Tag Archives: colonialism

Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.

texas_bank

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

Radical left critiques of liberal identity politics

The last few years — and particularly the 2016 election season and its aftermath — were packed with a variety of contentious perspectives on race, and how to best go about fighting racism and white supremacy.  In particular, there has been lots of development around radical left critiques of mainstream liberal identity politics.  Here is an incomplete selection of some essays that I find compelling.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-option is a lengthy essay from a group of radicals in Occupy Oakland that analyzes and critiques a variety of issues associated with mainstream conceptions of race and identity.  The piece touches on the nature of non-profits, the way elites of color can and do participate in white supremacy (and thus, the inadequacy of making elite institutions “more diverse”), the role of capitalism in producing/reproducing racial stratification, the way liberal analysis tends to essentialize/reduce/boxe-in people to their respective “identities”, the way liberal analysis tends to infantalize and remove agency from people deemed “oppressed”, the way identity politics can be cynically used to erase people of color from allegedly “white” spaces, and more.

Dear #BlackLivesMatter: We Don’t Need Black Leadership by R.L Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse is a critique of observed tendencies for “identity politicians” to exploit the people and the communities they claim to speak for in order to increase their own individual power, and looks to the historical examples of the ’60s-era Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and mass politics during the Reconstruction era as political models to emulate today.

Fighting racism and the limits of “ally-ship” by Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean in Socialist Worker is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically in the way it over-emphasizes individual inter-personal relations at the expense of mass struggle.  

From charity to solidarity: a critique of ally politics by Cindy Milstein in ROAR Magazine is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically on the way it depends on a narrow and superficial understanding of race, the way it reinforces unhealthy tendencies of guilt and self-righteousness, and how it pushes people away from being autonomous political actors.

The Safety Pin and the Swastika by Shuja Haider of Viewpoint Magazine analyzes the way many parts of liberal identity politics is being appropriated by the far-right as a way to create an unironic form of “white identity politics” that is used to uphold white supremacy and white nationalism, and the need to return to substantive multiracial organizing and grounding anti-racism with anti-capitalism.

White Purity by Asad Haider of Viewpoint Magazine is a critique of privilege theory, arguing that we need to see white supremacy as detrimental to white people as well as non-white people, as argued by old-school communists like W.E.B. du Bois.

A letter from students and workers “of color” in the Takeover of Humanities 2 is a communique from a group of leftists at University of California, Santa Cruz, countering critiques from liberal campus activists about the alleged “whiteness” of an occupation, and raises larger points about multiracial organizing and the tendency of certain kinds of “identity politicians” to side with institutions of power.

Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization, Chicago 1969

America’s internal colonialism

I just came across an excellent article on race in America in Vanity Fair, written by an MSNBC host to plug his upcoming book.  A surprising source for an analysis that revives, at least figuratively, the idea that black communities in the US are part of a process of internal colonization.  It’s an odd mixture of Marxian anti-imperialist and liberal discourse.  Here is the thesis:

Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Amer­icans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.

And here is an observation on how colonialism, both historic and present, relies on complicity by elite layers of the colonized people:

From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.

Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?

Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.

This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.

And a passage comparing and contrasting the rule of law in Nation and Colony:

In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.

If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

And a rare observation that while the US security apparatus disproportionately targets black people, it is also part of a wider system of repression against the working class in general:

The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.

All of this echoes the points I tried to make in an essay I wrote 2 years ago on police violence, about how in numerous working-class communities across the US the police are more or less an exploitative and lawless occupying force.  And there has been much, much more hard evidence on this that has come out since then, ironically in no small part due to the various Department of Justice investigations into the police forces of many major cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  Thanks Obama!?

Anti-imperialist techno-science in India and China

I’ve gotten a short blog piece published in Hyphen, an Asian American magazine/blog, titled “The Subversive Roots of Asian Scientists and Engineers”.  It takes a look at the way nationalist anti-imperialist movements in India and China through the early and mid 1900s consistently merged with domestic engagement with science and technology, and the way this influenced education policy after the 1940s — laying the groundwork for creating a large mass of educated and skilled scientists and engineers who could migrate to higher-waged jobs in the US.  The underlying theme of the post is to look at the model minority stereotype from a more historical and global perspective, as well as in a way that reinforces radical leftist politics.

