Colonialism is not a theoretical problem.  

Let me clarify this statement: Genocide, dispossession, slavery are not theoretical problems. There is ample historical evidence of the atrocities associated with the European colonial enterprise in Africa, Asia and the Americas. When people say that colonialism is wrong,  they tend to refer to a somber package of historical wrongs associated with it. “Colonialism,” colloquially, as a word and as a concept, is a general proxy for the atrocities listed above.

In political theory, this ambiguity can be contentious. To this day, people attempt to justify colonialism with theoretical arguments. I will explore a theoretical critique of colonialism. Lea Ypi’s article “What is wrong with colonialism?” tries to identify the wrong that is unique to colonial relationships.[1] She defines the wrong of colonialism as a form “of political association that violates principles of equality and reciprocity.” I will show that although this argument has important heuristic advantages, there are important limitations in any effort to conceptualize colonialism in the paradigm of Eurocentric political theory.

A Convincing Account

Lea Ypi explains that theories of territorial rights have been used as a common critique, but also a defense, of colonialism. This critique would allude to the fact that groups have a right to territorial sovereignty and integrity. However, they have also argued that colonists were justified in appropriating land, given that it can be appropriated by mixing labor. She shows they have also pointed to the “good enough” proviso, and argued that visitors have the right to appropriate fair shares of land in the “discovered territory.”[2] A theory of territorial entitlement, which justifies why some people are entitled to land in virtue of their temporal precedence is actually much more complicated to justify than it appears at first.

For Ypi, theories of territorial rights are not normatively important for colonialism. More specifically, inherent entitlement to what portion of the land is unimportant. The problem of colonialism is not that settlers set up some houses, or passed across or visited North America, for example.

The problem is that they appropriated land unlawfully, through deception and violence. The acquisition of territory was made through discriminatory exclusion, where some prerogatives were given to the colonists and denied to the colonized.  This brings us closer to unfair political negotiations, as her thesis suggests. Colonialism is thus a form of political association that violates principles of equality and reciprocity.

This theory has certain advantages, as she herself points out. It has the ability to illustrate colonialism in more subtle situations such as in the modern context of unfair trade deals occurring between poor and rich countries. When a poorer country lacks power to be represented adequately, they sign terms that are favorable only to the rich nations. In that sense, they enter a form of political association that is unequal and unreciprocal. Using Ypi’s theory, that relationship is qualified as colonial.

This is an advantage of her theory, as it identifies a distinctive wrong, an objectionable form of political relation, that may be used outside the history of exploration specific to pre-20th century Europe. Furthermore, it is philosophically compelling because it goes beyond the identification of “evident moral wrongs,” such as the killing of innocents, theft and forced labor.

Another depiction of John Bull the Octopus. In this cartoon, John Bull (England) is refusing to let go of Egypt, even as other countries (including Russia, Turkey, and Greece) attempt to pull him off. Image from “The History of the 19th Century in Caricature,” made available online by Internet Archive Book Images. Via Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/oy8xjK

Problematic Erasure

One might wonder why it is necessary to look for the wrongs of “colonialism” when they could be encompassed by the atrocities of genocide and of slavery, among others.  If these are what Ypi identifies as “familiar atrocities,” what are we obscuring by conceptualizing beyond them? The advantages of a conceptualization of colonialism that abstracts from historical particularities has been presented above: it allows theorists to identify a wrong that is unique to colonialism, across different times and contexts, and explains why colonialism is wrong in and of itself, beyond what people might already think is wrong. However, I will now present three important limitations of such account.

First, we could ask whether or not Ypi’s definition captures too much. The political relations between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies have also violated principles of equality and reciprocity. The British government has limited the self-governing power of its colonies and collect taxes from its American citizens, as well as denying them from the rights of political representation it gave to its own British citizens.

In that sense, the relationship qualifies as colonial in Ypi’s account. Do we want to accept a concept that allows us to call the relationship between the British Crown and the Thirteen Colonies, and the relationship between American settlers and Indigenous people, by the same name? From a theoretical point of view, is it useful to abstract from the atrocities suffered by the Indigenous population, if it leads us to categorize these drastically different historical relationships under the same umbrella?

The second issue is not particular to Lea Ypi’s argument, but is relevant to theoretical accounts of colonialism in general. The constitutive elements of colonialism were in a great part sociological. The colonial entreprise was legitimized by ideas of white racial and cultural superiority. By limiting ourselves to a theoretical scope that excludes historical and sociological considerations, we cannot account for this important reality, and thus omits due justice to the true nature of historical colonialism and its legacies.

The objectionable forms of political relations Ypi describes were not merely between random agents. The subjugation was directed at peoples with fundamentally different cultural, social and political systems than the European ones. The mistreatment of non-Europeans was upheld by a social fabric that normalized these practices and values.[3] The brutality, thievery, manipulation and paternalistic attitudes were justified by a belief in the inherent inferiority of the Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

The last issue I want to raise is rather paradoxical, given that I am discussing this issue in a Eurocentric intellectual paradigm. That said, I still want to mention that making a theoretical critique of colonialism, in the restricted scope of classical political theory, cannot account for the suffering experienced by Indigenous peoples across the world. These analytical accounts continue to frame historical wrongs in terms that are audible to Eurocentric publics, which are not the ones living with the unjust legacies of colonialism.

There are survivors that embody and can testify to the wrong of colonialism. A purely theoretical argument concerning the wrongs of colonialism is insulated from reality, and deaf to the testimonies of the colonized peoples. Trying to criticize Eurocentric justifications of colonialism with a Eurocentric account may have some advantages, but it certainly does not do much to shed light and heal the wounds that colonialism has left on colonized peoples across the world. In so far as it obscures this reality, it remains unproductive to some extent.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.


Feature Image: a cartoon of John Bull (England) as the “octopus of imperialism,”  with its hands grabbing at multiple countries. The work is a satirical depiction of English colonialism in the 1800s. Published in 1888, author unknown. Work published online by Wikimedia Commons, via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_imperialism_octopus.jpg

Works Cited

[1] Ypi, Lea.(2011). Philosophy and Public Affairs, (41)2, 158-191.

[2]  Ypi alludes to Locke, Grotus and Vitoria.

[3] Lu (2017) proposes a convincing argument of how it is necessary to account for social structures that produce, reproduce and uphold injustices in discussion of colonialism and the legacies of colonialism. See Lu, Catherine. 2017. Justice and Reconciliation in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.