Most Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand are disproportionately poorer compared with Europeans/Pakeha, face higher rates of unemployment, have lower incomes, achieve lower education outcomes and face poorer heath and lower life expectancy. Maori also make up half of this country’s prison population, despite being 15% of the general population. How to account for such socio-economic disparities? Can economic inequality faced by Maori be understood by focusing on racism, ethnicity and New Zealand’s colonial history? In this guest blog post John Moore discusses the flaws of anti-racist and anti-colonial politics in Aotearoa New Zealand, and argues that a radical egalitarian and class-based understanding of Maori oppression needs to be developed.
An anti-colonial/anti-racist approach
The position of Maori at the bottom of the social and economic heap in Aotearoa is usually discussed through a limited focus on race and New Zealand’s colonial history. Such a narrow focus leads to a view of Maori as a single group facing a shared social reality within a colonial/Pakeha system. However, a race-centred and anti-colonial analysis fails to account for the complex nature of the construction of Maori people’s lived reality, and how the interlocking nature of race, indigeneity, class and other socioeconomic categories shape Maori positions in society.
Those who argue that Maori oppression is primarily a result of the pakeha colonisation of New Zealand, argue that “decolonialisation” is the way forward for Maori. Such a position has been articulated by Kassie Hartendorp, who spoke at the launch of new left think tank Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA). Hartendorp equates capitalism in this country with colonisation, and argues that Maori as a whole face a shared position in relation to “colonial” capitalism in Aotearoa New Zealand:
I don’t think if indigenous people were given a space to be able to think about what system would work for them, I don’t think that would look like capitalism… Capitalism as a social relation is not one that upholds mana, it is not one that upholds true connections, it is not one that upholds manaakitanga. The exploitation of surplus value is not on the basis of manaakitanga. That to me is not compatible in any sense… indigenous people did not come up with capitalism, and yet we are the people who bear the brunt of capitalism and colonization most of the time. And that capitalism has been a huge colonizing project, and still is to this very day.”
Indigeneity, capitalism and class
The argument that capitalism as a system is incompatible with a Maori worldview, and with the objective interest of Maori as a whole, points to a flawed understanding of how capitalism has developed as a global system. The communist philosopher Slovoj Zizek argues that capitalism is a dynamic and continuously revolutionising system that is able to accommodate itself to different cultures, belief systems and religions:
“Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global "capitalist world view," no "capitalist civilization'' proper, the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu and Buddhist)”.
Zizeks’s understanding of capitalism as a system that “de-totalizes meaning” helps to explain how capitalism in Aotearoa New Zealand has been able to incorporate Maori political and socio-economic structures, has propelled a section of Maoridom into elite positions, and has accommodated itself to a Maori worldview. Therefore, capitalism’s ability to accommodate itself to all cultures and civilizations leads to a conclusion that the politics of indigeneity and decolonisation can be realised within the current economic system.
Beyond essentilaising Maori
The anti-colonial framework used by those who discuss Maori oppression in New Zealand, acts to essentialise Maori as a people. Maori are viewed as a people with a shared world outlook, a shared social reality, and a common social position within the capitalist socio-economic order. Such an approach is deeply flawed.
Rather than Maori being a homogenous socio-cultural group, Maoridom is in fact made up of peoples with various worldviews, lived experiences, and in various positions of either relative privilege or positions of oppression within society. Reducing all Maori lived reality down to the single factor of being a colonised people, within a colonial capitalist system, fails to account for the growing divisions that exist within Maoridom itself.
It is true that most Maori in New Zealand are disproportionate poor and do face the brunt of capitalism. However, a minority of Maori, mostly with power positions in iwi, have made significant material gains. These gains have been made through the Treaty settlements process. A section of Maoridom are now fully-fledged members of New Zealand's political and economic elite. This development of a growing class divide within Maoridom is however obfuscated by a narrow anti-colonial theoretical understanding of Maori . Therefore, rather than offering an emancipatory framework for subjugated Maori, anti-colonial politics can in fact act to strengthen the position of the new Maori elite, against the position of working class and poor Maori.
Decolonisation as a capitalist project
New Zealand now has a new Maori elite that wields significant economic and political power. This elite has gained its current position through the advocacy of anti-colonial and identity politics in conjunction with a coalition of Pakeha liberals and radicals. Yet despite the belief that the Treaty settlements would lead to a general improvement of the social and economic position of all Maori, as the once leftwing advocates of Maori tino rangatiratanga had hoped for, only a small elite of Maori have benefited.
So who is this new elite? University of Auckland Associate Professor Elizabeth Rata defines this Maori tribal-based elite as a section of New Zealand's capitalist class. Rata argues that this emerging Maori bourgeoisie has used the ideology of biculturalism and tino rangatiratanga to position itself as an elite within modern tribal organisations as well as acting as the representatives of Maori within the bi-cultural frameworks of the state. Rata describes her theoretical approach as one of 'neotribal capitalism':
"Neotribal capitalism’ is a theoretical approach to understanding the ethnic politics of the post-1960s period of retribalization and biculturalism in New Zealand. The approach conceptualizes the revived tribal unit (iwi) as a corporate economic enterprise operating in the national and international capitalist economy. The term ‘neotribe’ is used to capture the entity’s economic character and the traditionalist ideology that justiﬁes claims for the economic and political inheritance of the past with the neotribal unit understood as a contemporary entity created by a small group of Maori professionals and academics” (Rata, 2011).
Rata is arguing here that the efforts by a small group of Maori to corporatise tribal organisations, as well as to lobby for the transfer of state resources to these organisations, has been part of a self-conscious effort by a layer of Maori to become leaders and managers within neotribal capitalist organisations. That is, the Treaty settlements process has led to the creation of a new Maori economic elite who manage millions of dollars of resources held by tribal organisations.
Maori academic Evan Poata-Smith argues that there is now an increasing income gap within Maoridom itself. His analysis brings into question the very direction of Maori social and economic development over the last few years. He asks the question of which Maori are benefiting from current ideas of Maori development, and which Maori are becoming further disenfranchised and marginalised. Clearly Poata-Smith's critique is a damning indictment on Treaty politics, which has benefited only a few and left the majority of Maori economically disenfranchised and politically marginalised.
Poata-Smith says that only a minority of Maori have directly benefited from the economic directions taken by governments since the mid 1980s. That is, a Maori elite has disproportionately benefited from the enrichment of Maori neotribal organisations as well as from the restructuring of the New Zealand economy since the mid-1980s. For example, over the 1980s and 90s while the proportion of Maori households in the bottom fifth decile rose, the position of Maori in the top fifth decile have significantly improved.
Of course, this is not a unique development just for Maori, and throughout all ethnic groups in New Zealand there has been a growing disparity to what has been recently labelled as the one percent of the very rich versus the rest. As Poata-Smith makes clear, this growing disparity between rich Maori and the rest is due to economic and social policies being "sharply titled in favour of those representing tribal corporations and Maori business interests” (Poata-Smith, 2014).
So, if anti-colonial politics and the politics of indigeneity has failed to benefit the majority of Maori, and has only enriched and empowered an elite of Maoridom, then what is the way forward? The answer lies in a rejection of the obsession with difference and with culture that has dominated leftwing and Maori political discourse over the last few decades, and the need for a leftwing renaissance that focuses instead on radical egalitarian and emancipatory politics.