The ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal people in Australia is driven by the needs of the capitalist system. Racism is used explicitly to justify attacks on Aboriginal communities, welfare and working rights. By attacking Aboriginal people on a racial basis, capitalists strive to sow divisions that make it easier to attack the whole working class.
But what kind of politics are needed to end these attacks? Is it enough just to acknowledge the identities of the oppressed, or is a more thorough, systemic fightback needed?
Capitalism is based on a ruling class exploiting the labour of working people. Exploitation means the working class never receives the full benefit of the wealth it produces. Workers produce wealth in a united, collective way, but we face many different degrees and kinds of oppression, which ultimately means a bigger share of the wealth is hived off by the ruling class.
As well as racism, this system survives on the oppression of women, of different sexualities, of gender identities, of different religions and nationalities.
As Marx noted, the dominant ideas of any society are the ideas of its ruling class. These ideas are passed on and encouraged among the people that they exploit. For example, white men are encouraged to oppose the liberation of others because they are slightly better off in this fundamentally rigged society.
We must wage a fight within our own ranks, amongst working people, against the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and religious bigotry used to divide us. The workers’ movement must come in behind the cause of Aboriginal liberation, and against all forms of oppression. Oppressed groups all form part of the working class, and an injury to one must be seen as an injury to all.
Despite our common experience of exploitation, our experiences of oppression based on identity vary widely. There is no doubt that oppressed people are best placed to lead the fight for their own liberation, but how is that to be achieved?
As well as understanding oppression, we must fight for an alternative to the system, and unite everyone oppressed by capitalism. If we merely leave each oppressed group to fight on their own they will be marginalised and defeated.
At some recent rallies for Aboriginal rights, there have been some minor attempts by a few attendees to push out socialist activists on the basis of identity, and paint them as representing white establishment politics.
The unspoken assumption is that no Aboriginal person could take up the cause of socialism. In fact, many Aboriginal fighters have embraced class politics in the past, and these ideas were used with great success. Socialists of all races and nationalities have a long history of fighting establishment racism and exploitation.
As good trade unionists say, “‘no politics’ in the unions means ‘bosses politics’ in the unions”. The same goes for social movements. When socialism is proscribed, capitalism becomes a neutral backdrop for oppression. It is rendered invisible. “Class” becomes just another part of identity, as opposed to being a statement of how the system itself works. In reality, capitalism is not at all neutral. It is the source of oppression and exploitation.
To fight it we need an alternative. A united working class can undermine the very functioning of capitalism, and is capable of completely replacing it with a democratic, collectively run society. Capitalists who profit off the current system have no interest in this. This includes those in the elite who are also members of oppressed groups.
For example, Mick Mundine recently worked to destroy part of the Aboriginal community in Redfern, running an Aboriginal housing project, The Block, into the ground for the sake of developers. Noel Pearson is a prominent Aboriginal man who twists the logic of identity politics to argue for the winding down of welfare. Marcia Langton’s similar views were very easily used, despite her protests, to justify The Australian newspaper’s racist cartoonist Bill Leak.
These establishment figures have chosen not to fight for a different society, but to defend the current one.
These people certainly do suffer oppression for their identity – but they also have a stake in the system. They have concretely contributed to the oppression of working class Aboriginal people who share their identity. Oppressed people have the clearest perspective of their own daily experiences, but this doesn’t mean that race therefore determines the worth of someone’s ideas.
The only way to win a world free of oppression is to unite all oppressed groups in the fight for the end of class society – to fight for a socialist world.
By David Elliott