Interrogating the Fantasy and Impact of Displacement: A Conversation with Lorenzo Veracini on Settler Colonialism as a Political Idea

In this conversation at the Review of Democracy, Lorenzo Veracini reflects on key ideas in his new intellectual history of settler colonialism The World Turned Inside Out. Veracini outlines the transnational coherence of the political sensibilities and rhetorical traditions of settler colonialism and shows how attention to ideas and practices of displacement might help us make sense of the historical paradox that democracies are based on genocide and racial exclusion. He also discusses the emergence of a new and critical historiography of the settler movements and points to current expressions of the settler colonial reflex and political disposition.

Lorenzo Veracini teaches history and politics at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. His research focuses on the comparative history of colonial systems. He has authored Israel and Settler Society (2006), Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010), The Settler Colonial Present (2015), and The World Turned Inside Out (2021). Lorenzo also co-edited The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism (2016), manages the settler colonial studies blog, and was Founding Editor of Settler Colonial Studies.

Ferenc Laczó: Your new book, The World Turned Inside Out explores the global circulation of colonial practices and political ideas and, more specifically, how displacement has come to be seen as a solution to rising contradictions. Your chief aim appears to be to study a political sensibility and a rhetorical tradition. This book in intellectual history, unlike many others in this field, considers space in a prominent way to reflect on emplaced versus displaced change. What key conclusions can be drawn about settler colonialism as a political idea when considering space so prominently?

Lorenzo Veracini: ‘Political sensibility and a rhetorical tradition’ is exactly what I intended to focus on. And space: the settler colonialists that established and expanded the neo-Europes were shaping their politics around space. This should be considered because they believed that space would make a big difference to their politics.

We knew, obviously, that settlers move across space, but the implications that displacement would have on the forms of their political organizations, and what they thought about it, had not been interrogated.

I discovered that despite specific and contextual differences the individuals who imagined setting up settler colonies in separate locations, and those who actually organized and promoted them, believed that they could escape contradictions. They believed that a literal escape, a lateral movement, would provide the opportunity for a metaphorical escape. They all felt that they would not need to face contradictions if only they were able to move away.

The World Turned Inside Out narrates the emergence and evolution of a global political tradition, that of settler colonialism. You mention in the book that settler colonialism’s emergence has to do with the transition to a capitalist economy and what we might call a general strike against wage labor. How and why does this specific political tradition emerge in the first place?

The political tradition I explore in my book responded in specific ways to rising contradictions. Others had other ideas, of course, and the debates separating those who embraced contradictions and those who were intent on repressing them are well known. Wage labor, for example, had once been unknown and then it became widespread. Its diffusion and the ways it displaced other forms of labor were fiercely contested processes and it took centuries.

This has all been studied, but I believe that we had been missing a piece of the political puzzle.

There were those who believed that wage labor was inevitable, and those who believed that it was intolerably disruptive, those who could be located in the spectrum of possibility encompassing these two extremes, and those who asserted that a different geography elsewhere would provide the answer to all social contradictions.

There was fright, there was fight, and there was flight.

You also argue that there has been a high degree of transnational coherence when it comes to the political imagination of the various agents, or perpetrators, of settler colonialism. To add a question of a more methodological character, how were you able to detect and reconstruct the transnational coherence of the kind of political sensibilities and rhetorical traditions you were interested in?

I was able to recognize a suite of persistent tropes emerging from the sources and the archives I was able to access.

My comparative outline thus relied on consistent patterns and on a surprising thematic coherence that persists across centuries and national traditions.

But I feel that we should clarify here that settler colonialism is both a specific mode of domination, a type of colonialism that targets Indigenous collectives and sovereignties for replacement and elimination rather than subordination, and the politics and ideologies that the settler colonial collectives express and pursue.

A desire to establish new political orders elsewhere is necessarily premised on a determination to destroy the Indigenous lifeworlds that the settlers inevitably encounter.

Thus, what I observed in my book was the historical trajectory of a fantasy. Escaping contradictions in one place implies facing contradictions in another, while the contradictions the settlers see themselves escaping catch up anyway.

You discuss what becomes the US and Australia rather extensively in the book but also address Russian and Jewish histories, among others. Would you be willing to speak to some of the main specificities of these various national cases? What do these cases all share when it comes to settler colonialism as a political idea and where might they differ from one another?

