The Individual: Western Liberal and Indigenous Australian Conceptions


This is one of three mini essays submitted for a political science assessment. Given the limited word count and my struggles to adhere to “academic writing”, they’re likely not the best pieces, but ah well, uploading them for shits and giggles. This particular essay discusses a key difference between Western liberal thought and Australia’s Indigenous politcal thought, specifically the conception of the individual. Much more akin to branches of libertarian socialism than liberalism, Indigenous political thought realises selfhood through relational means, which is much cooler in my opinion.

Indigenous populations globally have faced longstanding oppression, not just of their people and their lands, but also their cultures, ideas and politics. From the United State’s culling of Native Americans and the invasion and takeover of half of Mexico, the genocide of Australia’s Indigenous peoples (including the entire population of what is now Tasmania (Brodie 2017)), South African Apartheid, and the current displacement and silencing of the Palestinians, settler-colonial societies have systematically separated native populations from what makes their societies. As we face the looming climate crisis and global pandemics, it is this old and not yet forgotten knowledge and wisdom that may help us.

Indigenous Australians lay claim to one of, if not the, old surviving cultures on the planet. In the comparably short time settler populations have been here, the relationship between these two groups has been a web of positive and (mostly) negative interactions “characterised by intimate entanglement that mixes support with destruction, care with brutal violence, and appreciation with shocking disregard.” (Brigg and Graham 2020a). One of these conflicts is the supposed clash between Indigenous political thought and the ideals of Western liberal democracies.

For liberals, the liberty of individuals is paramount, but to prevent injustice or occurrences like the “tyranny of the majority”, something must be in place to mediate and pass judgement accordingly. For Hobbes, this was the Leviathan, the absolute state made up of individuals, and Locke came up with the social contract that bound citizens and the state together with their mutual rights and obligations (Mill 2001; Hobbes 2014). Brigg and Graham (2020b) contest the assertion that Aboriginal peoples are solely collectivist or group-oriented, which would paint it in stark contrast to the Western view of self-hood.

Instead, they draw similarities between the two by suggesting that both highlight individuality as an important aspect of both their politics. The difference comes not from the perception of self-hood, but how these individuals relate to one another. In the Western liberal doctrine, this is primarily through the state as an entity, as described above. For Aboriginal people, the self is relational – the self can only be realised through the individual’s relationship with others in the community. (Brigg and Graham 2020b). This concept, while it predates liberalism, is not entirely alien to it. For instance, some theorists have (while still deferring to a state entity) have approached digital privacy from a relational standpoint – one can only attain privacy so long as the privacy of others is also assured. (Molitorisz 2020).

Brigg and Graham detail how the socio-political conditions and any hierarchy exists as an emergent property through the assertion of autonomy, with the concept of selfhood founded on “accepting or refusing the obligations and requests made on the self by kin and Country.” (Brigg and Graham 2020b). Unlike much of Western political philosophy, the power dynamics that exist through both the state machinery and capital do not exist because of this relational approach to individuality; there is no need to enforce or judge based on a contract or abstract entity. Rather than comparisons with liberalism, this actually is more reminiscent of later philosophical developments relating to socialism, particularly the ideals of free association and equality inherent to more libertarian strands (Rocker 2004).

This also expands beyond the individual interacting within their own community and includes the relationship between “mobs”, what in the West would be “nations” or perhaps autonomous regions. (Brigg and Graham 2020b). This is heavily predicated on the connection a particular group has with the land that they reside on, something recognised by all Aboriginal peoples. Because of this connection, interactions with other “mobs” are equally relational, with the “selfhood” of their nations an inherent “right” without the need for violence or coercion to maintain borders. (Brigg and Graham 2020b).

In the West, it seems that these relations have been outsourced, either to the state or a social or capital contract. Philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau or Mill isolate the individual and must create an abstract means and justification for working for the common good. Indigenous people do not have this concern, tying their sense of self with the common good and the good of others.


Brigg, Morgan and Mary Graham 2020a ‘The need for Aboriginal ethics’ ABC June 15. Available at

Brigg, Morgan and Mary Graham 2020b ‘Autonomous selfhood’ ABC May 24. Available at

Brodie, Nick 2017 The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain’s Tasmanian Invasion Richmond: Hardie Grant Books.

Hobbes, Thomas 2014 Leviathan Hertfordshire: Wordsworth

Mill, John Stuart 2001 On Liberty Batoche Books.

Molitorisz, Sacha 2020 Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s