Cultural autonomy and other anti-colonial fantasies in the Pacific

Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

Last month the Micronesian nominee for the position of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Gerald Zackios, wrote an article celebrating the leadership of the Pacific region in global affairs, using it as rallying call to fight together against the climate crisis. Such an argument is of course synonymous with the idea of the New Pacific Diplomacy which celebrates the growing power and influence of Pacific international diplomacy. Around the same time as the Zackios article, three separate news reports appeared which highlighted the plight of Pacific Island people in the face of an impending food crisis, persistent stunting and malnutrition in Pacific children, and inadequate and fragile health systems under threat against the slow creep of COVID in the region. How are we to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory accounts of the Pacific Island governments? That is, on the one hand the image of Pacific governments leading the world as a force for good, while on the other hand those same governments failing to secure the wellbeing and livelihoods of the people they govern?

It was Epeli Hau’ofa who perhaps already identified the underlying structure of this contradiction when he observed how the hoped for era of autonomy following political independence has not materialized in the Pacific. Rather our post-independence autonomy has been characterised by deepened integration into the structures of regional and global capitalism and the development of transnational class divisions in which an elite class has privileged access to, and control of, resources moving within and to and from the region. Furthermore, Hau’ofa argues these class and power relations of “The New South Pacific Society” are reinforced by the manipulation of Pacific cultures by local elites. As Hau’ofa puts it, “it is the poor that have to live out the traditional culture; the privileged can merely talk about it and be in a position to be selective about what traits they use or more correctly urge others to observe…to secure greater advantages for themselves”.

Within this context – of a blurring of the lines of racial and colonial difference – how can Pacific political activists build on the anti-colonial movements of the past and challenge the class and power relations of the New South Pacific Society? Or as Indian academic Saroj Giri asks more generally in a brilliant essay ‘Parasitic Anti-Colonialism‘, what happens to the anti-colonial frame of analysis “when a section of the non-white (formally colonised) are now found to be ‘good at capitalism’, the key dynamic of Western society, even as the same society treats them as second-class citizens?” Does it remain valid as a frame of analysis and action? 

For Hau’ofa, the answer appears to be yes and he holds onto the anti-colonial frame through his idea of “cultural autonomy”. That is, in the face of deepening integration into structures of global capitalism and the manipulation of culture by privileged elites, he appeals to an authentic, liberated space of Pacific culture. In doing so he turns to the creative arts, arguing that they are “necessary tools for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy within a homogenising global system” and given “Our social, economic and political institutions are woven into the larger world system, any free space within will have to be established through creative cultural production”. This idea of cultural autonomy resonates with what Partha Chatterjee calls the ‘inner domain of culture’ which acts as a “sovereign territory of the nation, where the colonial state [or post-colonial West] are not allowed entry, even as the outer domain remains surrendered to the colonial power”. As such, the appeal to an inner domain of culture enables the maintenance of an anti-colonial resistance grounded in a politics of difference.

Hau’ofa’s version of the inner domain of culture (i.e., cultural autonomy) has influenced the work and ideas of academics, activists and politicians across the region. Through their actions can see how the basic structure of this politics of difference works to create a binary opposition between the Pacific and ‘the West’. For example, in a recent article Tess Newton-Cain and Wes Morgan celebrate the growth of a uniquely Pacific form of international diplomacy grounded in a regional identity that has acted as a shield against global forces. Following Hau’ofa’, the authors assert this regional identity politics has been shaped and deeply influenced by Pacific islander poets, novelists, musicians, visual artists, choreographers and dancers. We now see this ‘New Pacific Diplomacy’ is being further extended by George Carter’s emphasis on ‘indigenous diplomacy’. From this stance of Pacific particularity within the universal order of global capitalism then, one is ready to identify and assert the ways, as Nic Maclellan recently put it, Pacific Island countries differ with their larger development partners on a range of issues including climate change, decolonisation, trade, regional security and so on.

But what of the unequal relations of class and power in Hau’ofa’s New South Pacific Society, relations which are internal to the Pacific itself? Here the emphasis on the inner domain of culture (of cultural autonomy) is an ideological ploy serving to absolve the middle and privileged classes of responsibility for their participation in perpetuating the relations of power and class of the New South Pacific Society.   As such, the New Pacific Diplomacy’s emphasis on our uniquely Pacific form of diplomacy (as the inner domain of culture) serves as an ideological fantasy covering over the ongoing failure of Pacific autonomy following political independence. Or to return to the beginning of this post, it enables the political and economic elite to mask the unequal relations of class and power underlying the plight of poor and vulnerable Pacific Island people while at the same time appearing as influential leaders in the global arena in the name of these same people. In short, The New Pacific Diplomacy is the ideology supporting the persistence of The New South Pacific Society.