Fightback Conference talks online now

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

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

Fightback Conference Report 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

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

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

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

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

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

The backlash against returning New Zealanders

GETTY Images.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Workers: Essentially Expendable?

Image via GETTY/gpointstudio.

Originally published by the Health Sector Workers Network of Aotearoa on hswn.org.nz.

Also reprinted in the Pandemic issue of Fightback Magazine. Subscribe here.

Leading into the rāhui/lockdown in Aotearoa on the 25 March 2020, The Health Sector Workers Network of Aotearoa (HSWN) asked essential service workers about the issues they were facing. Receiving 134 responses in the final 10 days of March. They paint a consistent picture of stress and anxiety, safety concerns not being heard, fear of contracting Covid-19 or infecting loved ones and colleagues. The responses strongly called for immediate lockdown, adequate PPE and crucial financial support at a time when these essential measures were still being debated by government leaders. 

Due to the efforts of essential workers and the solidarity by the wider public in staying at home, Aotearoa has been able to relax the strictest social distancing and avoid the catastrophe faced in many other countries. However, the issues that essential workers identified are not new ones. Short-staffing, unsafe workplaces, low pay, work-related distress and frontline workers being excluded from decision-making are all long term problems that Covid-19 brought to the surface. The fact that workers doing the mahi that society depends on are treated as if their own well-being is expendable cannot continue.

HSWN members are essential workers too and we tautoko these responses. The delay in getting our survey out is testament to the high emotions, stress and long hours we experienced working on the Covid-19 frontline. Thank you to all the essential workers who answered our survey. See below the unedited responses to the following questions: 

 1) Where do you work and what is your role/area of essential work (paid on unpaid)?

 2) How is Covid-19 affecting your personal life and/or work as an essential service worker? (e.g. health and safety concerns, management response, mental health, financial concerns etc).

 3) What, in your opinion as a frontline worker, needs to be done? (e.g. community or official responses).

