Ecological Assemblages: Standing Rock and Postcolonial Ontology

Artwork by Elevator Teeth

In Fall 2018 I saw Nick Estes speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a lecture series on critical theory hosted by the Unit for Literary Criticism and Interpretive Theory. Estes’ lecture is titled “Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself.”

Estes writes critically on his experience at the Standing Rock Reservation where large-scale demonstrations were launched in 2016 to 2017 in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Estes traces the #NoDAPL movement in line with a long tradition of Indigenous resistance against settler-colonialism.

Estes’ critical analysis draws new insights from the organization and history of Indigenous struggle to better understand how different forms of oppression (social, racial, economic) contribute to one another in unforeseen ways. This way we can learn how an influential resistance campaign built a united coalition from diverse backgrounds.

Thousands of people traveled from across America to join up at the #NoDAPL protests when when the movement faced highly organized violence from the police. Here we will join Estes in advocating for an international understanding of Indigenous movements from the point of view of ongoing struggles against capitalism around the world amidst unprecedented environmental destruction.

Standing Rock became a high water mark for similar political movements in America. Indigenous opposition to the pipeline began in response to the construction’s direct threat to the reservation’s source for drinking water. Estes draws a central theme of resource scarcity to similar struggles over rights to drinking water, healthcare, and housing. “Some of the poorest people in North America are taking on some of the most powerful interests over the question of access to clean drinking water. That is going to continue to define struggles over resources for generations as climate change intensifies” (Estes in Serpe 2019). Global warming threatens life as we know it on this planet. So we need a theoretical paradigm that is ethical, socialist, and fundamentally ecological.

Nick Estes offers an invaluable perspective for reinterpreting our relation to the global capitalism and the planet. Conflicts in post-colonial theory offer a glimpse into the future of what a warming world looks like. This is why a 2019 interview with Estes is titled “Indigenous Resistance Is Post-Apocalyptic.” Because time has certainly run out for the ecological crisis. The end of the world is already here, or is said to be arriving asymmetrically.

Let’s start there, at the end of the world — in the apocalyptic interview where Estes emphasizes the role Indigenous leadership plays in the movement coalescing at the Standing Rock Reservation.

“This history makes Standing Rock simultaneously exceptional and not exceptional. As an organizer and an intellectual, I think there is purchase to that kind of thinking: not just thinking about your movement as doing something new but as a continuation. Standing Rock was a reiteration our traditions of resistance: the unification of grassroots movements with tribal councils, the treaty councils, the reunification of our Seven Nations, the Oceti Sakowin” (Estes, Serpe 2019).

We have to note how Estes doubly imparts Standing Rock as a turning point not only for the Indigenous movement in America but a diverse field of space and time. Not only in connection to contemporary movements against capitalism, but as much a continuation of older traditions in history.

This explains why the #NoDAPL movement became so successful at attracting a broader coalition of activist. The collective efforts were able to mount a concerted resistance against police repression during the long period of time where President Obama waffled on his position, withholding his eventual approval of the pipeline. The administration’s failure to oppose the pipeline became a paradigmatic case for how neoliberal policy readily acquiescences to the needs of a powerful fossil-fuel industry capable of lobbying to secure billions in profit.

Estes locates identifies the inclusive and democratic nature of the #NoDAPL movement with deeper ethical significance for Indigenous resistance, saying even the word “Lakota” means friend and ally, the essence of which becomes “one of our primary tools of resistance. It [Standing Rock] was a convergence of all of those elements — that’s why Standing Rock was a certain kind of historical turning point, not just for us as Oceti Sakowin but for the Indigenous movement in America” (Estes 2019). By rooting his analysis in ideas about post-colonial indigeneity Estes anticipates a broader array of critique against what is ultimately a self-reinforcing complex of capitalism-colonialism.

Estes borrows concepts from Indigenous feminist writers like Faith Spotted Eagle and Madonna Thunder Hawk for theorizing dimensions of oppression which are not strictly limited to economics. The critical import from an ontological approach inherited from the likes of post-structuralism and materialist feminism is that capitalism is not reducible to economics, but rather exercises a highly repressive agency across lines of race, gender, and class.

Estes describes how capitalism affects itself across multiple domains. New forms of exploitation and social repression simultaneously drive chemical processes in the atmosphere. Settler colonialism is inextricable from capitalism, and global warming. Only an ontological account of ecological assemblages can explain the complex relation between seemingly unconnected processes in the micro-political and macro-geological senses. Racial identity is involved in a causal nexus involving global warming.

Politics for a Warming Planet:
The Extractivist Mindset in a Culture of Disavowal

To learn from indigenous resistance, as Estes recommends, we ought to consider Standing Rock in all its constitutive assemblages. In 2016, President Obama delays his decision to grant or withhold the permit for the North Dakota Access Pipeline. While the administration postponed its decision, the police ramp up their violent efforts against demonstrators at Standing Rock. Soon, the Obama White House approves the pipeline’s construction, doubling down on the same neoliberal orthodoxy that produced the existential threat of global warming in the first place.

