Learning from Lisa Lowe

Lisa Lowe‘s 2015 book, The Intimacies of Four Continents, is the impetus for this week’s blog, the fifth in my Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology series. This groundbreaking work challenges us to unread standard accounts of the development of capitalist modernity and political liberalism. It does not do this only by inserting race, gender and the colonial in order to disrupt these standard accounts. While this work is vital, Lisa Lowe goes several steps further. She reorients official histories by reading the archives against each other and juxtaposes this archaeological work with an unreading of standard texts from literature, autobiography and political philosophy. The Intimacies of Four Continents is not the kind of book that sociologists are used to reading, but neither is it a standard work of history, literature or philosophy as it is profoundly interdisciplinary. The book is an example par excellence of what a relational, interactive or connected account looks like, taking us several steps deeper into the discussion, begun in blogs 3 and 4, about the methodological and epistemological challenges of doing sociology with a truly global orientation.

The Intimacies of Four Continents contains so many multiple layers and such a rich account of interrelated histories that I will be unable to do it justice in its entirety here. I wish instead to focus on three aspects of the book: 1) its methodological contribution, which provides a concrete example of what a truly connected scholarship looks like; 2) most significantly for me, its emplacement of race squarely within liberalism; and 3) its insistence on the impossibility of separating an antiracist, anticolonial praxis from these histories and the consequent scholarship. This third point allows me to build on my comments regarding Du Bois’ activism, begun in my last blog, as Lowe uses Du Bois and C.L.R. James’ work as exemplars of what such active scholarship looks like.

  1. Unreading the archive

The book starts with an introduction to its project:

“My study investigates the often obscured connections between the emergence of European liberalism, settler colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade, and the east Indies and China trades in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (Lowe 2015: 1).

As discussed in relation to the denial of Du Bois’ scholarship in last week’s blog, this obscuring is not merely accidental but is part of a Eurocentric imperialist project from which knowledge production cannot be excluded. As the sociologist John Holmwood writes in his review of the book, it is especially important for sociologists who have ‘for too long, worked with a standard account that serves to establish core concepts of contemporary sociology.’ Nevertheless, we could conclude from reading Lisa Lowe’s book that it is precisely the technologies of archiving, classifying and categorising, compartmentalising in separate areas of policy-making, legislation and dissemination that contributes to the ignorance in mainstream accounts of the linkages her work brings to the fore. However, this does not serve as an excuse for the denial of the foundational relationship between the liberal political project and the racial-colonial domination within and despite which it developed; rather, we could conclude that the illusion of liberalism as the ideology underpinning and bringing forth freer and more progressive (economically and politically) societies could only have been maintained by the separation of the archives (the raw data if you will) from ideology and/in education. As Lowe puts it,

“The organisation of the archives discourages links between settler colonialism in North America and the West Indies and the African slave trade; or attention to the conjunction of the abolition of slavery and the importing of Chinese and South Asian indentured labour; or a correlation of the East Indies and China trade and the rise of bourgeois Europe. In order to nuance these connections and interdependencies, one must read across the separate repositories organised by office, task, and function, and by period and area, precisely implicating one set of preoccupations in and with one another” (Lowe 2015: 5).

What emerges is a complex picture of the ways in which European economic and political ascendancy could not have been possible without the establishment of interrelated systems of domination over the peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia. The four continents were interrelated not only through the establishment of systems to regulate and control trade across them, with the wealth generated channeled to Europe, but through the diffusion of purportedly universal knowledge by Europeans to the worlds they dominated. In the period the book focuses on – the 18th and 19th centuries – not only are we talking about systems of direct domination predicated on violence and dispossession, the invasion and occupation of native land, and the trade and exploitation in human ‘chattel’; rather, the book is mainly concerned with how, under modern liberalism, the hierarchies on which the maintenance of these systems depend are rewritten as a story about the necessity of European rule without which the ‘differentiated peoples across the globe’ (ibid. 8) could not survive.

What this means in relation to the necessity to unsettle the way race is discussed in the mainstream, as a mistake or an aberration from liberalism, rather than constitutive of it, will be elaborated on in the next section. Here I want to make some observations about the uniqueness of how Lisa Lowe constructs these arguments.

