Saturday, February 11, 2017

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's the author of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, which I've got on my reading list.

She's got an interesting interview, at ISR, "A Sense of Hope & the Possibility of Solidarity." She's a full-blown, unabashed revolutionary Marxist. Remember, my motto is "know your enemies." I'm constantly surrounded by people just like this at my college, and lots of students suck this stuff up like so many ganja fat ones:

The struggles of Indigenous people have a rich history, and really came together in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s with other movements for liberation. In your books, it’s clear you are making the connection between land dispossession, labor, and class—basically Marx’s approach of historical materialism. You even quoted Marx from Capital in the beginning of chapter two, entitled “Culture of Conquest.” Why is this approach important to struggles for liberation?

I think Marxism is a hard sell in the Native movement and for African Americans but less so for Mexican Americans because of their political genealogies. Today it’s even difficult for Chicanos, as well as Native Americans, because Marxism is deemed just Western epistemology or a Western worldview. There is of course a lot of Eurocentrism in Marx’s early writings. There is the idea of progress, but people don’t look at his later work enough, when he was getting into ethnology.4 He didn’t know much about non-European peoples, yet making generalities about the whole world can seem imperialist. However, I found out when I was doing my dissertation, that using Marxism to look at the history of land tenure in New Mexico at different stages from Spanish colonization through US conquest and colonization was essential. Marx describes the initial looting of the Americas as reckless abandon, as well as the enslavement of Africans, and the genocide of Native Americans, and this describes the initial Spanish invasion and occupation of New Mexico, which led to the All Indian Pueblo Revolt driving the Spanish colonists out for more than a decade.5 The second period of eighteenth-century Spanish colonialism was far more of a negotiated relationship. It was still colonialism but it wasn’t the most vicious kind, and the Spanish army was there to defend that zone from French and British expansion.6

Through the history of Mexico becoming independent and then New Mexico being taken by the US, I tried to look at capitalist development and to link this with imperialism. I read all kinds of things from Marx and participated in Marxist study groups. At the time I hadn’t done a real study of Capital. I started reading about Oriental despotism, and Marx’s analysis of how the pyramids were built. These grand public works were built by forced labor, and I connected that to what I was seeing in precolonial Indigenous New Mexico—they had elaborate irrigation systems, which were also throughout Mexico and Central America. You have almost a dictatorship to control water, but the way Indigenous peoples organized it was with serial dictatorships. The ditch boss would be elected for one year and had total control of the water in each pueblo. These ninety-eight city-states along the Rio Grande and its tributaries also went to war with each other periodically over water, so it could be very serious. They could starve as a result of being in the desert. With the water supply, they had an absolute autocratic ditch boss and everyone had to contribute labor. There wasn’t a class of laborers, and after a year the ditch boss could never again be in that position. It had to change every year so that they didn’t get used to the power.

This history shows how people can organize themselves in different ways; capitalism and exploitative labor were not inevitable in human history. Just because capitalism came to dominate the world through European and United States imperialism, forcing the world to live under capitalism does not mean it was inevitable. We need to build upon Marx’s brilliant comprehension of how capitalism arose in Europe and how it works. But the social and political systems that produced ancient irrigation systems and widespread agricultural production in the Americas were not despotic.7 It has been said the beginning of the class system started in ancient Egypt, but I found things that didn’t fit that mold. I tried to apply the basic tenets of Marxism and especially what is known as “primitive accumulation”.

I want to mention here that there are a lot of words Marx used that should be retranslated. For instance regarding primitive accumulation, it’s just easy to say “primary” or “higher” but Marxists don’t know what you’re talking about unless you say primitive. In other languages, primitive means primary.8 It doesn’t necessarily have the baggage that the word “primitive” does for Indigenous peoples subjected to European ethnography. It became clear to me while working on my thesis that the first big onslaught of the primitive accumulationprocess that set off capitalist development happens over and over again, even today. This has entered into a part of Native studies with Glen Coulthard’s book, Red Skin, White Masks, in which he makes that argument.9 Coulthard identifies with the anarchist tendency, but he takes on Ward Churchill’s piece in Marxism and Native Americans.10 Coulthard says it’s ridiculous to not use such an important tool as Marx’s work.

