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

By ANI WHITE

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

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

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

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

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

Professional-Managerial Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is class composition today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decline of ‘middle class’

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Political transformation over moralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Bourdieu; ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Intersectionality and class

By BRONWEN BEECHEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the maze – accessing social housing in Aotearoa New Zealand

by BRONWEN BEECHEY

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

A Housing NZ complex in Christchurch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone should care about urbanism, and here’s why

by JOHN POLKINGHORNE

New housing in Waterview, Auckland

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

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

What Do Urbanist Cities Look Like?

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

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

Why Aren’t We There Already?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Better Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urbanism for Women: what is, and what could be (Book Review: Feminist City)

Book title: Feminist City
Author: Leslie Kern
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

I forget the source, but I remember a socialist writer saying something like “the middle class are the vanguard of living well under capitalism”. Quite often, due to having more education, more disposable income and more leisure time, professionals and the relatively well-off are among the first to experiment with new ways of living – such as minimising the use of animal products, or making carbon-neutral and sustainable choices in housing and transport. Crucially, they also have the time and resources they need to advocate effectively for such positive social reforms.

This leads to a paradox whereby these reforms can be stigmatised as “elitist” or “anti-working-class”, by those seeking to promote reactionary politics – even if they would benefit working people if they were adopted across society. Thus, in a recent council by-election in working-class Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, a Right-wing candidate was able to describe Māngere’s new network of cycle lanes as “elitist and bordering on racism”[1], echoing a line promoted by Conservative-Left blogger Martyn Bradbury[2]. Attempts to promote alternatives to car dependency, such as the “Safer Streets” trial in Ōnehunga, or the campaign to open up the Auckland Harbour Bridge for cycling, are vulnerable to cynical commentators playing upon the fact that quite often the leading “faces” of such events are white professionals. Working people who don’t have the time or confidence to participate in formal consultations, and who are understandably suspicious that reforms proposed by the already-privileged will inevitably make their lives harder and more expensive, will be vulnerable to such bad-faith messaging.

To be clear, there are already many strong brown and working-class advocates of carbon-neutral and active transport modes.[3] But to give another example, many disabled Aucklanders complain that the new cycle lanes on Karangahape Road have made the street less accessible for those with mobility impairments; a problem which could have been avoided if disability advocates had been consulted in design and planning.[4]

All this is a roundabout way of saying that – while we should reject bad faith criticisms from the Right and the Conservative Left – there is a problem of lack of intersectionality in the movement for sustainable urbanism, housing and transport. Solutions such as intensified housing and removing some of the privileges of private automobiles, as long as they are mainly designed and advocated for by the already privileged, will inevitably have “blind spots” and “gaps” which might paradoxically make things worse for some of the marginalised and vulnerable, and offer opponents of sustainability an easy line of attack, that will disrupt the broad coalition necessary to make such changes stick.

This is an absolutely huge topic, but Leslie Kern’s Feminist City offers a convincing call for a better urbanism along one axis of intersectionality – that is, gender. Kern, an academic geographer working in small-town Canada, is refreshingly upfront with her acknowledgements that this is only one issue, and repeatedly reminds her readers to also listen to Black, indigenous, queer, trans and working-class voices on the issues:

Asking “women’s questions” about the city means asking about so much more than gender. I have to ask how my desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour. I have to ask how my need for stroller access can work in solidarity with the needs of disabled people and seniors. I have to ask how my desire to “claim” urban space for women could perpetuate colonial practices and discourses that harm the efforts of Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken and colonized (p.26).

Kern is conscious that certain urban reforms which make things easier for a certain class of women or a certain class of parents might paradoxically make things worse for others – for example, urban cafés which are comforting and safe “third spaces” for professional women often push out working-class and marginalised groups’ spaces (p. 106). This is an example of ways in which

making cities seem safe for women also tends to make them less safe for other marginalized groups. Efforts to “clean up” downtown areas and “revitalize” residential and retail districts are typically accomplished through a combination of aesthetic measures (beautification projects) and the active removal of groups of people that have been marked as symbols of disorder, danger, crime, or disease… Bodies that do not conform due to age, illness, disability, racialization, class, sexuality, addiction, etc., are marked as “out of place” and targeted for displacement. (pp. 160, 168)

Amid a discussion of the notorious phenomenon of gentrification, she raises the issue of the gentrification of parenting:

The norms and cultural signifiers of good parenting have been gentrified as they’re increasingly defined by the particular product brands, styles, and kinds of activities purchased and practiced by middle and upper class urban households. This plays out in the urban environment and middle-class parents demand and draw resources to their neighbourhoods and provide a market for upscale shopping and carefully curated child-centred activities…

As the work of motherhood becomes costlier via the gentrification of parenting, those who can afford privatized services benefit while those who cannot are shoved into neighbourhoods that make their lives even harder… low-income women are forced to find ways to weave care and paid labour together. (pp. 46, 57)

Key to Kern’s argument is the difference between what is and what could be in urbanism, for women. She understands very clearly that the suburban, car-dependent model of urban life is not only ecologically sustainable, but destructive to community life and individual flourishing, particularly for women:

the suburbs are anything but natural. Suburban development fulfilled very specific social and economic agendas… The suburban lifestyle both assumed and required, in order to function properly, a heterosexual nuclear family with one adult working outside the home and one inside…

the suburbs are not consciously trying to keep women in the kitchen and out of the workplace, but given the assumptions they rest upon, the suburbs will actively (if not agentically) stymie attempts to manage different family shapes and working lives…

The isolation, size of the family home, need for multiple vehicles, and demands of child care can continue to push women either out of the workplace or into lower-paying, part-time jobs that mostly allow them to juggle the responsibilities of suburban life…

For families headed by women, “their very survival,” argues Wekerle, is dependent “on a wide network of social services frequently found only in central city areas” (pp. 38–40)

In principle, dense urban living should thus offer much more possibilities for not only women, but for other oppressed groups – Kern goes into details on the way that lesbians and other queer people have built their communities on the basis of an urban lifestyle that would have been impossible in any other environment (pp. 80–2).

