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Transcript: In conversation with Robbie Shilliam


Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL and I’m delighted to be in conversation today with Robbie Shilliam. Robbie is Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and across his writing, he’s made several critical interventions on questions surrounding race, colonialism and global order within political science, international relations and far beyond. In addition to this, over the past few years, Robbie has co-curated with community intellectuals and elders a series of exhibitions in Ethiopia, Jamaica and the UK, which have brought to light the histories and significance of the Rastafari movement for contemporary politics. And Robbie has published several important books, including German Thought and International Relations: The Rise and Fall of a Liberal Project, and then the Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections, and in 2018 Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, which is an excellent book. And this year his most recent book was Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction (Polity Press, 2021), and we’re going to focus our discussion around this book which is excellent, I really recommend it. I read it in preparation for the podcast and gained a lot from it and I’ll definitely be recommending it to students at all levels, it’s a brilliant book. So, thank you so much for speaking with me today, Robbie, I really appreciate it.
 
Robbie Shilliam: It’s great to see you again, Luke.
 
Luke: So, let’s start with this book Decolonizing Politics, maybe you can tell us why you decided to write it?
 
Robbie: Well, it was really to do with building some capacity. There’s a lot of people in universities who want to expose their students to these kind of arguments but don’t have the time, and maybe don’t have the intellectual background themselves, to be able to put a syllabus together or find some readings and all that. So that was the main reason, to build some capacity and probably also because, I mean everybody disses their own field but political science is a very strange field in this respect because, on the one hand, it’s probably the least political of many, many fields. Many of the ways in which it approaches politics, the study of politics is extremely removed and disembedded from the politics itself, and that’s to do with methodologies and methods and things to do with the popularity of surveys and experiments. But, in actual fact, political science as a field was formerly constituted around the eugenics project and the eugenics project was to deal with the diversity of racialized inheritances which had come to comprise the US polity by the late 19th century, and to try and quarantine the debilitating effects of some heredities, whilst also preserving the democratically aspirant heritages of Anglo-Saxonism.
 
So, it actually comes into play as a formal field, as a distinctly eugenicist project; and there’s, of course, been plenty and plenty of people who’ve either been working inside or outside of political science, drawing attention to the racist nature of many of the categories and the categorisations which go into politics, but a lot of them are not conceived of as being part of the traditional canon that you teach in political science. One very simple example is Cedric Robinson, who is famous for his big book on Black Marxism and popularising this idea of racial capitalism, and Robinson was trained as a political scientist, as a political theorist and his first work was on a very political science theme which was around leadership. So, that’s kind of the reasons why I did it, Luke; plus they asked me, I wasn’t going to do it otherwise. So, there’s that randomness as well that’s there.
 
Luke: That’s important. It does really show, I think, in the way you write the book that you are someone who values and thinks carefully about teaching. I remember actually when we met at Queen Mary, it might have been for your leaving thing and I cycled past you on campus and you ended up being late for the thing because you’d stopped to speak to a student and you gave the student your full attention. So, it’s clear that you’ve made effort in this book to kind of break it down but I like it because it doesn’t then over-simplify it; it’s still going to be a challenge but there’s an attempt to walk through in lots of ways and to use repetition in certain ways and have a certain rhythm to it which I really like.
 
One question that comes out for me is, you have this kind of methodology or this framework for your analysis, which I think other people can take in any direction they want, which is to recontextualise various scholars, various interventions into various dominant strains of thought in political science, to reconceptualise them partly through recontextualising them and to reimagine. I want you to just talk a little bit about how you came to that approach and partly what I was thinking about when I saw the book’s title was 'decolonise' is such a kind of vogue word now, particularly at risk of being co-opted by certain departments in universities, but you offer a really concrete way of decolonising politics but also of thinking methodologically and analytically about what it might mean to decolonise beyond just tweaking reading lists or whatever it might be. So, I just want you to talk a little bit about your method for this.
 