In all my work, I try to apply historical materialism. However, I don’t think any of the original Marxists and following generations of European Marxists dealt with colonialism as the avatar of capitalism. Lenin theorized imperialism, but he dealt with it in the most technical way of financial capital, which is really important. And he did deal with national liberation. But I don’t think Marx or Lenin even began to understand the role the US was playing throughout the nineteenth century as the vortex of capitalism, and what I try to show is that from the very beginning the United States was based on colonial conquest, and on overseas imperialism following their independence from the British Empire.


We’ve been trying to use Marxism as the framework to talk about Indigenous issues. If you merely say Marxism is European, you miss the point of the theory. People forget that Marx actually talked about who was expropriated, how people were actually dispossessed, and how that created the material basis ultimately for colonization, and how the vast majority of settlers and migrants who came to the US ended up in factories as low-wage workers.

I worked hard on the first chapter of my book about the precolonial era in the Americas, where there were prosperous and urban civilizations without capitalism, and that is so hopeful. Most radical forms of anarchism now are anticivilization, and they often look to Native people as the inspiration. They use Indigenous peoples, especially Native people in the Americas, pulling out what they want to justify their ideology. They are creating fantasies as evidence and even calling it science. Anarchists, especially the primitivists, view agriculture as the basis of all evil, because they are looking at agribusiness, and they don’t want to know at all that 90 percent of Native people in the Western hemisphere were agriculturalists—they don’t want to know that fact. So they romanticize Native people as “hunter-gatherers.”

This viewpoint distorts the reality in the Western hemisphere. The civilizations of central Mexico and the Andes were still developing before the Europeans intervened. The civilizations of the Americas were going in a different direction than Europe or Asia. I think had Marx really been able to study or know what was hardly even knowable at that time, he would have said that capitalism in the Americas was not inevitable. I always say that 500 years ago with the invasion of the Americas, a wrong path was taken for humanity. So let’s say that capitalism is wrong and destructive, not that it was inevitable. For example, with the ancestral Puebloans, it was clearly a choice. They had a large civilization up on Mesa Verde [in present day Colorado]; they had irrigation ditches for miles and were overusing the wood, because everything was built of wood. They were probably becoming less democratic, and they made the choice to migrate to the Rio Grande area of northern New Mexico and break down into smaller villages. They continued to function like city-states, but they were smaller than the one large civilization up at Mesa Verde. And why not say that was a choice and just maybe that the Americas were going in a different direction, rather than interpreting this or the Maya devolvement as “collapse?” This is something to learn from: civilization without capitalism and how can it work. This is tied with the concept of humans being a part of nature; for example, conventional Marxist thinking argues that private property began with the domestication of animals in Africa. However, in America the ancestral peoples did not domesticate animals for food or as beasts of burden. In the civilizations of Central America, parrots and dogs were domesticated but were considered sacred. The Spanish invaders noted that the Aztec dogs did not bark, but they learned to bark from the Spanish war dogs.

Can you talk more about the relationship between settler colonialism and capitalism? What do you define as settler colonialism? What is the difference between settler colonialism and outpost colonialism?

Yes, it is really important. I am not sure I entirely succeed in the book on this because the tendency of European-based Marxism is to separate the two, and of course in the United States they are like two separate worlds. Because of Lenin, we have a good connection between capitalism and imperialism, and most people assume the connection. But with colonialism, bourgeois history tends to call things colonialism that weren’t colonialism, such as the Roman Empire. Yes, they had colonies, but it wasn’t capitalist-based. It was a different era; so people like to say “people have been colonizing each other forever,” but colonialism is just a different system under capitalism. In settler colonialism, Europeans export people with the promise of land, and private property, so that land itself becomes the chief commodity in the primitive accumulation of capital, and in North America, colonists also enslaved Africans as both market commodities and unpaid and unfree labor. This is a distinct form of colonialism, which obviously proved to be the most effective in building the most powerful capitalist state, the United States. The main form of European colonialism was to exploit resources—precious metals, African bodies, spices—in which Native labor was organized with European overseers and bureaucrats, as well as Native middlemen. This form of colonialism, of course, produced great wealth for the European monarchies and later European states and created the structures of unequal global markets that persist today.

