Postcolonial Understandings of Land and Life

Written by Planting Justice

On November 1, 2019

On the Intersections of Land, Governmentality, Security and Sustainability

By Haleh Zandi

May 2009

     This section speaks to the intricacies of structural power and the meanings of security through the experiences of subaltern communities and their relations to land. As individuals around the world are ordered through the structures of the nation-state, what are the ways in which communities of subaltern identities become disenfranchised from the promises of security espoused within liberal forms of governmentality? As civil rights are systematically undermined within local, regional, national, and international arenas, how might the legacies and inheritances of historical (dis)continuities provide meaning, urgency, and spaces for resistance? What are the ways in which achieving real security in our communities is inextricably linked to economic sovereignty and ecological sustainability? Through a postcolonial approach to the writings of Karl Marx, John Bodley, and Herbert Marcuse, this section examines the raced, classed, and cultured dynamics within forms of liberal governance which systematically disenfranchise people’s access to land and liberty.

     Though Marx’s analysis of capitalism lacks a critical engagement with the dynamics of gender and his historical context is situated before the advent of powerful nation-states, his critical theories allow for acute reflexivity of the political economy of social injustice and are extremely valuable in understanding a history of the present. As capitalist economic systems crumble in the first decade of the 21 st century, it is imperative that political and ecological systems are democratically reformulated within social justice and radical sustainability frameworks. A reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism within a postcolonial context enables new understandings of social relations of labor to emerge. Marx’s historical narrative of the shifts from feudalism to liberal forms of governmentality evidences the social and political disenfranchisement of the proletariat class, displacing people’s access to land and its resources and their control over the means of production in which they’ve become inextricably bound. In examining capitalism’s inherent characteristics of exploitation, efficiency, expansion, and specialization, Marx’s theories are urgent in intervening upon the injustices and insecurities experienced by communities of subaltern identities subsumed within capitalist formations. When the means of production are usurped from the hands of the people, a culture of dependency upon the structures of governance develops so that the security of subsistence relies upon the power of the nation which privileges dominance, normalizes consumption, and homogenizes difference. A postcolonial reading of Marx’s analysis speaks to the ways in which relations of race, class, gender, and national privilege impacts the security and sustainability of both local and global communities.

     Karl Marx’s text, Capital: a Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production Vol. I (1867), is a counter narrative which points to the contradictions promised within bourgeois liberal understandings of governance. Marx describes,

“the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers appears,

on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the

guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But on the other hand,

these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of

all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by

the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this expropriation is written in the

annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (Marx 1867: 738).

     In his analysis, Marx is particularly tracing the violent shifts in England from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism as the dominating economic structure organizing social relations. But the history of expropriation was further transferred in time through colonial relations of power across different regions. This shift is characterized by “the expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil…(as) masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour market” (Marx 1867: 739). Violent and dramatic shifts in the organization of social relations enforce migration patterns which are central in understanding what produces present conditions of dependence upon the nation-state.

     Through the legislative acts of Henry VII in England, “many farms and large flocks of cattle and sheep are concentrated in the hands of a few men” whereby “numbers of people have been deprived of the means wherewith to maintain themselves and their families” and the land became a “proportion between corn land and pasture land” (Marx 1867: 743). Initiated in the late 15 th century, this process of the expropriation of people from the land, the centralization of agricultural control, and the homogenization of crops represents the barren seeds of hunger produced through poverty. As bodies were ushered into urban areas through the legislation of private ownership known as Acts for enclosures of Commons, masses of people became desperate for subsistence (Marx 1867: 748). Further legislation criminalized idleness, vagrancy, and begging, therefore forcing people into “the discipline necessary for the wage system” (Marx 1867: 761). It is, as Marx describes, “a body of men who earn their subsistence by working for others, and who will be under a necessity of going to market for all they want” (Marx 1867: 750). Conditions of insecurity within urban areas enabled capitalist relations of production to concretely form a dependency upon the market system and an adherence to the state. In modern society, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx 1867: 786). But, Marx notes, that “so long as the labourer can accumulate for himself-and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production-capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible” (Marx 1867: 792). Marx offers this as a space of resistance, but what of those who are disenfranchised from acquiring the means of production?

     What was violently lost within feudal relations of production, but what we should not forget, are the legacies of communal property, care for the other, and an inherent biodiversity. These characteristics of pre-capitalism are exhibited not only in the feudal relations of England, but may be found within the social relations of subsistence economies worldwide. In the colonies of America, Indigenous people navigated and maintained biodiversity in its seasonal cycles to maintain subsistence for tens of thousands of years, exhibiting care for others within their traditional way of knowing. But with the advent of colonialism came the basic characteristics of capitalism (exploitation, expansion, efficiency, specialization) displacing and destroying peoples, ways of living, ways of knowing, ways of relating. Marx points to the ways in which the development of capital in 19 th century America differs from England as relations to the land violently shifted from Indigenous control (who perceived of land as communal property) into the hands of colonial governmental control (who perceived of land as “very cheap” and “easily obtainable”) (Marx 1867: 794). Though Marx recognized the ways in which capitalism wastes and exhausts soil fertility and workers health (Marx 1867: 505-507), he failed to bring into his analysis the violences of the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples upon which colonial America was formed.

