The deep loneliness of colonial capitalism: and some pointers to an alternative economy. (Listen.)
The fear of saying the wrong thing means too often we say nothing at all. The following is a stumbling attempt to articulate some consequences of the colonial capitalist economy, to note resonances between some Indigenous economies and God’s kingdom culture, and to tentatively imagine a renewed economics which fosters connection and community. Time, space, audience and ignorance mean I necessarily make generalisations and minimise the extraordinary diversity of expressions of Indigenous economic systems.
How lonely it is to be rich! For, upon a bumper harvest, the rich man thinks to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he says, “I’ll do this: I’ll pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
He isn’t talking with his wife, who might knock some sense into him. He isn’t talking with his sons, who will soon enough be squabbling over the inheritance. He isn’t talking with the elders, who might raise concerns about hoarding, price-fixing and communal responsibility. He isn’t talking with the farmhands, whose labour contributed to the abundance. He isn’t talking with the rabbi, who might remind him of the full quote from Isaiah: “Eat, drink and be merry: for tomorrow you die.” He isn’t talking with the poor man lying at his gate, who could use his excess grain and blankets. And he certainly isn’t talking with God.
Instead, there he is in an echo chamber: talking to himself, by himself, even addressing himself in the third person. He is the loneliest man on earth, and he doesn’t even know it.
He sounds like an Australian colonial capitalist.
For here we are. Currently ranked the wealthiest people on earth, our houses are now the world’s biggest. Our incomes are kept secret; our possessions are privately owned; we hold nothing in common. We are known for being early adopters, forever buying new little screens for ourselves. We use them to access self-referential media, which constantly reinforce our point of view. We live alone; we think alone; we make major decisions without consulting elder, community or friend. As a society, we are unbelievably comfortable and yet almost completely atomised: and we are seeing an epidemic of depression and loneliness.
“I’ll do this … I’ll store my grain … Soul, you have it all …”: except, of course, people to talk with, people to trust, people to care for, people to love.
Of course, this situation doesn’t come out of nowhere. Private wealth was generated when our ancestors stole the land and committed mass murder. Then they cut down forests, built fences, drilled for oil, and mined for gold. Private wealth increased with the evolution of corporations and tax havens. And private wealth has been perfected by late capitalism, which destroys labour movements and erodes workers’ rights and sets worker against worker against boss. It’s a system in which each person is an island, entire unto themselves, special and unique and unloved and hollow and requiring more money, more land, more status, more sex, more stuff to fill the void where God and community once breathed life.
It’s a shame that the rich man doesn’t talk with the pauper at his gate (and there is always a pauper at the gate). For perhaps the pauper is Indigenous. Of course, many Indigenous people are middle class, but disproportionately many are not. Here in Australia, Indigenous people experience widespread social and economic disadvantage in health and wealth and education and incarceration; they access services for the homeless at nine times the rate of other Australians. So perhaps the pauper is indeed Indigenous; and perhaps the pauper knows a thing or two.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She describes a fundamental misunderstanding which occurs between indigenous and colonial peoples: “When gifts were given to the settlers by the Native inhabitants, the recipients understood they were valuable and were intended to be retained. Giving them away would have been an affront. But the indigenous people understood the value of the gift to be based in reciprocity and would be affronted if the gifts did not circulate back to them again. Many of our ancient teachings counsel that whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again … The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy [which is the basis for many Indigenous economies] is, at its root, reciprocity.”
I think of the lonely rich man, the colonial capitalist, who builds himself an echo chamber and talks with no one else. I think of the bumper crop, which he claims for private benefit. And I wonder how things would be different if the rich man really understood where wealth comes from. For the bumper crop was a gift from the land: it was never earned: and, in a gift economy, a gift means reciprocity, responsibility and relationship. With the land. With the animals. With the plants. And with the people who are formed from the earth.
I don’t know whether the Indigenous peoples of this region had a gift economy. Each Indigenous nation has its own culture and economics: there is enormous variation in how people organise themselves. But from what I’ve read, I suspect it’s likely. In 1840, Assistant Protector William Thomas made a note in his diary. He was living among the Boonwurrung people in the southeast of what is now Melbourne, and he wrote: “They are generous amongst themselves. Those who are fortunate through the day will distribute amongst those who are unsuccessful. Those who are ill are not expected to tramp the bush for food. If children are left orphans those children [are]… supported among them… They live in the greatest harmony amongst themselves.”
The Boonwurrung are not the Gunditjmara, and yet I wonder, before the colonial invasion, were the people of the land in this place, the Gunditjmara people, lonely? Was every man an island? Did their teenagers have eating disorders? Were they medicating their children for depression? Or, like the Boonwurrung people, did they live in the greatest harmony with the land and each other? Did they have a gift economy which cultivated connection and community, reciprocity and relationship?
I don’t know the answer for sure, but I can guess: and I reckon the gift economy sounds a lot like God’s kingdom-culture. For both are about relationship and community; and both lead to justice, mercy, non-anxiety and love.
Can we imagine living in such an economy, gift or God’s: an economy in which everything given is to be shared? Can we imagine being “rich towards God”, letting wealth flow like water, never pooling and stagnating, but always on the move to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, host a banquet, and pay for a battered and bleeding enemy to sleep safely at an inn? Can we find ways to hold the Bible in one hand, and Dark Emu in the other, and discover renewed ways of being and belonging in this land?
Robin Wall Kimmerer once dreamed she was walking around a marketplace. When she selected coriander and bread, the traders smiled and waved her money away. “Gratitude was the only currency accepted … the merchants were just intermediaries passing on gifts from the earth.”
She thought about getting cheese, but knowing she would not need to pay for it, she decided to do without. She glanced in her basket and saw the bread and coriander, and also zucchini and corn. The basket was half-empty, but “it felt full”; she had enough. If the produce had been cheap, she would have taken more; but because it was all gift, she took what she needed, no more, no less, and she took it with gratitude.
And with that gratitude, she writes, came “relationships as nourishing as the food”: “warmth and compassion were changing hands. There was a shared celebration of abundance for all we’d been given. And since every basket contained a meal, there was justice.” There was justice.
An economy of reciprocal relationships, connection and community; an economy shaped by treaty, restitution, restoration, reconciliation; a region shaped by community orchards, fruit trees on nature strips, resource sharing and food swaps; baskets filled with eel and bower spinach, potatoes and pigface and roadside apples; people of all nations smiling at each other in gratitude and love; people relaxing, knowing everyone would be fed; and everywhere you go, people talking, oh, so many people talking and laughing and weaving their voices and spirits together in song: Can you imagine?
And are there ways we can bring it about? Amen. Ω
I quote from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (every descendent of colonial settlers should read this; Milkweed Editions: 2013); and Yalukit Willam. The River People of Port Phillip by Meyer Eidelson (City of Port Phillip: 2015). The Yalukit Willam are one of six groups that together form the Boonwurrung people. I also mention Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe (on Indigenous food production; every Australian should read it; Magabala Books: 2014).
For a superb discussion of the diversity of Indigenous experience, and so much more, read Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, by Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche man (University of Minnesota Press: 2009) – or read the interview and excerpt from his book in The Sun (August 2019 issue). Many of his observations pertain to the Australian situation.
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