On the other hand, actually-existing urban life is not much more friendly to women than the suburban wastelands. Kern explains that since the 19th century, women have been considered to simply not belong in the urban environment – “streetwalkers” and “public women” were euphemisms for the despised class of sex workers. (p. 12) Contemporary urban form continues to indicate that women (and parents of small children, in particular) are not welcome:

The city has been set up to support and facilitate the traditional gender roles of men and with men’s experiences as the “norm,” with little regard for how the city throws up roadblocks for women and ignores their day-to-day experience of city life…

“Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the streetcar [tram]?” “Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous?” “Who will pick up my kid from camp if I get arrested at a G20 protest?” These aren’t just personal questions. They start to get to the heart of why and how cities keep women “in their place.”

The constant, low-grade threat of violence mixed with daily harassment shapes women’s urban lives in countless conscious and unconscious ways… the spectre of urban violence limits women’s choices, power, and economic opportunities. Just as industry norms are structured to permit harassment, protect abusers, and punish victims, urban environments are structured to support patriarchal family forms, gender-segregated labour markets, and traditional gender roles. (pp. 15-18)

Kern is dismissive of the nostalgic view of small-town or suburban life “where everyone knows your name”, understanding that the autonomy and anonymity of urban living offers space and freedom for women traditionally marginalised communities.

The extent to which violations of women’s personal space via touch, words, or other infringements are tolerated and even encouraged in the city is as good a measure as any for me of how away we actually are from the sociable – and feminist – city of spontaneous encounters… It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to navigate the public and private spaces of the city alone as a woman. (pp. 91, 94).

Kern centres the right to be left alone as the basis of urban life. Violence, harassment, and even the sheer unwillingness to allow a woman to enjoy public space without demands for male attention, make urban living unsafe for women, and this is redoubled for pregnant people. Kern describes how her pregnant body became “public property” and an “inconvenience”, something that my family is currently experiencing:

Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. People read my protruding belly as if it said, “rub here please!” I was expected to cheerfully welcome all manner of unsolicited advice … [S]trangers’ fascination with my body didn’t translate into much of an uptick in urban courtesy. In fact, I sensed a constant, low-grade reminder that I was now different, Other, and out of place. (pp. 33-4)

On the other hand, says Kern, “I could function without a car. Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities” (p. 37). She is clear also about the way in which media narratives promote a climate of fear which leads to women self-excluding from urban spaces,

through sensationalized reporting on violent stranger crimes against women and a relative lack of reporting on intimate partner violence… In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, incest, child abuse, and other “private,” yet much more prevalent, crimes receive far less attentio.n (pp. 144-5)

Making the issues of violence and harassment worse is the prevailing neoliberal logic of responsibilisation – the idea that victims of oppression are “responsible” for keeping themselves safe and healthy, rather than a focus on the systems causing oppression. This need to be “responsible” is a constant drain for women, taking a huge toll on their ability to participate: “It’s depressing to decline events or leave early because there’s no safe and affordable way home. It’s psychologically draining to second guess our choices, wondering if we’ll be blamed if something bad happens” (p. 149)

Kern weaves her personal narrative together with humility in acknowledging that marginalised people in the city have never been granted “the right to be left alone”, as any street-based sex worker, homeless person or person struggling with addiction could tell you (p. 107). She mentions the availability of public toilets as a crucial factor which excludes, not only women, but trans people from urban life – not to mention people of colour who might have the cops called on them for asking to use a business’s facilities (pp. 108–11). Once again, we are faced with a gap between what urban life is, and what it could be – possibilities which don’t exist in suburbia.

Also resonant for me was Kern’s account of how, growing up in mega-cities such as Toronto and London, public transport gave her and her teenage friends the necessary freedom to explore not only their cities, but their own identities: She makes the excellent point that often-derided urban spaces such as shopping malls and streets are essential places of self-discovery for young people:

Girls must learn to make do with the limited spaces that they’re offered. In my suburban adolescence, that space was the mall… Girls paradoxically identify public spaces, such as city streets, as “private,” because these spaces allow them anonymity away from the prying gaze of parents, teachers, and other caregivers. The home was strangely more like a public space, since girls didn’t feel a sense of privacy or control over their bedrooms and possessions her (pp. 70-5)

The same goes for adult women, of course –Kerr points out that department stores and shopping malls originated as places where women could be out in public without male chaperoning or harassment (pp. 101–3). But her stories from her teenage years strike a chord with me. As a teenager growing up in Wellington, what is now known as the Kāpiti rail line was my lifeline out of the stultifying conformity of the outer suburban fringe into what seemed to be an exciting, colourful and cosmopolitan urban environment. (Of course, it’s pretty “cringe” to be comparing Wellington to Toronto or London; imagine if I’d gotten to Melbourne, my head would have probably exploded.)

