ANZACs vs Jihadis? Examining the far right’s WWI narrative

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Article by Byron Clark.

On April 30, 2019, the website Right Minds, operated by Diewue de Boer, published an article headlined “Christian Man Threatened With Arrest For Anzac Day Sign”.1 The sign in question featured pictures of the man’s uncle accompanied by the text “Died of wounds incurred at Gallipoli fighting against the Islamic Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire — fighting for God, King, and Country.” The reverse side of the sign read “Allah has no Son and so cannot be the God & Father of Jesus Christ — the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob — the God of the Holy Bible — your Creator & mine. Honour our Fallen Soldiers — Resist Tyranny — Fight for Freedom.”

According to Right Minds, the man had been told by police, “people are feeling intimidated and unsafe”. Those feelings would be an understandable response to a man making an explicitly anti-Islam statement a mere six weeks after a far-right terrorist murdered fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch. It should be noted that de Boer, the co-founder of Right Minds, told Stuff that he had read parts of the shooter’s manifesto and agreed there are points where it overlaps with his movement, despite his opposition to terrorism and violence.2 (In early 2020 police raided de Boer’s home over a suspected illegal firearm.3)

The man attending ANZAC day commemorations in Titahi Bay, identified only as Aaron, was promoting the idea that the First World War was a clash of civilisations between the Christian and Islamic worlds. There are elements of truth in this narrative – for example the Sultan-Caliph of the Ottoman empire proclaimed an official “Great Jihad” on 14 November 1914 – but as is usually the case with the kind of historical narrative that can fit on two sides of a plywood board, the reality is much more complex.

When the war began, 90% of the world’s Muslims resided in lands colonised by Europeans.4 The Ottoman empire, where most of the remaining 10% resided, remained uncolonized but was highly sought after by the European powers. The Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck wrote in The Holy War, Made in Germany:

The competition with England, France, and Russia again made it desirable for all parties that their spheres of interest should be determined. Before the war the understanding had come so far that they were expected in the present year to reach an agreement, by which England would receive Southern Mesopotamia as its economic territory, France; Syria, Germany; the part of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor which is bounded on the one hand by the 34th and 41st degrees of east, longitude, and on the other by the 36th and 39th degrees of northern latitude, whereas the northern part of Asia Minor was to be given to a French-Russian combine for railway construction.”5

The Ottoman Empire in 19146

Snouck goes on to write “For this economic sphere of influence Germany would have felt slightly grateful, but by no means satisfied.”

Germany alone can save Turkey, and she has a huge interest in doing so since only the preservation of the complete integrity of the Ottoman Empire will make it possible for Germany to protect and to develop the economic position which she has gained in it. Besides, Germany is the only one among the large powers with which Turkey has to count who would not wish to annex a single foot of the country, and could not even if she wanted to. Germany’s geographical position would prevent her from effectively protecting such possessions and deriving profit from them. That is why during the twenty-five years of her more intimate relations with Turkey, Germany has always been the only trustworthy friend of the Empire of the Sultan-Caliph. There is between the two countries, apart from all questions of sentiment, a natural community of interests, whereas the interests of all the other large powers can only be furthered at the cost of Turkey’s welfare, and finally of her existence.7

For Snouck, the declaration of jihad was a ploy to further German colonial interests. His work Holy War Made in Germany is primarily a polemic against the writing of the German politician Hugo Grothe.

[T]he question remains whether, as Grothe hopes and expects, the Mohammedan nations under European rule will really be so charmed by the call to arms issued in the name of Sultan Mehmed Reshad, that they will attack their masters ”here with secrecy and ruse, there with fanatical courage.” Grothe already sees in his imagination how ”the thus developed religious war”—so he openly calls it—is to mean especially for England ” the decline of her greatness.”8

A goal of German strategy in the war was to have the Muslim populations of the British and French empires rebel against their colonisers – all in aid of Germany’s own imperial interests. To this end the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient (Intelligence Office for the East) was established. Max von Oppenheim, the head of this office, produced reports with titles such as “Die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde” (Bringing about a Revolution in the Muslim Territories of our Enemies).9 In a memorandum titled “Exploitation of Muslim prisoners of war” (“Benutzung der kriegsgefangenen Muhammedaner”, dated 2 October 1914 he suggested that a mosque be constructed in the prisoner of war camp where Muslims were being held.

The Intelligence Office for the East suggested the construction cost should be funded at least in part by Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II in order to present the mosque as a gift from the German Kaiser to the Muslims. Due to resistance from the treasury, the mosque’s construction was financed from the regular budget of the military administration of the prison, but the mosque was still used for German propaganda efforts. Newspapers at the time described the good treatment of Muslim POWs “nearly as guests of the German people” (“fast als Gäste des deutschen Volkes”).10 A newspaper produced by the Nachrichtenstelle titled al-Jihad was produced in numerous languages and distributed at the Halbmondlager (Half Moon Camp) where Muslim POWs from the British and French armies were held, and the camp in Zossen that was used to hold Muslim POWs from the Tsarist army.11The success of this propaganda effort was severely limited. Some former POWs were sent to the Ottoman empire as Jihad volunteers, where they were deployed mainly at the Iraqi front. They were expected to write enthusiastic letters to their fellow jihadists still remaining in Germany describing their successful inclusion in the Ottoman army and the weakness of the British enemy. In reality though there was a lot of dissatisfaction due to inadequate accommodation, lack of food and poor treatment by the Ottoman officers, which led to insubordination and desertion. Besides that, the Ottoman authorities had preferred Germany to send settlers and workers instead of soldiers. The Jihad propaganda was ended at the end of 1916.12There was divided opinion among Muslims regarding the war. The Islamic reformer Rashid Rida heavily criticised the Committee of Union and Progress, the ruling party in the Ottoman empire, describing them as “enemies of Arabs and Islam.” Highly sceptical of German colonial ambitions in the middle east, Rida believed if Germany succeeded in building their planned Berlin to Baghdad railway, then British military power would never be able to “stop the stream of German greed.”13While Rida was an advocate of full Arab independence – from both the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism – he regularly stressed that Britain was preferable for many Muslims to Russia, Germany and France for the justice and the religious freedom given to British subjects in the colonies. Throughout the war, Rida attempted to persuade British Intelligence in Cairo of his ability, through the Decentralization Party, to influence Arab officers in the Ottoman army to rebel against their Ottoman and German commanders. He was eager to replace the Ottoman Caliphate with an Arab one after the war. While he later confirmed his allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate (which he distinguished from the CUP government) this was only after British authorities were unwilling to provide the Arabs with any support.14When looking more deeply at the historical context of Islam in the first world war, the idea that the war was some kind of clash of civilisations between Islam and the Western (or Christian) world is hard to justify. It may be true that the uncle of the man who brought his homemade sign to the ANZAC commemorations in Titahi Bay was “fighting against the Islamic Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire;” however the British Empire, of which New Zealand and Australia were part, was not in a religious war with an Islamic caliphate but in a war of rival colonial powers in which the interests of one of those powers, Germany, were aligned with the interests of the Ottoman empire.

Few of the world’s Muslims conceptualised the war as a religious conflict either (Rashid Rida for example saw the conflict as a “greedy” materialistic war which had nothing to do with religion.15) with most of the world’s Muslims living outside the Ottoman empire and many fighting alongside the allied powers.

Simplistic black and white narratives of history are pushed by those who seek to wield history as a weapon in the interests of power or the ideology of nationalism, they rarely – if ever – tell the complete story. This has implications for the present. Erik-Jan Zurcher writes in the introduction to Jihad and Islam in WWI, a collection of conference presentations first given on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Snouk’s book, that what fuels the fear of Jihad in the western world today is not so much the acts of extreme and demonstrative violence that occur, but the uncertainty about the degree of support for the Jihad among the large Muslim communities in European and American countries.16 It’s this fear that was exploited by Donald Trump when he campaigned on instituting “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”; closer to home, individuals like Aaron attempt to grow that fear.

