Freelancing isn’t free: precarity and self-organization in the “gig economy”

Agitprop from the Freelancer’s Union (USA)

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Under capitalism, we’re all supposed to dream of being “the boss” – as opposed to an exploited worker obeying the bosses’ orders. Obviously we can’t all be bosses – who would we order around and exploit? – but the next best thing, in modern “neoliberal” capitalism, is to be your own boss. Hence the appeal of those scam ads for “EARN BIG MONEY AT HOME”, which turns out to be selling cosmetics or bogus diet aids to your friends.

Capitalism is defined by the division between those who own capital – the tools, machines and resources – and those who have to work for a living for the owners of capital. “Self-employed” people are generally seen as being part of a “middle-class” between these two layers. In essence, they own just enough capital to make it possible to employ and exploit the labour of only one worker – themselves. The willingness of a self-employed person to “exploit their own labour” is one reason why small contractors are often more productive than waged or salaried workers – at a proportionate cost to their own health and personal lives.

The idea of self-employed people (often known as “freelancers”, especially when they are writers or other creative workers) as middle-class is an old-fashioned one. Increasingly, neoliberalism has made the idea of a full-time job, especially one “for life”, a thing of the past. Buzzwords like “downsizing” and “labour market flexibility” just boil down to more power for bosses to hire and fire, to drive down wages and conditions. In this situation, there is a whole new class of freelancers who can just be seen as casualised workers who own their own tools.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

A freelancer is only paid for the job. There is no guarantee of future employment, no sick leave and no holiday pay. In these situations, freelancing can even be seen as a form of “disguised unemployment”. Often, having several “clients” rather than a single employer paying you offers no escape from exploitation and mismanagement; the website clientsfromhell.com provides a regular supply of hilarious, depressing and true stories of freelancers suffering at the hands of bigoted, fraudulent, miserly, or simply ignorant employers. Freelance journalist Jacob Silverman complains:

Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.[1]

However, there is another side of the story. Neoliberal ideology talks about the “freedom” of the freelance, be-your-own-boss lifestyle. And it really is freedom, of a sort. A freelance worker sets their own hours of work; they can often work from home, which gives opportunities to parents of small families.

Crucially, a freelance worker also has control over the conditions of their work – when your client/boss is only paying you for what you produce, you can produce it in any way you see fit, without a manager hovering over you. And a freelancer can also reject any job or any client which they consider repugnant, for whatever reason – if they can afford to. (The present author once rejected an opportunity to index the biography of a senior New Zealand politician – not for political reasons, but because the pay they were offering for it was negligible!)

But this is the same freedom that a stray cat has – the freedom to starve. The situation is even more dire in the United States, where the only affordable medical care for many workers is employer-provided health insurance. Being excluded from the “full-time” job market might mean a death sentence if you have needs which can’t be covered out of your own resources.

The author of this article became a freelancer when her employer went out of business; she simply purchased her work computer and kept doing the same job, often for the same international clients. I can testify to both the aspects of the equation above. The precarity and anxiety of sometimes not knowing where your next work (and pay) is coming from contrasts with other times when there is far too much work coming on tight deadlines and you have to choose between giving up a job and giving up your health. But all this is balanced by being able to work how I want, from where I want, producing work of which I can feel proud (that is, if I’m paid adequately to do so.) I can even just ditch work for the day to look after my preschool child, when necessary and deadlines permitting.

The freelance job-advertising website Upwork reports that

nearly half (46%) of Generation Z [those born after 1997] workers are freelancers, a number that is only projected to grow in the next five years …not only are more Gen Zers freelancing, but 73% are doing so by choice rather than necessity, while only 66% of Baby Boomers and 64% of Millennials can say the same, according to the report.[2]

Similarly the British Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed reports that in the UK:

the number of female freelancers has grown by 55% since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office employment post-baby has shot up by 79%. Comparatively, the number of men freelancing has grown by 36% in the same time frame.[3]

This new form of employment relationship is thus dominated by younger people and by women, two of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. In these situations, the kneejerk reaction of the traditional workers’ movement that freelancing is just a way for employers to drive wages down, and should be discouraged or even abolished, looks as out as touch as those who say the same things about migrant workers. Many of us choose to freelance, and prefer the conditions of work to clocking in every day under a manager’s supervision. What we don’t like is the insecurity attached to it.

