by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles
In countless ways, we live in the long shadow of Columbus and the genocidal impact of European colonialism of indigenous lands and peoples, and the subsequent capture and enslavement of Africans, also genocidal, to work those lands. These are not just historical but ongoing realities that shape the present, unless and until we unite to shape a new future, of decolonization.
We can’t confront the ills of this society without overturning the root causes in conquest, colonialism, privatization of communally-held indigenous land, and chattel slavery. In microcosm, all these ills were present in the actions of Columbus himself and the empire he propagated. The paradigm for Ferguson and Iraq is the rez (the reservation, concentration camps for native nations).
Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag, with the financing of the Spanish monarchy. Spain had just consolidated itself as a single kingdom, imposing the language of the court as the sole official language of the various societies and language groups amalgamated under their domination. In 1492, suppressed the Basques, Catalans and others, they drove out the last of the North African Muslims, expelled the Jews, and sent Columbus on his expedition to find a new trade route to the riches of the more advanced ‘East.’
Columbus stumbled upon the islands of the Caribbean. He planted the Spanish flag and claimed them in the name of the crown. Building on the use of African slaves on the Canaries and other islands off Africa by Spain and Portugal, Columbus immediately started enslaving the Arawak people, sending some to Europe, leading to a flood of Spanish, Portuguese, French and British forces claiming territory, conquering peoples throughout the Caribbean and the mainland of the western hemisphere. The books 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann are essential reading, summaries of the latest historical and archeological research. The first examines pre-Columbian America (including massive Amazon-basin populations who lived in harmony with the rain-forest while carrying out a forest-based agricultural revolution, and city-states that surpassed anything in Europe). The second volume looks at the immediate consequences of globalization under European domination. These include the impact of gold- and silver-based inflation not only on Spain and Europe, but on China, as silver from the Americas crossed the Pacific via the Philippines into imperial China.
The US is primarily based on the settler colonies created by the British. But the fundamentals of land theft and slavery established by Columbus created the template on which this society was built, and Florida and the US “southwest” were first colonized by Spain. Privatization of the commons, the land, occurred first here, and then “blew back” on Europe through enclosures carried out by the vastly-enriched monarchies, able to exert their power over baronial rivals. Private property in land was the first form of capitalism, which laid the basis for “freeing” serfs and peasants from the land, converting them into proletarians possessing nothing but labor power. The first corporations were chartered by European monarchs to carry out expensive, risky projects of colonization and the slave trade — the Hudson Bay Corporation, the British East India Corporation, the Royal Society that monopolized African slaves, etc.
We live with the consequences of that privatization of land and corporatization of wealth — privatizing water, air, seeds and even the human genome. To deal with those consequences we must consciously overturn the underlying colonialism. Recognize the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and struggle for decolonization to reverse the history of settlerism. Look at the issue of climate change. The Navajo and Hopi people oppose destruction of their ancestral lands and propose solar installations in their areas to prevent the further extraction of coal and uranium from “mother Earth”. They must be supported. Conversely, the Shoshone-Paiute people of Owens Valley, CA oppose construction of a solar “ranch” on the lands now claimed by the LADWP, urging instead subsidies by DWP for solar panel installation at homes and public spaces in L.A. itself. They’re supported by Japanese-Americans once held in the concentration camp at near-by Manzanar, and by the other residents. There’s no contradiction between supporting the southwestern solar installations, and opposing the Owens Valley installation, because both positions defend Native sovereignty and the protect the land and the environment.
We will not be able to protect and restore the environment, overturn capitalism or heal the breach Karl Marx described in the “metabolic exchange” between humans and the rest of the natural ecological systems, without directly confronting and reversing settler colonialism, white supremacy and Empire. Whether you are concerned about police brutality, fracking, global climate change, health care as human right, ending violence against women, resisting surveillance, opposing fascism. or securing a living wage, the path to victory traverses through the necessity for self-determination and decolonization for colonized peoples.