“A Question of Land and Existence”: An Introduction to Marx’s Anti-colonialism

By Steve D’Arcy

In this short introductory article, my aim is quite modest. I want briefly to introduce readers to four key themes in Marx’s anti-colonialism: first, his moral condemnation of colonialism; second, his analysis of its roots in capitalism; third, his attentiveness to the importance of Indigenous modes of life and social practices as sources of critical insight and social innovation that can and should inform how we think about a post-capitalist future; and finally, fourth, his strong views about the centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in socialist strategy, not only in colonized places but more generally. Although a thorough assessment of Marx’s anti-colonial politics would have to devote substantial critical attention to its many limitations, my emphasis here is not on these limitations, but rather on aspects of Marx’s anti-colonialism that remain relevant, illuminating, and worthy of serious consideration today.

I. The Moral Catastrophe of Colonialism

“Oppressed colonial nations shall rise up against Imperialism under the banner of the Proletarian Revolution.” (Bolshevik poster.)

Marx himself in his main work, Capital, Volume One, touches very directly, and without pulling any punches, on colonial capitalism and its disastrous impacts on Indigenous people, and on colonized people more generally. He points out that “the history of colonial administration…’is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness’,” and he denounces the way that “the colonial system … proclaimed surplus-value [i.e., profit] making as the sole end and aim of humanity,” in such a manner that “the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience,” in its willingness to tolerate colonial plunder and genocide (Marx, Capital). 

Specifically addressing the genocidal aspect of capitalist colonialism, he notes that “the treatment of the indigenous population was, of course, at its most frightful in plantation-colonies set up exclusively for the export trade, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called [that is, what we now call settler colonies]…, in 1703 those sober exponents of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured [Indigenous person]; in 1720, a premium of £100 was set on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices were laid down: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards, £100 in new currency, for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50.”

Elsewhere in Capital, he adds: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” (Marx, 1867). (Needless to say, he uses the expression “rosy dawn” in a sarcastic mode here.)

So, colonialism (along with slavery, which overlaps with it) was seen by Marx as the height of capitalism’s crimes against humanity. Even the achievements of social progress in Europe were tainted by their reliance on genocide and dispossession in the colonies, worldwide. As Marx’s main collaborator Friedrich Engels put the point, “one cannot fail to notice that the English citizen’s so-called freedom is based on the oppression of the colonies.”

II. The analysis of colonialism’s roots: land-theft and accumulation

In the Grundrisse, which he wrote in the 1850s, Marx places at the centre of everything what he calls “land, the source of all production and of all existence.” Obviously, land is particularly central to colonialism, which relentlessly pursues dispossession, by any means at its disposal, including but certainly not limited to treaties and military violence. “All these were means for robbing the [colonized] of their land….The [colonial] question is therefore not simply a question of nationality, but a question of land and existence. Ruin or revolution is the watchword” (Marx, 1867). In 1870, he repeated this idea, noting that in colonies “the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority…, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question” (Marx, 1870).

Settler colonialism indeed poses a grave threat to colonized people, in Marx’s view. Typically, when settler colonies have been established, he noted, “the plan was to exterminate the [colonized]…, to take their land and settle…colonists in their place, etc….The avowed plan…: clearing the [territory] of the natives and stocking it with loyal [settlers]” (Marx 1867).

According to Marx, capitalism’s embrace of colonialism has had multiple motives: (1) acquisition of “land which provides the [colonising nation’s] market with meat and wool [and other products] at the cheapest possible prices”; (2) “reducing the [colonized] population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that [colonizing] capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with ‘security’” (Marx, 1870); (3) because it helps to draw super-exploited workers into the “labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the [‘mother-country’] working class” (ibid); and (4) to establish and strategically deploy an “antagonism” between workers of the colonized and colonizing nations, in order to weaken the power of both sets of workers, and workers generally.

The result, as Marx notes in Capital, is that under capitalism “the pieces of land belonging” to colonized people, “from time immemorial, are systematically confiscated.” This notion of systemic confiscation of land is one of the most important contributions of Marx’s Capital to anti-colonial theory (a point repeatedly emphasized by Coulthard, by Luxemburg, and others).

III. The endangered alternatives: Marx on the importance of Indigenous forms of life to humanity’s future

In contrast to the atrocities and contempt for humanity characteristic of capitalism, Marx (and later, Engels) noted the egalitarianism, collectivism, and consensus-oriented forms of stateless self-governance frequently found in the traditional social and legal systems of Indigenous communities (a point Marx underlined especially, but by no means exclusively, in his studies of Indigenous societies in the Eastern Great Lakes region). Marx regarded these pre-colonial forms of Indigenous egalitarianism as models for the European left, and as prefigurations of a possible post-capitalist future for humanity as a whole.

Indeed, one of the things that interested Marx most about modern (19th-century) Indignenous societies was how advanced their political and legal systems were, compared to the relatively deficient ones in Europe. His understanding of how the clan-based political systems in the Haudenosaunee nations worked is expressed by him as follows: “The Council [is] an instrument of government and supreme authority over the clan, tribe, [and] confederacy…. [Matters] of general interest [are] submitted to the determination of the council [which] sprang from the clan organization — the Council of Chiefs.” At the level of clans, according to his understanding of the Haudenosaunee practice in the 19th century, a council took the form of “a democratic assembly, where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it…. All the members of a [Haudenosaunee-confederacy] clan [are] personally free, bound to defend each other’s freedom; equal in privileges and personal rights.” (These passages are from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks.)

In 1845, Marx notes in The Holy Family (quoting early socialist Charles Fourier) that “​the​ ​degree​ ​of​ ​emancipation​ ​of woman​ ​is​ ​the​ ​natural​ ​measure​ ​of​ ​general​ ​emancipation.” In 1868, Marx repeated that “​Social​ ​progress​ ​can be​ ​measured​ ​exactly​ ​by​ ​the​ ​social​ ​position of [women].” In this connection, he took special interest in the superiority of women’s status in the Haudenosaunee nations, compared to that of women in Europe. Quoting an early anthropologist, he noted (in his Ethnological Notebooks) the importance of Clan Mothers among the Seneca: “The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required it, to ‘knock off the horns’, as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.” 

In his effort to learn from Indigenous forms of social organization Marx goes into considerably more detail, and I can’t even scratch the surface here. He has, for example, detailed notes on the clan structure, social and spiritual practices, and legal and political institutions of countless Indigenous nations in present-day ‘Canada.’ For instance, he notes all the doodemag (clans) of the Anishinaabeg (attentive to both differences and overlap among Ojibwe, Odaawaa, and Potawatomi clan traditions). He notes the clans, too, for each of the Haudenosaunee nations, and documents his understanding of changes over time in the clan organization. He notes, too, that the clan system had been undermined — particularly, he thought, among the Anishinaabeg — by colonialism (“American and missionary influence”). He also notes the role that wampum belts play in Haudenosaunee-confederacy diplomacy. (All of these discussions are found in his Ethnological Notebooks, mostly around pages 145-184.)

Far from working with a generic and decontextualized notion of ‘Indigenous people’ generally, Marx made careful notes on dozens of specific Indigenous nations (and confederacies). Among those that he wrote about, in varying levels of detail, were the Mi’kmaq, the six nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (Marx writes “Hodenosaunian,” and sometimes uses this term to include other nations from the same linguistic group, like the Wendat, Attawandaron, and others), the Anishinaabeg (specifically, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa, which Marx calls the “Gichigamian tribes,” a term he borrows from the Anishinaabemowin name for Lake Superior, the etymology of which he notes), Cree, Lenaape, Dene (“Athapaskans”), Salish, Sahaptin, Ktunaxa, Tlingit (although Marx uses the name Russians used for Tlingit, viz. Kolush), and many, many other Indigenous nations and linguistic groups.

It should go without saying that none of these matters are best studied by reading Marx. Any interested person has far better access today to information about these matters than Marx could ever have accessed. What socialists can learn from him, however, is the importance and value of curiosity and attention to the details of cultural and historical specificity. Overgeneralization about Indigenous societies, their spiritual lives, their legal traditions, their histories and forms of social organisation, were unacceptable to Marx in the 1800s, in spite of the difficulty (in his position) of finding out more. Today, we have far less justification for indulging in lazy and ill-informed generalizations than he had. But how many socialists in the Canadian state have made as detailed a study of the cultural and historical specificity of dozens of Indigenous nations in this region? Too few, it is fair to say.

