Historic painting of Te Whanganui-a-Tara, with ships coming into the harbour and a British Imperial flag erected to the left of the frame.

Settler-colonialism in Aotearoa

In 2018, members of People Against Prisons Aotearoa summarised Evan Poata Smith’s analysis of settler colonialism in Aotearoa. This document was presented for discussion at PAPA branch meetings. It has now been reformatted for publication.

Written by Emilie Rākete, Aaliyah Zionov, Sophie Morgan, Jessica Lim, Cáit Ó Pronntaigh, Vanessa Arapko, Lisandru Grigorut. 

Edited and reformatted for publication by Cáit Ó Pronntaigh.

Evan Poata-Smith, in his 2001 thesis The Political Economy of Maori Protest Politics 1968-1995: A Marxist Analysis of the Roots of Maori Oppression and the Politics of Resistance, applied a Marxist analysis to the history of racism, colonialism, and dispossession which was brought to Aotearoa. Chapter 2 of his thesis, “Settler Colonialism and the Primitive Accumulation of Capital”, makes the argument that Marx’s account of the origins of capitalism also describes the process of settler-colonialism in Aotearoa. 

Colonisation can sometimes be mystified by its critics, chalked up to inherent incompatibility of Māori and Pākehā value systems. Against the idea that history is driven by ideas, beliefs, and irrational hatreds, Poata-Smith argued instead that the system of brutal, racist violence we see today is driven by the basic economic laws of capitalism. Bigotry and chauvinism have been sold to and taken on by Pākehā in order to justify this process of dispossession and capitalist accumulation.

I. The Age of Revolution and the Global Expansion of Capitalism

In the early 1800s, capitalism was in a period of crisis. There were too few opportunities to make a profit, too many resources were exhausted, and there were too many workers sitting around, getting hungry, angry and desperate. Revolution was brewing! To offset this looming catastrophe, the British capitalist class established a colony in Aotearoa. They sold land to settlers, who then farmed it and exported goods back to Britain. Because there was no capitalist development already here, it was much cheaper and easier to start a profitable venture here than it was back in Europe. 

Capitalism has never been economically stable for a meaningful period of time. Since its inception, capitalism has always been prone to large-scale, destructive economic crises. It is usually followed by a period of massive re-organisation, recovery, and growth, before eventually heading towards crisis once again. This is known by some economists as the “boom and bust” cycle. It was in the early 1800s, in the throes of what was at that point England’s biggest economic “bust” in history, that the colonisation of Aotearoa became a tempting way to recover from economic crises. 

The crisis of the early 1800s was brought about by the land-owning classes consuming all the profits of their land rather than throwing some of those profits into circulation as capital. Karl Marx described this process in his book Capital, terming it the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” This kept constant capital (raw materials like land) very expensive, thus preventing the development of local production and markets. When the cost of producing, for example, eggs goes up, companies have to either shut down or produce less to keep costs as they were before. Even if this starts in just one part of the economy, it can have serious flow-on effects. 

Firstly, it affects other capitalists. A company that makes, for example, cakes, will notice that the supply of eggs they need is suddenly too small or too expensive. They now have to reduce production as well, but they still have a ton of flour and sugar piling up that they have already invested in but can’t do anything with. In order to recuperate as much of their losses as possible, they may flood the market with the finished product at a reduced price. This means that they will not receive the full value of what they’re selling, and thus don’t have money to invest or grow. Over time, the entire “cycle of production”, across the entire economy, is disrupted. 

Secondly, because companies are reducing production and none are growing, people start to lose their jobs en masse and struggle to find new work. This, naturally, leads to devastating and widespread poverty. People can no longer afford to buy the products flooding the markets, or even meet their basic needs. This population of unemployed workers who are now considered “redundant” to the economy is called the relative surplus population. It was these exact conditions of overcrowding, mass unemployment, and misery that generated extreme discontent and rebellion among working people in early-1800s Britain. In order to ward off the threat of socialist revolution, the capitalist government needed to do something about its surplus workers.

At the same time, capitalists in England started trying to thwart the crisis by looking outside of Europe for opportunities to extract cheaper materials, create new markets for their products, and find labourers that will work for less. The New Zealand Company was founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his brothers. Wakefield developed very influential economic theories of colonisation while he was in prison, where he was sentenced after kidnapping and marrying 15-year-old Ellen Turner for her fortune. When Wakefield saw an opportunity to accumulate wealth, nothing could get in his way. The consent of Ellen Turner, her family, or the British judicial system that saw Miss Turner herself as property to be protected, were as insignificant to his goals as the mana and sovereignty of the indigenous people whose lands he would go on to colonise. For the latter, he would face no consequences from the British legal system. The New Zealand Company provided a solution to all of the problems that English capitalist class was facing. By selling land to settlers, the capitalist British state could dispose of its surplus population, create a new foreign trade market, and eventually benefit from imports! All it required was the colonisation of a new territory with the raw materials and resources that Britain now lacked — and the willingness to wade through an ocean of blood to do so.

