We’re moving forward. We’re better than we used to be. Columbus was a murderer, colonizers were evil, and our current society is in no way implicated in the wrongs committed by our forebears. Right?
These are all statements with which contemporary society might be fairly comfortable. For the ordinary individual, the brutality of history is watched from afar with a certain degree of smugness and comfortability since, after all, it’s not like that anymore. We’ve made progress. We’ve developed. We are post-colonial.
These assumptions are called heavily into question by the essay “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-colonialism’” by Anne McClintock. When carefully examined, these three concepts – progress, development, and post-colonialism – are inextricably linked, and are equally inaccurate in their usage in colonial discourse.
As McClintock argues, with the term “progress,” there is this image created in our minds of moving forward in history and always necessarily improving. This probably comes from our understanding of evolution and natural selection; if bad traits are weeded out in biology, it stands to reason that this should also happen in society. It’s an easy idea to rationalize. Since we now know that colonialism was wrong, we believe our contemporary society to be better.
The great irony of this term “progress” is that it was for the sake of progress that imperial nations oppressed and seized control of colonies – to leach materials for industry and technology in a swiftly developing world, and, of course, to spread the control of the supposedly superior white race. The people of the past, too, saw themselves as more moral and more enlightened than their predecessors. In her essay, McClintock lays bare the fallacy behind this assumption, which is easily observable in today’s society.
With the proliferation of this idea of progress in colonizing nations comes a much more contemporary example of colonialism in the economic arena. The United States wanted to forcefully spread the idea that mass consumption was equivalent to prosperity, and as a massive world power, it had a huge amount of influence in making this happen in poorer nations. However, with the economic downturn of the 70s and 80s, it began to take advantage of aid it had provided and proceeded to bleed these tiny nations dry for the repayment of debts. The American dream of progress crumbled globally, wounding resourceless countries in the process.
McClintock also frowns at the word “development,” which carries with it a handful of assumptions that we are not positive in our colonial understanding. In labeling our society as post-colonial, we invent this three-part development of first the pre-colonial, then the colonial, and finally the post-colonial, a process that is problematically linear. This interpretation forces the colonial experience into one rigid category, which is minimizing and inaccurate. How can one compare the experience of African countries and South American countries, for example? Can they all be unified under one group colonial experience? Certainly not; to do so completely ignores the incomprehensibility of the discrete cultures in each colonized nation in addition to the vastly different ways colonization affected each society. This is particularly relevant in terms of the decolonization process, which is a key part of this term “development.” This process occurred at different times in vastly different ways in each individual colony, and development cannot be the one word that is used to describe the change.
McClintock looks at another nuance of the term in the economic realm, which is where we arrive at the dichotomy of “developing” and “developed” nations. A developed country was one in which mass production and consumption had to be the norm, at least by American standards. The United States was supposedly enlightened and ahead, so it seemed reasonable that every country that wasn’t on the same playing field would eventually get there if they followed the same capitalistic viewpoint of this massive world power. This idea is still widely believed, evidence of the continued power of colonialism.
Progress and development are two concepts that add a new sort of bitterness to the term “post” in post-colonialism. The world cannot be described as post-colonial when the beneficiaries and casualties of colonialism are still present, so we should be wary of feeling too self-righteous in our study of the past.
McClintock, Anne. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism’” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing, 2013, pg. 1185-1196.