The recent recapitulation of the inglorious – indeed terrible and vile – legacy of British colonialism by the Indian MP and writer Shashi Tahroor, and his demand of token reparations for its rapacity, has occasioned some welcome publicity for a topic where it is remarkably scarce despite its smouldering relevance.
Tharoor’s Indian nationalist framing of the question of colonialism fails, however, to get a measure of its scale and significance for our extraordinary historical moment. The world scene presents itself today as the rapid gathering of a perfect storm. News of cyclonic eruptions from the South is but par for the course. Now it is the North that moves into the eye of the global tsunami.
The all but eschatological election of Donald Trump has somewhat eclipsed the equally remarkable and successful movement for Britain to leave the European Union that has unearthed a breathtaking continent of simmering racist sentiment that exists to this very day in old England – this island of such extraordinary world-historical significance in the modern period – a re-emerging dark continent of violence that in fact joins Britain with Europe, where this ‘question of immigrants’ (akin to other questions Europe has historically asked itself – about others) is key to the ascendance of assertive and triumphalist nationalism and racist forces, not least in the other Anglo-Saxon power in the West outside geographical Europe and across the Atlantic.
The Anglo-Saxons are far from alone in the West in wanting their ‘country back’, but they do carry a special significance. In a more sanguine assessment than Tharoor’s, the distinguished Barbadian historian, Hilary Beckles, made a resonating call year before last to then British Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of the Caribbean Community, to make a “commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up the monumental mess of empire.” Far from making such a sane commitment, it appears that the Anglo-Saxons (as the West in general) are bracing themselves to exponentially multiply a mess already so monumental as to be of geological proportions.
A true measure of the horrific significance of these developments in the West cannot be had without reference to the larger historical context in which they unfold, since that context has a direct bearing on the meaning of the West in our moment in global history.
We are now well informed that the single most significant, the defining fact of our global historical situation today is that we live in the Anthropocene — indeed, that we live in what stratigraphers call the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the Anthropocene, indicating a gathering rapidity in the pace of the comprehensive and catastrophic anthropogenic transformation of the Earth system that is indicated by the new term, a transformation that is more searingly palpable every year across the globe.
The Anglo-Saxons are far from alone in the West in wanting their ‘country back’, but they do carry a special significance.
The unprecedented significance of this new periodisation of our times comes from the fact that it is unlike all the previous periodic terms that we moderns have generally used to make sense (or nonsense, as the case may be) of our own, human history: Antiquity, the Medieval, Renaissance/Reformation, Enlightenment, Modernity, etc. For the Anthropocene takes its measure not from a centurial, or even millennial historical scale — but a geological one, stretching over tens of thousands and millions of years.
This latter scale shows us that the time period in which we now live is climatologically and geologically different from that which prevailed during the entire historical course of what we call ‘human civilisation’ – all of which transpired in the climato-geological period immediately preceding ours, the 11,700-year Holocene that ended, we now know, with the onset of, on the one hand, fossil-fuelled industrialisation in Europe, and concomitantly on the other, cash-crop (which is to say, modern and ‘industrial’) agricultural production in Europe’s global colonies, together with biocidal modern warfare as the third of the most significant factors in the launching of our own geologico-historical epoch of the Anthropocene.
Two centuries later today, the differences between all premodern societies with all their voluminous plurality pale into insignificance in the face of the historical difference that now exists between us and them. Indeed, take into account that we are in the midst of a terrifyingly rapid sixth mass extinction of species across the planet – such an event having last transpired, at a much slower pace, 65 million years and several geological ages ago – and there is evidently no measure of the singularity of our situation. If anyone still entertains such a notion, it is an illusion that we live in the same world as our premodern ancestors – the very earth and its air is different today.
In an important sense, the discovery of this chasmic historical rupture should not surprise us at all: after all, haven’t we moderns always – that is, since the historical measure of the ‘modern’ has existed – thought of ourselves as being historically different from all peoples of the past? Hasn’t such a historical measure of ourselves always been essential to our very sense of our modernity? It only turns out that the historical was to have been a catastrophic measure: not the romance of the historical elevation and salvation of man, but the tragedy of his utter debasement and (possible) suicidal historical extinction.