 LMC midwife, working the community, Canterbury

  • NO PPE!! WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO PPE! Please help us. I have a limited volume of hand sanitiser, disinfectant and gloves. No masks, no gowns, no glasses, only if a confirmed case of covid-19. Don’t feel safe. Worried about passing illness to my family or pregnant women. Worried I won’t be able to continue working and there are not enough midwives to care for my clients. Why do bank staff have PPE but I don’t???
  • I need PPE. I need clear guidelines from the ministry of health and NZCOM. We have been told to use ‘clinical judgement’ when choosing who to see face to face. Lots of different interpretations of this.
  •  Grocery worker, New World, Wellington
  • Bosses have pushed for maximum overtime from staff, while taking very few precautions and offering nothing in return. Social distancing + ban on indoor gatherings is totally ignored. No protection at all for the staff, aside from disposable gloves, but it is not enforced strongly enough
  • Provide food boxes to those struggling with bills and isolation. Provide hand sanitiser + gloves to customers, Strict limit on entry into store, strictly limit distance between customers + staff. Offer hazard pay/bonuses to staff who continue to work.
  •  Registered Nurse, Waikato DHB
  • I feel our hospital is totally unprepared. Managers from women’s health were excluded from planning meetings due to the area being low risk. Adequate precautions not being taken and staff put at risk due to responses.
  • Close schools and stop lying to people about our policy being based on best scientific evidence and the Singapore/Taiwan response. Taiwan closed schools for extended breaks and delivered 81000 gallons of sanitiser to educational facilities, millions of masks, 25000 forehead thermometers, and has 95% of parents notifying schools of their children’s temperature every school morning prior to arriving.
  •  Freezing Works worker, Taranaki
  • We work with no distance restrictionswe are in close contact everyday, on dayshift at one time there may be 500 employees, on night shift 300 employees
  • Be provided with face masks.  Regular testing of all employees for Coronavirus.
  • Checkout operator
  • Concerned that customers are not staying away when they are unwell, I have an at risk mother who is on her own and if I get sick I can’t help her. We are understaffed most days and now have team members who refuse to serve customers which doubles the level of stress for the rest of us.
  • Clear direction to businesses on what qualifies as pre existing medical conditions and for my company to make a decision on how to keep stores safe for us. At the moment they seem to be more interested in profit and being seen to be doing the right thing
  •  Elderly support worker for Vision West
  • Personally accessing food and using public facilities like the local library. As a service I am dealing with aggressive N.O.K [next of kin] that are scared.
  • I think my employer needs to be timely with their PPE plan and also clients that do not have essential care should be put on hold. Also to minimise risk small teams of 6 need to only see 8- 10 clients. Primary care practice nurse
  • Work has been hectic since Monday. We have been one of the testing stations and our normal workload has been overrun by covid-19 enquiries from both pts and other health services. This has taken a major toll on all our staff.
  • Separate covid-19 clinics keeping potential risk away from our genuinely sick pts who need to be seen. Perhaps we could shut down any non-essential parts of our service and spare staff for the covid 19 centres.
  •  Registered Nurse, ICU
  •  I just got exposed to a covid positive co worker (doctor) who worked 4 days ago.
  •  Provide PPEs, strict social distancing policies. 
  •  New World grocery worker
  • My manager tried to force me to come into work even though I was sick. Not only a violation of my contract, but I’m sure that’s illegal at the moment
  •  Managers to respect the right to sick leave
  •  Petrol Station worker
  • Anxiety level increased
  • More health measures in place to serve customers 
  •  Clinical Specialty Nurse, CMDHB
  • My husband and I work in the same unit. If one is exposed then other will be affected as well. This will have financial burden on both of us as both need to isolate. Personal experience: after husband got flu like symptoms, I was still allowed to work as I had no symptoms. Husband was to isolate until results were up. Difficulty in getting healthline to answer phone calls. GPs are busy. Different advice from management and GPs. A lot of mental exhaustion felt during this period. Being in a leadership role I have to ensure that all my staff is prepared and able to deal with acute demands as well as COVID-19 patients. ICU/HDU trying to save beds for COVID-19 patients therefore other acute cases needing 1:1  deferred or kept at our unit until further notice. Our unit is not a ward therefore patients staying longer than 2 hours causes backlog of other cases needing space. Lack of staff due to specialty cares.
  • More funds for APPROPRIATE diagnosis. Husband had to get tested twice as first ones came up negative and due to busy GP clinic swabs got mixed up/too many people with flu-like symptoms. Standardized gold standard diagnosis. 
  •  Medical Centre receptionist/admin
  • Worried re being exposed and potentially taking home to family. Have had pneumonia previously.
  • Better safety from sick people (which we are trying to fast track at my work) supermarkets etc are very exposed all the time with no preventative measures
  •  Support worker for IDEA Services
  • Health and safety, infection control, not enough protective equipment is being supplied, no masks whatsoever, extra basic stuff like wipes sprays etc is having to come out if the normal provision money for housekeeping etc etc.
  • More protection for workers.
  •  Pizza delivery driver
  • Safety concerns especially if people don’t let us know beforehand on their orders if they are sick
  • All persons ordering anything MUST let us know if they are sick. 
  •  Hospital Admin, Dundedin
  • Would prefer to work from home, but not possible as there is no IT support available.
  •  Admin and Clerical staff in the hospital need to be kept advised about the situation in the hospital, just as doctors and nurses are!! 
  • Registered nurse youth health, West Auckland
  • Increased social distancing, considering decreasing appointments to essential only, potential shift forced by DHB to turn our clinic into a testing area which will greatly impact our current essential services.
  • Increased support on Primary Health Care side of management and containment, including paying RNs more, and providing proper funding for or directly providing essential PPE supplies.Registered Nurse, Nelson Hospital
  • Safety of family and friends, if I’m infected at work, will managers (also health professionals) be available to work on the wards? Will we have PPE? If not what is recommended by health and safety?
  • Managers need to involve staff, who will be front line in what the plan is, clear direction

Security, Southern District Health Board

  • Am very concerned for my health at work, no protection been given so far! Also very disappointed testing is not wide spread! How do we know it’s not already community spread if the government puts protocols in place to NOT TEST people who have all the symptoms? How do we not know that someone who has all the symptoms, has tried to get themselves tested but can not! How do we know they didn’t catch it from the person coughing in front of them at the supermarket! So pissed at our government right now! Too little, too late!
  • Ease of mind! Test people for crying out loud! Lock the country down like in China! You know in China they put a metal bar across the entrances to houses where people were infected! We are doing bugger all! No safety measures at supermarkets, no protection at work! 
  •  Registered Nurse, Ōpōtiki
  • Working 6-7 days a week. Partner in the higher risk category (male, diabetic on ACE inhibitor), he has had to close his business as he works in events and they are all cancelled/postponed.
  • Ensure sufficient PPE, encourage additional staff to work if possible to ensure more normal hours are being kept, otherwise working 7 days a week for a long time will end up with more staff off sickCheckout operator, New World, Thorndon
  • Putting my life at risk to serve others, not being able to stay 2 meters away from other people and not much precautions in place for staff. Uni courses are going online now.
  • More health and safety precautions for staffHome support worker for the elderly and people with disabilities
  • My agency has not provided PPE for some years. Now we can’t get any ourselves. Management won’t answer any questions about this – clients are cancelling care – less hours for us – as we move from house to house we fear transmitting the virus; however management have said we are no more at risk than any flu season. All our clients are extra vulnerable – we have five days a year sick leave and are expected to use it, and then apply for annual leave. There is no talk of special leave. – we already work erratic hours with cancelled cares and changes in guaranteed hours being a problem – Many of us are elderly ourselves or have respiratory problems. When on Friday Geneva told its workers over 70 and immunocompromised workers they couldn’t work, that meant many workers downed tools – some workers are leaving their jobs because their own health is poor. They are worried about getting infected. – management from my agency seems to treat the situation as business as usual. We’re just asked to watch the government website. We still get texts every day asking us to do jobs – there is nothing communicated about the free flu vaccine.
  • Clarity of communication. If they don’t know, tell us. Acknowledging our value as care workers. 

