Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: Dancing on our Turtle's Back

[Leanne Simpson. Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011.]

This is a book from a few years ago by renowned Nishnaabeg author, scholar, and activist Leanne Simpson. It is a book about Indigenous resurgence through learning from, and living lives shaped by, traditional teachings.

Dancing on Our Turtle's Back shares teachings and stories. It shares the author's experiences of learning from those teachings and stories (and from those who shared them with her). And it shares her own analyis of the teachings, the stories, and the overall learning process. It is deeply reflective and it exemplifies a way of engaging with learning, with scholarship, and with writing that is based in the author as a whole person, in contrast with most Western scholarship. And all of this is done in the context of a vision in which Nishaabeg and broader Indigenous resurgence is the most important focus for reaching a decolonized future on Turtle Island -- where resurgence means taking what has, through the relentless persistence of ancestors, survived in the face of the predatory beast that is colonialism; learning from it; adapting it to today as every generation must; and expanding the weave of its logics through lives and communities in ways that will strengthen them and strengthen the nations which they comprise.

I am, of course, not Nishnaabeg, nor Indigenous in any way. These are not my traditions, not my teachings, and the resurgence which they guide is not mine either. How, then, should those of us who are settlers read this book?

There are at least two different answers to that, I think. One is a very direct sort of learning across difference. In this case, it is learning about a people and a polity I am not part of but whose land I live on -- most of my life has been spent on land that is Nishnaabeg or shared Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee. The ubiquity of the rhtetoric of reconciliation and the increasing mainstream presence of things like land acknowledgements nothwithstanding, there is still next to no institutional integration into settler-majority contexts of the kind of learning that would be necessary for even basic respect let alone the kinds of transformations that will be necessary within settler society to make true reconciliation conceivable. You could make a case that reading books is not necessarily the best way to engage in this kind of learning, but it can't hurt and it fits with my own approaches to engaging with the world. So one way of reading this book is as a very basic kind of self education about ways of living that are not mine but that I have an obligation to know about and learn from because of where I live.

Along those lines, I particularly appreciated the way this book, short as it is, was able to convey not just specific information and stories but a felt sense of the broader logic of resurgence. It didn't just tell me that there was this exsiting, complex, sophisticated, diverse body of knowledge that could in theory inform a resurgent Nishnaabeg nation, and then give examples -- I could feel it. I could feel the way those logics have never ceased to exist -- in the stories, in the language, in the lives of elders and knowledge-holders -- and how those logics are the basis upon which more Nishnaabeg people and families and communities are already shaping their lives. And how this logic for collectively living otherwise is the basis for strength in reaching towards...well, towards a future that the settler state and many settler individuals do not want to see.

The other way to derive knowledge from this book as a settler, I think, is to see what can be learned from Nishnaabeg processes of resurgence that is relevant to our own struggles. Obviously this must not be a matter of stealing a story here, a word there, a misunderstood concept somewhere else, and putting them to our own uses. Rather, I think it is a matter of looking at the whole and seeing what questions it prompts us to ask about our own circumstances that we must then answer using the resources (political, cultural, tactical, spiritual, or whatever else) that are ours to use.

One question that books of this sort always raise for me is what work those of us on the settler side of the relationship must do in order to get settler society (and all of its powerful, violent, dominating institutions) back into our own lane. There is no single answer to this, and of course, what exactly the answer looks like must also derive from our own desires for and imaginings of justice and liberation. But I do not feel any less suspicion on the eve of Canada 150 than I have over the last decade or two that the degree and kind of change that will be necessary to truly respect and decolonize our relationship with Indigenous peoples is far beyond what most of us have thus far been capable of imagining.

Another question -- not a new-to-me one either, though I think phrased a bit differently than the last time I asked it in print -- is where we will find the new social logics that can replace the logic of patriarchal colonial capitalism that shapes our lives and communities today. John Holloway makes a pretty convincing case that it is only through our constant acts of resistance, from the small and everyday to the massive and collective, that we will discover those logics and weave the social world anew. Which I think is true as far as it goes. But, still, I look to the experiences of Indigenous nations, where such logics of collectively living otherwise persist and can provide a basis for a transformed future, and I worry about where an attitude of "Oh, we'll make it up as we go along" might lead us. We do not have, among those of us who trace our ancestry to Europe at any rate, the same kind of reservoir to draw on, as capitalism destroyed its traces amongst our ancestor long ago. And yet...should we perhaps be doing more to extract the bits that point to justice and liberation from our own past and from our own present, fragmentary and impure as they might be, as a way to ground possible futures, rather than taking the stance that we'll (metaphorically) burn it all down and figure out what to do next at some future moment? I'm not sure, but it is worth further reflection.

I could probably come up with more examples of questions inspired within me by this book, but I think those two exemplify two important broad categories of questions we settlers can ask about our own situations as we learn from Indigenous resurgence: What are our responsibilites in the current messed up colonial situation? And what lessons can we (respectfully, carefully) derive for how our settler-majority movements and communities-in-struggle might move forward, from the many areas where those who are engaged in Indigenous resurgence have things more together and figured out than we do?

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: Revolution at Point Zero

[Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2012.]

Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch -- a feminist reexamination of the origins of capitalism -- was, for me, a mind-blowing and paradigm-shifting book. While her essays collected in Revolution at Point Zero didn't shake me up in quite the same way, their analysis does succeed in hammering away at our inherited understandings of capitalism using a similar cluster of insights to those that animated her earlier book in such a way as to leave those understandings fundamentally reshaped.

