Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda?

This article was published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here. NOTE: During lockdown, we may only be able to send out the e-publication.

This is an abridged transcription from an episode of the politics and pop-culture podcast Where’s My Jetpack: jetpack.zoob.net.

The episode was originally released on the 19th of August, 2019.

Transcribed by TripleA Transcription, with corrections and abridgement by Ani White.

Ani: Kia ora comrades, welcome to Where’s My Jetpack, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White and we’re on the line to my unfairly hot cohost Derek Johnson.

Derek: Thanks, Ani. This week we’re discussing the topic Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda… We’ll be discussing the Herman and Chomsky propaganda model in corporate media. So first I’ll be introducing the propaganda model and then Ani will address some limitations to the model. According to Chomsky, media operate through five filters: ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak, and the common enemy.

So what is meant under ownership, which is the first filter, is that mass media firms, which are big corporations, often they are part of even bigger corporations. and their endgame is profit. And so it’s in their interest to push for whatever guarantees that profit. And naturally critical journalism must take second place to the needs and interests of said corporations.

The second filter is advertising, and it exposes the real role of advertising. Media costs a lot more than consumers will ever pay so advertisers fill the gap. So naturally what are advertisers paying for audiences and so it isn’t so much that the media are selling your product, their output, they are also selling advertisers a product namely you.

The third filter is [the media elite], the establishment manages the media through this filter. Journalism cannot be a check on power because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, big institutions know how to play the media game. They know how to influence the news narrative. They feed media scoops official accounts interviews with “experts” and they make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. So those in power and those who report on them are in bed with each other.

So after the media elite we have flak. If you want to challenge power you’ll be pushed to the margins. When the media, journalists, whistleblowers, sources stray away from the consensus they get what is known as flak. This is the fourth filter. When the story is inconvenient to the powers that be you’ll see the flak machine in action discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation.

To manufacture consent you need an enemy, a target. That common enemy is the fifth filter. Communism, socialism, terrorists, immigrants, Muslims at this point are common enemy, a boogieman to fear, helps corral public opinion.

Ani: Yeah. So I find that model is quite useful in a number of ways. It describes a number mechanisms that do take place absolutely in corporate news media but I do think it has some limitations, some tensions, and to illustrate one of those tensions [you have a show like The Simpsons]… the entertainment arm [Fox Entertainment] was directly mocking and attacking the politics of the news arm [Fox News]. And the propaganda model was primarily developed for news, so particularly if you’re going to apply it too non-news media, like fiction media, propaganda implies that people are consciously setting out to promote an ideology. It doesn’t just mean that there’s ideology, it means that they’re consciously setting out to promote it. And for example, I don’t think that the producers of Dumb and Dumber had any particular ideology that they wish to promote. I think they want to make money. It’s certainly not in any way subversive. My point is that the primary purpose of corporate media is making money. You can get subversive messages through because they can still make money… [with The Simpsons] the writers were surprised at how little interference they got. For example, the Frank Grimes episode or the episode with the strike action, they didn’t get interference. And that makes sense because why would the producers care, if they are making millions of dollars, if somebody on a TV show said something mean about them. So the primary purpose isn’t to convince people of the greatness of capitalism, it’s to make money. So that does mean some of the subversive messages can get through, but only to the extent that they’re profitable and also only to the extent that people don’t act on them. So with the example of the strike episode in The Simpsons… it relatively sympathetically depicts the strike action, like it kind of makes fun of the union but in general it is sympathetic. But if the writers go on strike, Fox isn’t exactly a fan of that. So [the] concept of repressive tolerance is useful to me, which means that basically in theory you can say anything, which includes sort of racist and oppressive things as well, but in terms of radical ideas, you can’t act on those ideas. And I think that’s important because that’s a different mode of power from purely propaganda. It’s still a power structure and a class structure, but it’s not always simply propaganda. It is just a more sophisticated mode of power. And the propaganda model points out some mechanisms that do occur but it’s not a complete theory of ideology, or a complete theory of media…

I think Fox News is kind of a paradigmatic example of the propaganda model. At Fox News you can constantly see all of these filters really clearly and obviously in the evidence. The constant construction of enemies, constant flak, the flak that socialists will get for example. But one thing to consider there is that Fox News is barely considered news. It is a good example in the sense that there’s a large enough audience that thinks of it as news, that it still socially functions as news, but for example in Canada [Fox News] shows are run with a disclaimer that they’re not actually news shows. So there’s a certain standard of journalism that’s expected even in bourgeois and corporate journalism which Fox doesn’t meet. So that’s a caveat, that lying is not generally considered a good practice… it does absolutely happen. I mean, the Iraq War example, even though it occurred well after the propaganda model was developed, it’s actually another paradigmatic example of the propaganda model where basically the press and particularly in the US just directly reproduced lies, and did not in any way investigate or criticize them.

[But] my problem is that people don’t distinguish very well, so people will basically argue that the coverage of Syria is exactly analogous to the coverage of Iraq in 2003, and I don’t think that’s true. There have really been no obvious lies on the level of, for example, Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda, which was a bizarre nonsense and it was really obviously bizarre nonsense at the time to be honest. Whereas in the case of Syria it is true that Assad is flattening neighborhoods. That’s not just something Obama came up with. You can say… that certain things will be emphasized, it’s not necessarily that the press lies, but they will report on things that they consider important, and ignore things they don’t consider important, and that’s always a necessary process in any kind of coverage. There will be some kind of filtering but it doesn’t mean it’s lies. And there’s this populist mood out there that if you post something from any source that isn’t Russia Today people will say, “Well, that’s just propaganda.” And it’s this kind of populist kind of radical skepticism that is actually really edging into just anti-science conspiracy theory.

Derek: Yeah. It’s very very vaxxer, very QAnon territory. Yeah.

Ani: Yeah. You can’t just learn from things that confirm your preconceptions, because actually in that case you’re not learning at all. You need to be willing to look at a source and say, “Okay, I don’t actually agree with the editorial line of the source. My politics are not in line with those of New York Times or the Washington Post but I can’t really learn about the world without engaging with the work of people who I disagree with. And I certainly can’t learn about the world by denying all sources that aren’t my particular variety of communist.” And that’s not necessarily what Chomsky and Herman are arguing for but it is a populist mood, that their argument if put forward in a non-nuanced way icould play into.

Derek: …[W]e’ve kind of gone from a period where we had independent media and the Indymedia media period of the late ‘90s early aughts, that collapsed because of lack of funding, lack of money, and in some places like in Germany and on the West Coast here the FBI raided the info shops and Indymedia in Seattle and other places. And in this vacuum conspiracy theorists, people with various ideologies and motives whether it’s pro-Russia, pro-Putin, pro-this or that, or campists, or fascists, or whoever, they’ve come in, they’ve used this realistic skepticism you should have of the mainstream capitalist media and they’ve made it, flattened it so that you have skepticism of everything. And then when you’re told something true by CNN or BCC or the New York Times or whoever, now all of a sudden you treat that as a conspiracy and propaganda, and you don’t believe anything. But now conspiracy theorists treat it with the same level of seriousness as facts and science and news. And it’s not coincidental, we’ve seen how this model was played out in Russia, and under other authoritarian regimes, of pushing this idea that there is no truth to be gained from the media and that it’s all lies, it’s all fake news and that you can’t trust reality at any point. And this is an engineered process and we kind of see where this metastasizes by the time you get to Trump’s supporters and QAnon people, and people who will just not believe any true things that they hear, and just treat it all as lies and propaganda. And you’re seeing how the Trump administration has weaponised that thinking. We’ve seen how it’s been used to discredit even independent media, at this point, Real News, Democracy Now!, all of these independent sources have been completely discredited for not having enough scrutiny. CounterVortex has written about this very well. Eric Draitser has written about it very well over at CounterPunch. Even though CounterPunch I would say has some problems as well but…

Ani: Yeah, definitely. They do have some good material though.

Derek: I know Daphne Lawless has written about this very well. Alexander Reid Ross has written about this very well, and there’s been studies over at University of Washington, about how there is this ecosystem of independent blogs and news sources and pages, that have a lot of connections to a lot of right wing politics, and a lot of conspiracy theories, and to either the Russian government of whoever. And we’ve seen how right wing state propaganda from Russia and other countries goes through that filter, to the left and then you see people on the Green Party, and liberals and others, parroting the same stuff you hear people on the right.. when it comes to either Syria or Assad.

Ani: Yeah… A lot of people who wouldn’t buy into flat Earthism, or antivaxx, but then buy into things with the same level of rigour regarding Syria. So a good example would be Chris Trotter who’s New Zealand’s most prominent supposedly left commentator, on New Zealand’s most prominent left blog, the Daily Blog, saying that the CIA was arming the rebels in 2011, which is nonsense because it wasn’t an armed struggle in 2011, let alone one armed by the CIA, and the CIA didn’t get involved until about 2013, 2014. Now, that can just pass by, nobody cares. It’s a complete and utter fabrication, but a lot of people are perfectly comfortable with that because it’s Syria.

Derek: Yeah. And I would also say people are turning it around now and they’re saying “don’t trust CNN, don’t trust MSNBC, or the New York Times, or whoever because they’re owned by corporations but it’s okay to listen to state-owned media when they’re owned by dictatorships.” Because it took so long to get people to have a more radical view of the news media, and then go from that to then everybody can have a blog and there’s independent media sources, that maybe aren’t under the same control of the news networks, or don’t have the same biases. For instance, Israel. The whole Israeli-Palestinian subject shackles all of our media. I mean, you can get something like Democracy Now! or Real News or somebody or the Nation, or somebody to be really honest about that subject, in ways that the rest of our media cannot be.

Ani: Yeah. Those mechanisms are real. I mean, a great example is that backlash against, Trump’s called them ‘The Squad’ [US Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib], the flak against ‘The Squad’, is a perfect example of-

Derek: The four congresswomen. Yes.

Ani: Not being a Democrat at all I can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy for them. Politically, I’m feeling very conflicted, because I like them so much. Point being, they’re getting flak. They are also an example of the common enemy, so these mechanisms are occurring on ongoing basis.

Derek: Oh yeah. It’s being done on a fascist level, yeah. Attacking them as being un-American for their race. We have a fascist president in this country, who’s going to run on open white supremacy. And now we’re seeing how Ted Cruz and another senator tried to put up a motion in the senate to have Antifa recognized as a domestic terrorist organization…

Ani: Yeah. And I mean, the question of the complicity of the media there is interesting, because obviously Fox is fully onboard with it.

Derek: Well they gave him free media time to run for president. He got billions of dollars’ worth free media time to run for president because they thought it was a lark, and they thought it was cute that this racist billionaire was running for president.

Ani: Yeah, and there’s the thing. It’s the liberal sources that enable him in a way. So at the time, 2016, I was actually running a class on News Media and actually a surprising amount of people in my class were saying that they viewed the press as biased against Trump. And I gave an example from, it was MSCNBC, which was about the coverage of the disruption of a Trump rally, and I pointed out the chronology of their reportage, and what I pointed out is that you heard from Trump first and often, and his supporters first and often, and it wasn’t until maybe the next day that they actually interviewed one of the organisers of the disruption. So I don’t think MSNBC, I don’t think that was because they’re consciously sympathetic to Trump. It’s a matter of what you could call source dependency. Trump was the official source. Some random, probably communist, community organiser is not an official source. So Trump says these sensationalist things, which are news-worthy, and so a press can enable that, without necessarily being politically sympathetic to Trump.

Derek: And they don’t understand how fascists function, and that a fascist will say and do anything, and contradict themselves and lie at any moment…

Ani: Yeah. And I do suspect that while Fox will very openly and happily jump on this opportunity, the issue of liberals, people like Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, CNN, that kind of area, they will play into the civility narrative.

Derek: Respectability politics etc.

Ani: Yeah. So if this idea of criminalising Antifa is not just a passing brain fart, and we can hope it’s just a passing brain fart. If it isn’t then they may well enable it.

Derek: Well, the idea that all this violence was happening, and all these people were being violently attacked and stabbed and shot, but the second milkshakes were thrown, all of a sudden there was attention? That speaks to something.

Ani: So, I just wanted to move on to another point about limitations of the propaganda model. Which that it doesn’t really address, and it doesn’t even seek to address, the question of whether propaganda works, whether people are essentially brainwashed. An example being the popularity of socialism among millennials, a generation that’s been raised in a thoroughly antisocialist ideological environment. So in Media Studies there was kind of a move away from emphasis on propaganda. mostly because of a look at audiences, and I guess the crucial thing about audiences is that they bring their own experiences and knowledge. So for example, me watching a Donald Trump rally, I already have my own kind of preconceptions, my own experience, my own reading that I’m bringing to this. And what audience study has tended to find is basically that, media isn’t good at telling people what to think, but it’s good at telling people what to think about or talk about. So for example, if Trump is in the news whether you’re a communist, a fascist, a liberal, whether you think you’re apolitical, you’ll probably be thinking and talking about Trump. And you’ll bring your own experiences and knowledge to bear in understanding what’s happening with Trump, but you are likely to be influenced by what is being covered. So that’s called Agenda Setting is the term for that, which is that the press is good at setting the agenda for what’s talked about. It doesn’t necessarily directly tell people what to think, kind of thing. And that is something I think we need to be somewhat resistant to… seek out things that maybe aren’t being force-fed to you, share information. On the left in particular, we’re internationalists, which means we need to be talking about things other than the US and the UK, so share information and seek out information. Point being, don’t let the press set the agenda all the time, and that also means we need our own media to a certain degree, as well.

Derek: Yeah. And that’s what I was speaking to earlier is that we kind of were going in that direction and that movement stalled and failed and now the skeleton of Indymedia has now been taken over by negative forces, to be used to as propaganda against us. And I would say that, yeah, propaganda is about… reinforcing ideas or reinforcing confirmation bias. I think it’s a misreading of the function of propaganda, or how psychology works, to think that ideas are just deposited in human heads, and then people are brainwashed, because brainwashing technically does not exist as a concept, and it’s more about persuasion. And even that, measuring the success of propaganda isn’t necessarily based on, how successful were you at persuading X amount of people. I think it’s just more about putting out your version of events as the official line, as the official story that drowns out other analysis. Cause like the best propaganda is telling the truth, but adding maybe one or two little lies in there. People often think that propaganda means it’s automatically false, or that you’re being told false things by the government, and that’s obviously not the case.

Ani: Yeah. Like it might just be a matter of quoting one person and not quoting another person. Your quoting of that person isn’t a lie, but the fact that you chose to quote that person and not another person is obviously going to affect things. So it is a matter of what truth you choose to tell. And I agree, the propaganda model isn’t discredited by the fact that audiences have the capacity for critical thought basically. But part of my point is, not necessarily that the model is wrong, but that on its own without some additional work it, can feed into some kind of populist ideas. We also can’t completely disconnect the propaganda model from Herman and Chomsky’s apologetics for certain regimes. I’m thinking of Chomsky’s apologetics for the Pol Pot regime.

Derek: Yeah. And there’s also other criticisms of Chomsky’s readings of events. The Sbrenica attack in Bosnia, and a lot of people have criticised him, his writing on that. And more recently was the gassings in two different towns in Syria, by the Assad regime, and that’s when we saw a crossover from people being critical of what they hear, or thinking oh this is regime change propaganda, to full-on Sandy Hook trutherism, where suddenly people on the left were saying… human rights groups like the White Helmets were faking bombings, or they were faking the rescues and pulling people out rubble, it was all actors and sounding not dissimilar from Alex Jones. And Chomsky repeated without question, Postill’s writing on those attacks, and Postill was taken in by a propagandist for Russia, that I believe lives in Australia, Syrian Girl who was a Nazi-connected person.

Ani: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Derek: And there was no critical assessment of that, because basically what happens is this critique becomes only about focusing on, how do these events reported implicate America.

Ani: Exactly.

Derek: Not where does the truth fall based on the information that comes out. And I find that very strange as somebody who, you really can’t question me on my dispassion and hatred for this country, and any other nation state in this world, but I can see when things are actually not the fault of American imperialism, or the fault of America, and I would not stretch my analysis to blame things that have nothing to do with America to be America’s fault. So I just find that strange, me personally, that people find themselves in that position, and it’s kind of a Cold War mentality and a campist mentality.

Ani: Yeah. I think not everything is about the US. The US isn’t the only evil in the world, and the official account also it isn’t always wrong. I think 9-11 is a perfect example of that. I mean, again a lot of people who wouldn’t buy into 9-11 Truth will buy into actually similar bullshit, but 9-11 is clearly a case where there are other evils in the world. And radical skepticism of the official account isn’t always progressive. It can be very regressive in many ways.