II. Te Ao Tawhito: ‘The Ancient World’

The precolonial Māori economy was very different to that of Europe. The difficulty of producing enough of the things that people needed to survive meant that their wellbeing was tightly bound up together. Everybody worked together to turn Papatūānuku’s natural resources into houses, food, clothing, tools and weapons. The resources produced were used to benefit everyone, not to make wealth for individual capitalists. There were not enough resources for a minority of people to work less and profit more. If everybody didn’t work together, everybody would die. 

Māori came to Aotearoa from the Pacific, where they had lived on islands in a Polynesian diaspora. Conditions in Aotearoa were very different to conditions in the Pacific. Our home is rich in resources, birds, fish, etc., but it is also much colder. The relations of production — the social relations people must enter into in order to catch the fish, harvest the crops, build infrastructure, raise children — were collective. Production was not based on the ownership of resources as the private property of a handful of wealthy individuals. Instead, resources were understood as collectively belonging to the people themselves.

The most important social unit in this period was the hapū. Hapū are composed of a collection of related family groupings, who are connected to a specific area of land and mutually dependent on each other for their economic, social, and cultural survival. Compared to the intensive, high-speed production in Europe, made possible by advances in industrial technology, it was much more difficult in pre-capitalist Aotearoa to produce a surplus. In other words, groups generally only produced just enough to satisfy everyone’s needs and sustain their existence. If people took more than they needed to, tried to stockpile stuff for later, or otherwise didn’t work for the benefit of everybody else in the hapū, then the entire social unit would be at risk.

This material reality of scarcity meant that the techniques and technologies of production were highly socialised. Plans were laid out in advance by those more experienced, and then carried out by the hapū’s entire workforce. No one had exclusive ownership over any means of production, so no one had the power to exploit or control production for their own personal benefits. Production was carried out to ensure that the collective survived and that its constituents had their needs met. This economy was fundamentally non-capitalist. While goods were exchanged between communities, the purpose of this was not to produce a private profit but to better meet people’s needs.

III. The Primitive Accumulation of Capital

Capitalism is characterised by private, individual ownership of the means of production. This creates division and conflict between the “ownership class” (capitalists) and those that have no control or rights over the things they need to survive. This means that in order to make capitalism happen, aspiring capitalists must obtain ownership of the means of production. In Aotearoa and elsewhere, capitalists have used brutal violence to forcibly take the things people need to survive off them and seize the land.  As a result, the people of that land are turned into workers with no property, who must now sell their labour to the new owners in order to survive. This is what Marx termed “primitive accumulation”. Capitalism is not only different to non-capitalist societies, it is fundamentally incompatible with them and must destroy them in order to grow. In Aotearoa, this required the colonisation of Māori land, and all of the suffering and misery which this entailed.

Poata-Smith argues that we must understand capitalism as a mode of production defined by separation. By this, he is referring to the separation of people from the means of production. Instead of being the collective property of society, resources become the private property of a single class. This class, the capitalist class, then uses its ownership of the things society needs to survive to make people work for them. Where work was once carried out to produce the things people need to survive, and people were provided with those things because their survival was important, work is now only a means for increasing the wealth of capitalists. The needs and survival of ordinary people are secondary to the need for capitalists to make a profit and enjoy their wealth. 

Karl Marx terms the initial separation of producers from the means of production “primitive accumulation.” The first step in primitive accumulation is enclosure – the process of turning “common land,” which everyone was free to use and develop, into private property. Access to this land is literally “closed off”, like a farm enclosure, and the owner gets to decide who is allowed to use it. This land contained not only the soil and materials needed for production, but often people’s entire homes and communities. To make ends meet, the people of this land, who now own nothing but their own labour, are displaced. They have to work for someone else, on their terms, to survive. It is primitive accumulation which lays down the economic groundwork for capitalism to succeed as the main mode of production in society. 

Even in Europe, capitalism could not have taken off without primitive accumulation. In medieval Europe, capitalism replaced feudalism as peasants and self-sustaining communities were separated en masse from the land they had been tied to for generations. This process was extremely harsh and bloody. Displaced populations were forced to move on, many of them ending up in the cities, in workhouses, or in similarly terrible conditions of wage-labour.  When capitalism was strongly established in Europe, and the rate of profit started to fall (see Section I), starting the process of primitive accumulation all over again somewhere else offered capitalists new sources of profit and new markets to be established.

