Is the internet the problem?

By ANI WHITE, doctoral candidate in Media and Communication. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe.

La-prochaine-révolution-internet-sera-celle-des-contenus

The utopian moment of the internet seems dead. Throughout the 21st century, various negative features of the internet-as-we-know-it have become apparent: surveillance, the commodification of social life, algorithmic bubbles, ‘Fake News’ and conspiracy theories, and the far right’s effective use of the internet for recruitment. Faced with algorithmic capitalism fostering increasingly toxic content, we may be reminded of Professor Farnsworth’s words from Futurama: “Technology isn’t intrinsically good or evil. It’s how it’s used. Like the Death Ray.”

Yet utopian accounts persist, emphasising decentralisation, post-scarcity, new sharing and collaborative practices, and replacement of labour offering the possibility of a post-work society: socialists such as Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek have argued that the internet prefigures ‘post-capitalism’, although the contradictions of ‘platform capitalism’ must be resolved to get there.[1] The purpose of this article is not to advance a purely utopian or dystopian account of the internet, but rather to enquire into the broader social relations the internet reveals.

In this historical moment, the social relations revealed by the internet do appear largely dysfunctional. Yet this may not be determined by the internet. A cross-national psychological study found that while the internet does not necessarily make people more hostile – people who are hostile offline tend to be hostile online – the behaviour of hostile people is more visible online than offline.[2] A similar principle may apply with misinformation and backlash: this is not a problem that originates with the internet, but the internet certainly provides a platform for it. The contemporary backlash against vaccination has precedent: mandatory seatbelts,[3] mandatory helmets (which were ruled by the Illinois Supreme Court as an unconstitutional restriction of personal liberty),[4] and drink-driving laws[5] all received a backlash when introduced. In the early-to-mid 20th century, the far right took advantage of the popular media channels of the time – such as the printing press, posters, and cinema (such as the work of Leni Riefenstahl) – to propagate conspiracy theories and far-right ideology. Contemporary anti-Semitic memes in particular bear remarkable resemblances to this ‘classical’ anti-Semitic propaganda, in large part because memers directly borrow from it.

Yet internet platforms have distinct features that reward certain kinds of content over others. Algorithms often reward negative content. Anti-capitalist gaming commentator Jim Sterling, who has achieved some success with 850K followers on YouTube, notes that they are often criticised for only producing negative content, yet their negative content receives the most engagement. Sterling comparatively cites the viewing and engagement figures of their own videos to demonstrate this, with more positive videos receiving less engagement.[6] Facebook’s algorithms, ranking ‘reaction’ emojis such as the angry face as five times more valuable than ‘likes’, also seem to have factored into the growth of negative content.[7]

Communist theorist Jodi Dean argues that “the net is not a public sphere”, meaning that it does not serve as a space for rational deliberation and debate. Yet Dean does not bemoan that the net falls short as a “public sphere.” Rather, Dean defines the net as a new “zero institution”, an unavoidable bottom line for all contemporary politics, one which favours contestation over consensus, and argues that political activists should engage on these terms of contestation rather than attempt to turn the web into a rational public sphere.[8] It’s worth noting that the “public sphere” has involved exclusions from the start – the French Revolution, idealised by theorists such as Jürgen Habermas as the birth of modern public discourse,[9] excluded everyone but property-owning European men. Therefore, contention has always been necessary to expand public discourse.[10] Media and Communications theorists Kavada and Poell have recently argued that rather than deliberative national public spheres, the context for contemporary social movements is one of transnational “contentious publicness.”[11]

Yet contentious publicness is often weaponised by the right, particularly the far right. As outlined in Gavan Titley’s essential Is Free Speech Racist?, the far right has proven adept at casting reactionary views as a ‘free speech’ issue, by provoking ritualistic clashes over the ‘right to offend’ that give legitimacy to long-discredited ideas such as race-science.[12] In general, the far right has proven very adept at using the affordances of the internet to propagate its ideology. If nothing else this is demonstrated by the widespread adoption of far-right talking points, such as ‘free speech’ for racists, across the political spectrum: even many professed leftists buy into this framing.

So, in this toxic ideological environment, are we now reduced to pro-government fact-checkers? Fact-checking may be necessary to a point, but it relies on a common agreement about what sources are authoritative, among other related issues. Fact-checking can even be counterproductive, as seen with the backfire effect, where people presented with facts that contradict their views not only reject these facts, but may even defensively strengthen their existing beliefs. For example, a study examining parents’ intent to vaccinate their children found that when presented with facts that contradicted their views, anti-vax parents sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism.[13]

As an anecdotal example, I recently circulated a study highlighting that over 4 times as many people are offended by ‘Happy Holidays’ (13%) than ‘Merry Xmas’ (3%).[14] Posting this in two separate places prompted two independent response rants about snowflakes offended by ‘Merry Xmas’, the ideological schema apparently preventing any logical engagement with the facts of the article. This is not simply a matter of irrationality, rather all of us have background schemas that can lead us to confirmation bias, seeking out facts (and ‘facts’) that confirm our schemas while ignoring or denying facts that contradict them. This ideological schema also shapes our views on questions like what kind of sources are reliable, meaning that citing ‘reliable sources’ does not necessarily work.

Not all schemas are equally valid. The very visible online denialism regarding COVID has revealed the prevalence of background schemas such as xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and consumer entitlement (as shown by harassment of service workers). In an article on “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality”, Antithesi / cognord note the narcissistic individualist ideological schema revealed in denialist reactions to the pandemic:

Contagious diseases differ from other diseases in a very substantial way: they are by definition social. They presuppose contact, co-existence, a community – even an alienated one. What the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown us, however, is that we are in a historical period where social relations are perceived as the burdensome void between solid, closed-up and inviolable individuals. Individualities that are self-determined, non-negotiable, non-contagious. At this point, it makes little difference whether this predicament gets interpreted as signifying the prevalence of a narcissistic character or that of a (neo)liberal imaginary that mystifies the social character of capitalist relations and the subjects who reproduce them…

Instead of a social movement that would fight as much against a management geared to minimise disruption of economic output, as well as for universal and unconditional access to existing protective options (from vaccines to renumerated withdrawal from work) and expanded health care, we have the development of tendencies that demand, in the name of “freedom” and self-determination, the right to pretend that Sars-CoV-2 does not exist.[15]

Although we are forced into a defensive rather than proactive position, the apparently contradictory stance of Aotearoa/New Zealand leftists who’ve previously been critical of the Ardern government now defending key policies stems from a broader pro-public health schema. We support vaccination not because the Ardern government is doing it, but because of the historical record of vaccination as a public health measure (and call governments, including the Ardern government to account where their public health response is inadequate).

Conversely, being right is not enough. We must keep in mind Marx’s reminder that “it is essential to educate the educator”;[16] none of us arrived fully formed socialists, and all of us have something to learn. We need to construct educational spaces beyond the academy that can challenge preconceptions, facilitate informed debate, and work towards shared understanding. It may be possible to create such spaces online with careful moderation, but it’s clear that corporate ‘social media’ platforms are not generally geared towards productive discourse, so we need our own educational infrastructure both online and beyond.

Yet to a point, we can appropriate mainstream platforms for our own purposes. This was made apparent by the social movements of 2011, and more recently by the Black Lives Matter movement, with a central slogan that was popularised via hashtag. Just as neo-reactionary movements are not created by the internet but promoted through it, many have highlighted that the 2011 movements could not accurately be described as ‘Twitter Revolutions’ or ‘Facebook Revolutions’, as they were neither determined nor even primarily organised through social media. Yet they demonstrated that progressive movements can use mainstream platforms effectively. The logic of these platforms tends more toward promotion rather than education, so keeping this in mind, we can use them to supplement other forms of communication and organisation. The internet, including mainstream platforms is necessary but insufficient for any contemporary communication strategy.

We need our own independent projects that transcend corporate social media platforms. Promotion through mainstream platforms must be complemented by the development of independent online platforms, independent media more generally, and ‘traditional’ forms of organising such as doorknocking, strikes, and mass mobilisation. This is more difficult in a pandemic environment, which has tended to force communication and organisation online, an acceleration of an existing trend that has both pros (such as the reduced barrier of geography) and cons (such as the reduced capacity to take direct action). Yet it’s also possible to mobilise relatively safely in ‘meatspace’, as demonstrated by mass Black Lives Matter rallies which implemented health measures such as masking – there is no evidence that these protests led to increased spread of COVID-19.[17]

The internet is no more the problem than previous media forms such as mass printing, cinema, or television was the problem – and you could certainly find many arguing that they were (such as Guy Debord in “Society of the Spectacle”[18]). Yet leftists were able to utilise media forms such as mass printing: this was the main infrastructure for mediated political communication, as the internet is now. The internet also has affordances that these prior forms did not, such as the greater ease of circulation across the political spectrum. More than purely utopian or dystopian accounts of the internet, we need to identify how social contradictions play out through and beyond digital platforms, and to develop strategies with an awareness of both these platforms’ advantages and limitations. As the post-capitalists argue,[19] we can also seek to construct a different kind of internet, driven not by the self-serving imperatives of Silicon Valley but by sharing and collaborative practices for social ends.


[1] Mason, Paul. PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Allen Lane. 2015; Srnicek, Nick. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Verso. 2015

[2] Bor, Alexander; Petersen, Michael Bang. “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis.” American Political Science Review, First View , pp. 1 – 18.

[3] Ackerman, Daniel. “Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts.” 27 May 2020, Business Insider Australia (https://tinyurl.com/mandatory-seatbelts). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[4] Jones, Marian Moser; Bayer, Ronald. “Paternalism & Its Discontents: Motorcycle Helmet Laws, Libertarian Values, and Public Health.” Am J Public Health. 2007 February; 97(2): 208–217.

[5] Lerner, Barron H. “How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving.” What It Means To Be American (Smithsonian and Arizona State University), 17 January 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/drinkdriving-backlash). Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[6] Sterling, Jim. “Mister Negative (The Jimquisition). 31 March 2020, YouTube (https://tinyurl.com/sterling-negative). Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[7] Merrill, Jeremy B; Oremus, Will. “Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’: How Facebook’s formula fostered rage and misinformation.” 26 October 2021, The Washington Post (tinyurl.com/fb-angry). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[8] Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere.” Constellations 10(1):95 – pp112 · April 2003

[9] Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An enquiry into a category of bourgeois society, translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. MIT Press. 1962.

[10] Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990). JStor (https://www.jstor.org/stable/466240). Web. Accessed 12/03/2018.

[11] Kavada, Anastasia; Poell, Thomas. “From Counterpublics to Contentious Publicness: Tracing the Temporal, Spatial and Material Articulations of Popular Protest Through Social Media.” Communication Theory 00, 2020: pp1-19, published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association.

[12] Titley, Gavan. Is Free Speech Racist? Polity Press. 2020

[13] Brendan Nyhan et al, Effective Messages in Vaccine Prevention: A Randomized Trial, Pediatrics Journal, April 2014: https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/133/4/e835/32713/Effective-Messages-in-Vaccine-Promotion-A?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[14] Ingraham, Christopher. “Poll: Conservatives most likely to be offended by holiday greetings.” 20 December 2021, The Washington Post (https://tinyurl.com/offended-conservatives). Web. Accessed 20/02/2017

[15] Antithesi/Cognord, “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality.” 9 December 2021, A Contrary Little Quail (https://curedquailjournal.wordpress.com/2021/12/09/the-reality-of-denial-and-the-denial-of-reality/). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[16] Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Originally written 1845; originally published as an appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888; translated by W. Lough for Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 published by Moscow: Progress Publishers 1969; transcribed for Marxists.org by Zodiac/Brian Baggins, 1995/1999/2002 (https://tinyurl.com/k6b4ce7 ).

[17] Berger, Matt. “Why the Black Lives Matter Protests Didn’t Contribute to the COVID-19 Surge.” 8 July 2020, Healthline (https://www.healthline.com/health-news/black-lives-matter-protests-didnt-contribute-to-covid19-surge). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[18] Debord, Guy. “Society of the Spectacle.” Marxists.org, written 1967; Translation by Black and Red 1977; Transcription/HTML markup by Greg Adargo (https://tinyurl.com/debord-spectacle). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[19] Mason, ibid; Srnicek, ibid.

Countering far-right ideology

by BYRON CLARK. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe.

American fascist media operator Steve Bannon interviews far-Right NZ MP Jami-Lee Ross in 2020

The growth of far-right ideology over the past decade has been undeniable. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been accompanied by the rise of hatred and misinformation online, not just on fringe websites but on social media platforms operated by some of the world’s biggest companies.

American sociologist Jessie Daniels has described the rise of the alt-right as “both a continuation of a centuries-old dimension of racism in the U.S. and part of an emerging media ecosystem powered by algorithms.”[1] This is also the case for Australia and New Zealand, both of which were outposts of an empire that believed in the superiority of the white race to the indigenous people whose lands they colonised, and whose governments maintained policies to exclude non-white immigrants for most of the twentieth century.

In the two decades since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US, Islamophobia has been stoked by negative depictions of Muslims in both news media and entertainment (think of shows like 24 and Homeland). In 2009 the Canadian conservative commentator and best-selling author Mark Steyn published Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech and the Twilight of the West, in which he claimed that Muslims have no investment in the western societies where they live, and that Muslims in Europe were abusing welfare programmes and having more children than the native population. In 2011 the French writer Renaud Camus published Le Grande Replacement (“The Great Replacement”), claiming that a global elite is colluding against the white population of Europe to replace them with non-European peoples, specifically Muslims.

Fears of a Muslim other have stoked the rise of populist parties on the continent during a global refugee crisis, where desperate people try and reach Europe for asylum and are met by militarised borders and detention centres. The man who murdered 51 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand prepared for his terrorist outrage by penning a manifesto that shares its name with Camus’ book.

Systemic white supremacy did not end with the defeat of Nazi Germany – its most genocidal implementation – but following the Second World War, overtly fascist ideas were denied a platform in mainstream media. Of course, the bar for what constituted overtly fascist ideas was high, as shown by some of the examples above.

Social media has, however, provided the far-right with an audience for their ideas that was much larger and wider than the little they could get through older media formats. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting noted that the perpetrator was influenced by content creators on YouTube, some of whom he donated money to.

YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation. There has been much debate about the way YouTube’s recommendation system works. One theory is that this system drove users to ever more extreme material into what is sometimes said to be a ´rabbit-hole´. An alternative theory is that the way in which YouTube operates facilitates and has monetised the production of videos that attract viewers and the widespread availability of videos supporting far right ideas reflects the demand for such videos. What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far right ideas have been very common on YouTube.[2]

While a number of far-right YouTube personalities have been deplatformed from the service, the problem has not gone away. A working paper released in November 2021 by the Disinformation Project noted:

In the last month, we have observed more content which connects events in Aotearoa New Zealand with the Q conspiracy, and with far-right conspiratorial narratives more generally. These include white supremacist, incel or extreme misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment, and anti-Semitism. We have also observed increasing levels of anti-Māori racism.

