Tag Archives: colonialism

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).

Counter-history

Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.

Dispossession

The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

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Suburbia and the Creation of Anti-Indigenous Space

A short piece by Nathan Ince on the ways suburbs as a purification of settler space and the erasure of indigeneity: “This process of suburbanization could almost be viewed as a ritual of purification, as a potentially contested landscape is transformed into a sort of anti-Indigenous space, where not even memory of First Nations occupation is able to survive. While the process might not be conscious, it serves an undeniable purpose in Canadian society. Through a comprehensive transformation of the landscape, we are absolved of the sins of the past.

Similarly, many smoldering land claims burst into flames as soon the disputed land is slated for suburbanization. For the protesters at Oka and Caledonia, the development of their lands would have marked the point of no return, where their land would have been transformed beyond recognition or repair.”

White Pine History

The town of Waterdown is not often associated with history. Situated just north of Hamilton, the one-time village has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, with thousands of new houses being built in subdivisions on every side of the old core. While by no means the most striking example of suburbanization in Southern Ontario, I grew up only a few kilometers from Waterdown, and for me this development remains emblematic of what is perhaps the most radical transformation currently affecting the landscape of our region.

There is something fundamentally ahistoric about suburban growth. In the typical development of a subdivision, the landscape is bulldozed, the hills are flattened, the watercourses are channelized, and traditional land uses are replaced with a form of human settlement that has never before occupied the site. Non-native trees are planted along the lawns and driveways of residents who might imagine them to be…

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Sarah Hunt: Why are we hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause of #MMIW?

Short piece in Rabble by Sarah Hunt: “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the “risk factors” associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the “risk factors” that lead to violence in the lives of the perpetrators? Isn’t that truly where the responsibility for this epidemic lies? When Pickton was convicted, why didn’t we see national coverage of the root causes of his actions and that of other white male serial killers?”

Kwetlal Against Colonialism: A Summary

This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”

Against Pinkwashing: Filmmaker open letter to the Vancouver Queer Film Festival

From Mik Turje:

Mik Turje Statement on VQFF Pinkwashing

VQFF Statement from Executive Director

pinkwashing-ar-785x0

Dear fellow cultural producers and consumers, queers and allies,

Like many of you, I have watched the pinkwashing controversy at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival unfold over the past three years. This year I have found myself compelled as a filmmaker in the VQFF’s Changemakers program to make a public statement about the issue. I believe firmly that the the occupation of Palestine is a queer issue, and that as cultural producers we have a responsibility to use media for social justice. This means media that is unafraid to come out against apartheid, colonialism, and pinkwashing.
My statement (attached below) is in response to the VQFF’s statement released on July 28th (also below). It is with the intent of holding the VQFF to task around this issue as a community that I am making my statement public. If you feel compelled by any or all of this statement, I encourage you to email Drew Dennis, the Executive Director of Out On Screens with your thoughts on the matter.
Drew can be reached at drew@outonscreen.com.
I would also like to reach out to any fellow filmmakers in the VQFF’s program this year about the possibility of drafting a joint statement. Please email me at dandyshots@gmail.com if you are interested.
Please share this with your networks.
In solidarity,
– Mik Turje
Ps. Please see these other public statements on the VQFF’s pinkwashing:
* * *
Mik Turje
Co-Director: Hands in The Dirt
August 7, 2014
Dear Drew Dennis and the Out on Screen Board of Directors,
It has been a great honour to be accepted to show my film in the Changemakers program at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. After speaking to you and reading your statement released on July 28th, I am encouraged to see a response from the festival to the public outcry around the issue that has been building since the initial screening of “Invisible Men” three years ago. I am also relieved that it was not the intent of the VQFF to send the message of solidarity with Israel that it did by printing the Yad B’Yad advert. Despite this, after much reflection I feel that that the response from the festival has been inadequate and am called to address it publicly.
Though the statement and our conversation has made it clear that the VQFF has no position on the issue, I believe that choosing neutrality in a situation of oppression is a form of complicity. I ask the festival to recall the famous ACT UP motto “Silence = Death.” Our queer history is marked by the principle that silence about oppression must be broken, and that this is a matter of life or death.
The siege on Gaza over the past three weeks has seen the death toll (majority civilian, disproportionately children) exceed eighteen hundred. Four-hundred and forty-thousand people have been displaced, nearly nine-thousand injured, and over forty percent of Gaza has been depopulated. The Israeli army has acted with impunity, targeting schools, hospitals, power plants and UN shelters, resulting in the total collapse of essential services such as sewage, electricity, and medical care. This is not a conflict between two equal parties; this is an occupation where the occupier consistently violates international law, and where civilian deaths on one side outnumber the other a thousand to one. At any time, but particularly in light of this I am lending my voice to others who are asking the Vancouver Queer Film Festival to use its voice as a well-respected organization to make a difference.
The ongoing occupation in Gaza is a queer issue for two very important reasons.
1) Whether we like it or not the project of pinkwashing has involved us. It dehumanizes Palestinians in our name, it frames Israel as a liberal democracy in our name, and it fuels islamophobia and racism in our name.
2) Queer is a political identity, and that to wear it, we make a commitment to act in solidarity with all other oppressed people. This includes those opposing occupation, displacement, and apartheid from Turtle Island to Palestine. Our queer liberation is tied to the liberation of all people.
Pinkwashing is not innocuous. It is intentional, and it causes harm. It is a tactic used by the Israeli government which uses queerness to represent Israel as a modern, liberal, democratic state concerned with human rights and to divert international attention away from the state’s violation of Palestinian human rights. The Yad B’Yad advertisement also was not innocuous. As with all pinkwashing, its function is to make people living in liberal democracies like Canada feel a sense of affinity with or investment in the Israeli state. The implication of this message is that Israel must practice apartheid, colonialism, and violence in order to preserve freedoms like gay rights.
As queers with a conscience, what is the way to move forward? The answer is simple. Palestinian civil society (including all Palestinian queer organizations) is united in their call for solidarity through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This includes the boycott of Israeli cultural products such as film. I understand that the festival has struggled with the difficult questions of censorship, free speech, and the power of film and media to engage with the issues constructively.
Unfortunately, the Israeli government shares our belief in the power of media, which is why they have been targeting many cultural institutions including film festivals with increased support in recent years. It is no coincidence that the advertisement ended up in the VQFF program – it is part of a larger attempt at pinkwashing the atrocities on the ground in Palestine. In response to this, the VQFF is being called to adopt a policy of cultural boycott.
I was initially pleased and relieved to hear that the festival will be donating the proceeds of the Yad B’Yad advertisement to Just Vision, a Palestinian/Israeli media organization working to end the occupation. After doing research on Just Vision’s films, I have found that these films perpetuate the oft-repeated misrepresentation of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a conflict between two warring parties, equally responsible for a “cycle of violence”. The solution, according to Just Vision, rests on the facilitation of nonviolent dialogue. Though it is important work, this constitutes the erasure of the systemic disparity of human rights, the ongoing theft of Palestinian land and lives, and the denial of any sort of meaningful Palestinian recourse within a legal framework.
Stonewall was a riot: a riot instigated by young trans women of colour who were then further marginalized from the gay rights movement for being too violent (too femme, too trans, too Black and Latino). As queers we are called to learn a difficult lesson about how the rhetoric of nonviolence can silence the most marginalized voices – those disproportionately black and brown bodies for whom rebellion is a matter of life or death. To view our history of queer struggle as nonviolent is to sugarcoat and whitewash history. There is a parallel to be made between the rejection of the queer people of colour who started our movement with fists and bottles, and the erasure of Palestinian resistance which does not fit the comfortable image of peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding.
I am encouraged to hear that the festival will be engaging with an external facilitator in the fall. Regardless of the conflicting perspectives of members of the film festival, the social justice mandate of the VQFF obligates you to speak out against injustice. As this is revisited, I ask that this lead to concrete action, including:
1) That the festival come out against Israeli apartheid and make a statement which explicitly addresses the issues at hand including a condemnation of Israeli war crimes, and a statement opposing pinkwashing
2) That the money from the Yad B’Yad advert be donated towards humanitarian aid to the victims of the ongoing massacre in Gaza
3) That a specific policy be drafted about pinkwashing, and a boycott of Brand Israel cultural products in programming, advertising, and all other aspects of the festival be adopted.
I know the Vancouver Queer Film Festival to be a forward thinking and dedicated community organization, and I have decided not to pull my film as an act of good faith that this issue will be taken seriously when it is revisited in the fall. Though the mandate of the VQFF may end at celebrating queer lives through film, your moral obligation does not.
Sincerely and with the deepest respect,
Mik Turje
Co-director: Hands In the Dirt

Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective.  This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.”  It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014).  For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least).  Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!

Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time.  I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend.  Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’).  What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser?  I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism.  Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening.  My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project.  Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.

Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’  On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.”  Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.”  Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.”  This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent.  Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.

So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)?  Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider?  This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics. 

boschmagI think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic.  Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes.  Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework.  In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed.  The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:

The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.

For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous.  There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them.  This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change.  There is no escape, no alternative.

This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians.  Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell.  How?

First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old.  Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks.  Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe).  The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others.  But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places.  This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.

Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating.  It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence.  Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.”  These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better).  Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions.  But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.

Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.

Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved).  In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.”  Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.

This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer!  Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up.  A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be. 

The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in.  But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism.  Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use.  It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be.  To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.

With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different.  I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of.  I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public.  I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters.  Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other?  For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you.  Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.   

Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics.  There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors.  It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories.  They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize).  Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track).  But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’.  Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.

From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems.  These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’  More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions.  Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist.  There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics.  Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms.  Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored.  This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhoodecosystems, and non-humans.  This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.  

Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation.  The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life.  By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently.  I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic.  But for many people, the spell is losing its power.

Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable?  There’s no universal arbiter or judge.  You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them.  For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy.  Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.  

I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics.  At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried.  It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo.  As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic.  Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians.  But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.

This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic.  I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.

Dear Rex: Colonialism exists, and you’re it.

Dear Rex Murphy,

When you write that Canadians are offended at the term ‘settler’ and ‘genocide,’ you don’t speak for all of us.  I’m a Canadian citizen, my ancestors came to Canada from Europe a few centuries ago, and I understand myself as a settler.  It’s not disrespectful for indigenous peoples to remind us of Canada’s legacy of genocide.  It’s not rude for indigenous peoples to label as ‘colonial’ the connections between the industries of resource extraction, the RCMP, and the corporate media you write for.  What’s insulting is your attempt to paint Canada as benevolent, open, and respectful of indigenous peoples, and your contempt for any understanding of present-day colonialism and oppression in Canada.

rex-murphy-picI’m not an expert on colonialism, but clearly neither are you.  In reading your vitriolic editorial, it struck me that you clearly hate the term ‘settler’ and ‘colonialism’; however, your writing also indicates that you probably don’t actually understand what these terms mean.  So I’m writing to you, one white settler to another, to explain to you what settler colonialism means to me, and why I think it’s important for understanding (and living in) present-day Canada.  With that said, I’m not convinced you’re really ignorant of these terms; I think you have a sense of their meaning and the implications, and it terrifies you, but that terror turns to anger before you can really feel it.  I think you—and many other Canadians—know that something is deeply wrong, even if you can’t admit it to yourself.  It’s something in the air, something we feel in our gut: we’re caught up in something horrible, and we can’t go on this way.

I think that’s why the truths spoken by indigenous people provoke so much resentment in people like you: because you know they’re speaking the truth.  It’s plain for everyone to see: Elsipogtog and other instances of indigenous resistance aren’t political stunts by over-educated ‘radicals’ as you’d like to portray them; they are principled stands by everyday people—grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and their children—against rampant and unending extraction, exploitation, and destruction.  These communities are not motivated by abstract ideologies or university jargon, but by deep responsibilities and commitments to protect land and people.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it clearly:

The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every Indigenous nation:  Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state. We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same – intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships”, promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.

This is the structure of settler colonialism.  One of the basic assumptions of your editorial—and virtually all other mainstream media coverage of Elsipogtog—is that colonialism happened sometime in the past, and since then Canada has done a lot to “right our historical wrongs.”  When do you imagine colonialism stopped happening in Canada?  When the last piece of land was mapped, surveyed, and appropriated for the Crown?  When government officials first broke their treaties with indigenous nations so that settlement and resource exploitation could continue?  When the last residential school was closed?  When Stephen Harper issued an official apology five years ago?  When he declared that Canada has no history of colonialism a year later?  Of course, Canada has changed, and so have settler attitudes.  But the structure of settler colonialism is still very much intact.

