The relationship between anarchists and the state got off to a pretty rocky start in Australia. Initially established as a penal colony in 1788 — a prison island for the human excrement Great Britain’s rulers believed constituted a greater proportion of the criminal class than they wanted to pollute their cities — the Stolenwealth of Australia was officially declared open for business on January 1, 1901. When the first Australian Federal Parliament opened in Melbourne on May 9, 1901, the anarchist John ‘Chummy’ Fleming interrupted the proceedings (much to the displeasure of the detectives watching him) by loudly proclaiming that, for the poor, there was little to celebrate.
Since invasion, much the same has been true for Australia’s indigenous peoples. Prior to 1788, the territories that have come to constitute the contemporary nation-state of Australia were occupied by hundreds of different peoples, numbering perhaps 750,000. By 1911, 123 years after settlement, the Aboriginal population had been reduced to 31,000 (see Colin Tatz, ‘Genocide in Australia’, AIATSIS Research Discussion Papers, No.8, 1999), and most of its peoples exterminated.
So too, ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’.
John Tracey reckons that the left — in particular anarchists — “attempt… to euphemise the notion of sovereignty”; in other words, seek to somehow avoid acknowledging that ‘sovereignty’ means — in theory but, moreover, in practice — “the legitimate government and ownership of this land” (Australia). Unfortunately, I’m aware of relatively few anarchist writings on the subject of Aboriginal sovereignty. Two that I am aware of are a text, Whitewash: Australia’s Bicentenary: Another history, issued by the ASF in 1988 for the bicentenary of invasion, and a more recent essay by Owen Gager which appeared in a local zine produced by the Barricade collective several years ago (‘Aboriginal Sovereignty: An Anarchist Critique’, In Ya Face, No.5, 2003).
The ASF pamphlet doesn’t appear to be available online, but Gager’s essay is, and so I reproduce it below.
An important part of the anarchist project in Australia involves repairing the damage caused by white colonisation and the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples. As Owen Gager argues in the following article, part of this process involves critically examining the issues of sovereignty and how it relates to the struggle for a classless, non-hierarchical society.
Aboriginal Sovereignty: An Anarchist Critique
Some people within the anarchist community are now, after looking, understandably, at the expropriations of the Aboriginal people as the basis of white settler state and economy, trying to appeal to the concept of “sovereignty” as the basis for an anarchist conception of Aboriginal struggle, a struggle they see as crucial to ending Australian capitalism. In taking this course, however, they follow the dominant rhetoric of the campaigns promoted by the state-funded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSIC) [abolished in 2005]; the rhetoric, that is, of those who claim to be Aboriginal leaders.
In looking at Aboriginal society, we are looking at a form of society which long antedates our own. The concept of “sovereignty”, as it has developed in Western (white) political theory, takes its point of departure from an analysis of such early societies, “societies without government”, as the English writer Hobbes called them. Hobbes [1588–1679] characterised these societies as sites of “war of all against all”. Such societies, it is claimed, are unsustainable as social entities and provide for their members only radical insecurity which threatens life and property. In Hobbes’ theory, the earliest statement of what sovereignty means apart from Bodin‘s [1529/30–1596], this “war of all against all” can only be ended through a “contract” with a sovereign – a King, a parliament, or a “Lord protector” such as Oliver Cromwell. This is for Hobbes, sovereignty. This “contract”, very much like the Newstart Activity Agreement and other Centrelink creations, is a contract which gives one party, the sovereign, all power, and the other parties to the contract the ‘right’ to obey. As a theory of state totally irresponsible to its subjects because the alleged alternative is chaos, or “anarchy”, it prefigures fascism and colonialism.
Readers of Peter Marshall‘s Demanding the Impossible will notice both extreme similarities and extreme dissimilarities with Hobbes. Most pre-twentieth century anarchist writers envisaged anarchy as the continuance of natural laws carried over from the very earliest societies, where the “natural rights” of men and women were respected and guaranteed, as outcomes of consensus in a society where each person knew everyone else. The state, when it arose, shattered these existing non-contractual rights, destroyed existing natural law with unjust edicts by all-powerful rulers, for whom, in Randolph Bourne’s words, “war is the health of the state”. The tranquility of a natural society is overthrown by a “war of all against all” as states dragoon ordinary people into wars for extension of state power and territory. For both Hobbes and his anarchist opponents, “sovereignty” and “anarchy” are diametrically opposed ideas. The differences are over the content of these concepts.
40, 000 Years is a Long, Long Time…
The problem with both kinds of theory is that they are based on myth rather than history. There is no historical record of “social contract”, in the forms Hobbes envisaged, ever being agreed to on a specific time or a specific date. Conversely, the search for societies which gave equal rights to all genders, and had no record of eradication of non-human animal species, has not produced large numbers of early utopias. Nor has the geographical spread of the social principles of these few model societies always extended very far or for very long. One can say, nevertheless, that most of the earliest societies of which there is some record, including Australian Aboriginal societies, were not “chaotic” or unstable in Hobbes’ sense; as we have noted, until undermined by external invasion, Australian Aboriginal society lasted a very long time indeed. The absence of state and of employment and of money is characteristic of a great number of early societies.