Much has been written about how the far-right were able to use not just the internet, but specifically the language of the online world in order to grow a movement. This cultural phenomenon appears to have outmoded the far-left. Is it the case, as the oft-repeated alt-right slogan states, that “the left can’t meme”?

An age of spectacle

“This is an aesthetic century. In history, there are ages of reason and ages of spectacle, and it’s important to know which you’re in,” states Natalie Wynn in one of her video essays. “Our America, our internet, is not ancient Athens—it’s Rome. And your problem is you think you’re in the forum, when you’re really in the circus.”

Wynn was described by Vice as “seemingly doing the impossible, making nuanced and controversial political debates both sexy and engaging.”[3] With 1.5 million subscribers, Wynn is the most popular of the content creators in Left-wing YouTube, or what has been called ‘Breadtube’ (after Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist classic The Conquest of Bread). Many creators reject that label as one coined by fans, which is either too broad or too narrow to describe their work. Nonetheless, it’s a useful way to describe a new political and artistic movement.

Wynn and her contemporaries have found that in the era of disinformation and fake news, correct information has to be communicated in a way that is not only informative but also entertaining, that will stand out in the torrent of content algorithmically pushed on to viewers.

There will always be a place for deplatforming. Increased scrutiny on social media (YouTube in particular), has caused several of the most prominent far-right personalities to lose their platform. The union that has formed at Alphabet, YouTube’s parent company, has criticised the company for its role in the growth of the far-right; a free-speech absolutist position on fascist speech is one that would compel workers to be required to build and maintain platforms for fascists.

But deplatforming now can only be part of the solution to this problem. Far-right narratives like the great replacement and the Qanon conspiracy are part of the global conversation happening online. Fact-checking alone is not enough. Three centuries ago, the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect”. Jess Berentson-Shaw, whose book A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World is reviewed in this issue of Fightback,has suggested that more effective than debunking misinformation after it has spread is the tactic of “prebunking”; exposing people to correct information before they are exposed to the falsehood.

Origins of the modern far-right

The 2000s were an era where the left had something of a cultural dominance, if not any real power. The global movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq was accompanied by the growth of liberal political comedy, and fervently anti-war popular music that was yet more radical. Conservatism, while keeping its hands on the levers of actual power, was far from cool.

Around this time the young men in newly emerging online subcultures that would later converge into the alt-right at first did not identify themselves as right-wing, instead sneering at earnest belief in anything. Targets of their ire were not chosen for their left-wing positions as such but because they were “social justice warriors” or later “the regressive left” – people who supposedly opposed near-universally held liberal values such as free expression, and were attempting to force others to adhere to their worldview.

As late as 2014 this was the charge levied by the “Gamergate” movement against the likes of feminist film and video game critic Anita Sarkeesian. Gamergate argued that feminists were trying to ban video games – or worse, use video games as a medium to promote a feminist worldview. The Gamergaters rejected the label of right-wing, often pointing to a psychological study of the campaign that found participants “tend to hold more liberal attitudes than the general population.”[4]

It was only when this movement was courted by Breitbart Editor Steve Bannon that participants began to describe themselves as being part of the “alternative right”, which was not so much a euphemism for the far-right, but a term distancing themselves from both the “social justice warriors” of the contemporary left, and deeply uncool George W. Bush-style conservatives.

“I realized Milo could connect with these kids right away,” Bannon told Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.[5] Milo is Milo Yiannopoulos, the tech blogger hired by Bannon to write pro-Gamergate articles for Breitbart, who later toured American university campuses speaking on topics such as how “feminism is cancer”.

“You can activate that army.” Bannon told Green “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”

Bannon would go on to lead Trump’s presidential campaign, before being demoted due to Trump’s frustration at the popular notion that Bannon was the one really running things. Bannon was described on the cover of Time as “The Great Manipulator”, a phrase that would have pleased a man who has attempted to insert his voice into populist movements the world over. “Without the supportive voice of Breitbart London, I’m not sure we would have had a Brexit,” former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage told Green, describing Bannon as “a remarkable bloke”.

Bannon’s tendrils have even reached as far as New Zealand. “You’re at the forefront,” he told former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross, at the time a candidate for the conspiratorial Advance New Zealand Party as he was making a guest appearance on Bannon’s War Room podcast. “New Zealand, they’re the canary in the mineshaft, we’ve gotta pay attention to what’s going on in New Zealand and Australia, ‘cause if we don’t back our allies there, we don’t back patriots in those countries it’s gonna come – I mean it’s already here, but it’s going to come here with a bigger vengeance”.[6]

Bannon described Ross as a hero and noted that he is the first elected official to join with the New Federal State of China, an anti-Communist Party of China group started by Bannon and dissident Chinese Billionaire Miles Guo. The pair also run the media organisation GTV, which is infamous for spreading misinformation about election fraud, COVID-19 and other topics.[7] GTV provides a platform for the New Zealand based fake news talk show Counterspin Media.[8]

“The winds of cultural politics are changing,” wrote Yiannopoulos in an article titled ‘How Trump Can Win’ published on Breitbart a full year before the election where he would do just that:[9]

As Big Government advances, it begins to encroach on an increasing number of subcultures, who will look to anti-establishment Republicans like Trump to represent them…Gamers and pop culture enthusiasts are one such group. In the past, it was conservatives who were seen as the dour stick-in-the-muds of cultural politics. They were the ones who tried to censor rap lyrics and video games due to their allegedly ‘harmful effects’ on society. Today, it’s left-wingers and feminists leading the charge.

It was during the highpoint of Yiannopoulous’ university tour that Jordan Peterson, previously an obscure University of Toronto psychology professor, uploaded a video to YouTube stating that he would not address students by their preferred pronouns, criticising a Canadian bill, C-16, that he claimed (incorrectly) would render his refusing to do so illegal. Comparing the clip to videos of earlier altercations on campuses, Dale Beran, in his book It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office, wrote: “Once again, a lone white professor was surrounded by a young, diverse group of students. The students screamed and yelled at Peterson, who always kept his cool, for something that, at least on the surface, seemed insignificant.”[10]

Peterson would become a significant public intellectual for the crowd of angry young men on the internet with the publication of a self-help book based on a post he made on Quora, described by Beran as “a Reddit-style site infamous for being a place where literal-minded computer programmers go for basic life advice”.

Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is not just a self-help book by a man who also holds reactionary views, but a self-help book with an inherently reactionary worldview woven throughout. Peterson juxtaposes “masculine” order with “feminine” chaos and insinuates that there is no structural oppression, only an “ever-present dominance hierarchy” of which the aim is to reach the top. It’s no huge leap for young men reading this, or watching his lectures online, to then gravitate to far-right individuals with explanations as to why those at the top of the supposed dominance hierarchy tend to be white men. These are individuals such as Stefan Molyneux, whose now removed YouTube channel promoted discredited race science (and attracted a donation from the Christchurch shooter).

While the students who screamed and yelled at Peterson for his refusal to do something that is a near-effortless courtesy to trans and gender diverse students were correct in their arguments, and entirely justified to be offended, they were also participating in the circus that Natalie Wynn described.

When Wynn, who herself is transgender, made a video on Peterson, it opens with her flirting with a masked mannequin representing him, sitting him down in her bathroom so he can watch her bathe. [1] This is how Katherine Cross described that video in her article on Wynn in The Verge:

what parses as light-hearted jocularity or inexplicable sexual attraction at first quickly resolves into a virtual pantsing. It’s a prologue to an elegant crash course in the history of postmodernism and why Peterson’s obscurantism makes him difficult to argue with. Calling Jordan Peterson “daddy” and portraying him as a robot lovingly watching Wynn bathe doesn’t ennoble him; it erodes him.[11]

While we shouldn’t downplay the very real threat posed by the far-right toward marginalised groups, as they attempt to normalise their ideology through irreverent mockery and meming, using the same tactic to counter them appears to be having an impact.

Of course, the tactic is not exactly the same. To quote Dmitry Kuznetsov and Milan Ismangil, Breadtube “stays clear of the trolling and vulgar jouissance that is characteristic of the alt-right”[12] and focuses more on being informative and entertaining. Citing a 2010 article by Peter Marcuse analysing the Tea Party movement (an American conservative movement that arguably was one of the tributaries of the alt-right). Kuznetsov and Ismangil note Marcuse’s argument that there is a need for what they term “critical theory in everyday life – a critical theory from below” and argue that role is being fulfilled by Breadtube, which they suggest could even be laying the necessary groundwork for a socialist movement. That part may be wishful thinking, but there is evidence to suggest Breadtube is reaching the people it needs to. Social media has no shortage of anecdotes from individuals who credit the movement with pulling them away from the alt-right.[13] Each of these stories is a small victory, and perhaps, in the aggregate, they point to the possibility of a much larger one.


[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504218766547

[2] https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/part-2-context/harmful-behaviours-right-wing-extremism-and-radicalisation/

[3] https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/06/interview-natalie-wynn-of-contrapoints

[4] Ferguson, C. J., & Glasgow, B. (2021). Who are GamerGate? A descriptive study of individuals involved in the GamerGate controversy. Psychology of Popular Media, 10(2), 243–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000280

[5] Green, Joshula, ‘Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency’ Penguin Books, 2017

[6] https://listen.warroom.org/e/ep-434-pandemic-trial-by-fire-w-michael-matt-jamie-lee-ross-and-maureen-bannon/

[7] https://graphika.com/reports/ants-in-a-web/

[8] https://www.webworm.co/p/fakenews2

[9] https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2015/10/14/how-donald-trump-can-win-with-guns-cars-tech-visas-ethanol-and-4chan/

[10] Beran, Dale ‘It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office’, All Points Books, 2019

[11] https://www.theverge.com/tech/2018/8/24/17689090/contrapoints-youtube-natalie-wynn

[12] Kuznetsov, Dmitry & Ismangil, Milan. (2020). YouTube as Praxis? On BreadTube and the Digital Propagation of Socialist Thought. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. 18. 204-218. 10.31269/triplec.v18i1.1128.

[13] https://theconversation.com/meet-breadtube-the-youtube-activists-trying-to-beat-the-far-right-at-their-own-game-156125


The Delta outbreak in Aotearoa: ideology and inequality

by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe. Note that this article was completed before the Omicron strain of COVID-19 emerged in the NZ community.

Official NZ Government messaging on the pandemic

In a recent Twitter post, a Canadian law professor expressed his amazement at Aotearoa New Zealand’s COVID-19 website (covid19.govt.nz) for providing detailed and comprehensive information on the virus.[1] In one of the wholesome interactions that sometimes occur on NZ Twitter, he received a response from Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, thanking him for his comment.

At the time of writing (7 January 2022) Aotearoa New Zealand has a total of 51 deaths due to COVID-19, and 819 active cases with 37 people in hospital. This, compared to the corresponding worldwide figures of around 500 million cases and nearly 6 million deaths, has drawn similar admiration from many at the NZ government’s response to the pandemic. As I commented in a previous article, compared with the government’s response in countries such as the USA, Great Britain and Australia, any reasonably competent response would look good.[2] However, the Labour government headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deserves credit for following a policy that relied on science and overall prioritised the health of people over the demands of business. But, rather like the widely-discredited claim that Aotearoa NZ is “clean and green”, the reality is that the government’s pandemic response is not quite as impressive as it seems.

Alert levels and traffic lights

The initial Coronavirus outbreak in 2020 was controlled through a four-stage alert system. “Level 4” was a lockdown with all public facilities and most retail closed, and all but “essential” workers working from home. This approach was successful and by summer things were back to normal, with people able to socialise, travel within the country, attend concerts and return to work. The development of COVID-19 vaccines, which became available in March 2021, increased confidence that Coronavirus could be eliminated or at least confined to Managed Isolation in Quarantine (MIQ) for those entering the country.

However in August, the first case of the Delta variant was detected in the community, and the Government announced a Level 4 lockdown from August 17 for the whole country. The lockdown was accompanied by a ramping up of efforts to encourage vaccination. While the lockdown, and generally widespread take-up of vaccination, undoubtedly prevented widespread deaths and hospitalisation, it proved to be less effective against the more transmittable Delta strain. Eventually the majority of the country was downgraded to lower alert levels, but Auckland, the largest city and the epicentre of the Delta outbreak, remained in lockdown for almost 100 days.

On October 22, Arden announced the government’s new COVID-19 Protection Framework. This replaced the previous Alert Levels with a “traffic light” system centred around vaccine certificates and to be implemented once 90% of the eligible population had received the two vaccinations required to protect against COVID 19. Under the traffic light system, workplaces, schools, public facilities and businesses stay open with capacity limits, but entry to gatherings, hospitality venues and close-proximity businesses such as hairdressers will require a vaccination certificate. Masks are compulsory in most public spaces under “red” and “orange” levels. At “green” there is still COVID-19 in the community, but community transmission is limited and hospitalisations at “manageable” levels.

The government also instituted vaccine mandates in education, health and allied sectors, which have also been taken up by a number of NGO and private employers.

These measures were greeted by predictable howls of outrage from anti-vaxxers and protests which, while smaller and less violent than those in Australia and elsewhere, also showed the right using the issue to pull in anyone who disliked the Labour government, Māori, women in leadership roles, etc. The majority of people did in fact vaccinated – even if it was just to keep their jobs – and the threat of mass resignations didn’t eventuate.

Systemic racism

However, response to the new system from those who had supported the government’s approach was divided, with some epidemiologists warning that the health system could be overwhelmed by an explosion in cases. Many saw the move from an “elimination” strategy to a “live with the virus” strategy as a concession to the business sector’s demands for “certainty” and an end to lockdowns.

The decision to move to a traffic light system was also strongly criticised by Māori organisations, who pointed out that an overall target of 90% vaccination ignored the fact that Māori had been lagging behind in vaccination rates, and were already over-represented in COVID-19 statistics. The New Zealand Māori Council lodged a complaint with the Waitangi Tribunal, arguing that the government was leaving Māori more vulnerable to infection, thereby breaching Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), the agreement signed between representatives of the British Crown and most iwi (tribes) in 1840 and ratified in 1975. The Waitangi Tribunal, in a report released on December 21, agreed. In a letter to Government ministers accompanying the report, panel chair Judge Damian Stone wrote:

As at 13 December 2021, although Māori comprised 15.6 percent of the population, Māori comprised over 50 percent of the Delta cases, 38.6 percent of Delta hospitalisations, and 45 percent of associated deaths. The statistics speak for themselves.

Māori health providers told the tribunal that they were sidelined, ignored and underfunded. The tribunal was also told by experts and officials, including Bloomfield, that they had advised Cabinet of a need to prioritise Māori from the beginning of the vaccine rollout. While the initial rollout targeted people over 65 and those with chronic health conditions, Bloomfield and others argued that Māori over 50 should be included, as Māori die earlier and have more health vulnerabilities than Pākehā (NZ Europeans). However, this was rejected by Cabinet, apparently due to fears of a racist backlash if it was seen to be giving special consideration to Māori.

