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RALF Newsletter: What is autonomy really going to cost us?

On 12 October 2020, the Guardian published a letter by Waorani leader, Nemonte Nenquimo, to the “presidents of the nine Amazonian countries and to all world leaders that share responsibility for the plundering of our rainforest” titled This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth:“The Amazon rainforest is my home. I am writing you this letter because the fires are raging still. Because the corporations are spilling oil in our rivers. Because the miners are stealing gold (as they have been for 500 years), and leaving behind open pits and toxins. Because the land grabbers are cutting down primary forest so that the cattle can graze, plantations can be grown and the white man can eat. Because our elders are dying from coronavirus, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate an economy that has never benefited us.”On the African continent a similar story can be told about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where The United States, France and The United Kingdom have fueled and funded decades of unrest and violence – often using DRC neighbours like Uganda and Rwanda – displacing, murdering, raping, enslaving, terrorising millions of Congo’s citizens and residents all in an effort to loot the Congo’s mineral resources. In October 2020 Nigerians across the country took to the streets to demand that the government put an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a branch of the Nigeria Police Force founded in 1992 to detain, investigate, and prosecute people involved in crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping, and other violent crimes. SARS however, became the very thing it was established to prevent, categorically disappearing citizens, demanding large sums of money from citizens arbitrarily arrested and carrying out extra-judicial killings. Among the protesters were members of the LGBTI community  who are often victims of police abuse in Nigeria, but there has been clear attempts by some in the movement to sideline queer voices.

The above examples of the destruction and pillaging of land and mineral resources, of the violence of state sponsored entities against the very people they are accountable to are recent – but the stories are not new. Time and time again, we have been witness to and have experienced the [miniscule] value ascribed to human life against greed – the exorbitant accumulation of resources for the few at the cost of dignity, safety and livelihood of the masses. The masses often Black, queer, women, indigenous peoples, Africans. 

Money = power

On 16 August 2012, the South African Police Services opened fire on striking mine workers on a Lonmin mine in the town of Marikana, killing 34 mine workers. Activists and scholars alike have looked at the Marikana Massacre, as it came to be known, from a place of workers rights and class struggle. Dr Asanda Benya, in her article ‘The Invisible Hands: Women in Marikana’ makes the case for a more nuanced understanding of the Marikana massacre, specifically including the work and narratives of women in Marikana: “When we view Marikana from the household or community level, we see how mine labour itself is reproduced, and thus are able to analyse the symbiotic relationship between the productive and reproductive spheres – a critical fault-line in the present crisis”.Tracing the roots, and subsequently the effects of capitalism on and in our lives, it becomes a useful exercise, as Dr Benya has done with her research on Marikana, to locate labour at the point of reproduction. And perhaps we begin to see the pro-life stance of many governments and insitutions not as a moral one, but as a financial one, one that we can read through theories of reproductive labour and social reproduction that draw distinct lines between reproduction (through carrying pregnancies to full term) and the labour force as well as between reproduction and the replication of capitalist and heteropatriarchal values taught and reproduced in the ‘home’.  Feminist activists have been doing the work of uncovering the insiduous ways money and the accumulation of resources not only finances violence and oppression, but is often the reason for it. Xhercis Méndez, in the essay titled “A Caribeña (Re)thinks “Privilege,” the Wages of Gender, and Building Complex Coalitions” drives the point above further by speaking directly to the “benefits” in terms of money, privilege and access to resources of anti-blackness in brown and indegenous communities: “My intention is to work against a pan-Latinidad that bypasses and/or obscures the question of race and the pervasiveness of anti-blackness in Latinx communities. Instead I want to be attentive to the assimilationist projects that offer benefits for disidentifying with and from Black communities. Indeed, the color-coded arrangement of the US, where the ability to pass can significantly improve access to benefits, more often than not informs the degree to which Latinx communities identify with and/or even associate themselves with Black communities.”

What is autonomy really going to cost us

We follow the money – climate justice, land rights, labour rights, environmental rights and even in spaces we don’t necessarily think to look for it – abortion rights, LGBTIQ rights, women’s rights – we can trace the money here too. Our struggle as feminists for freedom, justice and autonomy does not lie solely in demanding others see our dignity and humanity: a huge part of our struggle lies in dismantling capitalism. Capitalism that places arbitrary value on certain people, and certain soil, and certain metals and avocados and cashew nuts – while stripping the value from Africans and their ancestors who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women in Namibia, Nigerians who have iphones and Nigerians who are queer, the indigenous people of the Amazon and many many more Black and brown peoples. And while we are tracing the money – perhaps there is one more place we should follow it to – feminist organising and organisations. The politics of money is a ongoing discussion in feminist spaces and organisations. On an international advocacy level, the Feminists for a Binding TreatyCollective is mobilizing around a U.N Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights: “The Binding Treaty has the potential to address systematic corporate power and development that contributes to widening social inequalities, massive extraction and exploitation of natural resources through the regulation of transnational corporations and other business enterprises, thus ending decades of corporate impunity and ensuring access to justice for affected communities…However, we are greatly concerned that without a transformative shift in the way that gender equality, women’s human rights and gender justice concerns are articulated, a truly transformative framework to end corporate abuse will not be achieved” On a more organisational level, the conversation around the politics of money largely revolves around who we will accept and not accept funding from. And while there are feminist collectives that have divested from fundraising through philanthropic and government institutions, many of us – even when we decide who we will not accept money from – still very much organise around the money. And in so much as we choose who we accept money from, funders are also playing a choosing game – creating a dynamic of haves and have-nots in terms of who gets funded – but also in terms of the ways in which we, ourselves, decide to allocate and distribute funds. Elitism in the politics and structures of resource mobilisation, allocation and distribution by feminist organizing has made the violence of class very intimate in our organising spaces, which has further exacerbated the rapturing of feminist movements and has legitimised the processes of ‘othering’ based on class difference and economic inequality. Fadzai, advocacy manager at CAL, states that the conversation around labour and workers rights often does not demand for the total end of oppression and abuse by employers and often veers towards only curtailing oppression. And of course we cannot completely remove abuse in situations of employment if profit is the bottom line and NGOs and CSOs, including of the feminist variety, cannot necessarily distance themselves from being profit driven. Our profit may not be monetary in value, but we  sometimes do have a profit bottom line – in the form of reports and publications and webinars and logframes and risk assessment (against losing money) strategies all aimed at securing more – you guessed it – money!Perhaps It would be disingenuous to demand a complete divorce from money as one of our most important resources needed to carry out the work we do – there are many things to consider, to lose. But perhaps this is also where the issue lies, in the fear of confronting the ways neo-liberal and capitalist values have infiltrated our movements and what we have to ‘lose’ if we do. What is undeniable, however, is that we live in the world as it currently exists – and currently we are living under capitalism. And often times, being a feminist means actively revolting against the status quo, actively dreaming up and creating feminist futures, while doing things, that may not necessarily be linked to our feminist values, to stay alive in the world as it exists today. What does a feminist organisation, that is actively working to dismantle capitalism and divest from capitalist values, that is actively engineering a post/non capitalist environment, while doing the things to survive in a capitalist world even look like? We may not have the answers yet, but perhaps we need to be asking ourselves more and more how our organizing, the processes, the admin, the structures, represent, or don’t represent, our anti-capitalist values.