They differ, and greatly – this is not surprising. And they differ primarily because the contradictions the promoters of the settler colonies face and imagine themselves escaping are wildly different. My work was principally interested in examining recurrent rhetorical patterns and the advisability of a comparative approach. In this interpretative context, thematic convergence becomes more significant when the specificities of each national settler colonial tradition are considered, not less.

The Russian tradition of settler colonialism responded to the growing prospect of a peasant revolution, while the Zionists who opted to move to Palestine (and those who remained in Europe and elsewhere, and yet supported the efforts of those who would go there) were responding to the growing possibilities of assimilation and socialist revolution. And yet they both decided that the best option in the face of what they saw as inevitable and coming upheavals was to avoid contradiction by setting up colonies elsewhere.

While the book presents displacement as an alternative that was favored in order to pre-empt revolution, projects of regeneration in a colony might also have been imagined after the defeat of more progressive causes in the metropole. As you show, reactionaries have often dreamt of recreating the “natural order” among settlers, but revolutionaries may have also become colonialists upon changing their location. You thus underline that both right-wingers and left-wingers are part of the history of settler colonialism. How relevant is the distinction between these two political orientations when it comes to settler colonialism?

One of the findings of my research is that displacement and settlement disrupt the categories of “right” and “left”. They no longer make sense when space and displacement are taken into account.

Thinking a third political, rhetorical, and imaginative tradition helps making sense of what otherwise seem intractable contradictions, including ‘inclusive’ democracies based on genocide and racial exclusion, the colonial crimes of merciless humanitarians, and the odd spectacle of hardened militants who would shoot their class enemies from a barricade in one place but would happily contribute to their projects of social reform if they happen to be located in some colony across the ocean.

That conservatives who were fearing revolution and defeated revolutionaries fearing that revolution will never come should fiercely oppose each other in one location and yet actively collaborate elsewhere is otherwise unexplainable.

They imagine radically different colonies, but they both imagine colonies nonetheless.

In this book, you explore the idea and the practice of government by and for colonists who claim the land and develop their sovereign capacity. In other words, your interest is clearly in the perpetrators and their imaginings. Are there perhaps specific political traditions that have been developed by those who have fallen victim to, been excluded from and oppressed by projects of settler colonialism? How might a history of those “on the other side” of this history look like?

Indigenous resistors are effective and resilient opponents of settler colonialism. They have protected their political autonomy and are demanding recognition of their sovereign and unsurrendered prerogatives.

Their stories and resistances were once neglected but are now being recovered by a growing scholarly movement led by Indigenous intellectuals.

The historiographies of many settler societies have been rewritten in the light of this developing global Indigenous paradigm and in the context of various “reconciliation” movements. On the basis of this achievement, a new and critical historiography of the settler movements can be approached.

Settler colonialism was once a matter of national settler achievement and is now rightly reinterpreted as genocidal destruction.

At the same time, this undoing of settler nationalisms and their myths enables transnational and comparative approaches, on the one hand, and facilitates an inquiry on what the settler were escaping and why, on the other. We can now look at the political fantasies that made settler colonialism possible.

Life on the land became ever more difficult and settling communities at newer frontiers did so too. The global settler revolution clearly came to an end. However, you emphasize that the prospects related to settler colonialism have retained some appeal. Would you be willing to discuss how such prospects continue to shape the political imagination today – whether via notions of the world wide web, projects proposed by the ultrarich, or otherwise?

I wanted to explore the political traditions of the settler movements in their historical evolution and their legacies. I wanted to write an intellectual history, but also to offer a key to interpret contemporary debates.

Thus, I included in my work what I believe are current expressions of the very same settler colonial reflex and political disposition: prospecting displacement as an alternative to growing contradictions. I found that there are many such movements, that the world is full of contradictions, and that fright, fight and flight are still interacting in dynamic ways.

The web was once a “place” suitable for Jeffersonian democracy, even though it has now been appropriated by corporate global platforms. Facing climate change, many are proposing to relocate. Of course, many will have no such choice, and will need to relocate because their countries will become uninhabitable – they will be the climate refugees, not the climate settlers.

Indeed, the prospect of setting up worlds elsewhere rather than changing this one is still shaping our political imagination.

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