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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition: 25th Nov. 2003


Diaspora Edition
25th November 2003
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In this issue

In the French Corner, we have exciting new ideological convulsions amidst France's extensive array of extreme left parties, plus some extra-terrestrial ambitions on the part of the alter-mondialistes; back in the world of Treatyology, we discover a rich seam of academic writing on the subject of tribalism in contemporary New Zealand lurking in a French electronic journal; Andrew Sharpe's contribution is particularly recommended.


What the postman did

Almost every country can point to something in which it is extravagantly over-endowed. Sometimes the cornucopian dowry is provided by nature - rhododendrons in China's Yunan province or venomous reptiles in Australia. These 'hot spots' of the natural world are often referred to as 'mega-diverse'. But mega-diversity can be a human phenomenon too. Languages in Papua New Guinea come to mind (for reasons which are still obscure). More explicable are the forseeable consequences of regulation. There are more pharmacies in New Zealand or rice growers in Japan than the Darwinian forces of the market would ever throw up. But sometimes mega-diversity appears almost like a gift from the cosmos - an inexplicable bounty of the gods visited upon a chosen people. So it is with France and the Extreme Left - the one remaining hot spot of fervent revolutionary activity in a sea of bourgeois indifference.

At least, that's how it seems to the hopelessly pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind confronted by the latest manoeuvrings on the French Left which revels in the rampant luxury of at least five parties. Shock waves have swept through the political landscape with news that two communist splinter groups are going to work together in next year's regional and European elections. (There is really no home-grown parallel against which New Zealand readers can gauge the significance of this truce. It would be tempting to compare it to ACT and the National Party deciding to join forces in a bid to take over the Christchurch City Council but in fairness to National it has never had the energy to get particularly ideological and ACT probably doesn't believe in City Councils...)

In any event, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and Lutte Ouvrière (LO or Worker's Struggle in English) have decided to bury the sickle, so to speak. Ordinary mortals would need an electron microscope to detect the subtle ideological differences that flicker across the neuronal pathways of their adherents. But to the true believers this is about as big as it gets. The rapprochement seems to have come from LCR, whose boyish leader is a 29 year old postie, Olivier Besancenot. Besancenot appears to have great charismatic appeal on account of being a real live working postie. (In France this is almost like being a fireman who spends his life rescuing kittens from trees).

It is, apparently, a novelty on the Left to have a political leader who holds down a real, low paying job. Most politicos on the Left here have transformed themselves into full-time revolutionaries funded by other workers. Only Besancenot it seems can speak with first hand knowledge of the unutterable plight of the working classes as he pedals his early morning round before heading to the barricades. (Even then one can't help wondering whether this bold alliance of practice and principle could ever have been possible had its exponent not worked for a glorious state-owned enterprise). Whatever the case, the LCR has put fight ahead of faction in opting to struggle in tandem with Lutte Ouvrière led by the grim-faced Arlette Laguiller .

Decisions like this do not come easily and it was only after deep soul-searching that the LCR took the historic decision to drop references to the "dictatorship of the proletariat" from its sacred texts. Experts divine here a move away from a Leninist orientation towards a more subtle Trotskyist stance. But none of this should cause any anguish to the deceased Marxist pantheon. The party's programme still calls on its membership to fight for a socialist revolution through the construction of a mass party that is "anti-capitalist, feminist and ecologist". Deviant tendencies are given no quarter. France's mainstream Social Democrats led by François Holland will no doubt be delighted to learn that the 'impasse' represented by their policies is mentioned in the same breath as those of Stalin!

