The struggle for decolonization: connection to the anti-racism, peace, socialism and climate movements

This speech was delivered at the Decolonial Reparations Conference on April 22, 2023, organized by Aralez and Decolonial International Network. The speech advocates for decolonization as a framework to connect the anti-racism, peace, socialism and climate movements. The speech is a translated and slightly edited version of an earlier speech at the Conference Against Racism and Discrimination on December 10, 2022, which you can read/watch in Dutch here.

Dear friends,

We stand here together on the 68th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, when 29 newly independent governments from Africa and Asia came together in Bandung, Indonesia, to form an independent bloc against the Global North, against the imperialist world. Bandung was a milestone, but not the end. After Bandung came the Non-Alignment Movement, the Tricontinental Conference, the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the New International Economic Order and many other initiatives that aimed for Global South Unity against imperialism. It is a project that has been violently suppressed by Western invasions, assassinations and coups against independent leaders, such as Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Salvador Allende in Chile and many, many others.

The imperialist powers sought to maintain and deepen colonial relations, opening up the South for their multinational corporations, for cheap labor and resources. And they largely succeeded. According to UN figures, during colonialism, the gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world grew from 3:1 to 33:1. In the neo-colonial era, this inequality grew to 118:1, in just a few decades. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first independent leader and co-founder of the Non-Alignment movement, therefore called neo-colonialism “the worst form of imperialism.’’ Like so many others, Nkrumah was overthrown by the CIA shortly after making this statement.

Yet the spirit of Bandung has not been broken. For the first time in nearly 50 years, another resolution for a New International Economic Order was passed at the UN general assembly this December, a detailed plan to stop the exploitation of the Global South. A decade earlier, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, movements from across the globe united in a declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth and reparations of the climate colonialism of the Global North. Right now, in Southern Abya Yala, better known as South-America, a new wave of anti-imperialist leaders have been elected and are deepening their ties against the United States. During our international panel tomorrow, we will hear more about reparations initiatives from the Global South, particularly from Palestine, Venezuela and pan-Africanism. So the struggle of the South continues. But what can we learn from that struggle, here in the Global North? What is our role to play?

Part of the answer can be found in the echoes of Bandung. In 1955, Indonesian president Sukarno opened the Bandung Conference with a tribute to its predecessor, in 1927: “I recall in this connection the conference of the “League against imperialism and colonialism,” held in Brussels almost thirty years ago. At that conference, many of the esteemed delegates present here today met and found new strength in their struggle for independence.” So in Brussels, in the heart of a colonial empire, important future anti-colonial leaders met each other for the first time, such as Mohammed Hatta from Indonesia, Messali Hadj from Algeria, Josiah Tshangana Gumede from South Africa and Jawaharlal Nehru from India, under the chairmanship of the Jewish scientist and socialist Albert Einstein. The League Against Imperialism was funded by the Communist International, whose members were obligated to struggle against colonialism, in word and deed, as laid out in its founding documents. The pre-history of Bandung, then, is also a history of international solidarity. Even here, in the heart of empire.

So we are here together to repair 500 years of historical and ongoing colonial damages. Within Aralez and the Decolonial International Network, we believe that we can only succeed together, in solidarity between different movements and different communities. So it heartens me to see all of you here together, people who are active in different communities and movements, from the anti-racism struggle to the climate movement, from the peace movement to the socialist movement. In this speech, I will attempt to connect these struggles within the framework of decolonial reparations. What can decolonization mean for our understanding of anti-racism, socialism, the climate movement and the peace movement? How can recovery from colonialism create a framework for connecting these movements together? These are the questions I will try to answer today.

To begin, let me clarify what I mean by decolonization and what it means for the anti-racist movement.

Decolonization is a word that is widely used today; you could even say, has become a bit of a buzzword. But the concept is still rarely understood properly. It is a term that comes from the Global South to talk about global colonial power structures. But the term decolonization is often used in the West in a Eurocentric way, as a kind of historical interpretation of racism, an explanation of why we need more inclusion and diversity within our national borders, for Dutch people with passport privilege. Inclusion and diversity is about more people of color within white organizations, including Shell, the military and the police. Inclusion and diversity is not about fundamentally transforming an unjust world order built over 500 years of colonialism. Not about questioning whether Shell, the military and the police have a right to exist at all.

But colonialism is much more than a historical interpretation of racism. It is an ongoing, global phenomenon. It is about life and death. It means that someone in Yemen dies under Western bombs. That someone in Afghanistan starves to death because of Western sanctions. That someone in Pakistan is displaced by floods caused by the massive Western historical emissions that have colonized our atmosphere. That the Amazon is being cut down to grow fodder for Dutch industrial agriculture. That people in an obscenely rich city like Amsterdam have to sleep on the streets in complete rightlessness because they supposedly don’t have the right papers.

