“Britain transitioned from being a colonial power in the traditional overseas extractive sense, to a space of domestic colonialism masquerading as a post-colonial nation.” (El-Enany, 2020, p. 130)

n the field of colonial studies, the term ‘decolonisation’ is a contested term. In the post-war era, for instance, scholarship often depicted ‘decolonisation’ as a struggle for national independence (Wimmer & Schiller, 2002, p. 304). This essay, however, brings into conversation two recent books in this field that expound a different set of decolonial projects. In these books, Nadine El-Enany and Gary Wilder refuse to position the nation-state, with its bounded national territorial logic, as the frame of the analysis, thereby rejecting ‘methodological nationalism’ [2]. Methodological nationalism is the “assumption that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world” (Wimmer & Schiller, 2002, p. 301).

Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015), by Gary Wilder, outlines a project of decolonisation that was grounded in a renegotiation of the colonial relationships between the metropole and the colonies. This is different to other decolonial projects whereby (political and territorial) national independence was achieved after the colonised expelled a colonial power. Drawing on the political programmes of Césaire and Senghor, and particularly their policy ideas of ‘Departmentalisation’ and ‘Federalism’ respectively, Wilder argues Césaire and Senghor were focused on wider political—at times almost utopian—yet pragmatic visions of freedom. In short, they sought to extend the laws, rights and economies of the metropole (i.e., France) into the colonies (e.g., the Antillean territories or Senegal). For Wilder, Césaire and Senghor’s political programme was a form of decolonial politics that was organised around a particular vision of freedom. Unlike other decolonial projects, it was not a programme of national independence and political sovereignty wherein a political campaign sought to sever the colonies from the metropole through various forms of colonial resistance. 

These ideas have their critics. Wilder [3] notes that in the opening chapter of Wretched of the Earth, “Fanon invokes Senghor as an archetypal ‘colonized intellectual’—a ‘vulgar opportunist’ and ‘mimic man’ who instrumentalizes the voice of ‘the people’ [… and] refused to properly decolonise Senegal” (p.134). Yet, Wilder extracts wider conceptual gains from the case of Departmentalisation and Federalism that still prove useful for confronting the conceptual challenges of thinking through the continuation of various colonial projects at an intercontinental scale today. Wilder’s elaboration of Césaire and Senghor’s decolonial projects expose methodological nationalism as a problem and encourage us to understand the enduring coloniality of countries such as France, Australia, and The United Kingdom in (re)new ways.

Wilder attempts to rethink democracy, solidarity, and pluralism beyond the limitation of methodological nationalism, which refers to the grounding of the nation-state system, rather than the territorial and political relations of empire, as the organising logic for analysing decolonial action (Wimmer & Schiller, 2002). Perhaps implicitly, taking up this notion of methodological nationalism, Nadine El-Enany’s (B)ordering Britain: Law, race and empire (Manchester University Press 2020), sheds new light on the discussion of placing empire at the centre of projects of decolonisation. While Césaire and Senghor were focused on the colonies in relation to the metropole, El-Enany has her sights set firmly on the metropole itself (i.e., Britain). El-Enany uses the term the ‘spoils of the empire’ to discuss the process of economic extraction from the British colonies to the metropole.

The Spoils of Empire 

El-Enany’s book is sprinkled with evidence of colonial plunder. She notes, for example, that Britain “bled” India’s economy of between 5 and 10% of its gross domestic product each year for almost two centuries prior to independence (p. 181). El-Enany draws on the work of Aditya Mukherjee (2010) to show that in 1801, at this critical moment in Britain’s industrialisation, unrequited transfers from India to Britain were about 9% of the gross domestic product of the British territories in India, “which was equal to about 30% of British domestic savings available for capital formation in Britain” (Mukherjee in El-Enany, p. 228-9). India’s gross domestic product only started to improve post-independence. Closer to home, El-Enany notes that the compensation paid to British slave-owners for the loss of their ‘property’ following the abolition of slavery in 1833 (£17 billion in modern day British pounds) was “the largest state-sponsored pay-out in British history until it was superseded by the bank bailouts of 2008” (p.2). On a wider intercontinental scale, it is also significant that between 1750 and 1960, 70 million people were forcibly sent or moved overseas from the European continent to places such as North and South America, Australia and South Africa (p.41). 