The draft LCR/LO programme is equally reassuring. Bosses and financiers will have their economic power removed from them, their financial dealings will be subject to full public transparency and redundancies will be forbidden (under threat of nationalisation in the event of breach). And in the European elections the coalition will fight for a 'United Socialist States of Europe'. The cadres can rest easy. But just in case this 'acceptable face' of revolutionary communism has in fact stepped from the straight and narrow, there's still the Parti des Travailleurs (PT the Workers Party), a Trotskyist cell that has not yet decided to abandon a good old fashioned dictatorship by the workers. And herein lies the genius of mega-diversity. What appears as redundant and wasteful duplication is in fact an ingenious protection against mutancy or genetic vulnerability. If this departure from the texts sees revolution wither on the vine, there are still toilers out there hoeing the true and straight path.

Not that the Left seems presently vulnerable to some spontaneous ideological retrovirus. A recent poll indicated that 22% of voters who had never previously voted for the extreme left were considering doing so. Add to those the further 9% who were already in the fold and you have 31% of the electorate poised to sock it to the grande bourgeoisie. All those nicely coiffed matrons in the 16th arrondissement had better keep an eye on what the postie is pushing through their front doors.


Meanwhile in another corner of the galaxy...

As if this orgy of choice were not enough, Paris has recently been besieged by the alter-mondialistes who represent a bewildering array of tendances. Roughly 50,000 people (i.e. barely more than half a rugby stadium full) attended the 'European Social Forum' designed to maintain the momentum of the anti-globalisation movement founded in Porto Alegre, Brazil. If debating the entrails of the Marxist legacy is proving too cerebral for some, being an alter-mondialiste offers almost unlimited scope for remarkably little effort. As long as you are against one or all of the USA, the World Trade Organisation, trans-national corporations, something called 'ultra-liberalism' and mainstream Social Democratic parties, alter-mondialisation is for you.

The fate of the traditional centre-left is perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon. France's former socialist finance minister, Laurent Fabius and UK PM Tony Blair were particular targets of hatred. French opposition socialist politicians hoping to reingratiate themselves with such progressive forces instead found themselves having to shelter from a hail of beer cans. They were apparently not progressive enough. Only a stance of perpetual opposition and hostility to life as most (non-attenders) want to live it will do. Despite the less than overwhelming turnout, the French media gave unbelievable coverage to the event including numerous tortured articles trying to sort out exactly what all these people were in favour of. That remains a mystery but upton-on-line found that you got a pretty good idea by just reading the names of the many acronym-dripping factions.

The oldest of them appeared to be Attac (the Association for the taxation of financial transactions for the aid of citizen). Founded in 1998, this organisation is in alter-mondialiste terms, looking distinctly middle-aged and dangerously comprehensible in comparison with others. These include Glad (which means the opposite; it's a French acronym for the campaign to globalise struggles and acts of disobedience), No-Vox (including a large number of people who shout rather well, especially at traditional social democrats who believe in democracy) and something called Claaac G8 (which stands for the convergence of anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist struggles against the G8). But upton-on-line's favourite by far is the Réseau (Network) Intergalactique. Not content with stopping Coca Cola on planet earth some far-sighted people are determined to stop ignoble views reaching the stars.

And just before anyone writes it all off as a tired make-over of the 1960s, this is all being taken deadly seriously by France's theoretically centre-right government. Half a million euros from the French government helped swell the total budget for the forum (mainly funded by more radically left-leaning town councils) to €3.4. A tidy sum. Now where was that village that needed a safe fresh water supply?

What are we to make of this?

The hyper-factionalism that attends events like the European Social Forum make them a sitting target for cynical column writers (including, he must admit it, upton-on-line). One wonders whether its leaders could long survive in an ism-free zone. But there is no doubting the popular undercurrent of discontent that is being tapped and it has little to do with the working classes in whose name all manner of struggles are being constantly evoked. How can it be that unparalleled prosperity, freedom of expression and security have spawned such angst on the part of those who are obvious beneficiaries of societies that not only tolerate opposition but actually help fund it? Upton-on-line has his own opinions here. But if you were searching for a real authority, you probably couldn't go past Jérôme Bonnafont.