Derek: It could be hijacked for other purposes. And I would recommend as well Adam Curtis’ documentary, the last one that he did.

Ani: HyperNormalisation?

Derek: Yes.

Ani: I actually didn’t like that.

Derek: The last part he did there on Russia, which is very interesting because he’s very doubtful of any of the connections between Trump and Russia. And he’s a Russiagate skeptic, which is very strange given the part about Putin and Trump that he did in that documentary.

Ani: Yeah. Which pretty much exactly about that strategy you’re right.

Derek: Yeah. The point I was going to make is that that propaganda strategy, described in HyperNormalisation, used by Alexander Dugin in Russia and other propagandists. Basically the point is, it’s not that they’re trying to convince you with the propaganda, it’s to overwhelm you with as much bullshit all at once, that you cannot accurately gauge what is reality. And when you cannot understand what’s reality, how can you be an informed citizen in a liberal democracy? And that is the whole point, that Alexander Dugin was trying to do, because he’s trying to radically undermine liberal democracy, because he’s a fascist, neo-fascist, and this is very useful propaganda for any kind of administration, and any kind of regime, where you have this kind of reality management.

Ani: So yeah, radical skepticism. It needs to be about, learning about the world… that means learning from things that we don’t agree with. I mean, Karl Marx engaged a lot with bourgeois writers, and sometimes he was more supportive of things and bourgeois writing than he was of certain socialist arguments. So, particularly. I’m obviously thinking how his take on bourgeois political economy where, he found a lot of value in bourgeois political economy which other socialists hadn’t. Now obviously he critiqued it, and turned it into something entirely new. I’m saying we should do our own independent analysis absolutely, but not just saying, “Well, that’s the Washington Post. It’s a bourgeois source so it’s obviously lies. I don’t even need to read it.” Which is a very common attitude that I see around right now.

Derek: Yeah. And I would say if you have that same skepticism, why don’t you have that same skepticism about RT?

Ani: Yeah, or any, CounterPunch, what’s Greenwald’s one? The Intercept.

Derek: Yeah. They’re pretty good in spite of him sometimes.

Ani: Yeah. But there’s this weird inconsistency, with for example Reality Winner, who was a whistleblower on Russiagate, who as far as I know is still in prison for that. She pointed out interference in the voting machines. So The Intercept ran that story, and it’s been said that they basically let her go to the wall, I’m not clear on that, whether they did intentionally let her go to the wall, I honestly can’t make a solid claim on that. But it’s certainly the case she’s been completely ignored.

Derek: Yeah, that is 100% provable.

Ani: Yeah. And so there’s all these other whistleblowers who get endlessly romanticised. I mean, Assange who, yes, I think WikiLeaks did some good work but Assange is a total scumbag, he gets so much attention and so much defence. And then you got Reality Winner ho’s in prison and people just…nobody’s heard of her.

Derek: But I would imagine too though the connection is… like you’re saying is that the reason why Assange is still romanticized and why Reality Winner is ignored, is because she proved that there was Russian interference. And that goes against the popular narrative that has colonised a lot of the left in this country, to the point where we have a pro-Trump sector of the left,left media anyway, as exemplified by Greenwald and others. Where they’re actively defending Trump’s regime, and they’re actively defending him against impeachment, and they’ve completely lied about the outcome of the Mueller Report, and have totally parrotted Will Barr’s assessment. And now that that’s been disproven, that he was lying, nobody’s retracted on that, but all of those people, all of those writers, have demanded the head of Rachel Maddow, and anybody who reported on so called Russiagate.

Ani: And you’ve got Greenwald going on Fox News. Now if we’re going to talk about propaganda, right wing propaganda, again Fox News is the paradigmatic example. And you’ve got Greenwald going on there to basically say, “Well, the deep state is conspiring against Trump.” How can anyone on the left take him seriously at that point? To me, that’s a complete capitulation. People can’t conceive of, maybe learning something about Syria, but they’ll support somebody who goes on Fox News to defend the president of the United States of America.

Derek: …Nobody’s copped to it. When it was proven that those chemical attacks in Syria were not done by the rebels, and it was not a rebel stronghold, holding chlorine gas or something, that got bombed by the heroic Assad regime. Nobody issued any take-backs. Nobody said, “Hey, we were wrong, it turns out Assad did do those chemical attacks.”

Ani: [Robert Fisk rightly criticised] journalists embedded in the Iraq War. who went around with US troops who would show them what they wanted to show them, he was right to say that but he’s doing the same thing now with the Assad regime. His reportage on Syria is all guided by the Assad regime. He’s an embedded journalist, and embedded journalist sounds very objective, but it’s not because you’re embedded with basically one group or another, and in his case he’s embedded with regime forces. So when he speaks to some random guy who says, “Well, the chemical weapons attacks were faked,” he’s speaking to some random guy while on a regime tour, and then people will endlessly repost that article and ignore UN research.

Derek: So does propaganda work? It’s all over the place on that one. And as it’s been pointed out, like if advertising didn’t work they wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on Madison Avenue.

Ani: It’s easier to get people to part with their money, than to get people to fully subscribe to a political party or what have you. I mean, that’s the commonality of capitalist media, is that it’s capitalist media.

Derek: Yeah. And you know what’s funny about that, was how the media warned us about Trump in popular culture. Like in Back to the Future 2, Gremlins 2, Super Mario Brothers, and even the unfilmed Ghostbusters 3 had a villain based on Trump, and Dinosaurs.

Ani: So there’s certain amount of license artists have, particularly in comedy, particularly in satire, and particularly if it’s profitable. And there was a quote from Joss Whedon, I know he’s cancelled, but it’s an interesting quote, about basically what it’s like to work as a subversive artist in corporate media. Because, I would say shows like Buffy and Dollhouse and Firefly have dealt with some pretty interesting themes, considering again they were produced by Fox… This quote came during the production of Dollhouse, an interesting thing to note there is the production of Dollhouse was shut down for the writers’ strike, and that Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon’s company, they ran a picket line so they were relatively a militant group, which interesting because some of them were libertarians. But anyway, this quote is kind of about dealing with subversive themes while being in a corporate media company.

Derek: In his quote he said, “Have you been in America? I like to consider myself a documentarian. The entire structure is designed to mess with your minds, to combine selling you things with entertaining you, to keep you in line, to make you think that you need the things they want you to need, and to stay away from the things that they want to stay away from, to keep them in power, to share none of it. This is all happening. There are lights in the darkness. The art we get to create because our powerful patrons letters is one of them. But sometimes, yeah, it’s like running the daycare on the Death Star.”

Ani: So, what is to be done? As I said, even where you can get subversive message into corporate media, it’s still limited to its acquisition of exchange value. So put simply, if it doesn’t make money it’s cancelled, as Whedon discovered with Firefly and Dollhouse. So, for that reason we need both publicly funded media, but also and for revolutionary leftists more importantly, our own independent media. Traditionally you have the papers, the newspapers, of the communist or socialist parties. Obviously now, we’re moving into more of a digital age, there may be still some place for print, but in any case we need our own channels, as you said, Indymedia was one, and now we’re seeing the rebirth of podcasts, the sort of second wave of podcasts on a somewhat meta note. So, podcasts are certainly a part of the infrastructure that is now being developed as a kind of alternative to mainstream corporate media. And despite my criticisms of an overly simplistic view of mainstream media, I do think it’s important that we have our own media, and podcasts are a part of it.

Derek: Yeah. I agree with that, and I’m very proud to be somebody who is part of both the original wave of podcasts, and now this current wave of podcasts, now everybody and their uncle, and standup comedians, and everybody have podcasts. And I think it’s something to definitely utilise for good. And we’re definitely seeing, with the loss of net neutrality in this country, and some of the copyright laws being passed in the EU and etc., that we’re seeing kind of this closing of the digital commons, putting to lie the libertarian and anarchist ideas of the freedom that the internet was going to bring, that is described in the California Ideology… We’re really seeing how authoritarian and totalitarian Silicon Valley is, we’re gonna have the ability to have our own alternative media, and have podcasts and everything, but we may not have the bandwidth, so we’ll ironically might have to go back to radio and pamphlets and newspapers and zines.

Ani: Well, I think we need multiple communication strategies.

“Was the Russian Revolution a Carrier-Pigeon Revolution?”: Digital media and communication in the Victorian Socialists

By Ian Anderson, RMIT Doctoral candidate in Media Studies.

This article was researched and written before the COVID-19 outbreak and implementation of physical distancing measures, which have affected the relationship between ‘IRL’ and online organising. Like many organisations, the VicSocialists have shifted towards online videoconferencing, for both public events and internal discussions.

This article is being published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The Victorian Socialists (VicSocialists) launched in 2018, as a coalition of three socialist groups. That year, the campaign ran a number of candidates for the Victorian parliamentary election – two of the candidates already held seats in local council. Former leading candidate Stephen Jolly explicitly cited recent international polarisation as a reason to attempt his parliamentary bid:

[My campaign is] the first time in Australia that the left is tapping into the anti establishment mood on a large scale… In America and Europe you’ve seen the rise of far right but also a new left with figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In Australia, it’s been unusual as it’s just been the far right with Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, who have tapped into that discontent.1

The VicSocialists did not meet their goal of electing leading candidate Stephen Jolly to state parliament, but received the fourth largest vote after the Greens. In 2019, the campaign ran three candidates for the Federal Election – notably their prior leading candidate Jolly was not selected as the organisation was conducting an investigation for charges of abuse, and after the election he would be suspended over a separate abuse investigation2 – yet they received over 4% in three electorates despite not running Jolly. This article is based on interviews with 13 members and supporters, as well as my own experiences.

E-skepticism of activists

I do think sometimes there’s an overstatement about social media, like the Arab Revolutions, there were some people who want to refer to them as the Facebook revolutions, but I mean really was the Russian revolution the carrier pigeon revolution? People will find ways to communicate, and actually in that instance people had to find ways to communicate outside of the online forms because the government shut down the internet, and they still organised.3

This was the very last comment from interviewee Kath Larkin, a rail worker who at the time had just been pre-selected as the VicSocialists candidate for Cooper. Around 200 people attended the conference, held at the Maritime Union of Australia headquarters in South Melbourne.

Kath very much emphasised the value of face-to-face communication over the course of the interview, and considered the day-conference a success in bringing people together for democratic deliberation in person. Earlier in the interview Kath commented:

Obviously there’s a lot that we do on social media, and I think sometimes when you’re in the left you can kind of feel like what you see in your Facebook wall is what everyone sees, but actually we know that’s not true, we know that the way that Facebook is manipulated and run means that actually it’s quite hard for leftists to get their views out there. I do think social media will still be important particularly for young leftists in the area, but there’s also gonna be a need to get out to community events.

This is a common sentiment among Victorian Socialist activists. VicSocialists volunteer and librarian John Gao had this to say when explaining why he uses Twitter less than he used to:

I guess because I’m interested in politics, not just theoretical but to do stuff in practice, which requires face-to-face interaction, talking to the public in my own city, so therefore organising on a local level is very important, and the absence of that critical mass on Twitter, atleast in that area was not as useful in some ways.

Another interviewee who preferred not to be named commented more bluntly that “Twitter is an actual toilet”, and while less anti-Facebook stated that “I don’t think we should overstate Facebook because a lot of it was the boots on the ground that did the work.”

Activists’ skepticism of the digital included three key aspects:

  1. The digital divide, or uneven participation – Activists emphasised the importance of face-to-face communication in fostering constituencies that did not participate heavily in the digital sphere, particularly older working class voters.
  2. Criticism of utopian techno-determinism – Connected to pride in organising capacities not determined by the affordances of media technologies. Arguably some techno-dystopianism centred on the commodification of the net.
  3. Skepticism of ‘call-out culture’ and online criticism.

Despite these criticisms, there was little interest expressed in a programmatic decommodifying transformation of digital media. VicSocialist activists were simply more interested in other issues, such as migrant worker rights. The 2018 Election Manifesto did not mention digital rights, a strong focus in digital parties, coming closest to this in a reference to surveillance associated with the War on Terror.

…And yet
Yet digital media is strongly used for promotion. The VicSocialists Facebook page has over 5,000 likes at the time of writing. The page averaged 3 original posts a day during the week before the election in 2018, with posts routinely attracting hundreds of reactions, and regular video posts usually attracting thousands of views. This rate of posts and interactions is similar to the Australian Greens Facebook page over the same period, Australia’s third largest party with a relatively significant youth base. VicSocialists also had a number of location-specific Facebook pages, a meme page, an Instagram and a Twitter. The point here is not so much the success of engagement as the effort: despite the activists’ stated lack of passion for digital media, there was clearly concerted work to ensure visibility across digital media. Crucially, this was a fairly centralised effort with consistent messaging across major corporate platforms., freeing most activists to engage in other kinds of work and keep their digital engagement to ‘likes’ and shares. There was no pretension here of digital media as a horizontal structure: it was merely a tool for promotion.

Additionally, the finding that the VicSocialists are skeptical of digital media, yet strongly use it to promote socialist ideas, is paralleled by a study on parallel electoral group the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA,4 a group which has grown to around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. This study found that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter served contradictory purposes of cohesion and fragmentation. Interview subjects found the culture on Twitter particularly alienating or even “repellant”. This is a platform that “skew[s] young, male, well-educated” and tends to use in-jokey humour to promote cohesion, and members expressed concern that this was alienating to those outside the in-group. As a “normative strategy”, members argued for the use of collective social media pages for promoting socialist ideas, countering the tendency towards individualistic fragmentation. This is paralleled by the VicSocialists’ strong use of centrally administrated pages on Twitter and Facebook, with arguably less of an emphasis on in-jokey Twitter personalities than the DSA.

Doorknocking
VicSocialists activists strongly emphasised the importance of face-to-face work, particularly doorknocking. When asked what was required to scale up from a local government to a state level campaign, leading organiser Liz Walsh answered doorknocking first and foremost. More than 95,000 doors were knocked, with around 120 people attending doorknocking events each weekend for eight weeks. Activists express pride in hundreds of activists turning up to doorknocking, and recounted how Green and Labor activists were surprised at how many they mobilised.

A report from Marxist Left Review matches accounts from my interviews of successful connections:

It was common for volunteers to return from doorknocking with accounts of meeting old trade union militants keen to regale them about this or that struggle, migrants who had not forgotten their more radical traditions from their country of origin, or even young workers who responded with immediate enthusiasm when we told them our candidate was a construction worker who would only take a skilled worker’s wage. These were by no means the majority of experiences, but they indicated there was a constituency to connect with.5

VicSocialists’ success in mobilising hundreds for doorknocking campaigns is a success in face-to-face or ‘meatspace’ mobilisation, but it is also a success facilitated by digital technology. Doorknockers used an app to record which doors had been knocked, and the events were primarily promoted through Facebook. This illustrates a distinct conception from both utopian and dystopian accounts of digital media – the use of digital media as simply a tool, with pros and cons. As Kath Larkin said, “people will find ways to communicate”, and digital media is one of those ways. VicSocialists activist and casual academic Daniel Lopez noted that a resident he spoke to on the doorstep in Brunswick had read an article Lopez wrote for US socialist magazine Jacobin, which he found on social media – indicating the way digital connections and face-to-face connections can be complementary.

Legacy media

VicSocialist activists interacted with two distinct strands of ‘legacy media’ in two distinct ways: with ‘mainstream media’ such as right-wing newspapers, and with socialist media. Unsurprisingly their engagement with ‘mainstream media’ was largely critical, although not necessarily dismissive. An example of oppositional reading of mainstream media is offered by Kath Larkin’s account of daily engagement with newspapers as a rail worker:

One other thing at my workplace is that I clear trains that go to the yard, and people leave newspapers and so we all kind of collect newspapers and then we’ll read them in the lunch room, which means we read a lot of Herald Sun, which is obviously a really right-wing news source, but it is useful I think to know what’s being said in this newspaper, because it is so widely read.

Activists in general made an effort to engage with ‘mainstream media’ despite their criticisms. A number of activists spoke of a ‘blackout’ on coverage of the VicSocialists in mainstream media. This impression of unfavourable terrain is perhaps comparable with the perception of Facebook and Twitter as hostile corporate terrain, although those channels afforded more promotion. Of the few articles on the VicSocialists, one article participants often mentioned negatively was a Guardian article which appeared more sympathetic to Fiona Patten, a rival candidate who won the seat Stephen Jolly aimed for.

