Notes on ‘Idle No More’ and the State of Exception
by Devon G. Peña
The Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt made two observations that are useful to fully understand the nature of white settler colonialism and its calculated brutality against First Peoples. The first idea, which of course has been taken up as the point of departure of the work of Giorgio Agamben,[i] is that after the Jewish Holocaust every parliamentary and liberal democracy exists in a permanent state of emergency/state of siege. The second point is that under such a regime, not only is there a suspension of the rule of law, the constituted power of the sovereign is focused on the ability to decide,[ii] and especially to determine who lives and who dies — hence, the concept of biopower as developed by Foucault and his protégés.
The end of the rule of law is surely by now a more familiar condition to most citizens in the U.S. and Canada who are dealing with the collapse of the Bill of Rights in the aftermath of 9-11 and the advent of the never-ending ‘War on Terror’. How many of those citizens are awakening to the systematic attacks on the writ of habeas corpus, the right to a trial by a jury of our peers, or the right to be free from government or police surveillance without lawful cause or a court-issued warrant? How many citizens have too slowly arrived at the realization that the “drone memos” of the Obama Administration surpass even the “torture memos” of the Bush II regime in their cold and calculated rationality seeking to establish the praxis of the Unitary Executive as judge, juror, and executioner?[iii]
To them I say, welcome to the condition of the ‘bare life’ routinely faced by indigenous peoples for more than 500 years. Our experiences with the state of exception did not begin with the end of WW II or the morass of the post-9-11 permanent war machine. The state of exception, and the reduction of our status to the ‘bare life’, began with contact, conquest, and the imposition of the laws and institutions of white settler colonialism.
The Idle No More movement is therefore the most significant movement against the sovereign power of the state of exception. It is the only movement that can effectively and legitimately confront and challenge the Unitary Executive’s desire to suspend the rule of law and determine who lives and who dies. This is because the Idle No More movement invokes the return to the only legitimate ethical, juridical, and political authority older than and therefore more primal and autochthonous than that of the sovereign powers inscribed by the U.S. and Canadian governments (or any non-tribal authorities). This is not about tribal sovereignty – which is always still within the colonialist construct — but rather the resurgence of autonomy.
Let me be clear: Tribal sovereignty is a purely contrived political condition co-produced with and for settler colonialism in order to establish a “government-to-government” relationship for purposes of negotiating and signing treaties and other administrative and trust agreements.[iv] Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) scholar Taiaiake Alfred discusses the work of Canadian scholars Menno Boldt and Tony Long among the Blood and Peigan peoples who have argued:
“By adopting the European-Western ideology of sovereignty, the current generation of Indian leaders is buttressing the imposed alien authority structures within its communities, and is legitimizing the associated hierarchy comprised of indigenous political and bureaucratic elites. This endorsement of hierarchical authority and a ruling entity constitutes a complete rupture with traditional indigenous principles.” (As quoted in Alfred 1999:80)
The contradictions and limits of native sovereignty are painfully and ironically illustrated in Canada right now, by the actions of the Prime Minister who can feign respect for ‘aboriginal sovereignty’ by anointing Patrick Brazeau as the chosen Senator to ‘represent’ First Nations within the Conservative Party. Enrolled with the Omàmiwinini (Algonquin) Nation, Brazeau is perhaps best known for his view that “The best way to get our land back is to buy it back. Just like every other Canadian.”[v] He is the quintessential neoliberal ‘Apple’ and embodies everything that is poisonous via the embracing of the political projects of late modernist sovereignty.
Autonomy is a deeper daily lived experience and material-spiritual condition through which first peoples realize and exercise the full breadth and depth of their agency without permission of the so-called sovereign power. The autonomy of native peoples resides beyond the reach or authority of the colonial settler state or contrived tribal councils. Recognizing this key distinction between sovereignty and autonomy is essential if we are to fully understand and engage with the struggles unleashed by Idle No More.
Of course, Alfred has his critics including Dale Turner, Teme-Augama Anishnabai author of This is Not a Peace Pipe (2006). According to Mark Rifkin, Turner’s argument revolves around the idea “that the protection of Native peoples involves making their concerns and representations intelligible within the legal and political structures of the settler-state.”[vi] Turner’s critique strikes me as highly problematic and, indeed, against the general claims and demands of the Idle No More Movement. What’s more, Turner’s criticism reminds me in no small manner of the brilliant arguments set forth by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State, in which he notes how the power of the state to control the ‘Other’ comes precisely from rendering indigenous cultures, landscapes, and practices “legible.” Resisting legibility is critical to the practice of autonomy and this means that sometimes we must choose to remain ‘strategically invisible’ and opaque to power. That is the point of the direct action protests and ‘flash mob’ organizational forms assumed by much of the resistance associated with Idle No More.
