December 2011

On Gary Clark’s ‘From Little Things Social Catastrophes Grow’

Gary Clark is a teacher with the Wiltja Program, an initiative of Pitjantjatjara people which provides access to urban secondary schooling. Below is a synopsis of an article by Gary called “From Little Things Social Catastrophes Grow.” I have no first-hand knowledge of the situation of Indigenous people living in rural areas, but Gary does. He also cites Rosemary Neill’s “White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia,” Peter Sutton’s “The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus,” the South Australian “Mullighan Inquiry,” a report with similar aims and ramifications as the “Little Children are Sacred” report and the published opinions of Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Bess Price. These three indigenous figures are not only people that I have huge respect for, but they are regarded as being on the ‘right wing’ of indigenous politics. One of the things which I gather from Gary’s observations is that the notions of left- and right-wing simply do not provide a useful lens for people from the settler community to understand the issues facing indigenous people in Australia.

From Little Things Social Catastrophes Grow

Clark says that the rights-based approach of the 1970s has proved to be a complete failure insofar as it was meant to improve the situation of the Indigenous people:

“I had long come to the conclusion that the concept of remote government-funded settlements was on the whole a failed project and that the best way of giving [indigenous] students a decent future was to educate them in a mainstream setting. The repatriation of traditional lands through the period of native title claims, although a necessary historical phase, had produced unforeseen and profoundly tragic consequences. Although the move for judicial acknowledgement of native title began earlier, that momentous symbolic occasion in 1975 when Gough Whitlam poured sand through the hands of Vincent Lingiari, acknowledging the Gurungji people’s claim to their traditional lands, marked a decisive and important turning point in Australian history. It was the same decade that the Western Desert Art movement began to flourish, a decade when many of the paternalistic and ethnocentric assumptions of former times began to ebb away. The post 1970s political landscape signalled the emergence of Aboriginal culture as an important part of our national cultural life giving a more prominent place to Aboriginal concerns, aspirations and cultural values than any previous period in our history.

“Yet what slowly began to dawn on me in the early 2000s while teaching in the Western Desert, was that the concept of remote settlements devoid of economic infrastructure and propped up by government funds was not only unfeasible in the long term but also a social and economic aberration. I could think of no example in human history where an entire culture was absolved of the necessity to engage in some of kind of meaningful labor for subsistence purposes. In other words no culture had to my knowledge ever existed where the necessity of doing something during the day in order to provide food for yourself and your family was absent. Classical Aboriginal societies were by no means exempt from the burdens of economic necessity and the reasons for living in a specific region were fundamentally pragmatic; the proximity of waterholes, hunting grounds or fishing spots. If the resource base, which forms the foundation of a hunter-gatherer economy, was removed, if for example there was a drought year and the number of available game had significantly declined, the group would move into country that would provide adequate resources. Similarly, in modern industrial societies if the demand for minerals or livestock declines then people in mining or pastoral communities will move to regions where a more robust economic infrastructure exists.

“Due to the introduction of government services, housing and welfare people on remote communities no longer needed to subsist by traditional means. And this change to sedentary living is not, particularly in more remote regions, the result of the coercive herding of Aboriginal people into settlements and the forcible denial of their rights to continue their traditional way of life. From the 1930s onwards the Pitjatjantjara and Pintupi moved into settlements such as Ernabella, Papanyu and Hasts Bluff frequently of their own free will. The provision of perennial water supplies and food had the effect of making traditional hunting technologies and practices obsolete, dependant as they were upon the capriciousness of seasonal climatic fluctuations. In pre-contact society attrition rates during periods of drought were significantly high, a burden that was in many ways relieved with the arrival of missionaries, whose perennial and abundant supplies of food and water Aboriginal people naturally gravitated towards and actively exploited. The developments of the 1970s saw a movement away from mission and government control of remote settlements to a rights agenda and an ideology of self-determination, one supported and facilitated by increasing injections of government funds in the areas of housing, health and education. The period saw not only the repatriation of land, but also the provision of funds so that people were able to remain on and raise their children on that land. It was an important national gesture of largesse to the original inhabitants of this country that should not be underestimated.”

