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Liberalism’s Game: the Failure of Settler Solidarity in Hawai’i

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When I am in Hawai’i, I ask everyone I meet if the United States will ever voluntarily de-occupy the Islands. No one ever says yes. Usually, before I can say anything else, people hurriedly start talking about the lack of a valid treaty or that the American occupation is illegal by their own laws or that the United States will pay for its human rights violations.

I am a haole in Hawai’i, a white settler in the United States. I acknowledge that every square inch of the United States of America exists on stolen native land. Leadership in land based struggles in the United States rests most properly in the hands of indigenous peoples. I will not undermine indigenous leadership, so I direct my thoughts to other settlers.

If no one believes that the United Sates will ever voluntarily de-occupy Hawai’i, why are so many of the movement’s settler supporters so focused on achieving this impossible voluntary withdrawal? Why, for example, do so many settlers spend so much energy supporting a parade in Oahu – a parade that is billed as a march for Hawaiian sovereignty while quietly being a voting drive to encourage participation in the occupying American government? Why do so many settlers hold up expensive court cases relying on American judges who are paid by the American government to make decisions leading to this mythical voluntary de-occupation as the only viable means for de-occupation?

The first answer is privilege. Settlers benefit from the current arrangement of power in Hawai’i. These Islands represent the tourist fantasy to many settlers despite the fact that Hawai’i’s life support systems are inches away from total collapse. The inability of settler support to recognize that Hawaiian de-occupation is our responsibility leads me to conclude that most settlers are not as concerned with Hawaiian liberation as they are concerned with maintaining a feel-good environment that balances settler crises of conscience while never threatening settler access to Hawai’i. Hawai’i does not have time to coax these settlers from their positions of privilege. So, I direct my thoughts to settlers of strong heart who simply suffer from a lack of analysis.

Apart from privilege, the second reason settlers have proven unable to mount a serious solidarity effort with the Hawaiian de-occupation movement is they see no alternative to a liberal mindset. “Wait a minute,” I hear a lot of confused readers saying, “Aren’t liberals good?” No, actually. It’s too late to rely exclusively on liberalism. Hawai’i has been cursed for 122 years of occupation with too much liberalism. Liberalism is the haoles’ game. Liberalism serves the United States of America. Liberalism renders resistance ineffective and must be forsaken if de-occupation is to be achieved.

The alternative is radicalism. An examination of the differences between the liberal and radical world views will demonstrate how radicalism arms settlers seeking to demonstrate true solidarity with a better analysis for forming an effective de-occupation strategy. This is not to say that a mixture of tactics cannot be effective. The Hawaiian de-occupation movement should not remove any tool from the table, but the longer Hawai’i remains occupied the clearer it becomes that decisive action is needed.

***

Before I begin, I would like to absolve the term “radical” of the bad reputation it has received in popular circles. Too many people confuse the word “radical” with the word “extreme.” But, as the great African-American activist Angela Davis has explained and as every major dictionary will tell you, the word radical simply means “getting to the root” and is most properly applied to political analyses that seek the origins of oppression.

The brilliant writer and activist Lierre Keith has pointed out two fundamental differences between liberals and radicals. The first difference revolves around individualism. Liberals believe that the basic social unit is the individual, while radicals believe the basic social unit is group or class. This reliance on individualism allows liberals to claim that every individual is entitled to their personal identity free from the realities accompanying social class. In fact, for many liberals, it is an insult to be identified with a certain group regardless of political reality.

For radicals, on the other hand, each individual is socially constructed by political reality. Radicals embrace their social group recognizing it as a source of strength. The first step to affecting change is making common cause with those who share your condition.

The other big difference between liberals and radicals is a disagreement on the nature of social reality. Liberals subscribe to a certain idealism while radicals root their analysis in materialism. For liberals, thoughts, mental states, and attitudes are the only sources and, therefore, solutions for oppression. Liberals locate reality in the human mind and tend to think that education is always the key to social change. For liberals, evil is a misunderstanding and if oppressors can just be shown the error of their ways, they will change.

How does this play out in Hawai’i? Take the role of white supremacism in the domination of Hawai’i, for example. Liberals, long ago, succumbed to the lie that racism and white supremacism are merely emotional states held in the hearts of individuals. They confine the definition of racism to hatred based on the color of one’s skin and confine the definition of white supremacism to hatred for everyone who is not white.

