Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Book Explores the Legacy of Colonization and Decolonization for Native American Rights

New Book Explores the Legacy of Colonization and Decolonization for Native American Rights
by Scott Neigh (originally published at Left Eye On Books)

There is enough book here – an arm-wearying 934 pages – that it is no great trick to find plenty to respect, admire, and learn from, while also not running short of elements that are disappointing and off-putting.

The best part of Earth Into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism, the second and final entry in Globalization Studies professor Anthony Hall’s “The Bowl with One Spoon” project, is his willingness to experiment with the telling of history. Much like its predecessor, American Empire and the Fourth World, this book rejects narrowly focused ways of studying history and takes a generalist approach that weaves back and forth across five centuries. Hall describes his orientation as “Aboriginal history,” where the use of the word “Aboriginal” does not necessarily reflect a focus on indigenous peoples but rather an emphasis on the importance of points at which new dynamics and new patterns are introduced into history. In North America, of course, the colonial dynamics set in motion by contact between indigenous peoples and European empires are a key example of such a point, and a central thrust of the book is to reexamine many crucial elements of world history, particularly those relevant to Canada and the United States, in light of this colonial encounter and its consequences.

Hall argues that there are multiple ways in which the colonial/anti-colonial struggle on Turtle Island (a native American term for the North American continent) continues to inform the practices of North America’s settler states, particularly the United States, in their dealings with the rest of the world. He draws connections between U.S. imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the original military efforts to conquer Turtle Island, for instance, and links the neoliberal capitalist drive to place any and all commons under private control in the service of profit to the drive to colonially privatize the commonly held lands of North American indigenous peoples for settler benefit and profit. Moreover, he argues that this is not simply a matter of analogous dynamics occurring at different moments. Rather, the pressures and struggles of the early colonial encounter gave birth to new social forms, new legal and social technologies, that took impulses already present in European societies and heightened their material expressions, creating the world in which we live and the institutions that dominate us today.

An important moment in that development, Hall argues, was the American Revolution, a civil war within Anglo-America, he posits, which resulted in the nation splitting into two (still tightly connected) sovereignties, both of which were committed to expansion and colonization but in markedly different modes. A key issue in the war was how the takeover of indigenous lands would proceed, with the imperial center giving at least some attention to negotiation and consent, as in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and the colonists interested only in conquest. This split resulted in the formation of the United States, a new polity driven even more than its predecessor towards the unfettered development of new ways to turn the earth, the commons – the Bowl With One Spoon – into private property, and to the recognition of rights adhering only to individuals and not to groups.

This challenge to re-think history in ways that excavate the importance of the early years of the North American colonial encounter from centuries of settler dismissal and erasure is, on its own, enough to make this book worth indulging. Even if not every detail stands up to further scrutiny, the overall shape of the connection painted by Hall between that moment and today is quite compelling.

I also like the book’s commitment to a complex worldview. It combines an unhesitant naming of oppression and atrocity with an interest in responding politically in a way that is grounded in both history and in the real choices that people can make today. This is a useful counter to the politics unmoored from practicalities and experience that all too often are heard from the settler radical left (and I don’t exempt myself) pertaining to indigenous struggles. However, I’m not always sure of the political places that Hall arrives at.

For example, I think there is subversive potential in the way the book stays grounded in the path we have already tread by seeking what is useful in the less bad of the two colonial traditions. It is, among other things, using a well-worn strategy to exploit contradictions among different groups of oppressors to advance the interests of the oppressed. Among ways that it does this is by pushing for a real, practical, substantive way of legally recognizing Aboriginal title and for seeing future treaty processes as about concretizing it, not extinguishing it. It also demands a recognition that settler-indigenous relations in North America properly belong in the realm of international law and not domestic law. These two demands are big but not inconceivable, and if realized could be important in gradually shifting dominant understandings of sovereignty itself in Western law and at least some features of core institutions of capital and the state. It’s not guaranteed, but the political implications could be far-reaching.