The tribunal also considered whether the rapid move to the COVID-19 Protection Framework put Māori at increased risk. It agreed that the change in tactic was necessary, given the economic and social impact of lockdowns, but that:

The rapid transition into the framework – which happened faster than the Crown’s officials and experts recommended, and without the original vaccination thresholds for each district health board being met – did not adequately account for Māori health needs.

The tribunal concluded that the government had breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in particular the principles of active protection and equity, as well as those of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) and partnership. While the tribunal’s decision is not binding on – and was disputed by – the government, it was a political embarrassment for Labour, which has historically branded itself as committed to Māori interests. The government and the Māori Council have set up a new consultative body, but how much difference that will make is uncertain, given the Government’s reluctance to give more than lip service to tino rangatiratanga.

The vaccination rate among Māori has improved (currently around 82% fully vaccinated), largely due to increases in funding announced earlier this year, which has enabled Māori health providers to invest in mobile vaccination clinics or do door to door outreach. However, some providers report that they are struggling to recruit enough Māori nurses to administer vaccines.

Inequality and pandemic

The issue of Māori disadvantage is not just due to racism. It intersects with the other outstanding failure of the government – to address poverty and inequality. While the economy has overall improved, the improvement has not been equally distributed. Some economists refer to the economic recovery as a “K-shaped” recovery, where those with assets (especially property) are doing well, while those without are struggling.[3] This is due to structural inequality that preceded the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it worse. The housing bubble, which has put owning a home out of reach for most working people, has resulted in a shortage of rental property and a corresponding rise in rents. Calls for the government to do more than tinker around the edges have been ignored. Some amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act which took effect last year have improved the rights of tenants, including restricting the number of times rent can be increased during a tenancy, but there has been no attempt to put a cap on rents. While more public housing is being built, there are still nearly 25,000 on the social housing waitlist.

The housing affordability crisis coupled with the pandemic has caused an increase in homelessness. The latest available figures (for November 2021) show that over 10,000 people were staying in emergency accommodation. Children made up almost half that number. Emergency accommodation is mainly in motels and meant to only be for a week or two, but many families are staying for six months or more. There are also a large number of people in transitional housing, which is meant to be for up to 12 weeks while residents are supported to find permanent accommodation, but many are staying for longer due to the lack of affordable accommodation. These figures do not include those who are living in cars or staying with relatives. This makes the transmission of COVID-19 more likely. The majority of people affected by housing stress are Māori or Pacific peoples. Many are the “essential workers” who have kept society functioning through lockdowns – health workers, cleaners, supermarket workers and so on.

While most “non-essential” office workers and professionals were able to work from home during lockdowns, those in sectors like hospitality or manufacturing have lost jobs or had their hours reduced. Many of them were unable to access support from Work and Income because they are receiving just enough through wage subsidies to put them over the income limits, but not enough to afford to pay rent or mortgages and buy food. While the government has increased funding to food banks, many are stretched to capacity; and food parcels are not a long-term solution to poverty.

The government has still not acted on the recommendation of its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group in 2019, that benefits be increased to provide a liveable income. An increase of $20 per week to main benefits in July 2021 was nowhere near enough to cover the increased costs of housing, food and other necessities.

The role of Ardern and the NZ government in responding to COVID-19 with a science-based approach, countering misinformation, and a focus on protecting people’s lives over the demands of business deserves praise. However, it is far from being the “transformational” government that it claims to be.

So far, the Omicron variant has been confined to cases from overseas in MIQ, but experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before it begins occurring in the community. Fortunately, booster vaccinations have been made available and vaccination of children aged 5 to 12 is due to begin from 17 January, but the spread could also be reduced by increasing wages and benefits, providing adequate and affordable housing and increasing funding to Māori and Pasifika health providers. However, this would force the Ardern government to take a stand against big business – which seems unlikely.


[1] https://twitter.com/UbakaOgbogu/status/1478489062042333186

[2] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/09/08/being-kind-the-ardern-government-and-covid-19/

[3] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/money/2021/04/explosion-of-wealth-inequality-as-housing-boom-leaves-many-behind-economist.html

Book Review: Dialectics of Revolution by Kevin B Anderson

Book title: Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender, and colonialism
Author: Kevin B Anderson
Released: 2020
Review by: Victor Osprey

What is Marxism? Is it a philosophy, a science – or both? What distinguishes science from philosophy, and is it a distinction as easy to determine as we might imagine? After all – what even is science? And what does dialectical reason, or indeed philosophy in general have to offer when it comes not only to understanding but to changing society?

Kevin Anderson, a long-time scholar-activist and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, has set himself exactly this task in the latest book, Dialectics of Revolution. Taking the form of a collection of essays, Anderson examines Marx, Engels, Lenin and Bukharin – and especially Hegel – in considerable detail, alongside the ‘Western’ Marxists Herbert Marcuse and Georg Lukács. Coming from his distinctive Marxist-Humanist perspective, drawing upon the work of Russian-American Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya, Anderson provides a substantive explication and defence of dialectical reason throughout and in dialogue with its critics.

This red thread serves as a launching pad for the topics examined in the essay. These range from Lenin’s encounter with Hegel, to Lukács 1948 work The Young Hegel, the relationship of critical theorists like Marcuse to Hegel, and other related subjects.

Underlying the whole text is a proposition as to what Marxist (or what Anderson may prefer to call Marx’s) philosophy can give philosophically and politically to struggles around race, class, gender, and colonialism. In other words, the unity of theory and practice – praxis.

Science as compass, philosophy as guide?

The interrelationship between science and philosophy goes back thousands of years, with each interpenetrating and influencing the other in conceiving reality, social processes, and the natural world. The separation of science from philosophy into strictly delineated fields is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the intellectual life of humanity.

When it comes to socialist theory, the extent to which it is a ‘science’ has long bedevilled the movement. One approach has been to attempt to mirror the hypothetical-deductive model approach of the natural sciences, as if Marxism were a branch of chemistry. Another approach rejects this positivist tendency, instead pushing Marxism’s merits as a philosophy and an ideology in itself. For example, the insights derived from dialectical and historical materialism and indeed the critique of political economy, without attempting to prove it is an exact science that could be replicated in a lab like other fields of knowledge.

The former, and similar currents in the social sciences attempts to prove that their methodology is on par with physics, and believe this necessary to be taken seriously as a ‘science’ in the sense of being a lookalike of physics. However, it is perfectly acceptable for science simply to be a field of study; the difference between chemistry and Marxism is that humans cannot change the laws of chemistry or biology, only make use of them as far as they are understood. Whereas societal formations and social relationships are human made, and thus their laws can be changed, which is where Marxism as a social science has genuine insights in comprehending and transforming such social structures.

Marx and Engels, deeply influenced by the natural sciences of their time for all that they were dialecticians and dialectical thinkers anchored in German philosophy, relied on now partly outdated science as a metaphor and stimulant to their theoretical conception of mutually interacting and excluding agents. Taking Engels as an example, he toyed with rapid developments in chemistry ‘to get a better understanding of interacting and mutually determining systems. In other words, abstract dialectics could be seen in the metaphorical mirror of chemistry.’1

As author Joost Kircz notes, attempting to prove whether nature is or is not dialectical according to human-made models (Hegelian or not) may be an intriguing intellectual exercise; what is more important however is how it spurred creative thinking around the concepts of mutually interrelated and determining systems, and how they could be extrapolated further and built upon. Whether applied to the natural sciences or, perhaps more appropriately, the social structures investigated by the social sciences.

Evolutionary biology is one example of a crude scientific materialism that, while superficially super-scientific, is an abstract materialism, largely excluding history and its processes – in other words, a non-historical, non-dialectical materialism. As Kevin Anderson notes: ‘Sociobiology/evolutionary biology denies historical materialism’s notion that human consciousness grows and develops through history, which is a product of the self-creation of human beings.’2 It has also regularly been used as a ‘scientific’ justification for predetermined racist conclusions.

Marx’s debt to Hegel, and to ‘German’, ‘philosophical’ critical science precisely comes in handy in teasing out the limitations of the ‘hard’, positive sciences, without simply rejecting them. French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd summed up the contribution of positive sciences nicely: ‘They are a necessary moment in the movement of knowledge – on condition that we not stop there.’3 ‘German science’ forms part of an intellectual tradition which French rationalism and English empiricism have always rejected, despite themselves regularly falling into the trap of scientism; of taking the scientific conclusions of the moment for a permanently settled reality. Critique in the sense of Marx’s approach instead undertakes to critique an established science and its underlying intellectual assumptions while critically assimilating its real insights – hence Marx’s conception of his task as the critique of political economy.

Bensaïd further elaborated in an interview about the ‘misinterpretation’ of Marx as a scientist, in whose shadow was constructed a scientistic, doctrinaire Marxism4:

Marx points out the difference between what he calls “German science” and “English science”. For him, English science means the exact or positive sciences. He is very admiring, sometimes excessively so, of the progress of physics, chemistry, geology… And then there is German science, Wissenschaft, which is not ‘science’ in the French sense of the term: it is the dynamic movement of knowledge. Very few people in France realised this. In particular, the early Althusser, the one of the 1960s, built his fame on a complex scientificity, on a wish for Marxism to be so scientific that Marxists could be recognised by their academic peers as serious people, and not as signatories of petitions, as intellectuals for hire. Hence the (unaccomplished!) search in Marx’s work for an untraceable ‘epistemological break’: when did Marx become a scholar, instead of an ideologue and philosopher?

Louis Althusser, Marxist philosopher and long-time member of the French Communist Party sought as part of his effort to make Marxism more scientific to de-Hegelise Marx, to ‘drive the shade of Hegel… back into the night.’5 Althusser downplayed the extent of the continuity between Lenin’s conception of the dialectic and Hegelian idealism – a difficult task, given the assertions made in more than 200 pages of notes and commentary Lenin wrote on Hegel in 1914-1915 (published as the Philosophical Notebooks).

Raya Dunayevskaya herself criticised making a fetish out of science: ‘glorification of science is the mark not only of the ruling classes… but also of theoreticians busy revising Marxism… genuine historic revisions have always used “science” in the fight against “the Hegelian dialectic”… Eduard Bernstein was the first, back at the end of the 19th century; Louis Althusser is the latest but he is sure not to be the last since, of necessity, these proponents of “science” and opponents of “philosophy” are sure to keep reappearing…’6

Although it may be said among certain sections of the ruling class these days the glorification of science no longer holds as much purchase as it once did, with these types preferring instead outright mysticism and submerging into wells of conspiracy theory.

Nonetheless, there was value in Althusser’s effort, despite its foundational flaws and unhelpful schemas (an artificial distinction of a break between young, humanist Marx and old, scientific Marx, and the attempt to excise Hegelianism like a leftover evolutionary tail).

Notably his understanding that ‘unlike a science, an ideology does not provide us with adequate instruments of knowledge’ and how ideology as a system of representations ‘is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge).’7

Or as Norman Geras, a then-sympathetic critic of Althusser puts it in more nuanced fashion: ‘The problematic of a science (or ideology) governs not merely the solutions it is capable of providing but the very problems it can pose and the form in which they must be posed.’8

Despite his appreciation, Geras reserves significant criticisms for Althusser, stating that his account of science is idealist, and goes as far as to say Althusser’s account of the relation between Marxist theory and politics is both ‘theoretically incorrect and harmful.’9

Moreover, if Althusser begins by stressing the universality of knowledge in its content, ‘he ends by denying the historicity of its condition and processes of production’, a point exactly like Kevin Anderson and Marxist-humanists of various shades would make.10

And to top it all off, in what is perhaps his severest critique, Geras elaborates how Althusser’s concern to stress the scientificity of Marxism ‘fails to provide an account of what distinguishes this particular science from the other sciences.’11

In effect, the differences between Marxism, mathematics, the physical and natural sciences are submerged rather than highlighted, all so Althusser can assimilate the entry of Marxism into the hallowed halls of a high respected science.

The problem is, when cracks are identified in that carefully constructed, apparently scientific edifice, the whole thing tends to come crashing down soon afterword; much like what happened after an initial wave of Althusserianism swept the world, then quickly receded in the wake of serious problems identified with Althusser’s approach and account of things years later.

A more all-rounded and nuanced conception of the interrelationship between science, philosophy, and the distortion of Marxism by Stalinism and other factors into economic reductionism (to take one example) is provided by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács.

Lukács details how this degeneration of Marxism was12:

directly connected with the fact that the specialisation of knowledge led to the separation of the sciences from each other… the working class movement and its ideology adopted this division of labour, the independence of scientific disciplines from each other. Marx had defined the economic as the material foundation of a more total historical process.

By the 20th century, the economic had become a more or less ‘exact’ individual science, and this was largely replicated in the workers’ movement, including its Marxist component. Marx had seen the economic as one factor of social evolution, organically interconnected with other social causal determinants. Individualised sciences for Lukács, removed from their interdependence with other causal agents, ‘easily slides into mere tactics’, distorting the ‘Marxist conception of the economic [into] mere industrial productivity.’13

Thus, the turning of economics into an isolated science laid the methodological basis for its ability to be manipulated.

As a result, when the moment came, Stalin was able to first distort the meaning of the economic ‘on the theoretical level, and this distortion then became an instrument for his brutal manipulation of socialist development. When Stalin distorted the economic as a specialised positivist science, when he detached it from any political connectedness, he could claim to be building socialism by exclusively concentrating on industrial growth while totally ignoring the question of socialist democracy.’14

This sat entirely at odds with Marx’s notion that the economic is ‘more than just technology, more than a specialised individual science, but one causal factor within a larger total social formation.’15

The larger total social formation remains a major focus of Marxists today, influenced by a form of dialectical reason deeply indebted to Hegel’s intellectual offerings.

The alternative of dialectical reason – and its critics

Dialectical reason as a mode of analysis and thinking has come under sustained assault for some time, with its popularity significantly declining in the last half century in the face of other ideas like positivism, pragmatism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Explaining and elaborating foundational Hegelian thinking is first necessary in order to understand the discussion and criticism that follows.

Hegel’s classic example of the dialectical process is the master-slave dialectic.

Despite the inherent power imbalance, the master lacks something – the fulfilment of their need for acknowledgement. Being acknowledged by the slave is insufficient, as they are merely a thing to the master, and vice-versa. The twist is that while the slave works and the master receives the products of consumption, in their work the slave fashions and shapes material objects, becoming aware of their consciousness as objectively creating the fruits of their labour.

As author Stuart Jeffries explains16:

Clearly, this connects with the Marxist notion of man as essentially a producer, one who defines himself or rises to self-consciousness, even personal fulfilment, through meaningful work. For the slave, Hegel thought, labour, even at the direction of a slave master, makes him realise he has a mind of his own and means that the situation is not stable; its tensions generate a dialectical movement that leads to a higher synthesis. That synthesis leads to another dialectical tension, to another synthesis, and so on, at least in Hegel’s conception of history. Forty years after Hegel set out this dialectical process, Marx argued that if the object produced through labour is owned by another (be that another slave-owner or a capitalist), the worker has lost his own objectified essence. Such is alienated labour.