Colonialism and capitalism, inextricably bound together, unleashed unimaginable violences upon peoples and the land. Beyond a class struggle located within the social relations of production in England, cultural differences and imposed notions of race mediated social relations within the context of capitalist colonial expansion in 19 th century America. As different relations to the land and conceptions of security collided, the dominating structures of capitalism and colonialism devastated the socio-cultural systems and ecosystems that were supporting life. In Victims of Progress, John H. Bodley marks how “conquest through colonization by commercially organized societies destroyed millions of indigenous peoples and countless cultural groups” (Bodley 2008: 1). Within a postcolonial framework, Bodley traces the ways in which discourses of progress draped in the robes of modernity sought to legitimate the conquest of Indigenous peoples and the land.

     As a capitalist democracy was formed within liberal frameworks of governmentality, rights were afforded to a white male upper class so that the structures of governance were working for the security of the few yet extending their domination over the sovereignty and sustainability of other cultures. Bodley describes this process in the striking differences between capitalism and subsistence based economies.

“Above all else, commercial societies have a culture of consumption…. Commercial

ideological systems stress belief in continual economic growth and progress and

characteristically measure ‘standard of living’ in terms of levels of material

consumption without regard to actual well-being. Small-scale tribal societies contrast

strikingly in all of these aspects. Their economies are geared to the satisfaction of

basic subsistence needs, which are assumed to be fixed, and a variety of cultural

mechanisms serve to limit material acquisitiveness and to redistribute wealth. Thus,

distribution is more important than production” (Bodley 2008: 17).

     What this points to is that societies organized around capitalist means of consumption outgrow their own local resources, requiring expansion, and therefore forms of domination. Bodley reveals that “in case after case, government programs seemingly intended for the progress of indigenous peoples directly or indirectly forced culture change, and these programs in turn were linked invariably to the extraction of indigenous peoples’ resources to benefit the national economy” (Bodley 2008: 18). The discourse of progress is intimately linked to acculturation and exploitation, not as an inevitable process, but as a result of the domination of industrial societies’ own culture of consumption and the security provided by its liberal forms of governmentality.

      Bodley points to the underlying ethnocentrism which assumes capitalist models to be most efficient, productive, adaptable, and valuable. Subaltern ways of knowing were silenced by the raced and cultured conceptions which framed social scientists’ analysis and colonial authorities’ policies. As a counter-narrative Bodley describes,

“it is industrial subsistence techniques that are inefficient and precarious. Monocrop

agriculture, with its hybrid grains and dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides,

and costly machinery, is extremely expensive in terms of energy demands and is highly

unstable because of its susceptibility to disease, insects, and the depletion of critical

minerals and fuels. The complexity of the food distribution system in global-scale

commercial society also makes it vulnerable to collapse because of breakdowns in the

long chain from producer to consumer” (Bodley 2008: 23).

     Yet, ethnocentrism became the scaffold against Indigenous peoples as the government’s principle of law. Ignorant of the ecological benefits of tribal sovereignty, “the state was under a moral obligation to make all tribal peoples share in the benefits of civilization- that is, in health, happiness, and prosperity as defined primarily in terms of consumption” (Bodley 2008: 25). These injustices are compounded by the fact that “since 1970 in the United States, where commercial progress has gone the furthest, Americans have been consuming per capita some fifteen times more energy than Neolithic agriculturalists and seven times the world average in non renewable resources. They are also importing vast tonnages of food, fuels, and other resources to support themselves” (Bodley 2008: 17).

     Where Indigenous peoples were/are unwilling to exchange their basically satisfying cultures for the dubious benefits of the commercial world, Bodley maps the role of the capitalist state in weakening Indigenous resistance through conceptions of free enterprise, the use of military force, and the enforced introduction of native administrations which mirror structures of liberal governance. Bodley evidences how the disposition of security within liberal government is to benefit the national economy, to protect capital’s resources and labor, and to spread its notions of progress through the guise of democratic representation. What distinguishes this process as genocidal is “their purpose was often the destruction of a way of life and the subjugation, if not destruction, of entire populations” through raids, wars, political integration into the national polity, cultural modification policies, and economic incorporation into the global market (Bodley 2008: 61). Land claims, the reservation system, forced labor, disciplining through taxation, dependency on consumption, technological enticements, the (re)education system, and outlawing of spiritual practices each indicate the social relations of power intersecting at the different cultural notions of land, security, and governance.

