What’s Pan-africanism got to do with Marxism?

“The fight against Eurocentrism, a thing which does not allow for a life with dignity, is a struggle against the naturalization of racial oppression in the social condition of the worker. For this reason, Pan-Africanism is a necessary understanding of class struggle.”

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Texto em Português (BR) aqui.

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A wall with all white male presidents of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), and the day’s lecturer Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida.

In the second to last week of August, the Faculty of Law of the Federal University of Bahia, in Salvador, hosted the first cycle of a course on Marxism and Pan-Africanism. This course will be a recurring initiative to discuss concepts and disseminate knowledge not only for law students in the university. From the 20th to the 23rd, the doors of the main auditorium were open to everyone with an interest in the event, free of charge. It was not just a lecture on the perspective of black women, on the history of white supremacy and capitalism, or on the meaning of Pan-Africanism. It was a meeting of exchange that brought together speakers, teachers, poets, students, writers, artists and more, many of whom were not always welcome in that space. Due value must be given to the initiative to address anti-capitalist and anti-racist issues and practices in the academic environment where Brazilian Law is researched and enforced.

On the first day of the course, before the lecture of Dr. Lindinalva de Paula, there was a warm welcome from the table and exciting performances of theater and poetry. The topic of the lecture, the perspective of black women on Pan-Africanism, was fully expressed in everyone’s chest when Sophia Araujo stepped on stage and presented her poetry- in the presence of her daughter named Dandara (also the name of a notorious enslaved woman of the 17th century). The bridge between the reality of the streets today, and the theoretical debate of centenary ideologies, has materialized in an environment that has been historically hostile against both.

One of the participants at the beginning of the event stated not only the relevance of us being there, but the obligation we have to occupy that space. She reports that in that same room she has been booed for defending affirmative action, and many have been booed for trying to address anti-racism. Combating institutional racism needs the production of anti-racist knowledge, bringing other non-European rationalities to the academic environment. This means not only studying, but transforming.

“Until the lions have their own historians, hunting stories will continue to glorify the hunter.” (Eduardo Galeano)

Leno Sacramento, from the Olodum Theater, presented a shocking performance on police oppression, addressing the psychological and physical violence that compose our incessant denunciations against the genocide of black people. Nor can we forget the invisibilisation and ideological silencing of black and indigenous peoples, reinforced by epistemic-genocide, which brings us the famous phrase “death begins before the shot” (Pedro Borges).

The event was not restricted to the urban context, a link between the rural area and the urban area was also forged. There was a representative affirmation of Union power in contrast to the corporate one. And the presence of members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) brought to the table the struggle of black peasants. Therefore the symbiosis of land, class, and race was demonstrated in theoretical and practical ways.

“I am landless / I am poor / I am black / I am a revolution” (Raumi Souza, musician and MST member)

Dr. Lindinalva de Paula’s talk had a simple and indispensable message: Together, black women go further. Alone they may walk fast, but even with all their titles, it is a trap. “Our steps come from afar,” she said, referring to all the black women who came before us, and made our way possible today. They were part of a feminism that was not Eurocentric, that burned no bras, and was not ignorant of Africa. They had different guidelines; for example, daycare, which was not a white feminist agenda because they had access to basic health, and when they got pregnant they could hire a black woman to help. In the periphery, and before, black women were already feminists.

“We did not become feminists, we did not know we were doing feminism all along.” (Dr. Lindinalva de Paula)

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The following day, the lecture by Dr. Muniz Gonçalves Ferreira also addressed the issue of the black movement’s dialogue with whiteness, only from a more Marxist perspective. In contrast to the previous speaker, who at no point demonstrated any value in the political collaboration between black women and white feminists, he argued that despite the position of undeniable whiteness from which Marx and Engels spoke, they did not reproduce the racism of their time. At least not after a certain point in their careers. Therefore, for him, there is no contradiction in adopting the philosophies of these thinkers in the anti-racist or Pan-Africanist struggle.

Before the course began, attendees received an email with a video of a debate that clearly shows the tense divergence within the Pan-africanist movement between Afrocentric and Marxist thinkers. Eurocentrism, as a worldview where racism is put into practice, has no place in Pan-africanist doctrine. While Afrocentrics believe that adopting Marxism means giving space to a Eurocentric doctrine, Marxists such as Dr. Muniz Gonçalves Ferreira believe that Marx and Engels overcame their inherited Eurocentrism and fought against racism.

“Were Marx and Engels racist?” To the lecturer, no. They undoubtedly studied the texts of people contaminated by ‘ethnocentrism’, such as Hegel, who believed that world history was an evolutionary process from the East to the West, concluding that Africa, having a stateless people, had no history. They were not only European intellectuals, but they were German, in a colonial and enslaver period that oppressed even the peripheries of their own continent (the Slavs), but eventually they joined the struggle against slavery and against colonialism.

If Marx and Engels’ struggle against slavery and colonialism was indeed an anti-racist act, it remained open. They stood in favor of anti-colonial revolts in India and China, defending them as strategies proportional to the violence of capitalism and colonialism. They also defended the North in the U.S. civil war, denouncing biased journalism in Britain that had economic interests in cotton production in the South. Marx even “let” his daughter marry a Haitian of Afro-descent. That is what it means to be anti-racist in the 19th century, even if these are no longer our standards for determining whether someone is racist or not today. Unfortunately, the lecturer hinted that racism was once more palpable back then, and that our criteria for categorizing racism today is subjective; it is enough to say that African paganism is “of the devil”.

This reading does not work for everyone. A member of the audience questioned whether these arguments are enough to determine whether or not someone was racist. Being abolitionist, at that time, was a position held by many who had interests far from being the destruction of white supremacy. Having a black relative also means nothing, since even Bolsonaro tried to use this argument to reassure that he is not racist. Others have brought the question of how racism persisted after socialist revolutions in Cuba and Russia. And the Afrocentric Pan-africanist organization React or Die asked to have their flag removed from the event, but maintaining cordial relations and organizers of the course demonstrating full support for their VI International March Against the Genocide of the Black People that happened 4 days later, August 25th, and to the “Don’t Vote, React!” campaign.

Since the 19th century, racism has not ceased to be palpable and real. From medical genocide, necropolitics, mass incarceration, to police violence, our criteria for denouncing racism still holds immense weight on the bodies of black people in Brazil. A Marxism that is not anti-racist is possible, but for the speaker, being a Marxist without being anti-racist is an appropriation of the term. An anti-racism that is not Marxist is unquestionably embraced, since our goal is human emancipation and we fight against all forms of oppression. We do not have to be Marxist to be anti-capitalist. Other anti-capitalist guidelines are more than welcome.

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Soviet Poster (1960)

Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida, the speaker the following 3 days of the course, presented a different perspective on the relationship between Eurocentrism and Marxism. What Marxism and Pan-Africanism have in common is that they are effective ideologies in dealing with historical moments of conflict. It’s not possible to essentialize the two ideologies. There is no homogeneity, there is history. The movement of history is one of transformation and conflict.

Some say they don’t want to read white writers, but those who kill us have only what to gain from that. “They are horrible indeed,” he said, but it is not consistent to read Fanon without reading Hegel, for example. Even though Hegel had extremely ethno / Eurocentric rhetoric, and undeniably racist stances, he also introduced us to the dialectic between the master and the enslaved.

W.e.b. Du Bois was the first black man with a Harvard doctorate. Without theory, practice submits itself to the immediate. But Marxism has nothing to teach the worker. “Theory of the Strike?” Uniting theory and practice, intellectuals and politicians, means joining the agenda of thought with political practice, since the transformation of the world depends on us understanding the world.

At the same time, the act of transformation transforms the practitioner: Praxis. The future must be built and can be transformed. In the midst of many fantastic examples and analyzes, perhaps the most striking example of the union of theory and practice, praxis, and transformation, was the presentation of the concept of naturalization of the condition of exploitation.