While socialist luminaries were being stoned, one of President Chirac's most polyvalent and linguistically peerless experts was hard at it working the traps. It has has been his task to track the progress of the alter-mondialiste movement from its inception, trying always to decode the polysyllabic fog and seek out points of convergence. It's such a different approach from the one New Zealanders are used to - either you're for us or against us. That certainly makes for certainty but it may mean you don't know how to read your opponents when the chips are down. Of one thing we can be sure: the French Presidency as an institution makes it its business to know what's going on. Being forewarned is forearmed when the barricades are raised.

Tribalism meets political theory

Upton-on-line is still meeting and corresponding with readers who admit that they haven't read Histories, Power and Loss , a ground-breaking series of essays edited by Andrew Sharpe and Paul McHugh (Bridget Williams Books, 2001). Needless to say, the great political debates of the day are not won in academia and this sort of writing is not to everyone's taste. But it is surprising how careless New Zealanders are about debates going on under their noses. For those prepared to devote a couple of hour's summer reading to such a reckless recreation, upton-on-now recommends a companion piece this time, surprise, surprise, from a French institution.

Upton-on-line was simply stunned to come across an electronic journal entitled Ethnologies Comparées (Comparative Anthropology) published by CERCE, the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Comparative en Ethnologie at the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier. This journal (scarcely a household name even in Montpellier one suspects) devotes its spring 2003 issue to Océanie, Début de Siècle, and contains no fewer than five essays by New Zealand academics under the grim but familiar title of New Zealand: the Crisis of Bi-culturalism. An even more apposite title might have been Tribalism meets political theory. All deal with the tensions that have been set up in the last decade by governmental attempts to settle grievances with traditional, Treaty-linked tribes and the appearance of contemporary pan-tribal authorities.

Some of these essays are must-reads for anyone whose intellectual curiosity is not exhausted by the Sunday Star Times. They may be found at this web page: (Don't be daunted by the French: the papers are in English!) While all are of interest they are not equally challenging. Toon van Meijl recapitulates (at length) the changing interest the Government of New Zealand has shown in recognising the tribal unit over 160 years. In what is a largely unreflective piece, van Meijl awkwardly introduces a Machiavellian motivation into the Crown's recent recognition of tribal authorities in noting that "[T]he intense division of Maori society following the implementation of devolution raises the question whether it had perhaps been a deliberate government tactic to divide Maori interests by encouraging tribalism and cut spending." This sort of unsubstantiated conjecture mars an otherwise workmanlike account of the history of Crown-iwi relations. It will also seem surreal to politicians of all colours who have often felt bewildered by this debate. A more realistic (though by no means more noble) explanation might be that most non-Maori politicians don't have any strong feelings - they just wish someone would sort out representation issues for them.

A much more focussed piece entitled The Bureaucratisation of Genealogy by Lyn Waymouth, examines the transformation of Ngai Tahu's governance from a communal tradition-based system to a legal-rational bureaucratic system. It reaches a similar conclusion not too far from van Meijl:

A small number of pan-Maori bureaucracies that instigate policy and control the future direction of Maori could override and threaten any final remnants of whakapapa-determined organisation. The resulting structure would accomplish what historic and contemporary government and Crown policies set out to do — amalgamate groups under one system regardless of boundaries, whanaungatanga alliances and issues of self-governance. The bureaucratic structures would become the censored versions of Maori society.

Van Meijl closes with the stark observation that the effect of embracing traditional iwi has been "to widen the gap between a tribal aristocracy and a pan-tribal proletariat". The idea is not developed. But Elizabeth Rata does, in a most remarkable essay entitled An Overview of Neotribal Capitalism. Some may recall that Rata was introduced to upton-on-line readers in our May 2003 edition. On that occasion she was wearing Kantian protective gear in grappling with the treacherous shallows of post-modernism and Kura Kaupapa Maori learning. Here she dons neo-Marxist garb to describe what, in her terms, is the hi-jacking of a movement for cultural and political bi-culturalism rooted in ideals of social justice by a neo-traditionalist movement that sees the control of significant resources being vested in hierarchical tribal structures. Rata does not mince words and her conclusions are bound to offend. Take this for example:

The frequent use of post-colonial approaches, such as post-colonial trauma, to explain continuing Maori disadvantage had become less plausible given the visible evidence of considerable advantage to some Maori and ongoing disadvantage to Maori poor.

