Three kinds of colonialism

[Note: a lot of people find this post when searching “kinds of colonialism” on Google. This is only a small part of a much larger discussion. Also see the update posted below.]

It seems to me that the discussions of colonialism I’ve read paint with a broad brush over what are really different phenomena. There are:

1. English North American-style colonialism. In this case, the mother country and the colonies were largely the same culture (or, à la David Hackett Fischer, family of cultures). In the U.S. and Canada, each of the component cultures were originally under the dominion of Britain, and carried largely intact over the waters. In this case, switching affiliations would be a simple procedure, though the ramifications might be costly.

2. British and French Empire-style colonialism. In this case, a foreign culture imposed itself on top of existing cultures that were different. [I simplify, but not too much, by leaving American Indians out of this picture.] British India was ruled by Britons who were a distinct group from their numerous subjects. One could not simply switch affiliations. This may be largely due to race, but the cultural differences were vast as well. Even for those Indians who supported British rule, it was clear that they could never get to the top of the system.

3. Spanish-style colonialism. This third kind started out as the second kind but very quickly changed into its own unique form. In this case, the conquering culture and the conquered cultures merged to form a third category. In Mexico City this phenomenon was weak, with “pure” Spanish forming the ruling caste, but in the majority of the conquered territories the mestizo blend was preeminent. In an extreme case like New Mexico there was a statistically insignificant amount of “pure” Spanish people, and mestizos could become part of the ruling group at the stroke of a pen. The cultures ceased to be in conflict and melded together.

I know that these are oversimplifications—as for instance there was still a large number of genetically and culturally distinct American Indians in New Mexico—but this is a lot closer to the picture than covering these very different phenomena by the single word “colonialism”. Even among careful minds language can lead to sloppy thinking, especially when one word covers so much mental territory.

[Update 2014-07-30] This post was supposed to be just a short sketch trying to separate ideas that often get conflated. I realized recently that there’s another angle that’s missing: the economic/sociological interpretation of colonialism. While a lot of scholarly literature talks about colonialism, much of it is derived from Marxian analysis. However useful this segment of the literature is, Marxian economics, i.e. the part that Marx and his early followers thought to be the core of the entire project, is hopelessly flawed. The kernel of Marxism is the (incorrect) labor theory of value. It’s understandable that Marx conceived of value this way, as value was not well understood by any economic thinker until the Marginal Revolution in the 1870s—just like Ptolemy was not stupid in basing his astronomy on geocentric foundations, just wrong. Now that the state of knowledge has advanced we are able to tell that Marxian economics is a dead end. However, it’s since spread into other fields.

Other errors include:
(1) believing that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was a universal law. In fact, feudalism was rare worldwide, confined mainly to Europe, Japan, and possibly parts of India.
(2) conflating mercantilism with the market economy (and/or capitalism, which is a term filled with so many components as to be more misleading than helpful in most contexts). Most, possibly all, colonial projects, in the broadest sense of the word, were mercantilist. The classical economists that Marx opposed were thoroughly opposed to mercantilism on technical grounds.
(3) basing a whole lot of political and sociological analysis on top of a flawed theory of value, an underpants-gnome-style theory of prices, and a methodologically unsound explanation of group or “class” action.

It’s point (3) that leads into most discussions about colonialism, which I suspect is often why people arrive at this post from Google. Say what you have to say to get your A, but make sure you do not following Marx in these errors if you want to understand the world as it actually works.


Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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