2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific part 2: Rewriting the Past

Photo by Ben Bohane

Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes, “in order to change our future, we should first (not “understand” but) change our past, reinterpret it in a way that opens up toward a different future from the one implied by the predominant vision of the past1. Part one of this blog post claimed that the predominant vision of the past in Oceania is one in which the realisation of our political independence resulted in perpetual dependency on foreign aid and a retreat into Pacific identity politics. For us, what is at stake in reinterpreting our history is the ability to think the Pacific as a collective political subject capable of realising equality and justice.

The end of history in the Oceania pronounced by the ADB marks the region as the ‘part of no part’, as constitutively excluded from the system of global economic relations. Despite being endowed with vast natural resources, the Pacific occupies the place of those who cannot develop these resources in the manner demanded by global capitalism (hence ‘a no growth state of affairs’). As a result, the status of the Pacific oscillates between a victim provided with charitable financial aid (‘permanent dependence on foreign aid’) and a unique, authentic way of life that must be protected (Blue Pacific identity politics). This accepted past delineates the boundaries of all that is thinkable in Pacific regional politics and prevents us from imagining any fundamental social change.

For their part, Australia and New Zealand, reinforce this situation by attempting to delicately balance the exercise of geopolitical power while at the same time ‘checking their privilege’. They do so by narrowly identifying with the ethnic roots of the Pacific and displaying an ethical concern for protecting this ‘authentic’ Pacific way of life. In this way Australia and New Zealand’s ethical concern for protecting Pacific culture includes a desire to ensure that the Pacific does not become ‘too modern like them’ 2.

To be, or not to be, like them…

Of course, in response we can hear the chorus of Pacific activists singing ‘We don’t want to be like them anyway!!’ However, contrary to this anti-colonial retort, Australia and New Zealand (the main interlocutors of western capitalism in our region) do not simply want to push a universal sameness on the region, rather, they seek to fully protect a narrowly defined Pacific way of life while maintaining the Pacific’s status as fragile and victimised. As a result, the economic domain remains untouched, free from any critical analysis. We can see therefore how Blue Pacific identity politics is simply flip side of the same coin: a retreat into a position external to capitalism in order to assert our autonomy in the cultural-political domain, leaving the economic domain free from our critical engagement.

More than simply leaving the economic domain untouched, however, the full implications of Blue Pacific identity politics is captured by Saroj Giri’s excellent question: what happen’s to the anti-colonial frame of analysis when a section of the formerly colonised become good at capitalism, the key dynamic of Western society, even as the same society treats them as second class citizens?3 Giri’s answer is that the non-modern, radical alterity upon which the anti-colonial is premised now stands for the capitalist universal through the figure of the ‘anti-colonial’ non-European capitalist 4. In other words, the assertion of cultural identity shifts from being an opposing force against a homogenising Western capitalism to providing the very grounds for the the universalisation of capitalism.

It is this shift that Hau’ofa began to discern in his New South Pacific Society , only to later commit the error of retreating into cultural autonomy. Elsewhere, Australian based academic Stephanie Lawson claims that the “Pacific Way” is a conservative discourse embracing notions of class hierarchy common to elites among both colonisers and colonised. Similar to Giri, Lawson also questions whether post-colonialism’s ‘anticoloniality’ necessarily produces class divisions that undermine its anti-hegemonic credentials. In this context then, where the assertion of Blue Pacific identity politics serves to universalise the very conditions of our dependency and vulnerability, the crucial question is can the Blue Pacific enable a politics for the authentic emancipation of Oceania? How can we assert our Blue Pacific not just in the cultural domain but in a manner that has implications in the economic realm, changing its very ‘nature’?

Universalising the Blue Pacific

The starting point in which we simply reject Western capitalist universalism in the name of respecting the plurality of particular cultures does not go far enough. Emancipatory struggles should take a step further and assert a “a totally different Universal, that of an antagonistic struggle which, rather than taking place between particular communities, splits each community from within, so that the ‘trans-cultural’ link between communities is one of a shared struggle5. Against advocating for a decolonial retreat from universality into non-Western particularity, which fetishises the suffering of dispossessed, Frantz Fanon too appeals to a concrete universalist framework which takes up the plight of the dispossessed as a universal cause 6. Here we find ourselves back with Hau’ofa: not the Hau’ofa of cultural autonomy, but the Hau’ofa who recognises the shared antagonistic struggle arising from transnational class relations dividing the Pacific from within. In fact, more than Hau’ofa, the politics being developed here while being conditioned by Hau’ofa’s content should take the form Francis Ona: that is, our sea of islands as a militant, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist collective.