It is astronomers relying on a liberal definition of racism who can claim they are not racist because they hold no hatred in their hearts for the Hawaiian people while still insisting on destroying Mauna Kea’s summit to build telescopes. It is mining executives relying on a liberal definition of white supremacism who can claim no hatred in their hearts for native peoples while insisting that the guts be ripped from native land and poisons pumped into native waters to provide iron ore for the telescopes that destroy native peoples’ sacred sites.

Radicals see tangible systems of power maintained through force and working in the real, physical world as the sources and solutions of oppression. Education is an important first step to building radical consciousness, but they see organized political resistance and force as the means by which real change is achieved. Evil is not a misunderstanding. It is intentional and gives material benefits to oppressors. Oppression is always linked to resource extraction.

An emotional state – like hatred – might contribute to white supremacism, but radicals are less concerned with changing the hearts and minds of those murdering people of color and murdering the world, and more concerned with stopping the destruction. Hawaiian radicals, like Haunani-Kay Trask, for example, see racism as, “A historically created system of power in which one racial/ethnic group dominates another racial/ethnic group for the benefit of the dominating group.” White supremacism is the latest version of this system of power with white people dominating everyone else.

Racism and white supremacism establish, “Economic and cultural domination as well as political power…in the systemic dominance of the exploiting group.” Finally, radicals recognize, as Trask pointed out, that the dominating group holds a monopoly on the means on violence. It is this violence that must be confronted and dismantled if racism and white supremacism are ever truly going to be undermined.

To take this even further, consider what would happen if the liberal analysis was carried out to it’s logical conclusion. Imagine that liberals were actually successful at convincing those in power to treat every one in the world with love and kindness. Without a corresponding change in material reality, there would still be a huge problem. The dominant culture is built on the exploitation of natural resources. Resources are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Humans need to eat, for example, but topsoil is so depleted that major crops are all supported by oil. What will happen, despite the liberal conversion to loving kindness, when the dominant culture needs oil and indigenous peoples and others refuse to give up their lands to give them that oil?

***

A primary strength of the radical analysis is its ability to articulate the role power plays in oppression. Gene Sharp, the world’s foremost authority on civil disobedience and direct action tactics, has identified two manifestations of power – social and political. Social power, for Sharp, is “the totality of all influences and pressures which can be used and applied to groups of people, either to attempt to control the behavior of others directly or indirectly.” Political power is “the total authority, influence, pressure, and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power-holder.”

The powerful do everything they can to convince the oppressed that the current arrangement of power is inevitable. To believe power is inevitable is a mistake. Sharp says, “Power, in reality, is fragile, always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people – cooperation which may or may not continue.” The key to Hawaiian de-occupation, then, is dismantling American power. Power is dismantled most effectively by cutting it off at its sources.

Sharp lists six sources of power: authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources, and sanctions. Jacques Maritain defines authority as “the right to command and direct, to be heard or obeyed by others” and Sharp notes that it is enough that those in power be perceived and accepted as superior. Human resources are simply defined as the number of people who obey those in power and will do their bidding. Those in power derive power from the skills, knowledge, and abilities of those who will do their bidding. Closely tied to skills and knowledge, intangible psychological and ideological factors like cultural history and spirituality can be leveraged by those in power to dominate others. Those in power need material resources like property, money, and sources of energy to maintain their power. Finally, those in power must have means to enforce obedience – punishment, in other words, for those who dissent.

The goal of any resistance movement aspiring to true success must engage in shrewd target selection to undermine these sources of power. Taking Sharp a step further, it is possible to prioritize which sources of power are more essential to the functioning of power than others. The most important sources of power are the material resources power depends upon and the brutality of the sanctions they can enact through their commitment to the exploitation of resources. All the other sources of power ultimately depend on the ability of those in power to enforce their power physically. This is a radical conclusion and can be easily demonstrated.

Consider the Overthrow. Did Queen Liliuokalani abdicate the throne because she believed in American authority or the inherent right of Americans to command Hawaiians? Did the Americans command more people to do their bidding in Hawai’i than the Queen? Was Queen Liliuokalani victim to some psychological failing that the Americans exploited?

The answer is obviously no. At the time, Kingdom of Hawai’i supporters outnumbered the Americans over 13 to 1 on the Islands and constituted 4/5 of the legally qualified voters in Hawai’i. Queen Liliuokalani abdicated the throne in order to avoid bloodshed and, according to her June 17, 1897 letter to President William McKinley, because she, “recognized the futility of a conflict with so formidable a power.”

