Tag Archives: ayahuasca

Colonialism, Green Resistance, and Fighting Eco-Fascism: An Interview With Eco-Anarchist Kevin Tucker

In an effort to start to broaden the voices of antifascists, we are doing interview across the radical spectrum to open up space to expanding what we understand as resistance. Kevin Tucker is a “Primal Anarchist” who takes inspiration from hunter-gatherer societies and looks to take on many of the inequities inherent in settler colonialism and industrial capitalism.

His new book is called The Cull of Personality: Ayahuasca, Colonialism, and the Death of a Healer, where he unpacks the extractive history of “Ayahuasca Inc.” that many in the liberal-left are selling as a solution to our mass alienation and trauma. As a vocal antifascist, Tucker has a unique perspective in the fight against fascism, both in its relationship to Western colonialism and to the trends of eco-fascism that permeate.

We talk about both of these with him, where he dives deep into his research into how these forms of intersecting oppression manifest.

Why did you choose to focus on Ayahuasca for your last book?

Really the story felt like it presented itself in a lot of ways. 

The Cull of Personality centers on the killing of the Shipibo-Conibo plant healer, Olivia Arévalo, in April 2018 by a Canadian man, Sebastian Woodroffe. Woodroffe was just one of many thousands of people out there riding the wave of thinking that ayahuasca—a hallucinogenic brew made from a vine and additional plants—was going to transform mental health approaches for the West. Essentially this kind of superfood fad approach to thinking that there was going to be some kind of consumption-based answer to the existential crisis that modernity has created. 

The reality of it is that ayahuasca becomes exalted, but entirely out of context—the same way that colonizers have always approached extractable “resources” along the colonial frontier. Regardless of the meaning and spin that gets put on ayahuasca, it becomes another globalized commodity. To paraphrase the historian Daniel Immerwahr, the history of colonialism is really this search for obscure forest products. 

Here, you have the history of ayahuasca falling in the traces of empire between guano, yerbamate, shrunken heads, rubber, and oil. I had already been working on different projects that drew out those links, but then when I heard about the killing of Arévalo, I anticipated it to be the story of colonialism and cultural appropriation. The more I dug into it; the more it became this far more intertwined narrative that gave a more insidious picture about how colonialism functions and continues to perpetuate itself. 

Ayahuasca, in other words, became more of a character in this larger story, but the deeper it goes, the more entrenched the realities and nuances of civilization become apparent. What does it mean to have regions where the goal was more based in extraction over settlements? What impact does that have upon Indigenous societies? How far do the ripples of contact spread and why? 

The defenders of ayahuasca—and any similar plant-based medicinal or hallucinogen—will start at the end: we are here to uphold and validate Indigenous knowledge. As though eco-tourism will save the soul of the colonizer and their progeny. That allows us to create this kind of a savior complex whereby we are here to save and salvage a “dying culture” or some threatened cultural memory and preserve it, which innately disempowers the peoples who lived within it. 

In the case of eco-tourism, that’s even truer. 

It’s white washing colonialism and putting this smiling face on this industry where there are hundreds to thousands of these predatory retreat centers and a genuine industry built around this plant and a faux-imagining of an Indigenous society—one that is exclusionary and often dancing upon graves not yet filled. 

So the story is really about colonialism and civilization, ayahuasca became the primary character. It’s important to draw it out, because we forgive the good intentions of someone like Woodroffe since we don’t want to see what they really say about us. And what they say about the way we interact with the world and its consequences. We can draw clearer lines around a brutal colonizer like Francisco Pizarro, but Woodroffe remains less clear. 

The truth is that both of them, like all of us, share in the same legacy.


How does the West’s appropriation of Ayahuasca exist in the history of colonialism?

This is a trickier question; the long answer is the book. The quicker answer is that the problem here is two-fold: cultural appropriation and also the creation of cultural memory. To understand one, we have to understand the other. 

So let’s start at the end: cultural appropriation. 

In this case, ayahuasca has taken on this mystical element due to pro-psychedelic counter-cultural writers creating this mythic past for a substance they encountered. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs wrote The Yage Letters, which is based around ayahuasca. More recent books like The Cosmic Serpent carry on the work of people like Terence McKenna, who wrote The Food of the Gods

What happened is that drop out culture was searching all across the world for some kind of legitimacy. Often they found it in these hyper-idealized and reductionist views of Indigenous societies, which they boiled down to a single substance or a single ritual. 

That’s reductionist because we’re talking about enmeshed cultures—ones that are typically divided up by anthropologists and administrators or missionaries. That’s really this process of extrapolating our own divisions and crises upon societies that we, as a civilization, encounter. The world for most societies just isn’t capable of being divided into neat categories and broken apart. 

