Month: March 2014

The Settler Contract and the Sins of the Fathers


Carole Pateman’s chapter, The Settler Contract, in Contract and Domination (with Charles Wills) is a deeply unsettling piece of work. I’ve just re-read it in preparation for a rewrite of the final chapter of my dissertation and it strikes me like a blow to the guts that the justification for our current systems is still very much based on the same sort of logic that allowed the domination and exploitation of colonizers from the 16th century on. Both the idea of terra nuillus (empty land) and the idea that the settler’s ideas of property rights, justice and law overcame any existing rights allowed settlers to exercise a more or less carte blanche approach to how they were going to administer justice. So how do I connect this with the way that we have acted, and continue to act, in relation to the ecological systems that maintain us? When Dr Su Ming Khoo first gave me this to read, she did so in the context of my considering what rights, and therefore, in some sense, what adjustments to laws, might be said to obtain to non-humans. I guess she was thinking that there might be parallels between the complete failure to recognise other humans – aborigines, native peoples – as having rights to live according to their own laws, according, in other words, to the conditions that they had worked out were ‘good’ for them, and the complete failure that persists at the moment to recognise that other living organisms, communities or species might have rights to exist and subsist within the systems of relationships that allow them to realise their own good (survival, flourishing, reproduction, and so on). I’ve moved away from the rights approach so this kind of parallel doesn’t seem particularly useful in the light of what I’m doing now. I’m not suggesting that we look to grant rights to other living communities. I’m not against the idea, it just goes beyond what I’m doing at the moment. But I am interested in two things that Pateman says. One is that the reorganisation of laws so that the rights to sovreignty (or freedom of movement and ownership) of native peoples is eventually beginning to be recognised in some cases (in Australia, for instance, though patently obviously not in other cases (in Western Sahara, for instance). And it brings with it lots of difficulties associated with the fact that people who are alive at the moment can, for the most part genuinely, claim that they were not the ones who brought about the original laws, so they oughtn’t be the ones who are punished (through having their own rights infringed upon through, say, loss of property or land rights and so on) as a result of a reorganisation of the law. It’s very difficult because there is no ‘spare’ land, these days (there never was, in my estimation, but that’s because I take a very radical view of land ownership, but that’s another story) so you can’t just move descendants of settlers over to another patch and give some of the ancestral lands back to the (often genetically hybrid) descendants of the original peoples. The difficulties multiply if you take this as a parallel case to rights for non-humans because it is hard to see how one could live at all and still respect the rights, or in any way recognise the interests, of other species, while still maintaining a viable level of existence. When questions of recompense emerge (as they do for native peoples) there is a huge problem with deciding what kind of land return can take place. When questions of recompense emerge in the context of non-human species, it is hard to know where to even begin. Perhaps we could begin with other species that have been least impacted by human activity so far, although it is hard to tell what these might be, given the depth and extent of our impact. Then perhaps another way of beginning would be to consider what recompense we could make to the creatures over which we have had most impact so far. In Taylor’s terms, this would be the bioculture, and this would reverse Taylor’s ‘respect for nature’ since those sytsems we have had most impact on are also those systems that, if we offer recompense, will have an increasing impact on systems that are less impacted at the moment, in a kind of domino effect. Or at least that might be one fear. If we start with the ‘Respect for Nature’ view that Taylor advocated, we meet all the objections of impracticability (how can we not use, kill, exploit and so on). But this misses the point of reorganising how we view our relationships. The analogy with the Settler Contract is apposite here: we may not be able to undo all the damage and exploitation we have caused, but even small acts of awareness and small rearrangements of rights and access and strategies relating to use will help the process of reorientating how we relate to the systems we have used for our benefit. Considering even a little of how systems are impacted, and taking those considerations into account when we make arrangements for manufacturing or deciding on production chains, all this will have a cumulative impact on how we relate to and how we impact upon the systems that support us. This would be the equivalent of giving an increasing weight to the considerations of native peoples in considering land use, manufacturing or other processes. There might also be the possibility to reinstate and restore some of the systems that have been adversely affected or even destroyed. Of course this is not the same as their having continuity from the beginning, but given that we cannot turn the clock back, we can still work out what would have benefited systems. For instance, aboriginal children who have been ripped from the roots of their culture can still benefit from learning about the practices, and visiting the sacred or important places, and being given space to develop a return to, if not ownership (though that might be appropriate too), then relationship with those places, those narratives, the songs and stories that brought their people into the land. Much more of how we engage is going to need to be about learning how to listen to the land, to the species and how they communicate. This is a huge reversal of the sense of entitlement that came with being at the hierarchical top of that self-narrated story of dominance. Now, we must pick this story apart and weave ourselves into a different relationship. It will be painful but it is necessary and it is also immensely rewarding, in the way that coming into better balance with the way that the world unfolds is always rewarding. This is not a binary state, a state where we are either right or wrong. This is asking ourselves to move along the spectrum, to readjust ourselves so that we recognise what maintains us: this material world and our relationship with it.