Buttondown here we come! Fightback to end print magazine, move to new digital platform

At our recent internal conference, Fightback made the decision to cease producing our print magazine, and move to a new digital platform.

Fightback magazine would have been 10 years old this year. Its predecessor magazine The Spark existed since 1990. The renamed Fightback magazine launched in 2013, to bring it in line with the organisation’s recent political realignment.

Ending the print magazine is not a decision we have taken lightly. The organisation has debated discontinuing its print magazine several times in recent years. As other socialist organisations have found, the previously-used street sales model of print publication has become historically redundant, and while a few notable print magazines are able to thrive in this ‘digital age’, ours was simply not one of them.

Conversely, while our magazine subscriptions have recently been in double figures, our website attracts tens of thousands of readers every year. Recent controversial articles by Daphne Lawless, on the dangers of the attractions of campism and Right-wing populism for sections of the Left, have attracted the most views, both locally and internationally. We considered it appropriate to go where our audience is, rather than clinging to an outdated media form out of nostalgia.

We are moving our content to a platform called Buttondown. Buttondown is subscription-based, as our magazine has been in recent years, but more focused on digital media. Subscribers to the Buttondown will get early access to the articles, along with other occasional benefits such as printed pamphlets through the mail (more on this later).

Our WordPress blog will stay up, with web hits redirected to our Buttondown. Unlike WordPress, Buttondown has the advantage of directly integrating subscriptions with content in one place. Also unlike WordPress, Buttondown directly hosts other forms of media such as podcasts, giving us potential opportunities for multimedia production.

We thank everyone who has continued to subscribe to the magazine. All recent renewals of subscriptions have been refunded. As thanks, former subscribers to the magazine will get a 50% discount if they subscribe to the Buttondown.

For lovers of print media, the good news is that we will continue to publish occasional pamphlets on dedicated topics, including an upcoming one on Campism & Internationalism. Pamphlets will go out to all Buttondown subscribers. We will also continue to hire our fantastic designer Rafaela Gaspar to produce graphics to go with articles.

Subscription funds will go towards paying guest writers, paying our designer, and other ad hoc political & media projects. We also set aside 10% of our income every year for solidarity donations to other organisations, such as recent donations to Auckland Peace Action for Ukraine solidarity action, andto Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi for Cyclone Gabrielle relief.

This is not the end of Fightback’s publications, but rather a shift to a platform more suited to the modern communication era. We hope you join us.

Our Buttondown is available at buttondown.email/Fightback

Union organising: A referendum on collectivity

By EMILY ROSENTHAL. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

Aotearoa has joined the global trend of high-profile union wins with the passing of Fair Pay Agreements and a precedent-setting judgment for Uber drivers.[1] [2] Now, how do we keep the momentum going?

For working people across the motu, the issues being raised about the cost-of-living crisis are nothing new. We have struggled with the price of food, housing, and transport since the radical de-regulation of the labour market.[3] Things are worse, but they are not novel.

And our response has remained the same for a generation – we must organise.

Our ability to meet and connect with people has been stymied through the pandemic. But it has given us an opportunity to reflect on our strategies.

The pandemic demonstrated the ability of Kiwis to hold collective, intrinsic values. It demonstrated how eager we all were to practice solidarity when our basic needs were being met.

Best-practise progressive campaigning – the foundation which our current labour wins sit upon – believes transformational systems change cannot rely on the previously relied-upon politics of fear.[4]

So, how do we organise?

The principles of organising remain the same, and key values of solidarity and whanaungatanga continue underpin the movement.

Working people are organising in companies and industries that were previously thought to be un-unionisable.

Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple continue to become organised despite concerted, expensive anti-union lobbying. [5] [6] [7]

The methodology of organising continues to shift with technological and social movements, and the unions who are least resistant to change are the ones experiencing novel wins.[8]

Technology is a prosthetic for organising, and is most effective when applied to our most recent understandings of heuristics and cognition.[9]

Heuristics are the neural pathways humans develop to make decisions. The more we understand how people make decisions, the greater our ability to organise.

Fundamentally, we have shifted in our understanding of how we communicate the importance of organising. In the most basic terms, this shift can be described as understanding the chasm between what we say, and what people hear.[10]

As a result, most organising resources have moved from reports, statistics, and basic facts. Previously these were touted as indisputable evidence for the benefits of organising. We thought that if people read and agreed with these, organising was the next logical step.

This belief operated on a flawed principle of the information deficit model, which assumes the gap between organisers and working people are a result of a lack of information or knowledge.[11]

In the wake of the pandemic and the most recent behavioural cognition analysis, advocates of leftist tactics and strategies realised that facts and reports did not change peoples’ minds.[12]

Storytelling and values

In order to shift the mindset of a worker or industry, we needed to organise with a more nuanced approach. This approach must comprise two key elements: storytelling and values-based messaging.

Values-based messaging engages working people’s deeply-held values to motivate concern and action. This involves leading with a trade union vision of the society we wish to inhabit, before stating the barrier to this vision, and ending with solutions of how to solve that barrier.

