The “occupy” movements – and this moment in the “Occupy Oakland” struggle (where I live) – poses questions for me about how I understand colonialism and imperialism. Questions grounded in the struggles and perspectives of Native/Indigenous peoples – such as the Chochenyo Ohlone of Oakland, with whom I stand in solidarity as a Lenape person.
The movements have made it only clearer to me -- have reminded me -- about the multiple ways U.S. capitalism is only possible because of colonialism and imperialism. Why?
Simply put. Capitalism is about the profits of power and the property of privilege. It is not an economic system. It is a legal system that not only establishes the possibilities for the kinds of profits that produce a 1% (or even a top 19%) and the kind of property (exclusionary right) that guarantees that wealth. It is a legal system that works to protect and ensure those possibilities for the very few against the health and well-being of the very many.
All Fracked Up
Take former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 551-page Energy Policy Act of 2005 (link: http://doi.net/iepa/EnergyPolicyActof2005.pdf). The act created the possibility for the unregulated expansion of oil and natural gas extraction by a process known as hydraulic drilling or fracking.
In a nutshell, fracking destroys watersheds. It takes good water (in the millions of gallons) and forces it at high velocity into a drill in order to force out the oil and natural gas from deep within the earth. The process uses close to 600 different toxic chemicals. These chemicals end up in the water it uses and spill over into the local watershed, often combining with natural gas to be released into the air as fumes. Sometimes these fumes result from accidents and sometimes from explosions.
The result is the contamination of not only the local watershed – and so the drinking water – but all of the waters connected to that watershed (streams, rivers, lakes, oceans). It is, consequently, a contamination of all of the life that depends on that water source (such as within California’s groundwater basin).
How is this possible? Because the Energy Policy Act of 2005 does not hold fracking accountable to laws requiring companies to report their use of toxic chemicals (hence, the FRAC Act or Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, which has been introduced several times without passage). Fracking is, in other words, exempt from several environmental protection laws, including the Clean Water Act.
It's Not Historical, It's History
So, what does the Energy Policy Act of 2005 tell us about capitalism? Or more to the point, how is it an example of colonialism and imperialism?
Certainly the wealth of the oil and natural gas industry – including extravagant pay bonuses, stock shares, tax exemptions, tax refunds, and apparent immunity on conflict of interest – is only possible because of the laws that create that wealth (deregulation) and protect it from public transparency and accountability (in name of energy development).
But the wealth and privilege that exempts the rich from accountability to the non-rich, the elected official to the voter, is a result of the way other laws, both historical and contemporary, have brought about Native land dispossession and the erosion of Native self-determination.
I am not saying that Native peoples have the answers to everything, or that they are natural environmentalists or progressives who would naturally avoid all these troubles.
I am saying that Native land dispossession is at the heart of how U.S. capitalism has defined itself and expanded over and into the bodies, lands, water, and air of everyone else. That that expansion (and extraction) IS colonialism and imperialism. And not just in some historic past when the U.S. didn't know any better, but right now. Today. In the world of the 1%.
- Native/Indigenous peoples' land rights have been systematically extinguished and denied: from the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the denial of treaty rights in 2011.
- Native/Indigenous peoples' rights to self-determination have been systemically curtailed and undermined: from the Marshall Trilogy of the 1820s-30s to the U.S. denial of Native legal status in recognition policies in 2011 (just ask the Muwekma Ohlone).
As the work of the Indigenous Environmental Network represents, I doubt very much that if Native/Indigenous land rights and rights to self-determination were the law of the land, that something like the Energy Policy Act of 2005 would have happened. Principles of accountability and responsibility would never have allowed for such deregulation to occur around the protection of water and air.
I am also saying that the legal system that is capitalism depends on the continued land dispossession and legal disenfranchisement of Native peoples in order to not only establish but protect the profits of power and the property of privilege on which it is based. Capitalism, in other words, is colonialism and imperialism par excellence. Because it is a system that legally dispossesses and politically disenfranchises Native/Indigenous lands and bodies from the democracy it claims to be about.
The Keystone Pipeline, currently delayed by Obama for sake of further study, represents the best of solidarity in both movement and principle. In important ways, Obama's decision never would have happened at another moment because the political ground in the U.S. has shifted considerably as a result of the "occupy" movements. Obama and other leaders of "the west" have a growing sense of accountability to these movements, even more so as they demonstrate their collective electoral power.
These movements have exposed corporate greed and corruption but as well the way government policies and laws have encouraged, facilitated, and protected that greed and corruption in the name of democracy, the free market, and jobs. These movements have exposed, instead, the way that corporate-government alliances have destroyed democratic principles in law-making, have destroyed jobs and unions in the name of profits, have destroyed health care, pensions, and public education in the name of free market privatization, and are actively destroying the health and vitality of the planet and its inhabitants in the name of energy independence.
These movements have needed Native/Indigenous perspectives and allies because of Native/Indigenous experiences with the colonialism and imperialism that propels capitalism (and vice versa). Native/Indigenous peoples have much to offer the movements. Especially because movements now confront the real challenge of re-imagining what a social structure might look like that is not based on capitalism or opaque government leadership.
That society would be based on the inter-dependence of land, water, human, and non-human beings relationships to one another and so on a principle of accountability and responsibility for one's actions. It would be consensual, not electoral, in its decision-making. It would be sustainable. It would respect sexual and gender difference. It would honor the elderly.