A Maori view of Maori Identity Politics

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Jul 19 12:28:03 MDT 2003

Maori Liberation and the Politics of Identity
While the official policy of bi-culturalism, has resulted in a dramatic
expansion of opportunities for middle class professional Maori, in the state
apparatus, education system, health and the media, the emphasis on identity
alone as the crucial determining factor in Maori oppression has been an
unmitigated disaster for the vast majority of working class Maori whanau who
have borne the brunt of the fourth Labour Government and the National
Government's 'economic restructuring' (Ministry of Maori Development, 1992).

For the majority of Maori cultural nationalism has failed so dramatically in
this respect because as strategy it has firstly, evaded the significance of
the relative location of the majority of Maori in the working class within
New Zealand's class structure and also the existence of class
differentiation within both Maori and Pakeha populations. Secondly, such an
approach has prevented through its rhetoric and posturing the possibility of
building the strongest movement by combining with other progressive social
movements in order to achieve specific political objectives. Thirdly,
cultural nationalism has in effect provided a way out of engaging in
struggle by encouraging individual lifestyle changes rather than a strategy
for fundamental social change or transformation of society. Finally, the
internal logic of the underlying philosophies of cultural nationalism have
been inherently degenerative, fostering confusion, demoralisation, and
internal fights over authenticity.

This emphasis on cultural identity as the determining factor in Maori
oppression encouraged the perception that the struggle against Maori
inequality and racism could be reduced to a clash of cultures; a conflict
between 'races.' Indeed, New Zealand history had been characterised by an
irredeemable clash of cultural values. Against the inherent hostility of
Pakeha, Maori sovereignty was the only hope for justice.
One of tendencies of movements which emphasise the identity of their members
as the determining factor in their oppression is to 'personalise' the
conflict for liberation. If you personalise power you tend to personalise
the enemy. Hence the struggle for equality becomes reduced to a fight
against prejudice, the fight against the institutions and practices against
individuals and attitudes not against the system that perpetuates that
oppression. In this way one of the most notable features of Maori protest
from the late 1970s is the increasing personalisation of the Maori struggle
for liberation whereby the object of Maori oppression is Pakeha and the
Pakeha culture. This leaves the struggle against Maori oppression to be
fought out at the level of individual relationships between Maori and Pakeha
while the system in which this relationship occurs remains untouched.

The conclusion that Pakeha are the enemy of Maori is very pessimistic to say
the least. Moreover, since cultural nationalists explain the division
between Maori and Pakeha as biologically rooted, the rupture must be
permanent. From this, it follows that any strategy aimed at the liberation
of Maori necessitates an apocalyptic struggle because the very existence of
Pakeha is the basis of Maori oppression.

Given that identities are blurred, multiple and historically contingent the
idea that the main division in society is between Maori and Pakeha also
risks fragmentation of the movement itself because it inevitably leads to
confusion and fights over authenticity (di Leonardo, 1994: 168). Thus if the
reasoning of identity politics is taken to its logical conclusion then
Pakeha are not the only oppressors: men are oppressors, heterosexuals are
oppressors and so forth. The fragmentation and demoralisation of the women's
liberation movement according to sexuality, class and race demonstrates this
precisely (Smith, 1994: 4-5).

Class Divisions
While it is certainly true that for some left wing groups the belief in the
centrality of working class struggle disguised a fundamental resistance or
in some cases hostility to the struggles of Maori activists, it is also a
notorious fact that Maori movements since the 1980s have tended to fight for
the political changes of greatest benefit to those Maori already middle
class or wealthy. In this regard, cultural nationalism and the politics of
Maori identity have been the perfect social theory for the upwardly mobile
Maori middle class because it presents the interests of Maori in
contemporary capitalist society as essentially unitary. Thus the affluent
right-wing individuals such individuals as Donna Awatere (Maori affairs
spokesperson for the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT)) right
through to the interests of the Maori unemployed, homeless and hungry of
South Auckland's 'ghettoes' can presented as philosophically and culturally
the same. This ignores the critical importance of differential access to
economic and political power within and across Maori society.
Indeed, Maori are all too frequently discussed by cultural nationalists as
if forming one homogeneous entity, its members possessing exactly the same
experiences of oppression, and exactly the same political aspirations.
However, this ignores the fact that there exists a dynamic range of
aspirations and political strategies within so-called 'Maoridom.' Moreover,
these aspirations often conflict with one another and are not divorced from
the influence of the wider social and economic environment.

The emphasis on Maori solidarity conceals the historical reality of social
class stratification within both 'traditional' and contemporary Maori
society. Since the differential incorporation of Maori into the working
class it is imperative that we recognise the fundamental antagonism in
capitalist social relations between capital and labour. It is also important
to recognise the inequalities that exist between men and women.

