Internal Colonialism and Autonomy

by Raúl Romero

In the 60’s Pablo Gonzalez Casanova and Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the former from sociology and the latter from anthropology, proposed the concept of internal colonialism to refer to the set of social relations of domination and exploitation between distinct cultural groups, each one with its own class structures, within the same nation state.

Pablo González Casanova and Rodolfo Stavenhagen

As a category for analysis, internal colonialism found  great reception in the social sciences. Along with liberation theology and pedagogy, the Latin American “boom,” dependence theory, the New Latin American Cinema1, and the Cuban nueva trova2, internal colonialism, as a result of reflection on the tumultuous and hopeful social moment that Latin America was experiencing in those years, was a key piece in the revival of critical thought globally.

Within this set of relations of domination and exploitation that internal colonialism analyzes, are those of the use of underdeveloped populations as cheap labor, or their territories as sources of extraction for the export of raw materials, also cheap, to the urban and abroad. In these regions of our countries there is a mixture of feudalism, slavery, peonage and forced and wage labor.

According to González Casanova, the peoples, tribes, neighborhoods, ethnicities and nations colonized by the nation state share some of the same characteristics: 1) they inhabit a territory without its own government; 2) they find themselves in a situation of inequality vis-a-vis the elite of the dominant ethnic group and the classes that comprise them; 3) the administration and legal-political responsibility concern the dominant ethnic groups, the bourgeoisie, and the oligarchies of the central government or of those allied or subordinated to it; 4) their populations do not participate in the highest political and military posts of the central government; 5) the rights of their populations and their economical, political, social and cultural situation are regulated and imposed by the government; 6) in general, they belong to a different race than that which controls the national government, which is considered inferior, or adopted as a liberatory symbol, and 7) the colonized people belong to a different culture and speak a different language than the national [official] one.

The powerful indigenous movement that shook our America at the end of the 20th century revived the debate that Gónzalez Casanova and Rodolfo Stavenhagen had proposed. In Mexico, the emergency of Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the National Indigenous Congress, with their demand and de facto exercise of autonomy as a mechanism of self-government, self-management and territorial self-determination, became one of the responses that peoples colonized by the Nation state adopted and re-worked to construct emancipatory alternatives. Today the struggles for autonomies extend across the entire country: they are in Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sonora, Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango, Yucatán… You can also see them in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brasil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina… While the native peoples are today some of the subjects that claim and construct autonomous processes, which have a lot to do with their form of community, their collective ownership of the land, and their relationship with nature, autonomy is also a useful tool for the urban populations, groups of workers or campesinas, as well as other popular organizations.

Throughout the world the capitalist system is driving a project of global, international, and intranational recolonization, whether it be mediated by corporations, imperial centers or nation states. The system continues to require raw materials, including those required for the production of certain drugs, cheap labor, infrastructure and also tourist centers with their big business and exoticization of the local populations and territories. As in the past, the peoples and regions that serve as internal colonies are called upon to sacrifice themselves for the sake of national welfare. If in the past, those that analyzed and denounced these phenomena were accused of being distractionists and diversionists, today they are discredited as postmodernists, identitarians or even separatists. 

The autonomies, which are not a priori anti-statist and always require articulation with other struggles, are a way that the organizations, collectives, peoples and communities have found to confront capitalism and its intranational, international, and global colonialism.

Recovering critical and dialectical thinking in light of the great theories, and always listening to the voice and action of the peoples, brings us to imagine and create alternatives to the relations of exploitation and domination that we face under this system. The struggle for emancipation is happening at all levels — local, national, regional and global. From this complexity of interrelations, we must assume that there are several ways out. 


This article was published in La Jornada on November 22, 2021. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1.  New Latin American Cinema refers to  a movement in cinema to explore Latin American struggles for autonomy.
  2. Nueva Trova is a movement in Cuban music that emerged around 1967/68 after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, defined by its connection with the Cuban revolution, and by its lyrics, focused on socialism, injustice, sexism, colonialism, racism and similar ‘serious’ issues.
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