An Interview with Peter Gelderloos, Part II: From Colonial Trauma to Ecological Resurgence
The second part of the interview with Peter Gelderloos continues discussing the recent climate justice movements, before discussing decolonization and the reproduction of colonial trauma. The interview concludes by talking about their forthcoming book on anarchist resistance to climate change.
This is a second part to an interview with Peter Gelderloos. Peter is a well-known ‘movement’ or ‘protest’ scholar that has dedicated his non-fiction work to supporting and strengthening social struggle in general, meanwhile placing a special emphasis on anarchist politics and movements. Peter is the author of various books: How Non-Violence Protects the State (2005), Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social Movements (2006), Anarchy Works (2010), The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy (2013) and Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State formation (2017).
The text has been minimally edited and continues to discuss the recent surges in environmental protests, beginning with the rise of Extinction Rebellion. This conversation meanders through the trials and tribulations of Decolonization, notably the issue of the “State” within decolonial literature, identifying the colony model and reproducing trauma. The interview concludes by discussing Peter’s forthcoming book, which includes as short discussion about the groups who are resisting socio-ecological degradation and climate change. It can only be hoped that the following conversation is interesting, if not thought provoking.
Alexander Dunlap: – You are well known for reviewing and developing a criteria for social struggles and actually how to fight against these things — be it capitalist infrastructures, commodity relationships and things like this. What do you think is really important for these rising youth environmentalist movements like Extinction Rebellion who are promoting civil disobedience actions in various countries?
Peter Gelderloos: – Yeah… I think on one part to localize their analysis, to get to know their territory and make a stronger relationship with that area and with other struggles that exist there. Learning other histories of resistance, to connect to an anti-colonial analysis and historical awareness. If they’re afraid to criticize capitalism, then I don’t think there is much that can be expected of them other than to eventually, like you said, support a more rationalized exploitation/destruction of the planet. It would be nice to see more rebellion within Extinction Rebellion and any other groups that lives behind their “would be” leaders and their extremely limited analysis. But you know anything can happen.
– I guess the London, or some of the English chapters were openly embracing the police.
– That definitely shows a lack of historical awareness, realism and seriousness.
– And I guess related to the analyses of capitalism and racial capitalism, how have you experienced—from an anarchist perspective and with a lot of these ecological struggles you mentioned [in Part I] — the rise of decolonization in terms of a more popular discourse, but even more a popular academic discourse?
– Like most ideas that are connected to social movements, there is a lot of different interpretations given to decolonization. I do not know enough about the history of that specific term to be able to say what its initial intentions are, but just the fact that it’s connected to a much longer and broader history of multiform resistance against colonialism — I think you know the merits and criteria on which it should be judged. In that light, it’s connecting to a very important way of analyzing capitalism and the State. But just like any movement, you are also going to get people who try to capitalize off it. There are people who try to pacify it or people who are more connected to actual colonial institutions than to real struggle and making a career out of it — even if they legitimately believe in it.
– This ends up converting decolonization into a more exclusive hyper specific academic language that doesn’t really give a lot back to struggles. This would be ironic since it’s definitely anti-colonial critics that point out how academics are certainly capable and trained to exploit the natural world, exploit social movements, exploit lower classes in order to set themselves up to portray themselves as the producers of knowledge that actually doesn’t belong to them. If somebody considers themselves a decolonial or anti-colonial scholar, if the first thing that they’re not asking themselves when they wake up every morning is: “how can I contribute to the struggles against ongoing forms of colonialism?”, then we can say there is something wrong.
– Totally. I guess for me one of the struggles I’ve personally had is the kind of ambiguous discourse surrounding colonialism. And more from the academic side than the popular side that I have seen is, there’s a lot of talks about discursive oppression, and for me there’s always been the question of the material aspect of the colonies. And I guess for you, or from an anarchist perspective, what is the colony? Is the colony not the State?
– I think the State is a fundamental part of the colony. States are a global structure now directly because of colonization, there is not really any way around that. There are systems and logics of oppression that function particularly well and that even can go somewhat autonomous for a while or that can exist within stateless spaces, or within our movements. Patriarchal behaviors being a very easy example that can reproduce — at least for a time — independently of the State. But where they are free to act, there is a tendency to bring us back to the State or to allow the State to re-emerge in autonomous spaces. And I think there is certainly aspects of colonialism, ways we’ve been trained, in this very world-hating western worldview that can operate independently of the State.
– The tendency again would be to help the State re-emerge or help exploitive and oppressive dynamics re-emerge in our spaces. So I think there is certainly valid criticisms that focus on discourses and forms of colonialism, but it would be odd for me to develop a critic of colonialism that give the State a pass, that to me would smack very much of some of the things that Fanon, among others, were criticizing.
– I guess this goes with your assessment of social movements in the Failure of Nonviolence, where you outline different tactics and criteria for understanding success in political struggles. In your book Worshiping Power, I think it was in the second chapter called “Take Me to Your Leader,” where you really get down and try to understand the mechanics of colonial power and how different Indigenous groups were divided and how colonial and State structures really began to root themselves in different geographic locations. I guess some of my concerns with decolonization is just the way they are supportive of different authoritative, even State-like, structures. This is not to confuse or conflate Indigenous nations with State structures per say, which is a typical criticism of anarchists. Could you maybe talk a little bit about this way of developing centralized authority to manufacture leaders to create holds in different indigenous and rural areas, historically and maybe even in the present?
