The Problem of the
The historical moment of the colonial state was brief, barely three- quarters of a century in most of Africa. And yet for a third or more of the human race in Africa, Asia and numerous outposts in Latin America, the Caribbean and across the Pacific it represented until the mid-20th century the central reality of political life and the most visible expression of Western imperialism. Nevertheless, despite growing interest in the political economy of colonialism, the development and functioning of these states, the mode of domination they exercised, and their role in the global system of capitalism remains little examined or understood.
There are, to be sure, a growing number of historical studies of the colonial services of the various metropoles and of the administration of this or that colony. These are largely contained, however, within the individualist paradigm of liberal historiography that focuses on the origins, recruitment, beliefs and actions of the proconsuls and their subordinate cadres; with limited consideration of the structural forms of the colonial state itself, or of the wider social forces within which it functioned. 1 Meanwhile, recent studies of colonial economic and social history tend either to treat the colonial state as a source of 'modernizing' innovations or to focus on the growth of the market through European and African initiatives, with the state considered in terms of interventions that advanced or retarded economic development. 2 Even Marxist and neo-Marxist scholarship, which has recently delved so vigorously into the political economy of colonialism, has paid scant attention to the state as such, although suggestively revealing much about its role in the development of production and trade.
One characteristic of the colonial state, however, that studies of the political economy of colonialism repeatedly demonstrate is its central and pervasive involvement in colonial social and economic life. This involvement, moreover, was not an unwitting, adventitious effect, but rather the result of conscious and deliberate interventions; and it