The Where and Who of Independence

consumerism_escapeEnding colonialism is what is needed, but it doesn’t happen with a declaration of independence and a new flag. That just brings a more local elite into power to continue the same mistaken direction, exploitation and domination. As part of the run-up to the launch of Closer, Justin Kenrick explores what real change in a years time would look like…

If independence for Scotland just brings into existence another climate destroying state then there’s little point to it. If however it involves a push for a far deeper independence from the profit machine that is destroying all our futures then there is a huge point to it.

And that’s where the indigenous understanding of our responsibilities to place, and the rights we gain through demonstrating that responsibility, come in. This wholly different, powerful and emerging set of rights and responsibilities is now becoming widely accepted in international law. It embodies a radically different way of doing things that’s becoming an ever more powerful force in the world, one which embodies a deep sea change in our understanding of well being and belonging, and one that needs political, social and cultural expression here as much as in Latin America, Australia or Africa.

Those pushing for business as usual rail against indigenous peoples’ rights, against their legally recognised rights to block destructive developments on their lands, to say no to the overriding logic of profit and ‘development’ and ‘progress’ at all costs. Those objecting to indigenous peoples ability to stop the clearing of their forests, the destruction of their waterways, the pollution and stealing of their lands, claim that indigenous peoples are being given special privileges denied the rest of us. But this is to look at it the wrong way round.

The rest of us need to stand up and claim the same ‘privileges’, but to do so we need to demonstrate the same deep connection to place, to demonstrate that where we live means far more to us than just being somewhere we are passing through on our career development or desperate search for work.

To regain our right to call ourselves indigenous, and to regain the rights in international law that go with this claim, we need to understand and embody an indigenous understanding of place. Indigenous peoples the world over are very wary of any sort of nationalism that sees bloodline and inheritance as defining who we are, and wary of any belief that the state is the highest authority and can solve our predicaments for us any more than the state-enforced ‘free market’ can.

Their understanding of place and belonging is entirely about care.

Do you care about where you live? Are you willing to put the work and conversations and partying in to ensure all people where you are, and all other aspects of your landscape, are well? If you knew others were making the same commitment – making their and your action, attitude and awareness the centre of the world, the place from which solutions need to come – then would the ‘local’ still feel small and constricting and unimportant, or would it feel the place of struggle and life and partying and where the world begins?

When indigenous peoples talk about this depth of responsibility for place, they talk about it in terms we tend to call spiritual, but that is to make a division in the world between spiritual and material, the imagination and reality, that just doesn’t fit.

One Ogiek man from Mt Elgon in Kenya recently described to me what it was like to be evicted from their ancestral lands at gunpoint to make way for a national park, what it was like to be forced to move to other lands elsewhere. For us the idea of moving home, of moving to other lands not far from where we presently are, may not seem a big deal, but he described it differently:

“Imagine you are forced from your family, told to leave your wife and children and and to live with another woman and other children, that is what it is like when we are forced from our land. Our land is as close as family to us. It is family: we know its ways and care for it and it sustains us”.

These same Ogiek returned against the odds and have remained on their lands despite the threats, and are moving closer to having their rights recognised, and this has a huge amount to do with the emerging recognition in international law that people who can demonstrate this depth of interdependency with each other and their lands, this level of mutuality and relationality, have rights that accompany this deep responsibility that the rest of us have been taught to forget.

Can we remember these responsibilities and reclaim these rights? And can independence and a renewed democracy help?

When the Ogiek were having to write down the bylaws that have sustained them over the ages (writing them down in order to demonstrate to the government and conservationists that the community are the ones best placed to look after their lands) they were asked to also change their governance structures, to include voting for their leaders so that they would fit into a modern democracy.

The Ogiek laughed:

“Voting is not democratic. Look at the Government. Voting allows those with the power to ignore you most of the time, and then at elections to come bribing and threatening you”.

Instead, their form of appointing leaders is to have people who have clearly worked for the community’s good present themselves to the whole community and be questioned and discussed and, if need be they will go to a vote, but most often the process weeds out those who are out for themselves and power and enables those who have demonstrated care to be entrusted with leadership.

So, if independence is part of a process of reclaiming power from those who claim to represent us, then it is a welcome step. If it is an end in itself, then it takes us off on the same track as almost all the other states that have become independent in the last 60 years.

Ending colonialism is what is needed, but it doesn’t happen with a declaration of independence and a new flag. That just brings a more local elite into power to continue the same mistaken direction, exploitation and domination. In Africa, newly independent states quickly became in thrall to the same set of economic and political forces, and the elites in Africa and beyond continue the exploitation.