When British settlers arrived in Aotearoa and set the colonial process in motion, they found a society in which producers were not separated from the means of production. This was a society in which capitalism could not exist. This growing “colonial capitalist” class was therefore required to change that society so that these islands could serve their purpose in sustaining British capitalism. The New Zealand Company, a corporation set up by British capitalists, began to buy up land from Māori at a low cost to sell for a profit. This encouraged foreign markets to begin to enter Aotearoa, such as sealing and whaling companies. 

Colonisation was, in some ways, a gradual process. It is impossible to change the way an entire society organises itself overnight. The early European settlers and workers were, in fact, highly dependent on Māori for their survival. There were tensions, but there was also cooperation, and some Pākehā were even integrated into local hapū. However, as more settlers and workers began to arrive, British colonial powers felt that this cooperation was becoming a hindrance to profit. To best serve their economic interests, they  needed to establish a governing body which would legitimise and enforce capitalism as the dominant mode of production in New Zealand. When Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed in 1840, Māori still vastly outnumbered Pākehā. But throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Pākehā settlers began to outnumber Māori and exercise increasing control over the organisation of production and society. This was when it became clear to more and more Māori that their collective ownership of the means of production was under attack, and resistance grew. Māori resistance was met with land being confiscated by the colonial government.

Colonisation brought Māori pre-capitalist production into conflict with capitalism. The land was taken by the government and sold to individual owners, putting primitive accumulation strongly into motion. In several cases, land was granted to families who served the British Empire through military service. The Wallace family who were granted Ihumātao after Governor Grey’s army forcibly confiscated it were such a family. Serial murderers who had loyally carried out the British Empire’s aims were rewarded, and their descendants still benefit from this stolen wealth. The newly established colonial government then passed laws, such as the Native Lands Act 1865 and the Native Land Fraud Prevention Bill 1870, which effectively outlawed communal ownership of land. This led to landless, propertyless Māori being separated from the land, which had previously been their livelihood. Rather than making things on their own terms, they were now forced to sell their labour-power (their ability to work), for a wage, which they could use to buy the things they needed to live, such as food, housing, clothes, and other desired goods and services. If they didn’t work, they would not be able to access those things. They would either die, or they would be forced to break laws in order to survive. If they were caught breaking laws, they would be subjected to the newly established criminal justice system. 

The land itself became the new source of profit which was to be privately owned and Māori were proletarianised. This meant that they were now part of a newly created New Zealand working class, dependent on capitalists to secure their livelihoods. Over time, more laws were passed to further entrench private ownership and capitalism, such as The Native Land Validation Act 1892, West Coast Settlement Reserves Act 1892, Native Land Purchase and Acquisition Act 1893, and the Advances to Settlers Act 1894. Underlying all of this was the fact that Māori who tried to resist this process were threatened with “intervention” by the military and violence from the New Zealand government.

Currently, the prison system has become one of the capitalist state’s primary weapons for maintaining capitalist power in Aotearoa. It is no accident that the majority of criminal offenses in New Zealand pertain to protecting private property rights, such as laws against trespassing, shoplifting, or benefit “fraud”. When protesters are criminalised, trespassing and property damage are some of the things they are most commonly charged with. It’s also no accident that poverty is the greatest factor for the growth of the prison population. In 2017, up to 87% of prisoners were unemployed before prison. Māori communities have been systematically robbed, first of land and tino rangatiratanga, and second, of jobs, housing, public funding, and opportunities, and this shows in the disproportionate prison population statistics, where Māori make up about half the prison population despite being only 15% of the general population. 

But these days, capitalist development on stolen land still continues. Attempts to build expensive housing developments at Ihumātao that few people will be able to afford, the enclosure of the foreshore and seabed in 2004 which directly benefited offshore oil drilling companies. We are reaching a point where fewer and fewer Pākehā even are benefiting from colonisation. In the 1800s, the revolution that working class people and peasants in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland needed was staved off. Instead they were offered the opportunity to improve their conditions, be granted work, income, cheap land and cheap housing off the backs of Māori, and Indigenous peoples in Canada, the US, Australia, and other settler-colonies around the world. Dispossessed people became agents and beneficiaries of British imperialism elsewhere, and British capitalism prolonged its life-support by accumulating new lands and resources. 

Today, we all suffer the consequences of global capitalism and the destruction of papatūānuku. As Teanau Tuiono said, capitalism came to Aotearoa by ship from England, and grew out of the barrel of a gun. Capitalism could not have developed here without the theft of land, sovereignty, and systematic dispossession of Māori. To dismantle capitalism and ensure the survival of the land and the people, imperialism must also be lifted out at the root. We must work together to dismantle the settler-colonial capitalist regime, and restore the tino rangatiratanga of Māori. 

Further reading: E.S. Te Ahu Poata Smith, The Political Economy of Maori Protest Politics 1968-1995: A Marxist Analysis of the Roots of Maori Oppression and the Politics of Resistance, University of Otago, 2001.