Although the VicSocialists do not have their own digital platform in the fashion of digital parties like the Pirate Parties (such as LiquidFeedback or Loomio), the various component socialist groups do have their own media channels. These include newspapers, journals, and websites (discounting social media channels which the groups do not own). Yet these print-centric channels are arguably ‘legacy media’, perhaps reflecting the fact that the socialist groups are ‘legacy organisations’, groups that have weathered decades in the cold. Central activists often engaged with socialist media as creators or distributors. Yet this was not universal, with a number of activists not regularly reading the press of organisations like Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance – more often, activists reported reading broad left publications like Overland and Jacobin, and some listened to left-leaning podcasts like Chapo Trap House. Although a number of activists did engage with socialist media, it didn’t appear to be particularly complementary with the VicSocialists campaign, with the exception of electoral propaganda on digital media channels – counterintuitively, given activists’ stated skepticism about these channels. This is likely due to the relative efficiency of social media channels compared with newspapers. More recently, that is after the VicSocialists’ State and Federal election campaigns, Socialist Alternative launched a podcast called Red Flag Radio, taking advantage of the wider wave of socialist podcasts such as Chapo Trap House.

If we also include snail mail, posters, yard signs and the like as ‘legacy media’ due to pre-existing digital media, then these forms of legacy media were perceived as decisive. Campaign organiser Liz Walsh makes this case:

The numbers of doors knocked on, letters distributed, corflute/yard signs erected, posters plastered on street poles and so on is absolutely decisive in being able to connect up with the left wing sentiment and discontent with the major parties that does exist among layers of people in Victoria.

To demonstrate this case, Walsh points to the example of the Western Metro region, which had similar demographics to Northern Metro but where the VicSocialists didn’t wage a ground campaign. Here the VicSocialists received 0.57%. Therefore the ground campaign was decisive in the VicSocialists’ more impressive result in Northern Metro. This arguably vindicates the VicSocialists activists’ strong emphasis on doorknocking and other ‘old-school’ methods, without eschewing digital communication. Walsh’s article, which is fairly extensive, does not mention social media either positively or negatively.

Conclusion
VicSocialist activists tend to express a strong ambivalence about social media. Activists emphasise the importance of face-to-face organisation, although in practice digital media and other forms of organisation are strongly complementary. Digital media is embedded but not fetishised, and used more for promotion than democratic participation (which largely occurs through bi-annual member conferences). The results of this study are paralleled by a study on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organisation that has around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. DSA members used social media to promote socialist ideas, yet were often ambivalent about the medium. DSA members argued for collective social media pages to counter the social media tendency towards individualist fragmentation, a strategy used by the VicSocialists.

1Armstrong, Liam. “Could Steve Jolly Be Australia’s First Socialist Politician in 70 Years?” Vice, February 8 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/yxvjpsak ). Web. Accessed 18/06/2018

2 Jolly’s behaviour was not denied by his political supporters, who were open about the process that has occurred so far. That said, conflicting claims circulate about the adequacy of this internal process, with many external to the organisation saying it was inadequate or even a cover-up. The first problem arose prior to the foundation of the VicSocialists, when Jolly was a member of another socialist organisation, simply called The Socialists. Jolly had sent some text messages that constituted sexual harassment. This was investigated by the organisation, with the resolution that Jolly was required to apologise and undergo counselling. Jolly resigned from that organisation, and would later approach another group proposing the Victorian Socialists electoral project. In the early stages of the VicSocialist project, during negotiations between a number of socialist organisations, a group of Socialist Alliance members opposed Jolly’s nomination. When he was endorsed, those members resigned. Over the course of the Victorian Socialists state electoral campaign, claims emerged on social media that the prior process was not adequate, and that Stephen Jolly had engaged in other inappropriate behaviour. After the state election, the VicSocialists launched a second investigation into Jolly’s behaviour, and he was not selected as a Federal Election candidate because that investigation was ongoing. At that point some former members rejoined because he had not been selected. Shortly after the Federal election, Stephen Jolly’s membership was suspended as it turned out police were investigating another abuse claim. At this point, the situation finally entered into mainstream media coverage, after months of circulation on social media.

3 It may be worth noting here that her skepticism aligns with debates in academia about the techno-utopianism associated with ‘Twitter revolutions’ (Dumitru, 2012; Berenger, 2013; Musa & Willis 2014; Bebawi & Bossio, 2014; Kraidy, 2016).

4Barnes, Christopher C. “Democratic Socialists on Social Media: Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Normative Strategies.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 18 (1): 1-285, January 1 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/set6plj ). Accessed 29/02/2020

5Walsh, Liz. “Launching Victorian Socialists: an anti-capitalist electoral alliance.” Marxist Left Review, published by Socialist Alternative, No 18, pp. 19-38

No Concessions: Australian tertiary education workers fight back

By Ani White, NTEU member and casual tutor.

In Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), my union, a rank and file rebellion is challenging officials’ defeatist response to the COVID-19 crisis. This piece will begin by outlining the background situation, before outlining the No Concessions campaign led by members.

Background
Many university workers are not covered by JobKeeper, a payment for businesses significantly affected by COVID-19. The NTEU has therefore campaigned for JobKeeper, and full Federal funding. Over this period casuals have been sacked en masse, including 200 staff at my university RMIT. Universities are also seeking to implement a pay freeze, and to restructure Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

However, the NTEU National Executive has been drawn into a managerial logic of helping balance the books, and a defeatist view of the crisis. A common idea, expressed both by the National Executive and those academics who support them, is that a sacrifice in pay is needed to protect job security. There is a liberal notion here of solidarity as self-sacrifice by privileged academics, rather than solidarity as a rising tide lifting all ships. Additionally, as highlighted by Kaye Broadbent in the Campus Morning Mail:

[N]ot everyone in the university sector is a highly paid academic. Universities are kept afloat by thousands of casual academics, fixed term research academics and casual and contract professional staff.

For the insecurely employed and low paid staff employed in universities reducing pay by any amount will create hardship – our rent and bills still need to be paid. For many university workers, their income is the only one in the household – especially since the crisis hit. And there’s no guarantee even with a pay cut that one more person will keep their job as a result.

Although negotiations are being conducted in secret, union militants have released information about the National Executive’s plans. According to an open letter by Katie Wood, a unionist at University of Melbourne:

On April 3, the National Executive of the NTEU unanimously approved a framework of negotiations that included the possibility of “general reductions in Agreement rates”. NTEU members were unaware of this decision until a Guardian article, published on April 17. Despite various denials from senior leadership that a reduction in rates is under discussion, a survey circulated in some branches asks members if they would be willing to take a reduction in hourly rates of up to 10%”

A document prepared for [the 25th of April’s] briefing of the NTEU National Council… states that the aim of the [National Executive] strategy is to secure “a strong Union role in managing the introduction of any cost saving measures” (emphasis mine).

In a more recent article for Red Flag, after the unconstitutional National Council meeting of April 25th, Wood reported the following:

This week, a hastily called national council “briefing” was rebadged as a “meeting of national councillors” to ram through a vote backing the national executive’s strategy of collaborating with management. The meeting approved the national executive’s motion by a vote of 89 to 13. That’s been touted as a vote of confidence in the strategy, but it has no standing in the union’s official rules – there was no procedure to propose motions beforehand, amendments were explicitly ruled out and procedural motions were repeatedly ignored.

Fightback
The No Concessions campaign began with a motion censuring the National Executive, passed on April 12th at a University of Sydney members’ meeting, by 117 votes to 2. Supporting motions have been passed at members’ meetings across the country. Over 800 members, including myself, signed a statement calling for no concessions by the NTEU National Executive.

Union meetings on Zoom have attracted hundreds of members. However, union officials often run these more like one-way seminars than democratic meetings. The managerial tone became apparent to me personally at a snap ‘rally’ of the Victorian NTEU, just before the No Concessions campaign kicked off: officials claimed that the state government was sympathetic, and members had no opportunity to speak. Members have used the chat function to challenge the official line, alongside establishing independent channels for communication between rank and file members.

After motions and statements being passed in various places, core activists are itching to translate this into action. Strikes are illegal outside of collective bargaining, with a risk of significant fines. However, refusal of unpaid work is under discussion as an industrial tactic. Alongside enforcing the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, this would double as a statement of solidarity with casuals who should be performing that work – a vastly preferable tactic to trading wage freezes for job security.

This week RMIT Casuals, my own section, passed a motion calling on staff to refuse unpaid work. Members are also campaigning for a National Day of Action on the 21st of May.

System change, not climate change! But how?

By Jojo Klick.

This article was published in our magazine issue on Just Transition. You can subscribe here.

A sentiment that is shared by many within the growing climate movement is that there is a connection between the capitalist mode of production and the climate crisis. In this piece, I will analyse this connection and explore what that means for transformational strategies towards eco-communism as well as immediate demands for fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

For more than a year now, students have been striking for the climate each Friday all over the world, following in the footsteps of other movements for climate justice, often carried out by communities on the frontlines who are affected by carbon mining, oil drilling and other fossil projects. Yet, so far it does not look like the measures taken by politicians after this pressure from the streets will be likely to prevent crucial tipping points that will lead to an irreversible climate catastrophe that will make huge parts of this planet uninhabitable. Many within the climate movement are beginning to understand that this might have something to do with capitalism and that “if solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself”, as Greta Thunberg says.

But why does capitalism ruin the climate? Within capitalism, the means of production are owned privately and most goods and services we need (or sometimes don’t really need such as SUVs) are produced as commodities by private companies, which means they are not produced directly to fulfil a certain need, but to be sold on the market. On the market, companies compete against each other: Each of them wants us to buy THEIR product. They need to make a profit from selling their commodities, not only so the company owners (aka capitalists) can have a fancy life (which they most often do), but also to re-invest the profit as capital, e.g. to buy more effective machines or hire more workers or pay for more advertising so that they can produce better or cheaper and thus have an advantage within the competition against other companies. If one company would not do this, it had to fear that others are faster and that it would vanish from the market.

Competition also means that companies need to externalize costs wherever possible. If they can pollute the air without paying for it, they are likely to do it. On top of that, the need to reinvest money as capital in order to get more money (which Marx expressed with the famous formula M-C-M’, meaning money-commodity-more money) leads to what economists as well as environmentalist critics call “economic growth”. This abstract growth also leads to a growth of material production which means the use of more resources. Additionally, as digitalization and automation makes it continuously cheaper to produce goods, the use of resources might even grow more than the economic value produced. Unlimited economic growth is not possible on a planet with limited resources but within capitalism, this growth-imperative cannot be escaped.

States have some capacities to limit these destructive tendencies of capitalism and have indeed done so for more than a hundred years (capitalists are also dependent on this to some extent, since otherwise capitalism would destroy its foundations even faster). One recent example for this is the carbon price, e.g. in the form of a tax that companies have to pay for their emissions. However, these capacities are limited, since states also compete against each other. If one state would set accurately high environmental and social standards, companies would be likely to move to other countries where they can produce cheaper. Of course, states could also invest in “green” sectors such as renewable energies (which is discussed as a “Green New Deal”) and make economic growth less carbon-intensive. Even if such a “Green New Deal” might help fight climate change, it would not question economic growth and thus only lead to the extraction of other resources (such as lithium for batteries), which often happens under brutal conditions in countries of the Global South and would set the basis for the next environmental crisis in a couple of years or decades.

A truly eco-friendly alternative would mean the abolition of capitalism and thus of private property and the commodity-form. Initial stages of such a form of re/production1 can be seen in the commons, resources that people use collectively in a self-organized way and need-oriented.2 Commons are things like commonly owned land (historically in medieval Europe, today still in many indigenous communities), community gardens or social centres, but also Wikipedia or open source software. The way these things are used, managed and maintained, through commoning, gives examples of how society as a whole could be organized: Production and consumption would not be as separated as today, people would do freely what they find important and produce for their and other people’s needs and not to make money. Things would be re/produced as commons, not as commodities. Karl Marx describes the commodity as the elementary form of capitalism. In the same way, the elementary form of communism might be the commons.3(3) In such a commons-based libertarian communist society, there would be no need to produce more and more stuff and people could manage the eco-systems in a sustainable manner.

When it comes to strategies of communist transformation, this perspective means that anti-capitalist movements need to build and reclaim the commons from below. This also involves expropriating the means of production and other resources such as land or houses that need to be freed from private property and made into commons which is unlikely to happen on a big enough scale without some kind of revolutionary rupture. So far, the majority of the climate movement seems far away from such an approach. At this stage, it might thus be important to tackle the ideologies that present capitalism and market society as the only options (known as TINA, “There is no alternative”) and to discuss alternatives to capitalism and how to get there within social movements and beyond.

Yet, since climate crisis is an urgent issue, every fight for immediate reductions of carbon emissions is also worth fighting, even if they do not get rid of the root causes of environmental destruction. Besides fighting for immediate reforms, these struggles are also an opportunity for people to come together, to develop solidarity and to discuss about further horizons. In fact, within these kinds of struggles people often already practice commoning and reclaim or defend the commons.

This can be seen in a lot of indigenous struggles (e.g. at Standing Rock or currently in the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en people against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline in Canada), but also elsewhere, e.g. in the struggle to defend Hambach forest in the Rhineland coal mining area in Germany.4 This forest that had been managed as a commons for hundreds of years by the local communities has been cut down further and further every year for coal mining since the 1970s – a process that has now been stopped after years of protests, direct actions and legal actions against the coal mining project (while the forest will not be cut down now, it is still under threat by water shortages due to the mining project). Most prominent in this struggle is the occupation of the forest (with tree houses and huts) by radical climate activists that was started in 2012 and is still going on today. While the activists fought immediately against the deforestation and coal mining through their occupation but also through other means of direct action such as blockades or sabotages, they also reclaimed the forest as a commons and organized their lives in a way that can be described as commoning: You don’t have to pay to live there or eat the communally cooked food (often made from leftover vegetables from local farmers or saved from the supermarkets’ dumpster), everyone does voluntarily what they are motivated to do, there are no formal hierarchies and informal hierarchies are tried to be kept as flat as possible. Even though such a life is not without conflicts and contradictions, many people describe their experiences there as life-changing, seeing that a world without capitalism, competition and domination might be possible.

Another lesson that can be learned from the struggle about Hambach forest is the importance of direct action: By breaking the rules, occupying the forest and blockading coal infrastructure, activists did not only draw attention to the issue, but also damaged the electricity company RWE economically. Without these tactics, the struggle would probably not have been so successful.

These two lessons from Hambach forest, that if we build social formations of commoning within our movements, we can make libertarian communism an imaginable possibility and lived experience and that if we use direct action we can put a lot more pressure on politicians and companies might be helpful for the climate strike movement that until this point is rather tame. In addition, the rhetoric of the strike which is quite central in the movement could be a starting point for a more radical approach. If not only students would go on strike, but also the huge majority of workers, a climate strike could implement a lot of economic pressure. This pressure could force politicians to implement further reforms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if these are bad for the economy. A strike that includes industrial workers would also be a direct action in the narrower sense of the word, since striking would mean less production (for at least a short time) and thus less CO2-emissions. The demand for a radically shorter working week could be one focus of such a strike movement that would link the immediate wellbeing of the workers with climate protection.5 A shorter working week would also allow people to spend more time building and experimenting with non-capitalist ways of re/production in commons projects.

These are just examples of (possible) reform-oriented struggles that can be linked to the broader goal of libertarian communism. Green capitalism is an oxymoron and the fight for climate justice has to be anti-capitalist which means that in the end we need to seize the means of production (probably also destroy a lot of them if they are inherently non-ecologic), do away with private property and the commodity form and organize the re/production in the principles of commoning. If we have this goal clear, we can think about how the current struggles for reforms and immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions need to be fought in order to get closer to this goal. We can explore where we already do commoning within our movements today and evaluate how we can expand that. We could link struggles of students who fear for their future with the struggles of workers for a shorter working week and the struggles of indigenous communities who have long been on the frontlines in the fight against fossil capitalism to a common struggle for climate justice and a sustainable libertarian communist world.

1 “Re/production” implies that production and reproduction are no longer separated.

2 See my article on counter-strategies against the far right and conservative leftism from last year‘ “International Perspectives“ issue: https://fightback.org.nz/2019/02/11/germany-far-right-conservative-leftism/

3 See Stefan Meretz on peer-commonist produced livelihoods: https://keimform.de/2017/peer-commonist-produced-livelihoods/

4 See my article “Fighting Europe’s biggest hole” in Fightback’s 2015 issue on climate crisis: https://fightback.org.nz/2015/10/17/germany-fighting-europes-biggest-hole/

5 See Phillip Frey, “The ecological limits of work”: http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-Ecological-Limits-of-Work-final.pdf

COVID-19 and the alt-right media ecosystem

Screenshot_2020-04-07 What is the coronavirus 5G conspiracy The dumb theory circulating the internet rn
Image from The Tab.

