The decolonization that spanned across the 20th century dramatically reshaped our world, but what often escapes common knowledge about this period is that anticolonial intellectuals and statesmen did not only envision decolonization as a campaign for national sovereignty but as an effort to fundamentally counter global hierarchies of material wealth and race. Adom Getachew narrates these transcontinental efforts of Pan-African leaders in her 2019 book Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. In this interview, GJIA explores the historical insights of her book as well as how contemporary projects for world-making can learn from the past century. We additionally discuss further lessons for a world after empire from the volume guest edited by Getachew, Imagining Global Futures.
GJIA: Plenty of historical literature and political theory already exists on the decolonization period, but the reorientations to the Black Atlantic and global transformative projects were novel adjustments to me. What compelled you to research for Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination?
Adom Getachew: I was prompted to write Worldmaking out of several different interests and commitments. I was in a Ph.D. program in political science and African American studies and came to graduate school wanting to work on intellectual and political histories such as the traditions of Black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. For a lot of that work on black internationalism, I focused on the early 20th century and the interwar period, in particular. So, one ambition and reason to focus on the Black Atlantic in the period of colonization is to trace the intellectual tradition to the period of formal decolonization. The other was more presentist as I began to write my dissertation in the context of the Bush and Obama presidencies in the United States. NATO had just intervened in Libya when I was already working on my proposal, and that came after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me that the kind of world order we were living in was rapidly transforming. Certain kinds of norms around non-intervention and sovereign equality, which had been really important to the post-war period, were waning or being undermined. I wanted to think about what that moment had been, where those norms came from, and how various anti-colonial nationalists imagined what international equality looked like and was meant to do. It was also against this contemporary backdrop that I turned to this history.
GJIA: Your book calls upon a several big names from what Cedric Robinson calls the “Radical Black Tradition” across the United States, Caribbean, and Africa: W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, and Michael Manley. What made you decide to select this broad cohort as the center of your research and what did they allow us to see? What voices or groups are left out when we focus on this group?
AG: The way I got to this set of figures again was twofold. First, I was interested in tracking the networks between these figures because so many of them were connected to each other in various ways—sometimes very intimately. George Padmore, for instance, served as an advisor to Nkrumah’s presidency. C.L.R. James was very important in connecting Padmore to Nkrumah and James had mentored both Nkrumah and Williams. Second, I was interested in a project that comprised of both the Caribbean and Africa and featured figures who would help me navigate the specific political projects I was interested in—such as the rights to self-determination and federation.
Now, as your question suggests, there are many limitations to focusing on this set of figures. First, as you and others have described, it’s a list of all men because it’s focused especially on statesmen and people who held positions of power within new nation-states. It obscures the social movements and everyday projects that were central to the project of decolonization. C.L.R. James, for instance, in describing the Ghanaian revolution, says there’s a way that we attribute the transformation and the independence of Ghana to a lot of European and American educated intellectuals and elites. In reality, it was the market women who were the central actors in the revolution. He says that the marketplace became the site for debate, discussion, sharing of information, and collective mobilizing. You miss that layer of social and political history when you focus on intellectuals and elites and the space of what we might call the “high politics of decolonization.” You miss that social character of the revolution. Additionally, it’s a project delimited by language and the British Empire. It’s focused on Anglophone figures. In that sense, it misses really important overlaps and similar kinds of ways of thinking across other empires.
GJIA: Toward the end of your book, you describe how post-colonial failures to achieve sustainable peace and development rendered a new neoliberal economic order that ended states’ capacities to make global egalitarian demands. Do you view the neoliberal restructuring beginning in the 1970s as inevitable? To what degree, if at all, did the counterhegemonic proposals of anticolonial worldmakers, such as the New International Economic Order (NIEO) proposal of 1974, have a real chance of global implementation?