Ideology and organization

The point now should be not whether freelance work should exist, but how the position of freelance workers can be improved. And in the Marxist tradition, the answer to that has always been “the self-organization of the workers themselves”. But the current labour union movement has enough trouble organizing workers on small, geographically dispersed sites. How can we possibly organize workers who work from home, online, with a different “boss” every week or maybe even multiple bosses on the same day?

Another major problem with organizing freelancers is the strong influence of ruling-class ideas that freelancers should see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than workers – even when living in precarity at the whim of millionaire clients. According to Tom Cassauwers writing for Equal Times website:

Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Freelancer Sarah Grey adds that corporate lobbyists invest a lot in trying to get freelancers to see law changes and union organization which would actually benefit them as a threat to their “freedom”:

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do…), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers.[4]

This tactic was used to gruesome effect by Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers in the dispute around the filming of the Hobbit films in New Zealand in 2010. When Actors’ Equity demanded a union contract, a slick PR operation by the employers whipped up fear that this would lead to the major studios abandoning film-making in New Zealand altogether. This led to film workers actually demonstrating in favour of law changes which deprived them of rights (one memorable sign said “EXPLOIT ME, PETER!”) and union spokesperson Robyn Malcolm faced vicious harassment.[5]

Another crucial question is how to distinguish between actual freelance workers and “fake freelancers” – workers who are actually working in traditional jobs but have been pushed into declaring themselves to be freelance or “independent contractors” so that their employers can deprive them of rights. The most familiar example of this in Aotearoa is workers at Chorus who maintain our telecommunications infrastructure.[6] Traditional unions or NGOs have to be careful to defend the rights of actual freelancers while also defending the rights of full-time workers to have all their appropriate rights and conditions of labour.[7]

What kind of organization?

Freelancer organization is currently most advanced in the United States, precisely because of the issue of health insurance mentioned above. The Freelancers’ Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org/), founded in 2001 by former labour lawyer and union organizer Sara Horowitz, concentrates mostly on advocacy and getting good deals on health insurance from its members. Their biggest victory in advocacy came with New York City enacting a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law, which requires that all freelancers be paid within 30 days alongside other legal protections.[8]

However, the Freelancers’ Union is not actually a “union” in the way we would understand it, in that it does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. It is in fact more similar a non-profit organization which provides services and advocacy in return for membership fees; a “top-down” organization, rather than an expression of workers’ power. It works for freelancers “within the system” rather than trying to change that system.[9]

One major issue in the United States is that the labour laws left over from the Franklin Roosevelt “New Deal” era specifically exclude many categories of workers (originally to make the law acceptable to racist Southern agriculture bosses). Thus, many freelancers and other “gig economy” workers couldn’t join a union if they wanted to. This is where NGO advocacy organizations play an important role, like the Freelancers’ Union, or like the organizations who have lobbied for improved conditions for Uber and Lyft drivers – even organizing successful strikes in Los Angeles.[10]

That said, there are successful models of union organization among freelance industries – the most famous being unions in the entertainment industry (which existed before the US labour laws mentioned above). The US television industry was brought to a near-halt by the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8,[11] and the same union is currently taking legal action against talent agencies who they say are exploiting their monopoly position against writers.[12]

The entertainment industry is one of the economic pillars of the US economy and – in that country, at least, can’t be easily outsourced to more desperate overseas workers (the threat of which proved so effective in the defeat of the actors’ unions in New Zealand during the Hobbit dispute). So it’s perhaps not surprising that “old-style” union power still has a foothold there. But what models are available for those of us in less “trendy” freelance jobs – for example, writing or editing jobs, where there is continuous downward pressure on pay, deadlines, and the quality of work deemed acceptable?

One recent answer comes from a very venerable source – the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have recently started organizing among freelance journalists. An article from a member-organizer tells a story which is very familiar to freelancers in other industries:

Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unliveable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions…

[S]taffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, [the website] Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.[13]

The article goes on to discuss the question raised above, how to “map the workplace” (create ties between freelancers who might never meet each other in person) through one-on-one contacts through existing personal and professional networks. Crucially, the Wobbly organizers have worked on an international basis – just as feasible as local and national organizing when the community is globalised through the Internet – and has made no distinctions between print journalists, website journalists or bloggers. They have already announced a small victory: a Twitter campaign forcing the website Vox to rescind their rule prohibiting freelance writers from publicly discussing how much Vox pays them.