To organise, a greater effort must be made to develop resources and messaging that activates the intrinsic values of working people. For a lot of organisers, values-based messaging is still a largely under-used and misunderstood framework that is passed over for directives and myth-busting.

Story-based campaigning helps to create a narrative for people struggling to engage with a complicated concept, like collective bargaining.[13] Facets of the trade union movement are also applying this understanding to build rank and file power.[14]

The results of this approach speak to the efficacy of this method. Within the wider progressive movement, transformational change has been achieved through the crafting of a coherent narrative.

In Ireland, abortion rights activists had a resounding victory in a society with deeply entrenched Catholic values and restrictive laws.[15] The victory of this movement was largely attributed to the storytelling campaign used by abortion rights campaigners.[16]

Relational change, as theorised in the Water of Systems Change framework, is the category most relevant to building transformative union power.[17]

Crucially, this methodology must also be applied to internal organising within different wings of the trade union movement.

Internal power structures within the union movement obey similar dynamics to political parties. A deeper understanding has to be forged when building union power – a win for one union is a win for all unions.

Trade union movements will only continue to build power by utilising best-practice, evidence-based methods to organise. For the Left to fight back against rising fascism, we must build on these opportunities, demonstrating the power of collectivity.

[1] https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/historic-day-everyday-workers-fair-pay-agreements-bill-passes-third-reading

[2] https://www.employmentcourt.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Decisions/2022-NZEmpC-192-E-Tu-Inc-Anor-v-Rasier-Op-BV-Ors-Media-Release-25.10.22.pdf

[3] https://www.buildingabetterfuture.org.nz/decent_work_and_greater_work_life_balance

[4] https://academic.oup.com/bjc/article/62/5/1270/6702072

[5] https://www.amazonlaborunion.org/

[6] https://sbworkersunited.org/

[7] https://sbworkersunited.org/

[8] https://libguides.rutgers.edu/c.php?g=336780&p=2271927

[9] https://conceptually.org/concepts/heuristics

[10] https://www.theworkshop.org.nz/publications/how-to-talk-about-government-and-its-work-for-the-long-term-public-good-2022

[11] https://www.scidev.net/global/editorials/the-case-for-a-deficit-model-of-science-communic/

[12] https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/pq/article/view/5296

[13] https://commonslibrary.org/reimagining-change-how-to-use-story-based-strategy-to-win-campaigns-build-movements-and-change-the-world/

[14] https://www.ei-ie.org/en/workarea/1326:building-union-power

[15] https://mobilisationlab.org/stories/how-powerful-conversations-yes-ireland/

[16] https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3173574.3173931

[17] https://www.fsg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Water-of-Systems-Change_rc.pdf

Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics

Shelly Provost | Wikimedia Commons

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

See also: Electoralism and Socialist Party-Building in Aotearoa/New Zealand (discussion document by Ani White).

The infamous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has described “ideology” as something that you know isn’t true; and yet even so, you behave like it is.[1] That seems a pretty fair description of how revolutionary socialists seem to react to electoral politics. We know that elections under capitalism only have impact at the margins; that whoever we vote for, Wall Street wins. And yet even so, if the social democrats or the liberals lose to the Right, we’re depressed for ages.

The dust is settling on the defeat of a small and yet promising electoral project in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland – the mayoral campaign of former Manukau councillor Efeso Collins. Winning candidate and new Mayor Wayne Brown is effectively described in terms of Simpsons memes as “old man yells at cloud”. An embodiment of white boomer privilege and reactionary pushback against recent mild urbanist reforms, Brown – backed by his advisors, notorious Right-wing Twitter influencers Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas – racked up huge majorities in the white, property-owning suburbs.[2]

The point here is not to criticise the Collins campaign as such, which was always pushing uphill against several factors. These include massive funding behind the Brown campaign; somewhat half-hearted support from the Labour Party from the Collins campaign; the sheer force of racism among the privileged section of Aucklanders who actually vote in local elections; and the general reactionary trend which has prevailed in politics since the ruling class lost interest in fighting the COVID pandemic.[3] The question is to ask: what exactly is the activist Left’s theory behind why we get involved in electoral politics – or even care about the results? What do we expect to get out of electoral politics – win or lose?

Against ultraleftism…

Fightback published an article two years ago, summing up the defeat of the electoral movements behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Part of our conclusion was this:

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings.[4]

We feel our analysis in the last part of that article – under the heading “Direct Action gets the goods” – stands the test of time. This analysis stands against two symmetrical errors. We firstly reject the ultra-leftist analysis, that elections and democratic institutions and rights under capitalism don’t matter, or even worse, aren’t worth defending in the face of Right-wing populism and resurgent fascism. It’s obviously in the better interests of working people that the elected bodies of capitalist democracy be run by whichever faction is less interested in attacking working-class wages, jobs, communities, and democratic rights.

To dig a bit deeper into this, we have to materially analyse exactly what happens in elections. There is a real impact – the actual transfer of the leadership of elected bodies from one person/ideological tendency to another. Revolutionaries are right to point out that this is often a marginal change, and that the unelected bureaucracies and the capitalists and corporates who call the shots in the background are unaffected. But there are also what we might call memetic effects – what the election “means” in terms of an impact on how people think and feel, what it does to the confidence of one broad social group or another.