Robbie: Well, the method for this is actually attenuated and it’s attenuated for a good reason to do with some of the things you were talking about with regards to the popularity of 'decolonising' as a buzzword. So I’m in a number of minds about that, but I think that if you take the idea of 'community', neo-liberals really took that word which had had certain politics associated with it before, not good or bad before the fact but all of them struggling around some idea of self-determination as reparative, as re-distributional. And neo-liberals took community and made of community an object which was supposed to be resilient, in other words, would just take all the rubbish that was thrown at it. And that was very individualised; and, in fact, Margaret Thatcher, her famous phrase about ‘there’s no such thing as society’, she then says, but families and individuals and also communities, and communities don’t need the State. What communities need is to self-help with each other, especially between patriarchal families.
 
So, all of that is to say, what do we do? Do we drop the word 'community' then? And then what do we have left? Do we drop it because the neo-liberals took it or do we actually say that that word is too important for us to let go and we will contest it? So, it’s the same with the decolonising and the decolonising has a very rich and varied history, which is wrapped up in all different kinds of politics from third worldism to indigenous struggles; all kinds of things.
 
In the book, in the Comparative Politics chapter I go to Walter Rodney and I go to Dar es Salaam in the '60s, and that university complex in East Africa is probably the most proximate kind of route, if you like, of what we call decolonising the university today, because in that little complex of colleges, which are part of the University of London where you are, in Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania, there were all these projects to think about what does a higher education system, inherited from colonial rule, what does that do and how does that get remodified and rethought in order to deal with the challenges of independence? And that was what Rodney was invested in in Dar es Salaam, along with a lot of other people, and I’m going into that history because that history is quite a specific history. So Rodney was saying, part of the purpose of the university is to make people turn their back on the rural areas and the majority of people who live there and the people for whom independence would have the biggest stakes, and instead it was all about funnelling a small group of Tanzanians into the civil service, into these what you call petty bourgeois kind of jobs, management jobs which would then reproduce a very small elite from colonial times, whose position would be marked by their distance from the rural areas. And Rodney’s stuff was to think about how we teach, what we teach and how that connects the university to the wider communities that it’s supposed to serve. So that’s the kind of thing which I’m interested in in this book, and I think the recontextualising, reconceptualising and reimagining has to be part of. But I say it’s attenuated simply because in the book what I say is that not all politics have colonial roots, have colonial sources, or if they do, maybe those sources are simply not that important for the issue at stake, and I’ll hold to that. Otherwise, we’ve just got a smooth surface where everything is colonial, that means nothing is colonial.
 
But what I do say is that the categories and the logics of the principal subfields of political science were developed directly in relation to colonial logics and racist logics, and that is the thing that we need to be attentive to. So it’s not decolonising politics per se but it’s saying if you are a student in university, if you are a scholar in university, you do political science, this is the first order issue that you need to be attentive to; and from looking at these logics, from extracting them, thinking about them, critiquing them and then reimagining them, when you start to reimagine them, you’re going to have to start reimaging the place of the university amongst the communities that it’s supposed to serve, locally, nationally and globally. And then that is where the broader stakes actually come into play but it’s not something that the book would want to proselytise on.
 
Luke: That’s really helpful and I thought the question of discipline is interesting for you because clearly you exceed discipline, your natural register isn’t contained within a discipline, particularly Race and the Underserving Poor, and your other books. And this book again has a great range; but it is also a book that’s specifically about an intervention into a discipline and, I don’t know, maybe this is also about interdisciplinarity, that we see it as a good thing and then it also becomes a buzzword from the managerial class and universities. This book for me said, maybe if we stick with the history of a discipline, we’ll be able to say something coherent and useful, and I read it not as a political scientist but I still found it incredibly useful.
 
Robbie: Yes, that’s really interesting, Luke, and in fact, it comes from a series from Polity Press and they’re doing this whole Decolonizing Sociology book and there’ll be other decolonising various fields and all that. Of course, the risk of that is the risk which comes with, for example, if you think about how Europe as a whole has dealt with its colonial past. So, what you get is you get nationalisation which is similar to the discipline. So, for example, the French will say but we did colonialism differently because we were all about citizenship, and then the British will say we did colonialism differently because we were all about abolition, and every single national narrative is all about the exemplarity of their colonial past has been different to the rest because it was nicer.
 
