Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Book Review)


murdoch exhibition

Pataka gallery exhibition by Murdoch Stephens.

By Giovanni Tiso.

The successful campaign to double the New Zealand refugee quota began with an exhibition. It opened at the Pataka gallery in Porirua, in 2013, and consisted of a collection of photographs of Afghan nationals that Murdoch Stephens had recovered at an abandoned refugee detention centre in Iran. Placed within a larger exhibition on migration, the display of black and white photographs without names or any other identifying information attached was a powerful signifier of the loss of personal and collective history that the displacement of people almost always entails.

Having become the temporary custodian of this archive – which is now housed with the Afghan Centre at Kabul University – was one of the sparks that motivated Stephens to launch his campaign and articulate the demand (‘double the quota’) which became synonymous with it. It was by no means a radical demand: it didn’t ask of the country to fundamentally alter its existing approach to refugees, but merely to expand a commitment to resettlement that was very low by international standards and had not been increased in decades. However, at a time of hardening of the borders, even such apparently modest demands can be radical in outlook and force us to look critically at our place in the world.

I thought about the collage of nameless photographs I saw at Pataka as I read Lights in the Distance, Daniel Trilling’s new book on the European response to what most of us are liable to calling ‘the refugee crisis’. Trilling suggests it might better be described as a border crisis and proceeds to illustrate a system whose principal aim is to defend Europe’s borders as opposed to protecting people’s lives. Crucially, the book delves into the extraordinarily opaque and convoluted workings of this system not by means of policy analysis and journalistic reporting but rather through the first-person accounts of actual migrants.

This approach has two distinct virtues: firstly, it makes the subject matter knowable at all, since any attempt to forensically dissect the permanent and temporary measures enacted piecemeal by European nations over the last decade would defy any writer and deter all readers; secondly, and I think more importantly, it restores the personhood of the people targeted by those measures. This has an explicitly political intent. As Trilling writes, ‘the starting point should be the migrants themselves, [whose] experiences are often treated as secondary to the question of what to do with them.’

Jamal, who fled Sudan as a teenager; Zainab, who left Iraq with her three children; Ousmane, who was born in Guinea, studied in Senegal and tried to find work in Mauritania; Caesar, who hails from southern Mali; Fatima from Syria, the Ahmeds from Afghanistan and several others meet on the pages of this book because of a thing they all have in common: having attempted to make a new life in Europe. But there are just as many things that set them apart. They all have distinct motivations, aspirations, social resources and networks of support. They all speak in a different voice. Trilling met them over the course of the years he spent covering the issue and travelling to its hot spots: the port town of Calais, Sicily, Greece, Bulgaria, Ukraine.

Often we encounter the same people in different countries and at different stages of their journey. Some of the stories end well. Others, not so well. Some others are still nowhere near a resolution of any kind. But it’s important to take note of the things they have in common.

The first one is the constant state of existential danger. People fleeing extreme poverty, war or persecution wishing to reach Europe are met first of all with the perils of the journey itself, be it as they attempt to cross the Sahara to get within sight of it, or as they sit in smugglers’ boats which are not worthy of the name – leading to thousands of drownings every year along the route from Libya to Southern Italy alone. Almost every path is potentially deadly. A visit to the migrants’ graveyard in Sidiro, Greece, bears testimony to the hundreds of people from Asia and Africa who failed to cross the Evro river to safety: some of them drowned, others froze to death during the winter months.

The danger doesn’t cease once the migrant sets foot in Europe. Trilling visits the Afghan community gravitating around Saint Panteleimon Square, in Athens, during the campaign of violence carried out by Golden Dawn. The attacks followed a chilling script:

At night, when crossing the square in small groups or alone, Afghans would be approached by a child. The child would ask them where they were from. If they said, ‘Afghanistan,’ a group of adults standing nearby would come over and assault them. Sometimes it would be kicks and punches, other times it would be a plank of wood or a broken bottle.

People without rights, without the protection of the law – often exposed, in fact, to the random brutality of the police – must constantly work to maintain a level of basic safety that the rest of us take for granted. And this is the second thing the migrants in the book have in common: save for the occasional period of confinement in a facility, camp or actual prison, they all have to spend an enormous amount of labour in order to continue to survive, to keep moving and to retain some control over their lives, whether it is by foraging for food inside of skips, re-selling state-supplied phone cards for loose change, begging, or trying to hitch a ride on the underside of a truck. This last form of work – requiring constant vigil and the ability to evade a number of protective measures – exemplifies the utter lack of both security (in a social sense) and safety (in a physical but also psychological sense) to which irregular migrants in Europe are subjected to. It takes Jamal four years to succeed in stowing himself under a truck and then onto a ferry from Patras to Venice. Having reached Calais, after months of failed attempts he finally gives up on his plan of ever reaching Britain. It takes the time of a ferry ride, if you are legally entitled.

This leads us to the third and most important shared experience of the characters in Lights in the Distance: the almost ritual erasure of identity.

The migrant who wishes to enter Europe must become undocumented in order to maximise his or her chances. If a false passport was secured, it will have to be jettisoned after use. If a temporary document was assigned, it will be destroyed before crossing into the next country, as will the SIM card in the migrant’s phone. For the policing of the borders is also a policing of identities.

The Eurodac police database allows European countries to enforce the Dublin Regulation dictating that asylum must be sought in the country where one first entered the EU. Often, however, these are also the border countries that take the longest to process applications and offer the least welfare in the interim. Thus, the migrant who plays by that particular rule and lets their point of entry be recorded on the database may be forced into homelessness while they wait indefinitely for their ‘turn’ to have their application heard. In one of the most dramatic episodes recounted in the book, one of Trilling’s interviewees tells him of how fellow Sudanese migrants camped outside Calais would attempt to burn off their prints by pressing their fingertips onto a red-hot iron – all to prevent detection by Eurodac.

Such literal acts of mutilation are the mirror of the demand placed on migrants to forget who they are, so we may forget that they exist. In what is perhaps the cruellest consequence of this demand, those who cross the border without documents expose themselves to the risk of having their death rendered anonymous and go unreported among their loved ones back home. As Trilling notes, the graves in the cemetery at Sidiro are all nameless, like the photographs in the archive found by Murdoch Stephens.

There is immense political value in allowing migrants to tell their own stories and restoring the full and often staggering complexity of their experience. Think of the prohibition for the media and NGOs to speak to the prisoners at Nauru or Manus Island, and how concealing their humanity contributes to erasing their rights. And think of the effect that a single photo had, when the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi shook the collective conscience of Western nations more than the mass drownings that preceded it.