So along come the back-to-the-land hippies and psychedelic drop outs, mixed with really uncritical pop anthropology and pharmacology, and then all of the sudden they think that they are upholding cultures by trying to cram the entirety of who they are and what they feel into a single plant or ritual or item, something of that nature. 

Clearly, that isn’t an accurate reflection of anything other than a commodified culture trying to distill a rooted one.

At best, it’s paternalistic: we’re here to validate and save a piece of your culture from us, by turning it into something we find value in. Often something that is here to save us from ourselves. It’s a pit of irony that is just literally disgusting. 

The colonial reality of this process is that we don’t have to encounter or realize the harsh realities behind any degree of cultural memory or tradition of the cultures that colonizers encounter. We’re talking about militaries and missionaries here who have directly targeted, killed, tortured, and dismembered any agent of spiritual practice within Indigenous societies. 

Missionaries and administers have always been after ethnocide—the destruction of culture—when the practices of genocide don’t yield a complete reduction of a people to unmarked graves. Any spiritual or religious practice becomes a target, first and foremost, alongside the act of removing the ability for autonomy and subsistence for a people. 

That is something that we have done and that we continue to do. Every single thing about cultural traditions and memories amongst Indigenous societies is here because they fought for it, not because some Westerner discovered it like an arcane treasure hidden in early explorer accounts. Indigenous societies struggle to maintain their cultures, often that might mean hiding or even lying to outsiders about practices that we are going to leech in any predatory manner.

In every single one of these cases, it has been the avenues and positions of cultural memory that have been under direct attack by colonizers in all forms. Be it the execution of healers, shamans, two spirits, elders, and medicine people within these societies, or the targeting of cultural vestiges from language to ritual to practices. Indigenous societies have and continue to struggle against this, so when a Westerner comes along and acts like they’ve resurrected a giant that no one in this culture had prior knowledge of or had supposedly forgotten, it’s hard not to see the colonial legacies on full display. 

It’s a hubristic refusal to acknowledge the realities of privilege we have when facing Indigenous societies from the perspective of the Westerner and to believe we have discovered something. These societies know what they have and it exists in a context. When you go to an ayahuasca retreat or buy white sage at the grocery store, you are encountering an object with a massive lineage and not having to confront that or see what it entailed to get that item to you. 

So the first and easiest path to cross here is that ayahuasca is nothing new in terms of cultural appropriation. McKenna’s wife had given talks about being spoken to by ayahuasca and talked about “liberating” it from the forest. That’s a pretty awful position to put yourself in, but there you have it. It’s just another iteration of this white savior complex, but imposed upon plants over people. That leads to this divorce between realities where we can just find ourselves as casual observers of a flattened world without context. 

So that leads to the other part of the equation: cultural memory. 

Cultural memory, especially for oral cultures, is constantly shifting and evolving. When the hype around ayahuasca spread, it came from people who already believed psychedelics helped make us human and they could easily presume that any psychoactive plant in use currently had always been in use. The same set of books mentioned above had peddled this false notion that ayahuasca use is thousands of years old—also that it would have played into notions about psychoactive substances helping form our humanness. 

Ayahuasca here is particularly relevant because it becomes a part of the cultural memory for a lot of societies in the Amazon, though tellingly absent from others. It doesn’t make it less of an issue surrounding cultural appropriation to point out that the use and spread of ayahuasca came largely as a result of civilization, not that it is a vestige of life beyond it. 

This was kind of shocking to me in researching the book. There are a number of psychoactive plants being employed in the Amazon prior to Western contact. Ayahuasca does end up showing up on the landscape here, but not until much later. 

The earliest accounts of anything similar arise in encomiendas—plantations for enslaved natives in the colonial era. Here, natives from all kinds of societies were captured and thrown in with each other by missionaries, military, and administrators. So you had this mix of cultures—peoples who don’t share languages or customs—that might have resulted in the creation, use and spread of this particular brew. However, there’s no evidence to really support that strongly. Ayahuasca, typically tied with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, really only seemed to come into the fold more recently. 

Nearly all of the ayahuasca ritual that we are going to hear about comes from Mestizo religious views and all in the wake of the rubber boom. You see it more in the rubber bubble cities like Iquitos, but then the mystique of Indigenous origins really nailed the tourists. It became more “exotic” and more attention was put on it as a forest-based product and ritual in and of itself.

So the ayahuasca rituals and ideas that most tourists and enthusiasts come in with is one that has less to do with long standing cultural traditions and more to do with the way that cultural memories must incorporate and adapt to modernized society. That doesn’t make it less of a part of the culture, but shows how those memories evolve in light of colonialism. 

