Neoliberal Multiculturalism and Indigeneity, by Sophie Gulliver

This March, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his support for the proposed closure of up to 150 remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia, arguing that the Australian government could not ‘endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have’. This followed federal funding cuts in 2014 that slashed essential services like sewerage, power and water to these remote communities. That the self-titled ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians’—who has advocated for Indigenous constitutional recognition, and increased community engagement and cultural support—would endorse a policy that could force the migration of Indigenous people from their cultural and spiritual homelands is ironic and puzzling. These top-down policies do not empower Indigenous people but rather delegitimise their ways of being and curtail their choices based on ideals of profitability and participation. Indigenous Australians, it seems, are encouraged to ‘maintain their culture’, but only so long as this marries with the capitalist and individualist goals of the Australian state.

In recent research I analysed the seemingly contradictory coexistence of both multicultural and neoliberal ideals in the governance of Indigenous people, examining the relationship between the Chilean state and the Indigenous Mapuche of the southern Araucanía region. Chile’s return to democracy in 1990 after seventeen years of military rule marked a turning point for Indigenous–state relations. The newly elected centre-left Concertación government responded to growing Indigenous demands by enacting the Indigenous Law and establishing the National Indigenous Development Agency in 1993, initiating the landmark development program Orígenes in 2001 and ratifying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet these multicultural reforms occurred within stringent neoliberal structures inherited from the dictatorship and were accompanied by repressive state measures to quell Mapuche protests for land rights and autonomy.

I argue that, in the Chilean state’s paradoxical strategy of government, certain multicultural reforms have been adopted to reposition ethnicity as a commodity that can be regulated towards the generation of capital. Governing authorities have constructed Indigenous identity following the binary, as Charles Hale suggests (borrowing terms coined by Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui), of the indio permitido (permitted Indian) and indio insurrecto (insurrectionary Indian). Mapuche people have been encouraged through development, health and education programs to identify with the indio permitido, who embodies ‘good’ ethnicity, harnessing their ethnic ‘capital’ to contribute to collective accumulation. Conversely, Mapuche individuals who demand rights and recognition that are contradictory to neoliberal objectives have been marginalised as ‘terrorists’ and penalised through state violence and legal force. This construction of Indigenous identity as authorised/unauthorised has facilitated state control over the Mapuche by legitimising state force against those deemed non-compliant while encouraging the creation of subjects that self-regulate in concert with neoliberal goals.

This paradoxical approach towards Indigenous people is not unique to Chile. In Australia too the valorisation of Indigenous cultural freedom exists alongside measures that circumscribe Indigenous rights and choice. Frameworks like Closing the Gap and the Indigenous Advancement Strategy facilitate the ‘normalisation’ of Indigenous populations by encouraging work, educational and health habits that mesh with neoliberal ideals of the responsible, entrepreneurial individual. At the same time, the de-funding and closure of Indigenous communities, the Northern Territory Intervention, and the Stronger Futures initiative coerce Indigenous people, labelling them ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘abusive’, into complying with neoliberal standards of productive behaviour.

Neoliberal multiculturalism

The global diffusion of neoliberal economic ideas over the past thirty years by a range of actors, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, academic policy communities like the Chicago Boys, and multinational corporations, has led to shifts in practices of state power. Neoliberal rationalities discard the concept of the welfare state, emphasising instead the efficacy of market logics, rational choice and individual responsibilisation as the best means by which to govern and achieve economic outcomes. Neoliberal structural reforms—like those undertaken with gusto during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and to a more measured degree in Australia during the 1980s—involved dismantling the welfare state and the logic of social protection by deregulating the market, privatising state assets and directing citizens to cultivate their own capital in pursuit of greater economic growth.

Yet this unfettered expansion of capitalism and increasing global interconnectivity not only fostered the dissemination of neoliberal ideals but also spurred the rise of the concept of indigeneity. Indigenous movements the world over began to connect, mobilise and challenge governments for land rights, cultural recognition and reform. A multicultural discourse emerged that advocated for recognition and valorisation of previously marginalised identities, a transformation in the dominant patterns of representation and communication of those groups and the rectification of the economic and political disadvantages minorities suffer. Multicultural reforms and the ratification of international conventions and declarations enshrined and extended Indigenous and minority rights and recognition.

