The World Turned Inside Out: Settler Colonialism as a Political Idea, by Lorenzo Veracini

Neve Gordon has reservations about an ambitious analysis ranging across continents and centuries

December 23, 2021
“The Bullock-Waggons Wound Slowly over the Billowy Plains” by Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton illustrating review of “The World Turned Inside Out: Settler Colonialism as a Political Idea” by Lorenzo Veracini
Source: Alamy

About midway through The World Turned Inside Out, Lorenzo Veracini cites Victor Hugo. While the famous French author frequently wrote about the internal crises facing France, he was always very careful not to endorse revolution. Rather than agitate for revolutionary change, he urged his readers to relocate and make “old Africa fit for civilisation”.

“Go, peoples, take this land!” Hugo exclaimed, adding: “Who owns it? No one! Take this land that is God’s land…Take it!…Pour your surplus into Africa and, at the same time, solve your social problems. Transform your proletarians into property-owners.”

As Veracini explains, Hugo was merely expressing what was considered common sense among many French republicans. Compounding crises were consistently countered with the same well-known refrain: convince the riff-raff to relocate somewhere else and so turn proletarians into property-owners. Relocation and reinvention, rather than revolution, could mitigate social ills. “In each instance,” Veracini maintains, “defeat in the metropole enabled the colonial empire to figure more prominently as a symbol of national regeneration.”

The World Turned Inside Out offers an ambitious analysis. The author takes his readers on a captivating journey spanning five centuries and six continents in an effort to trace what he believes to be a recurring yet under-analysed historical movement. Indeed, he claims that the notion of a crisis triggering movement across space is a ubiquitous idea in the political traditions of Western modernity.

Veracini identifies this crisis-triggering movement with settler colonialism and distinguishes it from the search for riches or glory, which provides the sole motivation for non-settler colonial experiences. From Richard Hakluyt, whose Discourse of Western Planting (1584) stated that colonisation could help prevent trouble for a kingdom “swarminge at this day with valiant youthes rustinge and hurtfull by lacke of employment”, to George Henry Evans, a communitarian socialist and anti-slavery reformer who, in the 1840s, popularised the idea of free homesteads offering “emancipation” from unliveable wages to all those willing to relocate further west within the US, the main driver of settler colonialism was a desire either to pre-empt social unrest or to flee crisis. For Veracini, then, even the Young People’s Socialist League of California, which just moved from downtown Los Angeles to nearby Llano del Rio in 1914 to establish the “Plymouth Rock of the Cooperative Commonwealth” – in an effort to overcome exploitative wages and “taste the sweet fruit of cooperative labor in their own lifetimes” – fits the settler colonial bill.

Forging a connection between a broad spectrum of historical events, the author uses the phrase “the world turned inside out” to denote both settler colonialism and the notion of displacement, contrasting it with “the world turned upside down”, which is identified with revolution. Both revolution and displacement attempt to provide a solution to intensifying social contradictions and unrest, but whereas the first aims to introduce change from within, the second aspires to avert crisis by transferring populations outside the crisis zone. Hence, unlike revolution and even counter-revolution, displacement has a prominent spatial component. Displacement becomes the book’s primary trope, signifying a form of “emancipation” or “escape” from a place mired in contradictions, conflict and/or poverty.

The sheer breadth of Veracini’s study is genuinely remarkable, and yet, perhaps because of its ambitious scope, the book incorporates a number of noteworthy slippages and elisions.

One slippage relates to the very notion of displacement. In the book, this is often used to signify settler colonialism, even though settler colonialism is both much less and much more than displacement. Displacement, after all, is a much more capacious concept. Fleeing the potato famine, Irish refugees moved to Britain and the US, just as today refugees move from one place to another because of crisis; yet they are not settler colonialists. So while settler colonialism might be bound to certain kinds of displacement, displacement is clearly not bound to settler colonialism.