Naturalizing the social condition of the worker happens through the Capitalist ideology. Their condition is naturalized within the system by the social division of labor, which depends on race and gender. These social relations are concrete. They are social relations that give meaning to things. Therefore, the relationship between Africa, race, slavery, and blackness is a socialization. Race itself is a historical creation. Racism created the black, and created its antithesis, the white. The fight against Eurocentrism, a thing which does not allow for a life with dignity, is a struggle against the naturalization of racial oppression in the social condition of the worker. For this reason, Pan-Africanism is a necessary understanding of class struggle.

Jal Souza, one of the attendees, explains this phenomenon wonderfully from his personal perspective:

“While the children of the elite study to develop critical thinking, young working-class people are committed to increasing the small profit of the family, and thus are not allowed intellectual development. I remember a youth, poor financially, where to open a book was seen as an act of pure entertainment and laziness, for there is no value recognized in those words but rather contempt. Time spent reading should be employed in paid work. The irrelevance of the study and relevance of basic manual labor makes it difficult for boys and girls from the peripheries to see themselves in educational institutions. Therefore, they occupy the positions of worse remuneration and greater physical effort, without representation in political organizations, and without knowing how to claim and conquer rights. Rich and white men, those who are most interested in keeping the mechanisms of the system in place, decide the future of all.” (Jal Souza)

While Marxism makes contact with reality by piercing to ideology, structural racism is the social fabric that sustains institutions. We can advance in isolated institutional contexts, without even beginning to change this structure. Racism consists not only of conscious actions, but also of the unconscious ones, those in the economic, political, and subjective level. In fact, the “demonization” of African cultures leads black people to lose identity and to accept the structure as natural and immutable.

The last day of the lecture took place in the Brazilian Bar Association, the institution where the abolition of slavery was discussed in Brazil. Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida again shared a moving and inspiring speech, this time on the legacy of the thinker, artist, and now officially lawyer, Luiz Gama.

Slavery has different moments, and Luis Gama lived during the most brutal of them. He was a lawyer for enslaved people, and accused the public power, the empire, putting it in the press and using public opinion in his favor. In 1881 there was a lynching of 4 enslaved whom he considered heroes. Those people were lynched because they killed their “lord.” Luis Gama boldly stated publicly that it is important to be radical against an evil that is even more radical, and that these enslaved men killed in self-defense. Killing the master is self-defense. This led him to be persecuted. His story is active resistance.

Luiz Gama is an idea. An idea that materialized there at that moment, in that room in the Brazilian Bar Association. “His story is in each one of us.” (Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida)


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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TRADUÇÃO PORTUGUÊS

Para Além dos Muros: A Academia e o Debate Antirracista

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Na penúltima semana de Agosto, a Faculdade de Direito da UFBA hospedou o primeiro ciclo de formação do curso de Marxismo e Pan-Africanismo. Esse curso será uma iniciativa recorrente de debater e disseminar conhecimento, não só para alunos(as) de direito na universidade. Do dia 20 a 23, as portas do principal auditório estavam abertas para todos e todas com interesse no evento, gratuitamente. Não foi apenas uma palestra sobre a perspectiva de mulheres negras, sobre a historia da supremacia branca e do capitalismo, ou sobre o significado de Pan-africanismo. Foi um encontro de aprendizado e troca que reuniu palestrantes, professores(as), poetas, alunos(as), escritores(as), artistas e mais, muitos dos quais nem sempre foram bem-vindos naquele espaço. Devido valor deve ser dado à iniciativa de abordar os temas e práticas anti-capitalistas e antirracistas no ambiente acadêmico onde pesquisa-se e aplica-se a Lei.

No primeiro dia de curso, antes da palestra da Dr. Lindinalva de Paula, houve um caloroso bem vindo da mesa e apresentações emocionantes de teatro e poesia. O tópico da palestra, a perspectiva das mulheres negras sobre o Pan-africanismo, foi expresso em completo no peito de todos e todas quando Sophia Araújo subiu no palco e apresentou suas poesias- na presença de sua filha chamada Dandara. A ponte entre a realidade das ruas hoje, e o debate teórico de ideologias centenárias, se concretizou em um ambiente que foi historicamente hostil contra os dois.

Uma das participantes da mesa no inicio do evento afirmou não só a relevância de estarmos ali, mas a obrigação que temos de ocupar aquele espaço. Ela relata que naquela mesma sala ela ja foi vaiada por falar de cotas, e muitos já foram vaiados por tentar abordar o tema de antirracismo. Combater o racismo institucional demanda a produção de conhecimento antirracista, trazendo outras racionalidades não européias pra conjuntura acadêmica. Isso significa não só estudar, mas transformar.

“Até que os leões tenham seus próprios historiadores, as histórias de caçadas continuarão glorificando o caçador.” (Eduardo Galeano)

Leno Sacramento, do Teatro do Olodum, apresentou uma peça impactante sobre opressão policial, abordando a violência psicológica e física que compõe nossas incessantes denúncias contra o genocídio do povo negro. Também não podemos esquecer da invisibilisação e silenciamento ideológico de povos negros e indígenas, reforçado pelo epistemicídio, que nos traz a famosa frase “a morte começa antes do tiro” (Pedro Borges).

O evento não se restringiu ao contexto urbano, um vinculo entre a zona rural e a zona urbana também foi forjado. Houve afirmação representativa do poder sindical em contraste ao corporativo. E a presença de membros do MST trouxe à mesa a luta de camponeses e camponesas negras. Portanto a simbiose de terra, classe e raça foi demonstrada de forma teórica e prática.

“Sou sem terra / sou pobre / sou negão / sou revolução” (Raumi Souza, músico e membro do MST)

A palestra da Dr. Lindinalva de Paula teve uma simples e indispensável mensagem: Juntas, as mulheres negras andam mais longe. Sozinhas talvez andam rápido, mas mesmo com todos os seus títulos, é cilada. “Seus passos vem de longe”, ela falou, referindo-se a todas as mulheres negras que vieram antes de nós, e possibilitaram esse caminho hoje. Winnie Mandela, Amy Jacques Garvey, Lélia Gonzalez, Assata Shakur, Anna Júlia cooper são algumas delas. Unir mulher e raça significa reconhecer que existem feminismos (em plural). Existe um feminismo que não era branco eurocentrado e que queimava sutiã, já que haviam mulheres que nem usavam sutiã. Esse feminismo completamente desconhece a África, e não tem as mesmas pautas. Creche, por exemplo, não é pauta da feminista branca porque que ela tem acesso à saude básica, e quando engravidava tinha como contratar uma negra pra ajudar. Na periferia e antes, as mulheres negras já eram feministas.

“Não nos tornamos feministas, não sabíamos que estávamos fazendo feminismo o tempo todo”. (Dr. Lindinalva de Paula)

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No dia seguinte, a palestra do Dr. Muniz Gonçalves Ferreira também abordou a questão do diálogo do movimento negro com a branquitude, só que de uma perspectiva mais propriamente Marxista. Em contraste com a palestrante anterior, que em momento algum demonstrou valor na colaboração politica entre mulheres negras e feministas brancas, ele argumentou que apesar da posição de inegável branquidade da qual Marx e Engels falavam, eles não reproduziam o racismo de seu tempo. Pelo menos não depois de um certo período de suas carreiras. Portanto, pra ele, não ha contradição alguma em adotar as filosofias desses pensadores na luta antirracista, ou Pan-Africanista.

Antes do curso começar, inscritos e inscritas receberam um email com o video de um debate que mostra claramente a tensa divergência dentro do movimento Pan-africanista entre Afrocêntricos e Marxistas. O Eurocentrismo, como uma visão do mundo onde o racismo é colocado em prática, não tem espaço na doutrina pan-africanista. Enquanto Afrocêntricos acreditam que se reivindicar Marxista significa dar esse espaço para uma doutrina Eurocentrica, Marxistas como Dr. Muniz Gonçalves Ferreira acreditam que Marx e Engels superaram seu Eurocentrismo herdado, e lutaram contra o racismo.