A significant recent example of this comes from outside electoral politics – what happened when Elon Musk finally closed the deal to buy Twitter. It provoked an orgy of racist and transphobic posting – before anything had changed in actual moderation or banning procedures – because the racists and transphobes felt that they had “won”. Similar things happen in the real world when the Right win elections, as we saw with the outcome of the Trump and Brexit votes in 2016. To return to the Auckland local body elections, one of incoming Mayor Brown’s first actions was to send Auckland Transport a letter instructing them to cut back on cycleway construction – something which he legally has no power to do; and yet, Auckland Transport’s leadership complied, presumably because that’s what they wanted to do anyway.[5]

… and against electoralism

Because bourgeois election campaigns and outcomes have real impacts on working people’s confidence and feelings of safety – and those of their fascist enemies – socialists can’t be indifferent to the outcome. A socialist electoral intervention might most often be geared to making an impact on the memetic side of things – raising issues on the campaign trail, and amplifying the voices of workers and the marginalised, at a time when people are actually paying attention.

But conversely, when socialists decide to make electoral politics a focus of their activity, they’re generally not very good at it. To put it less bluntly, the “ideological” contradictions of being involved in electoralism while knowing full well that the working class’s road to power isn’t through elections leads to several counter-productive patterns of behaviour. Here I will try to list out a number of the ways in which socialist interventions in electoral politics can go wrong – some of which contradict each other, as things can go wrong in many directions.

1. The Red-Brown temptation

This is probably the greatest danger in the current environment where Right-populism and even fascism are ascendant on a global level. The sad reality is that the public health initiatives which were necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19 have also delivered an angry and fearful mass audience to the entrepreneurs of fascist-style conspiracy theories, as revealed (in this country) by the occupation of Parliament grounds in February this year. The temptation here is to see a real mass movement rising up against the Leftish wing of neoliberalism, but to not understand (or not care) that a fascist mobilisation against bourgeois liberalism is not only different, but actively poisonous, to working-class communities. This despair and wishful thinking, leading to a desire to jump on the bandwagon of those who wish us dead, is the root of what I’ve previously termed “the Red-Brown Zombie Plague”.[6]

The United States, with its lack of recent experience of independent workers’ organisation, is “Ground Zero” for this kind of politics. The Green Party of the USA and the newer “Movement for a People’s Party” run electoral campaigns which centre the principle, hard to challenge on the US left, that it is impermissible to ever give electoral support to Democrats/liberals. But to do this in the current climate, they have to soft-pedal or deny the threat to democracy and the lives of minorities posed by the contemporary Republican Party, controlled by Donald Trump’s fascistic “Make America Great Again” movement. Worse still, the most “mask-off” of this Red-Brown current actively paint MAGA as a “working class” movement with which socialists must unify.[7]

With regard to the recent Brazilian presidential election, an American socialist on Twitter recently commented:

…I worry the US left is falling into a pattern: 1) our international bodies and magazines uncritically cheer a left or center-left candidate. 2) they ignore contradictions and fail to educate our members or provide analysis 3) we get blindsided when we lose[8]

This uncritical cheerleading of Left-flavoured electoral alternatives is the flipside of the self-righteous refusal to support centrist politicians as “lesser evils” against extremist conservatives or fascists. It is fundamentally dishonest in that it refuses to admit that the difference between – say – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is one of degree, not kind. They are both capitalist politicians, one of which has a better programme from a socialist point of view. And yet, both are supportable options if actual fascism is on the line. To prioritise bashing the centrist mainstream over a sober electoral calculus of how workers and marginalised communities would be impacted by the victory of the Right is not voting based on a class line, and it is not building an “electoral alternative” if it will have nothing but a spoiler effect. It is reducing politics to a simple “insider/outsider” or “elites/people” duality, which either ignores the very clear and present danger of Right-populism and fascism, or takes the Red-Brown path to welcoming it as an ally.

2. Program fetishism

A less dangerous, but still counter-productive, tendency in socialist electoralism is the presumption that electoral success comes from a sufficiently Left-wing programme – that is, one of strong social democratic reforms. To begin with, this is a paradox, since such a programme is significantly to the “Right” of what revolutionaries actually want to happen. The essential flaw of this strategy is the assumption that “real” Leftist social democracy would be popular enough to win; but actual social democrats won’t do it, so revolutionaries have to substitute for them.

One amusing example of this came about in the 2017 election in New Zealand. The Labour Party came well back in second place in terms of votes; one socialist website (which no longer exists)[9] took the opportunity to explain that Jacinda Ardern had lost because of her party’s inadequately left-wing programme. Of course, two weeks later, Ardern put together the coalition numbers to become the new Prime Minister. In contrast to this, we can see what happened to the British Labour Party in 2019 – a strongly supportable Left-wing manifesto went down to humiliating defeat at the hands of the clownish and corrupt Boris Johnson. (Arguments about the biased media are beside the point – there is no electoral road to socialist reforms which will face a supportive or even neutral media.)

