Theory Recommendations for Colonial Emancipation
For more than 150 years, both the British colonies of North America, have been either completely independent, in the case of the United States, or self-governing with mostly symbolic intervention from the British crown, in the case of Canada. Political rupture with the imperialist powers of Europe, however, did not reverse the colonization of the land and the people that has taken place since the 16th century. Today, Canada and the United States are still governed by institutions and people that are the living legacies of imperialism; established by Europeans and upheld by their descendants. Throughout the official colonial period and since proclaimed “independence,” indigenous peoples who inhabited North America for centuries and even millennia preceding the ‘conquest’ of the continent, have fought to regain their land, their cultures, and their rights from the powers who usurped them. Countless political theorists, including Marx in the 19th century, have grappled with what decolonization means and whether a complete break with the legacies of colonization is possible or necessary for various indigenous groups around the world. This essay, however, will explore a problem that exists between two authors and their views of how indigenous groups should attempt to remove the bonds of colonization. The options lie between asserting a clean break, a complete extraction of colonized peoples from their oppressed role and the possibility of claiming the right to emancipation and self-determination based on values which themselves have been imposed by the colonizer and now are intrinsically part of the the identity of the colonizer.
Albert Memmi is one of the authors that maintains that revolt against the colonizer is unavoidable, when speaking of the colonized he says “his condition is absolute and cries for an absolute solution; a break and not a compromise” (p. 171) in his book The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957). However, Memmi believes that “at the height of his revolt, the colonized still bears the traces and lessons of prolonged cohabitation . . . the colonized fights in the name of the very values of the colonizer ‘’ (p. 173). Memmi claims the colonized has been so indoctrinated to reject his own culture and traditions that he will fight for his liberation through the values that the colonizer has imported. Glen Coulthard, on the other hand, details in Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) how, in his case, the indigenous people of Canada must break with the colonizer-imposed institutions and values that have maintained settler-colonialism as it is in modern day North America. This involves abandoning the capitalist markets that currently dominate the Canadian economy and therefore the trade between indigenous peoples. Such a break might be seen by Memmi as an endpoint (although he does not mention the total overhaul of financial institutions) but it is definitely not how he envisions the first step in decolonization.
Although Memmi describes the colonized as those whose land has been conquered, whose identity has been stolen, and the most oppressed people, Memmi’s view of the decolonization process aligns more with the settler colonial state’s “independence” process. By describing that the colonized will operate within the same mechanisms and values as the colonizer, Memmi’s narrative looks very much like the revolts against colonialist powers that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For example, the United States and Canada might fall into Memmi’s category of the colonized operating within the values of the colonizers, as revolutions for “freedom” in the Americas occurred around the same time of revolutions for greater political autonomy by the lower classes of Europe (i.e. French Revolution and 1848 revolutions). This can be particularly observed in the mutual influence between major actors in American independence and enlightenment thinkers of contemporary Europe.
However, the revolutions that took place at that time in the Americas would probably not qualify as decolonization as defined by Coulthard, since those leading the revolts and creating “new” governing institutions were almost exclusively of European descent themselves and often excluded indigenous people from any victories they won for “freedom.” Because Memmi describes the undertaking of decolonization as one that resembles those led by white, upper class men in the last three centuries, it is questionable whether his analysis can truly represent the intentions and methods of colonized indigenous people anywhere today. Memmi’s conception of the colonized maintains that he (in his narrative writing Memmi refers to the colonized as a singular male) operates to advance his objectives within the prescribed values imposed on him and is constantly defined in his struggle by his relationship with the oppressor. This is precisely the situation Coulthard hopes indigenous people can extricate themselves from, as in the present day the main concerns for indigenous people in North America have more to do with the socioeconomic and cultural realms than perhaps those of political and violent struggle against oppression.
However, perhaps Memmi and Coulthard’s arguments do not completely contradict one another. Is the cleavage between beginning revolt with a clean break from the colonizer’s values and arriving at that point after a period of revolt defined by the colonizer’s norms enough of a divergence in views to consider, if the end goal is the same? After two centuries of colonial revolts across almost every country in the global south, and the ongoing struggle between powerful colonizer-influenced government institutions and colonized groups attempting to regain sovereignty and land, I believe this problem very pertinent and its exploration alongside examples may provide great insight for contemporary decolonisation struggle that go beyond political separation from the colonizer.
