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Settler Colonialism: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?

By ISM Palestine - originally posted to Flickr as Settlers and Soldiers attacking demonstrators in Iraq Burin, CC BY-SA 2.0, By ISM Palestine - originally posted to Flickr as Settlers and Soldiers attacking demonstrators in Iraq Burin, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Increasingly in the last decade, settler colonialism has gained currency as a new field of study. As a descriptive and political term, its utility seems obvious. It identifies a cluster of countries in which colonial rule was combined historically with the large-scale immigration of European settlers. It allows us to focus on particularly resilient forms of domination that serve the interests and concerns of settler populations that made a new home for themselves in overseas territories. Almost invariably facing resistance from indigenous people, settler colonial societies were shaped by ongoing political conflict. This provided them with common features and a sense of shared destiny, understandable given the similar challenges they face. Solidarity among those at the losing end – indigenous people, the enslaved, and others marginalized through this model of colonial rule – is the counter-part of the process.

At the same time, the extent to which the term serves a useful purpose in historical and theoretical analysis is less obvious. I argue here that its utility in these respects is limited and it may be misleading at times. For this reason, we might be better off with other, more precise, concepts and models. I draw on examples from Israel/Palestine and South Africa to illustrate the point. 

What is the problem with settler colonialism as a historical concept? In a sense, its strongest point is also its weakest: it is applicable to many cases that exhibit a great diversity of conditions. It has been applied to countries that saw settlers overwhelm the indigenous population to such a degree that it became demographically and economically marginal. For example, indigenous people are no more than three percent of the population in the USA, Canada and Australia. In other countries, such as Kenya, Rhodesia, Algeria, Mozambique and South Africa, indigenous people remained the bulk of the population, as well as the main source of labor. Slavery featured prominently in some cases (USA, early colonial South Africa) but not in others. Settlers of European origins retained strong legal and political links to the mother country in Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, and Portuguese African colonies. They became independent in the USA, South Africa and other British offshoots, at times as a result of a violent intra-colonial conflict. 

In some places most settlers left the territory after independence from colonial rule – as in Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, and Rhodesia. Large numbers stayed put in other countries, such as Namibia and South Africa. And, of course, where they became numerically dominant, settlers used their political independence to consolidate their rule, marginalizing “natives” further. But they also incorporated them into the new polity when the demographic ratio was sufficiently favorable so as not to pose a threat to settler domination. This contrasts with the maintenance of legal-racial divisions in places where indigenous people remained a majority of the population.

Indigenous strategies have differed as well. They have consisted of attempts to integrate as individuals on an equal basis in some countries. In others, indigenous people sought to maintain pre-colonial identities and modes of organization. Still others have formed nationalist movements on the new ground created by colonial settlement, or focused on race as a basis for resistance. Most of these strategies acknowledge, to varying degrees, settlers as legitimate members of the envisaged future liberated society. 

It is not only the broad contours of history that vary greatly in settler colonial societies but also patterns of social change over time. Constant geographical expansion while driving out indigenous people has occurred in the USA and Australia. Elsewhere there has been constant expansion while incorporating indigenous people as labor power, in South Africa most notably. In other cases there has been an initial takeover of the entire territory with more-or-less fixed relations of subordination throughout the period – for example in Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, and Namibia. There have been different degrees of incorporation of “urban natives” in a relatively privileged position compared to rural populations, and different combinations of direct and indirect despotism, to use Mahmood Mamdani’s notions of colonial rule in late colonial Africa.

In other words, the category of settler colonialism is compatible with different demographic ratios and different trajectories of indigenous-settler relations. It can go along with different relations between settlers and metropolitan centers and different destinies of settlers in the post-colonial period. It is compatible with different social structures, relying variously on free white labor, and indentured immigrant labor, from Europe, India or other places. Or it can rely on African slavery, indigenous labor subordination, and combinations of the above. In all these respects, settler colonial societies do not share a single historical dynamic nor do they exhibit a tendency to move in similar directions. They may end up with the consolidation of settler rule or its demise through indigenous resistance and victory. None of the possible outcomes serves to mark the historical trajectory of settler colonialism apart from other types of colonial societies.

In the absence of a unique trajectory, does settler colonialism display perhaps specific conceptual features? That is to say, does it work as a theoretical model? A model offers a relationship between a limited number of concepts or variables. It aims to make sense of large number of observations. It reduces the infinite variety of empirical reality into discrete units with distinct dynamics or laws of motion.

Do models of colonial societies (settler, exploitation, plantation, and so on), show us how some cases differ from others in theoretical terms? Do they outline distinct ways in which concepts such as class, race, ethnicity, identity, state, gender, power, sexuality, ideology, space, time, and discourse, manifest themselves concretely or intersect with one another?

If we pose the question in this way, the conclusion seems unavoidable. Settler colonialism as a category of historical analysis does not establish any specific social-theoretical dynamics unique to it. We cannot use its historical features to distinguish it analytically – not just descriptively – from other types of societies, be they colonial or not.