If working people are just waiting for a sufficiently Left-wing manifesto to turn away from the establishment parties and from apathy, then if the mainstream centre-Left parties choose not to run such a manifesto, it must be because they don’t really want to win – a conspiracy theory which, like all others, thrives on defeat and is therefore particularly popular in the United States. This is an essentially moralistic rather than materialist view of politics, that the system can be made to function for working people if the right comrades take control of the electoral parties, and consequently the State. But as Marxists and revolutionaries have always pointed out, controlling a capitalist state, in a global capitalist economy, means your options are limited to what capital can tolerate. When “staunch socialists” do manage to replace discredited social democrats at elections, they are forced by the realities of living with capitalism to adopt essentially the same politics – as was shown in Greece, where the PASOK party was replaced by their left-wing rivals of SYRIZA and not much changed at all.[10]

To paraphrase a famous internet meme, if elections could be won by turning a big dial marked SOCIALISM, and looking back at the audience for approval, our job would be so much simpler. Even worse – when the radical Right win by appealing to a mass audience’s fear of change with appeals to bigotry and authoritarianism, that can prove disastrous for socialists who see their role in politics as “giving the people what they really want”. See The Red-Brown Temptation, above.

3. Doing it right is expensive

The logic of electoralism requires building the biggest possible support base among those who’re not politically active or interested at most times of the year. Outside of a revolutionary situation, revolutionaries are a minority; the logic of electoralism requires building a much broader coalition than a consistent anti-capitalist politics can sustain.

The inescapable fact about mass politics under capitalism is that success means funding; and it means media coverage. Funding means appealing to people with money; that is, a sufficiently large swathe of the middle and upper-middle classes, or perhaps one or two renegade “left millionaires”. Media coverage means “playing the game” as set out by the political economy of the mass media, and the agendas and preferences of leading journalists and opinion makers – who, inevitably, themselves reflect the agendas and worldviews of the property-owning middle classes.

Now, this isn’t a moralist argument that any support (financial or mediatic) from the big or little bourgeoisie instantly disqualifies a Leftist project. Lenin’s return to Russia to lead the Bolshevik Revolution was made possible by a free train ride from the German imperialists.[11] And we reject the “campist” argument that funding from the agencies of the US state, or from billionaires such as George Soros, instantly disqualifies any popular uprising in non-Western authoritarian regimes. But any such support introduces contradictions into the movement. It inherently imposes limits on what the movement can possibly achieve; limits which have to be justified in themselves. In this country, the “Internet-MANA” electoral project of 2014 failed despite having the backing of a “radical billionaire” – and given that that particular billionaire is now an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we may well feel that we “dodged a bullet”.[12]

4. The Rasputin temptation

A final pitfall that is often seen when socialists get involved in electoral politics is a similar shortcut to the “programme fetishism” trap, in that it requires a kind of “top-down manipulation” which is counterposed to what we claim to believe in. Simply put, this is the attempt to steer the movement in a “Left” direction by gaining influence over the existing leadership of the movement – often by just being the “best activists” for whatever the leadership were planning to do anyway, or even worse, the leadership’s most devoted partisans within the movement.

As we discussed this in our analysis of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, this cynical move might reap results in the rhetoric or the programme which the leadership issues; and certainly in terms of material benefit for the activists who get themselves paid gigs as “researchers” or “advisers”. But to maintain these positions of power requires preserving the power and influence of the leadership – generally by squashing challenges from within the movement’s base. It also requires the kind of trade-off where revolutionaries are expected to put a “Left” face on some horrible, sell-out policy if they want to keep their precious influence.

There is also a general problem that when Left activists get embedded in the leadership of a mass electoral movement, they bring with them particular political “obsessions” of their subculture of origin which end up being poison when introduced to mass politics. The classic example of this, as we explored in 2020, was the influence of Communist Party of Britain veterans over the Corbyn leadership’s foreign policy, leading to not only electorally poisonous pro-Putin, pro-Assad positions, but also turning a blind eye to an antisemitic fringe – a more potent weapon in the hands of Tories is impossible to imagine. As with the question of funding explored above, the gap between the politics of ideological bubbles or sects, and the politics of mobilising people at the scale which can shift elections, is something which canny revolutionaries often seem convinced they can jump. They haven’t been proved right so far.

Build worker and community power

It’s worth repeating that electoral politics are not a bad thing in themselves, and may deliver gains for working people and their communities. But to be able to intervene effectively, the radical Left have to admit to ourselves that this is not our core competency. To centre electoral politics or movements in themselves, rather than building the self-organisation of the masses, is Hal Draper’s “socialism from above”.[13]

Fightback’s alternative is based on the fundamental Marxist insight that workers’ power at the point of production – and community power through self-activism and self-organisation on the ground – is the only power which can refute and subvert the power of capital and the power of the capitalist state. It is of course the only path to an actual revolution, that is, the only form of social organisation which could take over. But it is also the only weapon that workers and their communities have that can put effective pressure on capitalists and their State – including winning the kind of electoral victories which “stick” and make lasting changes for the better.

