Universalizing Settler Liberty
America is best understood not as the first post-colonial republic, but as an expansionist nation built on slavery and native expropriation.
- Interview by
- Nikhil Pal Singh
Over the last decade, interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have led academics and activists to question the prerogatives of American empire. At the same time, the global financial crisis has created space for a renewed discussion not just about inequality and redistribution, but capitalism itself.
Yet recent conversations about empire and capitalism have tended to operate in isolation, with little attention paid to how they are bound together and what these interconnections might mean for projects of social change.
Aziz Rana’s book, The Two Faces of American Freedom, now out in paperback, embodies a sustained attempt to link these two conversations. It presents a historical account of the relationship between external projections of power and internal judgments of economic liberty in the United States.
Rana, an associate professor of law at Cornell University, argues that the American experience is best understood as one of “settler empire.” English colonists, along with their descendants, viewed society as grounded in an ideal of freedom that emphasized continuous popular mobilization and direct economic decision-making.
However, this ideal was politically bound to territorial conquest and to the dispossession and control of marginalized groups. These practices of liberty and subordination were not separate currents, but rather two sides of the same coin. Even today, he argues, the legacies of settler empire shape and sustain the twin dynamics of racial exclusion and economic exploitation.
Rana was interviewed for Jacobin by Nikhil Pal Singh.
Through the lens of what we might call “settlerism,” you show how the course of US history has been shaped by the entanglement of a “remarkably egalitarian” conception of the self-governing white citizen with the ongoing subjugation and control of conquered, enslaved, subsequently racialized, and excluded peoples and communities. Can you articulate the broad significance of this intervention, as you understand it?
I see my intervention as an attempt to challenge the dominant narrative of American identity, one centered on the American creed or what you refer to in Black is a Country as American universalism. According to this account, the US has always since its revolutionary founding been committed to universal freedom and equality, and its history is one of steady liberal self-fulfillment.
For me, the creedal story has three strong (and troubling) implications.
First, it transforms historical experiences of oppression into aberrational features of American life. Rather than telling us something essential about American institutions, slavery or native expropriation are instead conceived of as out of step with the inherent direction of American history. Their value to the present is to highlight the redemptive nature of collective experience, how far we have come and how close we are today to the promised land of liberal completion. In this way, even the history of slavery is a site of contemporary self-congratulation.
Second, the narrative reads American founding as an anti-imperial act and the republic as the first post-colonial society. As a result, it erases the extent to which the republic was itself grounded in an imperial project of territorial conquest and a colonial one of settler control over excluded populations.
The result is a persistent view in American life that, unlike European states, the application of US power is fundamentally non-imperial. As Gunnar Myrdal stated in the 1940s, Americans stands “warmheartedly against oppression in all the world.” Precisely because US founding commitments express the world community’s ideals, the projection of American power necessarily means the defense of liberal values against illiberal ones.
Third, and finally, the narrative also shapes the politics of reform in American life. It provides a powerful discourse for social change, but only to the extent that reform projects take for granted this overarching frame. Such projects must reproduce a story of liberal redemption and understand change as efforts of liberal inclusion (i.e. the formal provision of equal and individual citizenship rights to members of marginalized communities, as well as meritocratic incorporation of some into elite professional circles).
Above all, this creedal story obscures the nature of American power — its constitutive basis in imperial practices and imagination — and the continuing structural hierarchies that mark internal collective life. It also critically de-fangs reformist projects. Thus, I’m attracted to colonial narratives of the American experience for many of the reasons that they appealed to black radicals. For W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, and others, liberal incorporation could not solve problems of race, because race was not just a domestic issue of civic inclusion. It was the specifically American embodiment of a global problem of empire.
Moreover, this wider problem was centrally about the structural reproduction of global economic hierarchies. For this reason, even if blacks were fully included as liberal citizens, this would not alter how the US was embedded in relations of capital and empire. It would not change the structural effects at home — racially inflected economic exploitation — or abroad. In a sense, colonialism allowed black radicals and other groups to articulate both the global and class dimensions of American race relations.
