Nathan Covington | Simone Weil, Neocolonialism, and Trauma

By Nathan Covington

Simone Weil, Neocolonialism, and Trauma

I.   Question Posed

This essay was spurred by a question raised during the seminar discussion on Simone Weil and cooperation. At the end of the class, Parker Hovis posed the question: Aren’t soldiers similar to factory workers, as described by Weil? To address this question, this essay will begin by examining Simone Weil’s thoughts on colonialism. It will then look into the nature of the soldier’s role in the colonial system. Finally, it will ask if cooperation can serve as a solution to the current colonial power structure.

       II.    Simone Weil and Colonialism

Simone Weil’s thoughts on colonialism can be summed up with the following phrase: “The uprooted uproot.”[1] In an example that is strikingly relevant today, Weil observes that “[t]he Hebrews were runaway slaves, and they either exterminated or reduced to slavery all the peoples of Palestine.”[2] Weil seems to view colonialism as spreading uprootedness like an “almost fatal sickness for the subjugated populations.”[3]

Weil’s point about past uprootedness fueling current uprootedness is very similar to current research around transgenerational trauma,[4] and its relation to colonialism.[5] This transgenerational trauma informs a lot of the violence that goes on today, including the current atrocities being committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians.[6] Weil would most likely argue that this transgenerational trauma is rooted in “[t]he destruction of the past,” which “is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”[7]

Weil offers different degrees to which colonizers uproot the colonized. She argues that “[u]prooting is least experienced when the conquerors are migrants who settle in the conquered country, mingling with the local population and taking root there;”[8] it is experienced more when “the conqueror remains foreign to the territory of which he has become owner;”[9] and it is experienced most “when there are massive deportations.”[10] Perhaps Weil believes that the use of military force is what makes colonialism lead to more uprootedness.[11] Weil might have a different opinion on neocolonialism, where oftentimes countries use debt, instead of overt force, to subjugate populations. [12] However, even when military force is not used, the threat of military force almost certainly plays a role.

III.    Simone Weil and Soldiers

Key to any colonial endeavor is the soldier. As Parker Hovis mentioned in class, soldiers are in many ways like the factory workers of military conquest. Like Weil in the factory,[13] soldiers often do not know the broader ramifications of their actions.[14] Like factory workers, soldiers often join the military as a source of income.[15]

However, the soldier’s answer to what Weil calls the “mystery of manufacture”[16] is a lot harder to swallow than for factory workers. For soldiers, learning about their place in the military industrial complex involves reconciling with their roles as murderers who uphold colonial power systems.[17] In this way, while Weil didn’t think too much about their role in the world because of her fear of “work[ing] badly,”[18] soldiers avoid thinking about their murders as a psychological defense mechanism.[19] In this way, corporations are able to maximize profits[20] and  political leaders are able to maximize political success[21] by uprooting soldiers to murder colonized people.[22]

Even if people reject murder and refuse to join the military, those who uproot have one more tool at their disposal: the draft. The draft has been used throughout American history for wars that faced large public backlash,[23] and is currently used regularly by many countries around the world.[24] In this way, everyone in a colonized country is perpetually a future soldier, at the ready to become further uprooted.[25]

Thus, the soldier becomes useful to the colonizer because they can commit atrocities on behalf of the colonizer, while refusing to deal with the ramifications, so as to not question the murders they have committed.

IV.   Cooperation as a Solution

In the seminar, Professor Harcourt described cooperation as a solution to the grueling conditions that workers like Weil faced in factories. In my view, cooperation similarly serves as a tool to fight against colonialism and the forced uprootedness of military recruitment. Colonizers rely to a large part on what Professor Harcourt calls “statist[s],”[26] who trust in the government to protect their interests. While powerful States may be helpful in response to confronting global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic,[27] colonialism shows the issues with concentrating so much power in a State. Under Professor Harcourt’s “bottom-bottom” cooperation approach, people will be able to not only build up cooperatives to support themselves, but also use their newfound power as a way to “leverage cooperation”[28] to fight against the uprooting State government and re-root themselves. This can be done not only by those in colonized countries,[29] but also those who live in the colonizer’s territory.[30] Such a cooperative society need not be isolationist. Weil encourages learning from other countries about how to improve our own society.[31]

Cooperation offers people a solution to reject the current colonial structure, while also providing an organizing apparatus to fight back against the State’s inevitable backlash.

V.   Conclusion

Overall, uprootedness takes center stage in the colonialist structure. While this is often done by uprooting front-line oppressors to force them to submit, Professor Harcourt offers an interesting solution in cooperation, where people can fight back against this State coercion through organized resistance.


[1] Simone Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other 122 (J.P. Little ed., trans., 2003) (quoting Simone Weil, The Need for Roots 48–49 (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005)).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 121.

[4] See, e.g., Tori DeAngelis, The Legacy of Trauma, 50 Monitor on Psychology 36 (2019) (explaining how transgenerational trauma works); Amy Lerner & Rachel Yehuda, Cultural Trauma and Epigenetic Inheritance, 30 Dev. & Psychopathology 1763 (2018) (examining the effects of trauma on culture); Int’l Handbook Multigenerational Legacies Trauma (Yael Danieli ed., 1998) (providing historical examples); Brent Bezo & Stefania Maggi, Intergenerational Perceptions of Mass Trauma’s Impact on Physical Health and Well-Being, 10 Psych. Trauma: Theory, Rsch., Prac., and Pol’y 87 (researching physical effects of this trauma).

[5] See generally, e.g., Reakeeta Smallwood et al., Understanding the Impact of Historical Trauma Due to Colonization on the Health and Well-Being of Indigenous Young Peoples: A Systematic Scoping Review, 32 J. Transcultural Nursing 5 (2020) (examining the traumatic effects of colonization on young indigenous people); Amy Bombay et al., The Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the Concept of Historical Trauma, 51 Transcultural Psychology 299 (2014) (looking at how colonizers’ forceful uprooting of indigenous people has manifested itself today through transgenerational trauma).

