An interview with Michael Herzfeld: Cryptocolonialism, the responsibility of the social sciences and Europe

Last week Raffaella Taylor-Seymour and KR editor Johannes Lenhard had the chance to interview Professor Michael Herzfeld, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. The three talked about what Herzfeld describes as ‘cryptocolonialism’, the public responsibility of the social sciences, economists as the Azande diviners of our times, and neoliberalism in Europe.

Herzfeld’s research ranges from Greece and Italy to Thailand, where he has investigated phenomena as diverse as ‘cultural intimacy’, bureaucracy and now cryptocolonialism. He is currently broadening his language skills to include Mandarin and aims to undertake further research on the Chinese presence in Italy.


KR: Let’s begin with a question about a concept that you recently introduced into the academic debate: cryptocolonialism. What do you mean by the term? What do countries that you attribute the term to – Thailand and Greece, for instance  – have in common?

Michael Herzfeld: I have always been fascinated by the fact that a number of countries have seemed to place great emphasis on their political independence and cultural integrity and the ways in which those countries have seemed to develop a sense of almost aggressive national pride. It seems to me that in many cases the forms of their independence were dictated by Western powers. I first came to think about this when I was struck by certain resemblances in the rhetoric of Greece – a country which I have known through my research – and Thailand, which I have recently come to know quite well. I then began to think about whether there were other places that would fit the bill. If you look at countries like Butan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran – and even Iceland – you start to see the same pattern.

I was recently at a conference in Iceland and one of the main themes was the idea of cryptocolonialsm. I think the thing that clinched it for most of the participants was when one of the discussants said: ‘But Iceland never was a colony’. Given the history of Iceland with Norway and with Denmark, that produced a huge laugh but also the recognition by everyone present that this was the diagnostic trait par excellence of a cyptocolony.

So what I want to do is to construct an argument that will not try to engage in ‘butterfly collection’, i.e. set up a model by which one can define a cyptocolony, but rather set up a heuristic so that in the end the differences will possibly be more interesting than the similarities. Nonetheless, I think there is a common thread. The idea that any country can be independent of the global power structures is an act of, at the very best, self-deception. Similarities among the countries that I am going to look at more closely in the following comparative study might, however, be seen along the following lines: the use of cartography to define very clear frontiers; the insistence of some sort of ethnic unity; attempts to unify the country by a single form of their language; and so on.

There are of course some rather marginal cases: China, at least parts of China, and possibly also Japan. These might be distant contenders for the definition of cyptocolonialism but that might be exactly the interesting point. How far can one push the argument?


KR: If I take your attempt to narrow down the concept above as a starting point, what or who do you think acts as a coloniser in the cyptocolonial narrative?

MH: I think what you see in every one of these cases is that a local elite tries to domesticate – or to use their own rhetoric ‘civilise’ – the home population in a way that will render the country relatively immune to being invaded by the Western powers but at the same time under the thumb of the Western powers when it comes to national identity. That’s why you get these massive attempts trying to unify the language – very often back to ancient prototypes. You get a lot of problems with intolerance when it comes to ethnic minorities and intense concerns about the shape and integrity of borders. I am quite sure that a lot of people in most of these countries sincerely believe that they are truly independent. Whether this means they are dupes or have accepted under full awareness the conditional nature of this independence is a question I can’t answer for them.

KR: So far, we haven’t talked about the word as such. As I understand, with the idea of ‘cyptocolonialism’ you describe an influence that resembles the colonising efforts of the West in the 19th Century. Why did you choose the prefix ‘crypto’ in your case?

MH: ‘Crypto’ means disguised. It is a disguised form of colonialism. Everybody denies that there has been any form of colonialism involved. The citizens and governments of those countries are very quick to say that they were never colonised. It is a constant mantra in Thailand for example. The Greeks obviously say they were colonised by the Ottomans, but they wouldn’t confirm ever having been a colony of the West. In all these cases, there is a very explicit denial of ever having been a part of the Western colonial system.

KR: Let me ask you a final question with regards to the concept in the narrow sense. Are there states that have not been cryptocolonised?

MH: This is indeed a rather tricky question. I am not a world historian. There are indeed only very few places that have not been under the influence of the West at all, but I am talking about a very specific phenomenon, in which official policy simply repudiates the very idea that the country was ever anything other than completely independent of the Western project.

KR: Coming from this concrete example of a concept, where do you see the role of your science or social sciences more generally as a ‘political’ discipline?  Where does the researcher position him or herself?

