Colonial Economics and the Political Protection of Privilege

Last week, somewhere in the vast, windswept halls of Judith Collins’ consciousness, a penny dropped. It was a lonely penny, arguably a half-penny. It occurred, suddenly, to Judith, that Māori are interested in self-determination, and are in discussions with government about that.

Naturally, Judith flew to the press flush with indignance at this frightful revelation.

Judith threatening us with a good time.

In a remarkable demonstration of disregard for Treaty history ignorance, she stated: 

“First, is this what the Māori chiefs and [Governor William] Hobson imagined in 1840 when they agreed: we are now one people?”

(well yes, it is in fact exactly what Māori intended when they agreed to let pākeha stay, and that much has been decided upon by the Crown appointed judiciary on the matter, the Waitangi Tribunal).

“And second, is this the way New Zealanders today, in 2021, want to move forward as a society? Do we want separation of governance along ethnic lines?”

(yes please)

The fact of the matter is that Te Tiriti DID affirm tino rangatiratanga meaning ultimate authority to Māori, whilst allowing for some measure of governance by Pākeha, and that this governance was envisioned to control troublesome settlers, especially those prone to taking and selling land that was simply not theirs. That ultimate sovereignty was never ceded is no longer even in question from The Crown judiciary on the matter and has not been since 2014.

It is also a fact that a governor is not equal to a sovereign, and that Te Tiriti allowed for the Queen (through her representative) to govern, that they were very specific in their wording, and if they wanted to express ultimate sovereignty for the Queen, they would have done so – they didn’t. Ultimate power, in the language of the document that was signed, was accorded to Māori.

So like it or not, the standards by which Tangata Tiriti presence was agreed to was one that took place under the ultimate authority of Māori. The model of shared power that is causing Judith so much pain is, in fact, a generous allocation on our behalf (and is still not Tiriti justice).

Over time, that original intent, signed as the conditions upon which we would agree to share this land as home, has not been respected or honoured. In fact, the system that was intended to control troublesome settlers bent on land theft, was handed over to troublesome settlers bent on land theft, and thereby empowered the system of pākeha privilege and Māori dispossession under which the nation still exists.

Moana Jackson says it better than anyone. Ever.

This was not, however, for the sake of political power itself. It is a system that has been set up to provide economic privilege and that is why it is so difficult to unpick. Those with economic privilege are able to influence power in order to maintain and protect it, and they have done just that for multiple generations through controlling the parameters of justice and accountability of the state. It is far less a matter of ignorance, moreso a matter of self-interest.

This protection of economic privilege is why numerous important declarations on human rights, environmental rights, Indigenous rights, and migrant rights are not ever afforded the systemic muscle to hold government or corporations truly accountable.

Nevertheless, as the great US abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. For as long as there has been this system of injustice, there have been those who have fought it, across multiple fronts, using what tools we have had at our disposal. Building our cases, breaking down barriers, then passing the torch on to a new generation to continue the struggle. It has taken us a long time to reach a point in the discussion where we can even start to set our sights on true Tiriti justice, and of course there are those who will still oppose that – there has been opposition every step of the way thus far. There has always been those who frame justice for anyone else other than themselves, a personal injustice.

Before I say anything more about this apparent “injustice” of a system that provides Tiriti shaped (ie Tangata Whenua AND Tangata Tiriti) models of governance and delivery, I want to reflect a little bit more on the systems of economy and political power that have brought us to this space, so we can see clearly exactly what it is that Judith is striving to protect.

The entire global economy is based upon extraction from Indigenous lands, and non-white bodies. Systems of colonial extraction from Indigenous lands are still running today, facilitated by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and the free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs put in place by them. These international financial institutions resulted from the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, and was incepted and shaped largely by Britain and the USA. The Bretton Woods Conference also set the scene for the transition of a forum for international relations from the League of Nations to the United Nations. The result was an international financial regime and political system that protects and privileges the rights and interests of colonizing states.

Over time, as Indigenous rights have been fought for and won, and colonial injustice exposed, colonizing states and their international organizations have become very sophisticated at cloaking their imperialism. For instance, the exploitation of non-white bodies did not stop with abolition of slavery, it just morphed into incarcerated labour, indentured labour, and various forms of modern slavery like sweatshops in Asia, or Pacific fruit workers in Aotearoa, or fireworks/fabric factories in India. As we sit in the relative comfort and safety of our own homes, ordering online without due care for the origin stories of our goods, we engage a kind of socialised psychopathy to permit our comfort at the expense of others. There are oppressed hands all over the goods that we have ordered with a comfortable click, from extraction to manufacturing, packaging and transport – and largely these are not white hands. We all, all of us (myself included) live off a system that is dependent upon the brutal oppression of bodies of colour. 

The “buy back” of slaves through the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 embedded wealth within a generation which has created a multigenerational system of privilege, and this includes British Prime Ministers and other MPs who still live today off the privilege from the sale of their family’s slaves, a price that was being paid off by the British public, including the descendants of those slaves, as recently as 2005. Many wealthy families in Britain and Europe can trace portions of their wealth back to the slave trade or colonial oppression and brutal dispossession in one way or another. Companies like Lloyds Bank, McDonalds, Microsoft and other commonly known companies are tied into histories of slavery, and/or more contemporary cases of incarcerated labour.

Philanthropic sector and State/International Aid.

Many of these companies, and wealthy families, also offer funds for various social causes. Given the central role that extraction and exploitation of Non-White bodies and lands plays in the global economy, international banking systems, and the creation and transfer of wealth for over 600 years it is reasonable to conclude that the philanthropic sector is ridden with money that has originated off, and then been accumulated off the back of Imperial oppression. So how much of that goes back to Indigenous communities or communities of colour? Well in 2018 less that 1% of the funds from the top ten funders in the USA reached Indigenous communities, and less than 8% went to communities of colour. This issue has been made even worse by funding being poured into industries that cause direct harm to Indigenous peoples. The oil, gas and plastics sector for instance received billions of dollars of covid relief funding to supplement an industry that was failing prior to covid anyway due to mass divestment. These are industries that are well known to cause disproportionate harm to Indigenous communities and communities of colour. That’s funding that could have better gone towards struggling communities who are made COVID vulnerable by the very same colonial system that created the economic power structure that creates the need for, and resource behind, philanthropic and aid sectors in the first place.

International financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF have created conditions for their loans (which are more often than not required because of need created out of colonization) that inhibit environmental protections, human rights protections and trade justice – thereby maintaining the oppressive power dynamic set in train over 600 years ago.

The NGO Industrial Complex

The Global South is infested with NGOs that are actually based in the global north and acquire significant funding through the aforementioned economic networks to carry out work in the Global South, but not before huge portions of that money goes back into the organization in administration, infrastructure, management and even governance fees. In addition to this primary issue of funds diversion, there is also the fact that because it is not rooted in the global south to begin with, the “solutions” often sideline the communities they are meant to relieve, and unsurprisingly fail to help them. There are multiple reported instances where NGOs have avoided contributing to final solutions because that would negate their reason for being.


Aotearoa is no different to the rest of the world. We also have philanthropic groups like the Todd Foundation, one of New Zealand’s largest fracking companies, whose wealth is accumulated through Indigenous oppression, dispossession and climate abuse through continued fossil fuel extraction. Our national economy, like the global economy, is run off the back of stolen Māori land. If you were to simply return the land that was taken from us it would destabilise the NZ economy, just as Indigenous justice, worldwide, would gut the global economy. There are NGOs who are more invested in tinkering with, and describing the problems of Aotearoa (and building media profiles for themselves along the way) than taking bold action to solve it.

And then there are the industries surrounding our grief and trauma. Pākeha run women’s refuges that draw significant funds to care for the end-product of the colonial patriarchy. Privatised prisons. The incarcerated labour economy (and its sibling of hyper-incarceration) of state prisons. Pākeha social service providers that will deal with problems primarily rooted in colonial violence (but have no capacity to acknowledge or respond to that fact). Pākeha researchers of issues that primarily impact non-Pakeha. Pakeha treaty training providers. Board games about colonization. Movies that romanticize colonization and milk our trauma for dollars that fill Pākeha bank accounts.

There is a huge amount of wealth transfer that is still being carried out today, off the back of colonial harm. In some cases – this practice needs to end immediately. In others, there is, at the minimum, a requirement that they understand the gravity of drawing an income from a system which already privileges them, and accordingly immerse themselves in anti-racist, anti-colonial education and training in order to not do even further damage to the communities they are being resourced to assist.

Colonial wealth has been accumulated off the back of Indigenous dispossession, the world over. In Aotearoa, pākeha wealth has been accumulated off the back of Māori dispossession. This accumulation of pākeha wealth and Māori need has enabled the education, social ascent, and political influence of pākeha that has resulted in a political system that protects its own privilege. THAT is what we are seeing when Judith Collins yelps in pain at the mere thought of sharing power on this land. It is the pain of colonial privilege beholding justice.

If we are indeed moving towards a space of increased Māori authority right across the economic and political structures of Aotearoa – then it is a long overdue step towards justice, and there will be plenty more steps to take after that.

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3 thoughts on “Colonial Economics and the Political Protection of Privilege”

  1. The sophistication of cloaking imperialism is such an important topic which is so relevant to the consumerism epidemic “without due care for the origin stories of our goods” which I totally feel is short-sighted and unsustainable especially because it engages in “a kind of socialised psychopathy to permit our comfort at the expense of others”. Ka whawhai tonu, i ngā wāhi katoa, i ngā wā katoa!

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