Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Lisa Lowe

Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL and today I’m speaking with Lisa Lowe. Lisa is Samuel Knight Professor of American Studies and Professor of Ethnicity, Race and Migration, and the Director of American Studies, Graduate Studies at Yale University. She’s an interdisciplinary scholar whose work is concerned with the analysis of race, immigration, capitalism and colonialism and she’s the author of several important books. Firstly, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalism, which was published in 1991 with Cornell, and then Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, which was published by Duke in 1996, and most recently, The Intimacies of Four Continents, which was published in 2015 and that’s the book we’re really going to get stuck into today. So, thanks so much for joining me today, Lisa, I really appreciate it.
Lisa Lowe: Of course, my pleasure.
Luke: So, the first thing I wanted to ask was about The Intimacies of Four Continents, about how and why you came to write the book, perhaps how it emerged out of your earlier work as well, particularly here thinking about the brilliant book, Immigrant Acts.
Lisa: Well, I’ve always been interested in the importance of racialized labour to the emergence of modern capitalism, colonialism and imperial expansion, as well as the endurance of race as a shifting mark of social difference in the present. So, my first book that you mentioned addressed gender and class in French and British colonialisms, and the second book, Immigrant Acts, looked at Asian immigration to the US and the role of the state through citizenship, immigration and labour laws in racializing successive Asian groups as non-citizen labour for the development of US capitalism.
As you might know, a 1790 statute restricted citizenship to white property-owning men, thus excluding Asian immigrants, as well as many other groups, other non-white peoples. And Asians were actually excluded from naturalised citizenship until the mid-20th century, which made the 19th century Chinese workers, in particular, a crucial workforce in mining, agriculture, railroad construction and so forth, in the expansion of the US economy as it moved after the abolition of slavery, from plantation slavery in the US south westward across the continent and into industrialisation and manufacture.
So, my most recent book, The Intimacies of Four Continents, really began with this curiosity about the post-1840 global Asian migration to the US, as I was used to thinking about, but also to the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Latin America and within South-East Asia and throughout Asia itself. So, I began the book with this curiosity about the role of Asian, and particularly Chinese, labour migration and what this labour migration had played in the global emergence of the world system, and how Asians figured in this international racial division of labour. So, for example, I was curious if non-citizen entry labour in the US was connected to unfree coolie labour across the globe in this period? And, in fact, they were very much part of the same global migrations, as people like Moon-Ho Jung, Walton Look Lai and Lisa Yun and others have all studied.
So, I was asking how were Chinese and South Asian labourers in relation to or separated from enslaved African labour, and in what ways were these workers recruited as part of the settler colonial seizure of indigenous lands and waterways and other resources? And some of the questions that preoccupied someone like Manu Karuka, I don’t know if you know his book, Empire’s Tracks, it’s a brilliant book on how the railroad companies in the Western US used Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad, but also how this affected Lakota, Cheyenne, Pawnee and other indigenous peoples.
So, these were my questions and the first document I worked with was this 1803 so-called Secret Memorandum from the British Colonial Office to the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, which I discuss in the first couple of chapters of the book. So, this was written in 1803, just following the Haitian revolution, in which the Colonial Office laid the groundwork for this plan to import Chinese indentured labourers into Trinidad, and they state quite explicitly that this stems from this desire to expand sugar production and mostly to suppress potential black slave rebellions. So, we see from this document that the plan to import Chinese labour was a colonial imagination about how they might supplement or replace African slavery, and while our dominant history credits English abolitionists like Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery, it’s clear that British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the Empire in 1834 were parts of this plan to expand profits, to move beyond the so-called rigidity - what David Eltis calls the rigidity of the slave economy, but also primarily too as a kind of counterinsurgency, to avoid or suppress the possibility of slave rebellion and slave revolts.
So, we see how, even in this early period, the Chinese were instrumentally used as a kind of buffer group in this 19th century colonial fantasy of bringing in a free, yet racialized and coerced labouring group to sort of be between the colonial British and the African enslaved, but this was at a time when freedom was really foreclosed to both the enslaved and the indentured under colonialism.