1 “Christian Man Threatened With Arrest For Anzac Day Sign”, Dieuwe de Boer, Right Minds 30-04-2019, Archived at https://bit.ly/3rR22DR

2 “Radical losers and lone wolves: What drives the alt-right?”, Philip Matthews, Stuff, 23-03-2019. Archived at https://tinyurl.com/deboerstuff

3 “Far-right activist’s house raided over suspected illegal firearm”, Matthew Theunissen, RNZ, 11-01-20. Archived at https://tinyurl.com/o2kowvz4

4 Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. The Holy War, Made in Germany. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1915, p.9. Available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Holy_War,_Made_in_Germany

5 Snouck, p.20

6 ‘Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914’, Ministry for Culture and Heritage (New Zealand). URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/map-ottoman-empire-1914, updated 14-Aug-2014.

7 Snouck, p.21

8 Snouck, p.22

9 “Introduction” in Zurcher, Erik-Jan (ed.), Jihad and Islam in WWI, University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 20

10 Gussone, Martin, “Architectural Jihad: The ‘Halbmondlager’ Mosque of Wünsdorf as an Instrument of Propaganda”, in Zurcher (ed.), p.189

11 Ibid. p. 23

12 Ibid. p.211

13 Ryad, Umar, “A German ‘Illusive Love’: Rashīd Ridā’s Perceptions of the First World War in the Muslim World”, in Zurcher (ed.), p. 312

14 Ibid p.321

15 Ibid p.316

16 “Introduction” in Zurcher (ed.), p 27

The genocide that inspired the Christchurch shooter

ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Article by Byron Clark.

At the start of the livestream video that accompanied the terror attack in Christchurch, (quickly deemed an objectionable publication) the shooter plays the song “Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs”. Karadžić refers to a Serbian war criminal dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by the media in the 1990s. The song is also known as “Serbia Strong” and “God Is a Serb and He Will Protect Us”, or in the online far-right spaces the terrorist frequented, as “Remove Kebab”. It’s a jingoist folk song dating back to the conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, which culminated in the largest genocide on European soil since the Holocaust.

The Royal Commission report into the shooting notes that while the terrorist travelled in the former Yugoslavia in late 2016 and early 2017 it’s “at least possible that he visited some places because of their association with historical events in which he was interested”1 describing his travels as not the cause of his mobilisation to violence, but as the setting for it.

The individual was thus in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 25 December 2016 to 31 January 2017. It was during this time that he wrote to the Bruce Rifle Club, which we see as the first tangible indications of his mobilisation to violence.

This article will examine how a nationalism with a specifically anti-Muslim character, and a lack of historical remembrance of the Bosnian genocide created an inspirational story for the modern far-right, specifically the man who murdered fifty-one Muslim worshippers in Christchurch.

Historical background: constructing a nationalist narrative

The Balkan region was a kind of geographic midpoint for the different religious groups of Europe and the near east. After the great schism in Christianity in the eleventh century, the region contained the Eastern Orthodox Serbs and the Western Catholic Croats. There has been a history of armed conflict between these two groups, largely confined to the 20th century.

The region’s Muslim population dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the idea that Slavic Muslims and Serbs are ancient enemies, prominent during the wars of the 1990s, is much more recent; it was constructed by nationalist Serbs in the nineteenth century and projected back to the 1389 battle of Kosovo (and then back even further.)2In the five centuries following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, Muslims and Christians coexisted in what was a relatively tolerant environment for the times. Under Ottoman rule a formal charter guaranteed the freedom of the region’s Christians to practice their religion, and Ottoman Sarajevo provided sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.3The battle of Kosovo was fought between the invading Ottoman Empire and a Serbian army led by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, who ruled the most powerful state on the territory of the disintegrated Serbian empire. The way history remembered these events has changed in recent times.

The battle was not the central theme of Serbian historical stories. Prince Lazar would become a significant historical figure only in the nineteenth century, when his story was taken up by Serbian nationalists. It was later also taken up by the Christchurch shooter, who wrote Lazar’s name on one of his guns.4Nations are not things that occur naturally; they are always socially constructed. The Serbian nationalists of the nineteenth century could have taken a cross-cultural, cross-religious view, and based their nationhood on language. This was the approach of philologist and linguist Vuk Karadžić (1787-1865). For him, Serb nationality was a function of the language; all speakers of the South Slavic dialects, whether Catholic, Muslim, or Orthodox, were considered Serbs.5This contrasts with the views of poet and prince-bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813-1851) For Njegoš, the region’s Muslims could never be part of the nation. By converting to Islam , Njegoš insisted, Slavic Muslims had “Turkified,” adopting not just the religion of the Ottomans, but actually transforming themselves into Turks. By converting to a religion other than Christianity, Njegoš believed people were converting from the Slav race to an alien race.6After gaining its autonomy and then independence from the Ottoman empire in the 1910s, Serbia as a state expanded. In his book Genocide in Bosnia, Norman Cigar writes of what this meant for the region’s Muslim population.

In the territories acquired during this phase, the Muslims were forced to convert, leave, or be liquidated. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Serbia had been largely cleansed of native Muslims and of the Turkish minority. The problem re-emerged, however, after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia was able to seize and annex two predominantly Islamic provinces from the hapless Ottoman Empire: Kosovo and the Sandzak, as well as Macedonia, which had a large Muslim population.7The establishment of Yugoslavia in 1918 united all Serbs in a single state, but significantly this wasn’t a Serb nation state. In 1933 during a reshuffle of internal borders, Yugoslav President Milan Srskic explained changes saying it was “Because of the Turks [Muslims]. I cannot stand to see minarets in Bosnia; they must disappear.”

By the late 1930s, these ideologues were encouraged by the rise of intolerance in many parts of Europe, and the situation had reached the point that plans were drafted for the mass expulsion of Yugoslavia’s largely Muslim Albanians. Yugoslavia, at the time, didn’t have the political or military power to put this plan into action.

During World War II, fascist states allied to Nazi Germany were established in Croatia and Serbia. In addition to the pro-Nazi state established in Belgrade, other Serbian nationalists organised the Chetnik movement, led by Draza Mihailovic. The goal of the movement was to establish a Greater Serbia in the Balkans.8Operational orders provided by Mihailovic to his field commanders made the Chetniks’ intent toward the Muslim population clear:

Point 4. To cleanse the state territory of all national minorities and anti-national elements. Point 5. To create a direct, continuous, border between Serbia and Montenegro, and between Serbia and Slovenia, by cleansing the Sandzak of the Muslim inhabitants and Bosnia of the Muslim and Croatian inhabitants.

The objective was clarified further in instructions sent from Mihailovic’s headquarters to the commander of a Chetnik brigade:

It should be made clear to everyone that, after the war or when the time becomes appropriate, we will complete our task and that no one except the Serbs will be left in Serbian lands. Explain this to [our] people and ensure that they make this their priority. You cannot put this in writing or announce it publicly, because the Turks [Muslims] would hear about it too, and this must not be spread around by word of mouth.

The defeat of the Chetniks by the Communists in World War II left them unable to complete their nationalist programme, but as a compromise Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito granted Serbia control over several areas in the region, and Serbs were given a disproportionate share of posts in the federal bureaucracy, military, diplomatic corps, economic infrastructure, judicial system, and Communist Party – a situation which prevailed until the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Modern History: Nationalism in the late 20th century

By the time Yugoslavia disintegrated, a ready-made nationalist ideology was available for exploitation. But the re-emergence of nationalism was not inevitable. Cigar writes:

The transformation in interethnic relations needed for the mass mobilization of the Serbs in support of a more confrontational relationship, including vis-à-vis the Muslims, was neither spontaneous nor unavoidable. Instead, a preparatory phase, marked by an intensive and methodical top-down political and information campaign in the 1980s, was required to change the value system of an entire generation of Serbs.

Well before the actual breakup of Yugoslavia, influential figures in Serbia had begun to shape a stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior, and a threat. The novelist Vuk Draskovic in his book Noz, wrote Muslim characters as treacherous, cold-blooded murderers. The book even contains an explicit denial of the Muslims’ existence as a legitimate community. One future commander of the Serbian Guard militia spoke of the influence the novel had on him:

I beat up many Muslims and Croatians on vacation in Cavtat because of his Noz. Reading that book, I would see red, I would get up, select the biggest fellow on the beach, and smash his teeth.