But I’m wary. I’m wary of expecting more from struggle organized through a legalistic framework than it can actually achieve, and more from the high-sounding but often hollow realm of international law than it can deliver. I’m wary that the book is sometimes insufficiently critical of the lesser-evil strand of colonization on Turtle Island. Sometimes it is very critical of it and often it cautions that even its best moments have still been flawed and oppressive, but even so, finding a political starting point by seeking the useful and the better within the bad feels like it might be giving up too much. Is it merely a practical stance that begins, as we must, from where we’re at and what has come before? Or is it capitulation, an insufficient rejection of colonization, a too-timid move towards true self-determination? As someone who is a settler and white, I don’t pretend to have any standing from which I can answer for the indigenous side (and, frankly, neither does Hall, who is also a white guy). Still, speaking just for myself, finding what we can build on in what is without an unflinching and consistent repudiation of the awful violence built into even the less-evil colonial tradition feels a little hard to stomach. (There might be something to be gained from relating to what is using John Holloway‘s notion of being within-and-against oppressive social relations – in this case, colonization. At least as I have understood this approach, it allows us to see clearly where we are, to draw on continuities, but not to be trapped by them. Past choices, past compromises, can be hated, can be the products of power and coercion, can legitimately be rejected now. This, one hopes, would avoid the danger of a total break from the past and its consequent violent imposition of abstraction from above but would maintain more space for grounded, from-below transformation that preserves desirable continuities.)

The more troubling aspects of this book are not insignificant, however. Perhaps the most viscerally off-putting to me is the author’s vigorous commitment to the idea that 9/11 was an inside job. It is not a huge part of the text – half a dozen mentions of a page or two through most of the book and a large part of one chapter close to the end. However, as someone who sits firmly with the majority of the radical left in fully acknowledging the capacity of elites to countenance the most awful of violence while still seeing the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement as epistemologically ungrounded and politically a dead-end, it’s hard not to let the author’s commitment taint everything else about the book. By and large, I don’t think it should and I don’t think it has to. However, I have two areas of wariness about knowledge production in the rest of the book that bear some resemblance to troubling approaches and practices commonly found in “9/11 Truth” materials.

One is the ways he draws many connections by noting similarities in widely separated actions and events across a broad range of contexts and times. I quite like that he is willing to do this in a less constricted way than, for instance, conventional academic history, but what I don’t like is that the text is not always very clear about what we are supposed to understand, what the noted resonances should mean, or how the indicated connections are, in fact, connected. At best, this can be confusing and can make arguments less persuasive and less useful, and at worst, it can encourage what skeptics call “magical thinking.” The other has to do with the question of how best to integrate discussions of nefarious doings by shadowy networks of powerful people into analyses that take a more resolutely social approach to understanding the world. The former does happen, after all, from the capitalists who tried to get General Smedley Butler (of war-is-a-racket fame) to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt, to CIA involvement in coups against democratically elected governments, to torture and secret prisons in the Global War on Terror national security state. The trick is to deal in a politically responsible manner with this in light of how much we just cannot know, and of the danger of being subtly shifted from an active orientation grounded in the knowable and communicable everyday lives of oppressed and exploited people and into a more passive quasi-politics that gets lost in the details, real and imagined, of elite skullduggery. Other than the material related to 9/11, my concern about the book’s choices in these areas stays at fairly moderate levels, but I would still suggest reading with caution, especially in that handful of areas where it seems that sources from the political right (or at least conspiratorially-inclined populism) are being used.

All of that, thankfully, is a relatively minor part of the book, but I have a number of other concerns, too. It seems perverse to ask a book that already pushes a thousand pages to do more, but its relative lack of attention to social relations of gender over the last half millennium is disappointing, particularly given how tightly interwoven gender has been with colonization and capital, this book’s main preoccupations. I also have quibbles with some specific lines of argument. For instance, in a couple of sections, the text is organized around an opposition between understandings of “liberalism” and “capitalism” that felt somewhat counter-intuitive to me and were never adequately explained. I also felt that the section that talked about the history of the twentieth century European and North American left was flat and a bit simplistic.

My final criticism has to do with the extensive repetition in the text. The book’s dance back and forth over a great expanse of time, its emphasis on resonances and interconnections, and its disdain for certain features of conventional historical writing are all things I appreciate, even if I do not always agree with the details. Deliberate and strategic repetition of key points and arguments is a part of this, and in principle I like the idea of flaunting the convention of a singular and linear presentation of information. However, the execution in this instance was not good – by the end, I found it grating and boring. Perhaps future experiments with new forms for historical nonfiction – and I hope that Hall and others continue with them – might include greater attention to artistry in their use of repetition.

Given its size and given its problems, I suspect not too many people are going to read this book, outside of instances where it is assigned in classes. And there is enough good stuff in the book that this is kind of a shame – some of its re-visioning of North American history while refusing to erase colonization is fascinating, and some of its implicit and explicit vision for change in the future is well worth listening to and thinking about, even if there are elements with which I would not ultimately agree. Though I encountered a lot that was familiar, I also learned a lot. And that, after all, is the point of reading such a book.

Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer who lives in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, and blogs at A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land.

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