Interview with Alexander Dunlap about decoloniality, activism and academia…

A recent open access article in Globalizations, with the intriguing title ‘I don’t want your progress! It tries to kill … me!’ Decolonial encounters and the anarchist critique of civilization, received a certain amount of Twitter-love when tweeted from the @Env_Pol account.

Environmental Politics social media editor Marc Hudson caught up with its author, Alexander Dunlap, for an email interview.

Marc Hudson: Who are you and how do you come to be writing about “Decolonial encounters and the anarchist critique of civilization”?

Alexander Dunlap: Who am I…? I feel like I have sat in some trauma workshops or meditation ceremonies centered on asking this question for extended periods of time. I guess the short answer: I am a skateboarder, who retains a sense of adventure and ethics with an obligation to the tress, rivers and cats to where I am from and cross paths. It is from this place I find myself writing about anarchist and decolonial theory in relation to civilization or how it is conceived. 

MH: The impetus for the work seems to have been a 2017 workshop about decolonising the academy?  Can you recap what was “wrong” about it – and have you seen things being done better since then?

AD: I was highly influenced by North American Indigenous authors, specifically John Trudell, Vine Deloria Jr, Russel Means, Ward Chruchill and others related to the American Indian Movement (AIM). Their commitment to struggle was clear and well-demonstrated, even if disinformation campaigns or making ill-fated decisions, such as rubbing elbows with US (neo)colonial agendas over the plight of Miskito peoples in Nicaragua, were cause for concern. This anti-colonial commitment, moreover, was linked to actively, like black radicals, to challenging and, more importantly, making links with other committed (autonomist) Marxian and anarchist tendencies. If fact, Green Anarchy and other eco-anarchist zines and publications, as Gord Hill and Allan Antliff reminded us, were instrumental in alerting people to the horrendous colonial history and struggle against it, meanwhile building links of solidarity with people fighting against capitalism and its ecocidal trajectory. The overall point, from these authors (and magazines), was clear… there is an anti-colonial struggle, if not (low-intensity) war, taking places to consume and domesticate people, their culture and habitats for maintaining state control and furthering capital accumulation.

There was a culture of resistance in the Northwest of the US, even if heavily repressed, and it seemed a great distance from “post-colonialism,” “coloniality” and “decoloniality,” which were terms I first experienced coming out of Ivy League or highly accredited universities in the Global North and South. The priorities seem distant from the direct action struggles taking place, and reading these post-colonial and decolonial authors, and their thick book volumes, was akin to having to decode and learn a new language. Ward Churchill’s Keynote Speech published in the book, A Decolonizing Encounter: Ward Churchill and Antonia Darder in Dialogue, titled: ‘There is nothing “Post” about Colonialism: On the Continuing Reality of Colonization and the Implications of Terminological Denial’ really speaks to my experience. Why name a study post-colonialism when (neo)colonialism is clearly alive, well, intensifying and mutating?  I was always so confused by the ill-fated naming of “post-colonialism” as a study, this was not common sense labeling to my experience. I remember reading, in 2011, Post-Colonialism: A Short Introduction and just being annoyed by it, thinking how the term was redundant and how it over emphasized Franz Fanon—I am not sure I even finished reading it as it seemed distant from struggles against the police, financial institutions, technological domination and the mining it necessitated. Churchill’s speech, spoke to these same, albeit common, misunderstandings of post-colonialism, which was significant because it showed how academics committed to anti-colonial struggle were also confused, alienated and actively rejecting this label, stressing the key point: ‘There is nothing “Post” about Colonialism’.

Meanwhile, university occupations, plaza occupations and riots spread alongside the Arab Spring. This slowly died down as groups were bombing the IMF [International Monetary Fund], embassies of countries torturing anarchists, “kneecapping” nuclear power executives and attacking institutions of oppression and scientific violence all over the world.  Little-to-no conversation about the militant struggles in the university, just the headline grabbers or debates about how social media influenced the Arab Spring, which complimented the rhetoric of decolonization that I started hearing—and everyone seemed confused by—while I was in graduate school in England. I was just confused by the subjectivity, demographic and righteousness of people preaching this in the university, which seemed to blend into the mass-climate justice marches in London gaining popularity in 2014-15. I was all for it, but it seemed separate from the fights to hold squats (being attacked in England) and attack capitalism and its extractive and technological industries. In short, I was very confused about post-colonialism, decoloniality and the tensions and debates between these two camps for a while, as my priority was to understand how the state and capitalism worked and to organize against it, so I liked everything “critical” and potentially subversive that could show me insights into a post-statist and capitalist future. “Academic decolonial” theory, however, always seemed far removed and detached from these struggles, frequently referencing the World Social Forum and Zapatistas as if they were an answer to everything, everywhere. Something the Zapatistas, themselves, have cautioned against for over a decade at this time. The ‘decolonial turn,’ while retaining many insights,  employed a fiery rhetoric rather detached from struggles and primed towards accumulating social capital in the university, meanwhile relying on rudimentary dichotomies of privileged/oppressed that glossed over finer political points. The general impression, as there are certainly exceptions, is academic decolonial thought did not seem interested in stopping the university from plundering everyone, but instead carving out a niche or a piece of the pie. The workshop I attended in 2017, mentioned in the article, was just another pronounced moment that was frustrating and disappointing moment, especially after the violence I had endured a year or so earlier (or see here), that stuck with me, as workshop lecturer was rather clear about its decolonial jargon and positioning.

