This post contextualizes Idle No More by arguing that settlers benefit from colonialism, and that we (settlers) have a responsibility to confront it. Colonialism isn’t an ‘Indian problem;’ it’s a ‘settler problem:’ the problem is that we came, appropriated land, murdered and dominated peoples, settled, and never left.
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I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group
– Peggy McIntosh
This piece was originally written as a response to a local group that was accused of racism, and failed to address it. I updated it because I’ve heard lots of the same arguments about ‘equality’ and ‘divisiveness’ since then, and I wanted to revisit these arguments myself. Racism is thought to be a distraction, a divisive issue, or a prejudice held by ‘those people’ ‘out there’ (but not by me). For anyone who has spent a bunch of time reading about or working on anti-racism and white privilege, reading this might be a waste of your time. I’m not writing to anti-oppression activists; I’m writing to myself five or six years ago, when I believed in equality and fairness, and saw all this “identity” stuff as a distraction from the real change that needed to happen in the world (‘the economy,’ ‘the environment’).
I’m against equality when it comes to conversations about racism. Also, I’m racist. These are two statements that run against the grain of polite, liberal views on racism (especially among white people like me). White people love equality (when it suits us): everyone should be treated equally, and then we’d all have equal opportunities. I used to hold this view myself, and I think it needs to be challenged. Not only does it fail to address racism; it can reinforce and hide it. In fact, white supremacist groups throughout North America regularly use the language of equality to challenge any “special status” accorded to indigenous peoples or people of colour (“we should all be treated equally”). Racism is not just the way that people treat each other, based on the colour of their skin. Racism–like capitalism–is a structural system, and interpreting racism as simple prejudice merely hides this structure. It’s the equivalent of saying corporate capitalism is fine as long as we all treat each other with respect (this works out great for the guy with a yacht and two summer homes).
Lefty white people often have a structural analysis of capitalism: we talk about debt, consumer spending, elite control of the monetary system, all that stuff. But instead of seeing racism as something just as structured and deep-seated, it’s often dismissed as “identity politics” or a “distraction.” The politics of feminism, racism, and colonialism have been labelled as divisive for decades, often by white men who didn’t like challenges to their authority, were uncomfortable with new ways of organizing, and had no interest in acknowledging or working through their own white male privilege. The same thing plays out over and over: white folks get called out on racism and they respond with anger, defensiveness, and condescension. That this happens over and over just shows how deep-seated whiteness is: when white folks fall into these patterns, we are the worst kind of cliché. For radicals or progressives or people trying to transform our world and make it less shitty, this defensiveness isn’t just oppressive, it’s also strategically unsound, because all these forms of oppression are inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Rinku Sen says it better than I could:
While the racial dimension of the criminal justice system is obvious to many people, the movement to reform Wall Street may be less so. In economic justice, it is particularly tempting to ignore the links between race and poverty, as well as the profound influence of sexism and sexuality on economic hierarchies.
Everybody’s suffering, and these wedge issues are so often used to divide the working class that many activists lean toward a universal framework for making change. The problem with a universal framework is that what is dominant also gets called universal.
Racism, colonialism and heteropatriarchy are just as complex as capitalism, and they are tied up with that economic system. In Victoria, for instance, when capitalism started taking off in the later part of the 19th century, capitalists began enclosing land at a rapid rate. Local indigenous people were criminalized, forced out of the city and onto reservations, and became targets of genocide. In particular, indigenous women became subject to intensive policing and violence (and still are). Indigenous peoples had ties to the land, so enclosing land and making private property meant breaking these ties. The racist hierarchy and the Chinese head tax was absolutely central in creating a cheap labour pool for factories and infrastructure projects like the railroad. A patriarchal and racial hierarchy was created in Victoria and elsewhere in North America, with indigenous people and black people at the bottom, Asian people (sometimes above them) and white people at the top.
There were debates about the relative positions of the “red, yellow, black and brown” races, but of course the consensus was that white people were at the top. This is part of white supremacy: whiteness is associated with cleanliness, civility, goodness, intelligence, and progress. People of colour are associated disease, savagery, evil, stupidity, and backwardness. This hierarchy has been strengthened and reproduced not only by policy, but by popular culture. It has powerfully shaped Canadian consciousness, especially that of white people. And this racist, hierarchical structure is still around: indigenous people and people of colour are more often arrested and incarcerated in Canada. They are more often targets of violence and rape. White men are still the most common heroes and protagonists in TV and film. Today, racialized global apartheid and border imperialism divides families and communities into labour pools in accordance with the needs of capitalism (there’s a reason that temporary foreign workers come to Canada from the Global South, and not the other way around).
This actually-existing racism isn’t because of ‘prejudice;’ it’s because the racist structure of Canadian society (and global capitalism) is still intact, despite declarations that we’re all equal now. In some ways, structural racism has strengthened. Indigenous people are still denied access to and control over their territories, and their communities are the most frequent targets of environmental racism, where huge projects like the tarsands dump their toxic waste. White flight from cities has created ‘food deserts’ where communities of colour have no access to fresh food. Gentrification systematically pushes out poor people of colour to make room for white yuppies. These are not accidents, but they’re also not caused by a few bad racists either. They happen because mainstream North America is based on a racist, colonial, patriarchal, ecocidal and capitalist structure.
This structure is where white privilege comes from. It comes from a centuries-long process where policies, law, policing, popular culture, and economics have come together to systematically privilege white people. This racist structure hasn’t gone away just because Canada has declared that we’re all equal now, or because some people of colour are rich now. What this has done is make the racist structure harder to see and understand (especially for white people), creating the perception that “we’re all equal now” and generating anxieties that white people are now disadvantaged, because certain policies (like affirmative action) don’t treat everyone equally.
