Mauna Kea as Neither Emergency Nor Event


by Ikaika Ramones

A contribution to Abolition’s conversation on “States of Emergency/Emergence: Learning from Mauna Kea” (read the call here)

In Hawaiʻi Governor Ige’s declaration of a “state of emergency,” or media coverage referring to the protection of Mauna Kea as a “moment” of Hawaiian activism, there emerges an implicit adherence to the view of this conflict as an “event.” In this schema of the “event,” we find that agents and causes are organized along clean binaries: sacred and profane, extractive capital and flat rejections of it, settler state logics and its alternatives like Indigenous-anarchism. But what if we see the mass movement to protect Mauna Kea not as an “event” of state violence or a moment of emergency, and instead focus on relations implicit in quotidian practice? In this article, I argue for seeing Mauna Kea not as an event, but as a structural dynamic confronting us in the guise of an event. I also show how this alternative reading of Mauna Kea, and attention to the “everday,” has ramifications for how we might theorize Kanaka ʻŌiwi struggle.

The TMT Corporation and the State of Hawaiʻi government’s attempt to expropriate Hawaiian Crown Lands atop Mauna Kea for an observatory constitutes a process of “accumulation” (see Maile 2018 in this series, or Maile 2019 for sharp analyses of Mauna Kea and extractive capital). Extending from Marx’s concept of so-called “primitive accumulation,” scholars have remarked how capital sustains itself through “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2005), such that wealth and land must be expropriated and incorporated into the circulation of capital. These sites of ongoing accumulation abound, as capital conscripts new frontiers into its operation (see Luxemburg 2003 [1913], Muehlebach 2018). In the case of Hawaiʻi, Dean Saranillio (2018) observes that the colonial project “fails forward,” casting its instances of accumulation by dispossession as purported progress (amid its own failings). The TMT thus represents an instance of accumulation and “failing forward,” seeking to provide a boon to the State of Hawaiʻi, whose own struggling economy is beholden to global circulation of capital. In accumulation, then, what exactly is dispossessed?

Ongoing accumulation targets Indigenous ties to ʻāina (the lands that sustain us), as land serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, land provides a means of “social reproduction”[1] in the Marxian sense. The decades of land evictions have shown how those living “off the grid,” or rendered marginal to the centers of production, are vagrants not to be tolerated. Mauna Kea is not a standalone event, as decades of struggles (Kalama Valley, Kaho‘olawe, Mākua, etc.) precede it, and subsequent movements (e.g., Kahuku and Waimānalo) have taken root after it. Those living from the land, however, have sought to maintain ties to land as a means of concrete social reproduction. On the other hand, ties to land also serve as critical ontological bases for Hawaiian lifeways and worldviews.

By seeing Mauna Kea as an instance of ongoing accumulation by the settler state and extractive capital, we can appreciate it not as a “state” of emergency, or even as an event–it is, merely, business as usual. Decades of struggles over land underscore that this is not an “event;” however, we are predisposed to see this as an “event” because such historical contingencies bring extant, structural class relations into momentary sharp relief. These structural relations of domination and subordination thus become reified, taking on flesh for contemplation by “conscientized” (see Freire 1970) Hawaiian political subjects. “Events” appear as “events,” inverting flashpoints of structural oppression as sites of valorization and class consciousness. Anthropologist Veena Das (2006) cogently pointed out that, as tempting as it may be to focus on “events,” we must examine the everyday, and how such power relations are always already enfolded in the ordinary and quotidian.

By eschewing a fetishization of the “event,” and instead foregrounding extant structural relations, we are better equipped to delineate the contradictions as they adhere in practice. First, we must recognize that while futures-oriented visions provide critical ideological support to a mass movement, our analysis requires that we attend to the messiness of present and praxis on the ground. Indeed, this is no emergency event, but a critical mass of Hawaiians and allies who emerge from decades of grassroots work to the effect of political education. Mauna Kea’s significance comes from its reach as yet another node for social reproduction, political education, and proliferation of an action-oriented class consciousness among Hawaiians. This critical mass exists precisely of the strategic and coordinated efforts of those on the ground, in contradiction to (and more often entangled with) the settler state and extractive capital. Decades of forbears have birthed this movement because of their dexterous engagements with capitalist economic forms, settler education policy, cultural rights, settler tax law, and land claims (for example, see Osorio 2003). These messy and entangled engagements provided the material support for schools, cultural education, and other arenas for the formation of class consciousness. While utopian alternatives are an important component of theorizing Hawaiian emergence, we must also appreciate how the “ideal types” of these schemata instead bleed into one another when they are put into practice on the ground.