It is also important to note that, if Marx was keenly interested in trying to understand the ways of life and social organization of Indigenous peoples, particularly the Haudenosaunee nations of the Eastern Great Lakes region, it was because he saw them as representing, in many respects, the most democratic and egalitarian political orders found in the modern world. Marx shared the conviction expressed by Engels, when he marvelled at the “wonderful constitution” under which members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy “lived for over four hundred years and are still living today.” Unlike European political orders, it had “no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits — and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected….The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy — the communal household and the [clan] know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free — the women included” (Engels, 1884). The existence in modern times of societies so thoroughly imbued with a spirit of democracy and equality struck Marx and Engels as a standing condemnation of Europe’s brazen inequalities and relentless systems of social exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But it also represented for them a hopeful vision and a prefiguration of a possible ‘communist’ future for a post-capitalist Europe.

IV. The centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in Marx’s political strategy

One of the fabricated charges against Marx is that he so emphasized the importance of working-class struggles against capitalism that he placed other struggles, including anti-colonial ones, in a secondary or subordinate position. What we find when we look at Marx’s actual writing on this issue, however, is that at times he takes the exact opposite view, adopting the position that sometimes anti-colonial struggles take a higher priority than conventionally ‘economic’ struggles against the exploitation of workers as workers, so that anti-colonial revolt was of primary importance, and working-class struggles against capital were secondary (although this didn’t mean, obviously, that he ‘downplayed’ the struggles of workers as workers or considered them unimportant).

In the case of England as a colonial power, for example, Marx described the victory of anti-colonial resistance as “the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England” (Marx, 1870; emphasis added). Marx explicitly argued that if the European Left could “bring about a coalition of [colonizer-nation] workers with the [colonized] workers,” this would be “the greatest achievement you could bring about now” (ibid.; emphasis added). Anti-colonial struggle, he said, should therefore be put “in the foreground” (ibid.), not the background. Even workers from colonizing nations should be alerted to the fact that “the national emancipation of [colonized nations] is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation” (ibid.; emphasis added). In other words, Marx argued that the economic self-emancipation of the international working class could only be achieved on the basis of a prior struggle against colonialism, without which it could not succeed. As Marx put the point in an 1872 leaflet he co-authored, racist antagonism toward those targeted by colonialism is “one of the main impediments in the way of every attempted movement for the emancipation of the working class” (Marx, et al., 1872). Again and again, Marx uses terms like ‘preliminary condition,’ ‘first condition,’ and ‘in the foreground’ to characterise the place of anti-colonial resistance movements in the political strategy of the anti-capitalist left within colonial nations like England.

It was in this spirit that, in 1872, Engels argued that colonized peoples should always have the right to form autonomous national organizations within the global working-class left, and he put the point this way: “If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to ‘sink national differences’ and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and to perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the [colonized people], and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to [Black people]” (Engels, 1872).

Today, we would want to refer to nations “subjected to colonial domination,” rather than “conquered” nations. (As Marx points out in Capital, Volume One: “In the colonies, the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer….”) More generally, the terminology of Marx and Engels is often old-fashioned and obsolete. But overall, their position on these strategic questions seems to hold up very well. In particular, this contrast between “internationalism” (which they embraced) and “sinking national differences and so forth” (which they rejected as a falsification of internationalism) remains extremely important in the context of anti-colonial socialist politics.


There’s no denying, and no need to deny, that there are serious and substantive defects in Marx’s account of colonialism. His sometimes uncritical adoption of theoretical frameworks from 19th-century anthropology, for instance, led him to parrot uncritically (at times) the now-discredited jargon of ‘primitiveness,’ ‘barbarism’ versus ‘civilisation,’ and so on, when talking about Indigenous societies. This is one of a number of points where we now rightly reject some of what Marx was willing to say as both racist and scientifically unsound. Moreover, even his anti-colonialism would be deemed by most of us to be affected in certain ways by a broadly ‘Eurocentric’ view of modern history, even if its Eurocentrism isn’t as egregious as that of other 19th-century European intellectuals. These and other defects reflect the fact that Marx could not benefit, as we can and must today, from over a century of anti-colonial movements and anti-colonial social research. He could not learn, for instance, from a critical engagement with figures like Frantz Fanon, Julius Nyerere, or Andrea Betasamosake Simpson, to name only a very few of the countless important anti-colonial thinkers after Marx who force us to grapple with matters that were misunderstood, overlooked, or even evaded by Marx.

It would be a grave error either to accept or to reject Marx’s critical analysis of colonialism wholesale. We have to be willing, on the contrary, to sift through what he says — and what he fails to say — to take Marx’s anti-colonialism seriously as both a source of indispensable insight and at the same time a flawed inheritance plagued by grave limitations. But my judgment is that a wholesale rejection would be particularly unfortunate, because the enduringly relevant critical insights in Marx, especially about the strategic “foregrounding” of anti-colonialism in the context of anti-capitalist struggle, are too important to the future of anti-systemic left politics to be cast aside carelessly.

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Could this be the most Marxist film ever made?

Boots Riley’s masterpiece of socialist cinema — Sorry to Bother You — may be the most self-consciously marxist film ever made. It is an exhortation to rebel, but to do so with our eyes open, with ‘sober senses,’ so we don’t replicate uncritically the logics that we aspire to contest.

By Steve D’Arcy

[Note: this contains some plot spoilers.]

Those who avoided reading Karl Marx’s three-volume, 2,500 page magnum opus, Capital, in the improbable expectation that someday a movie version would come out, have finally got their wish. Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, may indeed be the most marxist film ever made.

Riley’s remarkably ambitious film is, in fact, many things: a critique of the “sign-spinning” role of the ‘culture industry’ under capitalism, a challenge to the self-understanding and the self-importance of activist subcultures, an attempt to dramatize a way of thinking about working-class consciousness in a cultural setting where 70% of Americans think of themselves as “middle class,” a meditation on the complicated relation between dignity and both performance and the refusal to perform, and a self-critical exploration of the temptation of film to replicate uncritically the “scripts” or conventions of bourgeois ideology instead of exposing their deceptive and self-destructive character — and much more besides. But here I want to focus especially on one dimension of this complex, multidimensional cinematic achievement: the film’s attempt to restate the argument of Marx’s Capital.

Consider, in particular, the metaphor at the very centre of Marx’s book: the passage, across a threshold, from the surface domain of “circulation,” into a “hidden abode,” the behind-the-scenes domain of “production.” Marx puts it like this:

Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags [the capitalist] and by the possessor of labour-power [the worker], we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere [of circulation or buying and selling], where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all people, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)

This hidden abode of production, Marx points out, is not about ‘consumers’ making ‘choices,’ or people seeking ‘opportunities’ to obtain ‘satisfaction’ by entering into ‘contractual arrangements’ — the jargon of capitalism’s flattering self-understanding. No, in this hidden abode, we move from the surface of choice and contract, to the deep structure of capitalism as a form of coercion, domination, and exploitation.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)

The remarkable “plot twist” in Sorry to Bother You follows Marx’s logic to a tee, even to the point of taking literally Marx’s formula, “a change in the physiognomy [i.e., facial configuration] of our dramatis personae.” Marx’s metaphor refers to the shift from the free and equal preference-motivated consumers making choices, to the dominated labourers pressed into the service of powerful exploiters. In Riley’s film, the “physiognomy,” the very bodily structure and physical features of the system’s work-horses, is transformed visibly, so that the characters or “dramatis personae” turn into horse-people, reduced to their capacity to carry the load of capitalist production.

“Suppose that a capitalist pays for a day’s labour-power…; then the right to use that power for a day belongs to him, just as much as the right to use any other commodity, such as a horse that he has hired for the day.” (Marx, Capital, I, Chapter 5, section 1)

It is worth recalling that Marx refers to child factory workers as “work-horses” in Capital, I (chapter 10, section 6). Later in the book, Marx cites an observer of South American mine workers who notes that their bosses “treat them like horses.” Riley is no doubt right to see this metaphor as an illuminating condensation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, combining as it does the idea of workers as victims of the system who are exploited for their productivity, but also as bearers of the power to ‘buck’ the system, and thereby to embody a special kind of nobility and even a super-human strength, as drivers of the process of their own liberation.

Like Marx’s Capital, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You places class and class struggle at the very centre of its worldview. In particular, it proposes a way of thinking about “class consciousness.” In this conception, most people are workers, yet they don’t identify with their status as workers, regarding working-class membership as a kind of danger or threat to their self-image and social aspirations. Membership in the working class is a reality that many workers want to conceal from themselves as well as from others. Famously, or infamously, in US culture to be identified as working-class is widely perceived as a kind of humiliation, which is why so many American workers consider themselves to be “middle class,” not working class.