It also turns out that we moderns were more right than we bargained for when we thought we were historical agents unlike all other peoples of the past because we were – through the sedulous aggrandisement and cultivation of our individual potential as much as through our national initiatives, movements and states, as well as through the resoluteness of our universal national will to transform our human condition – self-conscious makers of our individual and collective histories and destinies. It turns out that we are indeed historical agents – and then some: we are geological agents, even if not as it turns out, so terribly self-aware of the gravity of our gigantic deeds, the ultimate meaning of our monstrous actions.
Of course, the use of the first-person plural begs the question of who is the collectivity being referenced here? That is, who exactly is the human named – in the ‘anthropos’ as much as in ‘we moderns’ – for humanity itself is decidedly not one? It bespeaks some chutzpah that even as the credit for making the wonderful modern world is taken by the West, the blame for the unprecedented destruction it has waged is to be shared by all humanity, attributed to ‘human nature’ – which as everyone knows, is ambitious and selfish (to which we’ll return anon enough below) – no doubt the paradigm case of having your (world-historical) cake and eating it too.
Take into account that we are in the midst of a terrifyingly rapid sixth mass extinction of species across the planet – such an event having last transpired, at a much slower pace, 65 million years and several geological ages ago – and there is evidently no measure of the singularity of our situation.
In evident fact, not all of us are ‘self-conscious’ makers of our own histories and destinies in the same measure – indeed, the vast majority of humans actually existing over this time period cannot be said in any meaningful sense, to have made modern ‘History’ at all (and it is this history with a capital ‘H’ that is meant when one speaks of modern history, national or global – and to make this history, one has to have, as the American argot has it, ‘made it’ in History, individually and/or as a nation). I refer of course to the tremendous global multitude whom the great anthropologist of our times, Talal Asad, has called the ‘conscripts of modernity.’
Giving credit where credit is due then, the French environmental historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz propose a more precisely indicative neologism in their recent, The Shock of the Anthropocene: Earth, History and Us – a book of epochal sweep and brilliance – where they call it the ‘Anglocene’. Indeed, in the region of South Asia we know all too well, as do others in the lion’s share of the post-colonial world, that the English-speaking peoples, the Anglo-Saxons have of all, made the wonderful modern world in which we all live today. But let us not split hairs, and let us leave their family quarrels to the Europeans. Distributing the credit more evenly amongst them – and out of deference to all who would wish to be included in this august company – I propose that we call the current climato-geologico-historical period the ‘Goracene’.
For those committed to the integrity of the Latinate (such as the French, e.g.), this might be translated as the ‘Blancocene,’ which has the added advantage of connoting the erasive, not to mention the insipid, character of the age indexed, or alternatively, if one wishes to capture the darkness of the age, the ‘Occidentocene’ (others might adapt it to their own local idioms, e.g., Latin Americans could call it the ‘Gringocene’).
No doubt this new nomenclature will seem too radical ab initio, so for the moment, let us persist with the Anthropocene. It should be obvious even if it is not that no such monumental, unprecedented transformation in the place of the human in the order of nature could fail to have coincided with an equally extraordinary transmutation in the order of the human world itself. The identification of the Anthropocene immediately puts into perspective the fantastic global transformation of human cultures and societies in the modern period as having been, indeed, of a specifically geological scale, given its tectonic depth and expanse.
Over the past few decades in particular, but really throughout the modern period in the alienated minor discourses of modernity, scholars and thinkers across the fields and disciplines of the arts, humanities and social sciences have shown in one aspect of human existence after another, that the post-Enlightenment period marks a spectacular series of tectonic shifts in the landscape of human being, chasmic ruptures sending shock waves through the entire field of human experience and ethos in the age of their modernisation. With the identification of the Anthropocene, we now have the right term to recapitulate this change, to reiterate the measure of this fantastic (which is not to say, phantasmatic) cultural and social transformation: geological.
Nationalism and the dramatic mutation of traditions across the world are the most well-known (less familiar but more significant is the global and on-going national reformation in the modern period of the ‘world religions’ so baptised by Gora). Modernisation and the nationalisation of traditions are historically coterminous processes, as it is the sanctified modern nation-state that is the ultimate instrument of modernity, and its emergences over the past two centuries or so, have had rippling tectonic impacts on human populations, among other features, creating deep fissures of global cartographic stretch, in the ability of humanity to coexist in its plurality globally and locally.