While the confluence of these two paradigms may seem incompatible, it is important to remember, as Aihwa Ong affirms, that neoliberalism is an ‘extraordinarily malleable art of government’. Instead of rejecting multicultural concepts, neoliberal doctrine harnesses them to re-activate Indigenous communities and redirect their political energy towards contributing and consenting to the neoliberal project. When fused together, these two rationalities give rise to a neoliberal multicultural ethos of government that aspires to create ‘ethnically economic citizens’—Indigenous subjects who embrace ethnic difference so long as it is compatible with market logics and capital accumulation.

The history of the Mapuche

In Chile, unlike in Australia, the Spanish colonisers were unable to conquer the Indigenous people, recognisin Mapuche sovereignty over southern Chile in 1641. Following the declaration of Chilean independence in 1818, however, the expansionist ambitions of the newly born state drove increasing encroachment onto Mapuche lands. By the 1860s, this intrusion had become an organised military campaign known as the ‘Pacification of the Araucanía’, which by 1883 had violently subjugated the Mapuche to the Chilean state. Following Chile’s victory, the surviving Mapuche were herded onto small parcels of land gifted to them under ‘Mercy Titles’ that represented 6.4 per cent of their previous territories. To add insult to injury, in 1927 a law was passed that allowed the subdivision and sale of Mapuche land, further decreasing Mapuche territory by one-fifth.

Progressive land reforms undertaken from 1962 to 1973 and the passing of the first Indigenous Law under the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende in 1972 provided some hope for the restitution of Mapuche territory and autonomy. Over eleven years, 152,000 hectares of land were expropriated in favour of the Mapuche. However, the toppling of the Allende government and the establishment of a military junta headed by Augusto Pinochet in 1973 reversed many of these advancements, with most of the expropriated land being returned to Chilean settlers on the basis that there ‘[were] no Indigenous people in Chile’. It was not until after the return to democracy in 1990 that progress was again made towards returning Mapuche lands, although this progress has been slow and has been marred by the conflicting interests of industries operating in the Araucanía.

Sustained territorial dispossession was underpinned by a narrative that constructed the Mapuche as peripheral to the nation-building project. Their identity was continually rearticulated to complement the goals of the governing authorities of the day. For example, while colonial conceptions of the Mapuche as savages dominated overall, during the Chilean War of Independence and the subsequent consolidation of an independent Chilean identity, the Mapuche were recast as valiant anti-colonial crusaders to bolster national patriotic discourses. This ‘schizophrenic image of the Mapuche’, as María Merino and Daniel Quilaqueo explain, celebrated the past ‘mythical’ Mapuche as courageous warriors for political expedience while sanctioning the treatment of contemporary Mapuche as second-class citizens. From barbaric savages to heroic warriors, from inferior peasants to an ethnic people with legitimate land claims in the 1970s, and back to mere peasants with no ethnic identity under Pinochet—constructions and reconstructions of Mapuche identity over time reflect the political goals of the governing authorities of the day.

Constructing the indio permitido through the Orígenes program

The Integral Development Program for Indigenous Peoples, known as Orígenes, was launched in 2001 to promote economic, social, cultural and environmental development in rural Indigenous communities. With little Indigenous input, and couched in the neoliberal language of decentralisation, efficiency and individual responsibilisation, Orígenes neglected deeper Indigenous concerns about land, collective rights and self-government. Through its participatory development strategies and mechanisms of accountability, Orígenes functioned as a means to shape the Mapuche as neoliberal subjects.

Activities promoting agency, including advisory sessions for organisational development, participatory planning workshops and training courses in business and financial management, were intended to imbue Indigenous individuals with capitalist modes of thought and the skills and knowledge deemed valuable in a neoliberal system. Participants were meant to be rewired as responsible consumers and not state dependants. They were expected to contract their own consulting services for self-managed projects, and required to contribute 10 per cent of project costs to demonstrate joint financial ownership.

Access to Orígenes’ resources was dependent on individuals and communities demonstrating adherence to neoliberal multicultural identities, exemplified in Community Development Plans (CDPs). Indigenous organisations had to produce CDPs that demonstrated budgetary awareness, resource management, mitigation of future risk and active community engagement in project design and implementation. By tying Orígenes funding to successful CDPs, the state created an ‘obligatory passage point’, as Mitchell Dean describes, ‘through which individuals [were] required to agree to a range of normalising measures designed to empower them, enhance their self-esteem, and optimise their skills’. CDPs encouraged Indigenous participants to internalise the neoliberal values of self-capitalisation and personal risk management, and encouraged self-regulation.

