It is a commonplace of feeling that reactionary political movements of the Brexit and Trump kind are somehow linked to nostalgia for the good old days of empire, for households headed by males who did an honest day’s work and tended by women.

‘Take back control,’ or ‘Make America great again,’ are obviously backward-facing slogans. But beyond a kind of vague melancholia for a world free from the tyranny of political correctness and human rights, it is hard to see what the sociological roots of the disaffection with the liberal consensus are. Neoliberalism’s relentless assault on the state’s legitimacy, its capacity to support social justice and combat inequality is one (contested) part of the answer. But there is more to it than economics alone.

If there is something attractive in the essentialized past, we would do well to take a closer look at the actual past. This is not something that we are well equipped to do. The history of slavery and empire is submerged, awkward, avoided in national curriculum and in national discourse alike: much easier to channel all that anxiety into nostalgia and costume drama. But the history of the British empire and America’s late role in assuming many of Britain’s former postures around the world is an extremely useful guide to what’s happening today.

Historians of all stripes agree that the empire to a large extent ‘shaped the modern world’, in positive and negative ways. It laid the foundations for the globally connected order we now inhabit. It also established the parameters of modern politics as we know it – especially international politics – as well as for modern selves: both in the metropole and the colony. Identities were constructed in opposition, in dialogue with ‘the other’, in a messy tangled process of fear, desire and control. Race-relations were mediated on the frontier, the slave plantation, or in the jungle at the sharp end; but also at home, at imperial and colonial exhibitions, in the media, in novels, stories and nursery rhymes – even on jars of marmalade and matchboxes.

Empire relied on a latent idea of racial superiority to sustain consent and to justify its expansion. Racial superiority resolved the contradiction between the abhorrent idea of conquering (and killing) others and the grim necessity of profiting from them. It was for their own good. It was only possible to think like that – and for a good hundred years from 1860 to 1960, this was government policy and the mainstream opinion of English speakers – if you believed in the supremacy of your own race. This was what drove colonial officials to dress for dinner even when dining alone in the middle of the bush, or what made tea time such an iconic ritual for the colonials in the dominions. And it was what allowed the highly contingent victory in the Second World War to be interpreted in racial terms: that there was something exceptionally plucky and determined about the English-speaking peoples that led to the defeat of ‘the Hun’.

The construction of an indomitable, white, English-speaking, Protestant, civilized identity was a central product and tool of the empire. It was hugely successful and very durable. Prior to World War Two, the field of international relations was conceived in terms of race relations between the European peoples and their dominions – nation states were not the explanatory unit, races were. The United States, Canada and Australia were not seen to be entirely separate from the United Kingdom. Hitler saw himself as leader of a race that extended beyond the confining borders of Germany. Nation states are very recent myths, and the root of modern identity politics is the sense of racial superiority necessary for the imperial impulse to govern the world.

White identity was always formed in conversation with those ‘others’, but always saw itself not as contingent but rather as incarnate – given. It never acknowledged the other side of the dialogue. The history of post-war identity politics is more or less straightforward from here: a one-sided monologue clamouring to be heard and acknowledged. National liberation movements fought the colonial powers and defined themselves against the hegemonic, white, order. The multitude of splintering identities that have proliferated since then have continued to be defined against that normative white, male one, and have now left the putative oppressor feeling oppressed himself. We have arrived at a situation in which victimhood is the ultimate political currency. Trump’s thin skin makes him the ideal prophet for a politics of grievance.

The push and pull of identity politics is the child of slavery and empire. Race, that evil myth, rather than being ‘a metaphor’ or a ‘lightning rod’ for economic grievances is at the heart of the matter. Appreciating the ways in which the shared history of colonialism and empire have played such a powerful role in shaping all our identities might offer a way forward from here, but first we have to surmount the small challenge of acknowledging, in the words of William Faulkner, that, ‘the past is not past at all.’


Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp is available now from Portobello Books.

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