I Insights from Law and History
Governance and Colonial Rule
Sebastian Conrad and Marion Stange
In recent years, governance has evolved into a key concept in political science. The term is used to refer to processes and structures of regulation and rule that are either not at all, or at least not primarily and exclusively, based on hierarchically organized government action, but instead involve nonhierarchical modes of action by private, semiprivate, and public actors. According to the broad definition of the concept, governance is understood as the “collective regularization of societal matters” (Mayntz 2004, 66), thus comprising all agents contributing through their collective actions to the creation of public goods. These actors can be official government institutions as well as private persons or associations.
Originally applied to modern nation states of Western provenance in order to conceptually grasp the increasing adoption of classic state functions by private actors, the concept of governance has also proved to be useful in understanding modes of political organization and regulation in areas of limited statehood—that is, in areas in which core elements of modern statehood like effective territorial control or the state’s monopoly on the use of physical force are absent. However, such limitations of central authority do not only exist in many countries on today’s world map but can also be observed when looking at forms of political organization in historical perspective. Especially when studying modes of governing “before the state”— that is, in premodern and early modern societies, and, most conspicuously, when dealing with colonial rule—historians discern a plethora of governing practices that can only very inadequately be described by categories derived from the concept of modern statehood. Because the colonizing powers’ central authority was debilitated by a diverse set of external and internal factors in virtually all colonies—whether in early modern times or during the age of high imperialism—the colonial state can be understood as a prototypical area of limited statehood. As a result of its weakness, it was highly dependent on the involvement and cooperation of nonstate actors, in particular among the colonized, to establish and maintain effective rule in the colonized territories.
By offering a wide perspective on governing modes that are not limited to hierarchical rule exerted by official agents but also comprise alternative forms of governing, the governance concept can thus be of use in the study of colonial rule. Governance provides a systematic approach to the question of the “how” and the “who” of political organization in historical perspective. Focusing on both the processes and the agents of governing, the concept allows for a comprehensive study of political rule in the colonial context. Governance can thus be fruitfully linked to recent developments in historiography. This literature stresses, first, the processual and negotiative character of early modern political rule. A good example for this trend is Greene’s work Negotiated Authorities in which he argues that power was not a fixed constant in colonial American politics but instead had to be continuously negotiated and renegotiated between the rulers and the ruled (Asch and Freist 2005; Daniels and Kennedy 2002; Greene 1994; Hindle 2000; Meumann and Prove 2004). Second, governance also ties into the rich historiography on formal versus informal empire, which essentially discusses the problematic of delegation of authority to nonstate actors (Dimier 2004; Doyle 1986; Louis 1976).
It is important to note, however, that since the governance paradigm has originally been developed against the background of the Western nationstate, notions of modern centralized statehood are necessarily inherent in it. An indiscriminate transfer of the governance concept to colonial contexts thus carries the risk of reiterating the mistakes made by earlier generations of historians who uncritically applied modern notions of statehood to historical contexts. A strict classification of governance actors along the lines of “public” and “private,” for example, might be useful in the context of governance in today’s Western societies but proves to be inadequate in the study of colonial rule because of the often hybrid nature of agents involved in colonial governance. Likewise, because colonies in many cases lacked clear territorial confines and often comprised a wide range of different ethnic groups with their own respective legal systems, it is not always possible to unequivocally determine the governance collective, that is, the group of people who were addressed by governance. Since these are conceptual problems arising not only in the colonial context but also when looking at many of today’s fragile or failing states, the historical perspective can help to sharpen the concept of governance in areas of limited statehood.
This chapter therefore has a threefold aim. First, it purports to contribute to a historicization of the concept of governance. By shedding light on the variations in colonial political organization and on the diversity of actors, historical research thus serves as a corrective, demonstrating that the “new forms of governing” postulated by political scientists who study the changing character of statehood in OECD countries are not so new after all. The governance approach allows for a perspective on colonial governing that illustrates the historical contingency of the Western model of centralized statehood. As a result, the widespread notion of consolidated statehood as the necessary culmination of an evolutionary process that all polities pass through is challenged, resulting in a fresh perspective on alternative forms of governing in today’s areas of limited statehood.
Second, we would like to argue that a critical reflection of the governance concept’s applicability to historical contexts can provide important new insights both for historical research and political science. By linking the governance approach to the study of political organization and rule in colonies as prototypical areas of limited statehood, this chapter seeks to illuminate the potential benefits as well as the limitations of the concept when used in historical research. After a discussion of the specific conditions of rule in the colonial state, the chapter thus deals with the problems that historians incur when applying the governance concept to the colonial context. Bringing to light the underlying notions of modern statehood still inherent in the concept, the chapter’s third section focuses on the binary differentiation between “public” or “state” actors on the one hand and “private” or “nonstate” actors on the other. This is a distinction that is at the center of many current governance debates but which proves to be inadequate for the colonial context, where the role of actors involved in political organization was often of a hybrid nature. By thus challenging tacit assumptions inherent in the concept, historians can contribute to a further adaptation of the governance concept so as to increase its applicability not only to historical contexts but also to modern-day areas of limited statehood.
Third, we argue that present-day predicaments and peculiarities of rule, in particular in areas of limited statehood, may be intimately linked with complex historical genealogies. This perspective enables us to shed light on the specific preconditions and historical origins of governing practices and conflicts that can be observed in present-day postcolonial societies. In many cases, legal traditions, political structures, and societal cleavages can only be understood when taking into consideration these countries’ colonial pasts. Although this historical dimension is of particular importance when looking at today’s areas of limited statehood in former colonies in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, it can also tell us a great deal about the roots of governing practices, ethnic divides, and legal systems in a country like the United States where colonial rule ended more than two centuries ago.