That the self-titled ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians’—who has advocated for Indigenous constitutional recognition, and increased community engagement and cultural support—would endorse a policy that could force the migration of Indigenous people from their cultural and spiritual homelands is ironic and puzzling.

Community-development decisions were thus made ‘freely’, but only insofar as they were configured within an economic context and directed towards ends that accorded with the neoliberal goals of the Chilean state. The process of drafting CDPs was heavily shaped by the prerogatives contained within Orígenes, with funding approval given only to those projects that fitted within the state-ordained parameters of development in health, education and enterprises. Despite the inclusive rhetoric, Indigenous community participation within Orígenes mostly involved executing projects, while decisions regarding what types of projects were needed remained centralised in the national executive.

Orígenes’ education and health programs also functioned to create only limited avenues of Indigenous participation. For example, the Intercultural Bilingual Education Program (PEIB), implemented in rural high-percentage Mapuche schools to strengthen ethnic identity and enhance learning, became a space of controlled Indigenous inclusion where only those Mapuche students who familiarised themselves with the practices and values of the dominant Chilean culture were considered, indeed explicitly labelled ‘functional’. So while the PEIB recognised cultural diversity, it did so as a folkloric complement to the rest of the curriculum. Mapuche knowledge, language and ways of acting in the world were only deemed relevant in their own units, with the Mapudungun language incorporated like English or French. Moreover, initiatives designed to strengthen cultural diversity were ‘reduced to the incorporation of only a few improvised artisanal practices in schools’, as the Organization of Ibero-American States notes, with ‘sporadic enactment of traditional rituals but without substantive content’. Organising the curriculum in a way that effectively relegated Mapuche knowledge, culture and language to specific classes and cultural events devalued Mapuche teachings as secondary ‘optional extras’ to the core curriculum. Indigenous knowledge was accommodated so long as it fit around the teaching practices of the Chilean majority.

The roll-out of intercultural health care also created closed spaces where tokenistic recognition was granted to forms of cultural difference that could be easily inserted into the Western health system without endangering state objectives. Particular aspects of Mapuche medical practice, including the use of traditional medicinal plants and customary healers, were incorporated into the biomedical framework and legitimised by the state because they were seen as complementary to the aims of efficiency and profit. However, Mapuche health philosophies seen as contradictory to neoliberal mentalities were excluded from the intercultural health model. According to Mapuche beliefs, illness is a dynamic interplay between psychological, sociocultural, spiritual, environmental and physical factors. As such, many Mapuche communities insist that their health problems are directly related to environmental contamination, the usurpation of ancestral lands, political oppression and social discrimination. Yet these core medical concerns were not addressed in the intercultural healthcare model, as they were closely aligned with land and collective rights and were thus construed as threatening to the productive regime.

The other face: punishing the indio insurrecto

While Orígenes fostered the development of the ‘authorised’ Mapuche, it hid the other, ugly face of this binary: the construction of the ‘unauthorised’ Mapuche, who disregards state-desired norms. The formation of the indio insurrecto in Chile takes place within political, legal and mass-media discourse. The ‘legitimate’ Mapuche is portrayed as pacified, as using state-sponsored channels of Indigenous participation to further his or her development. Those who refuse to inhabit this constructed identity, agitating for rights and forms of recognition considered contradictory to economic growth, are branded terrorists.

The employment of this terror lexicon to describe Mapuche actions and activists links to broader historical and geopolitical discourses. Under Pinochet, and under most South American dictatorships, the term ‘terrorist’ was used to legitimise state violence against civilians considered threatening to the regime. More recently, in the wake of the September 11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror, the language of terrorism has re-entered the global vernacular. As noted by Human Rights Watch, ‘the US led campaign against terrorism has, unfortunately, become a cover for governments who want to deflect attention away from their heavy-handed treatment of internal dissidents’. Tapping into the emotively charged terrorism discourse enables authorities to play on public fears and invoke anti-terrorism laws without a backlash.

The most vocal promoters of the ‘terrorist’ categorisation of Mapuche protesters have been right-wing politicians, big business and the media. Parliamentarians from the centre-right Renovación Nacional (National Renewal) party have frequently referred to Mapuche protest actions like arson as ‘terrorist violence’ in Senate debates and the press, asserting that ‘intentional fires typify terrorist conduct’, despite the fact that these offences are covered under normal Chilean law. This language of terror has often been accompanied by homogenising rhetoric that emphasises that ‘there is only one Chile’ as a means of delegitimising Mapuche claims for land and collective rights based on ethnic difference.