If you’re a white person who has been raised in mainstream Canadian society (like I am) then you’re racist. I’m racist. And I benefit from white privilege. That doesn’t mean I’m evil. It means I accept that racism is everywhere in our society; it’s the basis of “Canada;” it’s not some rare accident that happens every once in a while when I say the wrong thing. It has shaped my sense of who I am, how I relate to people, and how I deal with conflict. At my worst, when I’m embodying the cliché of whiteness, I’m entitled, defensive, guilt-ridden, and condescending.
A recent article by Sarah Milstein points to some of the ways that white people can address our own racism:
- Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless.
- If you feel defensive when talking about race with a woman of color or reading about race in a piece written by a woman of color, assume the other person is saying something especially true
- Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not.
The upshot of this structural understanding of racism is that it’s not the end of the world when I say something racist. That doesn’t let me off the hook; it means that it’s bound to happen, and what matters is how I address it, and learn from it, and make myself accountable to the folks pointing it out. Or alternatively: how I get defensive, argue, justify, explain my good intentions, and become the cliché of a white guy who can’t even acknowledge his own shit.
Acknowledging racism and being accountable when we’re called out is just a way to avoid being a giant asshole; it’s not a path towards an active, anti-racist politics. Because racism is a structure, it needs to be challenged structurally–‘out there’ as well as ‘in here.’ Saying that is easy, but this is way more complicated (and more demanding) than just avoiding white defensiveness.
A friend recently suggested that I should shut the fuck up about love and trust and radicalism and just embody those values, if I care about them so much. Maybe the same goes with racism and the other oppressive systems I benefit from: I need to struggle with them, and feel it, and dig deep into myself, and I’m much better at reading and writing and thinking. I’m becoming more and more ambivalent about my own writing on oppression and activism. It’s not that writing is useless, and we should all stop reflecting on practices, but does this reflective work do the unsettling, discomforting work we talk about, or are we narrating our own I-know-better-than-you-ness? Does this writing on structural racism end up creating more distance between ‘those people’ who don’t know yet and myself (who says he didn’t know before but now he does)? Smack-downs and quippy truths feel good, but if unlearning racism is about discomfort, maybe my words should be less comfortable (this paragraph was the hardest to write). How can white folks write and talk and learn about racism collectively, and fumble around together, rather than setting ourselves as up as teachers or knowers or allies?
I’m not an active anti-racist organizer, and that fact makes me uncomfortable too. It’s even more uncomfortable to disclose it publicly, while writing about racism. But there are lots of inspiring, ongoing conversations and resources from experienced organizers:
My partner just showed this manarchist questionnaire to me–a great list of questions for radical men to reflect on. “Manarchist” is basically a term for anarchist men embodying patriarchy, in activism and in everyday life. There are extremes (the man who takes up all the space at meetings, cracks sexist jokes, takes no responsibility, etc) but these questions get at some of the more subtle ways men can embody or reproduce patriarchy. The questions certainly helped me reflect on some of my own patterns of behaviour…
This was originally posted on Infoshop News in 2001, but the formatting was annoying, so I cleaned it up and reposted below:
ARE YOU A MANARCHIST QUESTIONNAIRE
1. Do you ascribe to either:
A) Passive-Aggressive Patriarchy:” (often come across as a victim/helpless/in need/dependent and get women in your life to be your physical and emotional caretakers? to buy you things? to take care of your responsibilities? pick up your slack? use guilt or manipulation to get out of your responsibilities and equal share of the work? do you treat your female partner like a “mom” or your secretary?)
B) “Aggressive Patriarchy:” (Do you often take charge? Assume that a woman can’t do something right so you do it for her? Believe that only you can take care of things? Think that you always have the right answer? Treat your female partner like she’s helpless, fragile, a baby or weak? Do you put down your partner or minimize her feelings? Do you belittle her opinions?)
2. How do you react when women in your life name something or someone as patriarchal or sexist? Do you think of her or call her a “PC Thug,” “Feminazj,” “Thin-skinned,” “Overly-Sensitive,” a “COINTELPRO-esque” or “Un-fun?”
3. Do you see talking about patriarchy as non-heroic, a waste of time, trouble making, or divisive?
4. If a woman asks your opinion, do you assume she must not know anything
about the subject?
5. Do you believe that women have “natural characteristics” which are Inherent in our sex such as “passive,” “sweet,” “caring,” “nurturing,” “considerate,” “generous,” “weak,” or “emotional?”
6. Do you make fun of “typical” men or “frat boys” but not ever check yourself to see if you behave in the same ways?
7. Do you take on sexism and patriarchy as a personal struggle working to fight against it in yourself, in your relationships, in society, work, culture, subcultures, and institutions?
8. Do you say anything when other men make sexist or patriarchal comments? Do you help your patriarchal and sexist friends to make change and help educate them? Or do you continue friendships with patriarchal and sexist men and act like there is no problem.
9. As a. man, is being a. feminist a priority to you? Do you see being
a feminist as revolutionary or radical?
10. Do you think that you define what is radical? Do you suffer from or contribute to macho bravado” or ‘subpoena envy? (I.e. defining a true or “cool” and respectable activist as someone who has: been arrested, done lockdowns, scaled walls, hung banners, done time for their actions argued or fought with police, done property alterations, beat up nazi boneheads, etc.)?
11. Do you take something a woman said, reword it and claim it as your own idea/opinion?
12. Are you taking on the “shit” or “grunt” work in your organizing? (i.e.: Cooking. cleaning. set up, clean up phone calls, email lists, taking notes, doing support work, sending mailings, providing childcare?) Are you aware of the fact. that women often are taking on this work with no regard or for their efforts?
13. Do you take active step to make your activist groups safe and comfortable places for women?
14. If you are trying to get more women involved in your activist projects, do you try to engage them by telling them what’ to do or why they should join your group?
15. Do you ever find yourself monitoring and limiting your behavior and speech in meetings and activist settings because you don’t want’ to take up too much space or dominate the group? Are you aware of the fact that women do this all the time?
