Where does profit come from?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) please click here.

Take a KFC store, rented from the corporation by a franchisee. How does the store produce profit? It’s just a building.

For Marxists, the “material elements of capital” are “man [people] and Nature.”1 Take the window of a KFC drive-through, an element of the ‘capital’ that is the KFC store. The window’s glass began as sand; miners extracted the sand from an open pit; transport workers moved the sand into massive silos; through a complex scientific process in a factory, workers heated the sand, transformed it into liquid glass, flattened it with tin, cooled and solidified it, resulting in glass as we know it; workers cut, transported and installed the glass in the store window; a KFC worker now slides the window open, and hands over a delicious Zinger Burger. At every step of the way, workers transformed and re-transformed natural elements for human need. This is what the capitalists profits from; the transformation of ‘natural’ elements by workers.

So, there is no productive capital without labour (or Nature). By contrast, labour (not to mention Nature!) without a capitalist is possible. In the Argentinian occupied factory movement, workers took over factories and ran them democratically, instead of accepting redundancies. While these factories still operate within a capitalist market, their victory demonstrates how workers can operate without capitalists – whereas the opposite is not true.

But if workers are not reliant on capitalists, where do wages come from? Let us return to KFC. Max Caulfield makes 50 burgers in one hour. Each burger is sold for $5. She is paid $15 an hour. In other words, her first 3 burgers have already covered an hour’s wages in the first 10 minutes. 7 more burgers cover the price of ingredients, and a share of the store’s fixed costs. The remaining 40 burgers in the hour make $200. Stretch that out to 8 hours, and she will be paid $120, while the company will make $1,600 out of her labour. Max was not paid out of profits: rather, the profits were the surplus of the value of produced by her work. (Of course, other steps in the supply chain – the slaughter of chickens, the sale of the burger – also cost and reproduce capital, but the worker is essential at each step).

What about investment? Isn’t the investor also essential to the process? Doesn’t the investor take the risk? To get into this question, I’m going to go into a bit of detail about corporate structure and culture – if you get bored, the short version is that capitalism still sucks. So, investment requires prior capital. Capital may be inherited, as with Trump. It may be reinvested from a prior business: Warren Buffet serves as the entrepreneurial ideal, the teenager who brought a pinball machine for $25, brought more pinball machines out of the profit from that, and so on.2 For a KFC store, a franchisee must hire the real estate to run the restaurant – KFC’s owner Yum Brands don’t so much run restaurants as hire large amounts of real estate to franchisees. Setup costs are substantial,3 so the franchisee is likely to be independently wealthy. Franchisee average profits aren’t publicly available, but we can safely bet they’re better off than their employees, and inconsequential compared to the CEO or owners. The franchisee may be a tyrant, they may be perfectly lovable, but their job is essentially to ensure the corporate machine continues unhindered. Yum Brands are very restrictive about how KFC stores must be run, down to minute details like how often you shake the chicken after taking it out of the brine (7 times): they must protect the brand, and ‘product quality’ factors into that. Occasionally stores go through periods of laxness, followed by tight clampdowns. Like many companies, Yum Brands is financed through debt. They have $2.5billion of long-term debt,4 which sounds like a lot to me, but they haven’t gone bankrupt so obviously they’re getting some money back too (meanwhile McDonalds has 24.4billion dollars in long-term debt, economics is counterintuitive). In 2016, Yum Brands was on the market selling $2bn of bonds5 – a bond is basically selling your debt. Why would you buy debt? Apparently, bond buyers make money from the interest on the debt, or from random fluctuations in the market which bond buyers pretend they can predict.6 So, here we have our investor, let’s call him Guy White: he just brought Yum Brands bonds on his laptop. Now let’s rewind the corporate chain: he’s earning interest on the capital loaned to a company for selling real estate to a franchisee who employs people to sell food. This brings us back to Max, who has just made her 400th burger for the day, and just before she clocks off, been asked to clean up urine in the bathroom (not in her job description). Guy is now considering whether to invest in Lockheed Martin. The gap between Max and Guy is significant, metaphorically and literally. Of course, Guy is only one of many investors, one beneficiary of the vortex that is Yum Brands, with CEO Greg Creed earning a $15.3 million salary in 2016, not to mention the profit extracted by owners.7 The most tangible, beneficial human service in this whole psychodrama, and KFC’s most visible commodity, is the service of food. But the distribution of rewards for actually making and selling food is shaped like an inverted pyramid, or a tornado: the rewards get bigger the further up the vortex you go from the actual work of making food. And we don’t need this destructive, exploitative structure to make food.

Of course, Yum Brands is not the only company on the market. Finance traders participate in an impenetrable blood-sport: the trading of debts, packaged into various exotic products, their origins ever more obscure. As we all saw in 2008, this is a house of cards. Even the most successful trader runs the risk of losing big and tragically having to sell his super-yacht. Marx used the term ‘fictitious capital’ for money that represents the promise of more money, rather than having any clear relationship to production.

The production process itself may even be fictitious, as with Enron’s infamous scandal, where some of their power plants weren’t even running in the first place. As Enron encouraged workers to buy shares, when the company collapsed, the loss felt by investors genuinely was unfortunate. David Harvey once observed that while he was excited about Syriza, he was also worried about how their winning would affect his pension (as pensions are increasingly financialised). Not all investors are demons, and capitalism has a way of drawing us all into complicity. But it’s hard to conclude that the global financial market allocates goods and services rationally, or justly.

So what next? What if machines replace our labour? Wouldn’t that mean the worker becomes redundant, and the machine generates the profit? Some in the scientific community believe a ‘Singularity’ of accelerating artificial intelligence will replace human intelligence – essentially robots taking over, but potentially nice ones. That would be one way of transcending capitalism!

However, despite appearances, current trends do not point to an absolute replacement of human labour by machinery. Capitalists make certain jobs redundant through automation, but they also invest in new ones to make more profit. Overall unemployment still appears unaffected by rapid revolutions in technology. Employment growth still closely correlates with GDP growth, an old trend,8 not with technological changes.

If you take a supermarket as an anecdotal example, self-service kiosks mean that customers must now scan and bag their own groceries, but there are still many attendants available to help if anything goes wrong – the nature of the work has changed.

Observably, what technological development means is a rearrangement of the labour market, increasing precarity, underemployment, jobs that don’t last, perpetual restructuring – not the end of work, but the destabilisation of work. For this reason, even many pro-capitalist theorists advocate a Universal Basic Income.

Automation has marched on since the inception of capitalism. Take the infamous 19th century struggle of the Luddites. The Luddites were textile workers who feared their work would be replaced by the new looms, which simplified the process of weaving. Previously a specialised form of labour, it was now becoming industrialised. Luddites sabotaged the looms. In a sense, they were absolutely right – their labour was replaced – however, it was replaced by people operating looms. The labour process is transformed, not entirely discharged.