And in this case, that’s where all of this ties back together: ayahuasca arrives on the scene, in part, to help heal the traumas of colonialism and extraction. It is a cultural response and evolving cultural memory. But the problem is that when it becomes exalted as this separate sacred ritual, it’s easy for Westerners to think that ayahuasca carries some kind of innate truth, one that can exist outside of any cultural context and history. 

We then do what we’ve always done: we destroy the forests to try and create some kind of center or retreat for it. We try to embody an imposed sense of oneness and act like these cultures have answers to questions we just haven’t accessed yet. As though each society has access to some innate truth and that this or that plant must be the entryway into that exaltation. 

There is that paternalism again. We act like these societies have it all figured out, so we can just borrow their more recently arisen support structure and own that too. You have to be so far removed from even the concept of history to think the world is really this simple or that you can make changes without accommodating for transitions. 

It just shows how aloof we are to what colonialism looks like on the ground: a cultural embraces a coping mechanism and then we look at them like they can and should personally save us with this forest magic. It’s ridiculous. But worse than that, it’s just as extractionist as any other resource torn from the Amazon.


Why is it so critical to focus on the history of settler colonialism when discussing the rise of the far-right?

The entirety of the far-right is built upon the Manifest Destiny that drove settler colonialism in the first place. 

We can’t act like this is something new or we risk misunderstanding it entirely. That’s the problem with history and it’s something that the revisionists that run rampant in the right particularly love: focus on the warfare aspects and battlefront nostalgia and you can pretend like there was a fair and just war at the heart of colonialism. 

Obviously, that isn’t the case. The presentation of history and embodiment of it within statues and museums permits this cognitive dissonance between present and past, events and trajectories. It isolates the world into moments, which ensures that we don’t see the larger and overarching patterns. That’s why it’s so important to keep looking back further to understand civilization at large and even the processes of domestication. If we aren’t looking to fundamentally understand where power originates, then it ensures we only treat a wound instead of deal with a particular pathology. 

The core of far-right narratives, especially with the alt-right, has reignited the Manifest Destiny subtext of narratives of conquest. The Proud Boys call themselves “Western chauvinists” unflinchingly. They get this far because tilting those narratives really never took much work. The point of the narratives was always to hide the empire of America into the story of nation building. The ends justify the means, which also serves to erase the persistence of colonizer-settler systems and practices. 

When you look at the expansion of empires and civilizations, you see these patterns repeat constantly. It’s only increasingly crucial to dig deeper into history of the Americas in particular. 

The principles of freedom, that sacred core of individualism, that underlie the American identity in general, but far-right ideologies in particular, are a historical creation. One made possible by the confluences of technology and expansionism. In a very real sense, technology made it possible for might to equal right. 

So you see the history of European expansionism really flourishing in the isolation of Americanism. The “right to” became weaponized on the frontier, all concepts of freedom included the right to enslave and eradicate and dispossess entire populations. This was new land, clear for the taking and granted for conquest by divine right. There are all these layers to it, but they build on each other. 

There are some great books coming out on the subject these days, Greg Grandin’s End of the Myth and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire are two very recent ones. But the relationship between colonialism and imperialism with technology and the organization of state power is absolutely crucial. The basis of settler-colonialism is entitlement. Grandin, in particular, really draws out how that entitlement was used to embolden people who were effectively cannon fodder. To take this degree of dispossession that they had and infuse it into the settler mindset: if you win here, you will earn your freedom in land. 

Really that’s the core of the far-right narratives: frontier ideology imposed on an expanding world. The alt-right takes it a step further, amplifying the nativist drum pounding online—a world where boundaries and borders are virtually meaningless. It’s a way of staking an identity in an era of flux. That, to me, is an important thing to realize, but if you don’t see the lineage there, then you can act like this is a new problem instead of what it really is: a modernized variant of an old and fatal one. 


What role do anarchists have in fighting fascism?

We ought to have a massive role in fighting fascism in general, but the problem is that the far-right has also latched onto the term anarchism too. Libertarians have drifted into this very individualistic undercurrent of anarchist theory and so you’re seeing this validation and expansion of once extremely fringe beliefs, things like anarcho-capitalism and national anarchism. 

So I think the anarchist milieu ought to have a bit of a reckoning with itself, sort out some of these hyper-individualistic and egoist perspectives to see how they could lead towards fascistic ideologies themselves under the same banner. 

But that also emphasizes that these fascistic ideas are freakishly easy to slide into. We’ve seen that fascist creep in far more places than I’d like to admit and it’s both frightening and pathetic that this can be true. 

