Empire as a practice of power: the legitimation of imperial practices


Ayça Çubukçu: In contradistinction to nationalist projects that would be fashioned duringthe colonial modern, in a formation you distinguish as the early modern, various “native” figures in British India—among them Rammohan—were campaigning for liberty and equality as subjects of the British Crown, with a certain kind of faith in the emancipating mission of British rule. What is the significance of such early modern imaginaries of political community, which you observe to have been “doomed”? Why do they resist attempts to subsume them in nationalist historiographies of modernity?

Partha Chatterjee: I think I have advanced here a quite novel idea as far as the existing historiography goes. I have been careful to define the term “early modern” as precisely as possible. It is not quite a period with exact dates. I have preferred to talk about the early modern in the domain of the political, leaving aside the possibility of the early modern in the domains of literature or art, for instance, which might have quite different characteristics and dates. Further, I have distinguished between two different early modern tendencies: the absolutist and the anti-absolutist. The absolutist tendency I trace through the eighteenth century, culminating in Tipu Sultan. Tipu’s military defeat marks, I think, the historical end of this tendency. But it remains a suppressed discourse that is revived in late nineteenth-century nationalism when the connection is made by Indian writers through the economic theories of the German historical school between national sovereignty and economic independence. I think Tipu’s memorialisation after independence has a lot to do with state-led industrialization as the hallmark of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the anti-absolutist early modern represented by Rammohan Roy is very similar to the republicanism of the American revolutions. There was a large element there of the championing of the rights of the British subject to representation in government (republicanism in the English sense did not necessarily mean the elimination of the monarchy as in the French Revolution: Rammohan, for example, was very careful in both displaying and hiding his sympathies on this matter). The question was, once more, a peculiar one in the Eastern colony. The Native American and African were not part of the republican nation in revolutionary America. Could the Indian be an equal part of the body of British subjects seeking representation in India? Rammohan thought so. His British friends did not. That was the end of the anti-absolutist early modern: it lasted for perhaps thirty years or so in the early nineteenth century. But once again, its memory was revived in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism. The question here was not sovereignty but the quality of government—the classic liberal question posed by utilitarians like Bentham and James Mill. No matter who rules, what would the government be like? This was the question raised by liberal nationalists in the twentieth century when they were thinking of a new constitution for independent India. They wanted to trace a lineage to Rammohan. But actually there is no continuous history of liberalism from Rammohan to the Indian constitution of 1950. That is a problem that nationalist historiography will never manage to resolve.

Çubukçu: You argue that a new paradigm in justificatory logics of empire—based on the global, comparative, and normative theory of government inaugurated by Bentham—became established by the mid-nineteenth century. You also suggest that this nineteenth century paradigm continues to frame, “right down to the present day,” the legitimation of imperial practices. What accounts for this paradigmatic shift and the leading role you accord in it to Bentham’s social and political thought?

Chatterjee: I think the crucial step that Bentham took was to conceptually open up the entire field of government everywhere in the world, no matter where and in what kind of society, to comparative evaluation. This was radically different from the kinds of comparisons made in the eighteenth century by Montesquieu, for instance. Bentham found the key to comparison in the common measure of utility. This made possible the normalization of government everywhere—to measure them against a common norm. It also allowed for evaluating governments by the consequences of policy rather than by asking “who rules.” In other words, the utility-based consequentialist comparison separated sovereignty from government. Needless to say, this provided a completely new justificatory basis to modern empire. The question now became not “who rules” but “who rules better.” I also show how, through the nineteenth and twentieth century, what was only implicit in Bentham was explicated and elaborated, namely, the implications of the two senses of the norm. The norm as the empirical mean or average ranked countries as deviations from the norm—as higher or lower than the average. The norm as the normatively desirable could then designate deviant countries as requiring policies based on the suspension of the universally desirable norm—declaring the colonial exception. The norm-deviation empirical knowledge thus became the ground for the norm-exception policy prescription. The history of colonial government is replete with examples. Thus, freedom of speech might be the universally desirable norm but a fanatical people easily aroused to violence might require stringent controls on public speech. Public health policies should normally elicit voluntary compliance, but for a people with rigid and backward cultural practices, forcible compliance may be necessary. Free mobility of capital and labour may be the desirable norm for good economic policy but a tribal society unfamiliar with commercial practices might require a government policy that prohibits outsiders from doing business in that area. Most generally, the universally valid liberal norm was representative government, but for countries that were empirically found to be socially backward, there had to be an exception: the best exceptional form was enlightened despotism. I think this structure of thinking remains in place even today, long after the old colonial empires have disappeared.

Çubukçu: According to the definition of modern empire you offer, “the imperial prerogative lies, one could say, in the claim to declare the colonial exception” (original emphasis). How does this conceptualization of the imperial prerogative differ from the sovereign prerogative as conceptualized by Carl Schmitt? To pose the question more abstractly, what is the difference between a modern empire and a modern state—say, with “minorities”? You emphasize that the concept of modern empire is limited to “the domain of international relations” (original emphasis) and that “instances of declaring the exception within contexts that are taken to belong to the sphere of the domestic politics of states are not, in this sense, colonial-imperial.” But whose “take” is to count here? In effect, doesn’t the latter emphasis reinstate the problem, which involves the very difficulty of establishing, as a matter of fact and law, what is a “domestic” matter, and what is not?

Chatterjee: Schmitt’s idea of exception lies at the heart of modern Western constitutional states (Schmitt had no qualms in declaring that non-Western countries did not have proper constitutional states at all). He argued that in order to protect the very existence of the state, normal constitutional procedures would have to be suspended in an emergency: the state of exception was implied in the very founding of the constitution. The colonial exception is quite different. It is the suspension of a global norm in the exceptional circumstances of an empirically deviant country. It could mean, for instance, a normal condition of absolutism or despotism (colonial rule by others, military dictatorship, authoritarian rule), not the exceptional suspension of an otherwise extant constitution. The colonial exception is declared from outside the constituted state, not from within, and is justified by the need to rule better.

As for your second question, my argument applies only to recent history when the nation-state has become recognized as the universal normal form of the modern state. The assumption is that on the ground of sovereignty, all nation-states are formally equal. This is the current foundation of international law and international organizations. The exact conceptual equivalent is the idea of formally equal citizenship within the modern state. Now, of course there are contestations over how nation-states are currently defined, who falls within them and who doesn’t, whether their borders should be defined differently, and so on. But then there are contestations over equal citizenship too—and still the idea of equal citizenship as the foundation of popular sovereignty of the state remains intact. Similarly, my argument is that the foundation of our present states system is the formally equal sovereignty of all nation-states, even if the actual boundaries of states may be contested or redefined.

Now, there will still remain open questions about how the boundary between the international and the domestic is to be drawn. I can see that you are thinking of current debates about intervention. The crucial question is: does the conceptual ground of equal sovereignty provide a criterion for judging what is legitimate intervention and what is not? This is disputed. The most radical challenge is posed by those who question the very idea of national sovereignty today. In terms of the history I have presented, this challenge goes against the historical trend laid down by the anti-colonial movements and harks back to the consequentialist criterion suggested by utilitarian imperialism, namely, “who rules better” rather than “who rules.”


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