Beyond COVID – identifying the social symptoms of Oceania

Photo by Chris Pagan on Unsplash

A few articles have appeared in the media recently that are beginning to push back against what they see as an over-emphasis on COVID-19 at the expense of other “social ills”, such as HIV, poverty or or violence against women. As with any illness, we can detect its presence through the emergence of symptoms. With regards to social ills and their symptoms, it is Karl Marx who most comprehensively developed the idea of the social symptom. The Marxian symptom is a particular element that subverts the apparent consistency of the social order of which the symptom is itself a part. The quintessential example for Marx is bourgeois freedoms (like freedom of speech, freedom of expression and so on) whose universal claims are subverted by the freedom to sell ones labour – that is, the exercise of ones freedom to sell their labour results in ones exploitation, thereby both undermining the universal claim of freedom (for all) as well as showing the “truth” (of domination and subservience) at the heart of bourgeois society.  Therefore the paradoxical nature of the social symptom is that while it subverts the consistency of the social order, it is also the constitutive element of that society, the thing that without which society as we know it would disintegrate. 

In Capital, Marx also observes a shift in the social fetish during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. While under feudalism, we fetishised ‘relations between men’ (relations of domination and servitude), in capitalism our fetish shifts to the ‘relations between things’ (commodities in the market). The key point here is that the relations of domination and servitude do not disappear in this transition, but are simply repressed and misrecognised in our focus on the relations between things. The social symptom is effectively a ‘return of the repressed’, reminding us from time to time of the relations of domination and servitude that persist at the heart of capitalism.

Recall Epeli Hau’ofa’s observation of the emergence of The New Pacific Society following political independence in the region. For Hau’ofa,  this new Society is characterised by deepened integration of island countries within global capitalism and the transnationalisation of social classes in the region. As such, Hau’ofa claims “It follows that what we call national sovereignty in the region is little more than a measure of local autonomy in the hands of competing national interests within the larger regional economy. These interests are represented by the ruling groups within each community”.

Despite the persistence of these class relations in the Pacific, we could perhaps in a Marxist way argue that in the transition to political independence we have made a shift from the fetish of ‘relations between men’ (the relations of colonial domination in the Pacific) to ‘relations between states’. That is today we fetishise the Pacific participation in international order of states, such as our international diplomacy in climate change negotiations, or the expression of our uniquely Pacific form of international diplomacy and so on. In doing so, we repress the relations of domination and servitude that persist in the region both between states (seen in our ongoing dependency on others) and within states. 

An article published on on December 1 provides an excellent example of the Marxian social symptom as it applies to the context of Oceania. In the article titled “Mark One Apparel projecting a 7 figure profit this year”, the success of the company is explained in three ways: the quality of the product (the business sells to Australian professional sports teams); the company’s shift to ‘online’ commerce; and, the “Fiji Made” brand. 

There are two points to make here. Firstly, in making the claim about the value of the “Fiji Made” brand the article highlights the geopolitical tensions between Australia and China, where “China is being difficult and there is this view that they should move away from things manufactured in China”. Here we see political and economic powers in the region joining forces with a shared Sinophobic narrative between regional political powers and local economic elites. That is, the social symptom is displaced, repressed, via the fetish with geopolitical relations between states. Here perhaps we see the “truth” behind region’s emphasis on the unique expressions of Pacific identity in both regional politics and economy. In both cases the narrative is aimed at reinforcing existing relations domination and servitude within and between states in ‘The New South Pacific Society’.

The second point of course is the question of why, if there is the view that businesses should be turning away from China, that they should be turning to Fiji? What is it about the “Fiji Made” label that makes it such an attractive choice? Is it the quality of the product that the article alludes too, or the successful use of online commerce? Rather, the value lies in what is not said in the article – the low costs of wage labour in the Fiji garment industry. Let us recall that the minimum wage rate in Fiji (which is typically what the garment industry pays) sits at a woefully low $2.68 per hour, with 35% of workers earning less than $2.90 per hour (and we should juxtapose this to the report that Fiji is home to 527 millionaires).  Therefore, it’s neither the quality of the product, the use of online commerce, nor the geopolitical competition between Australia and China that accounts for the 7 figure profit, but rather the exploitation of Fijian labour. We can no doubt identify this same symptom emerging from the tourism industry, seafarers, and so on across the region.

Therefore as we continue to test for symptoms of COVID-19 in the region, we must stay alert to the social symptoms at the heart of our New Pacific Society. And, just as urgently as we need a COVID vaccine, we too must work to rid ourselves of the causes of our persistent social symptoms.