MH: You write about the dangers of romanticising other cultures before European contact as somehow inherently harmonious and unchanging – if someone wanted to read some readable but scholarly work on this, where should they go (and yes, you can include your own stuff!)

AD: This one is hard. I think the best place to start is listening to the various Indigenous authors themselves. This might mean sharing a beer or a pack of cigarettes on the street with someone (if you smoke, I do not). Sometimes the hard and uncomfortable conversations are avoided, related to colonial collaboration and replicating colonial administration. If anything, many of the Indigenous scholars—some mentioned above—led me to believe that all Indigenous people were anti-capitalist, which was deconstructed through being in the middle of conflicts on fieldwork. Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, is of course recommendable, especially for addressing this issue of colonial collaboration. If, I am being honest, I am drawing a bit of a blank because academic lifestyles, living instability, and being blocked from research grants by department (despite high performance) have turned my mind a bit into mush.

There is, we must remember, a politics behind everything, from liberal academics to various communist or anarchistic approaches that mix and percolate into scholarship. Many anthropological monographs will reveal these complications, but the anthropological prose—wrapped in self-importance and often cloaked in unspoken values (despite “disciplinary reflexivity”)—makes it difficult to want to recommend anything specific. I think the works of Gord Hill (or Zigzag) are important reads, which can speak to a wider audience. Also the authors and works coming out of Black Seed will give you an interesting perspective, showing co-creation of anti-colonial and anarchistic ideas in process. In general, the most interesting texts are usually anonymous.

MH: If I were being glib (and I am often glib), I’d say that some of the critique you offer of how forms of the state persist regardless of what skin-colour state managers have is summed up by the old line “When the axeman came into the forest, the trees said to each other “don’t worry, the handle is one of us.”” Am I too glib?

AD: Ahahahaha! I have never heard this before and, now, all I hear is the Amebix song, “Axeman” playing in my head. I believe it is a heuristically useful phrase or maxim, but I think there has been a lack of reflection on what actually constitutes the colony and how it relates to the state. What is the colony model? I asked this in 2017, attempting to create a criteria and standard to understand the continuing process of colonial genocide via wind energy development on Zapotec and Ikoot territories. Understanding the “colony model” and its relationship to the state, and thereby capital, allows us to identify the structural issues and how they are reproduced. I would, for example, go out and say there is likely not a greater expression of colonialism, or coloniality, than bureaucracy and the divisions of labor they instill and required to create a machine of territorial control and vital usurpation. This allows the creation of structures of conquest, thinking of Patrick Wolfe, but also relates to how people are divided from their bodies, each other and their habitats. Not to mention the Othering of people and nonhumans and the domestic roles of the “household,” which speaks to the patriarchal underpinnings of the (neo)colonial project. If this is true, then we really have to think critically about the state and how we organize and relate with each other… how do we undermine the mechanisms, forms of life and organization subjugating, killing, degrading and destroying our habitats and lives? I greatly enjoyed Markus Kröger’s new book, which introduces the ‘political economy of existences’ that examines habitats by asking what life forms existed and what existences replaced them. In Kröger’s book, you have amazon forests being replaced with soy monocrops and the fertilizers and pesticides that affirm and prevent different existences—or life forms—in the area. This destruction, by all means, is not all negative per se, but comes though enchantment—pleasure, addiction and obsession—related to substances, chemical manipulation of the body, computational devices and psychotropic stimulation. Destroying and self-destruction is fun, profitable and retains serious ecological consequences.

 And, let’s be honest, sometimes people think they live in a forest, but in reality they live in a tree colony engineered to harvest them. People are uncritically normalizing norms, standards and lifestyles that are utterly toxic, let the university or other corporate jobs be exemplars. Sometimes being privileged—an acclimation to modernist society—leaves people in complex psycho-social cadges, leaving them confused, apathetic or taking on missionary roles instead of really looking at what is invading and engineering them. People, and myself included, have been taught to resign themselves to social acceptable alcoholism and banal pass times, often watching other people play games than actually living themselves! While an environment might be privileged—people are not starving, cold and, in a phrase, are not directly killing people to survive—it is sometimes the privileged people who are the most delusional about their role in the social machine and are instrumental to perpetuating its governance and accumulation activities.

