Behind the Rise of Maori Sovereignty
Phil Duncan and Grant Cronin
From New Interventions, Vol.9 No.2, 1999
THIS ARTICLE begins an analysis which situates the rise of Maori sovereignty politics within the context of the protracted economic slump and the decline of traditional class-based organisations. It argues that rather than representing a radical challenge to the status quo, Maori sovereignty politics are a sign of the weakness of radicalism in a society that is coming apart.
For 30 years after the Second World War, growing economic prosperity, coupled with the ideologies of anti-communism and New Zealand nationalism, held society here together. Racial integration was official policy, and the postwar boom, which brought most Maori out of poorer rural areas and into industry in the cities, seemed to hold out the prospect of equality in wages, job opportunity and living conditions. Widespread intermarriage also created a society in which Maori and pakeha (white) were largely relative terms rather than distinct and separate categories.
But since 1973, New Zealand, like the rest of the capitalist world, has been hit by long-term slump. This country’s historic dependence on agricultural exports to Britain meant that the crisis here took a particularly sharp form, the end of the boom coinciding with Britain joining the European Community and reducing its imports from New Zealand.
As capitalism restructured and New Zealand was transformed from the most regulated capitalist economy in the world into the most open one, New Zealand nationalist ideology was undermined. The end of the Cold War dealt another blow to anti-communism and kiwi nationalism as the ideological cements holding society together. What it meant to be a New Zealander became a question of debate.
As the slump cut deeper and deeper and old forms of social cohesion frayed, the ruling class found society beginning to come apart beneath them. The rise of Maori nationalism reflects this process of disintegration. As slump society has nothing to offer, and as the old labour movement is dead on its feet, a section of Maori have seen no way forward and partly retreated into idealised visions of Maori ‘traditional’ society.
Culture, however, is not a solution to anything – its rise is a reflection of the failure of political radicalism to achieve any real gains for the majority of Maori. The rise of culture signals the abandonment of the struggle for equality on political, social and economic terms. The cultural ‘solution’ becomes an apology for the continued existence of the inequalities created by capitalism. The acceptance of an argument centred on ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘acceptance of difference’ naturalises the economic and historical inequalities produced by capitalist property relations. As with bourgeois democracy, what is lost in terms of economic power and ownership of the means of production is supposedly compensated for in cultural terms.
The ruling elite of New Zealand society is quite happy to give cultural power – or, at least, the recognition of ‘cultural difference’ – because culture under capitalism is irrelevant to the system of exploitation itself. This is founded on property relations and not cultural representations.
Culture as Social Control
We can see a major problem with the whole notion of ‘traditional culture’ if we investigate the development of the notion itself. For instance, what we now understand as ‘culture’ was in the past simply human practical activity or the way people went about their lives. Ordinary people in pre-capitalist societies had no concept of a separate sphere called ‘culture’. Things like song and dance were bound up with work, and what we might today call ‘cultural rituals’ marked planting, harvesting and so on.
The actual idea of ‘culture’, far from being timeless, immutable and innate as cultural apologists suggest, has a very recent history. The German historian Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) first used the term ‘culture’ in the plural as part of a fierce rejection of the Enlightenment values of the French revolution. He wrote: ‘Let us follow our own way... Let men say what they like, good or bad, about our nation, our literature, our language. They are ours. That is all that counts.’
He used the concept of culture to argue that differences between people were innate and unchangeable. The scale of difference meant equality was not possible. Indeed, notions of culture and the cultural divide have historically been crucial components in arguments against equality.
We can see how, therefore, the idea of cultural difference and separateness might be useful to ruling classes and states incapable of delivering equality. It should be of no surprise that in New Zealand the state itself, representing the general interests of the capitalist élite, has played an instrumental role in the ‘culturalisation’ of social and political questions. This process really got going with the 1984-90 Labour government.
At the same time as following the radical right-wing economic policies necessary to re-establish profitable conditions for capital accumulation – in particular, through launching the biggest attack on the working class here since the Depression – Labour both coopted the existing ‘new social movements’ and promoted policies to divide and confuse potential opposition. It banned US nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from New Zealand harbours, which bought off the ‘peace’ movement and united the country behind Labour’s capitalist restructuring programme. It also promoted Maori nationalism.