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Media. To subscribe click here. NOTE: While NZ is under lockdown, print issues cannot be sent out, however e-publications are being sent out, and we will print and mail issues when it becomes possible.

“A mainstream media article, written by an academic from Massey university who has not gulped down koolaid to fawn over the government? We are taken aback, greatly.”

That was how the New Conservative Party (New Zealand) introduced an opinion piece by Steve Elers that was published on Stuff, New Zealand’s largest news website, stating the country should have closed its borders in February. The fringe right-wing party, outside of parliament and polling around 1%, has spent the past year telling their Facebook followers-  an audience comparable in size to the following of more mainstream political party pages- to distrust mainstream media and academia.

“Time to get rid of the China virus that’s infected our government. #chinaliedpeopledied”, comments one of their followers, a man with a profile picture proudly declaring hs support for the party. Another man comments with a link to a YouTube video claiming that telecommunications workers destroyed a cellphone tower to warn the public about 5G. “5g being set up during LockDown!!!! I do not consent to radiation”, comments a woman with a “top fan” badge.  “UN agenda 21 can only be implemented in a climate of fear”, states another follower.

While some comments are supportive of the government’s decision to place New Zealand on lockdown, closing all but essential services and banning gatherings of people in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, the above comments are not atypical. For some followers, the New Conservative praise for Steve Elers isn’t convincing: “If you take a closer look at this guy, he is an Alt left Maori activist.”

Posting a link to an RNZ article about coming job losses at NZME, Stuff’s major rival and owners of the New Zealand Herald, a New Conserative follower comments “bye bye fake news.” While a number of NZME’s redundancies are occurring at Radio Sport which has ceased broadcasting as globally the pandemic puts a halt on sporting competitions, the email to staff from NZME Chief Executive Michael Boggs indicates a reduction in the number of news journalists is coming: “The ongoing decline in revenue caused by the impact of COVID-19 continues to be significant. This is uncharted territory, and no one knows when that will change.

We must now make changes to the scope and scale of our business and do so quickly. This will inevitably result in job losses.”

The pandemic is speeding up the decline of professional journalism, already well underway in New Zealand as elsewhere. Traditional media has struggled to maintain advertising revenue, in particular due to the shift in advertising to Facebook, which has become one of the primary platforms for the spread of misinformation.

In March, Wired published an article headlined Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are a Public Health Hazard: “Anti-vaxxers think the virus is an effort to force vaccines on them, possibly orchestrated by Bill Gates. Others blame 5G networks”, writes Wired’s Emma Grey. Ellis, showing linking the virus with 5G conspiracy theories is not unique to the supporters of a fringe right-wing party in New Zealand. In the UK people influenced by conspiracy theories claiming symptoms of Covid-19 are actually caused by 5G mobile towers have abused technicians and even destroyed telecommunications infrastructure.

There has also been a documented increase in racist incidents against Asians and Chinese in particular in a number of countries, including New Zealand and Australia. In February, before New Zealand had any confirmed cases of Covid-19, parents of children at a Canterbury school received an email stating “our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders.” In Western Australia, shoppers who appeared Asian were removed from a supermarket, and in Tasmania a student from Hong Kong was assaulted by a man who first shouted “you’ve got the virus” and “go back to your country.” Notably these incidents occured after headlines like “China Virus Panda-monium” and “China kids stay home.” appeared in mainstream Australian newspapers in January. Politicians and pundits have continued to racialise the the virus with terms like “China virus” “Wuhan virus” and “kung-flu” the latter appearing in the title of an Australian alt-right podcast episode in February.

While new Facebook pages have emerged to take advantage of growing Sinophobia, other far-right pages have used the pandemic to spread false information about their usual targeted groups. A page primarily Islamophobic in nature has repeatedly claimed Muslims “were the first to bring the plague to NZ from Iraq”, possibly confusing Iraq with Iran, where an infected New Zealand citizen returned from (notably neither the ethnicity or religion of this woman is publically known).

Another post on the same page claims a private jet owned by a Saudi billionaire, which landed at Christchurch airport to repatriate Saudi citizens, was there to bring COVID-19 “to the hookers and street workers of Christchurch”, adding “No one else can travel to NZ, except Jacinda’s wealthy handlers.” One commenter suggested the plane was there to pick up the Christchurch shooter, who according to a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by the tiny One Nation NZ party was not part of the far-right, but actually a Muslim convert. One Nation NZ stood in a by-election in 2018, but otherwise barely existed beyond Facebook page- which has since been removed for violating policy of hate speech and graphic violence.

”All over the world, from Iraq to the United States, people have been spreading anti-Semitic memes and messages suggesting that Jews, or Jewish stand-ins like George Soros, the Rothschilds, and Israel, are to blame for the outbreak”, writes Ellis in Wired. “In the internet’s darkest corners, the scapegoating is being used to stir a movement that is less conspiracy theory than actual conspiracy.”

According to Oren Segel, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists have discussed deliberately infecting ethnic minorities and exploiting tensions between ethnic groups to hasten “the boogaloo” an alt-right slang for race war. In the USA the FBI stopped a man who was planning to bomb a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients. NBC News reported that he had done so to further the goals of his white supremacist ideology, and had told an undercover FBI agent he had chosen a hospital as a target due to “the increased impact given the media attention on the health sector.”

In the USA, polls showed that 42% of Republicans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about COVID-19, compared to 73% of Democrats. 83% of Republicans who consumed only a diet of outlets with right-leaning audiences believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. Comparable poll data is not available for New Zealand, but clearly a similar far right echo-system exists, though its reach has not been adequately investigated.

In Australia, the far-right have used the government’s Covid-19 response to stoke distrust in state institutions and encouraged mobilisation and violent action as a response to the crisis, according to Sydney based think tank The Lowy Institute. In the lead up to the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting, Australian counter-terrorism police in New South Wales arrested a 21-year-old man for an alleged terrorist plot. The man had allegedly tried to buy military equipment and firearms and was planning to blow up an electricity substation.

“The situation is ripe for exploitation by the far right”, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University sociologist and expert on the far-right, told Al Jazeera “the uncertainty the pandemic creates creates fertile ground for claims about the need for change or the solutions the far right purports to offer.”

This is certainly evident in recent Facebook posts from New Zealand’s alt-right adjacent New Conservative Party, such as a picture of laughing women captioned “when someone who wants open borders sounds worried about the coronavirus spreading” and a screenshot of a BBC headline about the EU closing borders to non-citizens  with the comment “so nationalism is back and borders are good?” (This rhetoric ignores the fact that the borders of Europe were far from “open” prior to the pandemic- last year, over a thousand migrants drowned attempting to enter Europe on their southern sea border).

But New Conservative are, relatively speaking, moderates. On a page run by a Christchurch based man who in the months following the Christchurch shooting threatened to “destroy mosque after mosque until they take me out” an article from a known fake news website, alleging that France is not subjecting predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods to quarantine is shared with the comment “r@pe and sickness are just a part of the rich diversity pill we are all going to have to swallow.” (The @ replacing the a is likely an attempt to avoid Facebook algorithms removing the post).

Misinformation and conspiracy theories can move quickly from the far-right fringes to more mainstream social media with larger audiences. In April Buzzfeed reported that numerous lifestyle and parenting influencers on Instagram were “seamlessly weaving in evidence-free far-right conspiracy theories that are usually found in the significantly less Instagrammable parts of the internet, such as 4 and 8-chan, in between their usual idyllic family snaps.”

With millions of people confined to their homes there is also concern that more people will be susceptible to the kind of online rabbit holes that lead people to the far-right. Mak Kapetanovic, a young man who had previously been influenced by alt-right narratives encountered on 4chan and has since left the right, told Time of his concerns that the pandemic could lead people down the same path. “Feelings of isolation, anger, grief and frustration, all of those things are happening. A lot of people are scared, and people are not sure what to think.”

“It is the far right who always seem to take advantage of these insecurities.”

The impacts of climate change on New Zealand

By BRUCE ANDERSON

This article is from the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Climate Change/ Just Transition”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here. Note: production of the print version has been delayed due to the shutdown of all non-essential economic activity in Aotearoa New Zealand, but the electronic version has been mailed out to subscribers.

School climate strike demonstration, Wellington, September 2019

AUTHOR’S NOTE 20 March: Since this article was first drafted in early February, the coronavirus outbreak has been declared a world-wide pandemic, and is turning into a major economic and social crisis. Yesterday Australia and New Zealand both closed their borders. How its aftermath is handled may give us a clearer view of the likelihood of each of the three scenarios described in this article.

Some would consider this crisis unrelated to climate change, but evidence is building that our despoilation of the environment (driven by the need for growth, and cheap fossil fuel energy) may be linked to these outbreaks, as non-human life is stressed and adapts to the rapid changes we are causing (see for example“‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for COVID-19”, by John Vidal, for The Guardian).

Whether it is directly linked or not, it is one of those crises which increase the pressure on us as societies to change rapidly and transformatively. If our primary medium term response is “Phew, that’s over, now we’d better rebuild the economy and get back on track”, we will be heading down the “business as usual” path to environmental apocalypse.  If our response is “Phew, we got through that one, people have responded well to it, maybe we do have the political capital for a massive re-direction of resources to mitigate and adapt to the warming planet”, we may get closer to the “great turning” which is needed to build a better and more sustainable society.  And if our response is simply “So what lessons can we learn to help us prepare better for the next pandemic?”, we are on the “muddling through” path, making incremental changes in reaction to crises rather than working on the big picture.

Place your bets, please.  Or, better still, work out how you can best help influence our societal response so we move towards the necessary transformation.

Climate change is the “canary in the coal mine”

We are in a world-wide environmental, economic, and social crisis. The land and water are being poisoned by the expansion of industrial food production, and misused in the increasing production of “luxury” food such as meat, dairy (and almonds in California!). We will run out of fertile land in 55 years or so, on our current trajectory[1]. We are also poisoning the water and the air, heating the air and the oceans, and decreasing the species diversity which underpins the flourishing of life, through our expansion of industrial activity and distribution fuelled by coal, oil and gas.

Our dominant economic system is based on perpetual growth, which on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, and on increasing concentration of ownership and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, through the exploitation of both people and nature. The social impacts of all this are steadily growing, with increases in the number and scale of local environmental disasters, instances of local food and water scarcity, and population unrest and dislocation. And the people least responsible for this crisis – such as our Pacific neighbours, living in low-lying atolls and islands, and contributing far less to emissions than Australia and New Zealand – are likely to face the greatest consequences. 

While the roots of this have been with us since the European “Enlightenment”, and particularly the Industrial Revolution, the major immediate cause is the unleashing of globalist capitalism over the last fifty years, and the spectacular increase in consumption this has enabled in the affluent world.

All of this is having increasing impacts on New Zealand. However, the rest of this article will take a relatively narrow view of climate change and its impacts. It will confine itself to impacts directly related to the increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. This will understate and even in some cases ignore the potential effects of the various elements and their inter-relationships on our current crisis. On the other hand, climate change is both a leading indicator of the crisis, and also can only be addressed effectively through addressing most if not all elements of the crisis. So we can treat it as the canary in the coal mine. Or the rather large flock of dying canaries.

There is no room for denialism, or minimisation, here

I’m not going to waste much space making a case that climate change is real. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that anthropogenic climate change, primarily through increased carbon release, is heating the atmosphere and oceans. The effects of this are now becoming obvious even to the casual observer, with increases in the severity of weather events causing droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures.

Carbon levels in the atmosphere are going up by 2-3 parts per million each year and are currently at about 415ppm, compared with the pre-industrial level of 280. When they were last at this level, some millions of years ago, temperatures were significantly higher, and sea-levels were 20-30 metres above what they are now. But it takes many decades for the full effects of increased carbon levels to be felt – that’s why we’re not currently swimming for our lives.

The Planetary Boundaries framework developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute[2] sets a “red-zone” boundary of 450ppm after which all bets will be off, and climate conditions and weather events will become so extreme and unpredictable as to probably make much of the Earth uninhabitable in the medium term. On our current trajectory, we will pass this boundary in 15-30 years (although it will some decades longer before all the extreme effects are felt).

Unfortunately, the science of all this tends to lag behind actual events, and things are likely to happen faster than science predicts. Each of the IPCC’s five yearly reports has been more pessimistic than the last, and their most recent reports are about as shrill as good scientists can get, for example: “We have till 2030 to cut our carbon emissions by 45% if we are to have any chance of keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees”[3].

Moreover, interconnections between changes may lead to tipping events (such as rapid deterioration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice-sheets, or increased methane release in Siberia, or collapse of large chunks of the Amazon rainforest into savannah) which disrupt the linear projections currently be made.

So we as a species are likely to continue to be surprised by the increasing speed of change, and “caught short” in any preparation we do.

New Zealand as a lifeboat

New Zealand’s position (isolated in the middle of the Southern Ocean), geology (a volcanic spine on top of intersecting Continental plates), and political and social stability (few recent wars or major uprisings), give it certain advantages relative to many other places in the world as we face our climate crisis.

The ocean has a moderating effect on temperatures, severity of weather events, and unsolicited arrivals; we have enough moderately fertile soil to feed ourselves and then some; the high proportion of uplands means that retreat from the rising oceans is feasible; and as long as we don’t succumb to the extreme sorts of political behaviour currently infecting parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we might be able to manage all of this in a more or less orderly manner.

These are the reasons why an increasing number of wealthy people are starting to bunker down here, paying more or less attention to how they integrate themselves into New Zealand depending on their natures. Apparently Alaska and New Zealand are highly favoured locations for “weathering the storm” (or at least surviving the early parts of it).

We are a lifeboat. But, to extend the metaphor, let us not pretend that the seas we are in will be calm.

The impacts of climate change are pretty much locked in for the next decade

World-wide (and New Zealand) average temperatures are currently just over 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, and will continue to rise towards about 1.5 degrees over the next few decades. This “average” conceals wide regional variations in averages – for example, the Arctic has been averaging as much as 6 degrees above – and, more obviously, extremes – for example, the recent record highs in Australia and New Zealand (and pretty much everywhere else). Increasing temperatures in the oceans will combine with this to add more moisture – and more energy – to the atmosphere, increasing the number and severity of extreme weather events.

There are also regional influences which dampen or accentuate the general trends, in particular the El Nino-Southern Oscillation in the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean Dipole, either separately or reinforcing each other.

In New Zealand, average and extreme temperatures will continue to rise more or less in line with the world-wide trends – with the extremes rising more quickly than the averages, and becoming more frequent, and drought/flooding conditions becoming more severe.

Overall, the North and the East Coast will get hotter and drier (but still subject to torrential downpours), while the South and the West will heat more slowly, and get wetter in general[4]. The biggest impacts in the next decade will be from extreme weather events. Bigger droughts, storms, floods, fires and, close to my home, bigger wind runs. Wellington has over the last few years been experiencing relatively benign wind conditions, but this spring and summer the higher winds have begun to return – and we probably ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to severe gales in the Cook Strait area during the next decade.

This will all put increasing strain on local communities and physical infrastructure. Some will be more or less unaffected and some will be moderately or severely damaged. Water supply will become a major issue in many communities; emergency and support services will come under more severe pressure, with less time to recover and re-plan between events; insurance will become harder or impossible to obtain for low lying areas and fruit and vegetable production; the calls for local financial relief will have an increasing effect on government budgets and spending; and some coastal communities will have to start looking at relocation (from greater storm surges rather than average sea-level rise).

How we as a national community respond to all this is one key to our future. In many cases, local communities will be unable to recover without outside help. So how those who are less affected respond, as the calls for help increase in number and severity, will be very important. They will HAVE to share some of their own time, wealth and support if we are to maintain New Zealand-wide social stability, which will become increasingly important as the century wears on.

And, even in the next decade, this may all be thrown into more turmoil if the state and civil society fail to adequately respond to increasing numbers of refugees caused by the greater deterioration of conditions elsewhere. More housing, more services, more investment in infrastructure will all be necessary. But external impacts such as these are likely to be more severe over the middle decades of the century rather than in the 2020s.