Just as important, the colonialism frame allowed both black radicals and indigenous activists like Vine Deloria Jr to highlight the real harm to oppressed communities generated by traditional creedal narratives. These narratives compel outsider groups, as a condition of any reform, to accept and repeat self-validating majority narratives (America is exceptional, inherently free and equal, its telos is liberal fulfillment, etc.).
It tells indigenous peoples in the United States that, as a requirement of gaining minimal respect (not even actual sovereignty and political autonomy), one has first to agree to one’s own expropriation as the natural order of things. And similarly, it requires blacks to deny that their sustained experience of enslavement and subordination embodies an essential, perhaps irredeemable, truth about the nation’s character.
By contrast, the colonialism language provided such activists a framework for confronting the majority society with a sense of that society’s own irredeemability and also for articulating their experiences of deep alienation. It further underscored why their natural allies in freedom struggles were not always or necessarily fellow (white) nationals but also colonized peoples abroad.
You argue that the rise of administratively broad and interventionist federal power from the Progressive era to the New Deal marked a fundamental mutation of settler freedom: its internally animating democratic core is lost — even as its dominative orientation toward those external to, or deemed unfit for, membership within the national polity is effectively transferred from a national-territorial to a global scale.
The rise of the (albeit truncated) US welfare-state in this sense marks a paradoxical attrition of the egalitarian kernel of autonomous self-rule that defined settler freedom from its origin. It also goes hand in hand with greater formal inclusion of indigenous and racial others, a fact that enhances the state’s own legitimacy. Despite this, a potent settler animus is retained as a dimension of rancorous domestic politics, and also within the operations of ever more expansive US state violence around the world.
You’re hitting on a central claim for me. I argue that for all the basic transformations in the US in the twentieth century — from the rise of the administrative state to civil rights successes — the country’s internal institutions and external practices have retained settler structures. A key theme of my historical account involves the rejection of the idea that, even if settlerism oriented early American history, it has little to say about the present.
For many left-liberals, a common move is to recognize the country’s oppressive roots, but then to argue that through a combination of the New Deal in the 1930s and the so-called Second Reconstruction in the 1960s, the nation was in effect fundamentally transformed on free and equal grounds. So they reject a conservative reading of the founding as perfect and unmarred, but nonetheless participate in the overall creedal story of self-fulfillment and redemption.
My view, by contrast, is that creedal arguments gained prominence out of a sense of ideological uncertainty that enveloped the United States in the early twentieth century. In particular, the closing of the frontier and the country’s emergence onto the global stage with the Spanish American War raised basic questions about the future of colonial settlement as well as the meaning of American power in the world.
In this context, many American elites began to rally around a specific reading of American universalism as the defining characteristic of the community. This view separated European imperialism on the one hand from American global influence on the other, with the latter depicted as benign tutelage fundamentally in keeping with the basic interests of nonwhite peoples.
Such civic arguments steadily reimagined the country in more inclusive terms. But, critically, they also provided an ideological framework that allowed classically privileged American insiders to preserve the basic institutional structures of the polity — those of an increasingly completed settler project — while at the same time asserting greater authority internationally.
As a result, although the country’s identity shifted from a settler to a civic nation, the roots persisted — Americans never properly confronted the country’s colonial infrastructure or its imperial legacies. To appreciate how the move to a creedal frame reconstituted but — crucially — also protected settler hierarchies, one need only compare US domestic reforms to decolonization efforts in Asia and Africa.
It is certainly true that, over the course of the twentieth century, oppressed groups within the US have been able to access greater legal protections. But these changes have occurred on ideological terms shaped by the dominant majority. Unlike colonized peoples abroad, blacks, American Indians, Mexicans, and others have never been able to impose within the United States an actual conscious moment of colonial accounting.
There has been no symbolic raising of a new flag or writing of a new governing text, let alone imposition of the type of sustained policies — such as those of reparations, land return, meaningful sovereignty, and systematic resource redistribution — that defined actual decolonization efforts elsewhere.
Instead, in the US the project of inclusion — as opposed to decolonization — has concentrated narrowly on distributing more fairly the country’s few positions of corporate, professional, and governmental power. The result, although clearly a move away from classic settler norms, has been mostly to broaden the composition of socially privileged groups at the top rather than to undermine privilege as such or to eliminate its racially inflected character.