The Treaty of Waitangi, the 1840 deal by which a section of Maori chiefs recognised Victoria as Queen of New Zealand in return for her guaranteeing them their lands, was dusted off and promoted as the founding document of New Zealand. Under both Labour and National governments, middle-class social controllers now lecture ordinary people about their ‘obligations’ under this document. ‘Treaty issues’ and ‘cultural safety’ now form elements of training for nurses, teachers, social workers and other state sector workers. You have to pass the ‘cultural safety’ section of nursing training to qualify, for instance.
Teaching young people respect for authority, which is the reality behind the cultural correctness smokescreen, is obviously important for the New Zealand ruling class and a project dear to the heart of the liberal middle class. As old forms of authoritarianism have been undermined by the end of the Cold War, two decades of recession and the decay of the overall fabric of society, cultural correctness plays an important role in restoring respect for authority. After all, if you talk back to your headmaster or a cop, you’re a rebel and that has a positive connotation for young people; if you talk back to a Maori elder or white liberal, you’re a racist and that accusation is enough to intimidate many people into line.
The liberal middle class, who probably administer more of the apparatus of the capitalist state in this country than anywhere else in the world, particularly fear Maori youth, and placing them on programmes policed by elders and the weight of last century’s reinvented Maori cultural traditions is useful for keeping them under control. Culture is used cynically to institute a feudal hierarchy of values that are no longer historically relevant. Pushing Maori youth onto programmes to look up their whakapapa (genealogy) – that is, to which of the alleged original Maori canoes they can trace their ancestry – is a nice, harmless activity which will keep them from rioting in the streets the way ‘decultured’ black youth in Britain and the USA do. Indeed, the white liberals and ‘new Maori radicals’ are united with the ruling class in being horrified at the fact that many urban Maori youth are attracted more to rap and other expressions of alienated black youth in the USA than they are to so-called ‘traditional Maori culture’.
The government’s promotion of cultural sensitivity and correctness, whilst important as a means of social control, is also a double-edged sword. As different cultural identities are constructed and the working class atomised, the ruling class’ own nation-state becomes fragmented too, just one ‘culture’ amongst many. This undermines its ability to rule. In fact, no-one is fully in control any more.
Attacking the Working Class
Equally, as New Zealand capitalism has restructured over the past decade, Maori have suffered the most. Of the 70 000 jobs slashed in manufacturing, 40 per cent were Maori. Traditional sectors of employment, such as the meat works, have also been devastated. Especially hard-hit Maori youth have been pushed to the very margins of society, and are seen by both the ruling class and white middle class as an ‘underclass’. Amongst the 16-25 age group, about half Maori are unemployed.
The need both to contain the ‘underclass’ and widen divisions within the working class as a means of preventing any challenge to the system has led to a mushrooming of state-sponsored schemes. For instance, in the public service caucuses were set up in the 1980s for Maori, Pacific Island and women workers. These identity-based caucuses stressed the politics of ‘difference’, and their members sat around wallowing in their victimhood and seeing their co-workers’ insensitivity on race and gender as the source of the problems they faced. Meanwhile, the state got on with the serious business of slashing thousands of jobs in that sector, and undermining living conditions and long-established rights.
Of course, in capitalist society, where all social relations are organised around the production of commodities, such identities are largely irrelevant as anything other than a mask for the real processes at work. After all, class is the only historical division of real importance to the capitalist. The divisions of gender and nationality and so on grow out of the way in which labour-power is created and reproduced under capitalism. These created differences are subsequently used by the capitalists to divide the working class, for instance through creating super-exploited groups and a reserve army of labour, and thereby hold down all workers’ wages.
This does not mean that Marxists are indifferent to the struggles of these other oppressed groups in society. Quite the contrary: Marxists argue that until the working class makes these causes its own, the workers themselves will never be able to achieve liberation. Unlike feminists, Maori nationalists and so on, Marxists are able to show how the existing relations of property require these forms of oppression. Marxists can show that they are the product of an historically transient social system which can be abolished. And we can show that there is a social force – the working class, as the universal class – with a vested material interest in doing away with all relations of exploitation and oppression.
For the majority of Maori and all oppressed people, the way forward is not in idealised cultural representations of a bygone era, but a full-blown struggle to overturn the existing relations of production around which society is organised. Maori sovereignty, feminism and labourism are all obstacles to this: thus the importance of situating the rise of cultural ‘solutions’ and identities in the context of a decaying social order.
