Towards a Non-Nation State

Detail from a poster for the Codesa talks. Credit: Judy Seidman

Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities
by Mahmood Mamdani
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 401 pp., $29.95

In his probing essay “In Search of a Majority” the late James Baldwin seeks to understand why Black people are treated the way they are in the United States. The reasoning he offers is nothing short of revolutionary: for Baldwin, Black people simply represent what white people believe they must never become. “In a way,” Baldwin writes “the Negro tells us where the bottom is: because he is there, and where he is, beneath us, we know where the limits are and how far we must not fall.”[i]

The logic used by Baldwin is revolutionary because it implies Blackness and whiteness are not givens. Rather, they are mutually constructed. White people have constructed a collective identity of self rooted in diametric opposition to a construction of Blackness. In other words, Whiteness is negatively constructed as anything other than Blackness, which is itself a construction. Once this identification through demarcation is made, it is then possible to act out sociality, politics, and economics through the prism of that demarcation, manifested in the United States by slavery, Jim Crow, and the “New Jim Crow.”[ii] Many scholars in the Black radical tradition accept Blackness not as a given, but indeed a constructed source of free and exploitable labor. To use Stuart Hall’s famous remark, “race is the modality in which class is lived.”[iii]

It is in this paradigm of race as a construct that Mahmood Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities offers an illuminating new understanding of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other forms of extreme violence in the modern era. One of many theses that Mamdani offers in the book is the argument that the tribal, racial, and ethnic conflicts which predicate campaigns of extreme violence today are not natural, but rather the enduring politicization of difference by European colonial powers. Mamdani convincingly argues over the course of 355 pages, multiple case studies, and a millennium of history that violence and the modern nation-state – colonial and post-colonial – are indivisible. The extreme violence of the post-Cold War, post-colonial era is not a deviation from the course of normal nation-state formation, but a new iteration of the same violence that European powers deployed in their own formation, both in Europe and in their former colonies.

Using South Africa and Sudan as case studies, Mamdani points out the ingenuity of British indirect rule of its colonial possessions. By amplifying, politicizing, and instrumentalizing existing differences in communities, British administrators were able to accomplish two goals: subject the “uncivilized” to various customary laws to be dispensed by tribal leaders who answer only to the colonizers and undermine the anti-colonial solidarity that was able to organize under direct rule. In Sudan, the tribal and ethnic distinctions constructed by the British were internalized by the Sudanese after independence, according to Mamdani. It was this internalization and false assumption that the Arab-African/Dinka-Nuer divides were natural that would drive the extreme violence of independent Sudan and the eventual secession and independence of South Sudan. In South Africa, the tribal differences constructed by the British morphed into a different kind of post-colonial violence: Apartheid.

In addition to historicizing race, tribe, and ethnicity as constructs of European imperialism, another goal of Neither Settler nor Native is to offer a critique of the way the world responds to extreme violence and ethnic cleansing. The prevailing notion of extreme violence as a crime, instantiated by institutions such as the International Criminal Court, fails to acknowledge the fundamentally political aspect of the violence. By pathologizing and individualizing extreme violence, the contemporary human rights regime capitulates to the false notion that, in the post-Cold War world, there are no more political questions, that violence at the end of history is a mere aberration and can only be addressed as criminal. This pervasive and misguided neoliberal belief, according to Mamdani, forecloses any investigation of the culpability of the modern nation-state as it was constructed by Europe and extended to its colonies and closes the door on political reform.

To explore this point, Mamdani contrasts two very different responses to extreme violence. To Mamdani, the Nuremberg Trials and denazification represent a failure to grasp the political nature of one of the most well known examples of extreme violence: the Holocaust. “The sacrifice of individual Nazi bodies – some placed in prisons, others executed –with no serious interrogation of the Nazi mind or its deep inheritance from and sympathy with the nationalist and colonialist imagination and the institutions animated by it,” was all that Nuremberg had to offer, Mamdani writes.[iv] Because Nuremberg and denazification only sought to punish individual Nazi officials and confer a sense of guilt on the German population, they neglected to consider a new definition of the political community that would allow Germans, Jews, and other groups to live peacefully under a German state. In this way, it upheld the homogenizing imperative of both the nation-state and the Nazi party, but only found fault in the way it was attempted by Hitler and his supporters. In a shocking statistic presented by Mamdani, throughout the years 1945-1949, 60 percent of West Germans thought “Nazism was a good idea, badly applied.”[v] Nuremberg and denazification failed to answer Europe’s Jewish Question. Viewed through this lens, Zionism, then, can be understood as the logical conclusion of Nazism, the Final Solution as Mamdani puts it, where the tragic violence of the nation-state is being reprised, this time with Jewish Zionists as the perpetrators and Palestinians as the victims.