Anti-Islam ideology become prominent among Serbian intellectuals. When, for example, Belgrade’s Muslim community requested land for a cemetery, political scientist Miroljub Jevtić responded:

From land for the dead, the next step is to conquer land for the living. They will then seek a mosque, fully legitimately, but then, around the mosque, they will seek land on which to settle Muslims. Then, it will not be long before non-Muslims will leave, initially voluntarily but later under pressure. . . . What is planned is to settle Muslims in those areas, and to then step up the birth-rate in order to achieve numerical superiority gradually.

This concern about birth rates among Muslims is a precursor to the modern ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which posits that there is a deliberate plan to overwhelm white populations with people of colour (often Muslims specifically) – the Christchurch shooter went so far as to name his manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’. Much like the modern far-right’s claims of a “white genocide” being imminent, Serb nationalists in the 1980s claimed a genocide against Serbs by Muslims in Bosnia and predominantly Muslim provinces of Serbia was a real possibility. In his book The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia Michael Sells writes:

By the time the Bosnian conflict began, the national mythology, hatred, and unfounded charges of actual genocide in Kosovo and imminent genocide in Bosnia had been shaped into a code: the charge of genocide became a signal to begin genocide.

In the late 1980s Serbian nationalists marched in Bosnian cities with the bones of prince Lazar, and the proclamation “We will do our utmost to crush their race and descendants so completely that history will not even remember them.”

The Bosnian war

Beginning in 1992 Serbian militias began to put this plan into action. When Serbian nationalists came to a predominantly Muslim town, the first people they targeted were intellectual and cultural leaders. Religious authorities, teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people, artists, poets, and musicians. According to Michael Sells, the goal of this was to destroy the cultural memory of the Bosnian Muslims.

In an incident recounted by the Bosnian writer Ivan Lovrenovic, a Serb army officer had entered the home of an artist in Sarajevo. This artist was Serbian but among his works was a piece that depicted a page from the Qur’an. Infuriated, the officer had all the artwork taken out into the street, lined up, and shot to pieces with automatic weapon fire.

The Serbs destroyed the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, which was home to the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts in the region, and later the National Library and National Museum. Mosques were another target. Between them, Serb and also Croat nationalists destroyed an estimated fourteen hundred mosques. In many cases the site of the mosques were ploughed over and turned into car parks, all evidence of their prior existence removed. Graveyards, birth records, work records, and other traces of the Bosnian Muslim people were eradicated.

Prior to destroying the recorded history and culture of Bosnian Muslims, Serbian nationalists had been emphasizing their own historical narrative. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo had been elevated to the level of national lore by the nationalists of the nineteenth century. That was still very much the case a century later. In his speech commemorating the six hundredth anniversary of the battle, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic proclaimed :”Today, it is difficult to say what is true and what is legend about the Battle of Kosovo. Today, that is not even important.”

Norman Cigar wrote of this nationalist use of history, not as an actual chronological record of the past and its scholarly study, but as an “ideological club” whose greatest utility was as “a potential mobilization vehicle.” The story was influential not just in the region but worldwide. Cigar writes:

One cannot explain today’s developments, much less the occurrence of genocide, simply by taking a mechanistic linear view of such a milestone as, say, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which the Ottomans defeated the medieval Serbian state. This battle, however, has been perceived by many Western observers as the root of an enduring Serbian-Islamic struggle and, ostensibly, the mainspring of the current situation.

Michael Sells writes that when the national mythology was appropriated by political leaders, backed with massive military power, and protected by NATO nations, it became an “ideology of genocide.” A set of symbols, rituals, stereotypes, and partially concealed assumptions that dehumanize a people as a whole, and justify the use of military power to destroy them.

In the city of Banja Luka, it was announced on local television that one thousand Muslims would be allowed to remain in the city (out of over 28,000). All the others would have to go, “one way or another.” By the end of 1993, of the 350,000 Muslims living in the Banja Luka region before the war, only 40,000 remained. In Bijeljina, Serb officials set the appropriate quota of Muslims who could continue to live in the town – 5 percent of the pre-war number. And in the town of Kozarac, houses were color-coded according to the owner’s ethnicity and then “destroyed systematically.” Samantha Power, a journalist covering the Yugoslav wars at the time who later became the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, writes:

Sometimes Muslims and Croats were told they had forty-eight hours to pack their bags. But usually they were given no warning at all. Machine gun fire or the smell of hastily sprayed kerosene were the first hints of an imminent change of domicile. In virtually no case where departure took place was the exit voluntary. As refugees poured into neighbouring states, it was tempting to see them as the by-products of war, but the purging of non-Serbs was not only an explicit war aim of Serb nationalists; it was their primary aim.9

For the next three years as this euphemistically named “ethnic cleansing” went on, the West did little to stop it, and in fact, did much to facilitate it.

Passing on September 25 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 713 imposed an arms embargo that locked into place the vast Serb army advantage in heavy weapons, reinforcing the power imbalance that allowed genocide to be carried out with impunity. The Serbs had access to the resources of the Yugoslav army, who, supported and financed by the Western powers, had stockpiled immense stores of weapons in anticipation of a Soviet invasion that never came The five permanent members of the Security Council; the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China all voted for the embargo.10In the following years it become increasingly clear that what was happening in Bosnia was not a civil war, but a genocide of one ethnic group by another. The international community didn’t completely ignore what was going on. The UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions, deployed peacekeepers, and helped deliver humanitarian aid. What the United States and its NATO allies did not do until it was too late, however, was intervene with armed force to stop genocide.11According to Samantha Power, the US was reluctant to intervene as they had no national interest in the region, unlike in the Gulf War of 1991.

Iraq had eventually threatened U.S. oil supplies, whereas Yugoslavia’s turmoil threatened no obvious U.S. national interests. The war was “tragic,” but the stakes seemed wholly humanitarian. It met very few of the administration’s criteria for intervention.

Within the US establishment there were numerous high-profile resignations in protest at the administration’s inaction. On August 25, 1992, George Kenney, the acting Yugoslav desk officer resigned from the State Department. News of Kenney’s departure made the front page of the Washington Post. “I can no longer in clear conscience support the Administration’s ineffective, indeed counterproductive, handling of the Yugoslav crisis,” Kenney wrote in his letter of resignation, which the newspaper quoted. “I am therefore resigning in order to help develop a stronger public consensus that the U.S. must act immediately to stop the genocide”12It was not as if the atrocities were unknown in the West; rather, they were simply ignored by those with the power to stop them. One of the most poignant demonstrations of this was the 14 January 1994 letter to the New York Times from Louis Gentile, a Canadian diplomat who at that time was working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bosnia:

The so-called leaders of the Western world have known what is happening here for the last year and a half. They receive play-by-play reports. They talk of prosecuting war criminals, but do nothing to stop the crimes. May God forgive them. May God forgive us all.“13

The Bosnian war

On 6 July 1995 the Serbs attacked the UN safe zone of Srebrenica. There had been attacks before, but what made this one different was that the Serbs did not just attack the Bosnian Muslims, but surrounded the positions of the UN peacekeepers. Knowing about the UN soldiers’ ‘don’t shoot unless shot at’ mandate, the Serbs never directly attacked them.

Colonel Tom Karremans, the Dutch commander of UN troops, requested NATO air support from his superiors. But because the UN soldiers were not directly under threat, his request was denied. On July 9th, Ratko Mladić, general of the army of Republika Srpska, the Serb- held territories in Bosnia, took over the Srebrenica operation. The next day, the Serb forces pushed forward, with the goal of taking over the enclave. Two subsequent air support requests were rejected, the first because the Serbs stopped advancing until the planes ran out of fuel and had to return to base, and the second because when the planes were refuelled and the Serbs started advancing again, it was too dark. Karremans met with Muslim military leaders that night and assured them that forty to sixty NATO planes would arrive at 6am the next day to stage a “massive air strike.” But that didn’t eventuate.