Nevertheless, public transport (ideally) means freedom to younger people and others who don’t have access to cars. But again, actually existing transit has exactly the same problem as the actually-existing urban form, that it is specifically not designed for women’s actual lives:

Most urban public transportation systems are designed to accommodate the typical rush hour commute of a nine-to-five office worker… However, research shows that women’s commutes are often more complex, reflecting the layered and sometimes conflicting duties of paid and unpaid work… Recent research has found that transportation is yet another area where women pay a “pink tax” (paying more for similar services than men). Women are more likely to rely on public transportation than men, although they’re more poorly served by it. (pp. 41-2)

Every aspect of public transit reminded me that I wasn’t the ideal imagined user. Stairs, revolving doors, turnstiles, no space for strollers, broken elevators and escalators, rude comments, glares: all of these told me that the city wasn’t designed with parents and children in mind… I sheepishly realized that until I faced these barriers, I’d rarely considered the experiences of disabled people or seniors who are even more poorly accommodated (pp. 43-4)

Added to all this, of course, is the possibility of violence and harassment raising its head on public transport as well (p. 151). Unless such problems are dealt with, women are only acting rationally if they think like the classic song by Gary Numan – “here in my car, I feel safest of all”. Kern is careful to emphasise that being afraid in an urban environment and in public transit is a highly rational response (p. 145), that must be dealt with by material changes, not by “responsibilising” it away.

A particularly fascinating chapter of this book for Fightback readers is Kern’s discussion of cities as a place for mass protest. She is refreshingly critical about the sexism, racism, ableism, and transphobia that I witnessed” in protest and labour-movement spaces (p. 127) and the way in which women and parents of small children are excluded in “activist culture”:

I realized this was a choice women throughout history have had to make: be politically active, with all of its risks, or perform your duties as a caregiver in the private, depoliticized space of the home… Not only is this a systemic way that women are excluded from opportunities to have their voices heard by the state, but women’s disproportionate responsibility for child care is typically ignored by protest organizers as well…

For those who take the activist route, we still have to second guess ourselves both as mothers and as activists—are we appropriately committed to both? Is that even possible? (pp. 131-3)

Kern doesn’t try to offer any firm models for urbanist reform in her book, but returns over and over again to the theme that a sustainable urban future is only possible with the active participation and voices of women and other marginalised urban communities. She sees possibilities for the future not only in the survival strategies of low-income and marginalised groups, but in female friendship networks which she sees as increasingly displacing the nuclear family and heterosexual monogamy as the normative way of living together in the urban future (p. 88). Her statement that “the right to take up space is where the pleasure of being alone meets a wider politics of gender and power” (p. 113) offers a possible rallying call for an intersectional urbanism which includes everyone. And she is also crystal clear that top-down, technocratic planning won’t solve anything: “no amount of lighting is going abolish the patriarchy” (p. 155):

the faces of urban planning, politics, and architecture have to change. A wider range of lived experience needs to be represented among those who make the decisions that have enormous effects on people’s everyday lives (p. 170)

One caveat for readers in Aotearoa – Kern’s experience of urban form is predominantly that of North America, where working-class people and especially people of colour are concentrated in the inner cities. Contrast that with the urban form as we know it in Aotearoa, where – apart from students and homeless people – the population of the urban cores and inner suburbs are predominantly middle-class beneficiaries of gentrification, while working-class people, tangata whenua and migrant communities are concentrated in outer suburbs at the end of long motorways. It is for this reason that an urbanism which is suited to our local conditions has to start from understanding that suburban, car-dependent living is all that a generation of the marginalised in this country have known. A reversion to a densified, transit- and cycling-based sustainable urban model has to include working-class suburban dwellers as protagonists. They can’t just be “shifted around the board” or have their communities unilaterally rearranged by privileged planners, in the same way that their parents or grandparents had to adjust to being “ethnically cleansed” from the centre of our cities during the 1960s and 1970s.[5] In short, we need a sustainable urbanism from below.


[1] https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/02–02–2021/meet-the-fascinating-bunch-running-to-represent-a-south-auckland-community/

[2] https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2021/05/31/middle-class-militant-cyclist-activism-with-a-selection-of-soft-cheeses/

[3] https://thespinoff.co.nz/auckland/23–11–2016/on-cycle-lanes-ethnicity-and-class-why-nothing-screams-missing-the-point-quite-like-slamming-safer-cycling/; https://www.bikeauckland.org.nz/they-call-me-mr-t-bike-champ-teau-aiturau/

[4] See for example Twitter thread beginning at https://twitter.com/mikeythenurse/status/1399572177221873664

[5] See my previous article on this topic: https://fightback.org.nz/2017/03/20/economic-apartheid-the-ongoing-ethnic-cleansing-of-central-auckland/

Jacinda Ardern’s housing policy: Appear to be doing something, but don’t scare investors

By Ani White.

Written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on housing. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

In 2017, Jacinda Ardern led the New Zealand Labour Party to a surprise victory, with promises to address the housing crisis as a key plank of the new government’s mandate. In its fourth year of government, the party continues in its failure to substantively deliver on its promises. It seems the main aims of the government’s housing policy are: appear to be doing something to help renters and first-home buyers, but don’t scare capital or investors. However, the goals of helping renters and helping landlords are mutually incompatible. Therefore, Labour has consistently watered down its own proposals.

To set the scene, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a ridiculously inflated housing market, against a backdrop of steep inequality. New Zealand ranks number two in the international house price growth ranks, increasing 22.1% in the year to March 2021, while global house prices rose 7.3%. In contrast, New Zealand wage rates increased 1.6% in the year to March 2021. Rents increased 3% over the year ending April 2021. Stories such as the Upper Hutt pensioner whose rent was increased by $135 at once, from a starting point of $410 a week, are rife. The increase, to keep the flat in line with market rates, which did not violate recent regulations. In short, house prices and rents continue to surge, while incomes do not keep up. Homelessness is also the highest in the OECD, and 48% of housing applicants are Māori compared to 16.5% of the general population, on land that was appropriated from Māori by Pākehā (European-descended/non-Māori) capitalists.

