Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sovereignty, Indigeneity, Anarchism

Ryan Knight

The question of sovereignty, and whether and how it matters for Indigenous people, serves as a ripe area of contestation from which we can explore the multi-faceted forms of domination from, and resistance to, colonization.  In combination with my reading of Sovereignty Matters this week, I read Maia Ramnath’s book, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Anti-authoritarian Historyof India’s Liberation Struggle 

In a mutual exchange between anarchism and decolonial theory, Ramnath shows both their overlapping characteristics, as well as the lessons that can be learned from each side of the exchange.  Speaking specifically about nationalism, and decolonial struggles for independent nation-states, she writes,

“The fundamental assumption of nationalism is that in order for a people to be recognized as holders of collective rights and freedoms, it must be constituted as a nation duly manifested in a state: an exclusive institution defined by its monopoly on sanctioned force and revenue extraction” (Ramnath, 19).

 She goes on,

“In seeking to replicate the techniques of colonial rule by institutionalizing states rather than abolishing them, the nationalist goal diverged from that of substantive decolonization.  If the colonial regime’s structures of oppression were not simply to be reopened for business under new local management, yielding a new generation of authoritarian dictatorships and cultural chauvinists, a different logic of anticolonial struggle was imperative” (Ramnath, 21). 

Pulling from anarchism’s critique of the state, Ramnath ultimately argues that we need to imagine a much more expansive vision of decolonization, one that doesn’t seek independent nation-states, but develops according to the terms of the particular society from which decolonization is taking place. 

In much of the very same vein, Joanne Barker’s Sovereignty Matters takes up the similar issues, focusing on sovereignty as a western institution rather than the nation-state.  In her introductory chapter, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” Barker traces the development and implementation of the idea of sovereignty from the Church, to classical Western political thought, to the usurpation of the term in Indigenous struggles for land and self-determination. 

It is with some hesitation that Barker ultimately argues for the need for sovereignty within Indigenous struggles for land and self-determination.  On one hand she recognizes the difficulties of using a Western framework as sovereignty “…carries the horrible stench of colonialism”  (Barker, 26).  On the other hand, Barker argues that sovereignty is historically contingent and can be interpreted and employed according to different strategies of decolonization and according to the different cultural values of different groups of people.

Taiaiake Alfred, taking a more critical stance in his essay, "Sovereignty," in this collection argues that the horrible stench of colonialism coming from sovereignty cannot be done away with.  Rather, he argues, “For people committed to transcending the imperialism of state sovereignty, the challenge is to de-think the concept of sovereignty and replace it with a notion of power that has at its roots a more appropriate premise” (47).  In a very similar tone as Ramnath, Alfred argues that decolonization necessarily needs to derive from the cultural values, systems, and ways of organizing society that are grounded directly in indigenous traditions and indigenous ways of understanding.  The nation-state and sovereignty are two inadequate, imposed, and ultimately colonial frameworks that won’t satisfy a deeper process of decolonization.  It must be in indigenous terms, and not in the terms of the colonizer. 

I tend to agree with Audre Lorde quoting the name of her famous essay: “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”  In this case the tools of independent nation-states or sovereignty are inadequate in achieving an expansive decolonization grounded directly in Indigenous communities.  It might begin to push things in the right direction, but co-optation and discursive colonization seem to go a long way in making colonization much more sticky and hard to shake off.  

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