There is no agreed-upon account of why the planes didn’t come that morning, but they didn’t. Karremans made another request over the phone, and was told he needed to submit a paper form. So a form was filled out, then returned because it was the wrong form. Once the right form was submitted, he was told air support would arrive within 45 minutes, but at 9:45am it was denied. The misunderstanding was that command support said air support *could* arrive in 45 minutes, not that it would. Another request was made at 10am. Again though, Karremans was told he had to submit a form. By the time the air strike could be approved, the planes again had to refuel. This bureaucratic back and forth arguably prevented a decisive change in the course of events.14Mladic summoned Karremans for a pair of meetings at the local Hotel Fontana; he warned that if NATO planes reappeared, the Serbs would shell the UN compound in Potocari, where refugees had gathered. Later, with Karremans looking on, Mladic asked the Muslim representative of the Bosnian government who had been called to negotiate whether the Muslims wanted to survive or “disappear.”

The Serbs had chosen that the Muslims would disappear. What followed was the largest massacre of the war, later ruled a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One survivor described what he experienced:

They took us off a truck in twos and led us out into some kind of meadow. People started taking off blindfolds and yelling in fear because the meadow was littered with corpses. I was put in the front row, but I fell over to the left before the first shots were fired so that bodies fell on top of me. They were shooting at us … from all different directions. About an hour later I looked up and saw dead bodies everywhere. They were bringing in more trucks with more people to be executed. After a bulldozer driver walked away, I crawled over the dead bodies and into the forest.

In the town of Kravica, north of Srebrenica, Muslim men were herded into a large warehouse. Serb soldiers positioned themselves at the windows and doorways, fired their rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and threw hand grenades into the building, where the men were trapped. After the soldiers shot bullets into any bodies that were still twitching, they left a warehouse full of corpses to be bulldozed.

Eventually, there were NATO air strikes which did lead to the end of the war in Bosnia. It came too late, though, for the eight thousand dead in Srebrenica. When Serbia began to ethnically cleanse the province of Kosovo, NATO was not as slow to act as it had been in Bosnia.

There was a section of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto about that Kosovo conflict. It wasn’t quoted in any New Zealand media, but it was in Balkan Insight, the website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. The terrorist criticised NATO forces for what he saw as attacking Christian Europeans who were attempting to remove “Islamic occupiers” from Europe.

This view was held not just by extremists like the terrorist, but by mainstream politicians in Europe and elsewhere. In 2008, the Austrian MP Heinz-Christian Strache argued that Kosovar independence was an attack on Serbia’s identity, that European nations had to band together to protect the “Christian Occident” and that a failing to do so would entail that “Europe is likely to experience the same fate as Kosovo”.15 When the attack happened in Christchurch, Strache was Austria’s vice chancellor.

In the quarter century since the Bosnian genocide the events of the early 90s haven’t taken their rightful place in our collective memory, where we can recognise Islamophobic rhetoric and fearmongering about birth rates and know the end point of this rhetoric is genocide. Instead, we have seen publications such as Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Remplacement (2011) a book whose English title is shared with the shooter’s manifesto, and Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe (2017).

Perhaps more significant though has been the deluge of far-right content on social media, in particular on YouTube. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting noted that “[the shooter’s] exposure to such content may have contributed to his actions on 15 March 2019 – indeed, it is plausible to conclude that it did.”16 The commission also found that the shooter had donated money to Rebel Media, which employed Lauren Southern, who produced a documentary on the supposed Great Replacement, and Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted discredited ideas about race and intelligence.

Southern and Molyneux travelled to New Zealand in 2018. While they were eventually unable to find a venue to host their speaking tour, the event had sold a significant number of tickets, showing that their rhetoric is resonating here. If we do not learn from the atrocities of the past, we are never far from similar atrocities happening again.

1 https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/firearms-licensing/the-regulation-of-semi-automatic-firearms/

2 Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, University of California Press, 1998.

3 Cigar, Norman. Genocide in Bosnia, Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

4 https://www.smh.com.au/world/oceania/christchurch-shooter-s-manifesto-reveals-an-obsession-with-white-supremacy-over-muslims-20190315-p514ko.html

5 Sells.

6 Sells.

7 Cigar.

8 Cigar.

9 Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books, 2002.

10 Sells.

11 Power.

12 Quoted in Power.

13 https://www.nytimes.com/1994/01/14/opinion/l-in-banja-luka-terror-seems-uncannily-normal-870200.html

14 Untold Killing podcast, episode 2: “The Fall”

15 Zdravko Harmens, Hans. Karadžić Lead your Aussies?, 2020. https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/137654

16 Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack in Christchurch: https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/firearms-licensing/assessment-of-the-individual-and-the-terrorist-attack/

What is the base of right-wing populism?

Image via BBC.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

By Ani White.

Given the global surge of the populist right in recent decades, it’s worth investigating the demographic base of this political phenomenon. Probably the most prominent example of right-wing populism, largely due to prominence of the United States in general, is Donald Trump’s former presidency. This article will therefore examine Trump’s base, before moving on to international comparisons.

Trump and the ‘white working-class’

It’s a commonplace claim that Trump appeals to the “white working class.” This is almost too commonplace to need a source, but an article in UK conservative rag The Times typifies the claim:

Trump was elected for a reason. He spoke to a downwardly mobile, mostly white working class that had been forgotten by the elites raking in money from the global economy. By re-engaging these outcasts with the political system, he…turned politics upside down.

It’s worth teasing out what is meant by ‘white working-class’ here. According to a Marxist definition, workers are those who do not control the means of production, and must work for a wage. This definition includes educated white-collar workers, among other groups not commonly stereotyped in the term ‘working-class.’ By this definition, any successful candidate in a mass electoral system will have a majority of working-class supporters, regardless of their other demographic features. But the Times‘ claim is more specific: that Trump appeals to an economically insecure section of the working-class, a section of the working class that has been left behind, those affected by increasing inequality.

Yet this notion of Trump voters as economically left-behind is not borne out by the numbers. According to exit polls in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump appealed to higher-income households, while Democrats appealed to lower-income households:

Voters from wealthy households swung further towards Mr Trump in 2020. Just over half of those whose family income was more than $100,000 a year supported the president, compared with 45 per cent in 2016.

By contrast, those making family incomes of less than $50,000 voted Democratic by an 11.5-point margin (55 to 43), compared to an 8.2-point Democratic margin in 2016 (50 to 42)1

These numbers do not measure class in the Marxist sense (unfortunately exit polls do not gather data on voters’ relation to production) but they do undermine the thesis that Trump’s base is the most economically left-behind of the working-class. The average Trump voter is economically better-off than the average Democrat voter, and better-off than the average American. This played out prominently when participants in the January 6 Capitol coup attempt checked in at five-star hotels such as the Grand Hyatt,2 Wealthy racists support wealthy racists.

Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois: small-business owners. A poll of small-business owners in the US in 2016 found that the majority supported Trump3, and this majority only increased in 2020.4 Admittedly, Trump lost support from big business in the 2020 election5, but the point remains that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (this is also the classical base of fascism).

A common mistake conflates geography with class. Red States are portrayed as working-class, obscuring that lower-income voters, particularly people of colour, still largely do not vote Republican – with many suppressed from voting at all. Many commentators highlighted the segment of Wisconsin voters that swung from Obama to Trump, with the apparent assumption that everybody in Wisconsin is a factory worker. But the demographic makeup of Trump support in Wisconsin was much the same as it was nationwide, with the Democrats attracting lower-income voters and Trump attracting higher-income voters.6,7 The focus on Wisconsin, as a swing state, also reflects the narrow electoralist logic of the US system, which both encourages parties to chase ‘the middle’ (a common feature of liberal electoral systems), and gives certain states disproportionate weight (a more distinctive feature of the US Electoral College). Focusing so heavily on ‘swing voters’ is a recipe for rightward drift.

Another argument maps education on to class. An article on popular academic non-profit blog The Conversation, with the headline “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election”8, quotes political scientists Noam Lupu and Nicholas Carnes defining working-class as “those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median”,9 and explicitly goes on to say that small-business owners may be included in this category. However, while education does factor into economic access, to define working-class status based on education assumes that workers are uneducated and lets reactionary petit bourgeois off the hook. Additionally, even by Lupu & Carnes’ cultural definition of the “white working-class” as those on low incomes without higher education, only a minority of Trump’s base qualifies.10

So, what are the defining features of the populist right’s base, if not working-class status? Trump’s base is primarily white and wealthy,11 and more consciously motivated by cultural than economic factors: nationalism, race, and religion.12 Even if we were to argue that economics are self-evidently more important than culture, we would still be left with the point that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (though also drawing in the more reactionary and privileged sections of the working-class). This petit bourgeois, culturally conservative character of right voters has international parallels.