The Obama administration’s approval of the pipeline is another capitulation to the interests of private industries driving global warming. For Naomi Klein, this sort of acquiescence to private capital has become paradigmatic, writing “attempts to fix glaring and fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far too much political power — a power exerted through corporate campaign contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators via their lobbyists” (Klein, 151; bold mine). From the imperceptibility of money contributions emerges an unfettered agency of disaster capitalism. In thinking about agency, a rule of thumb is secrecy = autonomy. In the current structure of capitalist democracy, fossil-fuel industries exercise an unparalleled capacity to affect exactly the kind of acquiescence they require from neoliberal energy departments across the world. Klein continues on this point, writing:

“What stopped Obama from seizing his historical moment to stabilize the economy and the climate at the same time was not lack of resources, or a lack of power. He had plenty of both. What stopped him was the invisible confinement of a powerful ideology that convinced him — as it has convinced virtually all his political counterparts — that there is something wrong with telling large corporations how to run their businesses even when they are running them into the ground, and that there is something sinister, indeed vaguely communist, about having a plan to build the economy we need, even in the face of an existential crisis” (Klein, 124–5; bold mine).

The concept of extractivism is crucial for understanding the ideology of infinite growth. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate (2014) Naomi Klein writes that “extractivism” is a “term originally used to describe economics based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth, usually for export to traditional colonial powers, where “value” was added. … And it’s a habit of thought that goes a long way toward explaining why an economic based on endless growth ever seemed viable in the first place” (Klein, 169; bold mine). Extractivism describes a plurality of economic practices and the range of ideologies which — intentionally or not — serve to justify infinite economic growth. Fossil-fuel companies pollute for free. The entire process is spun into a narrative to represent humanity’s triumph over nature. What results is a culture of disavowal. Its condition of possibility is twofold. The invisible agency of private industry in government (imperceptibility of money contributions) correlates to the imperceptibility of chemical combinations in the atmosphere. Political alliances and regimes of truth become organized around the denial of an ontological fact of planetary warming, of the greenhouse gas effect. Klein emphasizes the principle of imperceptibility when she writes:

“This is our relationship to much that we cannot easily see and it is a big part of what makes carbon pollution such a stubborn problem: we can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists. Ours is a culture of disavowal, of simultaneously knowing and not knowing…” (Klein, 168).

Our cultural condition is marked by a paradox of simultaneously knowing and denying the ontological fact of planetary warming. A new, ecological understanding is the only antidote for the investments currently sustaining an extractive relationship to the planet. Klein contrasts extractivism “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth” with its opposite, relations of stewardship “which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue” (Klein, 169). Becoming-ecological is the only substantive break left with the life-denying practices of global capitalism. In some way or another, the fossil-fuels, although profitable, will have to remain in the ground.

This is why the Left is currently undergoing a period of redefinition. With renewed appeal, Leftist movements can affect lasting change insofar as they succeed in constructing new political alliances. A program for decarbonization through decolonization can unite a plurality of activists from environmentalism, labor rights, feminism, immigrant rights and more.

The prerequisite for building an effective coalition for climate action is recognizing firstly the central role played by colonized peoples in effectively mobilizing resistance against global tendencies of capitalism and fossil-fuel extraction.

The gratuitous violence constitutive of settler-colonialism is also a part in the same machine currently heating the planet’s atmosphere beyond recognition. The ontological fact of intimate involvement between these seemingly disparate machines has the potential to unite resistance in a global coalition. “The environmental crisis — if conceived sufficiently broadly,” Klein writes, “neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency” (Klein, 153; bold mine). A political alliance for effective climate action will draw on lessons from Indigenous nations, labor movements, and women’s liberation alike in one global arena for autonomy, and for survival.

Artwork by Jean Giraud

Ecological Leftism: The Socialist Antidote for Disaster Capitalism

Settler-colonialism and global warming ought not be reduced merely to the politics of identity, but understood through the ontology of environments and their destruction.

We have to identify needs for climate justice with long traditions of struggles against capitalism. We will follow Frantz Fanon when he identifies the struggle of colonized people in global terms:

“the cut-throat competition between capitalism and socialism […] gives an almost universal dimension to even the most localized demands. Every meeting held, every act of repression committed, reverberates in the international arena” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 75).

Diverse political struggles occur in the same international arena for Fanon. Colonization and global warming implicate one another on the same ontological plane. As Deleuze & Guattari write, “Nature = Industry, Nature = History” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.25). Their refusal to draw hard distinctions reveals the true coextensivity of the challenges facing life on this planet.

The environmental racism of the North Dakota Access Pipeline evidences a contemporary agency of historical settler-colonialism. Extractivism is the dominant order of economic relations. The construction of a pipeline at one level is simultaneously an assemblage of state-enforced racial capitalism. It is time to leave the profitable fossil fuels in the ground. Decolonization = Decarbonization. The main obstruction to climate justice and decolonizing struggle is the global hegemony of neoliberal democracies which capitulate wherever possible to the demands of private capital.

Global warming is a product of a social body structured by capital and the maximization of profit. This social dynamic of disaster capitalism is what leads the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to say “God didn’t die, he was transformed into money.” He continues in the same interview:

“In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money” (Agamben in an interview with Peppe Savà; bold mine).

Capital — the fundamental relationship of capitalism — is what Marx calls a relation between people masquerading as a relation between things. What appears at first to be an inert organization of productive forces — the private ownership of machines, tools, and resources — ought to be understood instead as a social relationship between people. Because capital is not productive in the direct way labor is. Capital — the social right of private ownership — is confused for the physical process of production. Capital only appears productive in virtue of its exerting its social right to exclude others from the real agency they have in the process of production. All production appears to emanate from the body of capital as the transcendent agent of production (as Deleuze & Guattari explain in Anti-Oedipus). All social relations are mediated by the cash nexus. And Agamben’s god-as-money emerges at the head of the church for infinite growth.

Post-Structuralist Social Theory // Interpellated as he/him

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