In Chapter 1, introducing the project, she explains how she uses the term ‘intimacy’. Differently from how it has been used in the discussion of ‘the intimacies of desire, sexuality and marriage, and family [as] inseparable from the imperial projects of conquest, slavery, labour and government’ (ibid. 17), Lowe uses ‘intimacy’ as a heuristic for examining how the modern world is separated into those areas from which ‘modern liberal subjects’ emerge and those that are deemed irrelevant because ‘they do not produce “value” legible within modern classifications’ (ibid. 18). Lowe explains that colonial intimacy is a story that charts the the ‘domains of liberal personhood, from interiority and individual will, to the possession of property and domesticity’ (ibid.). The creation of exclusions from modern liberal personhood is based on the differential ‘ability’ of people across the globe to attain liberally-defined levels of domesticity as property-owning, autonomously-governed and hence governable subjects. Therefore, intimacy in this sense can only properly be defined as a ‘political economy’ that is drawn out in relation to ‘global processes and colonial connections’ (ibid.).

Chinese miners in South Africa

To do the work of drawing this out, Lisa Lowe looks at areas of the world and the processes ongoing within them, not as the vastly distant geographical, and hence separable, locations that they were, but as brought into intimate proximity with each other by colonialism. In particular, she looks at how processes map onto and extend each other. For example, the abolition of  slavery in the Caribbean is followed by the exploitation of cheap labour from Asia as Chinese ‘Coolies’ are brought to the British-occupied ‘West Indies’ in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As she shows, when she discusses C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, the existence of the Chinese in the Caribbean is almost entirely absent from the mainstream narrative, thus excising not only the fact of their (forced) migration but also their influence on Caribbean societies, thus eliding the possibilities for a more syncretic narrative of recent history.

In practice, she attends to the colonial archive and juxtaposes it with the ‘literary, cultural, and political philosophical narratives of progress and individual freedom’ (ibid. 4). Lowe cites Ann Laura Stoler as saying that the ‘colonial archive is a “supreme technology of the… imperial state,  a repository of codified beliefs that clustered (and bore witness to) connections between secrecy, the law, and power’ (ibid.). During an interesting discussion on the Archipelago podcast, Stoler describes how, for example, the Dutch colonial record discusses the compatibility of Indonesians with Dutchness by assessing the differential ability of ‘natives’ to ‘feel at home’ in Dutch culture. ‘To feel at home’, she says, ‘was a term used in the legal record.’

I read Lowe as saying that we could think of the colonial archive as a discussion of the uncertainties of the project of European domination while the political philosophies of liberalism present the debates therein as cleansed of this uncertainty. The archives are replete with ‘equivocation, ignorance and incoherence’ (ibid.) that belie the fact that colonial governance was about  ‘an imperial will to know’ with its endless documentation, tabling, measuring and reporting of the minutiae of colonial life. The compartments of the archives are not as a rule connected, as noted above. But, moreover, the purposeful disconnect between what is contained within them and the propositions of liberal political philosophy is what serves to obscure the imbrication of this philosophy, not only in colonial modes of thought, but in colonial systems of government.

‘John Stuart Mill at East India House’, by R.J. Moore, Historical Studies, 2009.

One of the central ways in which Lisa Lowe serves to close this gap is through her examination of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill in the context of his career as an employee of the East India Company. She demonstrates how his work on ‘Representative Government‘ (1861) cannot be separated from his commitment to the East India company. For Mill, the East India Company was the best example of ‘good government’ and, in the final chapter of Representative Government he bemoans its demise. Only authoritarian rule over Indians, whose former exposure to ‘bad government’ had denied them the development of the capacities of ‘reason, restraint and tolerance’ would eventually lead India on the path to liberty and civilisation. Mill’s historicist division of the world into civilised and uncivilised legitimated ‘good despotism’. Despotism was excusable for Mill as it brought with it education. The East India Company provided the model for good government by using the law, backed up by military power, to subdue any revolt against the maintenance of ‘order and progress’.

“Mill argued that the durable accomplishment of the East India Company was the fulfillment of the most important imperative of government, which was to ‘know how to organise the rule of the advanced nation over the more backward’ (in Mill, Collected Works Vol. I)” (Lowe 2015: 115-16).

Lowe shows that Mill’s ‘integration of free trade, representative liberty and colonial government became the normative political ideology that facilitated the ascendance of British government, while providing for the British state to govern both the free and the unfree’ (ibid. 118). Developing his ideas about ‘good despotism’ in the context of the East India Company, Lowe shows how Mill provides the prototype for the extension of British imperialism after the demise of the Company’s rule in India. Specifically, his advocacy for the ‘use of force in governing liberty’ (ibid.) provided the justification for the British occupation and governance over the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

In the rest of Chapter 3, Lowe examines the practicality of this by exposing the modes of colonial government employed by the British in Hong Kong which built on the lessons from the East India Company furnished by Mill. Specifically, she looks at the development of the category of ‘vagrancy’ and how it was applied to Chinese migrant workers to separate them from the European population of Hong Kong and to justify their exploitation. Various techniques of racial-colonial governance, such as required registration for Chinese and the policing and surveillance of Chinese (but not European) sex workers, including through the imposition of programmes of ‘public hygiene’ – what Lowe calls the ‘intrusive microphysics of surveillance’ (ibid. 126) – were employed to instill an opposition between assumed European liberty and Chinese ‘criminality’.

