Everyone knows that while Trump might be on the way out, Trumpism is alive and well. There’s a danger that four years from now a new, more competent Trump will have emerged who can instrumentalise resurgent white nationalism even more effectively and will further stoke the flames of proto-fascism.
In the UK, who knows where Boris Johnson will have left us after Brexit is done and dusted. There is similar uncertainty over renewed racist nationalist movements elsewhere, as the climate crisis escalates, inequality continues to soar and the coronavirus recession takes hold.
In response, the question has resurfaced as to whether the left should try to create an alternative, progressive nationalism to counter far-right ethno-nationalism and capture some of those who have fallen under its spell.
The argument goes that such a powerful, seemingly primal force as nationalism shouldn’t be left to the merchants of hate. In the UK, after Jeremy Corbyn was defeated at the general election last year, the new leadership contestants were falling over themselves to offer a ‘progressive patriotism’ to placate the Brexiters they had lost. In the US, too, there have been calls to reframe nationalism for the left.
But is it actually possible to disentangle racism from nationalism and create a progressive version of the latter, free from the spectre of race? Or can we conceive of other ways of being and forms of belonging that go beyond the nation-state?
I grew up in the 1980s and 90s as a mixed-race kid in the London borough of Newham, one of the most multicultural areas of the UK. Then, at age 11, I was sent to secondary school in whitest Essex. There were only about five people of colour in my year (that term wasn’t used back then; you were happy if you could escape being called ‘coloured’) and I was the only one who had been raised a scrappy anti-racist. To bait me, one boy would sing the football chant ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ under his breath as we crossed paths on our way to and from what was regularly called the ‘paki shop’ – the local newsagent’s where we bought our crisps and sweets.
It was only much later that I read Paul Gilroy’s 1987 book ‘There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’, a study of the ‘new racism’ that was on the rise in Thatcher’s Britain. That racism no longer identified race and racial superiority as something biological, but as cultural, and tightly bound up with national belonging.
For that reason, Gilroy argued that anyone trying to reclaim nationalism for the left could only do so if they ignored racism. Anyone who is used to being asked where they are really from or told to ‘go back to their own country’ would most likely agree.
But is it only this ‘new racism’, which emerged in the decades after decolonisation when many people from former colonies came to settle in the old imperial centres, that is so deeply entwined with nationalism?
To answer that, you need to unpick a whole knot of terms and the relationships among them, all of which are contested. You really can’t even begin to think about nationalism as an ideology without thinking about its corresponding socio-political entity: the nation-state. But then what’s the relationship between the nation-state and empire? The nation-state and capitalism? Capitalism and race?
The dance of the isms
On its Wikipedia page, the nation-state is contrasted with other forms of state, including empires. But in practice, the nation-state has always been associated with forms of imperialism ever since its ascent in sixteenth-century Europe. The rise of the nation-state coincided with colonial extraction in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade, and genocide of Native American populations, by rival absolute monarchies pursuing geopolitical objectives.
It was colonialism and slavery that provided the initial capital investments needed to fuel the industrial revolution. Karl Marx called this ‘primitive accumulation’ – the theft of land and labour that preceded capitalist development, and on which it depended.
Capitalism is inherently imperialistic due to its basic drive: the search for profit
For Marx, capitalism was inherently exploitative because it was based on a hierarchical division between two classes. Capitalists control the resources humans need to live, and workers have to sell their labour power for wages to be able to get access to those resources. Workers create the value that capitalists take as profit.
But ever since its beginnings, capitalism has always relied on areas of exploitation beyond that of the worker by the capitalist. Primitive accumulation isn’t something that just happened once, at the beginning of capitalism – it is an ongoing process. The social theorist Nancy Fraser, drawing on world systems theory and ecofeminism, identifies three such areas: the unpaid care and domestic work of women, colonial looting of land and labour, and the exploitation of non-human nature. Without these fundamentally violent sources of extraction, it’s questionable whether the profits needed to drive capitalism could keep rolling in, even with the basic class exploitation of workers.
Capitalism is inherently imperialistic due to its basic drive: the search for profit. Firms will always try to expand, including overseas, and will face an incentive to pay low wages, grab land or extract value in any other way they can possibly get away with, in order to make a buck.
The European absolute monarchies became republics or constitutional monarchies in the nineteenth century, as a middle class grew off the back of colonial expansion into Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and expansion into the Americas and far east as zones of influence. This time it was driven not by political objectives, fundamentally, but by the needs of large firms for bigger markets. Inter-imperial rivalries exploded into the First World War.
