Wednesday, August 04, 2004

American Empire and the Fourth World

American Empire and the Fourth World by Canadian academic Anthony J. Hall is a massive history of the 500-year encounter between European empires (and the settler states they spawned) and the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas. Much more than a catalogue of facts, it shows the continuity between the conquest that began in 1492 and the processes of neoliberal globalization that are bringing capitalist property relations to ever more corners of the globe and facets of life.

This is the kind of book I think everyone in North America should read. It paints a nuanced, if broad, picture of the history of the five centuries of conquest on the Aboriginal side of the dividing line, areas which were left blank or filled with simple colours by my public school education.

I learned both big concepts and smaller details in reading this book. Two insights particularly important to me were with respect to the place I have left and the place I now inhabit:

  • I had not previously appreciated the leading role played by the Haudenosonee Confederacy, or Six Nations, in the broader Aboriginal context at some points in history, in terms of dealings with the British. This is particularly relevant to me because Six Nations Reserve is the nearest reserve to Hamilton, and in the ongoing struggle against the construction of the Red Hill Creek Expressway in that city, the complicated politics of the Six Nations continues to play a role.

  • The book also really made me appreciate something I knew before but did not understand in its proper historical context: most people in the Americas have some Aboriginal ancestry. Of course I don't mean in Canada or the U.S., but rather in Latin and Central America. This genealogical connection (even though the majority of the people involved do not, I think, embrace an Aboriginal or mestizo identity) draws attention to the fact that the historical processes of U.S. imperialism in those countries today, and the experiences of a great many Latino people here in Los Angeles, are very much contiguous with the conquest and exploitation that began with Columbus.

Though the book covers a great deal of ground, its purpose is to provide academic, historical support for Aboriginal peoples in their negotiations and court battles with the settler states which surround them. At heart, it seems to be based on showing there is ample historical, legal, and constitutional precedent for the goal of reordering the place of Aboriginal nations within these states and in international law, in a way that is not completely separatist and perhaps can be described as engaged but autonomous. It strives to illustrate that the slavish devotion to possessive individualism, aka unfettered capitalist property relations, in the United States is antithetical to the preservation of Aboriginal culture and lands and rights, and that there are historical seeds in Canada of ways of being and doing that would make a First Nations-friendly constitutional order possible.

Hall very deliberately situates this work as moderate in terms of work based in the perspective of Aboriginal liberation. Of course, given how central the dispossession of the indigenous people of these continents is to the states that now occupy them, even this perspective would be beyond what most people would be willing to entertain, and its critiques and analyses are more radical and better grounded than most white progressives or leftists would advance around Aboriginal issues. In fact, though I would often use the term "moderate" in a dubious or even derisive way, I am not doing so here. However, it is fair to say that this moderate perspective and the goal of supporting real-life struggles in negotiations and courts leads the book to some themes that I am uncomfortable with.

The book disrupts the usual leftist assumption that the nearest mainstream standpoint to those which are "real" (whatever that means) bearers of equity and liberation is liberalism. Of course this goes back to the confused way the word "liberal" gets used, which leads to various kinds of confusion -- in this case, he is talking about classical liberalism, which is actually most aggressively advanced by neo-conservatives in this place and time. In any case, he shows that those embracing classical liberalism and the property relations associated with that have historically been more enthusiastic and ruthless in terms of theft of Aboriginal land and the associated cultural genocide, while those identified with a more conservative version of British imperialism, or more recently with Red Toryism, have at various points in history shown more willingness to allow Aboriginal peoples autonomy and land. To be honest, though I often cringed at his defence of a certain kind of conservatism and his bad-mouthing of liberalism, I actually think this is a useful argument for showing how the conceptualization of political opinion as a linear spectrum is silly. And it also reminds me of an important point I read many years ago in an essay by English and Canadian anarchist theorist George Woodcock, that the true anarchist is both radical and conservative; certainly there are thing we wish to conserve, and deserved opposition to those who dominate that label should not blind us to that fact. Still, the development of this line of thought feels incomplete without linking it to various strands of dissident thought in a more thorough way.

The book also feels like it is soft on both imperialism and Canada. In both cases, it is related to putting effort into illustrating that there is difference between the approaches to Aboriginal people embodied by two different strands of British imperialism at one stage of history, or by U.S. imperialism and British imperialism at a slightly later one, or by the U.S. and Canada at a still later one. I think he does illustrate that there is a difference. I also quite appreciate his linking of the urge to extend capitalist property relations and other aspects of possessive individualism on the frontier of the original Thriteen Colonies 200 years ago, and U.S. military adventures today. However, I have heard more than one Aboriginal activist over the years attack the idea that Canada treats its First Nations people any better than the U.S. in terms of dispossession, poverty, deprivation of culture, and all of those things. As far as I am aware, the lived experience of Aboriginal people in the two countries is not particularly different at this point. What Hall demonstrates is, rather, a difference in the legacies left by legal and constitutional texts -- in the U.S. legacy there is no space for anything but capitalist property relations, whereas in Canada there are at least some glimmers in such legal documents that could be elaborated to create real space for Aboriginal and treaty rights. On the one hand, I can see the political expediency of advancing this argument; on the other, if Aboriginal peoples are in the same place in the two countries, does it matter that much that the path they took to get there in the early years was moderately different? I can't answer this question. All am doing is relating my discomfort. Though evils wrought by British imperialism are not avoided in the text, there is an ambivelance to the book's orietnation towards it that also makes me uncomfortable. And as someone who tries diligently to dispel the myth of the great tolerant/liberal/peaceful Canada, I'm uncomfortable with an argument that can easily be used to support it -- in and of itself I think it could be argued that it is not saying that, but it could be easily distorted by people who were so inclined.

I cannot rebutt these themes. I cannot even state unequivocal disagreement, because I do not know enough. I support the text's goals, and wish to continue learning about these issues in the future.

There is one specific area where I do have additional knowledge, which spurs me even more strongly to learn more before forming more definite ideas. One of the people I have interviewed for my oral history project is a man named Daniel Paul and author of We Were Not The Savages, a history of the Mi'kmaq Nation, of which he is a member. Though Hall's immense and broadly focused narrative only touches on the subject of Mi'kmaq-English relations a couple of times, and briefly at that, his portrayal is much less harsh than Paul's, whose consistently negative portrayal of English treatment of the Mi'kmaq might make it hard to support a thesis comparing British imperialism in a favourable way to anything.

And yet American Empire and the Fourth World does not waver in its support for Aboriginal struggles against colonialism and imperialism, whatever their source, and it does not shirk at all from describing the horribly racist treatment of First Nations people by the Canadian state.

Sound contradictory? Well, it's complicated book. Go read it!

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Varende said...

Good review! Did you review his new book somewhere? (Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism). I'd appreciate to read it as I plan to buy both of these books. THANKS.

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks, Varende!

Yes, I have reviewed the newer one...take a look here.