Second, this shows that we cannot focus analysis exclusively on utopian alternatives without centering the coercive (and inherently constitutive) realities of the state and capital on these future-oriented visions. The state will not simply “wither away” as we focus on emergence and utopian political alternatives alone (see Lenin [1918] 2014 for a critique of anarchism), but indeed first requires concerted, organized effort to directly confront and disrupt the apparatus that reproduces power relations of domination over Hawaiian lands, lifeways, and bodies. We must remember that while decades of Hawaiian and labor struggle has been directed away from the state, it has also focused its attentions against and within it (see Trask 1987).

Mauna Kea represents both a combination of valuable futures-oriented and Indigenous-anarchist visions that sustain such a popular movement, and also provides the nuts and bolts of compromise and entanglement that materially allow for such historical contingency to lead to mass mobilization. As we attempt to make sense of the Mauna Kea conflict, we bear the responsibility of incorporating all moments of this contradiction: its appealing schema of emergent alternatives and the praxis that materially facilitates these very formations themselves. Moreover, we must appreciate that this is by no means an “event,” but instead is ongoing processes of accumulation and class relations reified and valorized as a site of action. That is to say, even “after” this supposed event of Mauna Kea passes, these relations will remain standing. Let us not overly fetishize this as event or singular moment of emergence—this will leave us vulnerable to losing focus on the stubbornly enduring structural dynamics of Hawaiian political(-economic) relations. For it is these very ongoing relations that require us to attend to on-the-ground-entanglements that muddy the ideal types and abstractions, and underscore the contradictions of extractive capital on Hawaiian lands and lives.

About the author: Ikaika Ramones is a PhD Candidate at New York University, Department of Anthropology. More about his research and work is available here.

About the featured image: An iconic image of Haunani-Kay Trask leading a 1993 demonstration to mark the overthrow of the Hawaiian government. Photo credit: Ed Greevy.

Works Cited:

Das, Veena. 2006. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ginsburg, Faye and Rayna Rapp. 1995. Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freire, Paulo. [1970] 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. London: Oxford University Press.

Leacock, Eleanor. 1978. Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society: Implications for Social Evolution. Current Anthropology 19(2): 247-275.

Lenin, Vladimir. [1918] 2014. State and Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Luxemburg, Rosa. [1913] 2003. The Accumulation of Capital. Abingdon: Routledge.

Maile, David Uahikeikaleiʻohu. 2018. Precarious Performances: The Thirty Meter Telescope and Settler State Policing of Kānaka Maoli. Abolition Journal. https://abolitionjournal.org/precarious-performances/

— 2019. Resurgent Refusals: Protecting Mauna a Wākea and Kanaka Maoli Decolonization. Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being 11(1): 57-69.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1992. Capital Vol. 1. New York: Penguin.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2018. Commonwealth: On Democracy and Dispossession in Italy. History and Anthropology 29(3): 342-358.

Osorio, Jonathan Kamakawiwoʻole. 2003. “Kūʻē and Kūʻokoʻa: History, Law, and Other Faiths”. In Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaiʻi. Merry, Sally Engle and Brenneis, Donald, Eds. Santa Fe: SAR Press. Pp 213 – 237.

Saranillio, Dean. 2018. Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawaiʻi Statehood. Durham: Duke University Press.

Trask, Haunani Kay. 1987. The Birth of the Modern Hawaiian Movement: Kalama Valley, O‘ahu. Journal of Hawaiian History 21: 126-153.


[1] “Social reproduction” here draws from Marxist Feminist work referring to how a society reproduces class structures, relations, and cultural forms, contingent on the mode of production and one’s position in it. For further reading see: Ginsburg & Rapp 1995; Leacock 1978; Marx [1867] 1992.

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