Our politics[5], current and future, determines impacts beyond the next decade

What happens beyond 2030 is a function of political decisions and actions we in New Zealand, and in the rest of the world, make over the next 10 to 30 years:

  • If political action continues as now, marginal changes will continue to be made within the capitalist perpetual growth model, and climate change will move into uncharted and extremely violent territory later in the century. We will be at about a 4-degree temperature increase no later than the early 2100s, a level which, when put to groups of scientists as a possibility, causes them to put their heads in their hands and despair. This is in line with Joanna Macy’s “business as usual” and “great unravelling” scenarios[6].
  • If enough of us manage to “bite the bullet” over the next few years, to look and act beyond capitalism, forming a renewed partnership with nature and building societies based on social justice and economic thrift, we have the capability to transform ourselves, and to mitigate, and eventually reverse, the more severe impacts of climate change. This is in line with Macy’s “great turning” scenario.
  • It seems most likely to me that we will end up somewhere between these two extremes, being forced by crises to take more radical actions than currently contemplated in mainstream politics, but never developing or acting out a coherent strategy based on real understanding and acceptance of the causes of, and effective responses to, the overall crisis. This is the “muddling through” scenario (my name for it), and its eventual outcomes are wildly uncertain compared to the other two scenarios.

The rest of this essay briefly explores the possible impacts on New Zealand of each of these three scenarios over the next generation (to 2050) and century (to 2120).

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “business as usual” scenario

In the next generation (to the year 2050), we will see the extremes of the 2020s as described above continue to accelerate. In addition, crop failures will increase, and food security will reduce. As immigration increases, mostly driven by the impacts of the climate crisis elsewhere, there is considerable risk that populists will scapegoat the newcomers for the crisis, and that the state will respond by repression of various groups rather than concentrating on provision of adequate infrastructure for a growing population.

Health related issues will really start to bite, with pests, viruses, and the risks of epidemics, much more frequent. There will still be parts of New Zealand only indirectly affected by most of this, but the overall economic effects and sense of crisis will mean they are no longer able to pretend that they can distance themselves from the issues.

By 2120, weather extremes will be apocalyptic, and a subsistence existence will be the best most of us can hope for. A connected society as we currently know it will have largely ceased to exist, and international travel will be done only by the foolhardiest of sailors. There will undoubtedly be survivor communities in various parts of New Zealand, probably mostly on the west coasts, but many of the trappings of affluent society will be gone. Sea level rise will have caused retreat from areas of some cities (notably Christchurch), but the bigger issues will be collapses of infrastructure and failure of emergency and support services, making severe social breakdown probable, but not certain (we may still manage to struggle to survive together, but that’s all we’ll be doing).

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “great turning” scenario

The next generation will be one of social turmoil, as we construct a useful common narrative to underpin the transformation. The current moves towards renewable energy, based on carbon-intensive manufacturing and electric vehicles, will be rapidly overtaken by low-energy realism, and a broadly local community-based “food, water and energy self-sufficiency” movement.

The air and oceans will continue to heat up for some time, and events will continue to get more extreme. But, as forest plantings increase, industrial dairying and large animal farming are abandoned, and other sensible techniques are used to begin drawing down atmospheric carbon, this trend will slow – and even potentially start reversing – by 2050.

This will be a hard period, both economically and socially. Costs will be high, both to mitigate the ongoing effects of global warming and also to bring the low carbon technologies that will form the basis of our more sustainable future up to scale. And the pressures from multiple sources will make negotiation and non-violent conflict resolution critical skill sets for many of us.

On the more positive side, a social narrative and economic system based on recognising the best of our impulses and behaviours, and not the worst, will steadily gain supporters. The efforts at community-rebuilding that are currently run as fringe activities by many groups will become more mainstream, as the cult of individual celebrity and personal consumption is replaced by one of mutual recognition and respect. In particular, tangata tiriti and tangata whenua will learn from and support each other in honouring the Treaty of Waitangi, and in protecting the land and water. We will also honour obligations to our Pacific neighbours, whether by investing in prevention and mitigation to ensure they are not forced to leave their homes, or by recognising theirright to sanctuary.

By 2120, the new narrative and lifestyles will be much stronger. Regional communities will be larger and more respected, as people-intensive multi-cropping agriculture has become the norm. Global warming and climate impacts will have been reversed, although how far this will go back toward or beyond where it is today is uncertain. International trade and travel will be largely confined to essentials. In New Zealand and other affluent countries, the material wealth of the rich will be substantially reduced, but there will be material improvements for the poor. Life will be slower, but emotionally and socially richer.

The climate-related impacts on New Zealand of the “muddling through” scenario

Place your bets everyone. There are potentially some very bad, and some quite good, impacts in this scenario. The climate will continue to deteriorate, but at a slower rate than in the “business as usual” scenario. Life will get harsher, and international trade and travel will drop considerably. But in terms of social impacts, there will be one of two broad trends, one towards authoritarianism, the other one towards democracy.

Over the next generation, the “constant crisis” mode of reacting to major events will be accentuated. This could lead towards either greater centralisation of power or greater decentralisation, as progress is made towards local resilience. There will be winners and losers from the piecemeal approach to climate solutions – this applies both to people and to places. Some places will become ghost towns, others will thrive. And none of this will be very predictable, as the complexities of the mix of status quo and radical changes will make their impacts very uncertain.

By 2120, the climate situation may have stabilised, at a hotter, wetter/drier, normal, or may still be on the path to complete collapse, albeit at a slower pace than in the “business as usual” scenario.

In social terms, any type of political system, from fascism through feudalism to democratic socialism, is possible. In economic terms, we can presume that the use of sequestered carbon (ie oil and coal) will be largely confined to high yield, long term products, but there will almost certainly still be high-end, luxury travel and transport available for privileged people and goods. And the gaps between rich and poor might be worse or better than now – if we go down the fascist route (probably via populism while still democratic in name at least), they will be worse; if a more democratic route, better.

Conclusion

If you wish to independently find out more about the potential impacts of climate change on New Zealand, the Ministry for the Environment has published national and regional climate change projections out to 2090, including some material on impacts. These are based on the IPCC’s models and projections, and so are quite conservative. Parts of this essay have used some of the Ministry’s projections, which are referenced in Endnote iv.


[1] See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2] See https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Report_on_Global_Warming_of_1.5_%C2%B0C

[4] See https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/climate-change/climate-change-projections-new-zealand

[5] Here I define politics as Colin Hay’s wide and perceptive a community’s use of its “capacity for agency and deliberation in situations of genuine collective or social choice”. Thanks to Ani White for pointing me to this.

[6] See for example https://www.activehope.info/three-stories.html, referring into “Active Hope: How To Face The Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy”, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, 2012

Patriarchy on the Radical Left, Part 2: a way out

Just after International Women’s day we are pleased to bring you part two of Kyra’s essay on patriarchy on the radical left. These discussions are important so please consider sharing. CONTENT WARNING: this article discusses topics that can often be difficult including sexual and relationship abuse, suicide, and addiction.

KYRA GILLIES has been involved in the radical left in her city and country for five years. She is a woman/genderfluid survivor of multiple intimate partner rapes from men. The most recent being from a man who is a member of the International Socialist Organisation. Passionate about our planetary health the author has been involved in Students for Environmental Action, supported School Strike for Climate and is currently involved with Environmental Justice Ōtepoti. They have been involved in anti-violence and alternative approaches to prisons as a founding member of Students Against Sexual Violence and a former member of People Against Prisons Aotearoa. They have volunteered for LGBT youth organisation InsideOUT and supported Dunedin Pride Month as an MC and poet for the Pride Poetry Night. They have been involved with the International Socialist Organisation Dunedin branch for more than 2 years, attending meetings, study groups and giving a public talk on anti-capitalist feminism, though never joined the organisation formally due to concerns about a culture of (white) male dominance and sexism. They are currently part of the Tauiwi mō Matike Mai Aotearoa kaupapa.

Fightback is pleased to publish Kyra’s thoughts on this subject, which are very close (though perhaps not identical) to our own on the problem of macho or patriarchal behaviours on the activist Left. This is the second in a two-part series of articles from Kyra; the first was published on the Fightback website last Monday.

a way out

the male dominated left, feminist antifascism and the need for men to front up

As feminists, we must view the nonfeminist Left as a reform movement. We must marvel at its moral bankruptcy, at the poverty of its revolutionary consciousness.

Andrea Dworkin1 1977

[Sexual/ gender violence] is not a secondary or tertiary question. It is the main issue facing the global Left.

Radical Women2 2019

Radical movements cannot afford the destruction that gender violence creates… [and] dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.

Courtney Desiree Morris3 2010

Radical softness as a weapon means that to present your emotional self is a political act, one which works against Western presentations of toughness. Vulnerability is a sign of strength. Sharing difficult experiences creates healing spaces and allows for others to feel less alone. 

Lora Mathis4 2015

a . b . c . a boys club

Let me be clear.

I do not want this to end in a suicide.

I do not want this to result in bullying or shaming.

I do not want the focus to be on him, some past tense ‘us’ or me. This is so much bigger than this relationship, this group, this city or this country. If the focus is purely individual, that lets the system(s) off the hook. Then we don’t look at or challenge the organisations, the cultures, what’s taken for granted. Male dominance: often cisgender, heterosexual, able bodied, educated, almost always white. Male dominance and its conspirators are not just within an individual, it is a network, a collective effort. The old boys club, as they say. You can’t challenge one boy; you have to challenge the whole club.

This is the second time I have survived multiple sexual assaults from an intimate male partner. I am sick of surviving, I want to live. I am sick of men making messes and women doing the cleaning up. Men5 do the raping and then women, queers, nonbinary people do the supporting of their friends, their daughters while they cry and rage. Men do some clean up work for a change. We are exhausted. Maybe then if you do the clean up work you will understand more about sexual violence, partner rape. The impact. You will hear the stories about anal rape, getting raped when you’re sick, the mental and emotional control they assert. How they apologise afterwards, tell you it won’t happen again. The pressure to be sexy, fun and up for anything. To compete with other women, with his previous sexual partners. How isolated we become, even and especially in rooms filled with other people.

Not only do other people tell us to put our struggles second, but we learn to put ourselves as a lower priority. We tell ourselves to wait, that now’s not a good time, he’s usually such a good guy. Don’t rock the boat, so a good time never comes. We internalise it, we hear the excuses and then we start to make them ourselves. We tell ourselves don’t detract from his good work. Don’t cause a breakage or drama, as if their rape wasn’t the cause of breakage. I’m sick of making myself a lower priority and of women being a lower priority. I am done supporting a ‘revolution’ that does not support us. A ‘revolution’ that does not care about women is no revolution at all. You’re lost. Women as a bottom priority is simply the patriarchal status quo, and the thousands of years of male supremacy which preceded this moment. Boring.

walking into a wreckage

I know I’m not the only one. I am writing this as a flare in the dark, to signal to other women. We are isolated, but not alone in our experience. Many women have experienced abuse from male partners, ‘comrades’, ‘friends’ in the radical left.

This is not about me. Always, I wanted to struggle to create space for other women, for it to be safer and better for them, for those young women and queers who come along after me. I wanted it to move along. That’s the thing about patriarchy, it evolves, yet is so stagnant, too. I know if women and queer’s engagement is up, the whole group, the whole world is richer for it. We have more insights, more ability to make change. Don’t get it twisted. I want our movement to flourish.

I came in to the radical left at 18 or 19. I came in hearing about this man who beat this woman, this man who threw this woman down the stairs, this man who raped this woman. I came in hearing about how poorly these rapes and beatings were handled. Hearing about how socially destructive it was, as well as to the woman herself of course. I came hearing about the years of ongoing fall out, the splits, fractures in groups, social circles. Yeah, sometimes the man was kicked out of the organisation he was part of, but did the culture in which it occurred change? Was there ever any reflection, repair? Did the man ever understand what and why he did wrong? Did he learn how to do differently? Did the trauma ever heal? or did it just linger, unspoken, unacknowledged.

I came in to almost exclusively men in meetings. Like walking into a wreckage. Knowing damage was down but not being there to have seen it. An aftermath which hung in the air. I would look around and never find many women. I walked into the direct consequence of men’s violence. Women’s political engagement is heavily impacted by men’s violence. You only need to look around and see who is there and who isn’t. How women left groups and cities and countries and never came back. I heard the whispers from women about how it’s hostile, it’s not safe. A full spectrum ranging from talking over you and talking down to you to rape and beating. I felt, I saw the absence of other women. That is what I mean when I say this is not about me. It is about the women before me, the women and queers after me. All of us. How the gender based violence is a filter, a border guard maintaining a near exclusively male* space.

Fuck you I don’t want to drop out. Fuck you I don’t want to leave a movement I care about. I want it to be better.

an heirloom, transmitted & maintained

The context in which I experienced control, verbal abuse and sexual abuse from an intimate male partner who was a member of a socialist organisation, was not isolated or out of nowhere. I had been vocal in challenging the male dominance in the organisations meetings. I had spoken repeatedly to members of the organisation. I tried to raise women’s and indigenous issues in meetings where only workers in some vague abstract sense were being talked about as some genderless, raceless human, who by default ends up being a white man. I was often shot down for these attempts and not supported by anyone. This happened in a context in which there were not many other women around, because it was an inhospitable environment. The other women/genderqueer people who spoke up got shot down too, or were too scared and unconfident to speak up due to what they’d seen happen to others. Male dominance has a disciplining function, it chills and silences. I found out later also that the man who mentored the man who abused me, mentored another man who also abused their partner. That’s not individual, that’s a pattern. That’s a power structure. Focusing on ‘individual perpetrators’ is a nonsense. It will never be enough. How is patriarchy/ male dominance taught? How is it handed down? Transmitted? Normalised like the air we breath, who talks about air? It’s just air, this is just life. How is patriarchy inherited? reproduced? we must disrupt patriarchy when and where it is reproduced.

No more ‘he’s a great man’ ‘he has all this experience; he does/has done so much’. Even men with much experience have much to learn. Perhaps we should be asking why, if they’ve been involved in the struggle for so long, they’ve never interrogated the patriarchy in themselves. No more protecting egos. No more ‘loyalty’ and ‘respect’ as a code for maintaining patriarchy. Leaving patriarchy intact, unchallenged and leaving the women in it’s wake. How much are you expecting us to bare? to hold in our bodies silently as we become sick and tired. And you wonder why there are few women at meetings, like you’re not the cause.

Even when women are silent publicly, we whisper, we know. There may not be many formal complaints or comments to your men’s organisation, but boy oh boy is there a reputation. Deftly circulated whispers about what its like in your meetings, to be in relationships with you, why we won’t go back and why we wouldn’t recommend it.

welcoming sharing learning

Let me be clear:

…sexual abuse, rape, verbal abuse, control, talking over women and queers, telling us we’re overreacting. This is all part of a spectrum of patriarchal behaviour. Each behaviour is not the same but they all contribute to trying to control and keep down women and queers, they sustain male dominance.

Beyond that, male dominated organisations lack welcomingness, lack hospitality, lack care, warmth. This is patriarchal macho bullshit and it is a deeply colonised way of being. Where is the loving greetings and smiles? The acknowledgement of people, land, those who have passed, the gifts of the earth? Do you ask people how they are? Where they’re from? Check in on them, get to know them. Be curious, empathetic. Don’t just act like they are objects for you to insert information into. Like they’re just people/ workers/ potential recruits who you need to teach something. You have something to learn from everyone, their lives, experiences. They have insights too, they could teach you. They’re not a hopeless human being and useless political subject until they’ve read Das Kapital or State and Revolution. It could be an exchange instead of an imposition.

Make people cups of tea. Don’t just leave it to the women. Have feminist books and Māori books, māna wāhine books, books on disability justice, art, earth, animals, parenting, education. There are so many ways to approach liberation, it can be joyful and life affirming. It doesn’t have to be so dry and harsh and cold.

Your posters don’t always have to be red and black and shouting!!!

Where are the flowers? the river? the love?

Even men such as Che, who so many macho leftists admire, said that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love for the people. Where is your love? show it. Live love in your actions.

True love is revolutionary, is anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and there can be no love under patriarchy, only delusion.

Communism is about sharing. Share your food and tea, welcome people, care for them. Share your time, listen and share stories. Connect. Capitalism is a brutal system of compartmentalisation. It is radical to connect. To resist isolation. To truly cultivate relationships of depth and intimacy. So we have a strong base of love, care and friendship from which to wage our struggle against the system, for love of life.

counter the death cult with care

Patriarchy is a death cult. War, violence, rape, addiction, self annihilation, neglect and destruction, unaddressed trauma cycling through to violence and more trauma. Colonial capitalist patriarchy will have men kill each other, kill women, children, kill animals, the earth, oceans and of course have men kill themselves. A death cult can only be countered with that which affirms life. Counter necropolitics with caring for each other and ourselves. Nurturing, loving.

