Migrant women and family violence

By BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Content warning: Suicide, violence against women. Note: The case studies in this article are based on the experiences of several women who I supported in my role as a social worker. Names and identifying details have been changed.

Tina Sharma arrived in Christchurch in June 2017 to join her husband. By September, she was dead. According to Coroner Alexandra Cunninghame’s report, released in April, Sharma took her own life because she was in a violent relationship. Evidence was given to the inquest that her husband, Narinder Singh, was controlling and abusive.

Sharma and Singh married in India in January 2017. Following her move to Christchurch, according to the coroner:

There is no evidence that she ever left the flat by herself to exercise, explore her new city, or shop. She did not have her own EFTPOS card or New Zealand bank account, and she could not drive.

The inquest heard that Singh discouraged Sharma from talking to her brother, who also lived in Christchurch, or her best friend. There was also evidence that Singh physically abused his wife.

According to Sharma’s relatives, she would not have known that there were organisations that support women experiencing domestic violence that she could have approached.[1]

While intimate partner violence is a widespread problem in Aotearoa New Zealand – we have the highest rate in the OECD – women from migrant communities are particularly vulnerable. Approximately half of the homicides in Aotearoa New Zealand are family violence-related, and a large proportion of these are migrant women. As well as language barriers and cultural beliefs that normalise IPV, many migrant women struggle with complex, bureaucratic and inflexible immigration and social welfare systems.[2]

Migrant victims of IPV can apply for the Family Violence Temporary Work Visa and Family Violence Residence visa if they were in a relationship with a New Zealand citizen or permanent residence. The latest figures show that 1,614 of these visas were granted between 2010 and 2021. The five main source countries have been consistent during this period: India, China, the Philippines, Fiji and Tonga. As the first three countries are major sources of immigrants to Aotearoa New Zealand, this partly accounts for their predominance in these statistics; but all of these countries have high rates of IPV (as does Aotearoa NZ). The number of FV visas granted in that 10-year period is low compared to the levels of family violence in Aotearoa New Zealand, and it has been noted that women from Middle Eastern, Latin American and African backgrounds make up only 11 per cent of applications.[3]

For many migrant women, their immigration status is tied to that of their husband or partner. Usually, the male partner is the principal applicant for a temporary or resident visa or sponsor for his wife’s application. This means that he can delay her visa process and/or refuse to sponsor her partner resident visa, leaving her on a temporary visa, restricting her access to employment, education, welfare and health services. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship or removal from a joint application for residency is often enough to stop victims of IPV from seeking help. An Australian study in 2017 of family violence against women on temporary visas found that many women had not been directly involved in obtaining their own visas, and the majority did not know their migration status or visa type[4].

The Australian study reported that out of the 300 cases that they examined, 20 involved forced domestic labour, where women are sponsored to migrate (usually after an arranged marriage) and then forced to maintain the household for the immediate or extended family of their partner. In some cases, the woman’s passport and documents were confiscated, her movement restricted, and the perpetrators told her that they were a “slave” or “owned” by the family[5]. A 2016 study conducted in Aotearoa New Zealand among Indian women survivors of domestic violence also found that this occurred frequently[6].

“Ayesha” is one Indian woman who experienced this form of abuse. Ayesha was from a relatively well-off family and had a university degree. She had married an Indian-born New Zealand resident who lived with his family. Ayesha was expected to do all the housework and cooking, including heavy lifting that caused her to have a miscarriage. She was physically and emotionally abused by her husband and also her mother-in-law. After becoming pregnant again, Aysha fled the home and went to the police station. Fortunately, she was taken to a refuge, where she stayed until she gave birth to her child. Ayesha was eventually offered accommodation by a member of her church.

Because she had married a NZ resident, Ayesha was able to apply for a Family Violence residence visa and temporary work visa. However, she had no income during the 3 months it took to grant the visa, other than child support and her Best Start payment Work and Income will pay a special benefit, Emergency Maintenance Allowance, once the temporary FV visa is granted, but not before because the Social Security Act specifies that only NZ citizens and permanent residents are entitled to any Work and Income benefit.

The process for granting a FV temporary work visa or residence visa is complicated and confusing, particularly for those who do not have English as their first language. The application is usually lodged by an immigration lawyer, not many of whom will agree to work pro bono. The applicant needs to show documents such as police reports, protection orders, criminal convictions for family violence or a statutory declaration stating that the violence has occurred plus two supporting statutory declarations from professionals. If applying for the FV residency visa, the applicant also needs to satisfy the health and character requirements for residence, and give reasons why they would be unable to return to their home country (such as having no way to support themselves financially) or facing abuse or social exclusion due to stigma associated with reporting family violence, being separated or divorced, or a sole parent).[7]

Ayesha was supported with food parcels, clothing and baby gear by the refuge and social workers, as well as advocacy with Work and Income and Immigration NZ. She was able to get her learner’s permit and once her temporary visa was granted, moved into a flat with her child who was also enrolled in daycare. Because she was an educated, articulate woman with good English, Ayesha was in a better position than others to find support and advocate for herself, but she still found the process stressful and frustrating.

For “Mele”, the process was even harder. Mele came to New Zealand from Tonga on a visitor visa. She then met her partner and they eventually married. He was also Tongan but had permanent residence. Mele believed that once they married, she was covered by his residency. Her husband was abusive, and the abuse worsened after Mele gave birth to their child. After a violent assault by her partner, Mele called the police who removed her partner from their home and served him with a police safety order. He was charged over the assault and Mele was given the number of a women’s refuge outreach service.

Because Mele was not legally in New Zealand, she was not able to apply for the FV temporary visa immediately. Instead, she had to apply for a visa under Section 61 of the Immigration Act as a “special case” to allow her to stay in the country. [8]As part of that process, she had to apply for a police report from Tonga to prove that she had no convictions there. After receiving the report back from Tonga, the report was sent to Immigration NZ. After several weeks passed with no response, contact was made with INZ who said they were still waiting for the police report. It turned out that the report had been received and scanned, but not attached to Mele’s file. The Section 61 visa was granted, but Mele was not eligible for the Emergency Maintenance Allowance until she was granted the Family Violence temporary visa. (She also had to request another police report from Tonga, despite the fact that the information had not changed since the first one). Mele survived on her Best Start payment (which she was entitled to due to her ex-partner’s residency) and food parcels.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 made the situation for Mele even worse. Immigration NZ, like other government departments, closed its offices and sent its workers home. However, apparently, INZ staff were unable to access their work files for some time, so Mele’s case, along with everyone else’s, simply came to a halt. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. Mele was not in a position to return to Tonga even if she wanted to, due to border closures, but Work and Income still refused to grant any payment. Mele felt hopeless and depressed, even considering giving her child to her ex-husband to care for as she worried that stress and lack of money were affecting her ability to care for the child.

At this point, social workers supporting Mele took the issue to her local MP’s office, and a couple of weeks after that, Mele’s Temporary FV visa was granted. She was finally granted an Emergency Maintenance Allowance which was back-paid to when she had applied for the visa. Mele is still waiting for a decision on her residency visa, and her economic situation is still precarious as most of her benefit goes on rent.

Both Ayesha and Mele are educated women who speak English well. They had good support from community agencies and, unlike many other survivors of family violence, did not have serious harassment or pressure from ex-partners or family to return to their abuser. Yet they still struggled with a complicated, inefficient and inflexible response from government agencies that were supposed to help them. For many other migrant women, the struggle is too much and they go back to the violent relationship.

If Mele and Ayesha’s partners had not been permanent residents, neither would have even been able to apply for the FV visa. The only recourse for those women is to apply to the Immigration Protection Tribunal on the basis of “exceptional circumstances of an humanitarian nature.”[9] This is a long and expensive process. Women in this position will often stay in the relationship until their partner has residency, but sometimes the abuser will remain on a temporary visa so that they are able to keep their victim dependent on them. This is particularly the case when the abuser is on a long-term temporary visa with high-paid employment, such as a Talent Work Visa, as they are eligible for publicly funded healthcare and have no need for any other benefit of permanent residence.[10]

Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 2018, CEDAW’s monitoring committee raised concerns about Aotearoa New Zealand’s treatment of recent migrant victims of family violence, including:

  • The situation of migrant women with children who do not hold permanent visas and lose their partner’s sponsorship through separation or divorce; and in some cases, women have been deported to their countries of origin, leaving their children with the abusive partner
  • That women may stay in violent relationships so as not to lose their visa status
  • Migrant women face obstacles in seeking justice due to knowledge and language barriers, as well as a lack of legal aid

The committee recommended that Aotearoa New Zealand’s immigration laws be changed to allow access to permanent residency for mothers of children who hold Aotearoa New Zealand nationality. It also recommended that shelters and free legal, counselling and support services be provided for migrant women victims of family violence; and that information on family violence and how to respond to it are available in community languages[11].

However, even these modest recommendations have been ignored. There need to be major changes to the Immigration and Social Security legislation so that migrant women can leave violent relationships, access benefits and “fast-track” residence visas. Successive governments have treated migrants as a source of cheap labour, causing many to live in poverty and substandard housing, which increases the possibility of family and intimate partner violence. While this continues, more women will die.


[1] Gates, Charlie. Woman takes her own life after being in abusive relationship, coroner says. Stuff, 14 April 2022. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/128358803/woman-takes-her-own-life-after-being-in-abusive-relationship-coroner-says

[2] Ministry of Business,Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[3] Ayallo, Irene. “Intersections of immigration law and family violence: Exploring barriers for ethnic migrant and refugee background women.” Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work [Online], 33.4 (2021): 55–64. Web. 19 Apr. 2022. https://anzswjournal.nz/anzsw/article/view/913

[4] Segrave, Marie, Temporary migration and family violence: an analysis of victimisation, vulnerability and support, Monash University, Melbourne, 2017. https://www.monash.edu/arts/gender-and-family-violence/research-and-projects/completed-projects/temporary-migration-and-family-violence

[5] Ibid.

[6] Somasekhar, Sripriya, “What will people think?”: Indian women and domestic violence in Aotearoa / New Zealand, A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2016. https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/10592

[7] Community Law Manual. Immigration: Family Violence, vulnerable migrants and other special visa policies. https://communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-29-immigration/family-violence-vulnerable-migrants-and-other-special-visa-policies/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[11] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of New Zealand. 2018. https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/CEDAW_C_NZL_CO_8_31061_E%20%283%29.pdf

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – an interview with Eric Draitser

Transcript of an interview originally broadcast on March 12th, on the podcast Where’s My Jetpack. Transcribed by John Smith. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Eric Draitser

Ani White: Kia ora, welcome, comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White…

Derek Johnson: …And I’m Derek Johnson. Hola, comrades. Apologies for the delay in episodes, which is due to personal health circumstances being in America and Florida, but we’re back with an episode on the invasion of Ukraine. We’re interviewing Eric Draitser, an independent political analyst and host of CounterPunch Radio. You can find his exclusive content, including articles, podcasts, audio commentaries, poetry and more at patreon.com/EricDraitser. He can be located at EricDraitser@gmail.com and we’ll put all the links [in the blog description].

Welcome to the show, Eric.

Eric Draitser: Thanks so much for having me.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on.

So, we’ve been watching your daily YouTube videos, and also Facebook and that. And you’ve been reporting back on Russian-language media. Can you give us some context for your own connections to Russia and Ukraine?

Eric Draitser: Yeah. Well, I will say that I have been monitoring all kinds of media, all kinds of press. I’m not 100% fluent in the sense that I can speak Russian very well. But reading complicated subjects like political issues and analysis and things like that can be a little bit difficult. But I do monitor Russian press as much as I can. I try to keep up with all the different outlets as much as I can for the purposes of, as you said, kind of taking that information and distilling it down into pieces that people can absorb and then use to sort of formulate their own analysis. And I think that we have a major sort of gap on the left in the alternative media when it comes to being able to analyse these kinds of things, especially a conflict as complicated, politically charged and ideologically divisive – and whatever – as this one. I’ve found that for various reasons that we probably won’t have time to go into, but for various reasons, there seems to be a real lack of solid analysis that can be truly understood as objective, that sees the situation for what it is, rather than cheerleading NATO or cheerleading Russia. Hopefully I am able to provide that for people and to help them pick through what I think is definitely the most complicated and propagandised and disinformation laden conflict in our lifetimes.

