Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Mana Party, tino rangatiratanga and identity politics

I see two reasons for fighting New Zealand’s current political and economic system, and the makeup of the Mana Party means they’re great for arguing both. I touched on one reason in the previous post—because the current system doesn’t work for us. It oppresses, and then exploits the oppressed, and it can only do this by playing oppressed groups off against each other. This division is fuelled by propaganda from Brash mā, spokespeople for the rich and powerful (bullshit like this). Divided by competing needs and mistrust we fall; united by the bond of our oppressions we stand. Grounded in many oppressed communities, Mana can grow relationships across those communities, allowing us to talk about the ways that we are exploited—as unemployed, as under-paid workers, as colonised, etc. And as I tried to say in my previous post on Mana (this is kind of the second part to that post), this awareness should help Māori to avoid replicating similar structures of oppression ourselves. So that’s one reason to oppose the current system, and one reason to be excited about Mana.

The other reason, which is sometimes forgotten by tauiwi social justice activists (at least in the circles that I have worked in), is that however the current system is organised, it is founded on the injustice of colonisation. Whether we have dreams of reforming capitalism with a conscience, or a revolution to anarchism or other socialism, if tangata whenua do not consent then the result will be ongoing colonial injustice. For there to be any social justice, there must be tino rangatiratanga. We need more people who understand what we mean by tino rangatiratanga, and why it must be the starting point for a just society. Grounded as it is in several activist communities, Mana is in a great position to educate in those communities.

I could leave this post here, but I want to talk a bit about the way tino rangatiratanga is sometimes dismissed as identity politics.

Tino rangatiratanga and identity politics

A while back a piece at Maui Street argued I am surprised that the Mana Party is focusing on class politics. The movement that underpins the Mana Party is firmly rooted in identity politics.... I want to talk about why it is wrong to call tino rangatiratanga struggle “identity politics”.

First, and most obviously, tino rangatiratanga is not about ethnicity or any other identity, it is about justice. Yes, in New Zealand the tangata whenua happen to be Māori and the colonisers happened to originally be Pākehā, but that doesn’t make it a matter of ethnic identity. In Wales, both the tangata whenua and the colonisers were Pākehā, and theirs was no less a struggle for tino rangatiratanga.

Second (kind of a restatement of the first, but it’s important so it gets its own point), the struggle for tino rangatiratanga is no more about identity than class struggle is—both are based on shared experiences of oppression and intergenerational injustice. I cannot understand any assertion that there is a difference (which is certainly not limited to Maui Street, I have heard similar statements from many social justice activists), and it pisses me off when we minimise/ dismiss tino rangatiratanga in this way.

Third, what frustrates me most is that (ironically, but not surprisingly) the argument usually comes down to cultural imperialism, or the perceived need for Māori to justify our reality against Western reality. It comes from an inability to recognise Western culture as cultural. I can only dismiss tino rangatiratanga as racial/ cultural, if I think Western knowledge systems and the values and ethics that stem from them aren’t racial/ cultural. Ie: Class-based struggle stems from Western philosophy, so it is not cultural/ ethnic, whereas tino rangatiratanga stems from mātauranga Māori, so it is cultural/ ethnic. And therefore it is identity based politics.

Fourth, calling it identity politics shuts tauiwi out of the tino rangatiratanga conversation. It makes it about us and them, when actually there are plenty of tauiwi who know what colonisation is, and who want justice for tangata whenua.

To review, tino rangatiratanga, is not identity politics, or at least, no more than other Western political movements. Even if we call it the struggle for recognition of Māori cultural identity, it is not identity politics. It is survival in the face of cultural genocide. It is based on a simple truth, which is not about race, ethnicity or essentialism of any kind (as I understand the term)—that tangata whenua have their own mātauranga, it is the first mātauranga of these lands, it is legitimate, it requires rangatiratanga to survive and develop. And it is about justice—through the processes of colonisation, Pākehā have tried to wipe these mātauranga from the land, along with the reo and tikanga that express them. Colonisation is illegitimate, unjust, violent, oppressive, genocidal. Tino rangatiratanga seeks to restore the balance.

I’m stoked that Te Mana provides a platform where these issues might get some deserved attention.


  1. Anonymous3:38 pm

    Thank you making explicit the problems with treating Tino rangatiratanga as identity politics. As you say, it is a discourse that has been used in many contexts to diminish and dismiss the claims of peoples who have been systematically oppressed.

