A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s  R e v i e w



Issue 30, October 2003


A Review of Postcolonial Liberalism by Duncan Ivison

by Arthur Glass

© all rights reserved.

Can liberalism provide the framework for proper cross-cultural engagement between indigenous and non-indigenous groups? This is a significant question and it introduces this closely argued and fair-minded book. In response we are not offered a new theory of justice, for the author (and he is not alone in this) accepts the irreducible heterogeneity of public reason when it comes to basic matters of cultural and social difference. Theory faces not only the problem of pluralism; that different groups will weigh and trade off values from different standpoints. There are also the difficulties caused by the situated nature of reason. Situated in time, liberal theory and the public reason conducted through its institutions can never wholly transcend its historicality and thus the partiality of its practitioners. And situated institutionally, as the author puts it nicely drawing upon material on governmentality, “there is no place where human deliberation is not coarsened by relations of power”.

What is wrong with pre postcolonial liberalism? Not the least of this book’s virtues is its sympathetic and subtle account of objections to liberal ideas made by indigenes and their supporters. Earlier critics of liberalism (conservatives, socialists, communitarians, feminists) complained that liberalism promoted an unattractive individualism (too mundane, too selfish, too bourgeois, too male). Alternatively, they criticised the hypocrisy of its claims to neutrality (merely formal neutrality uninterested in material inequalities, inattentive to underlying relations of power). Postcolonial critics have similar objections. But more specifically they point to the deafness of liberalism to important indigenous claims (native title, customary law, self-government) and its hostility to group rights (seen as too particular or protecting matters, the right to culture say, not sufficiently primary).

The author accepts the force of many of these claims. Nonetheless, he argues, liberalism stands for values and ideas that are indispensable for the task – namely, a just and peaceful co-existence of indigenous and non-indigenous within the same territory. But what is the character of our liberal inheritance? Postcolonial liberalism has to start from somewhere. It assumes the following – we are all of equal worth, we all should be free to choose our way of life, and social arrangements in the main should promote the well-being of individuals as they (and not others) conceive of this. Accepting this is a long way from reaching agreement with others over the shape of particular institutions that might help us realise these values, or consensus over specific applications of these values. But while we do not have access to a trans-cultural system of reasoning at least we can talk to each other. The first move of postcolonial liberalism is to emphasise the necessity of taking account of indigenous standpoints. And then it’s a matter of working with what we have, of re-orienting the existing institutions to allow for proper discussion and of having the good faith to take part in dialogue and the understanding to take account of what emerges. In line with these ideas we are told, quite rightly in my view, to expect only provisional agreement as to the appropriate institutions and practices, “discursive modi vivendi”, as the author puts it and the emphasis is on the particular, on “embodied argument”, specific strategies and local institutions and ideas.

What is needed and what the theorist can provide are “transitive concepts” to guide the interaction of indigenous and non-indigenous. Here are some of the best parts of the book where the author summarises how things stand in contemporary liberal theory and puts forward his own resolution of the rival accounts. For example, he favours the capabilities approach to equality, as developed by Sen and Nussbaum over the (equal access to basic) resources approach of Rawls and Dworkin, or the utilitarian (equal satisfaction of self-chosen) welfare approach. For the capabilities approach is a better measure of actual advantages and disadvantages, as these are experienced. It directs attention to a threshold of basic capabilities that are needed for a decent life without committing itself to what a good life should be and it ties this threshold to local circumstances, and its attainment to local institutions. It is a better mix of the particular and the general. We have the detail of local conditions as experienced and the reliance upon local institutions to help formulate interests but more than a particular account of needs and capabilities.

The author promotes the capabilities approach as superior to a rights based approach; whether seen as the right to the liberal freedoms (too abstract) or the right to culture (too incomplete). Ultimately this approach is worked up into the basic framework for the kind of political order postcolonial liberalism aims to provide (133). A framework sensitive to securing the preconditions for participation in the practices of public reason, as well as to different views of what these important interests might be. A framework that provides general standards but is aware of the dynamic and provisional nature of any achieved agreement about these standards. Above all, a framework that seeks dialogue about these matters and is keen to foster the institutions that make proper discussion possible.

Of course indigenous institutions should be encouraged, for the link between healthy institutions and individual capabilities is clear enough. But what if these institutions or the practices associated with them appear exclusionary, exploitative, cruel or simply ineffective? Here the author discusses three ways of understanding this problem. One points to basic rights and when these are infringed the State should intervene (the core/periphery approach). Another to the preconditions for democratic discussion, these must be safeguarded at all costs (the deliberative approach). The third, named the institutional design approach, concentrates on the interaction of State and local institutions. It is interested in the differences between the contested subjects (membership, crime, family arrangements, property, for instance) and the incentives that allow members to change the local arrangements from within or, on some issues, from without. No one approach is promoted over the other two. The appropriate “transitive concepts” call for a mixture of all three, depending on the particular circumstances. If this sounds a bit limp, not so the author’s examples of his pragmatism; his discussion of membership, indigenous law and the provision of welfare. Here much good sense is spoken about these difficult issues. Intervention is at times called for but the emphasis is always upon the importance of indigenous self government and the openness of the non-indigenous to new ideas and arrangements. On self-government the author notes an implication from Mabo, namely, that the acknowledgement of customary law assumes that indigenes have the responsibility and the capacity to determine the evolution of that law. And he points (as others have) to the potential for regional agreements to establish the needed institutions and cross cultural engagement.

But what will motivate non-indigenous Australians to play their part in postcolonial liberalism? The book ends with this problem. The suggestion is that we be brought to the recognition that all that binds us, ultimately, is our common commitment to our multinational identity. “‘Diversity awareness’ on the part of citizens must somehow become transformed into ‘diversity attachment’”. I can only add, in the spirit of postcolonial liberalism, it would be good, even at the level of political theory, to look for more particular motivations. White Australians will only take part in institutional dialogue on these matters if they come to see and care about the importance of these issues for their fellow citizens. It is the motivation to address obvious needs and redress clear injustice for people who share our history and not attachment to our multinational identity that is more likely to be effective. Reading philosophy (rather than history, say, or literature) is unlikely to inculcate these feelings. But if it is philosophy here is where the right to culture philosophers (Kymlicka, Taylor) appear to have an advantage. Their philosophy ultimately may be weaker (66) but for the reader the harm suffered by the culturally embattled is felt more deeply.

Indigenous and non-indigenous relations are a pressing problem for all Australians. This book is a fine example of what clear reflection – below abstract theorising but above the level of particular legal or political initiatives – can offer us. I recommend it.

Postcolonial Liberalism by Duncan Ivison is published by Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Arthur Glass teaches law at University of New South Wales and publishes in the areas of constitutional law, legal theory and immigration law.


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