The regime Lowe depicts as emanating from the dual logics of liberalism and ‘good governance’ prefaces the types of governmentality characteristic of ‘multicultural’ societies of western Europe and North America today. Freedom of movement for Chinese people was curtailed with the passage of the 1855 Chinese Passenger Act, but the free circulation of goods was ensured and facilitated. Surveillance, prisons, policing and public hygiene were all put to the service of the enhancement of free trade and liberal governance with the overall aim being the maintenance of the security of Empire. What you have is a form of tacticalisation of the law (of the type that Wendy Brown describes in relation to later neoliberalism) for the expansion of free trade, feeding the growth of the British empire and later its US successor. The ‘human collateral’ that ensures his expansion is the racialised populations that must be both exploited and curtailed in the name of liberal efficiency.

Methodologically, the linkages drawn between the workings of colonial rule, excavated from the archives and the writings of Mill, Thackeray or Olaudah Equiano, and later Hegel via C.L..R James as well as Du Bois assist us to understand the liberal underpinnings of imperialism. There are four levels to the exercise: 1) the reading of the archives; 2) the cross-references made between the various colonial offices within and across geographically separated locations of the British Empire; 3) their translation into and buttressing by narrative, in the form of the novel and the autobiography as well as political philosophy; and 4) their denuding by both radical Black thinkers and anticolonialists such as James and Du Bois. This many-layered critique provides us with a prototype for reading contemporary processes as well, from both within and without, across and amidst, in order to expose the logical fallacies, uncertainties and contradictions therein and, potentially, to gather intellectual armament for proposing more radically just solutions.

2. Racial juxtapositions

Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake is a work that forces us to ‘think juxtapositonally’ (to preface the working title of one of her new books) about the ‘afterlife of slavery’. She uses what she calls ‘wake work’, with its multiple meanings, to think about the interconnections between the experiences of the Black diaspora on a global scale.

Reading this, I was provoked to think about the connections with Lisa Lowe’s project, one which reads the colonial project of race, in and of liberalism, and at the same time unreads the official narrative of originary postracialism that liberalism sells to both itself and to us. If liberalism’s story were to be true, European ideas of progress, tolerance and democracy would by now have spread across the globe and become implanted in the minds of civilisable subjects through the regimes of governance established by benevolent colonial administrations of the type outlined by Mill. In other words, we would not still be witnessing and living with the vast disparities implanted by a global colonial power matrix still in operation.

What Lisa Lowe offers in The Intimacies of Four Continents is an explanation of why race persists because, and not in spite of, liberalism. She does this by showing precisely how narratives of emancipation and abolition construct liberalism as their agent while obliterating the autonomy of colonised or formerly enslaved people in overthrowing their oppression. In other words, the end of slavery and decolonisation are rewritten as part of a master narrative planned for as an endpoint of the planning of liberal governance. Abolition does not, in this account, come about as a consequence of the economic untenability of slavery as a mode of production and, as Du Bois, explains in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), as a trade-off in the political struggle between North and South in the USA. Neither do we see in mainstream accounts, as Lisa Lowe explains in forensic detail, the multiple ways in which indentured and other forms of exploited labour from across the colonised world came to replace slavery as a more easily manageable, because mobile and replaceable, workforce as the empire extended.

Poster of the 2006 film about abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Instead, liberal accounts of the end of slavery present it as a natural outcome of humanitarian intent. In reality, there were economic imperatives that greatly exceeded the humanitarian arguments which were nevertheless used to buttress them. Writing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1933, Lowe remarks,

“paradoxically, the liberal arguments to end slavery contributed to the ideology of free wage labour that was necessary to buttress industralisation at home, even while coerced labour remained highly profitable in the colonies…. While antislavery ideas prevailed in Britain, indentured labour in the colonies could be represented as part of a system of free labour that appeared commensurate with idea of freedom at home” (Lowe 2015: 45).

There are two main issues at stake. First, is the presentation of the end of slavery as a natural form of progress, a transition from one stage to the other. Lowe demonstrates that this developmental account of the move from slavery to wage labour presents an unproblematised account of the relationship between slavery and freedom which fails to note the new modes of racialised domination which persisted even after the end of formal slavery. For example, she demonstrates how Chinese indentured labourers are presented as bridging the transition from slavery to free wage labour, meeting an economic need while at the same time establishing the terms under which wage labour, even of the most exploitative kind – because formally not slavery – could be presented as freedom under liberalism. This for me presents us with tools to think about the problems of liberal antiracism, originating with the abolitionist movement and its continuing stranglehold on envisioning radical antiracist programmes.