Yet settler colonialism is also much more than displacement, since it is constituted through a particular encounter between the settler and the indigenous population. Veracini is, of course, aware of the significance of this to any understanding of settler colonialism. In the introduction, he writes: “Displacement, as this book will show, begets further displacement and is inevitably predicated on violently displacing and dispossessing indigenous peoples and previous inhabitants, something the advocates of the world turned inside out rarely considered.” But while he states that the book’s focus on the “perpetrators and their imaginings” will not serve as a “distract[ion] from this fundamental fact”, The World Turned Inside Out does end up eliding the dispossession and oppression of indigenous peoples.

Admittedly, if we read his new book side by side with Veracini’s other works, such as Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview or Israel and Settler Society, a more comprehensive picture of the treatment of indigenous peoples emerges. Here, however, Veracini ends up describing the political idea of settler colonialism as if it can be disconnected from how the indigenous were treated. This, then, not only allows him to identify the Young People’s Socialist League’s relocation of only a few miles as a form of settler colonialism, and so fundamentally similar to the colonisation of Australia and South Africa, but to develop a political imaginary that, in some ways, partakes in the historical erasures that he himself has criticised throughout his career.

It is also important to query whether all historical manifestations of settler colonialism were indeed social mechanisms aimed at averting revolution or political crisis. Israel, my home country, is an interesting case study.

At first glance, it appears to fit Veracini’s thesis to a T. He describes how Leon Pinsker’s Auto-emancipation (1882) had already concluded that “antisemitic hatred was inevitable and eternal, and that the only solution was separation, ‘the foundation of a colonial community belonging to the Jews,’ and thus ‘the acquisition of a Jewish homeland’”. It is now widely acknowledged that the extermination of millions of Jews as part of Hitler’s Final Solution, and the ensuing Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, spurred the creation of a settler state in Mandatory Palestine.

But this is not the end of the story. In 1950 and 1951, for instance, agents working for Israel bombed Jewish sites in Baghdad in an effort to scare the population and propel thousands of Iraqi Jews to migrate and settle in Israel. In this case, settler colonialism created a crisis outside its territory in order to bolster its ideological project. Furthermore, it would be difficult to argue that the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai in 1967, and the movement of Israeli citizens to these regions, emanated from a crisis inside pre-1967 Israel. Rather, as is well documented, this movement across space was the result of a drive to expand sovereignty over new swathes of land.

While displacement is undoubtedly part of the inner logic of settler colonialism, the notion of movement aimed at averting crisis does not capture all its complexity and multifaceted motivations. After all, settler colonialism is also informed by a desire to become sovereign or even master, and such crucial elements are unfortunately sidelined here.

Neve Gordon is professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London and the co-author, most recently, of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (2020).

The World Turned Inside Out: Settler Colonialism as a Political Idea
By Lorenzo Veracini
Verso Books, 320pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781839763823
Published 21 September 2021

The author

Lorenzo Veracini, associate professor of history at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, was born and grew up in Pisa, Italy. Because this was “a university town near a massive US army base”, he recalls, he “first became politically aware during the missile crisis of the early 1980s”. He went on to study at the University of Pisa, where the department of history offered a strong training in “historiography: the evolution of history as a scholarly discipline and its relationship with public discourse”.

It was moving to Australia, reflects Veracini, that “forced [him] to think about a type of colonialism I did not have words to describe. And yet I was surrounded by it.” Despite not being able to speak English then, he nevertheless realised that “it wasn’t just me…The language to appraise settler colonialism as a distinct mode of domination was not there at the time.” He has now written a series of books on this theme: Israel and Settler Society (2006), Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010) and The Settler Colonial Present (2012) as well as, co-edited with Edward Cavanagh, The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism (2016).

The notion of “settler colonialism” is widely considered to be an important tool of historical analysis. But does Veracini also see it as useful for activists trying to make sense of – and attempting to address – abuses and injustices in today’s world?

“We need to understand the hegemony of settler colonial modes of domination to undermine it productively and effectively,” he replies. “We need a critique of settler colonial ideologies, and to recognise the ways in which settler colonialism shapes and damages the world we live in.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Dissatisfied? Just move along

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