Yet El-Enany’s notion of the spoils of empire extends well beyond the movement of human and financial capital and other loot [4] from the colonies to the metropole. Thus, the “spoils of empire,” as a conceptual device, capture the embodied and material wealth that was both realised and forfeited, encompassing both the movement of material wealth from the colonies to the metropole (i.e., realised wealth) as well as unrealised opportunities: the “theft of intangibles such as economic growth and prospects, opportunities, life chances, psyches and futures [that] occur in all colonial contexts, settler or otherwise” (p. 28-9). 

When racialized peoples are prevented from sharing in the spoils of empire—spoils that were eventually consolidated in the metropole—El-Enany calls this a temporal loss (p.28). Such temporal losses are rendered invisible when the metropole, in this case Britain, is constructed as a post-colonial nation-state with no formal obligations to its former or current colonies and subjects. The failure of the British Empire and subsequent transition to a global nation-state system is a key moment of closure in her book (p.16). Wilder explores this idea of the spoils of empire through Césaire and Senghor, arguing that the empire needed the colonies just as much as Césaire and Senghor were claiming that colonies could still use the empire. Wilder’s argument shares some similarities with El-Enany’s position on this point, and his criticism of the idea of methodological nationalism is useful for centring this logic of empire in an analysis that might otherwise be framed by the logics of a post-colonial nation-state.

Post-War Openings and the Reconfiguration of Empires

El-Enany opens her book by noting, “Britain is a young nation-state, but an old imperial power” (p.3), and the moment of imperial closure is key to the central argument in her book. El-Enany leans on Priyamvada Gopal’s (2020) counter-history of anti-imperial resistance, which “destroys this narrative” that benevolent colonial rulers opened the way for the emancipation of the colonised, “demonstrating instead how enslaved and colonised peoples were the agents of their own resistance and freedom” (p.214). As colonised peoples forced the British from their homelands and won their independence, the British people and politicians were confronted with the defeat of the British Empire. El-Enany writes, “The myth of imperial unity and equality was fast abandoned by British lawmakers as they moved to introduce border controls targeting both racialised subjects and Commonwealth citizens” (our emphasis, p.4). This reference to imperial unity is about the relationships between the metropole and colonies, while equality refers to colonised peoples’ and others’ (non-existent) rights to the spoils of empire. In this case, El-Enany suggests that when the British Empire was defeated, it was the imperial unity of the metropole and colonies that was changed to exclude racialised subjects from accessing the spoils of empire in Britain.

In Freedom Time, Wilder (2015, pp. 3–4) calls for the theorisation of decolonisation beyond methodological nationalism. He argues that debates [5] about decolonial struggle are often positioned as dyadic encounters between “powerful nations possessing colonial territories” and the “not yet independent nations ruled by foreign colonizers” (p.3-4). When such analyses are framed by the idea of the nation-states to come, they are grounded in a problematic methodological nationalism. In Wilder’s words, “to presuppose that national independence is the necessary form of colonial emancipation is to mistake a product of decolonisation for an optic through which to study it […] Underlying such dyadic accounts is the assumption that European states had empires but were not themselves empires” (p.4). Wilder points to a mid-twentieth century post-war opening—which corresponds to El-Enany’s timeline of a waning British Empire—as a key moment of profound global restructuring and anti-colonial resistance through which the system known as nation-states solidified. It is a mistake to reduce the various projects of decolonisation in this post-war opening/closure of empire within an epistemology of nation-states which render colonial resistance and emancipation only in terms of “national liberation” and “state sovereignty” (p.4), argues Wilder.