In this film, those hoping to elude the threat of being revealed as a worker try to escape this fate by exploring various officially authorized avenues of escape: one can try to “get ahead” by seeking “success,” pursuing the promise of affluence; one can try to rebel in the performative mode (“Left Eye”), pursuing the promise of a unique anti-systemic efficacy; one can try to retreat into creativity and artistic performance, pursuing the promise of imaginary liberation from forms of domination that are all too real. All of these avenues are adopted by leading characters in the film. As Riley presents them, though, these are all evasions, motivated by the false promise that one can find dignity, protection from the perceived humiliation of being working-class, in scrupulous compliance with some script about how we’re supposed to live in order to be ‘special’ or to gain approval or recognition. Again and again, though, the characters crash into the reality that these performances of being special all end in the very humiliation that they are supposed to insulate them from.

Director Boots Riley at Occupy Oakland.

Ultimately, the characters find that the only way to secure their dignity is to be honest — to stop performing — and accept the reality of their “dehumanization,” as a kind of opening toward a dialectical reversal. According to Marx, workers “have a world to win,” but the world can only be won if we first of all accept that we have “nothing to lose.” Marx tried to capture the dialectical character of this predicament, the working-class situation, in the idea of “radical chains”: a state of being “which has a universal character by its universal suffering” and which becomes fully human only because it starts from a “complete loss of humanity,” such that its liberation has to be a revolution which changes everything. (These quoted bits are from Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.”) And so it is that in this film, only the most humiliated, dehumanized, but also the least fake characters — the equisapiens — actually live dignified lives. But they live out dignity, not quite because “all labour has dignity,” as Martin Luther King would say, but because the authenticity of their revolt, which is about power, not performance, enacts precisely the kind of freedom, solidarity, and autonomy that capitalism’s systems of exploitation and oppression try to deny them.

Arguably, anti-capitalist revolt has proven more difficult, and pro-capitalist ideology has proven more attractive to workers, than Marx’s Capital had led us to expect. The problem of ideological attachment to the system has for this reason been a central theme of Marxism for the past 100 years. This theme is also taken up by Riley’s film, as characters adopt strategies of resistance that seem only to confirm their stubborn attachment to or complicity with the system they are supposed to be opposing. The Left Eye ‘culture jamming’ group — a bit reminiscent of Banksy, perhaps — is depicted by Riley as sincere in motive, and to that extent admirable, but at the same time woefully incapable of having its intended effect of undermining capitalist hegemony. On the contrary, the film’s main villain, the prototypical Bay Area ‘disruptive entrepreneur’ Steve Lift, actually seeks out Left Eye protest images and displays them in his mansion, as edgy cultural collectibles. In a parallel failure, when the system’s work-horses deploy their power to defeat the police vehicles that had initially defeated the strike tactics introduced by Cassius Green, the clueless activists imagine that they themselves are responsible for act of the equisapiens, which the activists imagine to be a confirmation of their supposedly inspiring organizing work. Cash’s sometimes partner, Detroit, goes so far as to call Cash the “mastermind” behind a victory that he not only didn’t orchestrate, but didn’t even see coming.

But Riley does not really look down on these failed resistance methods, from a holier-than-thou posture. He says even to himself, as Marx puts it in Capital, “De te fabula narratur,” that is, “This story is also about you!” Indeed, Riley is at his most interesting and subtle when he exposes the work itself, his own film, to the very objection he levels at other forms of cultural politics. “Stick to the script,” the workers at the call centre in Sorry to Bother You are repeatedly told by their bosses. But this, after all, is itself a line in a script. And this is one of the many signals in Sorry to Bother You urging the viewer to be critical, not just of the film’s obvious targets — capitalism, liberalism, and the aspiration to be something “more than” a worker — but also of the form and medium of the critique itself. It is no accident that, when the film’s capitalist villain tries to discourage Cassius Greene (pronounced “cash is green”) from identifying with his fellow workers (“equisapiens”), he does so by showing him a film. Indeed, at the heart of Riley’s movie is a kind of pervasive self-deprecation of artistic form as such: art is fundamentally performance, and performance — Riley wants to argue — is always tempted to become a kind of fakery in which we ultimately demean ourselves by pretending to be something we’re not, or rather pretending not to be what we are: “use your white voice”; “I know you can rap,” “you can be a power caller,” and so on.

When we express ourselves in the mode of performance, “it sounds like a voice-over,” as one character says, drawing our attention (in a bluntly Brechtian mode), on the one hand, to the fact that as we watch the film we’re listening to voice-overs, and on the other hand, to the fact that the voice-overs aren’t just actual voice-overs, but they are voice-overs that sound like voice-overs, that is, performances of what-performances-are-supposed-to-be-like. The very difficulty of extricating ourselves from performance, to tell the simple truth about ourselves, even to ourselves, is underlined again and again. As Marx puts the point in Capital: “[I]n their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted form.”

Of course, there is, crucially, a third film that we’re shown by Riley. In addition to the meta-film itself, Sorry to Bother You, and the capitalist self-justification film, there is also the equisapien backstory ‘exposé’ video, taken on a phone. In many ways, understanding the relationship between these three films — the work of art itself, the capitalist propaganda film, and the proletarian honest self-revelation (“I’m suffering!”) film, is the key to understanding Riley’s vision and his conception of the relation between art, truth, performance, dignity/humiliation and class. (The lifting of the garage door near the end is a kind of fourth film, albeit in the mode of — very literally — street theatre; and the overall plot consists mainly in a series of performances, punctuated by occasional refusals to perform, although some of these ostensible refusals to perform prove also to be stuck in the mode of performance, or sticking to the script, to which characters often find themselves to be — in a word that is ever-present in this film, like a haunting spectre — “glued.“)

The suffering of working-class people — on blunt display in the exposé  phone-video — is not merely a plot development affecting “dramatis personae,” fictional or fictionalized characters. On the contrary, the suffering that capitalism inflicts is all too real. In this sense, Riley’s story about capitalist work-horses who suffer and revolt is in a very important sense “based on a true story.” Or rather, it is itself a true story. But notice the paradoxical quality of the expression “true story.” Is it a story or is it true? Can it be both? Riley’s film embodies a hope that yes, you can tell the truth about capitalism, so that — as Marx put it — those who hear the story are “at last compelled to face with sober senses [their] real conditions of life, and [their] relations with [their] kind.”

Ultimately, this is Riley’s most audacious ambition, in Sorry to Bother You: to create a film that breaks out of the cinematic enclosure, that defies the constraints of culture-industrial sign-spinning, and that “bursts asunder” the fetters of artistic form in order to attack — rather than simply to narrate — the workings of the capitalist system. This ambition requires him, however, to change his audience, to sober up our senses.

Can a film be true? More to the point, can a film about capitalism avoid being recuperated by the system as just another commodity to make money for the culture-industry? Predictably, Riley sides with Marx, who said: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question…. Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Interview on ‘Permaculture for the People’ podcast

Today I was interviewed by Becky Ellis, political ecologist and PhD candidate in geography at Western, for her excellent podcast, ‘Permaculture for the People.’