So, as Britain moved from this slavery-based plantation production to international trade in manufactured goods, the Chinese, so-called 'coolie' as they were called, thus appears in the colonial archive as the figure who stands in for transitional labour forms required by this new division of labour. So, those were the connections that brought me to this third project, out of the study of Asian American and Asian immigrant labour to the US.
Luke: It’s a fascinating book and I think the method and bringing together the various archives and there’s a lot in the title itself, The Intimacies of Four Continents, I really enjoyed reading it. One of the main interventions the book makes is into debates about the origins of liberalism, and you argue and show how liberalism emerges in the context of colonialism, slavery and race-making.
Just for people who haven’t necessarily thought about this question, why is that intervention into how we understand liberalism so important? And I think often the lay person struggles to understand exactly how to define liberalism and liberals and I’m thinking here of how, to be a liberal can either be a kind of pejorative term levelled from the left, or it can be a sort of term of pride, of one’s own progressive values for others. So, I’m just wondering what your text offers here, very broadly, in clarifying or expanding or totally exploding how we understand the emergence of liberalism and what the liberal is.
Lisa: Thank you for that question and, of course, also thank you for the reminder that some people listening may not have read the book, or may not be involved in some of these discussions about liberalism and modernity and colonialism and so forth. So, I was focusing especially on the links between liberal political philosophy and its well-known ideas of liberty, wage labour, free trade and representative government, not as eternal ideas but having emerged out of specific and very colonial circumstances. In particular, what I’m tracing is how these ideas emerge out of settler colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade and the expansion of imperial trades in China and India, and with the setting up the colony in Hong Kong and in the Chinese Treaty ports.
So, liberalism in this sense doesn’t mean its contemporary meaning of the opposite of conservative but actually the political economic ideas of liberty, as opposed to being governed by the will of a monarch or a feudal aristocracy. So, liberalism I’m thinking of as the political philosophy that really defines western modernity, and I argue that the colonial relations of indigenous dispossession and slave labour and Asian indenture were the conditions of possibility for the emergence of these classical ideas of citizenship, free labour, free trade and representative government. But in a way, in the book I say it could be considered a kind of unsettling genealogy of modern liberalism. I really argue that while liberal ideas promised freedom from enslavement and colonialism, it didn’t actually bring an end to these forms of unfreedom. It instead became the means, it innovated the means for the expansion of global trade, global maritime trade, new forms of government and state criminalisation, dispossession and so forth.
So liberal freedom actually linked the transatlantic world of plantation slavery to this expansion of colonial trades and goods and people, and brokered immigration in the Chinese Treaty ports, and really ushered in the unprecedented imperial dominance of the British Empire by the end of the 19th century and, of course, the succession of it by the United States in the 20th.
So, by modern liberalism, I mean really the branches of political philosophy that included the narrative of political emancipation through citizenship in the state, the promise of economic freedom in the development of wage labour and the exchange market, and then these modern definitions of civilisation as the human person educated in aesthetic and national culture.
But in addition, I’m also assembling what I call an archive of liberalism, that isn’t just these explicit political economic treatises but also includes literary, cultural and social genres of progress and individual freedom. In a way, I’m thinking about liberalism as this characteristic narrative of freedom overcoming enslavement, which we see in the political economic treatises but also, we see in novels and autobiography, in historical narratives. So, I’m tracing it through varieties of liberal genres. What we see is that, as these different genres define the human and narrate its struggle, its overcoming of unfreedom and its achieving of freedom, it’s universalising these liberties to European man, but simultaneously, differentiating peoples in the various colonies as less than human. So, these ideas of reason, civilisation and freedom are continually dividing the human according to a coloniality of power or a colonial division of humanities, is what I call it, affirming liberty for European man but subordinating the colonised and disposed, whose labours and resources actually made possible those liberties.