Other, more “traditional” labour unions have also had victories. In the US, the National Writers Union won a major battle for back-pay for freelance journalists in 2018.[14] The Dutch trade union FNV, the German union ver.di and the British trade union Community have all made serious efforts to organize freelancers – the latter, similarly to the American NWU, aims to concentrate mainly on problems with late payments.[15]

Andrew Pakes of the British union Prospect toured New Zealand last year, giving talks on the question of organizing freelance workers. In a website article, he explains:

Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organizing strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organize themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organizing with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.[16]

The question is clearly not whether organizing freelance workers is possible, because it is being done. The question of whether traditional unionism, the “Wobbly shop” or an NGO advocacy-and-service model is the most effective is one which can only be established by experience. But time is long since due for freelance workers and their allies in Aotearoa/New Zealand to start making experiments.

Sarah Grey gives an excellent final word:

freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class. We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/153744/gig-economy

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/growth-of-the-gig-economy-46-of-gen-z-workers-are-freelancers/

[3] https://www.ceotodaymagazine.com/2018/07/the-rise-of-the-freelancer/

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/freelance-independent-contractor-union-precariat/

[5] See our predecessor organization’s article at https://fightback.org.nz/2010/10/25/workers-party-statement-on-the-hobbit-dispute/, complete with comments from anti-union members of the entertainment industry

[6] https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/110473768/action-widens-against-chorus-subcontractors-accused-of-migrant-exploitation

[7] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/07/for-freelancers-getting-stiffed-is-part-of-the-job-some-in-new-york-city-want-to-fix-it/

[9] A good account of the positive and negatives of the Freelancers’ Union is provided here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/freelancers-union/

[10] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/freelancers-want-to-join-unions-but-labor-laws-wont-let-them

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Writers_Guild_of_America_strike

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/tv-writers-union-says-agents-are-violating-antitrust-law-2019-8/

[13] https://organizing.work/2019/08/a-year-of-organizing-freelance-journalists/

[14] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[15] https://community-tu.org/who-we-help/freelancers-and-self-employed/

[16] http://unions21.org.uk/news/lessons-for-a-collective-voice-in-a-freelance-world

"Trade Unions for the 21st Century": new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine out soon

The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” – this phrase has been a touchstone for the radical Left since it opened the Rules of the First International, 150 years ago. And yet, easier said than done.

Trade unions are the most basic form of working-class self-organization, and thus the embryonic form of the kind of consciousness and organization that the working class will need to conquer and rebuild the world. But it’s hard to see a straight line between this utopian vision and the unions that we know, belong to or work for in the here and now.

The necessities of mere survival through the vicious attacks of the neoliberal area have left only the strongest unions standing in the Western countries – “strongest” in the sense of the largest, after several rounds of mergers, and in the sense of being “professionalized”. Many newer unions such as UNITE in Aotearoa/New Zealand trumpet their return to an “organizing” model rather than a “service” model – thus bringing the threat of worker militancy back onto the scene after the long series defeats and “partnership” with the bosses which characterized the 1990s.

However, these new “organizing” unions are still firmly professional, in the sense that effective leadership and power remains with the full-time, well-educated and ideologically committed organizers, in addition to a small, self-selecting nucleus of “staunch” workers who are keen to carry out exemplary industrial actions rather than the traditional mass strike. Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, reviewed in this issue, draws out this distinction very clearly in the US context.

The question is, of course, if “another unionism is possible” in the neoliberal, globalized era: what might it look like? Aside from McAlevey’s analysis, in this issue of Fightback we look at possibilities for organizing “difficult” groups of workers who are generally ignored by the “labour movement professionals” of the current era: freelance workers, migrant workers, hospitality workers. Each of these articles presents viewpoints from organizers or workers intimately involved in these struggles.