Right-wing populism in Europe and Australasia

Before moving on to international examples beyond Trump, it’s worth defining a term: right-wing populism. Populism in general can be defined as a contentious politics that polarises the field between a broad “people” and a “narrow elite”’13 – this has both left and right variants, but the question of left-populism will be set aside for now. Right-wing populism tends to define its “people” in national rather than class terms, and its “elites” in cultural terms – not necessarily the rich, so much as the liberal or cosmopolitan. Nazism is the far end of right-wing populism, with Jewish people defined as the “elites” that must be purged from the nation. My analysis of right populism is focused on the ‘imperialist core’ countries – the Anglosphere and Northern Europe, as centres of white supremacy – but similar dynamics can play out in the majority world, as with India’s Hindutva movement.

The base of populism in Europe correlates with the base of populism in the US. Political scientists Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris conducted a meta-analysis of the voters most likely to support populist parties in Europe, and their motivations. Comparing the cultural backlash thesis (“support can be explained as a retro reaction by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change”) and the economic insecurity thesis (emphasising the impact of neoliberalism on working-class voters), they found more support for the cultural backlash thesis. Conservative cultural attitudes were the strongest predictor of support for populist parties, to a much greater degree than economic insecurity. Unsurprisingly, populist support was strongest among “the older generation, men, the less educated, ethnic majority populations, and the religious”. Moreover, support for populists was strongest among the petit bourgeoisie, not among workers or unemployed.14

Australia has also seen a surge of support for minor populist parties. In the 2016 federal election, more voted for minor parties than at any other point since the Second World War. Unusually, the Australian minor party vote increased most strongly during periods of wage and income growth15 (this contrasts with an international pattern, measured over 140 years across 20 developed countries, whereby political polarisation increases most after financial crises16). In Australia, as elsewhere, support for populist parties was most correlated with conservative anxieties about cultural change.17 Australia has also been ahead of the curve with the mainstreaming of racial populism, with its Mandatory Detention policy for refugees initially emerging as exceptional for the OECD, but increasingly echoed internationally (as with Trump’s detention camps).

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, 2020’s General Election saw newly-formed populist parties roundly defeated.18 Labour PM Jacinda Ardern was able to sell herself as a competent crisis manager, winning over a broad swathe of the electorate including many traditional right voters.19 Ardern was successful where Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US were not, despite the dreams of some on their populist-left flank20: win over the base of the right. In doing so, she demonstrated why this is not a viable left strategy: Labour is unwilling to alienate their new friends with any radical measures, or even moderate measures such as property taxes to address the housing crisis, which would cut into the wealth of the property-owning middle-class.21 22 23 Although Ardern’s strategy is centrist rather than populist, it demonstrates a central danger in appealing to the right’s base: the danger of successfully becoming the sort of party right-wingers want to vote for.

What does this mean for left strategy?

The simplest strategic point to draw from all this is the following: the left should not build a strategy on appealing to the most culturally conservative, economically wealthy section of the electorate. While this point may seem blindingly obvious to some, it’s apparently not obvious to ‘left’ commentators such as Glenn Greenwald, who recently commented that he considered (millionaire right-wing Fox anchor) Tucker Carlson and (Trump strategist) Steve Bannon to be ‘socialists’, explaining that “you have this kind of right wing populism, which really is socialism.”24 Although this statement may be patently absurd, it’s also reflective of the mindset that the far-right are potential allies of the left.

Although there are conservatives that can be won over, this should not be our primary orientation. Moreover, those that can be won over should be won through a politics of solidarity, rather than pandering.

The claim that the populist right’s base is primarily “white working-class” is both misleading, and inherently beneficial to the right. The claim gives conservatives a stamp of authenticity, given their discrediting association with business interests, and generally unpopular social policies. The circulation of this claim among leftists and liberals is an own-goal at best, and a gateway to reactionary politics at worst. The outsize focus on the “white working-class” also obscures that the working-class are disproportionately people of colour.

The good news is that we don’t need to win over the base of the right to win. In the US, crudely rounding the numbers, Republican voters make up about 25% of the population, with about 25% voting Democrat, and about 50% not participating in elections (the actually left-behind). A strategy appealing to that 75% working-class majority, rather than the wealthiest and most reactionary 25%, has more transformative potential. And beyond the USA, the global working-class are mostly people of colour.

1 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020.” Financial Times, November 8, 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

2 Bradley, Diana. “Hyatt faces backlash for ‘harboring domestic terrorists’ following Capitol riots.” PR Week, 7 January 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/h5j0i7k1). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

3 Ioannou, Lori. “Small business says Trump is their pick for president.” CNBC, 5 October 2016 (tinyurl.com/sm-biz-4trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

4 De Leon, Riley. “President Trump’s approval rating among small business owners hits all-time high of 64%, survey reveals.” CNBC, 20 February 2020 (tinyurl.com/smbiz/4trump20). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

5 Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. “Business breaks up with Trump.” Financial Review, 1 November 2020 (tinyurl.com/bbiz-trump). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

6 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2016”. CNN, last updated 9 November 2016 (tinyurl.com/2016-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

7 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2020”. CNN, n.d. 2020 (tinyurl.com/2020-wisconsin-exit). Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

8 Ketchell, Misha. “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election.” The Conversation, 29 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-wwc). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

9 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “The White Working-Class and the 2016 Election.” Perspectives on Politics, First View, pp. 1-18, 2020. American Political Science Association.

10 Carnes et al. “The White Working-class…” Perspectives on Politics, 2020.

11 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” Washington Post June 5, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/ybmv7lel ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

12 Rubin, Jennifer. “Trump’s voters were more motivated by nationalism than economic hardship.” Chicago Tribune June 19, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/yypnrreg ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

13 Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso. 2005.

14 Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics. Princeton Legacy Library. 1977.

15 Wood, Danielle; Daley, John; Chivers, Carmela. “Australia Demonstrates the Rise of Populism is About More than Economics.” The Australian Economic Review, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 399-410, 2018.

16 Funke, Manuel; Schularick, Moritz; Trebesch, Christoph. “Going to extremes: Politics after financial crises, 1870-2014.” European Economic Review, vol 88, pp. 227-260, 2016.

17 Wood et al. “Australia Demonstrates…” Australian Economic Review, 2018.

18 Clark, Byron. “Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election.” Fightback, 5 December 2020 (tinyurl.com/nz-losers). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

19 Malpass, Luke. “Forget left and right, Jacinda Ardern’s in the middle.” Financial Review, 23 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/ardern-middle). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

20 Lawless, Daphne. “Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?” Fightback, 25 August 2020 (tinyurl.com/dead-populism). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

21 Sachs, Justine. “Jacinda Ardern Is Not Your Friend.” Jacobin, 12 February 2021 (tinyurl.com/jacobin-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

22 White, Ani. “’Lawmakers, not lawbreakers’”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way.” Fightback, 1 September 2020 (tinyurl.com/fightback-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

23 Green Left Radio. “New Zealand Elections: Left Response.” Green Left Radio, 24 October 2020 (tinyurl.com/greenleft-ardern). Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

24 Richardson, Reed. “Glenn Greenwald Describes Tucker Carlson, Bannon and 2016-era Trump as Right Wing ‘Socialists’, Mediaite, 4 March 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/wow-greenwald). Web. Accessed 05/03/2021.

Fightback Conference talks online now

In January 2021, Fightback hosted a series of online public talks as a part of our annual conference. Recordings of these talks are now all online at the Where’s My Jetpack podcast:

Unfortunately, the audio files from our most popular session on union and workplace struggle were corrupted. However, you can find interviews with the two speakers on our blog here:

Fightback Conference Report 2021

While 2020 was a year that many would rather forget, there were a number of political developments that were overshadowed by the COVID 19 pandemic. These were the subject of an online educational conference organised by Fightback, held on 23 January. The event attracted a number of participants from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, the US and Europe. 

