I’d like to begin with monuments, as a way of talking about the idea of steps, stages, levels… of social transition.
As monuments to colonizers and slaveholders fall the world over, inspired by the recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, some left-leaning intellectuals, especially historians, have been agonising over which monuments of historical figures should go and which should stay. I follow some of these discussions with interest, and many of these people have my sympathy.
At the same time, I personally have a simple, if “maximalist” answer to the question. All monuments should go. At least in the long run.
My vision of a libertarian socialist society is one in which everyone aspires to be a great leader and a great follower – simultaneously, and all the time. We would surely fail at times. But mostly, we would simply not want or need leaders – that is, people who insist on always leading, all the time – anymore. We would certainly have no use for “heroes” or “martyrs”.
We would simply no longer admire people. We’d recognise admiration for the immature foolishness it is. We would be wary of our tendencies to idealise, to demonise, to long for the exotic, for simple truths, for the black and white. And so we would have no more use for statues of any kind. They are not necessary to the project of remembering the history of humanity. That is not the function of most monuments anyway.
In this future I envision, people who, by some ill chance in their lives, have come to wish to be leaders, heroes or martyrs, would be regarded as afflicted by the emotional plagues of the past.
Having alluded to this my dream of a libertarian socialist society, let me jump back and start again at a very different level, or stage, or step. I’ll call it:
A major transformation of the United States could be the result of a historical compromise between some sections of the capitalist class in the US and parts of the professional and upper middle classes on the one hand, with a resurgent labour movement, movements against white supremacy, feminist struggles and other emancipatory movements on the other, and maybe also some pressure from outside of the US.
This could result in a new model of regulation of US capitalism and, to some degree at least, global capitalism, a new growth model based on a state- and movement-driven response to climate change and social inequality. A Green New Deal with lots of infrastructure spending, some redistributive programmes, a massive expansion of the welfare state, some reparations programmes for African Americans and Native Americans, some concessions to Indigenous demands regarding land rights, immigration reform, reform of the criminal justice system, police reform, some general democratization, like getting rid of the electoral college, and, most importantly for the world as a whole, a slightly less hawkish foreign policy. A US state run by a more progressive regime could maybe contribute to the emergence of a less hierarchical and exploitative world order.
The world this vision belongs to is of course not the world I dream of. But it might be the only available alternative to a further slide towards mass death through war, drought, flooding, storms, disease and starvation under the “leadership” of right wing nutcases like Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro and Duterte, liberal class warriors like Trudeau and Macron (or Biden, for that matter) or, last but not least, Stalinist scum like Xi or Trong.
Another vision, a further step removed from the world we live in now – let’s call it:
The New American Compromise / El Nuevo Compromiso Americano
A few decades of intense social struggles might lead some day to the founding of a new nation state, or federation of states, in the Americas.
In what world would this compromise state find itself? Can we even imagine a left-led capitalist nation state coming into being and surviving in the context of global imperialist rivalry? Is it possible in a world where every defeat or drawdown of US imperialism would create a “power vacuum” for rival imperial states to fill? The ruling classes of some of which – if, for the sake of argument, we imagine the Chinese state surviving more or less in its present repressive, surveillance-capitalist, imperialist, settler-colonial and genocidal shape, into this historical period – might turn out to be even worse masters than the current lot we have, and whose success in the imperial contest no radical or progressive should ever wish for…
Could strong internationalist social movements dampen inter-imperialist rivalry? Could they force global disarmament, the creation of global public goods, global democratic institutions and global redistributive and reparative policies?
Better yet, could waves of rebellions bring authoritarian regimes to their knees the world over, from Saudi Arabia to China?
This nuevo compromiso I am imagining here would mark a break with at least some of the settler colonial heritage of state power in the Americas. Its constitution might explicitly reject Euro-derived notions of land ownership, instead committing itself to a notion of collective stewardship of land based on a fusion of Indigenous concepts of our relationship to the land with ideas from international leftist thought on land and property.
It might commit itself to repairing the wrongs of Indigenous genocide and Black slavery, through both redistribution and recognition, declare itself fundamentally at odds with white supremacy, and commit itself to some new form of multiculturalism. Maybe masses of people on its territory would start learning languages that were once on the brink of extinction, and embrace cultural practices considered marginal or exotic today. We might see the beginning of the end of race. Radical social movements might finally have some success in loosening the hold of ethnicity and nation on people’s imaginations. Patriotism might even begin to go out of fashion, at last…
The social movement-controlled or -influenced parts of the state would attempt to rein in the power of the capitalist class and chart a course towards overcoming patriarchal racial capitalism altogether: by implementing, expanding and defending human rights to water, food, housing and income, by socialising reproductive labour and undermining the old gendered and racialised regime of reproduction, by supporting movement challenges to racial, ethnic, national… segmentation of the working class, by expanding workers’ rights in general and workers’ control in their workplaces in particular, by defending and expanding institutions of direct democracy at a local level, by expropriating capitalists and bringing ever more of society’s productive and reproductive apparatus under democratic control, by decommodifying ever increasing areas of life, by creating ever more public goods, even public luxury.
But how stable could such a compromise ever be? Can the power of capitalists really be broken gradually? Will a majority of men really become passionate about the abolition of patriarchy, the multiplication of genders and the proliferation of sexualities? Will enough whites want to refuse the wages of whiteness?