[6] See Khaled Diab, How Trauma Drives the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New Lines Magazine (Nov. 22, 2023), (“Widespread individual trauma is compounded by collective and historical trauma. In the case of Israelis, the central, pivotal collective trauma is the Holocaust (or Shoah, the Hebrew for “catastrophic destruction”), and the pogroms that preceded it.”). The author of this paper also personally seen, in his friends and family, the influence that trauma from the Holocaust has played in motivating violence against Palestinians.

[7] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots 48 (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005).

[8] Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other, supra note 1, at 121 (emphasis added) (quoting Simone Weil, The Need for Roots 45–46 (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005)). This reasoning seems circular. Of course one cannot uproot others if one takes root in a new community. However, inherent in the terms “conquerors” and “conquered” rests a colonial power structure that is incompatible with roots.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 122 (quoting Simone Weil, The Need for Roots 45–46 (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005)).

[11] See id. at 121 (quoting Simone Weil, The Need for Roots 45–46 (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005) (“There is uprooting every time there is a military conquest.”)).

[12] See Ivana Vasic-Lalovic et al., The Growing Debt Burdens of Global South Countries: Standing in the Way of Climate and Development Goals, Ctr. Econ. & Pol’y Rsch. (Oct. 12, 2023), (“On average, in 16 low-income countries, interest payments amount to about 4 percent of export revenue.”); see also David Dollar, Understanding China’s Belt and Road Infrastructure Projects in Africa (Brookings Institution ed., 2019) (detailing China’s use of loans to pressure various nations in Africa to support its Belt and Road Initiative).

[13] See Simone Weil, Formative Writings: 1929–1941 193 (Dorothy Tuck McFarland & Wilhelmina Van Ness, eds., trans., 1987) (“The relationship between the causes and effects in the work itself isn’t understood.”).

[14] See, e.g., Charles Bird, From Home to the Charge: A Psychological Study of the Soldier, 28 Am. J. Psych. 315, 316 (1917) (“So suddenly precipitated was the present conflict that the potential soldier had very little time for reflection.”).

[15] See Michael Springer Gould, The Weaponization of Poverty: An Investigation Into United States Military Recruitment Practices In High Schools Of Low-Income Communities In The Inland Empire 57–60 (2020) (Senior Thesis, Claremont Colleges) (discussing the military’s recruitment of low-income high school students through its JROTC program). But see Demographics of the U.S. Military, Council on Foreign Rels. (July 13, 2020), (showing that middle class people are overrepresented in the U.S. military).

[16] See Formative Writings: 1929–1941, supra note 13, at 193.

[17] This is not to say that factory workers do not also uphold power systems. However, unlike factory workers, soldiers have to deal with the reality that their own murder of another is not justified.

[18] Formative Writings: 1929–1941, supra note 13, at 174.

[19] See CJ Kibble, The Relationship between Death Anxiety and Combat-Related Stress, 5 J. Hospital & Medical Management 1, 5 (2019) (“People in the military likely rationalize or desensitize themselves to death anxiety as a protective instinct.”).

[20] Accord, e.g., SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, Stockholm Int’l Peace Rsch. Inst., (showing the U.S. military budget more than doubling from around $320 billion dollars in 2000 to around $738 billion in 2010 and rising again to around $877 billion dollars in 2022); Data Bank, (outlining the top 100 military contractors in terms of dollars obligated, with Lockheed Martin Corporation leading the list at around $48 billion dollars obligated).

[21] See, e.g., David W. Moore, Bush Job Approval Highest in Gallup History, Gallup (Sept. 24, 2001),

[22] Weil has touched upon the moral abhorrence of these murders, noting that “once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder.” Simone Weil, Selected Essays: 1934–1943 174 (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015).

[23] The U.S. has used the draft for six wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Timothy J. Perri, “The Evolution of Military Conscription in the United States,” 17 Indep. Rev. 429 (2013).

[24] Sixty countries worldwide currently have “some form of an active conscription program.” Drew Desilver, Fewer Than a Third of Countries Currently Have a Military Draft; Most Exclude Women, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Apr. 23, 2019),; see also Countries with Mandatory Military Service, World Population Rev., (summarizing the draft laws of each mandatory conscription country).

[25] A key exception to this is the wealthy class in each respective country, which often finds ways to “draft-dodge.” See Martha Bailey & Eric Chyn, The Demographic Effects of Dodging the Vietnam Draft, 110 AEA Papers & Procs. 220 (2020) (discussing various ways in which wealthier Americans have evaded drafts).

[26] Bernard E. Harcourt, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social theory 2 (Columbia University Press, 2023).

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 95. As Professor Harcourt mentions in Cooperation, these cooperatives can also shift society away from the current “punishment paradigm.” Id. at 161–62.

[29] Colonized people, whose resources are the backbone of the world economy, can form cooperatives to pressure countries to abide by their rules in order to have access to their resources.

[30] This was shown in Coöperism 1/13, where cooperatives fought against Atlanta’s constructing of a “cop city” to provide an expensive playground-esque “training facility” for police officers. 1/13 | Defend the Atlanta Forests/Stop Cop City, Notre-Dame-Des-Landes, & Temporary Autonomous Zones, Coöperism 13/13,

[31] See The Need for Roots, note 7, at 78 (demeaning language omitted) (“That ought to make us wonder whether  . . . the [B]lack man . . . hadn’t after all more to teach us than to learn from us.”). This seems to be Weil’s path to achieving what Professor Harcourt describes as “compound cooperation.” Harcourt, supra note 26, at 95.