So, then what happens is everybody’s just unusual and unique, and you put all them narratives together and you’ve got no broader narrative about the colonial enterprise itself. You see what I’m saying? So, there is a danger in doing this kind of let’s do economics, then we’ll do sociology, then we’ll do politics and, of course, the thing is that all these fields do actually speak to each other. Of course, the late 19th century, the master field, which had replaced theology and had replaced the classics, was eugenics, and eugenics was seen as the trunk of the tree from which all the other disciplines would almost become sub-disciplines of one big thing. That broader colonial and racist knowledge enterprise can be diminished and can be obfuscated by this kind of bit by bit. We need to keep that in mind and hopefully, like you said, in this book at least it hopefully would be clear that you can’t delimit the question of politics and colonial logics to political science. That said, the disciplines are oftentimes the things which people retreat into in order not to deal with the problem.
 
So, racism can be an interdisciplinary pursuit and it’s quite safe there because if you think about budgets and administrative structures in universities, those bodies which are most likely not to have their own budgetary lines are going to be interdisciplinary bodies, they’re going to be research centres. Not all the time but it tends to be the case that they have less executive and budgetary power than the disciplines and it’s the disciplines which still run the thing. So, you could say oh well, I do political science, oh, you want to look at racism, you want to look at colonialism? Go to the interdisciplinaries, go see Luke. Do you see what I mean? And, of course, then, but what do students get taught? Students still, by and large, get taught the disciplines and even if they’re multidisciplinary, they’re still disciplines. And again, what would happen is you would learn about how the British were all about abolition, you'll learn how the Dutch were so nice and paternalistic, you'll learn how the French were all about their fraternité, égalité, blah-blah-blah. You’d learn all that but you’d never learn about colonialism.
 
So, there’s a requirement for the disciplines to actually come to terms with their own complicities in this, and I see it not as an either/or but as an and. The disciplines have to do that and disciplines can’t do it by themselves because, as soon as they start to untangle these colonial logics, they’ll start to have to deal with all the other fields which are implicated, like I said, with eugenics, or before that, with natural law, etc.
 
Luke: That’s really interesting. The other thing about the book, why I think it’s so useful pedagogically is because it does go through and take seriously and trace the intellectual trajectories of some key figures. You talk about Aristotle, you talk about Kant, you talk about eugenics, eugenicists and late Victorian racial thought and Malinowski, the kind of father of ethnography or anthropological fieldwork. And then you don’t actually say it explicitly till the end, I think that you got this method partly from a former colleague at SOAS, but you talk about this method of putting authors in unlikely conversations between various authors. I really enjoyed that, if you go from Kant to Winter, Fanon follows the eugenicists that think differently about behaviour and pathology and Aristotle, and you end with Aristotle and Gloria Anzaldúa, and there’s a lot of creativity in that.
 
But I suppose my question, just because I’m interested, is the reimagining, so that’s the latter figures I name in each time, the people who could give us a more expansive, more critical, better way of thinking about some of the key questions which are important in political science or in social and political thought. You had to make some choices, I guess, for a short book like this about who was going to go where. So, I’m just interested in the choices; I imagine it was difficult for you, from the number of resources that you draw on in your work. So, maybe a bit about those choices, and then I was particularly up for you talking because your title is Professor of International Relations (IR), and in that chapter on International Relations, which is an amazing chapter, really helpful for thinking about what I sometimes find as a non-IR person a slightly strange preoccupation of IR with its questions about sovereignty and anarchy and all this stuff. But you say how the discipline might be decolonised by taking seriously the indigenous movements in the Pacific for a nuclear free and independent Pacific, and you trace those movements in a really interesting way. So, I wondered if you could talk about that example and more broadly about how you came to make the decisions you did about who to reimagine with.
 