16. Do you pay attention to group process and consensus building in groups or do you tend to dominate and take charge (maybe without even realizing it)?
Sexual/Romantic Relationships and Issues
17. Do you make jokes or negative comments about the sex lives of women
or sex work?
18. Can you only show affection and be loving to your partner in front of friends and family or only in private?
19. Do you discuss the responsibility for preventing contraception and
getting STD screening prior to sexual contact?
20. Do you repeatedly ask or plead with women for what you want in
sexual situations? Are you aware that unless this is a mutually consented upon scenario/game that this is considered a form of coercion?
21. During sex, do you pay attention to your partner’s face and body language to see if she is turned on? Engaged, or just lying there? Do you ask a woman who she wants during sex? What turns her on?
22. Do you ask for consent?
23. Do you know if your partner has a sexual abuse, rape, or physical abuse history?
24. Do you stay with your partner in a relationship for comfort and
security? Sex? Financial or emotional caretaking? If you’re not completely happy or “in love” with your partner anymore? Even though you don’t think it will ultimately work out? Because you’re afraid or unable to be alone? Do you suddenly end relationships when a “new” or “better” woman comes along?
25. Do you jump from relationship to relationship? Overlap them? Or do you take space and time for yourself in between each relationship to reflect on the relationship and your role in it? Do you know how to be alone? How to be single?
26. Do you cheat on your partners?
27. If your girlfriend gets on your case for patriarchal behavior or wants to try to work on the issues of patriarchy in your relationship, do you creak up with her or cheat on her and find another woman who will put up with your shit?
28. Do you agree to romantic commitment and responsibility and then back out of these situations?
29. Do you understand menstruation?
30. Do you make fun of women or write them off as “PMS-ING?”
31. Do you tend to set the standard and plans for fun or do you work with the others in the group, including women to see what they want to do?
32. Do you talk to your female friends about things you don’t talk to your male friends about especially emotional issues?
33. Do you constantly fall in love with your female friends Are you friends with women until you find out that they are not in love with you too and then end the friendships? Are you only friends with women who are in monogamous or committed relationships with other people?
34. Do you come on to your female friends even jokingly?
35. Do you only talk to your female friends (and not your male friends) about your romantic relationships or problems in those relationships?
36. Do you find yourself only attracted to “Anarcho-Crusty Punk Barbie”, Alterna-Grrrl Barbie,” or Hardcore-Grrrl Barbie?” (The idea here being that the only women you arc attracted to fit mainstream beauty standards but just dress and do their hair alternatively and maybe have piercings and tattoos) Do you question and challenge your internalized ideals of mainstream beauty ideals for women?
37. Have you ever heard of or discussed “sizeism” and do you think it is low on the oppression scale?
38. Are you aware of the fact that ALL WOMEN, even women in radical communities, live under the CONSTANT PRESSURE and OPPRESSION of mainstream patriarchal beauty standards?
39. Are you aware of the fact that many women in radical communities have had and are currently dealing with eating disorders?
40. Do you make fun of “model-types” or “mainstream” women for their appearance?
41. When was the last time you walked into your house, noticed that something was misplaced/dirty/etc. AND did something about it (didn’t just walk by it, over it, away from it or leave a nasty note about it) even if it wasn’t your chore or responsibility?
42. Are you constantly amazed by the magical “food fairy” who mysteriously acquires food, brings it home, puts it away, prepares it in meal form and then cleans up afterwards?
43. Do you contribute equally to domestic life and work?
44. How many of the following activities do you contribute to in your home (this is a partal list of what it takes to run a household):
- Sweep and mop floors and clean carpets
- Wash and put away dishes
- Clean stove, countertops, sinks and appliances if they are messy and each time after you have prepared food
- Collect money, do food shopping, put away food and make meals for people you live with
- Do house laundry (kitchen towels, bathroom hand towels, washable rugs, etc.)
- Clean up common room spaces, even if it’s not your chore
- Pick up other’s slack
- Deal with garbage, recycling, and compost
- Take care of bills, rent, utilities
- Deal with the landscaping and gardening
- Clean bathrooms and make sure bathroom is clean after you use it
- Feed, clean up after, and take care of housepets
Children and Childcare
45. Do you spend time with kids? If you do, do you spend time with children (yours or anyone’s) in a way that is gendered? (do certain things with boys and other things with girls?
46. If you are a father, do you CO-parent your children? (Spend equal time AND energy AND effort AND money to raise them)?
47. Do you make childcare a priority? (at both activist events and in daily life)?
48. Do you help make the lives of single mothers in your life and community easier by finding out if and how you can assist?
49. Have you politicized your ideas about child rearing and parenthood radical communities? Do you believe that individuals who are in the movement have children or that the movement has children?
50. When was the last time you showed a woman how to do a task rather than doing it for her and assuming she couldn’t do it?
51. When was the last time you asked a woman to show you how to do a task?
52. Do you get emotional needs met by other women, whether or not you are in a romantic relationship with them? Or do you cultivate caring, nurturing relationships with other men in which you can discuss your feelings and get your needs met by them?
53. If a woman discusses with you or calls you out on your patriarchy, do you make an effort to be emotionally present? Listen? Not emotionally shut down? Not get defensive? Think about what she said? Admit you fucked up? Take responsibility/make reparations for the mistakes you made? Discuss your feelings and ideas with her? Apologize? Work harder on your own shit to make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes again with her or other women?
54. Do you look inside yourself to find out why you fucked up in these relationships and work to both change your behavior and be a better anti-patriarchy ally in the future?
55. Do you organize regular house meetings or activist meetings to resolve conflict in the house/group?
56. Do you use intimidation, yelling, getting in someone’s physical space, threats or violence to get your point across? Do you create and atmosphere or violence around women or others to threaten them (i.e.: throw things, break things, yell and scream, threaten, attack, tease or terrorize the animals or pets of women in your life)?