For Hegel, history was the unfolding of these dialectical processes towards the self-knowledge of what he termed the Absolute Spirit.

One of the key propositions of Hegelianism is that all the phenomena of any one epoch – its law, philosophy, economy, polity – are ‘merely the externalisations of one moment of the development of the Idea, i.e., of one internal spiritual principle which is the essence of those phenomena, manifesting itself in each and all of them…’17

In other words, ‘Hegel conceives every social totality… as having a unique spiritual principle to which all the diverse realities can be reduced, since each of them is only an expression of it.’18

Hegel’s dialectical conception of the social totality was profoundly idealist, while Marx’s dialectic, by turning Hegel on his head, functioned as a materialist inversion of Hegel’s dialectic. This gave it an interpretive power an idealist dialectic alone could never have, getting at the root of social phenomena and their historic emergence.

German Marxist and prominent member of the Frankfurt School Herbert Marcuse broke down the critical virtue of a materialist version of dialectical thought in the 1960 preface to his book, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory19:

Dialectic thought… becomes negative in itself. Its function is to break down the self-assurance and self-contentment… to demonstrate that unfreedom is so much at the core of things that the development of their internal contradictions leads necessarily to qualitative change: the explosion and catastrophe of the established state of affairs.

Although Hegel’s dialectic of negativity critiques the existing world on the basis of a ‘principle of freedom’ such freedom is ‘relegated to the realm of pure thought, to the Absolute Idea’ according to Marcuse.20

Expanding the boundaries of dialectical reason beyond the realm of ideas, and its role as a ‘negative philosophy’, i.e., the negative and critical stance towards the world as illustrated in German philosophy, was a task was taken up by a wide range of Marxist and Marx-inclined figures in the 20th century – like Marcuse.

Ranging from activists and scholars to rank-and-filers in the socialist and workers’ movement, theoreticians, and organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense.

They faced up to the charge levelled at dialectics by pragmatist, postmodernist and post-structuralist camps positing that it was a totalising, false perspective incapable of conceptualising particularity and difference.

That is, dialectics did not have room for the perspectives of oppressed racial, ethnic and national minorities, or of women, because it can only grasp grand totalities like progress and capitalism, not special oppressions at the interstices of society.

On the contrary, the Czech Marxist Karel Kosík, an original philosopher of Marxist humanism in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, regarded dialectics as fundamentally ‘the opposite of doctrinaire systematisation or romanticisation of routine ideas’; his concept of the pseudoconcrete serves a useful function in this regard.21

For Kosík, the pseudoconcrete represents ‘the collection of phenomena that crowd the everyday environment and the routine atmosphere of everyday life’ i.e., the world of ‘man’s fetishized praxis (which is not identical with the revolutionary-critical praxis of mankind).’22 The pseudoconcrete would include unsubtle totalities that crowd out differences and the ability to understand them, standing essentially at odds with revolutionary-critical praxis and communist potentialities.

Interestingly enough, the late 19th century founders of pragmatism first embraced and then broke with Hegel. Pragmatist William James called Hegel’s philosophy a form of ‘vicious intellectualism’, because Hegel sought truth through reason instead of the multiple truths of a relativistic worldview.23

Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the hostility of the esteemed German jurist, political theorist, and prominent Nazi Carl Schmitt, who wrote that on the day Hitler came to power, ‘Hegel, so to speak, died.’24

Indeed, a contemporaneous review of Marcuse’s book on Hegel noted how ‘Hegel’s philosophy was fundamentally rationalist, while the philosophy of national socialism is fundamentally irrationalist.’25

Another review came from the US Communist Party orientated journal Science & Society. While highlighting the ‘interesting argument’ of Marcuse demonstrating the Hegelian component in Marx’s philosophy, it came down on the side of positivism, declaring it scientific and therefore revolutionary.

If that latter approach represented a dead end, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, influenced by poststructuralism and sharing the postmodernist critique of totality, essences and dialectic, took it even further.

Rorty wished to uproot not just Marxist dialectics but the entire tradition of critical dialectical thinking from Plato onwards.

In the name of pragmatism, given no alternative to capitalism exists, Rorty concluded in 1992 that the only hope for getting the money to end intolerable inequalities is to facilitate the activities of those like Henry Ford – and Donald Trump.

Thus, the political-philosophical nadir of pragmatist philosophy was reached; acceptance and conciliation with the untrammelled existence of the likes of Donald Trump. Needless to say, it failed to reach even that low bar. A system facilitating such individuals, far from moderating inequalities, has only made them worse.

Poststructuralists proposed, instead of dialectical reason, a philosophy of difference, with the goal of, as Gilles Deleuze and Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it in 1986, a ‘culture of dissensus’, striving for ‘a deepening of individual positions and a resingularisation of individuals and human groups. What folly to claim that everyone – immigrants, feminists, rockers, regionalists, pacifists, ecologists, and hackers – should agree on a same vision of things!’26

Kevin Anderson’s response is brief and effective: ‘How the various spheres of the left, even if taken seriously in each of their particular manifestations, could eventually come together with enough force to challenge the rule of capital is probably not advanced by such a formulation. It should also be noted that Cohn-Bendit and Deleuze conspicuously leave aside the labour movement from their list of movements…’27

Long-time collaborators and communists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, influenced by postmodernism, took a more distinctive approach. Critiquing dialectics, they saw their project as being in sync with both Marx and Lenin while asserting ‘the postmodernist project must be nondialectical.’28

They alleged that Hegel’s theory of contradiction subsumed difference ‘into totality and teleology’, and labelled all forms of the dialectic as part of the logic of modern domination.29

Dialectics relegate, as they put it, ‘the multiplicity of difference to binary oppositions and its subsequent subsumption of these differences in a unitary order.’30

Hardt and Negri are referring specifically to the process in Hegel’s Science of Logic where identity is broken down into difference, with difference then subsequently subsumed by contradiction.

Reconciling the particular into the universal is a legitimate criticism of dialectical philosophy. Is it an inherently negative feature, or actually the basis to address and overcome the issues and oppressions poststructuralists and postmodernists identify?

The particular and the universal – race, class, gender, colonialism

Hegel’s notion of the concrete universal is undeniably related to Marx’s own views about universal emancipation.

Drawing upon Hegel, the pull of the universal upon the particular, steering it in the direction of universal human emancipation is evident in Marx’s body of work, for all that he addressed the particular.

Particulars like race, ethnicity and nationalism, especially in relation to subjects like Ireland, Poland, and the United States during the Civil War.

He distinguished between more narrow forms of group consciousness and more emancipatory ones, as when he emphasised how Irish Fenian nationalists had a class politics that opposed all landlords, pointing to the possibility of class unity across ethnic and national lines.

Such writings ‘belie the notion that Marx’s conceptualisation of capitalist modernity constitutes a “totalising” grand narrative under which the particulars of race, ethnicity, and nation are subsumed.’31

Or indeed gender, given Marx considered gender oppression a foundational form of social hierarchy and domination. Marx paid special attention to gender and family relations in non-Western societies like stateless Native American ones, perceiving elements of gender equality and women’s social power ‘far beyond the limited women’s rights of his time.’32

The women’s rights of Marx’s time were themselves a focus of his, concerned as he was with the social conditions of life for women across varying class strata. This included middle and upper-class French women driven to suicide by parents or husbands.

One of the specific tasks Raya Dunayevskaya set herself was to reinterpret absolute idea as absolute negativity, ‘rather than as any kind of ultimate metaphysical rest in a closed totality.’33

In other words, a reinterpreted dialectic that didn’t emphasise totality to the exclusion of difference and identity.

This enabled the dialectic to connect to the rich variety of progressive movements for change – the emerging LGBTI+ movement, women, ethnic and national minorities, without giving up on a universal drive towards emancipation in its most absolute and complete form.

Through the dialectical vision of a new society as a unifying point, free of the domination of capital and its value form alongside racism, sexism, and other oppressions, Dunayevskaya ‘avoids the pseudoconcrete that envelops so many of the postmodern philosophies of difference.’34

If dialectical thinking seeks to stay relevant, it must not seal itself away from questions of difference, otherwise it would atrophy into a fetishized ‘classical’ perspective, instead of remaining a living, critical philosophy in the present.

Moreover, dialectical reason can critically assimilate genuine insights from poststructuralism and postmodernism without ceasing to be dialectical reason. If it didn’t, it would cease to be a critical science.

Criticism

Kevin Anderson’s book is well deserving of a wide readership and audience, given the clarity with which it explicates and summaries key ideas, debates, and the histories it engages.

In terms of criticisms, there is slight repetition in the text, understandable due to it being a compilation of essays thematically if not chronologically linked. Some of the repetition is not entirely unwelcome, as it reinforces points made earlier and then provides greater detail.

A background in Hegel or the particular ideological and intellectual controversies and debates would certainly help, though it is not a requirement to understand the essential arguments in each of the essays.

The main objection is to Anderson’s assessment of Engels.

While Anderson is careful to note the ‘highly significant’ contributions of Engels, he largely agrees with ‘the philosophical critique of his tendency towards positivism by Lukács… his reductionist writings on gender even after studying Marx’s far subtler treatment in the 1879-92 notebooks… his disparagement and misreading of the strength of the Union side in the U.S. Civil War, and his editing of Capital, Vol. I.’35

Fair enough, although it is also fair to say that most of the criticisms of Engels in general are equally applicable to Marx. Intellectually, some figures have sought to ‘rescue’ Marx from Engels, ascribing to Engels alone the blame for Second International determinism (Althusser and Lukács) and the crudities of the Stalinist version of dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism, at least in its Stalinist version, had strongly positivistic qualities, especially evident in the work of its English popularisers like Maurice Cornforth, and French popularisers like Georges Politzer. Engels was much more nuanced than either, although a positivistic element can be read into certain writings of his.

As Joost Kircz explains: ‘The Diamat ideology of Stalinism is a prime example of taking creative reasoning out of its socio-historical context and recasting it in eternal truisms.’36

Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukács, Karel Kosík and Raya Dunayevskaya, whatever the strengths and limitations of their own politics and perspectives, were four individuals who sought to do the opposite without ceasing to be dialecticians or Marxists.

Moreover, for all the real determinism evident in the thinking in the Second International’s leading thinkers, it is perhaps sometimes a little overstated.

Exaggerating the differences between the two life-long intellectual partners strikes this author as a largely unnecessary and unfruitful exercise. To be fair Anderson makes an effort not to do that – but it does read like that is the direction he is more than once heading in.

While nobody could disagree with Anderson that we need to assess what Engels had to offer critically, like with other Marxist figures (Luxemburg, Bukharin, Lenin, Trotsky) the framing of them as ‘post-Marx Marxists in a negative sense’ (and here Anderson is following Dunayevskaya) seems unhelpful.37

Does it matter whether or not such figures ‘do not measure up to Marx’ as Anderson puts it?38 What about aspects of their political and intellectual activities that arguably exceeded those of Marx? It seems to lead ultimately into an argument about who was better, smarter, or less compromised intellectually and politically as a result of the historical role they played in their time.

The ‘power of the negative as the creative element’, words written by Dunayevskaya (echoing Marx’s 1844 manuscripts) was a central concern of hers, and it is for Anderson.39 Such power points in the direction of new beginnings, the ‘dialectic of negativity as the moving and creative principle’ as Marx described it.40

To give the last word to Karel on dialectics – it ‘dissolves fetishized artifacts both of the world of things and the world of ideas, in order to penetrate to their result.’41

For communists today, that is just the first step in unlocking ‘the present that is in the future’ as CLR James once said, and dissolving the present day structures that uphold oppression and unjustifiable hierarchies.42

All so the red shoots of a universalist emancipatory project breaking through the concrete – and pseudoconcrete – can flourish in the air of freedom.

1 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 187.

2 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 157.

3 Bensaïd, D 2009, Marx For Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, Verso Books, London, p. 207

4 International Institute for Research and Education 2021, ‘What it means to be Marxist’ (2007), https://iire.org/node/965?fbclid=IwAR2BeKiMEcy3txDUe72Ds-o3Gpj4bO_j0TjQmR0vUUZRRb-rc9gbnuSpqsU

5 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 115.

6 Dunayevskaya, R 2017, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings, Haymarket Books, Chicago, p. 433

7 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, pp. 255-56.

8 Ibid, p. 244.

9 Ibid, p. 259.

10 Ibid, p. 264.

11 Ibid, p. 266.

12 Lukács, G 1968, Democratisation Today and Tomorrow: Part II.The Pure Alternative: Stalinismor Socialist Democracy. 6. Stalin’s Method, marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/democracy/ch06.htm

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

17 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, p. 249.

18 Ibid, p. 249.

19 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

20 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 101.

21 Ibid, p. 165-6.

22 Ibid, p. 166.

23 Ibid, p. 161.

24 Ibid, p. 97.

25 Ibid, p. 98.

26 Ibid, p. 159.

27 Ibid, p. 160.

28 Ibid, p. 160.

29 Ibid, p. 160.

30 Ibid, p. 160.

31 Ibid, p. 186.

32 Ibid, p. 222.

33 Ibid, p. 168.

34 Ibid, p. 169.

35 Ibid, p. 220.

36 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 174.

37 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 222.

38Ibid, p. 222.

39Ibid, p. 168.

40Ibid, p. 164.

41Ibid, p. 201.

42Ibid, p. 191.

The wealthy backers of the alt-right

By BYRON CLARK

The growth of right-wing populism in the mid-2010s has frequently been misconstrued as a working-class phenomenon (or at least, a “white working class” phenomenon). Donald Trump’s supporters in the US however were wealthier than the average American voter and analysis of the Brexit vote in the UK found no real correlation between being part of the working class and voting to leave the European Union.

Of course, a successful populist movement can’t exist without recruiting working class supporters. The alt-right tells (predominantly young) white men who have been shut out from achieving the economic security that comes careers and home ownership, that the cause of their predicament is not neoliberalism or the steady reduction in the power of organised labour over the past decades, but feminists, liberal elites, socialists or- in its mostly openly racist forms- a cabal of Jewish bankers or billionaires.

This narrative, a kind of reactionary identity politics based on white male identity, has only been possible due to the financial backing of wealthy individuals, who have provided the capital for right-wing ‘news’ websites, speaking tours and pseudo-academic journals.

Steve Bannon and the alternative right

Before he was an adviser to Donald Trump or the CEO of Breitbart News (which he described as “a platform for the alt-right”) Steve Bannon was a film producer. Before producing a number of right-leaning documentaries, he was credited as the executive producer of the 1991 Sean Penn film The Indian Runner and later of the 1999 Shakespeare adaptation Titus.