That said, you would think that anarchists should be at the forefront of fighting fascism. If you see that the unifying bond between fascists is, as you’ve said, fundamentally in the idea of upholding inequality as a driving force, then egalitarianism is clearly its opposite. If you uphold anarchism as a principle of egalitarianism rather than just the absence of a governing body, then clearly fascists need attacked. 

I would hope that is a universal amongst anarchists, but it unquestionably is not the case. 

At the end of the day, they are preaching inequality as a virtue and embodying that frontier ideology. Those are things that anarchists ought to be opposed to, but particular anyone who is against civilization ought to be thoroughly aware of. And I think with the long-overdue prevalence that Indigenous struggles are starting to finally see, the link between the realities of colonialism, extraction, and civilization are only becoming more apparent. 

It should be a given that anarchists, particularly anti-civ anarchists, are anti-fascist and it has pained me to see this isn’t case. It needs to be said, it needs to be solid, re-affirmed grounding. 

It also cannot end there. You have said that “fascism is the unanswered question of late capitalism” or something to that degree, and I think that’s absolutely true. So the problem is that all of these fascist narratives exist in this vacuum of ungrounded theory and knee jerk reactionism to our crumbling day-to-day reality. This is why I think it’s so vital to be asking bigger questions about where power originates from and understanding how it morphs. These things didn’t start with capitalism and certainly they didn’t start with Trump. Those are all just propellants on a dumpster fire. If we want to really root out fascism, which we need to be definitively doing, then we need to keep out of this shallow cesspool where fascist narratives can so easily take root and keep drawing out the questions of origins and seeing these larger patterns of power and domination. 

The denigration of anarchism relies on leaning into the individualistic spirit of the colonizer. We need to understand that. This is where the fascist creep comes in: isolationism. In both time and space. If we limit our world so narrowly, then everything is an assault or, more importantly, perceived as an assault. 


What is eco-fascism and what is its significance today?

Eco-fascism is the epitome of half-truths and short sightedness. Sadly, it’s also not far from the surface in a lot of shallow ecological critique.

It boils down to the principle that unsustainable populations and habits threaten the Earth, so the way to reduce or remove that threat is totalitarian states. It should sound a bit off-putting because it really is. The problem that I’ve seen is that a lot of environmental and ecological critique or ethos do really emphasize the catastrophic realities of life within civilization, but they are just looking at what is and not how it got here. 

I came to my own perspectives on ecology by way of deep ecology, which is also the foundation for groups like Earth First! The entire spectrum of deep ecology’s adherents runs the gamut within EF! You have these older redneck patriarchs and then younger rowdy anarchists with a big focus on politics and identity. 

Deep ecology is just another form of a biocentric—or Earth-focused—perspective, that can mean a lot of things. For those founding redneck types, that lent itself towards bioregionalism, which could easily backslide into eco-nationalism. All this nonsense about strict borders and a border wall? Ed Abbey and Dave Foreman blazed the trail on a lot of that from a supposed ecological perspective. Not that they were effective, but their views were foreboding. 

The reality of the situation is that a response to fascism everywhere requires deeper questions. From a deep ecology perspective, you can easily get sucked down this rabbit hole of thinking that problems of our world come down on the reducible problem of human population. 

In some ways, the question is kind of a chicken and egg thing for deep ecology and primal anarchy or anarcho-primitivism, but it’s a really significant one. Clearly human populations shot up with agriculture and have continued to grow exponentially. Are the problems that civilizations have created because of humans or because of systems? A primal anarchist or anarcho-primitivist critique lands squarely on systems, eco-fascism lurks in a shallower reply and saying that population itself is the issue. If you think that’s all it is, then reducing or controlling the population is a freakishly clear answer. But that’s such a shallow mess. There’s literally no way to control populations en masse without fascistic practice. 

This is becoming an issue because there is genuine ecological crisis unfolding in the world and at alarming rates. So long as there is this insane back-and-forth about whether it is happening or not, and who is ultimately responsible, then the door is open for this kind of reaction. There have been people who have used the rise and persistence of eco-fascism as a reason to deny ecological perspectives or critiques, but that’s also just feeding into the frenzied world that we currently face: one that seems to easily slide into fascistic thoughts and normalize them. 

The reality of fighting fascism, on all fronts and in all forms, is don’t give a platform to these lunatics. Don’t let them control debate or discussion about any of this, because they’re simply trying to take a shallow reactionary realization and unfold it into nativist drum pounding rituals where the state or ethnostate is the answer. It’s a grotesque form of tribalism, but if you let them initiate the discussion, then they’ve already set the table. 

The significance of eco-fascism, then, is just that literally anything right now seems like a potential entry point for these really grotesque forms. If you keep everything surface level, then there’s that opening. So my response to all of it is to go deeper, but also don’t let fascists and fascist sympathizers control the discussion.


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