57. Do you physically, psychologically, or emotionally abuse women?
58. Do the women in your life (mothers, sisters, partners, housemates, friends, etc.) have to “remind” you or “nag” you or “yell” at you in order for you to get off your ass and take care of your responsibilities?
59. Do you talk to other men about patriarchy and your part in it?
60. When was the last time you thought about or talked about any of these issues other than after reading this questionnaire?
Scoring: ALL MEN need to work on issues of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. However, this questionnaire may point out to you areas of particular focus or concentration for your own anti-patriarchal/sexist/misogynist process and development.
Check out this short essay by Scott Morgensen on settler desires for indigenous lands… he implicates permaculture, New Age spirituality, and other “alternative” settler cultures in the desire to appropriate indigenous land and cultures.
He also gets challenged by another settler, who argues for the importance of connecting to land and place. Morgensen’s clarification: “If you practice your life in a directly accountable relationship to the Indigenous nation whose stolen land you occupy, then your effort to learn and live an indigenous relationship to that land may be in line with the work of Indigenous decolonization. You would only know if this is so if the people whose stolen lands you occupy tell you so. You can’t determine this for yourself, because you are the colonizer.”
I’ve been working through these issues myself, especially now that I’m back in school researching food sovereignty and other alternative food movements in North America. I haven’t gone very far yet, but what’s immediately clear is the absolute lack of writing and thinking about the relationship between settler food movements and colonialism. There’s some writing about indigenous food sovereignty, and writing about ‘food justice’ that addresses institutional racism, but very little (actually pretty much nothing) that I’ve read has sought to address the challenge that Morgensen is raising here to settler alternative food movements.
By Scott Morgensen, Unsettling Ourselves
My presentation to the Dakota Decolonization class echoed my broader teaching and writing by centering the principles of Indigenous feminist thought and its ties to women of color and Third World feminism. Andrea Smith in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005) writes that colonization and heteropatriarchy inherently interlink, so that opposition to one requires opposition to the other. Her Indigenous feminist argument links to the principle of intersectionality in women of color and Third World feminisms, which appears in the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977) in the claim that “all the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”
I learned to commit to these principles by investigating and challenging the power and privilege that structure my life as a white, educationally-privileged, US American male, non-transgender and (temporarily) able-bodied. My lifelong experience as a queer person who has suffered from…
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Queen’s student newspaper just published a ‘debate’ about abortion. In a recurring pattern of anti-choice discourse, the fundamental point they make is: it’s good that we’re having debate; it doesn’t matter whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice; what matters is that you’re “pro-dialogue.” Great point. For too long, men like me have had our opinions about women’s bodies muzzled. And there are other debates that have been silenced, too. You know, like whether I should be able to enslave and own people, or whether women are actually human beings. There are all kinds of great debates to be enlivened that could help shore up white male privilege and fuck over everyone else. And to everyone else: it doesn’t matter what side you’re on; what matters is that you’re “pro-dialogue.”
The power of the anti-choice movement is its capacity to frame abortion as something that should be debated, and as something that is fundamentally about children and human life (and only secondarily about women’s bodies). And this is its great trap: by staking out a ‘position,’ it invites civilized debate from the ‘other side’. And when women (and men) tear apart the assumptions of anti-choice discourse, point to its misogynist and patriarchal assumptions, or engage with it in other ways, the reply from anti-choice advocates is: great. That’s what we are looking for: some dialogue. We need to keep this dialogue going; that’s what’s important. Like someone threatening to beat the shit out of you, and when you tell them to fuck off, they thank you for continuing the dialogue about the complex issue of whether you should get your shit kicked in.
The City of Vancouver just announced that it will lease land to private developers in hopes of creating more affordable rental housing in the City. This is part of a broader set of tax breaks and other incentives that aims to get developers to build more affordable housing in Vancouver.
Plans like these are pretty standard in North American cities: they aim to use municipal dollars and municipal policies (like tax regulations and zoning) in hopes of getting developers to create “below-market housing.” Developers usually won’t build cheap rental housing themselves, because it’s more profitable to build expensive rental or condos. In this case, the new units probably won’t be affordable to people living in poverty even if they’re “below market,” since past developments have cost as much as $2000 for a 2-bedroom apartment. Worse, these new developments often promote gentrification, as existing tenants are forced out for renovations (known as renovictions) and the new, swanky, “affordable” units are affordable for yuppies. Observers have complained that:
The city grants permits for renoviction and demolition almost every day and is giving no hint that it will change its “revitalization” agenda for the city’s most affordable areas… Vision has failed time and time again because they continue to call on the private development industry to solve the affordability crisis.
But Vancouver actually has a history of far more creative, grassroots, and affordable housing creation. In the 1970s and 80s, East Vancouver residents organized to create housing that met the needs of existing residents.
In the 1960s, the Strathcona Area of Vancouver (in East Van) was slated for “redevelopment.” The City of Vancouver had decided that the working-class, primarily Asian neighbourhood was a “blight” and that the City should create public housing projects.
So it began expropriating people’s houses and bulldozing them as part of its “Urban Renewal” plans. In the first phase alone, an estimated 860 residents were displaced–the majority were of Chinese descent. This wasn’t a coincidence, as Asian people and other people of colour were (and often still are) conceived as part of social and economic decay. Nowadays, the City pays developers to “revitalize neighbourhoods” instead. Developers usually won’t build anything unless they can expect a whopping 20% profit margin, so cities like Vancouver are basically paying developers to make huge profits evicting and displacing people.
Strathcona area residents organized themselves and fought back. As part of a whole network of grassroots actions, campaigns, and institutions, they formed SPOTA, the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association, as a way to pressure the City to stop the evictions. SPOTA also became a vehicle to propose and create alternative housing developments that were envisioned and developed by the residents themselves. They created and disseminated their own literature, they had a structure of block captains to organize every city block of Strathcona, they held multilingual meetings with translators, and they used a whole array of protests, lobbying, direct actions, dinners, and other strategies to stop (many of) the evictions and create alternative models of affordable housing that would meet the needs of the people actually living in the neighbourhood.
