Pan-African Social Ecology: A conversation with Dr Modibo Kadalie
This week, we’re happy to air a conversation I had with the author and activist, Modibo Kadalie, author of Pan-African Social Ecology as well as Internationalism, Pan-Africanism and the Struggle of Social Classes. A version of Dr. Kadalie’s conversation with Andrew Zonneveld of OOA! Publishing, entitled Pan-Africanism, Social Ecology and Intimate Direct Action appeared up in the recently released collection Deciding For Ourselves, edited by Cindy Milstein out from AK Press. Dr. Kadalie has also been involved in political organizing including resisting the draft of the Vietnam War, labor organizing in Detroit and Memphis, ecological protest, community self defense in Atlanta and currently is working on writings about ecology and living in the territories of southeastern Turtle Island, including those of the Creek and Seminole peoples, and working at the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology in Midway, Georgia.
In this hour, Modibo talks about autonomous community organizing, the contradictions between the survival of the species and capitalism, CLR James, his read on Pan-Africanism and Social Ecology, the pandemic, and direct democracy. We also talk about Geechee history in south so-called Georgia, the weaknesses of nationalism, hierarchy and revering individual historical figures and the strength of spontaneity and community action.
This conversation was recorded before the killing of George Floyd and but after the increased awareness of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery nearby to Dr. Kadalie in Glynn County, GA, which reflects in the discussion. Modibo shares some criticisms of official Black Lives Matter, liberal cooptation and the veneration of representative leadership.
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- Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – What’s Going On
- Quincy Jones – Everything Must Change – Body Heat
- Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come – Ain’t That Good News
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TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Dr. Kadalie.
Dr. Modibo Kadalie: It’s very good, thank you very much. I’ve seen this collection. It’s a very good, very easy read, deciding for ourselves, it’s got quite a few different perspectives. What makes it so good is that everybody talks about where does this ideal society exist, where can you find it, and what we got to do is show how it’s emerging all over the world. The collection is a really good read. I recommend it highly.
TFSR: Awesome, we just received a copy from AK Press which we are excited to dig into. I’d like to say first off that I really appreciate the wide focus lens that you use when discussing the history and popular movements and popular participation in discourse. When you have Q&As and discussions. It seems like a lot of your public presentations are focused on the idea of de-centering the individual as the focus, and you engage other participants in lively discourse, rather than a monologue. I feel that says a lot about your politics.
MK: Don’t you find monologues boring? I think their peculiar emergence in a liberal individualistic society. The lecture shows you that somebody’s got the answers, and you’ve got to listen. It is very boring and authoritarian.
TFSR: Absolutely. One thing that I noticed from some pieces that are in your collection from OOOA! was you talked a lot about the impacts of, among other people, C.L.R. James on your thinking. We’ve never had anyone talk about his writings and what he brought to the Marxist tradition and the postcolonial struggle tradition. Can you talk a little bit about, maybe like some of his thoughts that influenced you and interactions that you had with him?
MK: The most dramatic thing was he was a critic of the nation-state. Of course, I was disappointed because he never went as far as I wanted him to go. He was a critic of the nation-state, yet he venerated certain pan-African statesmen. I don’t think he ever made a distinction between classical Pan-Africanism, which is statist in its nature, and neo-Pan-Africanism, which is what I am. I’m a neo-Pan-Africanist, I believe that Pan-Africanism as any kind of humanism has to emerge from my people sitting down, talking, and discussing things to decide how they will go in their society, consistent with their natural ecosystems there that they depend upon for their survival. And these ecosystems are mutually dependent on human beings, symbiotically, relating in a natural world. And I believe we’ve got a real serious problem because capitalism has taken human beings into a very bad dark place. It’s a real detour that people have degenerated, and the technology, it is not very impressive when you look at it from a social-ecological perspective, all the patterns and human knowledge and all that stuff. Beginning with the industrial revolution, it was really inhuman what they did. It’s a very vicious and horrible period we live in. And they’ve been successful in making us believe it is the golden age of human thought and existence. To me, it is just the opposite. You get weapons of mass destruction, human beings fighting all the time with other human beings. Capitalism is driven by the private ownership of property and wealth accumulation. The writers of history look at human society as something which is not only great but the modern technology is wonderful, but the tragedy of it all is that they cannot see the inhumanity. We are on the verge of completely destroying the planet. Nobody seems to understand that human beings who try to own everything and try to rule everybody, there is a danger. The danger for the survival of the species and human society and human advancement not in the materialistic sense but in a humanistic sense.
TFSR: I think what you are saying plays with the definition of social ecology that you give in some of your pieces. Can you break that down a little? Because people may not be familiar with the term?
MK: The term ‘social ecology’ was coined by Murray Bookchin. His contribution was that he saw that human society was natural as opposed to the people who thought human society was unnatural. The rest of the natural world was natural and humans were pitted against the rest of nature. Bookchin saw that human beings and human society were a natural outburst of nature, and what we have to do is reintegrate human society with the rest of the natural world as a natural symbiotic relationship, a mutual affirmation.