The Ardern government’s first measure to address the housing crisis was to ban most foreign buyers, who made up only about 3% of homes bought nationwide. This was a symbolic populist measure by a party that had scapegoated foreign buyers during its period in opposition. A content analysis by the author found that Labour Party press releases during their time in opposition never identified groups such as ‘investors’, ‘speculators’, or ‘bankers’ per se as a negative influence, except when negatively coupling these terms with modifiers such as ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’. As we argued at the time, this diverts attention from the vast majority of landlords, speculators, and other profiteers who are Pākehā New Zealanders. Banning foreign buyers was also the only flagship housing policy that Labour delivered on. After this symbolic populist gesture, the unwillingness to confront the forces actually driving the housing crisis remained consistent in the ensuing 4 years.

The biggest symbol of the Labour Party’s failure to fulfil promises on housing is KiwiBuild. This was a policy to build 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years, a goal the government quickly fell behind on. The inadequacy of KiwiBuild has been attacked from the right, particularly by the opposition National Party. The hypocrisy here is breathtaking, after National spent its last two terms in office selling off public housing and doing nothing substantive to address supply issues. Yet the fact that Ardern’s government is attacked from the right should not stop us criticising them from the left. Although this big infrastructure project was portrayed by both supporters and critics as a return to social democratic public housing policy, Joel Cosgrove argued in Fightback at the time of the KiwiBuild policy’s launch that it sought to address the supply problem in a fashion compatible with continuing financialisation of housing assets. Instead of expanding public housing, the policy aimed to expand ‘affordable’ private housing in collaboration with the private sector, by a given value of ‘affordable.’ Fightback quoted prominent left-wing commentator John Minto highlighting the problems with this definition of ‘affordable’:

No low-income family will be able to afford $300,000. These families struggle from week to week and will never be able to save a deposit or meet the mortgage repayments required for home ownership. They are caught in the vicious squeeze between high private rental costs and the government’s impossible criteria for eligibility for a state house

This affordability problem has since been highlighted by Salvation Army head Campbell Roberts, who apparently was involved with a discussion the Labour Party based its policy on, but who considered the numbers the Labour Party generated unrealistic:

Those numbers were just not sustainable. There [weren’t] 100,000 people needing housing if you didn’t do anything about making them affordable.

As of February 2020, there were $26 million of unsold KiwiBuild houses on the government’s books. This would not be an issue if the investment was in public housing for those in need, rather than attempting to reconcile supply and demand on the terms of a warped market.

Another, far more modest yet no less controversial, policy the government has failed to deliver is the Capital Gains Tax. This tax on capital gains acquired through selling assets, such as housing, is not particularly radical (Australia and the USA both have CGTs). Yet given the aggressive entitlement of New Zealand’s property-owning class, and their unwillingness to accept even the smallest incursion on their profit margins, opponents of the policy launched a scaremongering campaign. Then-opposition leader Simon Bridges called it an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”. Ardern’s government dropped the policy in early 2019, ignoring the recommendation of the Tax Working Group the government had formed, citing lack of public mandate. Indeed, public opinion was divided – although a Horizon Poll found 44% for capital gains tax and 35% against, a Reid-Research poll found 39.1% for and 49.8% against (a number that was exaggerated by reporters focusing on answers to questions like whether superannuation should be taxed, or whether the policy should be a priority for the government, rather than simply whether people supported a CGT in general). Yet this was not a clear consensus against the policy as it was portrayed by the right, so much as a divided electorate, with polls turning up shifting results at the margins of that division. Moreover, public opinion shouldn’t be viewed outside the context of the sustained scaremongering campaign from the right, without a sustained pushback from supporters of the policy. Ardern’s unwillingness to take clear positions on contentious issues – as also illustrated by her refusal to disclose her vote in the cannabis referendum until both the referendum, and the election, had wrapped up – takes the conservatism of ‘the public’ for granted, and uses that perceived conservatism as an excuse. Yet public opinion does not form in a vacuum, it is formed through a process of contestation and coalition-forming. Every progressive win, however small, must be fought for. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is not a fighting party, even when it comes to a tax measure that already exists in many neoliberal policies.

Many have praised the Ardern government’s response to COVID. Indeed the government has shown competence in a crisis, taking decisive action based on expert advice, and communicating its decisions clearly (a key reason for the success of lockdown measures is that they were widely understood and supported). Yet as Bronwen Beechey highlighted in a Fightback article at the time:

Although a reasonable effort was made to house rough sleepers in motels, many families spent the lockdown in overcrowded, cold, damp homes. High rents and decades of neglecting or selling off public housing have created a housing crisis. These conditions help coronavirus and other illnesses to spread.

Additionally, as Jacobin‘s Justine Sachs and economist Bernard Hickey highlighted, the government’s crisis response of lowering mortgage rates and pumping up asset values bailed out property owners and businesses while leaving renters in the cold.

Many have argued that Labour’s 2020 landslide victory gave the party a mandate to take stronger measures (particularly after losing the excuse of having to please conservative coalition partner New Zealand First). However, in a way, this electoral victory gave Ardern’s Labour stronger incentives to back away from any confrontation with investors and property owners. Labour was able to win over much of the traditional right’s base, for example winning 15 seats previously held by National. This was likely a reward for both the party’s competent crisis management, and its lack of radical policy measures on issues like housing and climate change. In her acceptance speech, Ardern underlined her commitment to national unity, to govern for “every New Zealander”, and to avoid polarisation:

[T]o those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before and the results tell me there were a few of you. To you I say thank you. We will not take your support for granted. And I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander. The governing for every New Zealander has never been so important more than it has been now. We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope that this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are.

