Commons and (Settler) Colonialism
The question of the commons and commoning — its aim, orientation and benefits — also arise in the course of writing of this article. Who, we ask ourselves, are we, and who is our audience, to whom do we address our writing? We are a group of researchers located at a Western university. This journal, JAR, addresses readers primarily residing in the West, as discussion on artistic research largely takes place at Western universities. It connects this particular debate to a long history of separating disciplines, the hierarchisation and colonisation of knowledge and practices that simmer beneath art, knowledge production and structures of power. Art as a discipline encloses and defines certain creative practices, adding value as it devalues. It is intimately entangled with the colonial condition of modern art academies. Humanist research divides subject and object, coloniser and colonised. The latter tends to be displayed, collected and interpreted. Following Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s powerful account that ‘research’ is one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary, what does it possibly mean to ‘do research’ about the commons in light of the troubled history of Western epistemologies, their history of speaking and acting in the name of the privileged?4
Rauna Kuokkanen suggests that to start the process, it is the (Western) academy’s responsibility to ‘do one’s homework’. She writes:
(T)he academic responsibility for doing homework on indigenous epistemes has to begin from even a more elemental level than examining one’s beliefs, biases and assumptions. It has to start from acknowledging the existence of ‘the indigenous’ whether the peoples, their epistemes or how they are configured both in the geo-political past and present. This necessarily includes recognizing how the global political economy is fuelled by accumulation of capital extracted from indigenous peoples’ territories.5
Many Marxist and Post-Marxist theorists at Western academic institutions continue to discuss the concept of the commons as a thriving alternative to aggressive enclosure. Yet scholars of indigenous studies expressed their frustration with the framing of the commons within leftist Marxist politics. Sandy Grande, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang and Glen Coulthard, to name a few, argue that Marxist frameworks, and along with them, the so-called ‘return of the commons’6, continue to posit land as property, and therefore never escape the fact of dispossession. As a consequence, these scholars ask, what do claims for the commons and the practices of commoning mean on land that is stolen? Moreover, what do these claims obscure in the context of settler colonial nation-states?
According to Greg Fortier, this tension became most obvious in the commons of the Occupy Movement. For Fortier, "the problem with the idea of the commons in settler states is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation."7 Critiques from indigenous scholars therefore evoke the question of how to think of the commons as it exists in the very centre of Europe, built on and sustained by dispossession, colonialism and racist violence at Europe’s outer borders.
Complementing the critique of settler colonialism put forth by indigenous scholars, postcolonial scholars have addressed the commons alongside the history of colonialism as dispossession of land, bodies and social relations. Following Franz Fanon, many postcolonial theorists insist that, in Europe, primitive accumulation initiated the devastating long-term effects of proletarisation, whereas in the colonies, it manifested itself predominantly in the dispossession of land. Peter Kulchyski argues in his study on Indigenous cultural politics, ‘what distinguishes anti-colonial struggles from the classic Marxist accounts of the working class is that oppression for the colonised is registered in the spatial dimension — as dispossession — whereas for workers, oppression is measured as exploitation, as the theft of time.’8
With a few exceptions – e.g., Silvia Federici, whose work rethinks women’s investment in the commons beyond the boundaries of Europe and the Western idea of land enclosure9 — the political claims for the commons often fail to address the continuities of the colonial condition. They rarely address questions about whose land should house the commons, whose resources commoning practices are supposed to redistribute, who conceptualises the political utopias that enter the academic field, and who profits by this entry.
Finally, indigenous accounts of land also challenge the Marxist critique of primitive accumulation and accumulation through dispossession on another level: built on relational ontologies, these accounts assert continuity, sustainability, reciprocity and care. Indigenous cosmologies rely on an understanding of land that goes far beyond the concept of property. Land cannot be owned, humans and non-humans (including animals, spirits and the land itself) share an ecological connection: ‘We are this land, and this land is us’, Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete asserts.10 This mode of thinking about place is a profound critique of both Marxists’ and capitalists’ anthropocentric notion of the commons and natural resources. Sandy Grande poignantly poses this critique when she points at the ‘commodities to be exploited, in the first instances, by capitalists for personal gain, and in the second, by Marxists for the good of all.’.11
These complex constellations leave commoners with unsettling, and ultimately unresolvable, tensions. They are left with what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call the necessity of ‘attending to what is irreconcilable within settler-colonial relations and what is incommensurable between decolonising projects and other social justice projects.’12. They, or in this case we, need to work on acknowledging the significant absences within Western accounts on the commons and start pushing to the forefront what connects the commons and the colonial empire.