Can capitalists be revolutionaries? Internet Mana, elections and alliances

mansion raid

By Ian Anderson (Fightback/MANA Poneke).

Ben Peterson (Mana Otautahi) recently submitted an article contending that MANA gained more than it lost from the Internet Mana campaign. As a fellow MANA socialist, I have some agreements and disagreements with this assessment that I’d like to flesh out. Ben’s article focuses heavily on voting numbers, and offers a methodological reason for this:

While there is plenty of anecdotes of people not voting Mana to avoid Dotcom, all statistical evidence strongly suggests the opposite.

There are many ways to kill a cat. According to polls, support for the campaign dropped off in the last week of the election – after Kim Dotcom’s ‘Moment of Truth’ event. We might argue that relative to Dotcom’s donations, each Internet Mana vote cost over $100. However, this is clearly crude; the central contention is over the nature of the project, its qualities not simply its quantities.

Apparently the project was threatening enough that the establishment parties, including Labour, ganged up to kick MANA out. This is not the first time Labour campaigned hard to unseat Hone, but the Maori Party’s choice to back Kelvin Davis was new and decisive. Despite Ben’s claims, it’s entirely conceivable that Dotcom’s association with Hone made Labour’s job of rallying support easier. A comment on Fightback’s website suggests:

If people REALLY want to find out why Hone didn’t get his seat in Tai [Tokerau], why aren’t they surveying, and asking the people who live in Tai [Tokerau] themselves?

Considering MANA’s explicit attempt to forge a nationwide left electoral project, on the basis that “what’s good for Maori is good for everyone,” I don’t think the question is limited to Te Tai Tokerau voters. However, this anonymous commentator is definitely heading in the right direction; if it gained or lost support, why? What were the qualities that attracted or repelled people? What social forces were brought into play, for what political programme?

A socialist approach to electoral work requires not just a numbers game, but an exploration of programme and alliances beyond the parliamentary sphere.

Where we agree

Elections are a site of struggle. A “syndicalism of protest” in Dave Renton’s words, which says street movements alone can bring revolutionary change, offers no future – Renton cites the example of Egypt, where leftists built the street movement but shied away from the political sphere, leaving space for counter-revolution. Power abhors a vaccuum; if workers and progressives cannot win power, conservative forces will step in. Only a combined struggle in the political, cultural and economic spheres offers any chance of success.

In Aotearoa/NZ today, the political balance of forces strongly favours the capitalist class. Even within Labour and the Greens, firmly pro-capitalist forces dominate. Many are dissatisfied, as record-low voter turnout attests – alongside thousands rallying against the TPPA, which is backed by both major parties. Rather than blaming workers for ‘apathy’, the challenge is to forge a political alternative.

An indigenous-rooted movement, breaking from the Brown Table and forging an alliance with tau iwi forces, on the basis of a social-democratic programme – this is not a formation socialists should merely dimiss.

Alliances between indigenous and tau iwi forces

In the second chapter of Maori Sovereignty, Donna Awatere outlines the need for “a restructuring of the white alliance”:

Maori sovereignty has always been a thread of belief, commitment and desire, seen in the bloody defence of our land, in the Ringatu movement, Kotahitanga, Kingitanga. Set against our people has been the united strength of white people. The Maori now seeks to break that unity in the interests of justice for the Maori people. This concept challenges white people to examine their role in a system which to this day still treats us like dogs.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic consciousness has relevance to Maori sovereignty. In hegemonic consciousness, a class puts its interests with other classes at a national level and establishes alliances with them.

These alliances are necessary because changes cannot occur with the Maori on our own. White people have cut across class barriers to unite on the basis of white hegemony; that is, white domination of the Maori. To overcome this requires a restructuring of the white alliance.”

Awatere examines apparently progressive tau iwi forces (Pacific Islanders, white women, trade unions and the far left) and finds all wanting, too wrapped up in their own self-interest to meaningfully support Maori sovereignty.

Left nationalist Bruce Jesson has contended that tau iwi far leftists missed Awatere’s point; that she offered an alliance to pakeha willing to support Maori sovereignty. In any case, Awatere’s premise that the ‘white alliance’ must be restructured merits further exploration.

In 2011, MANA (as a force for rangatiratanga) tried aligning with pakeha socialists, standing Sue Bradford and John Minto in general seats. This failed to deliver votes; the left remains marginal among tau iwi. Although socialists remain free to voice our politics as a part of MANA, the leadership sought a new alliance in 2014. This is where Kim Dotcom and the Internet Party came in.

In rejecting the Internet Mana alliance, ISO’s Shoomi Yoon offers a caricature of Kim Dotcom:

For all his “benevolence” Kim Dotcom’s politics are not to be trusted. His first political act was to donate to the far right racist John Banks. He collects WWII paraphernalia and owns a copy of an Adolf Hitler signed copy of Mein Kampf. He makes jokes about violence towards sex workers. He is, in other words, a thoroughly unsavoury character.

And, worst of all from a political point of view: he’s a boss. We want no truck with the bosses or their parties.”

In some ways this paragraph is a little absurd; if anyone honestly believes that Dotcom’s copy of Mein Kampf tells you anything meaningful about his politics, his nazism is surely far more of a concern than his profit from piracy. While Yoon’s article identifies that Dotcom is unsavoury and a capitalist, difficult points to dispute, the article doesn’t make a serious effort to locate Dotcom politically.

