Newsletter #75: Settler-Colonialism Never Ended, with Brenna Bhandar

By Mack Penner

It’s common to hear that settler-colonial projects can be and have been “completed.” In North America, the idea goes, settler-colonialism was an exercise in building white settler nation-states; come the end of the nineteenth century, that process was done. It’s a false view, as we learn from Brenna Bhandar’s interview with The Dig, but rejecting the idea that settler-colonialism is complete shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging its historic specificities. 

We can still see that settler-colonialism changes form over time, metabolizing historical change to continue along under shifting circumstances. There is plenty of debate over how to convert this insight into a periodization of settler-colonialism in any given context. In Canada, for example, the historian Allan Greer has argued recently that settler-colonialism has co-existed with “extractivist” and “imperial/commercial penetrative” forms of colonialism. The question of which form dominates in a particular place and time is contingent, so there is little consensus on exactly how these periodizations should be applied.

As proof that settler-colonialism is indeed an ongoing historical process, it’s worth dwelling further on Bhandar’s discussion of neoliberalism and its relationship to colonial property regimes. The 1990s saw an explosion of assimilationist polemics from conservative intellectuals and academics in Canada arguing that the market would set Indigenous peoples free. Economists Helmar Drost, Brian Lee Crowley, and Richard Schwindt published a book entitled Market Solutions for Native Poverty in 1995. A 2000 book by political scientist Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts, was like a synthetic statement of these percolating ideas. The book’s upshot was that Indigenous peoples needed to be incorporated fully in the Canadian private property regime and its attendant capitalist market relations to become “prosperous, self-supporting citizens.” 

There were a number of historical developments specific to Canada in the 1990s that played a major role in prompting these arguments and giving them a wide public hearing. But it’s also impossible to ignore that these paeans to the virtues of private property and markets came at a high point of neoliberalism. Working with neoliberalism as an idea (Flanagan and Crowley were both devoted followers of Friedrich Hayek) but also as a market-privileging political economy, these settler intellectuals saw an opportunity to leverage history for their ends. If coercive nineteenth-century forms of settler-colonialism were off the table (almost — the final Indian Residential School didn’t close until 1996), market assimilationism was a kind of settler tactic suited to the end of the twentieth century.

Further Reading and Listening  On the topic of colonialism and its myriad “types,” I recently read a very interesting article by historian Emilie Connolly. If you have access, “Fiduciary Colonialism: Annuities and Native Dispossession in the Early United States” is well worth reading in the American Historical Review. 

Also on the issue of colonial types, in this case the extractive type, The Dig’s 2020 interview with Bathsheba Demuth on her book Floating Coast is available here.