Part III: Colonial Histories of Authority, Captivity, and War in the Americas
A Discussion with Catherine Besteman, Karina Biondi, and Orisanmi Burton
Moderated by Jennifer Curtis and Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot
This summer, APLA President Emeritus Catherine Besteman, 2017 APLA Book Prize winner Karina Biondi, and Orisanmi Burton, American University Assistant Professor of Anthropology, took part in a virtual discussion that is PoLAR’s latest Emergent Conversation, number 8. This discussion was moderated by PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis and PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot. The discussion was published in three installments. It continues and complements the Speaking Justice to Power series’ focus on contemporary authoritarianism, and what it means for the political anthropology of authority, dissent, and freedom. The latest APLA/PoLAR Speaking Justice to Power series focuses on confinement and authoritarianism in the Americas. This is part III of the discussion. Part I is available here, Part II is here, and the main page for the conversation is here.
Globally, the rise of authoritarian regimes has inspired public intellectuals and scholars to return to political theories of authoritarianism. A great deal of this theory was produced in response to the particular circumstances of World War II and European fascism, and as such is rooted in the histories and traditions of Europe. Nevertheless, some of this work remains profoundly relevant for thinking about the present, such as the Frankfurt School’s emphasis on discursive practices and social psychology. However, more recently, political theorists such as Roberts (2015) have explored insights from subjugated peoples that may better explicate “big” concepts, like freedom, than prior European scholarship (e.g., Arendt 1961). Roberts’ work elucidates a theory of freedom rooted in particular histories of enslavement and marronage in the Americas. Here, freedom is not a static condition achieved in a single victory, but an ongoing struggle of self-liberation. In addressing question two, all of you outline a similar recognition that struggle rather than victory animates political action. Your observations of struggles from your research remind us that subjugated knowledges from other sites and sources are urgently needed to understand and oppose authoritarianism today, and to develop better theories of its opposite and opposition, freedom. What can we learn from the Americas, past and present, that is different or congruent with conventional political theory? What new theoretical understandings can be generated from the specific histories of conquest, colony, and enslavement in the Americas? How can these subjugated knowledges and practices provide greater insights insights about both authoritarianism and liberation in other contexts?
Orisanmi Burton: In 1820, the U.S. Coast Guard captured the Antelope, a Spanish slave ship containing 280 enslaved Africans as it sailed along the coast of Florida. Federal authorities transported the ship, the crew, and its human cargo to Savannah, Georgia, where John Smith, the ship’s commander, was tried for piracy. (The crime of piracy was, among other things, legal jargon denoting participation in the international slave trade to the United States, which was outlawed in 1808). Smith was acquitted of piracy and launched his own legal action, suing the U.S. government for the value his forfeited property. Litigation ambled on for seven years eventually reaching the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the captive Africans, most of whom were below the age of 14 when they first arrived to the U.S., were forced to pick cotton, dig ditches, and perform domestic labor throughout Savannah. Many of them were worked to death. Indeed, by the time the U.S. Supreme Court reached its first of three decisions in 1825, nearly half the captives were dead. The court decided to send 30 of them to Spanish Florida to live out the rest of their lives as slaves. It ordered the remaining 120 to Liberia.
This is an important historical episode for a number of reasons, one of which is that it established the superiority of property over the supposedly “natural right of liberty” in Supreme Court jurisprudence. However, I mention it here because I am fascinated by the majority opinion of the court. Authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, who owned “hundreds of slaves throughout his lifetime” and a number of profitable plantations, the opinion concedes that, “[slavery] is contrary to the law of nature.” However, it goes on to legitimize slavery based on the notion that captive Africans were prisoners of war:
From the earliest times war has existed, and war confers rights in which all have acquiesced. Among the most enlighten nations of antiquity, one of these was, that the victor might enslave the vanquished. . . slavery, then, has its origin in force; but as the world has agreed that it is a legitimate result of force, the state of things which is thus produced by general consent, cannot be pronounced unlawful.
In essence, the court legitimized the admittedly immoral condition of slavery because it was a justifiable outcome of war, particularly in Africa, where, according to Marshall, “throughout the whole extent of that immense continent, so far as we know its history, it is still the law of nations that prisoners are slaves.”