    I think often people talking about identity politics fall into the trap of creating a rigid (essentialist!) dichotomy between identity and affinity. They forget that in many cases the creation of an identity is a reflection of affinity. And that that that makes it as dynamic, varied and internally complex as the politics of affinity.

    Out identities and the things we have affinity with serve a purpose and change as we do.

    En fin, awesome post!

  2. Anonymous5:54 pm

    I quite agree with your comments about 'identity politics', which seems to be now used as a vaguely undefined term of abuse for whatever politics the speaker doesn't much like.

    The distinction between class and ethnicity could be pretty loose anyway. James C Scott (see makes the point that ethnic identity is often created when an identifiable group resists the state over some time, regardless of any common ancestry or shared DNA. They adopt certain cultural characteristics which eventually become identified as an 'ethnicity'. In the case of the Han Chinese ethnicity, groups who removed themselves from citizenship in the Han state were quickly labelled as non-Han.

    In 'The Time Machine' H.G. Wells hypothesized that classes would eventually evolve into different species, if they were kept separate for long enough. It's been suggested that the African Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were created by colonists wanting an overseer class, or alternatively, that the terms originally simply referred to those who owned cattle and those who didn't. And of course, the old apartheid regime did a pretty good job of turning ethnic identity into class divisions. Dunno what the implications of all this is.

    I can't get excited about Mana though. I don't feel hostile, but I've seen many vehicles that tried to unite oppressed groups come and go, without much lasting effect. And the problem with parliamentary parties, as the Greens have amply demonstrated, is that they suck the sap out of the grassroots in the interests of maintaining an institution whose effectiveness is limited and highly constrained by the rules and culture of parliament.

    Once upon a time we had a grassroots green movement that was sometimes very effective, now we have a Green party which has a high profile, but struggles to demonstrate much concrete achievement coming out of all the work that has gone into the party. They end up squawking 'home insulation scheme' over and over like so many trained parrots while the government and corporates mine, frack, deforest, pollute, and concrete over the country.

    Hopefully Mana will contribute to the debate and discussion of ideas that will unite oppressed groups, but it's the shared ideas thrown up in debate that will unite us, not the party.


    Sam Buchanan

  3. Anonymous6:50 pm

    Hey Kim and all,

    Totally agree with what your saying about identity politics and tino rangatiratanga. It's refreshing to have some talk about this...I'm so sick of tino rangatiratanga being positioned as either innocuous but politically bankrupt identity politics OR sinister nationalism. I find it real hard to explain to tau iwi anarchists why this way of seeing TR is fucked. What your saying helps me sort through it intellectually.

    I sympathise with Sam's concern about Mana sucking the life out of grassroots struggle/channeling radicalism into reformism. At the mo I'm writing an essay for Te Reo on whether or not being involved in parliament has benefits for Maori, and I'm struggling with the practicalities. Like every anarchist I have lots of arguments against it...but the practical implications of having NO voice in government seems dire...
    Class struggle is a good way to exercise our power to weaken capitalism and the state...but as you say, any revolution that is not consented to by Maori is ongoing are non-reformist ways to struggle for tino rangatiratanga?
    I always come back to small and slow solutions: solidarity, strengthening community, re-learning his/herstory, decolonisation, healing our whanau, valuing our elders, taking our lives back into our hands, nurturing radicalism. But in the face of fucked-up legislation like the takutai-moana bill, it doesn't seem dramatic enough.

    Hana Plant

  4. Interesting post, thanks. I don't feel qualified to talk about TR in depth (in fact I feel quite challenged by it) so I'll let this sit with me for a bit.

    I did want to comment on this though:

    "Class-based struggle stems from Western philosophy, so it is not cultural/ ethnic, whereas tino rangatiratanga stems from mātauranga Māori, so it is cultural/ ethnic."

    I agree about the cultural bias and framework mentioned here. However I don't think class struggle stems from Western philosophy, but from material reality. Class-struggle theory may come from a Western cultural plane, but concrete class struggle is not limited to Western society. Just thought that distinction should be made :D


  5. Anonymous9:56 am

    "Class-struggle theory may come from a Western cultural plane, but concrete class struggle is not limited to Western society."

