The political economy of indigenous societies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 22 06:56:34 MDT 2002


At 09:56 AM 4/22/2002 +0530, D.Parthasarathy wrote:
>An Australian aboriginal scholar had exactly the same perspective on the 
>coups in Fiji against democratically elected governments. Since the 
>governments were led by people of Indian origin, and the coups were 
>accompanied by attacks on them, most people assumed ethnic differences at 
>the heart of the conflict. However the people of Indian origin also were 
>rooted in a profit and export oriented economy based on land alienation 
>and impoverishment of the 'indigenous' Fijians. The coups enjoyed popular 
>support therefore because they promosed a return to a different kind of 
>(non-capitalist) economy. This was the gist of the analysis that I got.

I agree. I wrote this during the recent crisis:

Background on ethnic conflict in Fiji

I have spent a fair amount of time over the past week or so trying to
unearth Marxist or radical scholarship on Fiji. Among the scanty
contributions that fall in this category, there are few that I consider
truly sympathetic to the Fijian point of view. Most accounts, especially
the articles contained in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, tend to
view all expressions of Fijian nationalism as deeply retrograde.

In order to legitimize this position, it becomes necessary to soften the
impact of British colonialism. By making the role of the British less cruel
than it was in, for example, China or India, the militancy of the Fiji
people seems more unreasonable by comparison.

If you look at the 1988 article in the Bulletin by Stephanie Hagan titled
"Race, Politics, and the Coup in Fiji", you will discover that Sir Arthur
Gordon had different motives than other colonial administrators. She quotes
Gordon as coming to the islands with the idea that he had "a divine mission
to make the islands an exception to the dismal history of colonialism." His
interpretation of the Deed of Cession, which established the Crown
ownership of the island and all who lived on it, led to "the paramountcy of
Fijian interests." In an act of generosity and postcolonial wisdom, Gordon
reserved most of the land for the Fijians. This, more or less, is the
standard left interpretation of British relationship to the indigenous
population.

Turning to Deryck Scarr's "Fiji: A Short History," we learn about some of
the more pecuniary considerations underpinning Gordon's colonial
administration. Basically, the 'natives' were seen as a supplier of food to
the rest of the population and of export goods like copra. In order to
expedite their role as agricultural petty producers, the British kept the
traditional villages intact. With these structures in place, the chiefs
began to function as middlemen. Not only were the small peasants producers
for the town, they also paid taxes to keep the colonial administration
going. Although some tax revenue was allocated for native benefits like
churches (which would assure their happiness in heaven), most went into
general revenue, about 100,000 pounds a year by 1900.

Despite their insertion into commodity production, the Fijians were never
completely integrated as a true bourgeoisie. Traditional relationships,
based on the feudal chieftans, undermined the ability to extract profit. A
chieftan sought only to extract enough value off the top to maintain a
life-style. The notion of revolutionizing the means of production was the
last thing in his mind. As Scarr puts it:

The level of production was the basic issue. As with most peasant cultures,
the Fijian household functioned below capacity, its labour intensity
varying inversely with labour capacity; the chiefly function, often
validating the decisions of household heads, was to galvanise additional
production for surplus. The colonial government had come in at the chiefly
level; the Governor was formally installed as supreme chief, was accorded
the 'tama' and received first fruits. Although the colonial regime had the
option of endorsing the mere household subsistence level with its ready
corollary, plantation labour for cash needs, to oblige the white community,
it made a value judgement in favour of the more politically dangerous
alternative. Native Regulation No. 5 of 1877, for instance, was always
being attacked as extremely paternalistic; it prescribed the exact minimum
each head of household must plant for his dependants’ subsistence; it was
intended to provide a surplus, and was an idea borrowed from Tonga."

The other question worth considering is the degree to which the modern
Labour movement in Fiji is an outgrowth of Gandhism. Reading Scarr leaves
one with the impression that Gandhi had much more of an impact on Indian
radicalism on the island than Marx or the Soviet Union.

What Gandhi offered his brethren was an uncompromising struggle against
second class citizenship. The fight was basically between the British and
the Indian, whose sense of 'Izzat' (honour) was being violated on a daily
basis. To redeem his humanity and to have full rights as a citizen was the
main goal, not to transform property relations or unite Indian and
non-Indian in a fight for socialism.

In a speech to the Legislative Council on September 1, 1929 Indian leader
Vishnu Deo said, "We ask for that equality and brotherhood and loving
cooperation which is meet that the sons of men should extend to each other
all over the globe wherever they are thrown together." That phrase "thrown
together" was a poignant reminder of how most Indians in Fiji must have
viewed their situation.


Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org



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