Not just a crime, but a blunder

Ani White: How do you characterise the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Eric Draitser: How do I characterise it? I mean, it’s a lot of different things. I think probably first and foremost, we should say that it’s an egregious war crime. I mean, it’s a crime against the general peace as established in Nuremberg. It is the supreme crime, as the Nuremberg precedent established, that is the crime against peace. So it is that. Now we must say, just so that our political or at least my political orientation can be understood, this is not to ignore the fact that the United States has committed the very same supreme crime countless times in my own lifetime, all over the world. So I don’t mean to suggest that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is without precedent. These kinds of war crimes have precedents. However, just because the United States is a serial war crimes perpetrator doesn’t mean that Russia somehow is absolved of having committed this egregious crime. And I think that’s an important point to establish because you see a lot of people allegedly on the left who really do genuflect about this idea about whether or not this is some kind of crime against humanity, which it most certainly and clearly is.

Now, that being said, beyond just being a crime, this is a blunder. I believe this is a blunder of historic proportions. I think it will be remembered as such years, decades, maybe even centuries from now when historians look back on this period and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an extreme blunder by the Russian state that undoubtably led to all kinds of other things that we still today can’t foresee because we’re just at the beginning of this. So it marks a turning point. It marks a turning point in what we’ve historically called the post-Cold War period. The post-Cold War understanding of the world seems to have evaporated, at least in the sense that the United States is a single global imperial hegemon that guarantees a sort of Pax Americana, Peace in Europe, et cetera. These things have sort of gone out the window now, as we see not only the economic rise of China and sort of a more aggressive rise from Russia and Turkey and other countries in the world, but now we see it spilling over into what we would call a theatre of conflict and the creation of a theatre of conflict by the Russian invasion. So this really also, I think, in my view, needs to be sort of understood, at least to some extent as being established in precedent by the neocons [neoconservatives] and what they did in Iraq. Let’s not forget that the invasion of Iraq was predicated on a series of lies, each of which fell apart to only be supplanted by the next one. It was pushed forward by ideological, I would say, criminals, ideologically driven neocons who are non-military men, but who were driven by an ideology of imperial power. And that was rooted in the idea that they are, as Karl Rove famously said, “we are the creators of reality and with every decision we make, we create a reality, and you are left to analyse our decisions. And while you analyse them, we make new decisions to create new realities.” That’s Karl Rove in 2004 quoted by Ron Suskind or allegedly Karl Rove, although he claims he never said that.

So this is something that is, I think, really critical to understanding Putin and understanding the Russian view on the world. The Russian view on the world says that we are not to be treated as second class. We can do anything that the United States can do. And now what we see is that Russia is trying, or was trying, to establish that it too can do imperialism, right. And that’s unfortunately, how we’ve blundered into. And by we, I mean the world has blundered into this nightmare, disastrous scenario.

Derek Johnson: What is your take on supposed leftists or anti imperialists who go even farther to make a case for Putin?

Eric Draitser: It’s interesting because in some ways it’s a continuation of a divide that’s been present on the left. And I mean, when I say the left, I guess we should probably be even more specific and really say the terminally online left, because the left is much more broad than the sort of insane sliver that you see on Twitter and Facebook and the rest of it. I mean, the left involves all kinds of different elements of our society. It includes unions and grassroots organizations and all kinds of things that exist in the real world that are not really reduced to this chattering on social media. But I know what you mean. We’re talking about sort of the vocal sections of the online left. This is in some senses a continuation of the divides over Syria, the divides over Trump and ‘Russiagate’ and a lot of other things. But ultimately this is rooted in something that I’ve been talking about since at least 2015. And that is what I consider to be the infiltration of anti-imperialism, the infiltration of anti-imperialism with what you might call a sort of fascist and fascist collaborating element that sees anti-imperialism as being able to align with any and all forces that are in opposition to the United States and to the global Empire. In other words, it’s what you might call a sort of vulgar anti-imperialism, just like we would call reduction to strictly economic analysis as a kind of vulgar Marxism that ignores race and identity and gender and all of these other things that we understand to be critical today. And just as vulgar Marxism is to a large extent rooted in everything from a kind of white supremacist attitude to a lack of understanding of the way the world actually works. Similarly, vulgar anti-imperialism is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of imperialism today, in my view.

And I should know because I used to very much have a lot of those views. And I’ll just explain what I mean. I grew up, or I shouldn’t say I grew up, but my politics are forged around the Iraq war. I was in college when the Iraq war was launched. I was in the 12th grade on 9/11, and then the next year we were at war in Iraq. I was a freshman in college. It was my first real exposure to politics outside of the right wing Zionist neocon politics of my parents in the house that I grew up in. So for me, it was an eye-opener and I really began to form a world view rooted around the way in which the United States uses imperial power and the way in which the United States is in many ways the root cause of so many conflicts and problems in the world. As I sort of evolved from there, my understanding of things like imperialism began to become more, I guess you could say, mature or evolve. My understanding of the mechanisms of power began to evolve and I sort of began to call myself an anti-imperialist. And seeing the world as the product of the forces of Empire, just as Lenin wrote more than 100 years ago, and seeing that the United States really was the global bully, the global imperial hegemon.

What’s happened since, I would say about 2015 or so, is that things continue to evolve globally, and China’s rise, of course, and Russia’s return as a military power and all of these things and Turkey expanding its footprint, Turkey having won multiple wars just in the last few years, these changes globally – and of course, Trump and all of the domestic conflict in the United States that has kind of turned at least some of that attention that the US would normally have reserved for the rest of the world inward – you’ve seen other sub imperialist, Patrick Bond would say, sub imperial powers rising, and that has, in my view, changed dramatically the dynamics of the period that we’re living through so that it is no longer 1997 or 2003 or even 2010. We are now in a very different period of global history, one in which we have competing imperialisms. And I say all of that, I say all of that, only to say that those who would even dare make excuses for these war crimes and crimes against humanity that Russia is carrying out, are those who have completely misunderstood these changes, these shifts over the recent years, and who have for various reasons, some of which are self-interested, some of which are driven by ego, some of which are just misunderstandings and failures to understand that has led to what I said, a vulgar anti-imperialism that interprets anti-imperialism as being anything that opposes the United States. But the problem with that, then, is that you misunderstand the fact that what we actually are witnessing is neoliberal imperialism coming up against a kind of far right imperialism. Ultimately this conflict is the nature of what we’re actually dealing with. And that camp on the left that can’t understand that, well, of course they’re going to make excuses for Russia.

Anti-imperialism or anti-US?

Derek Johnson: I first started seeing it, I know, being politically active in the early 2000s there of seeing how ANSWER and all these different groups that were anti-war were taking these sides of supporting the Shining Path and supporting all these other really weird positions of siding with dictatorships and anything against America. I found that strange going back all the way to, I remember NATO going into Yugoslavia, and it was like that was some of my first exposures to different kind of sectarianisms and factionalisms on the left, where I kind of saw how some people on the left were like, defending Milošević. It’s like I saw how bad NATO was, and yet there was different sides of it that struck me very strange in that way of like, okay, but why would you support Milošević?

Eric Draitser: Yeah, I guess I have a sort of take on that, that’s again, is sort of rooted in my own experiences. And it was extremely – Derek, you probably remember this – but it was extremely, extremely unpopular to protest against the war in Iraq. You would be name-called. You would have people yelling at you. Whatever it was.

Derek Johnson: Right.

Eric Draitser: Often one of the most common things you would hear is “Saddam gassed his own people. He gassed the Kurds. What? Do you love Saddam? Why don’t you go live in Iraq?” And I learned then that it doesn’t really matter what you say and what you stand for, these people are going to find a way to twist it and turn it on you. But the truth is that you can oppose a war against a country despite the leader of that country not being a good guy. You didn’t have to support Saddam to be opposed to the Iraq war. And that is true in a number of other examples, each of which I think is different. But it’s splitting hairs. It doesn’t really matter because ultimately the point is to oppose an imperialist war. And as an American citizen, as a US citizen, obviously, I always saw my primary responsibility as opposing the United States. And a lot of these Russia apologists, these Kremlin propagandists and stuff, they say that today. They say, well, if you’re in the United States, your job is to oppose NATO. Well, yes, and I do.

But my job is also not to misrepresent the nature of this war, not to pretend that the side that started it isn’t the side that started it, not to pretend that crimes against humanity that are being committed aren’t being committed, or that if they are being committed, the people that are perpetrating them aren’t actually responsible for it, because the other side actually did all these other things, right? It’s not about trying to find a nuanced position, it’s just about understanding the complexity of the world that oftentimes if you are anti-imperialist, what that actually means, in my view, it’s opposing imperialism. It’s not opposing the United States. It’s opposing imperialism. In this case. This is Russian imperialism. I know everybody wants to just act like it’s heresy to even suggest it, but I even had somebody on Twitter being like, “have you even read Lenin?” And I’m like, “what? Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve read Lenin’s Imperialism like, a dozen times. Do you think Lenin, if you were alive today, would look at what Russia is doing and be like, yeah, no, that’s not imperialism.” I mean, come on, people need to be serious. By the way, speaking of Lenin, Lenin has been endlessly bashed by Putin through all of this process because Lenin and the Russian revolution, irrespective of any mistakes that came later. One of the issues was self-determination for the peoples of the Russian Empire. That’s what created Ukraine. Ukraine exists because the Empire was dismantled. And so that’s one of the things that Putin absolutely can’t stand. These right wing oligarchs and the revival of the Orthodox Church and sort of nostalgia for the Tsars and all of this. They absolutely can’t stand the fact that in 1917, a revolution took place that ended the Empire and gave self determination to Ukraine.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, there’s quite a few people who even insist that there’s no such thing as Russian imperialism, that only America can be imperialist.

Eric Draitser: Well, there is an element of truth to that. But the problem is that it is like reducing a pretty complex issue to a very, very narrowly defined point. Yes, it is true that if you’re talking about the levers of global finance, only the United States sort of reaches that level. I mean, look, the United States was able to shut off the Russian Central Bank off of three quarters of its reserves. That is imperialism. That is power. The United States being able to just shut a country out of its money. I mean, come on, that is serious imperial power. But it is not to say that a former imperial power that then invades essentially a former colony for the purposes of more or less dismembering that country, seizing its resources, imposing a puppet government, and essentially dictating terms – I don’t know what else that is, but imperialism.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. What do you think is motivating Putin and the Russian regime?

Eric Draitser: Boy, that’s tough. I wish I knew. I mean, as with all wars, there are many factors from many different ways that one can look at interests and so forth. I guess we could put it into kind of a few different categories. One would be the oligarchs themselves, aside from Putin. There are oligarchs in Russia. There are oligarchs in Ukraine. And I understand that I’m reducing this to the extreme. But the oligarchs in Russia more or less don’t accept that the oligarchs in Ukraine control Ukraine’s resources. So there is an economic and material motivation here. And there are very specific oligarchs that control, like Akhmetov and Kolomoisky and Poroshenko and Firtash and some of these other Ukrainian oligarchs that control critical infrastructure, resources, everything from coal and gas to the pipelines that Russia needs to deliver gas to Europe and all kinds of different things. These oligarchs control them. This is part of the outcome of the post-Soviet kind of criminal strip-mining of the Soviet Union by the west that more or less allowed a very small number of business people to accumulate all of these resources. So just like in Russia, in Ukraine you have these oligarchs.

On the other side of the border, there are Russian oligarchs. Those oligarchs see these Ukrainian oligarchs as a bunch of piss-ants that should be just pushed out of the way. So there is this element of it that they should seize that and they have ideological justifications for it. “Right. Well, this is actually Russia. Excuse me, Novorosia, new Russia under Catherine the Great, Imperial control and the resources, the land, the agricultural output, all of this. This actually belongs to Russia, for you see it as Russia that developed this land, Russia that colonized it” etc. And it’s true. It was colonization; really not that significantly different from how colonization happened in the United States or what we call the United States today, the displacing of an Indigenous group in the case of Crimea, the Tatars. In the case of the rest of Ukraine, as sort of strange combination of German immigrants and people from various parts of the region that had been living in that area, ultimately colonized by Russian agricultural interests. And that’s what makes Ukraine what Ukraine is today.