After the Second World War, the period of decolonisation – driven to a large extent by nationalist independence struggles – led to a proliferation of nation-states but didn’t lead to the end of imperialism. Rather, it marked the beginning of what Walter Rodney called ‘neo-colonialism’: formal colonies gave way to a set of colonialist economic relationships, with the US and the Soviet Union as the two imperial centres.
The period of decolonisation didn’t even offer a real alternative to capitalist imperialism, despite the two superpowers' competing ideologies. In fact, they masked two different forms of capitalism, one based on private property and one based on state property. Producing commodities in exchange for wages remained the basis of the economy in both cases.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world entered the phase of neoliberal globalisation, of which we seem to be at the tail end – an intensified form of imperialism with the US at its centre, orbited by other ‘advanced economies’ and increasingly the ‘emerging economies’, countries that were able to evade neo-colonial manoeuvres in the previous period.
Many commentators on globalisation have argued that the nation-state is waning in a world dominated by global finance, multilateralism, and the transnational corporation. Indeed, the current rise of Trumpist-style nationalism is often seen as a reaction to this loss of national power.
In reality however, the opposite is true. Transnational corporations need the bureaucracies – and legal systems, militaries and police forces – of nation-states in order to operate. Although they are transnational, corporations are historically linked to and headquartered in particular countries. Nation-states don’t exist in isolation but in competitive relation to each other in the inter-state system, and they tend to back the corporations that are linked with them.
It’s true that national democracies have been hijacked by transnational corporate power, but this has happened with the help of nation-states. The inter-state system remains the primary political framework through which global capitalism is mediated.
But countries don’t compete on a level playing field: the inter-state system is hierarchical. Countries with historical dominance due to colonialism do everything in their power to maintain their dominance and the subordination of other countries. This is why the current inter-state system can be described as imperialistic. It’s no coincidence that most transnational corporations are headquartered in the US, western Europe and Japan.
Not that the pecking order is set in stone. Over time, countries can and do change place, as seen most glaringly in the case of China. While the nation-state itself remains a key political agent, Trumpists may be right to feel that the US is on the decline as the major imperial player.
Instead of gunboats, the main instruments of today’s imperialism are international debt, the rules of trade and investment, and state borders.
What are countries for?
Nadine El-Enany writes that Britain’s state borders – enacted through its immigration laws – should be understood as acts of colonial violence, designed to maintain the racial divisions of capital accumulation and keep ‘the spoils of empire’ in the hands of primarily white elites. Something similar can be said of other wealthy ‘western’ countries.
Because where does race fit into our story of the nation-state, capitalism and empire? Though ideas of race and racism in different forms existed prior to European colonisation, white supremacy as an ideology and system structuring the globe – and even the modern concept of race itself – was part and parcel of the colonial endeavour. We might think of race as something biological, but in reality it’s a social construct that changes over time and place.
White supremacy is still a powerful hierarchy-making structure, and its logic cuts across nation-states as well as between them
As Paul Gilroy put it, race is the product of racism, not the other way round. The process of racialisation was, and still is, a way of sorting people into hierarchies to justify land theft, exploitation, and death – the primitive accumulation that happens beyond formal capitalist relations but which capitalism can’t live without.
And as we have seen, nation-states are the main political agents of this imperialist accumulation.
Of course, race and nation don’t map onto each other precisely. Race, class and nationality are interconnecting frameworks for creating hierarchies among people. There can be many ‘races’ within a nation, and it is for that reason that some feel that nationalism has the potential to transcend and expel racism. There are also many wealthy capitalists who are racialised as something other than white. And, as internationalist socialists have always pointed out, the imagined unity of nation-states masks the basic class division running through them.
But it’s also true that there is a sort of class relation between nation-states, and that class relation tends to be racialised. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Trump’s ‘shithole’ countries tend to be seen as brown or Black, while the ‘non-shithole’ countries tend to be seen as white?
Interestingly, Trump really didn’t want any Haitians coming to the US, he didn’t want El Salvadorians or people from African countries, but he did want Norwegians. He was also open to people from some Asian countries coming, as he thought they would be good for the US economy. This reflects the changing power positions of countries in the inter-state hierarchy, and may even be a sign that white supremacy as we know it is under threat (I like to think of the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ as a small power play in that direction).