Statues, Trees and Oppression
These attacks have typically been carried out by an individual or two. Far from reflecting anything genuinely radical, these actions actually point up the hopelessness of those carrying them out. Inanimate objects do not have the power to oppress anyone. It is real social relations of exploitation and oppression which keep Maori at the bottom of the heap, and it is these real social relations which the ‘new radicals’ studiously avoid confronting. In fact, not only do they avoid challenging the actual relations of oppression, they are perfectly prepared to go along with them as long as they can be made ‘partners’.
The ‘new Maori radicals’ have very modest aims. These are generally expressed as ‘a partnership with the Crown’, that is, with the British monarchy, represented by the existing capitalist government in New Zealand. When the ‘Crown’ is reluctant to show sufficient ‘partnership’, the ‘radicals’ declare they are out for Maori rule over the whole country by the year 2000, although how this might be attained remains to be spelt out.
The government’s and radicals’ tribalisation policy also leads to intra-Maori conflict and conflict between Maori and pakeha workers. For instance, non-tribal urban Maori have now set up an organisation to claim their own monetary compensation for past injustices. In some cases, there have been disputes over just who owns what land, with one tribe claiming ownership by dint of conquest of another tribe, as with the Chatham Islands, off the coast of the South Island.
Meanwhile, Maori workers who reject sovereignty politics and cultural invention are demonised and labelled as ‘lost Maori’ unable to recognise or recapture their supposedly innate Maoriness. In other words, the sovereignty activists, in order to advance their ends, have to resort to the very racial categories invented by traditional conservatives and racists. In doing so they oppose even the limited democratic rights offered under capitalism, which, at its inception, was a system that opposed innate privilege of any kind.
Unfortunately, given the general political and economic state of the country at present, the kind of politics expressed at Moutua Gardens are likely to grow. So is the white backlash, which so far has been expressed largely in vocal terms on the country’s many radio talkback shows, and in some mutilation of Maori carvings and monuments.
Nations are a product of modern capitalism, and they emerged with the growth of trade and the dominance of generalised commodity production and distribution. Nations are not constituted geographically or racially or linguistically, but through being unified by a system of commodity production and exchange, a language and culture expressing the needs of that system and a territory to contain all these elements. There is no Maori nation, nor was there ever one. Indeed, even the word Maori was not used to describe the population of the iwi (tribes) existing in the pre-European period, and only came into general usage in the late 1800s.
In New Zealand, the development of capitalism has created a new nation out of diverse peoples who came here at different points in time. An important point about this process was made back in 1955 by US Marxist Richard Fraser in relation to blacks and the development of the modern American nation:
‘Instead of turning further inward upon itself until a completely new and independent language and culture would emerge, the Negro culture assimilated with the national and became the greatest single factor in modifying the basic Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States. These are expressions of the historical law of mutual assimilation between Negro and white in the United States.’
Similarly in New Zealand, Maori did not turn in on themselves and create a distinct national entity but, especially in the post-Second World War migration to the cities (and to a certain extent even well before this) intermixed and interbred with Europeans. The lives of Maori today are far more like the lives of pakeha than like the lives of Maori 150 years ago. The difference, of course, is that Maori are oppressed by racism – and it is precisely this oppression to which neither the sovereignty activists nor the traditional labour movement have any answers.
This country, whether any of us like it or not, has changed totally since 1840. Neither the population groups (Maori and pakeha) nor the mode of production (communal subsistence agriculture) which existed then are with us today. A new nation – the New Zealand nation – has been forged by a new social system (capitalism). The Treaty of Waitangi is as irrelevant as the Magna Carta, and should be of interest only as an historical document, albeit one which showed the extraordinary duplicity of the British government, which had as little intention of living up to it as feudal monarchs had of living up to any declarations of people’s rights they might have made in their time.
Not only is ‘tangata whenua’ a meaningless concept in urban, capitalist New Zealand as we approach the third millenium, it is also used for entirely reactionary purposes. On the one hand, the state (and the capitalist interests behind the state) use it to compensate for the fact that they have nothing of substance to offer the vast majority of Maori (that is, Maori workers); on the other hand, the new Maori middle class and Brown Table elements use it as a negotiating ploy and lever to get their hands on the pie which has been created through the exploitation of Maori and pakeha workers.
‘Tangata whenua’ status is also used to deny other people rights in this country. In 1994, for instance, on the TV current affairs programme The Ralston Group, Maori radical Moana Maniapoto Jackson argued that Asian immigration should be stopped until ‘Treaty issues’ had been settled. This was at a time of intense public debate about Asian immigration and an escalation of racist attacks on Asians. Fifteen years ago, Donna Awatere – who authored Maori Sovereignty, the first book in which these concepts were articulated – supported the New Zealand government’s successful attempt to deprive thousands of Samoans of citizenship rights, arguing that Samoans were only in New Zealand at the pleasure, and as guests, of the ‘tangata whenua’.