This unprecedented mutation of the human began, of course, in Europe. There is not enough space or occasion to record here in any detail the great transmogrification of gora cultures and societies in the making of their modernity, or the gargantuan global violence incessantly unleashed in the forging of modern Gora identity. To give only an indicative example with which many will be familiar: still on the cusp of modernity, well over a century before the Scottish Enlightenment, Shakespeare has Brutus defend his assassination of Caesar on the grounds that the latter was ‘ambitious’, a usage Anthony does not contest but himself severally employs when he later enumerates to the Romans the ways in which Caesar was not so.
Whether we moderns like it or not, no premodern state had ruled on the basis of race, a doctrine and an idea that was and is inextricably tied to the emergence of gora nationalism and progress in the wake of the ‘Enlightenment’.
By the middle of the 18th century, in Adam Smith’s writing, the valuation of the word had already been virtually turned on its head, and of course in our own time, Shakespeare’s usage appears as the archaic idiom of a long-lost age, all but incomprehensible in the era of neoliberalism, when ‘ambition’ rings as one of the highest, if not the highest, of our modern values. What sense could possibly have remained, after all, that ‘ambition’ is another name for narcissism and selfishness, and that these are not the best of human virtues, in a Mephistophelean time when getting ahead, when making progress is what earthly life, historical life – which as we modern secularists know, is the only life there is – is all about?
At the heart of the new gora culture and society forged in the making of modernity was, of course, ‘goraness’ —virtually inextricable from the idea of modernity and progress, which are Gora’s ownmost ambitious historical ventures. Though there is a small emergent field of Whiteness Studies in the US, given how essential it is as a feature of modernity, it is remarkable how unremarked and unreflected – even as it is everywhere reflected – ‘goraness’ remains. No doubt, there is for this, the simple explanation that being the very air we moderns breathe, it is invisible to us. But there is perhaps a deeper reason, to grasp which an analogical detour may be useful.
Since Avicenna, Muslims have conceptually understood God as wajib-ul-wujud, the ‘necessarily existing’, since all other existents depend upon God for the initiation and sustenance of their own existence. This necessity of God’s existence implies not just that it is higher, but also that Divine existence is more intense and more real. The visible world, existing only contingently, is hence only relatively real, its existence of a depleted intensity, ultimately a finite illusion, destined to pass. Ultimately, in this ontological schema, it is not the contingent and finite visible, but the infinitely and necessarily existing Invisible that is in fact Real. Now, if we divest the anachronistic vertical investment in this ontology of theological reason, and reinvest it in the horizontal plane of secular historical reason, it becomes immediately obvious why goraness is invisible in our own, modern historical ontology.
Whiteness is the Real of modernity. Ultimately in modernity, it is the White Race alone that exists necessarily, all others being contingent upon its higher, more intense existence: people who are not-white, people of colour, negations of their own negation, their anachronistic existence depleted of intensity by its own historical contingency, destined to pass away, trapped like all lower forms of existence, in the ceaseless, lazy deferral of their own promised emergence and completion, caught in brief, in an arrested development.
Indeed, it is by no means contingent that three quarters of a century after the onset of formal decolonisation, the nations that stand at the globally recognised forefront of the march of modernity are still gora nations – their exemplarity remains unassailable; indeed, it would appear, evermore resolutely so. Those who appear to join their stature only do so to be recognised … as goras (or close enough: too much proximity would be claustrophobic, not to mention uncivilized, for after all, one needs more than just elbow room, one needs – how should one say? – yes, some lebensraum for civility and civilisation as much as for progress).
At the heart of the new gora culture and society forged in the making of modernity was, of course, ‘goraness’ — virtually inextricable from the idea of modernity and progress, which are Gora’s ownmost ambitious historical ventures.
