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As part of yesterday’s “Diversity Day” at University of Alberta Libraries, Jessie Loyer gave a thought-provoking workshop called “Where do you work? Rooting responsibility in land”. The workshop was essentially a set of guided questions on land, indigeneity, settler rights and responsibilities, sovereignty, communities, and relationships. When I got home I decided to reread her chapter in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, “Indigenous Information Literacy: nêhiyaw Kinship Enabling Self-Care in Research”. This chapter is worth reading for many reasons, but I was particularly struck by the following sentence:

For [Deborah] Lee, reciprocity is a key element for librarians to engage meaningfully with the information needs of Indigenous students, particularly as librarians work against the commonly held perception that interactions with non-Indigenous people will be disappointingly non-reciprocal. (148).

Loyer is referring to Deborah Lee’s “Aboriginal Students in Canada: A Case Study of Their Academic Information Needs and Library Use” from 2008. What is important here to non-Indigenous librarians - and non-Indigenous people in general - is the characterization of interactions with non-Indigenous people as non-reciprocal. I don’t think answers like “colonialism” or “racism” tell the whole story, though they are important elements of the story. In Loyer’s workshop, it was very clear that reciprocity, relationality, and responsibility are tightly interwoven not only within Indigenous perspectives on social relations, but in what Indigenous people are looking for or need in their relations with non-Indigenous people that we aren’t providing.

Much of the time - and this is clear in much of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion work being done within LIS - we fall back on a (philosophically) idealistic view of social and political change: problems, tensions, or contradictions in our social relationships are simply due to the wrong ideas, mistakes, or incomplete/erroneous knowledge. Fixing the ideas, completing or correcting knowledge is the answer to fixing our social relationships. This idealism was critiqued by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology, and by Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness, but it is a very hard position to escape from, because it seems much easier to change people’s ideas than to change the material structures that produce those ideas in the first place. So, to come back to the incapacity for non-Indigenous people to engage in reciprocal relationships, I would argue that the problem isn’t only with people who don’t want to engage reciprocally, or those who don’t understand what a reciprocal engagement is, though these are definitely problems we need to face; rather, I would argue that settler inability to form reciprocal relationships, to take responsibility for ourselves and for others with care, and to see ourselves in a web of relations that includes family, community, the social world, and the natural world, are products of particular ways in which our (settler) social world is materially structured. This is not to say that individuals within capitalism are unable to perceive and work towards such reciprocity and relationality: I’ve seen it mostly recently first-hand in the interactions of people like Emily Drabinski, Tara Robertson, and Baharak Yousefi. But in the aggregate, as a society, capitalism prevents us from having reciprocal relationships, from taking responsibility, and for situating ourselves with respect to others.

In the 1843 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx argues that the institution of private property, and the act of producing for another (i.e working for a capitalist) combines to alienate human beings from themselves, from each other, and from nature. Such alienation is at the heart of capitalist economic and social relations, and explains not only the capitalist drive to destroy the earth, but also the drive to destroy culture, to reduce all differences to the least common denominator, to make the world homogeneous and everyone the same (unless a given difference can be “monetized”). These institutions and dynamics also lead us to treat everything (ourselves, each other, the natural world) as instrumental in the achievement of some kind of goal, effect, or profit. As long as settler-colonialism is capitalist, as long as we continue to make private property and commodity production the basis of our economies, society, and politics, we will continue to be incabable of reciprocal relationships or of treating our relationships as anything but instrumental. This instrumentality lies at the heart of all extractive activity, from the extraction of natural resources which are destroying the planet, to the extraction of data and information from Indigenous communities with whom we have no ongoing reciprocal relationships, to the disproportionate extraction of labour (both physical and affective) from Indigenous interns, library workers, faculty, and researchers. This instrumentality also tends to be highly individualist, another consequence of the logics and relations of capitalism, which both reinforces idealism and blocks authentic relationships. From this perspective, if we are serious about decolonization, reconciliation, and building relationships with Indigenous communities, then we have to be anti-capitalist.

The conflicts between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in the colonial world tends to be reduced to simplistic - Westernized - ideas of property rights, sovereignty, or - as we can see at Mauna Kea - a conflict between “Western science” and “Native spirituality”. This reductiveness clearly serves a political and ideological purpose among settler-colonialists, but it also obscures what is really going on. The conflict between Indigenous valorization of reciprocity, responsibility, and relationships and capitalist alienation is the crux of a conflict between capitalism and alternative modes of production. The plural here is important: the reduction of the rich variety of Indigenous forms-of-life to a single phrase (which I’m afraid I’m guilty of here too) is an easy trap for settler-colonialists to fall into: capitalism prefers dichotomies. But this should not obscure the rich plurality of alternatives that are on offer in our struggle against capitalism and for responsible relationships with each other and with the planet.

A few years after the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx and Engels summed up the question of alienation in The Communist Manifesto. There, they wrote that capitalism has destroyed all the organic, reciprocal, responsible relationships between human beings, and “has left remaining no other nexus between [human beings] than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” (82). This “cash nexus” is the antithesis of reciprocal relationships, and we can see this every time we pay someone rather than have to enter into some kind of dialogue. The cash nexus - alienation - is perhaps the most corrosive aspect of capitalist culture, and it is this, the idea that every relationship must be one of self-interest, of extraction, of non-reciprocity, that prevents settlers from engaging with Indigenous people the way that we should.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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