Abolition or Extinction

Unless we can control the space we occupy, we will not be able to really love one another

Kalamu Ya Salaam

I came across this sentiment from New Orleans poet and activist Kalamu Ya Salaam in thinking about how we might start to feel in our bodies the extinction that is going on. Many folks feel that a genocide is going on in New Orleans. It’s actually going on across the planet. Abolition or extinction. That’s the choice.

What did we learn from Hurricane Katrina? In the words of activist Clyde Woods:

Katrina revealed the present and future costs of a fragmented, de-linked, privatized, and devolved state; no one is in charge.

From levee failures to the destruction of public housing and the manufacture of homelessness, post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrated the predatory nature of modern capitalism.

It’s easy to see those forces at work again in post-Sandy New York. It’s tempting to see this as a feature of disaster recovery. It’s better understood as the becoming visible of the planet of islands. These islands extend from Manhattan to Maui in the literal sense and are the most at risk. But whereas John Donne said,

no man is an island,

neo-liberalism says to us: “you are all islands.” It wants to sever all cultural ties, all traces of community and leave us exposed to the winds of the market and the rising sea of global inequality. Some will literally drown, others drown in debt, all lose their sense of identity.

This is Manny.

Manny on Guam

Manny on Guam

He’s a seventh-generation master navigator now living on the island of Guam in the Central Pacific, a US military colony. He’s seen here at the canoe house built by the Traditions About Seafaring Islands group, one of the actions taken by the indigenous Chamorro people to claim their long-ignored rights.[i]

They have revived traditional navigation in which canoes built by hand, using no modern materials, are sailed thousands of miles by navigators relying on their knowledge of the stars, the ocean and its interrelation with land. A man of few words, Manny explains his skill with an aura of authority. I ask him if he has seen any difference as a result of climate change.

He notes that he has always been able to predict the weather. His colleague Larry Cunningham interrupts to give substance. Once the group were planning a voyage of about 1500 miles. Manny simply said that they needed to be back by the end of the first week in July. On July 8 that year a typhoon struck. In this equatorial region, weather patterns observed over generations have been sufficiently stable to allow for such precision, he explains. Manny looks at me. “Now I can’t tell what the weather will be.”

The cultural studies scholar and activist George Lipsitz writes:

The South is not a periphery of the US racial order; it is its center.

That insight can be made planetary. The global South is not the periphery of racialized neo-liberalism, it is its center. This neo-liberalism produces whiteness as unmarked Anglophone commodity capitalism. It ignores the fact that over a third of the spoken languages on the planet, even today, are indigenous to the Pacific “sea of islands.” We are losing our cultural gene pool, just as surely as we are losing our right to existence.

Here’s Kamalu Ya Salaam again:

white people
come in all colors
their systems sink
past skin
anchoring into bone, mind
flesh, heart and soul
it is geno-suicide
to minstrel aliens
but some of us do die
strangled by our own


[i] My thanks to Keith Chamorro, LisaLinda Natividad, former Senator Hope Christobal, Lawrence J. Cunningham, the University of Guam and many others for kind assistance during my stay on Guam in August 2010.


Remember Sankara: Abolish Debt

Today is the 25th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso. His killing came a few months after he had called for African nations to go on debt strike against multinational lenders. That’s not a coincidence. So as part of the global week of action on debt, the Spanish 15M movement has called on us to remember Sankara’s message today. Of course, the best legacy we could offer would be to accomplish debt abolition.

Thomas Sankara

So, first, hit the link and get Fela Kuti’s amazing tribute to Sankara playing in the background. Now let’s review the basics. The 15 M statement reads:

Thomas Sankara was president of Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987. Sankara, a soldier, came to power via a coup, but unlike other presidents whocame to power by the same means, he always prioritised the welfare of the people of Burkina Faso. He nationalized land and distributed it among the peasants, nationalized minerals, launched immunization and literacy campaigns, banned genital mutilation and defended by all means equal rights for women… and confronted the dictatorship of debt.

This is what he said at the Conference of African Unity in 1987:

The debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebting ourselves had gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No,…, they played, they lost — that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.

Now we might wish that we had a President who talked in this fashion. Sankara’s analysis saw debt as a continuation of colonialism into a new form:

Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before…Debt is neo-colonialism in which the colonizers have transformed themselves into a form of technical assistant….Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa.

Sankara went so far as to call this form of debt a “financial slavery.” Since Strike Debt and the other debt resistance movements have gained attention, there have been those who have wanted to criticize them for making this analysis. The critics take upon themselves the name of the (neo)colonized but ignore this African legacy.

Such internal squabbles are irrelevant. The important point is this. Just as the Haitian Revolution drove the French Revolution into its radical phase; just as the Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions produced the Euro-American wave of 1968; so now the debt abolition movement is implementing decolonial politics in the metropole. In short: throughout the colonial era (since 1492), there have been successive waves of radicalism, from the colony to the imperial “center.” This is not surprising because it is in the colony that imperial power is practiced and exercised.

The “neo” in neo-liberalism thus comes from using such colonial techniques in the regions of that “center” that are now deemed dispensable. After the financialization wave swept through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in the 1970s and 80s, the banks turned their attention to Heavily Indebted Poor People in the late 90s and 2000s. With the crash of that tactic in 2008, extraction is now concentrated on those regions of Europe that were considered “Oriental” in the nineteenth century (Greece, Southern Italy, Spain and Portugal), as well as people of color in the United States.

