September 12, 2021
From Spectre Journal

Neil exerts no effort to actually discuss the actions taken by the Mohawk and Cherokee Nations to expel certain people from their membership lists or to acknowledge, as many Indigenous people do, that “blood quantum” rules are indeed the legacies of colonialism. Instead, he imputes to my authorship the appalling assertion that the whole of Indigenous histories and contemporary cultures are contained within and restricted to the experience of colonial rule. Neil justifies such contentions by stating that, “what is missing in [my] account is consideration of how state categories are resisted and challenged in pursuit of radical alternatives to the capitalist social relations to which the state belongs.”8

Saying that the imaginations (and political actions) of people regarded as Natives or as Migrants have been influenced by the categories we find ourselves in is not the same as saying that everything we know of ourselves was invented by colonizers. How would I understand the political movements that I am a part of if I actually believed this? How could I come to a No Borders political position in a world with border controls or to demand a planetary commons in a world of nation-states if I – if all of us – were unable to think against ruling structures and ideas?

On The Commons

Neil’s discussion of the commons is perhaps the weakest part of his arguments against my own. He makes a novel (and entirely false) argument that there are two kinds of commons: “On the one hand, the commons could be the territoriality of transnational corporations and capital that shed political and geographical constraints in the name of extracting surplus value” while “on the other hand, the commons could be something radically different: it can be a goal generated in struggles against capital’s access to natural resources of trees, fish, minerals, water, and so on, against capital’s access to the land for pipelines, infrastructure, and real estate developments, and thus against the political entities that regulate, coercively impose, and tax this activity.”9

It is surprising – shocking even – that anyone on the Left would argue that global capitalism is one of two different types of commons. Such an argument is what one would expect from a right-wing think tank. The common interest of capitalists to extract surplus value cannot be represented as a commons. In fact, capitalist rule came about through – and continues to depend on – the destruction of our commons. Karl Marx and every commoner undergoing the violent process of proletarianization well knew this.

Thus, while Neil tells us that I “assume that collective struggles are tied to the state form and the reproduction of capitalism, a struggle for the commons in the second, radical sense is missing in her theory,” it is he who appears to misunderstand what the commons are or how to identify struggles for them.10 Plainly put: demands for national territorial sovereignty are not struggles for the commons. Although Neil claims that my “book reduces all social struggles against the state to struggles for national sovereignty in new or different states,” it is Neil who reduces (and perverts) the commons by not seeing the distinction between the commons and national territorial sovereignty.11

His misunderstanding of the commons is part and parcel of his inability to see that not all struggles are simultaneously struggles for the commons. Important struggles against pipelines, for example, could be for the commons but they could also be for the recognition of the sovereignty of the “nation” who claims the land (and air and water) the pipelines (or the oil) are on. Both may be anti-capitalist but, then again, not all anti-capitalist struggles are struggles for the commons, particularly when class collaboration is smuggled into them, as is the case when the “nation” and its territorial sovereignty is centered.

Moreover, identifying struggles for the commons requires a better definition of the commons than simply a “site of struggle,” as Neil contends. The commons historically precedes capitalism. Indeed, the commons precedes class rule writ large, as well as the existence of sovereigns, territories, and states. Further, demands for the commons were – and remain today – the radical alternative to capitalism (and class/state rule).

The fundamental principle of the commons – the key thing that distinguishes it from other anti-capitalist political projects, including those struggling for national territorial sovereignty – is the relationship that people (and all life on this planet) have to the commons. In stark contrast to private property rights or national citizenship rights, no one can be excluded from the commons. Being a commoner is not dependent on one’s ancestors, or how one is racialized, ethnicized, nationalized, gendered, or sexualized. The commons is where no one is out of place. For this reason, I argue in Home Rule, today’s commons needs to encompass our entire planet, not just one part of it. The call for a “commons in one national territory” is fated to end as disastrously as did Stalin’s call for “socialism in one country”.

Neil’s confusion about the commons – and of my argument – achieves dizzying heights when he says things like, “thus, a question arises: if struggles against autochthonous states are themselves autochthonous, how are the commons ever possible, and what meaning can the commons have for people who are struggling for it now?” or when he says that, “the idea of the commons in Sharma’s theory, then, is trapped in a problem of the theory’s own making: it is beyond autochthony, yet it returns to autochthony when it becomes a struggle to escape autochthony.”12 Huh? I think it is Neil who is unable to escape autochthony. He cannot, because he, it seems, is unable to escape the grip that nationalism has on him. Sadly, this is true for so many others on the Left. This, despite all of the hard evidence compelling us to face the truth that national sovereignty has never brought about an end to capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy but only made things far, far worse.