Perhaps the role of capitalists, and managers, is to coordinate this extraordinarily complex process… by casting formerly valued workers onto the streets and hoping the state will foot the bill (before complaining about the taxes leveraged to do so).

Democratic, non-profit co-ops of workers and consumers would be much better suited to meeting human needs sustainably. As mentioned before, worker-owned factories operate from Argentina to Spain’s Mondragon, with democratic decision-making structures and no need of bosses.

In sum: Capitalists need us, we don’t need them.

1Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1

2Brenton Hayden, Warren Buffet Knows It…, Entrepeneur https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/241196

3Hayley Peterson, Here’s what it costs to open a KFC, Business Insider

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/what-it-costs-to-open-a-kfc-2015-7?r=US&IR=T

5Adam Samson, Yum to offer $2.3bn in new bonds, Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/84422df9-004d-3de8-8053-bcf5c52e93d6

6Nickolas Lioudis, How does an investor make money on bonds?, Investopedia https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/how-does-investor-make-money-on-bonds/

7David A Mann, Pay for CEO of leaner Yum Brands more than doubled last year, Louisville Business First

https://www.bizjournals.com/louisville/news/2017/04/10/pay-for-ceo-of-leaner-yum-brands-more-than-doubled.html

8Doug Henwood, Workers: No Longer Needed?, LBO News https://lbo-news.com/2015/07/17/workers-no-longer-needed/

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How was capitalism established in Aotearoa and Australia?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) click here.

A state can be defined as a monopoly on violence: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”1 For Marxist geographer David Harvey, “accumulation by dispossession [is] the hallmark of what capital is really about.”2 Put simply, a ruling class must establish sole control over land and resources.

So what was necessary to establish a capitalist state Australia and Aotearoa?

Firstly, the bloody dispossession of land from indigenous peoples, and secondly the importation of European labourers. While this colonisation by Great Britain is a common thread between Australia and Aotearoa, it also played out differently in each country, so this piece will be broken into two brief sections, before a conclusion.

This article cannot represent the complexity of indigenous knowledge and struggle. This is a tauiwi (non- Māori) perspective, intended to explain the motor of colonisation. If you want to engage with indigenous knowledge and history, scholars such as Moana Jackson, Ani Mikaere, Leonie Pihama, Ranginui Walker, and Gary Foley are recommended.

Aotearoa

In the 19th century, Britain was rent with economic crisis. Colonisation served two useful purposes: claiming new raw materials, and exporting surplus labour (workers without work). This was justified through race theory, which portrayed indigenous people as inferior.

However, direct Crown intervention in Aotearoa was expensive. Until the late 1830s, unofficial actors – missionaries, traders and explorers – moved ahead of the Crown. The Crown only became directly involved when they developed a scheme of selling land in the colonies to prospective settlers, thereby funding colonisation.

To establish capitalism, the Crown had to transform the relationship between people and the land. Whereas iwi and hapu (Māori kinship groups) lived collectively off the land, capitalism required that the majority be separated from the land, forced to live off meagre wages (a process that had first been carried out with the dispossession of European peasants). That required systematically depriving iwi of their land.

Initially, a fraudulent Treaty was intended to establish the basis for Crown and settler ownership (with later struggles demanding that the Treaty be honoured). From 1840 to 1870, the Crown and settlers engaged in “rampant expropriation” of the land, as well as setting up a political infrastructure (with parliament established in 1854 on the British model). This colonisation drive led inevitably to the Land Wars, as iwi were not keen to part with their land.

Māori were initially excluded from production, driven onto ‘unproductive’ land. Wage labour was mainly provided by European settlers, until urbanisation in the 20th century led to more Māori joining the urban workforce – 8% of Māori lived in ‘defined urban areas’ in 1926, compared to 41.1% by 1996.3 By the late 20th century, urban and rural Māori would combine forces in leading a new wave of resistance.

Australia

Infamously, Australia’s colonisation began in 1788 with a penal colony in New South Wales. As with Aotearoa, European labour – in this case, initially, convict labour – was imported. Exploitation of convicts was brutal:

In April 1798 an Irish convict who worked in a gang in Toongabbee threw down his hoe and gave three cheers for liberty. He was rushed off to the magistrate, then tied up in the field where his ‘delusions’ had first overwhelmed him, and flogged so that his fellow-Irishmen might ponder of the consequences of challenging the English supremacy.

This brutally exploitative system lived alongside the collectivist society of the Aborigines for many decades, with tensions often flaring up. Although antipathy grew between Aborigines and settlers, Aborigines expressed sympathy at times with the brutal conditions faced by exploited convicts:

At the same time the Aborigines began to evince disgust and hatred for some features of the white man’s civilisation. When a convict was detected stealing tackle from an Aboriginal women in 1791, Phillip decided to have him flogged in the presence of the Aborigines to prove that the white man’s justice benefited blacks as well as whites. All the Aborigines displayed strong abhorrence of the punishment and sympathy with the sufferer. They shed tears, and one of the picked up a stick and menaced the flagellator.4

In the 1820s and 1830s, Australia began to shift from its origins as a penal colony towards becoming an agricultural hub, with ‘free’ wage labourers increasingly imported from Britain. Throughout the 19th century, the settler population grew, as did appropriation of land – resisted by Aborigines. As in Aotearoa, military conflict was necessary for the Crown to take control, with frontier wars breaking out from first arrival right through to the early 20th century. Estimates indicate at least 20,000 Aborigines were killed in the frontier wars, and about 2,000 settlers. In 1901, Britain’s existing colonies federated into a single capitalist nation-state: the Commonwealth of Australia.

Essentially, the capitalist state was imposed through the barrel of a gun.

Postscript: Is there hope?

This conclusion is focused on Aotearoa, due to my greater familiarity.

Waitangi settlements in total make up about $1.6 billion, compared to about $20 billion annual national income.5 This is woefully inadequate. As private appropriation of land was the basis of colonisation, only a radical redistribution of land and resources can address indigenous dispossession.

Constitutional lawyer Moana Jackson recently led a project consulting Māori on “Constitutional Transformation.” Supported by iwi (Māori kinship groups), but independent of the Crown, the working group conducted 252 hui (discussions) between 2012 and 2015. The report stressed the need for a balance between rangatiratanga (Māori self-governance) and kāwanatanga (Pākehā self-governance).6 However, the report focused on the rangatiratanga side: the question of kāwanatanga (Pākehā governance) remains open. Ultimately, Constitutional Transformation requires that not just Māori but Pākehā take responsibility for transforming society. To quote Donna Awatere’s Māori Sovereignty:

Set against our people has been the united strength of white people. The Māori now seeks to break that unity in the interests of justice for the Māori people… Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic consciousness has relevance to Māori sovereignty. In hegemonic consciousness, a class puts its interests with other classes at a national level and establishes alliances with them. These alliances are necessary because changes cannot occur with the Māori on our own. White people have cut across class barriers to unite on the basis of white hegemony… To overcome this requires a restructuring of the white alliance.