So it is a complicated country. The east is more Russian speaking, the west is more Ukrainian speaking. There’s a whole history associated with the divisions here, including the fact that the west is not Eastern Orthodox Christian, but Roman Catholic. It is much more closely associated to Poland, Polish culture, et cetera. Ukrainian language is spoken much more in the west than it is in the far east. Anyway, I don’t have time to go into all of the differences, but the point is that there are sort of practical material reasons. There are also ideological ones, as I just said, a kind of imperial revanchism. I don’t know that Putin is necessarily purely driven by ideology, but people like Aleksandr Dugin are leading Russian fascists and fascist sort of thinkers who have sketched out what we call Eurasianism. They certainly think this way. So, yeah, I think that between the economic interests, the ideological pull of a sort of reconstituting of the Russian Empire, and ultimately for Putin, I think that he expected this to be striking a strategic blow against NATO and the United States, essentially establishing that Russia not only has red lines and that it will enforce those red lines militarily, but that Russia ain’t scared of NATO, basically. I don’t know. I mean, that’s three of the reasons. I could probably list a dozen more, but we’ll run out of time.

“Dugin is kind of a joke”

Derek Johnson: Yeah, I noticed that. I wanted to get your answer on this. When Putin had his rambling. I don’t know, how long was that? What a 45 minutes, two hour casus bellis there on live Russian television arguing for why he was going to do what he did. All I could think of was, did Dugin write this?

Eric Draitser: I know. You know, it’s funny. I did an interview with a Russian Marxist, a really popular blogger named Andrei Rudoy. Really interesting conversation. And one of the things that I asked about Dugin and ideology and these things, and he laughed. He said people on the Russian left are going to really get a kick out of the idea that people in the US and elsewhere are talking about Dugin because Dugin is really kind of a joke in Russia. He’s like an Alex Jones type figure, you know what I mean? He’s not somebody who people really take seriously. And I said that I can fully understand. But Dugin’s propaganda and the propaganda that comes out of the Kremlin, that is associated with the sort of Fourth Political Theory, Eurasianist crap that Dugin peddles, that was never really directed at the Russian people, that was directed to the west. That was directed at a lot of people like us who would be absorbing these things from an anti-US perspective. So I think that we should be, on the one hand, careful not to read too much into the influence that Dugin has in the Kremlin. And at the same time, we should also be careful not to underestimate the power of some of those ideological arguments that he’s been making. And like I said in my interview with Andrei, I was like, whether or not the Russian left or Russian people give a damn about Dugin, Dugin is taught in the military academies. Russian military officers know all about Foundations of Geopolitics, his book, et cetera. Anyway, I only say all of that because I’m sort of constantly trying to negotiate between reading into what Putin is saying and connecting it to Dugin, which it does. And there’s many ways in which it does. But also trying to caution myself not to read too much into it, because I know just as well as a lot of other people know that Putin is not an ideologue. Putin doesn’t have beliefs. He’s a postmodern politician, very much like Obama and very much like Trump. He allows everyone to project onto him what they want. So that’s why Putin, even in the middle of this disaster, is still able to garner a significant amount of support. A lot of people project their hopes onto Putin in Russia. A lot of people project their hopes onto Putin in much the same way that people did for Obama and for Trump irrespective. And remember, Trump was kicking his own constituents in the teeth over and over and over again and they were just slobbering over him, you know what I mean? So it’s like, not that different with Putin, really.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, I tend to see politicians like that, he’s a Putinist. Trump’s a Trumpist in a sense. You know?

Eric Draitser: In a sense, yeah, in a sense. No, I agree. He doesn’t have an ideology. His ideology, to the extent that you could call it an ideology, it’s a combination of imperial revanchism and Soviet revanchism mixed with anti-communism, which is a strange kind of mix. It’s like a nostalgia for the Soviet Union minus the communism part.

Derek Johnson: Yeah.

Eric Draitser: In other words. It’s a nostalgia for Soviet power, Soviet prestige, but none of the actual economic bases that made the Soviet Union powerful. Things like universal education and healthcare. I don’t need to explain what the Soviet Union was like, but you know what I mean?

Derek Johnson: Well, hence the Nazbols [National Bolsheviks].

Eric Draitser: Right, exactly.

Derek Johnson: I noticed that once Crimea was done and the propaganda served its purpose, Dugin was pretty much kicked out of his positions in the university and everything and was back to normal and didn’t have any special place in anything.

Eric Draitser: I don’t know what to make of it, to be honest with you. Like I said, Russian comrades are saying Dugin is a joke and irrelevant. I get it. I’m not going to discount what they’re saying. They’re there. On the other hand, I don’t know how much I trust the idea that Dugin is just completely irrelevant now and totally side-lined just because he’s no longer at the university or whatever. There could be all kinds of reasons why that would have happened, including the fact that he was toxic because of the Novorossiya terrorist actions. You know what I mean? Like, maybe they wanted to distance themselves from an internationally wanted criminal, you know what I mean? But still kind of maintaining ties.

Anyway, I don’t know that I want to devote 30 minutes to Dugin. I just want to say that I am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my own opinion about just how influential Dugin is. But from the Western perspective, his type of propaganda has been very influential because that is precisely the vehicle that was used to infiltrate anti-imperialism on the left.

Derek Johnson: That’s what I find frightening.

Colonialism in Ukraine

Ani White: There’s a kind of Federal Nationalism, in a sense, with Duginism, which was very specific, was very much targeted at fascists elsewhere, kind of saying, “you can have your regional power and we’ll have our sort of regional power.” That was part of the whole Fourth Positionism thing.

But anyway, you’ve kind of touched on this, but how much do you think the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine factors into all of this?

Eric Draitser: I mean, a lot. It depends on what exactly we mean by historical relationship. In some ways, this is a coloniser or colonised relationship, or imperial colonial power and neo-colony or however you want to call it. I mean, that is how Lenin described it. Lenin had talked about this, and Ukraine was how do I want to put this? Ukraine was critical for the Russian Empire because of its raw materials, because of its fertile soils and a lot of different reasons. And so for that reason, the relationship between those countries has been basically one of Russian domination for several centuries. To the extent that there is a relationship, I guess we probably shouldn’t even call that a relationship. It’s an imperial power and it’s a neo-colony. Now, there is a history, though, that is, of course, also relevant, because that history ties to a lot of the justifications that the Russians are attempting to use with regard to all of this.

Derek Johnson: Well, don’t you think, a lot of the Russian speaking Ukrainians that live in the east are there because they were brought in by the Soviet Union to be miners, workers and stuff like that?

Eric Draitser: Yes, but they weren’t brought in really by the Soviet Union. That was in the Russian Imperial days. The coal mines of the Donbass go back to the 19th… actually, they go back even further than that. But really in the 19th century. So it was Russian Empire. Now, in terms of around the revolution, like I said, Lenin described Ukraine as equivalent to Ireland to England, that it is not just exploited but super exploited; that its entire existence is to basically sustain the imperial power that controls it. Right? That’s, I think, correct, because the way that we have to understand Ukraine’s history is one of essentially multiple countries. The west of Ukraine, like I already said, is so vastly different and so when the Nazis invaded in 1941, there were very different reactions depending on what part of Ukraine you were talking about. The Nazis had a tremendous amount of sympathy in the west. Now, that led to the organization of Ukrainian nationalists upon Bandera and the Hitler collaborationists, who then allied with Hitler against the Soviets, who had in various ways been destroying them for a couple of decades at that point.

So what happens after that, of course, we know how World War II goes, and that element within Ukraine and actually within all of Eastern Europe, that fascist political element, which is very real and very strong, that was forcibly suppressed by the Soviet Union, of course, Gulags and all of it. So with the end of the Soviet Union, this begins to re-emerge. We can see that in Hungary. We can see that in all of the countries of Eastern Europe that were behind the, quote, unquote “Iron Curtain”, et cetera, that they all have very active far right parties, they all have a virulently, ultra nationalist right wing, and that it is rooted in anti-communism, and that is a legacy of the 20th century. So the history of Ukraine is one of sort of conflicting political orientations, conflicting nationalisms, conflicting alliances. And so when Putin talked about it in his speech, he said that Lenin basically laid a bomb under the Russian people. Right. Which, in other words, what he really means is that Ukraine should not exist. That’s how he justifies what he’s doing. Ukraine shouldn’t exist because it’s essentially a made up country made up by the Communists, by the Bolsheviks.

Now, obviously, there are other historical episodes that play into this. Everything from the Holodomor ten years earlier, or I guess eight years earlier, to the liquidation during the Russian Civil War, the liquidation of a number of different factions. We don’t have time to get into all of that history. Suffice to say that Ukraine represents a huge historical wrong that needs to be righted from the perspective of Putin and the Russian imperial revanchists.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and that alone just sounds genocidal.

Ani White: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of the way people talk about Palestinians, that “these aren’t really a people” kind of thing. But I dug up that quote. It was: “What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia. Exploited in the extreme and getting nothing in return. Thus, the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state and dependence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs.” Close quotes.

Eric Draitser: Thank you. And I just want to say, I bring up Lenin not because I want everybody to agree with Lenin on all things. I bring it up because Lenin was grappling with the issue of Ukraine and with the issue of the colonies of the Russian Empire, and he ultimately was in a position to make certain decisions about how these things would be addressed. So Lenin’s understanding of the issue really frames, in a sort of counter-positional way, how Putin understands these issues. So Putin basically takes the 180 degree opposite approach, basically saying that not only do they not deserve self-determination – they don’t really exist.

Ani White: Yeah and the fact that, as you said, Putin has very explicitly defined himself by opposition to that Bolshevik position. He basically argues that Ukraine only exists because of the Bolsheviks, in this almost conspiratorial way. But yeah, another line from Lenin was, he called Russia “the prison house of nations”. Which I think you could also very much apply to, say, the US or China, like these very much overextended kind of powers that then suppress all these sort of internal kind of contradictions. But anyway, as you say, it’s not so much that people have to agree with everything Lenin said and did. But that to understand Putin’s position, you partly need to understand what it’s opposed to, which is that position that does exist in Russian political history of Ukrainian self-determination.

Blood libel

Eric Draitser: And I just want to say very quickly, there is an inherently fascist sort of anti-Semitic streak to all of this, too, because Bolshevism is in many ways a euphemism for Jewish conspiracy. Right? So that is something that has historically and today been promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church. There are things like blood libel, conspiracies about Jews sacrificing Christian babies and drinking their blood and all of those things. We could go all the way back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was created by the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, for the purposes of fanning these flames of conspiratorial thinking. This led directly to pogroms. I have whole branches of my family tree that are empty because of pogroms, carried out in 1919, and carried out at other times in that period as well. So when Putin makes these kind of anti-communist, anti-Lenin ideas that “oh the Bolsheviks planted a bomb under Russia.” It’s another way of saying the Jews conspired against Russia.

Derek Johnson: Exactly.

Eric Draitser: Because the Jews are the Bolsheviks and the Bolsheviks are the Jews. And that is a fundamental principle of fascism, is to understand Bolshevism and Jewry as being inseparable.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve seen in the propaganda that they pushed inward, that we haven’t. We’ve only heard so much that Maidan was a coup, like a colour revolution pushed by the CIA in America. There’s the Nazis in the Azov Brigade, and then other stuff. That fascists took over the parties, even though we know it’s like 2% now. A Jewish president. But when you look at the totality of some of the propaganda they’re pushing that we don’t hear in the west. Some of it I saw was that they were saying how, and this is typical anti-cosmopolitan “the Jews” type of language and conspiracies, of this corrupt and cosmopolitan Ukrainian illegitimate elite ruling things under this new status quo is pushing homosexuality on Ukraine and stuff. And I was thinking. Yeah, you combine that with the Jewish president and the rest of this stuff.

