Swedish colonialist neutrality

Engraved and hand coloured map of Scandinavia from the early days of the Swedish Empire in the 17th century. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

by Roger Blomqvist

Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.

In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.

Double standards in Northern European environmental politics

An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.

What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential social scientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.

The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.

Activists and NGOs used the attention which both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident: the $20 million relief effort may contain a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’

There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.

Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.

We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

Swedish colonialism in thegreat olden days and today

Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling example is the Swedish national anthem from 1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över jorden(You are enthroned on memories of great olden days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).

Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.

But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.

Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens and punishment for their sins.

The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.

Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years. Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.

An imagined peaceful meeting between Swedish settlers and Native Americans in New Sweden with warring Native American tribes in the background. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

The Swedish leadership also aimed for America. A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock nations for some time.

In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.

There is evidence that the Swedish governor actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in Poland and elsewhere.

The Swedish Royal council also planned other settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.

It is revealing as well that leading Swedish merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of Independence.

Photo from Swedish Saint Bartholémy, circa 1865. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.

The Swedish presence through settlers, bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing have been used. But the compulsory boarding school attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in Virginia.

Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.

Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones. In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.

One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.

In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt, humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin. All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since colonial times.

The vast underground iron ore mine in Kiruna/Giron. Photo:
Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project

In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.

Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist structure.

Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:

Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.

Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.

Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.

The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.

There seems to be a line of continuity in Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market shares.

The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of human rights and progressiveness.

But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war crimes or oppression.

The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).

Continuing on or contesting colonial relations

As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve. Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.

As we have seen, there is reason to conclude that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.

There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.

What differentiates Sweden from, for example, Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this. Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art exhibition in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).

The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to act on this.

Other states have at least partly begun to deal with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art, education, and public debate. This has been termed ‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.

It is disheartening (although perhaps not surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history that is told by the state. In China, the Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression. And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.

If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.

Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.

The possibilities of climate action

So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of ‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.

But things can change. Slave trade and slavery were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It took centuries, but it happened.

We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.

NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.

Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.

Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.

The right to say no

Randfontein Mine, Johannesburg, South Africa. Image source: Flickr Creative Commons License

by Boniface Mabanza Bambu

Colonialism with its dominant patriarchal and racist ideologies did not accept alternative ways of living. Its faith in the superiority of Western ways of thinking justified the violent destruction of original economic, social and ecological balances in all the regions of the world it invaded. Colonialism propagated an alienation from nature and an ecocide which nowadays finds its continuation in extractivism. As German philosopher Ernst Bloch put it, humans think they have the right to relate to nature like an occupation army relates to enemy territory. In many parts of the world, governments and mining companies act as if they had the God-given right to exploit the land at the expense of local communities and women in particular. Extractivist actors form the greatest threat to rural communities and women today, in particular where women’s land ownership is inhibited by tradition.

The wealth leaves the country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.

In southern Africa many communities are being robbed of their land. National governments most of the times condone this practice of land grabbing due to the pressure of the transnational corporations that are being granted the right to extract minerals from the earth. Almost everywhere in the region people are under the impression that local communities cannot deny governments and corporations access to the land if it is needed for mining purposes. The governments let themselves be persuaded by memoranda of understanding by the companies that always promise to not only contribute to the wealth of the countries but also to directly improve the situation of the local communities. They promise the creation of jobs and to enhance infrastructures for education, health and transport. In reality nothing or only very little actually happens. Mining companies reap the profits and leave behind environmental degradation and social disintegration. Whatever governments collect in the form of license fees and taxes, if they get paid, often disappears into the private accounts of the elite of the national governments who have no social connection to the communities in question. The wealth leaves the country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.

I was born in DR Congo, a very rich country when it comes to natural resources. I have seen many of these cases in different parts of the country and they occur in many other African countries. Because extractivism particularly affects women this article wants to emphasize the importance of tying antiextractivism and feminism in a postcolonial perspective.

The negative effects of mining particularly affect women as they are the ones who carry the responsibility for the survival of the family, and families are dependent on access to the land and water that is polluted and destroyed by extractivism. In extractivist contexts, it is generally women who ensure the survival of socially disintegrated societies; the men working in the mines suffer the effects of unhealthy working conditions and become prone to alcoholism, and women consequently dedicate more time to care work—while also facing an increase in domestic violence.

In light of these developments it is important to understand the scope of many local initiatives against extractivism. They are campaigning for realizing their “Right to Say No.” In South Africa for example, there is the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), a law that prescribes that mining companies must consult all concerned parties before starting their activities. Unfortunately, South Africa is not an exception to the general picture in which both national governments and transnational companies reduce the required consultation processes to mere formalities, which suggests that they hold colonialist beliefs about their unchallengeable right to access the land of local communities: landowners and users cannot refuse access. Faced with this existential threat, the communities affected by mining are rediscovering the value of solidarity. They are joining forces to claim their space in the centre of decision-making processes concerning their communities. Doing so they are discovering the integrative strength of women, whose voices have been marginalized for so long. Claiming space at the centre of decision-making means that they design their own options for developing their communities. They don’t see a future in extractivism.

The overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization.

Not only does extractivism place a heavy burden on women and their local communities; it is also harmful to the environment. This combined assault on humanity and nature is not new, but rather indicates a continuation that dates back to the birth of the colonial project. Colonialism, understood as the commodification of the earth, its treasures, its flora and fauna and particularly its people for the economic benefit of the colonizing nations, still goes hand in hand with the domination over women and nature in the self-declared civilized nations. In the colonies people were alienated from nature and, by means of forced labor, induced to develop a violent relationship to nature. This relationship is being continued in extractivism. Therefore, the overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization. Extractivism and its violent relationship with nature and people in the surrounding areas of the mines is a manifestation of skewed power relations, political structures, and economic dominance that maintain colonial logic and praxis. We can only successfully overcome the crises triggered by extractivism if the voices that have been marginalized up until now, especially those of women, claim a space in the center of the process of change.

Boniface Mabanza Bambu is a theologian, philosopher and literary scholar from DRC. He works for KASA, Kirchliche Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika/Ecumenical Service on Southern Africa in Heidelberg, Germany where the main focus of his work is on apartheid and post-colonialism.

The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living

Tourists on a cruise ship docked at Valletta, Malta. Source: Flickr.

by Miriam Lang

We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.

For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation  of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.

One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare

But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building  new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This  could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.

 

It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South

The left  focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?

Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with  positive connotations of  personal choice  and self-determination.

It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address  what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with  “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions.  People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive  social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.

At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.

The container port at Fos-Sur-Mer, France.

 

Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?

The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter

The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it  refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.

This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.

Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?

New perceptions of the good life

A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.

Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative  lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally  question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”

Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn  that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.

In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.

Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.

Considering social welfare globally

Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.

If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.

Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.

The cruise ship Royal Princess at port in Gibraltar. Photo: Tony Evans.

A version of this article first appeared on Degrowth.de.

Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.