The Cultural Logic of Late Colonialism

Over the course of my writing for the past several years I have realized that there is a term I have to use regularly, but which I have yet to give a cogent explanation of, and in particular my meaning and usage of the concept: late colonialism or “the late colonial.” So, what does that mean? What does it signify? Why speak of it? And, perhaps most pressingly, what does speaking of a supposed “late colonialism” do for us (us here being Indigenous people, whether scholars, activists, or community members) when we already speak of settler colonialism, which entails itself quite often having to tease out the specificity of a settler-colonial relationship versus say the experience of colonialism in British India or the Dutch East Indies?

I have been thinking about these things, these questions, lately, not just because of my own adoption of the term late colonialism, but also particularly because of a certain return I have made in my own thinking to the works of the American literary scholar, theorist, and critic Fredric Jameson, who is perhaps most well known for his discussions of postmodernity, which he refers to as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” However, to briefly back up, for myself, my original usage of late colonialism, before I came to consider the specific meaning that it bears out for me in my work, came in the form of a simple borrowing from the queer Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd, who is someone that my work is profoundly indebted to (even if not always obviously so). They speak of the “culture of late colonialism” and define it thusly as:

a recursive system that displaces the violences of colonialism onto settlers (1) to necessitate itself as the only system that can justly resolve that injury; (2) to extend modes of social death for arrivants already indebted to racial capitalism and criminalized as outside the law and therefore beyond the circuits of injury/reparation; and (3) to foreclose any possibility that the colonization of indigenous peoples that has operationalized this system might actually arise within the fierce temporalities of the present and then require an accounting and transformation of how relate to one another and to the material world around us.[1]

Additionally, reading the condition, or culture, or perhaps one might say a cultural condition, of late colonialism through the meaning and form of the former U.S. President Donald Trump’s white settler nationalist populism—a white settler nationalist populism which many are inclined to label forthrightly as fascism, but which I am not particularly convinced that such a signifier accurately applies—they further note that it is “mode of settler mastery that reads white precarity and dispossession through the normalization of Black and Indigenous precarity and dispossession in order to naturalize racism and colonialism.”[2]

Byrd’s thinking is here essential to my understanding of such a condition. However, to borrow phrasing from Anglo-American analytic philosophy, while it is necessary, it is not necessarily sufficient for my specific usages. As such, my deployment of the concept additionally alludes to the work of two further scholars. Firstly, it alludes to Jameson’s already-mentioned efforts to theorize the cultural condition of postmodernity within the present state of the capitalist world-system. Most salient here is Jameson’s borrowing of the term “late capitalism” from the Western Marxist tradition (Adorno in particular[3]) as well as from the Belgian Trotskyist and political economist Ernest Mandel.[4] While the genealogy of the term “late capitalism” has its initial roots in Lenin’s proclamation that Imperialism (here rendered with an upper-case I to delineate and demarcate it from older forms of imperialism) as the terminal phase of capitalism—a phase of capitalism marked by monopoly, the financialization of capital, the dominance of the export of capital, and the territorial division of the whole world amongst the largest capitalist powers[5]—in other words, a capitalism whose internal contradictions have pushed it to the point of almost being socialism, Jameson deploys the term more in a periodizing manner to describe a new phase of capitalism which, contra much of the Leninist tradition, does not necessarily imply a telos (an end).[6] While we might consider this and thus think that other alternative terms might then provide more immediate conceptual clarity, such as “neo-capitalism” (strongly preferred by Jacques Derrida[7]) Jamesonian late capitalism is principal point of reference for myself.