It was a wide-ranging discussion of climate justice, movement-building, tactics and strategies, prefigurative institution-building and the politics of anti-capitalist hope. Check it out here:


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Two-Track Fascism: Notes on the Collusion of Far-Right Demagogues Like Trump with Street-Level Fascists

[Printable PDF]

In the marxist tradition, fascism has typically been understood in terms of a vulnerable ruling class seeking recourse to a populist ‘strong man’ in the face of the threat posed by the organizational power and grassroots militancy of the working class. In the context of a weak and unstable liberal democratic constitutional regime, which limits its capacity to crack down on dissent, capital resorts to an emergency terror, carried out by a demagogic proxy regime, in order to break the resistance of working-class movements (labour and socialist parties, trade unions, workers’ councils, feminist, anti-racist, and national liberation movements, and so on). The aim is to restore capitalist hegemony on the back of a superficially ‘anti-establishment’ but de facto pro-capitalist reign of terror. This approach to understanding fascism, which obviously takes the “völkisch” fascism of Weimar Germany that culminated in the Third Reich as its paradigm or prototype, is rooted in the analysis of right-wing populist ‘strongman’ crackdowns developed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The understanding of fascism that emerges from this line of thought is typified by that of Trotsky, who said that “the historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”

Asymmetric Polarization 

As of right now, at the end of October 2018, Trump’s favorability rating is more than 5 percentage points higher than it was when he was elected. His victory was no fluke or freak accident. Nor can Trump’s rise be explained in terms of US politics alone. Rather, it typifies a global trend toward far-right, nationalist, racist, anti-worker forms of authoritarian populism, from Erdogan to Bolsonaro, and from the DFLA to the Proud Boys. It is urgent that we understand the dynamics of this dangerous development. Unfortunately, the ‘classical’ marxist analysis of fascism sketched above may not suffice for this purpose, in this new and different context. For one thing, in our time the rise of far-right authoritarian populisms is in most places not taking place against the backdrop of powerful, insurgent workers’ movements. On the contrary, unions and labour parties, and left social movements generally, are weaker than they have been for many generations, and they pose a very limited threat (in the short to medium term) to capital. Further, it is apparent that today’s far right has a distinctly non-classical aspect insofar as — notwithstanding the unconvincing and half-hearted anti-’free trade’ rhetoric of Trump and others — the new far-right authoritarian populisms are fully committed to an intensification of neoliberalism. The flirtation of early fascism with anti-socialist forms of ‘corporatism’ and authoritarian state planning, familiar from the 1920s and 1930s, is nowhere to be found even in the rhetoric, much less in the practice, of the regimes and movements of the contemporary far right. Today’s rightist, racist authoritarianism is clearly as supportive of the neoliberal policy agenda as it is of capitalism as such.

It should be said that, even if the far right’s recent rise is evidently not a response to working-class insurgency, the political context today is not simply that of an unchallenged right wing resurgence. Rather, the situation is one of asymmetric polarization: both the anti-neoliberal left and the white-nationalist right are growing, at the expense of discredited centrist political parties and currents, but only the growth of the far right has been reflected in widespread electoral successes, and this fact seems to register a comparatively stronger upsurge on the far right and certainly puts greater momentum and resources at its disposal. Even so, the growth of the anti-neoliberal left is indeed a mass phenomenon (in some places), typified in the US by the remarkable increase in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, and in Britain in the shockingly unexpected sharp left turn of the Labour Party (!) under Corbyn. In a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans expressed a more favourable view of socialism than capitalism. According to Gallup, “Americans aged 18 to 29 are [more] positive about socialism (51%) [than] they are about capitalism (45%). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively.” These numbers are obviously limited in their significance, because they leave terms like socialism and capitalism undefined. If ‘capitalism’ is replaced with ‘free enterprise,’ it instantly becomes much more popular in opinion polls. But they do indicate widespread popular repudiation of the heritage of neoliberalism’s period of ideological ascendancy. The glory days of neoliberalism, when it was deemed to have mass appeal, are over. Now, neoliberalism can only get a hearing from the broad public if it is cloaked in a fake-populist pretense of anti-establishment insurgency. And that is where figures like Trump and Bolsonaro come in: they bear the cloak in which neoliberalism can conceal itself behind a deceptive rhetoric of rebellion against ‘the elites’ and empowerment of ‘ordinary people.’

Neoliberalism’s Crisis of Popular Legitimacy

Indeed, the key to today’s far-right resurgence is that it responds, not to the vulnerability of capital’s hegemony to a militant challenge from the far-left or the wider workers’ movements, but to the collapse of popular legitimacy of the political parties, the political assumptions, and the political institutions of contemporary “bourgeois” (liberal-democratic, pro-capitalist) electoral politics, brought on by decades of neoliberal policy consensus within official party politics. This legitimation crisis — recently expressed in the USA by such insurgent protest movements as the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy Movement on the left — has weakened the grip of mainstream ‘centrist’ parties over popular political activity across all classes other than big business. The epochal convergence of labour, liberal, and conservative political parties toward an “extreme centre” of consensus neoliberalism, entailing as it does the rupture of continuity of contemporary social democracy with the Keynesian version of welfare-state politics on the one hand, and the downplaying of ethnocentric nationalism and patriarchal ‘family values’ by establishment conservatism on the other hand, has severed the ties binding the masses on both the (mostly working-class) left and the (mostly middle-class) right to the official political process and its parties. This has opened up spaces to the left and to the right of the ‘extreme centre,’ for forms of political engagement rooted in the revulsion of the broad masses toward the centrist neoliberal project as a whole. The pervasiveness of this revulsion makes it impossible to win broad public approval for open, self-declared neoliberalism. There has to be an anti-establishment cloak of some kind, some promise of a fundamental rupture, for neoliberalism to gain a hearing. And figures like Trump, Bolsonaro and Erdogan take this as their starting-point.

Neoliberal Continuity? Or Proto-fascist Rupture?

But these considerations seem to necessitate that we choose between two competing analyses: Should we regard these far-right ‘strong man’ figures as fundamentally continuous with earlier champions of neoliberalism, substantively, even if they break with them at the level of rhetoric? Or should we regard them, perhaps more ominously, as present-day re-enactors of the fascist versions of pro-capitalist demagogy familiar from an earlier epoch? Applied to the case of the USA, the first option would have us emphasize Trump’s continuity with Obama and Bush at the level of policy, and discourage an undue emphasis on his use of cynical anti-immigrant appeals to boost voter enthusiasm among his ‘base’ of disgruntled middle class racists who reject ‘the political elite’ en masse. The second option, by contrast, would have us interpret Trump as representing a qualitative break with liberal democracy motivated by a proto-fascist rejection of key aspects of official politics and the liberal-democratic constitutional order. The question of which analytical tack to take is made more difficult by the fact that both sides accept, as a matter of course, both that Trump is a racist demagogue whose most ardent supporters are ‘alt-right’ fascists, and that he and his fellow rightists rely on the support of a ruling class that is uncompromisingly committed to the defense and intensification of neoliberalism

In truth, neither analysis — neoliberal continuity nor proto-fascist rupture — is wholly convincing. The problem with the ‘neoliberal continuity’ view is that Trump has clearly actively cultivated an alliance with grassroots militant fascists (the extremists who assembled at the ‘Unite the Right’ fascist rally in Charlottesville in 2017), and signaled with varying degrees of coyness and dog-whistling that he supports their use of extra-constitutional violence against the left, particularly against anti-racists, as well as the lawless persecution of migrant workers (for which he made a point of pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio). Trump is consistent about this. In one case, he encouraged a mob of his supporters to physically attack anti-racist protesters during one of his rallies, and promised to pay the legal fees for any pro-racism fighters. Later, he famously said that there were “very fine people” in the openly fascist, violence-oriented Charlottesville march — a comment he made after the murder of Heather Heyer by one of his supporters from a participating fascist organization. I could enumerate many other examples, but this aspect of Trump’s ‘footsie’ relationship with racist street-violence is well known. Given this aspect of his politics, it is hard to assimilate his political posture to the neoliberal mainstream. Trump’s distance from the mainstream is in this respect not only stylistic, but also substantive, and this lends plausibility to those analyses which emphasize his proximity to traditional fascism

But the discontinuity or ‘proto-fascist rupture’ view also has serious limitations. Trump’s primary political organization is the Republican Party, not one of the many ‘alt-right’ fringe groups, and he works closely with the same politicians that Obama and Bush negotiated with before him, people like Mitch McConnell, et al. In general, Trump usually functions as a conventional US President, trying to get legislation passed in order to help the richest and most powerful people get richer and more powerful. He has shown very little inclination to use the powers of his office directly to carry out state terror campaigns against immigrants, anti-racists or trade unionists, as we might expect a fascist government to do.

Is Trump a Fascist?

The upshot of these considerations is that it seems difficult to say with conviction either that Trump is or that he isn’t a fascist. It may help lend clarity to the discussion to set out a straightforward account of what we mean by the word ‘fascism.’ I define fascism as an anti-democratic regime or social movement, which (i) promotes a leader cult, (ii) claims exemption from constitutional constraints on the legitimate use of force, and (iii) promises an ethnically exclusionary type of national resurgence to be achieved through harsh repression against demonized ‘foreigners’ and ‘subversives.’

