Anarchism, ethnicity, and culture: the uprisings of the indigenous

Part four in a series of articles discussing the anarchist movement as it relates to non-European peoples and cultures.

In the course of this article, I will be discussing struggles in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. This may be surprising given that each prior and coming part of this series deals with a specific geographical area in-depth. However, the reason that the struggles discussed in this article have not been incorporated into others is because they are specifically the struggles of indigenous peoples.

All across the world, indigenous peoples suffer considerable abuses of their rights. The exploitation of natural resources by multinational companies, the destruction of their environment, forced assimilation, and treatment as second-class citizens are amongst the injustices they face.

The purpose of this article is to discuss those injustices in greater depth, how they are being resisted, and where anarchist thought fits into the picture. However, before I go on, some basic explanations are due.

A question of definitions

The definition of the term indigenous is a tricky one.

In the broadest possible definition, it refers to any nation or people which has the earliest known historical connection with the region they inhabit, often alongside more recent migrant populations.

However, this broad definition has been coopted and distorted by white nationalists in Europe. For example, the British National Party “use the term indigenous to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe.” Their use of the term as a justification for racial separatism form a part of the modern incarnation of scientific racism as invoked by the far-right.

In the specific case of Britain, the BNP’s idea of indigenous peoples is a nonsense. Responding to BNP leader Nick Griffin’s airing of these views on Question Time, Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, a geneticist at the University of Oxford, said that Griffin had twisted the  science to support his politics;

He talks about ‘indigenous’ because he can’t talk about black or white. He’s missed the point of the genetics in terms of his perspective that he can determine who is indigenous British. All British people are immigrants.

As Bonnie Greer pointed out, the original Britons were Neanderthals. They were exterminated, then the Ice Age left a clean sheet. The modern population is essentially of north Iberian origin. So what’s British?

The history of conflicts and migrations across Europe, especially the Völkerwanderung of 300-700 AD, makes the singling out of more than a couple of indigenous groups across the continent an exercise in futility. Thus the pseudoscience of the white nationalists is rendered null and void.

Moreover, the definition of “indigenous” in practical use – such as in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – is much more strictly defined. An indigenous people is not only that “nation or people which has the earliest known historical connection with the region they inhabit,” but also “a politically underprivileged group, who share a similar ethnic identity different to the nation in power, and who have been an ethnic entity in the locality before the present ruling nation took over power.”

It is in this sense that I write now of the uprisings of the indigenous.

The ongoing legacy of colonialism and imperialism

From the 15th Century onwards, the colonial ventures of the great European powers in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific had a profound impact. Historical imperialism resulted in territorial and cultural conflict, and the intentional or unintentional displacement and devastation of the indigenous populations. For example, Spanish colonists effected the genocide of the Aztec, Inca, and other American peoples, whilst in the “scramble for Africa” European powers drew up almost entirely arbitrary borders which left post-colonial Africa with a legacy of instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism.

But colonialism and imperialism are not trends confined to the past. In Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah describes the modern format thus;

The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.

A format which John Perkins confirmed, from personal experience, in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man;

Like our counterparts in the Mafia, EHMs provide favors. These take the form of loans to develop infrastructure—electric generating plants, highways, ports, airports, or industrial parks. A condition of such loans is that engineering and construction companies from our own country must build all these projects. In essence, most of the money never leaves the United States; it is simply transferred from banking offices in Washington to engineering offices in New York, Houston, or San Francisco.Despite the fact that the money is returned almost immediately to corporations that are members of the corporatocracy (the creditor), the recipient country is required to pay it all back, principal plus interest. If an EHM is completely successful, the loans are so large that the debtor is forced to default on its payments after a few years. When this happens, then like the Mafia we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course, the debtor still owes us the money—and another country is added to our global empire.

For indigenous people, the negative effect of the neocolonial process, often referred to as globalisation, are particularly acute. As a report for the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG) states;

More than 5,000 distinct indigenous societies continue to exist today; most are eager to retain their ancestral lands, sovereignty, governance systems and economic, cultural and spiritual practices.