Secondly, my conceptualization of the late colonial is also heavily indebted to the work of the Dene scholar Glen Coulthard. In his principal work to date Red Skin White Masks—in which he presents an indigenous critical theoretical intervention into Marxist, Fanonian, and Nietzschean theory rooted in an Indigenous land-centred perspective he calls “grounded normativityCoulthard develops a periodizing analysis of contemporary Canadian settler colonialism with an emphasis on developments in that country since 1969, in which the key temporal, cultural, and political moment is how:

The expression of Indigenous anticolonial nationalism … forced colonial power to modify itself from a structure that was once primarily reinforced by policies, techniques, and ideologies explicitly oriented around the genocidal exclusion/assimilation double, to one that is now reproduced through a seemingly more conciliatory set of discourses and institutional practices that emphasize recognition and accommodation.[8]

To this, I place further emphasis on what is perhaps the most prominent current discourse within the contemporary sphere of Native-settler political/cultural/social relations, if not now assuming a position of total hegemonic domination: the rhetoric, and politics, of reconciliation. Within this, even further emphasis should be placed as well as upon how such discourses have functioned to transmute, by way of an inverted sort of rhetoric, the concept of “decolonization”which is increasingly deployed in a way quite counter to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s now famous proclamation that “decolonization is not a metaphor”[9]into something which has been emptied of any meaningful political or cultural content, thus rendering it into a floating signifier, ready to be used, and be taken to be used as, meaning everything, anything, yet also nothing at all. Here is where we see the emergence of the now common call to “decolonize X.” X of course being the blank referent that could be anything. “Decolonize the curriculum.” “Decolonize your diet.” “Decolonize employment.” With X here able to function as a stand-in for quite literally anything, decolonization is thus transmuted from being a term with a grounded orientation found within the politics emergent from embodied Native experience (the end of settler-colonial elimination and dispossession, and the justice of rematriation) into anything, but primarily into a mere synonym for reconciliation, or, even worse in my assessment, “indigenization,” the latter of which in particular means little more than the structural assimilation of Native people into settler lifeways and institutions while still being able to nominally be Native (and to perhaps “bring a Native perspective”) as part of the wider liberal humanist regime of democratic multiculturalism (compared to in particular earlier modes of assimilation which sought to statistically eliminate Native peoples as distinct peoples through irrevocable merger into the white settler mainstream).  

These discourses, at least insofar as they concern the Canadian context, emerged initially in the 1990s in Canada, following the publication of the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, which, through its early discussions of policies and events such as the Canadian residential school system, resulted in the Canadian government issuing a Statement of Reconciliation two years later in 1998. This discourse has, quite obviously to anyone resident in Canada, but likely less though to those outside of it, in more recent years undergone significant acceleration. This acceleration has occurred following the publication of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which had set out, with a fair amount of public visibility, to investigate that country’s residential school system. The Final Report indicts Canada for “cultural genocide”—a prefigurative signifier that I think is unnecessary, but perhaps does covert work to bring to attention the fact that cultural genocide would have been included in the final version of the UN’s Genocide Convention, had Canada, as well as fellow settler-colonial nation-states the United States and Australia, not strenuously objected to it, with the support of powerful Western European states—and also makes a broad ranging set of “Calls to Action” targeting all sectors of Canadian government as well as civil and popular society. While some efforts pre-date the Final Report, this is significantly the source of the many “Indigenization Strategies” currently afoot in Canadian universities (including my own). Again, here the merger and/or interchange between the concepts and signifiers of “reconcilliation,” “indigenization” and “decolonization” occur as a matter of course, thus “decolonizing the curriculum” becomes less, so much less, than anything meaningful, substituted instead with a forced assurance that “Indigenous content” will be included in whatever syllabus for whatever course in whatever department or faculty, effecting (and affecting) little more than the exposure of non-Indigenous, primarily settler, students to the experience of Indigenous people, and perhaps Indigenous worldviews and ideas, in a fashion that often borders upon the voyeuristic. 

Additionally, I also draw on to the analysis of Mark Antaki and Coel Kirkby, who note that reconciliation is “something that is done to Aboriginal peoples” to reconcile them to, and thus function towards futural securing of, the legitimacy of Crown sovereignty rather than reconciling peoples with peoples, much less the settler with the Native.[10] Further, while the discourses may be deployed and played out in different fashions between Canada and the United States, I believe that such a periodization can be, in broad strokes, applied to both countries. Canada is not alone in the current deployment of such discourses, it simply manifests a greater (currently) level of institutional support for them than their blood relative to the south of the border. 

