From Oceania Hypothesis to Oceania Collective – Part III: It’s Party time?!

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

In this third part of the series of posts towards a new form of political organisation in the Pacific, we consider the question political organisation itself. That is, how do we organise as a collective political movement based on our fate as a sacrifice zone? How do we organise in a context in which we are fragmented and where what is required of us cannot be easily drawn from the existing coordinates of our everyday knowledge and experiences?

What’s in a word?

Perhaps one question that arises is how does the naming of the region as a sacrifice zone mean help with the task of organisation? What does it demand of us? Does it demand something new? In a series of recent Tweets, Nic Maclellan provides a useful outline of increasing US engagement in the Pacific, as well as a range of analytical responses to it. Within the latter, one can readily see an approach that places the Pacific in external opposition to regional powers and the way they engage with the region. For example, Alan Tidwell writes the US should engage in a ‘multi-week tour of the Pacific Islands to hear from voices both inside government and out, to ask what most worries the Pacific Islands, and what the United States and its allies can do in addressing those needs’. Wesley-Smith and Finin1 argue that the problem with the US approach is that it is ‘driven by security concerns not shared by island leaders’ and therefore is ‘unlikely to address the priorities of the island nations themselves’. Others point to issues of major powers ‘ignoring established regional processes of decision-making’ thereby upsetting established structures set up by the Pacific islands states based on the doctrine of ‘friends to all’.

The presuppositions driving these analysis are that the problems faced by the Pacific are ones concerning differing values, approaches and policy priorities that can nonetheless be resolved by a more inclusive, respectful diplomatic approach. The Pacific stands in opposition to the approaches of regional powers and subsequently emphasis is always on what the regional powers could do differently in order to better accomodate and respect the agency of the Pacific. In contrast, the naming of the Pacific as a sacrifice zone is grounded in an irreducible antagonism that situates the Pacific within the current situation rather than opposed to it. It reframes the problem from one of the Pacific voice is being respected and included, to one that recognises that within the existing coordinates of US led imperialism, there is no place for the Pacific. As Henry Kissinger’s infamously stated with regards to the Pacific, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”2. More broadly, other writers on the global South observe how many populations in colonial theatres have been rendered disposable by virtue of having no value to extract”. Such sacrificial and disposable populations are not aberrations of the functioning of capitalist imperialism, but rather its obscene underlying support. In other words, capitalist imperialism relies on sacrificial and disposable zones in order for it to function effectively.

Slovene philosopher Alenka Zupancic, following Louis Althusser, writes that when dealing with a conflictual reality (such as one beset by climate catastrophe, imperialism, the threat of war and so on), ‘one cannot see everything from everywhere. One necessarily therefore is partial (or partisan) in the way they approach or deal with a conflict: some positions dissimulate (conceal or disguise) the conflict and some reveal it’3. Further, Zupancic appeals to the need for the right word (not more words) that ‘gives us access to reality in a whole different way…not a correct description of a reality; it introduces a new reality’. In this way, the naming of the Pacific as a sacrifice zone is an attempt to take a position that see the social conflicts in our region in a new way. It is an attempt to open up a space within our given situation towards a new politics. A politics fundamentally different from the predominant one of seeking more equal, inclusive and respectful diplomacy.

A Pacific Proletariat?

One of the critical lessons from Marxism for us today is that there is no ready made revolutionary subject (ie. the proletariat) who will exploit the antagonisms of capitalism and transform society. In this way it would be a mistake to consider that a unified Pacific collective spontaneously exists in response to our position as a sacrifice zone within global capitalism. As raised in part one of this series of posts, the situation in the Pacific is rather one of fragmentation: states not representing the interests of the people; civil society fragmented into a range of diverse, particular social movements and issues; transnational class divisions splitting the region from within; and Pacific states themselves having serious disagreements over a range of issues, such as West Papuan independence and deep sea mining.

