Mutually Assured Survival: Mahmood Mamdani’s Call to Decolonise the Political and Decriminalise Justice

In ‘Neither Setter nor Native’, the Ugandan scholar draws valuable lessons from the history of the United States, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Nuremberg and South Africa.

Mahmood Mamdani’s latest book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Harvard University Press, 2020) makes an urgent intervention in contemporary politics. In a searing critique of the nation-state, Mamdani persuasively argues that there will be no decolonisation, no democracy, no peace until we de-link the association between the “nation” and state power.

Bloody battles over who does – and does not – “belong” in the “nation” and, therefore, who should – and should not – be allowed to govern “its” state, Mamdani argues, are a structural characteristic of the global system of nation-states. The extreme violence raging in nation-sates across our world – including political warfare in the world’s newest nation-state, South Sudan, the genocidal violence directed at Rohingya people in Myanmar and the intensifying anti-immigrant politics everywhere – is a banal feature of the culling process engaged in by all nation-states. And is no less deadly for being so predictable.

Mahmood Mamdani
Neither Settler nor Native – The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities
Harvard University Press (November 2020)

Instead of indicating a failure of the international regime, nationalist violence, Mamdani says, functions precisely as intended by the logic of colonial modernity. Drawing upon fundamental insights of postcolonial theorists, including his own germinal thinking on the subject, Mamdani sets out to examine how nation-states reproduce the bifurcated mode of thinking that marked colonialism. Although nationalist modes of identification are thought by their adherents to represent a radical break from colonialism, they are borne of colonialism (think of the politicisation of Hindu and Muslim identities in British India) and revamped to fit new national contexts (think of the Hindutva project).

European empires placed people in two broad and opposing categories: coloniser and native. The social and political distinction nation-states make is between national majorities and national minorities. While portrayed as “natural” and “timeless,” national majorities are made through a political process wherein the particular cultural identity of one group, which exists amongst many, is turned into the identity of the state.

It is perhaps odd to think of states as having “identities” but national sovereignty is uniquely portrayed as a mere representative structure of The People, i.e. those people who can form themselves into a “nation.” Claims such as: “this is a German nation,” “this is a White nation,” “this is a Jewish nation,” or “this is a Hindu nation” abound. Although all nationalists claim that the “nations” they speak for are “ancient,” Mamdani makes it clear that the leaders of today’s nation-states are not governing as their ancestors did but as the colonisers did. For example, the India of Narendra Modi is not the same polity as the one in the storied Vedas, no matter how often he publicly recites them. Rather, the post-1947 Indian nation-state, like all others, represents a continuation of colonial thought and, importantly, of colonial practices in the name of the (Hindu) national majority.

Nationalist claims, in addition, to being historical are also always relational. They are made against others defined as national minorities who, in one way or another, fall short of the criteria for “true” national membership (as determined, of course, by the national majority and institutionalised in the state’s laws). They are not part of the “national race,” they don’t speak the “national language,” “they don’t follow the “national religion,” and, perhaps most forcefully in the territorial (and metaphysical) logics of national sovereignty, “they are not from here.” Because national minorities can make no (recognised) claim to being the “nation” purportedly represented by the nation-state, they are easily portrayed as threats to the national majority (and thus the nation-state itself). As such, they are ripe and ready targets for nationalist violence.

In Neither Settler Nor Native, Mamdani examines the political work done by the formation and maintenance of national majorities and minorities. Lengthy chapters are devoted to understanding how different nationalist projects politicise identities in the formation of nation-states. He examines the United States, post-World War Two Germany, South Africa, Sudan/South Sudan, and Israel/Palestine. Most of today’s deadly conflicts are revealed to be focused inward, fought (often asymmetrically) between national majorities and minorities. Far from being revolutionary, i.e. trying to end practices of expropriation and exploitation or practices of labour discipline and state punishment, nationalist conflicts are reactionary. In some cases, deadly conflicts arise between contending would-be national sovereigns. In other cases, they are conflicts driven by states mobilising national majorities to eliminate national minorities (and deflect attention from state practices that cause harm). In all cases, the lines of divisions are not social but political. They are fought over whose particular group identity will come to define the identity of the nation-state.

Sometimes this violence results in the break-up of existing states (for example. Sudan in 2011) and at other times to their expansion (Israel periodically since 1948). Whatever the outcome, nationalist conflicts serve to reproduce the global hegemony of the nation-state system and the globally operative capitalism it has greatly enriched and empowered. The era of postcolonialism, after all, not only delegitimised the imperial form of state power and made the national form the only acceptable one, it also led to an expansion of capitalist social relations.

The hegemony of nation-states was established in the post-WWII era, when (most) former colonies and former metropoles of empires nationalised their state sovereignty. Instead of returning land to the producers and ending the exploitation of people’s labour, new nation-states carried out further land expropriations and enacted policies greatly expanding the power of capitalist markets in people’s lives. Think of mega-development projects, the race to industrialise (including industrialising farming), and the search for new markets for new commodities. Nation-states, then, far from marking a break with ruling relations, intensified them.