“Marx e Engels eram racistas?”, pra o Dr. não. Sem duvida eles estudavam textos de pessoas contaminadas pelo “etnocentrismo”; como Hegel, que acreditada que a história mundial era um processo evolutivo do oriente em direção ao ocidente, concluindo que a Africa, por ter um povo sem estado/civilização, não tinha historia. Eles eram dois intelectuais não só europeus, mas alemães, em um período colonial e escravagista que oprimia até as periferias de seu próprio continente (os eslavos). Mas eventualmente eles se uniram à luta contra a escravidão, e contra o colonialismo.

Se a luta de Marx e Engels contra a escravidão e o colonialismo foi de fato um ato antirracista ficou em aberto. Eles se posicionaram a favor de revoltas anti-coloniais na India e na China, as defendendo como estratégias proporcionais a violência do capitalismo e do colonialismo. Também defenderam o Norte na guerra civil Norte Americana, denunciando o jornalismo tendencioso na Inglaterra que tinham interesses econômicos na produção de algodão no Sul. Marx até “deixou” sua filha casar com um afro-descendente haitiano. Isso é o que significa ser antirracista no século 19, mesmo que esses não sejam mais nossos padrões para determinar se alguém é racista ou não hoje. Infelizmente, ele insinuou que o racismo antigamente era mais palpável, e que nosso critério pra categorizar racismo hoje em dia é subjetivo; basta falar que “o Candomblé é do diabo”.

Essa leitura não funciona pra todos. Um membro da audiência questionou no bloco de perguntas se esses argumentos são o suficiente pra determinar se alguém era ou não era racista. Ser abolicionista, naquela época, era um posicionamento mantido por muitos que tinham interesses longe de ser a destruição da supremacia branca. Ter um familiar negro também não significa nada, já que até Bolsonaro tentou usar esse argumento pra afirmar que não é racista. Outros trouxeram a questão do racismo que persistiu após revoluções socialistas em Cuba e na Russia. E a organização Pan-africanista Afrocêntrica Reaja ou será Mortx pediu para ter sua bandeira removida do evento, mas mantendo relações cordiais e organizadores do curso demonstrando completo apoio à VI Marcha Internacional Contra o Genocídio do Povo Negro que aconteceu 4 dias depois, dia 25 de Agosto, e à campanha “Não Vote, Reaja!”.

Dês do século 19, o racismo não deixou de ser palpável. Do genocídio hospitalar, necropolítica, encarceramento em massa, à violência policial, nossos critérios para denunciar racismo ainda segura um peso imenso nos corpos de negros e negras no nosso país. Um Marxismo que não seja antirracista é possível, mas para o palestrante, ser marxista sem ser antirracista é uma apropriação do termo. Um antirracismo que não seja Marxista é inquestionavelmente abraçado, já que o nosso objetivo é a emancipação humana e lutar contra todas as formas de opressão. Não precisamos ser Marxistas pra ser anti-capitalistas. Outras pautas anti-capitalistas são bem vindas.

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Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida, o palestrante não só do dia seguinte mas dos 3 dias seguintes do curso, apresentou uma perspectiva diferenciada sobre a relação do Eurocentrismo com o Marxismo. O que o Marxismo e o Pan-africanismo tem em comum é que são ideologias eficazes ao lidar com momentos históricos de conflito. Não é possível essencializar as duas ideologias. Não existe homogeneidade, existe história. O movimento da História é de transformação e conflito.

Alguns falam que não querem ler autores brancos, mas “quem nos mata só tem a ganhar com isso”. “Eles são horrorosos mesmo”, ele disse, mas não é coerente ler Fanon sem ler Hegel, por exemplo. Mesmo Hegel tendo seus posicionamentos extremamente etno/euro-cêntricos e inegavelmente racistas, foi ele também que nos apresentou a dialética entre mestre e escravizado.

W.e.b. Du Bois foi o primeiro negro com doutorado de Harvard. Sem a teoria, a prática se submete ao imediato. Mas o Marxismo não tem nada a ensinar ao trabalhador. “Teoria da Greve?” Unir teoria e prática, intelectuais e políticos, significa unir a pauta de compreensão com a prática política, já que a transformação do mundo depende de nós entendermos o mundo.

Ao mesmo tempo, a ação transformadora transforma o praticante: Praxis. O futuro deve ser construído e pode ser transformado. Em meio de muitos fantásticos exemplos e analises, talvez o mais impactante exemplo de união de teoria e pratica, práxis, e transformação, foi a apresentação do conceito de naturalização da condição de explorado.

Naturalizar a condição social do trabalhador acontece pela ideologia Capitalista. Naturaliza-se sua condição dentro do sistema pela divisão social do trabalho, que depende da raça e do gênero. Essas relações sociais são concretas. São relações sociais que dão sentido para as coisas. A relação entre África, raça, escravidão, e negro, portanto, é uma socialização. Raça em si é uma criação histórica. O racismo criou o negro, e criou sua antítese, o branco. A luta contra o Eurocentrismo, uma coisa que não viabiliza uma vida com dignidade, é uma luta contra a naturalização da opressão racial na condição social do trabalhador. Por isso, o Pan-africanismo é uma compreensão necessária da luta de classe.

Jal Souza, um dos ouvintes da palestra, explica esse fenômeno maravilhosamente a partir de sua perspectiva pessoal:

“Enquanto os filhos da elite e dos pequenos burgueses estudam para elevar o pensamento crítico, os jovens da classe trabalhadora estão empenhados em aumentar o pequeno lucro da família, e portanto, não se permitem ao desenvolvimento intelectual. Recordo de uma juventude, pobre financeiramente, onde abrir um livro era visto como um ato de puro entretenimento e preguiça, pois, não ha valor reconhecido naquelas palavras, mas sim desprezo. Aquele tempo gasto com leitura deveria ser empregado em um trabalho remunerado. A medição da sabedoria é medida pela capacidade de ganhar dinheiro, não pelo conhecimento. A irrelevância do estudo e valorização do trabalho básico e braçal faz com que os meninos e meninas das periferias não se enxerguem em instituições de ensino. Portanto, ocupam os postos de trabalhos de pior remuneração e maior esforço físico, sem representação nas organizações políticas, e sem saber reivindicar e conquistar direitos. Permitindo assim, que os homens brancos e ricos, os maiores interessados em manter os mecanismos do sistema vigente, decidam o futuro de todos.” (Jal Souza)

Dia 23 de Agosto foi o lançamento do livro O Que é Racismo Estrutural? do Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida, na Senzala do Barro Preto.

O espaço cultural Senzala do Barro Preto é sede do bloco afro Ilê Ayiê, “uma entidade carnavalesca que funciona como centro cultural no bairro do Curuzú, ensinando e difundindo entre os moradores da localidade e regiões próximas à identidade africana, mostrando com orgulho o poder da ancestralidade, religiosidade e construção dos negros no Brasil e internacionalmente.” (Jal Souza)

Enquanto o Marxismo faz contato com a realidade furando a ideologia, o racismo estrutural é o tecido social que sustenta instituições. Podemos avançar em contextos isolados institucionais, sem nem começar a mudar essa estrutura. O racismo não constitui apenas de ações conscientes, mas também das inconscientes, as do nível econômico, político e subjetivo. Aliás, a “demonizaçāo” das culturas africanas leva o negro perder sua identidade e a aceitar a estrutura como natural e imutável.

A performance do grupo indígena Ybytu Emi trouxe a pauta artística, musical, e teatral como expressão das raizes entrelaçadas da comunidade indígena e negra brasileira. Nítido ficou o entrelaço dos índios na vanguarda da proteção da cultura africana no Brasil, no passado, e das religiões afros preservando a cultura indígena, no presente.

