The Dystopia in the Desert

The Silent Culture of Australia's Remotest Aboriginal Communities

By Tadhgh Purtill

Australian Scholarly Publishing 2017

The author spent about 18 months in 2011-12 as a regional manger in the remote Ngannyatjarra community, which is an area of Western Australia in central Australia, near the NT-SA border. This is a collection of excerpts from the book. It is not a summary, it is just a collection of highlights, selected because they seemed particularly relevant or erudite. I started reading the book, put it down for a year, and then came back to it with a highlighter. That is why only the second half of the book is included here. However, I think it still provides a worthwhile indication of the content of the book. John Perkins, April 2019.


Part I: Complexity and Dysfunction

1, The Operational Map

2. Compartmentalism and Social Dysfunction

Part II: Community Governance, Management and Staff

3. Community Governance

4. Community Staff

Part III: The Operational Culture and Environment


5. The Operational Space

6. Lack of Participation

7. Non-compliance

8. Miseducation

9. The Meaning of Futility

10. Dependencies

Aboriginal culture is attuned to harshness and severity to basic survival. It does not aspire to material development. The welfare regime meets their needs as they see them. They don't see the service regime as conditional, they see it at as their right.

Perceptions of empowerment differ. The service regime sees development as empowerment. The communities see the right to demand things as empowerment.

There is no motivation to improvement, as this would jeopardise funding. Aboriginal dependency can be seen not as an aspect of dysfunction but as a type of bargain. There is a dependency on dependency.

11. The Special Zone

The notion of a special zone is common to various parties. A formulation is that the land belongs to the community members and they can live how they want. This differs from mainstream Australian standards and expectations. Not going to school, not working, not learning and not complying be seen as a way of maintaining cultural integrity. This can be permitted and justified as applications of a surviving cultural value. However lack of individual capacity translates directly into a lack of collective autonomy and a long-term threat to Aboriginal culture.

There are staff whose careers and jobs depend upon the continuation of the state of dysfunction. It is the nature of the Special zone that there is a revealed pattern of defended failure.

12. The Nature of Regional Truth

There is an Orwellian dualism regarding truth and what constitutes a fact. In the communities there is a body of facts and a responsive body of pseudo-facts. Presiding bodies, agencies and departments also require the fact, to be other than what they are. A further confusion: there are whitefella facts and Aboriginal pseudo-facts and Aboriginal facts and whitefella pseudo-facts. For instance, it is true that work capacity is necessary in whitefella society, but it is equally true that modern work as a way of life is historically an imposition upon remote Aboriginal people.

Many of the people involved are not pretending. They actually believe that one thing is really another in an alternative knowledge system. This is not merely a habit of reflexive dissimulation: it is an ontological reification of make-believe.

False imaginings as opposed to consciously false claims are actually part of the facts with which staff must deal. Falsity is not merely a means of social transaction but the very thing that is being transacted.

The moral value of truth and truth telling are replaced with something of comparable morality, namely, the promotion of the interests of disadvantaged Aborigines.

We can refer to a foundational aspect of the continuing thought scheme: the traditional tjukurrpa or Dreamtime. Specifically it is a mythopoeic system, it did not have an explicit or implicit commitment to rationalism, objectivity, or a clinical approach to the ascertainment of facts.

As examples, the traditional world of the Western Desert was one in which: sorcery was a valid method and a convincing explanation for unfortunate events; the investigation of a crime involves looking for the shape of in the smoke of a fire; missing items had obviously been stolen by featherfoot men rather than human tribe members; a coincidental occurrence was taken to be an intended sign from ancestral beings; and rock formations came to exist through the actions of men and women during the dreaming.

These concepts of causation are frequently open to manipulation. As Poirier notes, in desert narration there is no absolute epistemological distinction between fiction and redescription, between false and true, or between real and unreal.

In these circumstances, staff are forced to produce and intermediate mythology of their own. The irrationality of the staff mythology is not obvious because it is muted in the more respectable concept of cultural sensitivity, an idea that is theoretically recognised in the bureaucratic mind.

Somehow they are expected to reform the current reality while not actually acknowledging what that reality is. Somehow a new and better truth and is expected to emerge from a collection of agreed lies.

13. The Narrative of Assent

A narrative of assent is one that appears to express the thoughts and aspirations of the people of the region and characterises the region in the imagination of people outside of it.

Words come from one ideology, that of regional development, while actions come from another, a form of separatism in which community members are not asked to develop conducive social capital because it might impinge on their cultural freedom. The narrative of assent simply amounts to a method of misrepresentation.

Unconsciously, there is a perception of a dominant culture that remains convinced of its essential superiority and welcomes confirmation of this from the people outside of it or under it.

For regional organisations and community members, the opportunity to tell the system what it wants to hear is too lucrative, and too easy, and too effective not to be taken up. There is also a counterpart in government behaviour. Its motivations include concerns about the financial and political cost of the current situation in communities. To this extent, governments are more concerned about their moral reputations than they are with the facts on the ground.

14. The Mythological Community

The communities and entities that work with them are badged with a number of programs that were conceived in the past. Some bits and pieces of these have fallen into desuetude and even into varying states of decay. Truth finding involves efforts of venture, recovery, critical thought, and some degree of scepticism about ones own experience. But none of these are encouraged in the culture of the public service.

15. An Unhappy Medium

One aspect of the operational culture is a pervasive absence of any urgency about changing the overall situation in the communities. The features of the operational culture have evolved to become more than mere dishonesties. Truth and reality are now largely determined by consequentialist considerations.

The bureaucrats may perceive a gap between the received story and the reality, but it cannot be acknowledged and therefore officially known. A bureaucracy suffers from a second type of disadvantage. Having lived their whole lives in mainstream environments they may find it literally impossible to imagine all the operational space that derives from the intersection of two cultures.

Part IV: The dystopia in the Desert

16. A System of Interests

We can learn something of community life from witnessing behaviour:

a. gambling in the communities

b. unemployment in communities

c. disturbance and conflict over money

d. availability and assessment of mining royalty money

They all show a lack of understanding of money, what it is, where it comes from, and how it can be used constructively.

Organisations and agencies need these problems because without them they would have no reason to exist and be resourced. The mainstream has a need to see these problems fixed, but this is countervailed.

Schools were set up with good intentions, but the education offered no relation to what had been traditionally taught to children. There is no universal protocol for dealing with truant children.

It is sufficient that there is a school rather than it achieves its goals. There is a moral primacy of existence over efficacy.

The social problems at a community level are a vital staple and may be used to define and justify the functions of the organisations, but actual solutions to those problems are not necessarily within their collective corporate interest.

Why do these connections between operational behaviours and perpetuation of social problems continue to be ignored by organisations? It is not a conscious effort to preserve the problems. It is the absence of a strong motivation to do what is socially necessary.

17. The Ways of Power and Money

One of the characteristic facts of many regional staffing hierarchies is the fact that they are not meritocracies but mediocracies. A mediocracy is a system where mediocrity is preferred and promoted.

We can come to a conclusion. It is that the Ngannyatjarra region, including its communities and organisations, is not merely in a state of dysfunction - it is in itself a mechanism of dysfunction.

It would be more accurate to describe the regional system as a dystopia, but viable on its own terms and working basically successfully in the service of certain interests.

A dystopia does not involve just the formal system; it involves the quiet supersession of that system by another. The new system does not achieve a semblance of conventional order because it is not trying to. The frequent invocation of Ngannyatjarra culture in defence of this dystopia is a measure of its of objective disorientation.

The goal of the dystopia is to preserve its internal physiology and its external credibility and above all to preserve its own existence.

18. Seeing and Believing.

The confused view from outside is further compounded by the fact that cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and notions of cultural relativity, all appear to be useful keys to understanding the situation 'out bush'. Mainstream attitudes of reserved judgement and respect, when too broadly applied to the whole region, including the methods by which it is governed and serviced, amount to a partial moral blindness. Notions of cultural relativism are very conducive to the wayward trends that have occurred in the Ngannyatjarra communities.

The whole regional exercise is surrounded by force field of liberal sensibility - a fact that is deliberately exploited by certain regional spokespeople. The point here is that mainstream ignorance of what is going on within the dystopia, and a failure to understand it, is one of the main reasons for the dystopia's continued existence. The reality of the dystopia can only be known by people who have worked within it without having adopted its values.

Official language which evolved in response to mainstream circumstances of relative normality cannot convey that which is highly abnormal. There are people with in the Ngannyatjarra regional system who have a highly impressive grasp of the bureaucratic vernacular. Linguistic mimicry by regional spokespeople is often a calculated misrepresentation.

The misleading use of language is directly linked to one of the most important and disturbing characteristics of the region: the devaluation of truth as a form of intellectual currency.

'Toxic' truths are those that contradict the most precious illusions of the regional system, such as the illusion that regional organisations are competent in their management, or the illusion that regional parties are in no way responsible for social outcomes. Denying the reality does not alter the reality. It simply suspends our ability to deal with it constructively.

The service regime performs a liaison role between the region and the government. In its operational roles, its loyalty is unclear.

The service regime is a respectable escutcheon behind which the dysfunctional social life of the communities can be partially hidden. The service regime interprets the communities to the outside, and interprets the outside to the communities. The translation is imperfect and sometimes deliberately inaccurate.

There are three themes in this translation. First, communities are described as places and people with a rich traditional culture. Second, they are described as cross-culturally empowered, dynamic and creative. The third dwells upon issues of deprivation.

There are dichotomies. Ngannyatjarra people are proudly Aboriginal, but also successfully quasi-Western. They are both powerful and weak at the same time

One might say that there are alternative knowledges of the Ngannyatjarra region which exist on different planes.

An example: a community member may spend his last $25 on tobacco and then approach staff, asking their help in buying food for his kids. His behaviour will be described by the experts as a product of economic marginality, or as a consequence of a culturally different understanding of money. None of the experts will report that the man is just being a bloody idiot.

The role of moral agency in any such situation is regarded by the observing expert as an irrelevant and non-scientific factor. The role of moral agency is excluded, despite its indispensable role in the development of solutions to the regions problems.

Just as Aboriginal people were once defined by their perceived inferiority, now in a belated dialectical connection, they are defined by their ability to do no wrong. The real price is being paid by black strangers in the desert, whose agency and capacity for positive self change has been deleted from the whitefella understanding.

Another recurring issue is that of truth. The two domains have informally agreed on what might be called a pragmatic conception of truth, a conception whose central criterion is based on what works.

In the intercultural exchange, something like a pragmatic definition of truth is both adequate and necessary. It would seem that while the Aboriginal and whitefella worlds are ontologically irreconcilable, they can nevertheless talk to each other via a fictive medium of what is going on. This precludes and honest, accurate and effective engagement with the real problems in the desert.


There is a pretence that decisions are being made by staff in accordance with the wishes of the Ngannyatjarra people. The practical effect of this myth of Aboriginal control is that it postpones the only means by which the Ngannyatjarra people can escape the oppressive social, financial and perceptual phenomena that make-up at the regional system. These means are the development of knowledge, understanding and capacity: things that need to exist at an individual level before they can have an impact on the broader social and institutional levels.

Genuine Aboriginal capacity, and the determination to use that capacity, would upset the balance of the regional system, destroy mutual dependencies of the system, and thereby entirely refashion it into something positive.


There has been a reduction in the quality of experience. There is a loss of mainstream skills that once existed among the older mission-raised residents, but does not exist among the more poorly educated younger ones.

The choice to do whatever ones feels like at any given moment constitutes a lost opportunity: the opportunity to do what can only be done by people with self-discipline.

The Ngannyatjarra world, despite its superficial liberality and its general permissiveness, is characterised not by personal freedom from, but by its enclosure within, and a subordination to.


Also at work here, as in relation to so many other current public debates, is the relational anthropology of the ideological tribe. There is a need for company and connection. Accordingly she seeks the mental company of like-minded people. Having found her people, the Left, the Right, the fashionably disgruntled, the incessantly offended, the conservatively realistic, she must demonstrate her eligibility by being eager for the Idea, the Complaint, and equally eager to attack the enemy.

Since outrage is essential to the relational solidarity of the moral tribe, the thing that the tribe members are getting outraged about can never be allowed to become less objectionable, nor may it ever become a matter of degree, and therefore confuse the basis of tribe membership.

Latent within the philosophical and structural terms of our society is the broadly monistic view about the structure of things, including ideas and values. The assumption implies that only one single order exists, and every feature of reality can be consistently assembled within that order.

While the cultural applications of this concept is trendily disavowed by responses like post-modernism and a qualified pluralism that has occurred in western societies, an absolute relativism has never seemed viable or desirable.

The monistic assumption provides confidence that we can discover that a solution to any problem. That the optimal state - functionally morally materially economically socially - is attainable. But it also may be the expression of an emotional need for certainty and clarity. This clarity can be produced by easier means, by mentally subtracting perceptions that are ambiguous. This process is not obvious because we deny to ourselves that we are doing it.

The knowledge scope of powerful is actually circumscribed in ways the powerful cannot realise. There remains, beyond that line of circumscription, an unknowable hinterland. It is in that hinterland that the communities of the Ngannyatjarra region are functioning, creating and defying. The defiant creation, the dystopian system, caters to the inextinguishable Aboriginal instinct. The instinct to survive as a people, to refuse to become something else.


Potential indeterminacy has been a collecting theme for this book. We have limitations of perception and analysis and limitations of cross cultural empathy. These limitations of mine - and yours - have been a permuting layer of perceptual difficulty. Despite the frequent muscularity of my prose, neither of us can be completely confident of what has emerged here.

When I arrived in the desert in 2010, I was a robust advocate of strong self-determination, and a full supporter of the homelands. I believed that remote Aboriginal people had every right to place themselves at a distance from mainstream Australian society, even to opt out of it, and their cultural interests and rights might best be preserved, by such a situation. Those fantasies, which were not consistent with the facts I found in the Ngannyatjarra communities, were eventually discarded. What has replaced them in my thinking is not an ideological prescription but a general attitude, including a set of rejections: a rejection of lies, a rejection of self-delusion, a rejection of myth, and the consequent rejection of any theory not grounded in the facts. If there's one thing that strikes through the play of subjectivity it is intelligent scepticism, for without it no attempt at objectivity can be meaningful.

My flickerings of ambivalence may have a deeper source. Australia, a nation around the coast, does possess social and cultural integrities in that rim. But its occupation of the centre is much more tenuous, an event of the imagination, more than a physical reality. That fact has profound implications for any effort we might make in the outback.

The image from the air is a dry sea of long dunes. The expanse of the desert, its scale and weight, provides the soul of the Aboriginal experience. It is the distance, the space, and the isolation that possesses the official situation, modifying its claims and affecting its dynamics until they are no longer recognisable.

John Perkins