We close this issue with an article from the “Women’s Strike” movement in Britain which brings up other crucial issues on what the unions of the future will look like. McAlevey’s book – as well as the book Feminism for the 99%, reviewed in our last issue – have discussed how strike action is a powerful tool for 21st century workers’ struggle in the caring industries (health, education, social welfare) precisely because these areas of work are so important to the neoliberal economy, and because they can’t be easily “offshored”. The “Women’s Strike” article also neatly reprises themes we raised in our last issue on how modern socialist feminist requires uncompromising solidarity and common struggle with sex workers and trans and gender-queer people.

Thank you very much for supporting Fightback in 2019.

Aotearoa/New Zealand sex workers speak: two testimonies

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

1. LUCY SKY

In a capitalist society, all labour is exploitative; to treat sex work as any different to manual labour is reductive and discriminatory. SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) often use a rhetoric that sex work is “selling your body”. This lacks any nuance, or critique that under capitalism all labour is commodified and is therefore “selling your body”.

A manual labourer is required to engage in physical labour in order to survive; sex workers are no different in that regard. The commodification of the body is a systemic issue under capitalism, and needs to be addressed as a whole, not just when it comes to those who are most marginalised, such as sex workers.

This marginalisation however causes sex workers to face exploitation in very unique intersections, those that a general labourer may not face. Drug use, poverty, racism, gender discrimination and other intersections can all exclude sex workers from engaging in “normal” or “acceptable” labour, as defined by the status quo.

To give a personal viewpoint, I engaged in sex work to sustain a drug habit; a drug habit that precluded me from working due to pervasive drug testing attitudes in New Zealand. This drug habit wasn’t a leisure activity, it was formed out of an aversion to trauma: sexual, emotional, and derived from poverty.

This drug habit took primacy above my own safety, and I was re-traumatised over and over again by engaging in sex work. However, sex work is not the issue in my situation. It was a means to survive in the face of a welfare system that didn’t provide support, mental health systems that didn’t provide support, and communities that were happy to turn a blind eye to the marginalised population.

I felt hopeless, and that there was no escape. There were no systems in place that would humanise me or treat me with the respect I desperately needed.

Sex workers, just as any human, are required to engage in the coercive system that capitalism has created in order to survive. They (we) shouldn’t face further alienation from their communities for engaging in the same activities that are required of any human to survive.

Sex workers deserve the same protections and rights that any labourer deserves, as sex work is work. As one of the most marginalised populations, perhaps these protections and rights need in fact to be given even more primacy.

2. JUDY

I’m a transgender sex worker. People have lots of other names for me, it almost seems there’s an approved list of them. I have my favourites from the list: “scarlet lady” and “coquet”. But one of those words is the one most commonly associated with sex workers, whore.

I proudly call myself a whore. Most of my friends hate me doing so, they see it as most people do: a horrible insult meaning you’re the most degraded thing a woman can be. But when you look at the word whore, where it comes from, what it actually means, you find something very interesting.

“Whore” started out in the 16th century as a polite euphemism for another word for sex worker we’ve now lost. When you strip it right down, whore just means sex worker. Thing is, the reason it no longer means that is we don’t like acknowledging sex work is just that: work, just like being a plumber or carpenter, no difference really.

So I’m a whore, a sex worker. And I’m proud of being one. More than that, when someone throws whore at me as an insult, I can just smile, say “yes I am”, and let the insult bounce. That’s the thing about being a sex worker, people don’t like accepting you are a worker. You’re either some kind of moral degenerate or a fallen woman who needs to be saved. Either way you have no say in your life, other people know far better than you what to do with your life. You’re a child who can’t be trusted to make your own decisions about what you do.

Oddly enough, I feel quite capable of making my own decisions about my life. Before I was a sex worker I had a variety of jobs, including manager of a graphic arts department in a printing firm. Not only did people trust me to make decisions about my own life then, they trusted me to make decisions about other people’s lives. I really don’t think my mental capacity has diminished since then.

People of course will argue I must have been forced into sex work by desperate circumstances. No, not at all. I’m a sex worker due to a conscious, logical choice. I could work 60 to 70 hours a week in a supposedly “respectable” job, or earn the same money working five to eight hours a week. A no-brainer, really.

