In the dying days of 2020 when it was difficult to think of much else in the UK beyond Covid and Brexit, two relatively minor stories struck me as emblematic of the dangers faced by the contemporary project of decolonising the academy. In October 2020, the Conservative government’s Minister for Equalities Kemi Badenoch declared, in response to demands for the decolonisation of history teaching in British schools raised in the course of a parliamentary debate on Black History Month, that the ‘curriculum does not need to be decolonised, for the simple reason that it is not colonised’.1 Badenoch saw no problem with the fact that ‘British children primarily study the history of these islands’, and complained that ‘the recent fad to decolonise maths, decolonise engineering and decolonise the sciences that we have seen across our universities – to make race the defining principle of what is studied – is not just misguided but actively opposed to the fundamental purpose of education’.2
Echoing remarks made by a number of her Conservative colleagues, Badenoch inveighed against the spectre of ‘critical race theory’ (CRT), which she singled out as a particularly pernicious manifestation of the decolonisation agenda on account of its putative tendency to foster black victimhood and white guilt. Badenoch credited this theoretical formation with having shaped what she saw as the ‘partisan’ agenda of Black Lives Matter, particularly insofar as its anti-capitalist and anti-police demands were concerned, making it patently unfit – in her view – for inclusion in public education. In any case, she concluded, it was all simply irrelevant to the British situation, having been imported wholesale from the US: ‘Our history of race is not America’s.’3 Elsewhere Badenoch has leveraged her identity as a Black British woman of Nigerian origin to declare that Britain is the best country in which to be Black.4
The reference to the US is ironic. In adopting CRT as a metonymous bogeyman for any engagement with structural racism, empire and decolonisation,5 British Conservatives were taking a leaf out of the playbook of the Trump administration, which had passed an executive order the previous month banning federal contractors from conducting ‘racial sensitivity training’, while declaring war on ‘race-based ideologies’ more generally (no irony there).6 CRT became simply the latest element in the ‘culture war’ that Conservatives were eagerly stoking against their parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opponents in an attempt to distract attention from the material demands of antiracist and decolonisation movements. That this had become the strategy of choice was evident in the summer of protest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when both white supremacists and the Johnson government appeared more eager to defend the iconographic legacy of the British empire (read: statues) than to debate its material and structural afterlives (read: police, prisons, migrant detention centres).
Far less noticed than Badenoch’s headline-grabbing dismissal of decolonisation (except perhaps on Academic Twitter, where it attracted widespread ridicule) was a short opinion piece that appeared on Al Jazeera in November 2020 on ‘apartheid in the World Bank and the IMF’.7 Written by Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the article reiterates arguments that campaigners against global economic injustice have been making in respect of the Bretton Woods institutions for decades. Namely, that the distribution of power in these institutions is deeply unequal, as evidenced by their procedures for selecting leaders and by the disparities within them between the voting power of member states from the global North and that of members from the South. Calculated on a per capita basis, these inequalities appear particularly stark: a British citizen’s vote is worth 41 times that of a Bangladeshi citizen. Drawing attention to the racial logics at work, Hickel justifiably observes that ‘If this was the case in any particular country, we would be outraged. We would call it apartheid.’ Having located the roots of these inequalities in the late colonial period when the Bretton Woods institutions were designed as part of the post-Second World War settlement, Hickel unsurprisingly calls for their decolonisation. So far, so good.
It is in Hickel’s understanding of what decolonisation might entail in the context of the World Bank and the IMF, however, that his usage betrays an ongoing liberal deflation of this term. The article ends by rehearsing some of the most common recommendations for the democratisation of these institutions: ‘transparent’ election of leaders; decision making by a ‘double majority’ of both shareholding power and member states and so forth. As several critics of the piece noted on Twitter, given the role these institutions have played in the impoverishment and underdevelopment of borrowing countries, and their facilitation of what David Harvey has called ‘accumulation by dispossession’,8 it might have been more appropriate to interpret decolonisation as entailing their abolition, along with that of the structures of global capitalism they do so much to sustain.
There is a further irony here. As Sylvia Tamale notes in a recent book on decolonisation and Afro-feminism, decolonisation discourses had been popular in Sub-Saharan African countries following independence until they were ‘virtually “killed” by the so-called development strategies introduced to Africa by the World Bank and the IMF in the late 1980s and early 1990s’.9 Hickel’s reformist understanding of ‘decolonisation’ empties it of the very content that made it antithetical to the project of the Bretton Woods institutions. More broadly, his argument is symptomatic of a liberal tendency to reduce the term to a synonym for renovation, amelioration and improvement rather than the wholesale destruction and reconstruction it once portended. Through this tendency, the idea of decolonisation is hollowed out through the very proliferation of its usage.
In some ways, decolonisation’s conservative enemies appear to have a better grasp of its potentially subversive implications than its liberal friends. In the October parliamentary debate, Conservative MP Steve Baker distanced himself from calls for decolonisation, and from Black Lives Matter in particular, on account of its putative associations with ‘cultural Marxism, the abolition of the nuclear family, defunding the police and overthrowing capitalism’,10 preferring instead ‘a conservative and a liberal language of equality and inclusion […that] does not adopt the ideas of intersectionalism [sic] and critical race theory that set us against one another’.11 Apposite here is the queer theorist Lee Edelman’s reading of the US ideological landscape, with which he begins his antifuturist manifesto No Future: ‘Conservatives acknowledge [the] radical potential, which is also to say, [the] radical threat, of queerness more fully than liberals, for conservatism pre-emptively imagines the wholesale rupturing of the social fabric, whereas liberalism conservatively clings to a faith in its limitless elasticity.’12 This is as good a description of the current moment in the UK for decolonisation as it is for queerness.
What then is the meaning of decolonisation? What times and places can orient us as we confront this question? Must we fix meaning in order for the term to retain force? In their incisive critique of the manner in which decolonisation has been turned into an empty signifier for a miscellany of social justice struggles, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang insist that decolonisation in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land to indigenous peoples.13 While of course colonialism cannot be reduced to its particular manifestation as settler colonialism in the Americas, there may be value, as Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu suggest, in considering and complicating Tuck and Yang’s substantive account of what decolonisation is ‘in order to extend and deepen their political warning that decolonisation is not a metaphor’.14 One element of that warning is the salutary reminder that Fanon’s call for decolonising the mind as a first step towards overthrowing colonial regimes did not imply that it was the only step. As Tuck and Yang point out, conscientisation has too often been accepted as the end point of struggle, substituting for the more uncomfortable work of relinquishing stolen land and, we might add, whatever currencies in which the brute materiality of power is in any given context expressed.15
Like the anticolonial nationalists of the past who were assuaged by the winning of a largely symbolic flag of independence, liberal conceptions of decolonisation err in supposing both that it has quite substantially been achieved (and therefore only needs extension here and there) and that it can ever fully be accomplished (thereafter to be chalked up as a metric of success in the ubiquitous league tables by which both states and institutions are judged in our own neoliberal times). If instead we were to think of the work of decolonisation as not yet having been accomplished, we may find ourselves unable to locate its meaning entirely in a hoary past, even if the canonical texts to which we turn for guidance hark back to an earlier era. We might then be compelled to look to what might have been, had earlier quests for decolonisation not been killed off by their conservative enemies and liberal friends. And we might be moved by the hope that those failed dreams might yet come to pass.