Decolonization without National Sovereignty

A Response to Neil Braganza

September 12, 2021

Neil Braganza’s review of my book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020) shares a not uncommon position held by some segments of the Left, namely, a failure to address nationalism as a class-collaborationist project. This has been the case historically and continues today. Instead of seeing nationalism as weakening revolutionary struggles against capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy, those holding such a position harken back to arguments made by Marxists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – a time when the national form of state power was not yet hegemonic – to argue that while the nationalisms of dominant groups must be opposed, the nationalisms of oppressed and colonized people ought to be supported.

The Backlash against Anti-Nationalism

In Home Rule, I argue that such an approach presumes that oppressed and colonized people are less riven by differences organized by class rule, racism, and patriarchy than people in more powerful states, an assumption I show to be an abject fallacy. Such a political position also presumes that the horrors of colonialism can be resolved by organizing people into a “nation” and institutionalizing their sovereignty over a bounded territory.

In reality, of course, to support the nationalisms of the colonized is to willfully ignore the fact that nowhere has the obtainment of national territorial sovereignty brought about a decolonization worthy of its name. This has, instead, led to an escalation of the very colonial practices people oppose(d): expropriation, exploitation, and oppression. Support for the nationalisms of the colonized, I argue, is a failure to accept the hard realities extant in the “national liberation states.”1“National liberation states” is a term used by Vijay Prashad to describe the former colonies of European empires that nationalized their sovereignty. Prashad, Vijay. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New York: The New Press, 2008. Moreover, while support for nationalism is seen by some on the Left to extend only to the colonized, such a position is, in reality, tantamount to supporting the entire international structure of nation-states. Each nation-state, including those that were formerly colonies, operate within a global system. Each nation-state facilitates the expansion of capitalism to practically all corners of our planet. In the process, the state’s control over our lives is intensified.

A common tendency of those who continue to believe that nationalism can bring about decolonization, despite all evidence to the contrary, is to attack critics of nationalism(s) and to denounce them as right-wing reactionaries. The clear purpose behind such mischaracterizations is an attempt to depoliticize nationalism – and the national sovereignty project. Equating support for the nationalisms of the oppressed as support for their decolonization allows them to say that those of us who reject nationalism do not support the liberatory project of decolonization. By ignoring my lengthy analysis of how a politics of autochthony (or indigeneity) has underpinned the enormously violent process of past and present nation-making projects, and by failing to engage with arguments for national territorial sovereignty made by the very Indigenous scholars/activists he cites to refute my arguments, Neil is able to construct the impression that my critique of indigenous nationalisms means that I do not support anti-colonial struggles.

Challenging nationalism’s hegemony, particularly its hold over many on the Left, including some indigenous scholars and activists, was a large part of my motivation for writing Home Rule. It was necessary for me to outline how and why people who find themselves identified through the state categories of Native and Migrant have been separated from one other – and the devasting consequences this continues to have on all people and for Left politics in general. I discuss how the initial separation of people into the binary categories of Native or Migrant was part of a larger strategy by imperial-states to hold their colonies by dividing those they governed. Divisions such as these severely weakened people’s collective ability to effectively revolt. Nation-states absorbed such communalist politics into the new postcolonial divide between Nationals and Migrants.

Nationalism has hardened considerably since nation-states became the hegemonic form of state power (something I argue took place after World War II when many former colonies and all of the former imperial metropoles nationalized their sovereignty). By outlining political practices across the world and across the Left-Right political spectrum, I show how being regarded as a “true National” is today increasingly tied to whether one can also be regarded as being Native to the “nation’s” territory.

Home Rule argues for the coming together of people classified as either Native of Migrant. Indeed, the entire point of Home Rule – as I state in its conclusion – is to acknowledge that “neither the National-Native nor the Migrant is, in fact, foreign to the other. They have come into being side by side, and they remain inseparable.” I add that, “it is only our disavowal of these relationships that leads to their separation.” “This book,” I say, “is a call to come together…to allow ourselves the freedom to build a new worldly place of our making, one that is held in common so that we can withstand the efforts of future Lords” to continue to divide us in order to preserve their rule.2Home Rule, p. 282. This, I argue, requires a rejection of nationalism and the political categories that nationalists everywhere – in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific, the Americas – borrow from imperial-states and make their own, categories like Native/National and Migrant.