These conciliatory words should be taken at face value: this is not a government willing to risk political polarisation, in other words, a deeply centrist government. As in most countries, the traditional right’s base is primarily white and wealthy, also one of the likeliest groups to vote. Winning over a swathe of wealthier voters gives the party even greater incentive to not tax wealth, or take any other measures that may alienate Labour’s new friends. If Labour took meaningful measures to address the crisis, such as directly taxing wealth or controlling rent, they would risk not only capital flight but voter flight. This is not to say that these policies are unpopular per se, but more specifically that they are unpopular with the prized white and wealthy supporters who Labour has managed to attract.

Labour’s March 2021 release of a new housing policy was typically underwhelming. The policy largely consisted of changes to the tax regime, although stopping short of straightforwardly taxing wealth and property, and instead attempting to incentivise behaviour like new builds. In an article for open-access academic website The Conversation, Public Finance Professor Norman Gemmell argued that these changes to tax policy were “incoherent”, and failed to address the supply problem head on:

If there are better alternatives, they do not lie in even more ad hoc fiddling with a coherent tax regime.

Instead, like the famous real estate mantra of “location, location, location”, the mantra for New Zealand housing policy should be “supply, supply, supply”

Ironically, reader responses to a Guardian callout for NZ readers’ takes on the policy tended to divide into either renters saying this would do nothing to help them, or investors/owners saying it might cut into their margins but was a reasonable compromise. Granted, this is representative of Guardian readers, a group predisposed toward leftish-liberalism, yet the class divide between investors accepting the policy and renters questioning its impact illustrates the compromised nature of the policy. In contrast, economists from major banks such as ANZ and Westpac warned of the impact on higher rent, showing an uncharacteristic concern for the plight of renters. Rent and property prices are already rising astronomically, so this warning seems both disingenuous and to simply suggest that the status quo will continue. Yet this convoluted tax policy is also a clear consequence of Labour backing away from blunter measures like taxing wealth and property in general.

In summary, New Zealand’s Labour government remains constitutionally unwilling to confront the forces driving the housing crisis. Instead, Labour seeks to square the circle of appearing to do something for renters and first-home buyers, but not scaring investors, property owners, and ‘middle voters’ with measures perceived as radical (such as directly taxing wealth, controlling prices, and substantially investing in public housing). As these imperatives cannot be reconciled, Labour has stepped back from substantive measures in favour of “ad hoc fiddling.”

Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.

1 https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-Orbán-hungary-american-conservatives

2 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-australia-s-conservatives-are-finding-friends-in-hungary-20190924-p52uim.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/13/trump-latest-viktor-Orbán-hungary-prime-minister-white-house

4 https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/europeanstateofhate-polling/

Book review: Culture Warlords

Image of Talia Levin via Shondaland.

Book title: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy
Author: Talia Lavin
Released: 2020
Review by: Will Howard

Culture Warlords functions as a look at some hard truths of the world. It’s not very fun to be immersed in white supremacy, so I shy away from it. I let them have their corners, and fight them when they come near my spaces, but there’s only so much time to be sad and angry in life, so I don’t want to constantly give them my attention.

Talia Lavin makes a good case for why we MUST give them our attention, why we need to look at what they’re doing, and why antifascist activism must include monitoring and shining a light on the activities of white supremacists and those who unwittingly support them.

Several things surprised me about this book, that I should have already known but somehow had missed:

I had managed to not realise that white supremacy depended so much on anti-Semitism as a stalking horse for all of the world’s problems. Maybe this shows my sheer naivety, the same way that I felt stripped of innocence the first time I truly understood the level of threat my female friends go through on a daily basis, that our society bakes in with ever present sexualisation, and therefore ever-present danger scanning for sexual assault/

White supremacy depends for a chunk of its power on being unacknowledged. Simply naming these people, showing what they are doing and how they are organising, robs them of essential power (as it makes them less terrifying), but it also makes them less likely to recruit.

Lavin encourages us to be aware of the radicalisation of people via social media such as YouTube, and the seduction of found communities that embrace despair. People who long for imagined golden ages are prime targets for far-right recruitment. Anti-Semitism is used as a glue to hold together a bunch of theories that make no sense if you look at them closely.

People who may have correctly identified capital as the enemy are instead encouraged to hate “The Jews,” who are portrayed by the far-right as insidious elites in control of global capitalism.

Reading the book will give you a familiarity with terms associated with the alt-right such as “the Boogaloo” a meme about a second civil war in the United States, and “incels” or involuntary celibates, a deeply misogynistic community which overlaps with the alt-right, particularly in their online spaces where hatred of women is intertwined with racism. Lavin also examines the role the spectre of “Antifa” plays in the psyche of the alt-right, and why we hear so much about them.

Culture Warlords is a wild ride through a lot of seriously unfun stuff. But I came away from reading it mostly hopeful that the nightmares I’d just read about can be resolved.

Essentially, this is a great book to have around if you want a primer on the alt-right and white supremacy to show to others. It doesn’t pull punches on describing exactly what’s going on in the darker parts of the Internet. At the same time, it shows that these people want horrifying things, and hatred is sadly not something we have left in the past.

It’s a great book for getting angry, and for inspiring you to do something with that anger. And for showing that your anger CAN make a difference. That the nebulous forces of modern-day fascism, racism, and chauvinistic anti-feminism can be countered, and while they’re great at making noise, they’re not as big as they try to make themselves appear. Lavin describes many of the things we can do to fight:

Catalogue those who take part in white supremacy. People still in general know it’s wrong, it is rare for someone to be willing to back up their statements of intent, and people know there are consequences when they are named as part of these kinds of hateful groups.

Interrupt their planning/infiltrate their spaces. While I would leave this particular tactic to people with more energy than me, it’s recounted in the book, and definitely works.