This has been useful for my own thinking because it productively disrupts the established radical genealogy of contemporary prison slavery in the United States, which typically focuses on the exception in the Thirteenth Amendment that allows for enslavement as punishment for a crime. It suggests that enslavability is produced by war rather than criminalization. Or perhaps that criminalization is an instrument of war. The same goes for the police and the courts —I interpret Justice Marshall’s facile appropriation of African custom as an instance of lawfare—the application of law as an instrument of war.
Carl von Clausewitz posited that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” in the early 19th century. This dictum was subsequently reformulated by Engels, Lenin, Mao, Huey P. Newton, and Michel Foucault, among others. More recently, a variety of interdisciplinary scholars have been writing about the deep genealogies of war in the U.S. homeland. What I am trying to do in my work is to pursue the implications of the prison-slavery-war nexus. There are, for instance, important methodological implications for interpreting the institutions of domestic law enforcement as instruments of war. One of the first lines in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is that “all warfare is based on deception.” I think this is key. The U.S. criminal punishment system is premised upon a whole series of deceptions, or at the very least contradictions. That prisons promote public safety and rehabilitation are two obvious deceptions, but we could list so many others. Understanding the prison as a site of war means that to study the prison is to study an antagonistic political confrontation that is always attempting to hide itself as such. This is something that scholars of state repression and authoritarianism in the U.S. need to wrestle with.
Catherine Besteman: Ori’s response knocked the breath out of me! Carceral regimes are war machines in which criminalization is a technology wielded by the powerful and victorious to not only vanquish but delegitimize the incarcerated. The parallels here with border crossers are obvious. Those who attempt to cross the borders of the U.S. without the approval of the state are now met with militarized technologies to capture and subdue them, political rhetoric that insists on their a priori criminality, and a legal system created to brand them as criminals, incarcerate them, and banish them. I have been writing about the emergent system of border management across the global north as a loosely coordinated and iterative system of militarized apartheid, and am now prompted to think about naming this system as a war on people who dare to cross borders without state authorization. Can we argue that the global north is engaged in a war on unauthorized migrants, in which authoritarian tools are used to criminalize, incarcerate, and degrade the mobile?
A war against the unauthorized – those whose very presence challenges state authority and must be eliminated – demands that states create categories of people who can be identified as illegitimate presences against whom states have the right to wield their authority. A society based on white settler colonialism like the U.S. has a rich history of laws and carceral practices to unearth or refashion to meet current political and economic desires, and a long experience of normative comfort with the vilification and dehumanization of those identified by the state as punishable or incarcerable. In other words, it is easy for political and economic elites to tap into the long history of rhetoric that identifies internal threats against whom citizens must trust their government to act. Seeing incarceration as war allows us to understand how authoritarian desires feed off the drive to imprison (“Lock Her Up!” “Build A Wall!”) by defining the world in increasingly Manichean terms.
Karina Biondi: Yes, perfect, Ori: this is about war! This makes think about a lot of things.
It seems to me that the very discourse of state sovereignty, present both on issues of migration, on crime, or the fight against terror, is rooted in war relations. It leads me to question whether we could separate the ideas of state, sovereignty, frontier, capitalism, justice system, hierarchy, domination, and capitalism.
This is what Pierre Clastres identifies in the refusal of the Amerindians to the emergence of the State within their social organizations. For the Amerindians, it would be a path of no return, an evil against which they fought unceasingly. What Clastres called societies against the state, then Deleuze and Guattari carried on and transformed into the concept of counter-state. They are not new theories, but I believe they are great tools. They are also tactics and, at the same time, and above all, weapons. They are weapons because they can be used not to deal with what is consolidated, but with the battles of everyday life, always partial, local and provisional.
The same operation carried out by Deleuze and Guattari to transform the fights against the state in the concept of counter-state can be utilized to turn fights against colonialism into the actual decolonization of social relations. This proposal can be seen in Carole McGranahan’s and John F. Collins’s new book, which approaches imperialism as something that acts on multiple levels, both inside and outside the USA. In fact, colonialist power relations replicate themselves on other scales: in academia, in education, in government, in family relations…
The central challenge in this context is to decolonize thoughts and postures. The question becomes: in the name of whom do we speak / write? For whom and for what purposes? Whom do we serve?
