Overview of topic: Empire in the present

Some scholars investigating the operations of empire point to contemporary iterations of centuries old imperial formations (Lowe, 2015; Stoler, 2016); colonialism therefore moves recursively, folding back on the present, rather than being a process with a definite temporal endpoint.

The persistence of colonial epistemology indicates the kind of worlds made possible and visible through colonial practices seem natural to our sensibilities, appearing as modern, rational societies rather than as inheritors of the vestiges of colonial domination. Ann Stoler (2016) suggests the term “colonial agnosia” to argue that the continued strength of this epistemological orientation is not based on “ignorance or absence” but a blocking of knowledge. Colonial agnosia therefore constitutes an active obscuring of histories of the present. Vimalassery et al. (2016: 2) argue that “colonialism requires a constitutive relation to Indigenous peoples and differential racialization for its claims to place, emplotment, and worldings that notions of forgetting, elimination, and absence tend to neglect.” This means the ongoing significance of colonial practices is not facilitated by a passive turning away from or failure to recognize dispossessions and displacements but by the reproduction of conditions of possibility for colonial logics to survive in current forms – conditions defined by an active attachment to forms of violence and dispossession. The worlds that colonialism produced require ongoing dispossession and racial hierarchy for their existence, making this relationship one of necessity.

Lisa Lowe (2015) makes a similar claim in tracing the genealogy of liberal ideology through its foundational and constitutive relationships to colonial projects. At the centre of this history is how the development of liberalism – privileging the freedom and rights of the individual – depended on the repression, displacement, and enslavement of non-white non-Europeans. Liberalism cannot be disarticulated from the colonial logics and global pursuits that facilitated its practice in European metropoles.

In settler states, the question of indigeneity, regarding the rights of those who inhabited country before conquest and colonialism, is often addressed through the lens of colonial epistemologies, which produce ‘epistemicide’ (Vimalassery et al. 2017), meaning the destruction of ways of knowing and histories of knowledge displaced through conquest. In these social orders, the threat of elimination of collective life through forced assimilation remains present. This is often linked with state discrimination, including, for example, eviction or removal from ancestral lands. Yet attention to the fact of indigenous people’s existence in territories that cut across contemporary state borders highlights the invented nature of settler regimes. Indigenous scholars foreground the ontologies and epistemologies that continue to orient indigenous forms of sociality and survival amidst colonial domination (Byrd, 2011; Coulthard, 2015; Simpson, 2017). These worldviews tend towards reciprocity, harmony, sustainability, and a dissolution of the human-nature distinction. Such forms of thought can also emphasize ancestral legacies and traditions, which contrast with Enlightenment modes of thought that create hierarchies among peoples, as well as between modernity versus tradition.

These debates remain salient within academic fields also. Errol Henderson (2013) argues that IR theory, in particular realism and liberalism, is founded on racist assumptions that are rendered invisible. When IR as a discipline was under development, the system of imperial rule still explicitly shaped common sense ways of understanding the world. Implicit within these theories, therefore, is racial difference and assumptions within Enlightenment thought about the superiority of science and reason (associated with Europe) against the inferiority of uncivilized and backwards societies (characteristics attributed to colonized regions).

The writings of contract theorists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes on the ‘state of nature’ were influential for the emergence of realism. The state of nature imagined in this work assumed that it was white people who had the ability to remove themselves from this pre-society state of being and create a civilized and rational world. The ways of being among non-white peoples, imagined through the representations of the colonized, constituted the savagery of the state of nature. For Henderson, this assumption of racial difference was written into IR theory from the start but because it is not directly addressed, students and practitioners of international relations remain blind to its logic.

These ideas do not exist within academic spheres only but are reflected in the worlds we inhabit. Stoler explains how, facilitated and produced within contexts of colonial histories, race takes on new and everchanging forms of life that can be difficult to pin down and identify.

Case Study Box 8.1

“Racial formations distribute specific sentiments among social kinds; they assign who are made into subjects of pity and whose cultural competencies and capital are deemed inadequate to make political claims. As such, they demand that we ask who and what are made into “problems”, how certain narratives are made “easy to think”, and what “common sense” such formulations have fostered and continue to serve.” Ann Laura Stoler (2016) Duress (Durham and London: Duke University Press), 135.

