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Guyana and the Amerindian Question

Anonymous Comrade writes:

This paper written by Chris Carrico will be presented Oct. 23 at the Inter-Guianas Conference, University of Guyana, Turkeyen, Co-operative Republic of Guyana.

Guyana and the Amerindian Question

Christopher R. Carrico


In current legal theory regarding indigenous peoples, one of the most commonly cited differences between indigenous societies and modern states is their divergent notions of property. Since anthropology's formation as a science in the nineteenth century, anthropologists have been aware that indigenous peoples have a communal mode of property, while capitalist states are founded on the idea of individual private property. This idea from anthropology contributed in a fundamental way to the thinking of social theorist Karl Marx. In his critiques of the assumptions of political economy he often showed how Adam Smith and the entire classical tradition naturalized the social conditions of capitalist society and projected its image backwards onto human origins. Classical political economy assumed that human beings in their original state were self-maximizing individual owners of property, an observation that was not borne out by ethnographic fact, and was not the state of much of the world prior to the age of European colonialism.While this observation from nineteenth century anthropology has stood the test of time, there are many other anthropological ideas from the time that have not. Perhaps the greatest flaw of nineteenth century theory was its inability to separate culture and biology. Nineteenth century anthropological theory, from arch-conservative "scientific" racists, to the liberal Herbert Spenser, to the progressive politics of Lewis Henry Morgan, assumed that the world was separated into discrete bio-cultural races that could be arranged hierarchically on an evolutionary ladder that progressed from simple, primitive societies to the complexity of modern civilization. Europe, of course, was assumed in this model to be at the apex of civilization.

Much of the history of twentieth century politics is the history of the fight against these wrong ideas. Anthropologists in the radical tradition shared the belief with national liberation movements that the ideological struggle against these ideas was the critical task of the time. Compare Stanley Diamond's anthropological observation, made during the American war against Vietnam: "Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home;" with Gandhi when asked what he thought of European civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."

Whether or not racism existed prior to capitalism is a subject of debate which I will not engage in here. What I will say, is that the rise of capitalism caused the emergence of racism in its modern, so-called "scientific" form. Scientific racism can be defined as the belief in the biological reality of races, ordered hierarchically, and in the biological inheritance not only of phenotypic traits such as hair and skin color, but also of behavioral and cognitive characteristics that anthropologists now know to be cultural, not biological, in origin. Even those who have broken with the notion that biology and race are equivalent, but subscribe to cultural evolutionist forms of thought, assumed that "primitive" peoples were less advanced than those who lived in state-based societies, and for this evolutionary gap to be closed the primitive either needed to be protected from the outside world while it was allowed time to evolve, or it needed to be exposed to the "civilizing" influence of state-based societies. One or the other of these ideas, which form the scientific bulwark for racialism and racial formation, has been subscribed to by states as a matter of official policies throughout the modern era. With regard to indigenous peoples, only a few states in the world, such as the Scandinavian states, New Zealand, and Canada, are taking the first steps away from these ideas. The post-colonial Guyanese state inherited the scientific racism of the colonial state. While I do not want to deny that progress has been made, the Guyanese state has yet to decolonize its Amerindian policy. This paper will examine the history of racial formation and the racialization of the Amerindian during the colonial and post-colonial eras. Let us begin with the historical source of Amerindian racial formation: European colonialism.

Paper continues at IG Paper