 Māori midwife in the community, Manawatū 

  • I am an asthmatic so is my son. Likewise my brother and my mother who is 67. I have made the choice to keep my son home. I can no longer support wāhine hapū to birth. I am lucky my husband can still work and I have another form of income at the moment.
  • There needs to be an action plan set for kaimahi Māori to make sure we as frontline staff are looked after in a culturally responsive way, as well as the whanau we support.

Security officer at supermarket

  • Scared, feeling helpless. Accepting probably going to get sick
  • Free public transport and other benefits for low wage essential workers.

Radiology, Mid Central Health

  • Have to work, shared child care, solo Mum. Who looks after my kids when I have to work? Or do I not work and not get paid?
  • Being told we don’t have enough protective gear at the hospital is very worrying. Produce more hand sanitizer, people are worried because it ran out.
  •  Caregiver for mother and uncle, one with dementia one with lung cancer
  • I am concerned I may carry virus to them as I’m their only contact to outside world at the moment. I’m the only one to do their shopping, cooking and personal cares. Very worried.
  • Level 4 needs to be put in place

 Forensic psychiatry, Mason Clinic

  • Rest of family at home. Onus on me not to bring the virus home-or take it to work!
  • A robust  barrier in place both at home and at work, a sort of firewall each end. Simple, but consistent. I will carry my ID, to prove that I am a health worker, and legitimately out of my house. Public information needs to be everywhere. Clear and simple guidelines, and repeated. People need to understand what is essential and what is useless. I saw quite a few people wearing disposable gloves at a supermarket yesterday, and touching everything with those gloved hands, as if they would somehow not transfer infection. I guess advice needs to be dynamic as we observe behaviours and see what the salient gaps in our defences are.

 Longline assistant, Countdown

  • Really concerned with the number of people rushing stores and no safety equipment provided for the workers.
  • People coming in and out of the store should be tested by their temperature and safety equipment such as gloves and masks should be provided to the workers.

Front Reception, DHB hospital

  • I’m not getting information given to me from my management or above as to what is happening so I am unable to put things in place and am not prepared for situations and questions I get asked at work by the public. I don’t know what’s happening with my job. This is affecting me getting to work as I depend on public transport. Health and safety hasn’t been covered efficiently for my area, the front of the hospital. This has been shown by an incident that occured due to the sanitiser and how everyone passed the buck to wanting to be accountable for it and wanting to prevent it, so I took it upon myself. Financially it’s beginning to cripple me as I was meant to be starting more hours this week because of financial struggle, now this will impact on me mentally and financially. Lack of team morale within the workplace has been a huge impact on me, no communication or compassion. No rallying together to care about one another at this time of need but this behaviour ripples from the top.
  • Supervisors and management’s needs to find out what is planned for our department for the next four weeks and let us know ASAP so we can plan our lives. There needs to be firm leaders in each team chosen my management to take the wheel during this time. Communication is the key. We also should be getting financial support for this especially people in my types of positions that have close proximity of contact with people in case we get ill as we are sacrificing our well being for the people or Aotearoa. 