Robbie: So, in terms of pedagogy, teaching in classrooms, the person who I got that idea from was Manjeet Ramgotra, just to say that. So, I don’t believe that some people live in Mars and some people live on Venus, I don’t believe that. That’s to say that there are certain fundamentals of human existence which are, I think, fundamentals but which are engaged with, practised with, thought about, experienced in a whole kaleidoscopic set of different ways, and that certain things which might take a cardinal point in one practice or way of thinking about something have quite different parts in other constellations of thinking about that.
 
So, if you’re thinking about the idea of rights, universal rights, something along those lines, it's not a creation of the enlightenment. That’s just a story that Europeans tell and it puts them under too much pressure and it’s unfair, so they shouldn’t even tell that story to themselves, but they say it’s unique about the European enlightenment, it’s just not. Things to do with ideas of political belonging and the kind of characteristics and behaviour of those who belong. We call it political behaviour but that’s nothing unique or special. The act of comparison, there’s nothing unique about that. Nor is the worry about war and peace.

So, some of the key concerns of the subfields of political science are experienced, practised, theorised about in different ways in different places and then, of course, there’s a whole infrastructure which connects all these practices and puts them into contention sometimes, puts them into articulation other times. I’m saying all that because when I think about Sylvia Wynter, I think about her concern about what does it mean to be human on human terms? That to me is one of the fundamental lines of enquiry of many of the enlightenment philosophers in Europe who came up with ideas about rights; for example, Immanuel Kant. So Wynter can be put into conversation with Kant. Talk about behaviour and the political behaviour and the racist ideas about how certain Anglo-Saxon heritages literally breed a disposition towards orderly independence, which is especially conducive to the democratic project. Well, that’s racist. I don’t mean that in a normative sense, I mean in a descriptive and analytical sense, and so I put that up against Frantz Fanon who, in his psychiatric work in Algeria, is all about that and critiquing that but this time with the French.
 
What I’m basically saying is that I decided who we would reimagine with, not on a whim but based on the requirements of the subfields, i.e. what were some of the key issues and phenomena which they were designed to explain and lo and behold, there are plenty of people from various marginal positions who already do that. So, it's really that simple. I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t all men, but I also wanted to make sure it wasn’t all just individuals or thinkers, which is why I had at least one of the chapters doing not as an individual or an academic or an author in the kind of Foucauldian sense, but a movement, a nuclear free and independent movement. And that movement is really instructive in a number of ways. It’s instructive in terms of just how much a colonial set of logics might make us miss some of the most fundamental developments of the 20th century. So, for example, if you’re an alien and you’re zooming around Earth in orbit and you’re thinking, where am I going to land? And all you know is the topography of the world. You wouldn’t land in New York, you wouldn’t land in Paris, you’d land probably in somewhere like the Cook Islands; in other words, in the middle of the most distinct topological feature of the globe which is the Pacific Ocean, it’s the biggest feature of the Earth and it doesn’t cover most of the Earth but it’s the biggest feature which covers most of the Earth, if you get what I’m saying. So, you go there. Now, what happened with the Pacific, from the 1850s onwards but especially from World War II, the Pacific gets rearranged in a cartographic fashion to basically speak of simply a rim, the Pacific Rim - they did films about that. But the Pacific Rim, and this is people like my old colleague, Teresia Teaiwa, she does a lot about this famous Pacific theorist, Epeli Hauʻofa, he does this too. But why is it that you’ve evacuated the biggest distinctive feature of the world, which is a macro-taneous world anyway, why have you evacuated that and replaced it with the idea of a rim?
 
