Why Not Colonialism?


In 2009, Princeton University Press posthumously published the Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen’s (little pink book) Why Not Socialism? Cohen develops an argument for retaining socialism as an ideal that we do not yet fully know how to realize. Interestingly, he does not mention any of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of this ideal during the 20th century; for example, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Killing Fields, the Holodomor, the Katyn massacre, or the Gulag. Yet no academics demanded that Princeton withdraw this book, or apologize for its publication. Contrast this case with ‘The Case for Colonialism’, an article recently published in Third World Quarterly. In it, Portland State University political scientist Bruce Gilley calls for a sober reevaluation of colonialism, and sketches several forms that colonialism could take today (one will be discussed later). Now several petitions are circulating (here  and here) to ask for the retraction of this article, and an apology from the editors. Together, the petitions garnered around 16,000 signatures. The editor of Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson, went as far as to say that the article was “morally tantamount to Holocaust denial”, because it does not mention any “colonial atrocities” (although it does refer to at least one book about such atrocities). Of course, the Holocaust comparison should not come as a surprise. Still, it may be interesting to point out that, by the same standard, Cohen’s aforementioned book is also “morally tantamount to Holocaust denial” (arguably, even more so).

Fortunately, philosophers have been reluctant to support the petitions, probably because the recent Hypatia debacle is still fresh in their minds. Nonetheless, philosopher and (soon-to-be) London School of Economics Assistant Professor Liam Kofi Bright did endorse the Holocaust denial analogy in a blog post on the article: “People have called it akin to Holocaust denial, and that seems fair to me”. Moreover, Bright shares Robinson’s reasons for not calling for a retraction, one of the main reasons being “that this could be a PR coup for the right”. In other words, what matters in the end are not purported “argumentative standards” (as if these are met by the average “postcolonial” article), but how this whole affair will play out in the political struggle with “the right”. Note, by the way, that both Robinson’s and Bright’s commentaries come recommended by Justin Weinberg of Daily Nous.


Putting the controversy over Gilley’s article aside for a moment, it is not at all absurd to call for a reevaluation of colonialism in the light of the migration crisis that the world is facing today. According to an outdated, but probably still indicative, Gallup survey of 2009, roughly 700 million adults would like to move abroad permanently. Sub-Saharan Africans are most likely to have this desire. As the table below shows, if all these people were to act in accordance with their preferences, then countries ranking very high in the Economic Freedom Index (compiled by right-wing think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation) would witness the highest net inflow of people; and countries ranking very low in the same index would witness the highest net outflow.


Heritage Foundation ranking (1-180) Ranking by Potential Net Migration Index
Singapore 2 Top-1
New Zealand 3 Top-3
Australia 5 Top-5
Canada 7 Top-4
Congo 117 Bottom-1
Zimbabwe 175 Bottom-3
Sierra Leone 145 Bottom-2
Haiti 159 Bottom-4


Now, our left-wing friends will of course argue that it is merely a coincidence that migration preferences appear to correlate with policies favoring economic freedom. But I doubt that our left-wing friends will deny that these migration preferences exist. And, given that they exist, the question of most urgent concern is: how should we respond to them?

One way is to attempt to satisfy these preferences by adopting an open borders policy in the most popular destination countries. However, such a policy comes with economic, political, and cultural risks. In any case, the current populations of these countries are increasingly wary of immigration. Recent elections and referendums in the US and in Europe, as well as PEW’s Research Center polls, all point in that direction. For example, the latter reports:

In eight of 10 European nations surveyed in spring, half or more adults in those countries said incoming refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism in their countries. Similarly, half or more adults in five of the 10 countries surveyed said that refugees would have a negative economic impact on their countries, taking jobs and social benefits…

In none of the 10 nations surveyed did a majority see increasing diversity as a positive.

The alternative to an open borders policy is a (partially) closed borders policy. Presently, this also comes with a cost: millions of people continue suffering in countries that are plagued by corruption, disastrous economic policies, and ethnic conflicts. But this does not have to be a consequence of adopting a closed borders policy. For example, unpopular countries—countries with a (very) negative Potential Net Migration Index value—could outsource at least some of the governmental tasks to popular countries—countries with a (very) positive Potential Net Migration Index value. Naturally, this idea will meet with resistance, especially from academics enjoying the benefits of a well-governed, popular country, as the controversy over ‘The Case for Colonialism’ proves. After all, the idea that governmental tasks can be outsourced to Western or European foreigners smacks of colonialism. But what if the people of an unpopular country wish to be governed by foreigners (of their choosing)? Consider, for example, the following anecdote, quoted from Time magazine:

Le Blanc and I are into our 500th kilometer on the river when he turns my view of modern African history on its head. “We should just give it all back to the whites,” the riverboat captain says. “Even if you go 1,000 kilometers down this river, you won’t see a single sign of development. When the whites left, we didn’t just stay where we were. We went backwards.”

He pauses. “They took this country by force,” he says, with more than a touch of admiration. “If they came back, this time we’d give them the country for free.”

The Potential Net Migration Index might be evidence that such a wish is anything but exceptional. At the very least, the Index seems to show that many people in unpopular countries value freedom and opportunity higher than self-governance (in the sense of being governed by people from one’s own ethnic group or country of origin). As a result, they may wish at least to experiment with the outsourcing of governmental tasks, for example, in certain parts of their country.

Hence, there is another way of interpreting existing migration preferences: interpreting them as preferences for foreign governments instead of foreign territories. To the extent that this interpretation is correct, one can satisfy the preferences without incurring the costs that come with mass migration (costs that are born both by migrants and their hosts). Of course, not all migration preferences may admit of such an interpretation. For example, it is possible that some people wishing to migrate are not in search of better governments. They may simply want to enjoy the rights and opportunities that other people have created under the rule of such governments, without intending to make a similar contribution. To the extent that this is the case, we should not feel guilty about closing our borders. And to the extent that this is not the case, there may be a future for colonialism.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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  1. And yet the Left hated Brexit, which is an anti-colonial resistance by an indigenous people against a foreign sovereign (the European Union). Go figure?

  2. What would you say is the main reason European countries established colonies? The standard answer is that they were motivated by racism, greed for resources, etc. That’s what I was taught at least. I don’t really buy it anymore.

    • I don’t consider myself to be an expert on the history of colonization, but my impression is that circumstances were quite different in different places. No doubt self-interest (the economic interest of the king or nation) was a/the major driver, but self-interest can drive one toward a win-win situation. In any case, Gilley’s point is that we shouldn’t regard colonization as “always and everywhere a bad thing”, especially in comparison with some of the alternatives. Whether one agrees or not, this seems to me to be a publishable idea.

  3. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here, but it seems to me that the establishment never really means to criticize colonialism. Most of the Middle East and North Africa was colonized (pretty brutally) by Arab Muslims but academics and activists don’t go on about the horrors of that case of colonialism. It’s just like the issue of slavery. Establishment types–the kinds of people saying this is “as bad as Holocaust denial!”–rarely mention the Arab slave trade or the native African slave empires, and if they do it’s usually to argue that it wasn’t really so bad or that, for whatever reason, we just shouldn’t get too worked up about it. When they complain about ‘colonialism’ or ‘slavery’ (or ‘patriarchy’ or ‘nationalism’ or ‘racism’…) they’re just complaining about white people. They’re really just saying that, whatever WE did, it was really evil, and whatever WE didn’t do, that was really evil too. The left or establishment don’t really believe any of their own stated principles. They have just one, unstated principle, anti-white-ness. Isn’t that the most parsimonious and comprehensive explanation?

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