TFSR: Where do social ecologists feel like it went wrong? You pointed out the industrial revolution- and I think some people might point to the application of Cartesian Logic, but some people might go back to primitive accumulation.
MK: Well, I have a serious break with Bookchin at the point when you start venerating the Age of Reason, venerating the American democracy. I really don’t think American democracy ever existed. I think that in the American state, there is a particular bastardization of democracy, of direct democracy, for sure. Now, there’s gonna be a debate about that. Because there are people who believe that the American and the European experiments with the rise of the nation-states in the Age of Reasoning and, of course, what they call modern science… I believe that science has existed, as long as human beings have tried to live collectively on the planet. So I’m a little different there, and I’m gonna write more about that later. But I believe that American democracy is no contribution to human social history. And we can see it’s not any kind of contribution to ecology at all. Look at America today, look at what’s happening in the North American continent, this is probably the most unnatural of the continents, because, by the way, you have to put this element in it, this idea of individual ownership of property, the unbridled right to own people, including other people, as it began. And this private property is against human collectivity. Human beings have existed socially and as a species for documented over 200,000 years. And if the greed and avariciousness and competitiveness that we know now, that defines individual relationships with one another, the kind of exploitation and the kind of brutality that human beings exact upon each other and nations, exact upon one another.
And as you know, nation-states in their legal systems have a right to kill people. They call it capital punishment, and war. They venerate people who kill people, those who kill the most other people are the people who are the heroes. So I mean, capitalism and individual private property really must be looked at seriously, because that’s just where human beings, and that’s where the detour began to take place. Now, there was some hierarchy before, old against young, against women and men, but it never reached the point that it exists now. The point it exists now is almost unimaginable. Can you imagine, some nations can wipe out every living thing on the planet with their weapons? And they got all kinds of technologies circling the planet, most of its purpose, of course, they tell you, the purpose is to facilitate communication, but most of its purpose is to seek some advantage over one another. So that they can develop this diplomatic concept that they call Mutual Assured Destruction. What an inhuman concept! I’m laughing because I’m hurt so bad by it.
Bookchin and C.L.R. took me up to a point. But they were people of their time, just like I am a person of this time. So hopefully, we can write this stuff down so other people can take a look at it and critique it and see where they don’t take it.
TFSR: So if we decenter the individual, just in terms of decision-making or deciding what’s best for the communities in which we live and the repercussions that we have to live with as individuals, I can see people who have been raised in places like the United States, we’ve been taught what democracy is to be this representational constitutional republic, whatever it is, that people would reject the term Democrat outright, because that’s what has been fed to them. Are there any visions of democracy that you can talk about that you’ve been personally influenced by that have had a different, more decentralized and human-level version?
MK: Even you can look at the most popular movements of our time, which have started off as direct democracy. And even the native people that were culturally and socially destroyed with the North American genocide, (when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean ‘me’) the American government wiped out all these democratic forms which they could have learned from. Anytime you see a picket line, when a local group, when a local society is under great pressure and in crisis, like in a storm or flood, people do what they have to do. People get sandbags, they don’t get paid for that, they line on the riverbanks with sandbags, they feed themselves, they feed other people that are in this pandemic. But let me give you a good example of how we don’t even know because we’ve been so brainwashed, don’t even know what’s happening for us.
For instance, Black Lives Matter. When Black Lives Matter started off, it was completely democratic. People were marching in the streets and raising their slogans and saying what they needed to say. But by the time the social workers and various people came in from the outside, as people came in, it became the Black Lives Matter. Next thing we’ve been raising individual people who were running for office, who were credited with founding the Black Lives Matter movement. First thing, it became the Black Lives Matter movement, because the media did that, the media named it that. And so it became. So they had to interview somebody, to interview these people who claim to be articulators of the program of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the Black Lives Matter movement was spontaneous of people from the suburbs of St. Louis. And basically, when we look at it, we’re looking at what I call a state creep. The state is taking it back over. And now people are running for office and using the Black Lives Matter environment as credentials. So they become members of the bureaucracy. But what you’re looking at is the shadow of the Black Lives movement, the aftermath, what the state has creeped up and done. Like the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement started in Montgomery. These people spontaneously began to organize themselves. Martin Luther King didn’t really know what was going on. And they organized an alternative transportation system on their own, boycotted the bus. They boycotted the buses. But that wasn’t an important thing. The important thing is a lot of those people were getting to work on time. Taxicab drivers were organizing, people who had cars organized themselves. And so they maintained a transportation system because the city continued to function despite what they call the boycott. Martin King came in, they got somebody who can speak, they always get the best speakers to articulate what the masses want. But they usually are not clear on what’s going on anyway. And even now, I don’t know if you know about a young black man who was killed in the streets of Brunswick, Georgia.
