Germaine Greer’s controversial new essay On Rage is a powerful contribution to the debate on indigenous issues in Australia.
Greer has faced a tsunami of opposition and abuse from both the right wing media and from some Aboriginal academics. Her thesis is that the loss by Aboriginal men of everything central to their lives (their partners, land, and social status) has led to the only possible reaction – a blind rage.
White capitalist expansion in Africa, for example, led to the incorporation of local people into the working class, especially on the gold mines. In Australia, colonialism and capitalism faced an indigenous population living a hunting and gathering existence. They were considered a pest, apart from the ‘use’ of women and occasional forced labour, and were not fully integrated into the newly created working class. This changed later, especially after the Second World War, but even today unemployment amongst indigenous people is at 70% according to Chris Graham, editor of the National Indigenous Times.
Greer shows how Aboriginal women were sometimes taken by white men. Sometimes women went ‘voluntarily’ to white men in a search for a ‘less arduous existence’ than they experienced in a hunting and gathering society. “The Aboriginal man had small choice but to follow his womenfold into dependency upon the white man. Even if he still had access to drinkable water and there was still game to be hunted, without a woman he could not survive. Hunter-gather men are expendable but women are not, because hunters cannot survive without the contribution of gatherers. Where Aboriginal women went, humiliated Aboriginal men had no choice but to follow.”
The net result was a ‘rage’. Greer explains: “Aboriginal rage is not of the order of road rage, or even of the rage of a nagged husband. It is not an excessive reaction to friction but the inevitable consequence of a series of devastating blows inflicted on a victim who is utterly powerless to resist. Any description of the action of rage in a hunter-gather society anywhere will provide a carbon copy of Aboriginal dysfunction.” She continues later: “In Aboriginal peoples the suffocated feeling that is set free by alcohol is rage – howling, yelling, cursing, punching, kicking, murderous rage.” Today this is reflected in drug and alcohol abuse and also in violence against those closest to them.
Greer starts her essay with an analysis of the rage of right wing independent MP Bob Katter and the struggling white farmers he represents, a clever way to link loss and dispossession to rage beyond the indigenous setting.
Greer’s analysis stems from her theoretical framework. On the ABC-TV Questions and Answers show, she described herself as a Marxist and “therefore believed that ideas stem from reality”. The economic roots of her explanation of how traditional Aboriginal society disintegrated in the face of colonialism is quite brilliant.
On the TV show, she said she supported “permanent revolution”, however it seemed she meant it in a general sense (that political movement should never and did never stop and that every political thought should be held up for analysis and criticism and change) rather than in the sense that Leon Trotsky meant. That is of a workers-led struggle for democracy and land reform in an underdeveloped country having to crossover into a socialist revolution in order to achieve its goals.
It’s not every day that such a high profile thinker declares themselves to be a Marxist on national TV. However, Greer’s essay comes to a shudder halt after 99 pages with no solutions or way forward. That’s why ex-NSW ALP Premier Bob Carr felt comfortable launching the book and encouraging everyone to buy it.
However not for the first time Germaine Greer has brilliantly turned an important issue on its head and put the challenge out for others to find solutions. The channelling of the rage of Aboriginal people into a political, revolutionary movement is the task for black and white socialists to face up to.
Reviewed by Stephen Jolly
By Germaine Greer
Melbourne University Press, 2008