The historical comparisons have political value, too. Lights in the Distance ends in the past tense, with the story of the author’s grandmother – a Jewish refugee who had first her Russian, then her German citizenship revoked between the two wars, thus was made twice stateless, undocumented by two different acts of government before finding fortuitous asylum in London on the eve of global disaster. It is a grim but instructive parallel, and a fitting conclusion for this important book.

New Zealand First and the global far-right

Winston Pepe

By Daphne Lawless.

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming issue on Migrant and Refugee Rights. To support our work, please consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

The New Zealand First (NZF) Party was founded in 1993 by Winston Peters, formerly a cabinet minister for the mainstream conservative National Party. Since then, under Peters’ continuous and unchallenged leadership, its share of the popular vote has ranged from 4 to 13% – large enough to be a significant player in all but one of New Zealand’s parliaments from them until now, and to have participated in coalition governments with both of New Zealand’s major parties, National and centre-left Labour. It is currently the junior partner in Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition, also supported by the Green Party.

The words used to describe New Zealand First have usually been “nationalist”, “populist”, or – more critically – “anti-migrant” or even “racist”. Ask any New Zealanders what politics Peters is usually associated with, and they will doubtless reply anti-immigrant politics, especially opposition to Chinese immigration1. Given that, overseas observers might scratch their heads at seeing Winston Peters as deputy Prime Minister to Ardern, whose sunnily optimistic social-democratic approach has led to her being labelled “anti-Trump”2. How can a political force which is usually seen as part of the same global trend as Donald Trump, UKIP, and other nationalist reactionaries and fascists be supporting the centre-left?

Some historical background on Winston Peters is probably required to understand this. New Zealand was one of the most enthusiastic adopters of Thatcher/Reagan-style neoliberal economics in the 1980s. However – unlike most countries – neo-liberalism was not at first combined with authoritarianism and social conservativism. Rather, the Labour government of 1984-90 combined privatisation, deregulation and financialisation with an anti-nuclear foreign policy, the legalisation of homosexuality and steps towards reconciliation with the indigenous Māori people. In this way, they were the reverse of the previous 1975-84 National government of Robert Muldoon, which combined social conservatism and an authoritarian style with heavy Keynesian-style state intervention in the economy and trade protectionism.

During National’s period in opposition 1984-1990, leaders Jim McLay and later Jim Bolger did their best to ditch Muldoon’s legacy and to reform their party in the neoliberal image. In this period, Winston Peters (first elected as an MP in 1978) was seen as the leader of the remaining “Muldoonist” faction in the National Party – sceptical of neo-liberal economics, and appealing to the traditional Tory rural and suburban base. When National returned to power in 1990, and quickened the pace of the neoliberalization of the economy started by Labour, Peters was increasingly the main internal critic of this approach. After being sacked as a Cabinet Minister and told he would not be re-selected as a National candidate, he struck out on his own, promising a new party that would “put New Zealand first, second and third”.

The political basis of New Zealand First has always been anti-neoliberal and conservative traditionalist. In an era where both major parties were committed to neoliberal reforms, anti-neoliberalism united former Labour and National voters. NZF quickly pulled significant support away from the Alliance, a broad anti-neoliberal coalition whose major members were the Green Party and a social-democratic split from Labour. I have argued in a series of articles on what I call “conservative leftism” that the perspective of forming a broad anti-neoliberal bloc during the 1990s and 2000s led the activist Left not only into building coalitions with conservative anti-neoliberals such as NZF, but to some extent intellectually capitulating to their xenophobic politics – thus opening the door to the current far-right surge.3

Given all of this, what should the radical Left’s attitude to New Zealand First be? Certainly Winston Peters is no friend of progressive politics. His historical animus with the Green Party – the most progressive of New Zealand’s parliamentary parties – led to them being excluded from formal participation in the current coalition government.4 His party’s latest stunt is a “respecting New Zealand values” law, which “which would legally mandate new migrants to respect gender equality, “all legal sexual preferences,” religious rights, and the legality of alcohol.”5

It goes without saying that an Ardern-led coalition in which the Greens’ James Shaw or Marama Davidson were Deputy Prime Minister would surely be far preferable to the current situation – if the parliamentary numbers were to work out that way. But should we be treating New Zealand First the same way that we would other right-populist, “alt-right” or neo-fascist movements? Commentator Liam Hehir argues that a consistent Left would “no-platform” Winston Peters:

Is Peters really on quite the same level as Nigel Farage? Possibly not (shared interests in Brexit and cricket notwithstanding).

But the big difference between the two is that Farage has a lot less influence over New Zealand than Peters. If you want to ensure migrants and other vulnerable groups feel welcomed and safe, the views of the second most powerful man in the country weigh more heavily than do those of the member of the European Parliament for South East England. Or they should, at least…

For Green MPs, protesting Nigel Farage achieves little but costs nothing. Protesting Winston Peters, on the other hand, might achieve something – but only at the risk of losing political power. It doesn’t take Niccolò Machiavelli to work out who gets protested.6

There is of course no sharp dividing line between traditionalist conservatism and the resurgent far-right, as the career of the UK’s Enoch Powell should show. Peters is famous for a pugnacious, antagonistic relationship with the news media, similar to what we see from Donald Trump. His innate social conservatism led to opposition to the bill legalising same-sex marriage, in favour of a referendum on same-sex marriage – which would have no doubt led to the same extremely divisive consequences as in Australia.

However, Peters draws as much from what has been called in Britain “One Nation Conservatism” – “preservation of established institutions and traditional principles combined with political democracy, and a social and economic programme designed to benefit the common man”7 If you asked New Zealanders who votes for New Zealand First, those who did not immediately answer “racists” would immediately answer “old people”. Peters’ traditionalist-conservative politics have historically appealed older New Zealanders in particular. A significant social reform that he was responsible for in a previous Labour-led government was the “Super Gold Card” guaranteeing free public transport for all over 65s.

Perhaps the best international equivalent to New Zealand First would be the Independent Greeks (ANEL), the conservative-populist party who are SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner in Greece. Peters has not even been averse to using rhetoric which might be called “left-nationalist”. In his speech announcing his decision to join Ardern’s coalition government in 2017, he said:

Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe.

And they are not all wrong.

That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.8

However, a “protean” (vague and shifting) populist appeal to both left and right at the same time is part of Peters’ political strategy, and also part of classical definitions of fascism9 – so Peters’ “anti-capitalist” rhetoric doesn’t let him off the hook there.

