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Neotribal Capitalism

by Elizabeth Rata

This paper was published as An Overview of Neotribal Capitalism in Ethnologies Comparees. Oceanie, debut de siecle. No 6, Spring, 2003.

Author: Elizabeth Rata

I have updated the article slightly and re-named it ‘Neotribal Capitalism’ (June 2022). As I read it again for the first time in at least a decade I realised that not much needed updating although there are several passages that I want to comment on.

This italicised extract (below) is taken from page 17. Despite the long-term resistance by many New Zealanders to treatyist constitutional change, the neotribes have successfully advanced their non-democratic agenda in the two decades since 2003. The legislative inclusion mentioned in the extract did indeed lay the foundation for a new ethno-nationalist constitution. He Puapua (2019) is intended to be its implementation.

Extract 1

Attempts by the government to award constitutional recognition to the neotribe in terms of political partnership have been thwarted only by the absence of a national consensus. The Minister of Treaty Negotiations, Margaret Wilson, acknowledges that the more limited ambition of recognition through legislative inclusion ‘may be the best that can be achieved in the current political climate’ (1996: 15).

I copied this italicised extract from page 12. As a co-signatory to the ‘In Defence of Science’ NZ Listener letter (July 2021) I find my words from 2003 disturbingly prescient.

Extract 2

The inherent conflict between research that is ‘independent’, ‘open to scrutiny’ and ‘driven by hypotheses or intellectual positions capable of rigorous assessment’ (Ministry of Education, 2003: 17) on the one hand, and ‘closed’ (ie. not available for independent critical scrutiny) neotraditionalist research on the other is not addressed by the new Tertiary Education Commission in its policy formulation document. . . . The institutionalisation of kaupapa Maori research into the tertiary sector with the establishment of the Maori Development and Knowledge Panel and a Maori Centre for Research Excellence is just the most recent example of this reactive process of ‘principles of the treaty’ inclusion.

Extract 3

The third extract is from p. 22. I’ve chosen in order to highlight how retribalisation is in fact the privatisation of public resources for the neotribal elite.  

The process by which communal ownership was acquired, resources capitalised, commodities produced, and access to and control of the resources showed in fact a process of privatisation.


In New Zealand the identity movements of the 1970s enabled the commonality between Maori and pakeha members of the new professional class to serve as the means for the recognition and politicisation of ethnic difference. The subsequent institutionalisation of ethnic boundaries established the conditions for neotribal capitalism. This paper discusses this process of ethnic boundary construction and summarises the research studies that lead to the theory of neotribal capitalism.


One of the most complex dilemmas faced by constitutional democracies today concerns the regulation of universal democratic rights and the recognition of cultural difference. New Zealand has an enviable reputation as a nation that has achieved a satisfactory balance between these two often conflicting demands. In this paper I provide an outline of the theory of neotribal capitalism as a counter-argument to the ideas that support this reputation. I argue that, despite the democratising ideals of the cultural recognition movements, the Maori cultural revival of the 1970s established the context for a Maori elite to acquire political and economic capital from the political regulation of culture and the creation of ethnic boundaries.

The orthodox view is that Maori, who consist of approximately fifteen percent of New Zealand’s increasingly multicultural (though still mainly Anglo-based) population, are reviving a traditional culture and modernising it to fit into today’s world. This movement for indigenous self-determination is understood to be a rejection of the pakeha (Anglo settler descendant) dominance established during colonisation. Its symbol is the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, a document signed between the British government and the majority of tribal chiefs and recently revived to serve as the nation’s ‘founding document’[1] and the basis for a bicultural constitutional ‘partnership’ between the revived tribes and the government. 

In this paper I propose a contrasting view of the processes and outcomes of the past four decades of ethnic recognition in New Zealand. I argue that a broad peoples-based movement for cultural recognition and social justice has become derailed by a combination of global and local forces and by the responses of various interest groups to these forces and to each other. Not only has the derailment of a democratic movement for social justice become a vehicle for the creation of ethnic boundaries, it has become the means by which a Maori elite have acquired considerable economic and political capital at the expense of all Maori in whose name the cultural recognition movement first received widespread support. More seriously for New Zealand’s long-term future the derailment has created the conditions for destabilising New Zealand’s constitutional democracy.

I begin by examining the two main groups, Maori revivalists and pakeha biculturalists, who led the movement for cultural recognition to show that it was, ironically, the politics of recognition that established the brokerage sites and mechanisms for the creation of ethnic boundaries and the emergence of neotribal capitalism. This is followed by a brief outline of my research into the Maori revival and the bicultural movement to show the emergence of fundamental tensions and contradictions between the intentions and the outcomes of the various projects that comprise these movements of major social change. The tensions and contradictions are theorised as neotribal capitalism.

Part One      The Context

The reasons for the derailment of the New Zealand’s post-war democratic movements for social justice are multi-layered. They are to be found at a global level in the economic contraction and the decline of Western hegemony from the 1970s (Friedman, 1994), in the political experiences of New Zealand’s well-educated protest generation, and in the ways in which two distinct groups in the radicalised new professional class responded to changing global conditions. The combination of these global forces (the apparent disintegration of modernity’s universalising politics) and local circumstances (the contraction of the local economy and the squeeze on the new professional class) led to local versions of the identity ideologies that were replacing modernist universalism throughout the postcolonial world.

Identity politics enabled the most vulnerable of the new professional class (its most recent entrants, such as women and ethnic minorities), to respond actively to global economic contraction and its accompanying ideological shifts. Local movements were built around identity politics to ensure that the gains women and minority groups had made in the prosperous fifties and sixties were maintained in sites for identity recognition. These sites include women’s studies and cultural studies in academia and government policies that target marginalised groups.

