Capitalism and Aboriginal oppression

Aboriginal dispossession served capitalist interests, argues Paddy Gibson, but Aboriginal people have remained a “problem” from the point of view of Australia’s rulers ever since

On the ABC current affairs show Q & A last year, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks from Utopia in the Northern Territory (NT), castigated former Liberal MP Peter Coleman for his argument for the need for assimilation to “solve the problem” of the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society.

Kunoth-Monks said, “Do not talk about me as a ‘problem’… I am not the problem, I have never left my country or ceded any part of it”.

Prior to 26 January 1788, the peoples of this continent lived in freedom, intimately connected with their country.

They have survived through genocide and so too has a fighting vision—of a fundamentally different way of life here, with relations of egalitarianism and reciprocity between both people and the land. This continuing resistance should be an inspiration to all fighting for justice in a world wracked by inequality and environmental destruction.

But from the perspective of the capitalist class who control the system of government here, Aboriginal people have always been, and remain a fundamental problem.

Integrating the Australian continent into the global capitalist economy was only accomplished through disease and a protracted war, reducing Indigenous population numbers by more than 90 per cent by the First World War. Land maintained by Aboriginal people for countless generations needed to be occupied and transformed into a commodity that could be bought and sold on the marketplace, and accessed by capitalist interests without the threat of disruption to their investment.

Poor European settlers seeking land and opportunity, or dispossessed Indigenous people drafted into “Native Police” units, were often on the front lines of this war. But it was a war directed and resourced by the new settler-colonial governments, controlled by capitalists making fortunes from expanding pastoral empires.

This war provided foundations for the formation of the state and economy in Australia. The racist doctrine of “terra nullius”, that says Aboriginal people are non-human, formed the core of the imposed property relations that remain in place to this day.

NSW has the oldest mounted police unit in the world, formed in 1825 to fight the war for Wiradjuri country.

As the needs of capitalism have changed, so too have the duties of the police—but they have never stopped persecuting Aboriginal people.

In the 20th Century they became the enforcers of apartheid and mass child theft. Today they harass, terrorise and incarcerate Aboriginal people at rates amongst the highest of any persecuted group in the world—more than 15 times the non-Indigenous rate for Indigenous men and 20 times for Indigenous women across Australia and more than 50 times for Indigenous juveniles in WA.

Many of the wealthy families in the Australian ruling class today built their power and wealth through genocidal war.

Alexander Downer’s grandfather Sir John Downer for example, a leading politician in the SA parliament in the 1880s, played an active role organising massacres across the NT to clear the land of people and make way for huge pastoral leases—to ensure revenue poured into the coffers of the colonial government and its wealthy capitalist politicians.

Managing dispossession

The state in Australia emerged not just to guarantee the fruits of dispossession remain in the hands of the capitalist class. It also ensures the on-going exploitation of the working class. This requires an ultimate threat of armed force—the NSW Mounted Police were also formed to chase down convicts escaping servitude and police continue to break picket lines today.

But, retaining power also requires a consistent ideological campaign to legitimise racism and capitalist power in the eyes of this working majority.

A central “problem” for Australian capitalism has been how to manage the social catastrophe inflicted on Aboriginal people and its continuing domination, in ways that re-enforce the legitimacy of the Australian state. This has required a persistent dehumanisation and persecution of the people who are the living reminder of the brutality built into Australia’s foundations.

Aboriginal people were denied citizenship in “democratic” white Australia. Their very presence in towns, schools and workplaces could pose an affront.

Every state gave itself powers to control people’s movements, family life and working conditions. These were very useful in remote areas, where the profitability of pastoral capitalism came to depend on indentured black labour.

They were also used with fierce intensity across the country during the Depression, when mass unemployment hit Aboriginal people the hardest. Black people living rough were scapegoated, denied the dole or employment relief and confined on managed stations.

Aboriginal enclaves presented their own anxieties for the ruling class however. Scobie, an official from the NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB) during WWI, summed up the “problem” in this way, “although there are only a few full-blooded Aborigines left, there are 6000 of the mixed-blood growing up. It is a danger to us to have a people like that among us, looking upon our institutions with eyes different from ours”.