Cultural nationalist approaches also ignore the fact that Pakeha in
capitalist society are not a homogeneous group that confront Maori in a
unified and hostile manner. The fact is that like Maori, Pakeha, in
capitalist society are also stratified according to class and gender. Thus
references to 'Pakeha society', 'majority culture', and so forth, may be
useful rhetorical devices to focus blame and motivate action but they are
not useful concepts for explaining social reality nor are they useful as the
basis of a strategy for Maori liberation (Loomis, 1990: 4).

The idea that Pakeha are innately materialistic, exploitative and aggressive
is fundamentally problematic. It assumes that the underlying values and
behaviour of Pakeha as exhibited in capitalist society are primordial and
static. This ignores the fact that the construction of identity at any point
in time is socially constructed and historically contingent. Thus what it
means to identify as Maori or Pakeha changes radically throughout history
reflecting the dynamic relationship between changing material conditions and
the way in which those societies are organised.

Lifestyle Changes
The idea that 'Maori culture' and identity by itself will automatically
bring about political and economic freedom provides a way out of engaging in
struggle. Indeed, what is conspicuously absent in cultural nationalist
accounts is talk of transformation and change. Indeed, such an introverted
focus has tended to encourage strategies based primarily on changes in
individual lifestyle which is detached from any emphasis on collective Maori
struggle to construct and change any aspect of the world we inhabit. Thus in
recent decades there has been the progressive decline of the active base of
the movement, and the rise of strategies based upon 'direct action' tactics:
"...attention grabbing actions carried out by the enlightened few, the aim
being to shock and disturb the ignorant masses" (Smith, 1994: 20).
The emphasis on the rediscovery of traditional culture as the solution to
the basic causes of Maori oppression has involved a celebration of Maori
superior virtue, spirituality and attachment to nature. The frequent
references to the special nature of Maori society and the separate and
enhancing 'world of the Maori' are testament to this. However, it is
important to note that such appeals to a special 'nature' as a guide to
human action provide few secure reference points (Segal, 1987: 7). Indeed,
conceptions of the 'natural' have changed radically throughout human

Autonomy in Struggle
The assumption that only those actually experiencing a particular form of
oppression can either define it or fight against it has gained a following
on the left commensurate with the decline of the level of class struggle in
the main advanced capitalist societies from the mid-1970s through the 1980s
(Smith, 1994: 5). For movements organised on the basis of the identity of
their participants, the enemy tends to include "everyone else" perceived as
an amorphous, backward blob which makes up the rest of society (Ibid.) It is
assumed that in some way that society at large benefits from a particular
form of oppression and have an interest in maintaining it. From this rather
pessimistic conclusion it follows that each oppressed group should have its
own distinct and separate movement. Hence, the so called 'new social
movements' that have arisen during the 1970s and 1980s tend to be organised
on the basis of 'autonomy' or independence from each other.
While no Maori organisations have been built specifically on the basis of
identity politics many of its key assumptions have gained widespread
acceptance amongst anti-racists both Maori and Pakeha alike. In this regard,
one of the most significant developments in the evolution of Maori political
activism since the early 1980s has been the extent to which Maori movements
have adopted the language of identity politics.

Indeed, one of the central tenets of cultural nationalism has been the idea
that Pakeha have a fundamental interest in maintaining racism in Aotearoa
and that their contribution to the movement for Maori liberation is more
likely to be divisive than constructive. It has followed from this that the
most effective way of fighting racism and discrimination was for Maori to
organise and struggle separately. This emphasis on autonomy in struggle has
resulted theoretically at least, in the exclusion of Pakeha, whatever their
social class and gender, from playing a key role in fighting for Maori
liberation. However, this stance is fundamentally problematic in two major
respects: firstly, because there is no necessary or immediate unity between
oppressed groups in Aotearoa, most lack the required resources to fight back
when they are isolated from each other. Unfortunately, the perception that
the struggle for tino rangatiratanga is primarily a Maori versus Pakeha
struggle forces Maori to struggle against the entire Pakeha population. In
essence this isolates the Maori struggle forcing it to rely entirely on its
own resources. Given the fact that these resources are meagre, the struggle
is very unequal to say the least. Secondly, movements consisting of Maori
alone have no real social power to fundamentally transform their oppression.
Historical evidence shows that political movements based solely on the
'identity 'of the participant tend to lurch from left to right of the
political spectrum precisely because they have no real means to achieve
their political aims.

It is also important to remember that it is not necessarily true that
autonomous movements in and of themselves raise the issues and struggles of
the oppressed because even these movements are not autonomous of the
underlying social structures, political forces and ideologies of capitalist
society. There is therefore, no guarantee that self-organisation of the
oppressed will produce the best political strategies for liberation. All too
often, for example, the interests of middle class elements have become
dominant within these so called 'autonomous' movements, as the history of
the women's movement and Black nationalism have clearly shown (see Shawki
1990: 92-99; Segal, 1987)

Complete paper at: http://aotearoa.wellington.net.nz/back/tumoana/#(vi)

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