Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.
By Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.
The influence of Marxist theory and particularly Marx’s theory of alienation and capitalist political economy on the Māori sovereignty movement during the 1970’s is important to examine and I would also like to consider the contemporary relevance of these ideas for Tino Rangatiratanga (Māori political autonomy). Marx clarifies the exploitative relationship underpinning the political and economic system of capitalism. The themes of subjugation, oppression and enslavement that are necessary within a capitalist political economy are common to the process of colonisation and the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised and indeed still feature in the contemporary neo-colonial struggle. The arms of colonisation reach backwards and forwards in time, creating a struggle that we as Māori are born into. Our destiny and our legacy is one of resistance rather than acceptance and passive submission.
Capitalism relies on the exploitation of labour, this then leads to alienation. Marx’s theory of alienation is anchored in the positioning of human beings as conscious creative beings. Marx called this uniquely human capacity for creation ‘species-being’. Marx distinguished us from other living beings by our ability to perform ‘conscious’ labour. Through the act of change and transformation of our environment we change ourselves in the process. In Marx’s theory, capitalism creates and relies upon the construct of alienation. Furthermore, the invention of social class which flourishes under capitalism, relies on the creation of a working class and a ruling class or the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the proletariat who create profit for the bourgeoisie through their labour. In this economic process, the worker is dehumanised, so much so that they become little more than a means of production, a unit of labour to be bought and sold as capital.
Marx further separated the construct of alienation into four key concepts that together, made a unified theory of labour exploitation. In the process of alienation the worker becomes firstly, alienated from his fellow workers/social relations being subverted into a singular unit of production. Secondly, the individual becomes alienated from the process of creative labour through the commodification of the outcomes of their labour and themselves in the process of creating for another. Thirdly, the individual becomes alienated from the product of their labour as they no longer own their own creativity or the product of their work, and lastly, they become alienated from their own essential nature or “species essence” (Seeman, 1975).
However, it is important not to conceptualise exploitation as merely an unjust part of the capitalist system. In point of fact, Subjugation and the class struggle are an integral and vitally important component of the capitalist system. The class struggle is an intrinsic and permanent feature of the political economy of capitalism, as is the use of the police and judiciary to enforce this system against resistance from the exploited and colonisation itself is built on a racist oppressive relationship that produces the alienation of indigenous peoples from themselves. The realities of colonisation and the colonial legacy which traverses generations producing contemporary impacts in the form of pervasive inequities and inequalities has fuelled and continues to fuel indigenous political activism (Fanon, 1965; Walker, 1989). Memmi (1965) asserted that on realising their oppressed state, the colonised have two choices – rebellion or assimilation. Assimilation requires the absolute rejection and denial of themselves, their indigenous value systems, worldviews and lifeways. In order to assimilate, the colonised must enter in a willing state of self-loathing, despising everything about themselves that hinders their conversion into and emulation of, the model of the ‘coloniser’. Fanon (1965) maintains that after failed attempts to be like the coloniser, the only recourse for the colonised upon fully realising that they will never be acceptable to the coloniser is rebellion. In Fanon’s analysis, rebellion is inevitable as it is in a Marxist analysis. Marx’s theory of historical materialism further informs the indigenous struggles against the artefacts of colonisation. In a contemporary analysis the litany of theft and dispossession of land and resources throughout the indigenous world, ignites the fire of resistance and struggle with the goal being the reclaiming of the power and authority to be self-determining (Alfred, 2005; Churchill, 2002).
An extension on the scholarship of Alfred and Churchill is offered by Rata (2006) who conducts an analysis of the construction of indigenous tribal elites which can be likened to a brown bourgeoisie. In Rata’s analysis, the resistance to tribal domination, constructs a new struggle which can be understood through Marx’s theory of alienation only this time, the struggle is to be freed from alienation from within the tribal culture and collective (Rata, 2009). This is the internalisation and application of the role of the coloniser to further disempower the colonised. More recent applications of the struggle for self-determination, places this struggle at once as a reassertion of indigenous rights as well as a shifting of the fight towards increasingly powerful Māori tribal leadership. The enemy is identified as one that which resides ‘within’. It is however important to recall the process of colonisation and the development of historical intergenerational trauma which still winds its way through the lives of indigenous peoples today creating a vulnerability that causes blindness to the real source of the struggle. In this new struggle, the capacity to hold on to the underpinning role of colonisation in the dispossession of Māori should never be lost sight of or the potency of the struggle underestimated (Churchill, 2003).
In his book Kā Whāwhai Tonu Mātou, Walker examines the ongoing resistance of Māori to colonisation. The resistance movement took as a component of its early inspiration, Marxist theories including alienation and the exploitation of the ‘worker’ for the benefit of the ‘owner’ under capitalism. Marx provided our predecessors in the resistance movement with a way of understanding the impacts of capitalist expansionism which was a characteristic of colonisation, on the contemporary position of Māori. The resistance to colonisation is an ongoing struggle as potent for many today as it was when the first colonisers set foot on Aotearoa in 1769.
However, much has changed in the way in which our struggle takes place today. Iwi have become the new elites (Rata 1997) and what was once a clear struggle between coloniser and colonised, has become further complicated with the coloniser having a brown face as the economics of Treaty settlements are giving them license to look and act like capitalists and crown agents. The illusion that we are subscribing to is that by adopting capitalism as our modus operandi in the long march towards self-determination, we can secure freedom for generations to come, changing the system from within. Have we forgotten that capitalism with the attendant greed for land and resources, fuelled colonisation? And now that many iwi have signed ‘full and final’ treaty settlements, the danger is that hard-won resources will not last and future generations will be left with nothing. Capitalism is one of the tools of colonisation and while our ancestors were highly successful entrepreneurs, we were a collective society, whose actions were based on what was best for the collective iwi, hapu and whanau. It was always with the collective good at the center of the uptake of new technology and ways of trading.
The contribution Marxist theory makes to indigenous struggles for freedom is rooted in Marxist discourse on historical materialism (Hokowhitu, 2010) and the ongoing contemporary effects of historically established economic and political systems which continue to feed inequities in all aspects of Māori lives today (Reid & Robson, 2007). It is the inevitability of the struggle for freedom from the shackles of the powerful that render Marx’s theory so powerful in indigenous human rights movements around the world.