“Settler Colonialism” Can’t Fully Explain Our World

Settler colonialism is often described as a singular, transnational mode of domination. But it’s impossible to understand colonialism without political economy and material interests.

The interior of the East Indian Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, 1893. (Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago / Getty Images)

How have Europe’s ruling classes contained revolutions? Since the seventeenth century, Lorenzo Veracini argues, efforts by Europe’s poor to “turn their world upside down” have been thwarted repeatedly by the ruling-class strategy of “turning the world inside out.” Veracini’s metaphors of these alternating contortions of the body politic encapsulate his argument that “settling communities in ‘empty lands’ somewhere else has often been proposed throughout modernity as a way to head off revolutionary tensions.” Veracini believes that the strategy of exporting revolutionary underclasses to lands beyond Europe has hitherto been under-analyzed, and, as a corrective, he proposes the foregrounding of settler colonialism as a “specific mode of domination,” promising in the process to uncover “an autonomous, influential and coherent transnational political tradition.”

In proclaiming the significance of settler colonialism, Veracini is far from original. In the 1970s, radical scholars analyzed settler colonialism as integral to settler capitalism in different historical settings.1 Donald Denoon’s Settler Capitalism synthesized and applied this scholarship by comparing six southern hemisphere zones of settlement — Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and South Africa.2 Mobilizing versions of dependency theory derived from Marxism, these studies analyzed how European settlers, backed by imperial sponsors and facilitated by comprador elites, utilized their military, economic, and political superiority to seize and maintain power in a wide range of colonial and neocolonial contexts.

None of these scholars or their work appear in the index of The World Turned Inside Out, however, because Veracini claims that such studies of settler colonialism were constrained by “a nationally framed discipline.” What he proposes in their place is the analysis of “the political sensibility and the rhetorical traditions that accompanied the global history of settler-colonial expansion.” Such a transnational approach rooted in the examination of sensibility, rhetoric, and discourse, rather than in political economy, he believes, “rescues the histories of multiple displacements from being stranded within nationally defined historiographies.” Accordingly, Veracini’s genealogy of settler colonial studies begins not in the 1970s but a couple of decades later, as he identifies the field’s foundation in research by Patrick Wolfe, Lynette Russell, David Pearson, Caroline Elkins, Susan Pedersen, and Penelope Edmonds, among others.

Veracini drew upon this more recent scholarship in his early monographs.3 As founding editor in 2011 of the journal Settler Colonial Studies, he contended in the first issue that “colonial and settler colonial phenomena be analytically disentangled.” Convinced that colonialism and settler colonialism have “generally been seen either as entirely separate, or as different manifestations of colonialism at large,” rather than appraised in their respective specificities, he argues that “colonialism and settler colonialism should be understood in their dialectical relation.” In the decade since, Veracini has applied this theoretical commitment to settler colonialism in numerous publications, including several book-length studies.4

In The World Turned Inside Out, Veracini supplements his commitment to dialectics with the adoption of Carlo Ginzburg’s “morphologic” method, which he paraphrases as assembling “a collection of fragments arising from diverse cultural settings” with the aim of exploring the “nexus linking a recurring emphasis on the possibility of displacement to ‘empty’ lands elsewhere with the search for an alternative to revolution.” In the chapter structure of The World Turned Inside Out, however, Veracini’s selection of historical “fragments” assumes a more systematic character, as he reproduces James Belich’s periodization of British settler colonial history as set out in his Replenishing the Earth.5 Veracini claims to extend Belich’s schema by assessing settler colonialism’s “political and ideological dimensions beyond economic and demographic ones,” thus reiterating his elevation of settler-colonial discourses over their political economies.

Faithful to Belich’s schema, each of Veracini’s four chapters covers a key phase of settler colonialism: the rise, the zenith, the fall, and the afterlives. He locates the beginnings of the global settler revolution in late sixteenth-century England, tracing its expansion into North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and concluding with a discussion of Thomas Paine. He describes the peak of the global settler revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century, relating how a transnational network of European powers and their settler colonies became entrenched, encouraged by ideologues such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield, George Grey, John Stuart Mill, James Froude, and Charles Dilke. Veracini proceeds to record the decline of the global-settler revolution to the moment when “the prospect of removing to some distant location and settling on the land ultimately lost the appeal it once had.”

Veracini surveys the declines of several parallel settler-colonial projects through the writings of their proponents and critics: Henry George and the American Colonization Society in the United States; Louis Bertrand in Algeria; Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and H. G. Wells in late-Victorian Britain; Nicholas Bunge and Peter Kropotkin in Russia; Richard Wagner, Max Weber, Max Sering, Friedrich Ratzel, and Friedrich Fabri in Germany; the Zionists Maurice de Hirsch, Theodor Herzl, Bernard Lazare, and Max Nordau, as well as their adversaries in the Jewish socialist Bund; and William Lane in Australia. He also describes the resilience of settler-colonial displacement as a ruling-class solution to contemporary social crises by recounting a number of parallel settler-colonial afterlives: the virtual-reality platform Decentraland, which enables users to acquire (virtual) land as they colonize or pioneer “Genesis City”; the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, which enjoys the support of billionaire funders, like Elon Musk, seeking escape from our own crisis-ridden planet; the radical forms of displacement advocated by the Brazilian Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra; and the apocalyptic flights from anticipated catastrophe most vividly expressed in the orbiting satellite Asgardia, the extraterrestrial nation established in 2017.

Veracini concludes by repeating his claims about the singular nature of settler colonialism as a mode of domination, drawing upon Werner Sombart’s arguments about the failure of socialism in the United States and Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the contingent meanings of “revolution.”