Is Trump a fascist, in this sense? If we take this question on its own terms, it can only be answered in the negative. To be sure, he clearly does demonize ‘foreigners’ (migrant workers, Muslims) and to a lesser extent ‘subversives’ (above all, ‘Antifa’), and he does promise national resurgence (‘make america great again’) to be achieved by harsh repression (‘build the wall’, the Muslim travel ban, sending troops to stop the migrant caravan, etc.). Moreover, it would be absurd to deny that he promotes a leader cult, because the hyper-emphatic promotion of his own claim to glory and greatness is by far his main preoccupation. However, in spite of this, Trump, on his own, is not fascist (in the sense set out above) because he does not claim exemption from constitutional constraints on the legitimate use of force, which is one of the key differences between fascists and other conservatives, whose politics otherwise overlap extensively. (For instance, it was a key difference between Hitler and the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, who anticipated many of Hitler’s policy views, including annexationist pan-German nationalism and the demonization and persecution of religious minorities and political dissidents, but who remained compliant with constitutional constraints.) Trump shows every sign of being willing and able to pursue his far-right agenda within the confines of the constitutional order. So, it seems wrong to call Trump, individually, a fascist, or indeed to call the Republican Party a fascist party.

However, it has to be said that Trump does not operate individually, as a solitary political actor. And the Republican Party is by no means the only organized political force involved in Trump’s ascendancy. Trump himself and his party operate as part of a larger, de-centred constellation of both politicized networks and political organizations, united not always by direct organizational coordination, but instead by their shared affiliation to the Trump leader cult and their shared commitment to the rightist agenda of pursuing (white) national resurgence by targeting “racialized outsiders” (and to a lesser extent, anti-racists) for demonization, repression, and often violence. It is possible to think of Trump as one part of a larger array of political formations that collectively makes crucial use of extra-constitutional violence at the street level that he himself does not actively direct (even if he legitimizes it and provides public rationales for it, such as by declaring that some group should be seen as ‘enemies of the people,’ and so on).

Two-Track Fascism

When we take this larger context or array of forces into account, the question of whether Trump is himself a fascist seems inadequate. The better question would be: Is Trump operating as part of a decentred constellation of political forces which, taken collectively as a complex movement, comprises a political form that fascism sometimes takes today? To that question, the answer may be that, yes, Trump is integral to contemporary fascism in the USA, even if he or his Administration may not be per se fascist. This suggests an analysis that rejects both the neoliberal continuity view and the proto-fascist rupture view, and which instead shifts the focus away from the politics of the leader figure as an individual and toward the constellation of loosely aligned political forces in which the leader operates politically.

According to this “de-centred” analysis, the fascism that exists in the United States (which I’m treating as exemplary, i.e., as analogous to several other similar regimes and movements globally) does not follow the 1920s/1930s model exactly, in that it is not a unitary fascism, in which leader, party, state, street-fighting force, and popular support base are all united in one organized and tightly coordinated bloc. Rather, it is a two-track fascism, with (1) an electoral track, organized inside the Republican Party, closely aligned with Wall Street, where it pursues a policy agenda that cloaks deeply unpopular neoliberal measures behind ‘white nationalist’ rhetoric and high-profile ‘culture-war’ policy fights (about immigration, trans rights, Islam) that have mass appeal to middle class racists, and (2) a street-level track, organized outside of the official political process, in which racist militias and violent white ‘pride’ men’s clubs try to wrest control of the streets and the public sphere from anti-racists, trade unions, feminists, and other democratic forces, and (if they had their way) to create no-go zones for visible minorities (in this respect replicating the classical ‘Freikorps’ model of the völkisch movement in Weimar Germany). What binds the two tracks together is their shared affiliation to the Trump leader cult, and their shared project of ‘making america great again’ by demonizing and targeting migrant workers, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others for persecution.

In this respect, fascism in the USA is a kind of mutation of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement was crucial in pioneering the idea that a militant grassroots white-nationalist protest movement in civil society (that is, outside the state), with a middle-class base, a hostile attitude to the political process, and a deep contempt for mainstream politicians and liberal constitutionalism, could enter into an alliance with big business, based on both tactical policy convergence and a ruling-class commitment to offer funding for the protests. The Tea Party as such has largely disappeared, but under Trump’s leadership — and under the banner of the ‘alt-right’ fascist revival — it was reassembled in the form of a motley constellation of far right militias, white supremacy ‘pride’ fraternities, neo-Nazi revivalist cults, and other more or less radicalized MAGA-vigilante groups and individuals, informally but in most cases fanatically aligned with Trump’s electoral track project.

The fascists who operate in this extra-constitutional ‘street-level’ track know that Trump is on their side, and accept that he cannot fully say or do anything that his location in the official political process precludes. But they know that they, by contrast, are free from such political constraints. As the point was put by one Trump-inspired armed attacker, who recently carried out a terror attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Because the violent, extra-constitutional, street-level track operates independently of Trump, it can carry out aspects of the MAGA agenda that Trump is assumed by the militant fascists to be tacitly favorable toward, but which he is unable to explicitly defend. For his part, Trump never tires of signalling his sympathy for their motives, if not for their every action.

The Limits of Today’s Two-Track Fascist Movement in the US

From this point of view, Trump’s “white nationalist” intervention in electoral politics forms an integral part of a single (albeit de-centred and dual-track) movement with the ongoing sequence of violent interventions by street-level fascists of the Charlottesville rally variety. These street-level fascist interventions include beatings, death threats, armed patrols, mass shootings, and assassination attempts. As ominous as this development is, it is important not to misunderstand the phenomenon of two-track fascism, in particular by overstating its capacities. Of the two tracks, the electoral track is the stronger and more potent, but neither track has accumulated capacities remotely comparable to those of Hitler’s Third Reich or the Italian Fascists under Mussolini. Wall Street neoliberalism is still by far the most powerful political force in US politics. In the US, to be sure, the Trump Administration has given fascist politics — and relatively open fascists intellectuals, like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon — a relevance to mainstream politics that their ilk had been denied for generations. But both the street fighting and terror capacity of the street-level track, and the grip of Trump and his inner circle on the vast apparatus of the US state, remain rather limited. The parts of Trump’s policy agenda that find their way into US law consist almost exclusively of those elements of it that are acceptable to the Mitch McConnell types that comprise the Republican Party establishment (and their co-thinkers in the Democratic Party), who are all stalwart defenders of the neoliberal consensus: massive tax cuts for the rich, gutting forms of regulation once intended to limit capital in the public interest, the continuation of re-branded free-trade agreements, endless squandering of public money on military buildups and the expansion of police powers and prisons, and so on. Meanwhile, there is still no border wall, no reinstatement of a whites-only immigration policy, no wholesale rolling back of civil rights legislation, and so on. The ruling class still largely dictates what governments can do, and that means that the neoliberal agenda remains the driving force of US government policy. Meanwhile, the street level fascists are continually humiliated by powerful ‘antifa’ mobilizations that rout them in the streets and repeatedly drive them into tactical retreat, far more often than they succeed in winning the day. The fascists do certainly carry out killings and beatings, so I do not wish to minimize the threat they already pose, but they are by no means capable of exerting the kind of power over the streets that they aspire to wield or that more powerful fascist movements have wielded in the past.

In short, two-track fascism represents a grave and growing danger, but its freedom to maneuver is limited by the fact that the niche it has found near the centre of US politics hinges on its usefulness to the ruling class as a way to cope with neoliberalism’s chronic crisis of popular legitimacy.

Some Key Aspects of the Left Response

Anti-fascist feminists mobilize against the DFLA

The response of anti-fascists to the present situation should be to navigate a course between the danger of complacency on the on hand, and the danger of panic on the other. Fascists are actually still relatively marginal, and most people reject their politics out of hand. But the roots of fascist upsurge in the legitimation crisis provoked by the neoliberal policy convergence of the extreme centre isn’t going away. As long as the anti-neoliberal, authentically anti-establishment far left cannot yet mount a credible alternative to the neoliberal centre (Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, et al.), the far right will try to fill the vacuum with the kind of fake-populist white-supremacist politics that fuels Trump’s ascendancy and energizes his street-level fascist collaborators. The main strategic implications of this analysis seem clear. I will highlight three points.