Scobie was part of a push for genocidal removal of children from their Aboriginal families as one “solution” to this “danger”.

Chief Inspector Donaldson of the 1920s NSW APB believed, “In the course of a few years there will be no need for the camps and stations; the old people will have passed away and their progeny will be absorbed into the industrial classes of the country.” But Aboriginal families fought hard to stay together and stay close to traditional lands, despite severe repression.

Others who were pushed into the “mainstream” played a crucial role supporting struggles for their people.

Yorta Yorta woman Margaret Tucker, for example, was stolen into domestic servitude from the Cummeragunja mission in the 1920s, but went on to make a life in Melbourne amongst other Aboriginal activists and socialists who helped build substantial support in the labour movement when the Yorta Yorta walked off Cummeragunja in 1939 demanding freedom.

Many urban based Aboriginal activists also helped to lead the “Day of Mourning” protest in Sydney in 1938, denouncing the nationalist celebrations of 150 years of colonisation in Australia in terms that continue to fuel Aboriginal protest today, “you have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation”.

This phenomenon intensified during the 1960s when the cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, where the government had hoped people would “assimilate”, became organising centres for Aboriginal activists who launched a mass movement for black rights.

These protests, part of a global wave of anti-colonial revolt, helped throw off the racist controls of Welfare Boards across the country and won citizenship.

The movement won some important gains against racism, particularly a network of community controlled organisations to help with daily survival like medical, legal and housing services. Opportunities opened for some Aboriginal people, for example in the education system, that would have been unthinkable to previous generations. But many concessions made during this period also served to channel the radicalism of Aboriginal protest into the effort of running the services with-in the system and demobilised the struggle to challenge the fundamental racism of the system itself.

Since land rights were legislated in the 1970s for the NT, successive governments have made sure that claims were even more limited and focused on remote areas marginal to the economy.

Labor promised national Land Rights legislation in the 1980s but backed down to pressure from mining and pastoral companies. Kooris who had played a central role in the national movement won a NSW Land Rights Act in 1983. But that only allows claim over narrow categories of unoccupied Crown Land and has seen only 0.1 per cent of the state granted back.

Recognition of “Native Title”, beginning with the Mabo judgement in 1992, helped take the fight for land off the streets and into the courtrooms.

But Native Title is also only recognised on Crown Land, for small numbers who can convince the court their customary use has survived the onslaught of colonisation. Even for those who have it, Native Title provides no power to stop capitalist development on your land.

Government responses to Aboriginal demands for self-determination have always been begrudging and shackled by fundamental constraints. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) formed in 1991, had elected Aboriginal representatives having input into funding decisions.

But the government retained ultimate control of the purse strings, and Aboriginal organisations were never given access to the massive resources that could have been used to turn around the horrific social consequences of generations of dispossession and racist exclusion.

The sharp contradiction between formal legal “equality” and the world beating rates of youth suicide, imprisonment, child removal, preventable diseases and unemployment has been explained through a vicious racism that blames Aboriginal people themselves.

The Howard government worked assiduously to construct a “white blindfold” narrative that celebrated colonisation as bringing progress, while denying the massacres and stolen generations and blaming the limited Aboriginal rights won in the 1970s for contemporary suffering.

Howard launched an Intervention into the Northern Territory, re-imposing “Welfare Board” style controls in an attempt to extinguish any idea of Aboriginal self-determination.

More than $1 billion has been spent on bureaucracies to control and constrain Aboriginal life.

This is the most intense example of a national system of control by racist state agencies, spending billions of dollars every year on the systematic discrimination against Aboriginal people, with ever more police, prison cells, foster care placements for children stolen out of communities and BasicsCards to control meagre Centrelink payments.

Aboriginal resistance and socialist revolution

The contemporary social crises gripping many Aboriginal communities can only be seriously addressed by a fundamental shift in power relations, with Aboriginal people controlling their own community development. Resources are urgently needed in the hands of grassroots Aboriginal groups, so communities can get to work rebuilding shattered lives and lands.

But it is simply not within the logic of the capitalist profit system to provide the resources to meet Aboriginal needs and aspirations.

