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Volume 6, No 4, Winter 1996 [back]

Edward Said on Imperialism


Modern European imperialism itself is a constitutively and a radically different type of overseas domination from all earlier forms. Sheer scale and scope are only part of the difference. [...] By the beginning of World War I Europe and America held 85 percent of the earth's surface in some sort of colonial subjugation. This, I hasten to add, did not happen in a fit of absentminded whimsy or as a result of a distracted shopping spree.

It came about for a whole series of reasons, which the library of systematic work that now exists on imperialism, beginning with Hobson, Rosa Luxemburg, Schumpeter, and Lenin, has ascribed to largely economic and somewhat ambiguously characterized political processes. My own theory is that culture played a very important, indeed indispensable role. At the heart of European culture during the many decades of imperial expansion lay what could be called an undeterred and unrelenting Eurocentrism. This accumulated experiences, territories, peoples, histories; it studied them, classified them, verified them; but above all, it subordinated them to the culture and indeed the very idea of white Christian Europe. This cultural process has to be seen if not as the origin and cause, then at least as the vital, informing, and invigorating counterpoint to the economic and political machinery that we all concur stands at the center of imperialism. And it must also be noted that this Eurocentric culture relentlessly codified and observed everything about the non-European or presumably peripheral world, in so thorough and detailed a manner as to leave no item untouched, no culture unstudied, no people and land unclaimed. All of the subjugated peoples had it in common that they were considered to be naturally subservient to a superior, advanced, developed, and morally mature Europe, whose role in the non-European world was to rule, instruct, legislate, develop, and at the proper times, to discipline, war against, and is occasionally exterminate non-Europeans.

[from "Yeats and Decolonization", 1988, delivered in Ireland]

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