  1. First, it is necessary for anti-fascists to mobilize always and everywhere to try to deny the street-level fascists access to public space, making it effectively impossible for them to hold events in public. By driving them out of public space, we can isolate their core activists from the periphery of bigots that they want to recruit, demoralizing them and driving them back to the internet chat rooms and websites where they were largely confined before Trump’s election gave them a new confidence to organize openly. Realistically, we know that the police will always try to defend them and criminalize anti-fascist activity, and this makes our task more difficult. But with solidarity, militancy and determination we have shown that we can defeat them in the streets, more often than not.
  2. Second, since the strength of two-track fascism depends crucially on Trump’s alliance, at the level of policy, with Wall Street neoliberalism (mediated by Trump’s cooperation with the GOP establishment), it is necessary for anti-fascists to find ways to raise the costs of this alliance for Wall Street forces and the GOP itself. How to do so is a tactical question, which depends on the context. But generally speaking, anti-fascists have to expose the alliance and ensure that those who fund Trump or lend support to any aspect of two-track fascism are ‘tarred with the brush’ of fascist sympathies and are held accountable for the violence of the street-level fascists and the anti-democratic and white-supremacist features of Trump’s program and ideological posture. Trump’s funders, collaborators, and enablers all have to be exposed and held accountable. Brand-sensitive targets, such as corporations and politicians, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of pressure.
  3. Third, the far left has to work toward developing the capacity to hegemonize (gain leadership over and draw support from) the popular mood of revulsion against the hated neoliberal consensus of the extreme centre. In the US, it is obvious that the Democratic Party is hopelessly incapable of appealing to this sentiment, or rather it is completely uninterested in doing so because it is itself so deeply committed to the political project of upholding neoliberalism. By contrast, the Democratic Socialists of America, and before that the Sanders campaign, have tried to tap into the anti-neoliberal sentiment on the basis of some kind of left critique, with some degree of success. Whether the DSA (or Sanders) have the politics needed to follow through on these opportunities and develop a real challenge to both the neoliberal extreme centre and the far-right phenomenon of two-track fascism, is debatable, but this question is beyond the scope of the present discussion. What is crucial is just to be clear that defeating two-track fascism will remain a futile “labour of Sisyphus” unless the left can build itself up as a pole of attraction drawing energy and popular support from working-class revulsion against neoliberalism. Until our side develops that capacity, the right will continually benefit from anti-establishment anger that ought instead to be the main engine of left radicalization and anti-capitalist revolt.

A Comment on Connolly on Mill on Colonialism

In 1897, the famous anti-colonial marxist James Connolly chose as the epigraph for his pamphlet, Erin’s Hope: The Ends and the Means, a short passage written by the English liberal John Stuart Mill.

A quotation from J.S. Mill is a somewhat surprising way to begin a pamphlet on, of all topics, the relation between class struggle and national liberation in the context of colonial capitalism. Connolly was keen to develop a version of marxism that could speak to Irish workers locked in a double struggle against colonial domination on the one hand and class exploitation on the other. Mill, by contrast, once argued that colonized people were, like children, incapable of governing themselves, so that “despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians provided the end is their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end” (Mill, On LIberty, Chapter 1).

What insight did Connolly find, no doubt unexpectedly, in Mill’s work?

The passage from Mill which interested Connolly enough that he used an extract from it as his pamphlet’s epigraph is, on the surface, about Ireland. But what must have captured Connolly interest in Mill’s analysis is not just that it sheds light on Irish history specifically, but that it sheds light on colonialism as such, insofar as it is intertwined with class struggle. Surprisingly, Mill articulates very well (and thus anticipates) the starting-point of Connolly’s own approach to developing an anti-colonial marxism which integrates class conflict with national liberation in a particular way. (There are echoes of this view, too, in Julius Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” or “African socialism,” among other views, but I won’t pursue that here.)

The key passage is from a text called “England and Ireland.” There, Mill writes:

“Before the Conquest, the Irish people knew nothing of absolute property in land. The land virtually belonged to the entire sept [i.e., clan]; the chief was little more than the managing member of the association. The feudal idea, which views all rights as emanating from a head landlord, came in with the Conquest, was associated with foreign dominion, and has never to this day [i.e., 1868] been recognised by the moral sentiments of the people….[Landlordism remains] always connected with the latest and most odious oppressions of foreign invaders. In the moral feelings of the Irish people, the right to hold the land goes, as it did in the beginning, with the right to till it….The landlords [installed by colonialism] were a mere burden on the land. The whole rental of the country was wasted in maintaining, often in reckless extravagance, people who were not nearly as useful to the hive as the drones are, and were entitled to less respect. These are the antecedents of Irish history in respect to property in land…, for it is not the right of the rent-receiver, but the right of the cultivator, with which the idea of property is connected in the Irish popular mind….[W]hen a people have no means of sustenance but the land, the conditions on which the land can be occupied, and support derived from it, are all in all.” (John Stuart Mill, “England and Ireland,” 1868).

What Mill captures surprisingly well is a complex analysis, taken to heart by Connolly, which can be expressed in four theses about colonialism as Connolly understood it:

(1) that colonialism is a class project of exploitation, not just in addition to but in and through its being a form of national oppression;

(2) that the regimes of exploitation established under colonialism normally displace pre-colonial forms of collectivism and egalitarianism that continue to serve as, at once, a bitter memory of what has been taken away and an ideal of a possible future with enduring appeal;

(3) that the dispossession of land has a dual status of moral injury inflicted in the past, and ongoing structure of harm and endangerment because it cuts people off from their capacity to ensure their subsistence and autonomy; and

(4) that the structures of dispossession do not just subordinate the dispossessed economically and politically, but also lay the basis, or rather preserve the foundations, for an alternative morality, a counter-ethic of solidarity and the sharing among equals of benefits and burdens, which is rooted in the old collectivism, points toward an egalitarian future, and functions right now as a basis for denouncing the parasitism and self-indulgence of the exploiters.

Mill often enough says stupid, and sometimes racist things about colonialism, but here he has really hit on some key points that marxists would do well to take seriously, as Connolly did before us. Regardless of sources, these ideas were drawn into 19th century marxism and remain an important part of our tradition with enduring relevance.

The Dene Declaration (1975)

Note: One of the most important documents in the history of the Left inside the Canadian state, the Dene Declaration of 1975 was ridiculed at the time by the Canada’s ‘Minister of Indian Affairs’ as “gobbledygook” — a sure sign that the Declaration had exposed an area of acute sensitivity for the state, namely, its settler-colonial foundations. Although very widely read in the 1970s and beyond by both Indigenous and settler leftists, in recent decades it has been a bit hard to find on the Internet (or in print, for that matter) the full text (including not just the ‘manifesto’ but also the other, more fully elaborated historical and strategic parts), and I believe this may be the only HTML version of the whole document available at this time. I prepared this version based on the text given in a document entitled IBNWT Land Claim: Handbook for the Northern Claims Group (November 1977). (For some background and analysis of the Declaration and its place in the history of Dene politics and land claims, see Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, chapter 2.)

The politics of the Declaration are as relevant as ever, and the analysis holds up extremely well in the present context, so it really deserves a wider readership than it has had in recent years. (Click for printable PDF version)



General Assembly, Indian Brotherhood of NWT (Dene Nation), Ft Simpson, 19 July 1975



  1. Historical Introduction
  2. Examples of Specific Declarations
    1. Declaration on Development
    2. Declaration on Role of Native Organizations
    3. Statement on Strategy and Organizing
  3. The Dene Manifesto