MH: First of all, let me add a word about the role of anthropology within the social sciences. I think that anthropology is the only social science that has undergone repeatedly such a radical degree of self-discipline. This is very important since anthropology emerged as part of the colonial project. In my view, anthropology also very much takes the lead in thinking aloud about what the appropriate role of the social sciences in politics should be. I think many social scientists have gone far beyond the idea that one cannot or shouldn’t allow oneself to be part of the political landscape of their own research. It is unrealistic to think that one could avoid that. But I also believe that it is inappropriate for me or anyone else to say that this is what social scientists should or should not do. I often talk about ‘engaged anthropology’ for instance. That does mean that you become politically engaged in the problems of the people you are studying – if they want you to. But it is not something one sets out to do. It is something that one should be open to doing. I think there is no way that one can do anthropology or social science without in fact taking a political stance. Those people who insist that one should be political neutral are deceiving themselves at the very best and others as well. Often the dynamics might be micro-political – gender relations in a household, class relations in a small village – but still political.

KR:  How do you think we have to deal with the fact that nobody really listens to us as social scientists? If you browse through current media outlets, the only sciences that really have a say are natural scientists or economists.

MH: Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the social sciences that are heard are the ones that claim, on the basis of number crunching, to have produced the most powerful models and genuinely predictive capacities. I would suggest that the best analogy for describing the role of economists in our society is with the diviners described among the Azande by Evans-Pritchard. Those ‘priests’ get into serious trouble if they make the wrong predictions. The ones who survive however are the ones with particularly powerful characters. The economists in our times are very similar. Let’s listen to those relatively few economists who are interested in their impact on ordinary people. I have heard too many economists who have claimed that they are not interested in people but in building models. If you are interested only in models, it seems to be rather strange that you would call yourself a social scientist. You might be scientistic, but you are ignoring the empirical data. We shouldn’t forget that it is the disciplines that developed in this way that support the rhetoric employed by the people who have control over the overwhelming majority of the world’s wealth. Insofar as we as social scientists have a role to play in the world, it is important to speak out against this narrative. I think we are doing it already. Teaching is very much a form of ‘engaged anthropology’. We do it through our academic publications – which may not be widely read at first and have a huge amount of impact but sometimes do filter through. At the same time I would agree that we are very often not heard until it is too late. I am myself currently thinking about ways of how to write for a broader public.

It is unfortunate that this conversation takes places at a point when people are reading a great deal less but use a whole lot of other media. I think we should use those media to get people to read more again. It is interesting to think that usually conservatism is connected to wealth in common thought. But to be truly radical today we need to hang on to some of the conservative ideas such as the importance of an education that allows people to think freely. Now if you look at what is happening to the university under the Bologna Plan with its ridiculous time constraints on the PhD, it is clear that this tries to turn universities into factories for the production of data and conceptual workers rather than as a place where people as people meet to work and think together and individually and collectively generate new ideas in part through productive contest among them. We might need to dislodge our minds from dangerously complacent acquiescence in the current dominant economic ideology.

So the answer to your question is necessarily a multi-facetted one. I think we ought to spend more time thinking about how to do this. We are individually and collectively interested more and more in public engagement among social scientists. I believe it is incredibly important, however, that we do not desert our commitment to detailed scholarly work. In particular, ethnography as performed mainly by anthropologists is a unique methodology. I would define good ethnography as the kind of work that gets you information that was denied to you on first contact, that might have been covered by deceit on first contact and that was obtained on the basis of a particular level of intimacy that has now deepened. No one apart from particular social scientists really has the time to get out there and collect this crucial information. Obviously, this is expensive and here we have one reason why the neoliberal establishment is trying very hard to suppress it. Those people are carefully trying to ignore the fact that it is exactly the very digging for details that contradicts generality and thereby allows a critical public debate.

KR: You mention the role of economists in your last answer. What do you think their link to cyptocolonialism as well as current power structures is?

MH: I don’t really feel that their link to cryptocolonialism is more predominant in that phenomenon than for instance politicians or military strategists. I do think that now there are some economists who have been important social critics, such as Paul Krugman, but that in general certainly the economists who speak for bank or banking systems are clearly engaged in an exercise which is trying to push the world into accepting their logic. I think this is dangerous. I think that having conflicting points of view is very important. I want to point you towards a book that is going to be published soon by Douglas Holmes in which he addresses the role of economists in shaping public opinion.* It took an anthropologist to do this analysis.

KR: Even though we have heard all kinds of arguments about and against neoliberalism, I would like to come back to the point you raised above.

MH: Neoliberalism is very much a term that is used for a variety of different things, but one could say that there is an ideology out there which is perhaps intentionally vague in its self-definition but sees a completely free market as essential and attributed choice to everybody. One then has to live according to the outcomes of those choices. Now this sounds wonderful until you realise that nobody is completely a free agent. We all live in a social world. I guess Thatcher was the first politician to point out this ideology in her comment that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals’. How on earth could she think that individuals could be constituted without there being a society? It is very clear that through her and Reagan and other political leaders, the neoliberals began to exercise a great deal of influence. Now this influence is invisible and uncontrollable. I am not necessarily a great believer in the nation-state as such but this is something that operates at a power level far beyond the nation-state’s control. If neoliberalism also starts to define the role of the universities and the role of knowledge in terms of quantifiable parameters and an unexamined criterion of efficiency, the idea of the academy as we know it is under threat and we have to fight back.