Patriarchy is fuelled and sustained by generations and generations of violence and trauma stacking, compacting and cycling on and on and on. Being passed down, continuing. Transmitting the worst of our family histories forward: the alcoholism, the beating, the rape, the yelling, the betrayal, the heartbreak. We must be the generation(s) that stop it. That heal. That insist on ending violence against women, children, queers, men, earth. That fight to address addiction. Part of the struggle is for housing and food and clean water, enough to live, yes. Within that process is the struggle to treat each other well. To not inflict harm in spite of our stress, fear, crisis and pain. To be patient, to be gentle, to communicate. To take time out. To be honest with each other when we are frustrated, to acknowledge when we are struggling. To be aware of our emotions and how that could affect how we engage with each other. To ask for help when we need it. To support each other, mutual aid, to live and struggle in interdependence.

support systems, softness

I read once that when it comes to suicide, women’s ‘weakness’ is their greatest strength and men’s ‘strength’ is their greatest weakness. What does this mean? Women attempt suicide at higher rates than men, but die less. Men attempt less but die more by suicide. That’s the gender paradox. What keeps women alive partly it is believed, is that women have greater social support with friends, family and also reaching out for formal support. Women are more likely to have grown more friendships often with greater intimacy and depth. Men are at risk because they do not create such support systems for themselves and each other. Women talk about their feelings and ask for help more and this is seen as ‘weak’ yet it is a protective factor. Men are seen as tough/ strong for suppressing their feelings, bottling it up, manning up, being a tough guy, yet this is part of what puts them at risk. Whilst also functioning to outsource the labour of emotional support for men onto women.

In many ways, for men it is not toughening up but softening up that is needed. What is called radical softness, could be truly revolutionary. Softening up, being caring could be part of suicide and violence prevention as well as part of addressing trauma and addictions.

struggle within

If you have a conception of freedom that includes the existence of rape, you are wrong. You cannot change what you say you want to change. 

Andrea Dworkin6

We can struggle together better, more sustainably and continuously when there is trust, respect, when we are safe to be around each other. This is fundamental. We need to be able to work together, to struggle effectively to overthrow this capitalist, colonial patriarchal clusterfuck of a system. To work together at our best there needs to be no abuse (this is an aspiration to work towards here and now, there’s no perfection but we must try). The struggle is against the system(s). The systems are inside and outside of us. The struggle is to work together against the system(s). To address trauma and addiction, to prevent violence and abuse so as to be able to work together to struggle against the system. There are struggles within struggles; ultimately it is one struggle.

Let me be clear:

I am not doing this for revenge, to take someone down. It would be disingenuous to interpret my actions as such.

Saying it’s just personal, is patriarchal nonsense. Saying it’s a private matter, it’s revenge, she’s overreacting, she’s vindictive, she’s crazy, is sexist nonsense. This is personal, yes, thanks for noticing. It’s also very fucking political, it’s historical, it’s systemic.

I am doing this because while male dominance, abuse and women’s silence reigns, a movement for liberation remains quagmired in mud.

Stuck. Not moving.

Not much of a movement at all. I am doing this for growth, because I want us to get somewhere. Fuck, look past this as a personal attack, as being about your image or reputation and realise that gender based violence is you sabotaging the revolution you claim to care so much about. Show us you’re more than just lost boys using politics as an escape. I am inviting you to try to be a revolutionary not merely a hypocrite. I’m not saying I’m perfect, none of us are. Imperfection is no excuse for not trying and striving. This is a struggle isn’t it? Struggle with me, struggle together. We were never made to struggle alone.

Within every struggle, we have a gender/sexual violence struggle to contend with as well.

Housing. Women fear and experience violence in their home from man partners, friends, family members and flat mates. Women fleeing violence often become homeless or are unable to flee because of financial dependence, poverty. There is a feminisation of poverty, which is to say wealth is masculinised.

The climate crisis. Women especially the indigenous, experience rape, harassment and murder for struggling to protect the earth. The water. Women earth protectors often must struggle against capital and their own men.

The Workplace. Women experience harassment sometimes rape. Lower pay especially for pacific and Māori women.

Leftist meetings, conferences. Women are often spoken over, spoken down to, disrespected, demeaned, often harassed, sometimes raped or beaten.

Protests, blockades with police. Women and gender minorities often experience sexual and gender based violence from the cops, touching their breasts, invasive searches.

We have all the problems you men have as working people under capitalism and more.

collective healing

we must support women and queer people in our movements who have experienced interpersonal violence and engage in a collective process of healing.

Courtney Desiree Morris7

Sexual violence is a wound. It takes time to heal and recover. It’s a wound no one can see and it’s a lot of energy to tell people about it. Being wounded takes you out of the struggle as you struggle to cope. It can make you struggle to eat, to sleep, to go out in public. Make you self isolate, self harm and neglect, feel suicidal and depressed. Experiencing sexual violence has made it hard for me to stay working to address the climate crisis, to work in solidarity for Māori sovereignty. Experiencing intimate partner rape takes my energy and focus away from things because I’m trying to sleep and eat. Trying to cope with crying all the time and flashbacks and this all consuming rage at the unfairness of it.

I wish I could just focus on the climate crisis, Māori sovereignty, welfare, housing, the union movement. But I can’t ignore what is so disabling.

So often we hear about the important work men have done as a plea to not challenge him on his behaviour. What about women’s contributions? We contribute so much. Other people fucking with our ability to participate in the struggle should be of concern. What about the women taken out of the struggle, lost to rape and domestic violence? Why is it being looked at as if it is men who are the only ones contributing? Or the only ones whose contributions matter. Count us.

I refuse to bare this pain alone, in private. To bare it in private, would be an injustice on top of what is already unjust. I loved someone, they abused me. It’s the emotional pain that’s the worst. The sense that safety is unattainable. That trusting other people is just something you do which endangers yourself. I refuse to give up on trusting other people, what else do we have available to us but each other? It’s not just pain from one individual, it’s pain of feeling profoundly let down by a whole community. Feeling like not enough is being done or was done to prevent and address gender violence. Like the silence is screaming at me. This experience has made me feel so alone, so unsupported. So let down.

Can’t we collectivise pain? Collectivise healing, too? Isn’t change meant to be a collective project?

Leaving people alone is a betrayal.

As a woman in radical circles, I feel trapped. We’re not allowed to call the cops because we’re meant to oppose them. It’s not like I want to, or that I think the cops would help. But just because we’re prison abolitionists doesn’t mean we don’t want justice, nor does it mean you can abuse us with impunity. Just because I don’t want to go the cops doesn’t mean I don’t want this to be addressed, for you to be accountable. As if the cops would address it anyway, if you don’t address this you’re no better than them.

rape, race & resources

It tends to be women and queers who are indigenous and/or of colour who bare the brunt of sexual violence. Yet, it is white women’s ‘victimhood’ that is cared about, responded to, more than others, if at all. White women might not get listened to much, but if anyone is more likely to be listened to at all it’s us.

Men of all races are sexually violent, abusive. That’s patriarchy, it has cultural specificity but also is cross cultural. Yet it is often the white / wealthy / cis-het / men who most often evade accountability. Their position of power insulates. Often people are unable or never dare to fight the well off white men, with their social status, their connections, their money, the esteem they are held in. It’s easier to speak of the less powerful men and their violence. The institutions of media, criminal justice, are willing to convict and punish men of colour, to print their images in newspaper, to parade it across the TV screen. Fear the black and brown rapist, they say. Feeding into shaping the view that it is non-white men who are the violent ones. That it’s the poor and brown men who are violent, ‘uncivilised’, ‘backwards’ and ‘uncouth’. Men of colour are not unique in their violence. They are just more likely to be reached in their position of relative less power, in this nexus system of race, gender, class+.

I do not want men of colour to be the only ones challenged on gender based violence. But I do not want men of colour to go unchallenged either. White men, men who sit on higher positions of the ladder must be challenged especially.

We can’t pursue the issue of sexual and gender based violence without being critical of racial power dynamics, failing to do so would be destructive. Any anti-sexual violence struggle worth it’s salt must be anti-racist. It’s a false dichotomy to act like we must choose between caring about white women or men of colour. White women or white men. That is a bind. Women of colour, indigenous women matter. No men and their violence should be let off the hook.

If this is what a white able bodied women (/genderfluid person) goes through, then I know it’s likely to be much worse for disabled / trans / migrant / women / of colour / poor / sex workers / single mothers.

There is energy required to ‘speak out’ to talk, to write. It requires time. It requires a certain amount of financial, mental, emotional stability to be able to focus on gender based violence and challenge it. Rather than just focusing on surviving. I have a secure enough income, job and living situation. I have some supportive friends and family. I can usually afford to go to the doctor. I’ve been able to access free counselling. When I’m exhausted and struggling I have the money to buy easy food: soup and smoothies or order in pizza. If I feel like shit and am in crisis I can go drive my car to the beach or a friend’s place. I have a certain amount of money, resources and connections. I don’t want to use what I have available to me merely for my own comfort or advancement. I have been sick, sore and struggling, in emotional turmoil. I’ve had months and months of going round and round and up and down. A cycle of coping and crashing, but with what I have available to me and my own efforts, I’ve been able to get to a point where I can take the time and energy to write about this. Like most people in this world I occupy a position of oppressed and oppressor, for all my faults and flaws, I am committed to fighting that simultaneously, for women and queer liberation AND against white supremacy, the able bodied, class dominated society.

feminism = the opposite of fascism

sexism and misogyny are [central] to the far-right’s political agenda… fascism and the patriarchy are two heads of the same snake

Hope Worsdale8

Recently in my city there have been some effort to do antifascist organising particularly in the wake of a white supremacist terrorist attack. Even though most white supremacist and fascist attacks and organising is by white men, there is virtually no discussion or acknowledgement of this fact. Women’s political engagement has been low in this area and it has stayed man, mostly white man, dominated. Even an attempt at doing a karakia to close a meeting was dismissed as silly and ‘cultural’ rather than ‘political’. Tell me, man, what kind of space are you trying to create?

A key part of fascism is the male dominated family, household. A return and longing for the strong man. Seeking to push women/keep women in their place, in the home, as housewives, mothers. They seek white women to support the ‘great’ white men, to fuck him, birth his children, raise them, cook and clean, nothing else. White women are revered in the fascist perspective, we are revered in a subordinate role. To serve to enable the white man. We white women will survive if we serve, cook, fuck, clean. Others women of colour, queers, the disabled, fat people do not have that option. They are seen as ‘degenerate’, ‘inferiors’ to be gotten rid of, purged/ cleansed, whatever hideous language they may choose or mask in codes. Fascism is hetero-patriarchal. It is patriarchal white supremacist to the extreme. Fascism cannot be countered by a white man dominated left. You pour water not gasoline on a fire. You cannot counter something with something, that is from the same root. Challenging fascism and white supremacy necessarily requires challenging white / man dominance in all it’s forms, including in the white / men of the left.

These men are worried about this outside threat of white supremacy and fascism. But they are not concerned about their own domination which they sit atop of. If they really were to effectively challenge fascism and white supremacy, they would be challenging its root. They would be challenging a key pillar. Not just out there, but in themselves also. This is not an either or. Personal change or political change. We struggle simultaneously on both or multiple fronts, it’s time white / men did too. Women, queers, particularly women of colour’s, political leadership and participation will only strengthen antifascism. Improve it, refine it, hone it. Make it the powerful life affirming force that it needs to be.

a dare: don’t run

I haven’t seen a single man reckon with what he’s done.

Eve Ensler9

I dare you to face up to what you’ve done.

I dare you to face up to your complicity, your actions and your failure to act.

I dare you to acknowledge the harm you’ve done, the other men’s bullshit you’ve supported, enabled, looked the other way for, made excuses.

I dare you to challenge yourself to really investigate why and how you did what you did. Where it came from? How you’ll stop it.

I dare you to address your trauma, your addiction, your anger and all your other feelings you’re so uncomfortable with.

I fucking dare you to confront other men. You’re scared of him? Me too. How do you think we feel? But still we try to confront you anyway, what other choice do we have?

I dare you to support other men. To expect better of them, to hold yourselves to a higher standard.

Don’t you see, us women, us queers, us vengeful feminist bitches, we’re the ones who believe in you the most. We believe in your humanity, your capacity for growth, transformation, healing.

You’re not doomed to always be rapists, perpetrators, oppressors.

We insist on it, we require it.

We dare you to live up to our hopes for you.

We dare you10 to front up to it, don’t run away, dodge or hide. FRONT UP.

All this guilt and fear you have, of us ‘coming after you’ trying to ‘take you down’ that it’s a ‘witch hunt’. You’re delusional, you’re projecting. If this was a witch hunt you’d be burning at the stake, smelling your own flesh, right now, but you’re not are you? That’s because we have far more restraint than you have. We are merciful.

You can be free of your guilt, your fear. You don’t have to live always glancing over your shoulder, paranoid, like eventually you know you’ll get what’s coming. You can be free of your paranoia, if only you FRONT UP.

I will make you a promise now, far more than you deserve. Despite all the offers I’ve received, I will not send someone round to your house to beat the ever living shit out of you. I will not have your house egged or bricked. I will not beat you up myself. I will not tell you to kill yourself. As angry as I am, I do not want that. I have felt violence in this world. I have no desire for violence to cycle on. I want peace!

Stop being so fucking narrow minded about this all; imagine something other than violence. Why is it so hard to understand that

we actually want you to change your behaviour.

I am giving you a way out. You don’t have to move countries to some new scene where no one knows what you did, you don’t have to kill yourself. I don’t want to push anyone into a corner from which there is no coming back, there is no redemption, there is only death.

You may think there is no coming back from what you’ve done. We’re telling you you’re wrong. Redemption is possible, if only you work to have redeeming behaviour.

We are giving you a way out. If only you would take it.

Try being different to your father, your grandfather.

Thank us for the olive branch, you silly, silly men and take it.

We dare you to break the cycle. That would be fucking revolutionary!

Am I vindictive now? I am insisting on your life.

Perhaps more than I have seen you do so for yourself. Grasp life, live it. None of this living dead self annihilation bullshit. I told you patriarchy was a death cult. You’re the king of a prison. Get out. The top of a pyramid in a cage. Step down.

I won’t kill you, or beat you. But I will speak about what you did to me. And I will demand it be addressed. Don’t you fucking run away from me, from us, from this. Despite all your urges to hide, to bury yourself in drugs, escapism and self destruction. I want you to keep your feet firmly rooted in the ground,

Stay right where you are.

Listen,

Look

You fucked up, now

FRONT UP


1 Andrea Dworkin, Marx and Ghandi were liberals: feminism and the “radical” left archive.org/stream/Dworkin_Marx-Ghandi/Marx%20and%20Ghandi%20Were%20Liberals_djvu.txt

2 Radical Women, The meltdown of International Socialist Organization: How anti-feminism, racism and bureaucracy led to its demise radicalwomen.org/ISO%20demise.shtml?fbclid=IwAR2BmdVeG132deOercwl5YNVTQ1EX4XaA21jkqzhPgtoqJlyRfIYQOR94

3 Why misogynists make great informants: how gender violence on the left enables state violence in radical movements incite-national.org/2010/07/15/why-misogynists-make-great-informants-how-gender-violence-on-the-left-enables-state-violence-in-radical-movements/

4 Radical Softness as a Weapon loramathis.com/kipp-harbor-times

5 Yes, men are victims too, yes women and non-men rape sometimes too. However, it’s mostly men to mostly women and femmes. Don’t derail.

6 Andrea Dworkin, I want a 24 truce during which there is no rape nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html

7 Why misogynists make great informants: how gender violence on the left enables state violence in radical movements incite-national.org/2010/07/15/why-misogynists-make-great-informants-how-gender-violence-on-the-left-enables-state-violence-in-radical-movements/

8 Antifascism is a feminist issue. redpepper.org.uk/anti-fascism-is-feminist-issue/ 2018

9 Eliana Dockterman, I Visited Eve Ensler to Talk About Her Sexual Abuse. I got a Therapy Session Instead. time.com/5581726/eve-ensler-the-apology-book-review/ 2019

10 Inspired by Barucha Peller’s Patriarchy in Radical Movements, and a Call to Men (unpublished)

If you found this article difficult and/or are struggling with similar issues, please consider talking with your whānau, friends and/or contacting: Lifeline, Depression Helpline, Women’s Refuge, Shine Helpline, HELP Support for Sexual Abuse Survivors, OCASA (formerly Rape Crisis), Safe to Talk Sexual Harm phone line, and/or the Alcohol/Drug Helpline.

