Saturday, November 20, 2010

Instead of a report from Tonga

I swapped Smithyland for Tonga on Thursday night, but I can't yet post a photo, let alone a report, on the state of this strange and splendid country, which is due to experience its first relatively democratic elections next week. I'll have to blame heat, Tongan beer, and rather erratic internet connections for my silence.

It's not that I lack subjects to blog about. I spent yesterday wandering across Nuku'alofa, the rambling capital city I fell in love with last January, photographing election billboards and Lapita ceramics, and talking about the state of the global economy with barbeque shack owners, and Skyler and I have spent most of today at a graduation ceremony on the grounds of 'Atenisi Institute, the private university founded in the 1960s by Futa Helu, the classical scholar, opera fan, and father of Tonga's pro-democracy movement. Although 'Atenisi (the word is Tongan for Athens) played a key role in building Tonga's civil society and its trade union movement, the university has been in decline in recent years, partly because of unsympathetic education bureaucrats who insist on querying whether its fusion of the Socratic method and South Pacific culture are compatible with commercially-influenced twenty-first century definitions of higher education. The graduation ceremony at 'Artenisi was both saddening and inspiring, and I plan to blog about it in detail when I can access an internet connection that doesn't crash every two and a half minutes.

In the meantime, I thought I'd reproduce part of a rambling e mail I recently sent to some of the editors of the Aotearoa Independent Media Centre. The IMC had been looking for a journalist to cover Tonga's upcoming elections; I'm not a journalist, and as a palangi blow-in I find the intricacies of contemporary Tongan politics highly confusing, but I do find the history and sociology of this extraordinary country irresitably interesting, even if I struggle to get a handle on them.

The argument reproduced below is rather abstract, but I discussed the Tongan islands of 'Eua and Tongatapu in a more concrete, less pretentious way here and here, in the aftermath of my January visit to this country.

Hi R,

leaving aside the various personalities involved in Tongan politics and in the upcoming election and looking at the bigger picture, I think that one question which is crucial for the future of Tonga is whether existing laws and customs governing the use of land are maintained or replaced by legislation and practices more compatible with the growth of Western-style capitalism.

The International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and similar institutions certainly seem keen to make the alienation of Tongan land, and therefore of the whole Tongan economy, possible, and either the present King's 'party' or the pro-democracy forces could be captured by such an agenda. Tupou IV became a firm believer in neo-liberalism in his later years, and his son is probably a believer too. Certainly, the government of Tupou V has cut company taxes, created a commission to consider changes to the Land Act, and talked of the importance of foreign investment in building the Tongan economy.

The pro-democracy 'party' can't necessarily be relied upon either: we only have to look at the history of Latin American nations like Argentina in the 1980s to see the way that democratisation can be turned into an opportunity to 'open' an economy up to foreign investors from Western nations, and to do away with national ownership of assets.

The roots of Tonga's present situation lie, I think, in the extraordinary reign of Tupou I, who kept the country free from colonialists and set it on its modern course. Tupou was a strange combination of Old Testament prophet, merciless warrior, and enlightened statesman - when talking with Kiwis, I've described him as a cross between Hongi Hika and Wiremu Tamihana.

I think that the legal code Tupou established in 1862 and the constitution he published in 1875 saw a big reduction in the power of the chiefs who had run a basically feudal economic system for (at least) several hundred years.

Under the terms of the 'new deal' introduced by Tupou I, the chiefs were made nobles, were brought under the rule of law, and lost their serfs and their right to tax the harvest of small farmers. Small farmers got the right to security of tenure on their land, which was effectively nationalised by Tupou, and the right to pass the land on to their offspring. The nobles got their own estates, which they ran on a semi-feudal basis, as a sop, and also the right to administer the tenure system on behalf of the state.

I think that, in many ways, Tupou's reforms represented an unusual social compromise, and defied the dominant patterns of modernisation seen elsewhere in the world in the nineteenth century.

In European countries and in Japan during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, land reform hastened a transition from feudalism or semi-feudalism to capitalism. There was land reform 'from below' in places like revolutionary France, where the peasants broke up the big feudal estates and became small farmers free to sell and buy land. Inevitably, this led to the speeding up of capitalist development, because some farmers ended up swallowing the lands of others and becoming a rural bourgeoisie that employed the landless as workers. There was land reform 'from above' in places like Germany and Japan, where the old feudal class rationalised its holdings, embraced modern technology and turned its serfs (or semi-serfs) into agricultural workers.

In some parts of subjugated Pacific nations like Samoa and Fiji, a third model of capitalist development was seen, as Europeans established plantations on land they had acquired, turning the local peasant people into workers for (appallingly low) wages. This was, of course, imperialism in action.

What is fascinating about Tonga is that Tupou's reforms did not encourage but rather almost froze the development of capitalism in his country. Tupou neither smashed the power of the old feudal class, as the French had done, nor allowed that class to transform itself into a bourgeoisie, as Bismarck did in Germany and the Meiji reformers did in Japan. Tupou I imposed an odd sort of ceasefire, and Tonga developed a hybrid economy, which featured a feudal mode of production based in the nobles' estates and a traditional Polynesian lineage mode of production based in the small farms and in the villages.

I think that Tupou I saw this trade off as what was best for his country. He was no democrat, but his interpretation of Wesleyanism led him to regard serfdom as an abomination, and he he hated the idea of Tongans losing their land to Westerners. The Tongan historian Sione Latefutu tells that us that, during a visit Tupou I made to Sydney in 1852 to see how Western societies worked, the King was shocked by the sight of people sleeping rough in parks, and realised that capitalism wasn't all it was cracked out to be. Tupou I also followed the New Zealand Wars closely, and worried about his nation suffering the same fate as the Waikato Kingdom.

Tupou's first successor was ineffectual and decadent, and almost ended up giving the country away to Britain, but Queen Salote steadied the ship in the twentieth century and maintained national independence. Salote wrestled with the problem of how to develop the economy, and decided not to let market forces into Tonga. During the Depression she urged Tongans to forget about trying to buy Western goods, limited imports of 'luxuries' like tinned food and tobacco, and praised subsistence agriculture. When she did attempt to develop the economy, Salote promoted co-operatives rather than private businesses as models for her people.

Capitalism only really arrived in Tonga when the Americans occupied the country during World War Two. Their ready cash and demand for all sorts of goods and services led to the establishment of a range of private businesses which Salote had little choice but to accept.

Salote's successor Tupou IV has often been presented as an overweight buffoon, but in the early years of his reign he was a dynamic reformer, who sent Tongans off to the West to get university educations and who talked about adding a strong, ultra-modern capitalist sector to the economy. Tupou IV wanted to see the rise of a big private sector, but a mixture of the constraints left in place by the 1875 constitution and the lack of profits to be made in Tonga meant that private capital was hard to find, and the state ended up driving economic expansion. Tupou IV thus bequeathed Tonga a huge public sector, complete with a thriving union movement and a pro-democracy university-educated intelligentsia.

Tupou's eagerness for foreign investment and the growing population of Tonga meant that the nobles, who were in still in charge of the mechanics of distributing land, were increasingly able to take a cut of the cash economy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In a fascinating essay about land use on the island of Vava'u in the '80s and early '90s, the sociologist Paul Van der Grijp shows how the nobles exploited the demand of growing numbers of farmers for land by soliciting bribes to speed up the allotment of this land. Even though the formal sale of land remains illegal in Tonga, and the distribution of land is still usually determined by genealogy and history of occupation, nobles are now making good money out of oiling the wheels of the land allotment machine. They often invest this money in various ways, and are thus probably well on the way to transforming themselves from a semi-feudal into a capitalist (or petty capitalist) class.

Because private investors have not been attracted to Tonga in large numbers and state-driven capitalism has been the norm, there have been numerous opportunities for the aristocracy and the nobility to engage in capitalism. Tupou IV's children have become famous, or rather infamous, for the way they have appropriated state-funded companies like Tongan Royal Airlines and Tongan Royal Beer.

Before Tonga can become fully capitalist, though, the barriers of the 1875 constitution must be broken, so that land can be freely bought and sold and the security of tenant-farmers disappears. This 'opening' of the economy is what the IMF and Western government continually urge on Tonga, and on other partially capitalist Pacific societies like Samoa and the Cooks. A few years ago Rarotonga decided, after loud debate, to allow the alienation of its land; in 2007 similar proposals were defeated in Samoa after staunch protests.

If Tonga's economy were ever opened up, then I think the proto-bourgeoisie represented by the nobles and by Tupou IV's offpsring would soon be swallowed by the sharks of international capitalism, that small farmers would lose their land to foreign plantation owners and resort developers, and that Tonga would eventually become almost totally foreign-owned. This would, of course, be a disaster.

I object to a lot of the coverage of the situation in Tonga by the New Zealand left because it focuses on political democracy and on the question of the role of the monarchy, without considering the much more fundamental question of the Tongan economy in general, and of land ownership in particular.

Even left-wing Kiwis seem inclined to mock Tonga as a backward society, without understanding the progressive features of the 1875 constitution.

It's fairly obvious that the Tongan monarchy, like the Kingitanga here in New Zealand, has outlived its historical usefulness, and either needs to be overhauled very radically or replaced with something better. Tawhiao and Tupou I may have been staunch anti-imperialists who helped their people stand up to rapacious Westerners, but Tupou V, like our own present Maori monarch, is all too happy to do business with dodgy multinational companies and ignore grassroots sentiment amongst his own people.

But even if the Tongan monarchy is no longer useful, other aspects of the order established by Tupou I ought to be preserved. The ban on land sales and guarantee of security of occupancy are crucial to Tongan independence, and should also be crucial to any progressive vision of Tonga's future. Kiwi leftists need to understand this, or they could end up supporting the pro-democracy movement as it goes over the cliff, in the same way that so many Latin American pro-democracy movements went over the cliff in the 1980s when they embraced all-out capitalism as well as democratisation.

I remember talking to one Tongan from 'Eua who said that "A lot of us don't mind the monarchy, because we remember that Tupou gave us land and kept our country independent". Who could really disagree with him?


Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

I truly love & enjoy your insights, Maps, into islands I will never travel to - thankyou!
Ka mihi mahana ki a koe-

11:51 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Many thanks for your kind words, Keri. Tonga is actually very cheap, by Kiwi standards, to get to at the moment, especially if one brings only light luggage. You don't think you'd ever be tempted?

10:16 pm  

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