Aziz Rana, who’s a professor of law at Cornell, is one of my favorite of the younger generation of political theorists who are transforming our understanding of some of the basic paradigms of political science. I discovered his work a few years ago, when I got a copy of his first book The Two Faces of Freedom. That book just came out in paperback. Since then, he’s been kind enough to share with me several chapters from his new project on a different tradition of American constitutionalism, one that we might call anti-constitutionalism or an alternative constitutionalism, that seeks to take down the text from its pedestal and put in its place, and that explores it came to its position atop that pedestal. He’s one of those theorists from whom, whatever he writes, I learn and come away with all sorts of new thoughts in my head.
In August, Jacobin published a really great interview with him, conducted by Nikhil Singh, about The Two Faces of Freedom. Some excerpts here; I urge you to buy the book.
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I argue that for all the basic transformations in the US in the twentieth century — from the rise of the administrative state to civil rights successes — the country’s internal institutions and external practices have retained settler structures. A key theme of my historical account involves the rejection of the idea that, even if settlerism oriented early American history, it has little to say about the present.
For many left-liberals, a common move is to recognize the country’s oppressive roots, but then to argue that through a combination of the New Deal in the 1930s and the so-called Second Reconstruction in the 1960s, the nation was in effect fundamentally transformed on free and equal grounds. So they reject a conservative reading of the founding as perfect and unmarred, but nonetheless participate in the overall creedal story of self-fulfillment and redemption.
My view, by contrast, is that creedal arguments gained prominence out of a sense of ideological uncertainty that enveloped the United States in the early twentieth century. In particular, the closing of the frontier and the country’s emergence onto the global stage with the Spanish American War raised basic questions about the future of colonial settlement as well as the meaning of American power in the world.
In this context, many American elites began to rally around a specific reading of American universalism as the defining characteristic of the community. This view separated European imperialism on the one hand from American global influence on the other, with the latter depicted as benign tutelage fundamentally in keeping with the basic interests of nonwhite peoples.
Such civic arguments steadily reimagined the country in more inclusive terms. But, critically, they also provided an ideological framework that allowed classically privileged American insiders to preserve the basic institutional structures of the polity — those of an increasingly completed settler project — while at the same time asserting greater authority internationally.
As a result, although the country’s identity shifted from a settler to a civic nation, the roots persisted — Americans never properly confronted the country’s colonial infrastructure or its imperial legacies.
Furthermore, all of this occurs in the context of an expansive bureaucratic state, a lasting institutional legacy of mid-twentieth century American political development. This administrative state is organized around an increasingly centralized presidential system and is both infused with corporate interests as well as insulated from mobilized popular pressure. I should note that I am avowedly statist in my politics; I believe strongly in the democratic potential of both the state and its bureaucratic infrastructure.
So the problem for me is not state power as such, but the corporatist mode of state power that dominates American politics. The rise of this particular form means that, paradoxically, just as marginalized communities in the past half century have gained formal rights and greater electoral power, the public’s overall capacity to direct large-scale economic and political institutions has seen a sharp decline.
The second type of pushback is that by describing the internal practice of self-rule within settler society as a rich account of freedom, I am, in effect, legitimating settler practices (the concern you highlight). I think this is a fair worry and one that I’ve struggled with.
My basic theoretical position is that freedom and subordination are inextricably connected to one another in any historical context. Moreover, groups understand the meaning of freedom in particular conditions in relation to those modes of oppression that are prevalent on the ground.
For me, the expansive notion of freedom as self-rule — as a condition of popular authority over economic and political life — which emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century, developed precisely out of close proximity to its living negations: slavery and native expropriation. Settler laborers in particular came to see freedom as more than just formal political and legal rights, but actual control over the conditions of production, economic independence, and democratic self-government. This was a robust vision, albeit deeply circumscribed given that the heart of settler ideology was that such freedom at root required native removal and exploited labor.
Thus, to universalize settler liberty — as I argue for in the book — would require a fundamental restructuring of American life. This is something radical critics themselves perceived at various moments in American history. It would mean thinking about how a democratic principle could actually govern all institutional sites and provide all communities with meaningful economic and political power.
Such an effort would transform, root and branch, settler legacies and living practices: from recognizing Indian sovereignty to fundamentally altering the structure of the economy to challenging the border as a closed barrier. The key thing to note is that such freedom, although emerging from a settler past, would no longer perpetuate settlerism.
This speaks to what I see as the dialectical character of freedom, where the conflict between an initial account of liberty and its opposition produces something new. And similarly, I would add that I do not believe that if we ever “universalized” settler freedom this would mean the end of subordination once and for all. Rather, in keeping with the dialectical vision, even successful projects of emancipation generate new legal and political orders that knit together secured liberties with emerging hierarchies.
First, a remarkable feature of US domestic conversations about capitalism and economic inequality is the extent to which they are often separated from conversations about the application of US power abroad. As just one example, take the issue of immigration and immigrant rights, a focal point of new labor organizing on the one hand and conservative reaction on the other.
The overwhelming tendency is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place. The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied to patterns of colonization and empire that stitch together the Global North and the Global South, as well as to the recent security politics of the US and Europe across the post-colonial world.