By Robert Wood
One of the unconscious influences in Australian politics is the nineteenth century German philosopher George Hegel. His ideas come through in Australian Labor rhetoric often via Karl Marx who drew on Hegel to think about class consciousness and class conflict most of all. And while both are never invoked by name, they do influence the debate. Central to Hegel’s ideas is the dialectic, which he expressed as a relationship between lord and bondsman. Marx updated it to be about master and labourer, and now we hear of unionist talking of bosses and workers. The dialectic is about the relationship between the two.
For Hegel, it is the bondsman or the servant who has true power. They are the one who does the labour, who the lord relies upon, and the process of coming into consciousness is about realising the strength of the oppressed by the oppressed. They exist in a dialectical relationship where there is a thesis, an overcoming or antithesis, and then a synthesis. What this means to some extent, is that the bondsman need simply realise the truth of their situation so they can come into an awareness of their world and change it for the better. This is where we get the Marxist revolution, or decolonisation, or another way of creating a better world. It is a neat understanding for politics between two groups of people, or even two individuals.
So, why does it matter for sovereignty in Australia today? It matters when it comes to the nation state and the traditional owner. Here power is actually with traditional owners and many realise it, but are prevented from creating that by a system of colonial oppression upheld by many white settlers today. This is where the fundamental conflict of Australia, the nation if not the continent, is revealed to us.
Here we can cite the ongoing failure of Closing the Gap, the struggle to have Uluru recognised, the ongoing rates of incarceration. The state is, quite simply, failing Aboriginal people, but it does not mean we should assume it cannot do better or that it is the best way to respond to difficulty. The state does not represent me even if I am inside that tradition as well. In that way, when we look at Treaty we have to think who are our representatives that speak for us as non-Indigenous people too. Making the state better means making it better for all of us, in the hope that we invest in a dialectic of sovereignty based on values of care, compassion, fairness, equity and inclusion.
Our role then, as non-Indigenous people, is to support those coming into re-connection with a consciousness of their sovereignty. This is about repatriation, retrieval, return, all of which are the role of servants helping other servants in actions of solidarity that overturn our oppression by lords. This is where we work as a group to help people get their country back when we know it was taken from them. That is the work to do when we look to Hegel and Marx and apply it to settler colonialism in contemporary Australia. It does not only, or mainly, mean advocating for our specific class interests but about coming into a greater awareness of how we can support traditional knowledge, including ownership.
So if it is lord-bondsman, what about traditional owner and guest? I am not, will never be, a custodian of any country. I am a guest on land, being a saltwater person, even if I can point to 600 years of written records for my ancestors in a place called Puthucurichy in the present-day Indian state of Kerala. That is a drop in the ocean of time, and it does not even come close to the recognised 60,000+ years of sovereignty of groups that are here, on this continent, and have always been. Always was, always will be Noongar land, Whadjuk land, Ngarluma land. To be a guest though is liberating for it allows us to realise we must be in service – to the oppressed, to nature, to traditional owners, which is why we must turn to them for leadership no matter what the big-wig politicians suggest.
Sovereignty then is an ongoing set of conditions that cannot be resolved if we are to resign ourselves to the narrow collective perspectives that have dominated our history. It is about transcending our moment through a deep-time return to a moment when people were in control of what was possible. That land and people were supported and cared for over a long period means we must continue to respect and learn from Elders and the archive in shifting the balance towards justice and healing, and, away from genocide. The state has many ills contained within it, but just as the bourgeoisie are their own grave diggers, we can suspect that the seeds of its destruction are sewn into its very fabric.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.
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