The New Zealand far-right have traditionally seen Winston Peters much like they see Donald Trump – if not precisely “one of them”, then at least as a possible ally. The explicitly Nazi National Front named NZF as their preferred mainstream political party in their electoral propaganda in 200510. More recently, during the 2017 election campaign, Peters came out in support of a “European Students Association” (a front for white-nationalist students) which had been closed down at the University of Auckland:

Winston Peters visited Victoria University in Wellington. During his speech to students he questioned the media’s role in causing the “European” group to shut down. He accused journalists of suppressing dissenting voices, and on his way out, unashamedly signed a cartoon of a frog named Pepe – the most popular symbol of the alt-right.

Peters’ actions set the New Zealand 4Chan boards alight.

“Guess who just got my vote!!” one user wrote. “Winston is based”. (Based, loosely, means good).

“Absolutely BASED,” said another. “Winnie has my undying respect.”

“Winston is /ourguy/, right?” another asked. “I want someone to get rid of the Indians and Chinese, those f****** are stealing our country right out from under us.”11

One obvious problem with assimilating New Zealand First to the global “alt-right”/white-nationalist phenomenon is that Winston Peters is himself Māori. The support of a bloc of conservative, rural Māori opinion has always been a vital part of the NZF coalition – as Ani White pointed out in an article for Fightback12, it is precisely rural and small-town voters who tend to be most prone to anti-migrant views. The very first NZF MP other than Peters was elected in one of the constituencies reserved for Māori electors13; and at the 1996 election, NZF made a clean sweep of all the Māori seats. However, as Ani White also points out, Peters trumpets a conservative, assimilationist policy, opposing “special rights for Māori”, and has recently shifted to supporting a referendum on abolishing the Māori seats altogether.

Others have argued that Peters cynically uses anti-migration rhetoric in the same way that pre-Trump US Republican politics have used the issue of abortion – as a way to whip up support on the campaign trail, but having no interest in actually doing anything about the issue once in government. Political commentator Danyl Maclauchlan argues: “He campaigns on the immigration issue every election, but Peters has been in the powerbroker position in government three times now, and each of those governments has seen very high levels of net migration of what his supporters and voters consider “the wrong sort” of people.”14

It would be best to argue that, although Peters no doubt cynically benefits from the far-right resurgence, and has no shame in appealing to racial populism, he is essentially a conservative rather than a fascist “national revolutionary”. He seeks to bolster and defend the traditional institutions of the New Zealand colonial settler state, rather than to incite mob violence against the Establishment. Although New Zealand First has long used the rhetoric of racial populism, in practice Peters and his party are mainly concerned with getting a seat at the Establishment table, rather than raising mobs to overthrow it.

1 New Zealand’s position as a small developed Anglosphere country in the Asia-Pacific region has historically led to a tendency to “Yellow Peril” anti-Chinese politics. For a historical background, see

5 The legality of alcohol as a New Zealand value is ironic given that in this country, as in many others, temperance societies were at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage, and prohibitionist leader Kate Sheppard is on our $10 bill for this reason.

13 Constituencies reserved for Māori electors were introduced in 1867, when the restriction of voting rights to property-owning citizens meant that many Māori were disallowed from voting, to ensure that Māori had some input regarding the makeup of parliament. Although they were intended as a temporary measure, they continue to this day, and many Māori still consider them essential to ensure representation.

“All the world will be affected, not just Syria”: Interview with a Syrian Australian artist

Miream art

Artwork by Miream Salameh.

This article will be published in our upcoming Syrian revolution pamphlet, please click HERE to contribute.

Ani White interviews Miream Salameh, a Syrian artist living in Melbourne.

First of all, can you tell us why you were forced to seek refuge and how this happened?

At the beginning of the revolution, I worked with a group of my friends to create a magazine against the tyrannical regime that ruled Syria for fifty years. This regime is represented by the Assad family, which seized power in a military coup by Hafez al-Assad.

Our aim in founding this magazine was to present our ideas, the goals and principles of our revolution and our dream of building a new free, civil and democratic Syria. All of us should be equal under the law that achieves equality and justice for all. The aim was also to document the crimes of the Assad regime and its violations of international law – which is still under the eyes of the entire international community – against all those who have participated in this revolution and supported it even with a word.

But after six months we were forced to stop it after we were attacked by the Assadist forces. I remember very well how in the second raid we miraculously survived the inevitable deaths by field execution that Assad carried out at every raid. I lost two of my friends in that brutal way; during a raid on Deir Baalba in Homs in the first year of the revolution, the Assad gangs shot my friend Hatem Mohammad, who was an artist too, directly in his head and heart. His relatives could not take the body until fifteen days after Assad’s forces left the area – or face being arrested or dying under torture in his prisons. On this day we were three friends in the house watching a video that I filmed in a region loyal to Assad in Homs to document the crimes of Assad and his regime. In this video I documented the stolen property that Assad’s regime and its intelligence and army were selling at the lowest prices in a market they call the Sunni market; they rob those areas whose people were shelled and forced to flee, then the Assad regime enters and steals, and sometimes do not just do that, they also burn some houses. One person shown in the video told how when they left these areas with cars full of stolen stuff, the army at the checkpoints took the LCD screens and laptops and left them the rest of the stuff to sell in the Sunni market.

Going back to the raid day, as we watched the video and handed over the caricatures, Assad’s forces began to besiege the neighborhood and prepared to raid it. I quickly went out with my friends who took me out of the neighborhood and then returned to document what would happen. Assad’s forces committed an outrageous massacre, killing 20 people and arresting many, including women, who were stripped naked in public, and arrested them. Assad’s forces destroyed all our things and stole all that was valuable. During that time I received many threats and warnings, and was forced to leave for Lebanon without informing anyone. But death threats, arrests and rape will continue if I try to go back to my country. During my stay in Lebanon, one week after my arrival in Australia, I was attacked along with my friends by Hezbollah and they attempted to kidnap me. But we were rescued with the help of two Lebanese gendarmes and three Syrian people who were there by chance and brought us home safely. I don’t know if I would be alive now otherwise. Then we came here on a humanitarian visa.

How did the Syrian revolution begin? What were the demands of the revolution?

