Identity, Economy, and Controversy

Last July, in the Dymocks off Alice Springs’ Todd Mall, I was excited to discover a new title by Diane Austin-Broos, A Different Equality: the politics of debate about remote Aboriginal Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2011).  I had greatly enjoyed her previous book, Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past: invasion, violence, and imagination in Central Australia (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  In that volume, she argued that the Arrernte had endured two major revolutions in the twentieth century.  The first came with the arrival of the Lutheran missionaries who displaced traditional ontologies; the second arrived with the departure of the missions in the era of self-determination, land rights, and the homelands movement.  In each case, great changes were brought to bear on Arrernte life; in both cases the people responded with a creative engagement that allowed them to adapt, more or less successfully.

As Austin-Broos was in the final stage of writing Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past, the Northern Territory Emergency Response, the Intervention, was declared, promising further significant changes to life in remote Aboriginal communities.  Given the title of her new book, I was looking forward to an updating of her arguments and further insightful commentary on the contemporary conditions of Aboriginal worlds.

Imagine my dismay then when, shortly after my return to the States in August, I came across a severely critical review of A Different Equality, penned by Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Research.  Altman has led the charge against the apologists of the Intervention and in promoting new forms of economic activity to counter conditions of inequality and discrimination.  I was even more disappointed a few weeks later to find that Tim Rowse, the historian of Central Australia whose White Flour, White Power: from rations to citizenship in Central Australia (Cambridge University Presss, 2002) was my eye-opening introduction to economic history in the region, had published another caustic review of Austin-Broos’s book.

I decided to put all this material aside for a few months until I could forget the details of the reviewers’  arguments and read A Different Equality with fresh eyes.  I have to admit that when I opened the book a few weeks ago, I still harbored a degree of suspicion and malaise.  But I must also say that by the time that I had completed the final chapter this week, I was convinced that, notwithstanding her critics, Austin-Broos has done us a great service with this new treatise–especially those of us who think about the position of Indigenous peoples in Australia from outside the frame of strictly academic analysis or popular policy strategizing.

Her critics are right in saying that Austin-Broos structures her arguments around a simple and fundamental dichotomy between anthropology and neoliberal politics.  She recapitulates how commentators from both sides have wrestled to define the condition of contemporary Aboriginal life. On both sides, she reviews the policies that are erected to meet the challenges the status quo presents to both Indigenous people themselves and the agents of the state in which they live.

On the one hand she argues that anthropology (which she states repeatedly she attacks in order to defend) has failed in two ways.  In the realm of what she calls “classical ethnography” there has been too much focus on the elucidation of traditional, pre-contact ways of living and understanding the world, at the expense of an analysis of how contact with capitalist societies of the post-Enlightenment West have long since modified that way of life.  Furthermore, in recent years, much anthropological work has been constrained to emphasize the continuity of tradition by the need to demonstrate to the state’s satisfaction that Indigenous people meet the criteria of cultural continuity required to justify successful land claims–criteria that have been established by the capitalist state itself.  (This point is the focus of Elizabeth Povinelli’s critical The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism (Duke University Press, 2002), to which Austin-Broos makes repeated reference.)

Austin-Broos does not deny the necessity of either anthropological endeavor.  Without the fruits of classical ethnography, we have no means of even beginning to appreciate the differences in values between the nation-state and its “encapsulated” Indigenous citizens. Without the work that has been done to advance the cause of land claims, those Indigenous values might already have been brutally eliminated.  Her point is rather that this work in not sufficient if it does not also engage with the effects of contact and with an effort to define a portrait of contemporary Indigenous culture that includes its engagement with Western values and technology, and the advantage and disadvantage that flows from such contact.

On the other hand, there is the neoliberal perspective that has dominated the national media and much government policy for the past decade and more, a discourse that is concerned more with the perceived pathology of Indigenous culture and citizens and that strives to find correctives for both.  The neoliberal position is exemplified by the writers of the Centre for Independent Study, the Bennelong Society, and the Australian, though it finds occasional support in the independent work of anthropologists and educators like Peter Sutton and Noel Pearson.  At best, these groups focus their agendas on the alleviation of suffering, disease, and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, whether those conditions are ascribed to the impact of colonialism or the collapse of traditional structures in the face of modernism.  At worst, their writings pathologize and condemn, and they find solutions in the obliteration of traditional values and the remote homelands that  sustain them in a hopeless postponement of the inevitable.

Her critique lies in the insufficiency of each approach.  As she stated in the conclusion to Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past, “the national discourse would be more discerning and less strident were opinion makers prepared to engage directly with remote communities in their own domain” (p. 258).  For anthropologists, this entails an engagement with contemporary economic realities and not simply with the structures of traditional society.  For neoliberals, it means an honest and sympathetic embrace of genuine cultural difference.  In the final chapter of A Different Equality, she summarizes in this manner:

Although the focus of this book is cultural difference, historically interpreted, it does not reject or underestimate the role of classical ethnography in scholarship.  Not only has that ethnography produced a significant record of human cultural difference as it pertains to Indigenous Australians, it also makes a continuing contribution to our understanding of the histories of Aboriginal life once encapsulated by the state and rendered marginal by capitalism.