In the 1970s a small group of tertiary educated Maori became the leaders of the cultural revival that signalled the first stage of ‘glocal’ identity politics in New Zealand. By the end of the 1980s this group had successfully defined indigenous recognition in terms of the new identity politics and achieved important political gains, particularly the government’s willingness to revive and honour the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The consequences of unjust colonial practices were to be addressed through historical grievance settlements. The powers of the Waitangi Tribunal (established in 1975) were extended to hear reparation claims dating back to 1840. These inroads into political recognition and institutionalisation were extended in the 1990s to include the concept of political ‘partnership’ between the tribes and the government. This was to be achieved by legislating adherence to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in a range of Acts of Parliament.

Tribal institutions, revived by the Treaty reparation settlements, provided the structures for the materialisation of this indigenous identity. Those Maori who had led the cultural and indigenous movements become tribal brokers[2], a comprador bourgeoisie, on behalf of the newly established tribal economies. They negotiated for political and economic resources across the newly created sites of Treaty partnership discourse: the revived tribes on the one hand, and, on the other, the state institutions committed to recognising the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

It is worthwhile noting the ad hoc way (on the government’s side at least) that the brokerage of Maori revivalism into the institutions of government occurred. A government minister in the early 1990s National Government is able (with the hindsight of 2003), to describe the way in which the requirement to adhere to the principles of the Treaty were first incorporated into legislation through the highly influential 1991 Resource Management Act. ‘I am quite sure that none of us knew what we meant when we signed up to that formula’. By ‘formula’ the former Minister, Simon Upton, means the requirement that local government, through the Resource Management Act, ‘take account of the “principles” of the treaty’. Revealing further the extent of a government driven by tribal interests rather than its own policies, Upton adds that ‘when it framed the Resource Management Act, the National Government was aware of treaty “principles” developed by the Court of Appeal in 1987 and by the Waitangi Tribunal in dealing with Maori land Claims. “But given the extraordinary wide reach of the act, handing over its implementation to local councils with no clear guidance on how those principles might intersect with the claimed rangatiratanga[3] of any particular group amounted to a legislative evasion”.’ (Simon Upton quoted in the New Zealand Herald, 22 – 23 Feb. 2003)

The ad hoc nature of governments’ reaction to tribal demands continued throughout the 1990s. In 2000, the Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark, acknowledged that ‘there is no one in Cabinet actually co-ordinating the insertion of Treaty clauses into new legislation’ (Listener, 2000: 22). Yet in response to a survey (New Zealand Herald, 28. 11. 2000, p. A3) that found that ‘two out of every three people believe references to the Treaty of Waitangi should not be included in legislation, Helen Clark indicated that the government was providing effective leadership in matters of Treaty and government legislation. Arguing that “strong leadership will reverse New Zealanders’ views on this contentious issue”, the Prime Minister located the problem in the “not very great public understanding”. However, she did ‘admit that the ‘Government had not been properly prepared for the debate over the treaty clause originally inserted in the health reform bill’.

Andrew Sharp (1997: 452) has drawn attention to this reactive ad hoc response in his reference to the unprecedented way in which ‘governments were losing control of policy formulation and execution’ in relation to the Treaty.

The left-wing activists who increasingly identified as ethnic pakeha in the new ‘glocal’ identity movements of the 1980s that replaced earlier left-wing universal movements took up the challenge of biculturalism with considerable vigour. ‘Being Pakeha’[4] meant acquiring a geographically based ethnic identity with Maori as the referent. The use of the word to describe oneself was a self-conscious symbol of ethnic identification that other groups of settler-descendants refused to accept. Its popularity among the left until the late 1980s and its subsequent decline is indicative of the shifting fortunes of bicultural adherents.

Biculturalism was the movement that linked the two ethnically distinguished groups of the new professional class, the Maori radicals (I also use the terms revivalists and neotraditionalists for this group) and the pakeha biculturalists. In doing so, biculturalism strengthened and institutionalised the boundaries between the two. By creating a space between ‘two worlds’ the strengthened boundaries denied the real material commonality between Maori revivalists and pakeha biculturalists, a commonality based not only upon shared class interests but also upon a considerable degree of actual shared ethnicity. This mixed ethnicity from the high incidence of historical intermarriage is continued in the intermarriage practices of the new professional class. In a recent and important study on ethnicity measurement and reporting Paul Callister (2003) has drawn attention to the association between education and having a Maori partner. The trend in New Zealand for more highly educated Maori to marry ‘out’ is (also a trend in inter-ethnic marriage in the United States), is ‘more pronounced amongst those with university qualifications’ (2003: 36).

The institutionalisation of ethnic division occurred through legislation and policies that required government agencies to adhere to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. This construction of an institutionalised division on ethnic lines by two groups of the new professional class replaced their earlier shared leftwing universalist politics and denied their shared lived commonality. Both groups continued to share the same privileged material conditions of all new professional class members: university education for their children, overseas travel, the health and material comforts of middle-class life. Both groups continued to intermarry (Callister, 2003).

However, ethnic division enabled Maori revivalists to assert themselves as a distinctive political force, a political position strengthened by the social and cultural identity that creates a niche repertoire for these (increasingly) ‘global representatives of the local’ (Friedman, 2001: 67-8). Such cultural repertoires are particularly apt in a post-fordist world where niche identities fit well with niche consumption. The distinctive political identity is reinforced by the cultural niche positioning in the development of a privileged elite. Friedman (2001: 67) has referred to ‘the conversion of status for indigenous representatives’ as they take indigenous politics onto the world stage, noting that ‘such a shift implies a contradiction in identity, a contradiction between the rootedness of indigeneity and the cosmopolitan life of the higher circulatory elites of the world arena’.

With the shift of egalitarian idealism from leftist progressive universalism to group identity politics the explanations of the left biculturalists for the outcome of biculturalism were rephrased in a new discourse. This was a confused and confusing mixture of Habermasian communicative action, rightist communitarianism and postmodernism’s championing of the local. The stalemate provided by the left’s inability to address the fundamental issues of the conflict between public good and private autonomy, and between universalism and local primordialisms, enabled the tribes to control Treaty discourse. Margaret Wilson, the Minister of Treaty negotiations and a leading biculturalist, demonstrates the left-right confusion of cultural politics.

With clear Habermasian overtones, Wilson rejects a fundamental plank of democratic philosophy – that the individual is the political monad – by arguing that ‘I do not see why individual and group rights need to be constructed in oppositional terms. This is not to say that there may not be instances where there is conflict. It is more important however to find the points of consistency between the two sets of rights.’ And in a move into relativism which leaves behind any notion of the Habermasian standard of rationality in communicative action, she argues that ‘(b)oth are valid within their own terms’ (2000: 20).

By the 1980s the strong influence of postmodern ideas in New Zealand social sciences had provided the intellectual justification for the left’s shift to identity politics and away from modernity’s democratising universalism. A leading leftist commentator in New Zealand has referred to the destructive effect on the left caused by the identity politics of the new social movements’ identity politics. ‘Communists and socialists alike found themselves assailed by those late arrivals on the left-wing block – the new social movements’ (Trotter, 2003: 37).

Despite Foucault’s[5] disclaimer against the reduction of knowledge to relative experiences, the result of postmodernism’s capture of New Zealand social science was to reduce ideas and judgement to mere opinion, with all opinions of equal value. The nihilistic vacuum left has become fertile ground for a strange but mutually benefiting axis of neoliberal self-interest, neoconservative rigidity and neotraditional fundamentalism.

Neotraditionalists used postmodernism’s celebration of the local to acquire support from those of the left who moved to postmodernism in the 1980s. The resultant culturalism is both an anthropological ideology and an intellectual brokerage mechanism for the institutionalisation of neotraditionalism. As an anthropological ideology it is ‘increasingly used as a privileged tool to legitimise political domination’ (Babadzan, 2001: 150) with its ‘sacralisation of cultures and identities’. In this approach ‘culture’ is ‘transformed and essentialised’ (Babadzan, 2001: 149) with ‘anthropologists appropriating the ethnic-culturalist discourse that actors themselves hold about the meaning of their practices’. Peter Munz’s (1994) critique of the New Zealand culturalist anthropologist, Anne Salmond, identifies this practice. He refers to the ‘reliance on the finality of uncritical self-representation (that) has become American anthropological orthodoxy’. (Munz, 1994: 61). I would add ‘New Zealand social science orthodoxy’ as well.

Neotraditionalism is the belief that a traditional social structure has been revived. However, it is the process identified by Habermas as a ‘self-conscious traditionalism’ which ‘is itself a thoroughly modern movement of renewal’ (cited in Barry, 2001: 259). Maori retribalisation is explained as the restoration of the social relations of a traditional redistributive society consisting of kinship-based groups. In claiming that genealogy, rather than ethnicity, is the primary determinant of tribal membership and tribal definition, Apirana Mahuika (1998: 219) argues that ‘cultural identity . . . on ethnic non-blood lines rather than tribal blood lines . . . would be suicidal for iwi[6] and culture, because whakapapa is the heart and core of all Maori institutions, from Creation to what is now iwi. Whakapapa is the determinant of all mana rights to land, to marae, to membership of a whanau, hapu, and, collectively, the iwi whakapapa determines kinship roles and responsibilities to other kin, as well as one’s place and status within society.’

The uncritical acceptance by biculturalists of Maori as tribal kin-groups of a particular ethnicity rather than according to a broader non-kin referenced ethnic identity enabled the tribes, rather than pan-Maori, to be recognised as the legitimate inheritors of the traditional resources. This meant that the tribes were defined as the rightful claimants for the historical reparation settlements. The return of these resources, either in kind or in monetary form, enabled several of the larger tribes to establish successful tribal economies. In the neotraditionalist interpretation of this economic development the tribes were now able to develop a group-based form of capitalism that maintained traditional social relations alongside contemporary technologies, management and organisation. The group-rights pakeha biculturalists accept this ideological version of the ‘restored’ tribes as models of a new and more democratic form of capitalism, a ‘communal capitalism’ (Spoonley et al., 1996: 75).


Part Two    Neotribal Capitalism

Rejecting the concept of ‘communal capitalism’ as a contradiction in terms, my theory of neotribal capitalism provides an alternative explanation for Maori revivalism and the interdependent biculturalist movement. The theory interprets the new social structure (the neotribe) that organises and operates the economic enterprises (resourced primarily by the Treaty settlements) as fundamentally different from the traditional social structure (the tribe) of a pre-capitalist redistributive economy. However, neotraditionalism provides the ideological justification to interpret the contemporary tribe as the legitimate inheritor of the past, and, as such, the legitimate inheritor of the Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

A series of research studies into Maori revivalism led to my conclusion that the capitalisation of resources and their control by one group to the exclusion of others alters social relations in ways so fundamental that a new social structure (the neotribe) is created. This is explained in terms of a new relationship between the economic dimension and ‘the mode of regulation or social environment of production’ which, according to Esser and Hirsch (1994: 74) enables the elements of (the) complex relationship between production and reproduction (to be) related to each other socially.

David Harvey (1989: 121) also acknowledges the ‘strength of regulation theory in its grasp of the dialectical complexity between the production and reproduction environment’. This relationship is not dissimilar to Marx’s ‘modes of co-operation’ ([1846] 1965) as the social regulation of accumulation. The operation of the neotribal economic dimension (the determinant ‘in the final instance’) occurs in regulating the social environment in ways that enable the capitalisation and commodification of traditional resources under the political control of the tribal elite. This control is achieved through neotraditionalist ideologies of revived kinship structures and revived forms of traditional leadership.

I began my own research into the Maori revival and pakeha biculturalism in the late 1980s. Like many other researchers, both Maori and pakeha, who were involved in the exciting and hopeful period of minority group and women’s identity movements, I was able to benefit from the expansion of postgraduate research that also occurred at this time. New academic courses in cultural and women’s studies provided the academic discourse and theories for the social movements that had, in their turn, contributed to tertiary expansion.

My master of education thesis (Rata, 1991) and other publications (Rata, 1988, 1989) documented the Auckland kura kaupapa Maori[7] education organisation, Te Runanga o Nga Kura Kaupapa Maori o Tamaki Makaurau. I was the runanga or committee’s inaugural secretary and administrator of its teacher education programme. Colleagues who were within the kura kaupapa Maori movement and also university academics established a master of education (Maori) degree in the Department of Education at the University of Auckland. Many kaupapa Maori researchers were to complete master and later doctoral studies in this department. It became the centre for the development of kaupapa Maori theory as a codified body of thinking promoting a distinctive kaupapa Maori epistemology. Kaupapa Maori theory is regarded by its adherents as ‘a uniquely Maori way of looking at the world’ (L. T. Smith, 1999: 175). It rejects the ‘academic Western tradition’ with ‘its inherent right to knowledge and truth’ accorded to the ‘inquiring individual researcher’ (Walker, 1997: 2).

Increasingly throughout the 1990s, research undertaken in education, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and Maori Studies was explicitly intended to record and support Maori self-determination. By the end of the decade the eclectic mix of leftist and postmodernist theorists whose ideas had underpinned the development of Maori education studies was replaced by indigenous theorists. ‘Kaupapa Maori research (is) research over which Maori maintain conceptual, design, methodological and interpretative control . . . “research by Maori, for Maori with Maori”’ (Jahnke and Taiapa, 1999: 45). My doctorate thesis was to be no exemption to this political requirement. Studies into the relationship between the intentions, actions and outcomes of a range of revivalist initiatives, including Maori schools, Maori fisheries and Maori kinship groups, began, like most Maori research of the period, as a way of supporting Maori political aspirations.

Almost a decade later, the notion of kaupapa Maori research is so entrenched that even at the level of the government’s new tertiary research funding policy (a policy designed to develop New Zealand’s scientific community within the competitive global market), an ethnic version of knowledge is accepted without question. ‘Maori research was seen to encompass research into things Maori, and research conducted according to Maori methods of research and subscribing to Maori ways of knowing.’ This ethnic ‘way of knowing’ is to be developed through a Maori Knowledge and Development panel which will consist of experts on Maori research. ‘The panel would directly evaluate Maori researchers, and (where appropriate) provide advice to other panels where the research being evaluated had a Maori focus.’ (Ministry of Education, 2003: 36).

The inherent conflict between research that is ‘independent’, ‘open to scrutiny’ and ‘driven by hypotheses or intellectual positions capable of rigorous assessment’ (Ministry of Education, 2003: 17) on the one hand, and ‘closed’ (ie. not available for independent critical scrutiny) neotraditionalist research on the other is not addressed by the new Tertiary Education Commission in its policy formulation document. The tendency to ignore the hard issues of the meaning of ethnic recognition in the contemporary world is characteristic of the government’s ad hoc treaty-based approach. The institutionalisation of kaupapa Maori research into the tertiary sector with the establishment of the Maori Development and Knowledge Panel and a Maori Centre for Research Excellence is just the most recent example of this reactive process of ‘principles of the treaty’ inclusion.

As my own research progressed during the early 1990s it became impossible to ignore the tensions and contradictions that began appearing in the research findings. These pointed to a different interpretation of ethnic and indigenous identity politics. Finally I had no choice but to abandon the political intentions of my research and address the issues revealed in the studies. I theorised the unacknowledged contradictions and the disparities between the Maori revivalist claims and the actual outcomes in terms of an emergent neotribal capitalist regime (Rata, 1999, 2000). This theoretical position has led to further research into the neotraditionalist ideology which is neotribal capitalism’s self-representation.

The research analyses the brokerage mechanisms that enabled the tribal elites to acquire tribal, rather than pan-Maori ownership, of the historical reparation settlements, and that continue to provide political access. It includes an examination of the ways in which the neotraditionalist ideology has been so comprehensively taken into the institutions and processes of the democratic state. Other research critiques the culturalist discourse in academia and government. The purpose of these studies is to demonstrate the cumulative effects of neotraditionalism upon the universalist egalitarian principles that inform and support New Zealand democracy (Rata, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b).


Part Three  The Research Studies

The initial studies that led to theorising neotribal capitalism are: the bicultural project of the 1980s, the revival of a Maori whanau or extended family, the family’s return to tribal lands and establishment of a marine farm, the tribe’s own revival, the establishment of the national Maori fishing industry and the establishment of kura kaupapa Maori. The first study, of the 1980s’ bicultural project (Rata 1996b, 2000), was an examination of the ‘goodness and power’ (Gouldner, 1979: 36) paradox experienced by an expanding group of self-conscious ethnic pakeha who were committed to establishing biculturalism on a national scale in order to support the Maori cultural revival.

This complemented the study of a Maori family (Rata 1996c, 2000) who had undertaken a revival of genealogical ties in order to return to traditional tribal lands and establish a marine farm. In turn, that study led to an account of the process by which the Ngati Kuri tribe of New Zealand’s far north emerged from two centuries of ‘historical invisibility’ to become a major player in Maori politics from 1988 (Rata 2000). The study of the family’s marine farm led to an investigation of the newly established national Maori fisheries (Rata 2000).

My own background in kura kaupapa Maori education meant that studies of the establishment of the schools and the accompanying teacher education programme were also undertaken (Rata 1996a, 2001). Post-doctoral studies of family revival practices (Rata 2002a), kaupapa Maori influence on teacher education (2002b), neotraditionalist ideology (Rata 2003a) and the Maori elite of neotribal capitalism (Rata 2003b) followed. It is my intention here to give a very brief account of several of the studies, primarily to show the path taken from the studies to theorising neotribal capitalism, and latterly, to extending the theoretical ideas to the broader implications for New Zealand democracy (Rata 2003b). This progression of my scholarship, from uncritical participant-observer ethnographer to critical theorist, did, not surprisingly, require that I reconsider the relationship between research and political engagement at a very fundamental level (Rata 2002c).

The study of the bicultural project of the 1980s focussed upon the actions and motives of an increasingly influential group of settler descendants who, born in the prosperous post-war period, received free secondary and university education in large numbers. Many of these people entered the humanities-based professions of teaching, health, the church, social services and the media, with a smaller number moving into government and politics. (The biographies of many senior politicians in the current Labour Government fit this profile). Their left-wing political instincts were honed in the heady days of radical student activism, from the ‘Ban the Bomb’ and anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s to the conservation and anti-apartheid movements of the 1970s.

Culminating in the 1981 nation-wide demonstrations against the visiting South African Springbok rugby team, this activism channelled its focus and energy into a home-grown issue – Maori cultural revival. In the post-1981 period, culture identity became its focus. Biculturalism emerged as the means by which Maori and settler descendants could recognise each other as distinct ethnic identities, identities that justified claims to geographical place. Anglo settler-descendants adopted the older Maori term ‘pakeha’ as the self-referent in increasingly large numbers.

Cultural recognition moved quickly into political recognition. By 1985, the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act gave significant power to the earlier, and more symbolic 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act. The 1985 Amendment ensured that the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and its enforcer and interpreter, the Waitangi Tribunal, had significant political and moral authority. The research study examined the enthusiasm of pakeha biculturalists in exploring both their own identity as pakeha in a particular relation to Maori, and in supporting Maori revivalism. Specific attention was drawn to the extent of pakeha feminist support for Maori self-determination and then to a further shift, in the early 1990s to a largely silent retreat from Maori issues. The heyday of pakeha biculturalism, characterised by large numbers of self-identifying pakeha learning the Maori language, attending marae visits and advocating bicultural practices in the workplace gave way to a confused but silent withdrawal by many of the earlier biculturalist as retribalisation replaced the earlier pan-Maori social justice ideals that had characterised the bicultural movement.

Despite several decades spent in recognising and emphasising the differences between Maori and pakeha, both pakeha biculturalists and Maori revival leaders, as members of the prosperous and well-educated new middle class, have a similar educational background and shared middle-class political and economic aspirations. City-raised and university educated in the main, Maori who have become the brokers of neotribal capitalism, emerged as an elite during the revivalist movement’s shifts from cultural renaissance in the 1970s to retribalisation and tribal economic development in the 1980s and 1990s. Recently their concern is to institutionalise various forms of tribal political partnership with the government, moves that will consolidate their position as a neotribal capitalist aristocracy. As the elite of neotribal capitalism they retain the links forged with their pakeha counterparts during the rise of the well-educated new professional class from the 1960s. They shared the radical politicisation of the new middle class in the protest culture. Just as importantly they shared the shift to middle class prosperity in the following decades.

It is unsurprising that the networks with their pakeha counterparts from the days of shared protests were maintained. Many continued to work together as lecturers and teachers in schools, polytechnics and universities, or as trade union officials, or in welfare, the media and the church. As the radicals became successful and influential in politics, the bureaucracy and the professions, the Maori professionals were able to insist that their pakeha bicultural associates actually enact the rhetoric of cultural recognition that both had created. Indeed the confidence of Maori professionals as the political ‘drivers’ is revealed in the ‘scary radical’ role ‘defiantly embrace(d)’ (Simpson, 2003: 51)  by a Maori educationalist who asserts ‘So a lot of people see us coming and they run – but, you know we’re Maori people and you can’t run far’ (Pihama quoted in Simpson, 2003: 51).

This commonality of real material conditions and radicalism (increasingly nostalgic as the radicals aged) explains the continued and effective support of left-leaning pakeha for the Maori revival through all its forms, from the earlier cultural renaissance to the more recent construction of ethnic boundaries within the nation’s political structure.

Commitment to retribalisation and biculturalism of an increasingly political kind was not disrupted by the movement of some members of this group into new right politics during the 1980s. (Several members of the 1984 – 1990 Labour Government founded a new right-wing political party after failing to retain control of the Labour Government that they had pushed to the right). Indeed the tribe was regarded as the perfect regulatory mode for the new right policy of devolved state activities. Those pakeha biculturalists who remained on the left regarded the tribes as organisations governed by communal mechanisms more deeply democratic than the supposedly ‘limited’ democratic forms of representative government.

The commonality between tribal leaders and influential pakeha of the right and the left in government[8] goes some way towards explaining the extraordinary success of the tribes in acquiring and maintaining political recognition. Not only has a non-democratic organisation (the neotribe with its hierarchical social relations and kinship-based membership) been successful in arguing that it, rather than all Maori, be the inheritors of the grievance settlements, but this very organisation is acquiring legal recognition as a Treaty-based political ‘partner’. Attempts by the government to award constitutional recognition to the neotribe in terms of political partnership have been thwarted only by the absence of a national consensus. The Minister of Treaty Negotiations, Margaret Wilson, acknowledges that the more limited ambition of recognition through legislative inclusion ‘may be the best that can be achieved in the current political climate’ (1996: 15).

The second study of the establishment of kura kaupapa Maori, traced the campaign of an Auckland-based Maori group, Te Runanga o Nga Kura Kaupapa Maori o Tamaki Makaurau, to establish Maori language and philosophy schools and to acquire recognition and funding from the state for these schools. The schools were an extension of the early childhood centres, kohanga reo, set up in the early 1980s in order to reverse the declining use of the Maori language. The study showed the brokerage process of the bicultural project in action as biculturalists committed themselves to supporting the establishment of separate Maori schools in legislation and policies.

The success of the Runanga’s campaign for state funding of kura kaupapa Maori was acquired on the basis of the claim that the kura would produce bilingual and bicultural citizens. The appeals to inclusive national sentiment in the submissions to the government during the pre-legislation period may be contrasted with the neotribalist discourse of the movement itself. These show the contrasting interpretations by pakeha biculturalists and Maori neotribalists with respect to the purpose of kaupapa Maori education. The biculturalists supported kaupapa Maori education as part of the commitment to the group rights idea used to justify identity politics despite the fact that the notion of group rights subverts the basic democratic principle that it is the individual, not the group, who is the bearer of legal and political rights.  For the neotraditionalists on the other hand, kaupapa Maori education was concerned with restoring the primordial kinship relations of the traditional tribe.

My other studies of a Maori family’s cultural and economic reconstitution in the late 1980s and its establishment of a marine farm on tribal lands showed how the economic processes of capitalisation and commodification changed the family’s relations in fundamental ways. The family or whanau achieved a great deal in a few years, testament to the deep beliefs that a return to traditional values and practices would replace the unemployment and problems of modern urban living. Like many other Maori families of the time (all with varying numbers of pakeha among the whanau – the result of ongoing and frequent intermarriage) this whanau researched its genealogy, traced family members, held reunions, funerals, unveilings and birth practices according to traditional custom. Naming children after their Maori ancestors and insisting that others use the Maori name with the correct pronunciation replaced the English names that had become common from the 1950s. By the later 1980s, the researched whanau had established its genealogy, placed its younger children in the kohanga and kura, held the mandatory whanau reunion and acquired land in its tribal homelands.

The establishment of a marine farm by those of the whanau who returned permanently to the tribal lands (others visited intermittently, some for a while before the visits trailed off) ended this period of communal involvement. In the early stages everyone, including the pakeha members of the whanau, were involved in the retribalisation process and planning for the marine farm. However, problems emerged even before the marine farm was established. There were conflict over ownership definition, kin belonging, the place of pakeha and Maori from other tribes in relation to direct descendant whanau members and to the tribal resources, the way in which capital contribution (as its form in either actual money, physical labour or mental labour) related to work done on the farm and anticipated profits.

It was not long before the farm was divided in two for each of the nuclear families who had agreed to settle permanently. The ideal of a large communal holding worked by a permanent group and augmented by the occasional visits of the city-based family members was soon rejected in favour of small enterprises owned and operated by couples and their children who worked on the farm and who would receive the profits of their labours. It was no different from any other small agricultural holding throughout the country except that in this case the families did not have freehold land but claimed the right to the land and shoreline on the basis of tribal descent.

Researching a small family based economic enterprise led into researching the establishment of Maori economic venture, the national tribal fisheries to see if the same issues of access, ownership, control and benefit, were similar to those issues at the marine farm level. The fisheries study examined the contribution made to neotribal capitalism by the reshaping of pan-Maori revivalism into retribalisation in processes of property rights, capitalisation and brokerage. The 1985 Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act and the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission were pivotal in the reshaping of Maori revivalism into neotribal capitalism. In a series of treaty and fisheries legislation and policies tribal legal identity became defined in terms of property ownership rather than as social and cultural entity only.

The 1989 Maori Fisheries Act built upon the recognition of the tribes as modern legal corporate entities established in the 1985 Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act. It became the mechanism for defining the nature and extent of tribal property rights. ‘It follows’ (that is, from the 1989 Maori Fisheries Act, which recognised in law that “article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed Maori continued possession of their fisheries, Signatories to the Treaty were the chiefs – the representatives of the tribes’) ‘that the rights being dealt with in the Maori Fisheries Act should be tribal rights, and that ownership of those rights, to the extent that they continue in existence today through the provisions of the Maori Fisheries Act, should rest with tribes’ (Habib, 1991: 30).

The 1992 Settlement Act was the historical ‘moment’ when the newly recognised tribal property became capital. Property rights invested in the private person or the corporation (the neotribe) are not yet capital although the legal recognition of ownership is a necessary step in the path to capitalism. That step occurred with the mechanism created by the Settlement Act for the use of tribal property in the production and circulation of commodities based upon the utilisation of the fisheries property. Commodification is the accumulative mechanism of capitalism.

The study of the re-emergence of the Ngati Kuri tribe from several centuries of obscurity showed how the process of identity recognition was essential to claiming property rights. Once the traditional resources were recognised legally as tribal resources, it was imperative for specific groups who had material interests to assert those interests through the median of the tribe. The Waitangi Tribunal was the institution that conferred tribal recognition upon claimant groups. For tribes such as Ngati Kuri or the Chatham Islands Moriori who had been included in the definition of another collectivity, the Tribunal provided a place for the juridification of a contemporary definition.

This definition merged the revived historical tribal definition with the new capital-owning corporate identity. Without a clear tribal definition, descendant groups could not access the tribal property rights that were acquiring legal recognition from the late 1980s. Tribes, such as the Moriori Tchakat Henu (indigenous Moriori) sought judicial recognition of their self-defining status as a historically distinguishable tribal group in order to challenge the allocation of fishing property rights already made as part of a claim by another tribal group. Ngati Kuri, on the other hand, undertook the process of tribal definition re-establishment in order to make a claim for fishing property rights on the basis of its historical existence and the need for the people of the area to maintain their access to the fishing grounds.

The whanau’s revival, the fisheries study and the marine farm study opened up another important piece in the retribalisation process, that is, the revival of the tribal structure itself. The retribalising whanau needed a tribe to return to, the fisheries claimants needed strong tribal identities in whose name claims could be connected to the tribal signatures on the Treaty of Waitangi. This historical link provided the justification for the contemporary claim as a tribal, not a pan-Maori, claim. The decision to allocate fisheries resources under the treaty grievance process led to a wave of tribal definition and consolidation. Some of the larger tribes maintained a strong core of adherents within the tribal lands. Others, such as the tribe to which the researched whanau belonged, were severely depopulated. The study of this particular tribe, the Ngati Kuri of New Zealand’s far north became an account of historical invisibility and visibility, interwoven with the fortunes of the Rimu whanau itself.

Part Four  Theorising Neotribal Capitalism

Taken on their own, each of the research studies suggested unacknowledged discrepancies between intentions and outcomes. These discrepancies could be explained as a project gone wrong, a specific problem due to an unexpected event or rogue occurrence. However, all the studies suggested the same problem. The way in which a particular project was explained fitted best with the intentions, rather than the outcomes, of that project. For example, the intention of the kura kaupapa Maori movement was to produce bicultural and bilingual citizens of New Zealand. This was the way the movement was explained to its own members and to its biculturalist supporters in influential educational positions and in government. However, my research showed that the shift away from biculturalism towards an insular tribalism had begun even before the legislation was achieved.

By 1990, the kura kaupapa Maori legislation had instituted the kura into the state education system. Political support had been achieved on the basis of its stated committed to bicultural citizenship. Yet, the founding document of kura kaupapa Maori, Te Aho Matua (which was later included in legislation), was based upon the notion that the purpose of the kura was to construct each child as a member of its tribe. Kin belonging was placed before concepts of individual autonomy and universalism that underpinned the mainstream state education system. The incorporation of Te Aho Matua into the kura kaupapa Maori legislation exemplifies the institutionalisation of neotraditionalism.

Discrepancies both between Maori revivalist intentions and outcomes, and between the actual outcomes and the explanation of the outcomes, were also revealed in the marine farm and fisheries studies. The process by which communal ownership was acquired, resources capitalised, commodities produced, and access to and control of the resources showed in fact a process of privatisation. The group who acquired the resources in the communal name went on to acquire effective control over the resources. Detribalised Maori were excluded completely, despite the fact that pakeha biculturalists’ support for the Maori revival was achieved on the basis of the movement’s pan-Maori social justice intentions. Those Maori who identified with the tribe but who were not in the controlling elite have received little benefit either from the treaty settlements.

Tribal control rests with the elite who justify their leadership positions according to neotraditionalist notions of revived tribal leadership, a hierarchical structure based upon birth ascription and aristocratic lineage. The concept of traditional aristocratic ascription has supported the general acceptance by the non-elite tribal Maori of the legitimacy of the tribal elite, despite its new classed character. An influential Maori academic and tribal leader, Sydney Mead, justifies contemporary tribal leadership in terms of its continuity with the past. ‘The social system of traditional times is still in place. Though greatly changed. Waka, iwi, hapu and whanau still exist despite years of government efforts to undermine them. There is still a Maori leadership system.’ (1997: 203).

The discrepancies between intentions and outcomes in all the studies mirrored the greatest discrepancy of all, one that was increasingly hard to ignore. Widespread pakeha (and Maori too in many cases) support for the Maori revival and cultural, then political, biculturalism was based on the belief that this was to be the path to greater social justice. The concept of a decent and just society has deep roots in New Zealand history and is an ideal still advanced in contemporary political parties. Despite the experiment with new right policies in the late eighties and early 1990s, New Zealanders remain attached to a history of democratic egalitarianism and take pride in the social justice legislation of the 1890s and 1930s. Yet several decades of biculturalism intended to bring Maori in from the margins and improve Maori social and economic conditions had resulted in the disenfranchisement of those very Maori, whose poor status is the result of earlier detribilisation and whose guarantee of continued impoverishment was caused by their present inability to become retribalised. Detribalised Maori, in whose name the historical reparation settlements had initially been promoted, were excluded from those settlements.

There was a further problem. The tribes had acquired access to the settlements because they claimed to be the traditional tribe in a contemporary context. If it’s tribal then it’s traditional. And yet the studies all pointed to the emergence of new social relations within a new social structure. My research task was to locate the discrepancies in a theoretical framework that had sufficient explanatory power. The frequent use of post-colonial approaches, such as post-colonial trauma, to explain continuing Maori disadvantage had become less plausible given the visible evidence of considerable advantage to some Maori and ongoing disadvantage to Maori poor.

All the studies pointed to the type of relationship between the social environment and the economic environment as the source of the discrepancies and conflicts. According to neotribal capitalist theory the changed social relationship between people was a consequence of the new relationships of people to material resources. Despite the fact that the lands, waters and other resources were the same material things as in the past, indeed the same as in 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the meaning and use of these resources had changed in fundamental ways. However, in returning the resources to the tribes, the resources were juridified into legal ownership within a legal system based upon the concept of private ownership. They were capitalised as resources available for the production of commodities and the creation of profit under the control of a particular group.

The relationships between people, although still based upon notions of shared ancestry were different in fundamental ways from the communal relationships of the traditional tribe. Exploitative class relations, based upon differential access to and control of the traditional resources, replaced the traditional relationships located in the tribal hierarchical structures of a redistributive economy.

The tribe as the structuring principle of the social relations of the kin-group, was a legally defined economic unit within a democratic nation-state, a corporate neotribe. Despite the fact that the neotribe continues to practice certain cultural customs of the traditional tribe and is comprised of the descendants of its historical members, it is a new social structure, defined primarily by its economic functions. It is an economic corporation in a capitalist economic system, the same as all capitalist organisations in that it is accumulative not redistributive, class not communally structured.

It is not the modernised productive forces that determined the character of the tribe but the underlying relations between the people. Despite claims that these relations were still communal as in the traditional tribe, the logic of capitalism is that of an accumulatory regime which privileges those who own or control the capital resources. Accumulation follows resource ownership or control of the commodification process. Class division results from that control. The elite of the neotribe has a privileging relationship to the resources under its control. This fact separates them from those who, as a result of their detribalised status, are not even nominal owners of the tribes’ resources, and from those, who, as tribal members, are nominal shareholders in the tribal corporation, but whose influence is limited by the leadership ideology of neotribal capitalism.


The retribalisation movement itself did not automatically lead to neotribal capitalism. The emergence of this mode of production required the combination of a range of factors, not least the global context of new post-fordist forms of worker organisation and control that favoured localised production and communal or team worker organisation. Neotribal capitalism is a form of capitalism suited to late capitalism in that its modes of regulation provide new and undemocratic form of worker organisation and control.

Legal tribal status, legal recognition of traditional resources as tribal property, the capitalisation of the property and the production of commodities, the brokerage of the capitalised resources into the national and international economy, the control of the property (both capital and commodities) by one group at the expense of another group – all these factors needed to combine in order for neotribal capitalism to emerge as the structuring principle of the ‘revived’ tribe. And, in turn, none of these forces were possible without the bicultural context that was created from the relationship between two groups of the new professional class, whose historical position led them to identity themselves and others in terms of ethnic identity rather than according to the univeralist ethos that underpins New Zealand’s democracy.

In 2022 I would conclude with this phrase “and that is under grave threat from the neotribal elite and its agenda to transform New Zealand from democracy into ethno-nationalism.


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[1] The 2002 Speech from the Throne at the Opening of the 47th Parliament by the Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright  (Cartwright, 2002) shows how thoroughly Treaty rhetoric is established in government circles. ‘The basis of constitutional government in this country is to be found in its founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. My government values and remains committed to strengthening its relationship with tangata whenua (indigenous people). That means fulfilling its obligations as a Treaty partner’. Despite the insistence upon constitutional recognition, the Treaty has no constitutional status in law apart from the requirement in many acts of legislation that the principles of the Treaty are recognised or adhered to. Recent media comments by a  former politician indicate the extent of the lack of consensus concerning the Treaty of Waitangi. ‘(M)ost New Zealanders do not support a treaty-based nationhood (whose rules are) so arcane that only an elite can understand them’ (Upton, 2003: 6). This view is supported by the results of a 1999 national survey of attitudes and values (Perry and Webster, 1999) which found that ‘’this is clearly not a picture of a nation with a substantial and growing proportion of support for the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal. Our results seem to indicate that this is issue is a major point of division within the country.’ (1999:74).

[2] A discussion of the brokers, the brokerage mechanisms, and the privileging outcomes of brokerage is available in Rata, 2003b

[3] rangatiratanga – this word has a range of meanings concerning authority. They range from some form of limited governance, to self-determination, to the concept of full sovereignty.

[4] Being Pakeha was the title of an influential book by Michael King. Published in 1981 at the beginning of the bicultural movement this book was avidly read by those of the new professional class who were identifying in increasing numbers as ethnic Pakeha in relation to Maori rather than in terms of a national New Zealander identity.

[5] Foucault’s (2001: 71) concept of ‘genealogy’ as ‘the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allow us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today’ is re-interpreted to emphasise the ‘local memories’ and the primacy of the ‘immediate experience’ at the expense of the ‘erudite knowledge’.

[6] iwi – tribe, whakapapa – genealogy, mana – status, marae – meeting place, whanau – extended family, hapu – collectivity of whanau

[7] kura kaupapa Maori – Maori language and culture schools

[8] Chris Trotter (2003: 47) refers to the de-socialising of the Labour movement by the new professional class and their identity politics. ‘(T)hroughout the Labour movement – where whole layers of working-class leadership were being quietly, and in a few cases noisily, shunted aside. It had begun in the parliamentary Labour Party as far back as the 1970s but, by the end of the 1980s, vitually the entire Labour Party organisation, and whole swathes of the trade union movement, had fallen victim to the same relentless forces of what was called ‘”professionalisation”.’

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