What is the post-colonial state?

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The rise of new regions of power in recent decades has provoked much discussion of understanding the post-colonial state. While the global influence of the U.S. and the European Union appears to have diminished in past years, the significance of some post-colonial states, such as India and Pakistan, has consistently increased. The challenge for progressive thinkers is to formulate a theoretical model that can coherently explain the specific and general trajectories of these countries.

One of the obstacles to this enterprise is that today's progressive thinker is caught in an uncertain philosophical-methodological situation. The two dominant radical intellectual frameworks to interpret recent developments are those of political economy and of postmodernism. The former emphasizes the role of capitalism and the capitalist state in configuring every aspect of our lives, while the latter focuses on the role of modern Western culture in constructing our experience and our interpretation of that experience.

If an activist-scholar chooses to anchor research in a political-economic approach, postmodern thinkers will reply that such approaches are Eurocentric. The postmoderns understand that the analysis of the capitalist state remains trapped within a set of categories that were initially formulated to explain Western societies; the imposition of those conceptual frameworks onto non-European groups or countries often conceals more than it reveals.

If leftist scholars instead opt for a postmodern approach, they are then accused of relativism, of missing the forest for the trees, of failing to appreciate the overarching power of capitalism in shaping culture, nature and the unconscious. Political-economic approaches note that the postmoderns' emphasis on culture obscures an understanding of the force of material circumstances in shaping our lives.

As with all challenging situations, one's philosophical depth is potentially increased by confronting apparently insurmountable polarizations. An example of intellectual profundity produced by the need to manage contradictions is the recently published The Post-Colonial State in the Era of Globalization by Tariq Amin-Khan, who teaches political science at Ryerson University. The book is part of Routledge Press' excellent "Studies in Social and Political Thought" series.

Amin-Khan is an iconoclast: he has repudiated both traditional and fashionable theoretical frameworks in favor of a thoughtful combination of political-economic and post-Eurocentric paradigms. On one hand, he rejects the traditional, narrow political science focus on governance and instead places the post-colonial state within the broader framework of political economy. On the other hand, Amin-Khan also refutes modern scholarship's tendency to homogenize the post-colonial states of the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America) along the model of the 'normal' European-state form of development. Many postmodern theorists have rejected modern conceptions of the state in favour of cultural interpretations that stress the idiosyncrasy of each local and national political formation. Khan, however, spurns the postmodern emphasis in favour of a post-colonial historical framework that does not fall into the relativism of the postmoderns nor the Eurocentrism of modern scholarship on the state.

Amin-Khan's study does not argue that the post-colonial state follows the trajectory of the Western state, nor does it contend that each post-colonial state is unique. Instead the author proposes two types of post-colonial state: the proto-capitalist state exemplified by Pakistan, and the capitalist variant demonstrated by India. Amin-Khan notes that despite these countries' substantial differences, both converge in their attempt to subordinate their respective civil societies to their national elite while in turn subordinating their countries to Northern imperial ones. The post-colonial state is historically post-imperial but it remains economically manacled by the empire's latest forms.

Amin-Khan has produced an important work that will help progressive scholars, not just in North America but around the world, to better discern the course of states that have become crucial to the prosperity and security of the global economy.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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