities of resistance against the invincibility of corporatism, she cites the examples of Brazil and Venezuela, whose respective governments with their people-oriented policies tried to rebuild their economies free of neoimperialism. Equally she asks for resistance against postmodernism.

A study of immense political significance, it is indeed a valuable addition to serious scholarship at a time when the rules of the erstwhile colonies in the Third World, like ours, continue to ask the deprived millions in their country to "reverse the mood of negativism" and to "work together to put ourselves firmly in the group of rising economics" even as the Occupy Wall Street protests against the corporate rapacity and against the oppressive governments have spilled beyond the US to nearly a hundred nations across the world!