The era of postcolonialism is also marked by an increase in extreme violence, much of it in the “national liberation states” (to borrow a term from Vijay Prashad). Partitions, population-transfers, genocides, and, notably immigration controls (which Mamdani does not sufficiently address) are the order of the day. As did colonial-states, nation-states too depend on the political fragmentation of people to maintain power over the state. In a previous book, Mamdani called this the politics of “define and rule.” Intensifying nationalist jingoism and the ensuing violence we see the world over is therefore by design. There is, of course, a materiality to such violence. The fragmentation of nationalism props up competition within a capitalist world more consolidated today than it was during the age of empire.

Mamdani’s new book makes an urgent intervention in this mess by calling for the decolonisation of the political. By this he means a rejection of the nationalist link between cultural subjectivities and the political identity of the state. This “does not mean eliminating cultural difference,” he insists, but “depoliticising the diversity that has always been there”. This, Mamdani argues, requires an epistemological revolution, one that precedes all others.

Decolonisation of the political requires us to re-think what the project of decolonisation is aimed at achieving and who it is comprised of. Current anti-colonial thought, Mamdani insightfully notes, “is both too much and too little invested in the political dimensions of decolonisation. The excessive investment is reflected in the naïve assumption that throwing off the yoke of foreign control is the first and key step in progress toward social justice. On this view, ousting the coloniser and declaring independence is the revolutionary act that inevitably precipitates social equality”. Yet, nowhere has this happened.

Simultaneously, Mamdani contends, too little attention is given to the importance of decolonising political identities inherited from colonisers and repurposed by nationalist leaders. In this regard, re-politicising and dismantling the categories of “settler” and “native” are particularly urgent. He makes an important and much-needed distinction between settlers and immigrants. “Immigrants,” he argues, “are unarmed; settlers come armed with both weapons and a nationalist agenda. Immigrants come in search of a homeland, not a state; for settlers, there can be no homeland without a state. For the immigrant, the homeland can be shared; for the settler, the state must be a nation-state, a preserve of the nation in which all others are at most tolerated guests.” With this formulation, Mamdani builds on his previous books by investigating colonial practices in the US and Israel, two nation-states in which the political separation of Natives and Settlers increasingly dominates “anti-colonial” political analysis heavily informed by indigenous nationalisms.

Israeli police fire stun grenades at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, amid tension over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 7, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The chapter on Israel/Palestine is replete with many important insights, including how Jewish immigration did not always comprise something we can recognise as settler colonialism. Prior to the success of the Zionist project in violently defining the state as a Jewish state, the immigration of Jewish people was just that: immigration. However, the important distinction Mamdani makes between settlers and immigrants here is confused in his chapter on “The Indian Question in the United States. Problematically, Mamdani sometimes refers to enslaved people moved from Africa by the transatlantic slave trade to the United States (and their descendants) as “settlers.”

In doing so, Mamdani accepts the false dichotomy developed by Patrick Wolfe between the colonial expropriation of land and the colonial exploitation of labour. Viewing land theft and labour exploitation as separate processes is reliant on another false dichotomy: one between racism and colonialism. These allow Mamdani to assert that “…blacks have been sources of labor, and Indians sources of land” (p. 95) meaning that “Indians” are colonised while Black people experience “racial oppression” (p. 41). Such a formulation not only erases the long and brutal history of exploiting the labour of the Natives in the Americas, it also fails to deal with the deep relationship between expropriation and exploitation. Can anyone whose labour is made exploitable, not always already be expropriated from the land?

While acknowledging the historical articulation between ideas of race and nation in both colonial- and nation-states, and calling for a detachment of political identities from the state, and presumably therefore, from exclusive association with specific territories, Mamdani doesn’t fully address the implications of his argument for his larger – and crucial – project of decolonising politics. Surely to rethink what we mean by decolonisation, as Mamdani argues we must, also means rethinking what we mean by colonisation. Enslaved Africans were expropriated from the land too. They were forcibly taken from their societies and put to work as enslaved labour by the same colonial state. The only reason we would not see enslaved Africans (and the generations of enslaved Black people born in the colonies) as “colonised” and, instead, see them as “aliens” (as they were defined) is if we accept the categories the colonial state used.

Indeed, to think of “Indians” (another state category) as the only colonised people in the Americas is to accept the epistemological framework of colonial modernity that Mamdani rightfully wishes to disturb – and does disturb, both in his previous books and elsewhere in this book (e.g. South Africa, Sudan, Israel/Palestine). That his analysis of colonial practices in the United States does not cohere with the way he sets up arguments for the construction of politicised identities elsewhere is therefore puzzling.