In light of this history, those who talk about how minorities need to stop talking about racism, and simply emulate Asian success, are asking for an irreconcilable contradiction.  “Asian success” is rooted in a history of political militancy and anti-racism, that put scientific and technological development and education at the center of their strategies, and which required major victories against imperial subjugation to fully play out.  If Black and Latinx people are to “follow” the example of Asians, then the first step would be a re-affirmation of ongoing liberation struggles against white supremacy and US imperialism.

From slavery to imperialism

What were the continuities between the elites of the slave economies of the southern United States before the Civil War, and the elites that pushed the formal imperial expansion of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

This was a question that crossed my mind earlier this year when I was doing some casual reading and reflecting on the aftermath of the Civil War.  Aside from the brief period immediately after the Civil War, when the slaver/planter elites were on the backfoot during Radical Reconstruction, the relative socio-economic and political power of these elites remained largely intact.  Thus, it stands to reason that the interests of these former slavers was a powerful force behind the expansion of US imperialism by the turn of the 20th century.

Jacobin has recently published an interview with the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016), which re-empahsizes the power of the Southern planter class in the US state, and which touches on issue of foreign policy.  One relevant argument discussed in the interview is that the US slaver elite saw slavery as necessarily being an international system, and pushed US foreign policy to act accordingly prior to the Civil War.  For example, on views on Cuba:

…many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

Another relevant book that I recently came across is The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), which looks at the continuities between the southern slave economy and the slave/indentured-labor markets of various Pacific Islands. From the summary:

Worldwide supplies of sugar and cotton were impacted dramatically as the U.S. Civil War dragged on. New areas of production entered these lucrative markets, particularly in the South Pacific, and plantation agriculture grew substantially in disparate areas such as Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. The increase in production required an increase in labor; in the rush to fill the vacuum, freebooters and other unsavory characters began a slave trade in Melanesians and Polynesians that continued into the twentieth century.

The White Pacific ranges over the broad expanse of Oceania to reconstruct the history of “blackbirding” (slave trading) in the region. It examines the role of U.S. citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade and its roots in Civil War dislocations. What unfolds is a dramatic tale of unfree labor, conflicts between formal and informal empire, white supremacy, threats to sovereignty in Hawaii, the origins of a White Australian policy, and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power and putative protector.

All of this just goes to show how important it is to trace the way class and capitalism undergoes a constant process of decomposition and recomposition.  Nothing in history is really “new”–its always built on the formations and movements and dynamics of previous eras.  A more optimistic look at this dynamic can be seen in the evolution of the radical left in this era: the Radical Republicans paved the way for the Knights of Labor, which paved the way for the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Overview of the radical autonomous social movements of 1970s Italy, from Issue 5 of Viewpoint
  • Analysis on imperial obsession with women’s clothing in South Asia
  • Report on private security forces in Washington DC
  • Report on efforts in Kuwait to check citizenship via DNA collection
  • Photo-essay on environmental destruction around the world

A bittersweet independence day

Yesterday was Indian Independence Day, marking a thoroughly complicated event that combined the culmination of a successful and protracted anti-colonial struggle with an explosion of reactionary ethno-religious violence that killed and displaced millions via Partition, and the continuation of a regime dominated by colonial-era domestic elites.

The best example of the latter point is perhaps the Telangana Rebellion, an armed insurgency by communist peasant groups against the Nizam of Hyderabad and local landlords, that started in 1946 and continued unabated through the exit of the British Empire in 1947, up until 1951, when the newly decolonized Indian Army finally quelled the unrest and saved the landlords from being completely expropriated.  It is thus unsurprising that the current communist insurgency in India has deep roots in Telangana.

On a related note, its highly irritating how consistently Western narratives on the Indian Independence Movement erase its militant and revolutionary dimensions, and instead put forward a highly superficial conception of a completely non-violent struggle.  Not that the non-violent media spectacles organized by Gandhi didn’t play an important role; but it is complete nonsense to ignore the role played by militant organizations like Anushilan Samiti, the Ghadar Party, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and the Indian National Army, or the increasingly violent uprisings that destabilized the British Raj like the aforementioned Telangana Rebellion, as well as the 1942 Quit India Movement and the 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.  I’ve written about the Quit India Movement here, and argued how it was this violent insurrection that proved to be the major factor in the collapse and retreat of the British Empire from the Indian subcontinent by 1947.

If we’re to be true to the progressive spirit of anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggle, then let’s make sure that we save this history from liberal white-washing–as well as ensure that the unfinished tasks of the struggle do not remain as such.