The Syrian revolution began after students at a school in Daraa wrote anti-Assad slogans on the walls of their schools. So the Assad regime arrested and tortured them and this angered their parents who went to claim and demand the release of their children, but the security forces told them: forget your children and make others, and if you cannot, send us your women to do so. People in Daraa began to take to the streets and demand the release of their children and all those detained in Assad’s prisons. These demonstrations moved to the rest of the Syrian cities, one of these was my city Homs. Our demands were initially to reform the regime, release the detainees and abolish the state of emergency, but the regime did not respond to these demands and tried to suppress the demonstrations in a brutal way, from firing live bullets at the demonstrators to firing missiles, and using internationally prohibited weapons such as cuneiform bombs. They carried out campaigns of detention against all those suspected of joining the revolution or supporting it even with a word, but the more violence the regime inflicted, the more the demonstrations grew to overthrow this bloody regime and build a free democratic civil state in which we all live equally under a law that protects the freedom and dignity of the individual – not a law that is amended to suit the regime’s interests, the way they did when Hafez al-Assad died, and they amended the constitution within three minutes to let Bashar take power after his dead father.

Who is primarily responsible for the atrocities (and the political crisis) in Syria?

All the responsibility for war crimes is with the regime of Assad, no one else, all the destruction and half a million refugees at home and abroad, and large numbers of detainees and abductees. The Assad regime committed all of this and was responsible for it with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, as well as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. I include ISIS and al-Qaeda in this because Assad assisted them in entering Syria and put them in the areas to be a pretext for him to bombard and control and create displacement of their people. No-one benefits from their presence as much as Assad. In addition to al-Qaeda, Assad is the one who released the extremists and criminals from his prisons at the beginning of the revolution, for the same reasons that I mentioned earlier and to make it seem like our revolution is Islamist in form. Thus he has a strong argument before world public opinion to eliminate the revolution. Assad is the one who released Zahran Alloush [leader of the Jaysh al-Islam armed faction] who used people as shields and put them on the roofs of houses to prevent Assad from shelling them. He is no different from the Assad regime and is similar in criminality. All these Assad did to justify the war crimes he committed against unarmed civilians, bombarding them in their schools and homes, hospitals and markets using internationally banned weapons including phosphorus, chemical and others.

We all saw the massacre committed against our people in as-Suwayda city at the hands of ISIS. But we all know who brought them on buses from Yarmouk camp to the east of as-Suwayda to control the area there. This claim comes from the people of as-Suwayda who knew Assad’s games and put all the responsibility for what happened there on the Assad regime. And some of them said that the kidnappers allwere Da’esh [ISIS], in fact they were detainees in the prisons of the regime.

The Assad regime is the one who made our land an area of ​​international conflicts between America, Russia and others. There is so much evidence that the only man responsible for what happened to my country is Assad.

How do you respond to claims that Assad protects Christians and minorities?
Assad did not protect the minorities but protected himself by using them. The Assad regime did not show mercy to any of its opponents, neither the Christian nor the Druze, nor even the Alawites, who are the sect be belongs to. He arrested and killed a lot under torture and displaced them. Also he killed people whom were from his own sect and loyalists at the beginning of the revolution to claim that it was the rebels who killed them, and to lie to them that our revolution was an Islamic revolution aimed at killing all the minorities, I remember once sitting in al-Arman area, one of them told me: We shelled three buildings here in al-Arman. I asked him why he did that. He said because we want to make the people here believe that the revolutionaries did it and that their revolution is an Islamic revolution. I told him, but what about the children, women and residents of these buildings who were hit by these missiles? He said: It does not matter, the important thing is to believe what we want and fight alongside the regime. The regime has done a lot of these dirty tricks.

I am from the Christian minority in Syria and from a village called Marmarita, a Christian village in Wadi al-Nasara. I was forced to flee my country after I received many threats just because I stood against this criminal regime and participated in the revolution. Many young people in my village were arrested for the same reason, and after their release they immediately left the country. The artist and my teacher Wael Qustoun, who is from my village and was based in Homs, was arrested by the Assad intelligence and tortured to death because of his refusal to paint a helmet for the army. None of his family members knew of his fate until someone saw his body in the hospital with 200 other bodies. That person called the Wael family to take his body before they took him with the rest, to bury them in mass graves without informing anyone about their fate or what happened to them inside the prison. They forced his family to say that the unknown armed groups were the ones who kidnapped Wael and killed him. This what happened to me and my family and people really close to me. There are many, many more stories that anyone can learn, like the story of Marcel Chahrou, Basil Shehadeh and many others. They deny the claims that Assad protects minorities.

What role have international actors played in Syria, particularly the USA and Russia?

I am not a political analyst, but everyone who follows the Syrian situation is fully aware that no one cared about the death and displacement of the Syrian people. The Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah participate with Assad in his war crimes against defenceless people. This applies to America and even to Australia, when they participated in the bombing under the pretext of eliminating terrorism.

We all know that all of them took part in this for their own interests, so that they don’t care about Assad himself and were ready to get rid of him when they were done with him. Even the Turks themselves, who some believe they are friends of the Syrian people, killed many Syrians as they crossed the border to escape the bombing to Turkey.

America has bombed many military sites and bases of Assad: but it is known to the free Syrian people that it is not because it cares about the Syrian people, especially after Trump’s decision to prevent Syrians from entering America. This applies to everyone.

After almost seven years, we no longer trust anyone, not even the United Nations and the international community, who could not prevent Assad from committing his own massacres, especially forced displacement and ethnic cleansing against the people, which is an international war crime under UN resolutions. Instead of stopping that, they were working to find safe passages to Syrians leave their homes and neighbourhoods. That is, Assad committed this crime under their auspices, and they came in after that and set up tents for us in neighbouring countries.

Can you explain what Assad and Putin’s assault on Idlib means for Syrian politics?

It’s crushing one of the last areas held by the revolutionaries. The same will happen as happened in Aleppo, Darya and Ghouta – massacres of people. Idlib has refugees from those areas that have already been assaulted. So three million people will be attacked. Assad is ethnically cleansing, which is a war crime. It will not relieve things for us, and also Turkey will face a huge wave of refugees. And many refugees will go by boat to reach Europe. All the world will be affected if this happens to Idlib, not just Syria.

And Turkey made a deal with Russia, to pursue a political resolution, not because Turkey cares about the people and want to save lives, I think Turkey just wants to save their country and not have to deal with refugees. And we all know what Russia and Assad want from Idlib, they want all of the territory in regime hands.

How do you respond to claims that the revolution is simply sectarian?