This limitation of Mamdani’s book likely stems from another: his insufficient attention to immigration controls in the making of nation-states. Regulations and restrictions on people’s ability to lawfully enter and work in nation-states are critical – even definitional – parts of nation-building projects. An examination of racist immigration laws and how they too were critical in establishing the US as a white supremacist nation-state (alongside the colonisation of “Indians” and the enslavement of Black people) would have helped to further clarify Mamdani’s argument that the US is a “model” for all other “ethnic cleansings.” A discussion of the centuries of Slave Codes and, starting in 1875, of US immigration laws, would have allowed us to see that there were multiple legal regimes in operation – not only the two that distinguished between settlers and natives. The organisation of differences between the free and the unfree and, after the end of slavery in the US, between citizens and immigrants, would reveal a fuller picture not only of how the US nation-state operates but also of how colonialism, racism, and nationalism are inseparable.

Attention to immigration laws may also trouble the faith in resolving today’s nationalist violence by creating states without “nations.” Unfortunately, this will not end the legislated discrimination against people classified as migrants. Indeed, no state will ensure freedom because all states, regardless of what form they have taken – monastic, monarchical, imperial, or national – immobilise people (one group or another) in service of their varied civilisation projects. States need people to tax, to conscript, to build their monuments and “development” projects, etc. Not all states immobilise people in the same way. Imperial states largely depended on restricting the exit of people out of state territory while facilitating the entry of millions into it. Nation-states depend on restricting the free movement of people into their territories. Perhaps, then, decolonisation also requires us to organise societies without states (and without the ruling class which gives rise to states)?

Mamdani’s subsequent five chapters more than make up for the limitations (and contradictions) of his chapter on the United States. His examination of the abject failure of the Nuremberg trials to de-nazify post-war Europe, his analysis of the important epistemological shifts in identity that took place in the process of ending apartheid in South Africa, and his analysis of how continued violence in Sudan/South Sudan and in Israel/Palestine takes place precisely because specific cultural identities are equated with the sovereign power of the nation-state, each contribute to Mamdani’s most important contribution to political thought and action – his call for the decriminalisation of justice.

The site of a twin suicide bombing attack in a central market is seen in Baghdad, Iraq January 21, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

Mamdani successfully shows how the Allies’ insistence on treating Nazism as simply the criminal acts of individual perpetrators who were tried, judged and, sometimes hung, by the victors at Nuremberg ensured that the political project of Nazism was never exposed and rejected. By refusing to acknowledge the political foundations of Nazism, the philosophical and structural basis for the nation-state was never called into question. This was something the US, in particular, but also nationalists the world over, were wholly unwilling to do. Consequently, the much-needed “revolutionary reimagining of modern political organisation” failed to occur.

The result is a postcolonial world of nation-states – and the extreme violence of “ethnic cleansing” they continuously generate. Various “human rights” frameworks, Mamdani shows, including those mobilised by NGOs, tribunals established to adjudicate “transitional justice,” including proliferating Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and the International Criminal Court, all stem from – and reproduce the fatal limitations – of the Nuremberg trials. In each, the structural violence inherent to a system of nation-states is “depoliticised and repackaged as the responsibility of specific people who had done wrong or authorised others to do wrong”. Each of these forums represent a sort of victor’s justice, which is to say no justice. As a result, violence predictably escalates.

Mamdani doesn’t only diagnose the problem but also offers an escape route. He points to the success of ending apartheid in South Africa as a model for how to end nationalist violence. The main forces of the anti-apartheid movement – the students, migrant workers, and labour organisers and not the exiles and prisoners – worked together across – and against – their categorical identities, and in so doing, rejected the politicisation of diversity. They stopped “accepting that [their] differences should define who benefits from the state and who is marginalised by it”. By encouraging people categorised as Africans, Coloureds, Indians, and Whites to imagine and accept that they were all a part of the same political community, they demonstrated that all political identities are mutable – and thus changeable. Their world historic efforts showed that people’s subjectivities can be re-shaped into the sort of self-identification necessary to decolonise our world. Theirs was a shift towards a politics of mutually assured survival.

South Africa, Mamdani well recognises, is far from a decolonised space. The de-racialisation of the political identity of the South African state was, unfortunately, only partial. The failure to de-tribalise sub-national polities guaranteed ongoing violence, including much of what gets called xenophobic violence. Because one’s tribal identity, first politicised under colonial rule, strengthened under apartheid, and continued in the post-apartheid period, remains attached to tangible material and political gain, the violent contest over group identity and territory is endlessly replayed.

Nevertheless, Mamdani insists that despite these limits to the achievement of social justice in South Africa – and there are many – the manner in which a new de-racialised polity was formalised in the process of defeating apartheid is “the most far-reaching and far-signed transition to political independence in the colonial world.” This is because a new political community was created, one that reimagined all people in South Africa as survivors: survivors of colonialism and of national apartheid. Mamdani convincingly argues that this is what decolonisation looks like.

Nandita Sharma is professor of sociology, University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).