International speakers included Jade Saab, a Lebanese/Canadian writer and activist, on the second wave of revolutionary struggle following the first “Arab Spring”, particularly in North Africa and West Asia. Rocio Lopez, a Mexican-American socialist living in Los Angeles, spoke on the increased climate of racism under Donald Trump, and the strengths and limitations of Bernie Sanders and other “left-wing” contenders in the 2020 elections. 

Erin Matariki Carr (Ngai Tuhoe, Ngati Awa), a lawyer and co-manager of progressive think-tank New Zealand Alternative, spoke on Aotearoa New Zealand’s Makite Mai movement for indigenous-led constitutional change.  She described how poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand is linked with the colonisation process and the need for indigenous values to be incorporated in the legal system.

Following on, Byron Clark spoke on the history and nature of the Far Right in Aotearoa New Zealand, based on his extensive research, writing, and social media platforms, which include YouTube videos challenging the conspiracy theories and ideology of the alt-right.

The session on unionism was, for many, a highlight. Chloe Ann-King from Aotearoa New Zealand spoke on her experiences as a hospitality worker and how they led to her founding Raise the Bar, which is moving from being a campaigning group to registering as a union. Tilde Joy, from Australia, also worked in hospitality and was a founding member and, until recently, national president of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. Both speakers gave an insight into a new way of organising workers who traditionally have been overlooked by the established union movement.

The final speaker of the day was long-time activist and former Green MP Sue Bradford, speaking on the challenge of building new mass organisations to fight the ongoing crisis of capitalism.

The discussion was generally respectful and constructive, however, the conference was subjected to a co-ordinated troll attack that took the form of unidentified people, using false names, making claims that Fightback’s “IT guy” (who doesn’t exist) also works for the Action Station organisation. Action Station organises and supports progressive campaigns through online petitions and other actions, similar to organisations like Avaaz, Change.org and Sum of Us. According to the trolls, it is funded by the CIA, via the National Endowment for Democracy, a US non-government organisation. There is no evidence that this is the case and Fightback has no connection with Action Station beyond supporting most of the issues they campaign on. This troll attack was successful in briefly shutting the online conference down, although it was able to resume shortly afterward. 

Because the troll attack was anonymous, no particular organisation can be held responsible. The assertion that legitimate social movements are funded by the CIA/NED is common to both far-right organisations and ‘tankies’ (socialists who support so-called ‘actually existing socialist’ states such as China or ‘anti-imperialist’ states such as Iran). Wherever it originated from, it is an unwelcome development. According to Daphne Lawless, one of the conference organisers, the attack “demonstrated how dangerous conspiracy theories are to Left groups, even from people on the ‘Left’.”

Despite the unwelcome interruption, the overall success of the conference has inspired the organisers to plan further online events (with better security). The next one is scheduled for April and will look at how to make cities more environmentally friendly, without placing the burden of cost on workers and the poor.

We will also continue to produce our quarterly magazine, which you can subscribe to here.

“I’m a Wobbly through-and-through”: Interview with Australian RAFFWU/IWW unionist Tilde Joy

May Day 2018, so-called Melbourne (image via RAFFWU).

Tilde Joy is an anarchist, activist, trade unionist, and formerly the President of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU). Based in Melbourne, she is also a gamer, and does Twitch gaming streams under the name ULTROS_PROFESSIONAL.

  1. What were your first jobs and first experiences in the workforce? How did this shape your views on work?

My first job was at Hungry Jack’s, I was actually somehow hired illegally as a 14 year-old. The minimum age was supposed to be 14 and 9 months at the time, but they took me on 2 months after my 14th birthday. I was paid $6.15/hour at the time (2004), under an awful SDA agreement. Eventually there was a Fair Work decision which got me some backpay, but nothing near what I would have been owed. It was an awful workplace, no breaks – I took up smoking as a kid so I’d be allowed to have a sit down every now and then on my shift. Flat pay, no penalty rates whatsoever. The money being so underwhelming I’d try to take on extra responsibilities, doing the high-risk oil changing roles, passing all my tests making x-amount of whoppers in a minute. They gave me a gold badge! By the time I left that job I was making $7.50/hour. We’d start work as early as 6:30am, sometimes we’d get held back as late as 3am if the store was super messy at closing time. My managers were terrible people, one in particular was fond of showing me awful videos on his phone; beheadings, snuff films, really graphic porn. Terrible place for a child to be on a school night. We all joined the SDA during induction, we had no idea how bad we were being exploited. I quit when I was 16, forever embittered. I hated my bosses and knew we all deserved better, but the idea that the union could change that was not quite an idea that ever crossed our minds. We thought all the union was there for was movie vouchers and discounts at the other fastfood joints.

The main thing that I take away from that experience is that all forms of child labour should be abolished, and the first step towards that is the abolition of junior wages. That won’t stop people from hiring children – kids are inherently exploitable, and therefore desirable as workers – but we have to build the friction here, make it socially unacceptable for children to have jobs ultimately.

  1. When did you first come across a trade union, and were they a relevant force or not in your workplace?

Yeah, the SDA. We saw them on day 1, at induction, something something about how they made sure we were being treated well at work. Even back then they’d emphasise how they worked with the company to achieve that. But after the first day they were gone. We’d get the coupon booklet every year, that’s all. They certainly were a force in the workplace though, they were absolutely complicit in our exploitation. That’s their business model, offering ways for companies to save money on wages and placating an unorganised and fairly oblivious workforce with “perks”.

3. Can you explain what the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) is, and the undue organisational and financial influence it wields over its official political representation, the Australian Labor Party (ALP)? Why is the SDA so socially conservative and right-wing, and where does the tendency they represent come from historically? Besides the SDA itself, does this political current have much strength in other labour organisations?

It would be my pleasure. The SDA claims to be the biggest private-sector union in so-called Australia. They cover the retail and fastfood industries, as well as supposedly representing workers in warehousing. They are aligned to the right wing of the ALP and represent the legacy of the grouper movement, which dates back to the 1940’s. Conservative unionists, largely Catholics, organised to combat the influence of the Communist Party within the unions at that time. The National Civic Council ended up being one of the results of this, and the SDA finds its origins there, in anti-communism, social conservatism and political lobbying. In more recent memory the SDA has made submissions to the senate arguing against abortions, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. They were fairly well muzzled during the plebiscite campaign, and seem to have stepped away from openly stating their views, but we can’t forget that Julia Gillard’s alliance with the SDA in the 2010 leadership spill was precipitated upon Gillard towing their conservative line on same-sex marriage. It’s an obscene affair, making millions on yellow unionism, and using workers’ dues to lobby the ALP into withholding rights from women and queers, who are massively over-represented in retail and fast food. I’m sure reactionary elements such as this exist in other unions, and the alliance between the AWU and the SDA in northern QLD is of note here, but I think the depth of the rot in the SDA is somewhat unique.

  1. What relationship should unions have with political parties? In Australia, most unions are part of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and affiliated to the ALP. Do you think unions should disaffiliate from the ALP, and what purpose would that serve? Would you favour a union like RAFFWU affiliating with a radical political party?

Well, being a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) I think that any foray into electoralism is a losing strategy. Seeing the resounding failure of the Change the Rules campaign – the ACTU couldn’t even convince the ALP to adopt the right to strike as a policy – I think all the ALP does for the union movement is tamp down any semblance of class consciousness. The blind loyalty to the parliamentary party is absolutely to our detriment, and an active union movement that was willing to put ALP feet to the fire would undoubtedly be more effective. It’s hard to imagine how it could be worse. Certainly, if there are unions that still value the class struggle, they should disaffiliate and start holding parliamentarians to account.

As far as RAFFWU affiliating with a radical party, I wouldn’t be in favour. I’m a fan of big-tent leftism, I think we achieve more focussing on the specifics of class struggle – in RAFFWU’s case building grassroots industrial power – in a non-denominational formation. I mean, I’m a wobbly through and through, and what I love about the idea of the IWW is that we unite in the struggle and synthesise the best of all kinds of radical traditions. I guess I fear the prescriptivism of any given party. People don’t often come to the union movement with super developed politics and I reckon the friction and autonomy of the rank-and-file is the key to keeping the upper echelons honest. That’s the most beautiful thing in the world I think, people coming to radical conclusions through the struggle itself, and keeping the labour aristocracy in check.