Awatere ultimately despaired of this restructuring of white alliance occurring, advocated withdrawal from Pākehā left spaces, and later joined the political right. As a mainly tauiwi group, Fightback seeks to break the ‘white alliance.’ This is a cross-class alliance that leads white workers to believe they benefit from colonisation. In a sense this is true: Pākehā are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be imprisoned, and likely to be higher paid.

However, by supporting rich right-wing politicians, white workers ultimately vote against their own interests. Infamously, Don Brash’s ‘Orewa speech’ against ‘race-based funding’ saw a surge in polls, particularly pronounced among manual workers. As revealed by Nicky Hager’s Hollow Men, this speech was a cynical ploy by a politician who sought to deepen the neoliberal revolution, which would undermine the conditions of his blue-collar supporters. Whiteness is corrosive to working-class liberation. Standing with Māori for collective self-determination would ultimately free Pākehā workers from a system that exploits all. Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

To end on an optimistic note. During the Māori renaissance of the 1970s, as Māori resisted attempts to sell Māori-owned land at Bastion Point, the Auckland Trades Council placed a ‘Green Ban’ on construction at Bastion Point. Union members were not to participate in any Crown/settler-led construction on this site. Members of the Communist Party of New Zealand won the Trades Council to this position. Memories like this are the heritage we need to build on.

1Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation

2David Harvey, Private Appropriation and Common Wealth, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

3Evan Poata-Smith, The Political Economy of Inequality Between Māori and Pakeha, The Political Economy of New Zealand (Brian Roper ed)

4Manning Clark, A Short History of Australia

5Bruce Anderson, Chapter 32: Redistribution, A New Place to Stand https://itstimetojump.com/32-redistribution/

6THE REPORT OF MATIKE MAI AOTEAROA – THE INDEPENDENT WORKING GROUP ON CONSTITUTIONAL TRANSFORMATION, http://www.converge.org.nz/pma/MatikeMaiAotearoaReport.pdf

Is capitalism (or greed) part of human nature?

capitalism timeline

This article is a part of Fightback’s ‘What is Capitalism’ series, to be collected together in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) through PayPal or credit card click here.

A common criticism of socialist politics holds that greed, or even capitalism, is necessary to human nature. However, most of human history was not capitalist. This social system has existed for approximately 300 years out of 200,000 years of human existence: in other words, capitalism makes up 0.15% of our time on earth. More complicated is the claim that greed, clearly older than capitalism, is fundamental to our nature.

The claim that ‘greed is human nature’ has a kernel of truth. Humans, like any creature, are naturally attracted to activities that are rewarded. If humans are rewarded for their greed, most will act accordingly. We can’t all be Jesus. However, greed is far from the only human compulsion. Cooperation and care are also necessary to ‘human nature.’

Cooperation and care are even necessary to capitalism. A private corporation requires huge amounts of cooperation: between workers in different departments, customers and workers, bosses and workers. If everyone acted on their own individual impulses, companies would likely not function. Capitalism is a cooperative social system. Although the profits are privatised, the labour process is socialised. Without this cooperative labour, the luxuries enjoyed by the rich would be impossible.

Care is also necessary for human existence, and for capitalism. As Terry Eagleton highlights in Why Marx Was Right:

For a long time after birth [human beings] are unable to fend for themselves, and are thus in need of a prolonged period of nurturing… Even if the care they receive is appalling, infants very quickly imbibe some notion of what caring for others means. This is one reason why, later on, they may be able to identify a whole way of life as callously indifferent to human needs. In this sense, we can move from being prematurely born to politics.

Care must be built into any society. In this sense capitalism undermines human existence – unemployed single mothers are punished, rather than helped, despite doing necessary work. Although capitalism does not always reward care work, care work remains necessary for capitalism, as it would for any society. People perform care without reward, showing that ‘human nature’ involves compulsions other than greed.

Greed is not outside the range of human nature – anything humans do is, by definition, a capacity of ‘human nature’ – but it is currently so central because it drives and is driven by capitalism. By contrast, a socialist society could reward collective behaviour. Returning to Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right:

Take, for example, the idea of a self-governing cooperative, which Marx seems to have regarded as the key productive unit of the socialist future. One person’s contribution to such an outfit allows for some kind of self-realisation; but it also contributes to the wellbeing of the others, and this simply by virtue of the way the place is set up. I do not have to have tender thoughts about my fellow workers, or whip myself into an altruistic frenzy every two hours. My own self-realisation helps to enhance theirs simply because of the cooperative, profit-sharing, egalitarian, commonly governed nature of the unit. It is a structural affair, not a question of personal virtue.

Put simply, different societies reward different kinds of behaviour. A society that rewarded egalitarian cooperation would make avarice less attractive.

This would not be totally unprecedented. Anthropologists have highlighted ‘gift economies’, based on giving rather than financial exchange. In the lands that would later be named New Zealand and Australia, where indigenous societies lived off the land collectively, capitalism had to be imposed through colonisation (see ‘How was capitalism established in Aotearoa and Australia?’ in this issue). If capitalism is a part of human nature, why did so many people engage in bloody wars to defend their way of life?

Unless you’re reading this as a historical text in a post-capitalist society (inshallah), all of us were raised under capitalism. We internalise its compulsions. When we wake up in the morning, we see Capitalism in the mirror, and blame the figure that stares back:

where the whole world is against us, we begin to take its part against ourselves, to avoid the withering sensation of being alone on our side.”1

The notion of ‘human nature’ itself is debatable, hence the quotation marks. Humans are very adaptable. There are compulsions we all experience, like the need for food – but this does not mean human behaviour is permanently fixed in one form.

Now, with the complex cooperation that has overcome the scarcity of earlier societies, we could achieve an egalitarian society with greater comfort than ever before. Likely people would still harbour the occasional negative thought, but the point is to liberate ourselves, not to redeem all our sins. The primary barrier is not human nature, but that minority which benefits most from colonial capitalism, and resists any attempt at redistribution.

1Robert Maturin, Melmoth The Wanderer

Do we really live under capitalism?

In short: yes.

However, some claim that the regulating role of the state means that this system is not ‘true capitalism.’

Capitalism can be defined quite straightforwardly, if tautologically: an economic system based on the private ownership of capital. This is a descriptive definition rather than an ideal one: capital can be defined as financial and productive wealth (shares, land, factories etc). This definition is not distinctly socialist: The Oxford Dictionary defines capital as “wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization or available for a purpose such as starting a company or investing.” (Later we will break this concept down further, but Oxford’s definition will suffice for now).

In other words, capital is private property used to generate profits. This is distinct from previous social systems, such as indigenous societies, where land was collectively rather than privately owned. Under capitalism, an investor may own and profit from miles of irrigated land he will never visit, an inconceivable concept in most indigenous societies.