Through winning victories in the workplaces and communities through direct action, such a movement will build both real and memetic power; meaning that, even where it might not be strong enough to make changes directly, mainstream politicians will see in it a possible ally, and amend their programmes and strategies directly. When the union movement in Western countries was strong in the 1950s, even the conservative parties had to pay lip-service to working class demands.

Part of revolutionary politics is not to tell lies to the working class, and to politically campaign with a message that the current system is the way it is because the current crop of politicians is rotten or feckless – thereby implying that “good” politicians could fix things – is not only untrue. It opens the field to fascist organisers, who can tell a much more exciting and compelling story with villains such as “Globo-Homo” or “the International Jew”. It also fosters dangerous illusions in how much power a nation-state government has to accomplish a serious break with international capitalism – a mistake which led many British socialists to support Brexit from a “Left-nationalist” point of view, again, playing directly into the hands of the radical Right.

In contrast, understanding that elections are important, but not central, allows revolutionaries to, at the same time, advocate electoral support for social democrats or liberals where the alternative would be disastrous for people’s rights and safety; or alternatively to support or even help build a “more Left” electoral formation where the calculus allows for it (for example, the Greens or Te Pāti Māori in Aotearoa). But this must go along with prioritising the building of a political movement independent of all electoral, systemic forces, capable of direct action to win material gains, which may in turn influence electoral politics. Attempts by Left-wing pundits to attempt to “shame” Labour politicians into being more radical through essays and Twitter posts won’t cut it.

Similarly, if revolutionaries decide to get involved in an electoral campaign for the sake of “building the movement”, then we need a strategy that will mean that the movement will keep going after the election night celebrations (or, much more likely, drowning of sorrows). It will be interesting to see what happens to what’s left of the Efeso Collins coalition in Auckland.

As the quotation above from our 2020 article might indicate, Left-wing electoral movements usually come into existence as a consequence of defeat of direct-action mass movements – and vice-versa, in an endless cycle. Could it be that the way forward is through a synthesis of these two opposing paths:to build organisations of workers’ and community power which can wield real influence on electoral politics, while always remembering that the electoral struggle can never be central to our goal of emancipation?

[1] https://iep.utm.edu/zizek/

[2] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/local-government/130317630/new-voting-detail-shows-mayor-wayne-brown-lost-the-west-and-south

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/a-shift-in-political-thinking-why-many-of-new-zealands-cities-have-lurched-to-the-right-local-elections

[4] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/08/25/left-populism-at-the-dead-end-where-to-after-corbyn-and-sanders/

[5] https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2022/10/28/concerning-news-coming-out-of-auckland-transport/

[6] https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[7] For some examples, see https://twitter.com/search?q=%22people%27s%20party%22%20maga&src=typed_query

[8] https://twitter.com/mangosocialism/status/1576768106449764352

[9] The site of the short-lived “Socialist Voice” group.

[10] https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[11] https://spartacus-educational.com/Lenin_Sealed_Train.htm

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Party_and_Mana_Movement

[13] https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/

PUBLIC WARNING: Fightback and the copyright trolls

Readers of the Fightback website might have noticed a slight change in its appearance. Well, not a slight change. The disappearance of almost all images.

During the Christmas-New Year period, the Fightback editorial board was contacted by a “Copyright Protection” agency based out of Denmark, claiming that three images from very old posts on this website – stemming back to 2012-14 – had been reproduced without permission from a major press agency. These images were:

  • a 2014 image of a demonstration in Venezuela;
  • a 2013 image of three atheist writers (of which only one image was claimed to be copyrighted: that of Christopher Hitchens!)
  • a 2012 image of a woman voting in Egyptian elections.

Rather than simply asking them to be taken down – as we are always willing to do for any image, out of goodwill – we were presented with what’s called a “speculative invoice”, totalling more than $NZ750 in “retrospective licence fees”. This fee, we were told, would apply no matter if the images were taken down or not.

This form of “copyright trolling” is well known overseas, for example from the “PicRights” organisation. Such organisations – either hired by major intellectual property owners, or acting on their own initiative – use powerful “reverse image search” engines to find images which match those to which they think they can establish copyright. This is quite often not enough evidence to stand up in court – but that doesn’t matter, as it rarely gets that far. People targeted thus – quite often private individual bloggers or non-profit organisations, like Fightback – are simply unwilling or too intimidated to fight, especially if the copyright trolls escalate to actual legal threats. They are far more likely to simply pay up – or to negotiate a lower payment – to make the whole mess go away.

The Fightback editorial board have decided, therefore, to simply pull all the images from our website, re-adding only those which we can guarantee we have the rights to use, or are in the public domain. We have no wish to continue to get letters every day or so presenting a bill for $250+ for an image posted up to a decade ago that everyone’s forgotten about. We are also seeking legal opinions about whether these demands for money can be enforced in the New Zealand court system.