“Sovereignty” in international law arrived, like all written law, with white colonialism. It was in more ways than one the law of the conqueror; as the international law of the conqueror it was an etiquette of conquest agreed on between rival conquerors. Imperialism immediately proclaimed the “sovereignty” of the racist power it imposed, describing the pre-existing society as Hobbesian chaos. Where, as in New Zealand / Aetearoa, a militantly undefeated indigenous majority confronted a white settler minority, this majority were told that they were “sovereign” – using a word for “sovereignty” unknown to most Maoris – and that “sovereignty” would be recognised in the “treaty” in which they agreed to sign sovereignty away to Britain. Once, as a consequence of this treaty, a white settler government was set up, which waged open and victorious war against the indigenous people, the “treaty” was declared a nullity since the Maoris suddenly were found not to have been “sovereign” when they signed it! The New Zealand treaty, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is still not recognised.
It is this colonialist conception of “sovereignty” which “leaders” like Pearson and Langton want to enshrine in a “treaty” they now chatter about – a “sovereignty” which has never existed under white rule, which they will formally renounce by signing a treaty, in return for promises, which, like the Wik judgments, will never be kept.
Sovereignty & Globalisation
How relevant is any form of national sovereignty under conditions of transnational corporate globalisation? Clearly, today, the national sovereignty even of existing “independent” states can be overruled by decisions and actions of transnational corporations backed by international economic bodies like the WTO, most obviously in freedom to make economic policy. The erosion of sovereignty through the absence and withdrawal of capital, which can take the form of a refusal of capital to employ, has been experienced by a would-be “aboriginal nation” pre-emptively as a strike on pastoral and mining capital in tropical Australia, following on court rulings giving Aboriginal workers equal pay.
The transnational corporations made explicit claims to a new form of sovereignty in the late 1960’s (see Global Reach [Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Müller, Simon & Schuster, 1974]). This was the claim, in the terms borrowed from neo-Keynesian economists like Benham, of “consumer sovereignty”, on its face a claim to a form of popular, not state sovereignty. Here the illusory social contract of Hobbes found a new expression, the social contract as the contract between buyer and seller, a contract on the basis of which transnational corporations claimed power over and against the state as the only entity which allegedly could sell to the consumer what s/he “demanded”. This claim is obviously tautological, since “consumer demand” is in turn defined as demand for what corporations produce, and can sell at profit, while any kind of demand (demands for basic commodities by the world’s poor) is excluded by definition, as incapable of expression in a contract of sale, since the poor lack the income to buy.
This definition of sovereignty has excluded Aboriginal people since the beginning of European settlement as too poor to buy what capitalism produces and committed to social forms of moneyless exchange. The new global definitions of sovereignty do not recognise states and nations. Even if they did, Aboriginal states are composed of a majority of poor citizens, excluded by definition from sovereignty. There have been less of those who view ATSIC as precursor to an Aboriginal state than as a kind of corporation, with a land base, provided by land rights legislation (Michael Mansell), a capital base, provided by the expropriation of Aboriginal social security payments, and a labour force (forced unpaid labour of those deprived of social security payments). The existing Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP), which pioneered work for the dole in the Australia, already uses dole payments to some extent as capital, but still provides renumeration to workers and is not entirely conscriptive. The bulk of existing ATSIC funding is earmarked by the white government for CDEP programmes. CDEP is not a model of “consumer sovereignty” in that only a few consumer goods are produced for sale, but it is intended as a beginning. The problem of this model of “sovereignty”, which attracts Pearson, Langton, and even Foley in a recent issue of The Paper, is that a corporation, especially when the WTO’s projected General Agreement on Trade and Services is introduced, can be taken over by another corporation. Unpaid unskilled forced labour is not unattractive to some multinationals. (This might even be a bit much for Noel Pearson, though one wonders.) It is no protection against TNC takeover to limit claims to sovereignty to political dimensions; nations, too, can be taken over, as many Australians have noticed. One must ask, indeed, if a white Australian sovereignty remains for Aborigines to supplant.
Sovereignty, in its traditional political sense, is the ability of an elite to make laws with the backing of a standing army. Sovereignty is not government itself, but the physical and legal conditions for government. Once in place, such political sovereignty, placing beyond legal challenge government as a property-protecting agent, can be transferred to corporations. As the incarnation of property successfully protected, TNCs grow bigger than governments, subordinating them to themselves and basing themselves more on economic than military power as an ultimate resort.
How can anarchists endorse such a concept? Aboriginal societies have never needed such “sovereignty”, relying as they did and still do for their social cohesion on forms of consensus decision-making that long anticipated anarchists finding a name for the process. How can the form of liberation of an oppressed grouping be defined in the oppressor’s language?
