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Can We Discuss Imperialism Today without Discussing the Empire?

Globalisation, Imperialism, and Resistance edited by Lars Lindstrom, Mats Wirn and Bjorn Beckman;

december 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly42book reviewCan We Discuss Imperialism Today without Discussing the Empire?Ranabir SamaddarGlobalisation, Imperialism, and Resistance edited by Lars Lindstrom, Mats Wirn and Bjorn Beckman; Politics of Development Group, Stockholm University, 2007; pp 224, price not indicated.This collection of papers authored by a group of Swedish intellectuals tries to make sense of the ongoing process of globalisation in the framework of a theory of imperialism and the various forms of resistance the world is witnes-sing. Mostly written in a Marxist style reminiscent of the 1980s and the 1990s, heavy with references to Antonio Gramsci, etc, the book wants to deal with a phe-nomenon of the late 1990s continuing till this day. If this creates a situation of para-dox, we need not be surprised. Except on rare circumstances when thought be-comes as ambitious as reality and as inno-vative, we are forever trying to grasp new things with old style, old conceptual tools, and old language. At times, out of this disjunction, interesting results take place, when we see how old ideas can suddenly bring in relief new nuances, and throw new light and new possibi-lities of their use. At times, the result is banal. This book is an instance of this. It gives us some occasion to think differ-ently on globalisation, but methodologi-cally it does not break new ground for the reason mentioned above. From that too we can learn.The New ImperialismOne can ask, has there been any phase of globalisation without its imperial form? Lenin was the first prominent observer, who while drawing upon several contem-porary researches demonstrated how the global advance of capital of his timerelied on and produced contemporaryformofthis expansion, pointed out the structural characteristics of the empire of capital, and marked in his usual no-nonsense direct way the political implications of this organisa-tion of globalisation, particularly for work-ers of the capitalist countries and the colo-nised nations and peoples. While, many subsequent analyses have brought to our knowledge how earlier (early modern, middle ages, etc, in Europe, in Africa, in west Asia, etc) phases of global expan-sion of economy produced their relevant military-politico-administrative forms,and while many new characteristics of capital have emerged or have become prominent, as a model of analysis Lenin’s work still re-mains one to be learnt from and emulated. The question therefore is: What is the spe-cific imperial form of today’s globalisa-tion? Or, what is the specific imperial form that today’s globalisation produces? What are the characteristics of the resistance growing within that imperial space? Equally significantly, does there remain any extra-imperial space in today’s world, and if so, how does that space survive and contribute to different forms of resistance within the empire? The theme of this book should raise these thoughts; some of these questions indeed emerge in the essays, but some unfortunately do not find any resonance, modelled as these essays are in the typical European Marxist style of writings.The book opens with an erudite piece on “Globalisation, Imperialism, and Re-sistance” by William Robinson. Robinson speaks on the ongoing evolution of global capitalism, yet we have here little traces of its internal weaknesses, or contradictions, there is no mention of the reappearance of primitive accumulation in this evolution. He further says that the classical theory of imperialism is outdated. Finally he defines resistance ascounter-hegemony, and today’s resistance must be transnational. We do not have to labour much to see that this theory of globalisation has apprecia-tion of the reappearance of colonialism, the ongoing wars, the re-subjection of large number of population groups to colonial relations, and that without an understanding of the reconfiguration of the empire and the resistance within (as perhaps spaces of exception), the talk of the transnational is purely a northern talk. Robinson refuses to admit that the local can also reconfigure the global.Global ProcessesAs individual essays some stand out. There is a piece by Anders Sjogrn on global power relations and state formation in Uganda, another piece on free trade zones in Nicaragua by Sofie Tornhill, a third one on resistance and gender in Mexico writ-ten by Christina Alnevall. They give us good ideas of what is happening at the ground level, in some cases they show us why we can still think of extra-imperial spaces, spaces and process still not fully devoured by imperial and neocolonial dynamics, therefore raising problems and possible lines of solution more specific. And they do not easily weave into the in-troduction of the theme by Robinson. Possibly therein is their value – suggestions that go beyond the stated problematic of the book.Consider this essay, for me the most interesting in the collection, one on the Hezbollahs in Lebanon and their leader Sayed Hassan Nasrullah. Mats Warn pref-aces the discussion on Lebanese vanguard for the Islamic Revolution with a long discussion on Gramsci and his ideas on common sense. While Gramsci’s ideas are fertile, indeed more than common sense, the theme of establishing hegemony would have been appropriate for a discussion on the Hezbollahs in Lebabon and the ideas of Nasrullah. The Hezbollahs have estab-lished their leadership in Lebanon by re-peatedly showing their ability to initiate an agenda which others have to follow – the agenda of national salvation. In this process Nasrullah did not confine himself to war making, dialoguing with other seg-ments of the nation has been an important strategy. We have had too much of the Gramscian idea of Machiavelli’s Prince,