This problem could be solved by viewing Coulthard’s chapter as a continuation of Memmi’s problem. Memmi concludes that “before and during the revolt, the colonized always considers the colonizer as a model or as an antithesis” (p. 184), meaning the identity of the colonized is inescapably shaped by that of the colonizer forever. Memmi provides no solution to this, which we can assume he considers a negative outcome for the colonized. In this way Memmi’s view of the colonized is quite similar to Andrea Dworkin’s view of right-wing women. According to Dworkin, conservative women choose to believe an ideology that contradicts a logical human desire for freedom because of the security it provides them. Right-wing, male-dominant ideology appeals to conservative women because they consciously or subconsciously follow it to because it offers them “reproductive value; the best protection against sexual aggression; the best economic security as the economic dependents of men who must provide; the most reliable protection against battery; the most respect” (p. 234). In Dworkin’s analysis women follow the values imposed on them by their oppressors to gain security and agency within constraints, much in the way that Memmi describes the colonized protecting themselves against injury by employing values their oppressor must recognize, for they are their own.
The problem remains, however, that Coulthard’s argument rests on the idea that recognition by and negotiation with the settler-colonial state must no longer be considered a viable avenue towards gaining land and political rights for indigenous people in Canada. He gives multiple examples of the Idle No More movement of the last couple of years as evidence that a “seat at the table” of the colonizer’s institutions cannot effectively or fundamentally lead to the true emancipation of indigenous communities from western society. Coulthard goes as far as to say that direct action has accompanied every recent effective movement for increased rights for indigenous people in Canada, implying that a physical struggle might be necessary to achieve their desired ends. In its “vision” the Idle No More movement states that “colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage and harm to all our relations” which supports both Memmi and Coulthard’s conclusions that colonization (oppression) is structural, that it is represented in regular injustices committed by or through the settler-colonial state and persists as part of culture and society even after direct domination ceases to exist.
With no ambiguity in his words, Coulthard explains that he would very much like to see a complete break from all the colonizer-imposed oppressive institutions, which include values, norms of religion/religiosity, language, and economic systems. To Coulthard the lingering of colonizer-imported values and norms are just evidence of the continued dominance of the colonizer over the lives of the colonized, and in order to reclaim their identity and be free of colonial rule the colonized must extricate themselves completely from the oppressive society. To this end he calls for the indigenous peoples of Canada to end “internalized colonialism” or “attachments to these circumscribed, master-sanctioned forms of delegated recognition” (p. 2). For Coulthard the process of decolonization begins within oneself, it is not just the expulsion of the colonizer from one’s land or severing political ties with them. This means that rejecting the colonizer’s values is in itself a crucial part of emancipation for the colonized, and decolonization cannot be complete without it. In Coulthard’s mind it is not enough to become a separate, sovereign political entity as had been the case with multiple First Nations in Canada. Coulthard believes that it will take an “indigenous resurgence” of reclaiming traditions and pre-colonization societies in order for indigenous people in Canada to commence decolonization.
Perhaps Coulthard can illustrate the eventual complete break with the settler-colonial state that Memmi does not think possible, or at least bother to mention. Coulthard’s framework for a restructuring of colonial society and the emancipation of the colonized from it might be a solution to a problem Memmi does not seem to resolve completely. Memmi seems resigned to the idea that the identity of the colonized will forever be inextricably linked to their state of oppression and their relationship to the colonizer. Coulthard, though there do not appear to be any examples yet of this happening, contends that total emancipation is attainable by thoroughly removing indigenous existence from modern western-capitalist-settler-colonial Canadian society. He sees this as occurring particularly through an economic emancipation, or direct action against profit-over-land-rights action by Canadian companies and the Canadian government.
Memmi and Coulthard view decolonization, internally and externally, through very different lenses, due to their having different objectives for it and different “best methods” for achieving it. Memmi does not estimate very highly the ability of the colonized individual (and therefore the colonized group) to separate himself entirely from his colonized identity. Coulthard, on the other hand, sees the first nations in Canada as being successful in small efforts to derail capitalistic Canadian priorities when they have threatened the sovereignty, land, or livelihoods of indigenous Canadians. Memmi’s view is much more pessimistic, and I believe perhaps the resilience of colonized people all around the world who have managed to keep their languages, traditions, and communities alive through centuries of assault by colonizers and their descendants disproves this perspective. Though complete extrication from all the dominant economic systems and bureaucratic institutions of the settler-colonial state has not yet taken place in Canada for any indigenous groups, the continual attempt (with many setbacks, but also many gains) to reclaim culture and land lost at least proves that Coulthard’s fully emancipatory objective is the aim of many indigenous individuals and groups. Extricating entire communities from capitalist systems in North America is probably not very feasible in the short term, however, Coulthard clearly has a better grasp of the desires and aims of colonized, how they view themselves and the oppression they’ve endured.
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Beacon Press. 1991 (ISBN: 0807003018)
Andrea Dworkin, Right-wing Women. Perigee Books, 1978
Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks. University of Minnesota Press, 2014
“An Indigenous-Led Social Movement.” Idlenomore.ca, Idle No More, 2020, idlenomore.ca/about-the-movement/.