Thus the country can have a nonwhite person as president, secretary of state, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff without any expectation that this individual will challenge the basic parameters of economic and racial hierarchy or of American interventionism abroad.
Furthermore, all of this occurs in the context of an expansive bureaucratic state, a lasting institutional legacy of mid-twentieth century American political development. This administrative state is organized around an increasingly centralized presidential system and is both infused with corporate interests as well as insulated from mobilized popular pressure. I should note that I am avowedly statist in my politics; I believe strongly in the democratic potential of both the state and its bureaucratic infrastructure.
So the problem for me is not state power as such, but the corporatist mode of state power that dominates American politics. The rise of this particular form means that, paradoxically, just as marginalized communities in the past half century have gained formal rights and greater electoral power, the public’s overall capacity to direct large-scale economic and political institutions has seen a sharp decline.
How do you respond to the criticism that your concept of settler freedom is nostalgic or exculpatory? What do you gain by arguing that there is something emancipatory about settlerism that might be severed from its brutalizing legacies?
These questions go right to the heart of the main criticisms I’ve faced. Broadly stated the book has received two types of pushback.
The first is different from the criticism you raise and comes from scholars who are deeply suspicious of the rise of settler colonial accounts of American life in history, literature, and political theory. Their basic critique is that the concept is too mono-causal and teleological. It seems to explain everything and in the process discounts the complexity of the historical record and events on the ground.
My response is that perceiving structures and continuities in the face of complexity is precisely the purpose of such concepts. For me, the settler rubric allows one to appreciate how seemingly disparate social experiences (slavery, native expropriation, relatively open European migration practices but combined with Chinese exclusion) were tied together by a coherent vision of power and sovereignty.
Although the lens is inevitably selective as to some elements of the past, it allows us to recognize institutional features and ongoing dynamics that are otherwise ignored. In my view, it is no different than many other concepts: capitalism, neoliberalism, white supremacy, empire. All of these concepts — by their very nature — reduce complexity, but if employed well, each tells us something about the interconnected relationship between seemingly distinct social practices.
The second type of pushback is that by describing the internal practice of self-rule within settler society as a rich account of freedom, I am, in effect, legitimating settler practices (the concern you highlight). I think this is a fair worry and one that I’ve struggled with.
My basic theoretical position is that freedom and subordination are inextricably connected to one another in any historical context. Moreover, groups understand the meaning of freedom in particular conditions in relation to those modes of oppression that are prevalent on the ground.
For me, the expansive notion of freedom as self-rule — as a condition of popular authority over economic and political life — which emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century, developed precisely out of close proximity to its living negations: slavery and native expropriation. Settler laborers in particular came to see freedom as more than just formal political and legal rights, but actual control over the conditions of production, economic independence, and democratic self-government. This was a robust vision, albeit deeply circumscribed given that the heart of settler ideology was that such freedom at root required native removal and exploited labor.
Thus, to universalize settler liberty — as I argue for in the book — would require a fundamental restructuring of American life. This is something radical critics themselves perceived at various moments in American history. It would mean thinking about how a democratic principle could actually govern all institutional sites and provide all communities with meaningful economic and political power.
Such an effort would transform, root and branch, settler legacies and living practices: from recognizing Indian sovereignty to fundamentally altering the structure of the economy to challenging the border as a closed barrier. The key thing to note is that such freedom, although emerging from a settler past, would no longer perpetuate settlerism.
This speaks to what I see as the dialectical character of freedom, where the conflict between an initial account of liberty and its opposition produces something new. And similarly, I would add that I do not believe that if we ever “universalized” settler freedom this would mean the end of subordination once and for all. Rather, in keeping with the dialectical vision, even successful projects of emancipation generate new legal and political orders that knit together secured liberties with emerging hierarchies.
In other words, the struggle for freedom is ongoing; it requires an aspiration to utopia but is never completely redeemed in history. This is to say that I don’t believe we can overcome the impasse of settler violence simply by rising above it or thinking differently — we are stuck with our particular histories and the modes of freedom and subordination that constitute our discursive frameworks and institutional practices. These histories open up the possibility of transformation — they give us tools to imagine utopias — but they can never be completely overcome.
