Sunday, January 20, 2013

three choices for indigenous people

The three choices for indigenous people in welfare state countries such as Australia are:
  • passive welfare, which leads to destruction 
  • go back to the past, which is impossible 
  • go forward to a bicultural and multicultural future 
The correct choice seems obvious but some people just don't get it. See this article: Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress

I found a Noel Pearson article (2004) which is directly relevant to the themes in the above linked article by David Bedford. It’s an essay from his Selected Writings, Up From the Mission. I did find a version (pdf) of this article on line, although it’s not exactly the same as the one in his book.

Economic context is important. Pearson makes some preliminary remarks that aboriginals in countries like Canada and Australia (he calls these First World) do receive significant welfare, unlike aboriginals in poorer countries like PNG (such as Papua New Guinea, which he calls Third World).

This changes everything because the connection between traditional economy and culture is ruptured in these “First World” countries, which have welfare states. He goes onto say:
In my view this distinction, between the indigenous peoples living in a First World welfare state context and those who do not – is decisive, and is not properly comprehended when people think about “the survival of indigenous cultures and societies in a globalised world”. It may not be properly comprehended by Indigenous leaders contemplating the prospects of their people being able to retain their cultures in a changed and changing world.
He then makes some remarks the “cultural vibrancy” he has observed in Third World countries such as PNG and contrasts this with the cultural disintegration he has observed in Australia. This latter aspect is not stressed in this essay but is a very strong theme in many of Pearson’s other essays, eg. Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, ON THE HUMAN RIGHT TO MISERY, MASS INCARCERATION AND EARLY DEATH Delivered By NOEL PEARSON, October 2001

Pearson then outlines three choices for aboriginal people in welfare states. I would argue these choices are very relevant to the theme of the above "marxist" (not true marxism IMO) essay of which I am critical. I’ll quote this section from Pearson's essay in full (from the online version):
One choice is “to remain where we are”: attempting to retain our traditions and cultures whilst dependent upon passive welfare for our predominant livelihood. For the reasons advanced earlier, I would say this is not a choice at all. If we do, the social and cultural pauperisation of Indigenous society in Australia will continue unabated, and we will not establish the foundations necessary for cultural vitality and transmission to future generations. We therefore need to confront and demolish the mistaken policy that passive welfare can subsidise the pursuit of traditional lifestyles in remote communities.

The second choice is to “go back”: to maintain our cultural and linguistic diversity in the same way as the peoples of PNG are able to, or other such indigenous peoples throughout the Third World. But this is hardly possible. Indigenous Australians are now engulfed by the Australian economy and society, and it is impossible to see how territories could be established where the welfare state no longer reached, and traditional economies could be revived (this is not to say we cannot reform the welfare state within Indigenous regions). For one thing, my people would simply refuse this course in practice.

The third choice is to “go forward” and find solutions to a bicultural and bi- and multilingual future. That is Indigenous Australians must face the challenge that comes with culture and traditions no longer being linked with our economy in a relationship of coincidental necessity, but rather one of conscious choice. This is what I have in mind when I suggest a First World Indigenous people, rather than a Fourth World (1) people. Some of the elements and requirements are as follows. Firstly, it is about being able to retain distinct cultures, traditions and identity, whilst engaging in the wider world. Secondly, Indigenous Australians will need to ensure that the economic structure underpinning my people’s society is “real”. This will require fundamental reform to the welfare system affecting my people so that we are rid of passive welfare. It will also mean that our people gain their livelihood through a combination of all available forms of “real” economic activities – traditional, subsistence, modern – and this will include the need to be mobile through “orbits” into the wider world and perhaps back to home base again. Thirdly, education will be key to enable bicultural and multilingual facility and maintenance – as well as to enable economic mobility. Fourthly, we will need to deliberately and decisively shift our cultural knowledge from its oral foundations to written and digitised foundations. We will need fundamental traditionalists to be learned in our languages and cultures to fight for cultural scholarship and maintenance that can withstand whatever social and economic changes we will confront.

This is a bare sketch of the kinds of policies we will need if we are to survive as an indigenous people within a First World nation.

The programme I outlined is obviously not a separatist programme. I advocate restoration of social order and a real economy, education and proficiency in English that make my people socially and economically completely integrated, national unity and geographic mobility. There should be much common ground for Indigenous people who agree with me and conservative and economically liberal people.
(1) I wasn't clear about Pearson's "Fourth World" terminology. However I found an article by Nicolas Rothwell which clarified the meaning:
But crafting a future for Aboriginal remote communities requires above all else a clear sight of what they are now. The communities are a welfare state and, thanks to Cape York activist Noel Pearson, the rotting effects of passive welfare provision in the Aboriginal realm are plain, and the virtues of work-for-welfare programs are accepted across the board. But the communities form a welfare zone with unusual, complicating characteristics. They have Third World living conditions but they are not in the Third World.

Rather, they are in a much stranger place: a place quite hard to see and understand. We might call it the Fourth World: a deeply deprived space contained within the borders of a modern, prosperous First World state. Absolute poverty is not the limiting economic problem: a controlled, regular, yet inadequate supply of transferred money is, along with its inevitable outcome, relative poverty - a fate both grinding and comforting for those locked out of the productive economy. Capital formation is impossible under such circumstances, unless land use can be traded.

The inhabitants of this zone are welfare pensioners, who have subsisted for decades without strong incentives to acquire skills or seek jobs. In this Fourth World of the communities, there is a strong awareness of positional disadvantage: the men, women and children there know they are at the bottom of the social pyramid of Australian life, but they have no idea of how to change their status. The younger generation's members are encouraged to share the expectations of the wider society but geography and the lack of educational pathways prevent them from taking part in the outside world on even terms.
- Our fourth world
Do Pearson’s three choices represent the real options available? I think they do. Which of the three choices do you support? Argue your case. Obviously I’m with Pearson – choice three.

I would add that Noel Pearson’s practice has gone far beyond outlining these choices. He has influenced governments in Australia to implement his option 3 in Cape York Peninsula. This I regard as a remarkable achievement of truly progressive practical politics starting from a reality so grim that people can’t imagine and seem to continually want to forget about once they have heard.

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