We publish this warning, not only as an apology to our readers for the hopefully temporary loss of visual quality on our website, but to a warning to other small publications in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and also to private bloggers. These people may come after you next. Forewarned is forearmed.

Reproductive rights in Aotearoa: Organising in a post-Roe World

Organising for reproductive rights in contemporary Aotearoa.
Image from RNZ/Yvette McCullough

By TERRY BELLAMAK. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

The United States Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade in Dobbs v Jackson struck at the heart of bodily autonomy in the country that had billed itself as the soul of democratic civil rights. People all over the world saw the spectre of religious authoritarianism cast a shadow on the USA.

And spines stiffened across the planet. Roe’s demise has resulted in an outpouring of outrage, dismay and resolve.

Here in Aotearoa, the news came at a moment when the Ministry of Health was trying to implement our new legalised abortion regime. In 2020 Parliament finally reformed New Zealand’s antiquated, regressive abortion laws that required pregnant people to declare their mental fragility in order to come within the grounds for abortion under the Crimes Act 1961. We were in a place of hope and change.

The bad news from the USA was a tonic to the people who oppose abortion in New Zealand – they had not had anything to celebrate for a long time. The day the Dobbs decision overturning Roe was issued, National MP Simon O’Connor, who promised divine vengeance in Latin when the Abortion Legislation Act 2020 passed, posted on Facebook “Today is a good day.” Not long after, when a 10 year old had to travel to Indiana to abort her rapist’s baby, Mr O’Connor had nothing to say.

Of course, National’s leader Christopher Luxon had slapped a fairly tight muzzle on O’Connor, in the hope that he wouldn’t continue to say things the vast majority of New Zealanders find appalling.

Luxon was trying to gloss over his own stated view that “abortion is tantamount to murder.” It took him several tries to get the words right, but he finally promised National would not seek to repeal the Abortion Legislation Act 2020, nor reduce funding for abortion care.

Whether the National party’s efforts to dive for the centre on abortion are believable is another matter. The spectacle of Supreme Court nominees promising Roe was safe during their confirmation hearings is a warning against believing anti-abortion worthies who have shown they are willing to lie to get what they want.

The reason for their efforts is simple. The vast majority of New Zealanders favour abortion rights.

We are the majority

The cultural and political situation in Aotearoa is very different from the USA.

In the USA, nine unelected justices of the Supreme Court can overturn laws without meaningful challenge from any other branch of government. The framers never formed an opinion on that governmental structure, because it did not exist when the Constitution was written. That power only arose in 1803 as a result of the case of Marbury v Madison.

Until Dobbs, successive Supreme Courts have followed the rules of precedent that support the Rule of Law. Oral argument in Dobbs, and in cases heard since, has given rise to the impression that the six conservative justices who form a majority voting bloc no longer consider themselves bound by precedent, or even by good faith.

In New Zealand, parliamentary sovereignty means the most powerful branch of government is the one most accountable to voters. I used to have to defend the New Zealand courts’ inability to overturn unconstitutional laws to my American friends. They now see that arrangement has a downside.

Aotearoa is also very different culturally. Religion plays a much smaller role in New Zealand society. In the USA, 63% of adults identify as Christian, while 29% (and growing) affiliate with no religion.[1] In New Zealand, however, the largest group by far is No Religion at 48.2%, while the next highest religious grouping is Anglican at 6.7%.[2]

According to the most recent NCW Gender Attitudes Survey, the vast majority of New Zealanders support legal abortion on request, at 74%.[3] This is higher than it was during law reform, when support ebbed and flowed in the high 60s. Anti-abortion activists in New Zealand are losing ground.

But support for abortion is not a difference between New Zealand and the USA; it is a similarity. It is also a warning. There is danger in complacency of the sort that gripped some politicians in the USA for over 40 years. Those folks thought anti-abortion groups were like a dog who chases cars – catching one would be next to impossible and highly dangerous for the dog. But the dog caught the car.

Here in New Zealand, from the 1980s on through the 2010s, it wasn’t complacency so much as exhaustion that made abortion the topic that few politicians would approach voluntarily. Unlike successive governments, Kiwis supported abortion rights throughout the 1970s. Most considered the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 far too restrictive. In 1978 abortion rights groups submitted a petition calling for its repeal, signed by over 320,000 people. To put that in perspective, the total population of New Zealand at the time was only 3.12 million. That’s over 10% of the population. Parliament buried the petition.

We cannot let abortion drop from public attention again.

So, the question for organisers here is how to harness this moment of resolution and anger to further the cause of human rights, bodily autonomy, and equality for everyone.

We need to be vocal in supporting reproductive rights internationally in countries where the fight for legalisation continues, or has returned. We also need to advance reproductive rights here in Aotearoa. We need to take stock of what we want, and of whom we must demand it.

These matters fall into two broad categories:

  • Tactical changes needed to make good on the promise of abortion law reform
  • Societal changes that make the above a lot easier to achieve

Tactical demands

Safe areas

One thing we need is more safe areas faster. In order to get the Safe Areas Bill over the line, supporters in Parliament had to acquiesce to a convoluted, Rube Goldberg process to create safe areas, involving two cabinet ministers, a personalised map-drawing exercise undertaken by the Ministry of Health, and an Order in Council. The process takes between three and six months, and is so labour-intensive the Ministry only accepts applications in six week intakes every four months.