E por fim, o ultimo dia de palestra aconteceu na Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil, uma instituição onde discutia-se a abolição da escravatura no Brasil. Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida novamente compartilhou um discurso comovente e inspirador, dessa vez sobre o legado do pensador, artista, e agora oficialmente advogado, Luiz Gama.

A escravidão tem momentos diferentes, e Luis Gama viveu durante o mais brutal deles. Ele era advogado pra pessoas escravizadas, e acusava o poder público, o império, colocando na imprensa e usando a opinião pública no seu interesse. Em 1881 houve um linchamento de 4 escravizados que ele considerava heróis. Aquelas pessoas foram linchadas porque mataram o “senhor”. Luis Gama corajosamente afirmou publicamente que é importante ser radical contra um mal que é mais radical ainda, e que esses escravizados mataram em legítima defesa. Matar senhor de engenho é legítima defesa. Isso o levou a ser perseguido. Sua historia é uma resistência ativa.

Luiz Gama é uma idéia. Uma idéia que se materializou ali naquele momento, naquela mesa na AOB. “A história dele esta em cada um e uma de nós.” (Dr. Silvio Luiz de Almeida)


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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é militante anti-fascista/decolonial, e feminista interseccional. Ela edita o site Gods and Radicals.

It takes a village, not a European, to raise a child

“White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalises children throughout Africa.”

From Jacqueline Tizora

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Ethiopia announced earlier this year that it has decided to ban foreign adoption on its soil. This is a brazen move, especially because the country was the second most popular country, after China, for adoptions. This decision was prompted by a high-profile case of abuse in 2011 where an adoptee died of hypothermia after being left in the cold by their adoptive parents in Seattle. Ethiopia, following this incident, proceeded to make the adoption process more stringent, which has now ultimately culminated in the total ban we see today.

The government’s motivation for this bold decision is that it believes Ethiopians taking care care of their own as a valid possibility. Furthermore, policy makers are only now wary of the permanent psychological effects any trauma faced abroad could have on the children. Ethiopia’s stance on adoption shares parallels with Rwanda’s model on orphanages. African countries’ shift towards deinstitutionalising childcare is a welcome process as it is severs the parasitic colonial as well as neocolonial relationship Europe has with Africa. The process, however, is an intricate one that this article will be illuminating a small fraction of.

In 2012, Rwanda decided to close all its orphanages. After the 1994 genocide, the number of orphanages skyrocketed from four to well over thirty as more than 95 000 children were orphaned by the genocide. Foreign aid organisations in response to the devastation of the genocide, opened institutions across the country, institutionalising Rwandan childcare. However, Rwandan president Paul Kagame noticed that those orphaned by the genocide had ‘outgrown’ orphanages, yet they still existed. This is when Kagame initiated a rehoming process. This decision was based on the Swahili saying, ‘asiye funzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu’- a deinstitutionalised approach to childcare, which equates to the infamous proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.

Rwanda’s rehoming process is now in full swing and the government aims to close all orphanages by 2020. Rwanda’s National Commission for Children’s director reported earlier this year that 3,323 children were in orphanages when the initiative took off in 2012, and now only 235 have yet to be rehomed with family, adopted or placed in foster families (unremunerated).

Then there are countries like Mauritania, Djibouti and South Sudan where in order to qualify to be a legal guardian of a minor, the applicant has to be a blood relative that is either Muslim and or lives in a Muslim environment. Prioritising the child’s religion here results in some preservation of the child’s culture. In addition, Mauritanian law prohibits non-family members from leaving Mauritania with adopted children. Similarly, in Djibouti, children with Djibouti citizenship are ineligible for adoption. Implying that transnational adoption from these two countries is not a possibility, even if one meets the first two criteria.

From the above examples, it is clear that many African countries are in fact deinstitutionalising childcare, a previously heavily institutionalised system and reverting to more culturally appropriate alternatives to child rearing. This, however, prompts one to question what in fact has changed along with the implementation of these new regulations and, ultimately, how this is affecting orphans in their respective countries. Coming from a family where the ‘village’ approach is adopted vastly, and also understanding that for most households, taking on an extra mouth to feed is no easy task. It also prompts one to enquire which changes need to be made that would effectively allow orphaned children to continue on to lead a normal life after losing one’s biological parents.

The first enquiry that comes to mind is the process of conception right to birth. We live in a patriarchal society that polices women’s bodies and also places value in women’s fertility. Rape culture is also ever pervasive; the fact that only in 1993 did the UN declare rape a war crime, demonstrates how deeply politicised women’s bodies are. Additionally, access to contraception in Africa, according to WHO in 2015, is only 33.4%. So almost 70% of the continent cannot implement effective family planning. The intersections of institutional restrictions that meet systematic poverty introduced by colonialism and maintained by neo-colonialism has rendered African women voiceless on issues regarding their own bodies!

In essence, policies that currently police and politicise women’s bodies and subjects them to systematic oppression and trauma has created irreparable damage and play a key role in the current vicious cycle of systematically creating orphans. Orphaned children, of course, come from somewhere. The responsibility or blame does not fall on the woman, but society has socialised us to internalise gender roles that further subjugate us. By politicising our bodies, even the unborn children our bodies can host preside over our bodies. The fact that approximately 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries with laws that in some way restrict abortion shed illuminate another way orphans are produced systematically. Additionally, even in countries where abortions may take place under special circumstances, very few women have access to a safe procedure and often seek out more clandestine methods that can be life-threatening.

The second enquiry regards the fact that the implicit and explicit bans disallowing women to have autonomy over their bodies have not been lifted. What then of the children that are born as as result? The inescapable reality of women being treated as chattel on one hand, and the rise of the white saviour industrial complex on the rise on the other, only means that there will always be orphans and therefore a market for foreign adoption and orphanages. An estimated 21.6 million unintended pregnancies occur each year in Africa, and of these, only 38% end in abortion. To white liberals all these statistics mean is that there is a market to exploit and therefore ceaseless giving back for them to do in Africa. This is a crass mentality and approach that does not even scratch the surface of the issue that they created. If only they could put two and two together, they would realise it equals white supremacist capitalist patriarchy- that they introduced to the continent and that has now politicised and othered the bodies of black women, giving birth to the issues we are faced with today.

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Personally, I’m of the opinion that uprooting children from their home country, with the exception of abuse, is not in the child’s best interest as the grass is not actually greener in Europe. Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, in a keynote address made her case regarding transnational adoption. Her stance is that transnational adoption, specifically the Africa to Europe pipeline, can be likened to the slave trade. To a large extent, I agree with this statement. Also interesting to note the countries from which most adoptions hail from have the biggest legacies of atrocities inflicted on African people. So, it would appear that white people employ the saviour complex and adopt African children to ease their white guilt. Not only do they rid themselves of dissonance permanently, adopted children ultimately serve as a trophy of their colourblindness and apparent non-racism. A buy-one-get-one-free coupon white people redeem when they engage in transnational adoption (read institutional abduction).

Realistically, if we are going to look after our own children, there is going to have to be reform. Expecting the burden to fall on family members or communities whose consumption increases exponentially the minute they agree to become a child’s guardian. Without assistance from government, this only translates itself into deeper poverty. Though orphanages and adoption organisations came into existence to alleviate the aftermath of centuries of dispossession, research has shown that growing up in orphanages can have lasting negative impact on children.

Through extensive research, risk patterns and vulnerabilities have been identified, now all that is lacking is their amelioration and this can be done through policy. Interventions need to happen on multiple levels, this includes and is not restricted to: the orphans, fostering households as well as their communities. Not all vulnerable children share the same history or even face the same issues despite sharing the same label: being orphan. These considerations all require differentiated policy responses. These then differ further, according to geography for example. Different regions are exposed to different forms of vulnerability. The AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa, Swaziland being the most hard-hit, requires a response that includes better access to ARVs and promotions aimed at deconstructing the stigma around the illness- another barrier that stops people from seeking treatment even when ARVs are made available. As a result of inadequate intervention, AIDS has become responsible for the swelling numbers of orphans in the region. The logical questions that then follow are the financing of such interventions as well as their rolling out: both of crucial importance.