MK: Okay, let me tell you something about it because you have to look at it. When the history is written, if we don’t say anything, it is going to be the NAACP leaders, the ones who call the rally on the steps of the courthouse, and then, of course, they interview his mother. And that’s the story we get on TV. But what happened was that Ahmad was a very popular young man. And his friends went over to that suburban, almost all-white community after he was killed. After they got the story straight, because they had to go through the story to get the story straight, the officials. The official story was that he was trying to rob, there was a burglary in progress. And the police came in with these other guys helping to stop this burglar. And so after the story got out, people didn’t believe that, they were his friends. So these young people went over to the community where he was killed and started walking up and down the street and saying, “We run with Ahmad, all of us, we run with him“. And so they started running down the street. But there were no preachers there with no Bibles, no black leaders with no suits and ties telling them how to conduct themselves. And then when the guy who took the video saw that these kids were getting some publicity like that, he then released the video. And then when the video was released, then everybody knew them. But these kids are not gonna get any credit for any of that.
TFSR: Because they don’t have a non-profit or a pulpit.
MK: Yeah, because people don’t look for direct democratic, spontaneous people as being significant in human history. But that’s where the new society is born, and that’s why we have to write it like that. And once they see it, and once you look at it, everybody knows, yeah, that’s what happens. Because you can verify it, like in the case of Montgomery, the Montgomery Improvement Association was having regular meetings, but the black bus boycott, it already jumped off. And I saw it in Detroit, in New Orleans, when these people were trying to keep their community running. And next thing all the drug stores are flooded. So you are going to the drug store and ask the cashier to get you some Pampers, but there is no cashier in there. And the kids need Pampers, people need medicine. So they go in and get it and give it to people. But then when the media gets it — they’re looting the drug store.
So we just have to begin to look at history from a real directly democratic eye. Because that’s how it’s been happening the whole time. And you can see it even in the dark ages. If you look at European history, that gives you a good example.
Before all these philosophers, like Locke, and Hume, and Berkeley, even Rousseau started writing. That was the Dark Ages. And that was between the period of the fall of the Roman Empire, the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and the rise of these kingdoms in northern Europe and the periphery of the Roman Empire.
These are the Dark Ages because the church was not strong. There were no strong kings, these are the Dark Ages. But the people were organizing guilds, the artisans were organized, they were directly democratic forms. So when they say the Dark Ages existed, then what we got to do is shed some light on the Dark Ages. And when they say that African people were not capable of civilizing, that’s why they have classical colonialism, we have to show that these people were civilized, self-organized, but they don’t look at directly democratic organizations as being any form of civilization. And that’s why European capitalists in these states who now rule the world, or some form of their organization all over the world, this is a very dark period of civilization in human history. And I don’t know if we can survive it or not. What do you think?
TFSR: I hope so.
MK: I think we will.
TFSR: You pointed to how these directly democratic forms are coming up when people are feeling under pressure, you pointed to Katrina, you pointed to more recently during the pandemic, these examples of mutual aid and goods redistribution. I think there’s a lot of hope in there. I think the scale is lacking, and not that things have to be centralized, but if things can integrate together, if these things are happening in a bunch of different places, there are forms of communication between them, but it seems like networking and sharing resources.
MK: All the time now I’ve been zooming my ass off. I’ve been on a Zoom in Europe, people from Belgium and France, and I’ve been all over the screen and read my screen right in front of me. Young people understand it. But the point is, as long as you measure human beings by some material wealth and some private accumulation of property and federate these corporations because that’s all they are, they are just people organized to amass enormous material, wealth, and control. These things have to be dismantled along with the state. They put up these big centralized states, people have to become unmediated human beings. You can’t represent me, I can’t represent you, we have to get together and talk about what we want to do and figure out what we want to be. And we can figure it out. Human beings have always done that. Human beings wouldn’t exist for 200,000 years in some kind of without any kind of mutual aid or some kind of cooperation. And if they were selfish and individualistic, there would have been no more human species, human society. That’s why we got to this point by people understanding that despite all that… Sometimes people do it without even knowing it. If you went to Montgomery, Alabama, and asked anybody black, even a month or two before the bus boycott broke up. If you asked them, “Do you think that black people in Montgomery, Alabama can organize an alternative transportation system that can get people to work on time for a year?” “No, can’t do that? Who is going to teach us how to do that?” Well, you teach yourself, you work yourself, you work yourself through. I feel very strongly about it, I guess you can tell that.
TFSR: And you’ve done a lot of thinking and observing of that, too.
MK: Oh yeah, it’s a marvelous thing to behold. It’s like anything else, beautiful. If you know what to look at, it becomes greatly beautiful, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you won’t be able to appreciate it. We are all learning, of course. Do you have any examples that you marvel about in your life time?
TFSR: Well, it’s hard to not have like the tinted glasses of retrospect and be like, “Well, that was weak for this reason, that reason, but definitely like the mutual aid stuff…
MK: Where are you now?
TFSR: North Carolina, Asheville.
MK: Asheville, North Carolina? And where did that bookstore come from?
TFSR: That came from people getting together and saying, “We want this in our community.” And that’s how it gets supported, it definitely doesn’t make money.
MK: Y’all trying to make money in a massive fortune?
TFSR: It would not work. That’s probably the joke at the beginning of every presentation.