Historical Introduction

  1. The situation, historically and today, has been to the disadvantage of the Dene Nation. Industry, and government have said one thing to the people and done another. It is time for us to speak the truth.
  2. Take, for example, the Treaties. The Indian people signed the Treaties in good faith, believing them to be no more than treaties of peace and friendship. When we had doubts and refused to sign, the Government was not above forging signatures. Since that time the Government has said that the Treaties were land cession treaties, and absurdly insisted that we sold our land for $5 a year each.
  3. Our land, first slowly and now more rapidly, has been overrun by explorers, traders, developers and government officials. They are the agents of a European system, and they have come to exploit the land and resources for the betterment of the few who control industry and big business. The nature of the industrial culture that increasingly penetrates the North is such that a few will profit while the majority of the people, whether native or white, are kept powerless.
  4. In the beginning our people saw little harm in letting the early explorers and traders come to the North, for the goods that they brought somewhat compensated for their being here. But more and more people came. The level of interference with the old ways increased. We can no longer let things go on because very shortly we will not be able to live off the land as we have from time immemorial.
  5. We no longer have any alternative but to take over control of developments in the North. We must have the right to decide not only when development occurs, but what kind of development takes place and for whose benefit.
  6. Since the coming of the whiteman, and industrial development, the Dene have been encouraged to join in his system of competition. But this nation has withstood the pressure. We have not adopted this alien system that puts one person against another because we have our own ways of sharing wealth and resources. Always we have taken care of the young, the old and the disadvantaged. We intend to maintain our sharing and egalitarian society.
  7. We are a nation, a people with a long history and a whole culture, a culture which has survived the invasion of our land. Although this is a fact of which all of us are aware — since we are the people of the Dene Nation — we still must make this statement because others do not know or admit of our existence as a nation.
  8. We make this statement because some of our young, being educated in a foreign educational system, are getting confused and are unaware of how they can contribute to our people. Also, some of our people who are becoming involved with industry and government are slowly coming to believe in their ways and are forgetting where they came from. They need clear direction.
  9. We have lost control of our own lands. The present legal system, the Territorial and Federal Government systems, the educational system, the industrial economy — all are foreign and oppressive in their present forms. Real power lies with a handful of large companies who operate with the full co-operation of both the Territorial and Federal governments.
  10. These same companies operate in other parts of the world, in the poor countries known as the Third World. The companies go in and exploit the non-renewable resources of these countries to serve the purpose of making profits for themselves and providing resources to the already rich and developed countries. Some of the people in the poor country get jobs, but they are locked into a factory system and a consumer, society where they are powerless and where they have to strive to better themselves as individuals rather than work for the benefit of the masses of people.
  11. There are many lessons for the Dene to learn from the development of the Third World countries. As colonies of the imperial powers, they everywhere failed to develop. Their prospects necessarily improved to the extent that they were successful in gaining independence. But even after formal political independence, many have had trouble developing because the power of the so-called multinational corporations, with their base in a small number of highly developed industrial societies, has denied their genuine economic independence. Only with tremendous effort from the people can an economy independent from outside controls be built.
  12. Our situation in the North is the same as that of the peoples of the Third World who were until recently subjugated. As aboriginal people within a white society, we are a part of the Fourth World. We have been made Canadians by decree and not by our free choice.
  13. Understandably our first choice would be to be once again a sovereign people. But we are realistic and know the whiteman is powerful. At the same time, we native people are still the majority within the North. We are in a unique situation in North America and we should take advantage of our situation before it is too late.
  14. Our survival as a people compels us to assert our right to maximum independence within Canada. We must develop our own economy and must acquire political independence for the Dene nation within the Canadian constitution. We must be able to govern our own lands and resources.
  15. Thus our land claim must include not only the surface of the land, but the animals, the fish, the birds, the rivers and streams and the minerals underneath. And, most important of all, we must have our own system of government by which we can control and develop our land for our benefit.
  16. Our aboriginal rights are meaningless if they do hot mean the exclusive right to hunt, fish and trap. And that right, in turn, will have little meaning in the long run unless Indian people are allowed to stop the damage to their land that results from present unplanned developments.
  17. Where developments, as in mining, have already taken place, or for future development which we would be prepared to tolerate, we are entitled, as owners of the land, to receive royalties. Thes royalties could be paid cut of the profits of the companies and  need be no burden on the Canadian people. We would, in turn, use these royalties to fund community economic development that will last after the companies have exhausted the non-renewable resources.
  18. We must develop plans to start our ovm economy at the community level. The present colonial pattern of development attempts to integrate us into a wage economy, as employees of companies over which we have no control. We want to strengthen our traditional land-based economy and at the same time create viable enterprises in the communities under the collective control of Indian people. That way our young people will have the chance to remain in the community rather than always having to move away, and even risk losing their identity, to find employment.
  19. We must become involved in the education of our children in communities where Dene are in the majority. Local schools must be controlled by our people. In cases like Yellowknife, or hostels where we are not the majority, we must have involvement — or start our own schools.
  20. Where outside governments have a continuing role after a land settlement, there must be a clear recognition of our rights as a distinct people, particularly at the local level. For example, native communities must have very clear powers with respect to control of alcohol.
  21. In the communities, power should lie with the band council and, in the future, with the Dene Council.
  22. Territorial Council must operate in such a way as not to infringe native rights. The same must be true if the day should come when a white majority in the North successfully demands provincial status.
  23. Without in any way abrogating our rights as the original inhabitants of the land, we recognise that non-native residents of the North who choose to make the North their home and respect our rights are themselves entitled to greater rights, in territorial and local elections, than are those who are merely transient.
  24. Our own native organizations must themselves evolve so as to be able in due course to assume these new functions. In their operations and structures, they must become examples of our ideals.
  25. To achieve all of this will not be easy. There is much work ahead of us, internally and externally. It will take effort from all the communities. A united effort is required on all issues involving the step-by-step achievement of our long term goals of maximum independence for the Dene Nation. Unless we are united among ourselves, we have little hope of winning a struggle so difficult as the one we are now engaged in.
  26. We must unite our people at all levels — between communities, between families, between Treaty, non-status and Métis, between young and old, between the traditionalists and the non-traditionalists, between regions, between tribes, between men and women. We must be prepared to identify and deal with enemies within as as well as enemies without.
  27. We must have strong leadership supported by the communities. It is the duty of leadership to lead the way for development of the people and to support directions. But the leadership must always listen to the people and be prepared to build on creative energy of the people. It must always be accountable to the people through open and honest dialogue.
  28. Although a united front is expected and required from all the communities on issues that have been sanctioned at general assemblies and have survived deliberation at the community level, this does not at all mean that people must remain quiet about those things that are remiss. Quite the contrary. Community people must make it their responsibility to confront our leadership either at the local level or at its highest level in those cases where justice has not prevailed. The more people demonstrate their true feelings and desires to the leadership, the greater the ability of the leadership to avoid errors and to implement what is in priority with local needs and desires.
  29. With strong leadership, we must have clear ideals and goals for our people. The people’s true needs and desires must be reflected in the goals and action. Communities must be thoroughly involved at every level of this total development. At no time should any goal or action be beyond thorough examination and not fit the ideals of the nation. Goals and ideals should be revised by the people as situations change requiring new directions.
  30. Externally, we must again become a people making our own history. We must become actors, not just be acted upon by companies and government. The highway, proposed pipeline and dams, indeed, even the layout of our communities — all are other people’s plans to which we have been allowed at best only to react. We must become actors, planners, in control of development within our communities and our land. We must develop our own plans for development that will benefit our communities and all our people.
  31. To be able to make our own history is to be able to mould our own future, to build the new Indian society of the North that preserves the best of our past and our traditions while enabling us to grow and develop as a whole people. We want to build a society in which there is equality of all Dene people, and a society free of exploitative relationships between people. We are not opposed to change, but it must be on our terms under our control. To assert that right is to assume a great task, one at which we cannot afford to fail.
  32. We know that there are powerful forces arranged against us. That is why we have not hesitated to appeal to others to support us in our just struggle. We ask that there be no major developments, like a pipeline, before a land settlement acceptable to us. We ask that we be allowed, in negotiating with the government toward a land settlement, to put forward our demands as they stand. We ask that our rights as a people for self-determination within Canada be respected.
  33. The great majority of people in Canada are like ourselves in being relatively powerless in the face of big companies and by governments. In the face of our assertion of our rights, the choice that others must make is between ourselves, on the [one] hand, and the outside developers that are increasingly accountable to no one, on the other hand. By joining us in our struggle people can begin as well to liberate themselves.
  34. We, the Dene, must all work together to a successful land claims settlement. This will be a big achievement in itself. It then becomes the means to achieve our real needs. Those needs are a land base and the political controls to determine what happens on our land. Above all, independence within Canada.

Examples of Specific Declarations

Declaration on Development

  1. What other people may call development is not necessarily development for Indian people. Only Dene people can say what development means for the Dene nation. For example, many people say that the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline is “development,” but this is not true for the Dene people. The pipeline may not only damage our land, but it might destroy our way of life as a nation. True development can only strengthen our nation and our way of life.
  2. The people of the African country Tanzania were, like the Dene people, also invaded by a white colonial government. Today they are independent and they say this about development:
    “Any action which does not increase the people’s say in determining their own affairs or running their own lives is not development and holds them down, even if the action brings them a little better health and a little more bread.”
    In other words, we cannot, call development any activity which takes away control from  our people. True development must give us more control and greater independence.
  3. True development means  growth in Indian communities … not only economic development but cultural, social, political and spiritual development … and the sum of these is greater than the parts.
  4. True development means building on the past, by strengthening traditional pursuits, by drawing on the community’s experience, and by building on traditional skills.
  5. True development means that development is implemented in a way that fits the Indian way of doing things (which is not the same as the government’s way or the companies’ way).
  6. True development means a process which unites and builds up the community’s sense of self and the sense of self of all its members.
  7. True development means development by the community rather than by outsiders. It means development by the community as a whole wherever possible, rather than by individuals within the community for their own benefit.
  8. True development means not participating, even as workers, in activities you cannot control. If such developments go ahead anyway (such as large resource developments), Indian people, as owners of the resource should benefit from royalties, and the political rights of Indian people (which would be threatened by an influx of white workers) would be protected by entrenching them as part of the land settlement.
  9. True development means learning by doing so that development becomes an on-going, self-reinforcing process.
  10. True development means getting expertise when it is needed in the form of short-term technical assistance without giving up ownership (even of the joint venture variety).
  11. True development means communities cooperating with each other, regionally, and in the Mackenzie District as a whole (unity means power).
  12. True development means long-term planning and setting priorities (since it’s impossible to do everything)
  13. True development means keeping our egalitarian and sharing society. 
  14. True development means setting an example for Canada.