And I’m not trying to argue in the book that liberalism is hypocritical, this argument that liberalism espouses freedom but it doesn’t actually fulfil its promises, I’m not saying that, and I’m not making a biographical argument either, that John Locke was a member of the Carolina colony, so how could he have actually believed in freedom? Or John Stuart Mill worked for the British East India Company. I’m not making a biographical argument, I’m rather saying that these liberal principles of political emancipation, free wage labour, free trade, representative government, were actually innovations that provided the normative reasons and arguments and structured the historical archive itself that permitted colonial settlement, permitted slavery, permitted indenture and permitted this expansion of imperial trade.
In many ways I’m recasting liberal forms of political economy, culture and government and history, in order to interrogate our received knowledge and bring forward the links between the different topics; so, for example, between transatlantic slavery, Asian indenture, the opium trade, colonial government in Hong Kong, settler colonialism in the Americas. If we see the links between these customarily separated histories, we can bring forward what’s been buried or disqualified or forgotten about the history of liberalism. In a certain way, this is my methodology in the book, to read across different customarily separated histories for the elisions, anxieties, bringing together unlike kinds of documents and genres and archives in order to suggest possible reconnections of what is forcibly disconnected.
Luke: That’s great. I thought the discussion of John Stuart Mill, in particular, I learnt a lot from. Maybe you could say a bit more about his kind of ideas about liberty, as building on what you’ve already said, because I think particularly in chapter four, which we’ll come more to in a second, you talk about John Stuart Mill, his ideas about liberty, of course his role in the East India Company, and I suppose the ways in which his ideas about liberty also allowed for a contradiction of those who were not yet ready for government and we see those not yet, who then required education, civilisation, a lot of these terms that we know are at the heart of the colonial enterprise, but I think you show that in his work in a really careful way and I really enjoyed that.
So maybe you could just say a little bit more about John Stuart Mill’s ideas, and just to underline and maybe draw out some of those points you make about precisely it not only being a biographical question of contradictions between what someone does and what someone says, but actually that the ideas themselves contain all of those distinctions between those who are capable of government and capable of liberty and those who aren’t.
We often think about Mill as the author of unrepresentative government and really the designer of our modern systems of liberal government, and the famous feminist and advocate of rights for women and so forth, but these ideas of liberal enfranchisement always were developed out of this developmental logic, there were some who were unfit for liberty for whom despotism was justified and others, until they could be educated and, of course, he has many writings on education, until they could be educated or civilised into being capable of self-government.
So, his ideas of representative government always granted the state a monopoly on force, to maintain order and progress and to educate people for proper self-government. So, while his work has become the normative political theory that rationalises liberty as representative government, it also simultaneously argues that there should be representative government for some but despotism will be necessary for others. So, his work is such a beautiful illustration of how liberal ideas of ‘universal’ enfranchisement are precisely also embedded with ideas of colonial difference. 
Luke: Let’s stick with chapter four a little bit because, as I said in our conversations in advance of this one, that was a chapter I gained a lot from and I will read and reread. There’s so much we could draw on, it’s a very rich chapter, this is the chapter titled The Ruses of Liberty. So, the chapter’s set in the aftermath of the first opium war which was a war from 1839 to 1842, as the British were establishing the new Crown colony of Hong Kong, and you write about how the criminal justice system, policing powers, vagrancy laws and contagious disease ordinances targeted poor Chinese migrants in Hong Kong, and that these processes of the criminalisation of those Chinese migrants basically then produced the surplus population of indentured or coolie labourers who were then moved around the Empire to work and toil, often, as you say, in the context of post-slavery, often in plantations or in other places around the British Empire, which reminded me of Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Sea of Poppies. I couldn’t help but think about all of the untold stories of these millions of people, indentured workers who moved or were moved from India, and China in particular, throughout the 19th century; so many stories there must have been and this chapter struck me, in particular because of my own interests today in the links between policing, criminalisation, labour, racism and migration, and immigration control in particular.