Not a National Liberation Struggle
National liberation movements also reject fighting for return of long-gone tribal lands, emphasising instead the rights of landless tenant farmers, agricultural workers, etc, to land through the division of big colonial landholdings. National liberation movements are modernising social forces. They challenge colonialism not because it uprooted past local traditions, but because it is an obstacle to modernity and progress.
Colonial powers attempting to prevent national liberation, on the other hand, attempt to maintain (and even create) tribal divisions. The attempt of the apartheid regime to make out that there were a whole number of different nations in South Africa is a classic case of this. In contrast, those fighting apartheid stressed that there was a single South African nation, created historically by social, economic and political developments in the country. This single South African nation involved people of different skin colours and backgrounds, and its full formation as an historical nation was held back by apartheid.
In New Zealand, the state has also played a key role in foisting a new tribalism on Maori. Whilst the development of capitalism and especially the urbanisation and proletarianisation of Maori after the Second World War destroyed the last basis of iwi society, the Labour government of the 1980s, in operating the Waitangi Tribunal to settle Maori grievances, arranged settlements on a tribal basis. Essentially, people had to sign up to a tribe to get anything. (Naturally this has led to clashes about who is and isn’t a member of each tribe, with a small élite often having control of membership.) Later deals, such as the Sealord agreement, which gave ‘iwi’ a major stake in a huge fishing venture as settlement for Maori coastal fishing claims, reinforced this artificial division. It was also perpetrated in the media. Today, any news item dealing with anything involving any Maori invariably contains phrases such as ‘Local iwi said...’, ‘Local iwi feel...’, ‘According to local iwi...’ and so on.
Specificity of Social Systems
This highlights the importance of criticising cultural solutions, and of understanding the limitations of any sort of cultural radicalism under capitalism. Take, for instance, the Maori language. It may be able to express concepts of land and nature that English is unable to, but this is because Maori language developed entirely in a pre-capitalist tribal society. Since this no longer exists, and we live under capitalism, Maori cannot express urgent politico-economic concepts like exploitation or surplus-labour. These concepts are historical, and are reflected as part of the language and culture that develops under capitalism.
Similarly, different cultural attitudes to land, reflected in language, arise as different societies had certain social and material relationships with the land. As Marx explains in relation to money and the development of land ownership:
‘Man has often made man himself, under the form of slaves, serve as the primitive material of money, but has never used land for that purpose. Such an idea could only spring up in a bourgeois society already well developed. It dates from the last third of the seventeenth century, and the first attempt to put it into practice on a national scale was made a century afterwards, during the French bourgeois revolution.’ (Capital, Volume 1, p92)
Thus, attitudes to land change historically: it is only when land becomes alienable that it can serve as a commodity and vice versa. Land can only become alienable when people are removed from direct dependence on, and occupancy of, it. Under feudalism, where land was still the main source of production and production was geared around direct consumption by the producers, people in Europe had an attitude to it similar to Maori. Once capitalism developed, a key aspect of which was ‘primitive accumulation’ whereby the mass of producers were removed from the land and separated from the means of production, attitudes to land changed markedly.
The fact that ‘culture’ and practice reflect the actual social system rather than some innate cultural essence in people, can be seen today at the most practical level in the actions of the trust boards and the ‘new Maori corporate warriors’. A particularly graphic example is the case of the tribe covering by far the largest geographical area, the South Island’s Ngai Tahu and its trust board. The trust board has become a major property-owner over the past decade. Recently it took over the land on which there was a go-kart track in Christchurch. The track was forced to close down, and its workers, many of whom were Maori, joined the dole queue.
Mana Motuhake leader and Alliance MP Sandra Lee has also raised in parliament the question of the large sums paid by the trust board to a ‘consultancy’ agency co-owned by Sir Tipene O’Regan. O’Regan, coincidentally, happens to be the supremo of the trust board. He is also a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, the Fisheries Commission and god knows what else, all delivering hefty remuneration. (‘Conflict of interest’, presumably, is a ‘pakeha concept’.) O’Regan is one of a whole layer of people associated with such quangos and money-making whose public adoption of ‘Maoriness’ is relatively recent – essentially coinciding happily with the advent of the Waitangi industry and the substantial opportunities for personal profit provided by it.