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200843and too little of the dialogic history of the modern political subject. The Hezbollahs demonstrate why it is necessary to unpack the phenomenon of so-called Islamic Re-sistance (likewise we have to revisit the early history of the Islamic Brotherhood in the 1950s in Egypt), and see for ourselves the concrete material processes at work. We shall then see that there is much to dis-cover and work on the scientific aspects of the current dynamics of resistance. We shall also recall in that event why Lenin had spoken of the weakest link in the imperialist chain when he was pointing out that some of the events congealed the conflagration that the imperialist order was causing, in his words, “the impending catastrophe and how to combat it”. If the history of the Roman Empire is incomplete without its other history, that of the Christians and Christianity, today’s empire’s history will also remain incomplete without the history of its other being written – the history of the Muslims today and Islam, particularly the emergence of the Muslim masses as the collective political actor. All these must be candidly discussed, and this is where we shall have to discard much of the body of thought known as post-war European Marxism, and inte-grate critical post-colonial political con-sciousness in the main framework of revo-lutionary theory. The post-colonial pre-dicament is everywhere in this world of globalisation – Europe, Asia, everywhere. Does it mean that contrary to what this book says I am arguing that national resistance is still the path? No, not in the old sense, for against the given dominance of the nation over classes and masses, we are witnessing today a surge for autonomy (a question completely ignored by this book). But in another sense, yes I indicate that: nation as the mark of autonomy against the empire, as the mark of the local. In this strange displacement of mean-ings we have the lead as to how to use old ideas in new contexts, how to discuss empire, the mystifying huge space strewn with pockets of emptiness within – the voidfrom which the subject makes its appearance.Email: rsamaddar@hotmail.comThrough the Looking GlassJyoti AtwalThe book carries four well thought out and meaningful sections. The sections on “re-design”, “re-think”, “re-view” and “re-mark”, survey some possibilities of multifacetedness of femi-nist activism and scholarship in India. The wide variety of themes range from discus-sion on “disability and feminism” to the “masculinity” in Christ; from women in Indian soap operas to Kamala Das’ poetry. This kind of work is a continuation of what the Indian feminist scholars have setout to do in the recent years. In 2004, the second edited volume on issues in con-temporary Indian feminism (Maitreyi Chaudhuri (ed),Feminism in India,Kali for Women, 2004, Delhi) contended that although historically “modernity” was mediated through colonialism for us, the Indian women did acquire an indigenous feminist consciousness different from the western one. They have been attempting to salvage the uniqueness of the Indian feminist practice.Disabled WomenInRe-defining Feminisms, in her thought-provoking essay on an under-researched theme – disability, Shilpa Das looks at how women with disabilities across the globe and India have been invisible in the disa-bility movement as well as the women’s movement. She builds a case for why per-sons with disability are not a homogene-ous group and how disabled men are sub-jected to “stare”, whereas disabled women were subjected to “gaze”. In both cases, disability is seen as a disaster to be “fixed” but there is a difference in the politics of their appearances and lifestyle. Sixty per cent of the total disabled females in India did not get married, compared to 40% of their male counterparts. The commoditisation of the idea of aes-thetic body through cosmetic surgeries has only helped to promote an “ideal” fe-male body. On the one hand, while this may have aided some disabled women medically, it has further marginalised most. Considered sexually inactive and non-reproductive, the disabled women have been denied education and repro-ductive health knowledge. Research has shown that their male counterparts were in a better negotiating position than them. This calls for establishing a new branch of Feminist Disability Studies. Civic Society InterventionThere are two essays on advocating the re-form of the legal and executive processes through civic movements. The essay by Ila Pathak on Ahmedabad Women’s Action group uncovers the insensitive method employed by the police, while recording the death of married women at their in-laws’ house. The Section 498-A, which books husband or his relatives for torture, was rarely invoked in any of these cases of death. The death of a woman in her in-law’s house was mostly registered as an “accidental death”, thereby shutting downpossibilities of anyfurther criminal investigation into the matter. Although limited to Gujarat, a research carried out here by a women’s action group showed that out of a total number of 1,652 such deaths, about 1,001 were registered as accidental deaths, caused mostly by kitchen fire. The women dying of these “accidental” deaths comprised a good number of low caste women as well. This challenged the myth that it is the up-per caste woman who suffers the most, whereas the lower caste woman was a lesser victim as she had choices due to her economic independence. Through strategic activism, this Gujarat-based women’s group with the permission of the director general of police sensitised the state police force on domestic violence and Re-defining Feminisms edited by Ranjana Harish and V Bharathi Harishankar;Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2008; pp 278, $ 32 (hardcover).

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