Then we get the argument, there’s no skill involved in my job. It’s easy money, all you do is lay back and “think of England” (or whichever country takes your fancy). Nothing could be further from the truth. In my previous employment as a department manager I developed a wide and varied skill set. Time management, interpersonal relations, financial control, conflict resolution, understanding clients’ needs; the list is really quite extensive. And I use every single one of those skills extensively as a sex worker. More than that, I’ve extended and sharpened those skills.

It’s a damn sight harder being a sex worker than managing a group of graphic artists. It’s not easy money and there’s a hell of a lot of skill involved and in areas you’d never expect. I often tell people the most useful parts of my body as a sex worker are my ears and my vocal cords, listening to my clients and communicating effectively with them. You really can’t do this job if you can’t do that.

So, sex work is work. Really honest to goodness old fashioned hard decent labour. And like any other worker, a carpenter, lawyer, plumber, doctor, whatever, we deserve respect for what we do. We deserve protection from harm. Yes, the job involves risk, but to be honest, there are riskier jobs: nursing springs to mind. We deserve protection from exploitation. Biggest step in that was decriminalisation. We now have access to all the legal protections any other worker has in their employment. Sex work is hard work, it can often be very draining. It requires a wide, varied and unique skill set, one I don’t think you’ll find replicated in any other job. It can also be immensely rewarding; I get to meet a huge variety of people and get to know them on an incredibly intimate level.

Sex work is real work, and those who choose of their own free will to engage in it deserve to be respected and treated as any other worker might be.

Why Do Socialists Care About Sex Workers?

By JESSE DEKEL and the Socialist Feminism committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, San Francisco chapter. Originally published as a zine.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Why do feminist socialists care about sex workers?

As socialist feminists, we believe that all workers deserve dignity! There is no reason sex work is any different from any other type of labour when you strip away oppressive patriarchal standards of morality.

Isn’t sex work bad for the people in it?

Under capitalism all jobs are bad for workers. Bosses make money off of our labour and give us as little payment, benefits, and respect as they can get away with. As socialists we stand against the exploitation of ALL workers against bosses, exploited by conditions outside and inside their work. We support sex workers founding unions and collectives to advocate for better working conditions, and the empowerment of the workers themselves.

Fight the stigma

Due to a puritanical culture, sex workers face stigma at every turn. There is a racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, gendered and anti-Semitic history to this stigma, which informs the present of policing/prisons and economic marginalization. Society devalues and takes away agency from sex workers to make decisions about their economic livelihood. Most of all, it makes it even harder for the marginalized to survive. If we want to be a true supporter of marginalized workers, then we have to support sex workers.

Why decriminalization?

Sex workers are overwhelmingly asking for the decriminalization, and not regulation/legalization of their work. Decriminalization prohibits the state and law enforcement officials from intervening in sex work. Decriminalization also de-prioritizes arrests, reduces interaction between police and sex workers, and retroactively seals criminal records.

Why is the legalization model not enough?

Legalization would simply allow for a capitalist exploitation of sex work, with all of its attendant regulations and coercions. We’ve seen this with the legalization of marijuana: instead of simply reducing law enforcement’s presence in the drug war, it’s turned into a system that benefits only the privileged and continues incarcerating and otherwise exploiting the marginalized. As socialists, we reject the further entrenchment of capitalist enterprise within sex work.

“The Face of Gayness”: A Trans History of Resistance in Aotearoa

WILL HANSEN is a Master’s candidate in history at Victoria University of Wellington and trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. His Master’s thesis, an extension of his honours thesis, is about trans politics and communities in Aotearoa in the 1970s and 80s.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Aotearoa has never had a “Stonewall moment.” That boisterous blast of radical collective action at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, led by trans women and other queers of colour, sex workers, homeless street youth, and others, has achieved the status of legend in queer history. Although Stonewall was not “the beginning of queer liberation” that it is often made out to be, its importance as a symbolic moment that has been utilised by activists to push queer politics in a radical direction, and remind the community of how much we do truly owe trans women of colour and other marginalised queer communities, cannot be understated.