Although many libertarians define capitalism as a free market without state involvement, we again define capitalism straightforwardly: a system based on the accumulation and circulation of capital. The relationship between property owners and the state varies, but the property relations are the common feature.

The involvement of the state does not in itself negate capitalism. In fact, the state often serves capital. This is most obvious in the case of massive subsidies and tax breaks given to corporations. There are also more extreme cases: in Chile 1973, a democratically elected socialist government was overthrown by a military regime that implemented pro-market reforms, the first of the so-called ‘neoliberal’ policy regimes that would soon sweep the world. By contrast, in countries such as Aotearoa and Australia, a relatively representative democracy operates alongside undemocratic private property relations. Democracy can be tolerated by the powerful, up to a point.

Even state regulations that help workers also stabilise capitalism as a whole. For example, clashes between labour and capital over the work-day were resolved in the interests of labour, with a state-imposed 8-hour work day, but this also prevented that bloody conflict from destabilising capitalism itself (it’s also a reform that has largely slipped from our grasp again). Similarly, minimum wage laws guarantee a certain amount of social stability, as well as ensuring that workers have the money to buy commodities, thereby lubricating the profit system. Individual capitalists, by acting in their own interests – increasing the work day, cutting wages – destabilise capitalism as a social system. Through regulation, the state saves capitalism from itself.

The state also develops infrastructure necessary to capitalism. Roading, railways, and other national infrastructure are too expensive for any given capitalist to produce, so the state uses its accumulated resources to invest in this infrastructure (often giving individual capitalists lucrative contracts in the process). Taxes, seen by some right-wingers as an attack on capital, enable this investment that ensures a stable basis for capitalism.

The capitalist state also provides police, and the military, to protect and enforce the capitalist system. The police first developed in 19th century Britain and the USA, not in response to any increase in crime, but in response to angry working-class mobs: riots, strikes and slave insurrections.1

Even some nominal socialists claim that the state is inherently socialist, just as right-wing libertarians do. Bernie Sanders claimed that the military and police are socialist, because they are provided by the state. However, Irish socialist James Connolly explains the problem with this in his work State Monopoly versus Socialism:

Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production… state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials… To the cry of the middle class reformers, “make this or that the property of the government,” we reply, “yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.”

For revolutionary socialists, the question is not state or capital: state ownership can exist in a capitalist system. The question is private exploitation, or collective liberation. We may use the levers of the state at times, but only where they benefit liberation struggles, not because the state is automatically socialist. Capitalist states continue to predominate in the world today, and in Australasia specifically.

This article is a part of Fightback’s ‘What is Capitalism’ series, to be collected together in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) through PayPal or credit card click here.

Crowdfund: Trans-Tasman socialist (e-)publication

fboznz

WILL FIGHTBACK CONTINUE? YOU DECIDE!

Dear comrades and friends:

Since 2012, Fightback has produced media for the socialist and radical Left in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Our work has alsoreached outside this country; some of our material has been translated into other languages, and republished as far afield as Austria and Ukraine.

We’ve aimed to provide analysis and information which bridges the gap between the world of academic journals and the world of activists on the street. We’ve attempted to apply cutting-edge social justice theory to the everyday movements against capitalism and the capitalist, colonial, patriarchal state in this country.

We don’t uphold any particular ideological “dogma”. Instead, we have tried to synthesize the best that the Marxist tradition has to offer with the insights of the queer/trans, feminist, and tino rangatira literature.

In the past few years in particular, we’ve produced “special issues” (on WomenYouth activism and Pasefika activism in particular) which have not only solicited writing from outside the “usual suspects” of the Marxist left, but successfully fundraised so that contributors could be reimbursed for their work, something which is disturbingly rare even on the radical left.

But if you want all this to continue, it’s time to contribute. Fightback needs your financial support or we will cease to exist. It’s that simple.

Our most recent conference decided to make the push for Fightback to become a trans-Tasman journal of the radical and activist Left. In the modern era of free movement across the Tasman, “Australasia” is becoming a reality in a way it has not been since the 19th century. So many New Zealanders (tauiwi as well as tangata whenua) now live and work in Australia – and decisions made in one country increasingly impact the other, as the inter-governmental controversy surrounding the Manus Island detention camp shows.

We wish to crucially engage socialists from both sides of the Tasman – in particular, socialists from Aotearoa living and working in Australia – to continue the lines of analysis and directions of organisation which we have being pursuing. Beyond the dogmas of “sect Marxism”; beyond national boundaries; towards a genuinely decolonized, democratic, feminist and queer-friendly anti-capitalism.

This will cost money. In New Zealand terms, we will need at least $3,000 to continue our schedule of producing 4 print magazines a year, including paying writers for a Special Issue on Accessibility. Our minimum goal – $1,100 – would cover an online-only media project including an e-publication, also paying writers for the Accessibility issue.

The financial question is a political question. If what Fightback has been doing since 2012 is of value to socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand – and if our vision for the future inspires people on both sides of the Tasman – then our friends and comrades simply have to put their money where their sympathies lie. Otherwise, the project will come to an end this year. It really is as simple as that.

If you like what we do, please support our crowdfunding appeal, to the extent you possibly can. And if you can’t support financially – please, raise your hand to help us with writing, web design, proof reading or the thousand and one other little jobs that unpaid volunteers have been doing over the last six years. We really look forward to hearing from you.

 

In solidarity,

Daphne Lawless

co-ordinating editor (NZ-based), Fightback

[Click here to pledge]

Book review: The Impossible Revolution – Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

fall-of-the-regime

Demonstration outside Syrian embassy in London – art by Hamid Sulaiman (source).

By Ani White.

As sectarianism and the far-right rear their heads internationally, it’s easy to forget the optimism of 2011. Those seeking to understand this trajectory must read Syrian revolutionary Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essay collection The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

A foreword by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote the excellent work Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, explains why this work is so essential:

 ” ‘They simply do not see us’, [Yassin al-Haj Saleh] laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running counter to all evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.”

For many ‘anti-imperialists’, this disengagement is a matter of maintaining a clear ideology. Given the focus on the USA as the Great Satan, a situation where the USA’s role is marginal, where a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ regime perpetrates mass slaughter with the support of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is ideologically inconvenient. The retreat into conspiracy theory (depicting revolutionaries as foreign agents) serves to warp reality so it stays consistent with ideology.

Although this ideology claims the mantle of anti-imperialism, its proponents see people exactly as empires do; pawns on a global chessboard. To regain our revolutionary conscience, ‘anti-imperialists’ must learn from the ground up, through an allegiance with people rather than states. As a Syrian communist partisan of the revolution, Saleh’s work is crucial in this rethinking of the world.