The second concern presaged by Lowe’s engagement with the racial-colonial within liberalism, for me, is the after-effects of racial division both for understanding what race does and for militating against it. To take again the example of Chinese indentured workers, it is clear that the general failure to think about how racialised exploitation is transposed on group after group under colonialism, always recast in slightly different terms, and purposefully working with different taxonomies in order to suggest an intrinsic difference in treatment and outcomes, ruptures the possibilities for solidarity. It also participates in the naturalisation of racial difference that race as a technology of rule depends on. By shifting focus, moving continent, employing constantly innovating technologies of governance and then baiting and switching to clamp down on another group in another location, racial-colonial rule creates the appearance that there are intrinsic differences between peoples construed as races. In other words, we run the risk of buying into the racist idea that slavery was more suited to Africans while forms of servitude or wage labour were more fitting to the temperament of the Chinese or the Indians if we consider the colonial relationship to each of these groups as disconnected.

Tweet by William J. Richardson @HoodAcademic

We should consider the problem in reverse. Anti-blackness develops, to be sure, in the context of the transatlantic slave trade (although it has pre-modern antecedents on which modern racism draws). Blackness was created, negating African particularities, to meet an economic and political need. Slaves were exempted from the history of modern global capitalism in subsequent readings, as Lowe points out, thus redoubling the illusion that they were less ‘legible to the labour of the English factory worker or urban proletariat’ (Lowe 2015: 144). This brings about the separation in experience and expectation not only between slave and factory worker, but between them both and the myriad other groups – Pacific islander and Caribbean plantation worker, Indian servant or Chinese miner – who were organised under a racial schema to fulfill the needs of empire-building. The logic of race is to be found precisely in its separating out of the subjects of its domination to create the impression of a naturalness to the ‘place’ of each within an illusory schema. Lisa Lowe references Cedric Robinson‘s insistence that capitalism is always racial in order to remind us that ‘the organisation, expansion, and ideology of capitalist society was expressed through race, racial subjection, and racial differences’ (ibid. 149).

None of this is to say that race should, as per the Marxist suggestion, be discarded as false consciousness that hinders the development of global class consciousness. Lowe shows how Marxism participates in denying the centrality of colonialism for its theories of capitalism, remarking,

“there are forms of Marxist history and teleology that, by defining the modern capitalist world as Europe, reproduce the appropriation, exemption and subsumption of non-European worlds, and foreclose our inquiry into these lost histories of divergence, difference, and connection” (ibid. 148).

We must retain race as an explanatory vector without reifying it as descriptive of the life-worlds of the peoples held in its sights. If race can explain anything about the racialised, it is in how, by being imposed on individuals, it creates knowledges of shared histories of what Du Bois calls ‘the discrimination and insult’ (Du Bois 1940). What Lisa Lowe provides us is a way of thinking in a detailed sense about how this was and continues to be true for people of vastly different origins, due to the singular logic under which racial rule was deployed, without reducing the particular experience of the domination of each as one and the same.

I think this is an important insight given current debates about the multiple objects of ‘raceocracy’ and how to build solidarities between differently racialised people without subsuming their particular experience under each other. This is particularly important at a time, half a century already since the promise of the anticolonial era and the non-aligned movement reached its apex, when we struggle to imagine what a globally interconnected struggle against racial-colonial domination would look like. As was remarked upon during our seminar discussion of The Intimacies of Four Continents, by Emmanuel Guerisoli, it would be easy to replace Lowe’s referents – the transatlantic slave trade, abolitionism and 19th century liberalism – with free trade agreements, human rights frameworks and racial neoliberalism; in other words the problems Lowe identifies in the book are still very much actual.

Nevertheless, what needs to be rebuilt is a strategy for realising what Du Bois noted was imperative: the location of ‘the African American freedom struggle within a world historical struggle of labourers of colour’ (Lowe 2015: 170). While the same may be said for racialised peoples in any other western context, this need is still particularly pressing for the United States because of the global impact of US politics in general, and Black politics in particular, on the rest of the world. Similarly, the interconnection between the struggles of Black, First Nations and other racialised groups, particularly Muslims in the present age, within the United States deserves attention.