For now, though, white supremacy is still a powerful hierarchy-making structure, and its logic cuts across nation-states as well as between them – as all those statistics about health and education outcomes, income disparities and prison populations that our governments keep ignoring tell us. For El-Enany, Britain’s borders are about keeping most people from the former colonies out, and keeping those who do make it in a state of precarity.
Anti-immigration sentiment is often framed as being about not having enough space or resources – as Trump’s infamous ‘we’re full’ remarks show. Similar sentiments about foreigners taking ‘our’ jobs or overfilling ‘our’ schools or scrounging off ‘our’ welfare or health systems abound.
This rhetoric mistakenly equates resources with territory, as if we have a certain amount of resources that are produced within and bounded by the territory of the nation-state, which need to be shared out between those who rightfully belong to that territory. Anyone coming from outside trying to lay a stake on those resources is behaving parasitically. But where is that wealth coming from?
Trump decried NAFTA as the worst trade deal the US had ever done, but it was a darn sight worse for those on the other side of it
In many cases, it isn’t produced within the bounds of the nation-state at all. That wealth is produced by workers in formerly colonised parts of the world, to whom multinational corporations mostly headquartered in the US, Western Europe and Japan can pay ultra-low wages precisely because of the immigration laws that stop workers moving around looking for work.
This wealth is produced by people who see much of their income go to service the trillions of dollars of sovereign debt their countries have been on the hook for since decolonisation, to western banks and Washington-based multilateral institutions. It isn’t a coincidence that those people are racialised as non-white – the process of racialisation is what enables their super-exploitation in the first place.
Even if we look at the piece of the economic pie created within the boundaries of the nation-state, we see it is baked largely by immigrants, often from those same regions of the world, who have come to escape wars waged over resources or geopolitics, or in search of a decent wage. Or those who are indeed citizens but whose parents or grandparents came to the country – often eagerly invited but denied full access to the spoils of empire – who are working ultra low wages. Or who are the descendants of enslaved people, or of indigenous people whose land was expropriated.
They turn out to be the ‘essential workers’ caring for ‘our’ sick and elderly, cleaning ‘our’ buildings, producing, selling and delivering ‘our’ food. Most of that pie, meanwhile, is eaten by a very different set of people, who have a different relationship to nation and empire and are duly racialised differently.
I realise that I’m mainly talking about the race dynamics of ‘western’ countries here – settler states or former colonial powers that are usually racialised as white. But while different countries have different processes of racialisation, race is a structuring device in all countries, and all countries are part of the hierarchical inter-state system. And while it may be under threat, white supremacy is still for now the overarching racial order.
Race is what enables the continued imperialist process of primitive accumulation both inside and outside of state borders. If we could somehow expunge race from the nation-state, while the nation-state existed as part of the inter-state capitalist system, we would have to invent another mechanism through which land could be grabbed and people paid less than the cost of living and denied access to services, if we wanted to preserve that system. And that mechanism would probably look a lot like race.
Nationalism: what is it good for?
Ironically, the wave of white nationalism personified by Trump – and, in the UK, Boris Johnson – is a response to this very form of neoliberal imperialism, of which the US and UK were key proponents and of which their elites were among its main beneficiaries. Trump decried NAFTA as the worst trade deal the US had ever done, but it was a darn sight worse for those on the other side of it. After signing the agreement, Mexico’s minimum wage declined by 40%.
Given how much anti-Brexit sentiment there is in the UK, there has been weirdly little debate about the real source of the lack of sovereignty with which the ‘take back control’ slogan of the Brexiteers resonated so strongly. Not immigrants, not Brussels, but the power of transnational corporations – many of which are headquartered in the UK – to set the terms of people’s lives. The trade deals which liberals are so desperate to see done will likely strengthen that power and weaken national sovereignty even further. The EU was culpable in undermining democratic sovereignty to the extent that it let corporate lobbyists dictate its rules.
The idea that Johnson or Trump was ever going to fight the power of corporations to bring sovereignty to their countries’ citizens is of course laughable. They have not even had to pretend that they will do so, as hardly anyone seems to be making this demand.
White nationalists are raging against their own empire, as its spoils are distributed increasingly unequally, and as China threatens its planetary dominance after steadfastly refusing to play by its rules. For the white working class, it was never really their empire to begin with. As we have seen, one of the main problems of the nation-state is that it papers over class, the key fault line running within capitalism. The fact that things have gone so wrong for the white working classes of imperial centres opens up an opportunity not for a progressive form of nationalism but for a renewed internationalism.