Patriarchy on the Radical Left, part 1: struggling to be on the same side

CONTENT WARNING: this article discusses topics that can often be difficult including sexual and relationship abuse, suicide, and addiction.

KYRA GILLIES has been involved in the radical left in her city and country for five years. She is a woman/genderfluid survivor of multiple intimate partner rapes from men. The most recent being from a man who is a member of the International Socialist Organisation. Passionate about our planetary health the author has been involved in Students for Environmental Action, supported School Strike for Climate and is currently involved with Environmental Justice Ōtepoti. They have been involved in anti-violence and alternative approaches to prisons as a founding member of Students Against Sexual Violence and a former member of People Against Prisons Aotearoa. They have volunteered for LGBT youth organisation InsideOUT and supported Dunedin Pride Month as an MC and poet for the Pride Poetry Night. They have been involved with the International Socialist Organisation Dunedin branch for more than 2 years, attending meetings, study groups and giving a public talk on anti-capitalist feminism, though never joined the organisation formally due to concerns about a culture of (white) male dominance and sexism. They are currently part of the Tauiwi mō Matike Mai Aotearoa kaupapa.

Fightback is pleased to published Kyra’s thoughts on this subject, which are very close (though perhaps identical) to our own on the problem of macho or patriarchal behaviours on the activist Left. This is the first in a two-part series of articles from Kyra; the second will be published on the Fightback website next Monday.

Men who think they don’t have anything else to learn [are] very dangerous men.

Jennai Bundock1 2015

We believe in the need for a transformation of men…that means a male revolutionary or socialist has the responsibility to liberate themselves from patriarchy… [to] study and analyse how patriarchy is reproduced in their personality and try to overcome it.

Kurdish Women’s Movement2 2018

We dare you to own up to the damage you have caused, and then to actually change. We dare you to call other men out and to figure out how to prevent patriarchal behaviors and dynamics. We dare you to participate in feminist class struggle.

Barucha Peller3 2013

We believe in your humanity, against all the evidence4

Andrea Dworkin 1983

Being comrades means being on the same side5. With so much sexual abuse perpetrated by men on left, we are not yet on the same side.

good looks good person

I can’t tell you how much I blame Disney. The Disney films I ingested in my childhood made me equate good looks with being a good person. They directed me to seek out conventionally attractive men for relationships. I’m trying to figure out how to pay attention to other traits.

I dated this guy who was good looking, like Prince Eric from the Little Mermaid, Aladdin kind of good looking. Nice dark hair, nice skin. Like many leftist men, he had that kind of Che Guevara military style. I thought he was cute. He was in a socialist organisation, involved in a local union. He smiled and laughed a lot. He was funny. I liked that he cared about workers, the cause, y’know. I asked him out. We went on a couple dates, it was nice. He complimented me a lot. Said that he thought I was beautiful.

After a while I realised that all the compliments were on my looks, my body. (Maybe Disney had got to him too). You’re beautiful, you’re sexy. Then more specific. I like the way your stomach looks. You have a nice ass.

Eventually I started to feel uncomfortable. Do you like anything else about me? Like other qualities: my intelligence or passion, qualities that aren’t looks. Looks aren’t an achievement, it’s just a lottery of birth. It doesn’t mean anything. ‘But you are beautiful,’ he’d say. I know but I don’t care.

flat stomach

You have to understand I’ve spent more than half my life being terrified of being anything other than skinny. I’ve cycled through binge eating and skipping meals. I’ve been threatened that one day my metabolism will catch up on me and I should ‘be careful’ I don’t get fat. I meet the conventional standards of beauty when it comes to size, sure, but my god it hasn’t been enjoyable, or healthy. I don’t want to be congratulated for it. I’ve visited friends in hospital who have nearly died from anorexia. Answered their phone calls while they’re delirious, starved. A flat stomach is not comforting; neither is you affirming it.

We’d have political discussions often, he’d tell me that he thought that women’s oppression is purely reducible to economics. As if women’s oppression is ‘out there’ somewhere. Not right here, right now, between us two in bed while I’m in my underwear being looked at like all that matters is that my stomach is flat. So sexy.

you find out gradually

I started going out with him. As the months went on I discovered progressively how much of an addiction problem he had. Mostly weed and alcohol. He was always on something: coffee, his phone, video games. Apart from me and the guys at the almost exclusively men’s socialist group, he didn’t really have any friends or support people in his life.

I found out he’d been suicidal, was depressed, had anxiety. He didn’t really give a shit about himself, had no sense of trying to take care of himself. It was like he was trying to kill himself, but slowly. If I was going be going out with him then I was going to watch him do it. But, I believed in transformation, I thought he did too. He claimed to be a revolutionary, he wanted to change society, just not himself. Personal transformation is not always neoliberal bullshit. Jordan Peterson thinks people should tidy their room, focus on themselves, before trying to change the world. I think we can try and do both at the same time. We don’t have to choose between the individual and the collective, we need to integrate them both as a balanced whole. Trust a bisexual to answer both when given two options.

I believed in supporting people, not throwing people away. So I poured love and care into him. I’d try get him into eating nice meals with me, get him to go outside, get fresh air, go for a walk. After months and months, I started to get burnt out and frustrated. I was serving people at work. I would finish a shift and feel like I was serving him too. Burning the candle at both ends, I was exhausted. I’d spent my whole girlhood seeing my mother exist in service to other people, mostly her man partner and her children. I’d taken that in and was self-imposing it. I think he expected me to care for him too. Fuss over him, dote on him.

We started fighting quite a bit. I didn’t like that he wasn’t present when we were spending time with each other, always on his phone. A few months in he started to be late and forgetful. He was on time to start with, but he could only keep that up for so long. I think he was smoking weed every day, but I’m not sure.

He would get jealous when I’d go to see friends of mine who were men.

all the men in the family are alcoholics

I was around him a couple times when he got really drunk. I told him how that affected me. It brought up my child hood trauma, how my dads an alcoholic. How I’ve been sexually abused by drunk men. He said ‘yeah, yeah, you know I care about you, it’s fine’. He made promises he couldn’t keep, that I never asked him to make. ‘I won’t drink tonight. Oh, but what if I drink a little, do you mind? Is that okay? I know I said I wouldn’t, but everyone else is drinking’. I’m not your fucking mother, I’m not your minder or your babysitter. You can do what you want and you obviously do. It’s up to me whether or not I want to stick around for it. I told you, your drinking makes me uncomfortable. You told me you’re an alcoholic, like your dad before you. Much like my dad and my grandfather before him. I’ve told you I don’t feel safe and you’ve made your choice.

I tried so hard for so long, in spite of the stress and exhaustion because I longed for a companion. I longed for a relationship of equality and mutuality. I wanted to believe you could grow. We could grow together. I wanted someone to love me. The absent-father-abandonment-issues set me up very well to be vulnerable to abuse. Longing for love, with low expectations.

I invited him out for dinner with my mum. Afterwards my mum said ‘he seems nice, but was he high during dinner?’ I said I dunno, yeah probably. I was always too scared to ask.

We had a big argument at a party. I was going to be staying at his house that night. He was drunk. I wanted to be by myself and go home. I told him I was going to go. He wouldn’t let me leave. He followed me to my car. He was yelling at me “have I mistreated you? have I abused you?” Dude, you’re yelling at me right now. Of course I don’t say that, I’m worried about ‘making’ him more angry.

body pain / getting sick

I got burnt out. I was exhausted from work and from him. I was seeing my friends a lot less, so tired and busy with him. Often he would tell me I was wrong or overreacting. I was getting cut off from my own perspective or any perspective other than his.

I started getting pain in my stomach and back. It hurt to stand. I couldn’t cook. I went to the doctors to get tests done. I went to the emergency room. I thought my appendix was going to burst. I had to take a lot of time off work. I didn’t know what was wrong. Irritable bowel syndrome? Fibromyalgia? The doctors don’t know.

We hadn’t had sex in a while. I think I missed it, but also felt like he would start to be frustrated with me, so felt pressure, to have sex with him soon.

I think it was the first time we were having sex since I’d been sick that I told him to stop during sex and he didn’t. He pushed me down and kept going. I said ‘no’ and ‘stop’ a couple times. I was in disbelief that he would ignore me like that. I’d been to SlutWalk and Take Back the Night, up until then I had thought the slogan ‘no means no’ was a little silly, like too obvious.

burying it in your head

When he ignored my no, I knew I couldn’t tell a friend or say it out loud, unless I was ready to break up with him. If I told a friend, they would be on my case to get out of the relationship. I was so embarrassed, unsure and gutted that he abused me, that I buried it in my head. I didn’t speak about. He acted like nothing had happened. I carried on, like I’d forgotten.

A couple weeks later, I was still recovering from being sick. Still feeling pressure to be this sexy, fun girlfriend, not wanting him to lose interest. We started having sex. I was trying really hard to be energetic and upbeat, even though I’d been exhausted for weeks. Sometimes during sex we would hit or choke each other. It would go both ways. I’d told him him multiple times. ‘I’m only into it or okay with that if you ask me first, or if I ask you to. I don’t always feel like it’.

So it’s pitch black, he’s on top of me. No warning, he starts hitting and choking me. I went into shock. I thought for a split second about saying no. But I remembered that he didn’t stop last time I said no, so I didn’t say anything. I was too scared he would ignore me again and then I’d really know he was assaulting me. I was too scared it would get worse. So I waited for it to be over.

I was completely spaced out once he stopped. I had disassociated so rapidly I was nauseous. I wanted him to not be there. For me to be in bed by myself. But I was scared trying to get him to leave would make it worse. So I rolled over and went to sleep with him beside me, too exhausted to do more.

If women’s oppression is purely economic, why do I feel unsafe in my own bed?

If women’s oppression is purely economic, why do I have more money than him but it still feels like he has more power?

tearfulness

I ran into a friend a couple times around the time of the two assaults. Each time I had either just been crying, or was about to cry. My friend said, ‘you really haven’t been okay lately’. I was like yeah, I haven’t, why is that? I’ve been crying so much.

I had suppressed both the assaults and was trying to go back to work.

Then, I remembered that tearfulness was an early sign or consequence of rape. I remembered how tearful I was the first time I was raped in high school. Oh shit, it’s this again. This inexplicable crying. It’s not inexplicable. I’ve been violated and it’s scattered my mind and body.

I knew many women who are raped often experience a second sexual assault. I knew that leftist men rape too. I knew that the most common place women experience violence is in their own home, in relationships with men. But I was still shocked. I’d spent 4 years processing the previous rape. I’d worked so hard to try to be okay, to trust, to have sex, to try another relationship. Here I was again.

telling people

We had the overlapping social circles. We knew people in socialist groups, environmental groups, unions. We’d gone to rallies and blockades together. We met during a strike. He knew I’d been raped before by another man I was in a relationship with. He knew because he knew I’d been involved in anti-sexual violence activism. He would talk to me about the sexual harassment and assault of his women colleagues where he worked, he was so upset and disgusted by it. His mother had had to flee an abusive relationship. He claimed to support women’s liberation. Interestingly, he’d only read from the canon of men. Just Marx, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky. I wondered if he thought women’s liberation was important, why it was such a low priority, why he never got around to studying it. But he did the dishes and he gave me head more than I gave him head so I told myself this was pretty good.

Telling people how he’d treated me seemed like an exhausting task. I worried about being accused of bitching or trashing him. I worried about him killing himself and me being blamed for that. I worried about being accused of attention seeking, that I was just me trying to make some feminist point.

help the healing

I’m not saying he’s a monster, or a totally bad person, or that he’s vastly different from other men. The problem is that he’s much the same. What he did was mundane and unfair. I want to not be the only one insisting on his healing and growth. Unlearning is harder than learning. Insist with me, that he work and be supported to never do that again. That is how you stop cycles of violence, intergenerational cycles. Give us women and genderqueer people healing; the comfort, the peace of mind and body to know another wound is not coming for us. Ostracism, condemnation, denunciation doesn’t do that, but it’s so much easier isn’t it? To say they’re terrible and we’re not like that. We’re not like them.

No. No more.

No more ‘but we’re nice guys’, ‘the good guys’ and ‘not like those guys’.

We insist, you men and all people of the left do the hard, necessary, work of healing and stopping violence. Supporting people in accountability, in finding alternative ways of dealing with pain, trauma and anger. Alternatives that don’t involve abuse, escapism, self destruction and addiction. Alternatives that involve social support, nature, arts, creativity, expression. Aren’t we meant to be revolutionaries? Revolutionaries are meant to be inventors, creators with big imaginations. We are trying to create other worlds.

spill over / we’re not separate

Self-destruction will eventually spill over and hurt other people. You can’t neglect and abuse yourself without eventually mistreating others, you just can’t. There is a reason why substance abuse is a risk factor for sexual violence perpetration. Are we ready to have a conversation about substance abuse problems in the radical left and its connections to sexual violence? We’d better be.

I thought bout telling his organisation. I knew many women and non binary people who have found the organisation to have an inhospitable macho environment. But I couldn’t be bothered. It seemed like a lot more harm and risk to me, while my health was already so poor.

So I broke up with him. I wouldn’t go to the socialist meetings every week anymore. I was trying to challenge the male dominance in the organisation, support other women’s engagement, try and form a feminist bloc. Get a foothold. If they want a men’s only, or male dominated group so badly they can have it. In the words of Shulamith Firestone “We have more important things to do than to try to get you to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you. . . . The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.6

People still added me to group chats and events that he was in. I weighed up, agonised, over if I should tell the people, that we were no longer together and why. I decided not to. I was worried about being accused of gossip. Not speaking about misogynistic violence because you’re worried they’ll dismiss you out of misogyny, the irony is not lost on me.

spare some solidarity?

I’m struggling to still be able to go and participate in ‘left’ meetings. It’s hard to talk about the environment and capitalism when you feel heartbroken, ashamed and dissociated. Like you just want to be hugged and not touched at the same time. Sometimes, I want to, when asked if I have an agenda item, put men’s violence against women on the agenda. Say: frankly, I am this close to not being able to come to meetings. I need extra support right now and here’s why and I know I’m not the only one. Before I can even participate, I have to do the basic recovery work for myself to be even slightly okay. It’s not fair and I need some help. I need some fucking solidarity. Is this the left or not? Is solidarity just a word or is it a practice? do you speak in catchy slogans? or do you show up and live and breathe the ethos of supporting one another?

never a side issue

Patriarchy, misogyny is not a side issue. It has never been a side issue. The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the United States collapsed because of a man raping a woman and it not being addressed properly7. The Socialist Workers Party in the United Kingdom had a similar collapse. The anarchist movement where I live has collapsed because of sexual violence, mostly by cisgender heterosexual men, mostly to women and genderqueer people. Fucking hell, when will you wake up and realise this is the centre. How we are treated, how we can relate to each other is the fucking centre. It cannot be secondary, or at the bottom of a list of priorities, it can’t come eventually after you’ve read Marx’s collected works. If we don’t have trust and respect, we have nothing. We have tried to trust, now you men of the left need to give us a fucking reason to.

No excuses. You’ve been abused by your parents? Me too. You have depression? Me too. You’re struggling with poverty? Been there. But do you know what I haven’t done? is sexually abused an intimate partner.

We can’t be comrades, if you abuse us. We’re not on the same side if you abuse us. We want to work together, but you’ve ruined it. Start unruining, start the reparations, the self-evaluation, the healing. Decades ago Andrea Dworkin invited men to go out and organise a truce. A 24 hour truce without rape8. Stillyou have not done it. We are waiting, we are waiting.

which side are you on, boys?

You fundraise for the bus drivers and the port workers. But you don’t fundraise for the Women’s Refuge or the Rape Crisis centres. We are waiting.

You come to the talks on capitalism and climate change, but not to the talks on feminism and class struggle. Still we are waiting.

You accuse us of identity politics because we have the audacity to want to live. To be respected, to live free from violence. You see yourself as a worker not a boss.

But whenever you laugh at us, dismiss us, abuse us. You are behaving exactly like that class you claim to hate so much.

You want to seize the means of production. We want to seize the means of reproduction. We want our bodies for ourselves. Autonomy. I thought that was a word that you stood for. We are waiting.

We are not vindictive. We are fucking heartbroken. You have no idea how much we want to be able to work together. But with your counterrevolutionary rape, you destroy our bonds. We can’t trust you. We can’t work together. You make us have to struggle within the struggle and it’s exhausting.