Bannon’s goal in Hollywood however was not to be a producer, but a screenwriter. But his scripts were “too bizarre, hyper-masculine, and apocalyptic even for Hollywood”, at least according to Dale Beran’s 2019 book It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office. Beran writes that one of Bannon’s key intellectual influences is the 20th century Italian philosopher Julius Evola.

Evola has been described as “one of the most influential fascist racists in Italian history” by historian Aaron Gillette. The core of his philosophy is that man’s primordial warrior spirit, the supposed foundational pillar of civilization, is being debased by modern effeminate culture. Bannon was a screenwriter in the mould of Julius Evola.

While Hollywood studios may not have seen Bannon’s scripts as potential money makers, the political documentaries he went on to produce attracted funding from Robert Mercer. Back in the 1970s, Mercer had worked on machine-learning artificial intelligence to process vast sets of data with the goal of predicting the movement of markets. These algorithms have resulted in the hedge fund for which he worked, Renaissance Technologies, earning a yield of 70 percent each year, and have made Mercer one of the world’s richest men.

Although Mercer, a libertarian, had initially preferred the platform of Ted Cruz, Bannon convinced him to back Donald Trump in the 2016 US election. Via his production company, Glittering Steel, Bannon channelled funding from Mercer to Breitbart, and other endeavours, such as the college campus tour of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. One of the most successful projects was Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company founded in 2013 with Bannon as CEO and Mercer and his daughter Rebekah as principal investors. Cambridge Analytica is today best known for fraudulently siphoning personal information from 87 million Facebook users using a quiz app in order to build elaborate personality profiles with the aim of manipulating voters, both in the 2016 US presidential election, and during the Brexit vote in the UK.

Julius Evola’s ideas also appealed to the denizens of online spaces like 4chan where young and economically marginalised men would gather. These young men, often self-identifying as “NEETs” a term used by British statisticians meaning not in employment, education or training, had given up on achieving the traditional markers of success and retreated into what Dale Beran called “screen based fantasy words”. It was not the first reactionary movement to emerge out of 4chan, “Gamergate” a campaign of harassment targeting women who worked in the game industry (Zoe Quinn in particular) and a feminist video game reviewer emerged from these young men. Beran writes:

Evola’s texts read like a potpourri of the heroes, mysticism, and adventure that are mashed into comic books, unsold Bannon screenplays, and PlayStation 4 games in which gods from Asia battle trolls from Norway for ancient scrolls devised by Christian demons guarded by Greek centaurs.

It’s easy to see why Evola appealed to gamergaters. Gamers spend their lives absorbing fantasy stories of unfettered masculine heroes wandering the earth wild and free. And it seems only natural that they eventually regard their romanticized escapism as what all that Hollywood art works so hard to convince its audience it is—a lost ideal that must have been very real in a vanished past.

Milo Yiannopoulos, a former tech blogger now working with Bannon, wrote numerous pro-gamergate articles for Breitbart– while the mainstream games press was scathing and the media outside the subculture struggled to make sense of it. Yiannopoulos had found his audience, disenfranchised young men susceptible to the message that they were the real oppressed group in the modern world, denied their rightful place in society by “social justice warriors” and what Evola had termed “the feminine aegis”.

With this new found audience, Yiannopoulos soon embarked on his “dangerous faggot” tour of American university campuses, speaking on topics such as how “feminism is cancer” a phrase taken from a 4chan meme. While the men Yiannopoulos spoke to may have been economically marginalised (though certainly not in all cases) the tour itself was only possible with the money from Robert Mercer.

Yiannopoulos exit from public life was swift, in February 2017 when video of him making comments appearing to justify sexual acts between men and boys emerged. The Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded their invitation for him to speak, and a book deal with publisher Simon & Schuster was cancelled. Bannon’s employment at the White House ended a few months later following the Unite the Right rally in Virginia where a counter protester was killed. Bannon had reportedly been behind Trump’s comments condemning violence on ‘many sides’.

Guo Wengui’s fake news empire

While Yiannopoulos remains persona non grata, Bannon has continued to influence politics through alliances with wealthy donors. In October 2017, just weeks from his departure from the White House, he met with exiled Chinese billionaire businessman Guo Wengui (also known as Miles). Guo reportedly gave a $150,000 loan to Bannon and in August 2018 a Guo-linked company entered into a $1 million consulting contract with him. In early 2020, the pair raised several millions of dollars in a private offering for a company called GTV Media Group.

Earlier this year Graphica Research released a report that describes Guo as being “at the centre of a vast network of interrelated media entities which have disseminated online disinformation and promoted real-world harassment campaigns.”1 His media network, which includes GTV, has spread Qanon conspiracy narratives and misinformation about the Covid-19 virus. GTV has become so synonymous with fake news that if someone shares a link to it on Facebook, it’s automatically removed.

In the declaration of the New Federal State of China, a lobby group launched by Guo and Bannon with the stated aim of overthrowing the Communist Party of China, another organisation was launched, the Himalaya Supervisory Organization. According to that document:

[T]he Himalaya Supervisory Organization will make all preparations for the formation of the New Federal State of China with outreach efforts. It will actively liaise with various countries, political parties, associations and international friends supporting the establishment of the New Federal State of China and coordinate relationships with the interim government. It will guide and assist the preparation of the new government, and ensure the smooth, effective, and steady progress of the preparation of the New Federal State of China.

Aotearoa has not been outside the reach of this new group; the local branch operates as Himalaya New Zealand. According to their website:

Our mission is to raise awareness of [the] truth disclosed by the Whistle-blower movement initiated by Mr Miles Guo and the former White House strategist Mr Steve K. Bannon. We aim to counter false narratives forced through left-leaning mainstream media and compromised key NGOs within New Zealand.

When Bannon interviewed former National Party MP and later co-leader of Advance New Zealand Jami-Lee Ross on his FTV show War Room, Ross was flanked by the New Zealand flag and the Flag of the New Federal State of China. GTV is also the platform of choice for Counterspin Media, a New Zealand produced talk show promoting conspiracy theories and far-right talking points.

The show is hosted by Kelvyn Alp. Alp has a colourful history on the fringes of New Zealand politics. After serving in the army in the 1990s he started an anti-government militia that was covered in a 2002 episode of 20/20. A synopsis describes the segment as being about “a disaffected former soldier who claims he has his own army and is prepared to go into battle with the Government.” Like Ross in his War Room interview, Alp appears on camera between the flags of New Zealand and the New Federal State of China.

Tex Hill, a representative of Himalaya New Zealand, appears as a guest on the first episode of Counterspin, and Alp revealed on another GTV show (The Fringe) that Hill provided the studio. While Guo has ample wealth to invest in his media venture, investments have also been made by his supporters in New Zealand – or at least, supporters have attempted to send money to Guo. In July 2020 the New Zealand Herald reported that a group of investors had $3 million blocked by New Zealand banks. A week prior the Wall St Journal had reported the FBI was examining Guo and the money used to fund his media efforts in the US.

Hill was among these investors and as reported by the Herald had successfully transferred $100,000 to GTV Media Group via BNZ but was blocked from transferring a smaller amount via ANZ. It’s unclear exactly what the financial relationship between Counterspin Media and GTV Media Group or Himalaya New Zealand is, though unlike rival conspiracy theorist broadcasters Billy Te Kahika and Vinny Eastwood, the show does not solicit donations from viewers.

Richard Spencer’s benefactor

William H. Regnery II, the heir to a textile fortune who died earlier this year was rarely in the public eye, but his white supremacist views were no secret. In 2001 he founded the Charles Martel Society, named for the Frankish king who defeated a Muslim army at the Battle of Tours in 732. The society produces The Occidental Quarterly. Fearing white people were in danger of extinction, he announced plans in 2004 to start a whites only dating site. While the site never eventuated, the fear remained. He proclaimed in a 2006 speech: “The white race may go from master of the universe to an anthropological curiosity.”

As the Charles Martel Society is a space for extremists to share their writings with other extremists (essays in the Occidental Quarterly have titles such as “Reflections on Some Aspects of Jewish Self-Deception.”) Regnery started the National Policy Institute in 2005 with the aim of injecting white-supremacist ideas into more mainstream political conversations, spending $380,000 to do so. He hired the alt-right figure Richard Spencer in 2011.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, calling for immigration restrictions and other policies long advocated by the institute, energised the far-right. It was at a National Policy Institute conference following Trump’s victory where Spencer famously proclaimed: “Hail Trump!, Hail our people!, Hail Victory!”, eliciting Nazi style salutes from members of the audience. Less widely reported on were Regnery’s comments: “I never thought in my life I would experience an event such as this, and I am now persuaded that with your courage the alt-right side of history will prevail.”

In 2017 Buzzfeed News quoted Regnery as saying “My support has produced a much greater bang for the buck than by the brothers Koch or Soros Inc.”2

The old money funding race-science

While eugenics and race-science have since been widely discredited, these ideas were mainstream in the scientific establishment for close to two centuries, only falling out of favour following the atrocities of the Holocaust. Occasionally these ideas again penetrate mainstream thinking, such with the popularity of the 1994 book The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which claimed that certain non-white racial groups have inherently lower intelligence, or more recently with the now removed YouTube channel of Stefan Molyneux, who promoted the same idea as an argument against immigration to predominantly white countries.

With mainstream scientific journals no longer publishing their work by the mid-20th century, several like-minded researchers including former Nazi scientist Otmar von Verschuer and British eugenicist Roger Pearson, established their own journal, Mankind Quarterly, in 1960. According to Angela Saini’s 2019 book Superior: The Return of Race Science, “Their aims were simple: to challenge what they saw as a politically correct, left-wing conspiracy around race and bring back some scientific objectivity.”

The financial backing for Mankind Quarterly came from a reclusive multimillionaire whose wealth had its roots in plantation slavery. Described by Saini as “a diehard segregationist”, Wickliffe Draper was descended from the largest slaveholder in the state of Kentucky. In 1959 Draper set up the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics, to produce and publish documents on race.

In his 2002 book The Funding of Scientific Racism, William Tucker described the association as “probably the most significant coterie of fascist intellectuals in the post-war United States and perhaps in the entire history of the country.”

Cash gifts were routinely made via Drapers Pioneer Fund, a private foundation whose purpose was to disseminate information on human heredity and eugenics, to scientists who echoed Draper’s political sentiments, while thousands of copies of Mankind Quarterly containing their work were sent out to a list of American political conservatives. Draper died in 1972, but his legacy continues, with Mankind Quarterly still published today.

1 https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/graphika_report_ants_in_a_web.pdf

2 https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/aramroston/hes-spent-almost-20-years-funding-the-racist-right-it

“Working-class millionaires”: the housing bubble, inequality, and NIMBYism

Image via Getty/Newshub

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

This article is for Fightback’s magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

In my article on the Auckland local body elections in 2016, I paid special attention to (now former) Auckland Councillor Mike Lee – a long-standing Left-wing activist who had distinguished himself by opposing intensified housing in the central city/inner suburbs area which he represented.1 Although the debate has moved on in Auckland, it is currently raging in full force in Wellington. Some of the strongest voices against similar housing intensification in that city – whose rate of rent inflation now outpaces Auckland’s2 – are councillors elected from the Green Party.

“Now I don’t know why progressives like that have a mind block. I just don’t know,” commented urban geographer Ben Ross to the Newsroom website.3This article aims to provide an answer to Ben Ross’s question; one which uses the much-misunderstood idea of class – in the sense of the social analysis pioneered by Karl Marx – to suggest an explanation for “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) attitudes among the self-described Left. On the way, I hope to show how a class analysis makes it easier to understand why the massive inflation in housing prices and rents has been allowed to happen in the first place.

Whatever happened to class?

It’s very difficult to talk about “class” sensibly, since the uses of the term which are current in popular culture and the mass media are very difficult from the sense in which Marx used it. The popular understanding of the media is that “working-class” is a cultural identity – or a “consumption” identity – meaning someone who consumes “ordinary”, mass-market things, rather than fancy “elite” things. In New Zealand terms, someone who drinks Lion Red beer and watches rugby, rather than drinks Cloudy Bay wine and goes to dance recitals, might be called “working class”.

This idea of class – based on what people consume – is very popular among Right-wing populists who want to build a mass movement against media and cultural “elites”, rather than the capitalist system and the billionaire class. The crowning stupidity of this approach came from the US presidential spokesperson who tried to argue that the “working class” identified with Donald Trump – at the time the most powerful head of state on the globe and infamous for flaunting his wealth – because he ate Big Macs.4

In contrast, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discussed class, they specifically meant a social distinction based on ownership of the means of production, and on control over others’ labour power. Marx and Engels’ vision, as expressed in the Communist Manifesto, was of society increasingly divided between two major classes – owners of the means of production (capitalists) and those who needed to work to survive (proletarians).5

So why do Marx, Engels and socialists in their tradition worry so much about the idea of (socioeconomic) class? Because class is a kind of “dirty secret” of capitalism and liberal democracy. On paper, in a society such as Aotearoa or Australia, everyone is equal; we all have the vote and the same human rights. But in practice, the owners of property make sure – through their influence over the economy, over the lives of their employees and tenants, and with their ownership of mass media and dominance of educational institutions – that democracy can never develop to the point that it threatens their privileges. As French poet Anatole France put it: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Class, then, is why democracy under capitalism never works “as advertised”. But class analysis is not a conspiracy theory. It is not as if all the members of property-owning classes consciously “rig” the system to benefit at everyone else’s expense. Marx argues that the ideas in people’s heads develop from the way in which they live their lives6:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Privileged classes and groups are not (entirely) consciously and selfishly guarding their privileges; but it just seems like “common sense” that a way of organizing society which makes their lives comfortable and pleasant is the correct state of affairs. This is why “rational” arguments for social change, or appeals to people’s better nature, have limited impact on the privileged. But even worse, these ideas “trickle down” to dominate all social layers, even the most oppressed7:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

The common sense of gentrification millionaires

So how does all this help us understand the “progressive mind-block” where veteran socialists and Green Party activists end up opposing housing intensification? In my 2016 article I suggested some explanation of how Mike Lee, in particular, ended up in that position:

Mike Lee’s main achievements for the Left were as chair of the Auckland Regional Council, when he was elected by all the people of the old Auckland City, from Avondale to Remuera to Otahuhu. His anti-Unitary Plan stance, however, has been as the councillor for the Waitemata/Gulf ward – including the central city but dominated by the gentrified, super-wealthy suburbs of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay et al… One does not need to be a Marxist to point out that a good elected politician promotes the interests of their constituents.

Similarly, in Dileep Fonseka’s Newsroom article, he mentions how pro-intensification Wellington councillor Rebecca Matthews “inadvertently highlighted Green Party-aligned Deputy Mayor Sarah Free’s ownership of multiple properties when she captured a screenshot of declared property interests”.