Nationalism and Anti-Colonial Struggles: Is that all there is?

Yet, by continuously equating the nationalist version of anti-colonial resistance with anti-colonial politics as a whole, Neil tries to portray me as being “for” Migrants and “against” Indigenous people. He argues that while I speak “powerfully in defense of migrants and in support for a world without borders,” I fail to “acknowledge the possibility of decolonial Indigenous struggle for a radical commons.”3“Critical Commentary,” p. 106. In so doing, he reproduces the very separation between Natives or Migrants that Home Rule challenges. Moreover, by failing to address the issue of whether we can reconcile demands for national territorial sovereignty (a central demand for the indigenous struggles Neil briefly discusses) with those for a “radical commons,” we are left with a confusing conflation of territory with land, and of national sovereigns with commoners.

In reality, of course, to support the nationalisms of the colonized is to willfully ignore the fact that nowhere has the obtainment of national territorial sovereignty brought about a decolonization worthy of its name.

I would like to better understand why Neil has so little to say about the key arguments I make. After all that we’ve learned about the serious disconnect between nationalism and liberation, how can that part of the Left to which Neil relates still believe there is no way to fight colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy without resorting to nationalism? Is the obtainment of national territorial sovereignty really the same as realizing decolonization? Are the lives of people who are currently living through the terror organized by national liberation states in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Pacific, and the Caribbean unimportant? Is there a significant distinction between “western” ideas of national sovereignty and those held by oppressed, subjugated, colonized people, including those who identify as Indigenous people in what is now Canada? Is it ethical to not critique and repudiate the violence carried out across the world in the name of autochthony (or Indigeneity)? Are we unable to critically analyze the actions taken by various Native nations in Canada (and elsewhere) to limit membership and expel people from “national territory”? Is immigration really the same as colonization? Do Migrants really have no relationship to the places they come to live other than that of colonialism and conquest? Can we ignore the relationship between nationalists’ “defense” of “their nation” and the enormous violence carried out against people on the move?

Moreover, can we have a robust discussion of alternatives to nationalisms? Or should we continue to ignore those who fought – and continue to fight – capitalism and colonialism without resorting to nationalism or without seeking national territorial sovereignty? And wither “internationalism”? Or demands for a planetary commons? Is national sovereignty, including of the oppressed and colonized, really compatible with the commons? These are precisely some of the questions my book attempts to address – and that Neil either fails to engage with or misrepresents.

Neil claims that I see no difference between what he says are, “‘Nativists’ who imagine themselves to be members of a racially and culturally homogenous body politic united patriotically around shared opposition to immigrants and refugees” and “the First Nations and original peoples of the land who in my context (that of settler colonialism in Canada) have survived centuries of genocidal policies and racist and sexist violence, and who are on the front lines of struggle for the survival of life on this planet against capitalism and ecocide.” He makes this claim while ignoring what I say in the book’s introduction: no, “they are not equivalent.” I add that, “White people demanding the expulsion of Migrants in the name of being the ‘indigenous people of Europe’, for example, are not the equivalent of various Indian or Aboriginal claims to national sovereignty in the United States, Canada, or Australia.” I add: “nor is it my argument that all contemporary discourses of autochthony advocate or mobilize genocidal violence against Migrants. Indeed, discourses of autochthony deployed by some Indigenous National-Natives, for instance, argue that their national sovereignty is essential to take good care of the planet, each other, and the generations of life to come.”4Home Rule, p. 208.

However, Home Rule also documents and discusses the growing number of political exclusions, physical expulsions, and even exterminations organized specifically in the name of the indigenous “people of a place” fighting the “migrant/colonizer” who they deem to be “out of place.” Thus, I argue that we must address not only the shared semantics (e.g. use of the term “indigenous”) but also the shared political philosophy of autochthony, which makes claims to indigeneity the only legitimate basis of political power.