As a work of synthesis, The World Turned Inside Out communicates the multiple histories and contemporary reverberations of settler-colonial discourse. By juxtaposing the arguments of advocates and critics of settler-colonial projects in parallel contexts, Veracini identifies recurring assumptions, tropes, narratives, fantasies, and silences. His extended footnotes acknowledge recent scholarship in disparate fields, and his eye for the telling historical detail or turn of phrase makes for a lively intellectual journey.

There are, however, risks in skating at speed across so many different settler-colonial histories. Most obviously, area specialists are likely to read the cases they know best with an unforgiving eye. For example, Veracini provides a lengthy footnote to expand upon those who “embraced revolution after considering displacement.” His primary example is Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement near Durban and Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in South Africa, which he describes as “multiethnic, multiracial and religiously inclusive” colonies, citing two articles, one from 1969 and one from 2007, to support his positive characterization of Gandhi’s South African “displacement.” There is, however, a substantial historiography of Indians in KwaZulu-Natal, and specifically of Gandhi’s relationships with South Africans, much of it at odds with Veracini’s optimistic snapshot. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s The South African Gandhi is but the best known of the many recent studies to have demonstrated in great detail Gandhi’s racism toward Africans and class prejudice toward indentured Indians during his South African sojourn.6

For the theorist, such historical quibbles might be dismissed as empirical minutiae of secondary importance to the project of critiquing the global discourse of settler colonialism. However, if such historical details are given due weight, they fundamentally affect how settler-colonial history, economics, and politics are understood. To continue with the example of KwaZulu-Natal, does Veracini’s uplifting portrait of the Gandhi’s communes of the early twentieth century illuminate the legacies of settler colonialism in KwaZulu-Natal in the twenty-first century? It’s difficult to see how it does.

A related question follows: How useful is Veracini’s settler-colonial theoretical lens in analyzing the power dynamics in contemporary KwaZulu-Natal? A plausible case could be made that the white descendants of settler-colonial farm and factory owners continue to wield disproportionate power in the province. However, any credible political analysis of contemporary KwaZulu-Natal would insist upon the significance of the kleptocratic opportunism of the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party, both of which have been intimately implicated in white settler-colonial power blocs. A settler-colonial theoretical approach deployed in isolation is therefore doomed to banality; only supplemented by complementary (Marxist, anti-colonial, historically textured) modes of analysis can it yield insights beyond the obvious.

An inevitable consequence of isolating settler-colonial discourse as an “autonomous” mode of domination is that consideration of those enabling or facilitating settler-colonial interests disappears. The list of neocolonial political leaders who have colluded with settler-colonial corporations is substantial: in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Hastings Banda of Malawi, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia provided the state infrastructure for the British mining giant Lonrho (founded in 1909 under colonial rule) to deploy a settler-managerial and artisan caste for the exploitation of African workers and the extraction of dizzying profits. Nor are such mutually beneficial relationships relics of the past, as South Africa’s leaders Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa have continued to protect the supply of cheap labor to the platinum mines of Lonhro’s successor company, Lonmin, in a relationship between an African state and British capital that has continued to flourish even after the massacre by South African police of thirty-two Lonmin employees at its Marikana mine on August 16, 2012. In Veracini’s conceptual framework, focused exclusively on settler colonialism, such histories of complicity between neocolonial and settler-colonial modes of capitalist expropriation are out of bounds; “neocolonialism” is even not listed in the book’s index.

These examples call to mind the studies of settler colonialism from the 1970s and 1980s mentioned at the outset, studies that Veracini dismissed as trapped within national historiographies. How much does Veracini’s discursive analysis of settler colonialism as a global project advance our understanding of those histories and their contemporary afterlives? It is arguable that transnational theories of how settler-colonial discourse has circulated globally might generate a more sophisticated analytical vocabulary for comparative reflection. However, the much more interesting questions arise when certain colonial and neocolonial histories — like those of Palestine, South Africa, Kenya, and Algeria — disrupt and complicate the normative assumptions of any such global settler-colonial theory. Veracini’s gallop across so many settler-colonial locations allows no time to pause and consider any individual location in any meaningful detail. As a result, those interested in understanding specific societies marked by settler-colonial histories are likely to feel shortchanged.

Veracini’s exclusively discursive approach sidesteps another question: What is the relationship between the rhetoric of settler colonialisms and the economic regimes it legitimizes? Bracketing off questions about the connections between settler-colonial ideologies and capitalist political economies might allow Veracini to anatomize one aspect of settler-colonial histories, but such a narrowing of focus leaves the material forces driving colonial and neocolonial plunder largely unexamined.

As Veracini repeats over and again his axiom that “revolution is dialectically related to displacement,” it is worth remembering that not all dialecticians have raced from historical fragment to historical fragment in a breakneck quest to deliver their grand theory. One nineteenth-century German practitioner of dialectics, who was also obsessed with revolution and displacement, famously immersed himself in the study of all matters Russian in the final decades of his life in order to work out whether his theorization of capital in Britain could be extended eastward to predict revolution in Russia. His conclusion that his own theory of capital based on British history could not be universalized, that “the history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession and at different historical epochs,” stands as a reminder that contingent histories — including the complex histories of settler-colonial societies — demand in-depth study.7

Veracini’s book falls well short of providing such study, but in its enumeration of the many settler-colonial polities and their histories, it does at least point to where our investigations could begin.8

About the Author

David Johnson is professor of literature at the Open University, UK, and author of Dreaming of Freedom in South Africa (2019).