Though some have been impacted for centuries by the global reach of colonizing societies, all now face an ever more aggressive effort by global corporations and bureaucracies seeking access to the resources and lands that native peoples have protected for millennia, and on which they depend. Notable among the impacts are incursions by global corporations to exploit forests, minerals, oil, fish and wildlife, thus affecting the viability of native traditional livelihoods; development of giant infrastuctures like pipelines, dams, waterways, ports, roads bringing environmental damage to native lands; forced displacement of native populations to make way for industrial agriculture, or for transmigration and settlement of new populations; military interdictions; culturally devastating tourism; and bioprospecting by genetic scientists.

Most such projects have been encouraged or financed by institutions like the World Bank, WTO, or development banks and export credit agencies. All seek to separate indigenous peoples from control over their lands and resources, to feed the appetites of global trade and development interests.

The “mass media, NGOs, and most importantly, governments and agencies mandated to protect peoples and resources,” have largely ignored the struggles “by hundreds of indigenous groups to defend themselves against these incursions.” But, in a broad variety of forms, they do happen. Like broader movements of national liberation, they take every form from the revolutionary to the repressive and terroristic.

Terrorism versus armed resistance

In any movement, a line must be drawn between physical resistance to repression and outright terrorism. The former is a legitimate response to violence and terror by the state, whilst the latter is a surrender to the same violent authoritarianism supposedly being resisted.

A prime example of this latter camp amongst indigenous movements is ETA, the basque nationalist militia group. In their fight for an autonomous Basque country, the armed separatists have perpetrated attacks on journalists and academics who have openly spoke against their aims, as well as random car bombings which have left scores of civilians dead. Without a doubt, such attacks are acts of terrorism and to be condemned wholeheartedly.

Many other armed indigenous groups, such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) or the pirates of Somalia, are not terrorist organisations. They exist to resist exploitation and environmental destruction by outside influences and, though often riven by factionalism and corruption, they represent perhaps the best hope for their people at present, with the Somali pirates resistance to Islamist fighters being notable in this context.

Elsewhere, the Columbian Asociacion Minga looks to be the most viable radical alternative to the corrupt Marxist-Leninism of FARC as well as an important form of indigenous civil resistance.

However, by far the most potent example of a truly revolutionary indigenous resistance are the Zapatistas of Mexico. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was born in resistance to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, and are an anarchist organisation dedicated not only to armed struggle but also to building a free and democratic society through revolutionary action.

Their ideology is perhaps the most developed amongst indigenous rebels worldwide, built not just upon a single issue but around the much broader goal of anarchist communism. In the words of their main spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos;

We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.

The Zapatistas were unusual amongst armed groups in that, before their first uprising, they released documents which asserted the right of the people to resist any unjust actions they might take and “demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civil order or the disposition of capital relating to agriculture, commerce, finances, and industry, as these are the exclusive domain of the civil authorities, elected freely and democratically.” The people were urged to “acquire and possess arms to defend their persons, families and property, according to the laws of disposition of capital of farms, commerce, finance and industry, against the armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces or those of the government.”

Their formation of autonomous, direct-democratic municipalities, speaks of a deeply vested commitment to this idea. Whilst EZLN hosting an “Indigenous Intercontinental Conference” and declarations of solidarity with other struggling peoples offer a suggestion of the form a truly international, yet autonomous and voluntarily federated, revolutionary movement might look like.

Indigenous uprisings, like all other uprisings, must be autonomous. The oppressed must liberate themselves, and industrialised people cannot condescend to think they need to be led or guided in such an endeavour. However, in an increasingly connected world, solidarity is not only useful but vital to burgeoning movements. As long as it is on an equal footing, we must be ready to offer not only support but also constructive criticism based upon collective experience.

The Zapatistas show how the benefit of this experience can be mutual, and how the developed world has no monopoly on revolutionary instinct. Remembering that, it may be possible to build upon a form of international solidarity that inspires less ETAs and more Zapatistas.

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