How can the revolution be sectarian? It includes all people from different religious backgrounds. There are the Druze, the Christian, the Alawi, the Sunni, and all of us have a dream of building a free and democratic Syria that is equal to everyone under the law. But what we talked about previously, about the release of the extremists by Assad and giving ISIS entry to our country, in addition to the media, which also played a big role in the painting of our revolution as Islamist. Not just this, but also it tried to show that there was no revolution at the start; when the media mention the Syrian situation they only mention civil war and never mentioned the Syrian revolution. But after seven years of the Assad regime, trying to crush our revolution in the most brutal ways, and the hypocrisy of the big powers and the international community and the United Nations closing their eyes to the crimes of Assad against us, the demonstrations in Idlib embarrass them all showing that the revolution is not dead, and did not die, and will not die.

During the revolution, its activists whose work was characterized by civil action were targeted by all the extremist parties represented by ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Assad regime. Naji Al-Jarf was targeted by ISIS who shot at him in Turkey, and Jaysh al-Islam kidnapped Razan Zaytouneh and her comrades, whose fate we do not yet know, and many more who were targeted by ISIS and al-Qaeda. And we don’t need to mention what the Assad regime did and still does to all of the activists of the revolution, because it is clear and obvious to all of us. All these criminals share one interest: to eliminate the revolution because they know that the victory of the revolution means the end of all of them.

What bearing does understanding the political situation in Syria have on refugee solidarity in Australia?

When we started leaving Syria in the first year of the revolution, the government badmouthed refugees. I don’t think the government cares about refugees. I remember there was one guy who was in the detention centre in Syria, and the Australian government deported him back to Syria, and the Syrian government arrested him there for 28 days, and they bombed his area and killed his father. If I went back to Syria, they would arrest me.

You’ve said Australia has a discriminatory refugee policy in how it ranks Syrians. Can you explain that?

Australia gave priority in granting asylum to Christian asylum seekers, ignoring the many refugees who had been stranded in the refugee camps for almost 7 years without any basic necessities of life, and that leads these people to risk their lives and the lives of their children at sea. Those who survived the drowning were detained in the detention centers of Nauru and Manus Island. In these prisons, there are families – women and children held for four years – and many more. Can you imagine children being forced to spend their childhood in such places, after they survived inevitable death in their country, for no reason?

In Australia, the boats were stopped under the pretext of preserving people’s lives. But if they really cared, they would offer an alternative to getting in unsafe boats, and offer a real solution to their suffering, like granting a humanitarian visa, easing restrictions on humanitarian visas. Humanitarian visas should be based on the conditions that people are in, not based on needing sponsors. Also Australia has bombed my country and made more refugees. If they really cared, they would not participate in the bombing.

What do you think about the protests against Trump’s bombings?

It’s funny how people get angry about this bombing, when the US has been bombing my country since 2014, and killing many civilians, yet people only protest when he bombs an Assad military base, killing nobody, and announcing it in advance so that Assad could evacuate. Listen to Syrians before you try to do something for us.

Do Syrian refugees (practically speaking) have the right to return?

The right of refugees to return will not happen until something changes in our country. They need to stop the ethnic cleansing. Assad remains in power. They need to address these things, before they talk about our return to Syria. It will not be possible to return while the regime stays in power. And in terms of ISIS and al-Qaeda, as long as the regime stays in power these problems will continue. First Assad needs to be taken out of power, then we need to address the sectarianism, then we can rebuild our country.

What can people in Australia or Aotearoa do to support Syrians?

We have to listen to Syrians, convey the truth of what’s going on, stand together as people and pressure the government here, and the rest of the world’s governments. My country, especially the media, is politicised. We must exert great pressure on the international community and the United Nations to do their work honestly, in protecting the human rights for which they were founded.

I believe that only people have the power to change for a better world. I believe that this will be the first serious step to stand with the Syrian people in their revolution and end their ordeal.

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming issue on Migrant and Refugee RightsTo support our work, please consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Personal vs private property or: do the communists want to take your stuff?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Are the communists coming to take your property?

That all depends. What do you have?

This is a big question, especially if you have a home to store things in. To simplify, communists tend to distinguish between personal property and private property.

Personal property consists of things you use in everyday life, things that meet your basic needs, or bring you personal satisfaction. These may include:

  1. Your toothbrush

  2. Your house

  3. Your author-signed copy of Capital: Volume 1

We support your right to personal property. Nobody should take what you need to survive, or to live a fulfilling life. Nobody wants your toothbrush.

That’s not what communists mean when we rail against ‘private property.’ Private property consists of larger financial assets, things you most likely don’t physically use yourself, but profit from owning. These may include:

  1. A rental property

  2. A textile mill

  3. A weapons factory

If you own a rental property, we do want to take it from you. It’s nothing personal. You may be a good landlord or a bad landlord, that’s beside the point. The point is that you don’t need the house, except to make a profit. And the profit system seems like a bad way of allocating housing; when the market booms, rent is too expensive, and people live on the streets; when the market crashes, banks calls in loans, and people lose their houses. There doesn’t seem to be any point in the market cycle where everyone has somewhere to sleep. Unless housing is collectively allocated, rather than privately.

Perhaps you own a textile mill in Mumbai, drawing profits from garment workers paid less than 1USD an hour. Any battle waged by garment workers to determine their own conditions receives our unqualified support, and we hope your ‘rights’ over their lives are rescinded.

If you own a weapons factory, we hope to turn it into a public museum, showcasing the horrors of a brutal past.

ursula capitalism

What about ethical capitalism?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Socialists do not believe ethical consumption choices, or ethical business strategies, can solve the systemic problems threatening life on earth.

For example, a plant-based diet may avoid the excesses of factory farming, but not exploitation of humans. In Australia and Aotearoa, fruit and vege farms exploit migrant workers in slave-like conditions. A study by ABC’s Four Corners found that Australian farmers who abided by the rules were dropped by supermarkets.1 This is not because the supermarkets are evil: they were simply fulfilling their legal obligation to serve the bottom line, by opting for cheaper sellers.

Perhaps the solution is Fair Trade fruit and veges, avoiding the brutalisation of both humans and animals? However, independent studies attempting to quantify the effects of Fair Trade have found that farmers in Fair Trade cooperatives did not have a higher average income than those in other cooperatives. Likely the biggest reason was that cooperatives controlled the premium, rather than farmers. Many farmers were unaware that the premium even existed.2

This does not necessarily mean Fair Trade is a malicious scam. Many in the Fair Trade movement have excellent intentions, and some lives are likely improved. However, the nature of the global market makes it difficult (if not impossible) to implement ethical production consistently. In contrast, unionised workers generally earn more than non-unionised workers in Australia3 and Aotearoa,4 so even under capitalism, a working-class strategy can better improve conditions.

