The tragic legacy of Australian colonialism
23 August 2022
Allowing the market to entirely determine the distribution of wealth without the cautious restraining hand of government has hugely exaggerated the economic gap between winners and losers
ADELAIDE - Traditional Melanesian culture was organised in ways that were and are totally at odds with the prevailing capitalist economic system.
I would characterise the traditional way of life as being based upon a system of mutual obligation and communalism, whereby each member of a social group both contributed to the common good of the group and, in turn, received benefits from it.
Capitalism is the very antithesis of such a system, being based upon the exploitation of the labour of others to enrich the capitalist class, the latter being those with the most money. It is an inherently unequal and inequitable system.
It’s supposed great virtue as stated by Adam Smith in 'Wealth of Nations' (published in 1776) is that by individuals pursuing their own self-interest they must necessarily do so by satisfying the interests of others.
Another way of stating this is to say, as many politicians do, that the rising tide of economic growth raises all boats.
As we now all know, the rising tide does not raise all boats but it does allow a few individual multi billionaires to build rocket ships and fire themselves into space.
This is not to say that capitalism as a system is based upon entirely wrong or fraudulent thinking.
The problem is that allowing the market to entirely determine the distribution of wealth without the cautious restraining hand of government necessarily means that the economic gap between the winners and losers in the system becomes hugely exaggerated.
Eventually, if the gap grows wide enough, social tensions begin to emerge which, if not mitigated in some way, will necessarily trigger revolutionary change.
This was one of the central insights of Karl Marx as recorded in 'Das Kapital' and reflected in his later writing (with Frederick Engels) of the Communist Manifesto.
Unhappily, Marx's supposed solution to the inherent problems within capitalism, being the emergence of a dictatorship of the proletariat (essentially the ordinary workers) and the eventual withering away of the state, proved to be just a pipe dream.
The grand communist experiment was a catastrophic failure which cost many millions of lives and did incalculable personal and economic harm to many millions more.
The now defunct Communist regimes of Russia and China have metastasised into a form of authoritarian capitalism, where a new class of super wealthy 'oligarchs' have emerged who effectively dominate if not control economic life.
These regimes have reverted to their historic roots, invoking historic imperialist precedents, both real and imagined, to justify the centralisation of power in the hands of an elite few.
This form of social organisation is as far away as it is possible to get from traditional PNG society yet, tragically, it has found its way into modern Papua New Guinea.
Elements of traditional PNG thinking, especially regarding the pivotal importance of tribal loyalties and the influence of 'big men' have been perverted to enable the emergence of a new indigenous capitalist class who have both accumulated enormous wealth and political power.
This is an unintended and tragic legacy of Australian colonialism which brought with it the capitalist ideas that now dominate the world's economy.
Even more tragically, there seems little likelihood that this process can even be constrained let alone reversed, thus condemning the great majority of Papua New Guineans to lives of poverty and deprivation whilst the few prosper.
The only comfort that may be drawn is from the fact that the subsistence lifestyle that has sustained Papua New Guineans for thousands of years will probably insulate them from the worst impacts of what is and remains a grossly inequitable, unjust and frequently corrupt system.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.