A needs analysis needs to be conducted for all concerned parties: the orphan, the fostering household and communities, mapping out the levels on which the interventions need to take place within. Lastly, we need to consider how the intervention should play out and which funding channels are feasible. For example, whether a uniform/needs equivalent grant system needs to be introduced. Just by highlighting the first steps that need to be taken, one soon realises that differentiated policy responses required are dependent on so many factors that are, above all, culturally sensitive and appropriate.

White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalises children throughout Africa. They currently plunder Africa by opening NGOs, orphanages and, a personal favourite, voyeuristic volunteer agencies that we actually fund with photos they take of us for free to be used for their poverty porn PR strategies. Europe remains benefactors in this market with these photos, by reproducing the colonial narrative that any European can save this godforsaken continent. This is both short sighted and pompous. There is, however, a way Europe can acknowledge and settle their long outstanding debt to Africa and also upend their current and futile methods: reparations.

This is not even a foreign concept to Europeans, after all they paid slave owners out after the abolition of slavery. Slaves, like those in the Haitian Revolution, even had to pay for the inconvenience abolition caused.

Whilst no amount of financial compensation can ameliorate the impact of the violence inflicted on Africa. The institutionalisation abduction of children through transnational is a clear indication that Africans are still being removed from their country’s hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery, a symptom of neo-colonialism that continues to illicitly extract resources and abduct children for the enjoyment of the west. To sever this umbilical cord a fresh start is needed, which in this case would mean total economic freedom to enable Africa to restore its idiosyncratic deinstitutionalised approach to childcare.


Jacqueline Tizora

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Zimbabwean born and South African bred Black radical
feminist with a keen interest in African feminist thought and affairs.


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Do Trees Have Rights? Toward an Ecological Politics

“[I]t turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.”

from John Halstead

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“The world is full of persons (people if you prefer), but few of them are human.” — Graham Harvey, “An Animist Manifesto”

When I first encountered contemporary animism, it boggled my mind. Animism posits a world full of persons: human persons, yes, but also hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons…and yes, tree persons. Those whose circle of friends includes many animists, pagans, and polytheists may easily forget just how radical the idea of “tree persons” is.

Hedgehog persons? Salmon persons? Mushroom persons? Even rock persons? When I first heard this, it caused me to wonder what exactly a “person” is. To the animist, a person is a being that exists in relationship. Personhood, in this sense, is an ontological statement. But I didn’t get that right away.

I’m a lawyer, so personhood for me is primarily a legal distinction. In the legal and political context, a person is a being that has rights. What would it mean, then, for a salmon, not to mention a rock, to have rights?

Personhood, in this legal context, is not an ontological distinction, but a cultural one. For that reason, it is more or less arbitrary. That’s why human beings could recognize personhood, and hence rights, of fictional entities like corporations and limited liability companies, trusts and estates, sovereign political entities and even ships, while at the same time denying rights to women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Now, you might think that, if we can give rights to corporations and states, which are legal fictions, then we should be able to give rights to living beings like trees and natural beings like rocks, which at least exist in the physical world and, in the case of trees, share DNA with humans. But it turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.

In the essay, I want to highlight some of the problems with classical liberalism, and then propose an alternative, holistic theory of rights, one in which we can ground the rights of nature.

The Standing of Mineral King Valley

As strange as it may seem to grant rights to corporations and ships, but not trees, there is an internal logic to that choice. Corporations and ships are human creations, and they have something that rocks and trees lack–human agents. These human agents can, for example, bring lawsuits to enforce the rights of their “principal”, whether it be a corporation or a ship.

Now it has been suggested that human beings might act as agents for other-than-human beings, just like they do for corporations. In 1972, the Sierra Club filed suit to prevent the development of a Walt Disney resort at Mineral King valley in the Sequoia National Forest. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue in Sierra Club v. Morton was whether the Sierra Club had “standing”, that is, the right to sue. Although the majority technically decided that Sierra Club did not have standing, in a footnote, the court helpfully suggested that the Sierra Club could amend its complaint to allege that Sierra Club made regular camping trips to Mineral King Valley, and the problem of standing would be resolved. The Sierra Club did so and, ultimately Mineral King Valley was saved from the developers.

(It is significant that the fate of the valley effectively turned on how frequently the Sierra Club camped there. More on that in a bit.)

But the case of Sierra Club v. Morton is perhaps most notable for Justice Douglas’ dissent 1, in which he made the case for recognizing the legal standing of

“valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”2

As a result, Douglas believed the case should have been entitled “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”. (Morton was Secretary of the Interior.)

But who would speak for the river and its inhabitants? Douglas argued that human beings could be spokespersons for the “inanimate” natural “objects”, if they had a “meaningful relation” or “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. In the case of the Mineral King Valley, the spokesperson might “hike it, fish it, hunt it, camp in it, frequent it, or visit it merely to sit in solitude and wonderment.” Douglas concluded that such a relation would enable them the person to speak for “the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”

Who Speaks for the Water Ouzel?

CC-BY-2.0 Ron Knight

As much as I would have rejoiced to see legal standing granted to the Mineral King Valley or the Kaweah River which runs through the valley, Justice Douglas’ reasoning gives me pause. By what right do human beings speak for a valley or river? I think Douglas was on the right track when he references the human being’s “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. But then he proceeded to speak merely in terms of the usefulness of the “object” to humans–hiking, fishing, hunting, enjoying the solitude and wonder it offers to humans. Consider the list of types of human beings that Douglas says might speak for a river: “a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger”. Of these, the zoologist at least might have a sense of the inherent worth of the valley–but the logger?!3

Douglas argued that the rivers and valleys themselves could have standing, just as ships and corporations can have standing. But there is an important distinction between ships and corporations, on the one hand, and rivers and valleys, on the other. Ships and corporations are human creations. They have no life or meaning apart from the human beings who constitute them (the crew in the case of ships). The same is not true of rivers and valleys. The latter have a life of their own. The claim to speak for them cannot be so readily justified. And the notion that a logger might speak for all the life that a valley sustains seems presumptuous at best, and dangerous in fact.

Consider also how Douglas described rivers etc. as “environmental objects” and even “inanimate objects”. Because he was unable to see the river, or even the fish in the river, as subjects, rather than objects, he was unable to appreciate the inherent value of the river or the fish beyond their usefulness to human beings. Despite his reference to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic at the end of his dissent, Douglas didn’t quite manage to escape the anthropocentrism which gave rise to the lawsuit in the first place. While he tried to make a case for the rights of valleys and rivers, these remained “objects” in his view, the value of which was determined by human beings.

In the end, Douglas’ approach would have led to more or less to the same place as the majority opinion, with rights of the valley being determined by how often a group of human beings camped there. And this is significant, because it’s not really the interest of the valley that is being protected in such cases, but the interest of humans who want to use the valley.

A State of “Nature”

Even if rocks and trees had agents to speak for them, there is a deeper philosophical problem with granting them rights. Rocks and trees cannot recognize the rights of others. Rights are a human convention. Corporations and states are made up of human beings, so they can recognize other humans’ rights. The same is not true of other-than-human beings. If we decided to grant rights to trees, the trees would not be able to reciprocate the gesture. In short, trees cannot have rights, because trees cannot recognize rights.

What I’ve describe above is the social contract theory of rights, and it is grounded in the classical liberal political philosophy of John Locke. (Note: Classical liberalism should not be confused with the contemporary partisan label of “liberal”, which is commonly contrasted with “conservative”. Most conservative and liberal political discourse today take classical liberalism as the starting point.)