There’s a whole set of different things about that and it’s mainly all linked to the Cold War and the development of a US military which had a global power projection, and that was the building of the Navy in the Pacific. So, you don’t consider the Pacific anymore in Hauʻofa's terms as a sea of islands, thousands of islands, thousands of languages, thousands of very long held interconnections, a lattice across the most distinctive feature of the world. You empty it out and all you do is you put big aircraft carriers sliding smoothly across the surface. Of course, international relations is always concerned with catastrophe; during the Cold War, it was nuclear and people obviously talk about nuclear war and nuclear bombs and there’s Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but people rarely talk about nuclear testing which is, guess what? Blowing up of bombs. Oh no, but Robbie that’s in areas which are entirely devoid of any population, blah-blah-blah. So, when you look at where the big nuclear powers decided to test their bombs, it was in areas which they considered to be thinly populated, or populated by primitive peoples who could be shipped out and, of course, one of the main areas where that happened was the Pacific, in the Marshall Islands in the Bikini Atoll and French Polynesia and all those places.
 
So, you’ve got the stakes of the future of humanity actually being contested by a set of indigenous movements, dispersed and interconnected across the largest topological feature of the world, wherein the stakes of humanity are seen in this light. The environmental catastrophe of nuclear testing is brought about by military imperialism which is enabled by settler colonialism. Therefore, if we’re going to actually save the world for humanity, we have to get rid of settler colonialism, and I use that term just generically, I know there’s problems with it. Hence, it wasn’t just like CND, nuclear free, it was nuclear free and independent Pacific. Now, I don’t know anyone in international relations who teaches, there’s probably a few, who teaches that history; but you would probably think it would be an important history to teach, instructive. So, this is also part of this reimagining; it’s basically to say deprovincialise, step into the wider deeper world so you can really plumb the depths of the challenges which you think humanity face, because if you’re not stepping into that wider and deeper world, you’re just not doing good enquiry, it’s just insufficient.
 
Luke: It’s an excellent example and you’re right, I’ve not heard people teach with it and certainly it gives an example of how you might, with different examples.
 
Robbie: I mean the one person I know who did was Merze Tate, who was a very famous African-American political scientist, I think she was the first African-American woman to get a PhD at Harvard or something like that, you’d have to check that, don’t take my word. I can’t remember it off the top of my head now, but she’s got a distinctive claim in that kind of way. But Merze Tate, some of her first work was on the Pacific and it was on comparative slaveries as well. So Merze Tate did it, but very few other people have and she did it whilst these movements were starting to form.
 
Luke: The next thing is really moving away from the vast Pacific as the biggest topological feature on the Earth and thinking actually about the urban, which for me is a minor key but very important point that I’ve got from both your recent books, from this one and from Race and Undeserving Poor. I’m really interested in the place of the urban and urbanisation in racial and racist thought. So, while your main intervention in this book is with, I think, helping us think about colonial concerns about global order, structure, political thought and different time periods and different subfields of political science, but your discussion of urbanisation has important implications for all disciplines, for all of us involved in anti-racist politics as well, I think.
 
In the chapter Political Behaviour, which is the second substantive chapter after Political Theory, you write about how in the late 19th century in the UK and the US, the study of political behaviour sought to mitigate the disorderly effects on the demos caused by population moving and the mixing of heredities, and you can see why this is important to me as someone concerned about the politics of migration. And there were concerns explicitly, which you write about in both books, about the degeneration of the Anglo-Saxon race and the racial stock due to industrial urbanisation in different ways, and then also you speak about Malinowski and I guess there, the concern is with the urbanisation of the ‘native’, the movement from people in colonial settings from country to city, and then their involvement in anti-colonial movements. So, a broad question is, in your research for this book and the last one, what have you discovered about racial thought and the urban?
 
Robbie: That’s a really good question, Luke. I probably discovered something which people have known for quite some time, and it’s particular urbans actually, but it’s that the big disquiet and existential angst which comes with racism is about not just the polluting of your stock, but it’s also the degeneration of that stock at the same time. So, there is always these two things, from within and from outside. From within, it’s all to do with this idea that the industrial is dysgenic, not just in terms of its environment but in terms of how it breaks down orderly bonds of patriarchal independence, i.e. families. So, it’s not just hygiene, it’s also the idea of what allows these units to stand on their own in an orderly fashion.
 