Even when relatively ‘ethical’ options exist, they are often pricier. Paying workers slave wages, or packing chickens into inhumane pens, is simply cheaper. Ethical consumption therefore becomes a luxury niche, rather than a replacement for the megacorporations that operate with impunity.

We cannot buy our way out of capitalist exploitation. This is not to deny that consumer activism can be effective for targeted wins, such as ensuring supermarkets only stock free-range eggs. However, the power structures that produce abuses remain in place, and activists are left to put out individual fires while a global gang of arsonists operates with impunity.

Recently in Australia, newspapers revealed that significant amounts of recycling are dumped in landfills. The author of this article continued to diligently separate the recycling, fully aware that it may make no difference. In light of the controversy, federal and state representatives committed to making all Australian packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. Sounds good. However, socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly pointed out that the distant date was not matched by clear mid-term commitments, and that goods being recyclable does not necessarily mean they will be recycled. Green Left continued:

There is a recycling crisis because the international “market price” for recyclable waste has collapsed. Individual households may see recycling as a civic duty or a contribution to society. But governments and corporations see it as a market.

Moreover, Green Left argued, the generation of waste is the problem, not simply the failure to clean it up. A ban on single-use plastic containers would be more effective than the scramble to clean up the resulting waste. Green Left concluded that waste should be minimised at the production stage, not just the consumption stage.5

Every stage in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan would be hugely aided by changes to production, distribution and exchange which are outside the control of consumers:

  • Reduce: Ban single-use plastic containers

  • Reuse: Get rid of planned obsolence

  • Recycle: Actually recycle what we put in recycling bins

Consumers are not responsible for these problems, although we have a stake in solving them. If production were run democratically by worker and consumer co-ops, we could develop ethical ways to meet human needs, rather than burning through everything for profit. This isn’t completely hypothetical; we do have living examples to build on. However, bluntly, “the global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm.”6 Most land and resources remain controlled by monopoly capitalists, who will burn the planet before they cede control. A storm is brewing uncontrollably, our only choice is how to respond.

1Caro Meldrum-Hanna et al, Labour exploitation, slave-like conditions found on farms supplying biggest supermarkets, ABC News

2Anon, Is Fair Trade flawed and unethical?, GeoIssues

3Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, August 2013, ABS

4Bill Rosenberg, Economic Bulletin 194, NZ Council of Trade Unions

5Alex Bainbridge, Solving the Recycling Crisis means Challenging Corporate Power, Green Left Weekly

6Anon, The global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm, Cold And Dark Stars

Is Marxism just about factory workers?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In short: no. Or, it shouldn’t be.

A Marxist analysis of capitalism highlights who owns the means of production: farms, factories and so on. Most people in capitalist society do not own factories. That includes the unemployed, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, public-sector workers, students, caregivers, most self-employed people,1 and peasants – although there aren’t many peasants around these days. Workers are those compelled to sell their labour to live, whether they currently do so or not.

Although most people share a common dispossession, we also have diverse experiences, and distinct social positions. Caregivers may do essential work, but it’s distinct in purpose and experience from factory work. Tithi Bhattarachaya outlines this relationship:

If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker? Put another way: What kinds of processes enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society? What role did breakfast play in her work-readiness? What about a good night’s sleep?2

These basic needs are often met or assisted by unpaid, or underpaid caregivers. Marxist feminists have focused on this work, often performed by women, terming it social reproduction. Caregiving work reproduces not just the person, but the whole social system (you can’t have capitalism without workers, workers without food, food without a cook – often cooking free of charge). While recent socio-economic shifts may have undermined the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, Time Use Surveys show that women still perform most unpaid work.

Various forms of wage labour, other than factory work, are also clearly necessary to capitalism. Sales, banking, translation, and various other jobs lubricate a complex social system. Capitalists would not pay workers if they were unnecessary. Public-sector workers maintain the state and social services, stabilising the social system (for better or worse).

Unemployed people are the most dispossessed, of course. Despite regular propaganda to the contrary, unemployment is a structural failing rather than a personal one. As a socialist friend of mine put it, did everyone just suddenly get lazier in the 1980s, when unemployment rose? In Alister Barry’s documentary In a Land of Plenty, Susan Snivelly, a member of the Reserve Bank Board of Directors during the crucial reform period of 1985-1992 states:

It was a manageable thing for the Reserve Bank to use unemployment as the way to get wages down. It was far easier than any other means of getting inflation down. So they used it.

Even though insiders admit that unemployment is a structural rather than personal matter, unemployed people face routine abuse and humiliation, from national television to WINZ offices. Auckland Action Against Poverty has blazed a trail in challenging this bullshit, supported financially by FIRST Union: the union movement as a whole must do more to connect the struggles of employed and unemployed workers.

Marx focuses on industrial workers not because they are somehow better than others, more heroic, or more oppressed. Rather, he focuses on industrial workers because they directly produce commodities, the fundamental basis of the profit system. Industrial workers are not the only people oppressed by capitalism, but they pump the heart of the machine. You couldn’t have finance without ore, sheepskin or steel; you could have these things without finance.

Direct disruption of industry interrupts capitalism in a way that other tactics do not – such as voting, or rallies at parliament. This is not to deny we should use other tactics, but to recognise their limitations. Collective, direct action can be powerful and liberating in a way that more symbolic, or isolated actions are not. If workers keep the heart of capitalism pumping, they can also stop the blood-flow. Classical Marxists therefore focus on the strike, the withdrawal of labour at the point of production.

Restructuring of the global economic system has also restructured these points of resistance. Now 10s of 1,000s of factory workers strike in China, whereas factories have largely retreated in relatively prosperous nations such as Australia and Aotearoa.

Yet global restructuring has also opened up new sites of struggle in the ‘deindustrialised’ nations. Although strikes are rare nowadays, and only around 10% of the private sector are unionised, workplace organisation is growing in unexpected areas. As the service sector has grown, it has also become increasingly militant, with fast food workers carrying out strike actions from Aotearoa to the USA. For decades union leaders saw fast food workers as impossible to organise.

