Democracy and Colonialism

Theory and Event, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2010

5 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2011

See all articles by Neve Gordon

Neve Gordon

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Date Written: June 10, 2010


For some time now I have been pondering the closely knit relationship between democracy and colonialism. Notwithstanding the widespread conception among democracy theorists that there is a contradiction between the two, in this paper I contend that colonialism has served as a crucial component in the historical processes through which modern democracies were created and sustained. Focusing on the production of "the people" – namely, those who are acknowledged as citizens and consequently have been granted the right to participate in political decisions – I maintain that colonialism has been deployed by democracy as a force that unifies, limits, and stabilizes the people within the metropole by employing violent forms of exclusion. And yet, unlike other forms of exclusion which have been deemed accidents or aberrations and regarded as symptoms of democracy’s evolutionary development, political scientists have often assumed that colonialism is totally alien to democracy and indeed antithetical to the two basic democratic principles: sovereignty of the people and equality. I, by contrast, follow post-colonial theorists to argue that colonialism is a strategy employed by democracies (and, of course, other regimes) as a way of achieving not only geopolitical and economic goals, but also as a way of accomplishing social and political objectives within the metropole. Colonialism, in other words, also has a strategic role at home and the different forms of power that manifest themselves in the colony can be readily traced back to the democratic metropole. Moreover, the series of exclusions that colonialism produces are, I claim, part of democracy’s very logic and can operate in tandem with democracy’s basic principles. Insofar as this is the case, the democracy/colonial relationship can teach us something important about democracy for it reveals, using Michael Mann’s phrase, one of the dark sides of the so-called best possible regime. It underscores, for example, how democracy’s universalist and inclusionary claims are always bound up in colonial exclusionary practices that are implemented through the deployment of violence. My objective in this paper, however, is to further complicate this relationship by suggesting that the colonial practices and mechanisms deployed by democracies to limit and stabilize the people tend to return to haunt the democratic colonizers. Colonialism ends up engendering processes that de-stabilize the notion of the people and, consequently, produces a double movement that both contracts and extends democracy. What begins as a project of subjugation, may, at times, acquire an unexpected edge of inclusion.

Suggested Citation

Gordon, Neve, Democracy and Colonialism (June 10, 2010). Theory and Event, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Neve Gordon (Contact Author)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev ( email )

1 Ben-Gurion Blvd
Beer-Sheva 84105, 84105


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