You might have thought the premise that harassing people is not what free speech is for would be self-evident, yet here we are.

Who can influence the process to make it go as fast as possible? The Ministry of Health goes pretty much flat out until it makes a recommendation to the Minister. At that point, the process can slow to glacial. Cabinet does lots of business, and the triage process may or may not favour safe areas.

This is a moment when pressure can be useful. The speed with which Cabinet deals with each safe area demonstrates how the government values the dignity and safety of people seeking abortion care. Given the Ministry’s vetting process, approval should be a rubber stamp.

If National forms the next government, this is an area where they can slow down the process of improving access to abortion care without breaking Luxon’s promise not to repeal or defund abortion. They could just … not do anything with the Ministry’s recommendation, leaving abortion patients at the mercy of National’s Christian Taliban Caucus and their friends with the gory, misleading signs.

Paying for care that should be free

Right now, most people (everyone except under 22s at Family Planning) who want LARCs (long acting reversible contraception) that need to be placed, like IUDs and implants, have to pay their GP or other practitioner $60-$500 for the placement. This is because Te Whatu Ora does not pay for the placement, only the device.[4]

This turns what should be easy, cost-effective access to highly reliable contraception into a pricey luxury.

Likewise, early medical abortions may soon be available from GPs, nurse practitioners, and midwives. But if Te Whatu Ora does not work out how to pay qualified health practitioners who provide the service fairly, some or all of the cost may need to come from patients.

According to the current funding model, GPs can charge $75 for an early medical abortion. This does not cover the full cost, because the service includes a time-consuming consultation about the procedure and options available, to satisfy the requirements for informed consent. Midwives can charge the same. But nurse practitioners have no way to access that funding, unless Te Whatu Ora changes the rules.

This means contraception and early medical abortion might be the few health services requiring patients to bear a large part of the cost – treating health care that is essential for the individuals involved and for the health system as a whole as an extravagance.

The health system treats women as cash cows in other ways, like requiring a pointless, humiliating consultation with a pharmacist to access emergency contraception. The cost of the consultation means patients can be charged $40 or more for a medicine that costs less than $10.

Te Whatu Ora needs to fund all contraception and early medical abortion fully, and compensate providers fairly, rather than using abortion providers’ dedication against them by expecting them to provide the service below cost. The public needs to demand this, but first it has to know about it.

These problems point to a fundamental fallacy. For too long, the health system has kept abortion care separate from pregnancy care, almost like they were trying to keep the “bad” ones who had abortions away from the “good” ones who had babies (pro tip: they are the same people at different times in their lives). Organisers need to inform the public and pressure Te Whatu Ora to treat contraception and abortion as an integral part of pregnancy care, to fully fund it all, and to let the funding follow the patient. A pregnancy’s outcome, whether it be a live birth or an abortion, should not matter to the health system.

Greater scrutiny of “crisis pregnancy centres”

“Crisis pregnancy centres” are ideological organisations set up to look like medical clinics, counselling providers, or charitable organisations that provide for pregnant people and new parents. Their actual purpose is to draw in unsuspecting pregnant people to pressure them not to abort, even if they want to. Many new CPCs have sprung up since law reform.

The Ministry of Health’s decide.org has had a protective effect by enabling pregnant people to organise unbiased counselling through its website or by calling 0800 DECIDE. Hopefully the only people attending CPCs in future will be those who mean to do so.

This is another area where a National government could mess with abortion provision without repealing or defunding it. The law currently only funds unbiased, accredited counsellors to provide pre- and post-abortion counselling. If biased, anti-abortion counsellors were funded, it would blur the distinction between them and actual counsellors, and put pregnant people at risk of (at best) having their time wasted, or (at worst) being pressured to do as the counsellor wants them to.

Some CPCs still receive money from the government’s COGS.[5] This happens because even though the rules say that money is not supposed to fund religious or political activities, the Ministry of Internal Affairs chooses to look the other way when local COGS grant committees, who often do not have any information about organisations applying for grants apart from their applications, unknowingly give them money.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for setting up and administering the process around COGS grants, and local committees are responsible for distributing the money. There are opportunities here to make sure no government money goes to support CPCs, through better education of COGS committees around the rules, and through supporting committees’ due diligence efforts.

The public can and should demand a greater commitment from Internal Affairs to follow the rules, and to inform COGS committees about the groups that apply for funds. Organisers can keep track of who gets grant money, and let people know about it.

Do these issues sound trivial? Kind of peripheral? They are, in a way. They are the boring work of administering human rights that don’t inspire flights of great oratory, but are essential to ensuring that human rights are not just words on a page, they are principles that actually benefit people.

Demands for societal change

Challenging abortion stigma

Abortion stigma is the attribution of negative characteristics to people who have abortions. It is part of the right wing canon of projections intended to justify rolling back women’s rights to the 1950s, if not the 1850s.