Eric Draitser: Oh, not just the Jewish president, Derek – a coke sniffing, degenerate pervert Jewish President! Right? All of those things. One insult on top of the other. I don’t particularly have all that much positive feeling about Zelenskyy one way or another. Well, no, I should say I have positive feelings for him because his life is in danger. But I mean, to say, as far as what he comes from, the forces that backed him, how he rose to power, et cetera, it’s all very dirty. Ukrainian politics is extremely dirty. It is driven by oligarchs. None of the oligarchs are good guys, et cetera. But to your point, the way that Russian propaganda frames not only Zelenskyy but just the nature of the Ukrainian state is basically the idea that they have a Jewish puppet and a bunch of Nazis running the country. And in fact, that’s obviously not the case. Like I said, the far right is very real. Some Nazi elements are absolutely real. But you can’t then take it to the next step, which the Russian propaganda does, which is to say that they quite literally control the politics of the country, which is false. They have some degree of influence. Their influence is definitely larger than their electoral results would indicate, but they are not exactly like the kind of force that controls the streets of Kiev or anything like that. If you were to listen to Russian propaganda, you’d think that this was the Third Reich in Ukraine. You know what I mean? When in fact, it’s kind of just a normal country with a far right element.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and not only does it fall apart, but it bounces back because really the worldwide focus and the font of fascism right now is not Germany, but it’s Russia, and fascists look towards Russia. So to act like some other country is the Nazi is to completely ignore how modern Neo-Nazism is fixated in Russia and spread by Russia.

Eric Draitser: Yes, and I want to say not just Neo-Nazism, but all the various flavours of contemporary fascism, because, again, like somebody like Richard Spencer, who was a prominent fascist in the United States. I don’t know if he’s still prominent. He’s kind of disappeared a little bit. But Richard Spencer is an example. I mean, I know that he actually has an anti-Russia position now, but who knows how much of that is because of his ex-wife being Dugin’s protégé. But that’s their business. I think that you’re correct in the sense that they look to Russia for some inspiration. But I think it’s even more material than that. Russia provides material support to the far right all over the world in a lot of different ways, and they have in many different ways. Now, I don’t want to go so far as to say that all elements of the far right globally are emanating from the Kremlin. It’s not quite so simple. I mean, each country does have its own political dynamics. Sometimes some of the things that the Russians push totally fail. Sometimes they don’t. But, you know, that Russian influence was used to help to push forward Brexit. Then the momentum of that helps to push forward Trump. Some of the same elements and players were involved, including Peter Thiel and Cambridge Analytica and Palantir and these corporations and the data-mining and the data-harvesting. All of this stuff that was done in the service of Brexit, in the service of Trump. This is all part of a global far right network. Bannon and the Chinese billionaire whose name I’m blanking out on at the moment – Guo [Wengui] and the others. I mean, they are part of what you could call a global fascist conspiracy. But maybe conspiracy makes people nervous. So we could just call it a global far right movement or the far right camp or the fascist camp or whatever. And Russia’s the heart of that. But there are also ideological reasons. And the Russians push these ideological reasons in various ways. One being that Russia is the defender of Christianity, of Christendom, of traditional values. Right? That they will as a country, by national pride or whatever, fight against equality for LGBT people or fighting against “the trans agenda” or race education or “critical race theory” or whatever. Right? A lot of the things that the far right in this country has pushed got their start in Russia. Russia already has a lot of the legislation that our Nazis would love to see put on the books – from banning books to criminalizing transgenderism to whatever. So anyway, yes, Russia is absolutely at the heart of the global far right.

Influence operations

Derek Johnson: Well, I would say it depends on the kind of far right, too. I mean, if you look at the 1990s, they were putting a lot of money into the religious right here. And maybe not all different conservative groups and stuff, but it took to later of moving through the religious right to getting through groups like The Family and…

Eric Draitser: Yeah but that was more in the 2000s.

Derek Johnson: …and then the Russian Orthodox members or chapters of the Family basically run the thing now and through that they went through the NRA and then they got through into the GOP.

Eric Draitser: Yes but these are fairly standard influence operations. This is not anything earth shattering as far as the Soviets did stuff like that, too. There’s all kinds of Cold War books about ways that they were doing influence operations. US was doing it. Soviets were doing it. Those type of things – yes, absolutely. I guess I’m more thinking about ways in which they created political outcomes that fundamentally altered the course of events. In other words, if the Russians hadn’t provided the material support that they provided to help bring along Trump, well, then we definitely would never have had Bolsonaro either.

Derek Johnson: Exactly, right.

Eric Draitser: So some of the things that happened because Bannon was instrumental in bringing Bolsonaro to power. Bolsonaro comes to power through the use of WhatsApp disinformation propaganda that was basically perfected in the 2016 election in the United States. So these things are all kind of connected and I guess really all I was trying to say is that Russia is not orchestrating everything, but Russia helped put things in motion that have then sort of evolved from there.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and I understand they just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.

Eric Draitser: Totally.

Derek Johnson: I had heard of campaigns that they did around the time of the Brexit stuff, that they were pushing antivaxxer and pro vaccine stuff on the internet just to see if they could stir controversies. They were taking both sides of the issues.

Eric Draitser: Yes, yes.

Derek Johnson: See what would work. And we saw how – and this is something stupid – but you can see even the connections, because of Bannon, of the cultural war issues of Gamergate and how then, because of Trump being in there, we get all these people like Spencer and Unite the Right rally and now January 6 and all this stuff, Trump trying to pull a self-coup to stay in power. But if you look at it, too, they even tried, just out of stupidity, of how asinine – they hacked Rotten Tomatoes and sent a whole bunch of bots at Star Wars VIII [The Last Jedi] just to see if they could, by causing controversies and cultural issues and subcultural issues, if that did anything.

Eric Draitser: Yeah. I mean, they were testing the waters…

Derek Johnson: And then they ended up doing that on Facebook.

Eric Draitser: Yeah. They were testing the waters, sort of testing out, gaming out scenarios, gaming out how easy or difficult it might be to move the global conversation or whatever.

Derek Johnson: Nudging theory.

Eric Draitser: Exactly. Now, I will say, just to be very clear about this, there’s nothing – nothing – that the Russians have done that the United States hasn’t done, right. So the United States engages in all of these same things. It’s just that what we’re talking about in terms of a global far right, that is very much Russia’s project. The United States absolutely has supported the right and the far right in a number of different contexts, especially in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, using the ultra-nationalist elements and former Nazis and fascists to kind of undermine the Soviet Union, undermine communism, all of these things. The United States has done it. I’m not even talking about Latin America, where fascists carried out genocides thanks to the United States.

Derek Johnson: Or the World Anti-Communist League.

Eric Johnson: Yeah, so, we could point to a thousand examples of how the United States has done these things a hundred times over. So I don’t mean to suggest that Russia is the sole source of evil in the world, but given that we’re talking tonight about Ukraine, I think we could be forgiven for focusing on Russia’s transgressions.

Competing empires

Ani White: You’ve described this as a situation of competing imperialisms. Can you go into that?

Eric Draitser: I think that that’s correct. The first time I really heard that – I want to just give credit to Patrick Bond, who was on my show like six years ago probably, talking about that. About BRICS and that BRICS was no alternative to Western global hegemony, that BRICS was basically just a sub-imperialist construct. I didn’t totally agree with him at that time. And here we are six years later, and I’ve come around to that because I think that’s actually borne out by the facts.

Let me start off with the question and the answer, and then I will explain what I mean. The question, what comes after US global imperial hegemony? Or what comes after US global imperialism? More and deadlier imperialisms. That’s the answer, unfortunately. It’s like when we talk about capitalism. Well, what comes after capitalism? Well, it’s not necessarily socialism, it could also be feudalism. You know what I mean? So anyway, the point here is that the world that we understood; the unipolar world, to use Russia’s terminology, where the United States dictates everything and the United States is the arbiter of all conflicts and the United States is the one that is meddling everywhere – this is now part of the past. Because 35 years or 31, 32 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has now re-established itself as a regional imperial power. The Chinese, without question, are establishing themselves as that, using different means, to be sure. But Chinese activity in Africa, the Belt and Road policies, the way in which they basically flex their financial muscle for the purposes of extending their soft power, et cetera. The Chinese absolutely are global in a sense, but they’re still kind of a sub-imperial power. And similarly, Turkey. I think people probably may forget that Turkey has intervened and won three wars in the last three years. Turkey is the reason why Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in their recent war, which was the first truly drone war. Using Turkish drones, by the way. Turkey intervened in Libya. They are the reason that the so called Libyan National Army, led by General Haftar, was beaten back and why the government in Tripoli survived. It survived pretty much entirely because of Turkey’s direct intervention. Turkey has also intervened, of course, in Syria. Turkey currently occupies part of Northern Syria. So Turkey is pursuing what Erdoğan has openly for 15 years called a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. What is neo-Ottoman but neo-imperialist? I mean, it literally is that. And so you see the vision of Turkish hegemony as stretching from Istanbul all the way east to the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, because the Uyghurs are a Turkic people. These are people whose language is of Turkic origin. They see themselves as Turkic people, not Chinese people. They are not Han Chinese, et cetera. And, of course, that includes all of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and all of these places. They are all, in various ways, Turkic peoples. And so, from Erdogan’s point of view, he’s in competition with both China and Russia to re-establish the Ottoman sphere of influence. And that Ottoman-Russian conflict was probably one of the central conflicts of the later part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. That is how Russia gained Crimea, ultimately. That is how Russia gained most of its influence around the Black Sea. That is how Russia pushed into the Caucasus. That’s where Chechnya and Dagestan and Ingushetia and all of these places that are part of Russia, they all come from those wars.

Ani White: Yeah. And can you talk about how Turkey’s role has played out with the current conflict?

Eric Draitser: Well, Turkey is very opportunistic. Erdoğan specifically is very opportunistic. And so as this war was beginning to take shape, or rather, the build up to the war was beginning to take shape, Erdoğan quickly swooped in and signed a deal with Zelenskyy to build a massive drone facility outside of Kiev. Now, whether or not that is ever going to get off the ground now doesn’t really matter. The point is he was sticking his thumb directly in Putin’s eye right at the moment that Putin was saber rattling, preparing to go to war. So Erdoğan on a number of occasions has outmaneuvered Putin and Russia. Like I said, in Libya, Turkey ended up intervening and winning against Haftar, who was backed by the Russians. Similarly, in parts of East Africa where the Wagner mercenaries have been present, Turkey has also moved in quickly. Turkey is also pushing in the Black Sea for energy resources and other things, and, of course, in the Caspian region as well. So Turkish interests, both economic interests and political and strategic interests, seem to continuously run up against Putin’s interests. And that’s one of the really interesting dynamics here, because, of course, it should be always remembered that at the end of the day, Turkey is a member of NATO. So any conflict between Russia and Turkey is a Russia-NATO conflict, and Putin knows that. That’s what Erdoğan is counting on.

“Disinformation is so thick”

Ani White: There’s a lot of disinformation flying around in general. How do you think we can filter for that?

Eric Draitser: Boy, I wish I had a good answer for that. The disinformation is so thick on all sides, so many lies coming from everyone, really. The Russians – goes without saying – are pushing their propaganda and their disinformation through their various channels, even with RT and all the rest of them booted off of YouTube and booted off of cable TV. I mean, there’s still ways of disseminating their propaganda and their disinformation. Similarly, the Ukrainians have gotten better at propaganda. They put out a lot of disinformation. I feel like every day is some new feel good story about a ghost pilot or a mother saving her children or whatever, and a lot of them have proven to be false. What does that mean? Not a lot. I mean, these are the things that happen in war. People exaggerate, people do what they do to convince other people to act or whatever it might be. So I don’t necessarily worry so much about that disinformation. I think the more dangerous disinformation is really kind of about the nature of the conflict. One of the key elements of Russian disinformation is that, it’s not even really disinformation, it’s more just the Russian line here, is namely that Russia, by definition, has not been the aggressor, because it is NATO over the years that has been the aggressor. Like with all good propaganda, there’s so much truth to that. NATO is an absolutely belligerent force. NATO should have long been dismantled, just as George Keenan, the famous Cold War Hawk, said at the end of the Cold War that NATO should dissolve, that it was a dangerous force, a destabilizing force in Europe, and that eventually it would push the Russians into a confrontation. So the Russians are correct to point to NATO in that way. Now, I guess I shouldn’t say the Russians so much as those who lick their boots. But I mean, of the various Putin boot-lickers and the way that they sort of speak about it, you would think that somehow the United States was provoking Russia endlessly on a daily basis and Putin had no choice. This is false. This is absolutely false, and it is deliberately trying to obscure the nature of the war. If you obscure the nature of the war and you cast a doubt on who is the aggressor, people aren’t going to really have a very clear position. And that’s the whole point. Russian propaganda and disinformation is meant to muddy the water, meant to make it difficult to understand what is going on. And the more difficult it is, the more difficult it is to have a really principled and staked out position.

