The Future of Postcolonial Thought

Beyond Domination

The future and past of decolonization.


There is a well-established tradition of scholarly writing that treats geographical areas of the world as natural, preformed backgrounds against which historical events unfold. This perspective, with roots in Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, lives on in the work of conservative political theorists like Samuel Huntington, for whom civilizations were built on permanent geo-ethnic blocs, as well as in the work of Marxist scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein, for whom center and periphery were products of long-term geographical imbalances.

This approach can at times have its uses, but it would also benefit from an understanding of the world that tracked the formation of regions in reverse: Instead of viewing these geographical areas as preordained physical realities, we view them as the contingent results of human actors, movements, and projects. Land and water may exist prior to human history, but regions and civilizations are products of human action. In this sense, history produces geography, not the other way around.

Two new books—On Decoloniality, by Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, and Out of the Dark Night, by Achille Mbembe—help remind us of the history behind our geographies, setting the history of regions and continents back into the context of colonialism and empire. To do so, both books consider the different paths out of decolonization, only to find that neither the kind of nation-state that emerged out of decolonization nor the recent version of globalized capitalism that has come to define these nation-states has truly fulfilled the liberatory promises of decolonization. The strongest part of both books is their grounding in the areas from which they emerge—Latin America and Africa, respectively—and their common recognition that the heaviest price extracted by colonizers on the colonized in the past 500 years was not in the currency of labor and resource extraction but in the realm of knowledge, where colonial subjects were classified as the other in Europe’s empire of reason. Both books also represent a radical critique of European dominion over the rest of the world through the various ages of empire, and both agree that materialist analyses of this dominion—by Marxists, dependency theorists, and world-systems theorists—have misunderstood both colonialism and the decolonization that followed.

But the authors also offer us very different arguments about the entanglement of Europe with the colonies. Mignolo and Walsh see a radical opposition, indeed a chasm, between decolonial thought and European ideas of modernity, progress, and freedom, with Latin American Indigenist movements as their model for where freedom is to be found. Mbembe, on the other hand, offers a much more dialectical, relational, and entangled picture of the relations between colonizer and colonized. He sees the future of Africa, and the world that Africa reveals and exemplifies, as lying in a renewed—and joint—effort by Europe and its erstwhile colonies to enact a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable vision of reason and humanity than was globally normalized in the past five centuries.

On Decoloniality is a collaborative work in which each author takes up a connected and complementary set of arguments in one of the book’s halves, the first by Walsh and the second by Mignolo. Their joint goal is to make the case for decoloniality, the idea that a different form of decolonization or anti-colonialism was and continues to be possible in the Global South—one that does not rest on Western forms of knowledge but instead on Indigenous epistemological styles and claims.

In making this argument for a politics of decoloniality, Walsh and Mignolo acknowledge that their biggest debt is to the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano, whose idea of decoloniality they use to develop their central object of criticism, what they call “the colonial matrix of power.” For them, colonialism and empire in South and Central America proved to be a unique mode of domination that rested primarily on the marginalization, subordination, and elimination of not just Indigenous populations but also Indigenous epistemologies and cultures. Replacing not just native populations but also their ways of knowing the world was at the center of European conquest in the New World; their local traditions of reproducing natural systems and placing humans within a larger cosmology were gradually replaced by Western ideas of nature, culture, and progress, all seen as Christian, European, and white monopolies. It is this knowledge matrix that Walsh and Mignolo argue remained even when the colonizers left, and it is what they also argue a more fully emancipatory decolonization would replace.

Walsh is North American but has spent many years teaching and organizing political networks in Latin America, and she sees herself as more of an activist than an academic. In her chapters, she argues for political praxis as the critical site of theory, suggesting that any serious critical theory is a form of practice and, as such, has to arise out of concrete political movements against the colonial matrix of power. Her inspiration is a series of grassroots movements in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America that have sought to combine feminist, environmentalist, and anti-capitalist modes of thought to combat the ways of knowing that became dominant in the course of the European invasion of the Americas. To characterize this sort of resistance to the European epistemological order, Walsh uses the words marronage and cimarronaje, both terms that refer to the escape of slave populations in the Caribbean and elsewhere in Latin America. Walsh’s style of writing, her examples and models, and her approach to resistance are especially inspired by Black and feminist activists in the Andean countries and Indigenous political movements from across Latin America. Her main point of convergence with Mignolo is their shared journey over three decades from a theoretical approach to colonial modernity to a radical identification with the Indigenous movements that have sought to transcend Western ways of understanding nature, race, and progress.

