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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


It would be tempting to conclude that what has been described in this chapter belong to a world of dictatorship and imperialism long ago left behind. Yet I think such a conclusion would be potentially misleading, since it would be to indulge in the belief that empires are truly things of the past and that the ideologies created in their defense are dead letters only of interest to historians of political thought. Yet such ideologies are crucial to imperial rule by making it appear natural to those on the receiving end and by aligning imperial schemes with the norms and rules of international society. Hence the study of imperial ideologies can help to explain why some empires survive longer than could be expected and why these ideologies continue to resonate long after the empire in question has gone. In the case of Luso- tropicalism, this was largely a matter of buying time, yet its very longevity allows us to make better sense of the agony experienced by the former colonies after they had attained formal independence.

One important insight that could be distilled from the above analysis concerns the mutable character of the distinction between empires and states. We are accustomed to think that the modern state differs from empires insofar as the former is premised on the congruence between territorially bounded authorities and relatively homogenous peoples, while the latter is based on boundless claims to authority over heterogeneous populations.15 We are also accustomed to think of the transition from a world of empires to a world of states as an outcome of successful claims to self-determination and independence among peoples previously subjected to imperial rule (Armitage 2007). And although we are well aware of the act that the making of European states and their overseas empires occurred in tandem, the above analysis has indicated the extent to which this distinction is susceptible to rhetorical manipulation. By simply re-describing the Portuguese empire in statist terms, the Portuguese government hoped to garner international legitimacy in an international society of states. Even though this amounted to stretching the concepts of state and nation far beyond their established connotations of territorial continuity and cultural homogeneity, and even though we know that this ultimately failed to convince the relevant audiences of the legitimacy of the Portuguese claims, the outcome of this effort was nevertheless a fairly coherent ideology that possibly could have delivered on its promises had the world looked a bit different. But just how different?

A tentative answer might be found in the ease with which egalitarian and democratic ideas can travel into new contexts only to be turned into tools of domination, as well as conversely. There is something profoundly ironic that a social theory originally devised to make sense of postcolonial Brazil would, albeit with slight modification, reappear as the imperial ideology of its former colonial master. Core assumptions of Lusotropicalism that once served the purposes of national emancipation were harnessed for the purposes of domination. Today this mechanism is more active than ever. The rise of tolerance as a foundational principle of our present international order is a case in point. Although there are no longer any empires of the old kind around, the ambition to govern human life on a planetary scale remains alive, with multiculturalism and tolerance being the ideologies of choice. As Wendy Brown has argued:

[t]olerance thus emerges as part of a civilizational discourse that identifies

both tolerance and the tolerable with the West, marking non-liberal societies and practices as candidates for an intolerable barbarism that is itself signalled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies.

(2006, 6)

This emphasis on tolerance also represents a new and potent way of de-contesting the exercise of political authority on a global scale by making its presence seem natural and necessary to avert the danger of conflict between the tolerant and the intolerant. Empire is thus not only a part of our past, but is likely to re-emerge in forever-new guises as a consequence of any attempt to transcend the inner limits of the modern international system in the name of some universalistic legal or moral standard.

This brings me over to my final point, which concerns the importance of denial in justifying imperial governance in an international order that recognizes states as the only legitimate claimants to sovereign authority Simply hiding behind universal norms and values is no longer enough to conceal imperial ambitions, as those norms and values always can be shown to be parochial in character or boomeranged back to their point of origin. Insofar as Lusotropicalism was able to deflect accusations of imperialism by twisting them into assaults on the integrity of the Portuguese state and its people, it stands out as an innovative harbinger of late-modern liberal ideologies of empire. As Morefield has argued, what distinguish these ideologies from their early-modern predecessors are their anxieties about imperial decline coupled with their insistence that contemporary modes of governance reflect a natural form of political life rather than prior and violent impositions of imperial authority on other peoples in other places (Morefield 2014). In this sense, and whether we like it or not, very little separates our present world from the world that the Portuguese dictatorship tried hard create in opposition to those forces that eventually won out.

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