Given the popularity of abortion on request in Aotearoa you wouldn’t think abortion stigma would be as big a problem as it demonstrably is. But patriarchy lives here too, and stigma is often part of unconsciously held belief systems that people carry without realising or recognising it.

Abortion stigma will exist as long as these things continue to exist: misogyny, sexism, and fond memories of a time when an unwanted pregnancy could ruin a woman’s life in ways it could never ruin a man’s. It is tightly coupled with patriarchy and the question of who gets to tell whom what to do.[6]

Even those who support abortion rights can sometimes act as unwitting carriers of abortion stigma by reinforcing stereotypes around “good” abortions for medical reasons and “bad” abortions that result from some perceived deviation from responsible behaviour, like the failure to use contraception or multiple abortions.

Abortion stigma is pernicious because it keeps abortion from being treated as normal health care. When health care providers feel justified in refusing to provide this care, refusing to facilitate its provision, or treating those who receive it with disdain, abortion stigma is alive and well.

It keeps people from talking about their abortions by making them feel unsafe doing so. Since one in four people with uteri have had abortions, that is a lot of people feeling unsafe.

The history of abortion-related harassment justifies their fear. This history includes violence, assault, and murder. If a person has a choice in the moment whether to acknowledge their abortion to someone whose views they do not know, why would they take the risk? When all they have to do to stay safe is keep quiet?

Silence around abortion causes harm. It allows people who don’t think about abortion very much to imagine that no one they know has ever had an abortion (almost certainly untrue). It deprives people of the opportunity to understand others and empathise with them.

While abortion law reform was happening, some brave people told their abortion stories to journalists who preserved their anonymity. This gave other people insight into the decisions pregnant people faced, and why they chose as they did. The empathy those stories created drove the ever-increasing support for abortion we saw during that time.

That empathy was a disaster for anti-abortion activists. They saw the 1950s sexual mores that form the bedrock of the moral code they seek to impose on others melt away before their eyes.

This is why anti-abortion activists are so desperate to continue to stigmatise abortion as much as they can. It is the only weapon they have left (apart from actual weapons).

So they harass people outside abortion services, pressure pregnant people who stumble into CPCs, and push their retrograde ideology and religious extremism. By talking about abortion as something outside the norm of regular health care, they hope to keep it so. Their views are grotesquely out of step with Aotearoa of 2022.

Abortion stigma needs to be eradicated. The more people realise folks who have abortions are just like them, the less inclined they will be to let any future government mess around with the reproductive rights. The more empathy increases, the less inclined people are to judge others, or to condone harassing them, praying over them, or slut-shaming them.

We need to create more safe spaces and safe people by challenging anti-abortion rhetoric, behaviour, and assumptions wherever we find them. The more privilege you have the more important it is, because privileged people have more societal licence to say their piece in safety. Challenging abortion stigma is as much the job of cis men as of everybody else.

Fighting disinformation

One of the ways anti-abortion activists frequently stigmatise abortion is disinformation. This will come as no surprise to those who were paying attention during law reform. The scaremongering was epic.

Disinformation about abortion is in some ways the ur-disinformation. Ignoring reality and disregarding facts about abortion has been standard operating procedure of anti-abortion activists since “The Silent Scream”.

Often people don’t like to talk about disinformation for fear of giving lies more oxygen, and confusing people who aren’t paying much attention. But experts have recommended a method of talking about disinformation that is not harmful.

For example, abortion does not increase a person’s chances of infertility, according to reputable medical organisations. But anti-abortion websites and handouts often say it does, as part of their ongoing efforts to pressure people not to have abortions. But abortion does not increase someone’s risk of infertility.

See what I did there? That is called a truth sandwich. The lie (“abortion causes infertility”) is sandwiched between a truth repeated twice, i.e., that abortion does not cause infertility. The power of this technique lies in not making assumptions about what the people reading or listening already know about the subject. By the end of the explanation, everyone capable of understanding is on the same page.

Dealing with disinformation one-on-one is a whole different conversation.[7] Calling out abortion stigma in all its forms is a task that will require years, thousands of people, and millions of interactions. The result will definitely be worth it.

This article was intended to address organising in support of reproductive rights. That work is sporadic and somewhat reactive. But the important work of changing our society happens every day, when we challenge the assumptions of others. This is the best work anyone can do to safeguard reproductive rights.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_United_States#:~:text=People%20with%20no%20formal%20religious,%25%20Catholic%20and%202%25%20other

[2] https://figure.nz/chart/RfmHYb2IsMMrn9OC

[3] https://genderequal.nz/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Report_NCWNZ_Gender-Attitudes-Survey-2021-FINAL_01-03-22.pdf

[4] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/in-depth/437090/free-contraception-criteria-punitive-stigmatising-and-restrictive-doctor

[5] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/in-depth/398080/anti-abortion-charity-pregnancy-counselling-services-received-300k-taxpayer-money

[6] https://medium.com/@_EthanGrey/the-message-of-the-republican-party-dont-tread-on-me-i-tread-on-you-936037958bce

[7] This article has a few tips: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-55350794