I entered the loose assortment of radicals who make up the New Zealand far left (or at least, left-of-parliament) in the aftermath of Occupy, which probably makes me among the newest batch of young activists. My first exposure to politics was being mistaken for an Occupier and (nearly) bottled while in school uniform. First protest I ever attended was against the GCSB in my last year of high school, and first campaign I was involved in organising was the TPPA movement. I spent every computing class doing absolutely no work whatsoever and pouring over every new report from the Arab Spring. Watched, as did a great many others, in absolute awe at the revolutionary movements which seemed on the verge of toppling tin-pot dictators and ‘the corporations’ (which I can now articulate as neoliberalism) alike. I remember the feeling of something surely changing soon, and the optimism it brought in the wake of the crash. For me at least, and I suspect others, that optimism lasted until around Gezi Park and refocusing from the Libyan to Syrian civil war. After that the current mood of defeat in the face of each worsening new disaster set in. I start off like this not to build lefty credentials but to contextualise the political situation that the current generation of budding radicals grew out of. We grew into politics not only in the aftermath of the ’08 crash, but also the disappointment of those who failed to overcome it. For those of us who were first exposed to radical politics in and after 2011, it is the memory of working towards something genuinely new that remains an underlying motivator. But in the process of going from starry eyed to actually participating in political debates and organising within the left, I’ve encountered more regression in the face of that defeat than progress.
It is out of this that I believe the disconnect between elements of the radical and progressive left, and typically fairly young far leftists stems. Overall, the primary opposition to neoliberalism which spurred the revolutionary movements in the West in 2011 is in fact a regression. A hearkening back to the protectionism of the welfare state, and to the varying levels of nationalism inherent in that. While apparent elsewhere on the NZ left, it most recently and clearly appears within the TPPA movement. I’ll focus on the nationalist aspects of the movement, which dominate any internationalist tendencies in it. This visibly manifests in the overabundance of national flags and the branding of organisations with a distinctly nationalist focus, the slogan of It’s Our Future often paired with posters depicting NZ with a Kiwi defending it from some menacing outside threat.
This isn’t restricted to one movement, it is one of the most striking parallels between the TPPA and State Asset Sales movements. Both had significant participation from the radical and progressive left, which either did too little or were simply too marginalised to overcome the Kiwi Nationalism which came to dominate both. More or less harmless, if vaguely irksome, by itself this works into a problem where the continuing expansion ‘patriotic’ rhetoric is left unchecked.
Last year’s Fighting Foreign Corporate Control Bill, pushed by NZ First MP Fletcher Tabuteau, had support from various progressive and radical leftists at the time. It was pushed on the premise of foreign corporations being the problem, the word ‘foreign’ held as much negative connotations as ‘corporation’ in the discourse. When Lori Wallach came over from the US to go on a speaking tour with Jane Kelsey, I posed the question of whether a locally based company could exploit Investor-State Dispute Settlements to have just as much power to sue governments. While some assured that it wasn’t possible and foreign corporations were the problem, Wallach informed the audience that it was possible and had actually occurred. In fact such an attempt had failed just a few months earlier. Philip Morris set up a branch in Hong Kong in 2011 to exploit the 1993 Australia-Hong Kong investment agreement, which it attempted (fruitlessly) last year.1 While there was some dissent, not a huge amount of work was done to actually critique the foreigner focussed NZ First bill. What was certainly a time to make the case that we’re working against an attack by the ruling class, or at least ‘corporations’, and not foreigners, was either missed or ignored.
Herein lies the problem, this discourse over foreign corporations serves only to reinforce the (sometimes vaguely, sometimes expressly) xenophobic protectionism of the old welfare state. The focus of the discourse has been fundamentally about specifically foreign threats to ‘the average Kiwi battler’. The debate on housing hasn’t been all that much better, lest we forget Labour’s moronic ‘Chinese sounding last names’ position. Followed in turn by various erstwhile leftists simply supporting it as is, or at least excusing it for trying to solve the housing crisis. While certainly more heavily critiqued then the nationalist elements of the TPPA movement, I still noticed that comrades from a couple of progressive and radical socialist groups took a stance defending Labour. While I honestly didn’t expect a unilateral rejection of Labour’s position from the centre-left, I did find various people I knew on the socialist left that tried to defend Labour. Again, the same problems as before. Even though there was some (certainly much more in this case) critique of Labour’s xenophobic stance on housing, there was likewise just as much indifference or even support for what is patently an underhanded hearkening to economic protectionism. Indeed I even find that the calls for rent control, which find more comfortable footing on this end of the spectrum, tend to come primarily from self-identified revolutionary socialists. While certainly something which could help a fair amount, it’s a fundamentally welfarist solution which relies on the state intervention and protection within the housing market. This would be fine if it were coming from people who earnestly came from a position of re-establishing the old welfare state. But it’s the supposed revolutionaries who push it forward, while even more watered down variants are proposed the closer to the political centre you get. Without some broader idea as to how simple rent controls flow into fully socialised housing further down the track, there’s no claim to socialism involved. It’s simply a retreat, a regression back into relying on the welfare state without a broader attempt at explaining why or critique of what it was before.
And this is the case with all of the above. There seems to be an overwhelming give up feeling inherent to this. That we’re fighting on these political fronts just to break even, and not to strike forward. I find more purchase suggesting that we take an internationalist perspective and instead of trying to defend what we still have actually fight on the grounds we can make things better among random folk who turn up to rallies than many activists I’m usually around. For me, and I assume others, giving up on the project started in 2011 isn’t an option and we can’t just regress into a default position of defending the welfare state. In a recent interview on Radio NZ Noam Chomsky mentioned that even during the darkest days of the Depression there was an optimism that it had to get better afterward, something lacking in the aftermath of the GFC.2 While for those who saw the radical upsurge in 2011 and the defeat afterward may feel this, for us who started in 2011 there is no going back. The awe and enthusiasm of that year will remain.
1 Tobacco Giant Sues Australia, 28/7/2015, The West Australian.
2 Noam Chomsky on the death of the American Dream, 6/5/2016, Radio NZ