As I read him, Clark agrees that the 1788 invasion was an illegal theft of land and that the settler community carried out widespread genocide in order to secure our place on stolen land. What is at issue is how the destruction of indigenous communities has actually accelerated since awareness of the rights of indigenous people became politically mainstream. Clark continues:

“However, the solution to an older problem, that is the denial of proprietary rights, created a whole new horde of problems which we have inherited today. Since the mid-90s researchers began publishing studies of exponential rises in homicide, suicide, domestic violence and child abuse on remote communities. Serious questions need to be asked as to why life on these communities has severely deteriorated during a period of increased funding, social and educational opportunity and unprecedented levels of political representation and acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights. The problem essentially boils down to this: you cannot put people on their land when there is nothing for them to do there, when there is no economic infrastructure and therefore no opportunities for employment. Such a situation devoid of purpose breeds boredom and despair, psychosocial factors that are elements in the casual nexus implicated in the current state of social and cultural disintegration. Having absolved an entire people en masse of the burdens of economic necessity, we have not really come to grips with what that really means, nor have we really begun to think through the long term ramifications of such an experiment in social engineering. Many of the problems on remote communities become explicable when the factors I have intimated are taken into consideration. I suppose the final irony here is that a political attitude of benevolence in which the state supported the perpetuation of classical Aboriginal culture and the attendant attachment to land has itself produced a social catastrophe.”

Clark suggests “that the current levels of dysfunction on remote communities are in many cases not historically linked to the dispossession of land or the loss of language and culture, but to the liberal reforms of the 1960s and 70s.” He shows that up until the 1960s, Pitjantjatjara teachers had to speak the indigenous language and students were taught to read and write in their mother tongue, and like people further to the West, were never dispossessed of or removed from their land and were free at all times to continue traditional hunting practices and ceremonial activities, many of which have persisted into the present. Books written in the 1960s attested to the vibrancy life in indigenous communities, including “a reasonably functional economic community under the auspices of the Presbyterian Mission.” Clark cites numerous sources to verify that the degeneration in the social and cultural fabric dates from the 1960s, not only in Central and Western Australia, but in the far North and Queensland. Clark concludes:

“The only long term option for young people from remote communities is to equip them to be able to function in a mainstream setting. It is not possible to do this on the more remote communities where abominable attendance levels and very little contact with the broader English speaking community effectively compounds already unacceptable rates of illiteracy in English. With an increasing drift of Aboriginal people into towns and urban centres acquiring the requisite skills to function in such settings is imperative. ... being educated on remote settlements is unacceptable and counterproductive. It actually prevents students from acquiring the skills necessary to function in the modern world.”

Clark points to the contradictory missions of different arms of government which have resulted from this approach:

“One sector provides funding for housing, welfare and other services to enable remote settlements to be artificially propped up economically; another provides educational funding to try and alleviate the levels of virtual cultural and linguistic illiteracy that is perpetuated by such economic scaffolding. It is not realising this that makes such problems seem so intractable and why fallacious reasons for policy failure are sought, sought everywhere except where they actually exist. They are not to be found in lack of funding, discrimination, loss of land or culture, but in the artificial preservation of traditional culture in regions so remote that the creation of economic infrastructure is not possible and therefore the financial impetus which makes education meaningful does not exist in such places. ... Without jobs education is deprived of its significance and meaning. Many parents do not make their children go to school for without an economic rationale for schooling, a sense of its economic necessity, it becomes devoid of significance. It is this broader systemic problem that underpins appalling attendance standards. On most remote settlements in the Western Desert, there is cultural blank space, a kind of semantic vacuum, when the concept of gainful employment is mentioned. This is because it has collectively been absent from people’s experience for over thirty years.”

Clark does not make a judgment on the Intervention launched under John Howard beyond confirming the terrible social dysfunction that the Intervention was intended to address. Speaking for myself, I know that ham-fisted attempts to manage the domestic affairs of indigenous families by distant bureaucracies has also proved a failure. This observation does not detract however, from the points at issue here. Clark points out that:

“In a nomadic stateless society lacking an objective and impartial judicial system violence is a functional means of settling grievances between groups. Yet traditionally when living vast distances from one another in small groups of say 30-40 people spatial dispersal would enable anger and rage to be defused. In sedentary communities of say 500-600 many of those traditional protocols not only become dysfunctional but explosive. This is one of the many problems of resuscitating traditional culture within the context of modern sedentary living.”