The classical liberal worldview is based on certain assumptions about the nature of human beings and society. In this view, the basic unit of existence is the individual. Individuals exist prior to their relationships. It is a kind of social atomism. According to Locke, society arises when individuals form a social contract wherein they recognize the rights of one another. This can happen implicitly, even unconsciously, or explicitly, through constitutions and laws.

In the classical liberal view of society, other human beings are perceived primarily as obstacles to the individual’s freedom. Individuals enter into the social contract out of necessity, in order to escape the “state of nature”, the war of all against all. Through the social contract, an individual agrees to recognize the rights of others in exchange for a corresponding agreement that others will recognize their rights. This recognition of the rights of others is given begrudgingly, as it were. This is, at its core, an adversarial, rather than a cooperative, view of society.

The purpose of government, in classical liberal view, then, is to enforce this social contract. It serves primarily a negative function–preventing individuals from infringing on the rights of others. The danger of government, in the classical liberal view, is that it will overstep its bounds and begin imposing obligations or duties on individuals.

In order to enter into a contact, a person has to be legally “competent”. This means that they have to be an adult and of “sound mind”. It also means, though it is usually implied, that they have to be a human being. In the classical liberal view, trees cannot have rights. Trees cannot contract with human beings, so trees cannot be part of the social contract. Human beings don’t recognize the rights of trees, because trees cannot recognize the rights of human beings.

The Air that I Breathe

This is the view of rights that I was indoctrinated with, from childhood on. It is why I had so much trouble understanding animism and the animistic conception of personhood.

I was raised by Reaganites, in a religion (Mormonism) which viewed voting Democrat as tantamount to apostasy. I went to a conservative religious university (Brigham Young University), where I was spoon-fed the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who inspired the growth of neoliberalism in the late 20th century, the notion that all social problems should be solved through laissez-faire capitalism.

I then went on to law school. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the standard law school curriculum is deeply rooted in the classical liberal paradigm. Just look at the required substantive courses for first year law students: torts (injury to person or property), contacts, property, constitutional law, criminal law. This curriculum takes for granted the concepts of individual liberty, personal property, the right to contract, limited government, and the state’s monopoly on use of force–the basic tenets of classical liberalism.

But even if I hadn’t been raised in a conservative family and religion and then gone to law school, I would still have absorbed the classical liberal worldview from the American cultural milieu. It’s pervasive–from the public school curriculum to NPR. It’s the political air that we breathe today. And though we take it for granted, the classical liberal paradigm has very real consequences, both for the other-than-human beings who inhabit our shared world, as well as for many human beings who have been categorized as less than fully human at one time or another.

Alienable Rights

“Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” — Jeremy Bentham

The classical liberal understanding of rights is justified in terms of so-called “natural rights”, a reference not to nature, but to what philosophers called the “state of nature”, the imagined state of human beings prior to the advent of society.

Natural rights were originally said to derive from human beings’ purported special relationship with the divine Creator–specifically Yahweh of Judeo-Christian scripture. This is significant, because Yahweh is god of divisions, and the nature of the deity determined the nature of the rights at issue. Unlike the dying-and-reviving vegetation gods he supplanted, Yahweh believed himself to be separate from nature. Creation, in first chapter of Genesis, is also described as a process of separation: light from dark, sky from sea, etc.

Similarly, the natural state of human beings, as describe in the book of Genesis, is also one of separation. Human beings enter the world as individuals, not as a community. We are then separated from God and “fall” into the natural world, which is not our real home. Human beings can overcome the separation from God and escape nature by entering into a covenant–a contract–with Yahweh. All of the basic elements of Locke’s social contract theory can be found here: the special nature of human being, the separation of human beings from each other and from nature, and the formation of society through through voluntary contracts.

As society became secularized, so did the justification for rights. But belief in the supposedly unique nature of human beings remained among humanists. Human beings, we are told, are born with “unalienable rights”. The “self-evident” character of these rights depends upon a belief in humankind’s exceptionalism. As evolutionary biology has chipped away at the belief in our exceptionalism, the justification for natural rights been weakened. If human beings aren’t special, just one species among millions, then where do our special rights come from?

Not only is natural rights theory weak philosophically, when we look at history, it’s revealed to be a farce–a facade for the exercise of power. Humans who have had the power to do so have always withheld so-called “natural rights” from certain classes of human beings: usually including women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Personhood and natural rights exist in a tautological relationship. We define a person as a being that has rights, and then we extend rights only to those whom we recognize as persons. As Christopher Stone explained in his 1972 law review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.” As a result, people with power can grant rights to anyone or anything they want, and they can withhold rights from anyone or anything, as well. This is why human societies can, for example, extend rights to corporations, while denying rights to people of color.

When we ground rights in social contract theory, human beings will tend recognize the rights of only two classes of people: (1) those that appear like themselves and (2) those who have power. We recognize the rights of those that are like us, because it is logically consistent with our desire that our own rights be recognized. And we recognize the rights of those in power, in the hopes that they will recognize our own rights. Hence, we tend to be blind to the rights of those who are different and/or have little or no power. Trees, for example, are other-than-human and have no political power. So human beings have no reason to recognize the rights of trees–at least as long as rights are based in the social contract.

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness More Property

Historically, political rights in the West have been connected to property ownership. While Jefferson invoked the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, Locke, who had inspired Jefferson, wrote about the rights to “life, liberty, and property“. Four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Samuel Adams wrote, in “The Rights of the Colonists,” “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property.” And shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Virginia Declaration of Rights recognized the rights to the “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Rights were first extended to property owners–nobles, and then landed gentry–and those property owners sought to extend those rights as a way of protecting their property. The rallying cry of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation,” was the cry of White male property owners–not Native Americans, slaves, women, or unlanded men. Given the close connection of rights and property in history, it should come as no surprise that, today, the freedom of the market has trumped all other freedoms, and the right to acquire property has trumped all other rights.

This is important for understanding why rights are withheld from some classes of people. If people are beings who have rights, and property rights are preeminent among rights, then people, it may be said, are beings who own property. Anything or anyone that is not a person, is therefore property, and anyone who does not own property, is not a person. Enslaved people, for example, were considered to be things that were owned, not people that owned things, so it made no sense for slaves to have rights. The same was true of women and children for a long time–if a woman was raped or if child was killed, it was the father or husband who had a legal right to sue, and the nature of the suit was damage to property, not injury to person.

Similarly, trees today are considered to be things that are owned, not persons who own things. Therefore, they cannot have rights. While property ownership was eventually extended to former slaves, it is difficult to imagine how a tree might ever be said to own property. As a result, it’s unlikely rights will ever be extended to trees, so long as we are operating within the classical liberal view of rights.

Blue Rights, Negative Rights

In the 1970s, the Czech jurist, Karel Vasak, described three “generations” of rights–later called “blue,” “red,” and “green” rights. In this section, I’ll discuss the first two–blue and red rights.

Blue rights are “negative” rights, the right to pursue one’s own self-interest without interference from other people or from government–essentially, your right to be left alone. These include political rights like freedom of speech and the freedom to contract and to acquire (more) property.

Red rights refer to “positive” rights. Rather than the freedom from interference, they represent a person’s entitlement to something, Red rights create the obligations of others to you and you to them. These include economic and social rights, like the right to employment, housing, health care, and social security.

Negative rights are often described as protecting “freedom from” something, whereas positive rights are described as protecting “freedom to” do something. This can be misleading, though. In one sense, negative rights may be thought of as embodying a person’s “freedom from”, i.e., freedom from interference by others. In another sense, negative rights may be thought of as a “freedoms to”, i.e., freedom to speak, to exercise religion, and to acquire property–in the space left by the non-interference of other people and government. Similarly, positive rights can be thought of as freedoms to, i.e., freedom to work, obtain heath care, acquire an education, etc., but also as freedoms from, i.e., freedom from want, fear, ignorance, etc., which result from work, health care, education, and so on.