  1. What was the reasoning behind the formation of RAFFWU? How do you regard rank-and-file attempts of SDA members to transform the organisation from the inside – is that a viable approach?

Well I wasn’t there on day 1, but the key aim was to challenge the SDA and get our penalty rates back. For decades workers under SDA deals earned substantially less than the minimum wage, and people had tried and tried to reform the SDA. Truth is the SDA punished delegates who tried to do shopfloor organising, one of RAFFWU’s organisers was in that situation before RAFFWU showed up. They were a delegate in a supermarket and their SDA organiser not only took their position away from them but argued to their boss that they should be sacked! They’re fundamentally opposed to even the most basic of workplace organising campaigns. They maintain anti-communist clauses in their rules, odds are that none of the people reading this right now would even be allowed to run for office. It’s a losing game.

But for me personally, why shouldn’t I attack the SDA from the outside? They have harmed me, starved me, gone to the parliament and argued I don’t deserve to exist. I owe them no loyalty, and no retail or fastfood worker on this continent does either. They are equally as implicated in our oppression as our bosses, I’m not here to rehabilitate them, I’m here to burn the house down.

  1. Please tell our readers about some of the activities RAFFWU has been involved in. To take one example – legal challenges have been an important part of RAFFWU strategy. How can legal victories win immediate gains while advancing workers’ rights and workers’ struggle as a whole?

Well the biggest example would have to be the redefinition of the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT). The SDA had sailed by on dodgy EBA’s since 2010, because they were compared to even worse deals from the WorkChoices era. They argued that their deals passed the BOOT because every worker was better off than the old agreement, even if they received less than the award minimums. The bosses didn’t complain about that and the Fair Work Commission (FWC) signed off on all of these atrocious deals. RAFFWU’s biggest innovation here was winning the argument that the BOOT test needed to be applied to the award wage as well. This lifted tens of thousands of workers’ wages to what should have been the minimum wage that whole time.

Other examples are the class action against Domino’s franchises that have attempted to pay workers under substandard SDA agreements without approval by the FWC. Or taking the biggest McDonald’s franchise in the southern hemisphere to court for denying workers toilet breaks and water and their paid 10-minute breaks (hopefully the zoomers won’t take up smoking or vaping or whatever like I did!).

Obviously these campaigns are not the direct result of rank-and-file organising, but the wins are phenomenal, and only possible because someone decided to take a stand against the SDA, who created and fostered these conditions.

  1. Unlike the SDA, RAFFWU takes a strong stance on social issues. You were yourself the first leader of an Australian trade union who is a trans woman. What has RAFFWU practically done when it comes to defending LGBTQIA+ rights, and are there any lessons there for the labour movement as a whole?

I’d like to push back on that question, the SDA does take a strong stance on social issues, and it’s a misogynistic, queerphobic, theocratic and Christian-supremacist stance. They’ve been forced to shut up for the past couple of years, but the rationale remains the same. Check out which parliamentarians came out of the SDA and check their influence on the ALP.

As far as how we enact our stances? RAFFWU is possibly the first union in so-called Australia to make paid transition leave a bargaining claim. We’ve got transphobic supervisors sacked from workplaces. We’ve run campaigns about sexual harassment in McDonald’s and JB-HiFi. We’ve demanded unlimited leave for family and domestic violence. We reject discriminatory parental leave policies which see fathers and queer parents locked out of sharing reproductive labour. We’ve established autonomous caucuses for queer workers and women to direct the union (full disclosure: I’ve just been offered a job facilitating and expanding these caucuses). We show up for International Working Women’s Day to keep transphobes and sex-worker-exclusionists confined to the marginal position they barely deserve. We bring workers out in support of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Rojava. We’ve shown up to defend sacred land from Djab Wurrung women’s country to Deebing Creek. We get out there for Invasion Day. And we do these things because they are working class issues. Touch One Touch All.

Insofar as lessons go, I can speak to RAFFWU’s strong emphasis on queer rights and queer unionism. When I first started meeting with my fellow RAFFWU activists from other shops it turned out we were all queers, and mostly women. And that’s because we’re the people who build the backbone of these industries. And because too often these are the only jobs that we can get, whether due to reproductive injustice or queerphobia and discrimination. And we’re not the only feminised/queer industry out there. Unions need to go and have a look at what their industries look like, because the movement has fallen prey to a weird version of identity politics in many cases. White blokes in utes and hi-vis is not where the action is at anymore, but that’s a lot of people’s only idea of what the working class is.

The lockdown here in so-called Melbourne shows that there are only maybe five or six jobs that matter: nurses, couriers, wharfies, truckers, chefs and shelf stackers. Everyone else can take a year off and the world keeps turning. Some of the people with the most industrial power at the moment are migrants, women and queers. The union movement needs to come to terms with that, drop the white-bloke identity stuff and get real. And I don’t mean “this is what a unionist looks like” posters.

  1. What kind of relationship does RAFFWU have to the other trade unions? Has the organisation been welcomed or sidelined by the existing trade unions since its foundation in 2016?

When we first got started we had some amazing support from the ETU, who weren’t affiliated with the ALP at the time (read into that what you will). Outside of that we’ve had brilliant support from the rank-and-file wherever we go, and so long as the union brass is at arm’s length from the parliament then other unions are happy to get behind us. The May 1 Movement in Warrang (so-called Sydney) is a good example.

  1. Among the organisations RAFFWU has collaborated with are the various Anti-Poverty Networks around Australia. What can RAFFWU and other unions do to assist the struggles of the unemployed, underemployed, and those living in poverty?

The way I see it unemployment is a major component of the precarity that characterises the industrial landscape right now. The fact that the coronavirus supplement was perceived as such a threat to employers demonstrates that our wages are intimately tied to the state’s administration of poverty. This should be core, the idea of the reserve army of labour is nothing new.

RAFFWU, and other unions, need to get behind campaigns to raise the rate and end the scam that is the JobActive scheme. For retail in particular, outfits like the salvos use forced labour (work-for-the-dole) in places where they could be actually giving people paid employment. We should also be putting effort into mutual aid schemes, like the ACP’s CUDL programmes for example. If we can defang the threats of homelessness and destitution we can start to destabilise the idea of work’s necessity. At some point automation and productivity gains are supposed to make life easier right? The 30-hour workweek is not even on the map it seems, because we’re all so desperate for whatever we can get.

  1. What are your views on current ACTU leader Sally McManus? Do you think she has offered any alternative to past ACTU leaders and policy in recent years, or does she represent more of the same?

I ran into Sally in the airport once, I was wearing my RAFFWU hoodie, she kinda gave me a glare and kept walking. I’m not a fan. For all the bluster at the start about breaking unjust laws I haven’t seen anything change. The pandemic gave us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take action – even protected action, under WorkSafe legislation – the opportunity to demonstrate some industrial muscle. We could have seen workers walking off on safety grounds, keeping communities safe from transmission. It was no secret that the place the virus spreads is work. The union movement could have shown their relevance, shown some leadership. Instead we had McManus palling around with Christian Porter to subsidise bosses’ wage bills. They dressed it up as saving jobs, but I’m not sure that played out, they’re cutting the subsidy now and sackings are soaring. We could have had a play at an actual functional welfare state.

But ultimately that kind of mass action is unlikely because the culture isn’t there. The union establishment doesn’t seem to care about class consciousness or militancy anymore, it’s just superannuation funds setting out to regulate the price of labour on behalf of their capitalist mates. I see McManus as part of that trajectory.

  1. How would you describe your own politics, and do you have any thoughts as to the best way forward for left-wing forces and the wider labour and progressive social movements?

I’m an anarcha-communist, perhaps not the best read leftist in the world, but I like to think I take after a lot of Kropotkin’s ideas. I’m down with syndicalism as far as workplace organising goes, but I think the establishment of communism can’t rest solely in the hands of able-bodied “productive” workers. Social ecology, democratic confederalism, that has a lot going for it, but I’ve only read Bookchin’s earlier stuff so I’m not confident in using that to describe myself.