So, I think it’s a really helpful chapter actually for helping us to better historicize and situate our contemporary predicament and our contemporary age of borders, where people are on the move and trade is more intense and global than ever. But some peoples’ mobility, particularly racialized groups, it’s policed or hyper visible, or rather, perhaps, the regulation of their mobility as part of what racializes them, even as employers in various places rely on their disposable and delegalized labour, which again is a big theme in Immigrant Acts.
So that’s a slightly long detail but maybe you could pick up some of that and talk more about this relationship between policing and criminalisation, as I mentioned, the vagrancy acts, and production of that surplus labour which then was thousands, hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of people, moved around the world from South and East Asia to work within the Empire.
Lisa: Thank you so much for that question. As I said, I am so interested in the durability of these colonial relations into the present and I was continually, I won’t say surprised but so interested in the ways in which there were these connections between what we customarily consider part of neoliberalism today. I found these processes and these dynamics at play in the first half of the 19th century as well. So, what we see in the establishment of the Crown colony in Hong Kong, how we have this example of par excellence, of how the colonial state uses laws, policing, the military, carcerality and health ordinances as well, as you just remembered, to maintain their colonial power but also to serve capitalism. It’s a well-known history how Britain introduced opium to correct the trade imbalance with China. The British had become very attached to tea and silk and other luxury goods and had to pay dearly in gold and silver to the Chinese and introduced opium as a good that they could import into China, which of course was terribly addicting and also induced docility into a people very resistant to conquest, and a geography very resistant to conquest. But what we see is that imperial power is a reactive formation. It’s not necessarily a centralised plan imposed from the top but it’s always an anticipation of counterinsurgency, of the uprising of indigenous, enslaved working people and a counterrevolutionary force.
So, in a way the chapter wants to ask what if we centre the constant uprisings of people against rule rather than centring imperial power or the Empire as the protagonist of history, and the episode of the establishment of the colony in Hong Kong tells us that imperial power is always reacting. It’s attempting to somehow colonise China, even though it can’t territorially, so it creates an entrepôt in Hong Kong and opens up various Treaty ports, because China’s too vast and too complex for them to colonise in a traditional territorial way, and it innovates ideas of imperial trades in people, in goods, in order to accomplish this rule vis-à-vis labour unrest and various forms of disruption from below. So, I think this reactive modality or reactive logic of the state using policing, using carcerality, is not about a monolithic imperial sovereignty but what Dean Saranillio would say, the unsustainability, or the failing forward of empire. Dean is looking at Hawaii, but I love that formulation of empire failing forward, it’s coming from a position of weakness, not necessarily strength. Or as Manu Karuka talks about it, he has an idea of countersovereignty, that the US nation is a countersovereign state that’s always, not just anticipating but recognising, yet disavowing, indigenous sovereignty, against which whose suppression it needs to exact in order to emerge as a nation.
So, those are some of the things that I found in examining the establishment of the Crown colony in Hong Kong. It’s also the case that the work on Hong Kong added this other dimension to the curiosity I spoke of that began the project, which was what are the connections between this mass exodus of Chinese labour and the emergence of a world system as it moves from one form of plantation slavery and territorial conquest to the late 19th century form of the circulation of goods and people, the control of imperial sovereignty executing its power over distances through movement, through a form of sovereignty that isn’t about exclusively locking people up in one place, although it still continues to do that, of course, in new and innovative ways, but it also involves moving people around and determining what kinds of people, what kinds of goods can be moved, controlling them through ports and borders - let me be clear that I’m not saying that there’s a transition or a shift from an earlier form of territorial conquest and enclosure and seizure to only moving things around, but rather that this late 19th century and, in a sense, up until today, involves this canny combination and almost an opportunistic and pragmatic combination of both older forms of colonial territorialism and conquest and enclosure, with these newer forms of so-called free trade and circulation and movement.