In Aotearoa, most union members are now women,3 in contrast to the stereotype of the male breadwinner. The recent nurses’ struggle in Aotearoa, or the teachers’ strikes in the USA, both powerful struggles showing deep community roots, demonstrate a shift in the union movement towards feminised industries: care, service and public-sector work.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘logistics revolution’ – a move towards automated, rapid global circulation of goods – has opened up ‘chokepoints’ where circulation can be disrupted: “the containerization of bulk goods now allows a single dockworker to do what it took an army to accomplish in the past.”4 In automated ports, a small amount of people enable a large amount of goods to circulate. Ports remain strongly unionised, so blockades remain very disruptive.

Blockades may be led by workers, or by the wider community – but they are strengthened if community groups form links with unions. In the USA, blockades led by Occupy Oakland and the BDS movement have shut down ports, with the support of striking port workers. In Aotearoa, strikes against nuclear shipping played a role in winning the nuclear free policy. As these cases demonstrate, strikes need not be limited to the fight for better wages: they are also a tool in the wider transformation of society.

We cannot and should not return to the age of the Western male breadwinner. However, union and workplace organisation remains a key to broader liberation struggles. If you’re working, join your union! In the likely event your worksite is not unionised, you can find your union online:

  • Aotearoa:

  • Australia:


1Depending on the size and nature of their business – particularly whether they have employees.

2Tithi Bhattarachaya, Social Reproduction Theory

3Sue Ryall & Stephen Blumenfeld, Unions and Union Membership in New Zealand…, Victoria University of Wellington website

4Charmaine Chua, Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints, The Disorder of Things

Does the internet transcend capitalism?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In 2015, a breathless, widely circulated Guardian article by somebody called Paul Mason declared that the internet is fostering ‘postcapitalism.’1 Mason argued that the old forms, such as the political party, have been transcended (ironically, not long after, Mason endorsed Syriza,2 a political party).

In theory, Mason’s argument for online ‘postcapitalism’ is understandable: the internet suggests post-scarcity. However, this is a case of the “forces of production” (new technology which enables new possibilities) clashing with the “relations of production” (who has the power and resources, and why they might prevent change). The possibility of post-scarcity – endless free copies of the same content – is prevented by corporate dominance.

Potentially infinite newspaper articles or academic pdfs are held behind paywalls; music and television are restricted to paid streaming services, or regionally restricted; cash-poor media addicts end up on piracy websites riddled with sleazy spambots (perhaps not the greatest injustice of capitalism). In a particularly ironic example, publisher Lawrence and Wishart demanded that the free-to-all website take down the largest English language collection of Marx & Engels’ writing available: two writers who are both long dead, and dedicated their lives to eradicating private property.

Although technically nobody ‘owns the internet’, most users’ experiences are shaped by corporate domination. Most of our time online is spent on corporate-owned websites like Twitter and Facebook, who have the right to censor any content they consider unsavoury (note: this is not necessarily such a terrible thing, as with the censorship of fascist accounts, but giving corporations the right to determine who speaks publicly sets a dangerous precedent). Controversy about Facebook’s data mining shows how corporations continue to surveil our lives, albeit in innovative new ways. Returning to Paul Mason, he advocates breaking up Facebook and other monopolies, whereas fellow ‘postcapitalism’ theorist Nick Srnicek advocates nationalisation of Facebook and similar platforms.

Communist Jodi Dean argues that the internet is a new ‘zero level’ of social life,3 a fundamental background that frames our whole existence. While some treat interactions on the internet as irrelevant to ‘real life’, they in fact frame everyday social life. Ordinary conversations often refer to the latest online controversy, in the same way ‘water cooler conversations’ used to refer to the latest on television. Dean further argues that the internet favours contestation over consensus. The spread of ‘Fake News’ propagated by the crypto-fascist alt-right may have helped swing an election in the most powerful nation on earth. We cannot be too complacent about similar movements in Aotearoa or Australia, even if they are currently marginal. It’s equally self-defeating to either confine our radical practice to the internet, or dismiss ‘internet politics’ as irrelevant.

The internet is the real world, integral to everyday life. However, rather than the internet transcending power struggles, power struggles transcend the internet. Communication technologies mediate a wider social world. The old war continues, but the terrain has changed.

3Jodi Dean, Why the Net is not a Public Sphere, University of Oregon website

Capitalism is not a Jewish conspiracy

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. In a 2012 Facebook post, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn defended a mural by New York artist Mear One. The mural depicted a cabal of bankers ruling the world. More recently in 2018, the post was dredged up to prove Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. He quickly apologised, saying he had not paid the mural close enough attention.

What is notable here is not the original event itself, nor Corbyn’s personal views. The issue is the failure of many on the left to detect anti-Semitic tropes. During the controversy, Corbynistas took to Facebook in droves to argue the mural was in fact legitimate anti-capitalism.

Corbyn’s defenders argued that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. However, the mural had no references to either Palestine or Israel – the only useful definition of modern political ‘Zionism’ refers to the state of Israel, not Jewish people in general. Equating Jewish people with Israel is the preferred method of two counterposed groups: Zionists and anti-Semites. Many Jewish people do not support the actions of the Israeli state. The Palestinian cause, like the socialist cause, is discredited by any association with anti-Semitism. There is no good reason to bring up Israel when discussing Mear One’s mural.

Moreover, the mural deployed uncomfortable anti-Semitic tropes. The artist presents a circle of large-nosed financiers, conspiring to rule the world, with an Illuminati symbol in the background. Before analysing this image, it’s worth noting some tropes of anti-Semitism: Jewish people are often depicted with big noses, and as a financial elite conspiring to rule the world.

The use of an Illuminati pyramid is the first obvious clue, reflecting a conspiracy theorist mindset. The noses of the conspirators are also larger than life. The six historical figures sitting around the table are an “elite banker cartel” in the artist’s words, but there are no capitalists from other industries – factory owners, or farmers, tend to get a free pass in the conspiracy theorist mindset – whereas finance capitalists are depicted as a separate race of leeches preying on the productive national economy. The artist includes Baron Rothschild, a significant dog-whistle, representing a Jewish family whose influence in the 21st century is wildly overstated by conspiracy theorists.1 To simplify, compare Mear One’s mural with the Polish Nazi poster below: six large-nosed figures framed by a Star of David, sitting around a table which crushes the global majority (Polish text translates to ‘Soviet Pyramid’). This is not, to put it lightly, an artistic legacy anyone should want to be associated with.

Mear One mural

anti semitic

Australasia’s political culture isn’t immune to these memes. New Zealand’s former Prime Minister John Key, who had a Jewish background, was repeatedly caricatured with a large nose in political cartoons. Dumping the subtlety, some charming individual decided to graffiti the word “Lying Jew Motherfucker” on a Key billboard. There are many good reasons to dislike John Key – his Jewish background is not one.