 Nurse, ICU

  • Family separation. Young children and elderly parents so to protect them while being available to care for patients I have isolated myself from them. Although utilising PPE there are still concerns of transmission to healthcare workers as had happened in China & Italy. So while many are worried about being crowded at home many of us health carers are looking at a lonely time when we are at home. And frustrated I can’t help them with the everyday business and worry about the stress on my parents. And their worry for me. Once it gets busy then it’ll be very different as we will all have a hyper focus at work and we all anticipate working a lot of extras. Getting tired and needing to maximise our own immunity too is a concern.
  • Nutritional Meals/drinks supplied and perhaps accommodation for some….. not everyone can isolate as easily from loved ones as others can. Maybe some simple immune supplemental support for staff. And emotional support early to aid staff resilience.Maybe DHB only shopping times at supermarkets…to reduce public interaction but also free up supplies for essential workers. And supermarkets need to count customers and limit numbers of people going in and out of the stores. Lock down to limit spread of disease is important and we all need to adhere to it. 

 LMC Midwife

  • Isolated at home as my husband is immunocompromised and I have an underlying health condition as well. This means I have to pay a backup midwife out of my own pocket, to cover my caseload. Not sure how we are going to manage financially. Also have concerns about lack of PPE provisions for midwives working closely with people, particularly as there is no other profession that is at higher risk of exposure to body fluids. 

 District Nurse

  • Afraid of bringing the virus home to loved ones.
  • Provide health care workers who are working during a community outbreak with paid accommodation to help to contain the spread. There are many nurses out there for who it is impossible to isolate from family members within one household. 

 LMC Midwife

  • I’m concerned about lack of guidance from the MOH and NZCOM.. I’m worried for my health and risk of exposure. I’m currently unable to access any PPE or cleaning/disinfectant supplies.
  • More guidance, more support, more ppe and disinfectant supplies.

 Public transport bus driver

  • Financial concerns, health & safety concerns, implications of social distancing on single households
  • More emphasis on workplace cleaning for non-public areas; transfers of covid in car surfaces 

Self employed midwife

  • Expected to carry on seeing women with currently limited guidance and NP provision so far of PPE. 
  • Urgent provision of PPE and no expectations of us to work without them. And for midwives appreciate pay provision. It is shocking what we are expected to do for little pay and no pay 

 LMC Midwife, West Community

  • Very stressed. Have been given no PPE equipment, no guidance from the midwifery council or MOH and expected to still see women with no safety or information. Huge health and safety concerns, this has been poorly managed especially since it was obvious this would happen. Very worried about money. Rent should stop.
  • Rent and mortgage and bills need to be stopped. A ban on more than 2 products in supermarkets should have been implemented earlier. Should have been better control on stockpiling infection control equipment. The airport should have done better control and screening. We need answers from the MOH, we need PPE equipment and to not have accountability if something goes wrong because we weren’t allowed to see our patients. We need direction.

 Paramedic, Christchurch

  • Anxiety increased and a more stressful workload.
  • Promises for the future (both short and long term), practical and demonstrative assurances.

Ward clerk, Surgical wards

  • Mental health. Clinical depression diagnosed. No support groups – shut down at mo. Being at hospital I’m overly anxious, depressed and worried.Would rather be home but I can’t – I’m not 70 plus, pregnant etc. Clinical depression. Is not deemed unsafe.
  • Transparency. For staff at home and rostered days off, no work emails coming to home emails. So very much in the dark. 

Frontline Mental Health Crisis Respite 

  • My staff over half team at my site dropped off because of fear of taking COVID19 home. We that are working skeleton think we should be Compensated above our normal rate. The flak I’m getting from home because a partner has a Respiratory disease has caused our home stress. No assurances from our NGO or Capital Coast Health that they will give us Priority healthcare in the event of CV19. No danger money no promised time down when the Pandemic for all who are frontline Health on ordinary wages. Thanks guys.
  • All people before contact with Health workers, including my site in Mental Health Crisis respite, tested for Covid 19 before working with them. DHB to pick up.our Client Bedding done at Hospital to stop spread of germs. we only have a small home brand 5kg machine doesn’t ever seem up to standard yet they’re willing to risk clients beds not sanitized properly.

Practice Nurse

  • Very very upset today as both myself and husband who is working at another hospital in another region 6 hrs away, are front line medical workers. Kids very scared that we are both going to die! Management have been excellent in getting PPE, but I feel it’s been largely up to us if we wear it when dealing with the general public. Feeling very very torn between my children and my duty to my patients, very very stressful. Extremely worried about bringing virus home to my children.
  • Need to make general Public aware of how serious this Covid 19 is and how deadly it is! Proper policing of “lockdown” NO ONE out socialising ! Front line workers need to be protected from public who might see their needs as more important and get aggressive and abusive (this happens now let alone when there is this heightened stress)  There needs to be Adequate alternative services for counselling/mental health services e.g. phone consult.  this has finished just No Leave at this time. We are stressed.  It means washing clothing daily, no scrubs available and no booties or head covers either, so the power Bill’s at work skyrocket from showering before work and after. We Want to be compensated with higher rates of pay like Hospitals pay – time and half double time and unlimited sick leave during the pandemic.

