Chapter review: Dark Emu. The Heavens, Language, and the Law

This review will focus on one particular chapter of Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, which is the chapter: The Heavens, language and the Law. Regarding the main purpose of the book, Pascoe provides evidence that contrary to popular belief, Indigenous Australians had a society that more closely resembled agriculture not hunter-gatherer. The evidence Pascoe provides is compelling and is supported by other academic research concerning the history of Indigenous Australians.

The reason I will focus on this particular chapter is that the attention is redirected towards how the economy functioned in these societies. Pascoe first observes that there seems to be no evidence of the many language groups and cultures across the country ever being at outright war with each other or seizing of each other’s land.

Another observation made by Pascoe is the system of authority in Indigenous Australian cultures reflected a democratic one. He viewed it as democratic due to Aboriginal elders being elected to their authoritative position through initiations, not through inheritance or by force. Pascoe assumes an implicit acceptance of this system by its inhabitants because it lasted for tens of thousands of years without any evidence of revolutions or collective resistance.

Regarding economy and trade, Pascoe mentions that since many Indigenous Australian cultures had the ability to accumlate a surplus of resources that they could keep for themselves. However, the common practice was to share the resources. He argues that the best explanation for this is that the religious and spiritual belief of Indigenous Australians, through what is called The Dreaming, assumes that land is not something ‘owned’ by particular individuals and groups, but that we are the temporal custodians who have a collective, cooperative ownership with the land and all of its inhabitants. This cooperation expands to non-human animals and future generations.

This philosophy held by Indigenous Australians, according to Pascoe, resulted in an economy based on collective responsibity and a notion of fairness through its sharing of resources. And this provides an explanation for not only the lack of war, but the absence of class divisions. Pascoe cites anthropologist Bill Skinner, who had written:

“One of the most striking things is that there are no great conflicts over power, no great contests for place and office. This single fact explains much else, because it rules out so much that is destructive of stabilty… There are no wars of invasion to seize territory. They do not enslave each other. There is no master-servant relation. There is no class division. There is no poverty or income inequality. The result is homeostasis, far-reaching and stable.”

Pascoe anticipates some objects to his advice of considering these approaches in modern Australia as advocating for communism or going backwards in technology, where he says:

“There may be early inconveniences, but, once the benefits are realised, we could adapt very smartly as long as we don’t confuse a logical change for the march of communism or return to ‘primitive’ Aboriginal techniques.”

In the following chapter Pascoe stresses this again, where he says:

It is not the difference between capitalism and communism; it’s the difference between capitalism and Aboriginalism”.

Once again, the question of Indigenous Australians are better recognised as hunter-gatherers or agriculturalist is not the main interest of this chapter. However, the concept of sharing resources as the economic structure instead of focussing on private ownership was common across many ‘pre-agricultural’ societies. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described this as ‘primitive communism’. After Marx’s death, Engels further investigated this in his Origin of the family, private property and the state. In this work, Engels draws upon the findings of anthropologist Lewis H Morgan that Native Americans participated in an egalitarian economic structure that also did not contain class inequalities.

It is therefore appropriate, I believe, to classify the economic structure of Indigenous Australians much more reflective of socialism rather than capitalism. Pascoe appears to want to avoid the connection. If he is, I do sympathise with him. He has taken on the Mammoth task of trying to convince many modern white Australians that Indigenous Australia has something to teach them instead of the other way around. Not only practically, but morally. This will be hard enough without trying to combat entrenched beliefs about socialism based on 1960s Red Scare propaganda.

Regardless, I find his disassociation with the principles of Indigenous economics with socialism to be incorrect. The existence of a classless society. The collective ownership of land and resources. Moral principles of sharing resources quite similar to the Marxist principle of each according to their ability and each according to their need. All of these things reflect a Marxist socialist economic philosophy.

Furthermore, the success and sustainability of Indigenous Australian economics provides a compelling response to neoliberal talking points such as “show me anywhere where socialism has ever worked!” Not only it shows socialism worked, but that socialism worked for 40,000-60,000 years without war or anyone reduced to famine.

To be fair, Pascoe may be drawing the distinction between Aboriginal economics and socialism because of the religious/spiritual Aboriginal economics is grounded in. If so, fair enough. However, as he also notes capitalist philosophies of individual property rights have also been grounded in Christian thought. For example, John Locke, who’s philosophy on land ownership influenced the now debunked Terra Nullius (the claim that Indigenous Australians never owned the land so it was free to be taken), based his assumptions of how to use land through the belief that land of was a gift from God to be used by those created in his image. So, it may be socialism grounded in Aboriginal spirituality, but it is still socialism. And we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge and recommend it.

Despite my complaints concerning Pascoe’s comments on communism, it is brilliant work and reveals how much we can learn both practically and morally from our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Below is link to Pascoe’s book and also Engel’s origin of the family for those interested:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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