Philosophy Phriday: Antílcar Cabral: National Liberation and Soil Culture

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the forty-seventh contribution in the series, submitted by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.


Antílcar Cabral: National Liberation and Soil Culture

A single mega-colony of ants has colonised much of the world.

Linepithema humile (LH) started on a single continent, but have now conquered vast stretches of land across the entire globe.  A 560 square kilometer settlement on the coast of California.  3700 miles of the Mediterranean coast.  A Catalonian supercolony.  Two more in Kobe, and parts of western Japan.  They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere.

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Here, there, everywhere. Photo: Alex Wild

Their sycophants call them “tolerant” and “non-aggressive.”  Which they are – to each other.  Researchers in Japan and Spain have found that they share chemical similarities in their cuticles, part of their outer covering.  This helps them identify ants from the LH megacolony, even when those ants are from different sides of the world entirely.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some internal squabbles and rivalries between sections of this global megacolony.  The Kobe ants and the ants on Japan’s west side  have longstanding beef, and mainland European ants will scrap with their cousins in the Iberian supercolony.  But generally, they’re on the same team: the researchers found that colonizer ants from completely different continents – Europe, North America, and Asia – acted as if they were in the same colony when introduced to each other, rubbing shoulder-antennae like old pals.

The native species of their territorial conquests know the truth about that “tolerance” and “non-aggression”: when these LH ants leave their megacolonies, they’re not sending their best.  They’re sending ants that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them.  There’s pestilence, attacks on native non-ant species, seizures of land that squeeze out native ants from their territory. (And some, I assume, are good insects.)

The megacolony is taking more and more territory on the globe, and an unaffiliated ant can’t so much as crash a good California picnic or dig in some western Japanese trash without risking their thorax.   What’s a good ant to do in this world?

A faint light of hope shines on the African continent.  A group of revolutionary ants, where the worker ants share the traditional responsibilities of the queen.  A standout worker ant among these: Antílcar Cabral.

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Not pictured: Cabral’s thorax.  But trust me.

Antílcar Cabral does most of his work in the struggle, helping organize his comrades against invasive forces from the Iberian supercolony.  But he gave many speeches and talks outlining aspects of his theoretical perspective, including some thoughts about liberation and freedom, informed by his serious schedule of study and his long history of political and agricultural work with fellow ants.

Cabral says that the “principle characteristic of imperialism” is the negation of the “historical process” of dominated ants, and that they do that by usurping the “free operation of the development of the productive forces”.

So we can probably get behind the idea that it would suck to have your colony’s productive forces dominated by some other group.  Food and shelter are important, and we don’t want them controlled by some other, potentially hostile insects.  But why would that define imperialism?   With a bit of work, we can see why Cabral thinks this is true.

In the background of Cabral’s thought is a philosophical perspective called materialism.  Materialists think that what is primarily important about ants is that they are material creatures with material needs.  A materialist’s default strategy for explaining about why ants think and behave in the ways they do will involve their relationship to these needs.  Since the world doesn’t just shape itself in a way that meets an ant’s needs (wouldn’t that be nice!), ants have to do things to make the world habitable and hospitable to their wants and needs: call that labor.

Think about it this way.  The megacolony doesn’t control everything a native ant colony does – for one, it can’t (that’s just too much to police), and secondly, it really doesn’t care how ants comb their antennae or whether their self care is on point.  But it does to some extent control the specific aspects of colony life that Cabral labels “productive forces”.  That is, the megacolony’s moves dictate whether the ant colony can expand their series of tunnels here or there – the megacolony probably snatches up the prime real estate underneath the Popeye’s franchises, for example – and what natural resources it has access to.  

If things are going well, an ant society organizes itself around its own collective survival and thriving.  The way that an ant society does this is through what Cabral calls “culture”.  Culture involves, among other things, giving roles to individual ants.  An ant in a native society plays its role as part of that ant society  – maybe a tunneling drone, maybe a Queen, maybe an all-purpose worker, maybe a stand up ant comedian.  Maybe they want to reject that role, try to form a new one, challenge the available roles in their colony: any and all of those options could count as their own living of their ant life, since they are a true part of the social world they are trying to adapt to, survive, reform, or revolutionize.  In a way, an ant is reforming themselves in a collective way when they try to live individual lives that succeed or fail to fit the whole group’s blueprint – that is, when they are a part of that group.  But that’s to say that two things matter to the ant: their own goals and their relationship to the structure of the colony life that forms the context for pursuing those goals.

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An ant pursuing its goal in its society. Photo: Alex Wild

But if an ant in a native society wants to become anything, form any kind of life – develop a killer abdomen; make a name for herself as the quickest picnic stick-up kid in the west – she’ll have to depend on staying alive, which means meeting her basic material needs.  She only can meet her basic material needs if the colony can make the moves that secure its survival and welfare.  But if those moves are dictated by the wants, needs, and decisions of an interloping megacolony, then the ant can’t make her own life.  The native ant might have her own goals, but what explains the context of the life in which she pursues those goals are, at the end of the day, the needs and goals of a megacolony she’s not a part of.  This is why Cabral says that ant liberation takes place “when, and only when, national productive forces are completely free of all kinds of foreign domination.”  Only when all ants share in the free operation of “productive forces”, only when culture is shared and jointly cultivated rather than imposed, can anyone be free.

Maybe you’re thinking: wait, but don’t #allantsmatter?  Why is what we’re saying only true of ants under imperial domination? What about the poor, misunderstood ants from the megacolony?!  The ones who #resist their colony’s worst excesses (#notOURqueen)?

But Antílcar Cabral would simply tell you he’s been agreeing with that view the whole time (and also, probably, that you should chill out on the hashtags).  In the middle of armed conflict with the Iberian ants, he also gave a speech called “Message to the People of Portugal”.  Despite being in the midst of deadly conflict – a conflict that eventually claimed his life – he addresses the worker ants of Iberia as friends and comrades.  He explains that the colonial queens sending workers to die, setting megacolony apart from native ant populations, are the true obstacle between a goal that Iberian and African worker ants ought to share: an end to imperial relationships between ants in either direction, and the construction of a world where all ants can fuck up humans’ picnics together.


Femi bacon pictureOlúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is a PhD candidate in philosophy at UCLA.  He’s interested in meta-ethics, social/political philosophy, the Black Radical Tradition, and sandwiches.

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