Declaration on the Role of Native Organizations

The following should be the most important goals of our organizations:

  1. To re-establish control of our independent Dene confederacy.
  2. To assert the common identity of our people — Dene concept.
  3. To obtain for every Dene community an adequate economic base to preserve its independence.
  4. To be a vehicle for providing the solid support of the Dene people to band councils, Métis locals, and other Dene groups in their efforts in social, cultural, educational, spiritual, and economic development. To speak as one voice for the Dene people on major political issues, and work with other native organizations.
  5. To fight racism,
    • by helping to overcome the ignorance in white society with regard to Dene peoples,
    • by working to overcome economic inequality,
    • by overcoming cultural and political domination through strengthening Dene culture and independence.
  6. To be an example of our ideals in operations and structure.
  7. To create a continuing dialogue between leadership and the Dene people, so that all benefit and develop using each others understanding and experience.
  8. To establish ties, to support, and cooperate v/ith other movements and efforts which contribute to the goal of independence and freedom for all people.
  9. To build a society in which there is equality of all Dene people, and a Society free of exploitative relationships between people.

We can best achieve these goals in the following ways:

  1. By making a good land settlement our first priority.
  2. By abolishing colonial controls. This means forcing the government to recognize the authority of our chosen political structures, whether the Band Council/Métis Local or Indian Brotherhood/Métis Association. It also means involving ourselves only in developments we can control. Finally, it means reducing our dependence on government funding, because this kind of funding gives the government too much control.
  3. By political and cultural education. It is the duty of leaders and people to learn about our nation and about the nature of the rest of the world — e.g, the oil companies, Canadian Society, colonialism. We should not keep our ideas to ourselves but meet with each other to discuss and exchange our understandings. This kind of dialogue contributes to true development.
  4. By building a communal economy where the benefits of development are shared by the whole community according to need and where no individual benefits at the expense of his community.
  5. By cooperation and sharing between communities in economic development.
  6. By improving communication amongst our people: between leaders and people, between communities, between individuals.
  7. By keeping maximum control in the hands of each community while maintaining a strong united front to the outside world.
  8. By reducing inequalities amongst our people, especially in our organizations. By creating democratic and egalitarian organizations of our own and rejecting the white way with a boss at the top with all the control and workers at the bottom with no control.
  9. By eliminating discrimination because of age or sex. Young and old, man and woman must participate as equals in rebuilding our nation.

Statement on Strategy and Organizing for Achievement of Our Goals

  1. Our goal is maximum independence and self-determination of the Dene Nation within the Country of Canada through a just and equitable land settlement.
  2. The struggle for achieving our goals involves organizing and strategy on two fronts: The external front and the internal front.
  3. Our struggle is like a war, but a peaceful one. On each front there is an enemy. On each front there are allies.
  4. On the external front the enemy is those not a part of the Dene Nation who resist and deny the achievement of our goals such as the government and other people who do not want to see the recognition and self-determination of the Dene Nation
  5. On the internal front the biggest enemy is ourselves, our disunity and lack of organization.
  6. There are also Dene who are the enemy. There are Dene who would betray and are betraying their brothers in the struggle for their goal. These are Dene who work for the enemy against their brothers. These are traitors to the cause of the Dene Nation. We must learn to identify such persons.
  7. There are also Dene who hold back the cause by forgetting who the real enemy is. These are Dene who prefer to fight amongst themselves rather than against the real enemy.
  8. There are Dene who have not yet learned who the real enemy is. It is the duty and responsibility of Dene who have learned to recognize the real enemy to educate their brothers.
  9. The struggle involves then the simultaneous battle on two fronts, internally and externally. While we organize and plan to build a strong organization and unity of all our people we must also organize and plan to defeat the enemy without.
  10. Organizing and planning on the internal front means building unity and strength. It means breaking down that which divides us and educating our people and organizing so as to defeat the enemy without.
  11. In fighting the enemy without we must at all costs keep a united front whatever our differences. We must always keep our differences to ourselves and solve our differences amongst ourselves. We must never fight amongst ourselves before the enemy.
  12. We must accept that there now are real differences amongst us and always will be differences. But if we remain committed to our goal our differences will not defeat us. If we constantly remember that defeating the enemy is more important than our differences, we can solve the problems created by our differences.
  13. Our differences are real. The most serious differences are between the Treaties versus the Non-Treaty and Métis and between the young and the old.
  14. As long as we remember that there are differences between Indian and Métis, but that  it is more important to remain united against the enemy than to fight amongst ourselves, we will be in a position to solve our differences ourselves.
  15. The old people are our strength and wisdom. They are our roots to our history, tradition and cultures. The young people bring energy and knowledge of the enemy to the struggle. They are the link to the future. But the experience of the young people is much different to that of the old people. Often the old people do not understand and respect the young people. Often the young .people do not understand the old people. What we must always strive for is an understanding and respect of the young for the old and the old for the young. Without that understanding and respect, we will fail, for the past will become separated from the future. In fighting the enemy on the external front we must always remember that the way of the European is different from that of the Dene. We must always remember that the situation is constantly changing. Each one of us must bear the burden of keeping ourselves informed on each change so that we can easily adapt and change our strategies so as to defeat the enemy.


The Dene Manifesto


     We the Dene of the Northwest Territories insist on the right to be regarded by ourselves and the world as a nation.

     Our struggle is for the recognition of the Dene Nation by the Government and people of Canada and the peoples and governments of the world.

    As once Europe was the exclusive homeland of the European peoples, Africa the exclusive homeland of the African peoples, the New World, North and South America, was the exclusive homeland of Aboriginal peoples of the New World, the Amerindian and the Inuit.

    The New World like other parts of the world has suffered the experience of colonialism and imperialism. Other peoples have occupied the land — often with force — and foreign governments have imposed themselves on our people. Ancient civilizations and ways of life have been destroyed.

    Colonialism and imperialism are now dead or dying. Recent years have witnessed the birth of new nations or rebirth of old nations out of the ashes of colonialism.    

    As Europe is the place where you will find European countries with European governments for European peoples, now also you will find in Africa and Asia the existence of African and Asian countries with African and Asian governments for the African and Asian peoples.

    The African and Asian peoples — the peoples of the Third World — have fought for and won the right to self-determination, the right to recognition as distinct peoples and the recognition of themselves as nations.

    But in the New World the Native peoples have not fared so well. Even in countries in South America, where the Native peoples are the vast majority of the population, there in not one country which has an Amerindian government for the Amerindian peoples.

    Nowhere in the New World have the Native peoples won the right to self- determination and the right to recognition by the world as a distinct people and as Nations. While the Native people of Canada are a minority in their homeland, the Native people of the Northwest Territories, the Dene and the Inuit, are a majority of the population of the Northwest Territories.

    The Dene find themselves as part of a country. That country is Canada. But the Government of Canada is not the Government of the Dene. The Government of the Northwest Territories is not the Government of the Dene. These governments were not the choice of the Dene, they were imposed upon the Dene.

    What we the Dene are struggling for is the recognition of the Dene nation by the governments and peoples of the world.

    And while there are realities we are forced to submit to, such as the’ existence of a country called Canada, we insist on the right to self-determination as a distinct people and the recognition of the Dene Nation.

    We the Dene are part of the Fourth World. And as the peoples and Nations of the world have come to recognize the existence and rights of those peoples who make up the Third World the day must come when the nations of the Fourth World will come to be recognized and respected. The challenge to the Dene and the world is to find the way for the recognition of the Dene Nation.

    Our plea to the world is to help us in our struggle to find a place in the world community where we can exercise our right to self-determination as a distinct people and as a nation.

    What we seek then is independence and self-determination within the country of Canada. This is what we mean when we call for a just land settlement for the Dene nation.