Some of the most important thinkers in the field have denied the full humanity of certain populations. Social scientists who study democracy, for example, have defined only certain racial groups as capable of “orderly” political behavior and “competent” citizenship. The study of international relations shaped European imperial expansion and governance, making the global North the “standard of civilization”.
Two new books shed light on these stories and practices and argue for a better way forward.
In “Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction,” international relations scholar Robbie Shilliam examines how these racial underpinnings have structured scientific research and political practice. Delving into Academic and Political Developments, “Decolonizing Politics” is an accessible and engaging overview of many eras of political thought and action. It takes readers on a journey “from the offices of the powerful to the movements of the underdog”.
In order to understand how race and racism have organized politics and political research, Shilliam asks us to decenter well-known and widely recognized scholars. Each chapter juxtaposes influential thinkers – most often based in the Global North – and the racial underpinnings of their work with perspectives and debates that simultaneously unfold in the Global South.
Take the modernization theorists of the mid-twentieth century, for example. This group of well-known social scientists, funded in part by the US government, has played an important role in shaping policies and practices aimed at raising living standards around the world. They argued that industrialized democracy – the dominant system of the Global North – was the ideal type to which other countries should aspire. Countries – especially those in the Global South – should seek to “modernize” their economies and political systems to meet this standard.
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But the modernizers were not neutral observers. Their research program was rooted in the global Cold War struggle between capitalism and communism. The US government then used these narratives to help legitimize bloody counterinsurgency programs to destabilize hostile regimes in the name of “modernization.” This approach to human development continues to influence research – and development interventions – today.
However, the modernizers were not the only thinkers at work during this time. Based at the Tanzanian University of Dar-es-Salaam, John Saul, Giovanni Arrighi and Walter Rodney argued that unequal power relations and exploitation globally have ensured development for some, but not for others. others. They saw their work as restorative, situating the solution to underdevelopment in struggles against these systems, an ethical and political project that would be truly transformative for people on the peripheries of global power.
It’s “the art of decolonizing knowledge,” argues Shilliam – paying attention to marginal ideas and perspectives. This approach forces us to reflect on how these margins and centers have arisen, and their effect on political life and the study of politics. The arguments advanced in “Decolonizing Politics” have important implications for how we approach scientific research and understand its relationship to political practice.
With a similar focus on racist political structures and inequality, philosophy professor Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s new book, “Reconsidering Reparations,” places the case for reparations in a view of history he calls ” the global racial empire”. This approach incorporates the ways in which race and class intersect with other identities like gender, settler status, ethnicity, religion, and ability.
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Táíwò argues for a “constructive vision” of reparations that takes into account the local, national and international consequences of global racial empire. This view is specific and forward-looking, but based on a detailed historical understanding of how development and distribution constituted the lives of marginalized people. Táíwò brings Pan-Africanist and Black writers like Oliver Cox, Nkechi Taifa and Walter Rodney into conversations with mainstream thinkers in political philosophy, like John Rawls.
Although “Reconsidering Reparations” focuses on stories of unequal distribution, its highlight is the chapters on climate justice. Táíwò explains, “It’s not that every aspect of today’s global racial empire is rooted in the impacts of climate change. But every aspect of tomorrow’s global racial empire will be… and it will reverse the advances toward justice that our ancestors fought so hard for. These ancestors inspire current action in Táíwò. They remind us that struggles for justice are difficult and long. But they can bear tremendous fruit.
Each of these books will inspire a wide range of readers. Both authors note that there is sometimes a powerful imperative to justify one’s work. They refuse to do so. As Táíwò says, “Racism forces you to answer other people’s questions.” Instead, they show how to carefully interrogate topics that matter to an academic or community.
Shilliam takes lesser-heard voices as a starting point for rethinking scientific agendas and political practices. Táíwò asks “what forms of social life are compatible with our development? What should our economies look like to address our social problems?
Táíwò and Shilliam end on decidedly optimistic and uplifting notes, focused on solutions. Táíwò calls his approach “acting like an ancestor”. It provides a list of goals and tactics for climate reparations, along with specific examples of organizations and activists in each area. These include unconditional cash transfers, global climate finance, ending tax havens, increasing community scrutiny, supporting citizen science, and “bargaining for the common good” by bringing more people together. organizations of workers and community organizations in response to the actions of the climate initiative.
Shilliam offers fewer details but encourages us to “be the agents of reparation” in solidarity with those affected by imperial legacies. There is both a sense of urgency but also a vast possibility that there are activists and intellectuals whose ideas we have not yet questioned who could guide us, and ancestors who have paved the way towards a better future.
Ankushi Mitra (@ankushi_mitra) is a doctoral student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. She studies citizenship, migration and the political economy of development in Africa.
Lahra Smith (@LahraSmith1) is a political scientist who studies citizenship, migration and political development in Africa. She is an Associate Professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University and Director of the African Studies Program.
Find out more in this summer’s APSRS:
Two new books take different paths to understanding South Africa
What does it take to strengthen women’s rights after the war?
No, Batman Didn’t Save the Congo, and Other Book Reviews
Nigeria’s harsh police culture was born out of colonial abuses
‘Islamic State in Africa’ explores nine militant Islamic groups
Apartheid casts a shadow over South Africa
Paul Farmer’s latest book teaches even more about pandemics
‘Born in Blackness’ is an engrossing and unforgettable read
Find all the books from our ninth African Politics Summer Reading Show here.