If you men ‘seize’ power without us, without more than half of the worlds people. it will be nothing more than a coup d’ètat among men9. I am sick of the great men. Sick of paternal authority. Sick of macho bullshit. Did you know caring can be revolutionary? You don’t have to be this big, strong, hard man all the time? And there’s often a fall out when you are.

men’s meetings

Is this what happens? Is the consequence of men meeting together weekly to discuss political issues, as if they are separate and outside of themselves? When they meet to discuss Palestine, Syria, the housing and climate crisis, but they won’t ask each other how they’re doing. Won’t talk about how they practically all have substance abuse problems. Won’t talk about why? Why is that? Is it because you’re depressed and anxious, suicidal? and why is that? Is it because you don’t have close friends? Your parents abused you? You’ve got intergenerational trauma from alcohol abuse and witnessing your mother being beaten? Do you ever talk about something other than what strike and picket line is coming up? (I’m not saying that’s not important).

Politics isn’t just outside of you. It’s in you. I know it’s hard to look at yourself, to sit with your thoughts and feelings. Politics can be an escape like any other. But weren’t you the ones who said revolution was never going to be easy? Weren’t you the ones talking about dialectical materialism. How we need to analyse the contradictions, the antagonisms and push. Enough of 1900’s Russia, can’t we analyse here, now, in this country, in this meeting, in this house, in this bedroom? It’s not for lack of contradictions, so why haven’t you analysed and disrupted it yet?

Perhaps you’re a reformist, not a revolutionary like you like to think. The non-feminist left is a patriarchal reform movement10, but we’re inviting you to join us.

try, care

Men urgently need to do care work. Feminism as a project has never been just about women doing work. Men need to care for themselves and each other; men need to learn how to care. Women know how to care because we’ve been taught, forced and expected to since we were young. Men need to provide emotional support to each other. To develop intimacy in their friendships. Actually check in on each other, so that women partners and friends of men aren’t the only one who knows he’s suicidal. Aren’t the only one that knows he’s addicted to substances, was abused as a kid. Is acting like he’s fine, this man who’s got it together. When he needs support far beyond what one person can give.

Self care and care for each other can be how men ensure they don’t put the work of care solely on to women. Men’s wellbeing is not women’s responsibility. We are willing to support you, that should be obvious, since we have been doing it for so long. But you need to have solidarity with each other, men support each other. You’re good at having solidarity in maintaining male supremacy, in supporting and covering up abuse, in making excuses for each other. Apply your solidarity towards emotionally supporting each other.

Most women I know are exhausted, much of that burn out is from you, men. I believe in mutual aid. It’s not just aid. That first word matters. Mutual. right now y’all are acting like bosses just taking our labour. Give.

a glimpse of the world we’re trying to get to

I have been part of starting a women’s group to develop our own confidence, consciousness and ability to work collectively, independent of men’s political organisations. Some men comrades have started a group for the transformation of men, for men to study, analyse and overcome patriarchy in themselves. We hope their initiative will be accountable to us and that we can guide and support this project.

I have come close to, but not lost faith.

I went to an amazing worker’s hui11 last year. When I was asked what was good about it, I said ‘they gave me my own room to sleep in and no one tried to sneak into my bed at night…The men cooked soup and did admin work, wiped tables, made tea for everyone. It was like another world.’

Another world is possible; I could have cried from relief.

Men of the left, you’re organisers aren’t you? Organise a truce.

Educate, agitate and organise against patriarchy.

Only then, can we be on the same side.


1 The Hidden Cost of Patriarchy vimeo.com/100087331

2 Introductory Speech by Kurdish Women’s Movement worldwomensconference.org/blog/2019/04/introductory-speech-by-the-kurdish-womens-movement-on-womens-liberation/?fbclid=IwAR1CQkqc_OlABjCUQcBto3N10159cmgkfCKypRpGOku2LfSWoh-awx5t8vE

3 Patriarchy in Radical Movements, and a Call to Men (unpublished)

4 I want a 24 truce during which there is no rape nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html

5 This definition of ‘comrades’ is taken from Jodi Dean’s book of the same name.

6 Susan Faludi, Death of a Revolutionary about Shulamith Firestone newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary

7 Radical Women, The meltdown of International Socialist Organization: How anti-feminism, racism and bureaucracy led to its demise 

radicalwomen.org/ISO%20demise.shtml?fbclid=IwAR2BmdVeG132deOercwl5YNVTQ1EX4XaA21jkqzhPgtoqJlyRfIYQOR94

8 Andrea Dworkin, ‘I want a 24 truce during which there is no rape’ nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html

9 Concept from Robin Morgan in the book Sisterhood is Powerful! (United States: Random House 1970)

10 Andrea Dworkin, Marx and Ghandi were liberals: feminism and the “radical” left http://archive.org/stream/Dworkin_Marx-Ghandi/Marx%20and%20Ghandi%20Were%20Liberals_djvu.txt

11 Thanks to the Health Sector Workers Network and Unions Otago for organising the hui.

If you found this article difficult and/or are struggling with similar issues, please consider talking with your whānau, friends and/or contacting: Lifeline, Depression Helpline, Women’s Refuge, Shine Helpline, HELP Support for Sexual Abuse Survivors, OCASA (formerly Rape Crisis), Safe to Talk Sexual Harm phone line, and/or the Alcohol/Drug Helpline.

Climate change as political murder

Morrison Trump

Australian PM Scott Morrison with Trump (AP: John Minchillo).

This piece by Derek Johnson was originally delivered on the Where’s My Jetpack podcast: jetpack.zoob.net

This piece will be printed in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Climate Change and Ecosocialism. To subscribe with PayPal or credit card, click here.

A study by the United Nations has found climate change could drive 122 million more people into extreme poverty in the next 15 years, in part due to the impact it is already having on small-scale farmers. We now know that for decades, beginning in 1977, Exxon concealed its own findings that fossil fuels cause global warming, alter the climate and melt Arctic ice.

Hindsight is 20/20, but if not for Exxon’s cover up NASA and others could have brought proof and the importance of climate change to our governments to do something in the late 1970’s.

Talking about climate change can be nihilistically depressing because for the first time in our planet’s history, we are a species aware of its impending extinction. We are living through the sixth extinction. I’m going to get to the brass tacks and the suicidally depressing roots and propose an optimistic solution.

The U.S. presidential race is off the rails again. Politicians and the media are in panic mode, because of progressive candidates who might improve lives, not because Trump is a fascist who needs to be removed immediately and cannot serve a second term. As much as I like to see them all lose control, they are turning the screws on us.

Trump must go, but beyond that, I don’t care who the next president is and I don’t want anybody to be president. We need to stop having presidents. They don’t know what to do anymore and the schisms are showing. The economy is about to tank again like 2008 and the government and capitalists and their political class are flipping out in panic. This election scam is a symptom of systemic problems with Really Existing Capitalist Democracy or REC’D as Chomsky calls it.

The most pressing issue of our time—our own fucking possible extinction – is only mentioned because of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at least, but overall the political class and MSM are ignoring the fire outside as California literally burns down. They all know deep down that capitalism has killed the habitability of this world.

They fucked up and killed us all. We all have to get used to struggle. We are in the struggle of our fucking lives now. It looks like things are going south quicker than we will ever have a revolution to overthrow this shit and save our species, but I hope not. The planet is going to survive, but it’s going to be uninhabitable for human life. This is beyond unacceptable.

Going slow about changing our economy and using oil is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, while us radicals warn about the iceberg.  We have to get used to endless struggle. Even something like a Green New Deal is being violently resisted.

Demagogues right and left are going to try and convince people that its a Malthusian overpopulation problem. Malthusianism has long been debunked and technically we already live in a post-scarcity civilization, but scarcity is enforced by markets and the state.

The problems of “overpopulation” – habitat destruction, famine, drought – are the direct result of our economic system which needs false scarcity and planned obsolescence to function.

We have enough food, shelter, and medicine for every person on the planet, but resource/”wealth” distribution is dictated by a system with no ability for long term planning.

We live under a system that allows for-profit medicine/healthcare and – based on the statistic I can’t stop pointing out—America has not only enough money to feed the hungry and house every homeless person, but there are enough empty homes that every homeless person would get 6 houses each.

I agree that we need to stop focusing on neoliberalism as a new strain of capitalism, but see that it has actually given way to the return to a more raw and predatory capitalism – as it used to be and always was. I think, now, we are entering a new era of naked capitalism. We often have to ask ourselves when confronted by rulers who see the threat and choose to do nothing and hasten it.

Global warming is in progress and now irreversible. I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that past a certain point, the ruling elite intentionally planned to do nothing, knowing it would get locked in and all the people would die.

This is looking to be by design. Not that the rich created climate change to kill us all, but rather they are adapting to it and exploiting it rather than doing something about it. Perhaps what we’re witnessing in global warming is an improvised planned genocide of many global south nations that will make prior genocides seem quite small in comparison.

Global warming denialists are Holocaust deniers in their own right and should be treated as such. I’m afraid that, rather than combat climate change the powers that be can enforce walling in countries, closing immigration/migration and starve out and kill people with the elements and act like they didn’t do it on purpose. It really looks like rather than doing anything, they are planning to just build walled- in cities and let the poor die.

They can cull the populations like never before. Under this unleashed raw capitalism, they get to wipe out the so-called “developing world” and surplus labor here and there. The weakest and poorest are intentionally being left to bear the worst brunt.

This may technically be genocide by proxy through economic policy if you will, but intentional inaction is ethically no different than intentional planning/action. It really looks like rather than doing anything, they are planning to just build walled in cities and let the poor die. This is essentially genocide.  This is no different than what Stalin did to Ukraine except on scale.

The proper term is democide.

This term was revived and redefined by the political scientist R. J. Rummel as “the murder of any person or people by their government, including genocide, politicide and mass murder”. For example, government-sponsored killings for political reasons would be considered democide under Rummel’s hypothesis.

Democide can also include deaths arising from “intentionally or knowingly reckless and depraved disregard for life”; this brings into account many deaths arising through various neglects and abuses, such as forced mass starvation.

Rummel explicitly excludes battle deaths in his definition. Capital punishment, actions taken against armed civilians during mob action or riot, and the deaths of non-combatants killed during attacks on military targets so long as the primary target is military, are not considered democide.

According to Rummel, democide surpassed war as the leading cause of non-natural death in the 20th century. Rummel estimated that there have been 262 million victims of democide in the last century. According to his figures, six times as many people have died from the actions of people working for governments than have died in battle.

This destroys Stephen Pinker’s thesis that less people are dying from war, conflict and violence because of strong states, thus justifying states and ultimately capitalism. His calculation only works if you ignore democide and structural violence.

In my opinion, I feel as if, in scorched Earth fashion, capitalists are literally making sure there is no alternative if they collapse the economic order or are overthrown. We may get eco-socialism or full communism—but in a Mad Max wasteland.

We need a fundamentally new society because the status quo can no longer hold. Martin Luther King said it best: we need a revolution in values.

We need a social revolution. Our task now is to hasten such a global socialist revolution, to forge an eco-socialism for an actually free and sustainable future. We may have to go down trying to build that better society or we are going to live in Mad Max. It’s “Communism or barbarism” as Rosa Luxemburg said, indeed.

 

Fightback withdraws from Organise Aotearoa

A statement approved by the Fightback Editorial Board and sent to the National Secretary of Organise Aotearoa, 14th January 2020.

When Organise Aotearoa was launched, it appeared potentially the healthiest socialist organisation in the country. The only organisation not to emerge from a split, the largest, and youngest – all promising signs. Fightback – an Australasian socialist media project – agreed to get involved in the organisation.

Yet issues have emerged that seem unlikely to be resolved, especially on questions of internationalism. Even though the OA leadership has changed personnel over the last year or two, the prevailing politics of that leadership on what they call “internationalism” could be best described in our terms as “soft campism” (see our 2015 article, “Against Campism”: https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/)

Members of the leadership have specifically stated that they feel that “internationalism” for Leftists in New Zealand should mean only opposing imperialist actions by the New Zealand state and explicit allies of the New Zealand state (e.g. the USA or the UK). Some have even argued that for us to criticise the People’s Republic of China in particular – even on the subject of the attempted genocide of the Uighurs and the repression of popular protest in Hong Kong – implies a certain “colonialism”. This misuse of radical theory to suggest that Western imperialism is the only imperialism, or to support authoritarian capitalist nationalism in “non-Western” countries, is in opposition to Fightback’s basic principles.

However, being in a minority position on internationalist questions alone would not be enough in itself to cause us to break with OA. The breaking point for us has been a culture within OA of avoiding honest and comradely debate, and on characterising political disagreements in terms of personal attacks.

Attempts to debate the question of what internationalism means have been met with either studious silence, or negative personal characterizations of Fightback members. Instead of seeking clarity on these questions, the approach of the OA national leadership has consistently been to seek a lowest common denominator “fudge”, where positions are taken on the basis of minimising any opposition or sharp debate.

For example, after our extensive internal discussion documents arguing for support for the Syrian revolution were met with no reply, Fightback members proposed a motion at the last national AGM condemning all intervention in Syria – US, Turkish, Russian and Iranian without distinction. Two different arguments were given by its opponents, who had the majority at the AGM:

  1. The now-National Secretary of OA submitted a document arguing that the central issue as far as they saw it was to oppose “US imperialism” (given that Turkey is a member of NATO) – even when, as any unblinkered observer could tell you, the main imperial power causing damage, destruction, murder and oppression right now in Syria is Russia.
  2. It was also suggested at the AGM that it would be premature for OA to take a position when there’s disagreements among members – an explicit admission of OA’s culture of fudging important political questions.

Fightback are not the only comrades to point this out. Last year, one of us co-wrote a position paper with a Marxist-Leninist OA member, who disagreed entirely with Fightback’s internationalist position but agreed that:

Currently, nothing is being done to collaboratively increase the political acumen of OA members on both theoretical and practical issues, beyond what comes up planning events. In fact, there is a culture within some parts of the organisation that disregards this vital part of any left organisation in favour of a forced, sterile ‘unity’ – in effect, sweeping political differences under the carpet.

OA currently seems to instinctively “duck for cover” on issues around which there are strongly conflicting views upon within the organisation. There have been several issues, particularly around internationalism, where debate has simply been shut down and deferred until an unspecified “right time”; or alternatively, debate has been avoided with specious arguments that (for example) certain issues are simply “out of bounds” for our group because the New Zealand state is not directly involved in them.

The issue of the Syrian conflict – which has come up multiple times in discussion on internationalism – is a glaring example of this. Anyone who has followed these issues will know that the two authors of this document have had completely contrasting positions in this debate. However, we now find ourselves united in frustration and opposition to the way in which the leadership and many other members of our organisation have not wanted to have the debate at all.

As of time of writing, nothing has changed in terms of the lack of political education for OA members. It is simply the case that if an organisation’s political unity relies on a continuous process of “fudge”, there can be no internal political education because all the hard questions must be avoided.

Most distressing in OA is the culture where criticisms of the leadership or their political line are met with personal attacks. At the AGM, a Dunedin member who raised issues with the problematic behaviour of a leading member was met with a shockingly dismissive attitude, accused of trying to launch a ‘weird coup.’ The Dunedin member’s recommendation of a No Confidence vote was voted down. Later, on social media, members of the OA leadership responded to criticisms from a Fightback member with negative characterizations of that member’s character and tone, refusing to deal the political issues altogether.

While Organise Aotearoa remains the largest socialist group in this country, it appears to have no plausible strategy to grow further, let alone found a mass party as was the stated aim. Many observers (including those with no connection to Fightback) have described the attitude of the OA leadership as “grandiose” – that is, that they have an unrealistically high vision of OA’s potential and power, which is bound to lead to disappointment and disillusionment if they don’t reassess their capacities more modestly. Discussions of local body strategy in Auckland, for example, seemed to massively overestimate the ability of OA to gain large votes or even win seats in working-class South Auckland. The organisation seems to have no interest in learning from the past experience of socialist and communist groups in this country.

With a political line in turns campist and confused and with no realistic strategy, it is no wonder that the OA national leadership can only respond to political disagreement with personal attacks and the other moves of “clique politics”. At this time, Organise Aotearoa only has its size to recommend it – with members taking frankly terrible positions on international issues, exhibiting problematic behaviour, and no culture of open debate or accountability that could address these issues. While we believe we were right to attempt to get involved in the project initially, we believe our time and energy would be better used to work with organisations who are prepared to engage in honest, respectful debate.

Fightback members are therefore withdrawing our membership from Organise Aotearoa as of now. We are sorry to be stepping away from our friends and good comrades within the organisation, and we look forward to working closely with Organise Aotearoa comrades in the movements and on particular projects. But we believe that our withdrawal will be a relief to both Fightback and the Organise Aotearoa leadership.