    I think the point was the common perception of class struggle as being 'acultural', and Tino Rangatiratanga being perceived as 'a cultural thing'. After all, Tino Rangatiratanga also stems from the material reality of conquest and colonisation. The politics of class struggle in Aotearoa are very much rooted in western philosophy, they don't have to be, but at present they are. There's still an assumption that western class analysis is universal and can be applied, perhaps with slight tweaking, to every culture and circumstance.

    "but the practical implications of having NO voice in government seems dire..."

    Does it? Is a tiny minority voice in parliament of any real value? It seems to me to just legitimise the current system by appearing to give Maori representation. It gives rise to both the "stop complaining, you've got the representatives in parliament, and as many as your numbers deserve" argument, and the constant ridiculing and derision of those representatives as a tiny, 'wacky radical', unrepresentative minority.

    To go back to the example of the Greens - was the environment worse off when there was no minority party supposedly looking after its interests, but when there was a grassroots movement that parliament felt compelled to respond to at times?


    Sam Buchanan

  6. Good point in response to Jared.

    and i also agree with what your critiques of being in government.
    but you'll understand that its easier said than felt...the situation for Maori is dire, so of course we want to pick up the crumbs.
    it seems hard hearted not to.
    what i am sure of is that there are better things to be doing!

  7. Anonymous9:52 am

    "the situation for Maori is dire, so of course we want to pick up the crumbs."

    Sure, parliament is always tempting - it's tantalising short cut to political power. But it's kind of like insisting that if you don't keep mopping the kitchen floor, everything will get wet, and thus you can't stop and fix the leaking pipe.

    Maori have had a long history of engagement in parliamentary politics - from the first Maori MPs; Frederick Nene Russell, Mete Kingi Te Rangi Paetahi, Tareha Te Moananui and John Patterson, through the Young Maori Party, Ratana's deal with Labour, Mana Motuhake, NZ First, The Maori Party, and now Mana.

    I'm no expert on the history, but the results haven't been so good. Has anybody written a critical assessment of the gains and costs?


    Sam Buchanan

  8. hey all, thanks for great comments and discussion. The one thing I want to comment on is that I don't see any potential in the Mana Party representing Māori in parliament, but I do see potential in them having a voice in the media.

    I think it's hard to imagine what it's like to be part of a group that has very little access to media (Māori TV has changed this a lot, but many of us can't get it), but that the media/ politicians have a lot to say about. Lots of Māori internalise the messages. Lots of Māori think we must be insane when we see media representations of some issues.

    I am hoping that the Mana Party uses its voice to remind us that we aren't insane, and that it is worth agitating.

    I am hoping that the Mana Party doesn't focus on parliamentary representation as a vehicle for change, or imagine that there is any opportunity for real political power for Māori in parliament.

    I know that many of the people involved in the party recognise that being part of the system gives it some legitimacy. I hope that they don't get caught up in the game and forget that their goal isn't to be a stable party in parliament.

    (I'm also not sure whether I agree with Sam's analysis of the effect of the green Party on the green movement--most of the Green Party supporters I met at GP meetings would never have been part of a radical movement. The old Values Party radicals are way outnumbered by green capitalists. Many of the radical movements (workers rights, students, environment, beneficiaries, feminism, etc) have run out of steam/ got much smaller in the last couple of decades, and it seems more likely that it's all due to a single reason, rather than a different reason for each movement (neo-libeeralist/ individual rights analysis seems to have become so normal that the media aren't bothered to talk about anything else, except as amusing loons). But I agree, the Greens have been focused on their long term survival as a parliamentary party--I'm hoping the Mana Party reject that strategy.)

  9. Anonymous5:58 pm

    I guess part of the point is that the grassroots environmental movement wasn't seen as a 'radical movement', just a fairly normal way of doing things. Nowadays, grassroots activities has pretty much been left to radicals as the others have headed off to professionalism or party politics. I did know a heap of people - radicals or social democrats - who have dropped out of campaigns to do Green Party work, though maybe now the supply has dried up as there's no grassroots to recruit from?

    A good media voice for Maori is important - I'm not sure that Mana will be that. The Pakeha media have trained themselves to respond to Maori spokespeople, other than very conservative ones, with a "here's another mad outburst from a Maori radical" line, regardless of what was actually being said. That's very hard to deal with. It requires careful consideration of the risks, and strong media skills (being right isn't enough), to successfully engage with a media that's both hostile and ignorant. It can be done, but there's a risk that unless you handle it very carefully, you are just feeding the sharks.