Book Review

As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

powerful academic text on the impossibility of decolonisation within capitalistic structures

Order this book now, it’s fucking brilliant

I was originally going to blog about my thoughts and feelings about/inspired by this incredible book in tandem with my thoughts and feelings about/inspired by a second contemporary non-fiction book about indigenous lived experience, but I’m not going to do that. 

My plan was to contrast the two books – this one, a powerful, courageous, blunt, direct, highly intellectualized, highly personalised, highly spiritual piece of researched, coherent, politicised academic prose; the second a restrained, contradictory, even hypocritical text. I’m not going to do that –

I realise I’ve kind of done it, but what I haven’t done is name the writer and their book and be mean about it directly, because reading Simpson’s made me understand why it was the other book failed.

It was the same reason why that other book was published by a major international publishing house, and why Simpson’s much more important text was published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The difference, the problem, with the non-Simpson book I read is that it was written for, marketed to and catering for a presumed white, settler, audience. 

A liberal white audience, sure. And by that I mean a Liberal with a capital L “Justin Trudeau-type” liberal, and tho that book is critical – how could it not be – of the Canadian government’s contemporary and historical treatment of indigenous peoples, and is critical, too, of particular, named, Canadian politicians (some of whom I recognised from my 2019 summer spent working catering at awful, swanky, Toronto house parties), the book I won’t name falls short of offering conclusions and decisions, and sometimes seems to avoid forceful statements or forceful expressions of opinion. 

In that book, the experience of colonised people is reduced to the experience of a colonised individual;

the political is personal, yes, the personal is political, but this approach, this ideology, is of the capitalist mindset:

individuals are the base unit of capitalist societies (some people might claim “the nuclear family” is the base unit of capitalist societies, but they’re wrong and compensating ideologically for being guilt-ridden, emotionally-neglectful parents);

even more so the individual is the base unit of “liberal capitalist” societies, whereby we are all afforded an individuality but only so far as that individuality is permitted to (and able to) participate within capitalist institutions. 

Cases in point: View the corporate world’s support of BLM, the weapons manufacturers sponsoring Pride; capitalism seeks to embrace all by emphasising and praising the individual. The freedom to choose, but to choose what to buy.

In English we don’t have separate words for the plural and singular second person: when one talks about “you”, it could be a plural, but it could be a singular. 

We are reduced reduced reduced, with the promise that one particular commercial product that speaks to us will solve us of our malaise, our loneliness, the neverending stream of meaningless work for meaningless reward, for facile existences detached from any sense of need, any sense of balance, any sense of an “us”.

I have (as regular readers and those who have read my memoir, the pleasure of regret, will know) been formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder; I’ve never felt a part of anything; I’ve never felt comfortable and relaxed and at peace in my life, save for that time I walked a 1,000km Catholic pilgrimage

There is a reason why that time, alone, wandering across the north of Spain, was the best time of my life: it was the simplest, it was the least complex; it was cheap and it was hard (I averaged over 40km walking per day) but it was meditative and repetitive and purging and enervating and it made me feel – the experience of crossing a country on foot – made me feel the real size of the world, my size within it, and the sizelessness of all the people and places and institutions that had never let me feel acceptable and real before or (alas) since.

Capitalism is a destructive, extractive, iredeemable and moribund force: it dooms billions and billions of people to misery, to hunger and pain and poverty and abuse.

Simpson, who is wise, energised, articulate and powerful, Simpson… Simpson understands and doesn’t hold back. 

Simpson writes at length about the flaws in ideas of decolonisation within a capitalistic system; how can one decolonise the mind, the soul, the heart, without decolonising the body, without decolonising the land?

While Indigenous peoples are trapped in cycles of poverty and intergenerational trauma and mental illness and addiction, while their access to clean water and to land and to food remains tied up, entrapped, poisoned, by its proximity to capitalistic ideologies, a true freedom is impossible.

The lives of the First Nations of North America were incompatible with capitalism; these societies advocated community, respect for nature, maintaining balance, not overfishing, not overhunting, avoiding permanent extractive processes; their was community-based parenting, and leaders were considered to hold positions of responsibility, not positions of power.

Capitalism appeals not to hunger, as is often claims, but it appeals to greed; most people like to eat, most people like to fuck, most people like to experience the joy of intoxication, but capitalism demands a disconnect from practical, responsible, levels of consumption.

We must want more, we must believe we can access more, we must believe we deserve more, we must believe that our hunger is sacred, that our hunger is just, that other people’s homes and possessions and bodies are there only for us to exploit.

Colonialism happens, continues to happen (a genocide seems to be happening as I type this (again, sat in the launderette which seems to be the only place I ever sit still for long enough to blog any more; I wish I was doing other writing, but I have nothing nothing nothing to say #covid19)), because of greed, because of selfishness, because of capitalistic ideologies.

Simpson does not shy away from the revolutionary, does not shy away from the big truths, the inevitable and irredeemable truths that lots of writers and thinkers feel nervous about committing to: if we don’t stop capitalism, the world will be destroyed.

It is possible for the world, for post-capitalist societies, to flourish, just as pre-capitalist life existed for hundreds of millions of years: to say Humanity, or life itself (“Nature”), is inherently selfish is ignorant and easily disproven; but is this a message of hope or an acceptance of defeat?

I feel like we’re trapped in this runaway avalanche until the world burns.

I believe the only routes to happiness and community and cohesion and peace are through the destruction of the mores and laws and ideas that underpin the internationalised world in which we live.

We must return to an understanding of place as local, we must return to non-extractive production, we must live with an understanding that resources are finite; the world can maintain, heal, itself for an incomprehensible number of lifetimes, like a starfish regrowing a limb or the blood clotting in a cut on my arm; but if we cut too deep, or lose too many limbs, healing is impossible.

We need to stop feeling hunger when we’ve had enough to eat.

We need to stop feeling greed.

There is enough space and enough food and enough, in the world, for everyone. For more of us than there already is.

But there is not enough when everyone tries to hoard. There is not enough when we all measure our desires against the perceived possessions of others, not against what our bodies – and our communities – need.

As We Have Always Done is a powerful book. I highly recommend it.

I apologise if you are disappointed by the continued leftwards journey of my politics.

Written Mid May.

Order As We Have Always Done right now, it’s an essential read is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

5 comments on “As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

  1. Hr novel “Noopiming” is wonderful too

    Liked by 1 person

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