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.