Networks, Colonization, and the Construction of Knowledge

a review of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s The Will of the Many and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies

Both Marianne Maeckelbergh and Linda Tuhiwai Smith are social scientists, but both identify first and foremost as members of communities in struggle: the alterglobalization movement, in the first case, and the Maori, in the second.

Maeckelbergh is an incisive thinker and concise writer, and in her debut book she handily tackles the premise that the prefigurative networks used for information-sharing and decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement constitute an effective challenge to the exclusion and authoritarianism of representative democracy. I approached her book with trepidation, wondering how an ethnography of our struggle could possibly help us more than it helps the state agencies tasked with dissecting and controlling us. Somehow, she pulls it off. The result is not a blueprint of “the movement of movements” but a theoretical deepening of our understanding of networks that can only deepen our appreciation for the ability of what we are doing right now to confront and replace the current regime.

Tuhiwai Smith brings a persistent, thorough criticism to bear against the Western production of knowledge and the colonial role of scientific research in indigenous communities. As a researcher, she subsequently explores how different understandings of knowledge and approaches to research can be made to benefit indigenous communities, and how non-indigenous researchers could engage in research in indigenous communities responsibly. I found the book valuable for its anticolonial analysis of science and knowledge, and for the thoughts it can provoke regarding research, for anarchists who may never be researchers, but whose theories often refer to human geographies and ethnographical accounts of indigenous societies.

Academics for the Struggle

Precisely because scientific institutions and scientists themselves are a vital force in directing and advancing capitalism, while certain individual scientists have made crucial contributions to revolutionary struggles, it is useful to review these two books simultaneously. Each author, writing as a social scientist and as a member of a community in struggle, challenges academic norms in subtle but significant ways.

What Tuhiwai Smith offers is intuition and reflection. While scientists of all types thrive on criticism, the process of criticism remains very much within their control and is formulated by others of their kind using in-group rules. Tuhiwai Smith frequently mentions, and puts great weight in the fact, that Maori or indigenous peoples more generally feel suspicion or outright contempt for the prying activities of scientists on their lands and in their communities. She makes this statement not on the basis of statistical data, but as a Maori. In other words the scientific community is called to acknowledge how it is viewed through the eyes of a group it has consistently dealt with as an Other-to-be-studied, and to take responsibility for what it has done collectively to deserve this view. The collective feeling of rejection toward the scientific community is not legitimated or dismissed through comparison to objective data or a postmodern atomization and analysis of the forces that shaped this view; rather, an autonomous body of knowledge is allowed to exist alongside the Western methodologies of knowledge and to be granted validity.

Maeckelbergh offers humility, portraying alterglobalisation movement actors as intelligent, as producers of their own analysis, as a collectivity from whom other people can learn rather than an Other upon whom we impose our own analysis. Even while she teases out the intelligence of networks or describes patterns and norms within the movement in brilliant and original ways, she always does so in the spirit of sharing what alterglobalisation networks have created themselves. In other words, she subtly reveals that it is the activity of people, and not the scientific production of specialized institutions, that is responsible for the creation of knowledge. In both cases, these authors introduce what I would call anarchist values regarding communication, analysis, and criticism into their work. Tuhiwai Smith explicitly shapes her criticisms along the lines of what she identifies as indigenous values lacking in the Western scientific tradition; in my view these indigenous values have much in common with, and much to offer to, anarchist desires for a horizontally organized, decentralized or communal world free of state, capitalism, and patriarchy.

The result of the efforts evident in these two books could well be the liberation of necessary theoretical work from the colonial baggage that has long corrupted it.

Divergent Epistemologies

One of the most enlightening aspects of each book was their framework for understanding the creation of knowledge. Tuhiwai Smith analyzes the capitalistic production of knowledge in Western society, arguing that the accumulation of knowledge-as-resource during the process of colonialism was in fact the motor for the development of Western science. The religion of the colonizers, although a deterritorialized spirituality, was inadequate for the globalization of the 16th century and onwards because it had no way for assimilating the histories and biologies of the rest of the world. The agrarian, temperate climate economics and regionalistic 5000 year history of the Bible could do no better than write off the rest of the world as the habitat of the devil, failing to provide the needed level of nuance and technical instructions for colonizing and governing diverse peoples and bioregions. Science thus arose primarily as a system for alienating knowledge into information, classifying it, making it separable from its context, transferrable, mechanical, repeatable.

In other words, colonization, the process of encounter with and domination of the Other, is central to the history of the development of the West, yet curiously, it is peripheral in the accounts of both elites and radicals in the colonizing countries.

Tuhiwai Smith goes into more detail explaining how Western ethnographic accounts of colonized peoples had less to do with their lived realities than with the Western need to justify their own self-image and history through the invention of a convenient Other who confirmed preexisting assumptions.

Maeckelbergh talks about the creation and sharing of knowledge in the alterglobalisation movement, and the M.O. she describes seems to mirror what Tuhiwai Smith identifies as indigenous ways of viewing knowledge. Namely, that knowledge is not property, rather it is collectively created through relations, in the connections and communication between different people or different nodes in global networks, with greater, more diverse participation and communication leading to better quality of knowledge, better decision-making, and in turn a stronger network. And far from being absolute, knowledge is context-specific, and often contradictory; it cannot and should not be homogenized or routinized.