This synopsis is excerpted from a much longer article, most of which is a eulogy for Australian Aboriginal culture and religion, but Clark concludes:

“I have for some time felt an intellectual and moral aversion towards the Left in this country when it comes to Indigenous issues. I have consequently had more sympathy with the Right politically. But it has been an uneasy alliance. I am not temperamentally sympathetic to the political Right, but it does have the virtue of being intellectually more open and therefore not hobbled by the kind of ideological chains that hinder honest debate on the Left. The virtue of Sutton’s book is that it enables people who instinctively lean to the Left with regard to Indigenous politics, to do so again in good conscience, and without sacrificing one’s intellectual integrity. Prior to reading Sutton’s book and some of the other works his bibliography alerted me to, I felt as though I existed in a political no man’s land. Amongst those of a Leftist persuasion you felt gagged when speaking about Indigenous issues and the failure of liberal policies over the last three decades. Amongst the Right you could speak your mind but there was a sense of unease as to how such issues as community dysfunction and Indigenous illiteracy were being high-jacked for the purposes of a conservative political agenda. And there was very little understanding of the riches of traditional culture amongst those of a more conservative political persuasion, riches which I value a great deal and which I feel may form an important component of a future high culture in Australia. Such a combination of honest, pragmatic and realistic thinking on policy combined with a sense of blanket disdain for traditional Aboriginal culture is evident in Gary John’s recent Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream. It is rare to find a pragmatist who does not advocate this kind conservative disdain for Aboriginal high sacred traditions, who does in other words not filter Aboriginal issues through a preconceived political schemata. Sutton is one of the few who possess the impartiality and depth of knowledge to avoid such ideological distortion. ...

“For the release of The Politics of Suffering Sutton gave an interview with Marcia Langton in Melbourne. In that interview he talked about issues of cultural transformation and that some aspects of traditional culture, such as culturally sanctioned violence and child abuse – a process of toughening-up young children referred to as ‘cruelling’ – would be best consigned to the past. Yet the high sacred traditions, he argued, will continue to be preserved and studied by all Australians. Sutton made the point that we can enjoy Latin poetry, but this does not mean we would today tolerate Roman military barbarism. The analogy set my mind right with regards to the mixed feelings and plain confusion I felt about Aboriginal culture. Sutton also mentioned that it is better to equip remote people with the ability to be functional adults in a mainstream urban setting as opposed to ‘shattered drunks’. These are limited but achievable aims. In other words I have resigned myself to the fact that you cannot stop the ship from sinking but you can pull some passengers into your lifeboat, watching the ship descend into the ocean, as many of the less fortunate drown.”

The Preconditions to Self-determination

I remain convinced that self-determination is a basic need of all people. “Self-determination” can only be coherent as “sovereignty,” in the sense that we talk of sovereignty or self-determination of nations. That is, the capacity to sustain and manage one’s own internal affairs, whilst participating as an equal with others in a wider community, subject to shared norms of interaction. For an individual, this entails ‘nested’ relations of self-determination. Individuals can only live, even in the strictly biological sense, as part of a system of care which is in turn part of some larger community, sharing language and a material culture. All this entails that people raised in indigenous communities require for the formation of their own personality that the indigenous community in which they are raised enjoys self-determination. This does not mean remaining in a time warp.

But it is self-evident that there are preconditions to self-determination.

I stand by what I wrote in Arena Welfare Dependency: The need for a historical critique, in 2004, pointing out that what was being called ‘welfare dependency’ was nothing but a rationalisation for the subjugation of a group of people by excluding them from participation in some historically meaningful project, and/or barring them from the means of subsistence which formed their identity.

Hegel’s master-servant narrative has been the reference point for all theorising on self-determination. In my 2007 Commentary I show that the precondition for being a subject is not to be “self-sufficient,” but rather to be able to produce something which someone else needs. Originally, the Indigenous Australians had the land. Now that this has been taken from them, they have to find some other way of living in the world.

Having something to offer which someone else values, is a precondition to being recognised as a subject. In addition, you either have to be able to defend your property from being stolen, or you have to be recognised as a citizen within some community governed by the rule of law. The option of integrating into the settler community remains. But that means abandoning Indigenous Australian culture and traditions and all the loss that that entails. The Indigenous people have established their legal right to exist, but unless they can produce something which someone else needs, they cannot be recognised as a subject, that is, a self-determined people in their own right. There is no chance of continuing Australian Indigenous culture without a viable Indigenous community. They have to be able to produce something and defend it against being stolen. And that doesn’t depend really on what any of us in the settler community think or do. But we have an obligation to offer solidarity if some section of the Indigenous people can show a way forward.

That’s how I see it.

Andy Blunden
5 December 2011