     From a postcolonial perspective, the political economy of a fossil fuel culture reflects the injustices and insecurities capitalism perpetrates over subaltern ways of knowing and living on the land. Bodley notes that the “quest to find and extract petroleum to support the commercial world’s insatiable consumption is at the center of the continuing political conflict between indigenous peoples, governments, and corporations in many parts of the world” (Bodley 2008: 231). As the technological apparati of the hegemonic capitalist order requires insatiable amounts of fossil fuels, “access to oil now determines all other forms of social power…(as) oil is distributed geopolitically in a grossly inequitable manner for a resource that has been made so crucial to so many forms of social power” (Bodley 2008: 232-233). Bodley is pointing to the power of oil industry in United States governance which displaces subaltern ways of using energy and marginalizes the political resistances brought forth by Indigenous communities connecting justice and sustainability with cultural security and land rights. What is this democracy in which the means of subsistence are dependent upon the fossil fuel resource which is concentrated within the hands of a few corporations? What is the meaning of security when the extraction and use of fossil fuel correlates with soil, water, and air contamination; cancer; gastrointestinal illnesses; miscarriages; respiratory illnesses; loss of crops and domestic animals; loss of flora and fauna; loss of indigenous territory; loss of culture; and deforestation as made evident through the class-action lawsuit against Texaco before the U.S. Federal Court in New York (Bodley 2008: 238)?

     In Victims of Progress, Bodley demonstrates the ways in which liberal governmentality systematically disenfranchised indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-determination. In his analysis, he connects the ways in which “economic development is forcing ecocide on peoples who were once careful stewards of their resources. There is already a trend towards widespread environmental deterioration in indigenous areas, involving resource depletion, erosion, plant and animal extinction, and a disturbing series of other previously unforeseen changes” (Bodley 2008: 176). Writing within the context of the Vietnam War in 1972, Herbert Marcuse further spoke to the links between genocide and ecocide in a symposium on “Ecology and Revolution” published in Liberation magazine. He advocates,

“the genocidal war against people is also ‘ecocide’ insofar as it attacks the sources and

resources of life itself. It is no longer enough to do away with people living now; life

must also be denied to those who aren’t even born yet by burning and poisoning the

earth, defoliating the forests, blowing up the dike. This bloody insanity will not alter

the ultimate course of war, but it is a very clear expression of where contemporary

capitalism is at: the cruel waste of productive resources in the imperialist homeland

goes hand in hand with the cruel waste of destructive forces and consumption of

commodities of death manufactured by the war industry” (Marcuse 1972: 10).

     Marcuse is pointing to the internal contradictions of capitalism as both the security of subaltern communities and the sustainability of ecological systems are subjected to the genocidal and ecocidal violences of capitalist exploitation and expansion. Marcuse elucidates,

“capitalism is waging a war against nature- human nature as well as external nature.

For the demands of ever more intense exploitation come into conflict with nature itself,

since nature is the source and locus of the life-instincts which struggle against the

instincts of aggression and destruction. And the demands of exploitation progressively

reduce and exhaust resources: the more capitalist productivity increases, the more

destructive it becomes” (Marcuse 1972: 11).

As the hierarchical power of nation-states are maintained through the hegemony of the capitalist market system, the security and sustainability of life are intimately linked in resistance to dominance and a care of the land.

     In Marcuse’s analysis, life and death is governed by the capitalist system and therefore intervention upon the ecological violations of the earth is a vital aspect of resistance. Well-being becomes a political struggle “defined not by ever-increasing consumption at the price of ever-intensified labor, but by the achievement of a life liberated from the fear, wage slavery, violence, stench, and infernal noise of our capitalist industrial world” (Marcuse 1972: 12). Marcuse advocates for an “authentic ecology” that “flows into a militant struggle for a socialist politics which must attack the system at its roots, both in the process of production and in the mutilated consciousness of individuals” (Marcuse 1972: 12). This is a call for revolution through ecological frameworks, “not to beautify the ugliness, to conceal the poverty, to deodorize the stench, to deck the prisons, banks, and factories with flowers; the issue is not the purification of the existing society but its replacement” (Marcuse 1972: 12). The ecology movement links to social justice in the ways that it exposes capitalism’s war against nature in its entire production-consumption model of war, waste, and gadgets.

      From a postcolonial perspective, the sovereignty and security of subaltern communities are still struggling for rights to life under the powerful stranglehold of the nation-state structures; neocolonial wars are raging across the militarized zone of the Middle East; and the triple crises of food, energy, and the environment are compounded by collapsing economies worldwide. This section exploring the intersections of land, governmentality, security, and sustainability traces the historical developments of capitalism in England, the shifts in social relations of power which occurred through the colonial transfer of capitalism to the lands of America, and the connections between ecocide and genocide in capitalism’s ever expanding exploitative practices. Within a postcolonial framework, these explorations into what produces the inequitable and unjust conditions of the present enables new possibilities for resistance through hybrid practices in ways of living, knowing, and relating to the land.

Works Cited

Bodley, John H.

2008 Victims of Progress5th edition. New York: Altamira Press.

Marcuse, Herbert

1972 Ecology and Revolution. In Liberation magazine, September volume, Pp. 10-12.

Marx, Karl

1887 Das Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Vol. 1. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey and Co.

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