Intellectual vaccination: Can the social movements defend ourselves from the brain plagues?

Image via Shutterstock.

By Daphne Lawless and Byron Clark.

Written for the Pandemic issue of Fightback magazine. Subscribe here.

In 2018, Fightback published an article (https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/) on the increasing penetration by the global activist Left by fascist-like ideas and ways of thinking – including apologetics for repressive nationalism, transphobia and racism, and sheer denial of genocides and other war crimes. We used the metaphor of a “zombie plague”, where such noxious, deadly ideas became not only accepted but promoted within Left-wing circles.These ideas are presented  as “anti-Western” or “anti-neoliberal”, even though they are not only hateful or victim blaming, but in many cases sheer conspiracy theory as wild as anything which comes out of the “QAnon” cult. Believing these ideas often meant not only contradicting the very basis of socialist or communist politics (universal solidarity with the oppressed and exploited), but abandoning one’s critical faculties altogether, in favor of believing convenient-sounding or exciting lies.

One example from the recent US presidential election will show that this is still a problem. After Joe Biden appeared to have clinched the necessary electoral victory, Left-wing Twitter was alive with retweets of unsourced claims that Republican figures such as Mitt Romney or even Iraq War criminal Dick Cheney were going to be in the Biden cabinet. This is the kind of thing which appeals to the left-wing imagination, as proof that the US Democrats are depraved warmongers, not much different from the fash-curious Republican Party. The fact that it was utterly unfounded didn’t matter. What mattered is how much it confirmed what people wanted to believe anyway – what comedian Steven Colbert calls “truthiness”.

More than two years later, the metaphor of a “plague” has come to life. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has been promoted, exacerbated and made more deadly by the simultaneous spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation. People have literally died due to the spread of ideas that the pandemic is not real, not serious, or that the basic health measures which have kept countries like Vietnam or Aotearoa/New Zealand relatively safe are ineffective, or a tool of the Global Conspiracy of “woke elites” (usually Jewish) which is the hobgoblin of the modern reactionary mind.

The struggle against COVID-19 disinformation is in fact the same as the struggle against the new wave of conspiracy theory-based reactionary and fascist movements – these ideas inhabit the same “conspiracy theory universe” and make the same assumptions about the world and how it works. Anti-democratic or even pro-fascist ideas, disguised as “anti-establishment” or “anti-status quo”, have expanded and spread within the social justice movements. The activist Left must come to terms with how, over the last 10 or 15 years, we have allowed ourselves to become a dumpster for disinformation spread by authoritarian states who happen to oppose the US, or in some cases by actual fascists. It’s not just the QAnon followers or the fans of Billy Te Kahika Jr who happily spread memes which have nothing to do with reality because they confirm what we wanted to believe anyway.

Laundering fascist ideas through Leftist mouths

We have to understand how successful these (numerically tiny) forces have been at “laundering” reactionary ideas in mainstream or Left-wing circles. This is a concept which is also dear to the heart of Steve Bannon, the fascist operative who was very close to the Donald Trump campaign in 2016. In the 2020 campaign, Bannon resurfaced with a wild tale about certain incriminating emails and photographs (the story never seemed to get straight about how they were incriminating) supposedly found on a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post:

Bannon’s basic insight has long been that for such smears and disinformation to work, they must somehow get vaulted out of the conservative media bubble and into mainstream news coverage. …Back when Bannon was first trying to get the general bundle of right wing Biden-Ukraine smears taken seriously, journalist Joshua Green explained how all this works. He reported that Bannon was frustrated that these stories were “stuck in the conservative ecosystem.” …The Bannon playbook dictates that such efforts must “enter the public consciousness” as something other than “conservative attacks,” Green explained. It was only through getting “coverage in the mainstream press” that they might get “weaponized” or “legitimized.”” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/15/trumps-fake-new-biden-scandal-has-deeper-purpose-bannon-revealed-it/)

In other words: disinformation will be just plain rejected if its real source is apparent, but it becomes “weaponized” when a trusted source (for most people, the mainstream media) gives it credibility. Of course, Left-wing activist circles don’t trust the mainstream media. Therefore, to get these ideas circulating in Left circles, they must come from a source which the Left takes seriously. If you can convince a leader or prominent writer in the movements of a toxic idea – or create your own sources for disinformation which “blend in” with the existing ecosystem of Left media – such a source may act as a “superspreader”, massively increasing the reach of such ideas. 