The close link between whiteness and modernity is above all evident institutionally and materially in the geological transformation in the state form represented by the emergence of the nation-state in the modern West — together with the creation of apartheid states in the colonial world (actually, both state forms were apartheid, but granting the latter alone will suffice here). Like all things Gora, even if well-known, even if self-evident, it remains insufficiently thought that the modern colonial state was in its soul and its form, in fact and in deed, an apartheid state – and that this represented a geological, a tectonic shift in state form no less than the nation-state.
Whether we moderns like it or not, no premodern state had ruled on the basis of race, a doctrine and an idea that was and is inextricably tied to the emergence of gora nationalism and progress in the wake of the ‘Enlightenment’. The latter, let us pause and remark here with some emphasis, given how banalised and obvious it has globally become, is a most extraordinary historical periodisation in itself: for in the past, ‘Enlightenment’ would have been characterised of extraordinary, luminous individuals. Now, entire peoples – people to be sure, as white as the light of their self-nominated historical age – are to have become ‘Enlightened,’ no doubt the most remarkable instance of Gora’s ingenious flair for historical self-glorification and sanctification, not to mention of Gora’s genius for inventing a truly diabolically twisted secular metaphysics that makes of (his own) wretched worldly history a theophanic event.
Whatever sense of superiority past rulers and ruling classes may have had of themselves, they did not have a sense of specifically historical superiority over their subjects, for the simple reason that the idea of progress, of the temporal elevation of a people by the manifest unfolding of secular forces and historical reason itself – rather than say, by the Divine election of a charismatic individual or family for an ultimately mysterious, occult destiny known only to God – did not exist. Is it possible to imagine, for instance, that the Timurid Emperor Akbar, who ruled as a son of Timur Lang (Taimerlane), Sahib-e-qiran (Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction), could have thought that he ruled: (a) the ‘Indian people’, or ‘Hindus’; (b) on behalf of the ‘Turkish people’, or even more phantasmatically, ‘Muslims’; and (c) that he did so because of the historical superiority of the latter over the former as evidenced in the progress that the latter had made?
Even if the Timurid kings may have thought of local populations as inferior, this was hierarchically modulated among the native, as in their own, classes. Furthermore, this whole frame of ‘foreigner’ and ‘native’ would in any case only apply to the early Timurid kings, since the later ones were like other dynasties before them, of course themselves fully ‘native’: for visceral proof of this, please google the photo of the (all but black) last Timurid king Bahadur Shah Zafar, and ask yourself if it is possible to imagine a black English king, or even a black English viceroy, since the Timurids being of Central Asian origin, were also ‘Aryan’ in the colour of their descent? As a matter of blinding historical fact, the Timurid was not an apartheid, colonial scene — hence it was impossible for the actors on its courtly stage to think that ‘these native peoples’ belonged to a ‘bygone age’ superseded by the arrival of ‘their own people’ in India.
The latter is a historically specific sense not just of national and racial superiority – the reason behind the compulsive, which is not to say neurotic, obsession of British rulers with how they came across to native populations as a people and a race – for unlike earlier dynastic empires, the historical novelty, the modernity of the British imperial formation lay in the fact that it was a national empire, as of course its very name indicates in contrast to earlier dynastic imperial formations. Very much a part of this novel national character of the British empire was the crowning glory of the British as of other post-Enlightenment goras: their historically specific sense of historical superiority — a singular stance that continues to dispose a genocidal regard towards all populations that happen to subsist in their depleted anachronistic existence into the plenitude of the modern present.
Even though it comes perfectly naturally to us moderns, the sense of historical superiority is the strangest thing ever: to think, to be certain that, as a matter of historical fact, people who live in a time do not actually belong to that time. For what the latter clause actually means and says (once corrected for the execrable grammar, the monstrous syntax of the metaphysics of historical reason) is that: these people who live in time (of course: where else would they be living?), do not belong in time. It is to treat living people as if they were already dead, as if they were their own ghosts, inhabiting a time that is not their own, haunting the modern present, as if asking to be banished from the world, calling in the manifest misery of their condition, for their own exorcism.