Each distinct Aboriginal people has its own description of the relationship to the land which link it to a particular geographic area, in its own language. Although this is often now described as “traditional ownership”, it is not ownership in the capitalist sense of a right to do what one pleases with the land. It involves duties to the land as well as rights; more duties, probably, in most cases, than rights. One might, in very Western terms, describe such relations to the land as expressed – if one knew, or were permitted to know, the languages in which they were expressed – as poetic popular ecologies. And why should not ecology be expressed as poetry? If there is to be any claim to decide who may or may not enter a geographical area, it should be ecological, not political. (By “ecology” I do not mean a theory of “population pressure”.)
The argument between Aboriginal and white capitalist ways of life is about ways of life, not sovereignty. Ecology before economics. Consensus decision making, not “leadership” by individual politicians, white or black. Moneyless economies based on mutual exchange, where no-one is left hungry as resources are shared, instead of the creation of poverty for corporate power. Work reduced to physical minimum not systematic overwork. Self-activity (collective not individual) not employment. Yes, we know Aboriginal society was neither a paradise, nor a utopia – that it had many problems, in many ecological and social areas. But, compared with the society we are now living in, its values, what it tried and may often have failed to do, were infinitely preferable to the society we now live in unhappily. Shouldn’t that be what we are arguing about, not “sovereignty” – the imposition of the state on an anarchic people? The Aboriginal community leaders who fail to argue this – to present the dominant values of pre-European Aboriginal society as values that everyone, Aboriginal or not, can share and develop further – are, as their own people will tell them, not speaking after traditional discussion and debate, and are using whitefella language. It is not for anarchists to follow in the footsteps of any leaders, especially this kind.
The defence of Aboriginal society by raising issues such as sovereignty – which it claimed, so far wrongly, can be contested in Australian or international courts – assumes that the issues of what society we choose to live in raised by the Aboriginal past and the issues of proletarianisation raised by the Aboriginal present can be somehow resolved by litigation. This is ridiculous. These kinds of issues are not resolvable in law but raise questions about the relevance of law to radical social change. The dispossession of the Aboriginal people is not an historic act which occurred illegally in 1789. The wave of expropriations, of land, of children, the now threatened expropriations of personal incomes, have been continuous and still continue. Talk of “sovereignty” addresses, at best, only one of those atrocities, historically the most distant. Such talk tells people, like the politicians in the old Wobbly song, that the quickest way to revolution is “talking constitution!”. That is and has always been a lie.
Most Aborigines – with the exception of a few non-traditional leaders aspiring to be corporate CEOs – are now members of an unemployed underclass, who, unlike other unemployed, can look back to a past in which almost all capitalist relations were reversed. That early society arose, as it were, spontaneously, without conscious design – “natural”, in the sense that it could not and did not make plans to prevent its overthrow, which it did not foresee. A future society, borrowing enormously from Aboriginal and similar societies, will be a product of planning and agreement between all members of the oppressed classes – especially because it will comprise not capo individuals but real, social individuals who will try to form a society in which the forms of the present total and overwhelming sovereignty of capital we now experience can never be repeated.
Anarchists respect Aboriginal societies, and other indigenous societies adhering to the same family of non-capitalist values, not because they are compelled somehow to do so by pre-existing forms of “sovereignty” but because they choose the values of indigenous over against non-indigenous societies. The social values of Aboriginal society were worked out by people for whom globalisation in its present form did not exist and was inconceivable. The new international underclass, the millions thrown out of “their” countries by political persecution and poverty – and facing concentration camps in the countries in which they seek refuge – is the living critique of and the new destructive force threatening capitalist globalisation. The insights of the new underclass, one meshed with the old, combine the future and past in ways that global capitalism cannot counter.
Note that at the time of publication, the US anarchist Arthur J Miller offered the following comment in reply:
“[This] article is a good example of Eurocentic white supremacy within the anarchist movement. It is not up to white people, even white anarchists, to tell Indigenous people what is best for them, for that is just a continuation of white supremacy. Also the anarchist writer lacks an understanding of indigenous sovereignty. Indigenous sovereignty is not a statement of what form of self-rule they have but rather the need for self-determination in order to try to defend their right to their culture and ways against genocide. True sovereignty was not an indigenous concept before the invasion, but since the invasion it has become important for survival against the invaders. [This article] places anarchists in line with the invaders and Columbus.”
A veteran anarchist, Miller is also the author of another pamphlet, In the Spirit of Total Resistance: A Spark of Anarchist Resistance [PDF].
See also (links courtesy of Ana):
Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty (SISIS)
Indigenous Solidarity | An (Un)Settler’s Place
Confronting the ‘settler problem’: Thoughts on Indigenous solidarity organizing in “Victoria” [Canada], Joanne Cuffe, New Socialist, No.59, Winter 2006/2007
Indigenous Resistance (Insurrectionary Anarchists of the Coast Salish Territories / Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: “Against Capitalism and Colonization”)