Her conclusion is a textbook Marxist account of how traditional structures are transmuted in their encounter with capital:

...Exploitative class relations, based upon differential access to and control of the traditional resources, replaced the traditional relationships located in the tribal hierarchical structures of a redistributive economy.

The tribe as the structuring principle of the social relations of the kin-group, was a legally defined economic unit within a democratic nation-state, a corporate neotribe. Despite the fact that the neotribe continues to practice certain cultural customs of the traditional tribe and is comprised of the descendants of its historical members, it is a new social structure, defined primarily by its economic functions. It is an economic corporation in a capitalist economic system, the same as all capitalist organisations in that it is accumulative not redistributive, class not communally structured.

It is not the modernised productive forces that determined the character of the tribe but the underlying relations between the people. Despite claims that these relations were still communal as in the traditional tribe, the logic of capitalism is that of an accumulatory regime which privileges those who own or control the capital resources. Accumulation follows resource ownership or control of the commodification process. Class division results from that control. The elite of the neotribe has a privileging relationship to the resources under its control. This fact separates them from those who, as a result of their detribalised status, are not even nominal owners of the tribes’ resources, and from those, who, as tribal members, are nominal shareholders in the tribal corporation, but whose influence is limited by the leadership ideology of neotribal capitalism.

You don't have to be a Marxist to observe the gap between traditional institutions and their reconstruction at the hands of rationalising modernists. It is this phenomenon that Andrew Sharpe explores in a truly superb essay entitled Traditional Authority and the Legitimation Crisis of 'Urban Tribes': the Waipareira Case. It involves a careful critique of the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal's Waipareira decision in 1998. Sharpe is a philosopher and he provides a stunning reading of the Tribunal's argumentation that forensically uncovers the fault-line that runs through its earnest desire to demonstrate that the Waipareira Trust held tino rangatiratanga even though (as a pan-tribal authority) that could not be rooted in whakapapa and therefore be self-justifying in a fundamentally traditional way.

The Tribunal had run up against the absolute assertion of Apirana Mahuika's now famous statement that "to deny whakapapa ... as the key to both culture and iwi is a recipe for disaster, conflict, and disharmony." Sharpe describes the way in which rational thought runs up against custom in this way:

It might be a reasonable question to ask in English or many other natural languages whether a particular law or custom is a good one, or even whether a body of law or custom should be regarded as morally binding on a people. But these are not intelligent questions to ask of tikanga. To ask them would be to misunderstand the concept, which carries the affirmative answer within itself. Tikanga simply is that which is (to quote dictionaries) « right, just, the way » (e.g. Williams 1971 sub. « mana »). It is the basis of all justification and it is inappropriate to ask that it in turn should be justified.

The problem the Tribunal faced can be simply stated. It wanted to assert that its findings were fully consistent with tikanga. But it was not content simply to assert that because tikanga was intact, all must be good or right. It sought to adduce arguments that justified tikanga, that sought to explain the legitimacy of the Waipareira Trust by reference to abstract ideas - and in doing so let modernity through the door.

Sharpe identifies two lines of reasoning by the Tribunal that were inconsistent with what one might term the traditionalist position. One is an identification of tikanga with abstract principles - like some ideals of good community relations. The moment you erect abstract principles you set up a yardstick against which real contemporary tikanga can be judged - and that of course undercuts that view that if something accords with custom it must, ipso facto, be valid. The other line of reasoning viewed tikanga as an evolving body of custom that is validated by the implied consent of those who continue to practice and respect them. But again, if consent and contingency operate as a validating force, the traditionalist view is again undermined.