Although Aotearoa’s billboard defacement is a particularly overt example, subtler forms of anti-Semitism pervade conspiracy theorist accounts of capitalism. If you will forgive an extended quote, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts explain the problem with conspiracy theorist anti-Semitism well:

[A] critique of capitalism which focuses only on the machinations of the “1 per cent” fails to understand how fundamentally capitalist social relations shape the way in which we live – capitalists and bankers included. It does not grasp the extent to which “real” industrious production and intangible “abstract” finance are inextricably entwined. The pursuit of profit is not a choice in capitalism, but a compulsion. Failing to do so leads to bankruptcy, starvation and death. Nor are banks and the international financial sector an unproductive parasitical outgrowth undermining the vitality of the “real” national economy. They are that economy’s precondition.

The results of this incessant pursuit of profit, facilitated by the global movement of money, are by no means equal, and to that extent Corbyn and his supporters are right to highlight the widespread economic disparities in society. Indeed, the danger of conspiratorial thinking on the left is that it does in some ways “reflect a critical impulse”, a suspicion about the world and its forms of power.

It is also why, as the sociologist David Hirsh has argued, anti-Semitism can present itself as a progressive and emancipatory force, a valiant attempt to rid the world of the evils dragging it down. It replicates the way that anti-migrant racism has become a sign of one’s commitment to a downtrodden “white working class” in the aftermath of Brexit.

Therefore to dismiss the existence of anti-Semitism on the left as a minor problem compared with that of the right is to fail to heed the risks that the two forms can, on occasion, complement each other. A critique of capitalism based on the need to eradicate “globalism” is politically ambiguous at best, able to be utilised by the far-right as easily as the left.

What this lapse from critical to conspiracy theory suggests is that the anti-Semitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting “alt-media” and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” and “anti-imperialism”, are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy.

This has implications for how Labour addresses the current crisis. The specificity of left anti-Semitism arises partly from a foreshortened critical impulse imbued with a racism that punches upward, rather than down. Building an alternative therefore requires much more than expulsions of “pockets” within the Labour Party.

What is needed is a commitment to education and consciousness-raising capable of replacing bad critiques with good – and Corbyn showed yesterday that he might be prepared to lead from the front. The work of [Jewish Marxist theorist Moishe Postone] would be an excellent place to begin. What it shows is that, if Corbyn is as serious as he says he is about militant opposition to anti-Semitism, his worldview as it is may not survive intact. Rather, it must be radically revised and rethought.2

At a glance, Mear One’s mural could be mistaken for anti-capitalism, and that is precisely the problem. Most capitalists are not Jewish, and most Jewish people are not capitalists: fixation on a minority of Jewish bankers is a dangerous diversion. In a NZ context, locally owned ‘productive’ agricultural companies Talley’s and Fonterra are as craven as any finance company, so the focus on ‘international bankers’ would be a diversion even without the dog-whistle. As socialists, we need to be able to clearly identify and distance ourselves from anti-Semitic tropes, especially those in ‘left’ garb. Perhaps anti-Semites are just bad apples, but the origin of that metaphor goes: one bad apple spoils the bunch.

Those who followed the Corbyn anti-Semitism row are likely aware of the happy ending [Ed Note: this was written before the recent debate over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism]. Corbyn attended a seder held by Jewdas, a Jewish radical group. As far-right rag the Daily Mail3 reported in shocked tones, those in attendance held beetroots in the air and cried:


1Brian Dunning, Deconstructing the Rothschild Conspiracy, Skeptoid

2 Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, To combat left anti-semitism Corbynism must change the way it sees the world, NewStatesman

3A publication which literally endorsed the Nazis in the 1930s.

4Andrew Pierce, They raised a beetroot in the year and shouted f*** capitalism…, Daily Mail

Is slavery essential to capitalism?


US slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

African American slavery is indisputably an ugly stain on history. It was also necessary to the establishment of modern capitalism.

Until about the mid-1970s, historians treated American slavery as a pre-capitalist institution. Now, scholars increasingly highlight that Southern slavery was a key to establishing the US position in the world economy. More than half of US exports in the early 19th century consisted of raw cotton, extracted on slave plantations; slaves were employed in many more industries than cotton-picking; the Northern economy relied in part on the Southern; and many former slave owners would become established in ‘post-slavery’ capitalist institutions.

Although Northern capitalism had its advantages over Southern slavery (for example, wage labourers must not be housed by their employers), the system died because the abolitionist movement killed it:

Slavery did not die because it was unproductive or unprofitable, as some earlier historians have argued. Slavery was not some feudal remnant on the way to extinction. It died because of violent struggle, because enslaved workers continually challenged the people who held them in bondage… and because a courageous group of abolitionists struggled against some of the dominant economic interests of their time.1

So now, has slavery been abolished? Sadly, no. Instead, it has been outsourced: through the prison system (exempted from the abolition of slavery in the US constitution), and through border regimes. In 2013 the United Nations estimated that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry.2

A report on labour conditions in NZ waters found that fishermen worked 15 to even 53 hours, for as little as 49 cents an hour.3 Many ships fly under ‘flags of convenience’, flags of countries without shipping regulations, despite the owners and crews not coming from those countries. Banning ‘flags of convenience’ would make legal abuses easier to solve, and is a key demand of maritime unions internationally.

Laws and regulations can in some cases protect these workers. In Aotearoa, the International Transport Federation hires an inspector to examine ships in New Zealand ports for compliance with labour laws. Let me repeat that, however: one inspector. Attempting to overcome modern slavery in shipping is like attempting to stop a tsunami with a plunger.

It comes down to the bottom line. Corporations will do anything to extract profit and cut wages, below $1 an hour if possible. This can be stopped in various places and times, through both laws and collective action, but while profiteers run labour processes in general, they will always utilise slavery where they can get away with it.

1Sven Beckert, Slavery and Capitalism, The Chronicle of Higher Education

2 Lauren Bradford, Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: Thailand and Cambodia, Inside Investor

3Tess McClure, Slavery on NZ seas: rape, bonded labour and abuse widespread on fishing boats, Stuff Business Day


Where does profit come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1

2Brenton Hayden, Warren Buffet Knows It…, Entrepeneur

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

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

6Nickolas Lioudis, How does an investor make money on bonds?, Investopedia

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

8Doug Henwood, Workers: No Longer Needed?, LBO News