This post is part of the symposium celebrating the inaugural issue of the Journal of Law and Political Economy.
The exploited and the colonized, they must move in different paths.—Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), 1968
Over the past century we have seen mass movements for social change—socialist revolutions, wars to achieve independence from colonial domination, popular uprisings for political inclusion as well as fundamental human rights. Nonetheless the devastation of our communities and the planet persists. And, because it persists, as activists, we continue to struggle for meaningful change and, as scholars, we articulate conceptual frameworks intended to promote human flourishing.
Bringing critical perspectives to this collective endeavor, we begin from the premise that legal, political, and economic systems are mutually constitutive, and embrace as a common goal the identification and deconstruction of institutions and ideologies that perpetuate subordination and inequality. We recognize that accurate understandings of law, politics, and economic relations require a deep appreciation of the roles played by race, gender, sexuality, class, national origin, immigrant status, and a host of other aspects of our identities. Employing the lens of intersectionality, we see these attributes not in isolation from each other, but in a dialectical process of constant interplay.
Nonetheless, understanding how systems of oppression operate doesn’t necessarily tell us why they work the way they do or how they can best be deconstructed. In considering the underlying causes of injustice as well as our ultimate goals brings me to the distinction between what the late Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) described in a 1968 speech as the path of the exploited and that of the colonized. I address this in my contribution to the inaugural JLPE issue, which I summarize here.
Reflecting a view many of us are only now beginning to take seriously, Ture insisted that the United States is a “settler colony” and, therefore, “by its very nature, an unjust and immoral political state”. As settler colonists, Europeans came to North America not just to exploit its lands and peoples, but to stay. They presumed a prerogative to exercise exclusive control over a state of their own creation, superimposed upon existing Indigenous polities and relations. Unwilling to envision systems of shared power or governance, the settlers’ first objective was the elimination of those peoples who “got in the way just by staying home”. As they consolidated territorial control, the colonizers rendered the lands they claimed profitable, largely by enslaving American Indians and Africans and, subsequently, by impressing other peoples of color into a labor force subjected to the push-pull dynamics of U.S. immigration regulation.
Antony Anghie observes that colonialism inevitably creates and feeds off a dynamic of difference and, as I’ve recently argued, in the United States such difference has been constructed to facilitate the appropriation of lands and resources, to impose structures of law and governance, to exploit labor, and to enrich the colonizers. The primary markers of identity used to oppress people in this society—including race, national origin or immigration status, gender or sexual identity, and economic class—are the product of both constitutive and ongoing colonial relations.
It is an exercise in futility to accept the legitimacy of colonial constructs such as race, gender, property, and state sovereignty, and then work to equalize relations defined in these terms. These constructs are, themselves, the “master’s tools,” designed to perpetuate relations of domination and subordination. Moreover, a more equitable division of the spoils of conquest, should that be possible, wouldn’t change the underlying power dynamics. This is because settler sovereignty has been defined precisely to prevent those under the state’s claimed jurisdiction from exercising self-determination, the right of all peoples to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
Ture noted that the exploited and the colonized are both oppressed and, therefore, their material conditions may look quite similar. However, colonized peoples are not only economically oppressed “but their culture, their values, their language, their entire way of life are stripped from them and they are forced to identify with the oppressor”. Their very identities are targeted because the state is built on what Giorgio Agamben calls “inclusive exclusion,” the use of colonial power to forcibly incorporate people into social structures that perpetually subjugate them. It is an inherently genocidal process. As explained by Raphael Lemkin, “genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”, and this is what has been happening throughout U.S. history.
This is why the paths of the exploited and the colonized diverge. Both contest discrimination, unequal treatment, and inequitable access to social goods and sources of wealth—measures of wellbeing defined by the colonizers—but one goes further, envisioning social, political, economic and legal institutions that are not constrained by the need to perpetuate a settler state. There is no simple formula for determining whether particular actions move us in a liberatory direction, but it is clear that we will have to clear and defend space for the “independent initiatives, applying ingenuity and courage, taken by people who are succeeding in relearning to rule themselves” and, thereby, “regaining confidence in being themselves”.
Sometimes struggles to remediate racial discrimination or economic exploitation reinforce the perceived legitimacy of the settler state, but they can also demonstrate the power of the people to assert control over their lives. Ture assessed grassroots initiatives in terms of dignity and empowerment. Thus, even though he did not believe that voting would bring meaningful change to Black people in the rural South, Ture was jailed, repeatedly, for defending their right to vote because “[t]he act of registering to vote . . . gives one a sense of being. The black man . . . is saying to the white man, “. . . You have said that this is my place. . . . You have contained me and I am saying ‘No’ to your containment.”
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, combined with the massive protests against police violence and institutionalized racism, have given us glimpses of how dysfunctional the old “normal” was, and the potential we have, in the United States today, for social transformation. We have seen whose work is actually essential and whose isn’t; how much can be done by locally organized mutual aid societies; that schools and courts aren’t always necessary, but access to water is; that healthcare and housing are basic human rights; that food can be delivered directly to those in need; and why people should not be kept in cages.
Collectively, we have a tremendous opportunity to build on such realizations. These times have unleashed the imagination, as Indigenous leaders protect their lands and people with checkpoints on highways leading into their reservations, and activists in cities around the country struggle to replace the police with community-based public safety programs, or establish “autonomous zones” capable of providing their residents with food, medical care and education. The state is quick to crush such movements but, in the meantime, we witness the power of people saying “No” to their containment.
Is it utopian to contemplate paths that might lead us toward legal, political, or economic formations unconstrained by state power and conceived outside the dominant narratives of colonial rule? Probably. But no more utopian than believing we can meaningfully address racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or economic exploitation within the boundaries of “the possible.”