German philosopher Frank Ruda helps us to understand the difference between our antagonistic position within global capitalism and the would-be collective subject of transformative change. In his book Hegel’s Rabble4, Ruda outlines how the realm of social production (economy) is internally marked by a lack that it cannot overcome. In short, the logic of the capitalist economy produces the poor (the disposable) who are deprived of a proper place within capitalist social production. This problem of poverty, the internal antagonism of capitalism, becomes a political problem for the rabble by serving as the place through which the rabble – as a collective political subject -can emerge. Similarly, for both Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou, this structural place in which the poor appear can be described as a place of transformation. Therefore, in our terms, while sacrifice zones are a necessary condition of capitalist imperialism, it is insufficient for creating a collective revolutionary subject capable of transforming these conditions.

How does the Pacific party?

So what is required to make the transformative act in which those who are the discarded refuse of the capitalist system organise into a revolutionary collective subject? For a range of key radical thinkers today, the answer lies in the form of political organisation. For example US based political theorist Jodi Dean5 claims that we need to revisit the Party form. By the term ‘Party’, Dean does not mean ‘imagining a national, mass-electoral party’ but rather ‘envisions a solidary, militant, international organization”. Such a party occupies the space of antagonism, the sacrifice zone, because it is from here that a new collective political subjectivity can be developed. Therefore, the fundamental task of such a party (in our case, a transnational/regional solidary, militant organisation) is creating a new political subjectivity out of our position as a sacrificed zone of imperial, militarised, eco-genocidal capitalism.

In a similar way the Subset of Theoretical Practice (STP)- a collective of intellectuals and militant activists – emphasises the necessary mediating role of political organisation, particularly under present conditions of fragmentation where a lack of symbolic and material forces no longer guarantee homogeneity amongst the exploited classes. For STP, the starting position is to reject the presupposition that there is some sort of natural homogeneity that will spontaneously produce a collective political subject (e.g., in our case, that our geography or identity provides a guarantee of homogeneity). Again, the task is one of constructing a ‘we’, of deliberately making things, actions, movements and so on converge rather than assuming that they naturally will. In this way political organisation acts as a mediator, providing a mapping of the social world for our individual action, thereby helping us to see our social world differently while also increasing our capacity to act. From this perspective then, the task of political organisation in the Pacific takes on a different meaning, requiring new strategies and tactics. It becomes a problem not of how to bring about a certain future, but rather a problem of Pacific organisation in the present.

How might such an organisation look in the Pacific? It is here that we perhaps come full circle and ask what we can learn from the NFIP? Specifically, what we have in mind here is the role played by the Pacific Concerns Recourse Centre (PCRC) in supporting the NFIP; what Nic Maclellan once described as being a ‘secretariat to the NFIP movement’. There are of course significant differences between the context of the NFIP movement and now, including the fact that the PCRC emerged out of the movement whereas today we are in need of building the latter. Nonetheless, Dean 6 claims, the Party ‘anticipates the revolution. It provides an organisational space and language for reflection, analysis, decision and planning, a space where political consciousness is developed and deployed’. I would offer therefore, that a reinvented PCRC for our times could, following Dean, immediately begin with the modest tasks of preparing for a revolutionary situation ‘by having people in multiple places who speak the same language, who share the same goals and who have the same criteria for figuring out what is to be done’.

  1. T. Wesley Smith & G. Finin (2021), ‘US-Pacific engagement and the Biden Presidency: The limits of a China-Centred approach’, The Journal of Pacific History, 56, pp. 437-458.
  2. Teaiwa, T.K., 1994. Bikinis and Other s/Pacific n/Oceans. The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1), 87–109.
  3. A. Zupancic (2017), ‘What is Sex?’, Cambridge, MIT Press.
  4. F. Ruda (2011), Hegel’s Rabble: An Investigation into Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, London: Continuum.
  5. J. Dean (2015), ‘The party and communist solidarity’, Rethinking Marxism, 27, pp 332-342.
  6. J. Dean (2019), Communicative Capitalism and Revolutionary Form,
    Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 47, pp 326-340.