Many of you will be familiar with the Committee March 21st, which is named after the Sharpeville Massacre, when apartheid police murdered 69 black protesters on March 21, 1960. Less famous, however, is the more recent Marikana Massacre in 2012, when 34 black South African striking miners were murdered by black police officers, all for the interests of a white British multinational company. Colonialism has always had its willing collaborators. Clearly, then, decolonization is not about having more managers and police officers of color. Decolonization is about the end of capitalism and imperialism, the end of hunger, poverty, murder and ecocide on a global scale. Inclusiveness and diversity is certainly an important step, a requirement for justice, but it is not the final destination. Decolonization is about repair and transformation, the creation of a new world order.

Over one in five Dutch people of color live in poverty. It is a shockingly high percentage for a country living in obscene wealth, with more than a million millionaires. Yet it’s worth emphasizing: if we extend that same poverty line to our brothers and sisters in the Global South, more than 90 percent live in poverty there. According to a recent study, the Netherlands is one of the top five countries that benefits most from unequal trade with low- and middle-income countries. Since 1960, the Netherlands robbed $4.4 trillion from the Global South. That is more than four times our Gross National Product. So decolonization cannot possibly be only about oppression inside the Netherlands. It must be about all oppression caused by the Netherlands. And that oppression extends far beyond our national borders.

In addition, it is crucial to realize that imperialism works like a boomerang. The racism we feel today is directly linked to 500 years of colonial exploitation abroad. But racism is also linked to the imperial wars that continue to this day. Is it a coincidence that we saw a huge rise in islamophobia right after the start of the War on Terror which, according to Nafeez Ahmed’s conservative figures, killed six million Muslims? Is it a coincidence that we saw a huge rise in anti-Asian racism in recent years, right at the time when China was being declared by the West as its great geopolitical enemy?

We already know that Western media effectively function as propaganda outlets in geopolitical conflicts, from books like Manufacturing Consent and The Dutch Media Monopoly. That same geopolitical propaganda, read day in and day out in the press, directly affects racist tendencies in the Netherlands. So the rise of Geert Wilders, Thierry Baudet and Donald Trump are also about the wars of Jan Peter Balkenende, Mark Rutte, George Bush and Barack Obama. As anti-colonial writers have warned us for nearly a century now, fascism is a colonial boomerang.

Clearly, decolonization has much to offer to the anti-racist movement. But decolonization and anti-racism also have much to offer for other movements, such as the peace movement, the climate movement and the socialist movement. So let me briefly sketch their connections.

Starting first with the socialist movement:

Today, more than one million Dutch people live in poverty. Half of the Dutch in poverty have a migrant background, while representing only a quarter of the population. Specifically, it is Dutch people of color who are disproportionately pushed into poverty, due to institutional racism in the labor market, the housing market, in education, health care, throughout the criminal justice system, from the police to the courts. So anti-racism is crucial for any movement in the Netherlands that wants to do something for the poorest in society.

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Because the majority of full-time workers for the Dutch economy do not actually live in the Netherlands at all. There are 14 million people working full-time in the Global South, for extremely low wages, in dangerous working conditions, throughout the Dutch value chain, working for Dutch consumption, investments or corporate profits. This is the neo-colonial reality today. The majority of people oppressed by Dutch capital do not live in the Netherlands. They too must be part of our struggle.

Third, anti-racism is crucial to any social movement, whether in social housing or healthcare, because the neoliberal elite misuses racist sentiments as a lightning rod to deflect public anger, scapegoat politics. To cite just one example. Since the 1990s, all subsidies for social housing have been removed while the state loses billions of euros through the mortgage interest deduction (hypotheekrenteaftrek), a subsidy for homeowners. The fact that in Amsterdam there is now a waiting time of over 13 years within the social housing sector, instead of the 3 years it took in the early 1980s, that is the result of structural policy. Yet we see parties, from the VVD to the PVV, blaming asylum seekers for the few percent of social housing they take up each year. We can tell the same story about healthcare and the social safety net. Everything gets demolished from the top down and people of color get blamed. Any socialist movement will have to pierce through that racist smokescreen to do something for the poorest in our society.

Conversely, it is also true that the anti-racism struggle has much to gain from an alliance with socialists. I have already cited some of the early communist support for the anti-colonial struggle in the 20’s and 30’s. But it is also a fact that the decolonization struggle in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s was supported by socialist countries such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. That the civil rights movement in the U.S. had its roots within communist and socialist movements. Let us not forget that many popular anti-racist parties and leaders, such as the Black Panther Party in the U.S. or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, were explicitly communist. Even in the Netherlands, only the Communist Party of the Netherlands and the Communist Trade Union opposed the colonial invasion of Indonesia after World War II. Imperialism and capitalism have always been deeply intertwined, and resistance to one always requires resistance against the other as well.