The Western Individual

Tuhiwai succinctly restates perennial indigenous criticisms of the colonizers imposing categories of individuality, personhood, economy, governance, and land ownership that simply could not apply to indgenous worldviews. Maeckelbergh expands recent theoretical work (from the last few decades) on the individual, delving into the very best part of Western science and philosophy, which is the point at which it succeeds in deconstructing core Western values. Every time one of these sacred cows is imploded, I’m pleased to find it does so in a way that seems to confirm a premise of anarchist thought or revolutionary indigenous views as articulated by Zapatismo or Magonismo.

The case of the individual is no different. Western philosophies have long considered the individual as something reproducible or homogenous, alienable, mechanical, and even internally divisible (as in the dualist traditions). Maeckelbergh, in order to show the intelligence of horizontal networks, modifies complexity theory, which arose in the physical and life sciences to explain how an incredible complexity could arise spontaneously in chaotic systems (think the ordering of molecules, beehives). To make this theory applicable to social movements in a non-deterministic way, she combines it with a view of agency not as residing in an alienable individual but in relationships, in communication between diverse individuals. The result is that the individual is still an empowered agent, is not subsumed and lost within some greater, abstract community, but neither is the individual separable from her context, displaceable, transferrable between the cubicle, prison cell, and private home with demarcated, universal rights than inhere in her person, her body, and no further. Rather, the individual exists in and through her relations with the world and other individuals.

For anarchists and other people in struggle, the implications of this challenge to the categories of the dominant system are unending; although Maeckelbergh does not state most of these implications, they especially become apparent in the context of the alterglobalisation movement’s challenge to democracy. The constraining liberal discourse of rights disappears immediately, as soon as we are our relationships. Fighting against the pollution of the local aquifer is an act of self-defense. Criminality or social harm becomes a problem of the community, not a problem of law enforcement, without reducing the criminal to a mechanical victim of social circumstances. Knowledge is common property. Centralization can no longer masquerade as a practicality or necessary inconvenience or anything other than a violent imposition.

These are values that many anarchists have always held, as have, it seems to me, indigenous nations fighting colonialism, though as an outsider I can’t say that in any objective way. However, neither Maeckelbergh nor Tuhiwai Smith pretend to offer anything new (even though on a number of counts they do, and brilliantly); rather they present us with the knowledge our own communities have created, in an articulate fashion that confirms the best of our practices and experiences, renews confidence in our analysis, and helps us to understand, express, and expand that analysis. Many anarchists and other activists continue to limit their struggles by placing them in the confining, maladaptive parlance of liberal democracy, which is after all the system that dominates us. With our own theories so eloquently and solidly given back to us, we can leave the rhetoric of individual rights and legality in the dumpster of history, and then, better yet, set it on fire and wheel it into the street to block the dominant flows of knowledge and ideology.

Prefiguration and Cultural Survival

It is this character of militancy that I found most lacking in both books, which is especially problematic since passivity has long been one of the key weaknesses to academic efforts for social change. Curiously, Maeckelbergh phrases the combative networks of the movement as an attempt to reformulate, rather than abolish, democracy. Even though she demolishes the theoretical underpinnings of democracy, she keeps the term itself in a positive light, which is especially strange considering that the title she chose for her book is a reference to a Zapatista quote about how foreigners applied a eurocentric word, “democracy,” to something they had always been doing. I don’t want to renew any form of political correctness in the anarchist tradition and add to the list of words we are not allowed to say, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about anarchy as a better form of democracy when trying to win over well meaning reformists, but why preserve that one key link to the dominant system in a book that otherwise consistently undermines or challenges dominant values? To make it easier to communicate? To whom? Evidently not to the rebels of Chiapas whose phrase came to give title to the book.

Both of these books are marked by a minimization of struggle that to me seems to reflect that pernicious habit of academia, which seeks to breed itself into even the most sincere and intelligent enemies of oppression, to seek compromise with the dominant system.

Tuhiwai Smith mentions violent struggles against colonialism in the past, but similar battles don’t appear in her portrait of the current realities of indigenous communities. I can’t say whether counterattack against the dominant system is currently an important part of the Maori struggle, but it most definitely is of other indigenous struggles which she references. How can one write about the dangers posed by research and researchers to indigenous communities without stressing the centrality of state counterinsurgency programs which employ social scientists? Unless one doesn’t want to give the idea that the 500-year-long war of cultural survival is by no means metaphorical in many indigenous nations… Granted, it is a much more complex topic, how responsible researchers should conduct their work in a war zone, but it seems irresponsible to downplay or ignore the topic entirely, given the role geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists have played in recent years to aid the repression in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Chile, and elsewhere.

Maeckelbergh focuses on consensus in order to give useful ethnographic boundaries to her study of prefiguration in the alterglobalisation movement. Prefiguration sounds awful nice when it is written about in an eloquent book, but it is precisely the practice of “movement actors” to pick fights with the system, to be disruptive, to encourage illegality and support prisoners, as part of their prefigurative strategy, that gives vital meaning to the global mobilizations and consensus meetings. I find this oversight typical of the academic particularization or atomization needed to accomplish the pacification that is an important part of colonization and repression.

Nonetheless, it is an error of omission. Maeckelbergh is by no means a pacifist, and Tuhiwai Smith does not seem to be; they are not advancing the pacification process that employs so many other academics, simply failing to address what is in many people’s minds a key component of anarchist prefiguration or indigenous cultural survival. It is easy enough for the reader to benefit from their writing, which on the whole is very good, and to plug in the missing emphasis on struggle, on fighting back, in order to improve our strategies and deepen our practice.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People (Zed Books, 1999)

Marianne Maeckelbergh, The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of the Democracy (Pluto Press, 2009).

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