The classical liberal view lends itself to the recognition of negative rights, but not positive rights . Prior to the New Deal, most Americans understood rights primarily in negative terms. The role of government was to keep people from interfering with other people’s person or property. Social Darwinism was the prevailing social theory and laissez-faire capitalism, which touted competition over cooperation, was the prevailing economic theory. Little wonder, then, that an adversarial theory of rights would dominate public discourse.

The United States’ Bill of Rights is an example of negative rights. Though many Americans today speak of the First Amendment as securing their “freedom of speech”, i.e., the freedom to speak, the First Amendment actually freedom from government abridging speech. This is a negative right, not a positive one. It is freedom from government interference which the First Amendment protects, and it is only the freedom to speak in the space created by the absence of government interference.

Red Right, Positive Rights

Red (positive) rights came to be more recognized through the efforts of FDR. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt proposed that people everywhere should enjoy the freedom of speech and worship (blue rights), to which he added freedom from want and fear (red rights). Two years later, in his 1941 State of the Union address, he stated that the political rights identified in the Bill of Rights were “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness,” because “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security”. Roosevelt identified several red rights, among them:

  • The right to job
  • The right to earn enough for adequate food, clothing, and recreation
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.

These are rights which would be incomprehensible for someone operating wholly within the context of a classical liberal paradigm. The reason is this–from the perspective of classical liberalism, you cannot recognize a red or positive right of one person without creating a corresponding obligation or duty on another person to fulfill that right, and when you create such an obligation, you violate the second person’s blue or negative rights. Where there is a conflict between positive and negative rights, classical liberalism demands that the negative right trump the positive right. Classical liberalism favors negative rights because it takes for granted that free human beings exist prior to forming social relationships.

To use an example from recent news, according to the classical liberal, you cannot guarantee a LGBT’s person’s right to purchase a wedding cake at a particular establishment, without violating the wedding cake maker’s right to be free from indirect participation in LGBT weddings. When conservatives today make this argument, unfortunately many progressives have difficulty articulate a refutation, because they too are starting with classical liberal assumptions.

To contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, the wedding cake case is simply a question of deciding whose rights to give preference to: the LGBT customer’s right to be free from discrimination or the wedding cake maker’s free exercise of his religion. Progressives tend to give preference to the freedom from discrimination over the freedom of religious expression, so they will usually favor the rights of the LGBT customer. But they don’t really question the classical liberal assumptions behind the choice. When we begin with the classical liberal assumption that human beings exist prior to their relationships, then it is difficult to defense the choice of the LGBT customer’s rights over the rights of the wedding cake maker in a principled way.

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Rights of Individuals-in-Community

But that is not the only way to see the world. Rather than trying to defend positive (red) rights in the individualistic terms of the classical liberal paradigm, we can start with a more communitarian4 or holistic paradigm. Rather than seeing the individuals as existing prior to society, a holistic view sees society as constitutive of individuals.

We are born into community, and we work out our individual identity through our relationships with other human beings and with the more-than-human world. There’s no such thing as “state of nature”, in which human beings lived before forming social relationships. We born into relation and there is no way to opt-out. In short, individuals do not exist apart from their relationships.

Therefore, there is no such thing as “natural rights”. Rights are social constructions, and they only can be created in society. And they always create corresponding obligations on other people. Rather than separating people, as the classical liberal imagines, rights bind people together, into communities. (This seems to be the view taken by Kadmus in his article here, entitled “Nature’s Rights”.) In this view, a person who has liberty, but no community, can hardly be called a person.

A person only really has freedom if the material and social conditions are present for them to exercise that freedom. We cannot can really pursue happiness without food, education, work, health care, etc. What use is it to tell a person they are free to fish if they don’t have a fishing pole or the knowledge of how to use it? As Adlai Stevenson succinctly put it, “A hungry man is not a free man.” Or, as someone said in the documentary Whose Streets? (about the Ferguson rebellion), “If you can’t read, you’re a slave.”

The goal of rights, in this perspective, is not primarily to protect the atomistic individual from other people, but to enable individuals to realize their potential together, through community. This does not mean that positive (red) rights will always trump negative (blue) rights, but if all other things are equal, then positive rights will be given greater weight, because negative rights are a function of positive rights.

This is not to say that community takes precedence over individuals. Red rights are still individual rights, not communal rights; but they are rights of individuals-in-community. In this holistic view, rights arise, not from the nature of the solitary individual, but from the nature of the individual in society. The ability of people to exercise their liberties depends on other people.

Recall that the classical liberal understanding of rights was rooted in the desire of capitalists to protect their property (and acquire more). But the capitalist’s ability to acquire more property is only made possible through the labor of others (which is exploited). What’s more, the capitalist’s profits depend upon infrastructure, markets, and so on, which are built by other people’s hands. While the capitalist may pay taxes, the taxes any single capitalist pays would be insufficient to create the infrastructure that capitalist needs. In short, they need other people.

As then-candidate for Senate, Elizabeth Warren, explained in 2011:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for.”

Let Them Eat Wedding Cake

Let’s apply this perspective to the case of the wedding cake maker and the LGBT customer. Rather than starting with two separate individuals with competing rights claims, we start with two individuals who are part of a larger community. The wedding cake maker’s demand for “freedom from interference” in the exercise of their religion makes less sense when looked at from this more holistic perspective. As much as the wedding cake maker might want to deny it, they are already in community with the LGBT customer, even before the customer walks through the door.

To begin with, even if the wedding cake maker does not have employees, they nevertheless did not build their business on their own. Their business was created within a community that provides roads for delivery of cake ingredients, police to maintain a safe marketplace, and so on. Maybe the LGBT customer was even one of the people that helped build those roads or a police officer patrolling the neighborhood of the wedding cake business.

What’s more, the wedding cake maker’s right to exercise their religion in public spaces5 is only possible in the context of a culture of tolerance which is created and maintained by the community. The wedding cake maker only has freedom to exercise their religion, if they are if they are free from fear of discrimination from others. It is hypocritical, therefore, for the cake maker to insist on his freedom from one type of discrimination, while insisting on the right to discriminate against others on other grounds. So, the rights of the LGBT customer should trump those of the wedding cake maker in that case.

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Green Rights

“Environmental law is failing. And it will continue to fail because it comes from the same paradigm that created the problem.” — Mumta Ito

At this point, I would forgive the reader for having lost sight of tree persons that I started this essay with, but I intend now to return to them. Blue rights and red rights only apply to human beings, but Karel Vasak described three kinds of rights. So far, we have only talked about two. The third kind of rights is “green rights.” Vasek’s divisions corresponded roughly to the three words of the French motto: “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Green rights extend both blue and red rights to other-than-human beings and ecosystems, recognizing our “fraternity”–or “kinship” to use a non-patriarchal term–with the other-than-human inhabitants of our world.

The justification for extending rights to other-than-human beings is consistent with the logic of red rights, but simply recognizes that the community of which we are a part includes the more-than-human world–in fact, there’s much more of them than there are of us: hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons, tree persons and so on. To borrow from Aldo Leopold’s description of the “land ethic”, green rights “simply enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Recall that red rights were justified by pointing out that the capitalist’s freedom to acquire more property is only made possible through the (exploited) labor of others. And their business relies upon public goods for which they did not pay, like roads. But the capitalist’s freedom is also only made possible through the (even more exploited) natural world: air, water, soil, and the other-than-human beings who inhabit it. The roads upon which the capitalist relies run through land that used to be (and may still be) occupied by streams and prairies and inhabited by myriad living beings. And both the roads and the goods which the business produces are made from materials which come from the natural world.