Contemporary autochthonous politics are, I argue, both part of the colonial legacy of separating people categorized as either Natives or as Migrants and the foundational basis for all nationalism(s). This is not to say, as Neil argues I do, that in my “view there is no historical basis for drawing strict distinctions between colonialism, postcolonialism, neocolonialism, and anticolonial and decolonial movements.” I do certainly argue – and substantiate – that practices of expropriation, exploitation, and oppression have expanded and intensified during the post-WWII period of postcolonial rule. I also argue that the theory of “neocolonialism” provides an alibi for the failures of national liberation states. “In the national liberation states,” I say, “postcolonialism was renamed ‘neocolonialism’ in a bid to explain why ‘national self-determination’ felt like imperialism, or worse.”5Home Rule, p. 19. I add that, “with the nation-state – and nationalism – monopolizing the political, it could not generally be acknowledged that national sovereignty was bound to fail people — both National-Natives and Migrants.”

Neil takes my argument that postcolonialism is best understood as a containment of demands for decolonization and should therefore not be equated with it and, instead, claims that I believe that there is no difference between colonialism and decolonization. He compounds this mistake by arguing that my “position [is] that resurgent Indigenous movements and decolonial struggles are the political and ideological offspring of the settler colonial state itself.”6“Critical Commentary,” p. 100. Again, only by equating national sovereignty with decolonization and equating critiques of nationalism with a lack of support for decolonization can Neil make such an assertion. Let me be clear: my rejection of nationalist movements and their demand for territorial sovereignty does not lessen my staunch and unwavering support for decolonization.

While nationalists promise(d) an end to colonialism – and while nation-states have replaced imperial-states in their control over territory and all life on it – national sovereignty has clearly failed to bring about the decolonization of land, labour, or imaginations. Instead, old imperial wine has been put in sparkling new national bottles. Neil takes this argument and claims that, “for Sharma, Indigenous peoples’ efforts to reclaim their self-determination are shaped by ‘deep and centuries-long histories of colonialism’; [thus] their felt cultural connections to a precolonial life are products of origin stories invented in a postcolonial context and retroactively inserted into the past to justify national sovereignty claims in the present. Sharma offers examples of the Mohawk and Cherokee Nations, which at different times have restricted membership and access to their institutions and land on the basis of a ‘blood quantum’ principle, a measure adopted from settler colonial states.”7“Critical Commentary,” pp. 100-101.

Rejection of nationalist movements and their demand for territorial sovereignty does not lessen my staunch and unwavering support for decolonization.

Neil exerts no effort to actually discuss the actions taken by the Mohawk and Cherokee Nations to expel certain people from their membership lists or to acknowledge, as many Indigenous people do, that “blood quantum” rules are indeed the legacies of colonialism. Instead, he imputes to my authorship the appalling assertion that the whole of Indigenous histories and contemporary cultures are contained within and restricted to the experience of colonial rule. Neil justifies such contentions by stating that, “what is missing in [my] account is consideration of how state categories are resisted and challenged in pursuit of radical alternatives to the capitalist social relations to which the state belongs.”8“Critical Commentary,” p. 102.

Saying that the imaginations (and political actions) of people regarded as Natives or as Migrants have been influenced by the categories we find ourselves in is not the same as saying that everything we know of ourselves was invented by colonizers. How would I understand the political movements that I am a part of if I actually believed this? How could I come to a No Borders political position in a world with border controls or to demand a planetary commons in a world of nation-states if I – if all of us – were unable to think against ruling structures and ideas?

On The Commons

Neil’s discussion of the commons is perhaps the weakest part of his arguments against my own. He makes a novel (and entirely false) argument that there are two kinds of commons: “On the one hand, the commons could be the territoriality of transnational corporations and capital that shed political and geographical constraints in the name of extracting surplus value” while “on the other hand, the commons could be something radically different: it can be a goal generated in struggles against capital’s access to natural resources of trees, fish, minerals, water, and so on, against capital’s access to the land for pipelines, infrastructure, and real estate developments, and thus against the political entities that regulate, coercively impose, and tax this activity.”9“Critical Commentary,” p. 104.