Which brings me to the peace movement

When I say war, most people immediately think of Ukraine. I myself think first of the 400,000 victims in Yemen, most of them children, killed with Western weapons since 2015. Racism causes some victims to be seen as worthy, others as unworthy. Tabe Bergman’s phd research on the Dutch press shows that Iraqi civilian deaths were a non-issue for major Dutch newspapers during the invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that our best estimates come to at least a million dead. How differently is the war in Ukraine portrayed? And how differently are Ukrainian refugees received here? After tens of thousands of refugees from Africa and Asia drowned in the Mediterranean, suddenly there was room for Ukrainians. Many Western journalists literally stated that they would be “more like us” or were “civilized and European.’’ And to this day, refugees of color are kept out, sentenced to death in the Sahara or the Mediterranean, or put in camps and pushed into complete rightlessness.

Yet it is also striking how racism mutates when it serves the interests of our states. Just a short time ago we had the Poland hotline (Polen Meldpunt) and Eastern European workers were being scolded with racist remarks. Now suddenly they are supposed to be the European frontier of civilization against a so-called Asian Russia, which the Wall Street Journal even compared to the Mongol Horde. The typical orientalist frames, of a dictator gone mad who cannot be talked to, directly undermine our chances for peace talks. Peace talks that Ukrainian president Zelensky wanted to hold and seemed very promising shortly after the start of the war, in April one year ago, but talks that were blocked by NATO, as we know from high-level sources in Ukraine, the United States, Russia and Israel.

This endless war has an enormous impact, not only for Ukraine itself, but also for the Global South and the poorest people in Europe, who suffer from the rising food and energy prices. Today, nearly a billion people go to bed hungry. This is precisely why the Global South refuses to take sides in this war, and is pushing for negotiations. In the spirit of non-alignment. In the spirit of Bandung. The West has much to learn from the South.

That energy and food crisis, finally, brings me to the climate movement:

I believe that by now most people here know that rich countries have emitted by far the most CO2, and that at the same time the biggest impact of global warming will hit the Global South. This is commonly called climate racism. What most people don’t know is how extreme the numbers really are. According to a recent study in The Lancet, 92 percent of the climate catastrophe has been caused by the Global North. In fact, they should have reached 0 emissions not by 2050, or 2030, but literally decades ago. If you were to convert the Global North’s gigantic surplus of CO2 emissions into the costs of an accelerated green transition in the Global South, we are talking trillions of dollars. Set against the paltry climate finance being paid now, the colonial climate debt won’t be paid off for over 4,000 years. I repeat: over 4,000 years. That’s how extreme the colonization of the atmosphere really is.

But decolonization is not only necessary for an accelerated green transition in the South. It is also crucial for green transition in the North. The majority of the excessive consumption of resources in the Global North are extracted directly from the Global South. That looting and plundering is so great that from it could build the infrastructure for basic housing, health care and education for 6.5 billion people. Not to mention outsourcing polluting industries, placing Western factories in China or Vietnam to pay low wages. Based on consumption figures, Dutch emissions have not dropped at all since 1990. They have increased by as much as 12 percent. That is the real, non-existent and colonial climate policy of the Netherlands.

In other words, when we talk about reducing resource consumption and emissions in the context of the Netherlands, we are in fact talking about decolonizing our exploitation of the rest of the world. After all, where do raw materials come from?

This imperialist plunder is accompanied by wars. Wars that in turn produce enormous emissions. The military climate footprint is about 6 percent of global emissions, comparable to two entire continents combined, Africa and South America. This arms race is driven by NATO countries, which together spend about 17 times more on the military than Russia’s alliance, the CSTO.

And that militarism also colonizes our priorities. The richest countries spend 30 times more on the military than on climate finance for the Global South. Prominent media report more on Russia in one month than the climate catastrophe is covered in a year. And our military is preparing not for a successful green transition, but for a dystopian world of resource wars and increased refugee flows, which they intend to crush.

In this way, the climate challenge is fundamentally linked to neo-colonialism, racism and war. But also with capitalism. To stop depending on imperialist plunder, our society will have to change fundamentally. No longer shaped around the endless growth of corporate profits, but based on the core needs of our people and planet: health care, education, housing, community and reciprocity. Policy will have to be shaped around the universal declaration of human rights, which is not only about political rights, but also about basic cultural, social and economic rights. The right to a dignified existence.

And so we bring it full circle: from socialism, anti-racism and anti-militarism to the struggle to protect Mother Earth. All these struggles are essentially a struggle for decolonization.

Thank you.

Chris de Ploeg

(Reseach journalist and co-founder of Aralez. a decolonial collective based in Amsterdam.)