Mignolo, on the other hand, is Argentine and has lived and taught in the United States for several decades. His part of the book is anchored in relationality (vincularidad), a way of thinking that opposes such binaries as nature and culture, man and woman, science and religion, civilization and barbarism. Decolonization, in his argument, is a specific and flawed reaction to European domination, especially in the new nations of the post–World War II period that threw off the shackles of colonial political rule but, he argues, failed to “decolonize their minds,” to use Ngu~gı~ Wa Thiong’o’s phrase. Instead, they fell into the European epistemological traps of modernization and development. In Mignolo’s earlier work, colonialism is inextricably bound with what he views as the Western fiction of modernity. The main agents of this fiction and of the colonialism and empires that promoted it were those Europeans, especially in the Americas, who imposed their own highly local versions of it onto societies and communities with very different views of these things. The fable of modernity was the unifying arc of this aggressive universalism, and Mignolo’s principal argument is that any variety of Marxist argument that focuses primarily on capitalism, class, and material exploitation misses the forms of power that came through this cultural and epistemological domination. To resist and replace it with another epistemological worldview, Walsh and Mignolo recommend decoloniality, an outlook that embraces Indigenous modes of thinking and rejects those Western expressions of modernity imposed on much of the world through colonialism and empire.

Both Walsh and Mignolo are strongly committed to the difference between decoloniality and decolonization. For them, decoloniality is not a successor to colonialism and coloniality, as the Western nation-states that emerged in Latin America have proved to be. Instead, decoloniality offers an alternative, one that is rooted in Indigenous thought and practice about nature, community, and solidarity. In this way, decoloniality, unlike decolonization, escapes the twin traps of nation-statism and corporate globalization. For both Walsh and Mignolo, their idea of decoloniality stems from their insights into the history of Latin America, but it also serves as a model for the rest of the world—a model of politics that seeks to replace extraction from nature with harmony with nature, and hierarchy among humans with convivialitc. This vision is seductive, and it is hard to disagree with their notions of harmony and conviviality, but it also rests on a reversal of the historical impact of capitalism and colonialism. It seeks to return us to an earlier period of precolonial splendor, when what we need to imagine, as Mbembe argues, is an alternative future.

Out of the Dark Night is also concerned with how the European imperial project has devalued and displaced other, more emancipatory ways of thinking. Mbembe’s focus is on Africa, and his conclusions do not endorse the virtues of a precapitalist or precolonial world; instead, he seeks to imagine a future based on our less-than-ideal present. This future requires us to refashion the structures of race, power, and technology into a more liberated relationship.

Mbembe focuses on a shorter time span than Mignolo and Walsh do, covering the period from the late 19th century to the present, and unlike them, he is as much concerned with European rule in the many colonies into which Africa was divided and the anti-colonial struggles that led to the birth of today’s nation-states as he is with both the periods of colonization that preceded them and the decolonization that followed.

Likewise, Mbembe offers a different path out of the contemporary impasse of nation-state politics and globalized capitalist economics. For him, the truly decolonized future is one that sees contemporary Africa as the site of a radical rethinking of the relationship between master and slave, one that is grounded in the African experience of diaspora and mobility. For Mbembe, it is these processes of mixture, flow, and interaction that help Africa define a path toward decolonization that does not rest heavily on the platform of Indigeneity. These experiences, he insists, open the path to Afropolitanism, a politics that uses the history and present of Africa to think about global emancipation.

This vision of emancipation also has global implications. In this way, we encounter arguably one of the closest things we have today to an avatar of Frantz Fanon. Mbembe’s arguments stand out for the force of their claims, the combination of critical and visionary statements, their disciplinary range, and his distinctively contemporary voice. Mbembe has been known to Anglophone readers at least since the publication in 2001 of On the Postcolony, which introduced a worldwide readership to his arguments about race, “necropolitics,” and sedition in Africa since decolonization. Since the publication of On the Postcolony, he has produced a steady stream of books (both in French and in English) that engage with African aesthetics, the geographical production of the cartography of Africa, the racialized capitalism that exists there, and the histories of slavery, political satire, and national liberation.

A key element of Mbembe’s way of thinking, and one central to Out of the Dark Night, concerns his view of religion. Mbembe’s underlying intuition as a close but not orthodox reader of Marx and Foucault is that the modern marginalization of religion and the European amnesia about colonization are entwined in an unusual and surprising set of ways. Because the colonizers regarded African cosmologies as primitive obstacles to modernity, they were able to mask colonialism in the garb of a civilizing and secularizing process—one that brought modern knowledge to far-flung parts of the world, even as the Europeans bringing it rapaciously extracted the wealth of the colonies and dominated its peoples. For Mbembe, the disenchantment they left in Africa also ties it to the rest of the globe—a world that is now increasingly defined by a borderless capitalism.

For this reason, the reenchantment of politics is also a rejection of the violence that came with colonial disenchantment, and Mbembe’s work, as a result, is suffused with the vocabulary of repentance, sacrifice, redemption, and renewal. The religious provenance of these terms is surely traceable to his own Catholic background in Cameroon, but it also leads him to an outlook that differs from Mignolo’s, which tends to represent Indigenous thought systems, movements, and practices as exemplars of a pristine and desirable model for decolonial thinking and European religious ones as alien and oppressive. Mbembe has little patience for any cultification of the Indigenous, since this would mean a denial of the relational history of colonizer and colonized in Africa, which he regards as also being the ground of new forms of African creativity, conviviality, and social innovation.