Mumta It, founder of the NGO, Nature’s Rights, observes that the classical liberal political paradigm is based on a 17th century scientific paradigm–not surprising since Locke lived in the 17th century–which she describes as:

  • mechanistic (i.e., viewing the world as made up of separate, unconnected objects interacting in a predicable way);
  • anthropocentric (i.e., viewing the world as existing solely for the use of human beings – this is where ideas about ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural capital’ derive, basing nature’s value on its utility to humanity rather than on its intrinsic value); and
  • adversarial (competitive/retributive model, where one party wins at the expense of another)

In contrast, the holistic perspective is an ecological view of rights. Unlike more reductive forms of biology, ecology seeks to understand organisms in context of their relationships. The environment is not a backdrop to individual action, but a web of relations that constitute the individual. Therefore, an ecological view of rights is one which views worlds as interconnected, biocentric, and cooperative, rather than mechanistic, anthropocentic, and adversarial.

In the classical liberal view, based on social contract theory, people only have a motivation to recognize the rights of other who or like them (or those who have greater power than them). In the holistic view, based on ecology, people would recognize the rights of those with whom they are in relationship. And since we are ultimately in relationship with everyone, people would recognize the rights of every person and every thing–in fact, every thing would be recognized as a person, which is the foundation of an animistic worldview.

There are only a few examples of green rights in existence, but there appears to be a trend (albeit limited in scope so far) toward recognizing the rights of nature:

In 2008, the Ecuadorian constitution, recognized the right of nature (or “Pacha Mama”) to “integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Among other obligations, the constitution required the state to apply preventive and restrictive measures on activities that might lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles.

In 2010, Bolivia passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), which recognizes Mother Earth as a “collective interest” which includes all its component communities, human and other-than. The law recognizes the rights of Mother Earth to life, diversity of life, equilibrium, clean water, clean air, pollution-free life, and restoration where living systems have been affected by human activities. The law also imposes duties on the state and on the people to realize these rights.

In 2016, a court in Colombia recognized the rights of the Atrato River basin. In negotiations with an indigenous Maori tribe of New Zealand, the government recognized the Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River as legal persons in 2014 and 2017, respectively. This was followed by the Indian court recognizing the personhood of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017. Several municipalities in the United States have also recognized the rights of nature, beginning with Tamaqua Borough, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Nestled Rights

Blue rights, red rights, and green rights are not equivalent and competing kinds of rights. Nor are they exactly hierarchical. Red (positive) rights, in a sense, encompass blue (negative) rights, because the latter are only possible in the context of the former, just as the individual only exists in the context of society.

Similarly, blue and red rights are encompassed within green rights, because both individuals and human communities only exist within the context the natural world–the former could not exist without the latter. To look at it another way, individual human beings cannot harm their human community without harming themselves, and likewise, a human community cannot harm the more-than-human community without also harming itself.

We can think of blue, red, and green rights as nestled within each other, as depicted in the image on the right in diagram below.

Nestled Rights

Mumta Ito has written about two model of sustainability and the relationship between nature, human society, and the economy using a similar diagram:

“The diagram on the left is the usual model for sustainability. The problem with this model is that it assumes that each circle can exist independently of the others. In reality the only one that can exist without the others – is nature.

The diagram on the right is therefore more accurate. It shows a natural hierarchy of systems because without nature there’s no people and without people there’s no economy.

This then leads to a natural hierarchy of rights with nature’s rights as our most fundamental rights because our life depends on it, then human rights as a subsystem of nature’s rights – and then property or corporate rights as a subsystem of human rights.

In the model on the right, the rights are in service of each other rather than in conflict – working synergistically to protect the integrity of the whole. In this model human activities have to be beneficial for humans as well as nature – or its not viable in the long run.”

Therefore, rather than attempting to balancing the interests of individual humans, human society, and the environment, as if they were equal and competing, the holistic model of rights acknowledges that blue rights are derivative of red rights and that both blue and red rights are derivative of green rights. This does not mean that green rights will trump blue rights in every instance, but it would mean that, all other things being equal–a caveat which conceals a great deal of nuance–green rights would be given greater weight than red or blue rights.

“The Rights of Nature”

The holistic view of rights, in contrast to classical liberalism, provides a basis for recognizing the rights of nature. To say that other-than-human beings should have rights, though, is not to say that no one should be allowed to cut down a tree. Human beings have rights, but they can be incarcerated and even executed under the law. So rights can recognized, and yet withdrawn under some circumstances.

Nor does it say what kind of rights would be extended to the more-than-human world. Not every right holder holds all rights. Corporations have the right to contract, but they cannot plead the Fifth. Children have certain rights, but not the right to vote.

Nor does it say anything about the weight to be given those rights in any given case. U.S. law recognizes that humans have a right to life and also a right to a driver’s license (at least adults). But we can be legally deprived of the latter much easier than the former.

Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this essay. But, following Christopher Stone, I would propose that an acknowledgement of the rights of nature would, at a minimum, mean that other-than-human beings have legal standing in human courts, beyond any public or private human interest in them. So, in the case of Mineral King Valley, discussed above, the caption of the lawsuit would indeed, as Justice Douglas proposed, read “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”.

Merely recognizing such a thing as the “rights of nature” would be profound. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann writes about how, in 1948, with the publication of Road to Survival, William Vogt introduced the world to the idea of “the environment”, not just as a particular place, but as a global totality: “Defining a word on a new sense seems academic and abstract,” writes Mann, but its consequences are not. Until something has a name, it can’t be discussed or acted upon it. … Without ‘the environment,’ there would be no environmental movement.”

The same, it could be hoped, would be true of the “rights of nature”. As Christopher Stone observed,

“Introducing the notion of something having a ‘right’ (simply speaking that way), brings into the legal system a flexibility and open-endedness … [T]he vocabulary and expressions that are available to us influence and even steer our thought. …[J]udges who could unabashedley refer to the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be encouraged to develop a viable body of law–in part simply through the availability and force of the expression. Besides, such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be inclined to legislate for environment-protecting rules …”

It is not impossible that general acceptance of the phrase, “the rights of nature”, could trigger a paradigm shift in Western consciousness, a shift from viewing nature instrumentally–as having value only for humans–to viewing nature as inherently valuable–as having value in its own right. And that could have profound consequences for human behavior and our impact on the more-than-human world.

Animistic Afterthought

But who would speak for the rights of nature in human courts? To answer this, I would return to Justice Douglas’ idea that a spokesperson for the rights of other-than-human beings should have a “intimate relation” with those beings. And who better to fill that function than those human beings who already recognize the personhood of those beings–animists!

Who better to speak for nature in human courts that those humans who not only see, but cherish, their own relationships with the more-than human world and the beings who inhabit it? Perhaps, rather than the Sierra Club or a regulatory agency that has been co-opted by industry, nature would be better represented by a kind of legally-recognized priesthood. I leave it to people more imaginative than me to work out what such a world might look like.

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Notes

Douglas’ dissent was influenced by a law review article published earlier that year by Christopher Stone, cleverly titled, “Should Trees Have Standing?-Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”.

It’s worth noting that Douglas did not propose granting rights to the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, etc., but to a “living symbol” of the ecosystem which included them.

There are governmental bodies that are tasked with acting as nature’s guardians, but their history inspires even more skepticism about the ability of humans to speak for nature. Justice Douglas himself observed how regulatory agencies come to be captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. For example, The Forest Service — one of the federal agencies behind the scheme to despoil Mineral King — has been notorious for its alignment with lumber companies.” Ironic, then, that he would propose a logger as a spokesperson for Mineral King.

Unfortunately, the word “communitarianism” has acquired the status of an epithet in contemporary American culture, so deeply have we drunk from the well of classical liberalism. This is true of many words which share common roots with the word “community”, like “commune”, “communal”, “communalism”, and of course, “communism”.

While the theoretical wedding cake business is on “private” property, it is open to the public, and therefore a public space, to my mind.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. He is also one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community. He is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.


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