In the 70s and 80s, SPOTA helped envision, fund and build projects like the Mau Dan Gardens Housing Cooperative, along with Strathcona Area Housing Society (SAHS).
These kinds of housing alternatives have major advantages over City-owned and privately-owned developments. First of all, the cooperative structure means that residents themselves participate in the governance and decision-making of the housing. Secondly, they’re insulated from the whims of developers and right-wing governments. Even if a progressive municipality builds a bunch of City housing, it can be sold off by a right-wing regime a decade later (or leased out to private developers, like Vancouver is doing now). Finally, when communities partner with non-profit developers, it cuts private developers (and their 20% margins) out of the picture.
This non-profit cooperative model was never perfect. Some of these cooperatives have since closed down, for a variety of reasons. And some of their major sources of money (such as funding and financing from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation) have dried up. But grassroots cooperative housing had major advantages over both public and private developers, and they could be happening again in Vancouver. Here are some concrete things the City could (and should) be doing differently:
– Provide funding for existing residents to create housing solutions that actually work for them. SPOTA and SAHS were organized by residents themselves, and it would be easy for non-profit-sector housing to become a new force of gentrification if it isn’t directly accountable to marginalized communities. Existing residents already know what kind of housing they need, and municipal governments can provide financial resources, technical expertise, and the same slew of incentives they’re currently offering to private developers.
– Create and strengthen non-profit developers, non-profit construction companies, and non-profit financing. Here’s how the status quo of housing development works: if the City hires a private developer, they lose 20-30% to profit margins. If they hire a construction company directly instead, they lose 10-15% to profit margins, and another 5-10% to banks (since they usually need financing). At each step of the day, housing development (whether renovation or construction) is made way more expensive because all these private interests are profiting. If the City helped create non-profit alternatives, they could collaborate with them without getting exploited, and cut private profit out of the picture.
– Help form housing co-operatives, lease City land to them, help them secure low-interest financing (and grants and funding from BC Housing), and help them build or renovate housing at low cost (non-profit construction). The City already owns a bunch of land (which it’s about to hand over to private developers), and it could collaborate with residents instead of renovicting.
This might sound pretty grand, but these kinds of things can be pursued on a whole variety of different scales, in different places, with different timelines. For example, the City could partner with credit unions like Vancity to get low-interest financing, use that money to buy houses that are already tenanted, and turn them over to a Community Land Trust (a non-profit housing entity). In many cases, even given current over-inflated housing prices, the CLT would be able to lease the houses back to the tenants at the same price as they currently pay in rent (or rent them back for cheaper). No big subsidies, no evictions, no new building. How? By cutting profit out of the picture: no private developers, landlords, or banks.
In fact, these non-profit housing initiatives don’t even need the City of Vancouver’s “Vision” to move forward, at least not necessarily: they could be spearheaded by existing community groups, as they initially were in Strathcona a few decades ago (although the municipality’s money, zoning power, tax breaks, and bureaucratic expertise would certainly help).
None of these alternatives require a ton of government money, so the City of Vancouver wouldn’t have to increase taxes on developers or property owners (not that they shouldn’t, but that’s a different story). In the current neoliberal age, where cities are terrified of raising taxes and pander to private developers in an attempt to attract capital, these kinds of alternatives can help stem the tide of gentrification, privatization, and displacement that are sweeping cities all over the world. These non-profit models won’t solve these problems, but they’re actually possible right now, without changes to legislation or policy, or a massive influx of money, or any other big obstacles that tend to stymie affordable housing. But as the City has clearly shown, these alternatives won’t happen on their own: they’ll likely require creative, well-organized, grassroots action. Otherwise, the City’s “Vision” is clear: public-private partnerships, renovictions, displacement, and gentrification.
I haven’t posted anything in quite some time, but a friend started a new blog on politics and shit, so here’s their latest post:
Have you seen the Matrix at least 5 times? Ok, good. How about Inception: at least twice right? Ok, now how about Fight Club? Just joking. All you need to know about capitalism and ideology you can learn from the Matrix and Inception. Fight Club just made 20-yr-old men look stupid for a decade (and it’s still happening in Vegas: believe me, I was there last month), and has the dubious honour of being the most stupid of the Hollywood ‘counter-hegemonic’ films of the 90s, alongside better stuff like Thelma&Louise and the Matrix. It sucks for a lot of the same reasons Avatar sucked in the 2000s, as films that were carried by images of resistance but ultimately confirmed a range of typical white male fantasies and made the (white male) audience feel comfortable with their stupid lives: they had consumed radical politics; and it went down fine (everyone else just felt alienated and repressed it or incorporated into their constrained identity, as usual). So, if Fight Club and Avatar are the reactionary myths of the 90s and 2000s, effectively wearing and emptying out traditional left symbols of resistance, they can tell us a few things about how capitalism works (by incorporating and re-deploying everything in it’s field including it’s apparent opponents, and particularly the appearances of it’s apparent opponents). But that’s not that interesting. What’s more interesting is what differences between the Matrix and Inception can tell us about deep-seated shifts in capitalist subjectivity (or the experience of the self as we’re shaped by capitalist institutions, habits and processes), in the west, in that crazy shift between the 90s and 2000s. Hint: this is where the groundlessness in the title comes in.