MK: You want to have a whole book chain of all these books, so you can get on your computer and count your money?
TFSR: Here, we have a couple of mutual aid projects that are distributing goods that are donated from people and doing deliveries of groceries or handing out sandwiches and coffee to houseless folks or folks who just need a little up in the morning.
MK: Who taught you to do that?
TFSR: Our program’s named after the Black Panther Party Survival Program, and they learned from someone, too.
MK: Does it make you feel good?
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely.
MK: And you know who’s not going to be there and who’s going to be there when you get ready to do it. That’s how it works.
So we’ve talked a little bit about the decision-making and the organizing aspects of what some of the things that we’ve experienced that humans are capable of in our societies. Shifting a little bit, you mentioned militarism and mutually assured destruction. Trump just dropped out of the Open Skies Treaty. And before that, he removed the US from the INF Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. And there’s talk of sparking an arms race with Russia and there’s been saber-rattling with China. A lot of the people that are listening to this show have grown up under the war on terror, and haven’t known a time when the US hasn’t been actively engaged in a war abroad. Besides the police interventions that were going on in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, or whatever you want to call it.
MK: I grew up during the Cold War. I thought the Russians would come. We used to duck and cover under the seats in the school expecting a nuclear attack. But the only country that used nuclear weapons against the civilian, nuclear weapon against anybody is the United States government.
TFSR: And you resisted the draft, right?
MK: Yeah. That didn’t make sense. As dumb as I was, that didn’t make sense. For whatever reason, I wouldn’t go into that one. That’s the whole history of the last century. Nation-states fighting armies. Only ones that have armies are Nation States. Nation-states got armies, and they got legitimate armies. You can be a nice guy from Northern California and get drafted into the military. You can’t get drafted now into the military. And you can go into a place that you have never been before. And because you’re an American military person, you can kick down somebody’s door and shoot him in the head and get away with it. And then come back a hero. Cowardly, what you can do is just become technologically savvy and send drones over there to do it.
TFSR: And then afterwards, you carry the trauma of having done that sort of thing as a human being in a lot of cases, right?
MK: Yeah. And you do it because other people tell you to do it, you don’t even have a chance to think about it, you follow orders. I don’t mind following something that I’ve agreed with other people that we are going to do. I don’t follow somebody telling me what to do, that I never had anything to say about. And I think that’s a human, not so much an instinct, but I think human beings are wired to work in common with other human beings and to not destroy other human beings, except over something material. And we are taught that I think.
TFSR: Yeah, because we’ve been taught that, I wonder how – especially for those folks that have been living under this war on terror thing or those of us who grew up during the Cold War – how do we move away from being influenced by these leaders who… it’s obvious that Trump and the administration feel that not only have we lost the prestige of our imperial halcyon days of the Cold War, but the economy also could do for a boost, and all these other associated things with militarism, like patriarchy and white supremacy. And these things are waning in some ways, because of the threat of social justice movements, or just people being good to each other.
MK: It’s the way they mobilize everybody behind the banner of patriotism and stuff. So it’s not just a war on communism, or war on terrorism, it is the war on poverty, the war on the virus. The American policymakers know one thing, they know that to get everybody behind a policy, you got to declare war. There is a war on everything, on drugs, etc. And so what we have to do, is get out of our mindset, this jingoism when we get involved in a debate about policy. Anytime it says a war on something, what that means is that they’re trying to rally people and appeal to their nationalist fervor. You have a war on virus – what the fuck is that? So what you have to do is criticize, there is no war on viruses and we’re not all in this together either. Some people ain’t even in it, but they’ll send you to be in it. The fact is that there are people who are unevenly affected by this kind of thing.
So, what you have to do is you have to explain it to people that these are viruses, these are naturally occurring viruses that are part of the evolution or the failure of the evolution of the human body to adjust to the environment, to their immediate environment. And then you have to explain it scientifically that there is a cancer pandemic. People understand that very well. Because cancer is the human body trying to adjust or accelerate evolution in an uneven way. So, all these tumors and everything come as a result of the human body trying to adjust. And these viruses are like that. These viruses come in for several reasons, they turn down the natural support system of other life forms on the planet. They are trying to survive, their bodies have viruses, too, and what we need to do is understand how we have to live within the scope of our own context. And we have to put scientific knowledge in the service, not of developing a vaccine, and showing that a vaccine is gonna make a lot of people a lot of money, a lot of people will get famous. So that’s why over a hundred different corporations are putting money into vaccines as an investment. And explain the system to them, and how the policy arguments are not fruitful. The argument that we have to look at is how do we take control of our own local communities and help other people do that. And we have an opportunity here too, because the virus attacks community, locality. And that’s why you have outbreaks here and there, and you have to work it from that angle. But the rhetoric gets to be really emotional.