Nor does the capitalist class want well-funded, well-functioning Aboriginal controlled organisations with a confident leadership, because of the role such organisations have played in building solidarity and fighting oppression. Instead they punish and blame the victim.

At the same time, there are consistent attempts to incorporate Aboriginality into Australian nationalism and neutralise any threatening political content.

Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations to “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul… to reconcile and build a new future for our nation”. Yet more Aboriginal children are being forcibly removed than at any time in Australia’s history. BHP Billiton sits on the board of Reconciliation Australia while destroying Aboriginal lands.

The current farcical push for “constitutional recognition” offers Aboriginal people no rights or restitution, just a token place in the preamble of the constitution of a political system that tried to exterminate them.

Ultimately, ending Aboriginal oppression will require tearing up the constitution and overturning the capitalist system which created, and maintains, that oppression.

Socialist revolution will require confrontation with the continuing colonial dynamics of capitalism that maintain the dispossession and racism. By taking control from the capitalist class, the rights of Aboriginal people to self-determination can be guaranteed, as can whatever resources are needed to meet their needs and aspirations.

This is not an argument to defer any hope of progress until “after the revolution”. The struggle against racism and capitalism have to be built out of the struggles for justice and against Aboriginal oppression in the here and now.

A revolutionary approach does argue for particular strategies within these struggles, most importantly an appreciation of the class divisions that exist in Australia and the potential for making common cause between Aboriginal communities and the broader working class.

It looks to the power of organised workers, black and white, as a crucial social force able to win Aboriginal rights.

Aboriginal people have always resisted – from the guerilla struggles that challenged every advance of the “frontier”, through to the movements against forced closure of remote communities today.

The periods in which Aboriginal struggles made the greatest strides forward however, came during the late 1960s and 1970s, when the working class in Australia was more militant and organised than ever before, with the highest number of strikes in Australian history occurring in 1974. This was also a time of global revolution, with insurrectionary general strikes throughout the industrialised world and anti-colonial insurgencies on the march.

Aboriginal unionists such as Kevin Cook and Chicka Dixon helped to organise union support for the new wave of struggle being driven by young Aboriginal activists.

During the Moratorium for Black Rights in 1972 for example, building workers, wharfies, teachers and council workers went on strike to join the demonstrations. This industrial power of organised workers is the most powerful weapon for hitting back against the system.

Control over The Block in Redfern was won in 1972 by a campaign that included the Builder’s Labourers Federation, who placed a “green ban” on the site to stop it being taken over by developers.

Similar bans were placed on a number of mining projects opposed by Aboriginal people in this period, including an ACTU ban on work at the Nookanbah mine in WA in 1980, during mass blockades led by Aboriginal people.

Just as Aboriginal rights surged forward during a period of union militancy, the wind back of many of the gains over the past two decades has occurred during a period of serious retreat by the union movement, with historically low levels of membership and strike activity.

Actively building working class support for Aboriginal rights is crucial for the development of a revolutionary working class consciousness in Australia.

As long as the capitalist class remain in power on this continent, there can never be real justice for the people they stole it from.

Every struggle today can help to lay the basis for the development of a movement capable of pushing back and ultimately destroying this system.

As Wiradjuri warrior Ray Jackson, who passed away this year after decades at the forefront of struggle said:

“The liberation and rights of Aboriginal people are tied up with the rights of the working class, because we have a common enemy, a common master—the capitalist system. All of us who are abused by the Establishment—unionists, Aboriginal people, national minorities and all working people—have to eradicate what divides us, like racism and sexism. We have to speak with one voice and strike with one fist.”


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Labor governments set to throw more Indigenous kids in prison

State governments nationwide are stepping up their war on Indigenous kids, with measures that will see more children in jail.

Charges against police possible over Jai Wright death

Criminal charges are being considered against a police officer over the death of 16-year-old Jai Wright, after the NSW Coroner suspended the inquest after two days on 30 January.

After the Voice, Albanese’s inaction on Indigenous rights is exposed

The failure of the Voice to Parliament referendum has exposed Anthony Albanese’s commitment to racist policies and severe neglect in Indigenous Affairs.