‘Progressive patriotism’ often means glossing over racism and cherry picking nice, wholesome things to be proud of. In the UK context, even some of those who are least oblivious to racism tend to think that if we can just have an honest reckoning with our colonial past, we can move forward together and be proud of the good things about being British, like our NHS or, I don’t know, Coldplay.
But they are missing the crucial point: the past isn’t past. We can’t separate our social or cultural institutions, no matter how wonderful they are, from ongoing imperialist economic relationships.
Maybe if we faced our colonial past it would help us start asking better questions about our country’s future, such as: what would less racist trade, immigration and foreign policies look like and how can we bring them about? Those are good questions and progressives should definitely be engaging with them. Given that the nation-state remains a key political terrain, we can’t afford to abandon action on that front.
But that doesn’t mean that we need patriotism: ‘devotion to and vigorous support for one's country’. Or nationalism: ‘identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations’. We don’t even need to think that it’s possible to end racism or class exploitation within the nation-state framework – which if my analysis is correct, it isn’t.
Others argue that we should place a history of resistance and freedom fighting at the heart of our nationalism. In the US, Bernie Sanders was criticised for looking to Scandinavia for inspiration, when he had ‘the rich heritage of American radicalism’ at his disposal – the American ‘roughness and spirit of defiance’ praised by Walt Whitman. In the UK, it’s all about the Levellers and the Chartists.
Presumably those resisting UK and US imperialism around the world exhibit that same spirit of defiance and love of freedom?
And what about those progressive or indeed revolutionary nationalisms that have fought imperial power for independence, you may ask. Black nationalism, the nationalisms of decolonial struggles, even Scottish nationalism?
There is a world of difference between nationalisms based on conquest and those based on emancipation, and the two should never be equated. But if the end-game of those latter nationalisms is simply to have a separate nation-state that will find its place in the existing inter-state system, what chance is there that it will end up being truly emancipatory?
I tend to support nationalist independence movements, but only because they are resisting bigger and more entrenched powers – not because I think they will actually result in something good.
To hammer the point home, while the nation-state is part of the inter-state political framework for capitalism – a global system which is inherently exploitative (class) and even inherently imperialist (race) – it will always be a means for valuing people along class and race lines. For that reason, while nationalism is attached to nation-states, it will always be exploitative, and probably racist.
Can we imagine a different kind of nation-state, one free from racism and from all systemic exploitation and domination? Anarchists would say of course not (and I like to think of myself as a ‘champagne anarchist’). For them, any kind of state is the very definition of domination and structural violence. It’s not just anarchists. Max Weber’s definition of the state was that it held the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a territory. Gandhi said the state was the enemy of the people. The sociologist Charles Tilly wrote that ‘war made the state and the state made war’.
If we try really hard, we might be able to imagine a nation-state that is not part of the capitalist inter-state system, and therefore a nationalism that is not necessarily racist. But why would we want to? If we are going to be making leaps of the imagination, we may as well imagine something that is actually good. In fact, that’s exactly what we should do.
My instinctive internationalism has always been based on the sense that no matter where we’re from, we are all humans and we all matter the same. I suppose, then, that my internationalism is based on a kind of humanism.
But that’s tricky, because humanism has actually been precisely part of the problem I have been describing. The idea that humans are special, that they matter more than all other species, has been central to the project of what indigenous scholars have called ‘modernity-coloniality’ that has wreaked havoc on our planet.
Not only has this kind of humanism imposed a hierarchy of species, with humans on top, it has in that same process created hierarchies within humanity. Speciesism and racism, humanism and imperialism, go hand in hand.
Racism has worked by designating some people as less than human, as closer to nature: there, like nature, to be conquered and bent to the will of the dominant species. Claire Jean Kim shows that racism is zoological in nature – it works by reducing Black people to the status of animals. But that hierarchisation can only work if other animals are seen as without intrinsic worth and therefore open to the most horrendous treatment.
Since the 1970s and 80s, ecofeminists have similarly seen the oppression of non-human nature, women and colonised peoples as part of one and the same project
Understandably, racial justice activists and scholars have usually responded to being animalised by denouncing the association and pushing it out of sight. But the answer is not for people of colour to fight to join the top dogs (or should we say ‘top humans’), but to interrogate the hierarchy itself. 'Deconstructing animality is not, as feared, a detour from racial liberation, but rather a crucial step along the path,' writes Kim.