Having spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, Saleh is an implacable opponent of the regime – yet as the so-called ‘conscience of the revolution’, he is also a thoughtful opponent, raising challenging questions for all who read. Most of the essays in this collection were written during 2011, capturing the spirit of the moment. Yet right from the start, Saleh also delves deeper into historical and structural questions to explain driving factors in the revolution. Later essays, from 2012-2015, provide perhaps the most significant sustained analysis of the revolution’s tragic collapse available in English.

Saleh’s analysis is both educational on the Syrian situation specifically, and a master-class in structural analysis generally.  An early essay outlines the class composition of Syrian society. Saleh identifies a ‘new bourgeoisie’ that is the base of the Assads’ dictatorship; the loyal intellectuals of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, who offer superficial opposition without questioning the fundamentals of Assad’s rule; an urban middle class, and a poor rural majority, who together formed the base of the revolution. Saleh suggests that the middle class and poor were united by an experience of work, in contrast to those who prosper without working. This gulf widened during the early 2000s, with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

To explain how the Assads have maintained power, Saleh often returns to Assad Sr’s development of a brutal security apparatus, and an ideological apparatus centring on Assad himself. This fiefdom was inherited by his son. Saleh argues that this is a fascist state apparatus, a characterisation that is worth thinking through given the international rise of the far right, many in fact exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is commonly asserted that the Syrian revolution is discredited by sectarianism. In particular, the Sunni majority is often depicted as too sectarian to govern. Although it is a dangerous simplification, this view has a ring of truth as confusing sectarian warfare fills the nightly news: as Saleh grimly notes in his final essay, Syria’s war “promises to be an ideal specimen for the study of sectarianism.” In this disquieting spirit, the later essays consider the problem in detail.

Saleh famously distinguishes between the ‘neck-tie fascists’ of the regime and the ‘long-beard fascists’ of political Islam, indicating the way Syrians are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he avoids the common simplification that ‘both sides/all sides are equally bad.’ He centrally contends that sectarianism is a political tool, not a matter of ancient identity. More specifically, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the Assadist regime itself.

Saleh’s final essay, the longest in the collection, roots modern sectarianism in the Assadist ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ This state opportunistically fosters sectarianism in various ways, all preserving a dictatorial power structure. Firstly, the ‘neo-Sultanic state’ fosters sectarianism with the elevation of Alawites, an Islamic sect of which the ‘Sultans’ (Assads) are members. Secondly, while the repressive apparatus (or ‘inner state’) is sectarian, the ideological apparatus (or ‘outer state’) maintains a kind of hollow secularism that represses discussion of sectarianism. Thirdly, the development of a corrupt ‘clientelism’ (bribes, favours for friends, and other forms of cronyism) that favours some sects over others.

Saleh argues that sectarianism is ultimately about class, providing cultural justifications for material hierarchies. In Syria specifically, the Sunni majority is dispossessed, and their poverty is blamed on their cultural ignorance.

In this repressive context, devoid of a common civil society, it is remarkable that the 2011 revolution saw such a flowering of non-sectarian sentiment. Slogans such as ‘Sunnis and Alawis are One’ defied the Balkanisation of communities fostered under the Assad regime.

To undercut the legitimacy of the uprising, Assad’s regime set out to stoke sectarianism. The regime carried out massacres targeting Sunnis well before the revolutionaries armed themselves, and infamously released many Salafists from jail.

Saleh refers to the growth of political Islam in this context as a kind of ‘militant nihilism’ – seeing the whole world as corrupted, withdrawing into an abstracted mental space that justifies all manner of cleansing violence. Nonetheless, Saleh maintains that this is only a defensive posture given the besieged and isolated position of the Sunni majority (note that this analysis does not apply to ISIS, who are essentially an occupying power not borne of the revolution).

With the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many observers have returned to the confirmation bias which says Sunni Arabs are too backwards to govern, too easily forgetting what 2011 illuminated. While discussing the many sectarian ‘fiefdoms’ developing by 2013, Saleh clarifies: “The fall of the regime would not mean an end to the process of ‘feudalization’ – but there is no hope of stopping this feudalization without overthrowing the regime.”

Saleh promotes a democratic Syrian nationalism, as an alternative to both Assad’s Syria and an Islamic state.

This progressive nationalism is worth considering critically. Saleh suggests that only the revolutionaries truly adhere to the ideal of ‘Syria’, often implying their enemies are not truly Syrian (whether by citizenship or philosophy).  Assad’s regime is regularly compared to a colonial regime, and Islamists are depicted as fundamentally more international than local. These are compelling points, and everyone can probably agree that tensions internal to Syria have been exploited by various international actors. At one point Saleh suggests in passing that the ‘central bourgeoisie’ could also be considered an ‘external bourgeoisie’ due to its international trade. However, identifying the revolution with ‘Syria’ and counter-revolutionary enemies with ‘foreignness’ seems surprisingly Manichean for such a sophisticated thinker (and an ironic inversion of the Assadist propaganda that all rebels are foreign agents). Even if international forces exploit divisions in Syrian society, that doesn’t mean that all enemies come from outside Syrian society. Some may also question Saleh’s position on the Kurdish national question, apparently believing that a liberated Syria should include Kurdish territory under a single nation (though recognising linguistic and cultural rights), in contrast to the secessionist position held by the Kurdish leadership.

Conversely, Saleh’s nationalism is far from an unthinking adherence; rejecting the stifling culture of the Assad regime, he calls for the development of a pluralist Republican intellectual culture. Saleh’s nationalism is more Gramscian then jingoistic, seeking the development of a new civil society, and his ‘Syria’ is aspirational. For Saleh and other Syrian revolutionaries, ‘Free Syria’ holds the promise of a unity based on common citizenship rather than Balkanised sects. This vision stands in stark contrast to the Assadist form of ‘Modernization’, which treats the Sunni majority as children to be managed for their own good, rather than democratic subjects.

The Impossible Revolution is essential reading for anyone considering social transformation in the 21st Century. It should be read along with Burning Country (reviewed here).

Event notice: Aukati – Stop Racism! (TOMORROW)

AUKATI1

October 28th is the commemoration date of the United Tribes Declaration of Independence, and the Land Wars. On this day we acknowledge the ongoing fight for tino rangatiratanga.

However, the white supremacist National Front has chosen this date for its ‘flag day’ march on parliament. The National Front deny that Māori were the first people of Aotearoa, among their other bigoted ideas. We will stop their mobilisation and reclaim this day for all who seek justice in Aotearoa.

Everyone who supports this kaupapa is welcome.

MEET PARLIAMENT GATES BY THE CENOTAPH.

11.30-12pm: Karakia by Mike Ross, followed by speakers:
Arama Rata, researcher on indigenous-migrant relationships and Māori spokesperson for the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign.
Golriz Ghahrahman, Human Rights Lawyer and the first ever refugee elected to NZ parliament.
Karam Shaar, asylum seeker and PhD student under Victoria Doctoral Scholarship.