We have to have a war on this and a war on that, and then, of course, everybody’s thinking that Biden is going to save us. And Trump has betrayed us. That’s what the liberals think, and the more conservative think that Trump is trying to save us, and all you other dummies are trying to stop them from saving us. But the point is, people will have to have an enlightened discussion about the relationship between human society and the rest of the natural world. And we will have to understand that the nation-state and the corporations and individual ownership of property stands in the way of human beings realizing the scientific and ecological future. A lot of people are going to say “What the hell are you saying?” But over time, and we have to sacrifice ourselves, your children will understand, that generation will understand. But if we have nothing written down, no kind of discussions like this on tape, then they will have to reinvent the wheel, because these things will be suppressed. So we have to keep these things alive, so they won’t be suppressed. So I don’t see my role too much, I just trying to write something down so that people have something to think about in the next generation when the real pandemics come. What we have right here is nothing compared to the real pandemics, the real wars and stuff and real confusion.
Young people understand climate change, but the really important thing, all of the major real issues have nothing to do with state policy in the sense. Climate change is across borders. Borders don’t mean anything to climate change or the pandemic. And it doesn’t mean anything to these immigrants. People gonna go where they go and people gonna fight where they need to fight. And then they go organize themselves to make the fight. And we have to put a mirror in front of them. So they’ll see who they are, what they must do, and support them in doing it and not try to interpret what they’re doing in some capitalistic bourgeois bullshit way. I get tired of reading these people, you read them, and they reach, they get to the point where all the shit is wrong, obviously, they’re wrong. But you know what they end up doing? But we got to develop, we got to change the state so it can really save us, we got to make sure the corporations are accountable. That’s where they fuck up right there. We got to get beyond that point.
TFSR: They haven’t rejected the state structure or capitalism fully, but they recognize the climate crisis is real. And they recognized the patterns of disease and how capitalism facilitates its spread. I just keep thinking back to all the money that’s been poured into the airlines, and how much of an effect on the ecology there’s been since fewer flights have been going, and how cheap the planes are right now, and how it’s just trying to stay alive. But it’s literally the vector for not only massive amounts of pollution for people to make pleasure trips in a lot of cases or business trips or whatever. But it’s also the vector for so much of the disease spreading. So many of these huge places where it’s become pandemic are not that far from an international airport and then it’s complicated by racialized and class-based impacts of capitalism.
MK: I just enjoy looking at the sky and not seeing vapor trails. I don’t know whether you noticed it, but in the morning, the sun is much brighter and the grass is much greener. And seeing like nonhuman nature seems to be responding, releasing itself in a very good way. I’ve seen animals come out of the woods. I have a comrade in China, he texts me and he says, he’s from Beijing. He says the sky is blue in Beijing. I thought it was great. You got to see the sky. That has an impact. And I understand that the fish coming up into the Grand Canal in Venice now. You don’t have those big luxury liners going up in there. So you can catch a fish off the Grand Canal. People don’t see that. The earth is telling us something.
TFSR: Yeah, and we need to heed that and we need to stop this shit from coming back.
MK: It’s gonna come back, but it’s not gonna come back without being seriously challenged next time. It goes like that way. I have another little difference with my friends. They think that I’m some kind of a historical generator of spontaneous upheavals. Because they think that what we should be doing is agitating and telling the masses, they must fight and engage blah, blah. No, no, no, this isn’t the period of propagandizing, this is the period when we conceptualize stuff, and when they erupt, that’s when we should be agitating. And they say, “Spontaneity, what is that?” “That’s the New Society trying to emerge?” “How come they never take over?” Because they aren’t trying to take over, they just try to understand who they are, what the world can look like. And over time, it’ll become clear to everybody. Let me just draw a line right here, I have drawn a line with my mentor C.L.R. James, when he venerated certain black heads of state, he says, the states are evil and we must go beyond them. But then he turns that around and venerates the guy like Lenin, a guy like Kwame Nkruma. If you’re gonna be against the state, you gotta be against all of them, whoever they were, whoever they are. He’s circumscribed by us all the time. He can only act in a certain way. And Bookchin, he’s gonna raise the Age of Reasoning and the American Revolution. I broke with him there.
I just want you to know that I’m thankful for these guys. But we got to go further than that. If we stay where they stood… And I’m sorry that there are people who are venerating these people now without understanding what they represented in the development of certain ideas and certain political trends and stuff. You should never venerate anybody, no individual person should be… When you put out a work, or you engage in the discussion, like you and I, it’s supposed to be for critical purposes. So you can understand one another better. The axe doesn’t get sharp on his own must be sharpened by file. That’s a metaphor.
TFSR: It’s a good metaphor. I was talking to a friend the other day about having this conversation and she was asking, “What are you reading?” And I mentioned your book and she asked about social ecology. And she also asked “What’s the definition of Pan-Africanism?” and I gave like the Wikipedia definition. I wonder if you could break down what that phrase means to you and what it means to be a neo-Pan-Africanist.
