Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: Cancel Culture or Shame Culture?

Bloomsbury, one of Britain’s biggest publishers, has been accused of canceling Nigel Biggar’s recent book on colonialism. After approaching him in 2018 to write the book and agreeing with him on delivering it at the end of 2020, Bloomsbury opts to pay off Biggar rather than publish his book. Three years later, the book that was titled “Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning” comes out from another publisher. Although Bloomsbury did not clarify the reasons for not publishing the book, it is clear that it did not do so because it did not want to take the risk of hurting the public feeling of the “woke” Left since Biggar’s book is a kind of defense of the British Empire. In the book, Biggar concludes that despite the mistakes and some crimes of the British Empire, it brought much good to the world. He believes that there is an ethical component to colonialism.


In a sense, this story can be read as another disturbing story of cancel culture and political correctness. In another sense, it can be otherwise.


Despite the full solidarity with Biggar, as nothing can justify the cancellation of his book, something in this story and the academic quarrel over it seems not right since we are facing two issues here: the first has to do with the content of the book, and the second has to do with how the story was addressed by the so-called left-wing’s academic forces of repression and the right-wing’s cult of victimhood. Both issues have been taken as one by different publishing platforms and by Biggar himself.


Here, the two issues are to be addressed separately.


Regarding the topic of the book, Biggar claims, in a recent interview with him, that the British colonization of the Americas was not mainly driven by profit. British people immigrated to American colonies, fleeing famine and religious persecution. Natives, on the other hand, weren’t always victims, and the empire was not only a force for violence, but also a force for good. Although he does condemn slavery and racism, he makes a distinction between humane slavery and inhumane slavery. Then he says, “no one cares about the Zulu empire, no one cares about the Arab empire, they only care about the white European empire.”


Like most right-wing academics, Biggar selects from history what he finds appropriate for his arguments and relies mainly on exceptional cases. However, it is right that no one nowadays cares about other empires in history, and people only care about the European empire. The book, as some critics insist, seems very lacking in scholarship. More importantly, it seems to be lacking the proper historical context and the understanding of the historical process and social relations of control. Treating the British Empire as an exceptional type of empire was neither an act of demonization of the West, a way to attribute wickedness to the Western mind, nor a way to attribute “goodness” to non-Western empires. Condemning racism and practices of slavery in the West was never a way to evade racist ideologies and the histories of slavery in other parts of the world.


Biggar’s generalizations are misleading, and his arguments are decontextualized and blind to the historical and structural differences between acts of racism and practices of slavery. This in no way means that some forms of racism are better or more ethical or humane than others. And this in no way should mean that some forms of racism are acceptable or unworthy of critique and confrontation. It only means they are different in structure, form, and effect. Racism is not a static ideology; it changes over time, and it differs from one place to another. It makes no sense, and it is a fallacy, to compare European slavers in the West in 17th century with other non-European slavers in some other place and time in history. The Atlantic slave trade cannot be compared quantitatively to other slave trades. It is not a matter of numbers. The slave trade in the Americas was undeniably the most efficient economic system of production. Whereas slavery remained a “trade” in other places in the world and was not organized for broad specific economic or political aims, slavery in the West was an “economic” engine, the largest financial asset, and the main driver of capital growth. Analyzing slavery in the West during the Enlightenment is part and parcel of analyzing the capitalist society. In this sense, it is not a mere phenomenon that happens to be in the West, it is rather a critical tool for analyzing society and the economic system today.


While it is self-evident that every racism in the world shall be contested and critiqued, it is shocking to see how some right-wing academics, like Biggar, try to implicitly justify one racism by naturalizing other forms of racism. There is nothing worse than justifying a crime by generalizing it, saying it exists elsewhere, or humanizing some aspects of it.


However, it should be noted that Biggar’s discourse defending colonialism is not that different from the widespread cultural anti-colonial discourse (Edward Said’s) which is adopted by academia on the left. They similarly proceed from the same logic and feed each other, which makes breaking out of this vicious circle of polarities an impossible task. Defending an Eastern or a Western essence seems to be an ambitious project that is doomed to failure. The only way to break the symmetry between these two poles is to reject the West/East binary, to reject the idea of a tightly closed Western history, and to analyze and critique colonialism without referring to any essentialist attributes.


It is of crucial importance here to return to Slavoj Zizek’s notion of ultra-politics through which the nature of such contradiction (West/East, Us/Them, Cancelation/Victimization) can be clearly understood. Ultra-politics is nothing but a strategy through which real political struggle is disavowed. By strengthening the polarity between the two opposites, the resulting polarized parties are exaggerated in a militarized situation, politicization is foreclosed, and only symbolic dispute arises in a theatrical scene. While real antagonisms are material and produce politicized struggles, the resulting form of such polarization is nothing but an absurd rally and a depoliticized warfare_ the one that is played in the right/left liberal field.


The sad and ironic part of this disturbing story is how Biggar defends himself and how he thinks one should defend the British identity:


“In late November 2017, I published a column in The Times of London, in which […] I argued that we Britons have reason to feel pride as well as shame about our imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame.”


Here we only have to say two things to Biggar. First, there is no need for you to remind the British people of the importance of feeling proud of their colonial past since they already feel so. A survey in 2014 found that, by three to one, British people think the British Empire was something to be proud of rather than ashamed of. In 2021, another survey showed that 34 percent of Britons felt pride in the empire and only 21 percent felt shame. However, we should not let these numbers fool us, since one of the very important lessons of psychoanalysis that we should remind ourselves of is that of “shame”. Shame, as Robert Pfaller demonstrates, is no longer an emotion of weakness or failure, it is rather an emotion of surplus and excess. And as Slavoj Zizek shows, shame is different from guilt. While guilt comes from the inside and involves rational argumentation, shame comes from the outside and involves a sense of enjoyment. “Shame is elitist.”