So in any event, I think that the real dangerous disinformation comes from Russia when they push a lot of that. Also the major disinformation, maybe it’s not even disinformation, just lack of information and stupidity comes from the liberals who are calling for a No Fly Zone. This is so extraordinarily dangerous, I almost shudder to even think about it. Right? They’re calling for a No Fly Zone as if we’re dealing with Libya or Serbia or Iraq. I mean, No Fly Zones have only been imposed in those three examples – Libya, Serbia and Iraq. And in none of those examples was the other country armed with a thousand nuclear warheads. So I think that people have to be a little bit smarter about how they use the language of resistance. It’s perfectly righteous and legitimate for the Ukrainian people to resist a criminal invasion force like this. But when people in the west who are not even engaged in the fight start talking about sending NATO jets into the air to protect the skies over Kiev, I don’t think they’re really thinking through the implications. None of that is to say that just give Putin everything he wants, let him do whatever he wants. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that people have an obligation to think very carefully about the consequences of every decision that gets made in a war. This is a war. Right? Wars – you can’t undo things. If a NATO jet shoots down a Russian jet, you can’t undo that. And it forces escalation. It forces responses. Right? It takes away options for de-escalation. It takes away options to get out of this conflict. It forces a response. That is the problem here is that, again, we’re talking about a country that can respond. This is not Iraq in ’98. This is Russia. They have nuclear warheads that would hit Europe in a three minute window.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. What I’m afraid of with Putin is he’s escalating no matter what. So, like, if we stopped our governments and we’re able to protest against those kinds of actions that could accelerate and escalate things, even diplomacy or giving him what he wants is going to make him escalate and keep doing it.

Eric Draitser: It depends. I think it depends. I think it’s going to be about practical considerations. There’s no way the Russians can prosecute a full blown European theatre war. They can’t. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the material. I mean, look at how badly they’re getting beat up in various places in Ukraine. I’m not saying they’re losing the war. I think that’s nonsense. But they’re definitely taking heavy losses. This is not a country that has unlimited resources. This is definitely, in my view at least, feel free to disagree with me, but in my view, Putin vastly underestimated what he was walking into in Ukraine. And so the idea that he’s looking to expand and escalate, I mean, maybe if he feels like he has absolutely no way of backing out of this. Right? But I do believe that he will be looking for some way to basically declare a victory, have his mission accomplished moment like Bush did, and get the hell out of there if he can take away some pieces of what he wants. But he’s not going to get away. He’s not going to leave. He’s not going to do any of those things if he doesn’t get anything. You know what I mean? This is part of the paradox of what we’re dealing with here. The paradox is you don’t want to, quote-unquote, “reward his aggression”, but if you don’t let him get some elements of victory here, you’re forcing escalation on his side.

Derek Johnson: The Pyrrhic, quote-unquote “victory”, because he gets to rule over the dirt and all the dead bodies of Ukrainians.

Eric Draitser: And that is an interesting point you bring up, too, because let’s say hypothetically, they carve up Ukraine and Russia takes what is now Donbas: the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, and they’re incorporated into Russia. Then they have some kind of a treaty that establishes some sort of neutrality for the rest of the country, or however that might look. Right? What is Putin gain? Well, the oligarchs and Putin gain some resources, control over those resources that I talked about earlier. That’s true. But they also then inherit a totally devastated country that they will then be financially responsible to rebuild. They inherit the debt. They inherit all of the other aspects of Ukraine itself. And on top of that, they have thrown away pretty much all of the global goodwill that they had. They have burned bridges with many of the countries with which they had fairly decent relations. They really only maintain relations with a very small number of countries that are very dependent upon Russia for a variety of reasons. So ultimately, yeah, he’ll walk away with some of the things that he wants. He has to, if any of us want to avoid a larger war here, Putin’s going to have to get some of what he wants. And I think that it’s fairly clear that the question of Crimea is settled. Crimea is Russia, and it’s going to be Russia, and it’s going to be internationally recognized as that. And if it’s not, then this war will not end. The so called DPR and LPR, Donetsk and Luhansk, will probably end up being Russia as well, with some kind of demilitarization of Ukraine. If he could get those things, then he could turn around and claim victory and go home. Maybe we could avoid this spilling over into a broader war.

Putin overshooting?

Derek Johnson: But if he demilitarises Ukraine, doesn’t he get to just reinvade them again when they can rebuild forces?

Eric Draitser: Potentially, potentially. But things are dynamic. It doesn’t just happen. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, because Putin’s idea would be to get a more compliant Moscow-friendly government. But he’s destroyed whatever goodwill he had in Ukraine. Forget it. Never going to happen now. Never going to happen.

Derek Johnson: It’s destroyed a lot of infrastructure, too.

Eric Draitser: He’s destroyed a lot of infrastructure. I was just thinking from the political perspective, but yes, obviously actual infrastructure, not just roads and pipelines and things, but literally the fields where the wheat is supposed to be growing. You’re going to have military debris and chemical waste spills and all of the other things that happen in war. But I do think that ultimately, to your point, yes, even a demilitarized Ukraine would still raise some kind of question for Russia. But I think ultimately that’s what Donetsk and Luhansk become. They become buffer states for Russia.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. It’s like the cost-benefit analysis here is almost negligible, even for Russia, because it’s like you said: yeah, the oligarchs get stuff, but it sure as hell is outweighed by all the cons.

Ani White: I feel like that’s something empires have a long history of, is overshooting.

Eric Draitser: Yes.

Ani White: It’s certainly overshooting. And getting into things that end up costing more than they profit is actually something empires have a long history of doing. On which note, do you think Putin has overplayed his hand here?

Eric Draitser: No question. No question. Biggest blunder, certainly of his career. Probably one of the biggest blunders, at least in my lifetime, that I could think of in terms of on a global scale. Yes, I think he misplaced it. I think he overshot it. I think he miscalculated on a number of fronts. I could speculate a number of different reasons why. I imagine one of the major reasons is that a lot of the more moderate, reasonable voices that used to be around Putin have been side-lined for various reasons. This is part of the reason why General Ivashov, who was a high ranking chief of staff of the Russian Federation’s military at one point, he was one of the top officials in Russia. Several weeks before the invasion, he wrote an op-ed demanding Putin’s resignation over his Ukraine policy and over what he was doing, saying that this was an insane policy that would lead Russia down the road of ruin. So there were voices that at one time had influence in the Kremlin that today don’t. And so I think that Putin may have found himself in the trap, just like you were alluding to just a minute ago, that many empires and many kings have found themselves in the past where they’re surrounded by yes men, surrounded by people who tell them that everything that they want to hear, rather than maybe the unvarnished truth about what they can’t do versus what they can do. I think that he’s a victim of that. I don’t want to say he’s a victim, but I mean to say that that was some of the process.

I also think that there might be an element of time in all of this. I think that Putin, he’s not super young. Maybe he feels that his time is running out to really accomplish the big goals of his regime, which would be as I said, sort of reconstituting some of the Russian Imperial footprint or some of the Soviet footprint. So I think there’s that element as well. And I think there’s also a political calculation or miscalculation rather, regarding Biden and US politics and Trump and the timing of all of this. Putin has a lot of options even today. Putin could conceivably extend this war for another two years and wait and see what happens in our general election in the US. If he wanted to, he could just bleed Ukraine very slowly for the next two years, keep minimal forces there, keep wrecking the place, keep everything going, and then let Trump come back into power and see what he can do. So there are possibilities and there are options for Putin.

I think, though, that he may have misjudged not only how deep the fractures were in the European Union, in the EU and US relationship post-Trump. I think he also may have overstated just how positive certain elements of the European and especially German business community were towards Russia and Russian gas. I think they may have overestimated how important that would be. So anyway, it’s just a long way of me saying, yes, I think he miscalculated on a number of things.

But I also think that people in the west and elsewhere really should be very careful not to make the assumption that he has no options. I did a whole video last night or two nights ago or whatever about all of the economic weapons that Russia has. Russia’s going to get blasted economically. They already are: their economy is being destroyed and everything is tanking. At the same time. Russia can absolutely harm the entire world economy by holding off on its chemical exports, fertilizer exports, precious metals exports, other things like that that it provides to the world that will have shocks around the world. Just wait six months from now when food prices are 30% higher and governments start collapsing because of it.

Ani White: The interconnected nature of the economy does mean this is a bit complicated for everyone.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. No country can be isolationist. They don’t seem to be learning this lesson, whether it’s here or Hungary or Russia, whoever, everybody seems to think in this world of post-globalization or globalization 2.0 or 3.0, that they somehow could be isolationists again, there could be economic isolationists still.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, the Russians are sort of being forced into being isolationist at this point. They don’t have a choice.

Derek Johnson: Well, I think they chose to do it, though.

Eric Draitser: Well, no, they chose to invade Ukraine. But like I said, it’s my personal opinion that they did not expect this level of economic war to be waged. I don’t think they thought that there would be such unity between the US and Europe on these wide ranging sanctions. I definitely didn’t. I definitely don’t think that they thought that companies like BP and Shell and Mobil would just run out away from Russia. Which they have. I think that they miscalculated in terms of how deep the investments were and whether or not capital was going to be willing to walk away. And it has been, that’s the part of this that I think has been somewhat shocking to me personally, and I think it definitely was shocking to the Kremlin. So while they do have options, they are also the ones taking the brunt of the pain. So, it’s both.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. It seems like they overplayed the thinking that, “okay, we got China, we got India. Boris Johnson and the Tories are on our side, with all the oligarchs living in England. And maybe these different people will help us with the sanctions or kind of stop some kind of international consensus.” Yet it didn’t work.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, I also think that Putin, read Biden and the Biden administration as weak and that they would not have a strong response to this or they would be caught on the back foot because of US domestic politics, because of the insanity of just the US political life these days. And in some ways, he was right in the sense that Biden hasn’t militarily escalated. He hasn’t confronted Putin. But where Putin was wrong was that, and I don’t mean Biden himself, but the Biden administration, the people around him, that they wouldn’t respond forcefully, and they have. And in fact, I would say that the Biden administration’s response has been absolutely devastating to Russia. I think Biden is just loathsome in every way and the Biden administration, I have nothing positive to say about them, really. But I will say that in the course of the last two weeks, they have definitely shown themselves to be pretty adept at managing this situation, because every time they’ve been put on the spot, in my view, they’ve made the correct decision: no to the transfer of the jets. That was a correct decision. No to No Fly Zone. That is a correct decision. They are forcing Russia to be an aggressor and not giving Russia the pretext that the US is escalating. So the only people that believe the US is escalating are Russians, who feel the escalation literally in their pocketbooks. But for the rest of the world, they can see the US – they haven’t sent in the military. They’re not even really sending that much in the form of weapons. If anything, the British are sending more weapons in the US, at least it seems. Right?

So I would say that overall, the Biden administration seems to have played this pretty well. I think that they understand that Putin made a tremendous ghastly mistake, and they’re going to try to slowly bleed him dry.

Derek Johnson: Well, do you think the part of why they do to act as well is because of a lot of leaks coming out of the agency of that guy he dressed down in that one meeting on television?