Certainly, national liberation with political and territorial independence, and ultimately state sovereignty, were important political projects for some (e.g., India). Yet for others, national, political, and territorial independence and sovereignty were not the key aspects of their decolonial resistance in the post-war period. The idea that decolonial action might not be organised around territorial independence and political sovereignty may at first seem counter intuitive. Aware of this, Wilder notes that his engagement with Césaire and Senghor aims to “fashion political forms that were democratic, socialist, and intercontinental … [to] foster an appreciation of the novelty of their attempts to envision new forms of cosmopolitanism, humanism, universalism, and planetary reconciliation” (our emphasis, p.5). Thus, rather than reject the project of metropole/colony integration of colonial France outright—a position criticised by Fanon for, amongst other things, its focus on class at the expense of race—Césaire and Senghor, through their ideas of Departmentalisation and Federalism, argued for a different type of imperial unity with equality between the metropole and colony.  

The Problem with Bounded Nation-Space 

Césaire’s Departmentalisation Law, which he submitted to the assembly in Paris in 1946, had three articles. First, rather than seek territorial and national independence, Césaire argued that the metropole/colony [6] imperial relation should remain in place. Second, however, all existing metropolitan French laws should therein apply to the colonies. Third and furthermore, all new laws passed in the French metropole should automatically apply in the colonies too. Césaire asserted, argues Wilder, “that metropolitan and overseas peoples and territories were historically entwined and that republican principle required their legal and political assimilation on equal grounds” (p.109). 

Whether Departmentalisation or Federalism were sound decolonial political projects remains hotly contested, but these debates are not our focus here. What is of concern is Césaire’s political objective with the Departmentalisation Law, which was about calling upon France to “equalize wages and prices between metropolitan and Antillean territories by extending to Martinique the nationalisations that had begun in France” (p.110). It was about imperial unity with equality. Césaire thought France was on the verge of a socialist revolution and if France was to become socialist then Martinique should be extended the rights of socialism too. Césaire proclaimed, “there should not be two capitalisms: a metropolitan capitalism that is opposed and limited [by socialism], and an overseas capitalism that is tolerated [in the colonies]” (p.110). But more than this, the project of Departmentalisation was about changing the metropole itself; “to radically rethink France,” as Wilder puts it (p.5). Thus, what was radical about Césaire and Senghor’s ideas is that they were focused on transforming the metropole (i.e., France) and they sought to achieve this, not through a project of independence, but rather by reformulating the legal relationships between the metropole and colony with redistributive or reparatory equality at the centre.    

It is this reformulation of the relationships (with equality) between the metropole and colony, the rejection of the idea of post-colonialism, and the focus on the metropole itself that is most interesting in both Wilder’s and El-Enany’s work. El-Enany writes, 

“Racialised people thus remain the foremost target in Britain’s ongoing imperial project, their lands and their bodies ongoing sites of colonial extraction and expulsion. Although we are more familiar with how such extractive processes occur in formally colonial regimes, I argue for the urgency of tracing how colonialism shapes the metropole’s space over time. Britain cannot be understood as a legitimately bounded nation space. Since colonialism it has been a space shaped by its colonies. As such, it achieves its coherence as a nation by maintaining its inner space, the island(s) of Britain, as one of order, privilege and entitlement, and its outer space, its former colonies, as one in which insecurity, poverty, illness and violence are the norm.” (our emphasis, p.6)

Thus, for El-Enany, this ongoing colonisation is continually reshaping the metropole, and therefore the metropole (i.e., Britain) is not a legitimate nation-space. And yet, in order to protect white colonial wealth and privilege, Britain operates as if it is a nation-state-space in order to exclude racialized peoples from the spoils of the British Empire. In keeping with El-Enany’s notion of the spoils of empire, she is not just talking about the protection of realised wealth, she is also talking about temporal loss, such as being excluded from unrealised opportunities; “whereby racialised populations are disproportionately deprived of access to resources, healthcare, safety and opportunity and are systematically and disproportionately made vulnerable to harm and premature death” (our emphasis, p.13). 

