Reparations Toward the End of the World



How to think about reparations in a context of racial capitalism and ecocide, where human lives have a fixed value and Mother Earth’s labor, none? Linda Quiquivix describes this context and draws from Maroon and Zapatista experiences as revolutionary alternatives to it.

In debates on reparations in the United States, a dominant objection that arises is, “I never owned any slaves.” This is said mostly by Americans who selectively remember that every generation leaves its inheritances. They fondly recall the legacy of freedom gifted to their country by its Founding Fathers but regret any reminder that their Fathers owned slaves, which beyond a regrettable footnote in history, was itself the foundation for U.S. freedom.

U.S. freedom is often understood as the ability to individually shape one’s life while participating in civil relations within the U.S. project. These relations are facilitated through a set of rights that uphold equality, property ownership, and contractual agreements. We can put that a different way by saying that Americans define themselves against what they are not: the enslaved, those whose lives are shaped by an external force; those outside of civil society; those who cannot own property because they are property; those who are denied consent. This dualistic logic that requires a conceptual antithesis in order to provide meaning is so dominant Western philosophy, the modern world itself was only able to invent Europe through the invention of non-Europe. The Europe that began to be built in 1492 as a relatively peaceful geography, one of friendly relations between nations and of international law, could only gain meaning through the invention, both conceptually and materially, of non-Europe as a geography where Europeans could export violence, lawlessness, and enact war. This dualistic logic also exists externally: the unity of Europe/non-Europe has fashioned itself as a one-world world, the only world possible that must be imposed universally, inferiorizing and denying the existence of other worlds that hold other ways of living and relating. 

As a project of Europe/non-Europe, the United States inherited this logic of negation, where the genocide of Indigenous peoples were its attempts to extinguish other possible worlds and the invention of the Black-African-as-slave would serve as the negative mirror of what was to become the white-American-as-free-subject. And perhaps because the ability to determine one’s own life is at stake most with American freedom, at its most abstract level, the work of the U.S. foundational dualism might be to sort between those who must die so that others can live.

The dismantlement of chattel slavery over 150 years ago in the U.S. has made it difficult for many to understand how this dual inheritance of freedom/slavery can persist today in U.S. life. Most Americans learn to believe the enslavement of Africans and was limited to an economic function (exploitation for profit) within a specific geography (the plantation). In addition, from the moment enslaved people freed themselves from chattel slavery and could enter into new categories previously unavailable to them, namely as waged workers and citizens, the category of the slave became understood only as a legal one that, now outlawed, could appear to no longer exist. While formally no longer enslaved, the same formative relation that decides who dies so that others may live became upheld explicitly by the police — themselves former slave catchers — whose job has been to guard the line between whiteness and Blackness, hence preserving the equation that Blackness equals death. The genealogical link from slavery to mass Black incarceration that exists today continues to tie blackness onto the captivity of “slaveness” that is necessary to continue giving meaning to the free American subject. The murders of Black people at the hands of the police and vigilantes that frequently go unpunished, in fact, need to have no reason to destroy Black lives other than as a reminder that, in the U.S., one is free to do so.

In this undeclared war on Blackness, those who can achieve varying levels of U.S. freedom paradoxically require both the death and the continued existence of Black people. They require the death of Black people as a constant reminder of the horror of what it means to be Black, of what it means to be unfree; they require the existence of Black people as the inferior referent against which they can affirm themselves as superior, against which they affirm themselves as free to make their lives, free to live at all. Thus, insofar as Americans understand themselves to be free and their freedoms to have been inherited, the refrain “I never owned any slaves” should now sound strange. For to enjoy these freedoms, Americans don’t need to have ever owned even one slave; to be free, Americans only need to ensure that the condition of slaveness continue to persist.nDebates focusing less on the why of reparations and more on the how often suggest that integrating Black people into capitalism through monetary payments can help make amends for the country’s historical destruction of Black life.

The U.S. has a ready figure for how much a human life is worth: ten million dollars. Its economists came up with that number after calculating that on average, U.S. workers in the most dangerous jobs earn an extra $1,000 a year for accepting to take a 1-in-10,000 chance of being killed. Paying 10,000 workers each that additional $1,000 costs the corporation $10,000,000. Thus, what a corporation is willing to pay for permission to take a life is the figure the government uses to decide what a human life is worth. And that a corporation gets to decide this tells us something about what capitalist governments and societies mean when they talk about human life.

It helps to capitalize the H when speaking about capital’s Human to help clarify it is less about a biological species and more of a figure of its own invention. Tied to the concept of the free modern subject, capital’s Human is similarly a structural position of superiority that finds its meaning against what its founding philosophers decided would be its inferior opposite: the non-Human. Capital’s great enslaved subject is, above all, what it refers to as Nature and understands Humans to be outside of it. Traditionally, it has placed Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans in the category of Nature. And while for other worlds, understanding human beings as part of Mother Earth is not an inferiorization, but a gesture toward a complimentary ecology that includes all, capital traditionally categorized Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans as Nature in order to dominate, inferiorize, exploit, and enslave them. 

This has positioned the non-Human into a condition of death, which under capital is legitimized by not being assigned calculable value. This renders the non-Human ineligible for the relative rights and privileged status enjoyed by the Human, often attributed through monetary compensation. Placing the non-Human outside the possibility of compensation helps maximize what can be extracted by capital in the form of profit in extremes it’s unable to do with the relatively privileged waged worker. In other words, capital, like the U.S. project, requires both a condition of freedom and a condition of slavery in order to exist. Thus, to integrate into capital is only possible by continuing the condition of enslavement on other life.

To illustrate, if a worker who makes pencils encounters another worker who makes paper and they seek to trade, the one who makes pencils might ask how much time it took to produce X quantity of paper to decide on a fair exchange. The reply might be that it took an hour, and so one-hour’s worth of paper could then be traded for one-hour’s worth of pencils. Pausing there, we can examine some key assumptions to understand how liberal conceptions of freedom function and why integration into capital might at first appear attractive. A key assumption between the two workers who exchange paper and pencils is equality: they relate to each other as equals, as expressed through the way they mutually value each other’s labor time. Another assumption is of property ownership: they understand each other as owners of the paper and the pencils they produce for this exchange. And another is of contracts: they mutually consent to the exchange, entering into a contractual relationship where they respect the transfer of ownership.

Relations of equality, property ownership, and contracts are key conditions that need to be in place for capitalism to function. But that not all receive these privileges is made clear when we ask about the trees. Pencils and paper are made from trees, but would not be taken into account as equals with waged workers, as property owners of their own labor, and as beings whose consent is also required to engage in the transaction. Within capital, trees are not compensated for their work and neither is the work that goes into producing the trees, which is hardly limited to Human efforts or even to the trees themselves. To come into existence, trees depend on the work of soil microbes, mycelium, worms, insects, water, and wind for pollination, and sometimes fire for seed germination alongside the efforts of countless other beings, large and small. To calculate the value of this work would be impossible, making it, in turn, impossible to extract profit from any sale of pencils, paper, or other commodities produced from trees. 

Capitalism as a social relation may include the privileges of equality, property ownership, and contracts for waged workers — who are today the great realization of the free subject — but it includes above all a necessary division between those who qualify to enter into these privileges and those who do not. Although Black people entered into the category of waged worker after emancipation, the history of labor organizing in the U.S. has tragically been the history of white labor organizing, which deliberately excluded Black workers from fully achieving the full range of these privileges. White workers in the U.S. have traditionally experienced themselves as a relatively privileged class positioned on the Human side of the Human/non-Human divide. And as long as they remained privileged, they traditionally did not struggle against the very existence of a dividing line where, on the other side, existed capital’s condition of enslavement. Indeed, that those marked as white, those considered free, continue to benefit from that dividing line means they require the condition of slaveness to persist.

Much more needs to be written about the relationship between the current climate catastrophe and the anti-Blackness of the modern world, but for now it might suffice to mention that both Mother Earth and Black people have been placed in battle on two fronts: one against capital, and another against the white waged worker. What has traditionally motivated the white waged worker in movement work has not been the defense of Mother Earth against ecological catastrophe but the creation of more jobs that could sustain them as waged, and therefore as free to consume those things they need to live — no matter the death and destruction these jobs might leave on the planet and who they must exclude to secure what are becoming less plentiful jobs in the 21st century. And what has traditionally nurtured the White waged worker in the question of freedom is less the struggle against their own exploitation but their fear of one day becoming enslaved — their fear of being Black: unfree, disposable, without the right to be waged or receive additional hazard pay for dangerous work, of becoming killable without the boss ever needing to ask for permission to kill them. If reparations are thus not about plantation slavery but about centuries of a terror sustained through the conception of U.S. freedom itself as maintained through capitalism, reparations cannot be granted while the undeclared war on Blackness continues. Reparations must entail the end of that war, the end of capital. And in a world sustained by a worldview of enslavement, in a world sustained by a war on blackness, reparations must thus mean the end of that world and the creation of a world anew.

That the US government has placed a ten-million-dollar value on a Human life received new public attention when the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering the U.S. economy in March of 2020 and questions arose over whether implementing social distancing measures was worth saving lives. It was notable to see economists who appealed to the math favoring social distancing being met against policy makers suggesting instead that the elderly, understood then as the most vulnerable to death under COVID-19, be allowed to die for the sake of keeping the economy alive. There was no appeal to math for these policy makers: for them, those who had aged out of their overall capacity to produce value as workers were now shifted outside the calculation of worth. This led many Americans to begin grappling for the first time how it could be that they or their loved ones would be considered disposable. Because again, now the question was less about keeping some people alive, but about keeping the economy alive. Within only weeks of the COVID-19 economic shutdown it became clear it was Black people dying at alarming disproportionate rates due to preexisting health conditions caused by decades of structural abandonment. And so the society that claimed to have welcomed Black people into the US project 150 years ago declared the worst of the threat over and demanded the economy’s reopening without efforts to mitigate the economic devastation facing an already economically vulnerable Black population if they chose to shelter at home instead of returning to work and risking infection, and possibly premature death. 

Except, now there was also the question of what work one would return to. When the economy began reopening at the end of May, it was now in the midst of a depression: a breathtaking 40 million people had filed for unemployment in a little over two months, and vast numbers could not return to their jobs for those jobs now no longer existed and many would not be coming back. In the midst of this crisis, something more astonishing managed to take place. The U.S. had been witnessing a succession of murders of Black people by the police and vigilantes caught on recorded devices that were going viral on social media. Although in previous years plenty of videos catching police murdering Black people with impunity had already reached millions online, the video of police killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, proved to be the one to finally launch a rebellion en masse in defense of Black lives. Thousands of protesters from various structural positions of U.S. life marched on the streets in hundreds of cities across the U.S. over the course of weeks. White people, Black people, Brown people, and more came out explicitly against the police to cry out in one unified message: Black lives matter.

The rebellions for Black lives shocked the country and the world, not least for the spectacular scenes of militarized police beating, gassing, and arresting White people alongside Black and Brown people, together in revolt. While it may be too soon to analyze how the collective dignified rage against anti-Blackness could finally grow and explode, protesters themselves began wondering if a reason such large turnouts were now possible was because their time was no longer taken up by a 40+ hour workweek, allowing them more time to participate in political life differently and learn firsthand about the world they exist in.

For the question of reparations at this moment then, if waged workers continue being transformed out of existence whether through the pandemic or the automation already underway before it, it’s possible they may more easily articulate with the demand for Black lives mattering, and we might be witnessing a critical opening for the creation of a world anew. If this is so, we might wonder if experiments in this creation could begin now without needing to wait for permission and, more importantly, if we might envision what this new world would look like, one where the life and freedoms of some are not realized through the death and enslavement of others.

History has great examples of movements who fled to build other worlds without asking for permission. Slave runaways who created self-defined collectivities of Maroon societies along with other fugitives, Indigenous people, and even Europeans seeking to flee the dominant world as well are among our greatest examples. Rather than individual efforts, the construction of these worlds centered on the collective and often understood human beings in complementary relation with each other and with Mother Earth more broadly. If worlds are sets of relations that hold their own principles of how they encounter difference, building a world very other than the dominant one entails building a very other set of principles. Today, the Indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico offer an example of building and growing their “world where many worlds fit” with movements around the globe, each according to their specific contexts. This is done both philosophically and in practice through a radically different set of relations guided by seven anti-domination principles of “lead by obeying”: 

1. Serve and not serve oneself

2. Represent and not supplant

3. Build and not destroy

4. Propose and not impose

5. Convince and not defeat

6. Go below and not above

7. Obey and not command

It is through these principles as their guide that they have collectively built their own autonomous schools, clinics, banks, economies, cooperatives, and even their own government — also without asking anyone but their collective we for permission. In this new world already underway, there is no negative Human/non-Human split. Rather, their worldview is guided by complementary opposites with fluidity in between. The consent of plants is asked before a harvest; land is not a commodity to be owned but a territory to steward from which to build and defend life, the life of microbes and of human beings alike, where all are equal not because they’re the same but because they’re different; where each one’s work is understood as necessary in a broader ecology; where work itself is not placed within a calculable measure of value from which to extract profit. While building, the Zapatistas also keep watch on what the dominant world is doing and how it is constantly shifting in response to break or co-opt their resistances and rebellions. This is the work of study and critical thinking that keeps an eye on the dominant world of capital while building their alternative, which sometimes entails keeping a foot in each, knowing when to pull from one to build the other and not the other way around, increasing the intensity of the new while decreasing the intensity of the old. 

Fugitives like Maroons knew well that the modern world resists any escape or challenge, that it will attack to coerce back its negative referent, for without it, its favored subject will cease to exist. The Zapatistas know that the dominant world is an imposition that demands it be the only world that exists. Its set of relations internally matches its set of relations externally where those it deems as inferior (other worlds) must die so that those it deems superior (itself) can live. Since its construction over the last 500 years, the modern world has violently destroyed and tried to fully erase those sustaining other worlds, other possible outsides (e.g. Indigenous peoples), and through the violent positioning of its inferiors inside (e.g. Black people, Mother Earth) in order to give meaning to its superiors (e.g. white people, capital itself). Its work has been to keep all hostage to its structure of superiors vs. inferiors. So, when the call for reparations demands this world’s dismantlement toward the creation of a world anew, we would do well to recognize that such a call is not only a call for Black liberation, but a call for the liberation of us all. ■