In Out of the Dark Night, Mbembe weaves these two themes—the disenchantment and colonialism of the past and the creativity and capitalist corporatization of the present—together through a set of interconnected essays that explore Africa’s experiences of colonization and its history. Colonialism and empire, he argues, were forms of racism, insofar as racism is a war between Europeans and what they saw as other species. But Mbembe resists arguments that depict Africa as the destitute victim of European colonialism or as an aggregation of corrupt or failed states that have wrecked their own chances for a healthy postcolonial future. Instead, he argues that Africa is a continent rich in resources, epistemologies, and new modes of political association and that, in its openness to the global circulation of ideas, people, cultures, and goods, we can find an alternate modernity to the one we live in now. For Mbembe, what is at stake are not only the flaws of decolonization as it took place but also the possible paths to a sustainable planetary future that Africa exemplifies.

Mbembe has a deep interest in capitalism, but less in its economic centers than in its edges and extremities, where the bodies of enslaved people, the extractive potentials of the colony, and the excesses of bodily mutilation converge. In his view, the history of plantations and transatlantic slavery were not anomalies in our current globalized capitalist order but were integral to its formation, creating a racialized system of labor and exchange that afflicted all European empires from the 1500s on. From the edges and extremities comes a new center.

The reluctance of Europe and the West in general to recognize the horrors of this history, in Mbembe’s view, can best be seen in France, where he studied as a graduate student and where the claim to the universal values of reason, equality, and freedom doesn’t extend to its own Black and brown citizens even today. In Mbembe’s view, it is in Africa that this hypocrisy can be addressed, by harnessing those ideas of nature, humanity, and emancipation that were born out of the encounters between colonizer and colonized and in the worlds that decolonization created. Mbembe’s Africa is where the newest technologies (digital, mediatic, and fiscal), in concert with its new forms of language, art, and philosophy, are being experimented with and innovated upon in ways that prepare this emerging Africa to be a model for the decolonization of the planet, without having to abandon or forget the colonial encounter.

Mbembe’s argument about a liberatory future that might emerge out of decolonization has the great appeal of not requiring the wholesale abandonment of the complexities of modernity. But he does not fully reconcile his optimism about African political and technological futures with his devastating observations about its racialized, nationalist, and statist present. Mbembe produces an antinomy between African histories and African futures that he cannot fully resolve. Mignolo and Walsh, rejecting the violence and brutality of the present and less interested in the future, don’t have to resolve this tension, since they seek to promote a return to the precolonial past. But their book also raises some considerable questions about the idea of decoloniality. The market is a mostly ghostly presence in their arguments, and we hear very little about the maritime explorations, oceanic trade, and slave-generated profits from plantation economies built on coffee, sugarcane, and cocaine that came to shape not just the region they are concerned with but the world as we know it. Giving primacy to epistemology and not political economy in defining the deep structure of colonial and Western modernity, Mignolo and Walsh also miss how contemporary capitalism, as much as (or arguably more than) modern Western epistemologies, has damaged the planet, deepened social inequality, and expanded the power of financial markets.

So where does this leave us? One book points us to a more desirable past, another to the future—but what about today? Mbembe does not have a gospel, whether about colonialism, power, or modernity, and in his flexibility, we do also find the beginnings of the future he imagines for us. One of the most striking features of Mbembe’s thought is its focus on the relational. In his accounts of the colonizer and the colonized, the state and its weaker subjects, the tyrant and the victim, the master and the slave, the executioner and the doomed prisoner, he is most concerned about the space in which relations emerge at the very extremes of society. Thus, the European West, and France in particular, in Mbembe’s view, have engaged in a massive effort to place their colonial subjects outside the space where solidarity, humanity, and conviviality properly belong. This politics of extremity that colonial projects and subjects find themselves in, however, has created new sites for invention and imagination, producing zones of créolité, in which the civilizing projects of the colonial master inadvertently produce new spaces of dialogue and creativity. According to Mbembe, it is our task to help fully realize them.

The emergence of a vast world of rich ideas, thought forms, linguistic styles, and technologies of the self in Francophone Africa is, for Mbembe, thus a paradoxical fruit of colonialism and the zones of créolité it produced. Decoloniality for Mbembe is both impossible and undesirable, since we can’t move back to a precolonial period—nor, he insists, should we want to. What we need in a global order is an alternative form of global modernity. We haven’t yet realized this goal, Mbembe recognizes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Like Mbembe, I prefer to remember and revisit the colony, both because we cannot escape its persistence and because it contains the seeds of its own defeat.

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