So, the urban is seen to break down all these bonds, these bonds which were created in these nice provincial little towns or villages and, at the same time, the cities are where the migrants come, and the migrants come and they pollute not just in terms of biological heredity but that biological heredity is always taken to be practices as well. So, the word 'pheno' for phenotype is about an outward demonstration of something and pheno has always meant not just what people look like but how people behave. So never think that pheno means simply biology. It’s never been that. Eugenics was never about that. No racism was ever about just what people look like. It was always about this interconnected argument that what they display is also what they behave. So, in the US, the Mexicans were bringing, apparently, dodgy labour practices, the East Europeans were doing that as well, African-Americans were bringing irrationality – all these kind of things. That to me is the big question which hangs over the urban in a lot of the racist thought, which then always has its counterpart in the pristine rural, and the preservation of that apparently pristine heartland. So, it’s no surprise to me that Hartlepool and London have an interconnected racist ecology when it comes to Brexit and post-Brexit, the hinterland and then the dysgenic urban. And no surprise to me that, if there is such a thing as a civil war which has been going on in the US, it’s been in Portland and it’s been in the West Coast where there’s this whole thing about the frontier.
 
That’s what I’ve learned about it, but that also means that we have to remember that we can’t just focus on the urban as if these are the big triggers and pivots of global history. That would tell me that, in actual fact, there are interconnected geographies going on here. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve kind of learned.
 
Luke: I think it comes through in an important way and I suppose for people like me who work on policing and immigration control, the city is sort of the backdrop for a lot of these sites of racist encounters, and just generally I guess in literature on racism as I’ve come through and as the city’s been an unspoken backdrop, but I think what this helps us do is think about these concerns that you get. So, coded references to London, to places in London, to knife crime, for example, that don’t name race explicitly necessarily but which rely on a whole long history of thought about the contaminated city and the urban, and I think it’s just seeing that actually come through when it’s not the main topic necessarily has been illuminating for me.
 
Robbie: And it’s that double thing. When people think about racism or Enoch Powell or whatever, it’s not simply the intervention from outside, it’s the associated and co-constituted degeneration from inside that they’re worried about. It’s both of them things at the same time, it’s never simply one.
 
Luke: Yeah, and you make that point, that the joint concern of the kind of eugenic thinkers who were writing about political behaviour was both about Britain but an expanding imperium, particularly contamination in various settler contexts, as well as what was happening in the city and all of this movement. It just makes me think about race and the problem of unruly movement, people moving to different places and perhaps engaging in illicit sexual relations with one another, and all of this becomes the ground for a sense of panic and decline.
 
Robbie: Right, and that’s why when it comes to poor people, when you’ve got the rich people telling you to be worried about these people coming from the outside, you always think twice about that because the other part of that is they’re looking at you and your degeneracy, you ain’t friends.
 
Luke: Totally. It made me think, I suppose, that maybe decolonising, as a useful analytical method as well, part of what we need to do is decolonise both what the city and the country can mean, and I think the literature which says that cities are sites of conviviality, or whatever word you use for that encounter, where racism can become ordinary or can be overcome, and then also thinking about cities and their role in both historically the role of various people who live in the countryside in colonialism but also perhaps what the country could mean, other than as a site of white pastoral homeliness and actually trying to rupture both of those things, which perhaps you give us some ways into.
 
I think that might be a good place to bring the conversation to a close. We’ve covered a lot of ground. I really think people should pick up the book and read for themselves because there’s a lot more to be taken from it and several more important examples that we didn’t get a chance to touch on.
 
Robbie: Well, Luke, it’s always good talking to you and I hope your work is going well because your work is really, really important and big ups to the Sarah Parker Remond Centre.
 
Luke: I hope to have more engagements soon. I know, of course, without the pandemic, you would have been back in London but hopefully before too long, we can have you in person and not in virtual and have some further conversations.
 
Robbie: Awesome, that’s good. Thanks.
 
Luke: Thanks so much.