The mass media in Chile, who have strong historical links with politicians and big business, have been complicit in portraying Mapuche activists as a threat to national security and development necessitating harsher laws. As the Araucanían conflict ramped up in the early 2000s, the Mapuche were increasingly depicted as the violent protagonists. Headlines such as ‘The Mapuche Intifada: The Indigenous Uprising Worsens’ positioned them as terrorists, evoking the violent uprisings in the Middle East. In contrast, landowners and companies were portrayed as victims, with no reference made to the historical antecedents of the conflict or landowners’ and companies’ own equally violent actions, including establishing neighbourhood guerrilla forces. Newspapers trumpeted headlines like ‘Indigenous Communities on War Path’, representing the Mapuche as initiators of the conflict while depicting landowners as helpless ‘Colonos Abandon[ing] Conflict Zones’. This biased press coverage concealed the complex history and social dynamics underlying the conflict.

While the governing Concertación did not outwardly brand the Mapuche terrorists, its recourse to police violence and dictatorship-era anti-terrorism legislation almost exclusively for Mapuche defendants emphasised that those who pursue cultural and collective demands will face the full force of state power. From 2002 the Concertación, under pressure from big business, the political Right and the media, applied anti-terrorism legislation rather than criminal law when prosecuting Mapuche activists in connection with the land conflict. The anti-terrorism law in Chile expedites the prosecution process by sidestepping certain legal rights and procedures. It allows harsher sentencing penalties, restricts defence access to evidence, permits pre-trial detention for up to ten days and allows for convictions based on anonymous witness testimony without adequate cross-examination.

Normally, crimes like arson are not classified as terrorism under international law. However, in Chile anti-terrorism law sets out a broader definition of terrorism that removes the political connotations and intentions to cause death or serious injury found within the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. This meant that Mapuche arson attacks on properties could be punished under anti-terrorism law, even though the vast majority of these actions did not cause deaths and thus seemed to lack the requisite gravity for terrorist actions. By the beginning of 2010, approximately fifty-eight Mapuche activists had been incarcerated under anti-terrorism legislation.

This paradoxical approach towards Indigenous people is not unique to Chile. In Australia too the valorisation of Indigenous cultural freedom exists alongside measures that circumscribe Indigenous rights and choice.

The Mapuche not only were tried as terrorists but also were treated as such, the legacy of police violence from the dictatorship clearly visible in the excessive force used to disband Mapuche land occupations and protests. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights reported that communities were subject to police raids, sometimes without warrants, to gather evidence and apprehend suspects. In these raids disproportionate numbers of armed police entered communities and discharged non-lethal firearms in the face of unarmed resistance, injuring women, children and the elderly. Communities were also constantly monitored, with access restricted to outsiders. These surveillance measures, combined with heavy-handed police treatment and the invocation of anti-terrorism legislation, reinforced perceptions that the authorities were punishing Mapuche communities that challenged the neoliberal goals of the state.

The Australian connection

This deconstruction of neoliberal multicultural governing practices towards the Mapuche in Chile provides a valuable tool for understanding state–Indigenous relations in Australia. The history of Mapuche dispossession and marginalisation, the Closing the Gap–style neoliberal multicultural ‘solutions’ proffered by the Chilean state to ameliorate entrenched Indigenous disadvantage, and the punitive legal and physical measures taken against Indigenous individuals who do not conform to neoliberal expectations all find parallels in the Australian context.

Contemporary Australian state–Indigenous dynamics, as in Chile, stem from a colonial history characterised by land dispossession and discursive marginalisation. Throughout Australian history, the dominant settler majority has attempted to shape Indigenous subjects to suit its own objectives, first categorising Indigenous persons as needing protection and segregation from white society; then, from the 1950s, as requiring forceful cultural assimilation; and finally, in the 1970s, as entitled to self-determine their social, cultural and economic development under state surveillance.

However, since the late 1990s this right to self-determination has been increasingly articulated as accompanied by a ‘mutual obligation’ of reciprocal duties towards the state, involving economic self-reliance and active participation in the generation of capital. Those who comply with this behavioural standard, encouraged by the state through developmental frameworks like Closing the Gap and the more recent Indigenous Advancement Strategy, are rewarded. Those who do not are labelled ‘incapable’ and ‘dysfunctional’, as seen in political and media discourse, and are targeted with increasingly punitive policies, as with the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention and closure of remote Indigenous communities.