That Portlandia can raise the 90s as a moment of radicalism and counter-culture to the point of a joke, as the basis of a TV show, points to some general acceptance of this idea (which is weird but awesome). The truths pointed out in Portlandia are startling: they helped me notice, for example, that the fashion markers for hip young men these days draws from the 1880s while hip young women draw from the 1980s. A fashion separation of a century between hip young men and women: what could it mean? Get real: that’s funny, not interesting! What IS interesting is that we are now getting far enough from the 90s to see how different we have become, and some of this can be seen in the warnings in various 90s preoccupations. Remember irony? This ironic (self-aware) reflection on irony (as some form of disparity between what is said/meant, done/intended, etc) was a big deal in the 90s. It doesn’t matter that Alanis Morisette’s ‘awesome’ song doesn’t really give a single good example of irony (it figures: as it happens, the potential of this song was fully realized by a committed absurdist). What matters is that, for some reason, people were preoccupied with the experience of irony. Looking back, it’s kind of ironic that we thought we were into irony because meaning and authenticity had already been completely dissipated in a capitalist culture that had just won the cold war (what one total idiot called the ‘end of history’), when in fact we were mourning the loss of a welfare state mediation of capitalism that wasn’t quite gone yet. You might say that we could only be concerned about irony back then because we had an awareness of loss that permitted us to mourn, and encouraged us to take up irony as one way of protecting ourselves against this brutal knowledge. It we don’t worry as much about irony now, it’s because we’ve already lost the markers of meaning that could permit us to understand that something’s been lost, and to have a sense of mourning that causes us to be anxious about this loss. In the 90s, we could obsess about the loss of care and hope because we still had enough care and hope to notice it was depleting. If, in the 2000s, we don’t talk much about care or hope, it’s because we don’t know what it is enough to know that it’s missing. And that’s exactly why Inception is the ONLY hollywood movie from this decade that permits us to understand something about ourselves as we are shaped by current relations of capitalism. Yeah, that’s right: that’s where the title comes in. But first more about the Matrix (the first one: the other two were video games).
SO, the Matrix blew the lid off capitalist ideology by pointing directly at it. You think you’re sitting in this theatre having a great time, BUT in reality you’re a meat-sac battery cell for a rational-instrumental machine whose sole concern is its own longevity and reproduction. It was right, and everyone knew it, and that’s why it was good. It was right because it described the experience of many in the 90s: holy shit, it was 1999, the reality of multinational corporations and global capital were just beginning to be understood (APEC 1997, Carnival Against Capitalism/WTO, 1999), as was the big unknown of the ascendence of the world-wide-web, the welfare state was just in the final stages of being completely dismantled (the tipping point in Canada was around 1996), and everyone was talking about it. The ‘true’ reality was clear once you ate the little pill (ie. watched the Matrix), and you could ‘choose’ reality over the fantasy (only the weak refused reality), with a clear enemy and some clear tools to battle with. OK, that was capitalism and capitalist subjectivity in the 90s. It may have been grounded in nostalgia for things that were imperfect and not quite gone (which some people aren’t that into: left nationalism, welfare state, big labour, etc), but it was pretty good.
Now, you’re saying: why Inception? It’s not even a resistance movie like all the other ones you’ve mentioned so far. That’s right. In the 2000s, in the dying and increasingly irrelevant west, resistance isn’t the issue (this is why Avatar truly missed the point and ended up supporting the imperialist patriarchal racist able-ist order it appeared to challenge). Finding your ground is. And that’s why it can tell us something helpful about ourselves, and the hard work we’re going to have to do if we even want to have the chance to think about something so straightforward and quaint as resistance.
Hey, you win if you made it to the end and realized there’s no ending…this is a work in progress: check wrenching.wordpress.com for more!
Here’s a piece I wrote for the latest issue of No Fun City!, a new publication on music, art, and politics in Victoria. The second issue is now available for FREE at Camas Books, and this issue is even better than the first one.
Also, we’re gonna be discussing colonialism this Wednesday, 7pm, at a workshop at Camas Books. Get the details here.
Of Monarchist Demons and Manarchist Angels
I’ve been a Settler on Coast Salish territory for almost four years now. Lots of Settlers here in Victoria are thinking about colonialism as a problem, and trying to think through their relationships and obligations to Indigenous peoples, the history of colonization, and what all that means for Settlers like me. Colonialism shifts from an “Indian problem” to a “Settler problem.” For me that’s encouraging, because I’ve never lived in a place where colonialism is actually something discussed and debated, where Settlers see colonialism as a problem that involves us. That said, I think there are some sedimented habits that have been built up, and not just among people who haven’t thought about colonialism. A lot of what follows is a reflection on my own learning about colonialism: I started out as a monarchist, became a manarchist, and now I’m trying to be neither.
“I would like to acknowledge the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations in whose traditional territories we live and work.” The mayor of Victoria acknowledges Indigenous territory in his speeches. Let’s call this the monarchist response to colonialism: say the right names, mouth the right words, move on. Civilized political correctness. Don’t call them Indians anymore; call them First Nations, aboriginals, or Indigenous peoples, and everything will be OK. The mayor is not the only one: monarchism is everywhere, including radical communities. I’ve been to dozens of meetings where we take 25 seconds to solemnly acknowledge territories, and then get on with the agenda, never to mention colonialism again.
The monarchist response to colonialism is dull and empty, glossing over colonialism so that we can get on with our business. In radical circles, monarchism is often rejected in favour of bright, shining, righteousness: proper anti-colonialism. Denounce colonialism, express solidarity, and make sure everyone sees you doing it. Condescend and correct people who aren’t aware. This is the manarchist response to colonialism: carve out a space of moral purity, command others to enter, bash those who don’t, educate those who do.
The monarchist and the manarchist aren’t people. They’re positions that people take up, often unconsciously. We become possessed by colonial demons (or anti-colonial angels). The monarchist helps us brush past colonialism in a civilized way, and the manarchist helps turn anti-colonialism into a badge of honour that raises us above ordinary Settlers who don’t recognize the Truth.
As Settlers, we all have some monarchist in us, and the manarchist is always waiting to take over and proclaim a revelation. White, European-descended Settlers are more prone to being possessed by both forces. The manarchist possesses men more often than women. I find myself possessed by the manarchist more times than I’d like to admit.