I reckon the massive unrest we’ve seen in places like the so-called United States in 2020 could have gone a lot further if the labour movement had been in a position to strike on a mass scale. The best way forward? Christ help me. I don’t think we have the time on the clock to build the movement we need, but I think we do have to be on the lookout for the next insurrection. Who could have known that George Floyd would be the big one in 2020? Who could have picked that bus fares would have kicked off the uprising in Chile? A fuel tax started the Gilet Jaunes?! All of these movements have benefitted massively from the robustness that decentralised anarchist organising can facilitate in the face of modern militarised policing. The individualist anarchists drive me wild with some of the more deontological stuff, I’ll never be that pure I suppose, but they sure know how to handle the pigs and their chemical weapons. That mode of organising being practiced, being just picked up as the default way to do street-based actions, that’s mighty important. We don’t have that on this continent. Not by a long stretch.

The ability for people to take action in the 2020 uprisings was due in large part to mass-unemployment; i.e. more free time. The union movement can make that real too, if we picked up the old ideas of the 4-day week and things like that. If we fought to make the welfare state reliable, if we prioritised anti-poverty work. I dunno, a girl can dream.

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

An online-only educational event organised by Fightback (Aotearoa/Australia)http://dlvr.it/RqnPCzhttp://dlvr.it/Rqnj3z
http://dlvr.it/Rqp48W

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

An online-only educational event organised by Fightback (Aotearoa/Australia)http://dlvr.it/RqnPCz
http://dlvr.it/Rqnj3z

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

An online-only educational event organised by Fightback (Aotearoa/Australia)
http://dlvr.it/RqnPCz

The backlash against returning New Zealanders

GETTY Images.

By Ani White.
This article was written for the Pandemic issue of our magazine. Subscribe here.

The COVID era has seen a shocking backlash against returning New Zealanders. Pedestrians have spat at those in quarantine hotels, talkback radio is rife with callers attacking returning New Zealanders, charges of up to $3,100 for compulsory quarantine have been introduced after pressure from the opposition National Party, an ActionStation petition against those charges received a backlash online.

Of course, many New Zealanders within the borders are legitimately scared in a situation of global pandemic. These fears are manipulated by political actors such as the National Party, and the various rising populist parties. However, it is worth examining why this manipulation works. In part the issue is a long-standing Fortress New Zealand attitude, often taken out on migrants and refugees, and now apparently extending to citizens of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

While some in quarantine hotels have foolishly broken quarantine, there are only two people who have illegally made a break, and there are also citizens within the borders of Aotearoa/New Zealand who have broken lockdown rules. There is no reason that proper quarantining of returning New Zealanders, with generalised testing, should lead to the introduction of COVID. In fact, cases identified in quarantine have been safely contained and  treated.

Some hold that after the sacrifices made by citizens within the borders of Aotearoa/New Zealand, returning citizens are opportunistically seeking a lifeboat. However, quarantine hotels are at least as restrictive as lockdowns, so returning citizens also make sacrifices. Returning citizens have also likely experienced lockdown overseas, or lost work. The attitude that sacrifices are limited to people within the borders of New Zealand is short-sighted. The moralistic psychology guiding this attitude is worth exploring.

There is also a racist undercurrent to the backlash against returning New Zealanders. As well as Maori and Pasifika, many are migrants to Aotearoa New Zealand and their children, who are New Zealand citizens. In July, after the government announced that it was considering using hotels in Queenstown or Dunedin as quarantine facilities, National MP Hamish Walker issued a press release claiming that up to 11,000 people were “heading to Dunedin, Invercargill, Queenstown from India, Pakistan and South Korea”. (Walker subsequently resigned in disgrace after he was caught leaking details of people with Covid-19 to the press to support his claim). Asian New Zealanders have experienced heightened racism,

Yet there is more to it than this, with the backlash also affecting returning Pākehā. The attitude can be understood through Freidich Nietszche’s concept of ressentiment, a fancy French word simply meaning resentment (but used in a specific way by Nietszche). With ressentiment, the basis of morality is the perception that somebody else is the source of the resenter’s problems. Although Nietszche was an aristocratic reactionary, and questionably called this instinct ‘slave morality’, the concept has some utility in understanding misdirected moralistic impulses. 

Where Nietszche’s concept of ressentiment can be problematic is that exploiters actually are responsible for many problems, and a politics based on that has some justification. However, moralistic resentment can also be projected horizontally, or downwards, onto scapegoats. Rather than perceiving their common interests, workers guided by pure resentment perceive other workers – such as refugees, migrants, the unemployed, and other social minorities – as having something they don’t. Often this is wildly inaccurate – for example, on a public Facebook post by the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign, somebody commented that resettled people in Aotearoa/New Zealand are given a free car and free housing. A purely resentful politics without any positive content can bleed into ugly populism, where poor and working class people (often ‘foreign’ or otherwise different) are blamed for problems they are not responsible for.

This involves a double-displacement of class struggle within Aotearoa/New Zealand. First, class struggle is displaced when New Zealanders move to Australia for better wages and conditions. Second, class struggle is displaced when workers who remain in Aotearoa/New Zealand blame the people who moved for their inferior conditions. The only way to improve wages and conditions in Aotearoa/New Zealand is to challenge capital, and blaming economic migrants does not help.

A common refrain is that returning New Zealanders must be economically privileged. However, this erases labour migration to Australia, including many Pasefika and Māori workers in hospitality and blue-collar industries. Although wages and conditions may be better in Australia, migrants are still exploited, and are often the first to lose work in a crisis. New Zealanders in Australia who don’t have Australian citizenship are not entitled to unemployment benefit or any other government assistance, which has forced many to return home. Economic migrants seeking higher wages may not all be dirt-poor, and may have opportunities others lack, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re super-rich, and can easily pay thousands of dollars for a five star hotel. Rather than simply dirt-poor or super-rich, many workers are somewhere in between. 

 Returning New Zealanders have not chosen to stay in five star hotels, they are forced to. It’s a relief that hotel charges do not apply to those returning permanently, but even people returning temporarily may be visiting family, which is surely legitimate even if family members are not dying (which is grounds for  compassionate exceptions, whereas simply visiting family is not). The idea that returning New Zealanders should be economically punished for visiting family is extraordinarily mean-spirited.

Privilege-checking of returning New Zealanders misses the point: travel restrictions have been ramped up across the board, and the actually-rich are most able to weather these restrictions. Processing of refugee cases was frozen soon after the outbreak of COVID, and densely packed refugee camps face a particular risk for spread of disease. International solidarity, rather than privilege-checking, is needed. This includes the need to develop Trans-Tasman connections between workers’ organisations. Resentful nationalism prevents the solidarity needed to improve conditions for all.

COVID-era nationalist resentment has precedent. The reaction to Hobbit actors unionising typifies these attitudes. Tech workers in the industry bought into the blackmail of Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers, showing the self-defeating nature of misdirected resentment. Nationalist workers fought for the right to be exploited under worse conditions than international workers – Aotearoa/New Zealand actors were simply fighting for the same rights as international actors working on the same productions, and Aotearoa/New Zealand workers in the industry were dismissively referred to as ‘Mexicans with cell phones’ (although tech workers were relatively well-paid). Union leaders such as Helen Kelly and Outrageous Fortune actress Robyn Malcolm were attacked by tech workers in public. Malcolm fled to Australia to escape the toxicity of the industry, which has more recently been underlined by revelations of sexism at Weta. Again, as with COVID-era fears, the situation was exploited by powerful actors such as studios. Peter Jackson managed to get the law changed so actors could not unionise, a restriction referred to as the ‘Hobbit law.’ However, workers are not blameless for buying into scapegoating, and these attitudes must be challenged.

As with the Hobbit case, COVID-era nationalists hold onto their misery, perceiving no hope of improving their own conditions. Resentments and fears are projected onto ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, now even including New Zealand citizens. The widespread message ‘be kind’ apparently does not extend to returning New Zealanders.