– I think it becomes necessary to make a distinction between leadership — that is a very broad idea — and specifically coercive hierarchies. I have never seen a social situation or a society in which leadership is absent, but certainly, there are many that are organized to make the centralization of power impossible, and that I think is a really important difference. There are a lot of Indigenous societies that are traditionally State-less, that in their own words would talk about traditional leadership they have, and in which they make sure that power is always multiple and that it can’t be centralized or imposed on people. Additionally, they continue to be very effective at resisting colonization.
– More hierarchical societies and movements are generally easier for the State to repress because those societies or movement are already repressing their base, they already have the mechanisms needed to impose a sort of unity, in which unity is a code word for some central groups to be able to make decisions that everybody has to obey. So those mechanisms already exist, the base is already being ruled in some way, the only thing that the state—or a more powerful state—that comes along has to do, is to take over these mechanisms. The society or the movement has already been organized in a way that it has been domesticated, it has been dominated.
– This kind of reminds me of the words of Ward Churchill some decades ago, which went something along the lines of: “At first you have got to colonize yourselves before you can become a colonizing culture.”
– When you say to “control or oppress a base,” is this maybe about a form of internal colonization and disciplining and regimenting people into a population?
– And you know, a lot of people have spoken and written about this; there were processes of asserting that kind of domination and making that domination a societal norm within Europe that were vital for Europe to be able to colonize the rest of the world. Parts of this already happened before Cristopher Columbus began the invasion of the Americas, but certain attempts at colonization were defeated by resistance, there was also a process [of domestication] accelerated by colonization. Yeah, so in a way Europe had to colonize itself to become “Europe” in order to colonize the rest of the world, and in plenty of places this had already happened.
– Yeah totally, just with the Witch-hunts there is a process of genocide, feminicide and also the destruction of nature. Literally the ‘resources’, whether they are so-called natural or ecological resources, human labor or intellectual power that can be harnessed to create this situation.
– The existence of a mercenary class that was based on conquering, killing, torturing, enslaving others and then hoping to gain wealth out of that process, sharing in the spoils of conquest. Really, this became the model for ‘Whiteness’. Because that was of course one of the aspects in effect in this process of colonization. The invention of race, and particularly the invention of Whiteness as a sort of mercenary category of complicity with the State, complicity with capitalism that if they would go along with it and not act in solidarity with racialized people all around the world, then they would have access to very symbolic benefits of State power and colonialism. In many cases, there are also economic benefits and at the very least, it is the benefits of basic survival: to never have been treated like an Other-than-human.
– Yeah. So this is frontier culture kind of stuff. Coming from Western Turtle Island, I feel like this phenomenon is built on imbuing a high level of insecurity and abusing people to keep them submissive, to be conquering different territories, and to produce this kind of indifference and clinging to a culture of conquest.
– Yeah I mean look at the training routine for people in the military… It is basically a process of abusing them, getting them to abuse one another, getting them to identify with—and pledge loyalty to — their abusers so that they become a perfect trauma producing machines. And then directing this trauma outwards and being relatively comfortable with using violence against others and sort of taking pride in having survived that training process.
– This sounds like the virus of colonization.
– Alright, thanks a lot. One of the things I have heard recently, in a very nice way, is that you are working on a new book. You had a nice pamphlet come out some years ago, ‘An Anarchist Solution to Global Warming’, but now you are approaching a full-length book with Pluto Press about environmental issues. Can you say a bit more about what might be coming in the next year?
– It is a book on the ecological crisis from an anarchist and anti-colonial perspective. By which I mean instead of dividing it up into single issues or having a technocratic focus on atmospheric carbon, it looks at the way that not only is ecology completely interconnected, but also how human societies are a part of nature. We can no longer perpetuate this originally aristocratic, and then Western divide between human and nature. So you can’t simply look at the climate without looking at everything else. We can either be healthy parts of our ecosystem or we can destroy the ecosystem: those are the choices.
It is not “humanity’s” fault for destroying the environment, but an ecocidal machine that is actually causing the ongoing collapse of ecosystems all across the planet. It is a machine developed and made global by colonialism. Pretty much every ecosystem that is in a state of free fall — that is collapsing — right now, include humans as an integral part of their balance, of the network of species that coexist through mutual aid. Humans are no longer even allowed to take part in the ecosystem in the way that they did traditionally, when we were able to play a very respectful and healthy role. And the reason we’re not allowed to do that is because of the State, because of capitalism….
So it connects to Indigenous struggles claiming their lands back, for preserving their traditional ways of life, this connects to struggles against major infrastructure projects in the Global North, within societies that are completely colonized and where people grow up in a very alienated way. But in the course of these struggles, like with occupations of territories like the ZAD (Zone-to Defend) people transform their relationships with their territory and start to rediscover a part of what has been stolen from them. This means establishing non-alienated relationship with all the other living things around us in a reciprocal way.
– That sounds really good! And so you’ll be interviewing and working with a lot of different groups across the world? Do you mind giving a bit of a sample of the voices you might be focusing on?
– I can give a couple of examples… I am talking with some folks who have participated in some of these big anti-infrastructural occupations in the Global North. I’m talking with folks connected with really great projects in Brazil. For example, urban transformations carried out by the very poorest of city residences change the city into a healthier ecosystem for human survival and not-for-profit. Also involving an anti-colonial perspective of urban gardens, water purification systems, so on and so forth. As well as rural projects that bridge the divide between food sovereignty, Indigenous resistance and protecting some of the ecologies that are really important on a planetary level, for the climate, for a healthy atmosphere… Everything being interconnected and the Amazon region being one of these potential tipping points that are connected to other aspects of ecological collapse. Yeah, those are some examples.
– Well, I am looking forward to it. Thanks for coming out here and talking with me.