The monarchist is the official demon of Victoria, helping to ensure that we’re all respectful and civilized. The manarchist proclaims that he’s been exorcized: now he sees things clearly. But if you’ve seen a manarchist in action, you know he’s just as predictable as the monarchist: a pious angel come to reveal our sins and show us The Way. Usually white, usually a man, always sure of himself.
These metaphors of angels and demons are a way of naming two, contradictory ways of relating to colonialism. They seem opposed, but they actually reinforce each other. Both have become deeply ingrained habits, and both make it difficult to have meaningful conversations about colonialism, let alone take meaningful action.
I’m doing my best to ward off the manarchism as I write this, so I don’t have any solutions to this problem. But I’ve been inspired by a few folks I’ve met who seem to have found different ways of relating to colonialism, who seem to have escaped angels and demons, and I think there are some common traits:
Vulnerability and accountability: these folks have cultivated a way of having conversations about colonialism where they don’t set themselves up as the ones with the Truth. It doesn’t mean that they don’t challenge colonial attitudes; it means they do it in a way that opens conversation and questions, rather than shutting them down. They make it clear that they’re questioning, they’re doing their own learning, and they haven’t figured it out. They’re also open to being challenged, by Indigenous people and Settlers, and they learn more because folks feel like it’s safe to challenge them.
Individual and collective education: they’ve dedicated time learning about colonialism by themselves and with others. They’ve tried to understand the history of colonialism, how it works, and what that means for us today. But they don’t hold this knowledge over other people, and they’ve found ways of sharing it that are humble, making colonialism into a massive open-ended problem rather than an issue of guilt or truth. One example of this in Victoria is the “Free Knowledge Project:” a popular education project on the relationship between anthropology, colonialism, and the Canadian legal system.
Patience and courage: they actively seek out conversations about colonialism in unlikely places, with their families, friends, workplaces, and other spaces where those conversations don’t normally happen. And they approach new conversations with compassion, even if they’ve heard the same colonial responses (“we can’t go back” – “it’s not my fault” – “it’s human nature”) a hundred times before. If people are unreceptive or dismissive, they don’t reject them as colonizers; they see the intervention as part of a long process, and leave space for future conversations.
Those aren’t instructions or answers; just behaviours in others that have inspired me because they confront colonialism while avoiding manarchist tendencies. The manarchist often drowns out these folks, because Righteousness and Truth are a lot louder than uncertainty and vulnerability. I think that’s a major reason why so many people have walked away from the problem of colonialism in Victoria: they have only encountered the manarchist, and they don’t want to be his disciple. Manarchism is simpler than vulnerability. It’s easier to have a radical anti-colonial circle-jerk than to engage with monarchists who might be angry or dismissive.
But colonialism relies on the monarchists to perpetuate itself. Willing Settlers are required to destroy SPAET (Bear Mountain), to continue consuming and gentrifying, and to build Enbridge’s pipeline. And monarchists are immune to manarchists: they become even more convinced that colonialism is inevitable and people resisting it are ridiculous. This is not a call to shower colonizers with peace and love. Clear opposition and intense conflict is always part of struggles against colonialism. But the manarchist leaves no space for monarchists or front-line colonizers to become unsettled, to start questioning things, or to have conversations without knowing where they’ll lead. All the more reason to refuse angels and demons, and work on developing alternatives to both.
Eating Our Way to a Better World? A Plea to Local, Fair-Trade, and Organic Food Enthusiasts | Common Dreams
My belly is full. It seems no matter how hard I try to “eat my way to a better world”, that world never materializes. The organic and fair-trade industries are booming, Farmers Markets are the new norm, the word “locavore” was added to the Oxford Dictionary, and Michelle Obama even planted a White House garden. But agribusiness continues to consolidate power and profit, small farmers worldwide are being dispossessed in an unprecedented global land grab, over a billion people are going hungry, and agriculture’s contributions to climate change are increasing. It’s not just that change is slow, but we actually seem to be moving in the opposite direction than alternative food movements are trying to take us.
What is going on? How are we to understand this apparent paradox, and the seeming failure of our food activism? While the answers are not clear or easy, we can start by considering the main form our political action is taking, and where it is (and isn’t) getting us.
The slogan “vote with your fork” has become the hallmark of food movements. From Michael Pollan and Food Inc. to the vast majority of non-profit materials circulating on the internet and in grocery stores, we are empowered by the belief that we can change the world every time we take a bite. This idea of “ethical consumption” stems from classical market fundamentalism, which tells us that the market is a democracy where every dollar gives the right to vote. According to this logic, the social makeup is a result of interactions between billions of individual decisions, where markets simply respond to consumer desires and consumption is the primary arena of citizenship. Thus, to consume is to be political — to be good, participatory citizens.
Yet, buying “ethical” food does nothing to address the basic political economic structures that underly the destructive global food system. It doesn’t challenge corporate power, just re-orients it towards new niche markets. It doesn’t address the trade and subsidy policies that create inequality and hunger, or the privitization of our common genetic wealth, or the massive wave of farmland enclosures. While it may be an attempt to opt-out of supporting that food system, our vote of no confidence doesn’t do much to actually change that system. To illustrate further — even if we tripled the purchase of organics overnight, we will have done nothing to address the industrialization and corporatization of organics, or the erosion of standards to allow for all sorts of ecologically destructive practices in what is supposed to be a sustainable form of agriculture. Further, the majority of farmworkers will still be exposed to agricultural chemicals that we know are sentencing them to cancer, as we all continue to drink those chemicals in our water.
The logic of market fundamentalism that underlies much food activism essentially obscures socioeconomic structures and deflects responsibility away from the state and other regulatory institutions. Furthermore, it individualizes activism by making it about personal consumer choices. This can have the dangerous effect of starving collective political action and identities built upon common struggle.
