Four disruptive post-colonial ideas


A boy rows a boat in Ombaka Village in Nyando, Kisumu County on September 10, 2022.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

In this piece, I examine four disruptive ideas of the post-colonial age. The first disruptive idea is borderlessness. This is the modern phenomenon of the withering away of the physical and metaphysical border.

The world is increasingly resisting organisation that assumes the permanency of borders between peoples and communities. Humans are increasingly incapable of being organised along the assumptions of physical borders that are the most enduring symbols of state sovereignty. The physical border as a barrier between cultures and peoples is fading fast. What does this mean for the human rights project which assumes the permanence of states and borders?

The slow dissolution of borders is not just the function of global capitalism, technology, or human interdependence. It is a function of a negative understanding of borders as barriers that advance very little human good, and prevent a lot of good synergies from happening. To be sure, migration has a lot to do with it, but there is much more to borderlessness, including new understandings of the global commons.

Erosion of patriotism

The second disruptive idea is the erosion of patriotism. This is the notion that a national citizen is defined in negative terms as in opposition to the citizens of other countries. Historically, citizens have fought wars for their states against other peoples and states. But a new sense of global patriotism is replacing traditional state-based patriotism. This is the basis for peace movements and civil societies across the globe that oppose the militarisation of every conflict or disagreement.

This new emerging movement “from below” is challenging the traditional hostilities fostered by the nation-state. Instead, there is an emerging concept of global – as opposed to national – citizenship. The loyalties of a growing number of people are not only to the state, but to the global commons.

 This does not mean that people care less about their communities. Quite the contrary – they still care very much, but they do not see themselves as living in “gated” cocoons. What happens across the border, or far away, equally concerns them. Traditional nationalism is losing its once powerful purchase. This breakdown of the “us” versus “them” mentality is making people imagine new forms of citizenship.

The third disruptive force is global calamities. This refers to the shrinking sense of security because of climate change, droughts and extreme temperatures, geological catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and diseases. These calamities create a sense of vulnerability that is unprecedented. People in the more affluent West thought they were immune to many of these calamities that only affected less developed peoples. But this is no longer the case. Humans everywhere seem to be joined together by the brutal fate of nature. This may mean that people around the globe are willing to suspend the “fear” and “distrust” of “the other” for a common purpose.

Perhaps a more united population can force the political will on elites to find universal solutions to these challenges. But one thing is clear – isolationism is no longer a viable strategy. The last disruptive force is the withering away of the state. The state is not what it once was – the balance of power has tipped from the state to the individual, the community, and to international institutions and extra-territorial forces.

This is true, even for the United States, still the most powerful state in the world today. Even in emerging China, another powerful state vis-à-vis its own citizens, political elites are slowly coming under increasing pressure domestically. The mass upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s that collapsed one-party and Soviet bloc ruling elites in Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc, Africa, and Latin America will eventually overtake the opaque Chinese state. Citizens are looking for a new compact and meaning to their lives. Civil societies are playing an ever-growing role.

Technology and the internet have taken away from states the power to control information. Narrow elites no longer have the sole power to manipulate what citizens know, when they know it, and how to use the tools of mass mobilisation and governance. New social media like Facebook and Twitter are the enemies of state control.

Finally, capitalism, the great enabler of the liberal state, is in deep moral, practical, and economic crises. Economic and political troubles in the Global North and the resultant erasure of existing economic assumptions, has unhinged the sanctity of the market. More importantly, it’s showed just how fragile and temporary even the most stable states can be. All these imponderables have come together to deny elites and states tranquility.

They are changing the way the world thinks about citizenship and responsibilities of individuals. What is evolving as citizenship will depend on how thinkers and grassroots mobilisers fashion new theory and practice. It seems quite certain that the old ideas of constitutionalism and liberalism – or standard human rights norms – may no longer fill the void. A reconstruction of the human rights project – and the standards and norms central to it – is unavoidable.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua