Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? The Labour Party and MANA

cunliffe women's refuge

Ian Anderson, Fightback.

Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence

Early in July this year, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe made headlines by apologising for being a man. Stoked by capitalist media sensation, Prime Minister John Key responded that “not all men” abuse women.

For abuse survivors and their supporters however, Cunliffe sentiments were not entirely off the mark. Cunliffe’s original comment occurred at a Women’s Refuge event, with a pledge to invest $60 million more into family violence services. His apology reflected widespread normalisation and acceptance of male violence, the fact that men perpetrate most abuse, (even most violence against men is inflicted by other men) and the lack of support for survivors of all genders.

Fightback, as a socialist-feminist organisation, can unite with the demand for increased survivor support. However, there is a deeper problem associated with the call for social spending. At the end of April this year, the government allocated $10 million more for sexual violence support services, after pressure from the women’s movement, represented in parliament by Green MP Jan Logie. Even in the wake of this allocation, Christchurch Rape Crisis recently closed down due to underfunding, in the context of a 40% rise in reported sexual assaults since 2010.

2014 is the 30th anniversary of the election of the Fourth Labour Government. The Fourth Labour Government introduced neoliberalism – the dominant form of transnational capitalism defined by privatisation and cutbacks – to Aotearoa/NZ. No government has restored the level of social spending prior to the Fourth Labour Government.

While Labour’s leadership may reallocate some spending if they are elected, they show no interest in healing the deep cuts of the last 30 years. This is a grim historical irony for women’s organisations like Refuge and Rape Crisis, which achieved state recognition over a period of retreating social spending.

Labour’s leadership have pledged to raise the retirement age, a policy not even National supports. While they pledge to raise the minimum wage to a mere $15, they also indicate that they will maintain National’s welfare attacks. This is a zero-sum game. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Labour’s limitations are not solely a matter of uninspiring local policy or leaders, but of a transnational political-economic paradigm. The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, recently called for a three-day working week to improve quality of life. Undercutting the apparently progressive headlines though, Slim asserted that retirement ages are too low and should be raised to 70 or 75. Slim’s reasoning, that a shorter working week could be necessary for a longer working life, seems slim comfort for those facing the prospect of menial labour into their 70s.

Generally, the already grim promised trade-offs; a nickel for your weekend, a dollar for your soul; are unreliable. Despite right-wing claims to grow the pie instead of sharing it equally, the pie seems to be getting smaller. Despite Slim’s recommendation, capitalist governments are overwhelmingly more likely to raise the retirement age than decrease the working week.

As superstar philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently observed, secretly negotiated trade agreements, such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), set the economic agenda more than elections:

“The key decisions concerning our economy are negotiated and enforced in secret, and set the coordinates for the unencumbered rule of capital. In this way, the space for decision-making by the democratically elected politicians is severely limited, and the political process deals predominantly with issues towards which capital is indifferent.”

Labour’s leadership initiated the TPPA negotiations, and show no interest in reversing them, despite the wishes of their membership.

Ultimately, Labour’s leadership is firmly committed to managing neoliberalism. Labour’s base is in the public and community sector; civil servants, union bureaucrats, teachers. In fact, because they know the public sector better, Labour are in some ways better equipped to manage an austerity-lite program. While National’s policies are often driven by cronyism, (SkyCity) or seem ideological and arbitrary, (charter schools, asset sales) Labour seek to manage the public sector professionally and, where, possible, equitably.

Public debt has increased under National, due to both international borrowing and tax cuts for the rich. If Labour were to increase taxation and attempt to slash pensions, (currently the biggest slice of social spending) this may balance the books more smartly than National, but it would also undermine what support Labour has.

To give another example, the Labour Party knows the tertiary education sector well, and have been instrumental in restructuring it along market lines. The Fourth Labour government got rid of the universal allowance and introduced student loans, the Fifth Labour government introduced the Performance-Based Research Fund (which treats universities not as places of learning, but producers of marketable research). Even Labour’s apparently pro-student policies, like interest-free student loans, maintain a market model. By contrast, National appears to have no plan, making cuts such as getting rid of the student allowance for post-grad students – apparently undermining the continued emphasis on research, and without any significant government saving.

Ultimately, both major parties are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied. It’s no wonder that the 2011 General Election saw the lowest turnout since women won the right to vote.

Socialists argue for the socialisation of property, the unlocking of wealth which could allow for a more fulfilling social existence, for self-determination and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over resources. Right now, as the zero-sum game rages globally, the possibility of liberation seems remote. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

While social transformation seems unlikely, it’s the only realistic possibility if humans are to survive and flourish. This poses the question of where to start, how to organise, how to build from what we have. Fightback argues that in the long term, progressives must chart a course independent of the Labour Party. There are areas where we can unite with Labour Party members on campaigns, but ultimately we’re heading in a different direction from the leadership.

hone capitalism not our future

After successive betrayals by both Labour and National governments, the MANA Movement formed around Hone Harawira, and other leaders with a proven radical history. Iwi networks, such as Ngāpuhi, provide the organised backbone of the MANA Movement – for example, mobilising the nationwide hikoi against asset sales.

The difference between Labour and MANA is not simply a spectrum from ‘far left’ to ‘centre left.’ It’s not even a matter of MANA’s leadership being consistently progressive – the MANA Movement held Harawira to account on same-sex marriage rights. In fact where Labour MPs treated marriage rights as a conscience issue, MANA owned the issue as a movement.

Labour’s leadership seeks to manage neoliberalism equitably, MANA seeks rangatiratanga (leadership) for te pani me te rawakore (the poor and dispossessed), what Harawira calls “the largest tribe.” This means building a democratic mass movement for justice and self-determination. MANA supports building 10,000 state houses, taking back assets, free education. To support this policy program, MANA calls for taxes on the rich (alongside scrapping GST).

For MANA’s Māori leadership this means building alliances, where possible, with sympathetic Pākeha and tau iwi – on the basis that “what’s good for Māori is good for everyone.” In 2011, MANA stood leftist Pākeha candidates including John Minto and Sue Bradford in General Electorate seats, to campaign for the party vote. This didn’t significantly expand MANA’s base beyond its stronghold in Harawira’s Te Tai Tokerau.

In the lead-up to the 2014 General Election, MANA has formed a tactical alliance with the Internet Party, founded by German millionaire Kim Dotcom. MANA was widely criticised for cutting a deal with Dotcom, even by parties which habitually take donations from big business. Fightback also raised initial concerns about Dotcom’s trustworthiness, although we have reaffirmed our support for the MANA Movement.

Traditionally no friend of the working class, Dotcom was forced into a corner by his experience of state repression. At the 2014 MANA AGM, Waiariki candidate Annette Sykes stated that policies and principles must be a bottom line in any deal. At a recent speech on the Internet MANA road trip, Sykes observed how Dotcom’s encounter with state repression resonated, in terms recalling the Urewera raids under the last Labour government:

“Families are destroyed when the cops come into your house with their guns. That’s what happened to Kim Dotcom. I must say that was the only thing about him, I don’t care about his money, that was the only thing that I really admired him for. Because when it happened he stood up for him and his kids and his family.”

In contrast to Labour and National’s imperialist consensus, Dotcom opposes the TPPA, the Five Eyes, and the GCSB. Dotcom’s opposition to surveillance and secret trade agreements, key parts of the transnational imperialist apparatus, formed the initial basis of his tactical alliance with the left.

The Internet Party itself, still in formation, is shaping out to be a progressive organisation. MANA underlined changing the government as a further bottom line for the alliance. With veteran unionist Laila Harre stepping in as Internet Party leader, and crucially MANA retaining independence to pursue its own policy program, the deal at this stage appears to be shaping out well for MANA.

Internet Mana aims to mobilise non-voters; overwhelmingly young people, Maori, the marginalised and dispossessed; and is currently polling at 2.3%, enough to get Harawira, Harre, and Sykes in on a progressive policy platform. Reportedly at the 2014 National Party conference, Attorney General Chris Finlayson stated his concern about the Internet MANA alliance:

“The fragmentation on the left hasn’t made the hydra weaker, only more unstable if it can force its way into power again.”

Finlayson pays Internet Mana a disarming compliment here. Internet Mana is strong, but unstable. Hone Harawira is an unstable partner, because he was unwilling to sacrifice the foreshore and seabed for crumbs from the table. Contrary to portrayals of Laila Harre as a pawn, Harre also has an unstable record, having walked from the Fifth Labour government over the occupation of Afghanistan. Instability may seem self-defeating in the short term, but it’s necessary in the long term.

For transformative politics, parliamentary representation is one tool in a wider strategy, not the main goal. Transformation is not just a matter of changing the government. It’s not even a matter of electing proven movement leaders to opposition. Transformation requires sustained independent struggle in every sector, an inclusive movement for economic and political sovereignty.

Under the Fifth Labour government, victories such as the $12 minimum wage and the abolition of youth rates were won through struggle by independent community groups and fighting unions. Democratic organisations of the people are necessary both for survival, and for the possibility of greater victories.

By entering a capitalist government, MANA would risk sacrificing this fighting independence for a seat at the table. Labour continues to rule out working with MANA, undermining their own limited shot at forming a government, because they recognise the threat Harawira and MANA represent to business as usual. In keeping with his democratic approach, Harawira has stated that any post-election deal would have to be approved by the membership.

As phrased by socialist commentator Giovanni Tiso, “wanting to kick the Tories out of government is one of the noblest of human feelings, and saying that it isn’t nearly enough, the most banal of statements. In the end we’re still left to face those different evils.”

For those who accept that a Labour-led government isn’t nearly enough, it’s a question of building people’s organisations and movements for the long haul. Fightback seeks to play a part in weaving the people into a new radical democratic body, which can chart a course beyond the two-party cycle that keeps us locked into capitalism.

Fightback Issue 5 2014 online

The New Zealand Herald – and the rest of the mainstream media – recently ended up with egg on their face in regard to the Donghung Liu affair.

The mainstream media are increasingly open about their preference for coverage of politics which turns it into a simple horse-race between two teams of celebrities. The modern media, pushed by commercial pressures into an arms-race to grab attention, has no time for real news and analysis.

This is why we publish Fightback. We need an analytical media, and a socialist media. We need a media which tries to explain news and issues, not only in a form that ordinary people can grasp, but in a form that ordinary people can use. If you understand how the buggers get away with it, then you can more effectively fight against them.

This issue is mainly devoted to a round-up of our very successful Capitalism: Not Our Future conference. In particular we concentrate on issues which are still woefully overlooked in a lot of socialist writing. Sionnain Byrnes and Bronwen Beechey provide excellent write-ups from the panel discussions on Gender and Ecosocialism at our conference. Also on the topic of women’s liberation is an article on women’s contribution to New Zealand’s 1890 maritime strike.

Another issue which should be of strategic interest for all socialists – but has not been – is the internet.

Mobile and digital technology offers unprecedented possibilities for freedom of speech, education and opportunities for employment for all working people. But these possibilities of freedom in the new technology are threatened by the governments and large corpora- tions. We deal in this issue with how copyright and “anti-piracy” laws only benefit the big corporations, at the expense of both consumers and creatives.

Of course, this is an issue dear to the heart of the Internet Party. On this subject, it is also very important for socialists to not only be able to admit mistakes, but to analyse them and seek to improve them. In our April issue, we declared ourselves against the MANA movement’s electoral alliance with the Internet Party. At the conference, we decided that we had made that decision for the wrong reasons, and reversed it. A statement by Fightback explains why, and other articles explain – once again – how MANA is the party where socialists should be struggling right now.

We want to encourage all our readers – online or on paper – to donate to Fightback or to take out a subscription. An independent socialist press will only survive if it is useful enough to its readers that they will not only read, but write for and financially support us.

Your contribution will determine whether we can continue our work.

2014 Issue #5 Fightback

Tamaki/AKL event: Socialist-Feminist Day School

socialist feminist day school tamaki


1pm – Socialist Feminism 101, Sionainn Byrnes (Fightback & UC Femsoc)
2:30pm – Gendered aspects of poverty, Nadia Abu-Shanab (Auckland Action Against Poverty)
4pm – Gender diversity and liberation, Daphne Lawless (Fightback)

Open to all genders, koha entry, snacks provided.

AUSA Women’s Space
1-5pm, Saturday July 26th
[Facebook event]


Aotearoa: Actions against Israeli apartheid

gaza war crimeWELLINGTON: Stand with Palestine! Rally Against Israel’s Brutality in Gaza
Friday 18th July, 12:30-1:30pm
Embassy of Israel - Baileys Building, 36 Brandon Street (off Lambton Quay), Poneke/Wellington

Solidarity Rally for Palestine AUCKLAND : Justice for all victims of Israel’s brutality
Saturday 19th July, 2pm
Aotea Square, Tamaki/Auckland

CHRISTCHURCH: Stand with Palestine! Rally Against Israel’s Brutality in Gaza
Saturday 19th July, 2pm
Cathedral Square, Otautahi/Christchurch

See also
Asia-Pacific joint statement: Stop Israeli War Crimes

Stop Israeli War Crime in Gaza! (Asia-Pacific joint statement)

People hold a giant Palestinian flag as they demonstrate to denounce Israeli air strikes on the Gaza strip, in Sanaa July 10, 2014 (The Guardian).

Yemen: Palestinian flag at a demonstration against Israeli air strikes on the Gaza strip, July 10, 2014 (The Guardian).

Regional Joint Statement

In the past week, Israeli military forces have escalated their offensive on the Gaza Strip. Israeli warplanes have increasingly targeted houses, civilian-populated areas and civilian facilities in the Gaza strip. Israeli warplanes have destroyed a number of houses while their residents were inside, without any prior warnings, killing and wounding many Palestinian civilians.

The Israeli government has cynically exploited the killing of three Israeli youth and used this to whip up a racist hysteria against Palestinians and the Hamas government in Gaza. It has done this without producing any evidence about who was responsible for those killings. A campaign of indiscriminate violence against Palestinians has been incited and one Palestinian boy has been tortured and burnt to death. Now even more indiscriminate retribution has been inflicted on the civilian residents of Gaza. Collective punishment is a violation of international humanitarian law.

The ruthless military offensive conducted by Israeli forces has nothing to do with “self-defence”, but a genocidal aggression on Gaza and intensification of bloody repression against Palestinians who had been constantly denied their right to self-determination by the Zionist regime.

The undersigned organisations:

  • Strongly condemn Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, Palestine and demand that it stop its attacks on Gaza and respect international law including the UN resolution 242 which demands Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967.
  • Call upon all governments to immediately withdraw their ambassadors from Israel, cut diplomatic ties and end all military and defence ties with Israel.
  • Call for the intensification of the economic boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

Initiating signatories

Socialist Alliance, Australia
Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), Malaysia
Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), Philippines
Socialist AotearoaNew Zealand
Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation
Partai Rakyat Pekerja (Working People Party), Indonesia
Socialist Alternative, Australia
Partai Rakyat Demokratik (PRD), Indonesia
Solidarity, Australia
Awami Workers Party, Pakistan
Fightback, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Assault survivor speaks out: “I want an accountability that is not just about legal prosecution.”

bust rape culture

Trigger warning: Sexual assault.

Reprinted from 3 News. Article by Tania Billingsley, who was assaulted by Malaysian diplomat Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail.

As a socialist-feminist organisation, Fightback supports expanded support for sexual violence prevention and survivor support.

Since my assault I feel that people have been assuming that my idea of justice is to have Rizalman found guilty in a New Zealand court. While it is an important part of justice being done, my main reason for wanting this is not for my own sense of satisfaction but to keep other women safe.

I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I have gone through. And if my idea of justice means ensuring the safety of women and others, then it cannot stop at the prosecution of this man. Violence does not occur in a vacuum. There are very real reasons why sexual assault is happening in our country every day. This is because our society normalises, trivialises and in both obvious and subtle ways condones rape. This is called rape culture.

We have seen this rape culture reflected in our own government’s response to my assault. It only became a matter of importance that was properly addressed when it started to inconvenience those in power. When I saw my assault being reported in the media it was primarily men given the authority to speak on it, when, apart from the police, it was women who were doing the incredibly hard job of supporting me, listening to me and helping me begin to heal.

Rape culture is in the reaction and words of our Prime Minister. John Key recently questioned David Cunliffe’s sincerity over his comments that preceded a speech in support of Women’s Refuge. It genuinely makes me wonder if he has watched any of his responses to what happened to me. I think if he had, he wouldn’t be so quick to question the sincerity of others – not only this, but his reaction to MrnCunliffe’s speech, the ever-present, knee-jerk reaction “not all men”.

It disgusts me as someone in the midst of trying to begin recovering from my own attack to see that he, as Prime Minister of this country and therefore responsible for the wellbeing of its people, is yet another person who cannot seem to understand that things are so bad that survivors of sexual violence and women in general, for their own safety are forced to view all men as threats.

And when I talk about survivors I’m talking about, at bare minimum, a quarter of women alone in this country. Your discomfort at hearing the realities of rape culture is not more important than the struggle of people trying to survive and recover from the effects of rape culture. Why do we have someone with so little understanding of the reality of oppression running this country?

Murray McCully – not only has watching and reading his response to my attack been incredibly hurtful and frustrating, I have also felt embarrassed for him. Watching a grown man try to talk his way out of responsibility at what is effectively failure at his own job is a painful thing to see. I can’t believe his incapability to admit a mistake and try to fix it rather than pointing fingers at everyone else.

If he and Mr Key are so intent on pinning incompetence on a ministry official and solving this incompetence with job loss, then I’ll expect to see their resignations handed in any day. Genuinely I would like Mr McCully to take responsibility and resign, not just responsibility at the incompetent handling of the diplomatic immunity aspect, in which it was clear to me that my experience or wishes were not even a factor to consider, but also responsibility for his insensitive and embarrassing public reaction, which for me was so painful to hear.

As for the issue of diplomatic immunity, I guess I have a lot to say, but it can mainly be summed up in the question: How can we have a structure in place that is continually allowing people to get away with crime? Is it enough to say “that’s just how it is; there’s nothing we can do?” That was the message that was conveyed to me as soon as it was found out he had diplomatic immunity and then was the initial response of Mr Key when this information was made public.

I would like to put a personal challenge to the Government. The fact that sexual violence is still so rampant in our society is proof in itself that you are not doing enough. Support the services and change the culture. Ask yourself what kind of message you are sending your country about how seriously you take sexual violence when you employ people with histories of sexual assault such as Alan Kinsella.

I know when being challenged like this, it is easy to do a McCully and try to place blame and responsibility on everyone but yourself. But sexual violence is present in all parts of our society and therefore needs to be addressed by all parts of the Government. There have been recent actions towards addressing this but it is not enough.

Only a few days ago Christchurch’s only rape crisis centre was forced to close down due to lack of funding. This in a city where sexual assault has risen 40 percent since the 2010 earthquake. These services need sustainable, ongoing support. I experienced personally the everyday outcomes of lack of funding when finding out that the waiting list for counselling through the service helping me is two to three months. These services are doing their absolute best to support survivors with the funding they have but clearly it isn’t enough.

All sorts of people in our country are victims of sexual assault – not only women but men, people of other marginalised gender identities, children, queer people, people in our varied ethnic and cultural communities, people with disability. Not only do we need more funding in general around ending violence, we also need to acknowledge and support the need for specialist services for all survivors in all different communities. In what I have been speaking about I do not want to dismiss these people’s experiences, but I can only speak from my own.

I want an accountability that is not just about legal prosecution. This is effectively putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and statistically in 99 percent of these cases it is an ambulance that won’t even work. I want an accountability that is going to stop sexual violence in this country. I wouldn’t wish my experience or that of other survivors on anybody and if the Government really wants justice to be done then they need to properly address rape culture in our society and work on stopping sexual violence, not just reacting to it.

I shouldn’t feel that I need to put my face on television just to get this message across. People have been saying these things for a long time and yet so much is still not being addressed because the Government is the one distributing the funding and they seem to not take seriously the magnitude of the issue of sexual and domestic violence in our country. This is fairly obvious when they are committed to putting $80 million towards creating new banknotes just to “stay ahead”, yet years of work and pressure from those trying to fix these problems has resulted in only around 10 million eventually being granted. It may sound like a lot but considering th enormity of the issues and the already lacking funding I don’t think it is anywhere near enough.

What has happened to me, while horrible, is yet another sexual assault in a seemingly never-ending stream. How can I look at what has happened to me without looking at the violence endured by so many people I know? Not one of these people in my life has ever had any kind of legal justice. They, along with 99 percent of sexual assault survivors, must find their own ways to get closure and to keep going. I think it’s important to acknowledge the bravery and strength of any person who has experienced something like this, whether they have managed to mostly heal and carry on, or whether they are struggling. Any kind of survival post-assault is courageous.

I would also like to take this space to let Rizalman’s family know that I am thinking of them and that I hope they are being supported. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard the last couple of months must have been for them as well.

WGTN event: Pakeha in the Struggle for Tino Rangatiratanga

Pakeha in the Struggle for Tino Rangatiratanga

Next in Fightback’s weekly ‘Introduction to Marxism’ series, Mondays 6pm at 19 Tory St.

This topic raises many questions. What is Tino Rangatiratanga? Why would Pākehā get involved – and why on earth would Māori allow them to? Come along for a discussion.
Presented by Grant Brookes, Fightback.
BYO questions.

6pm, Monday 7th April
19 Tory St, Wellington

[Facebook event]

Revolution vs counter-revolution: Can the people on the streets be wrong?

Right-wing protest in Venezuela

Venezuela: Right-wing protest action

By Daphne Lawless (Fightback, Auckland).

In the words of British journalist Paul Mason, it seems that “it’s all kicking off everywhere”. Across the world, sustained mass protests and occupations of public space are shaking and even toppling governments. Most famously, months of protests and occupations of the public square in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign and flee the country. Surely “the people” rising up against the government is a good thing… right? Like the Occupy protests of a couple of years ago?

Actually, from a socialist point of view, there’s a universe of difference between the protests and uprisings which we’ve all heard about on the news – Ukraine, Egypt, Venezuela, Bosnia, Thailand and others. It’s never as simple as “the people” versus “the government”.

Class versus class

Populism is a term used to describe political action taken in the name of “the people” – vaguely defined as anyone who’s not in power at the moment. The thing is, “the people” don’t have many things in common with each other, except for not liking whoever’s in power right now. It includes the upper-middle class as well as the very poor, people with racist and sexist beliefs as well as women and ethnic minorities, homophobes as well as queers.

This becomes a problem since the issue with protests and uprisings is not so much getting rid of the current government, but what you’re going to replace it with. And that question is based on which social force – or class – is most powerful when the old government collapses.

Marxists uses “class” to mean a set of people who have a certain function in the economy, and thus have the same interests in how the economy is run, who gets how much to do what, and who owns things. While there are many different classes in a modern economy, the two most vital are the capitalist class – those who own big corporations and farms and employ people – and the working class – who can only live by getting a job from the capitalist class. Generally, the other classes line up with the capitalist class, except in times of crisis.

Crucially, while individual capitalists have big power on their own – for example, a supermarket owner might be able to lock out dozens of staff and put them at threat of poverty – workers only have power when they band together, in trade unions, their own political parties, and other forms of co-operation.

So the question that you have to look at with a popular uprising is – which class does it represent? This means: what kind of people are actually on the street, protesting? What class do the spokespeople and the policy-makers of the movement come from? And what power – apart from the power of physical bodies in space – does that class have to get its own way?

Venezuela: March in support of Bolivarian revolution

Venezuela: March in support of Bolivarian revolution

Venezuela: the privileged protesters

For example, people who have a shallow view of politics look at mass anti-government protests in the Ukraine and in Venezuela, and think they’re the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem in Venezuela is that the United Socialist Party (PSUV) government has brought in more and more democracy and “people power” – and the capitalist and upper-middle classes in Venezuela don’t like this.

Since 1998, socialist Presidents in Venezuela have been diverting more and more of the country’s oil wealth away from the traditional ruling classes to the millions of impoverished who live in the barrios (slums) of the big cities. There’s already been one successful coup by the right wing in Venezuela – which was reversed when the people from the barrios moved into action to demand their elected President back.

The current set of protests in Venezuela broke out in opposition to a rape on a university campus in the city of Tachida. Unfortunately, students at the private universities in Venezuela are extremely right-wing and anti-government. So what could have been a supportable protest was quickly taken over by an agenda to overthrow the democratically elected President, Nicolas Maduro.

The funny thing is that the people in the barrios are barely aware that any of these “mass protests” are going on. The ruling classes in Venezuela are not only traditionally lighter-skinned, but tend to speak good English, have media skills and know how to operate Facebook and Twitter. So they’re very good at making white people in the rich countries think they’re seeing a real mass uprising.

But the crowds we see in the streets are overwhelmingly made up of rich, privileged people, and leaders of far-right parties, who shout about inflation and violent crime (admittedly serious problem) but are really outraged that they don’t “own” the country any more. There is massive disruption and damage in rich places like the eastern suburbs of Caracas. If you go to the barrios of west Caracas, on the other hand, they hardly even know that anything’s going on.

Democrats against democracy

Socialists don’t necessarily define democracy as “one person, one vote”. Democracy for socialists means political power in the hands of the broad masses, not in the hands of the people who own businesses, land and media outlets. So, no matter whether free speech or free elections exist in a country, if inequality means that the wishes of a billionaire or the prejudices of a TV network outweigh the wishes of a million working people, that’s not democracy.

The classic example of this in English speaking countries is the American “Tea Party”. This “astroturf” (fake grassroots) movement was originally funded by right-wing millionaires to provide an appearance of a “mass uprising” against the very weak healthcare reforms of Barack Obama, and swing public opinion away from them. Tapping into the deep racism in the South and other parts of the USA, the Tea Party has brought thousands of older, white Americans onto the streets to scream about the “fascist”, “socialist” or even “Satanic” agenda of the centre-right Obama administration. It’s so successful that it’s become a real mass movement among the traditional middle classes of the white USA, and is threatening to take control of the Republican party itself.

Things get even wilder when you look at the “yellow shirt” movement in Thailand, which has recently forced their government to call a snap election. The Yellow Shirts’ official name is the People’s Alliance for Democracy. But they don’t even want right-wing capitalist democracy. What they want is an unelected council of business people and academics to take over, because they don’t think the Thai masses can be trusted with power – since they keep electing the populist party of exiled millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, whose current leader and Prime Minister is his sister Yingluck.

In Egypt, a real mass uprising of the urban and rural middle and lower classes drove out the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. But the liberal middle classes were disgusted when Mohammed Morsi – the candidate aligned to the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), supported by the rural poor – won the following election. Screaming about “dictatorship”, they appealed to Western Islamophobia by smearing the moderately Islamist Ikhwan as terrorists.

The middle classes in Cairo – again, the people who spoke English or French and had good media skills – took to the streets as the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement. This movement managed to paralyse the country until the military staged a coup in June 2013, arrested President Morsi and took power themselves. Sadly, many socialists and democrats – even in Egypt – supported the coup because they didn’t approve of Morsi’s conservative programme. Now they seem increasingly likely to be stuck with military strongman General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi as the leader of a dictatorship which stays friendly with Israel and the West. Meet the new Mubarak, same as the old one.

When it comes to right-wing movements based on the capitalist class and the upper-middle classes, when they say “democracy” they mean the opposite. They want their own class to have all the power, and for rights and economic privileges to be taken away from the mass of people. These kinds of movement often end up supporting pro-market dictatorships like that of Pinochet in Chile – or worse, fascist or Nazi regimes.

Pretend populists

It is so important for us to tell the difference between a revolution – a mass uprising seeking more democracy – and a counter-revolution – which can also be a mass uprising, but is in support of putting an old régime back in power, or taking power away from the people.

There are two dangers. One is that socialists might get duped by a right-wing populist movement into thinking it’s a real mass uprising, and try to become part of it. Some of the more foolish segments of the American Left tried making common cause with the Tea Party in its early days, as the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists originally welcomed the coup against Morsi.

Back home, in Auckland the populist anti-corruption protester Penny Bright has ended up in alliance with the extreme-right “Affordable Auckland” coalition in an attempt to make the current centre-left Mayor Len Brown resign. But the people behind “Affordable” are the powerful themselves – Pakeha employers and property-owners – while Bright’s supporters are a rag-tag group of people who’re angry about the current system. No prizes for guessing who would take the power, if they managed to make Mayor Brown give it up.

But the other danger is that right-wing populists might invade a real mass uprising and – through being better organised, or by brute force – might shift it to their agenda. A good foreign example of this is the fascist Svoboda and Right Sector parties, who entered the “Euromaidan” protests in Ukraine and put themselves at the head of it by violently and physically ejecting socialists and anarchists who were against the Yanukovych administration.

The Occupy movements were another great example of a populist project, with their rhetoric of the 99% against the 1%. Despite its clear anti-capitalist message to begin with, though, it wasn’t clear enough to put forward a political project. Without a clear political orientation, many occupations saw a growth in conspiracy theories – which deride the working majority as ‘sheeple,’ constructing pseudo-scientific explanations for the enlightened few, in contrast to politics of collective liberation.

In such a situation, socialists have to stay with the masses. If the movement continues to have real mass support, they have to stay in and fight the intellectual and political battle for the leadership with right-wing forces. But if the masses leave, there’s no point fighting over a corpse.

Whether revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, though, there is one good thing about all these mass protests. They thoroughly prove wrong the common saying that “protests can’t change anything”. The Australian state of Victoria – which has recently made it a crime to stay on a protest if a cop tells you to leave – knows this very well, as did the New York cops at Zucotti Park or the Chinese army at Tienanmen Square when they violently closed down protest occupations. Protests backed with the real power of an economic class which won’t be dictated to any more can change the world. In fact, they’re the only thing that ever has.

Profile: Ben Peterson (Australian socialist)

ben peterson no cuts

Ben Peterson is an Australian socialist who recently moved to Aotearoa/NZ, joining Fightback and Unite. Fightback writer Ian Anderson asked Ben a few questions about socialism, trade union work, and his experiences on both sides of the Tasman.

FB: How did you become a socialist?

BP: I think that’s an interesting question. There’s certain values that I’ve had that as long as I can remember, I’ve always hated injustice, and I think I’ve always had empathy for other people, especially those that are struggling. When I was in high school I was increasingly frustrated with inequality, war and all the bullshit in the world.

When I came across socialist politics it gave me a means to understand the world, and a vehicle to fight for something different. I didn’t so much become something new, as I gave vent to feelings I think I’d always had. And since then I’ve been trying to do my bit organizing against injustice and environmental destruction.

FB: In Australia you were active in Resistance, and Socialist Alliance. Can you talk about this work?

BP: I came across Resistance (a socialist youth organization) and Socialist Alliance in 2006 when I was in high school, and I’ve been involved since then. Since 2009 I was heavily involved in local and national leadership bodies and and was involved in branches in Geelong, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Hobart and Adelaide.

The Socialist Alliance project is an ambitious one. It has union interventions, elected local councillors, student clubs and more. I’ve been involved in so many campaigns, it’s hard to succinctly describe what we do, but I can say that I’ve learnt that socialism can be relevant, and that we can build an organisation and have an impact, even from our small and isolated beginnings.

FB: In Australia last year, your organisation Socialist Alliance began a unity process with Socialist Alternative. This process, involving the two largest revolutionary socialist organisations in the country, was terminated. What’s your view of this process and its lessons?

BP: I think one of the objective challenges for the left groups today is to find ways to overcome the stratification and isolation of the Marxist left. This is true for both Australia and Aotearoa, and in places around the world. So I think it was an overwhelmingly positive thing that these talks happened, and it is a setback that they were not able, at this point, to go any further. 

That being said, I don’t think the process collapsed over nothing. Unity cannot happen just because we want it to, it’s going to take time to thrash out a way forward for the left, and to build the organisation that can make it happen. For now, there are real differences between the groups in Australia around what is possible for socialists today, and how to build our organisations. But the greater dialogue between groups can only be a good thing.

FB: You’ve taken a job for Unite in Aotearoa/NZ. What is the value of working in Unite, in your view?

BP: I’m excited to be a part of Unite because I think that Unite is an interesting political project. 

I don’t think that for socialists, working for a union is in and of itself something progressive, but I think Unite has real space to be involved with important campaigns. I think the campaigns that Unite has been involved in like the $15 dollar minimum wage campaign have been real political interventions, that have improved the lot of the working class, and that’s exciting. 

I also see the links between the Unite project, and things like the Mana movement. A radical political party based in indigenous people and progressives – that just does not exist in Australia. I think having these sorts of organisations opens opportunities for working people to fight back, I’m just interested in contributing to these that and learning more.

FB: Why do you think socialists should support trade unions in general?

BP: Well, unions are organizations of workers. Socialists support workers being organised and fighting to better themselves, unions are a part of this. That being said, we as socialists support unions – not necessarily union leaderships. We need to contest for ideas in unions, because in most circumstances union leaderships are captured by people who at best have no vision for systematic change built on people power, and at worst are just interested in protecting their privileged positions.  A socialist approach to unions, in my opinion, is one of supporting building a political and organizational current in the unions that can help lead a fightback.

FB: Why did you join Fightback?

BP: As an activist, I know that I get more out of myself when I’m working with others. As a socialist, I know that our power as working class people can only come collectively – we are never gonna have the millions to buy our way out of capitalism. Organisation is important so we can confront the problems we face today and overcome them.

I’ve joined Fightback for those reasons. I have known comrades in Fightback for some time, and i know they are serious comrades who want to lead the resistance to capitalism. It’s an organisation with a range of experiences that I look forward to learning from, and I feel that Fightback is a place I can contribute to.

The Labour Party and popular participation

mccarten labour

By Ian Anderson, Fightback (Wellington).

Mainstream media coverage in the lead-up to the General Election tends to focus on fluctuations in polling, most recently an apparent growth in support for National. Left-wing critics of mainstream electoral polling sometimes note that polling relies on landlines, while many poor & disenfranchised people do not have landlines.

That said, many of the same people least likely to have landlines are also least likely to participate in elections. Broadly speaking tangata whenua, young people, poor people, and recent migrants are the least likely to vote (and have landlines). This effectively means that low turnout is bad for the electoral ‘left.’

The 2011 General Election saw the lowest voter turnout (by percentage) since the 19th century, when women first won the right to vote in this country. Voter turnout in general has declined over the last half-century.

Statistics New Zealand have surveyed non-voters’ stated reasons for not voting. In 2011, 43% of non-voters felt disengaged from the whole process (“not interested,” “didn’t think it was worth voting,” “makes no difference”), while 30% of non-voters cited perceived practical barriers (“overseas,” “couldn’t get to a polling both”). The largest proportion were simply “not interested.”

For those of us who want to see a truly democratic society, one based on popular participation and self-determination, this all raises a question of strategy. Should we ‘rebuild’ the Labour Party? Should we weave together new organisations? Should we ignore elections entirely?

In 2013 during the contest for the Labour leadership, pro-Labour commentator Martyn Bradbury described the three major candidates as “to the right of Marx – just.” Winner David Cunliffe was particularly touted as representing a “true red” Labour Party. Now some see Cunliffe’s appointment of Matt McCarten, former Unite Union General Secretary, as a confirmation of this move leftwards.

Matt McCarten has a formidable record. Aswell as playing key roles in the Alliance, the Maori Party and the MANA Movement – McCarten also helped build Unite Union into a fighting force that has waged successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage, end youth rates (a reform since snatched back), and militantly organise the growing casualised sectors that the established union movement had neglected.

Party leader Cunliffe’s record is less flash. Cunliffe was a vocal advocate of public-private partnerships in the fifth Labour government. As Minister of Immigration, he oversaw the unjust detention of several Iranian men, fought through a hunger strike and protest campaign. Cunliffe did not oppose sending troops to Iraq or Afghtanistan.

So what does this pairing of Cunliffe and McCarten mean for the party? Is Cunliffe radicalising? Is McCarten moving right? What could it mean for a future government? John Key and others described McCarten’s appointment as a lurch to the ‘far-left.’ As with accusations that Obama is a socialist, radical socialists can only respond ‘if only.’

Pro-Labour commentator Chris Trotter has noted that as Chief of Staff, McCarten will not be mainly involved in formulating policy. Rather, McCarten will act as a “direct and unequivocal promoter of the party’s already agreed goals.”

Pro-Labour commentators argue McCarten’s strength lies partly in his potential to forge unity behind a future Labour-led coalition government. Trotter notes:

McCarten’s history with the Greens (once part of his old party, the Alliance), the Maori Party and Mana will be of enormous value to Labour should they find themselves in a position to forge a governing coalition.”

Martyn Bradbury also suggests McCarten could extend an olive branch to potential supporters of a Labour-led coalition:

What Matt can do is reach across to other progressive parties and seriously discuss using MMP tactically so that the entire Left are united in fighting the Government come election day… If you are a MANA voter, vote MANA tactically. If you are a Green voter, vote Green tactically and if you are a Labour voter, vote Labour tactically.”

Fightback will back the MANA Movement in the upcoming General Elections. With a stated mission of bringing rangatiratanga to the poor and powerless, MANA represents the most progressive section of the working and oppressed majority. MANA maintains the link between indigenous sovereignty and the wider struggle for an egalitarian society.

MANA has not ruled out entering a government with the Labour Party. There is a spectrum of opinion within MANA on entering a government, whether through a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement.

McCarten for a long time has advocated a strategy of pushing Labour leftwards. Whether this meant building organisations outside the Labour Party, or directly entering a Labour Party government, the orientation was always towards pressuring Labour, with no horizons beyond the two-party system. Taking a job as Chief of Staff within the Labour Party is a continuation of this strategy. This begs the question of whether pushing Labour left, from inside a government, is a viable strategy.

The Labour Party remains a pro-capitalist party. They have some mild differences with National over how to manage capitalism; more socially liberal, more experienced with the public sector, former union bureaucrats rather than former currency traders. However, big business remains the largest donor to Labour; cut the head off the hydra, and another will spring up in its place.

Both Labour and National governments presided over a three-decade decline in real wages. The Labour Party initiated this project of robbing the working majority; neoliberalism, or ‘Rogernomics.’ It’s no wonder that poor, young and marginal people are simply not interested in voting.

Chris Trotter argues that “radical constitutional reforms” in the Labour Party over 2012 and 2013 will keep the party leadership honest. These reforms require new policies to fit with the party’s long-established “Policy Platform.”

However, signs at the Labour Party conference in November 2013 were not promising. Moves for transparency on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) were defeated. The Labour Party also maintains the policy of a $15/hr minimum wage, as a major flagship policy.

In 2009, Unite Union campaigned for a $15/hr minimum wage immediately. In 2009, a $15 minimum wage would have been a step forward for working people. However, inflation quickly wipes out short-term rises in wages. Real wages (wages adjusted for prices and inflation) have declined over the past 30 years.

Unite also demanded that the minimum wage be set to 2/3 of the average wage in future. Labour has not taken up the policy of tying the minimum wage to the average wage. The Campaign for a Living Wage, backed by the Service and Food Workers’ Union, argues for a living wage of $18.80/hr.

Now, five years after Unite’s campaign for a $15 minimum wage, the demand is a lot more conservative. With the minimum wage recently raised to $14.25/hr by the National government, a wage raise of 75 cents (without any tie to the average wage) would do nothing to reverse the trend of declining real wages. Politicians are often accused of over-promising and under-delivering, but even this promise is woefully inadequate.

A popular meme says that “if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” This is a half-truth. Democracy is a product of struggle; including for example women’s struggle for suffrage. When electoral work, combined with popular struggle, has challenged capitalism and imperialism – ‘they’ have done their best to make it illegal (Chile’s coup in 1973, Venezuela’s attempted coup in 2002). Elections can work as important sites of class struggle, but most of the time, the ruling class is winning.

Fightback has no illusions that socialism can simply be voted in. Our participation in capitalist elections is oppositional. Even when radicals such as MANA’s Hone Harawira win seats, their role is to support the wider community movement, not to go into coalition with pro-capitalists.

Sue Bradford, of MANA and formerly the Greens, holds the record for most successful Private Members’ Bills while outside a coalition government. Many of these necessary reforms, such as raising the minimum wage and abolishing youth rates, were backed by community movements. Workers can win the reforms we need, without entering government and sacrificing our independence.

We need transformative strategies, not strategies that simply reproduce the system that got us here. We need to weave together new organisations that can move beyond the existing political structure, from the scraps we currently have.

The Council of Trade Unions remains the largest formally democratic organisation in the country. Although the CTU is currently unwilling to take risks, unions of workers are a necessary part of forging the new movement we need.

Organisations of the people cannot rely on big business, or parliament. We need our own finances, our own democracy, our own structures organised in opposition to the capitalist system. Support for the Labour Party undermines the possibility of liberation for the working and oppressed majority.


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