Rumina Sethi. The Politics of Postcolonialism: Empire, Nation and Resistance. London: Pluto, 2011. 190 pp. [pounds sterling]16.00.
World War II was a watershed. Before, European colonial states in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean; after, anti-colonial struggles culminating in decolonization. During the conflicts, subaltern intellectuals gave voice to the colonized's yearning for collective self-determination, a yearning eventually satiated, the story goes, with decolonization. Newly independent, postcolonial states started fulfilling the promises of decolonization with modernization projects and policies designed to conserve the cultural heritage. To do so, they borrowed, often at usurious rates of interest. To finance these loans, they submitted to ruinous debt repayment regimes. Local production virtually asphyxiated by the imposed lifting of import restrictions, national economies collapsed. Those who could (skilled professionals and the educated) fled, most to Europe and North America, where a few entered the Academy. But access to the Academy, like emigration, exacted a price. At the level of the Postcolonial Studies curriculum, coming to terms with structuralist and post-structuralist theories entailed substituting hybridity and multiculturalism for foundational concepts of anti--colonial discourse such as the nation. At the level of ethics, it meant disengaging one's pedagogical practices and scholarly projects from ongoing struggles in the postcolony, including resistance against transnational capital. In the Canadian vernacular, it meant refusing to dance with the one what brung you.
For Rumina Sethi, this refusal, this ideological disengagement from the postcolony, has been costly for Postcolonial Studies. For one thing, it has spawned a cadre of academic "celebrities" whose suspect analyses of postcolonial life are cast in the opaque idiom of "high' theory" (9). For another, having successfully challenged the essentialist notions of national identity that anchored struggles against colonial governance--for example, the stable, unchanging, and even primordial ethnic self--and having in some quarters even declared the nation-state itself irrelevant to the Empire of transnational finance capital, it has failed spectacularly to come to terms with the fact that the postcolonial nation remains, in fact, the site and object of the ongoing contest between globalization and its discontents. For Postcolonial Studies, the consequence has been ideological and political paralysis. So what to do? Give Postcolonial Studies "a historical-materialist twist" (123), Sethi recommends, returning to the nation and the tradition of activist scholarship that made national liberation possible. In short, Back to the Future! The Politics of Postcolonialism exemplifies this slogan as critical practice.
In part, this return to the past entails historical memory. Beginning with nineteenth-century pluralism (Herder), Sethi draws attention to the geopolitical and economic forces at work when Postcolonial Studies was emerging as an academic discipline in the West: the post-Cold War ascendancy of the United States as a hyper power, the rise of monetary institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and trade regulatory agencies (GATT, WTO), and postcolonial nations' loss of economic sovereignty. She links them with the poststructuralist assaults on foundational concepts such as "origin," "truth," essence, and the referential capacity of symbols, assaults that inspired the discipline to break with Marxism, abandoning the emancipatory ethos that had animated anti-colonialist discourse (Fanon, Senghor, Gandhi, etc. …