Eric Draitser: Could be. I mean, the FSB, which is the internal security service in Russia – there are leaks in the FSB. But I will tell you, I just read an absolutely insane article today, supposedly by an insider from the FSB on one of these blogs right now. It’s insane. If you read it and you assume that it is true, it is deeply unsettling because it paints a picture of extreme, extreme aggression in the Kremlin and preparations for an extreme response. So it’s very terrifying, actually. But the reason I bring it up is only to say that I am personally sceptical of all of these alleged leaks because the Russians also know the various levels of psychological warfare and creating leaks and managing leaks and manufacturing leaks is also part of the game. I personally am a little bit sceptical. I’m not saying that they’re not real. I’m just saying that I’m cautious about accepting those leaks as true only because I have absolutely no way of knowing. Just like with the CIA. It’s not that different, right? In the United States, with the CIA, something comes out from the CIA. Well, okay. Was something just revealed, or did the CIA deliberately reveal something because they have an ulterior motive? You know what I mean? And we’re constantly facing that question, and it’s not really that different with FSB in Russia.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, sometimes I guess the spy agencies of our different countries seem to do that because they figure “it’s getting out anyway. So let’s get ahead of it.”

Eric Draitser: Get ahead of it, frame it in a way that works for our benefit. Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. So it could be any number of things. And that’s true of a lot of stuff in this conflict. It’s like there’s a wide range of possibilities. One of the things I mentioned in one of my videos this week was how it’s extremely disorienting for a lot of people. You know what I mean? It’s like you try to follow what’s going on in Ukraine and you don’t know what the hell to believe. You go to one Telegram channel and the Russians are about to conquer Kiev. You go to a different channel and it’s like the Russians are being beaten back to Moscow, you know what I mean? And it’s like, well, which one is it?

Sci-fi news

Derek Johnson: And the news in Russia is sci-fi.

Eric Draitser: Oh, I know. It’s totally insane.

Ani Johnson: There’s a lot of triumphalism, oddly, on the Ukrainian side. Maybe not oddly, but there’s a very strong sort of triumphalist narrative on the Ukraine side, which I think in terms of the quagmire of it, an important phrase I heard was “the Ukrainians don’t have to win, they just have to not lose.”

Eric Draitser: Yes.

Ani White: And so this for Russia could be a very protracted thing, much like, again, many entanglements that Russia and the US and other countries have had in the past.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, exactly.

Derek Johnson: Afghanistan.

Eric Draitser: Well how did the Taliban win a 20 year war? By not being destroyed.

Ani White: Yeah.

Eric Draitser: Their very existence is a win it means they won. And it’s just to your point.

Ani White: And how do you respond to the claims that Russia is denazifying Ukraine or, more importantly, how do you characterise the role of Nazis in this whole dynamic, I guess, because obviously we disagree with that claim.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, well this is one of the real complicated issues of the narrative here because like I’ve said before, all good propaganda is rooted in some degree of truth. Right? And the more truth there is, the more believable the propaganda becomes. And there’s a tremendous amount of truth in the Russian propaganda about Nazis in Ukraine. Obviously Azov Battalion, but it goes beyond that. There are political parties, there are networks, patronage networks, there are criminal gangs, there are street thug gangs, there are gangs in suits. There are all kinds of different elements of the far right that exist in Ukraine, some of which have wormed their way into positions of political power, including very high levels. Dmytro Yarosh, who was the founder of Right Sector, which is a Nazi outfit there was chief adviser, one of the advisers to the army chief of staff, Arsen Avakov was the interior minister, et cetera. You could point to several examples of this. But the point is…

Derek Johnson: It sounds like a description of most countries, including our own.

Eric Draitser: Yes, exactly. Well, that’s what I was about to get to is that if you go in other countries, even in Eastern Europe, places like Hungary and even in Germany and elsewhere, fascists make up a pretty significant chunk of the political life. I mean, in Germany they’re one of the biggest political parties, the Alternative für Deutschland, which is a fascist political party. Similarly in Sweden with Sweden Democrats, in Hungary, obviously with Orbán and the Jobbik and all the various far right elements there. And you could point to a number of examples. So in that sense, Ukraine is not particularly unique.

Where it is a little bit unique is in the paramilitary component: that there are sort of fascist paramilitaries that operate there. But again, this is part of the effectiveness of the propaganda because while that is true, the Russian propaganda doesn’t tell you that the primary forces that they were fighting against were Russian fascists in Donbas. Various Russian supported Nazi groups and skinheads and other types that had been recruited by Russia, including their mercenaries from Wagner, which itself was founded by a Nazi. So actually, what we’re really talking about in Ukraine is essentially a form of projection by the Russians. Russia has without a doubt the largest concentration of fascists in the world. The fascists of Europe don’t compare to Russia in that regard. And so it should be said that Jason Stanley, who is professor of philosophy at Yale, he wrote the bestselling book, How Fascism Works. He was on my show this week talking about one of the critical elements of fascism is projection, basically accusing the other side of doing all the things that you do. Right? And that that is one of these sort of hallmarks of fascist political power. And that that is ultimately what Russia is doing. Yes, there are Nazis in Ukraine. Yes, there is a terrible historic legacy of that. Just to be very clear, both two of my great grandfathers were murdered by Nazis and Nazi collaborators in Minsk and in Odessa, respectively. My great aunt and her entire family were murdered by Nazis in the Odessa ghetto. So this part of the world and that element, that part of history is as close to my heart and my family as anything could be. So I am particularly sensitive to Nazi collaboration, the history of Nazi collaboration in Ukraine, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, the glorification of Stepan Bandera, all of these things that the Russian propaganda points to constantly are absolutely a concern. However, the idea that that is a primary concern when a literal military is bombing your country, this is where the upside down logic of the Putin apologists and boot lickers comes in. Right? Where they will focus on photographs with Nazi emblems on Ukrainian soldiers and not pay attention to the family of twelve that just got blown to smithereens by Putin’s bombs. You know what I mean?

Derek Johnson: Yeah, they seem to have no comments on the hospital full of babies and everything in Mariupol.

Eric Draitser: There’s no reason to comment on it. It’s not defensible, it’s indefensible. That’s why they’re not really defending – I don’t see very many people outright defending Russia. I mean, some of them do, but most of them kind of sort of go through this mental gymnastics of. “Well, yeah, no, of course, what Russia is doing is not great. But it was NATO and the US that did this really.”

Derek Johnson: Yeah, they act like Russia is being unfairly isolated or targeted here and censored.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, exactly. But apply that to the United States in any context. Right, because that is how that is somewhat how the Bush administration pushed the Iraq war. That if we don’t act, the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud, as they used to say. Right? That we have to act. We are being forced by the other side to act and if we don’t, there will be major, deadly consequences for the entire world. Hitler said the same about Sudetenland and Poland. So it’s kind of a standard operating procedure.

Strengthening NATO

Ani White: An example I point to is the US during the Cold War and the Vietnam invasion. and the way they justified that through Domino Theory. Which I think is very similar to the logic of, “well, NATO forced Russia to do this.” It’s essentially saying that this country is entitled to invade other countries because there’s another imperial block or there’s a rival imperial block kind of thing. And as you’ve alluded to, Russia has done things like this in the region long before NATO ever existed. Imperialism doesn’t need another imperialism to sort of force it into existence.

Eric Draitser: That’s right. And I will just say, the point I wanted to make is one that I’m going to record a whole video on it at some point in the next day or two. I think we need to be pretty sober in our analysis of what the outcomes are here. Obviously, the war is still very, very young and so many things can happen and everything is dynamic. But just taking a look at it so far, realistically looking at it in total, Putin’s move into Ukraine has probably been the thing that has strengthened imperialism more than anything in my lifetime maybe. I can’t remember a time when NATO was seen as more important, more significant, more unified. I don’t remember a time when Europe and the United States were as unified as they were now in response to Russia. So by doing this, he’s galvanized all the forces that he claimed were already arrayed against him. It’s, what’s the phrase? Cutting your nose to spite your face, right? That Putin, by virtue of allegedly acting in an anti-imperialist way, has, in effect, strengthened imperialism.

Ani White: He’s given legitimacy [to it].

Eric Draitser: Of course!

Derek Johnson: Well, his justification didn’t make any sense, because his whole justification is that NATO is moving its borders too close to him. So his answer is to seize another country.

Eric Draitser: Right. I mean, look, from the great powers’ perspective of imperial history or whatever, it does make sense. If you want to think of the world as in a Napoleonic kind of way, you know what I mean? Buffer States and all of that. Everybody knows history and how these things have gone, but we don’t live in the world of Frederick the Great and Napoleon or whatever, you know what I mean? Those are not the right people to have picked because they’re from two totally different time periods. But anyway.

Derek Johnson: Well, these fuckers think they’re playing Risk, though.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, is that, yes, if you think about it in those terms, then what he’s doing makes sense. But that’s not what we do. You know what I mean? We don’t think that way. Shit, Lenin didn’t think that way. Anarchists in the early 20th century didn’t think in those terms. The Left doesn’t think that way. That’s not what we do. That’s not what we are. We think about working people, international solidarity, opposing imperialism in all of its forms, opposing capitalism. These are the things that we are supposed to unite around. It’s not unite around a right wing authoritarian, because sometimes he acts against the Empire that we live in. Putin is absolutely one of the enemies.

Derek Johnson: He’s the richest man in the world, right?

Eric Draitser: *laughs* Who knows? Who knows, right. But he’s definitely, definitely a form of oligarch himself. We need to be clear eyed about these things and I’m sorry to those people who see the world in terms of anything that opposes the United States is inherently anti-imperialist. I’m sorry to tell them that reality has come crashing down on that fantasy. That fantasy is dead. The truth is that we are now in an era where there is a neoliberal imperial camp and a far right fascist Imperial camp. And I personally ain’t picking any of those sides.

Derek Johnson: So what is to be done?

Eric Draitser: Yeah, what is to be done, to quote [Lenin], well several famous Russians. Honestly, I know it’s not sexy or whatever, but we have to have a negotiated settlement. There’s no other way to end this. This has to end. We have a responsibility to our children to stop a nuclear war. You know what I mean? To stop the potential for a nuclear war. My kids are five and two. They have their entire lives ahead of them. I cannot even fathom the world walking into a global catastrophe. And that, unfortunately, is absolutely within the realm of possibility and absolutely on the table. If you read the literature of the summer of 1914, you begin to understand just how Europe basically blundered its way into World War. A World War that really none of them wanted, but because of the nature of the politics and because of the interplay of the actions and the decisions that were made, it ultimately created a world war, even though realistically, no one wanted one. Unfortunately, I fear that that is a very real possibility for us here, that I don’t think that Putin is angling to have nuclear holocaust and the end of all things. I don’t think that the United States wants that either. But sometimes things can spin out of control if you’re not careful. And this is one of those times where events could spiral very, very quickly and it’s extremely, extremely urgent that we find a solution. So for my mind, the obvious solution is that you have to first establish some kind of a temporary ceasefire that then becomes a permanent ceasefire leading towards some kind of a treaty or a settlement. If not, I really worry that things become too big and the genie is out of the bottle. I think we should probably focus on what it is that we want, which is peace, here. I’m not a big fan of Zelenskyy or of the Ukrainian state or of the gangsters that run it, or those who steal the mineral wealth of the country and leave it impoverished with a lower GDP than it had at the end of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has a lot of problems, but shit, I don’t want to see it destroyed and wiped off the map. You know what I mean? This needs to end. I mean, we’re supposed to be anti-war here, and we need to end this war, and we need to end it immediately.

Ani White: Thanks for coming on.

Eric Draitser: Thank you so much for having me.

Ani White: Yeah, and thanks, everyone, for listening. In place of our usual request for Patreon contributions, we suggest donating to the Ukrainian horizontal volunteer group, Operation Solidarity, at Operation-Solidarity.org. Goodnight, and good luck.

Pandemic insignificance: how Germany’s left failed to defend life against capital during the COVID pandemic

By JONNA KLICK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

A “Querdenken” protest in Berlin holding the symbol of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and flying the flag of the German Empire (1871-1918). Right-wing populists often fly the German Empire flag because they refuse to recognise the authority of the existing German Federal Republic.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached middle Europe it finally happened: I caught the virus. I was sick for two weeks, which I spent mostly in bed, despite three vaccine shots. Getting infected is not surprising right now, since Germany is in the highest wave of COVID-infections since the beginning of the pandemic right now (with more than 1700 infections per 100,000 people per week at the end of March, though it has decreased since then). At the same time, a lot of anti-COVID measures are being lifted, including mandatory masks in shops. I am recovered now, but not all are that lucky. Even though the vaccination gives relatively good protection, people can still suffer from long COVID and especially for vulnerable groups (e.g., with previous illnesses) there is still a significant risk of a severe course of the disease or death.