Find ways to shut down their “dark-web” sections. As an IT professional, I feel that calling the places reported on here the “dark-web” is mystifying them, as in most cases these are websites and messaging applications anyone can go to. The more we can deplatform racism, the harder it is for white supremacists to connect openly and plan.

Support the efforts of any who humanise the other. Do your part to know other cultures, don’t accept racist jokes, make people think about the things they say, and help each other. Find a way to de-escalate people who have started falling into this stuff.

Point out that it’s capital that’s the enemy, not “the Jews.” Fight coded messages about bankers and rich families. Don’t let racist assholes derail the very real villainy that’s contained in the wealthy by mislabelling it as a Jewish conspiracy.

Come up with alternative communities to slide the disaffected into. So that they are not preyed upon by the far-right.

Talia hints at most of the above, though this book is intended as a guide, not a manual for disassembling the structures of power that white supremacy and anti-feminism are living on. Her words are heartfelt, and her descriptions poignant. This book catalogues what kind of hate is out there in the world, and gives a lens to view it. It calls for action, because inaction is to surrender. We should hear that call and unite to fight for a world worth living in.

All in all, I’d say it’s an excellent book for either stoking your rage, targeting your rage against the kinds of assholes who want to watch the world burn, or perhaps to give to friends or family members to provoke discussion. I’m not sure it will give you easy discussions, or that it will definitely sway anyone who’s already bought into white supremacy. But I think it might be the wakeup call that some people need to recognise the ills of our modern world.

These Nazis aren’t going to deplatform themselves, let’s get to it.

Book review: Troll Hunting – “she deserved it”

Image by Carl Wiens.

Book title: Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout
Author: Ginger Gorman
Released: 2019
Review by: Karen Effie

I like Ginger Gorman a lot. She would make a good, thoughtful friend. She’s open about her life and the difficulties she had with the book: the shaky boundaries between her and the trolls she researched, her gradual desensitization to the worst of trolling language, and her occasional changes of mind and heart as she got deeper into this world of misogyny, far rightism and mental chaos. I’m an older woman and an observer. My reactions may be similar to hers on a personal level, except I am much less internet savvy. I’m a good audience for her.

The book was also published in 2019 and talks about events that took place as long ago as 2010. 2019 seems like about a hundred years ago online. Gorman naturally omits much of what went down from about 2018 onwards, such as the Christchurch shooting and the scattering and hardening of important far right groups since Charlottesville. But politics is not her forte. She is interested in trolls as people, the effects of trolling on individuals, and in measures that could be taken to curtail predatory trolling (her term).

She begins with her own experience. As a liberal journalist she wrote up the story of two gay men who adopted a child, and her story portrayed them in a positive light. Later she discovered they had in fact kidnapped the child and were part of a paedophile ring. Gorman became the target of right-wing trolls who linked LGBTQ to paedophilia. She and her family were easily doxed and had to take measures to protect themselves. From there, she began to communicate with trolls, investigating their motivations and their lives. She also investigated the problems with legislation and the lack of political will that leaves targets of trolls with shattered lives and no official recourse.

The trolls themselves came from different ideological starting points. One man specialized in targeting left wing public figures he felt were not left wing enough. This particular man gave up trolling, seemingly maturing out of it. A larger number of trolls were avowedly on the right, including weev (real name Andrew Auernheimer) whom she interviewed by Skype while in hiding. In this interview, weev described himself as a professional racist who had always held Nazi views. For many trolls, however, ideology took a back seat to the lulz. Trolling was fun, brilliant, cruel, meaningless, sarcastic, pointed, transgressive, uniting, witty, elegant, powerful, self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, chaotic, vicious. Targets were chosen because they were seen as hypocritical or annoying.

Within that mess of obscure motivations and plausible deniability (it’s just a joke!), two organizing features stood out.

The first was misogyny, either nascent or open. Women are shallow, they said. Women can’t hack or troll. Women don’t want us. Women are cancer. None of the trolls Gorman interviewed took an openly incel position but they weren’t far off it. Misogyny was more baked into the trollish worldview than racism. Apparently targets always deserved to be trolled, sometimes for reasons obscure even to the trolls. Women targets almost automatically deserved it. Being a woman online was enough. As for ‘she deserved it’, the book has a chapter on trolling and partner violence.

The second was the absolute drive for free speech. These guys pursued free speech in a manner entirely devoid of irony, given their efforts to shut down anyone who pissed them off. The free speech argument was complete, axiomatic, and a position to fall back on when pressured.

Ginger Gorman’s book explores these larger issues but comes to no particular conclusions. She unpacked the diffident stance taken by the police and other authorities. She also managed to get some useful information out of the Facebook representative for Australia and New Zealand (she is Australian). She called for stronger legislation and a more positive police response, and for social media giants to take responsibility. Much of this has been overtaken by events with recent bans by social media of Donald Trump and some far-right figures anyway.

She’s better on the micro issues, the terrible effects of trolling on the lives of targets including public figures, and has some discussion about the blurring of public and private life online, and how much of our work makes an online life necessary so we can’t just “not look at the internet”’ if we are being trolled. She also comes to the idea that lack of parenting has led to disaffected young men to take to trolling, a view based partly on what the trolls themselves told her. She doesn’t go into the history of trolling or the broader concern of how a socio-political environment arose that enabled trolling to flourish.

I enjoyed reading the book and I would like to have a coffee with Gorman. But being amiable and empathetic is not enough for me. The problem is liberalism: the same general wistful confusion about how the hell we came to this that I experience when I consider such complex issues. Why can’t we live and let live? Why can’t we accept each other’s differences? Why are we shouting and cancelling each other all the time? Why are we all so damaged? What happened to human decency? I am a natural liberal. I am of the generation that argued for free speech as part of a Left leaning agenda. I want a nuanced response to difference that values us all. I want to listen to the experiences of real people and only judge them once I know them, if at all. I could have written this book.