Ending colonialism is a process that starts at home and between homes in communities.

To end colonialism by the state in thrall to the market and to those addicted to wielding power and amassing resources, we have to reclaim a different kind of power, a power indigenous peoples throughout the world are reclaiming and acting on. This is the power to kick the habit, to give up the addiction, to stop believing the lies, to recognise that we are the ones with the power and that if we act responsibly in deepening our connection with – and care for – the actual places we live, then with that responsibility we regain the right to rule ourselves. Not rule ourselves from a distant parliament in Westminster, not even from a closer one at Holyrood, but rule ourselves by bringing power right back to the local level of neighbourhoods and towns and islands, and letting that power be guided by what MUST happen to stop runaway climate change, ecological devastation and the destruction of other peoples’ lifeways.

That deep care and love of place – that can enable us to reclaim our independence from the planet-destroying machine – is worth working and fighting and celebrating and living for. Through regaining that ability to respond to the world – that responsibility – we also regain fundamental rights in international law, in our communities and in our lives. The most fundamental of which is our right to self-determination: to determine who we are through how we care for (and so are cared for by) the land we live in and with and as.

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  1. I think there is much to be said for anchoring our politics in place in a different sort of way. But invoking ‘indigeneity’ feels pretty fraught, perhaps especially in the Scottish context. It inevitably raises questions about who counts, i.e. who is eligible to make a claim to being indigenous? It also feels too much of a transcultural generalisation to hold that indigeneity always = an ethic of care.

    There is definitely something here about politics and scale, about returning political agency to a more local level – which is part of a wider set of arguments also well made by Andy Wightman.

    It seems to me that one of the challenges we face is how to conceive of a closer political attachment to place without figuring this as exclusive (e.g. as is evident in Heidegger’s ‘place is the locale of the truth of being’ etc).

    1. Thanks Fraser,

      Yes – what you’re saying is absolutely right. If ‘indigineity’ is thought of in terms if people having special rights because of who their ancestors are then it is all about inclusion/ exclusion according to category and history not according to care of, and commitment to place in the present.

      And you are of course right that indigineity is not always about an ethic of care (in terms of how the word is invoked and used). But I am tling about (1) emerging international law, and (2) what are called the relational ways of thinking central to so many indigenous peoples.

      In terms of these it is the ability to demonstrate this compex care if place that is central to being indigenous. And it’s the combination of those two facts which I think has huge potential in terms of independence helping to lead to real self-determination at the personal and community level.

      But I grant you this need much more thinking through – thanks for the help with that.

  2. Murray McCallum says:

    “Do you care about where you live?”

    An aspect of “modern” lifestyle makes it difficult for many people to practically identify with this question, though I am sure most people would instinctively answer with a yes.

    To offer a narrow strand to this thought, where I live has no mains drainage. I require a license from the EPA to discharge water from my sewage system (which they inspected and tested). In order to ensure my system works optimally I cannot, for example, use bleach or other powerful man made anti-bacterial agents. The whole process makes me think about waste, the environment and how I am responsible for what I do.


    An English view on Scottish independence. Far more coverage of the issue is needed down here. Comments and corrections welcome

  4. umbra13 says:

    It is questionable whether “indigenous” is a useful term in locales where community has already been long reorganised in the interests of advanced capitalism: the dormitory towns, de-industrialisation etc. But perhaps “indigenous” stands for some other qualities: of a balance through local Virtue? – a word once central to politics but now discarded in favour of a Good which became conflated with pursuit of economic growth.

    In his 1704 conversation on the “Right regulation of governments”, Andrew Fletcher already noted the accelerating imbalance within the British Isles – the benefits leeching to the city of London. His alternative (“to diminish the corruption, we must less the city”) of multiple City States sought an equilibrium which would have been inconsistent with the emerging free flow of Capital.

    Fast forwarding, twenty years ago Christopher Lasch observed the imbalance and the elites networking their way around metropolitan centres, who in their self-representation as a meritocracy and their transitory lifestyle identify more with their peer groups across the globe than those in their own lands: “meritocratic elites find it difficult to imagine a community… that reaches into past and future and is constituted by an awareness of intergenerational obligation”. (“The Revolt of the Elites”)

    So any real change must avoid reproducing more of the same metropolitanism. But under Justin’s article is a lurking question whether ecological imperative is a principle under which all activity must be constrained and guided (so by who?), or whether it is assumed that the sum of local-scale virtue can meet that imperative? This may take us back to Fletcher, whose City State communities were, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed, unpalatable and utopian even then.

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