However, in Aotearoa, we never had such a moment. And when queer activists here attempt to utilise Stonewall in the same way, it has much less power. There is a perception that in Aotearoa, queer rights were fought for and won solely by lesbian and gay activists. Trans people were not at the forefront of our politics, no matter how important they may have been overseas.

This is a gross misconception.

Trans women, particularly trans women of colour engaged in sex work, have always been the face of our movement, regardless of whether cisgender lesbians and gays have accepted them. Speaking to oral historian Caren Wilton, Dana de Milo articulated that trans women were “the bottom of the gay heap, even though we were the face of it.” While the “white gay guys” could hide behind men’s clothing, trans women did not have this option. Although we often speak of “homophobic” violence, scholar Viviane K. Namaste argues that “the connotations of the pejorative names used against individuals who are assaulted – names like “sissy,” “faggot,” “dyke”…suggest an attack is justified not in reaction to one’s sexual identity, but to one’s gender presentation.”[1] Gender and sexuality is collapsed, and it is non-normative gender presentation, rather than sexuality, which is used by attackers to identify which ‘queers’ to bash. This is why trans women like de Milo, most likely to be singled out for transgressing gender norms, “were the face of gayness, even though we weren’t gay…we were the ones who were getting beaten up and put in jail.”[2] Queens (as such women generally preferred to be identified) were situated at the intersection of a complex network of oppressions; this system of gender violence is both classed and racialised. De Milo and her contemporaries were not only “the face of gayness” and most vulnerable to assault because they were trans, but also because they were sex workers, and the majority were also Māori and Pasifika. They defied convention on account of their gender, their sexual practice, their class and precarity, and their race.

Additionally, queens were not simply a racialised minority, but a colonised minority. Sex, gender and sexuality are used to reify colonial power, to naturalise hierarchies and unequal gender relations, and therefore heterosexism and transmisogyny must be interpreted as colonial systems of violence.[3] Steve Pile and Michael Keith argue that because “power colonises internally as well as externally” – that is, oppressed populations are encouraged to internalise the belief that they are worthy of oppression – “shedding the guilt and shame induced by internal colonisation,” while less obvious than the overthrow of external power, is just as crucial a means of resistance.[4] As scholar and activist Elizabeth Kerekere writes, since “discrimination against takatāpui has been normalised in the context of colonisation…claiming takatāpui identity can be seen as a means of decolonising diverse gender identities, sexualities and sex characteristics.”[5] While in the 1970s and early 80s, these women did not claim “takatāpui” identity explicitly, many nonetheless drew on their cultural heritage for strength in claiming their identity proudly as queens.[6] These women had to combat not only external oppression, but internalised transphobia too; in this context, the simple act of walking down the street, proud to be oneself, was an act of extraordinary power.

From Carmen to Chrissy Witoko, Wellington’s queens in particular were also actively carving out queer spaces in otherwise hostile queerphobic and cissexist terrain. Again, while such work may not look as dynamic as a protest (which trans people were also involved in, see the photograph attached), building space for community was a vital component in allowing queer people to survive and thrive. Indeed, Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Loungebecame in the 1980s a drop-in centre for lesbians and gays and sex workers alike, providing direct support to both rights movements. Before there can be mobilisation of marginalised community, the marginalised must come together as a community first. Also speaking to Wilton, Poppy explained how queens “stuck together,” because “no one else is going to stand up for us. Nobody. You walk down Queen Street, and if they realise you’re not a girl, you’ll get punched in the street. And when you call a policeman, he’ll abuse you too. I’m proud of it. We were tough girls. The 1960s was a tough world, you know?”[7] Given that systematic and internalised cissexism and transmisogyny pressured trans people into isolation and silence, the very act of seeking trans friendships and community should be interpreted as resistance.

There is no space in this piece to outline all that trans people have done to achieve liberation in Aotearoa. Although trans people should not have had to have done anything in order to warrant respect and celebration, the point is, we were there, and we were resisting. Resistance takes as many different forms as does oppression, and just because it may not be as immediately recognisable as a change to the law or a protest placard, does not mean it did not help push forward change.

From Pink Triangle 54 (July/August 1985). Reproduced by kind permission of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.

