Book Review: How Colonial Racism Built and Maintains Unjust Global Order

Alexander Barder’s book Global Race War traces the moves and developments of a global racial order on a grand scale.

How do we explain racial violence – domestically and internationally – on a truly global scale, and across historical time – from the Haitian revolution of the 1790s to the recent emergence of the apocalyptic ‘Great Replacement’ theory that has revived and animated a new racist politics exemplified by the Trump phenomenon?

And given the recent publication of so many first-rate academic studies of the role of race and racism in driving world politics, in various ways, and of the role of race in the making of entire academic disciplines including political science and international relations (IR), how is it that those disciplines’ leading lights continue as if nothing has changed?

Mainstream IR, for example, remains almost untouched by the ferment among scholars wedded to critical theory, including post-colonialism, or just fine historical works that unearth previously hidden histories by asking some key questions – what about ‘marginal’ peoples? What was their role? What did they say, write, think and do? What did they feel? How were they affected? How did they resist, respond and advance alternatives? How did they become the makers of history and not just the objects of the powerful? Could the ‘marginal’ have been central? And are they becoming even more central now?

Alexander Barder’s excellent and inspiring study deals with the major issues, and raises many more, including why academic disciplines’ leading lights rarely venture beyond the conventional questions asked and addressed in conventional ways. The answer is surely that it comes down to the sociology of power, of knowledge production. Who constructs knowledge and for what and for whom? Who funds knowledge production? How close are knowledge makers to the centres of political and economic power?

As Arsim Tariq argues, there are powerful ‘knowledge gangs’ who police the boundaries of thinkable thought, who wage a battle of ideas, who are gatekeepers and godfathers who decide what and who is acceptable. That is not to say that mainstream theories like liberalism and realism have nothing to contribute to discourse and understanding. It is to say that the ‘debate’ between two theories that are really two sides of the same Anglo-American coin is stale, sterile, uninspiring, and has lost credibility. It is a corpse that lives, what French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO before Russian President Vladimir Putin did the Cold War organisation a huge favour by invading Ukraine – a zombie. 

Alexander D. Barder
Global Race War: International Politics and Racial Hierarchy
Oxford University Press (October 2021)

Barder’s book Global Race War: International Politics and Racial Hierarchy traces the moves and developments of a global racial order on a grand scale – from the heroic Haitian revolution all the way to the current rise of ‘Great Replacement’ theory and Trumpism. On the way, Barder looks in on American frontier settler violence, land appropriation, state building and order-construction with race at its core (and how with similar developments in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, this became a global Anglosphere movement). Barder also considers the Nazis’ genocidal regime; war without mercy in Vietnam; and the purportedly ‘civilisational clash’ of the wars of terror.

The book describes and explains the fundamental significance of race from the beginning of the very notion of global order, per se, to the grim present of racial tendencies that fuel horrific acts of terror as well as a new mainstreamed fascistic politics. It is a remarkable feat to move through so much time and space yet retain that core thread that unites the creation moment with the present condition. It is scholarship of the highest, most focused and meticulous quality. 

It is also remarkable that the book covers so much history, change and development that the world is totally transformed yet the racialised-liberal core driver and organising principle and its institutional power structures remain so powerful and enduring – not untouched or static but resilient, adaptive, ducking and diving, retreating and regrouping, and renewing themselves for the next battle in a racial ‘Long War’ the West has dominated for centuries – intellectually, ideologically, politically, militarily, and economically.

What lies at the core of massive racial violence in a global racial order? Barder cites Michel Foucault to argue that racial violence including genocide is explicable due to “a crisis in the racial imaginary that structures the very ‘grid of intelligibility’…of the global order as such”.

When at so deep a level it is held by the masters of a racially-dominated global order that any change in the status of the ‘inferior’ is an existential threat to the power of the ‘superior’, the logic of catastrophic violence, of fantasies of annihilation, is obvious.

Any struggle of the racially oppressed for freedom, or rights, is then seen not as a claim to legitimate right to life and liberty but as coming at the expense of the power and survival of the dominant race. And, as there is no limit to the demands of the oppressed who, by the way, are savages and barbarians, who have no concept of the political or sovereignty or community, who understand only nihilistic savagery they, therefore, must be overcome through violence without restraint. There can be no laws of war or codes of conduct or Geneva conventions to regulate this violence, those conventions being reserved for wars between civilised peoples only. Civilian or combatant, man, woman or child – a savage is a savage and must be dominated or exterminated.

Hence, the very concept of ‘global’ emerged from the “crucible of violent settler appropriation and exploitation. Race and racial hierarchy then became the material and ideational scaffold of a global imaginary that took for granted the idea that certain peoples were to be considered naturally inferior and hence exploitable….”