Dotcom’s donation to John Banks occurred before his house was raided; as phrased by Jacobin Magazine’s Gavin Mueller:

It’s so easy to hate Kim Dotcom that you almost forget that the US convinced the New Zealand government to send in an assault brigade, bereft of a valid warrant but outfitted with automatic weapons and helicopters, to arrest a Finnish citizen at the demand of Hollywood studios.”

Or as phrased by Annette Sykes on the Internet Mana Road Trip, in terms invoking 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.”

Dotcom’s political affinity with the MANA Movement was forged around opposition to state repression, around democratic demands. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, expansion of state surveillance powers, violent enforcement of copyright laws, are dividing lines separating Dotcom from most of the capitalist class. Considering Dotcom’s employment practices, racism and other glaring flaws it is debatable whether Dotcom and MANA initially had much more affinity than that.

Alliance can transform the nature of the allies – which can either strengthen or destroy political projects. As revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued in her analysis of the Dreyfus Affair, in which socialists rallied to support a persecuted Jewish officer in the imperial army:

We can’t act as indifferent witnesses to what goes on in the interior of the bourgeoisie, unless socialism could be realized outside of bourgeois society, for example through the foundation in each country of a separate colony. But since we haven’t thought of emigrating, as it were, from bourgeois to socialist society, but on the contrary of overthrowing bourgeois society by means created within that same society, the proletariat must make an effort, in its forward march to victory, to influence all social events in a favorable direction.”

At the 2014 MANA AGM, Sykes argued that a deal with any forces required clarity on policies and principles, what Leninists might call programmatic clarity. The ‘Internet Mana policy weave,’ negotiated as part of the deal, was broadly social democratic. The leading involvement of progressive women such as Laila Harre and Miriam Pierard was also promising, with Pierard and gender spokesperson Pani Farvid distancing the party from Dotcom’s sexism.

At the same time, there is a risk with such an economically powerful figure that alignment could lead to a sacrifice of independence. The campaign routinely stressed support for ‘entrepeneurs’ as an anti-poverty strategy, with Dotcom explaining how German state support enabled his rise. Ben suggests notions like ‘entrepeneur’ are open to interpretation, and aspects of the campaign were certainly vague. Dotcom’s class position is clearly more exploitative than the position of a self-employed worker. However, Dotcom sent a clear message; more state support means more opportunities to climb the capitalist ladder.

This entrepeneurial emphasis cannot patronisingly be reduced to ‘imperfect’ politics that don’t go far enough, as in Ben’s article. Veteran politicos like Laila Harre are capable of committing to strategic courses we may disagree with. In 2009-2010, Harre oversaw the loss of thousands of jobs as HR manager for the Supercity transition. In a Daily Blog entry during the Internet Mana campaign, Harre criticised the ‘polarisation’ of politics, the danger of getting stuck in ‘positional ruts’ rather than seeing ‘shared issues’, as if workers and progressives can simply find common ground with the owners and administrators who routinely destroy lives. Again, these are not the naive errors of a novice; Harre believes a negotiated class peace will deliver social justice.

Dotcom’s distinct qualities as a capitalist were double-edged; while he was more anti-regime than the investors who routinely donate to major parties, most donors have the good grace to fade into the background. MANA’s leadership had little ability to keep Dotcom in check, culminating in the Moment of Truth event (which MANA did not officially endorse).

Annette Sykes summarised her problem with the campaign at the national MANA member’s hui in November 2014; “If there are shared values, there should be shared control.” Dotcom’s machinery took over, with the MANA leadership having little to no say over the millions of dollars earmarked for the campaign.

Socialists had warned of the potential for a sacrifice of independence. This is where I agree with Shomi Yoon’s article on the Internet Mana alliance:

If we had a revolutionary organisation with real roots in the workplaces, in trade unions, and on the campuses, we could put the pressure and priorities on a new left party.”

Ben cites Syriza (The Coalition of the Radical Left, which recently formed a government in Greece) as an example of what’s possible. Revolutionaries operate openly in Syriza, and the Left Platform challenges the leadership where necessary. In late February, Syriza’s leadership was forced to accept concessions to the Eurozone, and spun these concessions as a victory. Syriza’s Left Platform rejected the deal, with 45% of the parliamentary wing voting against it. This kind of internal pressure, combined with an extra-parliamentary movement, is necessary to avoid capture by ‘pragmatic’ institutional logics. Promisingly, the Greek parliament recently passed anti-poverty legislation despite EU opposition.

Although revolutionary socialists operated openly in MANA, we were too programmatically unclear and organisationally weak to translate our occasional successes into lasting organisation. From 2011-2014, the three major socialist organisations (International Socialist Organisation, Socialist Aotearoa, Fightback) failed to form any coherent current in MANA. There are some real differences between these groups – differences over challenging sexist and oppressive behaviour, over the importance of a homogeneous perspective on socialist history, over relationships to trade unions (and now MANA, with ISO leaving the project). There’s also a sectarian, competitive mindset in small socialist groups that prevents effective coordination. Most crucially, we don’t have the deep roots among tau iwi workers that the sovereignty movement has among Maori workers – with even prominent figures like John Minto and Sue Bradford failing to win significant pakeha support.

If we can’t build something serious, Dotcom is a more attractive prospect. For any misgivings leftists may have about the Dotcom alliance, the challenge comes back to the shallow roots of socialist and progressive forces among pakeha.

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