And as Sankara said, it seems that

the crisis gets worse each time that the popular masses get more and more conscious of their rights against exploiters.

So Sankara proposed that, against the G7 (as it was then) and the Club of Rome, African nations should form their own “club,” a united front against debt. He stressed that European and African masses were not antagonistic but were rather being exploited by the same people. Unity was essential, he noted, adding that if Burkina Faso was the only nation not to pay, he would not be there for the next conference. As indeed he was not.

Sankara memorial

The final message in Sankara’s speech was the necessity of African mutual aid. Rather than exporting raw materials to the developed world and importing finished goods, Sankara called for an internal African market. Such a market would still be huge but it would allow for disarmament and development. This point is crucial: debt abolition was not, in Sankara’s terms, a “provocation” but a crucial first step towards a sustainable regional economy that was not centered on war.

It has not happened. Yet. Perhaps the wave of refusal spreading across South Africa against these same, unchanged conditions will become Sankara’s legacy. Let’s do what we can to make it happen.


Reconstruction at Work

What would we have to reconstruct after abolition? How might we think about the relations between the gender and sexuality expressed in finance with the exploration of  new forms of living? The abolition of debt and the refusal of heroes was and is mediated by land. Land is a way to think our relation to the biosphere extinction. It’s at the root of the ongoing disaster of personal debt via mortgages (details tomorrow), just as it was key to the possibility of a post-slavery Reconstruction.

I can’t as yet make this all come out neatly. But here are the things circulating in my mind. The 1868 Constitutional Convention in South Carolina was pre-occupied with debt and identity. A proposal was made to ban the words “negro, nigger and Yankee” but it was voted down at once. There was a debate whether to outlaw discrimination by “race or color.” Many of the freed wanted to keep the word “color” out of the new Constitution. Others feared that without an explicit ban, Democrats would find a way to  divide people by “race,” as indeed they did. Very late in the Convention there was an unsuccessful proposal to enfranchise women, who did so much of the work of abolition and reconstruction.

The true division of the sensible that was the ongoing class war in South Carolina in 1868, as it had been since 1863, was over land. The freed wanted above all to have some land, as means to form autonomous communities. They saw that the altermative was poverty and/or the penitentiary, as Angela Davis has so often reminded us.

Richard H. Cain

The minister Richard Harvey Cain, who later served two terms in Congress as a Republican, proposed a solution: the Convention would apply to Congress for a $1 million loan in order to buy land for re-sale to the freed and poor whites. The ensuing debate was the nastiest of the Convention and made it clear to the African American delegates that the Confederates still believed that a “negro would never own a foot of land” in the state.

In the Convention, Cain put his proposal to sell plots of land over a five-year period like this:

We want these large tracts of land cut up…What we need is a system of small farms…I believe there are hundreds of persons in the jail and penitentiary cracking rock today who have all the instincts of honesty, and who, has they the opportunity of making a living would never have been found in such a place.

Reconstruction was made to fail by means of the emergent prison-industrial complex, from the determination of planters to offer only starvation wages to make share-cropping seem preferable to the use of all state apparatus to confound efforts to buy land.

The resolution to request a loan from the Bureau of Freedmen passed but was ignored in Washington. In 1869, the state established its own Land Commission to buy and resell land. The freed made all efforts they could.

South Carolina Land Commission Records

You can see here that the land was selling for $1.50 an acre, compared to the planters’ (starvation) wages of $5 a month. A woman called Lucy Singleton bought a 30 acre plot, as did Charlotte Johnson with her spouse or relative Toby. For the most part, these ventures did not end well. The repayments proved beyond them, as the Wall Street crash of 1873 depressed prices for all produce. The very short repayment window was not a great idea.

Some did succeed. Cain himself established a settlement called Lincolnville with six others, which they selected because it was next to the railroad tracks. The town is still there today. Others survived in what had long been liminal spaces on the coast. If you’re of a certain age you might remember the intersection of Carrie Mae Weems and Julie Dash’s work on the Sea Islands twenty years ago.

Carrie Mae Weems, “Ebo Island”

This was the first time I had heard of the self-killing of the enslaved–it happened often in fact, because in their world-view death would later be followed a re-birth in Africa.

Her photograph of the site of Ibo Landing had no caption. It still gives me the creeps today. Released at the same time, Julie Dash’s now classic film Daughters of the Dust (1991) visualized the hyperlinked time of Reconstruction between past and present. Set in 1902, the film shimmies between African pasts and futures in the Sea Islands. Dash explicitly wanted her viewers to think about the beginning and end(s) of the twentieth century, a task that we perhaps have to revive for the new century that is upon us.

None of this provides a simple set of “to do” items that will resolve these interfaces of the economic, with identity, history and temporalities. I would say, though, that those interfaces are exactly what I have taken Occupy to be. It’s not of course that Reconstruction alone pre-figures Occupy. But once you think of a lineage that includes Du Bois, Angela Davis, feminist and African American arts and culture, alternative economics and food provision, you do have something you can work with.