Tweet by William J. Richardson @HoodAcademic

William J. Richardson, (@HoodAcademic) has several important threads on Twitter about these two issues. In the first he critiques the idea of global anti-blackness by arguing that in order to see the full extent of the racial-colonial as it affected African and African-descended people historically we have to be attentive to the multiplicity of their experience. This nuance was recognised by Du Bois but arguably was lost in the wake of the US civil rights movement which was subsequently, and due largely to official cooptation, proffered as the template for the liberal extension of rights within an equality/diversity framework that had the consequence of quelling more radical solutions. For example, Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton’s evocation of an ‘internal colonialism’ in Black Power attempted to demonstrate the ways in which Black subjugation in the US mirrored colonial rule, thus creating a framework for thinking about how the US is situated within the global racial-colonial.

With the current growth and spread of Black Lives Matter beyond the borders of the US, it is particularly interesting to note the debates these offshoots, be it in the UK, Australia or Canada, are precipitating. A particularly vital discussion of the need for local activists in the UK to frame their opposition to Trump by relating what he represents to ongoing processes within the UK was recently held on Novara Radio, hosted  by Ash Sarkar.

Activists such as Joshua Virasami who participated in the discussion pointed out that British and EU migration policy is at crisis level, and has been for at least two decades. Protests against Trump and Trumpism, focusing on aspects such as the proposed ‘Muslim Ban’ for example, must therefore make the connections to these local ongoing attacks on racialised people and migrants. It is insufficient to protest against Trump without protesting for the freedom of asylum seekers in detention, or against police brutality and stop and search as it affects British Black and Brown people indiscriminately. A similar point can be made about Australia where recent Black Lives Matter protests drew out the connections and overlaps between US and Australian state racisms.

Nevertheless, as new and as-yet unpublished research by Omar Bensaidi is revealing, the use of #BLM as a mobilising impetus in Australia runs the risk of masking ongoing action, mainly by longstanding Aboriginal activists, against deaths in custody, police brutality and the ongoing Stolen Generations for example. There is a two-way process whereby US-American activism requires knowledge about the particularity of local struggles in order to better assess the forms of relationship it can develop outside its borders and its utility to the global fight against racism. On the other hand, activists outside the US must consider how/if they can use frameworks developed within the specific context of the Black American struggle for liberation to complement and add to their own.

This is complexified particularly in the relationship between Black, migrant, Muslim (and increasingly again Jewish) and Indigenous struggles. Vital is the consideration in settler colonial contexts, primarily the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, of how the differential situation of variously racialised peoples vis-a-vis issues of land and property figures in ongoing resistance and alliance-building strategies.

Again, @HoodAcademic highlights this in a series of tweets about the (re)colonial approach of Black demands for land as reparations in the US, land that belongs to the First Nations. He also, usefully, insists on the different role played by racial rule in relation to enslaved Africans and Indigenous people that draw out the points of difference and the need to be attentive to them in building solidarities.

Lisa Lowe shows us how the distinct but overlapping modes for constituting various non-European peoples as racial subjects was the basis for an ‘intimate’ connection between multiple parts of the ‘imperial conjuncture’ (Lowe 2015: 162). The ‘intimacies of four continents’ created conditions of ‘contacts and conflicts between captured, colonised subjects and communities’ differentially affected by the longer history of empire’ (ibid.). Significantly, for my brief consideration of how these intimacies pose questions for our current moment, as activists as well as thinkers, she says – and with this I shall conclude,

“the afterlives of these conditions are deciphered not only in the great events of revolutions, wars, and republics, but in the phenomena of everyday life, not only in monumental successes, but also in the too frequently over-looked so-called failures… Forgetting these important connections restricts understanding the linked modes of colonial governance across continents, and impedes the anticolonial and antislavery imagination about the imminent, necessary means for ongoing projects of decolonisation” (ibid.).





  • Zach

    March 3, 2017

    I agree with your summary and analysis wholeheartedly. Lisa Lowe’s book offers sociologists, historians, transdisciplinarians, and academically unaffiliated thinkers valuable insight into alternative pathways through which we might conceive of modernity and liberalism. By way of rigorous examination of primary documents and by building on the works of theorists like Uday Singh Mehta, Lowe situates liberalism firmly within the legacy of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. I have no doubt that Lowe succeeds in further dispelling the prevailing and mythical account of the development of the modern state.

    Moreover, I agree that it is imperative that teleological Marxist histories (or the more prevalent liberal accounts of modernity) do not impede antiracist efforts by subsuming experiences of white supremacy under some formulation of class struggle and/or false consciousness. In light of this, and given Lowe’s (connected) methodological tools, I think that future research in a similar vein might do well to concern itself intersectionally with a broader range of colonial experiences as a means of building solidarity across a fractured left.

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