Since the Christchurch shooting, I have read what I can about the far right, and I have some disturbing experience of it from people in my life. I am perpetually perplexed and worried about it, but I don’t think the answer lies in better parenting (whatever that is) or legislating social media, which would probably hurt the Left more in the long run. I don’t think the overarching values of Left liberalism are anywhere near capable of dealing with the problem of trolling or any other feature of the far right.

Because, capitalism.

It is too late for all that. Trying to claw back good sense and decency and so on is not just an inadequate response to the sheer extremity of the multitudinous reactions to our truly dire socio-political and environmental situation. Cynicism, transgressivism, nihilism, atavism and accelerationism seem to me to be relatively meaningful reactions, and you don’t get them just on the far right.

Also, this. The various far right projects, online and in vivo, serve to block attempts at dismantling capitalism, and even to get to those attempts we need to get through the far right because they are a genuine and more immediate threat. Unless we do, we risk being inveigled into working alongside them because some of them want to dismantle the system too, and they are way pragmatic, and gleefully transgressive, and armed for bear. And yet it is the totality of the terminal stage capitalism we experience which makes clear thinking difficult and genuine organizing exhausting and piecemeal. Troll Hunting is not about the far right as such, but it is about bad faith abuse of power differentials, and all the qualities of moral damage in which the far right abounds. Taking all this on, at ‘real people’ levels, rather than expecting authorities or media corporations to rescue us, seems to be a better solution.

Book review: How to Lose the Information War

Image from iStock.

Book title: How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict
Editors: Nina Jankowicz
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

The authoritarian Russian state under Vladimir Putin is unquestionably an enemy of freedom and the working peoples of the world. It is hard not to cringe, though, when some American liberals try to blame Putin’s Russia alone for the Trump cult and the rise of authoritarian racism in the USA. This whitewashes the United States’ domestic history of white supremacy and social exclusion, and decades of liberal unwillingness to confront it.

But to deny altogether the impact of Russian information warfare on US politics is not only to deny the evidence ably collected by Robert Mueller and others; it is to deny equally strong evidence from several Eastern and Central European countries. It’s a feature of the globalised system that whatever is happening on the periphery will eventually make its way back to the “metropolitan” states. In the same way that the occupied Palestinian territories have become laboratories for new ways of suppressing protests and inconvenient populations later taken up worldwide, the tactics of Russian disinformation and “troll farming” were perfected in countries like Ukraine, Estonia and Poland – and no-one in the West paid attention, until they helped tip the balance in the US Presidential election. As the deputy defence minister of Georgia complains:

I remember the arguments of the Russian threat that we were telling [Western officials] in 2006, 2007, 2008 … We were considered to be crazed in Brussels and NATO headquarters, and now everybody [says] the same thing after eight years or nine years as if it’s something new. (Kindle location 1086)

Nina Jankowicz, a scholar of “the intersection of democracy and technology” was in Ukraine advising that country’s government on defence against Russian information warfare, when it suddenly became a live issue for the US in November 2016. Jankowicz’s book has the great virtue of avoiding both the “denial” and “scapegoating” approaches to the topic. Yes, she emphasises, Russian information warfare is real, it poisons the discourse and promotes reactionary politics and social conflict the world over. But it would have no purchase without taking advantage of pre-existing, real, social resentments and exclusions in every country. “The most convincing Russian narratives, and indeed, the most successful, in both Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, are narratives grounded in truth that exploit the divisions in societies.” (166)

In the United States, the biggest social division is along the lines of race and migration status. In Estonia, it was the Russian-speaking minority who had become more or less second-class citizens since independence from the Soviet Union. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the biggest open wound in our society is of course the dispossession of Māori. Anyone who has seen a rally by the conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika will have seen the number of flags of Māori self-determination flying. This is a dangerous warning of the failure of the socialist Left to make its message more attractive to the most oppressed than Te Kahika’s COVID denial and fascistic mutterings about “elite globalists”.

Jankowicz brings up another problem which Fightback has repeatedly warned about – that Russian tactics of disinformation and heightening social tensions are not confined to promoting xenophobic or fascist ideas, but also promote Left-wing complaints about social inequality. In fact, contemporary Russian information warfare does not aim to promote any political ideology in particular, but only to heighten social divisions and tensions:

Despite the preferred imagery of most major news outlets that cover Russia—hammer and sickles, red and black color palettes, and misappropriations of the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral as ‘the Kremlin’—Russia’s modern information war is distinct from the one its Soviet predecessor waged. Unlike Soviet propaganda, which sought to promote a specific, communist-centric worldview, the Kremlin divides and deceives populations around the world with one goal in mind: the destruction of Western democracy as we know it. (Kindle locations 118-121)

It is for this reason that Russian interference in the 2016 election not only boosted the Trump campaign, but also the campaign of social democrat Bernie Sanders, and even the “Black Lives Matter” movement:

They argued for Texas secession, spread anti-immigrant vitriol, pitted Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter activists against one another, and even distributed “buff Bernie Sanders” coloring books. They were “fake” not because their content was falsified—although they included plenty of false or misleading information—but because they misrepresented their provenance… [The Russian troll farm] IRA employees had been instructed to instigate “political intensity” by “supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situations and oppositional social movements. (159, 362)

In line with her title, Jankowicz travelled to several Eastern and Central European countries to discuss the various ways in which they failed to stop Russian campaigns exploiting divisions within their societies. In some cases, it was because the local governments were complicit in the same thing. Poland’s governing party, the reactionary and homophobic Law and Justice Party, cannot successfully combat Russian forces spreading conspiracy theories, as long as they use precisely the same tactics against LGBT communities. Unsurprisingly, “some of the staunchest purveyors of this new wave of homophobic disinformation had connections to Russia” (1791).