Luke: I also want to move now to a more recent chapter that you wrote, which was the Afterword to the Revolutionary Feminisms book, which is a wonderful edited collection, mostly of interviews with key revolutionary feminists of the last few decades, put together by Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah, and in that Afterword you talk about abolition feminism, building on some of the interviews throughout the book. I wanted to ask if what you see perhaps as some of the links between your arguments in The Intimacies of Four Continents and contemporary theories and politics and debates around abolition.
Lisa: What a wonderful question. I was so pleased when Brenna and Rafeef asked me to write the Afterword, I was very honoured. It has such amazing figures in it, Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore, Himani Bannerji, Avta Brah, Gail Lewis and many others, Silvia Federici. In fact, there were a series of book launches and I was so pleased I got to be in the one with Silvia Federici and Gail Lewis and Gary Kinsman.
But I suppose the vision of abolition - well, let me tie this a little bit to the book, since we’ve been talking about the book. In the fifth chapter of The Intimacies of Four Continents, I spend some time discussing C.L.R. James and W.E.B. Du Bois, and particularly their relationship to Marxism and the ways in which each of them struggles, as a black diaspora Marxist, with the imperative that Fanon made, which was that you always need to stretch Marxism when you’re analysing racial colonial situations. So, both of them express what I might call a kind of ambivalence about Marxism, both adhering to its dialectical teleology, its universalisms, a notion of the revolutionary working subject and so forth, but at the same time, in order to put colonial slavery at the centre and to make the black worker the revolutionary subject of a transformative history; so what you find in abolition feminism is that these abolition feminists are not restricted to the universalisms and the rigidities that James and Du Bois were. And though Silvia Federici and Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore and Himani Bannerji, and so forth, they all take Marxism very seriously, but they always consider an intersection of struggles and multiple scales of colonial dispossession, enslavement, extraction, patriarchy. They all believe that crises across the globe are interconnected, yet differentiated both within and across nation states and that feminisms must be black, indigenous, Marxist, anti-colonial and diasporic, that there is no single unitary subject woman, for example, or the worker, that can be separated from conditions of racial capitalism, colonialism, racism and empire.
So, they’re all in different ways, and have spent their lifetimes, on social critiques that are, in Stuart Hall’s words, structured in dominance by a multiplicity of conditions, all of which affect female bodied and female identified peoples but peoples everywhere and that we can’t just struggle for one subject.
I think the important thing I wanted to draw out of my Afterword is that, and of course I’m building here on the wonderful work and the wonderful pieces by Ruth Gilmore and Angela Davis and Avery Gordon contained in the volume, that abolition feminism is intersectional of course, as I’ve just said, but it’s also not about destroying only policing, prisons and colonial enclosure, as it is sometimes parodied by the right. It’s rather aimed at the elimination of the social order that produces policing and carcerality as a co-called ‘solution,’ and abolition feminism emphasises that it’s a programme of creating new social relations which requires a very precise social imaginary that’s not bounded by the nation state or current nationalist terms or the capitalist terms either for envisioning the global.
So, it’s not merely about putting an end to something but forging what does not yet exist. For example, in the US this past year there have been ongoing Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police uprisings, also across university campuses wide activism to defund or remove and abolish campus police on university campuses, and some of these rubrics I think have been quite brilliant. University of Chicago students have a rubric, Care not Cops. UCLA is Divest and Invest. And, in a sense, they’re naming that abolition is not simply about abolishing the police, it’s creating new conditions of mutual aid, care, dependency and relation, that would be necessary in order to abolish the police. So, it’s an affirmative and not merely a negative politics.
Luke: I think that’s a wonderful way to round off the conversation, a hopeful way, and inspired way to round off what’s been a really lovely conversation. Thanks so much for talking with me today, Lisa.
Lisa: Yes, it’s been a really challenging 15 to 18 months from which we have not yet exited. So, I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to share some of these ideas and I hope that the connections with our current moment, in which Covid has laid bare and exacerbated so many already existing social and economics divides, I hope that the connection with these earlier periods of colonialism and empire are evident and it might help us understand the persistence of colonial pasts in the present.
Luke: Certainly, that’s how I read the book, so thanks so much.