Queen Liliuokalani abdicated the throne because there were 200 United States marines, holding rifles, standing outside her door. Again, it wasn’t the moral superiority of Americans that convinced the Queen. It was, quite clearly, the threat of violence. It is important to understand the physical processes that allowed the Americans to exert that kind of power in Hawai’i. Another way to understand this is to ask, How did a nation existing thousands of miles away on another continent succeed in pointing 200 rifles at Queen Liliuokalani? The answer is, superior material resources.

In order to occupy Hawai’i, Europeans had to get there first. The only way Europeans ever got to Hawai’i and then transported themselves in numbers great enough to gain power was through the use of large naval ships. In order to build these ships, those in power needed wood and lots of it. The U.S.S. Boston that provided the marines and firepower for the Overthrow was in fact one of the American navy’s first steel warships. In order to produce the steel needed to armor the U.S.S. Boston, iron ore must be harvested. To turn iron ore into steel, vast quantities of coal are needed. To mine sufficient quantities of coal, vast tracts of land housing this coal have to be ripped up. To gain access to these vast tracts of land to be ripped up, the indigenous peoples of that land have to be removed or destroyed.

It is true that the other sources of power support the exploitation of the natural world as we can see in the manufacturing of American naval ships. Coal mining, for example, requires human resources. Most humans will not voluntarily mine coal, so those in power have to employ a mixture of authority, psychological coercion, and pure violence to access the coal they need to exert more power. But, the whole system of violence requires material resources. No one is killed by authority alone. Mountain tops are not ripped off by simple knowledge. Belief systems, by themselves, do not colonize indigenous lands. Material action in the physical world produces power. Bullets, swords, or atomic bombs at various stages of human history kill people. Oil-powered excavators and dynamite blow the tops off mountains. Soldiers delivering blankets infected with small pox clear indigenous peoples off their land.

The good news is that the more destructive those in power become, the more complex their system of murder gets, the more opportunities they expose for dismantling their power. Each step in the manufacturing of the U.S.S Boston, for example, presents an opportunity for resisters to stop the replenishment of power at one of its sources. The method is simple. Restrict those in power access to the resources they require and their power weakens. Cut them completely off, and empire comes crashing down.

The physical processes that produce warships and put rifles and cannons in the hands of American troops in Hawai’i follow a similar pattern. These processes are ultimately what make civilization unsustainable. These processes demonstrate precisely how the civilized have come to dominate the world at the expense of the uncivilized and life on this planet. Again, this present state of the world is not inevitable. It is the result of power built through the exploitation of life on the planet. The problem for life right now is the American empire shows no signs of slowing. The bigger their weapons become the faster life is pushed to the brink of total extinction.

Radicalism, then – because it springs from material reality – gives the Hawaiian de-occupation movement an ecological imperative. European contact has resulted in half of Hawai’i’s endemic species being lost to extinction. How many more species must be lost before actions that truly reflect the seriousness of the situation are taken? The American empire is built on the use of fossil fuels and the American military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world. Burning fossil fuels must be stopped to avoid climate catastrophe. The American military presence is, perhaps, the most serious physical obstacle confronting the de-occupation movement. Blocking the military’s access to imported fossil fuels, then, could deal a decisive blow both to American power on the Islands and American environmental destruction.

***

This is the reality of the challenge confronting the Hawaiian de-occupation movement:The United States will never voluntarily leave Hawai’i and the survival of life on the Islands demands de-occupation. Too many settler liberals would have everyone believe that if Hawaiians just ask nicely enough, or cleverly enough, or with irrefutable American logic, the Americans will leave. Too many settler liberals hold up the American political and international legal systems as the only means for de-occupation. Too many settler liberals can be relied upon for sign-holding events, parades, and social media campaigns to achieve de-occupation, but when it comes down to being accomplices to Hawai’ian liberation, we are failing.

Appealing to the American political system hasn’t worked in 122 years. Appealing to the international legal system misunderstands the material reality of power. These liberal tactics can be employed to erode American authority, to persuade humans not to support American power, but there are more decisive routes to undermining American power. It’s not that liberal tactics do not have their place. But, by themselves, they do not undermine power in any serious way.

Time is short in Hawai’i. Settlers wishing to demonstrate true solidarity need to embrace a radical analysis. It is time to get to work seriously dismantling the sources of American power.

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Will Falk has been working and living with protesters on Mauna Kea who are attempting to block construction of an 18-story astronomical observatory with an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

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