It is precisely this ghastly and macabre racist core of the modern idea of progress, the unrivalled satanic narcissism of the modern sense of historical superiority, that accounts for the singular and monstrous callousness, cruelty and ruthlessness of the modern European colonial states, settler and non-settler, that devastated and devoured the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘anachronistic’ peoples across the globe in historically unprecedented and teratoid famines (claiming as many as 35 million in India alone), in the most massive and monstrous forms of slavery ever experienced in human history, in mass dismemberment, in rampant genocide, in vicious extortion, extraction, immiseration, loot, humiliation and diabolical manipulation to divide and rule native populations in the interests and by the logic of apartheid – and all of this merely the human counterpart of planetary eco-geological destruction under the march of modernity – all in pursuit of the unparalleled individual and collective historical ambition and entitlement of Europeans, their various personal and national careerisms working in tandem to make up the world-historical career of Progress.
Even though it comes perfectly naturally to us moderns, the sense of historical superiority is the strangest thing ever: to think, to be certain that, as a matter of historical fact, people who live in a time do not actually belong to that time.
Even after what was no more than a merely formal decolonisation beginning in the middle of the 20th century, much of the aforementioned ‘processes’ continued, together with no less diabolical assassinations, machinations, wars, and relentless exploitation and expropriation through a globally rigged economic and political system – if only through corrupt plenipotentiary dictators and an intermediate sycophantic class of gora manqué native elites created by the apartheid colonial state itself – all of this a matter of historical record in the archives of Western states themselves. It is this, recent past – and it is imperative that we wake up and adjust our temporal lens to the geological expanse of our anthropocenic landscape – that accounts for what and where the Third World is today, rather than a self-aggrandising, self-serving metaphysics of Progress, a modern Occidental metaphysics of Culture and History that outrageously continues to insist on blaming the victims of its own stupendous violence in a time when all is all but lost because of it.
In historical fact, the apartheid form of the colonial state meant that, unlike all premodern states, it ruled on behalf of a ‘nation’ and a ‘race’ – the Anglo-Saxon people – due to their evident historical superiority, a historically unprecedented condition and form of state, fiendish in its venomous and vile contempt for its subject populations to the very end (an end that never came, in fact), e.g., Churchill – who murdered millions in the Bengal famine on the very cusp of decolonisation and whose hideous mug has now been consecrated on paper sacred to the Anglo-Saxons: a currency bill – “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people, with a beastly religion.”
Indeed, it is because of this national-racial element of historical superiority that distinguishes the apartheid condition of modernity that to this very day, even those they call amongst themselves ‘white trash’ – bespeaking not only their extraordinary contempt for the ‘losers’ (impossible not to hear that word in an American accent) in the rat race of modernity, but also implicitly, that all non-white peoples are self-evidently trash anyway – even they are entitled to feel superior to darkies one and all, no matter how well the latter model themselves after the Gora. Far from being historically anomalous (South Africa, Israel), apartheid is the standard historical form of the Gora colonial state (including of course the US) that seized the global South (and then some) in its serpentine strangle, as it spread in the global stretch and sweep of modernity.
There is really no measure of the scale of mischief visited on the earth by this villainous and vile apartheid condition of modernity, for apartheid is in historical fact, apartheid all the way down: it does not just racially distinguish between the Gora and the kala, but perhaps even more menacingly, between the darkies (say, between Aryan Hindus and Semitic Muslims) — bringing the old Roman imperial governmental technique of divide et impera [divide and rule], limited as it was to the non-racial power-play of regional elites, to a new biological and national-racial intensity and pitch, with modern colonial governmental knowledge and technologies such as anthropology, philology and the census, suffusing identitarian division through the capillaries of culture and society, condemning the Earth to endless civil war, another modern first. Indeed so abyssal is the measure of apartheid modernity’s mischief that virtually the entire global population is caught in the struggle to become Gora (including goras themselves: what else would explain the need for eugenics, for instance, but that even they are not convinced that they are in fact truly Gora?). Truly being Gora is a God-like condition, demanding of humanity a universal theosis.