MH: Environmental Politics did an interview with (now Dr) Sakshi Aravind – see it here – and she spoke of “citational erasure” – Western scholars writing about indigenous struggles and barely engaging with work by indigenous people, either within or “without” the academy. How do you combat that citational erasure?

AD: I know I could have engaged with certain scholarships better and this is a result of not knowing about certain scholars or people. There is so much out there, it is hard to find it—especially when you do not know how the academic machine works and how people, thoughts and studies have been divided. More still, there is a difference and a politics behind every author and there is always a risk of essentalizing people for a nationality, gender or an affiliation to a specific Indigenous groups—even this interview here I have refereed to “Indigenous” rather broadly than the different and specific nations authors belong to… mostly for the reason I do not remember exactly their affiliation.

I think another good place to start is: Why are citations so important? In one sense it is about giving credit where it is due and understanding from the most qualified people to write about a specific context, politics or way of life. In another sense, this speaks to career climbing in academia and the psychosis of academic survival. Without a doubt, reading various Indigenous voices and integrating difference in general into academia is fundamentally beneficial and enriching, but there are serious class and exploitative issues underlining academia. Look at where we publish!? I am a whipping boy, for career survival, of the big 5 publishers (Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Sage). Have you seen their profit margins!? As MIT Libraries reminds us: “RELX, the parent company of Elsevier, had revenues of US $9.8 billion in 2019. (Elsevier’s profits account for about 34% of RELX’s total profits.) By contrast, Informa, Taylor & Francis’ parent company, had revenues of US $3.6 billion in 2019.” Universities are extorted, academics are exploited and students are ripped off, meanwhile being funneled into a system of debt.

So, Yes!! Read, cite and integrate different voices and people into the university, create new possibilities of seeing, learning and thinking! This should be the job of academics, which oddly is an increasingly marginal part compared to meetings, digital bureaucracy (to do simple tasks), research grants and having to design classes in little to no time or carrying the stresses and emotions of students. The issue, however, is when identity is tokenized to undercut political affinity and content. People should cite the ideas and people they like, not because they are of a marginalized identity—but because their position and ideas resonate. There are structural oppressions and exclusion of people from higher-learning, this should be recognized and changed immediately, but in the end—myself included—I think everyone feels neglected and ignored and have to struggle to be heard. Yet, being heard should not be a  substitute for living and struggling, which I have marginalized in my own life to play the cut throat telenovela that is academia.

MH: Who do you hope reads this article? What sorts of responses have you had so far (if any?)

AD: I hope this article can be cathartic and offer some understanding to people who felt confusion towards the decolonial lexicon or, better, had their struggles and efforts put down or stereotyped inappropriately. Likewise, this article is for people curious about green anarchism, as it introduces key scholars, ideas and tensions largely excluded from the university system.

The reception of the article so far has been great! A lot of “thank you for saying this,” “thank you for putting this together,” “very interesting and timely,” “an absolute honor to have read” and, my favorite, “finally.” Joan Martinez-Alier made some condescending comments to me about Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and Ramón Grosfoguel words that I quoted, but after I replied  reminding them it was not my words, the exchanged shifted into our normal conversations about the “Gandhi Shield,” as Peter Gelderloos calls it. The journal editors have sent a copy to Walter Mignolo and there were rumors they might comment, but I am unsure. I imagine a lot of mean things will be said to me, as often happens when I question or point out obvious issues within academic works or the discourse of self-defined activists.

I just hope this can open up the academic world a bit more to what has been propulsive theories behind people struggling in my own life and common in areas I have studied in Abya Yala and Europe.

MH: Anything else you’d like to say

There is a million things to say, but I said enough already.

MH: What next?  What other work are you planning on this topic?

AD: On this topic, nothing. I have been working with people on the new lithium frontier forming in Portugal. This has been another intense and concerning research project. I have watched some of the greatest outside activist blunders I have ever seen and, of course,  the heart breaking dynamics of companies moving in and peeling away the remaining social fabrics in the village so they can place an enormous lithium mine practically on top of them. The people struggling there, inside and outside the Barroso region are amazing and I am pleased to know and work with them. I will present work on this with my co-author during a day Webinar on Green Extractivism and Violent Conflict I organized with Judith Verweijen and the EXALT Initiative at the University of Helsinki. 3 Keynotes and 16 presentations across four panels. If people are interested in mining as it intersects with so-called renewable energy and conservation, I highly recommend they join this free online webinar! Sign up now!

Thanks for the questions and taking the time to read my work!

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