“There is a generational thing here,” Matthews told Fonseka. “I’ve met maybe one person under 35 who is against this stuff….people have got in this position because they managed to buy these houses cheaply many, many years ago.” This is a point which I also raised in my 2016 article, when I pointed out that Mike Lee’s constituency

were beneficiaries of racially-biased gentrification. Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were heavily Polynesian working-class suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. They were pushed out of the area in the 1980s… and young, “hipster”, Pākehā took advantage to buy up cheaper housing in what were then insalubrious but culturally rich suburbs. This generation subsequently benefitted from the massive neoliberal housing boom. They may have “done up” their Ponsonby villas, but no amount of “doing up” can justify a 2000% increase in capital value over 30 years.

It’s worth mentioning that there are far more extreme opponents of contemporary urbanism than Mike Lee or the Wellington Green Party. The most notorious are a small group in Auckland led by café owner Lisa Prager, who have gone beyond opposition to intensification to active sabotage against bike lanes and traffic-calming initiatives in the inner suburbs. Prager and her group, however, go well beyond the concerns about “heritage” and the greed of property developers raised by the councillors:

Prager believes transport and roading changes being made by AT are “designed to assist multinational corporations to transfer public money into private hands via confidential contracts”.

Alternative transport lobby groups like Bike Auckland and Generation Zero along with blogs like Greater Auckland were a part of a global conspiracy called Agenda 21, she said

For those who have followed Fightback’s analysis of the far right, this is the familiar form of conspiracy theories that we hear from far-Right groups opposing COVID health measures or multicultural society in general. It’s worth noting that even mainstream “NIMBY” discourse resorts to milder forms of ‘alternative facts’, such as accusing pro-intensification activists of being fronts for the Property Council (as Mike Lee does in his response in Fonseka’s article), or claiming that there are tens of thousands of “ghost homes” sitting vacant so there is no need for new housing.9

Prager’s group, although far more extreme than the NIMBY councillors, fit the same class profile we’ve been discussing: small property/business owners; Pākehā; of the generation which came of age before neoliberal reforms and the property bubble. In a 2019 article about anti-transgender/anti-sex work attitudes from some on the Left, I suggested that:

fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them.10

NIMBYism – as a defence of a status quo which benefits a particular middle-class layer, couched in the language of social justice, and envisaging a conspiracy of big business and progressive activists against it – is a classic example of a Right-wing populist argument which disguises itself in Left-sounding language, effectively enough to confuse those who identify as “Left” but feel their privilege to be threatened by social trends. In other words, the kind of thing which Fightback has been warning against for many years.

The wealth effect builds a constituency

However, if the problem with house-price inflation and NIMBYism were due only to the economic self-interest – or “mind blocks” – of local body politicians and grumpy shopkeepers, it would be much easier to solve. The knottier problem is one at the level of the entire economy – and baked into the neoliberal economic model which has ruled the global economy for the last four decades.

A capitalist economy always runs a balancing act between keeping wages as low as possible, and therefore profits high; and the problem that profits can only be made if the goods and services produced can be sold. And if wages are too low, workers can’t afford to buy things.

One possible answer to this problem is expressed in the mantra of New Zealand’s neoliberal politicians in the 1990s of an “export-led recovery”. You can keep wages low in your own country if the goods and services are sold overseas – a model which has shown its most impressive success in China and other East Asian economies. But the benefits of this model decrease as more countries adopt it, in a kind of “race to the bottom”.

Runaway inflation in the property market of New Zealand, and other countries, suggests another way out from the contradiction between wages and consumption – what economists call the household wealth effect.11 Encouraged by near-zero interest rates, a continuous rise in the value of people’s homes means, bluntly, that people “feel richer”. Jacinda Ardern’s government has acknowledged that people “expect” there to be continuous rises in property values – an endorsement of a permanently inflating asset market which no Government would ever make for, say, the stock market.12

Given this implicit Government guarantee, there is no reason for people who own housing property not to run up ever increasing amounts of debt – “putting it on the mortgage”. But this maintains consumption levels, and thus keeps the economy ticking over, at the price of increasing social inequality. Those who have property get continuously richer – those who can’t get on the property ladder pay rent at an ever-increasing proportion of income. This is what they call a “K-shaped recovery” – recovery for property owners, stagnation or worse for the rest of us.13

Some Leftists object to housing property being used as the key to a class analysis. Someone’s personal house, they argue, is not a “means of production” in the same way that Marx meant it. But in the current financialized neoliberal economy, as we’ve seen, a house is not only a place to live but an investment asset, which not only inflates spending power above what wages and salaries could provide, but continually exacerbates the distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.14 In Australia, income inequality between the highest and lowest deciles nearly doubled once housing costs are accounted for.15

Ben Ross’s perplexity at the “mind-block” of progressive NIMBYs is resolved when we recognize that such people are only “progressive” insofar as it doesn’t impact upon their own social status and comfort. An economy where house prices were stable, or fell, would be disastrous for the comfortably-off older Pākehā layers from which our local politicians are overwhelmingly drawn – no matter how they justify it (to themselves and others) with concerns about heritage or conspiracy theories. Worse still, it would no doubt lead to an economic crisis with a collapse in consumption – unless balanced by a large increase in wages and salaries, which is the last thing that big business wants.

The housing asset bubble will end – one way or another. Auckland’s formerly runaway rents have begun to “flatten off” with increased building since 2016, though property prices continue to inflate16. Either the era of near-zero interest rates will come to an end due to adverse economic developments elsewhere in the world; or the misery imposed by increasing rents for unhealthy and unsustainable housing will reach a tipping point where the self-interest of the NIMBY classes will be overruled. The question is how much pain working people have to suffer before that happens. The suggestion of former Green Party leader Metiria Turei in 2016 of crashing the housing market by 40% is an excellent one, that might be accomplished through massive intensification of sustainable housing, accompanied by a programme of rent control, coupled with a big increase in wages and salaries, and reforms of National Superannuation and KiwiSaver to offer alternative forms of economic security to property ownership. Only then might the stranglehold of the landlord class over politics in this country be loosened.

1 https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

2 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/auckland-rents-up-nearly-3-per-cent-new-barfoot-thompson-data/

3 https://www.newsroom.co.nz/the-lefties-who-want-less-housing

4 https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/375422-gorka-americans-like-trump-because-he-eats-big-macs-on-air

5 See elsewhere in this issue for discussions of modern developments in class analysis which look in more detail at the various social groups which are “in-between” these two major layers.

6 Karl Marx, “Preface” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

7 Karl Marx, “The Illusion of the Epoch” in The German Ideology: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm

8 https://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/central-leader/102298217/anticycleway-protester-arrested-after-destroying-traffic-island-with-sledgehammer; see also this tweet from Auckland Councillor Pippa Coom https://mobile.twitter.com/pippacoom/status/1410540515653685249

9 https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/125463204/ghost-houses-a-spectre-of-nzs-housing-crisis-or-just-a-bogeyman

10 https://fightback.org.nz/2019/08/26/swerf-and-terf-the-red-brown-alliance-in-policing-gender/

11 https://www.rbnz.govt.nz/research-and-publications/discussion-papers/2019/dp2019-01

12 https://www.interest.co.nz/property/108301/pm-jacinda-ardern-says-sustained-moderation-remains-governments-goal-when-it-comes

13 https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/money/2021/04/explosion-of-wealth-inequality-as-housing-boom-leaves-many-behind-economist.html

14https://voxeu.org/article/housing-and-wealth-inequality-story-policy-trade-offs

15https://theconversation.com/how-the-housing-boom-has-driven-rising-inequality-102581

16https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/125543691/rents-flatten-after-government-housing-changes-trade-me

Is there a ‘middle class’ or ‘Professional-Managerial Class’?

By ANI WHITE

This article was written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

A podcast discussion based on this article can be heard at Where’s My Jetpack.

In common vernacular, the concept of a ‘middle class’ has currency. 70% of Americans think of themselves as ‘middle-class.’1 It may seem bluntly obvious to many that there is a middle class. But what is the middle class?

Classical Marxists have tended to define the working-class as those who draw their income from work rather than capital, which would include most who self-identify as ‘middle class.’ Conversely, sociologists have tended to divide society into multiple classes by income, status, and other indicators. Recently, the concept of a ‘Professional-Managerial Class’, or PMC, has gained currency on the left.

So, is there a middle class? Is this the same thing as the ‘petite bourgeoisie’, or the ‘Professional-Managerial Class’? What might the answers to these questions mean for those of us who aim to take on capitalism?

Professional-Managerial Class

We will start with the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, currently popular in ‘democratic socialist’ circles around Bernie Sanders. This concept was originally coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, founding theorists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), partly to address a descriptive limitation in classical Marxism.

Although the Ehrenreichs do identify a historical dynamic needing further investigation, one central problem with the PMC category is the equation of professional and managerial. Professional simply means ‘high-skilled’, admittedly by a definition that devalues the skills of other workers. This may include a nurse, a tutor, or an IT worker, and any of these may be employed under poor conditions. Managerial simply means managing workers: it includes those who manage the nurses, tutors and IT workers categorised as ‘professional.’

In a classical Marxist conception, capitalist society ultimately polarises into two classes: workers who sell their labour, and capitalists who exploit it. Although there is a ‘petite bourgeoisie’, comprising mainly small business owners but also other middle strata, classical Marxists have tended to argue they will dissolve into one of the two major camps, often because economic insecurity would lead to proletarianisation. The Ehrenreichs argued a new class had emerged over the 20th century: the Professional-Managerial Class, defined as salaried, educated workers who do not control the means of production but are relatively privileged, and employed to reproduce capitalist social relations.2

Managers are generally expected to enforce the company line, so even if they don’t own capital, they may perceive contradictory interests with subordinate workers. Furthermore, managers may also wear a blue collar. So, you can be a professional without being managerial, or managerial without being a professional. Who does the average IT worker manage? Is the average IT worker in the same position as their office manager? The assumption that anyone wearing a white collar plays a managerial role does not stand up to scrutiny, but the PMC category does not make the distinction.

The PMC was the target of the recent book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional-Managerial Class by Catherine Liu, which is an influential in circles such as popular socialist magazine Jacobin.3 An excoriating critique of Liu’s shallow historical account and populist politics can be found on Libcom’s article “The PMC and the Tucker Carlson Left”,4 but I want to zero in on the author’s facile culturalist assumptions about class. These are asserted in the introduction:

The much-maligned Hillary Clinton was honest in her contempt for ordinary people when, in 2016, she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Their 2016 defiance of PMC and liberal nostra has only hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism, which another reactionary demagogue will seek to exploit. PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable child-rearing habits.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

The equations here are revealing – Trump supporters equal blue collar working-class, liberals equal white-collar managers. What data does the author marshal to back up this argument? Nada. We in Fightback have argued before, on the basis of exit polls and other data, that Trump’s support is primarily among the petite bourgeoisie and wealthier sections of the working-class5 – putting it simply, those earning over 50k tended to vote Trump, those earning under 50k tended to vote Democrat.6 In keeping with the hoary cliches of the Conservative Left,7 Liu goes on to attack the PMC for their ‘culture wars’:

When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

If anything is an insult to low-paid workers, it’s the assumption that they are on the conservative side of the culture wars, in other words opposing rights for various social minorities. Once again, the author marshals precisely no hard evidence for this, only her own assumptions. In fact, a majority of Americans support progressive measures such as marriage equality.8

Liu contends that the shift towards capitalist-led ‘culture wars’ occurred after 1968. If there is a kernel of truth to the critique, it’s that capital has appropriated progressive symbols for its own benefit. However, this is in large part a concession to social movements, and would not work as branding if progressive social change did not have popular support. Discrediting Black Lives Matter because corporations post the slogan on Twitter is like discrediting Che Guevara for appearing on T-shirts. It’s admittedly true that at the height of neoliberalism, neoliberals were able to win over swathes of leftish-liberal middle class support, however this apparent consensus has been in crisis since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Liu comes to the point when she associates Elizabeth Warren’s campaign with ‘PMCs’, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign with resistance to their dominance. However, this perceived gulf between Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s politics reveals a limited political imagination. For all his rhetoric, Bernie Sanders equates ‘socialism’ with the police and army,9 as mayor of Burlington supported the arrest of anti-war protestors,10 and has repeatedly backed the centrist candidates openly loathed by his vocal left flank.11

Accusations against PMC Democrats can be diagnosed in many cases as projection. This echoes the old-fashioned sectarian Marxist deployment of ‘petite bourgeois’ as pejorative for anyone the sectarian disagrees with, by such a broad definition that it usually encompassed the people making the accusation. Catherine Liu herself is an academic, undoubtably a position that would be attacked as PMC if she supported Warren. The term PMC itself is hardly used beyond prolific Twitter users, who constitute around 2% of the US population and tend to be higher income than average (in a statistic worthy of Occupy Wall Street, 10% of Twitter users create 80% of the tweets).12

Liu admits to her membership in the PMC herself, and casts herself as a traitor to her class. However, without anything in the way of an empirical analysis of economic class, or an admission that the PMC in general are politically divided, casting herself as a noble exception is precisely the kind of individualistic moral positioning that she denounces, albeit with a more militant rhetoric in line with the times. In general, Liu’s insistence on her anti-liberalism is protesting too much, as she’s ultimately backing a Democratic electoralist strategy with no perspective for building working-class self-organisation.

The reality is that the various middle strata of class society are divided by liberal, conservative and even radical politics (especially during periods of upheaval). It’s not even necessarily true that left liberalism is predominant in the middle class as Liu and many others contend: upper-income workers and the petite bourgeoisie tend to support right-wing populism. Likely as a Humanities academic, Liu has encountered many leftish liberals without a serious critique of capitalism, but this is just one slice of the various professions identified as PMCs. Liu’s ‘class analysis’ essentially replicates the arguments of mainstream right-wing populism, repeating Murdoch talking points such as casting anti-sexual violence campaigns as irrational panics, rather than conducting an independent empirical investigation of class composition.

Although Liu’s book does outline the basic political economy of the global financial crisis, it does nothing to define economic class, ironic for an author who insists on the ‘antimaterialist’ nature of her political opponents. Liu justifies this theoretical looseness with a rhetorical gesture that her approach is polemical rather than ‘objective’, as if that lets her off the hook of actually analysing class society.

What is class composition today?

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with socialist, or communist approaches to class that an analysis of its economic character is the necessary starting-point. As previously outlined, classical Marxists tend to define class in terms of relation to production. More popular definitions tend to focus on income, or consumption habits. So how do we conceive class composition today?

Taking Sydney as their case study, Political Scientists Lisa Adkins et al argue that contemporary class should be conceived in terms of financial assets – particularly housing – rather than income.13 This argument draws on the influential work of Thomas Piketty, who emphasises the accumulation of wealth over income.14 The Anglosphere has very inflated housing markets – Aotearoa New Zealand has the second fastest growing house prices in the world15 – against a backdrop of steep inequality.

Marxists also define class based on property rather than income, but whereas classical Marxists emphasise the property of employers, Piketty’s followers emphasise assets such as housing. In studying the financialisation of everyday life in Australia, political economists Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty conceive of class as having both industrial and financial dimensions. They note that industrial and financialised views of capitalism can be complementary:

The industrial, workplace-centred view and the financialised view are compatible in many ways. People work for wages or income and produce a surplus and also live in households and absorb risk. In this dimension the financialised view is just adding a new emphasis.

Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

This new emphasis on financial assets is partly due to a shift within the composition of capital. Financial capital has come to predominate over industrial capital.17 Related to this financialisation, it seems hard to deny that the inflation of housing assets in recent decades has created a ‘middle class’ relying on assets rather than wages (Daphne Lawless’ article in this issue goes into the implications of this for recent clashes over housing in Aotearoa New Zealand).

Sociologists also distinguish between economic capital and cultural capital.18 Cultural capital refers to accumulated signs of status: say being fluent in formal English, owning a Lexus, or grinding your own coffee. This notion of cultural capital undoubtably underlines the attack on ‘PMCs’ hoarding cultural signifiers of virtue, whether or not adherents of the theory admit to this concession to culturalism. Yet in identifying cultural capital with class position, they imply an automatic relationship which doesn’t necessarily exist. Academics, for example, are sharply divided on many political questions. In general middle, or mediating strata are divided over cultural, political and economic questions.

So, returning to the initial question, is there a middle class? Perhaps, to a point, we can accept the common sociological argument that there are many middle classes, or middle strata. There are small-business owners, managers in various industries, white-collar salary workers, self-employed contractors, union officials, those retired but owning housing assets – these are all different positions that could fit into the ‘middle-class’ box, but may have clashing interests and politics (e.g., whereas small-business owners have an interest in reducing tax, public sector workers have an interest in redistributive policies). The most you can say in general is that they do not straightforwardly fit into the binary of industrial worker and capitalist, but rather play various mediating roles.

Decline of ‘middle class’

Although many popular talking points about class are misleading, the widespread talking point of the ‘decline of the middle class’ has more truth to it. Young adults across the Anglosphere are less likely to own homes than their parents,19 face a more insecure labour market,20 and are more saddled with debt.21 In short, even many from relatively privileged backgrounds are downwardly mobile.

In their work “Death of the Yuppie Dream”, Barbara and John Ehrenreich place this ‘decline of the middle class’ in the context of a capitalist offensive beginning in the 1970s. Ehrenreich notes that alongside the gutting of working-class power that even undermined the position of many PMCs, there was also a cultural offensive against the ‘liberal professions’ such as academia (the inverse of Liu’s argument in Virtue Hoarders that PMCs were waging a cultural offensive against workers on behalf of capital). Following outsourcing of industrial labour, information technology increasingly facilitated outsourcing and automation of white-collar labour. Conditions in tertiary education were undermined. All of this was exacerbated, of course, by the global financial crisis. The Ehrenreichs argues this undermining of the PMC may be a basis for radicalisation22:

In the coming years, we expect to see the remnants of the PMC increasingly making common cause with the remnants of the traditional working class for, at a minimum, representation in the political process. This is the project that the Occupy movement initiated and spread, for a time anyway, worldwide.

Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

Yet in Virtue Hoarders, despite drawing on the Ehrenreichs’ concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, Liu is dismissive of their thesis regarding the decomposition and radicalisation of the PMC, largely justifying this dismissal on the basis of Occupy Wall Street’s failure. However, for all the limitations of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s politics, downward mobility is central to the revival of socialism among young people that has made these previously obscure backbenchers household names. Liu’s positioning of herself as an honourable exception to the PMC rule precludes an analysis of this shift in class composition and subjectivity.

Conclusion: Political transformation over moralism

In Marxist Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, Lukács disputes the notion that revolution would be ‘purely proletarian.’ By necessity, any mass social transformation must draw in various sectors, including middle strata. Moreover, this will not happen automatically, rather it requires the organisation of middle strata in the meantime:

Ay revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society… At that point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played.

Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

The aim of a principled socialist critique of class society is not to moralise, but to transform. Sectarians attacking comrades on the basis that they are ‘petite bourgeois’, or the contemporary variant of PMCs trolling other PMCs on Twitter, are forms of point-scoring that do nothing to advance the cause of social transformation. Clearly there are middle strata in class society, with a greater degree of relative privilege than the most oppressed sections of the working-class. However, many can be organised, on the basis of a common programme encompassing the interests of all oppressed and exploited people. Past revolutions and social movements show that a section of the middle strata will join the right side of history, and the question must always be posed: which side are you on?

1 Martin, Emmie. “70% of Americans consider themselves middle-class – but only 50% are.’ CNBC, Jun 30 (tinyurl.com/cnbc-middle).

2 Ehrenreich, John and Barbara.” The Professional-Managerial Class”, in In Between Labor and Monopoly Capital (Pat Walker ed). South End Press. 1979

3 Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

4 Comrade Motopu. “The PMC meets the Tucker Carlson Left”, Libcom, 21 Feb 2021 (tinyurl.com/libcom-pmc).

5 White, Ani. “What is the base of right-wing populism”, Fightback, 17 Mar 2021 (tinyurl.com/populism-base).

6 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020”, Financial Times, 8 Nov 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base).

7 Lawless, Daphne. “Against “conservative leftism”: why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, Fightback, 16 Feb 2016 (tinyurl.com/conservative-leftism).

8 PRRI Staff. “Dueling Realities: Amid Multiple Crises, Trump and Biden Supporters See Different Priorities and Futures for the Nation”, PRRI, 19 Oct 2020 (tinyurl.com/majority-marriage).

9 Healey, Patrick. “Preparing to Define Democratic Socialism, Bernie Sanders Points to Public Libraries and the Police”, The New York Times, 19 Oct 2015 (tinyurl.com/police-socialist).

10 Seelye, Katharine Q. “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist”, 25 Nov 2015, The New York Times (tinyurl.com/bernie-protestors).

11 Sullivan, Eric; Sullivan, Kate. “Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden for president”, CNN, 14 April 2020 (tinyurl.com/bernie-biden).

12 Wojcik, Stefan; Hughes, Adam. “Sizing Up Twitter Users”, Pew Research Center, 24 Apr 2019 (tinyurl.com/very-online).

13 Adkins, Lisa; Cooper, Melinda; Konings, Martijn. “Class in the 21st century: Asset inflation and the new logic of inequality.” EPA: Economy and Space0(0), pp. 1–25, 2019. Sage Publications.

14 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. 2014.

15 Bell, Miriam. “NZ number two in international house price growth ranks.” Stuff, 4 Jun 2021 (tinyurl.com/nz-no2).

16 Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

17 Peet, Richard. “Contradictions of Finance Capitalism.” Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2011 (tinyurl.com/mr-finance).

18 Bourdieu; ibid.

19 Nova, Annie. “Here’s why millions of millennials are not homeowners”, CNBC, 30 Aug 2019 (tinyurl.com/millenials-usa); Stats NZ. “Homeownership rate lowest in almost 70 years”, Stats NZ, 8 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/millennials-nz); Savage, Michael. “Millennial housing crisis engulfs Britain”, The Guardian, 28 Apr 2018 (tinyurl.com/millenials-uk); Chau, David. “House ownership is out of reach for ‘disenfranchised’ millennials, says CoreLogic property analysts”, ABC News, 28 Sep 2019 (tinyurl.com/millennials-aus).

20 Martinchek, Kassandra. “Young Millennials and Gen Zers Face Employment Insecurity and Hardship during the Pandemic”, Urban Institute. 18 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/yz-insecurity).

21 DeMatteo, Megan. “How Much Debt Do Millennials Have?”, CNBC, 19 Mar (tinyurl.com/millennial-debt).

22 Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

23 Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

Intersectionality and class

By BRONWEN BEECHEY

This was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The concept of intersectionality originates from a 1989 article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law studies professor and one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. While Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become one of the latest spectres haunting the right-wing in the US, it originated in the 1980s and 90s among a group of legal scholars, including Crenshaw, who took issue with the liberal consensus that discrimination and racism in the law were irrational and “that once the irrational distortions of bias were removed, the underlying legal and socioeconomic order would revert to a neutral, benign state of impersonally apportioned justice.” Crenshaw and other CRT founders argued that racism was not an aberration that could be legislated out of existence, highlighting the continuing economic inequality between whites and minorities, and the lack of minority representation in supposedly “colour-blind” institutions such as universities. Instead, Crenshaw wrote, discrimination continued due to the “stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance” – in other words, the American legal and political system was inherently racist.

The concept of intersectionality came from the ideas debated in CRT. Crenshaw’s 1989 article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, centred on three legal cases that dealt with issues of both racial and sex discrimination. Each case, Crenshaw argued, demonstrated the limitations of a single-issue analysis of how the law considers racism and sexism.

For example, DeGraffenreid v General Motors was a 1976 case where five black women sued General Motors over its seniority policy. General Motors never hired black women until 1964, and so when seniority-based layoffs occurred after a recession in the early 1970s, all of the black women were laid off. The women argued that General Motors seniority policy was discriminatory on both racial and gender grounds. However, the court refused to consider the two categories together, stating in the words of the judge that “black women” could not be considered as a separate, protected class, as to do so would open up a “Pandora’s box” of minorities who would demand protection by the law.

Crenshaw argued that the 1976 case and others ignored the specific challenges facing black women as a group. She wrote:

The point is that Black women can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

In a 2017 interview, Crenshaw said that “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Intersectionality is also linked with the development of identity politics, a concept that was first articulated in a public statement by a black feminist social work, the Combahee River Collective. The statement highlighted the need to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of black men.” It concluded:

Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

Identity politics was criticised by many on the left, on the basis that it encouraged an inward-looking focus that elevated differences between activists and emphasised the importance of lived experience over the development of solidarity between different groups. It was also criticised for creating “hierarchies of oppression” where the more types of oppression an individual suffered from, the higher their status. Others pointed out that identity politics was co-opted by the mainstream political parties, allowing them to present progressive legislation on women’s rights and LGBT+ issues while continuing their austerity policies toward workers and the poor. Intersectionality can be seen, at least in part, as a response to the limitations of identity politics, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

The concept of intersectionality was quickly picked up by other academics, who applied it to queer theory, feminist legal theory and numerous studies on race, gender and sexuality. Over time, it began to appear outside academia. In 2015, “intersectionality” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and shortly after the term became widely, though not always accurately, used in mainstream media. It quickly became associated with North American feminist campaigns such as Me Too and the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. As a result, “intersectionality” was added to the vocabulary of right-wingers as a term of abuse, along with “political correctness”, “cancel culture” and “privilege checking”. It was variously described as “a new caste system”, “a conspiracy theory of victimisation”, and representing a form of feminism that “puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.”

Interestingly, a number of conservative commentators have acknowledged that intersectionality as an idea or legal concept is valid. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who has described intersectionality as “really dangerous,” told Vox that “the original articulation of the idea by Crenshaw is accurate and not a problem” The issue for conservatives is the application of intersectionality beyond the academic sphere, where it is perceived as an attempt to invert an existing hierarchy of oppression so that white, straight, cisgender men are on the bottom. In response, Crenshaw points out that her aim is not to replicate existing power dynamics but to remove those power dynamics altogether. She adds that “There have always been people, from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, who had denounced the creation of equality rights on the grounds that it takes something away from them.”

Less predictably, intersectionality has also been criticised by left-wing and Marxist commentators. These critiques are focused on the role of class, which is recognised in intersectional theory as a form of oppression, but not given any more importance than other forms such as race, gender or sexuality; whereas Marxism traditionally views class as the primary form of oppression. Some of these arguments have been crudely reductionist, arguing that any discussion of race, gender and sexuality is a diversion from the class struggle. These arguments seem to assume that the working class is composed primarily of white men, a situation that has not existed for at least the past 30 years, if ever.

Other Marxist scholars, such as Barbara Foley, Eve Mitchell and Asad Haider, recognise the importance of anti-racist, feminist and queer issues, but argue that these “identities” are largely a product of capitalist social relations. According to Foley:

…the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.

Eve Mitchell describes intersectional theory as in part, a response to the marginalisation of women of colour in the 1960s and 1970s feminist, Black Power, and other anti-racist organisations. She states:

It is important to note that identity politics and intersectionality theorists are not wrong, but they are incomplete. Patriarchal and racialized social relations are material, concrete and real. So are the contradictions between the particular and universal, and the appearance and essence. The solution must build upon these contradictions and push on them…Embracing womanhood, organizing on the basis of blackness, and building a specifically queer politics is an essential aspect of our liberation. It is the material starting point of struggle.

However, both Mitchell and Haider argue, the essential next step is to move beyond organising around identity and towards an understanding that solidarity between all those oppressed by capitalism is the only way to defeat it.

Other Marxist commentators argue that there is no incompatibility between intersectionality and Marxism. Sofa Saio Gradin, a queer non-binary Marxist, writes:

Radical queerness and anti-racism are not forms of identity politics; and class struggle is not free from questions of identity. All forms of social life are already coded by class, race, gender and disability, so there are no forms of politics or struggle that exist outside these structures of social power. The claim that intersectional critiques distract from the ‘real struggle’ or are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism: the question is not whether the two can be integrated, but how.

In her 2020 book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism, Ashley Bohrer also argues that “a thorough analysis of capitalism requires insights and tools from both Marxist and intersectional traditions.” She adds, in a recent interview:

We can’t understand race (in its gendered, sexualised, ability-laden senses) without understanding that the modern notion of race was invented in a capitalist world, that we all experience race in a capitalist world. There is no separating any of these categories from capitalism and there is no separating capitalism from race, gender, sexuality, ability or nationality.

The role of intersectionality in Aotearoa New Zealand is particularly relevant in a nation that Marxists describe as a colonial-settler state. Like Australia, Canada and the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand was settled by Europeans as part of an imperialist project, where the colonising nation (England) displaced and often physically extinguished the indigenous population with the aim of seizing its resources. Later waves of migration brought other nationalities in, particularly Pacific Islanders who were used as a cheap labour force following the post-Second World War boom. As a result, a large percentage of the working class in New Zealand (if not the majority) are Māori, Pasefika or other ethnicities such as Chinese or Indian. This has given class struggle an intersectional dimension. To give one example, the support of unions for the occupation of Takaparawhau/Bastion Point in the 1970s was instrumental in ensuring that, even after the occupation was violently ended by police and army, construction was not able to proceed.

The effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa NZ also can be seen through an intersectional lens. The most affected community in the wave of the delta strain has been the Pasefika community. This is due to several factors. Firstly, many of the “essential workers” who have been working through the lockdowns – medical staff, retail workers, supply chain and transport workers – are Pasefika or Māori and therefore at greater risk. These workers are low paid and generally live in substandard, overcrowded housing. It is also customary in Pasefika and Māori cultures for elderly family members to be cared for at home by relatives, meaning that COVID-19 (particularly the Delta variant) spreads rapidly and affects both the old and the very young.

The importance of the church to the majority of Pasefika families has resulted in super-spreader events at large church services, and some churches have shared anti-vax conspiracy theories among their followers. Historical memories of the Dawn Raids and racism has created an understandable distrust of government; and there are many in the community who have overstayed work visas and are reluctant to go to vaccination or testing centres (although there is no restriction on eligibility due to immigration status).