Aph Ko, author of the awesomely-named book ‘Racism as Zoological Witchcraft’, calls instead for ‘afro-zoological resistance’ in response – racial resistance that centres on the question of the animal.
Since the 1970s and 80s, ecofeminists have similarly seen the oppression of non-human nature, women and colonised peoples as part of one and the same project, resulting from a concept of the human as ‘man the hunter’. The consolidation of states, and much later of capitalist nation-states, was indispensable in the long process of producing this kind of human.
Because, as Sylvia Wynter points out, it’s not all humans who are responsible for the environmental catastrophe which we find ourselves in, it’s not humanity per se. It’s a certain kind of human, most recently homo economicus, which reduces humans to calculators of economic worth.
Wynter is part of a lineage of Black radical thinkers, from WEB Du Bois to Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, who have striven to find a new kind of humanism, one that is, in Césaire’s words, ‘made to the measure of the world’.
Wynter explains that humans don’t have to be destroyers and exploiters. The one thing that does distinguish humans from other animals is that we are both a biological and a cultural species. We are a species of flesh and blood but also of storytelling. Our storytelling capacity originates in Blackness, in the Blombos Cave in South Africa where the first cave drawing was found, dating back 73,000 years.
So far we have disavowed the cultural aspect of our being – homo economicus pretends we have no choice, that we are hardwired to be selfish, greedy individualists. But we can reclaim this part of ourselves to tell new stories, to create a new human that is made to the measure of the interlocking structural crises we now face.
Against race, Paul Gilroy has called for a ‘planetary humanism’ where everyone has the right to be human. But in our current time we need to expand this category, both inwards to recognise all species on Earth as of worth, and outwards beyond our planet. This is not the sort of humanism that solves the problem of environmental devastation by asteroid mining or colonising other planets, as the Elon Musks of the world would have it, repeating the same processes of extraction and colonisation that got us into this mess in the first place.
Let’s call it an ‘intergalactic humanism’, in which Earthlings, in our infinite variety, can live well together within the boundaries of what our planet can allow, and in peace with our cosmic neighbours.
Building back better – for real
Of course, our new intergalactic humanism will need corresponding socio-political entities, just as nationalism has the nation-state. If the pandemic is a chance to hit pause and build back better, we might want to take this opportunity to really rethink things, beyond capitalism and the inter-state system, and beyond oppressive and exploitative structures altogether. After all, given that we now seem to be living in a perpetual state of apocalypse, why the heck not?
We don’t need to look very far to get to some pretty promising alternatives. The ecofeminist Maria Mies has advocated the ‘subsistence perspective’, with economies organised on a relatively small-scale and focused on reproductive work – what are now recognised as the ‘essential services’ that are frequently carried out by women and people of colour, including all kinds of care work and the production of food. Instead of production for profit, economies would be needs-based, environmentally sustainable, co-operative and local.
Economies would be organised around caring and sharing rather than competition over resources
There is a lot of scorn about the idea of local ‘autarky’ – self-sufficiency – and in fact this idea is open to the same charges of nativism and isolationism that are leveled at nationalism. But this need not be the case. On the contrary, for Mies, localisation is needed precisely as an antidote to the international division of labour which is the key driver of racism. These communities could be networked with each other, potentially up to a global scale.
Indeed, this is the idea of ‘democratic confederalism’, theorised by the imprisoned Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan, and practiced with extraordinary success in Rojava in north-eastern Syria, in the middle of a war-zone.
The Kurdish movement for decades fought for an independent state. But since 2005, it has changed tack, and now sees the state as not the solution but the cause of the problem, as the locus of patriarchy, inequality and environmental destruction.
Its alternative, democratic confederalism, is based on linked-up local democracies, and includes economic democracy in which the economy is needs-based and the means of life are held in the hands of society, not corporations or the state. Rojava is now struggling to survive after Trump gave Turkey carte blanche to invade the region last year, seeming to prove the movement’s point that states are the problem not the solution.
The Zapatistas in the Chiapas region of Mexico, whose 1994 revolt in response to the signing of NAFTA kicked off the alter-globalisation movement, also practice local direct democracy, with delegates from the grassroots levels sent to larger decision-making bodies to make decisions that affect larger populations. Again, Zapatista economics is based on collectivism, horizontal autonomy and mutual aid. And again, they face constant hostility from the Mexican nation-state. In both Rojava and Chiapas, women are at the heart of the movement, women’s rights are enshrined in their constitutions and embedded in their political structures.