You will likely dismiss my words as part of the “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism.”  Indeed, I first learned about colonialism in university, and I’m a student of some of the “colonial theory” you denounce.  But I only learned about colonialism in university because my public school education taught me that indigenous peoples had been wiped out in Canada, victims of the inevitable and noble march of progress.  Why do you suppose our public school system hides the history of residential schools, forced removal of indigenous people, ecological devastation, racist policies, theft of land, and broken treaties?  Could it be that we’re trying to cover up the fact that Canadian colonialism never ended—that it’s an ongoing process?

More and more Canadians are beginning to see that an ever-expanding economy based on exploitation of land and people can’t go on forever, and the impacts are also hitting home in more communities.  More Canadians are recognizing that voting for someone every four years isn’t real enfranchisement, and that this system is designed to foreclose popular participation, not encourage it.  More of us are seeing the need to take a stand to protect our families, the places we love, non-human life, and future generations.  More Canadians are beginning to see that this is what indigenous people have been saying (and doing) all along: defending their lands and communities against an ongoing colonial process.  With these recognitions comes one of the least comfortable: that we are caught up in this process—deeply enmeshed and complicit in it—as settlers.

Just as we feel the wrongness of colonialism in our gut, we can feel the emptiness of settler ways of life.  This isn’t just about “mentalities,” as you suggest, although the way we think is certainly part of it.  It’s most concretely about how we relate to each other and the land that sustains us (whether we recognize it or not).  Settler colonialism has produced a world where our food is industrialized and grown with chemicals, our political system is rigidly bureaucratic and exclusive, our culture promotes objectification and normalizes rape, our economic system is premised on exploitation and unending growth, our divisions of labour are racist and patriarchal, almost all forests and ecosystems have been pillaged and degraded, and our everyday lives are increasingly mediated through bureaucracies and commodities.  This is not to say that indigenous people are somehow outside these ways of life; however, they have consistently resisted our attempts at assimilation and resource exploitation.  They have maintained and revitalized their own ways of life, and have refused to be incorporated into the fold of settler colonialism.  Elsipogtog is only the latest conflict in a centuries-long struggle.

Our ways of life are predicated upon the continued subjugation of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their lands.  For settlers, this is a terrifying thing to recognize: if our whole lives are based on this system, how could we be otherwise?  For many Canadians—and I think you’re part of this group, Rex—this uncertainty is quickly converted into a glib certainty that the problem is them: they’ve failed to integrate, or failed to govern themselves, or failed to obey the (our) law.  The settler problem gets converted into the age-old Indian problem.  But I think we know, deep down, even when we’re in denial, that it’s us: that we need to take action and change ourselves through the process.

We are living in the midst of indigenous resurgence.  All over the lands claimed by Canada, indigenous peoples are revitalizing their traditions and languages, reclaiming their lands and responsibilities, and refusing the colonial status quo.  We’re also in the midst of a decline of faith in the ways of life we’ve created, even among those most privileged by this system: the middle-class dream is evaporating, we’re hurtling towards ecological collapse, and the alliances between corporations and politicians are increasingly obvious.  Settlers—some of us—are learning to listen to that feeling of wrongness in our gut, unsettling ourselves, building solidarity, and finding new (and old) ways of relating.  None of us have figured it out, but more of us are recognizing that things need to change, and the problem is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’.  There is no neutral territory here, because doing nothing carries us along with the flow of colonialism.

We can’t wait for everyone.  Indigenous peoples can never afford to wait for support from settler society, and struggles in the future will continue to involve contention and conflict.  Settlers are learning how to take leadership from indigenous communities, and real alliances and solidarities are being forged.  As we learn to listen to our gut and shake off our colonial baggage, indigenous people defending their lands seem increasingly reasonable and admirable, and the supporters of colonialism, like you, Rex, seem pitiful and dangerous.

Sincerely,

Nick Montgomery

Here’s a link to Rex Murphy’s original editorial