If settler colonialism has no specific historical or theoretical dynamics then, how do we deal analytically with societies that fall within its definition? As an alternative method of investigation, I suggest a strategy of addressing the multiplicity of colonial and post-colonial societies with a three-track approach:

· Studying them in their full historical specificity without imposing artificial boundaries between classes of cases;

· Deploying general analytical concepts instead of developing idiosyncratic models. Such models abound: “colonialism of a special type,” “ethnic democracy combined with protracted military occupation,” “exclusionary colonialism,” or “regimes of separation.” They may serve as useful political labels but are theoretically without predictive value.

·  Engaging in selected comparisons in order to highlight general and unique features by examining them against each other. This should allow us to enhance the complexity of good empirical description as well as the generality of social theory. But it would not compromise either one of these imperatives.

To illustrate this approach, I apply it to two settler-colonial societies, Israel/Palestine and South Africa. In what ways does such a study offer a better prospect for historical analysis? Is the concept of apartheid, originating in one of them and increasingly applied to the other, a useful analytical substitute?

In brief, these two have in common an ongoing conflict between indigenous people and settlers. It has stretched over centuries and involved conquest of territory, massive land dispossession, and a constant quest for innovative modes of political domination well beyond the period of global colonial expansion and subsequent decolonization. This continued all the way to the last decade of the twentieth century, in South Africa, and into the twenty-first in Israel/Palestine. At the same time, there are important differences between them. They include the centrality of indigenous labor in enhancing settler prosperity, the religious symbolism of the land, the prevailing mode of collective organization (nationalism as opposed to race), and the degree of international legitimacy. These differences shape both power and resistance, the nature of the state and society, as well as the possibilities of indigenous social and political mobilization.

Neither settler colonialism nor apartheid as analytical concepts can help us predict the trajectories of these societies. For that, we have to study them in concrete historical detail and outline the precise configurations of forces at work in each case. The approach proposed here though, directs our attention to key historical processes seen from a comparative angle. For example, it can point out the impact of indigenous modes of political organization on conquest and resistance. It can also highlight the greater capacity of pre-1948 Palestinians to shape the terms of the evolving conflict. And, it can point out the more fragile modes of social organization of indigenous people in South Africa. These, in turn, facilitated their conquest and incorporation into settler-dominated economic structures. It raises questions about the ways in which parties to the conflict in Israel/Palestine made use of their links to global Arab, Islamic and Jewish identities and resources. In contrast, actors in South Africa were reliant for long periods – before the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century – on local affiliations and resources.

In a contemporary vein, this approach leads us to examine strategies of resistance by focusing on the centrality of the labor movement in South African struggles as compared to its marginal role in Israel/Palestine. This can be linked to patterns of settlement and conquest as well as to affiliations with extra-territorial populations – creating jobs for Jewish immigrants as a crucial imperative, for example. The implications of this difference for mobilization and change are important as well – indigenous race/class synergy in South Africa compared to a split between these factors in Israel/Palestine. Additionally, we could look at culture and discourse. We could discuss the prevalence of demographic considerations in the one case, and its relative absence in the other. The concern of Jewish settlers with becoming a majority had to do with the prior historical consolidation of ethno-national identities in Israel/Palestine. It was also linked to the absence of the technological advantage that was central to relations of domination between settlers and indigenous people in South Africa, making a settler majority less of an imperative there. This, in turn, affected political strategies of demographic exclusion, leading to ethnic cleansing in Israel/Palestine. It contrasts with the incorporation/exploitation of indigenous people as providers of labor power and, later on, as citizens, in South Africa.

A note of caution. The comparative approach cannot on its own facilitate the development of general theoretical models. We have no reason to expect the social theory applicable to our cases to differ from theory applicable to other cases and societies, regardless of their relationships to colonialism as a historical phenomenon. Whether we focus on power, identity, culture, class, gender or any configuration of these concepts, they are all universal in nature. This is not to say that they operate in the same way across time and space, or that they always enter the same relationship with one another. Rather it means the generality of theory is premised on the notion that all societies are subject to the operation of the same forces, though these manifest themselves in specific ways. And yet, outlier historical cases such as those represented by settler colonial societies may help theoretical formulation in unforeseen ways.

To illustrate, South Africa and Israel/Palestine have been sites of political struggle. Those struggles have combined questions of class and material resources on the one hand, and racial and ethnic identification on the other. In what ways does studying these questions in a comparative context allow us to develop insights about the intersection of race and class with broader theoretical relevance? In what ways does the study of identity formation and political conflict in the context of immigrant and extra-territorial populations, such as Afrikaners and Jews, allow us to understand global identity formation? It is precisely the nature of the case studies as atypical societies that offers an opportunity to gain useful theoretical insights that might be obscured under more “normal” conditions. 

What is the concept of settler colonialism good for then? It has played an important role in global solidarity politics and mobilization around issues of similar concern. It serves as a way to raise questions and encourage thinking about colonialism and resistance, liberation movements and mass participation. At the same time, it does not provide us with clear answers about historical trajectories and theoretical dynamics. If we acknowledge its analytical limitations, we can use it creatively. We can also combine it with other conceptual efforts in order to develop our understanding of what has been going on politically and what needs to be done.

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