MK: Pan-Africanism is a concept that arose to counteract the colonization of Africans on the continent of Africa and the segregation of African people in the new world along with some other colonies in the Caribbean and Central America, which were black. The original Pan-Africanists saw that the empowerment – that’s why I call them classical Pan-Africanists – that the empowerment of African people requires that they create state bonds, state formations, and unite them like the United States in North America so that they can be on the world stage as representatives of the will of the black masses, both in the United States, the Caribbean, and in the continent of Africa. That’s what classical Pan-Africanism is. Now, most people don’t make this distinction. My distinction is neo Pan-Africanism is for the empowerment of all African people, wherever they might be, without the state, the empowerment of African communities all over the world in unity with the rest of the people all over the world. So that’s what I call neo-Pan-Africanism. Now, most people don’t make that distinction. So if you talk to somebody, you tell them that that’s the distinction that I’m making. So they won’t think that you haven’t thought about it as well. To be clear, classical Pan-Africanism is associated with a response to classical colonialism. Classical colonialism is the period in human history where European nation-states sent their direct administrative apparatus to administer their colonies. They lived there. Neocolonialism is the period in human history where indigenous groups of people emerge to take over control of these states and administer them like they’re doing now. The period of classical Pan-Africanism is a response to classical colonialism, the idea of neo-colonialism, neo-Pan-Africanism is a response to that.
TFSR: And is the need within the neo-Pan-Africanist push, or as you experienced it, or that delineation that you make, you said that the nation state format is an unnatural, or at least a detrimental form…
MK: Yes, it is unnatural, and it needs to be swept aside, along with these various confederations of states, like the Organization of African Unity. People see them as that. People just say, “Why don’t they act right? Why don’t they be what they’re supposed to do that?” The Organization of African Unity and various governments, they call socialist governments in Africa, like in Tanzania, sometimes, Ghana sometimes, and even Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela never was anything but really a classical Pan-Africanist and, actually, he was a more broad-based classical Pan-Africanist, because he united with the Cubans as well, and the Chinese as well. But he never was a socialist, even of the old classical socialist ilk, but he’s like Martin Luther King. You can say nothing against Martin Luther King because that’s being racist, and he’s denying black people and he was turning against your race and all that, but you got to criticize him. Even Malcolm X. These people understood liberation in the context of nationalism, black people, white people have got nation-states. And what we need to do is have nation-states of our own, and that’s how you liberate yourself. To me, that was bullshit from the beginning.
TFSR: But you do feel that it’s important that people of African descent have been able to organize together, right?
MK: Yeah. Being organized together in places where they have a commonality with other people organized with them too. I don’t see it as a separation thing, it’s like right here, down here in Midway. There’s Black people and white people. Black people can organize and then white people want to come and we can organize together on how we want to live. And as time goes on, you will see more and more of that.
TFSR: Can you talk a bit about the community that you live in and some of the history of resistance there? Your interactions with the authors of of Dixie Be Damned and other essays that you talk about are really impressive.
MK: Well, I live on the coast of Georgia. And during the reconstruction, during the Civil War, this was a rice plantation area. And you had rice plantations up and down the coast of Georgia and up and down the coast of South Carolina. But even before the Civil War, there was a shift in the south, where big money was invested in cotton, cotton don’t grow well down here. If you look at the Black Belt, that is a demographic area where there were large black populations before the migration to the north, you don’t find the coastal areas included except in various places. But you’ll find the use of those plantations in central Georgia, central Alabama, up and down the Mississippi on both sides and up into Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas. That’s where, in North Carolina, South Carolina. But when the Civil War broke out, the market and rice were already gone. So the rice plantations don’t look like the cotton plantations, the rice plantations were left alone and they worked down here. The owners only came as traders who actually traded that it didn’t last so long during the Reconstruction. People just claimed the land for themselves. And then they didn’t give any kind of acknowledgment to white ownership. And they just claimed that, that’s why when Sherman came down, he issued Field Order #15, and he said that all of the land, from the ocean to 31 to 32 miles inland couldn’t be claimed by the emancipated slave as their own. So they did.
So as the country grew and developed, there was an erosion of that ownership of land, but people held on for a while. I was born down here. When my parents came from central Georgia… And by the way, these people voted. They couldn’t run for office in the South, because the state government didn’t allow that. But they could vote for white people.
So I had all kinds of Gullah Geechee communities and all kinds of African retentions. And all kinds of independent, autonomous institutions. So that’s who they were. The Geechee had a reputation of being a rice-eating, fish-eating, mean, recalcitrant, disagreeable person, short, black. And those are the people I grew up around. So it has a collective history.
And even the people who ran the county government really didn’t bother the black people too much. When the paper companies took over some of the lands, they just want to make sure that the people brought the wood to the sawmill like in many other places. But that tradition was a part of who I am. So I never believed that black people were not resourceful and could not govern and decide for themselves what they want to do. I never believed that. Other people believed that, I think in central Georgia, there was less of this kind of self-organizing activity. But in coastal Georgia and coastal South Carolina, there were a lot of legendary leaders who guided the people to some kind of autonomous existence. And their history is written. There’s a place called Harris Neck, Andrew went over there, he was amazed because they still live over there, even though there’s a great push from Northern, New York people primarily from Long Island to settle down here after they retire, instead of going all the way to Florida. So it’s always changing. But that’s the context. You want to come down here sometime.
TFSR: I’d love to.
MK: When this is over, you come down and take a look around.
TFSR: You also have a Social Ecology center down there, right?
MK: Yeah. We just found that about three years ago, after I retired from my teaching career. We set up, primarily myself, Andrew, one of my students, and another friend of mine, a guy who found a Geechee Cultural Center in Riceboro, which is about four miles down the road. But he passed on. So we became the conveners of the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology. Now, that’s a complicated name. But we wanted to have a name that was not confusing to what we were doing. If we called it the C.L.R. James Center, that would be an amorphous veneration of some individual person and that wasn’t serious. We wanted people to know that it was autonomous, which means we have a different kind of fuels, historical development. And we want to let them know that it was an institute for direct democracy, we’re not interested in people writing about their heroes and famous baseball players or anything like that. And it is for social ecology. But we believe that direct democracy, social ecology cannot be achieved without having a direct democratic social organization. And a group of people who could see that. History shows that, the Native American people show us that. I’m writing about some Native American people, it will probably be released next fall. So I’m here working now and talking to you of course.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Are the Gullah and Ogeechee communities what one might consider to be Maroon communities?
MK: Yeah, you can consider it, but Maroonage has taken on all kinds of forms. It’s not just people running away and setting up their own… Some of those communities right on the ridge in the front of plantations and interacting with some of the people. And some of the people went far distances and set up very complicated societies and stuff. So the type of Maroonage is dependent upon demography, history, the type of plantation and was the type of monocrop that was being raised, and how people fed themselves, what kind of transportation was available.
TFSR: It’s kind of attesting to the adaptability of people.
MK: Oh, yeah, they adapted. They were all over if you study Maroonage, they were in Mexico, and across the islands, the big islands, they have substantial populations in the hinterlands, like in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and, of course, in Cuba, and Jamaica. In Haiti, that was Hispanola, and after slavery was over, a lot of those people just simply took over the land in the Caribbean and grew crops to feed their families. And that’s why in places like Trinidad and Guyana, they had to import plantation labor. So the black people who were slaves developed their own autonomous communities. They grew crops on their own, no monocrops. So if you wanted a monocrop labor force, they had to go to inland and get that. That’s why he has an in the population in Guyana and Trinidad, coming out of that type of relationship with labor with capitalist mercantile agricultural laborers.
TFSR: Is the nature of the writing that you’re doing right now on indigenous populations about what might be understood as social ecology of… to put that term onto what communities were experiencing and living? What’s the topic?
MK: Well, the two examples that I’m using to do some detailed writing, the Forte Mose experience and Spanish experience in northeastern Florida. How the Seminoles evolved from this interaction. And how the Creek Seminoles where the creeks came from autonomous, complicated, hierarchical society. Do you know anything about anthropology and archaeology in St. Louis, upper Mississippi, and middle Mississippi areas? Have you heard of Cahokia?
TFSR: Yes, Kevin Tucker writes about Cahokia. He lives right outside of it. So I’ve heard it referenced.
MK: In that connection, I’ve talked about how Cahokia ,which was a hierarchical kind of society, and people look at the big leaders in Cahokia, but I was trying to explain how Cahokia… People left Cahokia, people didn’t like it. That’s why the Creeks were fleeing Cahokia and that’s why they migrated down the Mississippi and all the way up to Northern Florida. And they went along creeks that’s why they were called Creek Indians, but I hook them in and then the African populations which fought with the Yemassee in early Charlestown, the early Charlestown settlement, and they went south to St Augustine and then to Cuba. That’s what that’s all about. Then I’ve got another section, which is a more naturalistic section, it’s got to do with the Great Dismal Swamp and the history of that geographic area. I’m looking at that one as a part of the lore, the place and why it became known as the Great Dismal Swamp, but it really wasn’t dismal. Depending on who you were, if you were running away, it was a paradise. But I think it’s coming in the right size. I remember the first book I wrote, that thing was way too big.
TFSR: I still use it as a reference, though.
MK: It had all the documents in the back. I think that’s just saving grace, the rest is shit. I lose to self-organization every once in a while. But that was where I was in the 1970s, a young man trying to put it together.
TFSR: And at least he referred to the book very clearly on the cover as the raw notebooks.
MK: It’s raw, really. Because my students, one student, in particular, he came by the house and I was rummaging through some stuff and he said “What’s over here?” It was one of those manuscripts. He put this together. He grabbed the thing, and took it back to the office, and started hunting and pecking, I said, “What are you doing?”, and he said, “I want to put all this together”. They organized it and put it in a book. It’s very raw. It offers no real solution. But it shows certain attempts: it shows the 6th Pan-African Congress, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and its lack of democracy. And it shows the African Liberation Support Committee. So it came from the minutes and stuff that I was keeping at the time. So it has an empirical side to it, I think
TFSR: It’s interesting to hold that up to your shorter book The Pan-African Social Ecology, because a lot of those events that are in a lot of cases you and Andrew talking about or that you referenced during speeches, to be able to dig back into this book and say, like, “Well, here’s the notes from that time, here’s a little deeper context of what was going on with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers or the 6th Congress”.