12-1pm: Blockade/stop the National Front
Featuring live music (confirmed: Alexa Disco, Brass Razoo)

[Facebook event]

Racial populism and the 2017 New Zealand General Election

winston peters immigration

By Ani White.

It’s understandable that many leftists are celebrating. After 9 years of Tory brutality, a change of government can feel like a breath of fresh air. However, the morning after the celebrations, we must take stock and critically evaluate the makeup of the next government, so we know what battles await us in the coming years. Laurie Penny described voting as choosing which enemies you prefer – this is a valid tactic, so long as we know our enemies.

It’s unfortunate that the next Labour government will feature Winston Peters in such a prominent role. Anecdotally, some claim that Winston’s anti-immigrant scapegoating is a thing of the past. However, simply searching Winston Peters’ twitter page for the keyword ‘immigration’ reveals a long series of negative tweets (see picture). When the New Zealand Herald published an article saying that Asian immigration numbers have been overstated, Peters responded by pointing out the Asian heritage of the journalists. Reducing immigration was a bottom line in his post-election negotiations. Perhaps Peters’ attacks on migrants are no longer noticed because they are so predictable.

Others who admit Peters’ racism argue that compromise is necessary for the parliamentary ‘left’, with Winston holding the cards. It would be easier to sympathise with this dilemma if anti-migrant populism wasn’t already a common ground between Labour and New Zealand First. Compromise is more of a genuine dilemma for the Greens. The party dropped James Shaw’s 1% immigration cap policy after criticism from the membership, had the best refugee policy of any party, introduced the first MP of refugee background to parliament, and generally stood on the most progressive platform of any parliamentary party. For those of us who voted Green in the hope that they would offer a more progressive coalition partner than New Zealand First, this coalition deal is something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Peters is a racial populist, both his in long-standing tendency to blame immigrants for all social problems and his opposition to ‘special rights’ for Māori (although thankfully, his opposition to Māori seats has not been adopted). Although certain elements of New Zealand First policy can be mistaken for left-wing – particularly the economic nationalism – both his economic and social policy seek to wind back the clock 50 years. Coming originally from National, Peters essentially advocates something like the National Party of the 1960s-1980s, during the heyday of both social democracy and conservative assimilationism. This is far from a forward-thinking programme for liberation today.

Ironically rural Māori are a significant section of Winston’s voter base. This reflects an international trend where isolated rural regions, with few migrants, tend to be more anti-migrant. Additionally, many Māori likely support his economic policies. Conversely, support in the Māori seats dropped from 12-14% in 2014 to 7-9% in 2017, likely due to Winston campaigning against Māori seats.

Racial populism often adopts egalitarian rhetoric.  The coupling of racism with economic populism is in some ways even more insidious than neoliberalism, as Indian Marxist Jairus Banaji explained in a commentary on India’s Hindu chauvinist ‘communalist’ movement:

Neo-liberalism disarms the working class economically, destroying its cohesion in an industrial, economic sense. Racism, communalism and nationalism… do the same in more insidious ways, destroying the possibility of the working class ever acquiring a sense of its own solidarity and of what it really is.

Racial populism diverts attention from the capitalist class who control resources, towards racialised targets.

A recent Spinoff article on New Zealand First’s national conference noted that much of the membership consider themselves anti-neoliberal, not consciously racist. Bluntly, those who support New Zealand First for economic rather than cultural reasons are being led down a dangerous blind alley. A Jacobin article by the same author asserted that a surge for New Zealand First would be a “significant realignment.” However, New Zealand First’s support has dropped since reaching up to 18% in the 1990s, so their popularity is nothing new.

The party’s determining role in New Zealand politics is less a sign of the times than a continuation of Winston Peters’ long-standing manipulation of MMP, with a similar scenario playing out as far back as 1996 (where the formation of the government took seven weeks). Whereas the similar-sized Greens clearly orientate themselves towards Labour, Peters makes a point of not deciding until one of the major parties offers him a good deal, clearly enjoying the prestige that comes with this role.

Although Winston’s manipulative ‘kingmaker’ game is nothing new for New Zealand politics, it’s particularly important that leftists give New Zealand First no quarter in the age of Trump. Left softness on racist right-wing populists is an example of Conservative Leftism, a tendency which throws oppressed people under the bus for the sake of simplistic anti-neoliberalism (see Daphne Lawless’ Against Conservative Leftism).

You cannot challenge capitalism while excusing racism. Capitalism is racialised; the dispossession of Māori was necessary to establishing capitalism in Aotearoa, and attacks on new (brown) migrants undermine working class unity. Winston Peters’ populism undermines the internationalist alliances needed for a truly liberating politics.

Labour ran on cutting immigration in the tens of thousands. This policy was nonsensical – Labour proposed to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, citing strains on infrastructure – yet students and poor workers are unlikely to use motorways or buy houses. Most likely the policy was less motivated by rational policy considerations than a pathetic attempt to chase the anti-migrant vote, which New Zealand First already has on lockdown.

Policies of cutting immigration face opposition from business, which is unfortunately more influential than opposition from migrant workers and their advocates. Business leaders oppose immigration cuts for the wrong reasons – hoping to access cheap labour – whereas we say that migrants must have the rights of any worker, including the right to union representation.

Even if these nonsensical poll-chasing policies are not implemented, they widen the ‘Overton window’ – the range of acceptable political discourse. They make attacks on migrants more socially acceptable, and pro-migrant reforms less likely.

Labour’s capitulation to xenophobia follows an unfortunate international trend. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn may have more Social Democratic substance than Jacinda Ardern, but he has unfortunately pandered to anti-immigrant politics (see Daphne Lawless’ article here).

After Labour’s sudden leadership shakeup, Jacinda Ardern’s campaign did not depart in substance from Andrew Little’s rather conservative campaign. She stuck to the policy of cutting immigration, and failed to stand with Metiria Turei against beneficiary-bashing. Despite superficially criticising ‘neoliberalism’, she did not commit to departing from neoliberal fundamentals when challenged. Similarly she talked up the threat of climate change but made no significant commitments to address it.

However, a relatively young, rhetorically sophisticated woman in the leadership was a welcome relief from the pale, stale male brigade that has dominated the Labour leadership for nearly a decade, attracting young liberals to the party. Conversely, Bill English lacked the personality appeal of John Key, leading National to defeat for the second time in his life.

A Labour government is usually slightly better than a National government. Except for the Fourth Labour government, Labour tends to spend more on social services than National, and work more closely with unions, among other social concessions. While this difference is marginal at a macro-level, we can’t totally deny any difference that results in fewer deaths by economic violence. For the anti-capitalist left however, no deaths by economic violence are acceptable, so a Labour-led government is not our horizon of possibility. Even the Greens remain limited to that horizon. Additionally, with Winston in the government, we can expect renewed attacks on migrants.