How, then, can we escape the cyclical violence that is endemic to the nation-state? A potential answer, Mamdani claims, can be found in what he calls the South African Moment. During the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the negotiations to end juridical Apartheid, instead of dividing the populace into perpetrators and victims, or creating separate states for Afrikaners and Black South Africans, CODESA brought all together as survivors of Apartheid. In doing so, racial and ethnic differences were not ignored, but were de-politicized. In a new South Africa, membership of the political community would be based on residence, not nationality. “Key to the South African example,” Mamdani writes “is the recognition that the search for justice will be successful only if it is preceded by the pursuit of a new political order.”[vi] Mamdani readily concedes that today’s South Africa is not perfect (tribal differences and xenophobia still plague the state), but it does provide a glimpse of a future non-national state defined by its boundaries and not by its people.

The United States does not escape Mamdani’s intellectual ire. While the issues of tribal, ethnic, religious, and racial difference plague the everyday political discourse of states like Israel, Sudan, South Sudan, and South Africa, something even worse has occurred in the United States. Mamdani laments the fact that the colonization of American Indians, despite its continuity into the present, has been written out of the American historical narrative altogether. The average American could even be forgiven that, as per the Constitution, the American Indian remains a ward of Congress, a legislature in which they have no representation. Joining other historians that refute America’s claim to have never been an imperial power[vii], Mamdani reminds readers that “America mistakes itself for a new kind of nation, whereas in fact it is the continuation of the settler-colonial nation that the Crown and other Europeans created.”[viii] In other words, when examining its founding, the United States is not the grand experiment that we like to say it is. Rather, it is merely another perpetrator of violent conquest as demanded by the homogenizing imperative of the nation state: “Because so long as there exists an Indian community, it constitutes a claim on land and therefore a critique of settler sovereignty and an obstacle to the growth of the settler economy.”[ix] Deb Haaland’s historic nomination as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior is without a doubt a step in the right direction and should be celebrated by all. However, until Indigenous peoples are decoupled from their politicized identities, decolonized, and granted equal rights to full representation, the euphoria rings hollow.

For Baldwin, “if the Negro were not here, we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personalities, with all those vices, all those conundrums, and all those mysteries with which we have invested the Negro race.”[x] What Mamdani proposes as an alternative to criminal tribunals, nationalism, and the nation-state is not so different: in order to escape the homogenizing violence of political modernity, it is necessary to abolish the distinction between majority and minority, settler and native. The personalities, vices, conundrums, and mysteries of the nation-state are myriad, but as Mamdani’s South African Moment shows, they can be overcome through a recognition that, while some benefitted and some fell victim, we are all its survivors capable of reimagining a truly equitable future.


[i] Baldwin, James. “In Search of a Majority.” Essay. In Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. P. 133.

[ii] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

[iii] Hall, Stuart, Critcher, Chas, Jefferson, Tony, Clarke, John N., and Roberts, Brian. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

[iv] P. 118

[v] P. 142

[vi] P. 345

[vii] Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: a History of the Greater United States. First edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019; Grandin, Greg. The End of the Myth: from the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. First edition. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

[viii] P.99

[ix] P. 95

[x] Baldwin, P. 134

One thought on “Towards a Non-Nation State

  1. Absolute BS from a statistics and history POV. I am sick and tired for being the excuse for a failed male-centric tribal culture that refuses to assimilate, and using the worn-out excuse of slavery for personal life failures and choices. None of my former military or present Black Americans (what exactly is that term, bit racist – you are an American without the prefixes or you are not at all) ever used that pity me excuse used by Democrats, the original and continued slavers, or these ulterior motivated groups like BLM. Time to look at facts – what is holding back this minority (another term used bu politicians for their own power-based reasons) is themselves. How many whites were raped, robbed, assaulted or shot, even a young boy in Georgia and did we march into their Black Business and Neighborhoods and loot, burn and assault them?

    Time to end the enslavement of a lot of lazy looters that need a choice of growing up to be self-sufficient educated workers and professionals as their peers often from the same poor background as my immigrant family (escaping the very socialism these pathetic left wing souls profess). Selling sports as the only means out of neighborhoods riddled with crime, drugs and violent needs to end in high schools and colleges making a 2.0 grade average mandatory for all athletes.

    And having made a felon a martyr just completely defies logic, as of the half-a-story being presented in a trial of another madman who put his leg on this criminal’s neck.

    We have been fed a lot of media manure and it is time to squarely face the Black American story with today, not yesterday as none of these so-called victims deserve reparation, but owe me and my family for the tax monies wasted on them.

    Equal means being treated equal from standards of behavior, law, education and anything else.

    If anyone is discriminated against, it is the working class men regardless of their race or religion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.