Such policy frameworks aim to standardise Indigenous populations according to mainstream educational, health and employment benchmarks that privilege Western values and philosophies ahead of the lived realities and educational and health preferences of Indigenous communities. Despite being couched in terms of community participation, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, like Orígenes, was developed with minimal input from Aboriginal people and their representative organisations, with only some hand-picked advisers—for example, the Indigenous Advisory Council—being consulted. Moreover, under this strategy 150 Indigenous programs have been consolidated down to five streams, with funding minimised and redirected towards organisations that prioritise ‘getting children to school, adults into work and building safe communities’. Less than half of this funding has gone to Indigenous-run organisations, highlighting the limited control Indigenous communities have over what is meant to be a participatory development scheme.

This strategy equates ‘advancement’ with the Indigenous internalisation of neoliberal mentalities and behaviours. For example, the recently reformed Remote Jobs and Communities Program requires remote welfare recipients (who are overwhelmingly Indigenous) to work twenty-five hours a week, twelve months a year, in order to receive assistance payments. This contractualisation of welfare inculcates co-responsibility and punishes ‘welfare passivity’. More than this, though, such regular work commitments limit opportunities to engage in traditional activities like hunting, fishing or living on country, thus privileging neoliberal behaviours above customary ways of being that are of deep cultural, spiritual and social significance to many Aboriginal people.

While programs like the Indigenous Advancement Strategy encourage the creation of ‘ethnically economic’ citizens, policies like the proposed closure of Indigenous communities and the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention look to forcibly discipline Indigenous individuals and communities who do not behave ‘productively’ to neoliberal standards. These punitive policies are legitimised by a rhetoric that neglects nuanced depictions of remote Indigenous communities, preferring instead to sensationalise these localities as ‘dysfunctional’, ‘passive’, and ‘rife’ with child abuse. This lexicon of dysfunction and abuse has deep historical roots. It was used to justify the removal of Aboriginal children from their families during the era of the Stolen Generation in the 1960s, and more recently in 2007 was employed to rationalise the Intervention, which legislated the deployment of military personnel in prescribed Indigenous communities, bans on pornography and alcohol sales, the tight management of welfare payments and the suspension of parts of the Racial Discrimination Act. This same language is currently being used to justify the closure of remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia. What emerges is a continual pattern of legitimising the infringement of Indigenous rights based on negative constructions of Indigenous people disseminated by politicians and the media.

By taking lessons from the state–Mapuche conflict in Chile and reframing the Australian state‒Indigenous relationship through the lens of neoliberal multicultural governmentality, it becomes clear how what superficially appears as a contradictory Indigenous policy approach is a coherent strategy that aims to guide Indigenous Australians towards capitalist values and behaviours and away from forms of life and behaviour deemed unproductive.

Sophie Gulliver graduated from the Australian National University in 2014 with first-class honours in political science. She was inspired to write about the Mapuche struggle after studying in Chile on exchange in 2013.

Side Note: While the conflict between the Chilean state and the Indigenous Mapuche of the southern Araucanía region stretches back to Spanish colonisation, the most recent phase can traced back to Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. Greater political freedom facilitated the re-emergence of the Mapuche movement, with Mapuche organisations beginning to campaign strongly for self-government over Mapuche territories, as well as constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, the establishment of an Indigenous development institute and the ratification of the ILO 169 convention to ensure meaningful Indigenous participation in policy formation. Before being elected, the centre-left Concertación promised to respond to these demands. Yet after its election in 1990, many of these promises were diluted. Constitutional recognition, self-governance rights, and rights to consultation for development projects on Indigenous lands were left out of the 1993 Indigenous Law, while the ILO 169 convention remained unsigned. Yet what incensed Mapuche organisations most was that, despite the state’s adoption of multicultural rhetoric and efforts at reform, it continued to support major corporate projects in the Araucanía that negatively impacted on Mapuche communities and the environment, ignoring the objections of local communities. Disillusioned and dissatisfied, Mapuche activists began staging land occupations and dramatic protests that frequently ended in police repression. Violence intensified in 1997 with the burning of three timber trucks by Mapuche activists, an act that sparked increased police raids, aggressive surveillance of Mapuche organisations, and the imprisonment of Mapuche activists, first under internal security laws and later under the anti-terrorism law. Despite the numerous promises, programs and ‘new directions’ taken by both sides of politics since the 1990s, still very little has been done to recognise the Mapuche constitutionally and give them rights to self-determination and ancestral territories. As a result, protests, land occupations and arson attacks on private properties continue today.

About the author

Sophie Gulliver

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