The Red-Brown Zombie Plague gave many examples of how fascists and agents of the Russian state successfully established themselves in the Western anti-war and anti-imperialist movement (through emphasising the “Left-sounding” aspects of their beliefs). Not only did these sources become “superspreaders” themselves, but they successfully laundered their ideas through many genuine but incautious Leftists. One prominent example of this is journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose effective criticisms of the US security state in the past have gained him an audience for his more recent apologies for Trump (and Vladimir Putin), on the grounds that anyone who’s being opposed by the FBI and the CIA can’t be all bad. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard also got a supportive response on social media for her Left-sounding attacks on neoliberal Democrats – never mind that she is infamous for her Islamophobia, her support for the Hindu-nationalist Modi regime in India, and her apologies for the bloodthirsty tyranny of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

Similarly, in many countries including Aotearoa, anti-trans activists, often funded by American fundamentalist churches, have succeeded in laundering “TERF” ideas into mainstream or even radical circles by adopting a protective camouflage of “feminism” or “standing up for women and girls”. In the same way, one of the most disturbing aspects of the rise of Billy Te Kahika Jr and his “NZ Public Party” is how he successfully “weaponizes” conspiracy ideas, which often have close ties to white supremacist movements, to a disproportionately Māori and Pasefika audience.

Most of the conspiracies promoted by Te Kahika have their origins in the John Birch Society, a fringe conservative group founded in the United States by Robert Welch in 1958. Welch was known for  labeling political opponents as soft on communism, he described then President Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. According to Welch, “both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government.’”

Te Kahika has parroted these lines to a new audience via his Facebook live streams. The John Birch society was one of the earliest progenitors of health-related conspiracy theories. In the 1950s, many “Birchers” became involved in protesting the use of fluoride in public water supplies, arguing fluoridation was a secret Communist conspiracy that would inflict a host of ills on an unsuspecting public (this was the inspiration for the character of Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 film Dr Strangelove). The opposition to UN Agenda 21, a favourite target of Te Kahika, also originates with the John Birch Society

Shortly before the election, Stuff Circuit produced a forty-five minute documentary on Te Kahika. It focused largely on his character and didn’t mention the origins of many of the conspiracy theories he pushes, though it did touch on the anti-semetic nature of some of them. Media for the most part avoided giving coverage to Te Kahika’s conspiracy theories, lest it give them some legitimacy. (See also ‘Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election’ in this issue).

In a similar vein, the lesson to take from the last weeks of the US presidential campaign is that the reason why “Hunter’s laptop” didn’t take off as a serious threat to the Biden campaign, while Hillary Clinton’s private email server more or less sunk her campaign in 2016, was that this time the mainstream media didn’t promote the story, apart from the notorious New York Post tabloid. Twitter and Facebook actively blocked its spread – according to speculation, because they were asked to by law enforcement. This provoked outraged cries of “censorship” not only from Trumpist politicians, but from writers who are known themselves to be “superspreaders” of the Russian state’s disinformation within Left-wing circles – in particular, Glenn Greenwald.

Quarantining the brain-plague

It seems that Fightback has not been alone in using the metaphor of fascistic ideas as a pandemic. New Zealand-based coder and tech and society expert Serena Chen has used this very metaphor in two essays in a recent book, Shouting Zeros and Ones: Digital Technology, Ethics and Policy in New Zealand

Chen told Newsroom editor Marc Daalder: 

“we can look at what makes people ‘susceptible’ and ‘immune’ for ideas on how to guard against extremism. We can recognise that these ideas do not live in a vacuum, and consider the spread of the idea in regards to the people and the environments in which it lives. We can recognise that this model is dynamic and constantly evolving.”      (https://www.newsroom.co.nz/can-we-fight-online-fascism-like-we-fought-covid-19)

Chen’s essays draw an essential analogy between fascists and internet trolling, which explains why such ideas spread so easily via social media:

Perhaps one of the most recognisable characteristics of a fascist movement is its lack of ideological cohesion… This self-contradictory ideology contributes to a manufactured nihilism, a crisis of epistemology. It creates lasting confusion around what is true, so that a) the populace become more susceptible to lies, and b) they must rely instead on a strong, authoritarian figure to tell them what is ‘true’.

The defining expressions of fascist movements are thus more aesthetic than ideological; no one knows what is true, how can anyone make political decisions, or vote? Symbols are another great way to fly under the radar of the mainstream, while giving a wink and a nod to those in the know… Irony in particular can be a safe way to explore radical or extremist ideas before committing to them in the public eye.