Originally from Italy, Federici was one of the founders of the International Feminist Collective in 1972, which went on to launch the Wages For Housework campaign. She has continued to work as a writer, teacher, and organizer since then, in Nigeria for many years and most recently in the United States.

At least in part because of the hard work of Wages For Housework and those who came after, it has become a feminist truism in the early 21st century that all of those kinds of mostly-unpaid work that make life possible and that even today remain vastly disproportionately done by women -- the cleaning, the cooking, the emotional labour, the work of caring for children and older adults, the relational work that is the foundation of community -- are, in fact, work. Most frequently today, this recognition is taken up in a moral or micro-political mode and connected to efforts to change relations and practices for individuals, couples, and small-scale communities. Which, without a doubt, are important, and need greater recognition and buy-in from those of us whose lives are organized into greater freedom to opt out of this particular burden. Similarly, to the extent that there is awareness today of the Wages For Housework campaign, it is regarded (as it was as well by many who dismissed it back in the 1970s) as simply a demand -- maybe a helpful and important one, maybe an unreasonable one, maybe even a misguided one that would end up expanding the reach of the market into everyday life, but nonetheless just a demand for improved material conditions for individuals (especially women), households, and small-scale communities.

From the early essays written during the heyday of the campaign in the 1970s, to a couple written during the years of Reaganite reaction, to many from the era of the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s and beyond, they all make it very clear that Wages for Housework was never just a demand -- it was a revolutionary perspective. In combination with theorists writing from anti-colonial contexts, Federici and the other feminists affiliated (and later inspired) by Wages For Housework make clear that capitalism is not just a name for those relationships mediated by the wage and by money, but is a system that has always depended on appropriating vast amounts of unpaid labour. This applies to the unpaid labour of enslaved and indentured people in/from the Global South, and it applies to the unpaid labour appropriated mostly from women all over the world that can be described as "reproductive" in character. This unwaged labour is integrally part of capital, and it is subordinated and devalued precisely by its unwaged character, which makes it seem entirely natural and as if it flows from some essential attribute of the category "woman." In demanding that it be waged, feminists were demanding that it be seen as a central and foundational aspect of how our contemporary social relations work. And recognizing that centrality -- truly recognizing it and faithfully following its implications -- must necessarily transform, in ways large and small, everything else that we understand about capital and about struggles within, against, and beyond it.

As with any career-spanning collection, even a fairly compact one like this, there is some repetition across different essays, and also some unevenness. In part because it is well-curated and fairly short, I didn't find myself minding the repetition, and indeed I found it helpful -- the kind of shift prompted by Federici's analysis is the kind that takes multiple exposures to work its way into all of the nooks and crannies of our existing ways of thinking. For instance, given how thoroughly most analyses of neoliberalism in the last two decades have ignored the importance of unpaid reproductive labour in how capital and our lives have been transformed in this era, as well as in how resistance can and must happen, I found it pretty useful to have more than one essay filling this gap in different ways. It was interesting, as well, to trace the shift in the political moment through not just the shifts in the content of the essays across the years but also in the mood and tone of the writing. It's not exactly a happy trajectory, given the years covered, but it's an important one to understand. (And it somehow felt less unhappy than I remember being the case in a collection of essays by US feminist Charlotte Bunch that I read years ago, that covered much the same period from a somewhat different sort of feminist perspective.) It is also interesting to trace Federici's evolving understanding of reproductive labour -- she notes this explicitly in her Introduction -- from a very direct impulse to reject it as imposition and burden in the earlier years, to a much more nuanced understanding by the end that recognizes not only its role in the subordination of women and of the broader working class but also sees collective experiments in new non-state, non-market ways of organizing it as a crucial basis and site for the struggle for a radically transformed world.

As much as I appreciated its analysis, in reading this book, I found it difficult not to be pessimistic. I don't think that pessimism is necessarily something that Federici put in the writing, at least not in any deliberate way -- it's really more a product of my reading of it. I think truly taking account of the role of reproductive labour in global capital, both in years gone by and today, makes our current unpleasant global trajectory even more stark. It makes it even more clear than conventional left analyses that nostalgia for some mythologized (and misunderstood) slightly-better (for some) yesterday simply cannot be what shapes our anti-neoliberal politics. It didn't help that I was constantly aware, as I read, of this book's resonance with Jason Moore's Capitalism and the Web of Life, which builds on the analysis of Federici and many others and adds an ecological focus on capitalism's dependence on appropriating the unpaid work done by what we might call in imprecise shorthand "nature." Even without Moore's focus on ecological catastrophe, though, Federici's work makes it quite clear that there is simply no return to what from the inside looked like an everpresent horizon of plenty and relative ease for the middle class and at least some of the working class in the West in the post-Second World War years, but that from the outside was clearly an unusual bubble and blip in the course of world history that depended on massive predation, and on high levels of appropriation of unpaid labour from women, from the Global South, and from the natural world. We shouldn't want to recreate it, even if we could. None of which is at all new to me, but even so it's still not a happy or easy truth to face, and I felt very aware of it as I read.

Like I said, though, that pessimism is more about me and about the world than it is about the book. And the book is well worth reading. It advances an analysis that is important and useful, and that we cannot do without. As for how exactly to translate these insights into action -- well, that's a lot less clear. Certainly Federici gives examples in some of the later essays, particularly drawing from how working-class women in the Global South and also in urban contexts in North America are already self-organizing. But mostly I get the sense that, in the spirit of the autonomist roots of her politics, she mostly sees that as something that needs to be worked out collectively on the ground as we move forward. And this book is her invitation to do just that.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site.]