Power & Colonialism

January 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Janet Ajzenstat, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at McMaster University has a fascinating post on her blog on the issue of money and colonialism.  Ajzenstat is interested in the Gaza Strip and its colonial status, which, she argues, is a given.  But the question, in her mind, is who is the coloniser?  Rather than fall back on the standard argument of Israel as coloniser, she goes a bit deeper and follows the money. 

One of my favourite TV shows is The Wire.  In the first season, the cops are trying to pin down one of the biggest drugdealers in Baltimore, Avon Barksdale.  In Episode 8, “Lessons,” the cops learn something important.  They’re used to busting the drug dealers and the drug addicts. But this time, they stop the bagman, the dude carrying the drug money picked up from the point-of-sale to be taken to the safe house.  So they arrest the bagman and the money.  The bagman is the driver for a Maryland state senator.  This is where it gets interesting: where is the money going?  Detective Lester Freamon notes that if you follow the money, you end up in all sorts of uncomfortable places.

And so this is where Ajzenstat is going with her exploration of the colonial status of the Palestine, noting that the money comes largely from Arab supporters of the Hamas on the Gaza Strip.  Thus, she concludes: “So by Ajzenstat’s definition, Gaza is a colony. But is Israel the colonizer? Insofar as it is supplying humanitarian aid, yes. But so are the “Arab sources”…Iran, the UN, and “the West” relieve Hamas of the necessity of improving the lives of its people.” 

In other words, she concludes that because the money for the heavy-lifting of governing the Gaza Strip comes from these Arab sources, they are the colonisers in this sense.  This is a fascinating argument and one that should not be dismissed.  She argues that “Colonizers can be defined as groups or countries that make rules for others by which the colonizers themselves are not bound. And as I explained a couple of days ago colonizers often enforce those rules by paying into the colony’s coffers.” 

This is an interesting argument, but personally, I am not entirely ready to accept her argument.  The question arises out of what the Arab states purchase with their money in the Gaza Strip.  Money is power in a lot of senses, including this one.  

But money is only part of the story.  And colonialism is not so simply defined.  Colonies can take on all sorts of shapes and sizes.  Canada was a colony of Britain for most of its history.  But what did that mean?  The British were not here to civilise and extract great profits from Canada.  But the British also colonised other locales.  Like, for example, Ireland.  What did the British do in Ireland?  They proscribed the freedom of the native Irish population, attempting to “civilise” (this is the word the British used, not me, go look it up) the natives.  They also wanted to not have a potentially hostile nation on its periphery.   In India, they had other things to do.  Sure, the “civilising” mission was there, but India also made Britain a boatload of money.   So, in these three instances, the finances really only matter in one location: India. 

Of course, in making her argument, Ajzenstat points to colonial early-19th century Lower Canada (Québec today), and the fact that by some estimates, Britain was paying nearly half of the Lower Canadian colonial government’s expenses.  Hence the connection to the Gaza Strip today.

This, however, is only part of the story.  There is also the question of who is proscribing Arab movement and power in the Gaza Strip.  The answer to that question is Israel.  So we must not lose track of that fact of this colonial situation.  Israel’s role goes beyond the supplying of humanitarian aid, which is what Ajzenstat points to in locating Israel’s colonising status in the Gaza Strip. 

Having said all of this, what makes Ajzenstat’s argument so interesting is the complication it brings to the usual debate about Israel and the Gaza Strip.  Complexity is what is needed here to try to make sense of a complicated, and messy situation.

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§ One Response to Power & Colonialism

  • janetajzenstat says:

    Ransackertheelder praises my argument about the corrupting effect of pumping money into developing countries. (Thank you, Ransacker.) He agrees that even humanitarian aid can have a depressing effect on democratic development. But he’s not ready to let Israel off the hook so easily. I agree that my argument about Israel in Gaza offers just one piece of the puzzle.

    He also suggests that I offer a deceptively attractive picture of the British Empire. Look at what the British did in Ireland!

    I’ll say this about the Empire. Canadians should be writing about it. We were the British Empire’s first Senior Dominion. Our chapter’s important and we are in a position to think in disciplined fashion about the entire phenomenon of modern European imperialism.

    Yes, British imperialists did some nasty things. Even in Canada. They hanged some people, put others in jail. But as Ransacker says, colonies come in all shapes and sizes. The fact is that British thinking on the Empire was informed by a deep contradiction. Their own parliamentary institutions are shot through with an idea of human equality derived from John Locke. “No one can be governed without his/her consent.” Locke teaches that there are no naturally subordinate individuals or races. Time and time again the business of empire found the British praising the “English” institutions dear to Locke (parliamentary government, freedom, equality under the law) while imposing English forms of absolutism.

    Our thinking about Israel and Gaza might start with the fact that Israel’s parliamentary institutions too are Lockean in origin. The idea of human equality is firmly embedded in Israeli thinking and with that assumption of human equality comes profound distaste for imperial government.

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