Beyond these though, the way I think of the late colonial contains a resemblance to yet another “late” cultural condition: late liberalism. The anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli describes late liberalism as a new iteration, or dispensation, in the liberal governmentality of difference, or, to reflect her wording, a topographical twist, which began to emerge in the 1960s and 70s, premised upon the politics of recognition (as identified by Coulthard and others) and officially sanctioned liberal humanist regimes of multiculturalism. Echoing Coulthard, but scaled outwards, she notes that this twisting or transitioning occurred because of the “unrelenting pressure of anti-colonial movements, new social movements including Black Power movements, Red Power movements, Radical Feminism, the Queer movements, etc.” and that as a result of this “the way liberalism governed difference underwent a serious legitimacy crisis. That whole civilizational rhetoric in its multiple forms just does not fly anymore,” additionally paired with the collapse of the Keynesian form of liberal economics and governance [11]. 

As such, given the temporal and geographic entanglement of all of these shifting emergenceslate capitalism, late colonialism, late liberalismwithin contemporary North America, I am tempted to identify all of them in the form of a compounded triplet concept that would be called “late capitalism/liberalism/colonialism.” However, while functionally correct I believe for that now it is sufficient to speak of late colonialism in isolation. 

Thus, considering all of these things, and all of these conceptual lineages (Byrd, Jameson, Coulthard, Povinelli), we return to the original question of this short entry: what is late colonialism? In response, I am inclined to give the following as a working definition of my use of the concept of late colonialism: “a non-teleological periodizing concept which signifies the qualitative shift in the mode of North American settler-colonial governance that has occurred since the 1960s, which has reached its most advanced development in the age of reconciliation and post-racialism, which functions to deemphasize direct domination in favor of the indirect governmentality of recognition, reconciliation, and accommodation, thus functioning to secure settler futurity and the foreclosure of Native decolonization.”


[1]. Byrd, “Beast of America,” 601.

[2]. Byrd, “Variations under Domestication,” 125.

[3]. Adorno, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society.”

[4]. Mandel, Late Capitalism.

[5]. Lenin, “Imperialism,” 237.

[6]. Jameson, “Marxism and Postmodernism,” 34-35; Jameson, Postmodernism, xix-xxi.

[7]. Malabou and Derrida, Counterpath, 114-115.

[8]. Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks, 6.

[9]. Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.”

[10]. Antaki and Kirkby, “The Lethality of the Canadian State’s (Re)cognition,” 214.

[11] Khalidi and Povinelli, “Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s Symphony.”


Antaki, Mark, and Coel Kirkby. 2009. “The Lethality of the Canadian State’s (Re)cognition of Indigenous Peoples.” In States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die, edited by Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert, 192-226. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Byrd, Jodi A. 2018. “Beast of America: Sovereignty and the Wildness of Objects.” The South Atlantic Quarterly (177) 3: 599-615.

Byrd, Jodi A. 2018. “‘Variations under Domestication’: Indigeneity and the Subject of Dispossession.” Social Text 36 (2): 123-141.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1987. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” In Modern German Sociology, edited by Volker Meja, Dieter Misgeld and Nico Stehr, 232-247. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 2009. “Marxism and Postmodernism.” In The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, 33-49. London, UK: Verso.

Khalidi, Raja and Elizabeth A. Povinelli. 2017. “Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s Symphony of Late Liberalism in Palestine.” E-Flux Conversations.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. 1987. “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” In Essential Works of Lenin: “What Is to Be Done?” and Other Writings, edited by Henry M. Christman, 177-270. New York, NY: Dover Publication.

Malabou, Catherine, and Jacques Derrida. 2004. Counterpath: Tracelling with Jacques Derrida. Stanford, CT: Stanford University Press.

Mandel, Ernest. 1999. Late Capitalism. London, UK: Verso.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1-40.