The matter of survival is no doubt at the heart of this entire problematic. If we assume Dale Turner’s approach, then survival becomes a matter of bridging the divide between indigenous and settler colonial fields of knowledge — he explains this as a matter of “reconciling” disparate “ways of knowing.” I think that Rifkin gets it right when he rejects this approach because Turner assumes that all will be resolved as soon as “we explain our differences and in the process empower ourselves to actually change” the settler-state (p. 111).
Turner’s faith in the panacea of discursive politics is not just naïve it is actually Eurocentric since it actually sounds like the Frankfurt School’s critical theory approach to the forging of democracy. It is, after all, Jürgen Habermas, who has envisioned the possibility of an “ideal speech community” leading toward an imagined nirvana of equality within diversity.
With Rikfin and Alfred, I remain more of a hardcore anti-materialist in the sense that I understand that discourse politics and the ‘games of truth’ never exhaust the range of human agency — unfortunately, bullets speak louder than words in oppressing us. But we are also not mere ghosts of the primitive accumulation — in other words, capitalist violence has harmed us, enclosed our lands, poisoned the waters, and killed off the wildlife, but we are resilient and refuse to disappear.
The complications posed by the state of exception scenario can lead to a slippery slope inducing theoretical confusion and political stasis. However, there is at least one principal lesson we can derive from the Idle No More movement: The ‘bare life’ was always a part of us. It predates settler-states and capitalist enclosures.
The ‘bare life’ — understood as the condition of ‘just living’ and affecting the Homo sacer as the body forced to live without a political existence by virtue of the sovereign’s ability to decide that a particular body is excluded — is actually also in a prefigurative way the way of being for a decolonial way of life. I have told my students that instead of running away from the bare life, we should rush toward it and embrace it. How is such an outrageous idea even possible you surely must be wondering?
Agamben took the concept of the bare life (la nuda vita in the Italian original) from the Greek philosophers who used two terms to signify what we usually mean by ‘life.’ The first term is zoe, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings. The second term is bios, which implies a way of living that is social and political because it pertains to the life of the person within a group, community, or nation. According to Diane Enns, the “bare life recalls Aristotle’s distinction between mere life and the good life; between private life and the public life of the polis where justice arises from the human community’s capacity to reflect on what is best and necessary for the common good.”[vii]
Fine, except this means that the very definition of the bare life implies a Eurocentric construct of the citizen and the citizen’s occupied body in relation to the state and the sovereign. If political life is only possible under the watchful gaze of the sovereign, then is this itself not antithetical to the traditional indigenous concepts of autonomy, coevalness, and mutual reliance interests? What if the bare life is actually the perfection of right livelihoods and a heritage of simplicity (not simplemindedness) based on respect for Original Instructions? Would not the bare life then constitute the emancipation of the aboriginal from the state of exception rather than reducing to the outcome of the sovereign deciding to determine the nature of the life of the First Peoples?
From this vantage point, the escape we seek is not from the bare life — a right livelihoods state of autonomy — but rather a resistance against the reduction of our bare life to a politically contrived condition of precarity or the precarious life. I am attempting to draw a distinction here between the bare life, understood in indigenous terms, as an autonomous life based on respect for ecological limits and membership in a mixed community of many different living organisms and the precarious life understood as a condition of existence without predictability or security, degrading material, psychological, and spiritual well being. In other words, the bare life is our chosen way of living a simple life without excess consumption. The precarious life is the result of conquest, colonialism, and the imposition of a state of exception by the settler-state.
The Idle No More movement has taught me to make this critical distinction between the bare life and the precarious life and the lesson for me began with the use of a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence. After all, the hunger strike is that ancient and proven tradition that embraces the bare life as a direct attack against the artificially contrived condition of precarity, which all settler-states seek to impose on occupied bodies subject to the political projects of late modernity with a fatal obsession with the rule of law when it serves the aims of domination and a fallback to the state of emergency when it does not.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.