Ultimately, the parliamentary parties are all committed to managing capitalism. The left cliché that only collective direct action can stop the racist, capitalist juggernaut remains true. How to put this truth into practice in a principled, effective way remains the question.

Fightback’s election activity: Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign

Fightback did not endorse any political party in 2017, instead supporting the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC) alongside other groups.

MARRC ran an independent candidate in Wellington Central: Gayaal Iddamalgoda, a Legal Organiser for FIRST Union. Gayaal ran on the platform that “what’s best for migrants and refugees is best for everyone.”

Gayaal’s campaign offered a relatively mainstream platform to challenge electoral scapegoating of migrants and refugees. The campaign regularly cranked out press releases (see marrc.org.nz/blog), criticising every party, and receiving coverage in mainstream newspapers.

Candidates’ meetings offered an opportunity to publicly challenge the major parties. In an electorate with Green Party leader James Shaw and high-ranking Labour MP Grant Robertson standing, we were able to challenge Labour and the Greens from the left.

One Labour MP, Hutt South’s Chris Hipkins, criticised his party’s policy when challenged by a member of the campaign at a candidates’ meeting.

The Rainbow Forum was the liveliest, with the audience asking challenging questions, shutting down the Conservative and ACT candidates without mercy, and wildly applauded Gayaal for outlining the intersection of queer and migrant rights.

The infamous Aro Valley candidates’ forum was also energetic, as children sprayed candidates with water pistols. Gayaal in the words of the Dominion Post “won cheers from the inner-city crowd with his message of welcoming migrants and ending capitalism.”

MARRC also organised a Migrant and Refugee Rights Forum with Gayaal speaking alongside other candidates. Around 100 attended. Emcee Murdoch Stephens (of the Double the Quota campaign) challenged candidates on the refugee quota, on proposed immigration cuts, and on a Living Wage for migrant workers.

Sponsored Facebook posts received significant interactions, including a campaign video that was viewed over 3,600 times. Unfortunately, the Facebook page also received waves of racist comments, which admins did not tolerate.

Gayaal passed 150 votes, beating the other independents and the ACT Party candidate, a modest victory in a campaign more intended for propaganda than parliamentary purposes. Victoria University’s polling booth had the most votes for Gayaal, confirming international poll results that show youth tend to be more pro-migrant.

We are in discussions about how to carry the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign through to 2018. If you would like to be involved or updated, please email us at marrc.aotearoa@gmail.com

Pākehā Invisibility: Why does ‘migrant’ mean ‘brown’?

complains

By Ani White and Kassie Hartendorp.

Note: This article was written directly before the 2017 General Election, so comments about party policy refer to that period.

Internationally, many white immigrants to non-white countries are not termed immigrants, they are termed ‘expats.’ Immigrant means brown, expat means white.

A similar dynamic plays out in Aotearoa. Pākehā immigrants1 do not describe themselves as immigrants. Many even object to the term Pākehā; we are simply “New Zealanders.”

Some may object that their family has been here for generations, but the same standard does not apply to brown immigrants. Asian people whose families have lived here for generations are assumed to be new migrants, not “New Zealanders.” At a candidates’ meeting I recently attended, a white woman asked an Asian candidate a question along the lines of “if you don’t like this country why did you come here?” She had no awareness of his family history; for all she knew, he was a third-generation migrant (as it happens, he arrived as a child, so didn’t have much choice in the matter). But his brown face marked him as a migrant, a ‘foreigner.’

Even though Europeans and Asians in New Zealand are both immigrants, Europeans are naturalised as part of ‘New Zealand’ and non-white migrants are cast as ‘outsiders.’

The New Zealand where Europeans are naturalised as the dominant population, and inheritors of land and resources, relies on a story that erases colonial history. Those who strongly defend the identity of ‘New Zealander’ very rarely acknowledge that before this region became New Zealand, it was Aotearoa. It was (and is) Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu. It was (and is) a Pacific Island in Te Moana-Nui-a- Kiwa before it became a British colony. Many Pākehā prefer to forget this history.

The colonial state of New Zealand, set up by Pākehā immigrants, gets to determine who can come into this country. Indigenous approaches to manaakitanga (values of welcoming and hospitality) were violated, replaced with a bureaucratic edifice which categorises and profiles people hoping to cross borders. Institutions enabled by mass European immigration presume to dictate who can come next.

Ironically, a recent survey indicated that whereas only 28% of New Zealand citizens strongly agreed with the statement “People who want to live here should have to declare their commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi”, 40% per cent of recent migrants agreed (close to the 47% of Maori who agreed). The irony is underlined when ‘New Zealanders’ act offended at the thought of migrants ‘invading our country’ when many of their forebears actually invaded, at the mass detriment of Māori.

In certain respects, European migrants to Aotearoa have something in common with new Asia-Pacific migrants. We came here seeking a better life, with 19th century colonists escaping dire economic conditions. However, Asian migrants are not stealing land at gunpoint, as Pākehā did in the 19th century. Rather, they work in banks, cafes, on dairy farms, cleaning office buildings, their sweat oiling the nation’s economic growth, paid back in low wages and abuse. Even higher-paid, ‘high-skilled’ white collar migrants, supposedly more valuable than ‘low-skilled’ workers, still cop abuse.

Scapegoating of Asian migrants goes back to early colonisation. Chinese migrants during the Gold Rush were forced to pay special taxes, and chased out of places like Wellington. In the early 20th Century, the NZ Labour Party flirted with a ‘White New Zealand’ policy to match Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. More recently in 2014, Labour’s Phil Twyford controversially highlighted those with ‘Chinese surnames’ purchasing property. For all he knew, these people were long-term residents.

Yellow Peril scares are therefore deeply ingrained in New Zealand society. Noticeably, while many worry about Chinese investors buying up land, British and Americans who buy up land go largely unnoticed. International investors are also equated with migrant workers, as with the case of Twyford’s ‘Chinese surnames’, which again could either have been investors or long-term residents.

Rather than projecting all of New Zealand’s problems onto brown faces, perhaps Pākehā could reflect on the real sources of New Zealand’s problems. Migrant workers are not causing the housing crisis, or underinvestment in sustainable infrastructure. Labour is proposing to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, not people likely to buy houses or clog up motorways. In fact, middle-class Pākehā are far more likely to buy property or use motorways.

In a recent minor controversy, National Party MP Paul Goldsmith implied that the slumlord problem was primarily an Indian problem. Yet about 80 MPs in parliament own more than one property. As a Pākehā MP in his 40s, Paul Goldsmith is a far likelier face for slumlord profiteering than the young Indian student he spoke to. As Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign spokesperson Gayaal Iddamalgoda said in the Herald article on the topic, “if we’re serious about addressing the [housing] problem, we need to understand it’s a problem caused by slumlords and other profiteers, regardless of their surnames or the colour of their skin.”