Over time, a community that is accepting of edgy jokes is going to start accruing people who think these things earnestly. And by Poe’s Law, no one can truly distinguish who is being earnest and who is having a laugh. …Exposure to milder forms of an ideology without any counterpositions can prime people to accept more extreme forms…. Over-repetition and bots can force fringe ideas into the mainstream and normalise once unthinkable ideologies. 

Techniques such as spamming and bot usage necessarily degrade authenticity, trust and the ability to form genuine connections over the internet. The degradation of trust also makes us more susceptible to cynicism – which fascist movements prey upon. It does not make for a future we want to live in.

The performative and participatory nature of online social platforms incentivises individuals to cultivate followings, give ‘hot takes’ and accrue views and engagement metrics – not too different from the pressures felt by news outlets.

Trolls don’t necessarily believe in their own arguments; the goal is not to convince but to ensnare, enrage and entrap people with prepared gotchas. Trolling is something traditional media bodies and politicians have been ill-equipped to deal with. When reporting on bad-faith movements, we must recognise the ridiculousness of the message, while recognising the seriousness of its impact.

All this is to say that fascism, like trolling, actively degrades community trust and safety, the ability to discuss and debate ideas, and even the very idea of truth itself. It is for this reason that conspiracy theory, denialism, and all other ideas which rely on “unknowability” and encourage people to simply choose whatever reality appeals to them, are poison to the very possibility of democracy, and therefore of any socialist future.

Intellectual hygiene for leftists

We here offer a few suggestions for things that socialists and others active in the social movements can do to stop “intellectual pandemics” spreading in our own movements.

Interrogate sources. When passing on “hot memes” or “killer dunks” on social media, we have to be careful to look below the surface content and see exactly who is promoting it. As Fightback has repeatedly commented, fascism is capable of producing perfectly “Left-sounding” takes, thus building up “social capital” in Left-wing circles and helping it weaponise its more evil ideas later. Careless Leftists have ended up boosting conspiracy theorists or even fascists because they talked a good “anti-neoliberal” game.

Fight both anti-intellectualism and elitism. We might use the term “intellectual anti-vaxxery” to describe the idea that education and science are not necessary in working class and radical movements, or even that they are elitist. It goes along with the idea that the “instincts” (in class society, that usually means the prejudices) of working people are superior to any bourgeois education or expertise.

In contrast, more than a hundred years ago, German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg promoted the concept of bringing “workers and science together” – working people being the force which can change the world, and science being the understanding they need to change it. We have to reassert the radical Left’s belief, shared with the Christian tradition, that the truth will set us free. On the other hand, memes and myths which are popular but baseless might be popular and “fun”, but are in fact intellectual poison which softens our communities up for fascism. To this extent – while “upping our meme game” is no doubt useful – we should honour, promote, and prize those doing long-form research, analysis, commentary and arguments. (Including, we hope, the Fightback media project itself!)

Build stronger communities. In one sense this includes the traditional concept of the “safe space”, that we should provide a community where marginalised voices are protected and upheld and oppressive behaviour is not tolerated. But activist Left circles should also be safe spaces for rationality and evidence-based discussion, where baseless but “aesthetically pleasing” memes don’t get circulated. Serena Chen comments:

We must uplift and create more public figures who practice the kinds of speech that make it more likely for people to express compassion, empathy and kindness towards each other. Anger is a powerful emotion, but so can be pride in ourselves for doing the right thing, a camaraderie with people from different backgrounds coming together.

We must change the culture of our communities to one where we are free to talk about ideas without posturing or ego….When you see problematic behaviour crop up in your friend group, family, communities – you are the first line of defence….As for small-to-medium-sized communities and websites, they should be emboldened to actively moderate their communities, without fear of the ‘free speech’ concern troll.

To a large extent, the activist Left is the “canary in the coalmine” for new intellectual plagues. Because of our higher level of politicisation and our connections with the most oppressed in society, we often become aware of dangerous ideas long before wider society takes them seriously. It is therefore extremely serious when we find ourselves starting to promote those ideas ourselves. We must do better.

Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election

Image via Lynn Grieveson at Newsroom.co.nz

By Byron Clark. Written for the Pandemic issue of Fightback magazine. Subscribe here.

One of New Zealand’s newest political parties has had a disappointing result in the election and its survival as an organisation is now looking uncertain. Blues musician Billy Te Kahika Junior founded the New Zealand Public Party after the viral success of his Facebook live videos, where he made claims about 5G mobile technology being a bio-engineered virus and that the United Nations being inspired by Satanic teachings.