Russian tactics thus make it perfectly possible to play both sides at once, not only for divisions within countries but between them, as they exploit mistrust and mutual ignorance between Western and Eastern Europe. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, leading to a continuing partial occupation, received no serious blowback from NATO, partly because Russian media successfully flooded Western media with the narrative that they were protecting minorities from Georgian “genocide”. (1184) Similarly, Russia intervened in a referendum in the Netherlands on European Union relations with Ukraine, successfully smearing Ukraine as a hotbed of corruption and fascism. At the same time, Russian media and Russia-aligned local media in Eastern European countries continually sound the warning that Western influence leads to homosexuality, paedophilia, obscenity, and attacks on traditional faiths (1374).

Jankowicz brings up the problem that I referred to in a previous article that disinformation and propaganda are “laundered” through Left-wing or Left-sounding voices. She quotes Georgian analysts who refer to this as the “deflective source model”: “disinformation is presented in a seemingly legitimate local source, and the original source of the information is obscured to make it seem more trustworthy.” (1365) She gives an extended account of a US anti-Trump protest in 2017 which was massively boosted – unbeknownst to its organisers – by the very same Russian networks who provide content for far-right outlets like Breitbart (1358). Similarly, one of the biggest supporters of Russian propaganda against Ukraine in the Netherlands was Dutch Socialist Party leader and Eurosceptic Harry van Bommel – not because he cared a great deal about Ukraine, but because any narrative which bashed the EU was useful for his party. Van Bommel’s statement that “People blamed me personally for being in the same boat as fascists … but, you know, sometimes people for the wrong reasons come to the right conclusions” (2129) is chilling for anyone who understands the threat posed by Red-Brown politics which blur the distinction between socialism and fascism.

Meanwhile, Ukraine attempted to salvage its image in the Dutch referendum with a campaign promoting a “positive narrative” about their country, which failed to have any impact. Jankowicz takes to task those strategists and politicians who believe that

if the West could only tell a more compelling, more strategic, more coordinated story, we could grapple with state-sponsored disinformation like the content that Russia produces. But this ignores realities of human nature and psychology. A press release, no matter how well written, cannot fully correct a salacious story. A fact-check, even if verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, will not convince a conspiracy theorist to give up his fervent speculations. (2439)

Only the Czech Republic, says Jankowicz, has put up any defence to Russian information warfare tactics – and even this has been derailed, partly because the unit responsible has its own problems with demonisation of Muslims and migrants, but also because many prominent politicians, including the country’s President, see it as a threat to free speech (2939).

Some socialist readers of this review might say: so what? Isn’t this just “blowback” from influence campaigns run by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies? Harry van Bommel, for example, dismisses the question of Russian involvement in the Dutch referendum with reference to the fabricated intelligence about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” the United States used to justify the Iraq War. Jankowicz comments:

I can’t disagree, and really, it’s the perfect encapsulation of how Russian disinformation works: take something that people are already mad about, pollute the information ecosystem, and get them so frustrated they start to distrust institutions and disengage. (2390)

I’ve personally seen socialists suggest that this exacerbation of social divisions and distrust in the media (“the enemy of the people”, as Trump used to put it) is a good thing for our side. This seems to assume that when people lose faith in mainstream politics and information, they may as well turn to a socialist view of the world as to conspiracy theory and fascism. This is simply not true – in none of the examples in the book, nor those I am familiar with, does the turn away from mainstream “consensus reality” lead in the direction of equality and democracy. The only “Left-wing” ideas which benefit from online disinformation are actually reactionary ones – “tankie” politics cheerleading authoritarian states, science denial which threatens lives in the era of COVID-19, or sheer bigotry couched in “Left” language against migrants or trans people.

In contrast, Fightback stands in the Marxian tradition of bringing “workers and science” together. Where we reject mainstream narratives and ideology, it is at the point where they contradict facts and logic, where they justify exploitation and oppression with irrational beliefs. This is directly contrary to the world which Russian information warfare seeks to create – a nihilist world of “alternative facts” bubbles, where democracy becomes impossible for lack of a shared reality, and only an authoritarianism that tells enough people what they want to hear can restore order. “When we can’t agree on the truth within our own borders, we will not be able to dispute the lies coming from outside of them” (3268) – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jankowicz is an American liberal and her solutions to the problem of information warfare – investment in journalism, improved education in civics and media literacy, and better funding for public libraries – rely on her belief that “what the West has, however imperfect, is worth fighting for” (250) She states in particular that “in this book, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have escaped serious inspection because the case studies outlined in these pages focus on government responses to disinformation”. (3047) This leaves something of a gap in the book, since evidence shows that the best response to information warfare (and to fascism) is deplatforming – as shown by the effectiveness of banning ex-President Trump from Twitter – and that, conversely, these Big Tech giants actually profit from the social division and “outrage clicks” generated by disinformation.

Certainly, we must defend the very limited rights of freedom of speech, organization, and political participation which are allowed under neoliberal capitalism. But the social divisions created by that very society make it possible for not only the Russian state, but corporate, state and reactionary propagandists of all sorts, to effectively shit in the meme pool, and repress consciousness to the point that the masses reject even these meagre democratic rights in favour of the pleasures of chauvinism and bigotry. “Fake news” and disinformation are part of life under capitalism, and only an end to social inequality can put a final end to them.