This situation is a result of the loud voices of COVID-denialists and individualists, but most of all of the fundamental function of the capitalist state that systematically prioritizes capital’s interests over the health of workers and marginalized groups. In this piece I will look at responses to the pandemic from the left in Germany and try to analyse how it failed to counterpose those forces effectively. Germany may serve as an example here for the situation in many other European countries, but I will focus on Germany since I know more about the situation here and also since it was often called a good example for handling the pandemic during the first COVID wave in 2020.

Germany’s reaction to COVID

When the pandemic started in China or even when the virus infected masses in Italy and also started spreading in Germany, very few people on the German left predicted that it was something that would affect “us” to a huge extent. Only when there was the official recommendation to cancel events with over 1000 participants in the beginning of March 2020, people started to take it seriously. Things went fast then and two weeks later there was a lockdown with most shops closed and one was only allowed to meet one other person outside of one’s own household in public.

This was of course a new situation since this kind of regulation of people’s private lives has not been seen before, at least not in recent decades. However, to most people it soon became clear that COVID was a serious threat that should be acted upon – at least when there were pictures in the news that showed military trucks in Italy transporting dead bodies since the crematoriums were overloaded. So most statements from the left in this first wave tried to find a balance between, on one hand, criticizing authoritarian state measures such as those against people meeting in public, and on the other hand, agreeing on the necessity to fight the virus and calling for health safety measures (sometimes tending to emphasise one or the other position). The anti-authoritarian communist alliance “Ums Ganze” wrote:

The irrationality of capitalism becomes all the more apparent in the crisis: when meetings of more than two people are banned except at work, capitalism shows that it will go over dead bodies for its survival. The biggest corona parties do not take place illegally in playgrounds or parks, but are state-sponsored: every day in open-plan offices, Amazon fulfilment centres and the country’s factories, as well as, not to be forgotten, in the refugee housing facilities where the state cramps the unwanted people together.

https://www.umsganze.org/no-time-to-die-corona-crisis-statement/

Broader interventions in the discourse from the left focussed on calling for health and safety for all. For example, there was a campaign by the anti-racist alliance Seebrücke for the evacuation of the Moria refugee camp in Greece. Since normal demonstrations were not possible, protest took creative and decentralized forms, such as putting shoes on public squares to represent protesters, or holding signs while queuing in front of shops. In the first days of the lockdown, spontaneous networks of mutual aid were also formed; not only by leftist activists, but in many cities they played key roles in them. Those networks organized via messenger groups where people offered to do grocery shopping for people who were either in quarantine or who were elderly of other members of vulnerable groups and did not want to risk an infection while shopping. There was a huge willingness from many people to offer those acts of mutual aid that outnumbered those that needed or wanted it by far.

However, there were also some demonstrations that downplayed or denied the threat of the pandemic. They came mostly from esoteric and conspiracy-theorist milieus and the far right, but also some people from the cultural sectors and leftists participated in them. This combination was quite similar to that of the red-brown “peace protests” that spread over Germany during the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, where those forces had taken a conspiracy-theorist and pro-Putin position.

Neither the party Die Linke (“The Left”) nor the trade unions offered their own answer to the pandemic, but mostly accepted the stance of the government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative CDU/CSU. However, some members of Die Linke, including MPs, sympathized with or participated in the denialist protests.

Quickly, neoliberal voices, e.g., from the liberal party FDP, also called for loosening the restrictions for economic reasons, which many on the left criticized as an attempt to sacrifice the health of workers and marginalized groups for the interests of capital.

However, when the number of cases went down and restrictions were loosened in May, there was no resistance against the loosening, even though some – including on the left – warned that this might be too early. Many people were also happy that there was a partial “return to normal”, and many leftists were happy to be able to do demonstrations and events again, even though many leftists acted more carefully than others. The pandemic was not really an issue that the left or progressive social movements acted upon during the summer of 2020. It was, however, for those reactionary forces that kept on protesting against the restrictions that were still in place, mainly mandatory masks. That movement began to organize mainly under the label of “Querdenken” (“lateral thinking”). There were some counterdemonstrations by Antifa groups, but they were mostly outnumbered by the Querdenken-protesters.

Flattening the curve

By loosening the restrictions as soon as the number of cases went down, the German government like most governments chose a “flatten the curve” strategy. This means that measures are implemented to keep infections low enough to prevent the collapse of the health system, but as long as the health system is not under threat of collapse, infections and deaths are tolerated. This shows that a simple demand for a better health system with more capacity – as good and supportable as it is – is not a sufficient leftist answer to the pandemic. In the context of a “flatten the curve” strategy, more capacity in the health system would actually mean more cases and more deaths since they do not threaten the health system’s collapse. An alternative to the “flatten the curve” strategy is to prevent outbreaks at all, a zero-COVID strategy as implemented by New Zealand but also China in the early waves. A few eco-socialists already called for this during the first wave in Germany and Austria. The third kind of strategy is that of uncontrolled infection, called for by many forces on the far right. This led to mass deaths in countries where the far right is in power, such as Brazil. It was however also adopted by non-far-right governments, like Sweden.

In the context of decisions by governments of capitalist states (China included of course), all three strategies are different attempts to find a balance between two interests: On the one hand, making sure that the population does not get sick or die en masse (because that could bring into question the government’s legitimacy, but also because it needs a relatively healthy population as a workforce); on the other hand, making sure that capitalist production and circulation do not get interrupted for too long, since economic growth is the base of the power of every capitalist state. Capitalist states need economic growth to provide their population with jobs and to earn tax money in order to finance whatever the state wants to do. Which strategy a government chooses, and which is the best way to balance those two interests, may change depending on context, and governments are also capable of making decisions that are bad even from their point of view – especially if there are two potentially conflicting interests. A radical left or Marxist point of view, in my opinion, should prioritize the health of workers and marginalized groups, and work towards an end of the capitalist growth imperative that endangers peoples’ health as well as the environment.

But let’s go back to the course of the pandemic in Germany. In autumn and winter, cases were rising again and got a lot higher than in the first wave. However, the federal government as well as the state governments (who made most decisions concerning the pandemic together) hesitated to decide on another lockdown. In November 2020, they introduced a “lockdown-light” which meant restrictions on the number of people that were allowed to meet, bars and restaurants were closed, but other workplaces as well as shops and schools stayed open. Several voices on the left criticized this imbalance between harsh measures for activities in people’s leisure time and few to no restrictions on most workplaces. That changed only slightly, when a harsher lockdown with shop and school closures was introduced in December as cases kept rising. The virus seems to stop spreading when people do things that raise the GDP, was a common joke in those days. Die Linke mainly criticized that the government instead of the parliament held power over most decisions concerning lockdowns, but besides that it again did not promote a distinct position.

It was scientists across Europe who acted more politically than most politically active leftists in this situation by publishing the call “Contain Covid” on 19 December, arguing for a zero-COVID-strategy. Finally, some leftists from Germany but also other countries in Europe spoke out in favour of that strategy and formed the campaign “Zero Covid”. They called for a just shutdown accompanied by a redistribution of wealth, and stressed the importance of also shutting down workplaces and lifting patents on the vaccines that slowly started to be available. However, no bigger organization supported “Zero Covid”, it consisted mainly of individual leftist intellectuals and activists from undogmatic, libertarian communist, eco-socialist and Trotskyist traditions. Many other leftists from different factions ranging from Die Linke to anarchists criticized “Zero Covid” for demanding “authoritarian” state measures. The question of how to implement a “Zero Covid” strategy was also debated within the campaign. The campaign did manage to make their voice heard and was debated in newspapers, despite not being a movement with a presence on the streets. It is hard to say if it achieved anything besides that. At least, there was now a distinct leftist position regarding the pandemic, while previously the discussion was only between the line of the government and calls for loosening restrictions from the right. Maybe “Zero Covid” thus managed to prevent a quicker loosening in spring 2021, but the implementation of a proper Zero Covid strategy never seemed even close to being carried out.

“Free Left”, conservative left

Warmer temperatures as well as vaccinations brought cases down in summer 2021. Vaccination now started to be the main issue concerning the pandemic. Querdenken, which had been full of anti-vaxxers from the beginning, now made this their main concern, while leftists – no matter how their position had otherwise been on measures against the pandemic – mainly called for lifting the patents and making the vaccines accessible globally. However, there were no mass protests for that demand, even though Germany is until today one of the main forces globally to uphold the “necessity” of patents for the COVID vaccines. There were also some vaccine-sceptical voices on the left, the most prominent being the politician Sahra Wagenknecht from Die Linke. Wagenknecht is a picture book example of conservative leftism (she even claims that term for herself) and takes over every reactionary talking point that becomes popular. Some leftists even formed an outright red-brown organization, the “Freie Linke” (“free left”) and participated in Querdenken-protests. They seem to come from different factions of the left, including autonomists and anarchists, but mainly from the conservative leftist crowd of Sahra Wagenknecht-supporters. A critical investigative research by the anarchist podcasters “Übertage” who participated in their meetings revealed a wild melange of Marxist jargon and far-right conspiracy theories in the talking points of “Freie Linke”. It also showed that “Freie Linke” is well connected to the leadership of Querdenken.

After the federal elections in October 2021, a new government was formed consisting of Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP. The latter had been the party most critical of anti-COVID measures (with the exception of the far right AfD who took more extreme talking points and tried to be the parliamentary arm of Querdenken).

During winter 2021/22 with a high number of COVID cases, there were thus only very few restrictions, most of which only concerned unvaccinated people. Fortunately, the vaccines prevented a lot of severe cases and the number of COVID patients in intensive care units was no higher than in the previous winter. Since the collapse of the health system was thus prevented, the strategies of “flatten the curve” and unrestricted contamination are now becoming the same, and the government is tolerating high numbers of infections and most restrictions are lifted. With the exception of some hashtag-campaigns, there is no resistance against this development and critical voices, e.g., from “Zero Covid” seem to be rather insignificant in public discourse. The war in Ukraine is now also overshadowing almost any other issue. Some of the COVID-denialists, including “Freie Linke” are now also shifting to this issue, and adopting reactionary Putin-apologist positions. At the same time, most on the left are struggling to take a clear stance in solidarity with Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. One could see a parallel here between the relative insignificance of the left in the face of the pandemic as well as in the face of Russian imperialism – but here is not the place to elaborate on that, and I will focus on the pandemic.

Where was the left response?

So what are the reasons why the left did not manage to take a clear stance for defending the health of workers and marginalized groups against the interests of capital and the capitalist state?

On the one hand, there seems to be a general problem that “we” as leftist groups, organizations or movements are not very good at reacting to new situations, to crises that we may not have foreseen and where we would have to develop a new analysis and act upon it. If the left reacts at all it is often by saying things it has said before and thinks are somehow fitting for the current crisis, e.g., “more money for the healthcare system” when the pandemic hits or “against all wars” when Russia invades Ukraine. And those slogans are often right, but they still fail to really answer the questions that new complex situations pose. It is still an open question to me how we can develop ways to organize, analyse and react in situations that we did not prepare for before. But it is crucial that we pose ourselves this question and look for answers since if we are not able to act in historical turning points, we will not have a meaningful impact on the course of history (in the direction of emancipatory goals) at all.

However, I think there are also some specific issues that one can point out concerning the pandemic. I will first focus on those on the left that opposed or at least did not support a “Zero Covid”-position and tended towards playing down the pandemic, or even went into alliances with the far-right and conspiracy theorists.

One of these problems is that there is a lack of understanding for natural processes like the exponential growth of virus infections, as eco-socialist and “Zero Covid”-initiator Christian Zeller also points out. The virus is not something that we can negotiate with. The range to make compromises between different goals, e.g., of not limiting “personal freedoms” and of containing the virus, is limited by the virus’s feature to grow exponentially once it is allowed to do. Most politics, and here I mean mainstream politics, are concerned about making compromises between different goals. This becomes catastrophic when natural forces are ignored, which is also true for climate change. Concerning climate change, the left is often good at pointing out this problem, but when it came to the pandemic many left positions actually reproduced the same problem. This problem is deepened in some factions of the left by a postmodernist approach of viewing reality as primarily constructed through discourse. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who ignores the reality of the virus and sees the crisis as primarily a discourse used to justify biopolitical control, is an example of how postmodernism can go dangerously wrong. While there are some good insights from poststructuralist and postmodernist theories about discourse, the left needs to be able to analyse the materiality of the metabolism between human and nature if it wants to be able to answer to the crises set off by capitalist human-nature relations.