KR: To pick up the threads: We talked about Greece, about neoliberalism and about cryptocolonialism. How do the three go together?

MH: What is happening in Greece now suggests that Greece is to a certain extent the victim of what could be called a neoliberal endeavour. It is a very complex situation, though. On the one hand, you have a system that the west defines as corrupt. But when you look closely at where the corruption lay it was often precisely the politicians that were supported by the West. I remember very well that during my fieldwork a particular minister was fulminating in parliament against the practice of animal theft. He, however, at the same time – according to my informants – bribed witnesses in animal theft cases in exchange for votes. He was in fact eventually convicted of something related to that. It is a very unusual case in that it actually went to trial, but I think it tells us something about the whole situation. It is very convenient for the West to ‘demonstrate’ how corrupt those people are. You see how they are completely unable to live up to a Western story of morality. Obviously, things like the corruption index were instrumentalised in this respect as well. But who makes the corruption index? Most probably, nobody from Greece – or even outside Western Europe – was involved in creating this index.

Nobody is looking at the symbolic roots of corruption. It is a term with very strong roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition – corruption of the flesh – and I do not believe that any state could function well without a certain amount of what one could describe as the ability of citizens to ‘massage’ the laws in such a way as to make life bearable.

So that is one aspect of what is happening in Greece. Another aspect is that the Greeks themselves have certainly not accepted much responsibility for what has been happened. But I do not want to join the chorus in such a way as to blame the Greeks. Much of what has been going on indeed continued in the way it did because it was sustained by Western powers. Now, it is convenient for Germany in particular to point with an accusing finger and to use the kinds of pronouncements that come out of economists who claim that some people will just have to suffer so that Greece can get its finances sorted out. Why don’t you help Greece to systematise its economy  a) so that the tax system actually collects the tax correctly b) to take a bigger bite out of the banks c) so that the Greeks can tax the foreign companies that have been exploiting Greece; and finally d) to force Germany to pay the reparations that Greece has been demanding for a long time? I am not trying to claim that Greece has been completely innocent in this. I don’t think the language of guilt and innocence is the right language in any case. What seems important, however, is to state that what one calls corruption now is a social system that has been facilitated partly by the actions of one’s predecessors in the global power structure. If Greece is to come out of this system without deep resentment, then the international power juggernaut has to change its tactics. I fear that it will not dare to do so since some of these politics go down very well at home. Merkel’s behaviour is symptomatic of a world that is being crafted as we speak.

KR: To broaden the question of Greece a little bit and contextualise your analysis, I think it would be interesting to talk about Europe or potentially the Euro and its situation at the moment. Where do you think we stand there?

MH: Europe is an idea.  The attempts to try to unify Europe culturally are quite artificial. It is simply extending the logic of the nation-state with all its failures to a larger plane. So I am not necessarily all that sympathetic to the project. On the other hand, the move to unification has had some benefits as well, most importantly the absence of warfare among its member countries. This at first sounds very good – but the absence of overt warfare does not necessarily mean that everything is going well. There are many ways of destroying people that don’t actually involve the usage of guns and bombs. The creation of a huge destitute underclass is precisely one of the ways in which an Orwellian nightmare could still come out of this. So I am less concerned about the criticisms of the EU that have to do with the shape of bananas, than I am with the mono-culturalist policies. To say – as the Vatican has said – that Europe is Christian is an insult to any European who is not and similarly viewing Europeans as ‘white’ insults. I think it is important to stop the idea of Europe as an exclusionary base. If Europe aims to become inclusive then it must rethink its attitude towards immigration. The world is going to see an even bigger sweep of refugees fleeing areas of conflict largely created by the ecological messes that in turn have been created by the West. Don’t we have a responsibility, therefore, to open our gates, even if it means we have to eat a little less? There are moral issues here that, as so often has happened in the past, have been recruited by a self-satisfied moralistic rhetoric. What the EU could be has been subverted by what the neoliberals would like it to be for their own very selfish purposes.




*Douglas R. Holmes, Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks, University of Chicago Press, 2013. http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo16956421.html

Johannes Lenhard is currently a post doctoral researcher at the Max Cam Center for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His work is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. His new project is discovering the ethics of venture capital investing and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.

Raffaella Taylor-Seymour is a third year undergraduate student in Social Anthropology at King's College, Cambridge. She has undertaken fieldwork in Zimbabwe and is interested in the study of development, entrepreneurship and the aspirations of young people.