In the Indian context, Ashish Kothari advances an alternative framework for human development and organisation which he calls Radical Ecological Democracy (RED) – also anchored in currently existing practices. This combines localisation with ‘bioregionalism’ – an alternative to the nation-state that is also popular among anarchists in the US and elsewhere.
A bioregion is a continuous geographic area with unique natural features in terms of terrain, climate, soil, watersheds, wildlife and human settlements. Bioregions are based on environmental concerns and don’t recognise the arbitrary boundaries of the nation-state. Instead of centralised management, they are more conducive to decentralised direct democracy and mutual aid in the stewardship of regional environments. Again, bioregions can be confederated with each other for larger-scale cooperation.
The boundaries of communities or bioregions don’t have to be hard borders that restrict movement, because economies would be organised around caring and sharing rather than competition over resources. People wouldn’t be forced to move through the pilfering of resources, instead allowing the free flow not of capital but of humans and ideas.
I’m not saying that racism or other forms of oppression would just melt away – there would have to be a constant effort to achieve this, as seen with the active attention paid to women’s liberation in Rojava and Chiapas. A key challenge would be to make sure that instead of exploitation and oppression being built into the political economic system, as they are now, structures could be put in place that prevent, detect and repair these evils.
Localisation combined with bioregionalism based on mutual aid and practiced through direct democracy are potentially good alternatives to the capitalist inter-state system. No more nations, no more class, no more race.
Freedom of choice
If it’s relatively easy to reject the idea of nations and even easier to reject race, then what about other ideas of ‘peoples’, like cultures or ethnicities – should we reject those too? Intergalactic humanist bioregionalism is all well and good, but aren’t humans by nature ‘tribal’? Isn’t ethno-nationalism so irresistible precisely because it resonates with a universal human need for these kinds of group identities?
The calls for a left patriotism seem to be based at least in part on this assumption – including that of Britain’s most lovable progressive patriot, George Orwell. (Another assumption behind such calls seems to be the elitist notion that most people aren’t capable of thinking or feeling beyond nationalism.)
Our collective identities should be based on our ethics not our ethnicities
And after all, I have been talking about the Kurdish freedom movement – and the Zapatistas, who were mainly drawn from the Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Tojolobal Maya-speaking communities. Aren’t these anti-capitalist political projects based precisely around ethnicity?
This is a quandary for many anti-racists and anti-capitalists who want to refuse all kinds of essentialism, including the idea that cultures or ethnicities are somehow fixed and unchangeable, but who also want to support decolonial movements defending their ethnic identities.
The anarchist social theorist Uri Gordon tries to reconcile the impulse of anarchism to reject ethnic essentialism with its politics of recognition through the concept of ‘philosophical subsidiarity’. He defines subsidiarity, a basic feature of anarchist organisational thinking, as the principle that people should have power over an issue in proportion to their stake in it. Philosophical subsidiarity means you should take into account your own position when talking about ethnic identity and not ‘punch down’. You can deconstruct your own ethnicity but not those of groups more marginalised than your own (kind of like how it’s ok to slag off your own mum but not ok for others to do so).
This is a good principle. But actually, a closer look at democratic confederalism and Zapatismo shows that they aren’t necessarily based on ethnic essentialism. David Graeber observed in 2004 that it was the international media that framed the Zapatistas as an ethnic group, not the movement itself. “Rather than a band of rebels with a vision of radical democratic transformation, they were immediately redefined as a band of Mayan Indians demanding indigenous autonomy,” he wrote. The Rojava project is consciously multi-ethnic, including not only Kurds but Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians and others. In fact, democratic confederalism has argued that our collective identities should be based on our ethics not our ethnicities.
As Graeber points out, so many of our identities are forced upon us. No person whose racialisation is a means for extraction is ever allowed to forget their racial identity. Don’t we ultimately want to be able to choose our own identities? Maybe there is a basic human need for belonging and group identity on a more intimate level than humanism alone can offer. But we should be free to choose those groups and identities ourselves, and not have them foisted on us. That means creating spaces free from domination and exploitation where we are able to experiment with doing that – which is exactly what many decolonial projects are trying to do.
Instead of trying to salvage tired and broken ideas like nationalism, by combining a new humanism with spaces free from hierarchy where we can experiment with belonging and identity, we can offer so much more to so many of us who also feel tired and broken. Because all we all really want is to feel safe, loved, like we belong and like we matter – even that kid who used to sing racist football chants to me at school.