Another day, another ironically Stalinist obituary in The Australian. This time it’s of Helen Hughes, an economist who worked across the world for decades, most notably for the World Bank, and in the last decade of her life, as an activist around Aboriginal futures. Nicolas Rothwell coyly notes of her time at the World Bank:

“Her particular social vision was strengthened by her study of Pacific Island region states in their post-independence phase. A range of books and papers followed: she became prominent in her field, and her exceptionally acute understanding of the interplay between ideology and economics was honed.”

Well, yes, but in the decade or so before that, Hughes was honing her understanding on the ground — in Papua New Guinea, then still an Australian colony, where she was ostensibly a researcher, but principally an activist for the Communist Party of Australia, which had high hopes of sparking Third Worldist revolution there (and good on ’em, and her!). This was no dilettante engagement — Hughes was the type who was drawn to (post-) Stalinism by its promise of certainty, the ability to calculate the falling rate of profit to three decimal places, and put the revolution in your diary.

When she left the CPA and the Left and went to the World Bank, she simply adopted its disastrous one-dimensional developmentalism, whose principal result was to draw whole nations into a net of dependency in the 1970s and prepare them for the debt catastrophe of the ’80s, which stripped their economies and societies bare in order to pay interest to Western banks. In that phase she cheerfully adopted the principles of top-down central planning then in fashion. By the ’80s and ’90s she had shifted Rightwards, ending up at neoliberal think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies, where her later focus became the development of indigenous societies through the application of bourgeois property relations.

For Hughes, private home ownership was not merely something Aborigines should have access to — which is fair enough — but something that should be imposed on all, here and in the Pacific. Communal land tenure systems should be broken up, and out of this slicing and dicing the individualist, Protestant, accumulative person who emerged from 1500 years of Christian monotheism/Roman jurisprudence/the rise of mediaeval town economy/the Venetian invention of banking and the firm/printing/the Reformation/the Renaissance would pop out fully formed in a generation. Her bloody-minded insistence on this could only be argued by ignoring any real understanding of indigenous social-cultural structures, and its oversimplifications were pointed out time and time again. This seemed to matter little.

The Right relied extensively on Hughes’ work in attacking the many failures of indigenous policy over the last 20 years, and used it to frame an idea that Lefties, led by economist Herbert Cole  “Nugget” Coombs, had projected a counter-cultural utopia onto Aboriginal societies. There was some truth to this, but the argument that such a utopia had been projected onto a blank bark canvas was nonsense — indigenous societies remained very different to settler societies. By the 2000s, Hughes’ work, by some ghastly alchemy, appeared to take the worst of Marxism — simplistic stage-ist historicism — and combine it with the worst of classical/neo-liberalism — the idea that the Protestant accumulative subject is the real and eternal form of human existence.

The result is someone like Hughes, a dedicated, hard-working, committed person, who could well come to be judged as having got nearly everything wrong.

Such a one-dimensional approach would be forgivable as a sort of myth, had it delivered results. It hasn’t. Improvements, or the slowing of decline, in indigenous communities follow many patterns, but they don’t correlate to the imposition of simplistic notions of human history and individual nature. Different things work in different places, but any sustained discussion of them tends to be pushed to one side by a near exclusive focus on Noel Pearson’s experiments in Cape York, a place where so much money has gone into mild improvements on things like truancy that it might have been cheaper and simpler to send every kid from there to Hogwarts.

Indeed so cossetted from reality have these approaches been that when fresh eyes were applied to them — Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s — they almost got the chop. Newman saw himself as a public spending waste-buster who was colourblind to non-performance. Big mistake. The colourblind right to take responsibility without handouts is so crucial that it must continue to be funded by the state if Aborigines are involved. If you see the irony here, you’re not allowed to work for The Oz … or former Queensland MP Mal Brough …or Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.

The point of Hughes’ work, and the whole movement of which it is a part, is that it has little to do with the actual betterment of indigenous people. It is a culture war against social alternatives, and so its inevitable failure on the ground is relatively unimportant — though just to make sure of it, no stats are ever quoted (though references to mysterious “glowing reports” are sometimes made). For whatever reason Hughes’ past is left out of the obit — ignorance or self-censorship — it obscures the profound continuity from Left to Right, and adamantine self-certainty that others pay for.

Eventually the neoliberal, neo-assimilationist approach will be seen as the mirror of the “counter-cultural” model it sought to deal with — a simplistic projection that has a lot to do with the needs of those doing the projecting. Some may wonder whether the Right is hypocritical in this, or simply stupid. After the 2012 US election, I don’t. The Right is simply, wilfully dumb, having reduced whatever reflective capacity its politics once had to zero.

Hughes was no dummy, and her passion to categorically change things had an admirable side. Doubtless she was in the right in a whole series of debates and arguments she had. But this serial certainty, so characteristic of the 20th century — what will the future make of such people? They yearned above all for a material political process that would give a meaning to life beyond its individual flux and chaos; the more that such transformations became elusive, the more it became clear that nothing like that was on offer from the world, the more insistent became the need for it. The result is someone like Hughes, a dedicated, hard-working, committed person, who could well come to be judged as having got nearly everything wrong.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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