How was capitalism established in Aotearoa and Australia?
This article is part of Fightback's "What is Capitalism" series, to be collected in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) click here.
A state can be defined as a monopoly on violence: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”1 For Marxist geographer David Harvey, “accumulation by dispossession [is] the hallmark of what capital is really about.”2 Put simply, a ruling class must establish sole control over land and resources.
So what was necessary to establish a capitalist state Australia and Aotearoa?
Firstly, the bloody dispossession of land from indigenous peoples, and secondly the importation of European labourers. While this colonisation by Great Britain is a common thread between Australia and Aotearoa, it also played out differently in each country, so this piece will be broken into two brief sections, before a conclusion.
This article cannot represent the complexity of indigenous knowledge and struggle. This is a tauiwi(non- Māori) perspective, intended to explain the motor of colonisation. If you want to engage with indigenous knowledge and history, scholars such as Moana Jackson, Ani Mikaere, Leonie Pihama, Ranginui Walker, and Gary Foley are recommended.
In the 19th century, Britain was rent with economic crisis. Colonisation served two useful purposes: claiming new raw materials, and exporting surplus labour (workers without work). This was justified through race theory, which portrayed indigenous people as inferior.
However, direct Crown intervention in Aotearoa was expensive. Until the late 1830s, unofficial actors – missionaries, traders and explorers – moved ahead of the Crown. The Crown only became directly involved when they developed a scheme of selling land in the colonies to prospective settlers, thereby funding colonisation.
To establish capitalism, the Crown had to transform the relationship between people and the land. Whereas iwi and hapu (Māori kinship groups) lived collectively off the land, capitalism required that the majority be separated from the land, forced to live off meagre wages (a process that had first been carried out with the dispossession of European peasants). That required systematically depriving iwi of their land.
Initially, a fraudulent Treaty was intended to establish the basis for Crown and settler ownership (with later struggles demanding that the Treaty be honoured). From 1840 to 1870, the Crown and settlers engaged in “rampant expropriation” of the land, as well as setting up a political infrastructure (with parliament established in 1854 on the British model). This colonisation drive led inevitably to the Land Wars, as iwi were not keen to part with their land.
Māori were initially excluded from production, driven onto ‘unproductive’ land. Wage labour was mainly provided by European settlers, until urbanisation in the 20th century led to more Māori joining the urban workforce – 8% of Māori lived in ‘defined urban areas’ in 1926, compared to 41.1% by 1996.3 By the late 20th century, urban and rural Māori would combine forces in leading a new wave of resistance.
Infamously, Australia’s colonisation began in 1788 with a penal colony in New South Wales. As with Aotearoa, European labour – in this case, initially, convict labour – was imported. Exploitation of convicts was brutal:
“In April 1798 an Irish convict who worked in a gang in Toongabbee threw down his hoe and gave three cheers for liberty. He was rushed off to the magistrate, then tied up in the field where his ‘delusions’ had first overwhelmed him, and flogged so that his fellow-Irishmen might ponder of the consequences of challenging the English supremacy.”
This brutally exploitative system lived alongside the collectivist society of the Aborigines for many decades, with tensions often flaring up. Although antipathy grew between Aborigines and settlers, Aborigines expressed sympathy at times with the brutal conditions faced by exploited convicts:
“At the same time the Aborigines began to evince disgust and hatred for some features of the white man’s civilisation. When a convict was detected stealing tackle from an Aboriginal women in 1791, Phillip decided to have him flogged in the presence of the Aborigines to prove that the white man’s justice benefited blacks as well as whites. All the Aborigines displayed strong abhorrence of the punishment and sympathy with the sufferer. They shed tears, and one of the picked up a stick and menaced the flagellator.”4
In the 1820s and 1830s, Australia began to shift from its origins as a penal colony towards becoming an agricultural hub, with ‘free’ wage labourers increasingly imported from Britain. Throughout the 19th century, the settler population grew, as did appropriation of land – resisted by Aborigines. As in Aotearoa, military conflict was necessary for the Crown to take control, with frontier wars breaking out from first arrival right through to the early 20th century. Estimates indicate at least 20,000 Aborigines were killed in the frontier wars, and about 2,000 settlers. In 1901, Britain’s existing colonies federated into a single capitalist nation-state: the Commonwealth of Australia.
Essentially, the capitalist state was imposed through the barrel of a gun.
Postscript: Is there hope?
This conclusion is focused on Aotearoa, due to my greater familiarity.
Waitangi settlements in total make up about $1.6 billion, compared to about $20 billion annual national income.5 This is woefully inadequate. As private appropriation of land was the basis of colonisation, only a radical redistribution of land and resources can address indigenous dispossession.
Constitutional lawyer Moana Jackson recently led a project consulting Māori on “Constitutional Transformation.” Supported by iwi (tribes), but independent of the Crown, the working group conducted 252 hui (discussions) between 2012 and 2015. The report stressed the need for a balance between rangatiratanga (Māori self-governance) and kāwanatanga (Pākehā self-governance).6 However, the report focused on the rangatiratanga side: the question of kāwanatanga (Pākehā governance) remains open. Ultimately, Constitutional Transformation requires that not just Māori but Pākehā take responsibility for transforming society. To quote Donna Awatere’s Māori Sovereignty:
Set against our people has been the united strength of white people. The Māori now seeks to break that unity in the interests of justice for the Māori people... Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic consciousness has relevance to Māori sovereignty. In hegemonic consciousness, a class puts its interests with other classes at a national level and establishes alliances with them. These alliances are necessary because changes cannot occur with the Māori on our own. White people have cut across class barriers to unite on the basis of white hegemony... To overcome this requires a restructuring of the white alliance.
Awatere ultimately despaired of this restructuring of white alliance occurring, advocated withdrawal from Pākehā left spaces, and later joined the political right. As a mainly tauiwi group, Fightback seeks to break the ‘white alliance.’ This is a cross-class alliance that leads white workers to believe they benefit from colonisation. In a sense this is true: Pākehā are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be imprisoned, and likely to be higher paid.
However, by supporting rich right-wing politicians, white workers ultimately vote against their own interests. Infamously, Don Brash’s ‘Orewa speech’ against ‘race-based funding’ saw a surge in polls, particularly pronounced among manual workers. As revealed by Nicky Hager’s Hollow Men, this speech was a cynical ploy by a politician who sought to deepen the neoliberal revolution, which would undermine the conditions of his blue-collar supporters. Whiteness is corrosive to working-class liberation. Standing with Māori for collective self-determination would ultimately free Pākehā workers from a system that exploits all. Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
To end on an optimistic note. During the Māori renaissance of the 1970s, as Māori resisted attempts to sell Māori-owned land at Bastion Point, the Auckland Trades Council placed a ‘Green Ban’ on construction at Bastion Point. Union members were not to participate in any Crown/settler-led construction on this site. Members of the Communist Party of New Zealand won the Trades Council to this position. Memories like this are the heritage we need to build on.
1Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation
2David Harvey, Private Appropriation and Common Wealth, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism
3Evan Poata-Smith, The Political Economy of Inequality Between Māori and Pakeha, The Political Economy of New Zealand (Brian Roper ed)
4Manning Clark, A Short History of Australia
5Bruce Anderson, Chapter 32: Redistribution, A New Place to Standhttps://itstimetojump.com/32-redistribution/
6THE REPORT OF MATIKE MAI AOTEAROA - THE INDEPENDENT WORKING GROUP ON CONSTITUTIONAL TRANSFORMATION, http://www.converge.org.nz/pma/MatikeMaiAotearoaReport.pdf