Lévi-Strauss in 1958 differentiated anthropology and sociology by saying that while the latter was concerned with making the social science of the observer, the former sought to make the social science of the observed. I think that the disciplinary distinctions are not so rigid and it is possible to find allies and enemies in all disciplines. There are those who write in the name of the state, in its service and for it, either in anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy. And I think that fighting this stance is a constant goal for our own work. It is not easy to decolonize thought or to fight authoritarian vectors in our own writings. I keep fighting, in every text, in every line, in every word. Writing is also war.
Without having this in mind, we end up dressing the state discourse in academic clothes to talk about how to deal with crime and with prison and migration, or to tell the story of the successes and failures of migratory (or anti-migratory) politics, security politics and prison politics. Although it dons humanistic clothes—Let’s humanize the prisons! Let’s guarantee the human rights of the prisoners!—the grammar is that of power, language searching for the best way to contain a specific population, while concealing the war behind the words. Humanist discourse, as well as state and colonialist discourse, is saturated by power relations and also conceals the insurgent knowledge that lies on the other side of the battle—precisely because they cover up this war.
The American prison strike shows that we are not in the field of citizenship and justice, but of war and politics (the continuation of the war by other means, as Foucault said in reversing Clausewitz’s proposition). In a recently published book about the PCC, the authors—a sociologist and political scientist—question, right at the beginning, why the main leaders of the PCC are the only leaders of prison groups in Brazil not sent to federal prisons of maximum security (Manso and Dias 2018). They argue that the state government of São Paulo must have made an agreement with the PCC. What the authors underline is the link between government and organized crime, drawing attention, on one hand, to the power of the PCC and, on other hand, to the problem of state sovereignty that this implies. It is a problem of the state and for the state. Yet it as if the authors are advocating for more authoritarianism. But what I see, from ethnographic research with the PCC for more than a decade, is the result of a daily war waged by the prisoners against the prison system of the State of São Paulo. If for “social science of the observer” (Lévi-Strauss, 1958) this indicates a lack of sovereignty or the dangerous power of a prison group, for a social science of the observed this shows a political victory of the prisoners, which avoided the transfer of their companions to prisons with more rigid regimes. From the perspective of the prisoners, to avoid the transfer of a companion is to fight against the possibility of their own transfer. And this victory is not consolidated because it is not official—so they are absolutely aware of the instability of political victories and the necessity to continue fighting.
On the other side (the side of the victims of the authoritarianism), it’s always clear that this about war. Today, I watched the video of the statement by Julius Malema, EFF leader in South Africa. He says clearly that it is war. The prisoners in Brazil also say that it is war. The language of war is only hidden in the discourse of the powerful. So I insist: listening to what people have to say, the ways they have decided to fight, is also a way to expose and unravel this war. To amplify their voices by means of our writings is to undermine the edifice erected by the official grammar to silence the sounds of the battles and the voices of the war’s targets.
Catherine Besteman is the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. A past President of APLA and 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, her books include Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine(2016), Transforming Cape Town (2008), Unraveling Somalia (1999), and, with Hugh Gusterson, the edited volumes The Insecure American (2009) and Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong (2005).
Karina Biondi holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a master’s and doctoral degree in Social Anthropology from Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCar). She is currently professor at the State University of Maranhão (UEMA), where she coordinates the Laboratory of Studies in Political Anthropology – LEAP. Karina is currently researching the technologies of mapping crime through the perspective of science studies. She wrote Junto e Misturado: uma etnografia do PCC, which had its English version published by the University of North Carolina Press under the title Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil.
Orisanmi Burton is Assistant Professor of anthropology at American University. His work has been published in North American Dialog, Cultural Anthropology online, and The Black Scholar (forthcoming). He is an active member of the Critical Prison Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association and the Abolition Collective and is hard at work on a book manuscript, tentatively entitled The Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism and Prison Struggle in the Empire State, which analyzes the historical development of the radical movement in men prisons throughout New York State from the 1960s to the present.
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