Now that we are aware that we live in the Goracene, when Gora’s historical (nay, geological) superiority is beyond question – manifest as it is in the sheer proven geological scale of modern Gora’s cyclopean powers of destruction in the monocular pursuit of his Progress – is it surprising that Gora again stands forth to resolutely retake the world-historical stage? Didn’t goras make this glorious modern world, and so don’t they deserve to have their historical superiority recognised? Are they not entitled – not for themselves, needless to say, but for History itself – to have their great freedom-loving and humanistic cultures and societies that birthed this historical superiority protected from the anachronistic hordes that inhabit and roam the ravaged Earth? If these dark hordes continue to infest these historically singular, truly modern, fair and lovely Gora cultures and societies, isn’t there a danger that, being deprived of its Real Culture, the very seed and possibility of Progress may disappear from World-History? The danger is already clear and present: already there are signs of depletion in the vital fluids of the West.
And is it surprising that it is of all goras, the Anglo-Saxons, Gora of Goras, who are again bracing to take the lead charge of world-history? It didn’t quite work out that grand world-historical prophecy at the end of the so-called ‘Cold War’ (which seemed quite a bit of a hot war down here in the South, but no doubt that was just an effect of the tropical weather). I mean of course the ‘End of History’ that seemed to have spontaneously transpired with the sudden implosion of the Soviet Union, as if the Spirit of Progress had just whisked away this great world-historical evil Empire. After all, the Spirit of Progress had been known to perform such feats of benevolent magic before — the great Saxon philosopher G W F Hegel, for instance, witnessed that the “purely natural culture” of Native Americans “had to perish as soon as the Spirit approached it after the Europeans had landed there”, and that “the natives were gradually destroyed by the breath (sic!) of European activity”.
Didn’t goras make this glorious modern world, and so don’t they deserve to have their historical superiority recognised?
The World-Spirit seems to have hoodwinked us this time around – so, alas, Gora must once again take on the burden of his historical superiority, take one last stand for History, against history. The dogma of Progress – the sacred religion proper to Gora, even if adopted by many – has got Gora’s mind all in a Trinitarian tizzy: Gora is God, Modernity is His Son, and History is the Holy Ghost, and no darkie will be allowed to breach the borders of this Sacred Circle, or even dare to cast his dark heathen shadow on this fair and lovely Holy Family. Or else, Gora will feel called upon to gather once again his eschatological powers and make a lot of history to End History. Gora undertook three such grand world-historical ventures in the last century – when Gora made a lot of history in remarkably brief periods of time in Gora’s Great World Wars (I count the ‘Cold War’ as the Great Third World War that it was, in more ways than one – everything goras do is of course Great, of World-Historical proportions, such historical grandeur being an essential quality of the Spirit of Gora).
Perhaps this time, in this time of the Goracene, we will finally have the longed-for End of History that is the telos of Progress after all. There’s even a fair chance (that is to say, a gora chance, not just fair, but lovely too – like Trump) that we’ll have it even before old Grandma Earth, now turning a bit curmudgeonly from all their harrying of her, finally catches up with the Progress of her enterprising, prodigal – which is not to say prodigious – Gora sons. If not, then perhaps there will be still a bit of time to remind Gora that for all her endless love and bounty, when one makes monstrous mischief – and raping her would count as such – there ain’t no fury like Gramma’s.
In the interim, how should we hope now, those of us of depleted historical existence, living in a time decidedly not our own, still and forever stuck in the historical exile of our own arrested development, those of us having little faith, little hope in History? And how should we pray, those of us who may have little nourishment apart from that of the soul, all of us who in any case know that being historically contingent, we are destined to pass away? How should we pray who still and forever address ourselves to the old Invisible God of the skies, to whom we know we are to return after the passing of this world – this pale illusion – at the end of our anonymous appearance, our hurried ghostly sojourn across this ghoulish historical stage: how should we pray?
Even if we didn’t know better, the monster protagonist here, the secular historical God of Progress – Gora – is in any case too seized by the festering, wounded inner life of his own world-historical Ego to hear, let alone to listen to our troubles. Prayer being a very personal matter, one can hardly presume to prescribe one for entire global populations. Personally, being modern and busy with my career, I find little time for lengthy prayer — so I pray simply: inshallah.
The author is the director of the Habib University Liberal Core Curriculum, and the former founding Dean of its School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, in Karachi. He would like to dedicate this essay to four of his gurus: Partha Chatterjee, Mahmood Mamdani, Ashis Nandy and Milind Wakankar.