In its worst forms, the idea of ethical consumption renders the unjustifiable gluttony of developed-world consumerism justifiable. It’s OK that we drive hummers, because we are driving to the farmers market! People can continue to consume with pleasure from a “guilt-free menu”, leaving untouched uncomfortable questions about how our lifestyles contribute more broadly to vast inequalities. In some instances, the idea of ethical consumerism does more to comfort and accommodate the individual eater, and thus solidify the structures of the current food system, than to actually challenge it.
“…if we confine our action to the small-scale, the most we can hope to achieve is small isolated ponds of fresh food for privileged consumers in an ocean of food injustices.”
Most of us are aware that alternative food movements have created a plethora of niche marketing opportunities that have been skillfully capitalized on by corporate food giants — that organics and fair trade have been largely coopted (often to the determinant of more pure organic farming and small-scale direct fair-trade schemes), and that even Wal-Mart is profiting from “local” branding. But we still seem to be relying on the mechanisms and logics that are implicated in the problems we are trying to correct — namely, markets and capitalism.
Capitalism prevents corporations from prioritizing anything above profit. Capitalism always tends towards the concentration of wealth and power. It requires dispossession and ever-expanding markets, and the subordination of all aspects of life to capital. While our efforts to develop local economy alternatives may be based on a desire to re-embed economies in systems of social and moral relations, we need to remember that exploitation is the prevailing logic of capitalism. Until we start actually talking about capitalism, and defining and creating alternatives that directly confront its logics, our alternatives will always be constrained and shaped by it. Let me re-state this a little differently — while we need to imagine and build alternative ways of producing and distributing food, if they do not subvert the logics of capitalism, they will be subsumed by them.
This necessarily means challenging structures and forces that do not reside at the local level. The local has become the predominant space of action in alternative food movements largely because it is seen as the site to try alternatives, and to counter trends towards globalized, industrialized, commodity-trade oriented agriculture. While this is an important aspect of resistance, we also need to be mindful of tendencies to use questions of scale to sidestep the more fundamental matters of power and capital. Further, if we confine our action to the small-scale, the most we can hope to achieve is small isolated ponds of fresh food for privileged consumers in an ocean of food injustices.
On the topic of capitalist exploitation, something needs to be said about food system workers — the people who grow, process, transport, sell and serve our food — and their striking invisibility in alternative food movements. While we talk a lot about “supporting farmers”, we rarely ask questions about farmworkers, and much less about the people working in dangerous and sweat-shop like food processing factories or the underpaid grocery clerks. It’s estimated that 86 percent of food system workers in the US don’t make enough to live, and that they use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the country’s workforce. By failing to put food system workers at the center of the conversation about sustainability and justice in the food system, the movement effectively marginalizes working-class, non-white and immigrant groups, as well as the half of humanity that produces 70 percent of the world’s food through “peasant agriculture”.
“If justice and sustainability are truly our priorities, then we need to start having conversations about capital, individual rights and property relations that challenge our very core beliefs. We need to de-naturalize and cease to tolerate extreme power and wealth inequities. We need to get beyond the idea that politics is what we choose to put in our mouths.”
Of course, there are strands of the food movement that are clearly challenging the logics of capitalism, and that have put workers, justice and equality at the forefront of the political struggle. Some excellent examples include Via Campesina’s articulation of the connection between food sovereignty and land rights, trade regimes, and gender relations; consumer-labor alliances based in struggles for worker justice like the Immokalee Workers Coalition; Food Not Bombs example that large networks of people can work cooperatively by consensus and without leadership to provide essential needs; and the occupation of Gill Tract in Berkeley, which is calling attention to the need for direct action to reclaim space for urban agriculture. Even “ethical consumption” is a response to feeling implicated in ecosystem crisis and networks of exploitation, and more importantly, a desire to contribute to something different. In a culture that preaches self-interest, this in itself is hopeful. Furthermore, there is a tremendous amount of creativity and energy behind the countless emerging experiments to “re-embed” agriculture, and the movement has done a lot to present positive and pleasurable alternative visions of the future. Along with other social movements, we are part of a re-orientation of values that sees joy and satisfaction in greater connection to both other people and the non-human world, implicitly or explicitly questioning the fulfillment of consumption-driven lifestyles.
But we can’t stop here. When we fail to position our strategies in a larger project of transforming the capitalist food system, we risk erecting new barriers of privilege and inequality. If justice and sustainability are truly our priorities, then we need to start having conversations about capital, individual rights and property relations that challenge our very core beliefs. We need to de-naturalize and cease to tolerate extreme power and wealth inequities. We need to get beyond the idea that politics is what we choose to put in our mouths. And we need collective action for a collective world. Our reality is not made in an individual bubble contained within the market — we are shaped by our social relations, and must change them in order to change the world.
Do I still buy local and have a garden — absolutely! I’m just not under the illusion that these actions alone will change the food system. And I am not disheartened by this either, because the hope for me lies in what we have so far failed to imagine — in the possibilities of a radically fairer, more democratic and truly sustainable world.
The next “Colonialism in Victoria” workshop is on June 20th, 7pm, at Camas Books and Infoshop.
Victoria is on colonized land, so what does this mean for settler-indigenous relations, politics, and everyday life? What can theory and history teach us about colonialism and how to respond to it? The third installment of this workshop will explore these questions through an article by Richard Day and Tonio Sadik, entitled “The BC land question, liberal multiculturalism, and the spectre of Aboriginal nationhood”
The article is pretty dense and written in an academic style, so Nick will cover some of the main points of the article and then we’ll discuss it collectively. If you can read the article beforehand (or have a look) that’s great, but not entirely necessary. Don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time with this article–like the first article, this one is hard, and that’s why it’s great to discuss it and figure it out together. You can download the article here and you can photocopy your own copy at Camas Books for free. After the workshop discussion, we’ll explore possibilities for other workshops, lectures, or activities around colonialism and decolonization: other readings, other sorts of workshops or discussions, collective research and writing, and other potential activities for us to do together. Nick is a white settler and he is not an expert on colonialism or decolonization; he wants to learn more about it, with other people, like you.