chapter  3
Whiteness and the elephant joke
Pages 24

It is to Hannah Arendt (1973) that we owe the remarkable insight that the practice of imperialism entailed the development of two “devices”—race and bureaucracy. Arendt’s great achievement is her delineation of the convergence of these two discourses, which she suggests were independently discovered, but begin to dovetail with the progress of domination. Arendt characterizes the discourse of race as “the emergency explanation of human beings whom no European or civilized man could understand, and whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants that they no longer

cared to belong to the same human species” (Arendt 1973:185). Bureaucracy, on the other hand, she suggests, was founded on “legend,” the “quixotic” (210) notion of the white man’s burden to slay the dragon of primitive superstition, which deteriorated rapidly into boyhood ideas of adventure as selfless service to the cause of Empire (209-10). Arendt’s analysis of bureaucracy is particularly illuminating for an understanding of the relationship of colonial discourse to the order of Whiteness (or race). Citing the influential colonial administrator Lord Cromer as a model of the colonial bureaucrat who articulated a “theory” of bureaucracy, Arendt argues that his gradual persuasion to the method of a “hybrid form of government” entailed the governance of subject territories through what he termed “personal influence,” without accountability to a legal or political policy or treaty. Cromer’s perspective, which was to prove definitive for colonial rule in general, recommended that the bureaucrat, who worked anonymously behind the scenes, be freed from any form of accountability to public institutions such as Parliament, the law courts or the press (214). Such a form of bureaucracy, Arendt suggests, through her reading of Cromer’s letters and speeches, was the outcome of his realization of the essential contradiction of colonial rule, the impossibility of cultivating democracy, and in his own words, of governing “a people by a people-the people of India by the people of England” (cited in Arendt 1973:214). Thus the transformation of the administrator as (the great English) apostle of the rule of law to one who “no longer believed in the universal validity of law, but was convinced of his own innate capacity to rule and dominate” (221), meant that the surreptitious exertion of violence, termed “administrative massacres” (216) in lieu of the “civilizing mission,” was now a “realistic” alternative for containing the natives. But such a subversive efflorescence at the very heart of the great project of freeing the natives from the shackles of their “cruel superstitions” brought bureaucracy in opposition to the foundations of colonial law. It is at this moment, of the loss of faith in the so-called English ideals of parliamentary democracy and rational government, that Arendt marks the convergence of the device of bureaucracy with the practices of race. This does not mean that she proposes adherence to English ideals as a norm from which colonial discourse has deviated. If anything, Arendt’s thesis is that every discourse of progress always carries within it its own negation in the form of a “subterranean” current. In her preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, she writes that her book assumes that

progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith...