Decolonialism and democracy: on the most painful challenges to anthroponomy

In my last post I argued that anthroponomy should be our regulative ideal in our collective responsibility as humankind for our planetary environment.[1] Now I want to ask what major obstacles stand in its way. The ones that are most familiar in environmental political theory are, spatially, problems of the lingering Westphalian order and, temporally, problems of modernist productivism, specifically now capitalism. The sovereignty of nation states undergirds the lack of transnational governance to democratically order the global commons.[2] And the time of modernist production, specifically capitalism, frames short-term responsibility.[3] So the story goes: anthroponomy needs to address transnational and intergenerational governance in order to stand a fighting chance. I agree.

What is not as frequently discussed, and should be, is decolonization. Decolonization ought to be a first task of anthroponomy, provided that it is done with the end in view: to co-create a planetary arrangement in which humankind ends up being socially self-regulating. Let me explain the main claim and then justify it.

Decolonization is the undoing of actual colonialism and of its legacy. To liberate colonies from their colonizing nations is the first, necessary step in decolonization, but it is not sufficient to achieve it. The legacy of colonialism has also to be addressed. This legacy currently structures the fabric of societies globally to such a degree that to achieve decolonization amounts to changing a great many societies globally and the arrangement of the world order. To take just two examples in North America, first, decolonization is unthinkable without addressing Black Lives Matter and the nested set of hegemonic and economic problems constellated around the persistent and undeniable oppression and degradation of black people in the United States of America. Second, decolonization requires dismantling the legal order by which First Nations people are denied basic rights in both Canada and the United States of America, an order that systematically continues to deny the indigenous authority of Native Americans in multiple ways.[4] There is also a third example pertaining to the international sphere. Decolonization internationally would imply giving former colonies equal, democratic standing with the powers that once saw them as colonies. This, for instance, cannot be said for the United Nations Security Council or for the way that global, macro-economic negotiations occur, with the exception of India.

To say that decolonization ought to be a first priority of anthroponomy is to point to both its moral and practical importance within a set of intertwined and crucial issues for realizing the task of anthroponomy. It is to say that of the things that we prioritize in trying to create the collective social self-regulation of humankind as a whole, among them must be decolonization. The picture here is of multiple things that must be done at once, things so entangled in reality and so equally pressing for different reasons that working toward the big goal with which they are entangled demands working on all of them. This is like trying to untie a tight, over-tied knot. You have to work at multiple points to loosen it. Decolonization is one of those points. Next to forming transnational governance and intergenerational representation and law, there must be decolonization.

Why is decolonization so important to anthroponomy? First, given the persistent disrespect in the legacy of colonialism, decolonization is a moral obligation for all human beings. If we human beings do not do what we are morally obligated to do, then we are not self-regulating.

Second, democracy is central to anthroponomy. Anthroponomy is collective social self-regulation.[5] Without democracy, there is no anthroponomy. This appears to be an analytical truth. But then we can ask, “can we speak meaningfully of democracy in our world today in the face of the legacy of colonialism?” Not on Earth! Talk to African American men who fear for their lives when being pulled over by a policeman for a routine traffic matter. Visit the historical lands of indigenous Americans who cannot even make valid claims for the ancestral and often sacred land they had stolen from them. There is simply no satisfying democracy today in the world while the legacy of colonialism casts its long shadow over the present in the repetitive cycles of humiliation and violence visited upon those who were once part of official colonies and who still remain unheard.[6] Without decolonization, no true democracy.  How will we regulate ourselves collectively when who we are practically excludes and morally disrespects whole swaths of who we are?

Third, colonialism is practically entangled with some of the most recalcitrant and problematic issues of our environmental, planetary crisis. These include the history of resource extraction, including fossil fuel acquisition, heavy metal mining, and logging-–to name a few industries. They also include the de facto creation of a world oligarchy benefitting formerly colonizing nations at the expense of a great many of the countries of the world that were colonized or did not reap the wealth or profit from the exploitation of colonization. This de facto oligarchy blocks the equal sharing of the Earth’s capabilities. It would be naïve, for instance, not to see it as one of the causes of the persistence of the “global” storm (in Stephen Gardiner’s language op cit.); for to challenge the sovereignty of the nation states is to challenge the pot of stolen gold that some states have built their economic prominence on, as in the case of Europe and the United States of America. More deeply still, the ideology of colonialism can be said to permeate our economy: acquiring at the expense of some for the benefit of those who have the power to take from others what they want. This ideology is part of the deep moral corruption of the “intergenerational storm” Gardiner discusses.

This third point is practical, not conceptual. To take on colonialism in practice means to unearth deep issues in our current global political economy (or its fragmented lack) that in practice will mean addressing, e.g.,

  1. the ownership of resources and the “right” to extract them,
  2. the ideology of extraction and off-loading environmental burdens on distant and future others,
  3. the question of who benefits from the current capitalist formation globally,
  4. the status of the far future in having a right to their fair share of the Earth’s capabilities in relation to humans,
  5. an ideology of competition and seizure of markets that is so deeply ingrained as to show up in capitalism’s everyday language,
  6. and the deeply flawed idea that self-interest is the engine of flourishing.

That last idea is not only a violence waiting to happen; it is a violence that has already happened.

Fourth, coming to terms with colonialism means coming to terms with a history of violence so deep and persistent that it has scarred world history for the past half millennium. Anthroponomy differs from cosmopolitanism in being focused on ­self-regulation, not simply global citizenship.[7] The question is whether we are capable of self-regulation, the de facto oligarchic we who benefit every day from an economy that is off-loading its burdens on vulnerable others now and in the future and which roared into being hurting and using-–if greed be, killing–vulnerable others over hundreds of years. A moral truth is that if you want to be self-responsible, you own the wrong that you have done. So, too, with whole societies. Coming to terms with colonialism is at the heart of the “moral cartography” of “the AnthroObscene”: it begins in remorse.[8]


[1] Jörn Knobloch posted a reply on June 17th that challenged me to think of actually motivating political movements that can join “the multitude” together. This!

[2] Stephen Gardiner (2011). A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press, part B, “The Global Storm.”  However, Gardiner does not emphasize the Westphalian order or consider its relation to colonialism.

[3] Moishe Postone (1996). Time, Labor, and Social Domination: a Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press; and Rober Jackall (2009). Moral Mazes: the World of Corporation Managers. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] In Canada, there seems to be progressive law in favor of indigenous rights, but its supreme court still manages to put the burden of proof on the indigenous for hereditary land issues when coming up against corporations. See The Law Society of Upper Canada (2016). “What does reconciliation mean to you?” Toronto: Osgoode Hall Law School, June 23rd, accessed July 14th, 2016 from

[5] Since my last post, I have added the adjective “social” to “self” to underline how the process we are considering does not conceive of humankind as a self on the model of an individual but considers humankind as a construct that is formed by a social process of democratic collective governance and consequent shared life. In a sense, anthroponomy forms humankind as humankind.

[6] One of the worst figures in Canada concerns the number of indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered and whose cases are not resolved by the Canadian authorities–as if their lives do not matter as much as a non-indigenous, Canadian woman’s. See Guardian Staff (2016). “Missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada could number 4000.” February 16th, accessed on July 14th, 2016 from

[7] Zev Trachtenberg raised the question to me of anthroponony’s difference from cosmopolitanism. See his comment on my first post, left in reply on June 8th.

[8] Cf. Manuel Arias Maldonado’s post “A moral cartography for the Anthropocene.” Maldonado’s list conspicuously omits remorse. My reply to the thoughtful June 9 comment of Chris Crews on my first post is that I am willing to talk of the AnthroObscene.

2 thoughts on “Decolonialism and democracy: on the most painful challenges to anthroponomy

  1. Thank you for this extremely interesting post (and for your first one as well)! If you have time to reply, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on a couple of things.

    First is the role of self-determination in anthroponomy. Making decolonization prerequisite to anthroponomy would seem to imply that self-determination is prerequisite as well. If so, then how do we resolve the tension between this precondition and the conception of humanity as a cohesive “self” that can engage in collective self-regulation? What becomes of those who refuse to participate in the anthroponomic system or reject its ontological assumptions? Any universalizing system of governance, even one premised on decolonization and democracy, risks adopting a coercive or imperial stance toward those whose dissent constitutes a fundamental rejection of universalism. Is anthroponomy, then, ultimately a form of liberalism?

    My second “thing” concerns the role of other-than-human beings. Is anthroponomy anthropocentric and, if so, with what implications? Should the same logic that justifies anthroponomy–i.e., the universal ecological impacts of industrialism require universal participation in democratic self-regulation–also extend to the other beings with which we share the planet? If not, what standing do they have relative to humans and what of the humans whose governance systems already include other-than-human persons?

    Thank you again for the thought-provoking posts and in advance for any time you can spend responding to my questions!

    • Dear Noah,

      Thank you for these questions. I always feel grateful for real and constructive questions that pose potential obstacles or problems to work through. In the interest of keeping things concise and allowing for back and forth, I’m not going to try a comprehensive answer here but a first one. If you wish, please reply back, and then the dialectic can work out more of the picture.

      Rather than begin with a governance answer – which might be what we all expect – I would begin with an interpersonal and intrapersonal one. Neo-liberalism teaches and trains us to be lone atoms. And violence, which hovers in the background as the seeming confirmation of the lesson and appropriateness of the training, shapes our brains into defensive, isolated, exclusionary beings. Another way to put this is that humans distrust each other because of violence and because of teaching and training that focuses on distrust. The back and forth between control and abandonment that usually cycles in a discussion of trust only belies how bad the state of distrust really is. The specter of people being oppressed, of not trying to compromise, of not seeing a common fate – all these things in that shadow – are part of the history of violence and the ideologies that support it. I believe that if we want to make progress in the anthroponomic horizon that defines our moral and political obligations for our time, then we need to work on the intrapersonal and interpersonal conditions of distrust, in particular on the history and ideologies of violence.

      That said, I just want to mark again that anthroponomy is a regulative ideal. It must keep open critical space because it is fundamentally democratic, and my view of politics is that (a) it is ontologically democratic (even if ontically authoritarian) and that (b) no ontologically democratic thing can preclude the anarchic disruption of the regulative order in the name of those who have no part in it. No system can close down critical space, because every system depends on our consent. Here, for brevity, I refer to Rancière’s Disagreement. The very reality of democracy implies openness to the part who have no part, which cannot be contained in advance. Anthroponomy is no different. It is not the world liberal state. It is the pointed cry against the hegemony of the oligarchic, including the liberals who think that they aren’t oligarchic, but really are in their material conditions and insouciance.

      As to your second question, once again violence gets in the way. There is wide spread cultural overlap in the importance of being with our fellow beings on Earth, but this is always thrown under the economy in the guise of threat. The issue is to see how this threat of violence works, pushing people back into the things they would not in a clear day ever wish for or say to or support for their kids. I write from this perspective a lot in my many articles (and forthcoming book) around the risk of a mass extinction cascade. I do not believe that anthropocentrism implies thoughtlessness with life – I believe it implies the opposite. (See my 2006 book for an extended argument as to why the environmentalist take on anthropocentrism has got our sense of humanity profoundly wrong). As always, the problem is the system of violence that is normalized in our political economies. It isn’t really in people’s core beliefs. If anything, it’s in our akrasia, not our thoughtfulness.

      I agree with Steve Vogel that we are the speakers in politics. But we can speak as trustees of Earth others.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.