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Ruling the Savage Periphery

Ruling the Savage Periphery

Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State

Benjamin D. Hopkins

ISBN 9780674980709

Publication date: 05/05/2020

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A provocative case that “failed states” along the periphery of today’s international system are the intended result of nineteenth-century colonial design.

From the Afghan frontier with British India to the pampas of Argentina to the deserts of Arizona, nineteenth-century empires drew borders with an eye toward placing indigenous people just on the edge of the interior. They were too nomadic and communal to incorporate in the state, yet their labor was too valuable to displace entirely. Benjamin Hopkins argues that empires sought to keep the “savage” just close enough to take advantage of, with lasting ramifications for the global nation-state order.

Hopkins theorizes and explores frontier governmentality, a distinctive kind of administrative rule that spread from empire to empire. Colonial powers did not just create ad hoc methods or alight independently on similar techniques of domination: they learned from each other. Although the indigenous peoples inhabiting newly conquered and demarcated spaces were subjugated in a variety of ways, Ruling the Savage Periphery isolates continuities across regimes and locates the patterns of transmission that made frontier governmentality a world-spanning phenomenon.

Today, the supposedly failed states along the margins of the international system—states riven by terrorism and violence—are not dysfunctional anomalies. Rather, they work as imperial statecraft intended, harboring the outsiders whom stable states simultaneously encapsulate and exploit. “Civilization” continues to deny responsibility for border dwellers while keeping them close enough to work, buy goods across state lines, and justify national-security agendas. The present global order is thus the tragic legacy of a colonial design, sustaining frontier governmentality and its objectives for a new age.


  • By asserting that the frontier did not close and vanish—as his precursor Frederick Jackson Turner so famously did in 1893—Hopkins challenges one of our hoariest understandings of frontier zones. What he reveals is that the frontier, and its violence, can be found wherever imperial soldiers are sent—wherever they imagine the local people over the horizon as inhabiting ‘Indian country’…Hopkins [succeeds] in leaving readers with an enduring sense of the palimpsest of empires that continues to structure our contemporary world.

    —Karl Jacoby, Public Books


  • 2022, Winner of the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize


  • Benjamin D. Hopkins is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University. He has received research awards from the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Leverhulme Trust, and the National University of Singapore.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press