What does this mean for the Blue Pacific? Rather than appealing to Blue Pacific identity politics which fetishises our vulnerability and calls on the ethical and moral responsibilities of others to protect us, an emancipatory Blue Pacific politics would identify fully with our status as ‘the part of no part’ of global capitalism. To be clear, the identification being advocated for here is to be distinguished from the typical anti-colonial identity politics in the region which interprets being the ‘part of no part’ of global capitalism in a way that claims the Pacific is ‘outside’ capitalism. Against this position, the Blue Pacific politics advocated for here asserts our status of being the ‘part of not part’ while remaining within capitalism. This politics enables us to occupy certain positions in our past and present, and not others, that illuminate rather than refuse the antagonisms traversing the region. It enables us assert that it is not our particular, fixed material geography which denies us the freedoms and equality otherwise promised by capitalism; rather it is the social processes of the production and accumulation of wealth, the global capitalist system, which denies us the right to participate in universal rights and freedoms.

Again, and for the last time, Blue Pacific identity politics disavows this universal, emancipatory dimension through fetishising cultural autonomy and inclusion. It occupies a position which demands to be ‘included’ through recognition of our Pacific way of life (giving us a ‘voice’ in the existing global system, facilitating our participation in it and so on). Rather the Blue Pacific politics advocated for here would insist that to be included is a demand for equality and the chance to act as an autonomous free subject, a demand whose realisation would radically transform the existing objective circumstances that determine the predominant vision of our past.

The 2050 Strategy: A Blue Pacific Utopia?

While at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat I participated in a workshop on the development of strategic pathways (such as those attempted in the draft 2050 Strategy). The highly paid overseas consultant facilitating the workshop repeatedly insisted that the example we should use to think through the logic of these pathways was neoliberal regional economic integration. Instead, I suggested that we develop a pathway for Pacific economic autonomy, to which the consultant gave a dismissive laugh and said ‘it has to be something realistic’.

Fredric Jameson once claimed that imagining the end of the world appears more realistic today than imagining the end of capitalism. In a similar way, Slavoj Zizek argues that the true vision of utopia today is the belief that the existing global system can reproduce itself indefinitely, that is, the belief that there really is no alternative to existing liberal multiculturalist capitalism. In this way the Pacific Islands Forum through the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent are today’s true utopians. The draft 2050 Strategy doesn’t allow us to think beyond the horizon of capitalism insisting instead on a series of cosmetic, gradual reforms of the existing system as the key to securing a viable future for the Blue Pacific. Under the 2050 Strategy, it remains impossible to imagine the Pacific not as perpetually dependent on foreign aid but as a collective political subject capable of realising equality and justice.

Paradoxically then, the ability really believe in what, within the given coordinates of global capitalism, cannot but appear as impossible or unrealistic, rather than being utopian, provides us with a dose concrete reality 7. It does so by forcing us to engage with practical questions such as how to begin to organise around this impossibility, how to communicate it and build solidarity with it. It demands that we remain alert to moments when we can see this collective political subject already existing. Indeed, in this context, to simply think the Pacific as an autonomous, collective political subject capable of realising equality and justice itself becomes an emancipatory act. This is the true failure of the draft 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent: it prevents the opportunity for us to collectively think the impossible and dare to believe in the hoped for era of Pacific autonomy.

Notes:

  1. Slavoj Zizek (2019). Incontinence of the Void. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 160.
  2. Zahi Zalloua (2020). Zizek on Race. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 63, 100.
  3. Saroj Giri (2017). ‘Parasitic Anti-Colonialism’, in Jela Krecic (Ed), The Final Countdown: Europe, Refugees and the Left. Ljubljana: IRWIN.
  4. Slavoj Zizek, Incontinence of the Void, p. 246.
  5. Slavoj Zizek (2011). Living in the End Times. London: Verso, p. 53.
  6. Zahi Zalloua, Zizek on Race.
  7. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, p. 363.