Another problem is the question of how we analyse the state. Anarchism sometimes tends to see the state as an institution that simply oppresses, dominates and controls people out of pure evil. This kind of view lacks a materialist analysis of the role of the state within capitalist society, meaning that the main function is actually to secure good conditions for capital accumulation. While the former view tends to only criticize oppressive things that the state does, e.g., restrictions on how many people are allowed to meet during a pandemic, a materialist analysis can also analyse and criticize the state’s inaction when it comes to protecting people’s health. While both views conclude that the state cannot be used for our ends and that we need to fight for the things we want against the state and finally abolish it, they come to quite different conclusions when looking at how the state deals with the pandemic.

Sometimes connected to this tendency within Anarchism is an individualist understanding of freedom. The state then oppresses my individual freedom to do whatever I want. This notion of freedom is not something specifically anarchist (and social anarchist currents do not share it), but it is indeed the mainstream liberal bourgeois understanding of freedom. The pandemic showed that any emancipatory concept of freedom needs to centre the dependency between us all. If it is “freedom” to go around unmasked and infect everyone with COVID, this cannot be a useful concept for the left. Instead, we should understand freedom as the collective capacity to form our social relations in a way that allows us to care for each other.

Those forces on the left that sympathized or participated in the Querdenken protests shared all of these problems, and in addition also that of a lazy populism that supports every position that is being shouted in the streets, no matter how reactionary it is. Interestingly, this position is itself inconsistent since during the pandemic, the Querdenken position was always a minority, even though a loud one. At most times, the majority either supported the state’s anti-COVID measures or actually thought they were not strong enough.

On the other hand, those on the left that did support a “Zero Covid” position also have to ask ourselves why this did not become a significant force. The fact that a lot of people and organizations on the left did not share this position can only be a partial answer. Another part is that the problem lies in the matter of the pandemic itself: People who are not afraid of getting infected or infecting others have no problem of taking to the streets in masses while the more careful people who tend to support a “Zero Covid” strategy also tend to hesitate more before going to protests. But the insignificance of “Zero Covid” also points to the same problem that causes the relative insignificance of radical leftist positions in general: our groups and organizations are small and barely rooted within the working class. From a materialist analysis of the capitalist state, it is clear that publishing a call alone will never move the state towards shutting down the economy. The only way to introduce a “Zero Covid” strategy in Germany would have been by shutting down the economy ourselves through mass strikes. Most of the intellectuals who signed the call probably knew that. It is still good that they did publish this call, since pointing out alternatives to the status quo even when there are now forces to push through these alternatives has a value in itself and maybe makes it more possible to do things differently in the future.

It is still unclear how the COVID pandemic will develop in the next couple of years and if new variants will make it more dangerous again. But it is clear that in the future, capitalist agriculture as well as climate change will lead to more frequent pandemics. That is why we should try to learn from what happened during the COVID pandemic.

Notes on the international question

by TYLER WEST. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy. Reworked from a post on the Notes from South of Nowhere blog.

Ukrainian solidarity demonstration in the United Kingdom

Author’s note: This article has bubbled away in the background since the military coup d’état of the 1st February 2021 in Myanmar, I returned to it but still did not see fit to finish it during the Solomon Islands riots of late November 2021, and again during the great unrest which swept Kazakhstan in January 2022. Each time it has slipped back by the wayside as I simply have not been writing for the length of the pandemic. As I have been writing again of late, and with international events in mind, it seems fit to put this piece to paper, which culminated in an initial publication date of the 28th March 2022. As it has been rewritten repeatedly, I’ve done my best to update it to the current situation and make any necessary edits to the central argument. As a result, the argument may come across a little scattered at points, for which I apologise. At any rate…

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given many on the left pause to reconsider their conceptions of imperialism and priorities on the world stage. An earnest reckoning with what has become a rote-learned and stultifying worldview among the left should be welcomed in these circumstances, such that it allows for a reassessment of world conditions and a new framework to be developed. This reckoning is long overdue, being needed since at least the end of the Cold War, and its absence has muddied prior attempts to find footing in assessing New Zealand’s position in other international events, let alone what a coherent response might be.

Over the last decade or three, many events have attracted temporary interest before subsiding into the maelstrom of world affairs, never to be picked up again. In some instances, this is fair enough, an issue is nominally resolved on its own terms and ceases to demand as much attention. One might take the conflict and immediate aftermath of independence for East Timor, to draw a Pacific example. Attention started to drift away after the worst fighting subsided and had largely shifted elsewhere by the time peacekeepers were sailing over the horizon in 2005. In others, events overcame one another, sometimes in the same theatre. Barely had the two operations which comprised the 2006 Israel-Gaza War begun that events tumbled toward the Israel-Lebanon War in that same year. That is unlikely to happen in the case of this new escalation in Ukraine, but it will happen again in the next case without course correction. Without that correction, the chances of grasping a coherent framework sink toward zero.

Inherited ideas

Part of the problem is theoretical, an inherited idea of imperialism from prior eras of imperial excess stretched poorly onto new conditions. To those who cry of Lenin’s theory it should be said that it is time to pick Lenin up and cast his words upon both the extant conditions of the world and the developments since Lenin’s old wounds stole his final years. The ‘unipolar order’, if it ever really existed, has likely been in decay for as long as the neoliberal order has, which is to say since at least the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (in terms of world conflict, some point between the Russo-Georgian War and the rise and annihilation of the ISIS statelet). Some other order has surely been born, even if we are yet to quantify or name it.

Whether our moment resembles the 1970s, the 1930s, the 1900s, or no prior period at all has been hotly debated for years now. It does not need to be relitigated to be able to say that a great break occurred at some point fairly recently and we have not been able to pinpoint it or sufficiently analyse our current era. We have all, from the most ardent Marxist-Leninist to the most unreconstructed neoconservative, been chasing after history as it tears off in all directions around us. The only question is who has recognised this for what it is, and who is still working on a prewritten script while the stage burns around them.

Perhaps another part of the problem, for New Zealand anyway, is an unintentional parochialism. Some on the left find a set core of overseas causes célèbres and don’t really see fit to pay much attention to anything else, creating a kind of internationalist myopia in which a handful of things take up the entire view and complicating factors or outside events fall by the wayside. This is not a call for each and every individual who concerns themselves with such matters to take all the worlds ills upon their mind, but for the movement (or movement in waiting) to which they belong to perform its job as the social brain which acts to alter the path of history. To be capable of meeting each crisis as it arises with cold-eyed rationality and not forget those crises which slip from world headlines and the popular conscience even as they worsen before our eyes. No one person could be asked to do more than they can, but the movement such that it exists can be asked as a generalised whole to grasp the problem.


The problem of numbers

An unquestionable problem is numbers. The extra-parliamentary and especially the nominally socialist left in this country is small, fragmented, geographically scattered, and lacking in resources. This makes any project or campaign a fraught matter if it doesn’t draw initial support from elsewhere or at least a wide swathe of the extra-parliamentary left. With a raft of domestic issues to deal with, something like the ongoing anti-coup insurgency in Myanmar can slip through the attention cracks. It is not to say constant attention is needed from New Zealand, but the general situation should be kept in mind. This is merely one example. There could be many. Let us choose another.

Consider the Solomon Islands, wracked last November by the worst unrest since the civil war. They are not only a much closer neighbour, but New Zealand troops are still deployed there. How many could confidently say they knew the deployment alongside Australian and Fijian forces was provisionally extended in January to at least the end of March this year? At time of writing, it is entirely possible some new factor pushes out that date further (at time of initial publication, new events have occurred bringing the Solomons back into view). It did not require a laser focus on the Solomons to know that, just the curiosity to keep occasional tabs on the situation. The Solomons case is a useful one, as it serves to act as a lesson for those wanting to learn how inter-imperial competition could rip the bandage off open wounds in the social fabric of otherwise uninvolved countries. Not only that, but it provides that lesson in a close Pacific neighbour to New Zealand.

There could be other cases, Kazakhstan seems obvious, but the point is what keeping in touch with these events means for the New Zealand left. Each is a lesson in class power, in imperial dynamics, in economic flow, in any number of things. More importantly, each is real. The socialist left is richer for being able to monitor the world situation effectively. It helps build the possibility of meaningful relationships with workers across national borders and with ethno-cultural minority workers within our own borders. It is one of the things that allows us to be internationalists.


What is to be done?

So, what of it? Why bring it up at all, what is the point? I would like, if I may, to make some suggestions. I do not presume of myself the power to make a declaration of what should be done and presume it will be so. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of sloganeering, or at least its wild overuse. But if I may outline what I’d like to see, at least it is out there, and I can say I have done that much. Before that, some background is necessary. We must survey where we are and where we stand.

As recently as the 1990s the left-media sphere in New Zealand was large enough that it could include a number of publications dedicated to international events either generally or of a specific focus. A prime example being the Free East Timor Coalition, which published Nettalk through the 1990s. Another might be the “Best Irish Paper in the Pacific”, Saoirse, published over the 1980s-’90s, which existed among a once thriving constellation of Irish focused cultural/political organisations and outlets in New Zealand (many involving the recently late Jimmy O’Dea). The long running CORSO publication Overview kept a consistent eye on international events from the late 1970s through early 2000s. Similar groups exist today but few produce physical or digital periodicals for news and debate, and online forums are patchy and stretched across numerous topics. The tiny handful of socialist publications which exist dedicate some paper & ink to international topics, but their best efforts cannot but amount to a fairly small quantity of coverage. Sporadic publication, diverging editorial lines and formats, and the heavy weight of domestic and theoretical affairs make it an unfair ask on their own.

The existing groups which focus on this conflict or that national oppression are largely scattered and co-operate on an ad hoc basis. The Peace Action groups act as a functional node in the synaptic web of organisations. Their activities, in my opinion, should be commended at every turn. Similar could be said of Global Peace and Justice Aotearoa. It is not that they are insufficient (indeed they do more with very little than most could hope to) but that I am referring to a different kind of activity to their largely activist model. What I think is lacking is a national forum to keep the wider movement, such that it exists, abreast of international events. A point of connection which tallies up the sum total of existing international solidarity organisations in New Zealand and, with some degree of formality and structure, brings together the background coverage of their activities with a place to discuss international affairs generally. Something that can act as a locus for ongoing discussion while its contributors are focused on their own activities, sufficiently in-the-loop to keep abreast of internationalist actions in New Zealand but detached enough from the organising that the forum does not slip away, and the purpose lost.

In a way this is just one component of a wider need for a twofold (partial) solution to manifold problems faced by the New Zealand left. The first is the need for a central catalogue of active organisations of and of interest to the extra-parliamentary left in New Zealand, a resource to which the entire extra-parliamentary left can contribute to and benefit from. Such a resource has existed in part before and been attempted at times throughout the years but has never been fully realised on a national scale. It could go a great way to connect at the level of the organisation, consolidate as social movements, help initiate those newly interested in the left, allay intra-left confusion and organising overload, and provide an agreeable project for cooperation. The second is the need for a number of forums and sub-forums among the extra-parliamentary left on a number of topics which could provide similar benefits to those outlined above for an international & conflict forum, while retaining the structure needed to continue functioning through the contention and infighting inherent to political organisation.

Again, the infrastructure for these forums exists in a patchwork across the country – some of these conceptual forums effectively exist already. But the disconnection and lack of way for someone not already truly deeply embedded in the culture of the extra-parliamentary left to get their feet means that functionally it is as far away as existing solely on the drawing board. This country is in a sweet spot where in theory it is small enough for such infrastructure to exist but large enough for the infrastructure to sustain it to exist as well. It is a matter of cooperating across a geographical and socio-cultural divide which has long, perhaps always, hampered efforts at national coordination among the extra-parliamentary and socialist left. Whether it is possible to overcome such divides is not for me to say, but the thought’s worth entertaining, right?

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