MK: I guess it has that value, but it doesn’t speak to any kind of ecology. When I started exploring questions of ecology, I was really out of the anti-nuclear movement, I just thought the nuclear shit was dangerous to the planet. But I didn’t have a real conceptual context you put it in. And I was just trying to deal with some Marxism and critique the limitations of Marxism, especially the vanguard party in need for the revolutionary people to lead the ignorant masses to victory.
TFSR: It’s so patronizing.
MK: It’s preposterous. But I think we got a nice size for people to actually read this. There are pictures in it, too. A guy from Nova Scotia was in my last zoom session. And he saw a picture of me on hillside. That was me. I owe a lot of that to Andrew [Zonevald]. Andrew edited and put this book into great context, and the introduction is of great detail. And when I mentioned something he says “Oh, man, we should have put that in there”…
TFSR: I like your working relationship. It’s really awesome. I like Andrew a lot, too.
MK: Yeah. And Andrew brings it out. He knows when I get contradictory, he says, “What does this mean in relation to what you just said?”
TFSR:That’s the beauty of conversation.
MK: When there’s an election, I do vote in the local election, and I vote for sheriffs, representatives on the county commission, but the rest of the stuff, I don’t vote for. But I know these people. And that guy who’s running for the county commission chair thing, I sat down with him, and he says that he’s gonna make sure and he made it part of… He’s been on social media and essentially, his thing is to get people involved in the decision-making of their local government, and he said that he will have some town-hall meetings where he don’t say nothing unless they call along. And he’ll organize in such a way that everybody gets their say. And he’s committed to what he calls participatory democracy, which I don’t know what that means for him. But participatory democracy is not the same as direct democracy. But if we really get it kind of close like that. And if he wins, which he stands a good chance of winning, more people understand that we’ll be able to set up a couple of forums, regular forums, where people can actually decide something about their local government.
TFSR: It seems like that critique of the stuff that was going on in Jackson for a while.
MK: You can’t just stop at participatory. You can’t have people come in and they talk and talk and they listen to you, and then they go do what they want you to, you can’t do that. Not only do people have to decide, but they also have to actually implement, that’s what direct democracy means.
TFSR: Because there has to be, some sort of accountability and recallability. Right?
MK: Yeah. There has to be a direct recall. And no hell of a lot of money involved beyond the task, if you enlist somebody to do something, you paying for that and that’s it. No lifetime appointment, no president-for-life shit. So I’m involved in that. But if the guy doesn’t win, he’ll at least raise the credit, but he got a good chance.
TFSR: That’s better than a lot of us have right now. We just got to not stop at participatory.
MK: In terms of the state legislature and state governments, I don’t vote in that kind of stuff. But people are really upstanding Trump, it is primarily a black community still in East Liberty County.
TFSR: Again, some meandering. Here Modibo shares some criticism on decision-making in vestiges of Leninism, and projects like Cooperation Jackson, and the Zapatistas.
MK: That’s all that they were doing. They were trying to push the gathering over and think it was supposed to be an anarchist gathering in Detroit or somewhere, and they were pushing, the people in Jackson have been in the vanguard of what they call this concept they introduced as organizing dual power, which means that they were kind of stuck with the Leninism. And I really think that they need to examine that. I don’t want to get associated with that. Because dual power, to me, is a statist concept in itself. When I started writing about the origin of dual power, and how it’s a statist concept, and how we got to break with Leninism. And I couldn’t explain that in an article and stuff. So I just want to hit on a road. That turned out to be about 12 or 14 pages. Andrew said, “Why don’t you put that with your critique of direct democracy and republicanism?” So I put it there. And then it turned into a chapter and like the explanation of what representative democracy is and the difference between participatory democracy and all these sham democracies? So I never did. Because if I got associated with that, and somebody was gonna write a book and reference that book, and reference somebody else in that book, and then I’d be associated with people trying to organize the democratic institutions. The point I’m making is that getting organized is shit, people don’t do that. All you have to do is shepherd the process. Frankly, I found it kind of vanguardist because I know what’s going on in Jackson, Mississippi is not a direct democracy. I know that so I’m not gonna even go there.
TFSR: I feel like in the book, at least, that’s one of the goals they point to and say they get a lot of influence from Rojava and the Zapatistas. I know that there’s a history of Leninism in the backgrounds of both of those.
MK: Well, the Zapatistas, I got into a tiff with Andrew on that. Andrew was sympathetic to the Zapatistas, which is a Leninist, Marxist organization stuff, plus their stated goal was to take power in Mexico, they see themselves as operating in the kinds of... And then when the Cheran people emerged, that’s what you need to be looking at, the Cheran people.
TFSR: I don’t think I know that. How do you spell that?
MK: Cheran. It’s in the book. The women who stoned the logging trucks that were taking logs from the forest.
TFSR: Oh, that’s right, near the end of the book.