Added to this is the chronic underfunding of health services, particularly in South Auckland where the majority of Pacific peoples live.

The low vaccination rate among Māori can also be explained by the legacy of colonialism, where Māori were dispossessed of their land and food sources, had their language and culture suppressed and lost thousands to diseases introduced by the settlers. Māori in rural areas have limited access to health services and transport. Disinformation about vaccines has also had an impact, feeding into general distrust of government and health policies that have disadvantaged and discriminated against Māori in the past.

Taking an intersectional approach means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika communities to organise vaccination and testing at marae, churches and other sites where community members feel comfortable, and to develop resources in their own languages to encourage vaccination and counter disinformation. It means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika to counter food insecurity. It means calling on the government to increase benefits and wages and build more public housing. And it means supporting the fight against climate change, which in many areas is already being led by Pasefika and Māori youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that capitalism is prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to keep its profits coming. The majority of those lives are those of the poor and people of colour. At the same time, there have been countless examples of solidarity in responding to the pandemic. This solidarity can be built upon a basis of understanding that different people experience oppression in different ways, as well as understanding the common cause of that oppression – a system that considers certain lives to be expendable so that the rich can survive.

Through the maze – accessing social housing in Aotearoa New Zealand

by BRONWEN BEECHEY

The author is a social worker working for an NGO in South Auckland.

A Housing NZ complex in Christchurch

As of March 2021, there were 23,688 applicants on the waiting list for social housing in NZ, an increase of 45 per cent from the same time last year.1 To qualify for social housing, you must be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, or recognised as a refugee or protected person by Immigration NZ; and in most cases have income under $655.41 per week after tax if you are single with no dependents, or $1008.33 after tax if you have a partner or children. You must also be considered to be in “serious housing need”, a category which is decided by Work and Income, which took over the assessment of social housing eligibility from Housing NZ in 2014.2 (In 2019, Housing NZ was merged with its development subsidiary HLC and the Kiwibuild Unit from the Ministry of Housing to create Kainga Ora – Homes and Communities).

Behind the statistics, there are thousands of people who are being forced into substandard living conditions and unaffordable rentals due to the interpretation of “serious housing need” by Work and Income. Those who are lucky enough to be considered in serious housing need face months of waiting in emergency accommodation, mostly in motels which are not intended to be long-term living situations.

As a community social worker in South Auckland, a large portion of my work involves helping people through the confusing maze of applying for social housing. The people I work with are Maori, Pasifika or recent migrants. They are either on benefits or low-paying and insecure jobs. Typically, they have large families which often include parents or other relatives. Many do not speak English as their first language. There are often health issues, intimate partner violence and breakdown of family relationships, and a reluctance to discuss these issues with strangers. When a family or individual contacts our agency, they are often at a crisis point. They may be a woman and her children escaping a violent partner, or a family who have been living in overcrowded accommodation with relatives who have told them to leave. They may also be a young person who has been kicked out by family because of pregnancy, sexuality or resisting strict parenting.

The first step is to ask Work and Income to find emergency accommodation. For families, this is usually fairly straightforward, and they will be placed in a motel, usually on the same day. With single people, Work and Income will generally say that motels are only available for families and that the person should try to find a lodge or boarding house to stay at. This usually results in an argument with Work and Income about why a lodge, as well as being generally substandard accommodation, is not a safe place for a single woman or a transgender teenager to be in. In most cases, Work and Income will then place the person in a motel. However, people without children who approach Work and Income directly for help with accommodation will often be told to find a boarding house or lodge, and given no other options.

Emergency accommodation is booked for seven days. Before the seven days is up, the person or family has to contact Work and Income, then tell them what efforts they have made to find private rental accommodation (even if they have been assessed as eligible for social housing). If the Work and Income case manager is satisfied, the emergency accommodation is extended for another seven days. According to MSD figures, in December 2020, 3,807 households were in emergency accommodation, 1,941 of them including children. A total of 4,031 children were living in motels as of 31 December 2021, with more than 1000 living there for up to one year. From October 2020, people in emergency housing have 25 per cent of their income deducted after the first seven days. This is despite the amount of money paid by MSD to motel owners to provide emergency accommodation – $1m per day according to recent reports.3

People in emergency accommodation are told to look online for properties, regardless of whether they have access to the internet or know how to use it. They are expected to view properties even if the rent is unaffordable. Pressure is often put on people to apply for rental properties that are unaffordable or substandard. A colleague of mine recently assisted a sole parent who had been pressured by Work and Income into taking a rental costing $700 per week, which was cold, damp and had holes in the walls and other damage.

Once people take a rental, they are taken off the social housing waitlist because they are no longer considered to be in “serious housing need”. One of the families I work with was encouraged by Work and Income to take a private rental property which was not adequately heated, after the landlord promised to install a heat pump. Several months later, the heat pump has still not been installed and the couple’s young child is getting sick and has been hospitalised several times with bronchiolitis. When we tried to get the family back on the social housing waitlist, they were declined because they were in the rental property. A roof over your head is considered sufficient, unless you are about to be evicted or someone is seriously ill.

For those who stay in emergency accommodation, the next step is transitional housing. Transitional housing is run by social housing providers which are contracted to the Ministry of Social Development. There are a number of transitional housing complexes in South Auckland that are purpose-built with a good standard of accommodation of varying sizes, however, some are motels that have been leased or purchased by the housing provider and are not always well-maintained. Transitional housing is provided for 12 weeks and often longer. The provider is meant to provide a “wrap-around” service to help families to either move to social housing or private rentals. The reality is that many providers struggle to provide the help that is required, due to staffing shortages and the sheer volume of numbers they are working with, who frequently have complex needs.

Another issue with both emergency and transitional housing is the restrictions on visitors. While accommodation providers need to ensure the safety of residents, young people particularly find the restrictions difficult as they want to socialise with friends and family; and the need for Maori and Pacific families to maintain whanau and family connections is also undermined.

Faced with this obstacle course of finding permanent accommodation, many people just give up and remain in substandard conditions, sleeping in garages and living rooms, living in cars or vans, or couch-surfing around friends and relatives.

While the number of homes being built by Kainga Ora has increased under Labour, it is not enough to meet the need. Many of the new builds are medium-to-high-density apartments and townhouses, which are not adequate for larger families. Accessible housing for those with disabilities is even harder to find.

The housing situation in Aotearoa New Zealand is beyond crisis – it is fundamentally broken. It is the result of years of neglect and ideological opposition to public housing, combined with structural racism and neoliberal capitalism. As described elsewhere in this issue by Ani White, the concept of housing as an investment rather than a human right has not been challenged in any real way by Jacinda Arden’s government.

The first Labour government responded to the housing crisis of the 1930s by a massive building effort that also created jobs for those made unemployed by the Depression. There is no reason why, with new technologies available, that many more homes could not be built now, and that these homes would be environmentally sustainable, good quality and provide options for single people, smaller families, larger families and multi-generational households. The only reasons that this is not happening is the reluctance of the Labour government to do anything that might upset the wealthy property developers and slumlords, and the absence of a mass movement that can pressure them to do so. There are a number of reasons why this hasn’t occurred – the disruption caused by Covid19, the overwhelming demands on housing services, and in some cases, reluctance to upset the government that provides funding for organisations providing housing services. Hopefully these barriers to demanding a massive increase in public housing and rent controls on private rentals can be overcome.

1 MSD Housing Register March 2021. https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/statistics/housing/index.html

2MSD, “Who can get public housing” https://workandincome.govt.nz/housing/find-a-house/who-can-get-public-housing.html

3 Radio New Zealand (9/3/2021) Emergency housing: $1m-a-day spend a “disgrace” – National https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/438001/emergency-housing-1m-a-day-spend-a-disgrace-national

Everyone should care about urbanism, and here’s why

by JOHN POLKINGHORNE

New housing in Waterview, Auckland

New Zealand cities have so many good things going for them, but they’re let down by inadequate housing and transport. Mouldy old homes rent for exorbitant sums. Traffic-clogged roads are unpleasant (or even unsafe) for anyone not in a car.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can rethink where we live and how we get around, and transition to a society that is more affordable, more equitable, healthier, and with much lower greenhouse gas emissions. This will be better for all urban residents, especially low-income and vulnerable people.

What Do Urbanist Cities Look Like?

Urbanist cities should be inclusive and offer a range of housing and transport choices. Affordability is key to becoming inclusive: everyone should be able to afford a lifestyle that satisfies their basic needs (see ‘the human right to housing’) and allows them to participate in society.

That doesn’t mean everyone gets everything they want: cities are limited for space and there are tradeoffs involved. New Zealanders expect to be able to drive wherever and whenever they want, and that has to change.

Why Aren’t We There Already?

Since the 1950s, New Zealand governments and councils have spent the vast majority of their transport budgets on roads, with almost nothing for public or active (walking and cycling) transport. That has resulted in the car-dominated society we have today.

Working-class neighbourhoods were starved of public transport – not because the wealthy neighbourhoods have gotten all the investment, but because too much money went on motorways and non-driving modes only got crumbs.

Working-class communities suffer when there aren’t good alternatives to driving. Low-income households are more likely to be carless, and this can cut them off from accessing jobs, educational opportunities and the other places they need to get to. With better alternatives to driving, low-income households can manage without a car more easily, or manage with one less car and save money without making their lives any harder.

Since the 1970s, new homes in New Zealand have been built on the edges of our cities, with little regard for how the residents will get around if they don’t have a car. The rate of housing construction has also slowed since the 1970s, and it fluctuates with economic ups and downs. Auckland was especially hit by the post-GFC downturn, even as the city’s population kept growing – and that was when the housing shortage really started to escalate into a crisis.

Auckland’s housing crisis shows up in all sorts of data. Most of the Western world has an ageing population and the average number of ‘people per household’ is falling as a result – but Auckland stayed flat at 3.0 people per household over 2001-2013 and has now risen to almost 3.2. The statistic might sound bland, but it has real-life consequences, with people struggling to find homes that are right for them. It hits low-income areas hardest and results in overcrowding and substandard living conditions.

Rents in some cities have skyrocketed since 2015, as faster population growth hit a wall of inflexible housing supply. Even in Auckland, rents have steadily crept upwards year after year (now over $560 a week), whereas a stronger supply response would see them flatten out or even decline. Landlords haven’t had to compete for tenants, so they haven’t bothered to upgrade their properties – 38% of rented homes in New Zealand are damp, and 20% are mouldy.

Decades of bad decisions have brought us to our current situation. Neither housing nor transport are good enough, and it’s not good enough to say that they’ll take decades more to fix. We need rapid action on all fronts.

Creating Better Choices

At a government level, both left and right-wing parties agree that “we need more housing supply”, but they can’t quite agree on what that means. At the council level, things are even more disjointed as many councillors feel the need to appease NIMBY (not in my back yard) voters.

As for me, I want to see lots of new homes in places that are central, well-connected or highly desirable. This often isn’t allowed under current planning rules. This will deliver real housing choices and bring down rents everywhere, not just the places where those homes are built.

Cycleways and bus lanes can be rolled out very quickly (and cheaply!) with political and community will, and in just a few short years they could cover much larger parts of our cities. Building busways or light rail is more expensive and takes longer, but we will need that too.

Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, said “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. To unpack this: driving is expensive for the poor to afford. If they have good public (and active!) transport options, that’s a start. If public transport is so convenient that even the rich want to take it, that’s job done.

I grew up in a central Auckland suburb, and flatted in Mt Albert and Sandringham while studying. I never considered living in an apartment until I moved to the city centre in 2009. 12 years on, I’ve never wanted to leave. Large parts of the city centre have transformed around me, creating shiny new apartments and hotels but also public spaces and waterfronts a short walk away. I’ve never been more than a 15-minute walk away from university and (subsequently) work, and now that I have a toddler I’m a similar distance from his daycare.

I’ve chosen this lifestyle, which comes with pros and cons, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the choice. Living close to work is a luxury in Auckland, and not having to sit in (and contribute to) traffic is a luxury as well. Many Aucklanders have chosen something different to me – maybe they really enjoy suburban living, or being out in the wops even if it means a lot of driving – but many Aucklanders feel like they don’t have good choices about where and how to live.

The Auckland and Wellington city centres offer a glimpse of the future (albeit with room for improvement), but there’s currently no ‘middle ground’ between them and car-dependent suburbia. Providing middle-ground housing options in more places is a big part of the solution.

The Outcome

What would an urbanist city in New Zealand look like – Auckland or Wellington after ten years of focused change? It would be densest in the central suburbs, and around transit lines and town centres. Land here is valuable so people would mainly live in apartments, but these would range from small to family-sized with floorspace quite affordable. The buildings themselves could be at suburban scale, well designed and integrated with their surroundings. Further out, housing would trend more towards townhouses, terraces, and walk-up apartments. And further out again, homes would predominantly be detached houses as they are today.

Public transport would be so reliable and practical that we’d take it for granted – and we’d take it all over the city. Bus lanes and signal priority would mean buses arrive when they’re supposed to, with crosstown routes connecting town centres and suburbs. “Rapid transit” lines, including rail, light rail and busways, would help to shift people in and out of the city centre and other high-demand areas.

Active transport would be equally reliable and practical, with people on bikes protected from those in cars so that 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds could cycle without fear. The world is already in the early days of an electric (e-bike) revolution – these incredible machines can cover distance quickly, and ‘smooth out’ hills for much easier riding. They will have a profound impact globally. In New Zealand they will be relevant in every suburb of every city, and even in smaller towns and rural areas. E-bikes might just save us all.

It’s not about forcing people into chicken coops or out of their cars. There should be good choices available for everyone in the city, meaning:

  • Housing everywhere becoming more affordable (i.e., lower rents), with new options that don’t exist currently: high or medium-rise apartments in town centres, and walk-up apartments or terraces close by.
  • Shortening your commute – because you might want to move closer to work, in one of the new homes. Most of us would like to spend less time on the road. Many areas will see improved public transport, and everywhere will be easier to bike around.
  • Bringing people closer together, and giving them better alternatives to driving, brings more opportunities within reach. It’s a powerful thing for economic development to increase the number of jobs that can be accessed within 45 minutes of a suburb.
  • The public benefits are huge. Continuing to sprawl out into the countryside will be very expensive for Auckland, with the infrastructure costs alone almost $150,000 per home.

All of this is completely achievable. We must choose whether to keep doing what we’ve always done or strive for something better. That “something better” will create better choices for the people who live in our cities, or who might someday. It will benefit people throughout those cities: high income or low, central or suburban. Even people who continue driving will be able to enjoy safer, less congested roads.

Urbanist cities are fairer, more affordable cities. That’s good news for everyone. As to how we can get there? I suggest advocating to your council for a vigorous NPS-UD response on intensification (look the acronym up!) and pushing for bus lanes and cycleways, the transport ‘quick wins’.