I want to make clear that there is not one “settler colonial” or “colonial” experience. Each has to be analyzed on its own terms, depending on many factors, such as which colonial state and which period of time is being considered. The European fetish for gold that developed during the Middle Ages drove nearly all of the early colonial ventures, but rare spices were also worth their weight in gold. And most importantly, the study of any colonial situation requires understanding the level and nature of resistance to these invasions. In making general conclusions regarding the Anglo and Anglo-American colonization of North America, it is essential to keep in mind that each of the hundreds of Native nations had a unique experience of colonialism, always destructive, but varying in details and survivability.

It’s inaccurate to speak, for instance, of “the California Indians.” The eighteenth-century Spanish colonization of the coastal region from San Diego to San Francisco was carried out by Franciscan missionaries with the use of the Spanish army in seizing people in the whole region to be incarcerated in the missions, and to work for the missionaries in their commercial pursuits. So these weren’t typical settlers, but it was settler colonialism. On the other hand, the nearly half of California north of San Francisco was not colonized until the United States confiscated the northern part of what had become Mexico, and the rush of settlers arrived as gold seekers with the 1850s gold rush. These were not typical settlers either, combining extraction with genocide.

Colonialism in general is disruptive, destructive, damaging, sometimes depopulating entire areas, such as the Natchez villagers of the Mississippi Delta, and the Nahuatl-speaking villagers of western Nicaragua and western Honduras who were seized by Spanish slave traders in the sixteenth century, then transported to work in the mines of Peru. European settlers didn’t arrive to those nearly depopulated areas until later. This was similar to the way villagers of West Africa were captured, enslaved, and sold in the Americas, losing their existence as particular nations and peoples.

I would say that settler colonialism was an exceptional mode of colonialism. English settler colonialism in the North American colonies took its specific form from the mid-seventeenth-century English conquest of Ireland, in which English forces under Oliver Cromwell drove subsistent Irish farmers off their land and gave land grants to English and Scottish settlers. The developing English capitalism based in the wool industry required surplus labor to work in the factories, as well as large swaths of grazing land for commercial sheep production. The process of fencing the commons and driving English farmers off the land created that surplus labor force, but also a pool of settlers who were promised free land in America. The Protestant Anglos and Scots, who settled Northern Ireland, made up the majority of frontier settlers in the British North American colonies.

The Portuguese and the Spanish were specifically seeking gold and silver. Their hoarding of gold and silver actually limited their ability to develop capitalism. They didn’t really have a basis for that in the Iberian Peninsula after they deported all the farmers, craftsmen, architects, and other producers who were Muslims and Jews. Only in the eighteenth century did Spain begin establishing settler-colonies in the southern cone of South America, employing the same genocidal methods of eliminating or driving out the Indigenous peoples, which continued when Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay became independent.

However, only the United States developed effective capitalism outside of Britain. By 1840, it was already the largest economic power in the world on the basis of the global cotton trade and textile factories, also providing cotton to the British textile industry. Until recently, economic historians have dated the development of US capitalism to post–Civil War industrialization in the North. Several recent books have convincingly made the case for the cotton kingdom in the Mississippi Valley being the site of the birth of full-blown capitalism prior to the Civil War, based on slave labor and the capital generated by the value of the slaves’ bodies.13 This development included the parallel expulsion of the five large Native agricultural nations from the Southeast during the 1830s and 1840s, generating huge amounts of capital in land sales.