Section 1: Settler Colonialism in Israel - Palestine


A closer look at the Palestinian struggle for statehood and end to occupation can illustrate the ongoing relevance of colonialism for emancipatory politics today. In the aftermath of the Second World War, European powers carved up the provinces of the dismantled Ottoman Empire, with the British government extending its authority to and creating a Mandate in Palestine. In the early decades of the 20th century, Zionist activists (mainly from Europe) were buying up and settling land in Palestine, which – after a war in 1948 between Zionist militias and armies of the surrounding Arab states, known in Israel as the War of Independence and among Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) – became the basis for the new state of Israel.

1) Inheriting imperial structures

Patrick Wolfe argues that through the war, which saw the wresting of power away from the British Mandate, ‘Zionism did not seek to end imperialism but to harness it’ (2016: 216). This suggests that while later Israeli historiography framed this period as one of the anti-colonial struggles, from this perspective the Zionists’ attempts to remove indigenous Arabs from as much land as possible in order to build a state undermine such claims to be resisting colonialism (Massad, 2006). Rather than being simply pit against the British imperial system, this dimension puts the movement on a par with it. It is for this reason that historian Ilan Pappè categorizes Zionism as a nationalist movement but one mobilizing the tactics of settler colonialism to achieve its goals.

To understand how Zionism, as inheritor of European racial ideologies, creates separation in pursuit of its agenda, it is useful to expand on the discussion of the claim that colonialism and race function in relation to each other. Racialization is defined by Wolfe as the various ways that colonial authorities seek to ‘impose classificatory grids on a variety of colonised populations’ (2016: 10); it can therefore be understood as a practice that attempts to create difference among groups. Appearing as practices that are particular to local contexts in which race is performed and contested, the concept encapsulates the ‘active productivity of race, whereby colonialism refashions its human terrain’ (10). From this view, Zionism must be continually performed and maintained, requiring repetition. ‘In constantly requiring re-construction,’ Wolfe argues, ‘it’s incompleteness becomes exposed and vulnerable to complex and versatile solidarities that refuse the strategic divisions that race would impose’ (2016: 272).

2) Settler relations & citizenship

The exclusiveness of Zionism, where those outside the collective self cannot access political rights or representation, ‘continues to inform Israeli resistance to anything resembling a policy of Native assimilation’ (Wolfe, 2016: 247). In the US and Australia, there have been openings for a degree of assimilation of indigenous people. This is not the case for those Palestinians who remained in the state of Israel after the 1948 war during which hundreds of thousands were displaced into neighbouring states or into the West Bank and Gaza, which came under Israeli colonial control in 1967. Today, the availability of or access to rights in the territory controlled by the Israeli state (including the land claimed in 1948 as well as the territories occupied in 1967) are rooted in settler relations. For Palestinian scholar, Lana Tatour, citizenship in Israel is a category that was created to ‘function as a mechanism of elimination’ and ‘an instrument of race making’ in its production of Palestinians as subject to settler domination (2019: 10). Rather than being recognized as rights-bearing subjects – given their formal status as citizens – when Palestinian citizens of Israel contest the logics that deny them presence and political voice in public spaces and discourses, the state continues to address them as subjects subjugated by settler control (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury, 2015). In a settler state, the rights granted by formal citizenship are limited since the category itself depends on constructing (non-Jewish) Palestinians as a population to be ‘managed, controlled, and tamed’ (Tatour, 2019: 33).

The government’s approach to managing and classifying different groups therefore continues to be grounded in a concern for demography, as twenty percent of the citizenry are Palestinian, in addition to the millions of inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza who live under the auspices of military rule or blockade (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury, 2015). To maintain settler dominance requires constant vigilance in rendering these subjects as politically invisible or irrelevant, or as dangerous security concerns.


Byrd, Jodie A. (2011) The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Coulthard, Glen (2014) Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lowe, Lisa (2015) The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Massad, Joseph (2006) The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians. London and New York: Routledge.

Pappè, Ilan (2008) Zionism as Colonialism: A Comparative View of Diluted Colonialism in Asia and Africa. South Atlantic Quarterly 107(4): 611-633.

Rouhana, Nadim N. and Sabbagh-Khoury, Areej (2015) Settler-colonial citizenship: conceptualizing the relationship between Israel and its Palestinian citizens. Settler Colonial Studies 5(3): 205-225.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake (2017) As We Have Always Done. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura (2016) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Tatour, Lana (2019) Citizenship as Domination: Settler Colonialism and the Making of Palestinian Citizenship in Israel. Arab Studies Journal 27: 2.

Wolfe, Patrick (2016) Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso Books.