Jacinda Ardern has recently softened Labour’s rhetoric about migrants, but maintained the policy of cutting 10s of 1000s of migrants. In that sense she is actually spinning a policy that was introduced by a Little as a xenophobic populist tactic. If she’s really worried about migrant exploitation, she should call for the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme to be radically reformed, or the international tertiary sector to be vetted for quality, rather than restricting free movement. It’s easier to pity the brown dairy worker than to confront the Pākehā farm owner who benefits from the exploitative RSE scheme.

Even Pākehā without the structural power of a politician, or a capitalist, often buy into these narratives. Facebook comment threads regularly complain of ‘real New Zealanders’ being shafted by ‘mass immigration.’ But if working class Pākehā are being shafted, they are being shafted by the powerful, not by migrants.

Wages are driven down because employers prioritise their bottom-line, treating social impacts as ‘externalities.’ Migrant workers do not want shitty wages. If Pākehā worked together with new migrants – for example in the Living Wage Campaign, which is supported by many migrant workers, and has won a number of victories – they could improve conditions for all workers, rather than competing in a race to the bottom.

For Pākehā to make things better, we need to get over our investment in defending ‘Fortress New Zealand’. In moments where anti-migrant rhetoric is high, we have the option to reflect on how we came to be in Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa ourselves. We need to recognise our status as coming from a history of immigration on this land, acknowledge who came before us, and find solidarity with those who want the same things as we do – housing security, living wages, the right to flourish and contribute to Aotearoa.

1We have used the terms ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’ fairly interchangeably, the article primarily concerns those who come to Aotearoa to live.

Free speech vs hate speech

greer foul mouth.jpg

By Ani White.

Recent months have seen a revival of debate about ‘free speech’ and hate speech. As readers are no doubt aware, antifascists in the USA mobilised to ensure white supremacists cannot march unchallenged. Mass mobilisation in Boston led to the cancellation of many white supremacist marches.

Commentators such as Chris Hedges declared suppression of fascism to be a violation of ‘free speech’ principles.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended the right of fascists to ‘free speech’, prompting the Onion headline “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.” Philosopher Karl Popper once addressed this self-elimination as the ‘paradox of tolerance.’ Popper said that tolerance of intolerant ideas would ultimately lead to its own elimination: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”

The resurgence of fascism poses a special threat to democracy, the left, and to minorities. The contemporary US administration tacitly supports the white supremacist movement, so self-organised communities must defend themselves.

As an ultra-right movement, fascists perpetrate hate speech on every front; primarily racist, but also homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, and so on. However, fascists are not the only propagators of hate speech.

It may be necessary here to define hate speech. Hate speech does not refer to anything inflammatory, or anything somebody disagrees with. Hate speech targets social minorities for abuse. Hate speech is violent, and nobody is obliged to tolerate violence, either psychological or physical.

The no-platform tactic, where activists refuse to host hateful speakers (or pressure an organisation to do so), was originally developed to stop fascists. More recently however, no-platform tactics have been controversially extended to others, particularly transphobic ‘feminists.’

Critics like Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) accuse pro-trans and no-platformist activists of “tumblr liberalism”, aswell as denying “free speech.”

However, notions of ‘free speech’ and ‘liberalism’ are not well-defined by critics. When European radical liberals first fought for free speech, they meant the freedom to criticise the state. This sense of ‘free speech’ is still relevant, as states continue to restrict radical critics. This is an entirely separate issue from whether private citizens should tolerate violent groups, or whether private organisations should offer a platform for hate speech.

There is a further complication to historical notions of ‘free speech’, and of ‘freedom’ more generally. Under the liberal regimes that emerged after the French Revolution, freedom only meant individual freedom from the state. Karl Marx argued that this limited notion of freedom meant, in part, the freedom of the “egoistic” individual, the freedom from social restraint:

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man… that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community… Society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence.

Ironically, critics of “tumblr liberalism” such as Angela Nagle argue precisely for the egoistic liberal ideal of freedom from the social world. This crude liberalism tolerates abusive alt-rightists as they increasingly run rampant, poisoning the well of free discussion (Nagle actively mocks those who focus on fighting hate speech, fascist or otherwise).

Controversy over transphobic ‘free speech’ has played out in New Zealand. In 2016, trans-exclusionary feminist blogger Renee Gerlich was refused a platform at Wellington Zinefest. In 2013, the Queer Avengers ‘glitterbombed’ transphobic feminist Germaine Greer. Greer has often been targeted by trans activists internationally, leading to accusations of suppressing ‘free speech.’

Defence of Germaine Greer often implies that her transphobic comments are ancient history. Yet Greer has consistently promoted transphobia over the decades, from caricaturing trans women in The Female Eunuch, to attempting to exclude a trans woman from a Women’s College in the 1990s, to describing trans women as “men with painted faces” during her 2013 visit to New Zealand. If Greer renounced her views and apologised, that may open the door to forgiveness and tolerance, but her continuing and unapologetic attacks on trans people are intolerable.

Even when Greer’s defenders acknowledge her ongoing hateful views, they do so in a confused way. The Australian socialist website RedFlag made two apparently contradictory claims about Greer’s views in an article criticising no-platformism:

Greer’s comments about the legitimacy or otherwise of trans women’s claim to the label “woman” are indefensible and utterly disrespectful… we must be able to distinguish between errant ideological currents within the left broadly defined, and the ideological representatives of the oppressors, which Greer is not.

On the one hand Greer’s take on trans people is “indefensible,” yet on the other she must be defended as part of the left. Is transphobia left-wing? Is bigotry acceptable on the left? Why do many leftists support no-platforming Zionists, but not transphobes? With friends like these, who needs enemies?

RedFlag’s reference to “errant ideological currents within the left” raises questions separate from the tolerance of transphobia in wider society. What sort of discussions should be hosted in left-wing spaces, with the ostensible aim of liberation from oppression and exploitation?

There is a certain amount of ‘soft prejudice’ that necessarily must be debated. For example, nationalist opposition to free movement is dangerous, but so strong within the workers’ movement that internationalists must debunk it rather than attempting to suppress it in every instance.

However, outright abuse cannot be tolerated. Hard racists who happily use slurs are not operating in the realm of reasonable debate. Germaine Greer is a ‘hard transphobe’, with entrenched views that have led her to actively harass trans women. Her hateful views are well to the right of contemporary mainstream liberalism and feminism. Tolerating these ideas on the left implies that outright abusive bigotry is acceptable.

Debate can only be constructive if blatantly bigoted ideas are shut down. If the left is stuck debating whether oppressive violence is acceptable, this hinders more complex debates about how to actually dismantle oppressive power structures. Meanwhile those harmed by oppressive ideas may drift away from the left, exhausted by the tolerance of hate speech, ultimately undermining the unity needed to transform society for the better.