Sunday, September 09, 2012

REVIEW: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation 
by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard (McGIl University Press 2008).

I don't have time to write a detailed review of this work, and fortunately I don't need to, since it has  proved to be as provocative as it was no doubt intended to be, and has already sparked much commentary. (For a balanced selection, see Brian Beaton's collection of  four reviews on  Media KNet: .  In particular, a good short  review is that  of Metis policy analyst Joseph Quesnel in the Calgary Herald; and the best example of  scathing and at times nasty critique has to be that of  Taiaiake Alfred.

I will, however, make a few short comments:

1) I was attracted to this book because I believe that there is an aboriginal industry to be disrobed, i.e. the largely self-serving and self-perpetuating army of lawyers, bureaucrats, consultants, anthropologists and native band leaders who profit from native grievance, native dependency, and identity politics.

2)  After all those years of graduate study focusing on communitarian critiques of liberalism (McIntyre, Walzer, Sandel, Taylor, et al) and critiques of Enlightenment (McIntyre, John Ralston Saul, John Gray, to say nothing of feminist theory),  I  found it refreshing to read somebody arguing unapologetically for a good old-fashioned  Enlightenment theory of human social progress!  This view  sees all humans as progressing beyond tribal loyalties and superstitions and toward a rational universal human civilization. The "scientific basis" for this view is the Marxist or historical materialist view that "culture" can be categorized according to the stage of economic and technological development to which it belongs; tribal kinship-based cultures are unsuited to industrial development and mass society and are therefore backwards compared to more mainstream cultures.  "Today, this schism between aboriginal people and other Canadians  is encouraged by the Aboriginal Industry, which proposes initiatives that retain neolithic cultural features"(p.60).  Some First Nations people will find that word "neolithic" to be demeaning, but Widdowson and Howard are well-intentioned and not racist.

3)  They are, however, mistaken to have such a reductionist view of culture. One wonders how they explain away  the fact that Britain, the seat of both the industrial revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment, still has a hereditary chief (monarch)? Or that in The United States, the spearheading of technological and economic progress occurs in a country where anyone who seeks election to high political office must be a churchgoer if they wish to be successful?  One reason that suggests itself is that all of this atavistic cultural baggage performs some functions other than the simple growth in productive power and domination of nature. This was the point of the communitarian critics of Enlightenment liberalism:  that the best way to negotiate modernity  was not by shedding your identity, but by having your feet firmly planted in that identity as a basis for self-determination.  A recent study showing  that First Nations communities in British Columbia with greater control over their affairs experienced substantially lower rates of suicide is another recent example of this evident truth. (J.J. Chandler and C. Lalonde, “Cultural Continuity as a hedge against suicide in Canada’s First Nations,” Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1998, pp. 191-219.)

I can also think of another reason for valuing cultural diversity, actually suggested by Darwinian /Marxist theory itself:  might not cultural traits that appear to be primitive in one context (living in balance with nature, matriarchy rather than patriarchy) actually be conducive to human progress in another context (when ecological imbalance and sexual inequality need to be redressed)?  To be fair, the authors do address this latter point, but only very briefly, with reference to the preservation of languages:  "The argument [that disappearance of languages is detrimental to the survival of humanity]relies on a confusion of cultural and biological diversity, as well as a denial of cultural evolution. It is erroneously assumed that linguistic diversity is similar to biological diversity. The comparison is faulty, since languages are a part of culture  and can be dramatically transformed even within a single generation. This means that it is not necessary to maintain a variety of cultural characteristics "on hand"  so that they can be selected to aid survival" (p.212).

4)  We need to ask not only whether a  theory is "right," but whether it illuminates and serves a critical function.  Virtually all political and social theories turn out to be less general and more limited than they aspire to be. Yet the good theories last, not because they are proven to be "right", but because they continue to shed their own particular light. Hardly anyone literally subscribes to the thoroughgoing atomism, individualism and materialism  contained in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, or to the political prescription it contains. But they often see aspects of its logic at work to this very day, in fields as diverse as property law, financial markets and international relations.  It still illuminates.

