12. Craig Fortier, Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism

by breavman99

fortier unsettling the commons

When I read Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on hegemony, I was wondering how a hegemonic formation that respected First Nations sovereignty might be created in Canada. But according to Craig Fortier, an assistant professor of social development studies at Renison University College in Waterloo and the author of Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism, that’s the wrong question to ask. Contemporary anti-authoritarian movements, Fortier argues—a category that includes a variety of movements against economic, gendered, and racial oppression, including queer liberation, migrant justice, anti-gentrification, prison abolition, anti-imperialism, gender liberation, environmentalism, and disability justice—are inherently non-hegemonic rather than counter-hegemonic, because although they seek radical change, they do not intend to take or influence state power (78). In fact, those anti-authoritarian movements are, by their very nature, both anti-capitalist and anti-state: their goal is the dismantling of state structures, rather than their remaking. Instead, those movements seek to establish a new commons. However, for Fortier that new commons needs to be a decolonized one: “there must be a commitment to dismantling the state, heteropatriarchy, capitalism and imperialism by also divesting from the logics of settler colonialism,” he writes, and the new societies that will result from this dismantling will of necessity be “forged through relationship building and support for Indigenous reclamations of space” (50-51).

Through interviews with anti-authoritarian activists in Canada and the U.S., Fortier seeks to answer a series of questions in this book: 

what is the commons? How should commoning be practiced? What does it mean to build social movements to [re]claim the commons on stolen land? And what does a politics and practice of decolonization look like for non-Indigenous peoples seeking to resist the state while also trying to support Indigenous people in their struggle for self-determination? (15). 

In fact, it is that last question that occupies Fortier’s thinking: “a politics of unsettling and decolonizing are not only different from other forms of liberatory struggles in settler colonial states but are foundational to their success,” he argues (17). Nevertheless, “there are significant roadblocks ahead as we are faced with questions about how to struggle for liberation on stolen land,” he continues. “This is why it’s important to examine the contradictions that come up when seeking to (re)claim the commons in a settler colonial context” (17). I’m an artist, not an anti-authoritarian activist, and my goal is not a (re)claiming of the commons, but I am interested in the contradictions involved in working against colonialism while living on stolen land, and so I was interested in what Fortier has to say about that challenge.

Fortier starts his study with the Occupy movement and various occupations that were part of the “global opposition to neoliberal austerity policies that followed the 2008 financial crisis” (20). Those occupations were “incubators for experimentation in developing alternative forms of social relations outside of the logics of capitalism and have been described as engaging in the practice of reclaiming or re-negotiating the commons”—that is, reclaiming a space outside of state control, opened by those who live on it and shared according to rules they create (20). But, like all social movements, Fortier writes, “those struggling for the commons are also full of contradictions” (21). The main contradiction is that of creating a commons on stolen land—the struggle, Fortier argues, “to imagine liberation in a way that addresses really important questions about relationships to Indigenous peoples, the territories on which the movements took place, and a reckoning of the histories that structure the context in which we struggle today” (23). Attempts to (re)claim a commons on stolen land that do not address those questions, according to Fortier, risk perpetuating settler invasion and Indigenous dispossession (23). Because Occupy Wall Street did not push for liberation outside the context of settlement, for instance, it remained “implicated in the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples from their own territories” (25). “The problem with the idea of the commons in settler states,” Fortier continues, “is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation” (30). Settlers—even or especially those in anti-authoritarian movements—need to come to terms with their complicity in this ongoing history. As Clare Bayard, one of the activists Fortier interviews, points out, “The difficulty that a lot of non-Native people have in imagining what unsettling would look like in this country is that it’s not seen as a political possibility. . . . We can’t even imagine what that would look like—how do we do that?” (32). For Fortier, this question “speaks to the normalization of settler colonial logics even within liberatory visions of other worlds. . . . settler colonial logics are so deeply ingrained in our lives, including those of us within the anti-authoritarian current, that it seems impossible to imagine what decolonization would look like” (32). As a result, those anti-authoritarian political projects can end up being antagonistic to Indigenous attempts to assert sovereignty, and “non-Indigenous activists may sidestep their own complicity in the creation and perpetuation of settler colonial space” (37). Artists might find themselves sidestepping their own complicity in the perpetuation of that space as well.

Any resistance to things as they are—resistance against gentrification, “racist immigration and border policies,” heteropatriarchy, or environmental destruction—always takes place on top of both settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance to dispossession, Fortier contends (48-49):

This double-bind of being made by but also trying to surpass colonized subjectivity means that any struggle within the settler colonial context will always be tied by the logics of settler colonialism unless activists work to build decolonial relationships with Indigenous peoples and amongst each other that relinquish claims to settler futurity. (49)