Although the main body of the ruling class is likely to remain pakeha, ‘consultancy’ and other scams tied up with the trust boards and burgeoning new Maori authorities are the principle vehicles for the emergence of a Maori wing of the capitalist class. This wing will exploit Maori workers (and probably some pakeha too) and harness the Maori population to the state and the interests of capital in general.
Any of the ‘new radicals’ who think that sovereignty is – or can be made to be – about anything other than this are deluding themselves. They may shake their heads at the political trajectory of sovereignty’s first great ideologue Donna Awatere, now one of the wealthiest women in New Zealand and a list MP for ACT, the most economically right-wing party in parliament. But all that Awatere has done is hold up a mirror to them: she has shown them where this line leads, and given the game away.
Donna Awatere’s evolution from 1970s ‘revolutionary’ to 1990s ‘Rogernome’ is the logical result of a politics which fails to situate all oppression within the totality of capitalist social relations and rejects the centrality of the exploitation and reproduction of labour-power and thus class. Once these are rejected, the only road ahead is one of reconciliation with the existing system – either in the active sense of joining it (Awatere) or in the passive sense of retreating into cross-carrying and ever more hopeless and bizarre activities shaped by a world of cultural fantasy (Tame Iti & Co).
Culture, Poverty, Suicide
For instance, suicide amongst young Maori is explained away as the result of ‘deculturalisation’. Given that a Maori baby, like a pakeha baby, has no culture when it is born, and simply grows up and takes on the existing culture, this ‘explanation’ is clearly nonsense. Young working-class people – Maori and pakeha – commit suicide because their lives have been horrendously circumscribed and stuffed up by capitalism even before they have had a chance to live them.
If we turn to look at health statistics, we can see that working-class Maori health statistics are closer to those of working-class pakeha than to those of the new Maori middle class and ‘Brown Table’ elements. Just as the poor health of low-income pakeha is explained by their poverty, not the fact that they don’t do Morris dancing, live a peasant existence and speak medieval English, so the poor health of low-income Maori has nothing to do with deculturalisation and everything to do with immiseration.
Towards a Better Life
The demise of the old labour movement and the inability of the left to wage a real struggle against racism, let alone do so on a forward-looking basis, means that Maori anger at their oppression under capitalism will continue to be expressed in forms such as the Moutua Gardens occupation. Their position at the bottom of the heap means that, for many Maori, progress actually does appear a meaningless concept and the future less attractive than a romanticised past. Re-affirming last century’s (real or imagined) tribal culture replaces a modernising and liberating vision.
This situation is far from unique to Maori today. The historic defeat of Maori at the hands of British colonialism in the 1800s gave rise to various forms of mysticism and messianism. As Richard Fraser also noted in the 1950s, black separatism was strong in the USA after ‘a tremendous social catastrophe’. The powerful separatist movement led by Marcus Garvey, for example, followed the collapse of the post-civil war radical Reconstruction period by the late 1870s and the subsequent rise of Jim Crow, the system of discrimination which held sway in the southern states until the 1960s.
‘This defeat’, Fraser noted, pushed blacks ‘back into such a terrible isolation and demoralisation, that there was no channel for the movement to express its traditional demand for equality. The result was the Garvey movement...’ The historical trajectory of the black struggle was, noted Fraser, toward genuine integration – that is, integration based on equality. Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement, for instance, fought not for separate buses for blacks, but for their right to sit in the same bus as whites.
Of course, as a Marxist, Fraser also understood that capitalism could not bring about equality. Whilst formal segregation, such as under the Jim Crow system in the southern US states, was brought to an end, economic segregation continued. Equality could only be guaranteed through what he called ‘revolutionary integration’, which meant a struggle against capitalism.
As with blacks in the USA, the responsibility for the second-class existence of Maori lies with the capitalist system. This system has nothing to offer the working class, least of all Maori workers. The job of Marxists in New Zealand is to target capitalism, and, rather than tail-ending spontaneous and misdirected actions such as the Moutua Gardens occupation, statue beheading and pine-tree attacks or romanticising sovereignty politics, to argue the case for a real struggle against racism and the social system which both created and constantly reproduces it. A better life for Maori, as for all workers, is to be found in a free future, not a romanticised past.
The fight against racism is in the interests of all workers, including white workers, since it is only by overcoming the ethnic and gender divisions created within the working class by capitalism that any workers can effectively fight for their own liberation as a class.