What are the limits of repurposing a capitalist nation state in the service of bringing about radical social change? Would such a compromise state be able to create forces of order, a police or militia, that functions according to a significantly different logic than most of the police forces we know in the Americas today? Would there be democratically controlled local militias? How would they interact with central state forces? How would this “progressive” compromise state go about defeating right wing militias and defend itself against coup attempts, which certain segments of the former or declining ruling classes would be sure to organise? How would it defend itself from hostile foreign intervention? What character would this compromise state’s intelligence services have? What would this state do with the tremendous apparatus of destruction it would have inherited from its predecessor in North America, the US, a military apparatus built for the purpose of imperial domination in a capitalist world order?
Now imagine yourself one step further away from the world as you know it, in a situation where the abolition of patriarchal racial capitalism is on the horizon. Now read the following manifesto:
For a Radical Politics of Land
Social relations of domination and exploitation among people are inextricably bound up with relations between humans and the non-human world. Building a new society based on equality, autonomy and reciprocity among people will entail a radical change in our relationship to other living beings and the world at large.
Against social territoriality
As radicals we must insist that land should never and nowhere be property, individual or collective, in any sense of the term. The social right to use land, within the limits of our respect for the non-human world, should be distributed justly and equally among all human beings on Earth. This social right to use land should be of a piece with a social duty to care for it.
No group or individual should have the right to claim a certain territory as off limits to anyone else. Everyone should be able to move around freely and settle, for a short or a long time, wherever they please, within the limits set by our respect for the non-human.
Natural resources that occur only in a few locations should, if their exploitation can be justified at all, be shared equally with everyone else on the planet. In a classless society beyond gender, race and nation, conflicts over space, water or other features of the world useful to humans should be resolvable through open-ended negotiations.
Ideologies of land
Against this vision and these ideas stand racist, national, ethnic and religious claims that there are unchanging, transhistorical groups of people that carry certain immutable, natural and inborn traits, and that these peoples, races or nations are tied to certain territories by natural, unbreakable ties, that certain territories have been given to certain “peoples” or “nations” by God or the gods, etc.
There are important distinctions to be made among the different forms such claims can take – according to their social base, their history, their political and religious contexts.
Nonetheless we utterly reject all such claims, no matter who they are made by, whether far right religious groups, left-leaning nationalists, indigenous groups in settler colonial states, or anyone else.
Relationship to the land
Cultures can have very long memories, relationships with the land can be strong, attachments can run deep. These connections and attachments must be honoured. But it is also true that people can move around, forget and let go of their old homes and make new ones, connect and become deeply attached to, and very knowledgeable about, a new environment in the space of just a few generations.
Rights to land, control of labour
We obviously reject the notion that pastoralists and hunter-gatherers have a lesser right to their territories than people that “work the land”, or that horticulturalists have less right to the land they inhabit than people practicing supposedly “more advanced” forms of agriculture. We deem especially abhorrent the notion developed by 17th century European ideologues, that people who “develop” land in a way that increases its market value, have more right to such land than people who do not.
But neither do we admire pre-colonial African and American societies that did not have land ownership but instead organised exploitation through direct control over and ownership of labouring bodies.
In fact we oppose all forms of social order that exist on this planet, or have existed historically, their modes of social reproduction and territoriality.
Social justice and territoriality
No region of this earth should ever be recognised as authentically “belonging” to some ethnic group, in any sense of the term, whether they are the descendants of people who happened to come there first (such as the aboriginal people of Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia and Native Americans) or the descendants of people who came there as part of one of the many waves of violent conquest that constitute much of human history.
This is not to say that descendants of victims of colonial dispossession and slavery should not demand justice, that people should not remember, mourn, attempt to heal some of the trauma, demand social recognition and material redress. On the contrary.
But we believe that to achieve true historical justice all relations of social domination (of class, race, gender…) must be dismantled. And in our view this entails putting an end to all forms of land ownership and territoriality.
What’s wrong with colonialism
What’s wrong with colonialism is not that regions that were inhabited by some group first now are settled by other people from some faraway place. There is nothing wrong with long distance migration and cultural mixing as such. There are no pristine, authentic, unchanging cultures that need protecting from cultural hybridization, nor have they ever existed.
What’s wrong with colonialism is the violence and coercion that have driven and determined migration and cultural mixing.
The problem is that colonisation takes away the land that people depend on for their livelihood and their sense of belonging. It reduces the social status of colonised people, subjects them to expropriation, exploitation and humiliation.
The task of radical politics
Colonisation is never the only problem. Many stateless societies that came under European colonial rule were already ranked in some way at the time of contact, and none, we venture, were gender-egalitarian. Many colonised societies were structured by caste, class, ethnicity and race, or something akin to race. Some were deeply marked by pre-modern forms of empire, including pre-modern forms of settler colonialism. These forms of domination and exploitation were transformed and built upon by European colonialism, in both its earlier, non-capitalist, and later, capitalist, varieties.
As radicals, our task is to oppose the devaluation and marginalisation of subaltern cultures, languages and religions, strive to better know and understand devalued and marginalised cultural practices, languages, and spiritualities, while at the same time engaging in a relentless critique of the forms of domination and exploitation contained in and justified by them.
Consequently, we consider an anti-imperialism that is not also anti-feudal, anti-capitalist, feminist and anti-racist to be useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it enables the blending of radical and reactionary thought and is a potential entry point for reactionary ideas and values into radical movements.
Building a new global society based on equality, autonomy and reciprocity entails that our primary identification must be as a human animal and part of this world. Our solidarity must be global, our roots everywhere. As radicals we must insist on the necessity and possibility of integrating regional and particular attachments and identifications into global networks of solidarity.