Changes to British immigration law and policy, she argues, “have had the effect of disproportionately stripping racialised people of their rights” to the metropole (p.9). Much like Wilder, but drawing here on Renisa Mawani (2016) and others, El-Enany argues that the “traditional conceptual distinction between settler and non-settler colonial contexts obscures the ongoing colonial configuration of a non-settler colonial state such as Britain” (p.28) [7]. As such, El-Enany appears committed to dealing with the methodological nationalism that sits at the centre of thinking about Britain as a post-colonial state today. 

Empire as an Organising Logic 

Writing this review from Australia provides a somewhat unique vantagepoint from which to consider the conceptual gains that El-Enany and Wilder make through their critique of methodological nationalism. In Australia, a project of Aboriginal national independence was not attainable [8] in the post-war opening discussed by both Wilder and El-Enany. As Australia re-worked the metropole/colonial relation in the twentieth century—in an attempt to position Australia as “politically independent from the metropole but culturally and economically dependent on Britain” (Johnson, 2016, p. 2)—Aboriginal peoples campaigned for citizenship rights in the ‘post’-colony in addition to pursuing a legal process to secure land rights that would underwrite their cultural claims and sovereignty [9]. The post-war opening created an identity crisis for white Australia and other settler colonial nations, as the sovereign claims of Aboriginal peoples called into question the assumption of sovereign nation-state unity (Johnson 2016). A member of the Canadian parliament spoke about this type of identity crisis in the following terms in 1965; “The job that has to be done […] is parallel to the job which has been done by Britain in granting India her freedom and independence” (cited in Johnson, 2016, p. 28).  

Looking across Wilder and El-Enany’s books from Australia refocuses our attention on the reorganisation of the metropole/colony relation throughout the twentieth century. At one level, the three cases are wildly different. Wilder is looking at metropole and department integration. El-Enany is looking at post-independence metropole and colony estrangement. While in Australia, a minority Aboriginal population is making claims on the ‘post’-colony after the metropole and colony moved to a Commonwealth arrangement. Yet, on closer inspection, the insights from Wilder’s and El-Enany’s might have much to offer Australian scholars.  

First, what is common across these cases is the tension over access to the spoils of empire with a call for equality to be placed at the centre. Equality refers, in this context, to the rights of citizenship, rights to land, rights to culture, right to the welfare state, and other reparations. Second, Aboriginal activists in Australia are likewise involved in decolonial projects that eschew methodological nationalism. On one level, they have campaigned for Aboriginal sovereignty within the ‘post’-colonial nation state, as opposed to separate from it; namely they have demanded a set of “local territorial rights based on the central importance of place to [I]ndigenous identity” (Johnson, 2016, p. 4). Third, Aboriginal Australians have engaged in an international debate with “other [I]ndigenous peoples across vast terrains and markedly different cultures” to reckon with the shared violence of settler colonialism. “Eventually, the transnational circulation of indigeneity gained traction at the level of international law,” writes Miranda Johnson (2016, p. 2-3).