So it is with Widdowson and Howard's version of Marxism, which shines in several places. We should ask the question "Is preserving this cultural trait this going to help, or at least not hurt, First Nations people to adapt and survive in the twenty-first century?" After all, over-emphasizing some cultural traits at the expense of engagement with the larger society can and does retard social progress. But we shouldn't assume in any specific instance what the answer will be--either from a preservationist or non-preservationist point of view. Widdowson and Howard's perspective suggests some hard questions that need answers. That is why this book deserved its Donner Prize nomination. For example, they challenge the conservative /neo-liberal interpetations  of Thomas Flanagan (First nations? Second Thoughts) and Calvin Helin (Dances with Dependency), who both blame aboriginal problems on an excess of government and see the private sector as the solution.  On the contrary, Widdowson and Howard argue that "[t]he withdrawal of government funding from aboriginal communities would be disastrous, since intensive government programs and services are needed to develop aboriginal cultures"(253).  Alan Cairns's effort to build a theoretical middle ground that combines respectful recognition of aboriginal cultures with a desire to integrate them into Canadian citizenship also gets a tough treatment: the "difference" to which Cairns wishes to accord positive recognition "actually consists of the traditions associated with remnants of aboriginal peoples' hunting and gathering/horticultural mode of production"(254). If Widdowson and Howard are correct, this "recognition" will only inhibit their participation in a larger, more complex and more productive economy and society.

I especially liked their use of Erik Olin Wright's distinction between "exploitative versus non-exploitative oppression" to explain the difference between colonialist relations experienced by black people and those experienced by native people (76-77). While I expect that native theorists would view expropriation and exploitation  of the land as every bit as as "exploitative" of First Nations people as the expropriation of labour of African slaves, that would miss Widdowson and Howard's point: "[l]acking the power that comes from being needed for labour, aboriginals have had to rely on the formulation of legal arguments by the Aboriginal Industry." This has meant depending on judicial interpretations, lacking a cohesive political movement, and competing for government money and resource rights instead of building a true common cause.

  Of course, it is also wrong to sweep the past five decades of theoretical effort in every humanities and social science discipline under the rug with repeated dismissive references to  "postmodern identity politics". And one wonders whether the authors themselves have made sufficient theoretical effort to keep up with the literature on social capital, post-materialism, or the re-construction of social theory that critical theory  makes possible. Which brings me to my final point:

5)  Instead of throwing this thought-provoking work  into the "garbage bin", it should inspire a sequel, based more on the Foucault-Habermas debate taking place and other trends in radical and critical theory now instead of the debates between the anthropologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Franz Boas that took place a hundred or so years ago (53-60). Post-Kuhnian and post-Popperian philosophy of science should also be discussed, since the Aboriginal Industry according to Widdowson and Howard places great stress on what should count as scientific knowledge.  David Harvey's  theorization of the transition from Fordist to flexible accumulation is an historical materialist account, largely inspired by Marx's analysis of capitalism, but up-dated into an account of postmodernism as a societal condition. Bob Jessop is another post-war Marxist state theorist whose work could illuminate a radical critique of aboriginal  policy without eschewing a materialist positive theory. My hunch is that a Foucauldian critique of  the aboriginal industry would be just as penetrating as Widdowson's and Howard's analysis,  and would even more revealing of it as a system of social control. A Habermasian approach to aboriginal policy would likely allow for a greater retention of native identities than would Widdowson and Howard's, since it is sensitive to the sacredness of identity and belief that underpins communicative action.   As a result, its appeal to universal citizenship, while equally rooted in the Enlightenment, would look a lot more like self-determination, and a lot less like neo-assimilation, to native peoples. And a theoretical orientation similar to Harvey's would enable the authors to situate aboriginal policy within an ideological critique of postmodernism instead of  simply dismissing 'postmodernity' as an intellectual fad.

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