This also underscores why my argument is not nostalgic, despite its discussion of the emancipatory dimensions of settler freedom. Those emancipatory elements were grounded in extreme violence. Indeed, one reason why I choose to refer to these arguments as “settler” — with all its fraught implications — rather than simply republican, populist, or socialist is to avoid extricating American economic radicalism from its colonial underpinnings.
This history of extreme violence means that there is no past we need to find a way back to; the settler experience offers no golden age before modern American imperialism. This acknowledgment perhaps distinguishes my views from those of critics like Christopher Lasch or even William Appleman Williams. If anything, for me, the two logics of empire — settler colonization and global police power — cannot be thought of as distinct historical periods. They are deeply interlinked and fold into one another rather than marking clear breaks or ruptures in time.
Why does this discussion of settler freedom as integral to US conceptions of sovereignty and governance matter for something called the Left today?
I think it’s essential for at least two reasons.
First, a remarkable feature of US domestic conversations about capitalism and economic inequality is the extent to which they are often separated from conversations about the application of US power abroad. As just one example, take the issue of immigration and immigrant rights, a focal point of new labor organizing on the one hand and conservative reaction on the other.
The overwhelming tendency is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place. The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied to patterns of colonization and empire that stitch together the Global North and the Global South, as well as to the recent security politics of the US and Europe across the post-colonial world.
On the Left, it’s obviously taken as a truism that capitalism is a global system requiring global political action. But without articulating the mutually constitutive relationship between capitalism and the ongoing politics of empire, it’s very hard to perceive the truly global dimension of economic inequality. Moreover, the separation between what’s viewed as “domestic” and what’s viewed as “foreign” means that it’s equally difficult to recognize and develop solidarities between communities in the North and in the South or to appreciate how seemingly US-centered struggles may be only one piece of a broader global reality.
A key effect is the decline of a self-conscious and committed internationalist sensibility among economic reformers in the US. Thinking of inequality in isolation from colonialism or from exercises of American hegemony essentially leaves uncontested the security ends of the US state, ends that feed back in direct and indirect ways precisely into sustaining corporate power and class hierarchies at home.
It should be noted that during the heyday of the labor movement or of black radicalism, activists very clearly articulated an independent foreign policy grounded above all in the interests of oppressed communities — one that emphasized solidarities abroad (between workers or colonized peoples) and that directly challenged the security state itself. Nothing like this exists at present, and I can’t help but think that one reason is the discursive disconnect between questions of economy on the one hand and those of race, empire, and hegemony on the other.
The second reason for bringing the legacies of settler empire back into our discussions of capitalism has to do with specifically American roadblocks to social democracy. Thomas Piketty notes that the United States in the nineteenth century was marked by far greater white economic equality than European counterparts. But he spends less time on the essentially colonial explanation for this fact.
Throughout American history, the tension between capitalism and both democratic self-government and economic independence has largely been resolved through native expropriation and/or racialized economic subordination. And many of the great American struggles to replace capitalism with a more humane political economy have foundered precisely on questions of membership.
For example, radicals during Reconstruction, the Populist movement, the New Deal, and the long black freedom struggle all emphasized the need to pursue policies that made economic justice both universal and effective. Yet all faced powerful counterforces that defined membership narrowly and reverted to colonial dichotomies of insiders and outsiders, in the process breaking class solidarities and preserving racial and economic privileges. To return to immigration, today we can see this dynamic playing out once more in the context of debates around the legal rights and status of undocumented workers.
To make matters worse, a common American narrative has been to blame oppressed communities for the collapse of “universal” economic agendas. The conventional story of the 1960s instructs us that it is black radicals at the close of the decade that were not universalistic enough — despite the fact that they maintained a persistent and thoroughgoing critique of capitalism — and thus scared away potential white allies, fatally compromising left-liberal change. This blame narrative suggests just how pernicious race in particular and colonial legacies more generally have been for fulfilling social democratic goals.
The politics of exclusion has been a persistent means of cleaving class solidarities and undermining direct confrontation with the prevailing economic order. The collapse of these solidarities has then been blamed on the very radicals — particularly within excluded communities — that were at the forefront of pressing for universal and revolutionary reform in the first place.
The only way that these cycles of retrenchment and blame can be broken in the United States is by fully integrating our conversations about class and race, capitalism and colonialism.