This emphasis on international decolonial resistance echoes El-Enany, who articulates the contours of an intercontinental movement of social resistance and action from within the metropole. Her project is not located in formal politics, in the way that Senghor and Césaire’s projects were formally organised as political party polities, rather it is a call to activists to ground decolonial projects in an “internationalist politics of antiracism and anti-imperialism” (p.224); “racialised people must both be understood, and understand themselves, as being collectively entitled to the reclamation of wealth accumulated via colonial dispossession” (p.227). Arguably, while Césaire and Senghor centred class and then race in their formal politics, El-Enany centres race and then class (also see Gopal (2020), e.g. Ch.7). El-Enany wants critical scholars and activists to develop “long-term strategies for racial justice of a reparative and redistributive kind”, and to be “wary of relying on a legal system that serves to legitimise Britain’s colonial order” (p.221-2). Like Césaire and Senghor, El-Enany calls for an intercontinental politics, but unlike Césaire and Senghor, she explicitly grounds her intercontinental project in critical race rather than critical class theory (p.17 & 224). This critical race perspective is central to recent works on Aboriginal activism in Australia. For instance, Moreton-Robinson (2015) stresses how ‘whiteness’, and in particular, a sense of white entitlement to the possession of land, is central to the ongoing denial of Indigenous sovereignty, echoing El-Enany’s critique of Britain ringfencing the spoils of empire for predominantly white Britons through the imposition of strict migration controls. 

Insofar as Wilder and El-Enany’s work is located at the metropole/colony relation, in an attempt to reconstitute the metropole both books prompt questions about the nature of Australia’s ongoing colonial relationships with Britain. Australia never sought independence from the British through the forms of resistance that other former colonies pursued, such as India or the United States. El-Enany states, Australia is “a former British colony” (p.39), and while this is legally and politically true at one level, to call Australia post-colonial is a different conceptual proposition than in places such as India or the United States. British imperial nostalgia and projects of national identity building in Australia remain problematically British, colonial, and white (Moreton-Robinson, 2015: Ch. 2). Australia still has a Governor-General appointed by the Crown and social and political systems with inbuilt structural racism. The spoils of empire in Australia are grounded in the ongoing violent theft of Aboriginal Country and the marginalisation of Aboriginal bodies across all spheres of life. 


El-Enany’s focused analysis on migration law is a powerful intervention in decolonial action. In both Australia and Britain, legal institutions have long been hostile to the claims of racialised peoples. In the post-war opening in Australia, Aboriginal activists specifically targeted the state’s legal systems, and forced these institutions to take account of Aboriginal histories and traditions related to land and Country (Johnson 2016; Moreton-Robinson 2015). This was a radical approach because for “most of the history of the settler state, colonial authorities had represented [I]ndigenous peoples as uncivilised and as unreliable witnesses in court, initially because as non-Christians, they could not take oaths” (Johnson 2016, p.6). From the 1960s, Aboriginal claimants turned Australian courts into a space for a dynamic form of decolonial resistance, and this resonates with El-Enany’s legal concerns. At the metropole/colony colonial interface, the “fact that the three settler countries shared an Anglo common law tradition was key to the circulation of [I]ndigenous right discourses around Australia, Canada, and New Zealand” (Johnson 2016, p.7).

Although Wilder, El-Enany, and the scholarship on Indigenous struggles in Australia are all focused on decolonisation, there are some important differences. The logics of empire and colonialism explored by Wilder and El-Enany—questions of metropole and colony relations, and imperial rule—are distinct from the Australian settler colonial context. Indeed, some authors suggest that “colonial and settler colonial forms actually operate in dialectical tension” (Veracini, 2010, p. 7). There are structural differences between colonial and settler colonial formations, and settler colonial understandings of sovereignty operate in particular ways, and they are underpinned by a distinct settler-colonial mindset and narrative form (Veracini, 2010, p. 12). Moreover, settler colonialism is characterised by a “sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population” (Wolfe, 1999, p. 163). This tendency need not entail genocide, but in the case of Australia, Aboriginal people are the victims of a form of ‘structural genocide’ that is “in abeyance […] rather than being a thing of the past” (Wolfe, 2006, p. 18).

Thus, the intersections of Wilder’s and El-Enany intercontinental projects of anti-colonial resistance raise important questions for Australia’s ongoing colonial relationship with Britain. Building on the work of Mukherjee, El-Enany (p.228, citing Mukherjee), shows that “at the heart of colonialism lay surplus appropriation from the colony to the metropolis”. El-Enany’s call for an intercontinental politics requires a reconceptualization of the nation-state, state sovereignty and ongoing metropole/colony relations between Australia and Britain, including what ‘inter’-national means in this sense. 