AG: It’s really important to understand that those proposals put forward under the NIEO, as Christie Thornton’s book Revolution in Development Mexico and the Governance of the Global Economy has recently shown us, were part of a long history of struggles around securing better economic terms for poorGlobal South states even before World War II. On the one hand, it’s not an either/or picture. There were moments these proposals could have made incremental interventions and —given the right balance of bargaining power—push the conversation in alternative directions. But the case of the 1970s—precisely the moment when there was an amendment for the NIEO—was a moment in which the bargaining positions of the Third World were undermined given the debt crisis. Whereas in the early instance, there were some attempts to at least meet some of the minimal demands of the NIEO, by the end of the decade, at the time Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were in office, that moment had closed.
So, I think there was an opening to make some moves, but that was always going to be a limited set of possibilities. I think that world-systems theorists and dependency theorists like Samir Amin and Immanuel Wallerstein would always say that was going to be a futile project: both because the forces of the core powers would never concede, but most importantly because that the success of something like the NIEO would actually not accomplish the game of equality. They believed that further integration into the global economy would deepen the hierarchies that it was meant to solve.
GJIA: You’ve previously argued that we cannot simply recreate past visions such as NIEO’s welfare model. How might those who today strive for a more just world order both learn from past anticolonial worldmakers described in Worldmaking After Empire and arrive at the content of their own current political circumstances? Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, for instance, reimagines reparations in Reconsidering Reparations by adjusting historically-focused models toward structural projects that anticipate the future disproportionate costs the Global South will burden due to climate change.
AG: I don’t think I differ that much. I think Professor Táíwò has a similar interest in drawing on past intellectuals and political histories while at the same time recognizing how present predicaments are very different from those of previous generations. The one point that’s really compelling to me about the NIEO is a vision that takes the world as one unit that all of us have to be responsible for at the global scale. In their case, this was the central question of deep forms of economic inequality. There’s an ambitiousness to that project of global justice that I think is really important. Now, there are a lot of assumptions embedded in that vision that we really can’t afford to make. Most importantly, they imagine a global economic order still predicated on economic growth assumed to be an ongoing, ever-present possibility for everybody. Equality for them depends on that continuation of growth.
Living in the context of climate catastrophe, this becomes a theory of egalitarianism that’s dependent on increasing usage of fossil fuels. That’s not a very viable model. We also had other deep global questions, such as the pandemic and the economic recession a decade ago. You mentioned Professor Táíwò who is trying to think about a previous framing of a language of justice—reparations—and how that language could be transformed for the present. There’s a group called the Progressive International, founded in part by Yanis Varoufakis—who was the Finance Minister in the Greek Syriza government—and others that have now turned to the NIEO to think about how that set of proposals and imaginations of the 1970s might inform contemporary questions of global economic justice.
GJIA: You recently guest edited the Boston Review’s Imagining Global Futures, a volume that explores possibilities toward a better world beyond neoliberalism. How might any of the pieces in this collection contribute to “the task of rethinking our imperial past and present in the service of imagining an anti-imperial future,” your concluding statement in Worldmaking After Empire?
AG: One framing of the Boston Review volume emerged from a sense that the contemporary moment is marked by a series of crises—interstate war, the pandemic, rising authoritarianism—and that moments of crises can generate new kinds of possibilities. The second framing more connected to the closing of Worldmaking is that the Global South—a space marked by long histories of imperialism and traditions of anti-imperialism—can be a site for generating new kinds of global features and political and economic imaginations. Many of the essays in the volume are trying to think about how a place like Palestine can serve as a site of rethinking the project of decolonization: why the Middle East—where this the nation state form has been most problematic—helps to generate new visions of decentralized federation. Despite the challenges of neoliberalism and what Ndongo Samba Sylla and Daniela Gabor call, “the Wall Street consensus,” there are innovative projects of green economy that might come out of the African context that could realize those projects. In Worldmaking, I’m concerned to think about how telling new histories about our past can open up possibilities about our future. This issue is more concerned about how the present—rife as it is with crisis—is also embedded in possible trajectories that might be investigated and become particularly important models for us.
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Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science, Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity and the College at the University of Chicago, focusing on histories of political thought, especially in the context of race, empire, and postcolonial theory. She received her joint PhD in Political Science and African-American Studies from Yale University. In 2019, she published her first book Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.
Image Credit: Leonhard Lenz, CC 1.0