Sharpe's critique of the Tribunal is a sympathetic one since, in his view, the contemporary reality is that Maori don't operate in a universe that is beyond external critique:

As will already be evident in the Waipareira case, Maori do just this, and there is abundant evidence elsewhere that they do (Sharp 1995). When they do, they may be described, with Michael Oakeshott, as rationalising their tradition (Oakeshott 1974b). Having abstracted its leading principles — even though, like the Waitangi Tribunal, they cannot go so far as to list everything that is good — they then apply those principles as a critique not only of alien ways of proceeding, but of their own. This is inevitable. Propositions (unlike ceremonies, or dances, or images in sound or space) naturally call to the mind their contraries. The presence of contrary propositions leads to dispute; custom fails in its central function of containing dispute ; a process of subjecting a tradition to question is set in train.

In a neat closing manoeuvre Sharpe points out that the destabilisation of Maori custom is not so very different from the destabilisation inflicted on early modern European societies by two towering figures in the pantheon of western political consciousness, Machiavelli and Locke. He describes it in these terms:

It is fascinating to contemplate the similarities in thought of one whose thought has deeply pervaded individualist liberal-democratic ideology with that of Maori theorists intent on saving the appearances of tikanga.

Modes of justification and legitimation are open-ended. Maori modes are no different. The operation of reason in conditions of contingency will always make the appeal to tikanga a difficult manoeuvre. Confronting the collected, inter-generation iwi, bound in love by whakapapa, there will always be either the « poor forked creature » (Ignatieff, 1984 : 27-53) who stands alone and makes his world because he must, or the confident liberal-democrat who is an individualist, makes his world and is cheerful with it.


Are we drowning in erudition?

One answer might be to poll readers to see how many got as far as this! Obviously, real political debate and nation-building doesn't take place in seminar rooms. On the other hand, Sharpe's reflective treatment provides a critique that is not harnessed to the agenda of any contesting party. This is why (or should be why) societies like ours support scholarship - to subject our institutions and assumptions to open enquiry in the belief that human beings, whatever their beliefs, are capable of communication and reciprocation - the sine qua non of an open, peaceable society. It brings to mind Pocock's comment cited in u-o-l some months ago - namely, that the two major peoples of New Zealand have

"known and shaped each other for two centuries, and the antagonisms and incomprehensions between them do not altogether preclude that situation in which ‘they know what I think of them and I know what they think of me’ and the relations between them are implicit as well as explicit.”

Sharpe's essay is written (explicitly) in the shadow of Pocock whose 'Machiavellian moment' is used to explain tikanga as "a method of containing and controlling the potentially catastrophic invasion of contingency (or fortuna) into their [Maori] affairs". It is an entirely worthy act of identification with New Zealand's greatest living thinker in the humanities. Sharpe respectfully places the entire history of western political thought at the service of some of the most potent debates surrounding Maori identity. Contrary to the charges of those who would allege intellectual colonisation, (and Sharpe cites without judgement Moana Jackson in this respect), this essay is proof that what we have in New Zealand is not some impenetrable, autochthonous mystery, nor some shallow derivative discourse, but a most amazing fertility of intellectual creativity in the face of the cultural dislocation of both Maori and European New Zealanders.

That is mightily reassuring to those of us who worry that the isolated gold-fish bowl of New Zealand culture will become anoxic. If our leaders miss the boat completely, it will not be because some of our best academics were found wanting. The political establishment has got to start connecting with this debate. To spell it out in really bald terms, the political Left has to start applying its rich inheritance of arguments based on justice and human rights to constitutional and political debates that the Treaty has unleashed. And the political Right has to weight up the arguments not just in terms of the Lockean properties of "life, liberty and estate" that Sharpe recalls, but also its own ambiguous relationship with the world of tradition, custom and the sceptical embrace of rationalism embodied in a thinker like Oakeshott. Sharpe provides all these signposts and more. Has anyone got their eyes on the road?


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