Pursuing land rights-based sovereignty in Australian courts is one way that Aboriginal peoples are attempting to claw back some of the spoils of empire. In doing so, Aboriginal peoples have unsettled white claims of internal nation-state unity after metropole/colony Commonwealth estrangement. Aboriginal activist Wenten Rubuntja talks about two “different laws standing as one” (Johnson 2016, p.98 citing Rubuntja), and therein shows there is a plurality of “law in Australia” with Western common law representing the “second legal system” (Johnson 2016, p.51). Thus, Aboriginal peoples are exposing the settler state of Australia as being internally comprised of multiple Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations with conflicting claims to territorial and political sovereignty.

[1] While the ideas and any mistakes in this essay are our own, we are grateful for the stimulating conversations we have been having with the City Road Reading Group at the University of Sydney, with whom we read and discussed these books.
[2] Methodological nationalism—or narrow western nationalism, as Paul Gilroy (1993) conceptualised it—has a long and interesting conceptual linage. 
[3] It is worth reading Wilder’s account (p.133-5) of what he calls, “a reductive understanding of Senghor’s thinking and politics… Images of him as a racist essentialist, servile Francophile, and neocolonial comprador…” (p.134). Gopal’s (2020) 600-odd page masterpiece is lightly dusted with references to Césaire and Senghor’s work and is worth reading too.  
[4] It is not insignificant that, according to William Dalrymple (2019, p. xxiii), “the word ‘loot’ is Hindustani slang for plunder [and] One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language”.
[5] Wilder is explicitly taking aim at historians here.
[6] These are called ‘departments’ in this policy. 
[7] It is important to note that Mawani’s (2018) is discussing oceanic decolonial resistance, and the “expansive, global, seafaring visions of Indian travellers, whose struggles for freedom from British imperial rule were not tied to territoriality alone, but were waged on planetary scale” (p.9). In fact, water introduces extra complexity to this debate about decolonisation. For example, Mawani’s “Oceans as Method[ology]” (p.17) rejects “metropole/colony, centre/periphery, or national/transnational” coordinates altogether. Mawani is drawing instead on the “webs of empire” framing by scholars such as Tony Ballantyne (2012, cited by Mawani on page 12). For another example of metropole/colony resistance at the water’s edge, see the 1808 ‘slave revolt’ in the Cape Colony, “For here, instead of renouncing the culture of Europe, the rebels sought to imitate it” (p. 93); “the last two decades of the eighteenth century and nineteenth century marked a shift in the strategies of resistance” (Sivasundaram, 2020, p. 95).
[8] See the Tent Embassy and the pan-Aboriginal state imagined by John Newfong, or the call for Aboriginal peoples to “abandon national ‘citizen ship’ as [Yidindji man, Murrumu Walubara] called it, in order to achieve true decolonisation” (Johnson 2016, p.162).
[9] This is known as “citizens plus” in Canada (see Johnson 2016, p.15-34, and particularly pages 28-9).


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Dalrymple, W 2019, The anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.
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Moreton-Robinson, A (2015) The white possessive: property, power and indigenous sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
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Sivasundaram, S 2020, Waves across the south a new history of revolution and empire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
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Dr Dallas Rogers, Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney. Dallas is an urban geographer with a broad interest in housing, land, real estate and urban development.

Jake Davies, PhD candidate, Department of Government & International Relations, The University of Sydney. Jake’s research explores the intersection of migration and race. He is interested in public policy, comparative politics, critical race theory, and colonial studies.

Dr Pranita Shrestha is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Urban Housing Lab at The University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney. Pranita’s work looks at informal urbanism across the global north/south divide.  

Xiao Ma, PhD candidate, School of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney. Xiao’s research focuses on housing, urban development, real estate, urban governance, and urbanisation of capital.