War, identity and interests are co-constituted, they impact one another inextricably. As Jens Bartleson argues, war is a “primordial force” to impose structure and order and sense on the chaotic world to make it legible. Racial hierarchy, after many twists and turns, made the world legible and orderly for the West.

This is as true today, in subtly coded ways, as it was at the birth of global order. Hence, racial violence proliferated to defend this global racial order including after 1945 under new conditions of decolonisation but also “racialisation of cultural and civilisational attributes”. This global-racial approach to global order also explains why race and racism continue to explain western politics and the politics of “racial retrenchment and violence at home”. 

‘Blackness’, then, is the foil against which ‘whiteness’ is established and therefore white unity and supremacy – the basis of western modernity. While Westerners could create a political community on a legitimate basis, the non-West could not, according to this blinkered view. This position, in one way or another, was supported by some of the most significant Western thinkers – including Emmanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, J.S. Mill, Darwin, and Hannah Arendt. According to the latter, based on no evidence whatsoever, “Under the merciless sun, surrounded by an entirely hostile nature, [Europeans] were confronted with human beings who, living without the future of a purpose and the past of an accomplishment, were as incomprehensible as the inmates of a madhouse”. 

This gap became the basis of global-racial hierarchy and order, codified in slavery and led directly to racial violence to maintain this order and preclude its elimination. It was embedded in the state system but also congealed in slave traders and plantation owners and frontier settlers – all those involved in colonial expansion. It is the fusion of state and settler violence that formed the basis of the genocidal projects of the 20th century.

Hannah Arendt. Photo: Barbara Niggl Radloff/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

IR’s blind spots

In general, mainstream IR does not nowadays take race and the idea of a global racial order very seriously, and remains wedded to ‘anarchy’ (lack of a world state) as core to international affairs and to state centrism – and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which embodies these core principles.

Curiously, however, at the creation moment of IR, after World War I, there was deep interest in the discipline on race relations and the administration of colonial affairs and imperialism, rather than anarchy, state-centrism or great power politics. IR was largely about the theory, practice, prospects, and dangers, to white supremacy. Indeed, the discipline was even referred to as “race relations” rather than IR at the time.

Robert Vitalis, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and others have shown those IR creation moments, opening the door to examining the racial foundations of global politics and order. But quite how IR forgot its origins or perhaps submerged and coded its interest in race is a key issue that remains to be tackled. I assume that because the oppressed don’t really matter in the calculus of empire and racial and class hierarchies, they can also be disappeared from elite academic disciplines that reside close to the centres of metropolitan power.

The net result is that the core concepts of IR after World War II became anarchy, the state, and great power competition. Yet, non-IR observers and elite activists, as well as radical-critical activists remained interested in the colonial order, global race relations, as well as the struggles of the colonial and post-colonial peoples for freedom and independence. Chatham House – the prestigious London-based think tank with close imperial links with the Anglosphere – established its Board of Race Relations in the 1950s to develop a new paradigm for ‘race relations’ at the global and national levels, based around anxieties of an impending union of communists and anti-colonial revolutionaries. The historically black Howard School’s black nationalism and radicalism were side-lined by elitist and corporate-funded IR and African Studies.

But reality eventually pierces through, even if fleetingly. Hans Morgenthau, a doyen of the post-1945 IR discipline, noted the significance of race in world politics. In his book, In Defense of the National Interest (1951), Morgenthau frames US foreign policy in the context of European decline and the rise of Asia and Asians, as well as of Bolshevism. This meant, he noted, the end of western dominance and the rise of non-western civilisations that would become increasingly powerful and outstrip Europe. Since 1945, he argued, there has been “a fundamental change in the relations between the white and coloured races”, which would limit European wealth and power possibilities amidst the rise of Asian and other revolutionary violence that would dismantle the white world order. It is that crisis of loss of power that “opens up the very possibilities of a racialised violence that is distinguished from the rational and strategic violence between Western nation-states”, Barder convincingly suggests.

Barder argues that “modern identity was predicated upon such violence and hierarchy” – crucially the violence that arises when that racial order is challenged and threatened by inferior races: “…the proliferation of violence when a hierarchical order is in crisis and put in question by those defined to be racially and culturally inferior” assumes catastrophic proportions, moves beyond material and strategic logic itself.

The successful Haitian revolution that overthrew slavery, defended itself against the forces of the French under Napoleon, and established the world’s first constitution dedicated to protecting racial and gender equality, was a creation moment of a global racial order, according to Barder. He argues that the reverberations of the Haitian revolution were felt in the fledgling white republic of the US, with its massive enslaved population, and across European colonial powers. It was the violence-without-restraint response of the colonial powers to crush the revolution, impose sanctions and blockades and exact reparations, that effectively birthed the racialised global order. A democratic Black republic was not possible, beyond Western comprehension. It had to be violently overthrown.