Fortier doesn’t define “settler futurity,” unfortunately, although he does gesture to articles by Eve Tuck and Ruben Gaztambide-Fernández, and K. Gardner and Gibwanisi, on this point. (Please, people: remember your audience. If you are using a term that others may find unfamiliar, one that cannot be found in a decent dictionary, provide a definition.) “By working to create deep, long-term, and accountable relationships with Indigenous struggles for decolonization and self-determination,” Fortier writes, “non-Indigenous people can open up the possibility of sharing in a decolonial future” (50). However, creating those relationships is difficult and full of potential pitfalls. One might admire the political, spiritual, and social practices of Indigenous peoples, for instance, but that admiration can easily slide into appropriative and harmful behaviours (52). Any borrowing from Indigenous peoples needs to be respectful and take place through a process of relationship building and dialogue (54-55). “What is often missing from movements seeking to reclaim the commons—in whatever form they might take—is the presence of relationships that centre Indigenous practices, traditions, and protocols without seeking to incorporate them into a broader naturalized settler politics,” Fortier writes (57). Settlers must be willing to learn from Indigenous people with humility and accountability (63), to become co-conspirators rather than allies (64), and to accept the leadership of Indigenous communities (93). This process means becoming vulnerable (88), realizing that everything you know has to be questioned (88-89), and accepting the partiality of one’s knowledge (90). “While this uncertainty is unsettling,” Fortier writes, “that’s precisely the point: unsettling should be unsettling. The process of unsettling our movements is not simply an individual transcendence of racial prejudices and feelings of entitlement, guilt, or shame.” Rather, “it is a collective transformation of the knowledges and worldviews that shapes societies, and individual’s interactions, and the way these territories are inhabited” (89).

In practical terms, relationships between anti-authoritarian activists and Indigenous communities can be created by working together. As an example, Fortier cites demonstrations against tar sands pipelines, demonstrations that were created through relationships between non-Indigenous activists and Indigenous land-based struggles, using a diverse range of tactics and strategies that included “lobbying, community research and education, rallies and protests, fundraising, legal interventions, direct actions and blockades, traffic disruptions” (66). But some of Fortier’s demands are more abstract. For instance, he argues that 

non-Indigenous activists have a responsibility to move beyond acknowledging their settler complicity toward incorporating and integrating decolonizing relationships into all of our strategies, tactics and campaigns (even those that on the surface do not seem to relate to Indigenous sovereignty). (93)

To be honest, I’m not sure what that would look like, although Fortier also suggests that it is important “to learn from the place-based philosophies and strategies of mobilization that influence Indigenous processes of resurgence and decolonization” (95)—as long as such learning could take place without appropriation, of course. In his final chapter, Fortier gives one possible example of how this works in practice: the creation of Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp by union activists from York University and members of the Anishinabek Confederacy to Invoke our Nationhood in Awenda Provincial Park, some 200 kilometres north of Toronto. That camp, which lasted four years, “was an example of a commons that situates practice, place, and relationships at the heart of its work,” as well as being “a direct invocation of Anishinabek nationhood and sovereignty,” “an assertion of the connection between this nationhood and the land,” “an interruption of settler colonial sovereignty,” and “an invitation to re-negotiate human and non-human relationships based on traditional Anishinabek knowledge” (102). “For the organizers of the camp,” Fortier writes, “this meant acknowledging the long-standing co-stewardship of these territories between their nation and Haudenosaunee peoples. It also emphasized their desire to invite non-Indigenous people to participate in a renewal of the long histories of Indigenous governance on these lands” (102). The fact that you’ve probably never heard of this camp—I certainly hadn’t—or that it only lasted for a short time, doesn’t matter. “The idea that the changes we are seeking will not come from one grand monolithic movement, but rather from small, diverse, and widespread attempts to live outside the dominant logics of our time” is the purpose of such activities, Fortier argues, citing the idea of the “undercommons” as described by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their 2013 book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. The undercommons, Fortier writes, is different from the commons; the latter “is a refusal of the process of closure,” but the former “resists both enclosure and settlement” (104). According to Fortier, “the struggle for the undercommons means to destabilize our intellectual, affective, spiritual, and material commitments to the power relations of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism” (105). But along with the undercommons, Fortier cites Junot Díaz’s concept of “decolonial love” (106-07), which “bridges the mental, material, emotional, and spiritual through the practice of relationality and reciprocity.” Decolonial love, he continues, “is an invitation to shift and transform our affective and spiritual relationships on these territories. It is a pathway towards a different kind of commons” (107). But, he concludes, “for this strategy to be effective decolonization needs to be foundational to all of our radical dreams, desires, and political projects—from their start and even at their end” (108).

I’m not sure what to make of Fortier’s book. I wonder what tangible results the struggles for the undercommons actually achieve. I find it hard to imagine what a world without states might look like, or how we might get there: after all, the state has a long, long history, and failed states—Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, or Syria—are hardly places where one would want to live. There’s no guarantee that, once the state has disappeared, gangsters wouldn’t loot the armouries and establish regimes that would make capitalist liberal democracies look pretty good by comparison. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a powerful element of utopianism in Fortier’s argument, as well as a belief in the perfectibility of human nature, and I find both of those somewhat naive. At the same time, I agree with the argument that settlers need to build relationships with Indigenous communities and accept their leadership. That’s one of the reasons I’m learning Cree, although I’m sure that Fortier would tell me that learning an Indigenous language is not enough. Still, Unsettling the Commons has given me a lot to think about, and Fortier’s bibliography is very useful. He also makes me want to give that book by Harney and Moten another try—my first attempt at reading it foundered in the details of their argument. Like much of what I’ve read so far towards my comprehensive examinations, Unsettling the Commons has raised new questions, rather than answering old ones, and perhaps that’s the best outcome I can hope for in this process.

Works Cited

Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism. ARP Books, 2017.