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The Imperial Boomerang: How colonial methods of repression migrate back to the metropolis

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Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

It should never be forgotten that colonization […] had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West […] A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West.

Michel Foucault

Imperialism is often conceived of as something that is done to an other. Dominant states – over the past 500 years, overwhelmingly the European and North American states – impose military, political and cultural domination over disempowered foreign populations. Those foreign populations, in this conception, are the parties which suffer the enduring negative effects of imperialism. Imperialism is something which happens over there, in the colonies; the domestic polities of imperial nations are of little political or analytical interest when examining colonial history and practice.

In reality, the practice of 500 years of imperialism has had deep and abiding effects on the metropolitan centres. From our iconography to the foods we eat, our ethnic composition to our racial ideologies, European peoples have been shaped to the core by the history and present of imperialism. This article series homes in on one specific mechanism by which imperialism has profoundly moulded the political and social structure of the countries carrying it out: the imperial boomerang effect.

More specifically, the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ is a term for the way in which empires use their colonies as laboratories for methods of counter-insurgency, social control and repression, methods which can then be brought back to the imperial metropolis and deployed against the marginalised, subjugated and subaltern within. With weak moral and legal restrictions, empires are gifted a free hand to test new technologies and social hierarchies on colonised populations. Once honed, the circulation of personnel and knowledge through the empire spreads these repressive methods across colonies – and back into the domestic heartland.

During the era of high European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous techniques, ideologies and practices perfected in the colonies were brought back into Europe and deployed against marginalised populations, dissidents and outcasts. Sometimes, entire colonial institutions were imported back into the metropolis. At other moments, particular counter-insurgency tactics were deployed against migrant populations who had fled colonial wars and settled in the imperial motherland. In the present era of neo-imperialism, the boomerang continues to deeply influence the subjectivities of majority white nations, and to structure the terrain of struggle between the working-class Left and the ruling classes.

The Imperial Boomerang and Nazi Germany

The term ‘imperial boomerang’, and associated political theorising, first emerged as scholars and activist-intellectuals attempted to grapple with the historical experience of the Holocaust following World War II. How, some were asking, could one of the world-centres of artistic, scientific and political innovation – Weimar Germany – succumb to one of the most all-encompassing acts of genocide ever witnessed?

Some, in a still-popular explanation, sought to exceptionalise Hitler and Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was a freak occurrence, a deviation from traditions of European Enlightenment humanism and democracy – a mass psychosis of the German nation, perhaps. For others, the rise of the Nazi Party was explicable by reference to a series of unfortunate historical contingencies: the Treaty of Versailles; the Great Depression; the failure of the progressive German opposition.

Certain intellectuals went deeper, seeking to uncover the structure of European thought and practice that rendered not just the German population, but large parts of Europe susceptible to fascism and the gas chambers. They placed Nazi Germany within a continuum of European history, exceptional only as a particularly extreme manifestation of pre-existing European practice. Perhaps the best known of these is Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, who located the Holocaust within the contradictions and tensions of Enlightenment modernity and capitalist industrialism in The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Two others looked elsewhere, placing Nazi Germany within the history and present of European imperialism. Political theorist Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, argued that racialisation and territorial expansion – two practices inherent to imperialism – laid the foundations for European fascism. Totalitarianism in Europe was an outcome of what Arendt termed the ‘imperial boomerang’. Similarly, poet and theorist Aimé Césaire argued in Discourse on Colonialism that Hitler ‘applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for [the colonies]’, placing what seemed an aberration of barbaric pre-modernity – the Holocaust – firmly within European imperial tradition.

According to this view, Hitler’s methods were not alien to European societies. Hitler’s exceptionalism consisted largely in the fact that the methods were applied against European populations, within Europe itself. Looked at from the global South, which had suffered centuries of the most extreme depredations of European imperialism, Nazi Germany did not seem so unusual. Around 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas had died as a result of Spanish colonisation; over 10 million Africans had been hauled across the Atlantic to live in slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere; untold 10s of millions had perished in British-manufactured famines in India.

The term ‘imperial boomerang’ was a way of describing how the specific mechanisms used by Nazi Germany had been developed in colonial laboratories, and how the practice of imperialism provided the background conditions for such a horrifying occurrence.

The Imperial Boomerang and the Historical Construct of Race(ism)

What is perhaps the most powerful ideological and material device ever developed by European ruling classes also has its origins in the colonies: the ideology and practice of race(ism). The racialisation of the globe’s population – the hierarchical categorisation of swathes of humanity in accordance with groupings of supposed physical and cultural characteristics – developed through the slave trade and the colonisation of the overwhelming majority of the global South. This device became embedded within the self-image of European populations, including the working classes, who increasingly came to view themselves as ‘white’. The historical construction of race has been one of the most profoundly affecting developments of modernity. It is a colonial invention that continues to boomerang across the globe.

To see this however, we must remember that race is not merely a set of prejudices held in the minds of individuals. It is primarily a set of material practices embedded within colonial structures and histories. As Dutch scholar Gloria Wekker puts it, race ‘is not only a matter of ideology, beliefs and statements’ but ‘also becomes transparent in practices, in the way things are organized and done.’ The racialisation of colonial populations was necessary to justify their subjugation; but it was also produced by imperial practices of surveillance, domination and violence. Thus, the importation of the social construct of race from colony to metropole is intertwined with and partly constituted by the importation of the techniques of repression. This is what it means to say that race is material.

In the midst of the great anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s, colonised intellectuals, particularly in the Francophone world, theorised the impacts of colonisation on the imperial masters. Degrading, dehumanising and denigrating swathes of fellow humans could not fail to rebound on the psyche of the oppressor. As the intellectual Albert Memmi wrote in 1957, ‘The colonial situation manufactures colonialists, just as it manufactures the colonized’.

Imperialism boomeranged back into the very sexual self-conception of white Europe. As Ann Laura Stoler has shown, white sexuality was partly developed in opposition to the colonised woman – exotic, always-available, an object of racialised fear. At a state level, imperial methods of sexual control were sometimes used as models for gender stratification at home. Regimes of inspection and confinement of sex workers instituted in 1857 in colonial Hong Kong, for example, made their way to the British isles in the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act.

Today, the imperial boomerang does not only circle in the history books. The legacy of the formal empires – which managed global politics, structured economic development and influenced world culture for five centuries – maintains a profound influence on European societies.

Indeed, imperial relations of domination between global North and South continue. From French domination of Francophone Africa and constant UK-US military interventions, to Western influence over international financial institutions and European-US mining activities on foreign land, imperialism and its legacies remain very much with us. Many in the global South, from Kwame Nkrumah to Thomas Sankara, have recognised that colonialism has morphed into neo-imperialism: the French flag may no longer fly in Fada but economic exploitation, military meddling and diplomatic deceits remain.

Concomitantly, the impacts of neo-imperialism continue to boomerang back across the globe. Our era’s defining form of capitalism, neo-liberalism, was first tested in Chile in the 1970s, as the U.S. state overthrew the leftist government of Salvador Allende and American economists flocked to advise the newly-installed military dictatorship. Neo-liberalism, which has influenced everything in the West from rising inequality to declining life-prospects, our deepest conceptualisation of the world to our ways of relating to one another, is in part a product of the (neo)imperial boomerang effect.

Connor Woodman is an independent researcher, writer and the author of the Spycops in context papers, available at: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/spycops-in-context'.

This is the first article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts; ending with a reflection on the boomerang’s strategic lessons for the 21st century Western Left. Read more here.

See all our anti-racism reading here.

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