It is surprising – shocking even – that anyone on the Left would argue that global capitalism is one of two different types of commons. Such an argument is what one would expect from a right-wing think tank. The common interest of capitalists to extract surplus value cannot be represented as a commons. In fact, capitalist rule came about through – and continues to depend on – the destruction of our commons. Karl Marx and every commoner undergoing the violent process of proletarianization well knew this.

Thus, while Neil tells us that I “assume that collective struggles are tied to the state form and the reproduction of capitalism, a struggle for the commons in the second, radical sense is missing in her theory,” it is he who appears to misunderstand what the commons are or how to identify struggles for them.10“Critical Commentary,” p. 104. Plainly put: demands for national territorial sovereignty are not struggles for the commons. Although Neil claims that my “book reduces all social struggles against the state to struggles for national sovereignty in new or different states,” it is Neil who reduces (and perverts) the commons by not seeing the distinction between the commons and national territorial sovereignty.11“Critical Commentary,” p. 103.

His misunderstanding of the commons is part and parcel of his inability to see that not all struggles are simultaneously struggles for the commons. Important struggles against pipelines, for example, could be for the commons but they could also be for the recognition of the sovereignty of the “nation” who claims the land (and air and water) the pipelines (or the oil) are on. Both may be anti-capitalist but, then again, not all anti-capitalist struggles are struggles for the commons, particularly when class collaboration is smuggled into them, as is the case when the “nation” and its territorial sovereignty is centered.

Moreover, identifying struggles for the commons requires a better definition of the commons than simply a “site of struggle,” as Neil contends. The commons historically precedes capitalism. Indeed, the commons precedes class rule writ large, as well as the existence of sovereigns, territories, and states. Further, demands for the commons were – and remain today – the radical alternative to capitalism (and class/state rule).

The fundamental principle of the commons – the key thing that distinguishes it from other anti-capitalist political projects, including those struggling for national territorial sovereignty – is the relationship that people (and all life on this planet) have to the commons. In stark contrast to private property rights or national citizenship rights, no one can be excluded from the commons. Being a commoner is not dependent on one’s ancestors, or how one is racialized, ethnicized, nationalized, gendered, or sexualized. The commons is where no one is out of place. For this reason, I argue in Home Rule, today’s commons needs to encompass our entire planet, not just one part of it. The call for a “commons in one national territory” is fated to end as disastrously as did Stalin’s call for “socialism in one country”.

Neil’s confusion about the commons – and of my argument – achieves dizzying heights when he says things like, “thus, a question arises: if struggles against autochthonous states are themselves autochthonous, how are the commons ever possible, and what meaning can the commons have for people who are struggling for it now?” or when he says that, “the idea of the commons in Sharma’s theory, then, is trapped in a problem of the theory’s own making: it is beyond autochthony, yet it returns to autochthony when it becomes a struggle to escape autochthony.”12“Critical Commentary,” pp. 103-104, and p. 105. Huh? I think it is Neil who is unable to escape autochthony. He cannot, because he, it seems, is unable to escape the grip that nationalism has on him. Sadly, this is true for so many others on the Left. This, despite all of the hard evidence compelling us to face the truth that national sovereignty has never brought about an end to capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy but only made things far, far worse.

[1] “National liberation states” is a term used by Vijay Prashad to describe the former colonies of European empires that nationalized their sovereignty. Prashad, Vijay. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New York: The New Press, 2008.

[2] Home Rule, p. 282.

[3] See Neil Braganza, “Decolonial Struggle and History: A Critical Commentary on Nandita Sharma’s Home Rule” in Spectre vol. 2, iss. 1 (Spring, 2021), pp. 98-106, p. 106.

[4] Home Rule, p. 208.

[5] Home Rule, p. 19.

[6] “Critical Commentary,” p. 100.

[7] “Critical Commentary,” pp. 100-101.

[8] “Critical Commentary,” p. 102.

[9] “Critical Commentary,” p. 104.

[10] “Critical Commentary,” p. 104.

[11] “Critical Commentary,” p. 103.

[12] “Critical Commentary,” pp. 103-104, and p. 105.

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