…[T]he failure to complete the post-colonial critique left a space that was filled by neoliberalism as the remote communities debate unfolded.  The ‘space’ I refer to is a more contextualized understanding of what cultural difference is within remote communities today, and the manner in which it shapes the everyday priorities of remote Aboriginal people. … The gaps between anthropology’s portrayal and that in the daily press was too great and quickly undermined the discipline’s plausibility; hence the slide in public discourse from the Dreaming to the nightmare of pathology.  What was missing in the debate–at least in the public domain–was a more tangible grasp of today’s lived experience in remote communities (pp. 152-154).

At the risk of oversimplifying (and both Altman and Rowse accuse Austin-Broos of misrepresentation through over-simplification), what I find to be the core of her concern in this book is the conundrum that arises when identity politics–the desire to assert and maintain cultural difference–confronts the politics of economic inequality.  Following arguments developed by the American critical theorist and philosopher Nancy Fraser, Austin-Broos notes “where one, the politics of cultural difference, leads a group to distinguish itself, to separate itself from the larger order so that it is ‘recognized’, a politics of equality is most successful when the group is more fully included in the larger order–with more opportunities, and more options in the economy, for instance” (p. 159).

I doubt anyone could argue that both identity politics and economic inequality are salient features of the remote Aboriginal experience in Australia today.  But a means of addressing both has proven elusive and Austin-Broos is seeking deliverance from the dilemma that their coexistence poses.  She had earlier quoted Noel Pearson expressing much the same sentiments: “Self-interest is the engine that drives the vehicle of social and economic progress.  But tradition is the engine that drives the human will to exist” (p. 139).

Her proposed solution is modest and not strikingly original: an investment in primary education in the communities.  She is cognizant of the pitfalls: education without jobs can be a hard sell, to both children and their parents.  Education must also respect cultural difference even as it strives to make inroads on economic inequality.  Austin-Broos does not pretend that, for all its simplicity, this solution is easy, and she admits that it will be expensive.  But without the opportunity that education can provide, there will be no progress.  At the very least, education offers the chance for Indigenous citizens to be able to articulate their perspective, their case if you will, no matter what it is, to the broader Australian public.

And the broader Australian public must move beyond an understanding of Aboriginal culture, identity, and aspiration that is shaped by the dichotomous portraits of, on the left, “reified” and “bounded” cultural difference have received from anthropologists and apologists, and on the right, pathological maladaptation disseminated through the policy debates dominated by neoliberal concerns for the advancement of the state.  If that cannot happen, the losers will continue to be those Aboriginal Australian citizens who reside in the remote homelands.

Although she critiques the positions and the promulgations of both anthropology and neoliberalism (to oversimplify once again), Austin-Broos is not fundamentally addressing either of these parties in this book.  Her audience is rather that broader public.  Altman subtly mocks Austin-Broos for suggesting that “scholarship in Australia actually influences policy,” but I am not sure that she does place her faith in that proposition.  In fact, she suggests the opposite: that the current impasse we have reached is the result of too much influence from organs like the Australian and its conservative allies in the CIS.  She wants anthropology to bring its tools and its insights to the debate in new ways, to break out of the simplistic dreamtime/nightmare binary that the public has been given.  Ultimately, if Austin-Broos can be charged with naiveté, it is true insofar as she believe that the citizens of the state–Indigenous and non-Indigenous–can and should themselves engage in influencing public policy.  There is a belief in fundamental human decency and fairness behind her arguments that I can’t help cheering for.

More than that, there is a belief that these problems can be solved.  We often hear that Indigenous disadvantage falls too quickly into the “too hard” bin.  And indeed, the issues are complex, and have been debated endlessly.  One of the great strengths of A Different Equality lies in the massive effort that Austin-Broos has invested in studying that debate.  If she necessarily simplifies positions in reducing the substance resulting from an expansive  exploration of the literature (the book concludes with fifteen pages of references) to six chapters aimed at presenting that debate to the non-specialist, I applaud her scholarship, her energy, and her devotion in doing so. She is saying, I think, that we can no longer endlessly refine our arguments, delineating tiny differences of interpretation and fine points of rhetoric while another generation disappears into the abyss.  We must listen, and we must give Aboriginal people the wherewithal to speak to us on our own terms if we remain unwilling to listen to them on theirs.  Imagine.

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2 Responses to Identity, Economy, and Controversy

  1. el says:

    Thanks for these reviews. I’ll be chasing up these books (btw, the second half of the New Matilda review did sound a bit like a defence of CAEPR).

    For your interest–I’ll have a book out about Alice Springs later this year (NewSouth books). It’s mainly about the experience of living in central Australia, although it does touch on policy occasionally.

  2. greg says:

    Thanks for another great piece, Will. I always leave your blog feeling better informed – in this case about the insidiousness of the dreamtime/nightmare binary as an epistemological and policy roadblock.

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