According to a French general in 1803, to maintain French hegemony over Haiti, “we must destroy all the negroes in the mountains, men and women, sparing only children younger than twelve, destroy half of those who live on the plains, and not leave in the colony a single man of color who has worn an officer’s epaulette.” “When such white supremacy was called into question,” Barder shows, a space opens up for unbounded violence – racial violence.” The revolution had fundamentally challenged the very basis of order.

A painting depicting a battle during the Haitian revolution. Phto: January Suchodolski/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The most chilling sentence in the book, to my mind, was one in which Barder lays bare the depth of racial being and ontology. For so many white elites “it is easier to imagine the end of the world…than to share it with others”. It was, says Barder, the logic of Nazi racial genocide – the extreme endpoint in Europe and its near-abroad, especially in Russia and its Eurasian hinterlands.

And it extends all the way, in quite distinctive ways, to the present moment – as the responses to the ‘rise’ of China and other non-Western powers challenges western hegemony. Five centuries of domination now look to be coming to an end. Barder’s thesis suggests that, one way or another, via a civilizational discourse, there is likely to be a coming clash between the west and its ‘adversaries’ – its strategic or systemic rivals.

Questions… reluctantly!

There are, however, some questions in my mind, from my own perspective, that I hesitate to raise given the undeniable brilliance of the scholarship. But there are a couple of issues that Barder might have dealt with a little more clearly, perhaps decisively.

There is no question in my mind that race is a powerful force and factor in world politics, and needs to be placed at the heart of academic analysis. Yet, what about ‘class’? And the symbiotic nature of class and race? Which is the prime mover? Material or ideational? Or are they so fused and complex that in effect racialised-class system is the reality? This is important given that class inequality and power is undoubtedly a core driver of historical development and global power politics.

I think Barder does move towards a conception of a racialised class system at some level. But explored more systematically, it would also require consideration of white class structural inequalities and politics. It is probably unfair to level this at the present study given how powerfully and precisely it lays out its conceptual and historical arguments. But I did wonder at times where the Irish people stand in Barder’s perspective. England’s first colony; the ‘blacks of Europe’; ‘bogwogs’; starved to death and migration through famines; violently dispossessed over centuries; and valiant fighters against colonial rule; white post-colonials.

Barder tends to slip between race as material and race as a complex mix of material and imaginary or almost entirely imaginary – which shows how complex the subject is- but I feel he might have discussed this more clearly for both scholarly and other reasons. Scholars debate between material and ideational forces in world history and political change. There are theoretical implications in where the chips may fall. 

But activism is also affected – what do we do about this problem? How do we change a world order and domestic politics rooted in a racialised global order in crisis? Is decolonising ideas and educational curricula enough? How do we tackle the material and institutional interests and manifestations of racial power? And who is the enemy? And who are allies? Are all white people the enemy? Do they all benefit equally from racial oppression? How do we build alliances? Are white workers who suffer poverty, violence and economic hardship from exploitation not also possible allies? And are global south elites necessarily allies? Or do they share in the spoils of the post-1945 world order as it opened up and let them into the outer rim of global elite power? These are major issues which, to be fair, might best be discussed separately.  

David Vine’s recent study – The United States of War – argues through historical evidence that a coherent racial ideology to justify and legitimise American settler dispossession and massive violence took decades to emerge – it did not just emerge from prior European experience in any seamless way.  European experience was also class-based – so why does a racial approach trump class? Or how did class solidarities of white and non-whites operate and then face concerted challenges via the development of whiteness as a divide-and-rule strategy? 

This is a major issue as it impacts both scholarly issues as well as having political implications – the relative neglect of class in such formulations focuses entirely too much on “white privilege” – on whites and non-whites as homogeneous categories and comprehensible only or primarily in their ‘race-ness’ – to the neglect of class factors in particular. 

It is clearly Barder’s sincere wish to see this state of racial violence and hierarchy changed, making these political questions of great significance. But he is absolutely right to call out the “affliction of the global racial imaginary” that he so powerfully depicts and desire to work for a world that “recognises the whole of humanity”.

Ultimately, Barder’s study is a work of outstanding scholarship and insight, systematic and coherent in a story told on a grand scale. It establishes beyond question that there is a global racial contract and a domestic one that codifies in law and custom the privileges and legitimacy of whiteness and the Untermenschen role and position of the world’s people of colour. And as the global distribution of power now tends towards the Global South and East, we should be ready for a new round of conflict in the racial ‘Long War’.

After all, as Trump’s head of policy planning at the State Department argued, China isn’t a Caucasian power, unlike even the Marxist Soviet Union. The struggle against Marxism was one within the Western family. But regarding China, “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.”

Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He is the author of several books including Foundations of the American Century. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.