Being too late to register with the electoral commission to be on the ballot this year, the party formed an alliance with Advance New Zealand, the political vehicle of disgraced former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross. Ross withdrew from standing in his former electorate of Botany, hoping instead to enter parliament as a list candidate with co-leader Billy Te Kahika winning the Te Tai Tokerau seat, which Ross described him as “on track to win” in the lead up to the election.

On election night Te Kahika gained just one percent of the votes in the electorate, polling behind the candidate for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party and besting only the New Conservative candidate and two independents. Even if he had won the seat Ross would not have joined him in parliament, as the total party vote for Advance New Zealand was just 28,434 votes, around 1% of the total. 

Victoria University’s New Zealand Social Media Study, which tracked misinformation spread by political parties on social media, found 31 per cent of Advance New Zealand’s posts on Facebook were “half-truths” (content that’s not completely false but still contains information that’s not fully accurate) while a further six per cent of posts were falsehoods. The Advertising Standards Authority ordered them to pull advertising that falsely claimed the government had made vaccines mandatory and two days before the election Facebook removed their page- which had approximately 33,000 followers- for repeatedly posting misinformation about Covid-19.

Traditional media was divided on how to report on Billy Te Kahika and Advance New Zealand, or to report on them at all. “I felt there was a good chance Billy TK would manipulate any interview platform to further push misinformation.” wrote Jack Tame, host of TVNZ’s Q+A programme, which did not cover the group. “You give him a hard time, and he says the media’s conspiring against him. You let him share his ideas and you run a serious risk of legitimising them amongst his followers.”

Stuff took a different approach, producing a forty-five minute documentary ‘False Prophet’ about Te Kahika, which detailed his alleged bullying and underpayment of people he’d worked with in the music industry and as well as inappropriate conduct toward women, as well as exploring the anti-Semitism that underpinns many of the conspiracy theories he was propagating. 

Following the election it was reported that during the campaign, high-ranking members of the Public Party had raised concerns that money collected by Te Kahika was unaccounted for and that contractors had not been paid. There was a bid to remove Te Kahika as leader, but Jami-Lee Ross opposed this as he saw Te Kahika as his only path back to parliament.

“He’s deeply flawed as we all are,” Ross said in a text message seen by Stuff “But we are better to work around those flaws to do right by the people he has given voice to. Taking him down hurts every single candidate who has believed, every single candidate and both of us.”

On October 25 Te Kahika emailed candidates stating “I believe it is time that the New Zealand Public Party (NZPP) breaks away from the alliance with Advance NZ and, with Reset NZ, reform back to the party we are meant to be” (Reset NZ was a small, unregistered party that also joined with NZPP). In a statement provided to the media, NZPP director Michael Stace was quoted as saying “NZPP is clear that its leader is not stepping down, and it is not severing its relationship with Advance NZ” noting that the party was merely becoming autonomous again after failing to enter parliament. A few weeks later however the split between the two parties appeared more acrimonious, with a messy dispute over money playing out in public. 

Ross told The New Zealand Herald that Advance would hold a special general meeting held early in 2021 and a reconstituted party, with a new nationwide structure, would continue in preparation for the 2023 election. This appears overly optimistic on Ross’s part as it’s widely believed his political career is now over. In a now famous interview, Newshub’s Tova O’Brian told him they wouldn’t be inviting him on the programme again, after accusing him of “whipping up fear and hysteria among vulnerable communities” and cutting him off with “I don’t want to hear any of that rubbish” when he tried to claim COVID-19’s fatality rate is similar to that  seasonal flu (something experts have disproven).

Meanwhile Billy Te Kahika has suggested the election was rigged, claiming that hundreds of thousands of votes had either been disqualified or not counted. (The Electoral Commission has rejected this, saying the process was transparent and robust.) With the party banned from Facebook he has used his ‘Public Figure’ page to encourage supporters to follow him to the small social media site MeWe where he is unlikely to ever regain the same reach he had on Facebook. 

We may not have seen the last of the New Zealand Public Party however, while failing to achieve representation in parliament the hundreds (possibly thousands) of people who attended rallies and town-hall style meetings held by the group can’t be written off as insignificant. Speaking with Newsroom, The University of Kent’s Karen Douglas said the outcome of the 2020 election did not mean conspiracy theorists would not be successful in the future, or that they would die out.

“As societal situations fluctuate, conspiracy theories may become more appealing again.”