For more international context on the role of trans people in radical and queer politics over the last 50 years, see https://communemag.com/fifty-years-of-queer-insurgency


[1] Viviane K. Namaste, Invisible Lives: the Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.140

[2] Dana de Milo in Caren Wilton, My body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018), pp.184-185

[3] Chris Finley, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing “Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet,” in Queer Indigenous Studies: critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011)p.32

[4] Steve Pile and Michael Keith, Geographies of Resistance (London: Routledge, 1997), p.24

[5] Elizabeth Kerekere, ‘Part of The Whānau: The Emergence of Takatāpui Identity – He Whāriki Takatāpui,’ doctorate thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017, p.128

[6] See Georgina Beyer in Jessica Hutchings and Clive Aspin, Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People (Wellington: Huia, 2007), pp.71, 74-74; Poppy in Wilton, p.272; Resitara Apa in Dan McMullin and Yuki Kihara, Samoan Queer Lives (Auckland: little island press, 2018), pp.27-28

[7] Poppy in Wilton, p.272

“SOCIALIST FEMINISM: against TERF and SWERF” – new issue of FIGHTBACK out soon

Cover of new issue of FIGHTBACK
The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

The concept of “intersectionality” – that various different forms of oppression and exploitation overlap and interact with each other – is hotly debated in Left activist circles Many from the Marxist tradition oppose this concept; for them, the class struggle (capitalists against workers) is the single key to understanding society, and all other forms of oppression are secondary to that – including oppression on the basis of gender and sexuality.

Certainly, Fightback believes that the struggle for gender and sexual liberation can’t be won within capitalism. But we strongly oppose the idea that, because of this, gender and sexuality struggles are “secondary” to the class struggle – or even a distraction from it. This is because we agree with Karl Marx that the working class can only overthrow capitalism and bring about a new world through universal solidarity. Capitalism has survived so long because it continues to divide workers against each other, including on the basis of gender and sexuality. Therefore, a working class that is strong enough to defeat capitalism must overcome gender and sexual oppression as part of the revolutionary struggle, not telling those oppressed on this axis to “suck it up” for the good of The People – or, even worse, perpetuating that oppression in the movement itself.

These are not new arguments. The dialogue between socialism and feminism has been going on since before Marx and Engels, at least back to the days of Mary Woolstonecraft. In the 1980s, some feminists agreed with some Marxists that feminism and Marxism could not be combined. Fightback disagrees. But due to limited space, we decided to focus this issue of Fightback on Socialist Feminism on two major issues which are dividing the radical Left right now – transgender rights and sex work.

Fightback makes no bones about it. Trans women are women (in fact, everyone “is” the gender as which they identify) and sex workers are workers. As we will explore in this issue, we agree strongly with the anarcho-communist website LibCom that “feminists” who deny trans people their right to gender self-identification “are for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right”. We will show that “TERFs” who claim to be on the Left preach a form of politics which has much in common with the Right-populist and even fascist forces which are growing in strength around the world – and worse, that they often openly work with these forces of reaction.

We also believe that those who wish to abolish sex work show a lack of elementary solidarity with some of the most exploited and oppressed members of the working class. “SWERF” and “TERF” politics share the vital feature of attempting to police women’s bodies and the very concept of gender itself – no matter how many actual women (and others) they hurt, exclude or “talk over” in the process. It is thus no accident that many socialists seem to have been sucked into anti-trans politics when trans sex workers didn’t want to listen to their anti-sex work politics. For this reason, we prioritised amplifying the voices of actual sex workers in this issue.

The last part of this issue canvasses some broader issues about what Socialist Feminism for the 21st century might mean. Part of the heritage of the actually-existing radical activist movement is, regrettably, a rather macho, misogynist culture which sometimes expresses it in some of the “best” male comrades acting abusively to women and others. This has been seen most strongly with overseas groups like the British SWP or the American ISO or PSL being torn apart by allegations that male members of the leadership sexually abused woman comrades, and that these crimes were covered up for “the good of the party”. Anne Russell’s article shows that these tendencies are present on the New Zealand left, while Jasmina Brankovic’s gives international context. We close with a review of a major recent book on what “Feminism for the 99%” – or Socialist Feminism – might mean for the global situation we currently face.

Daphne Lawless, coordinating editor

SWERF and TERF: The Red-Brown alliance in Policing Gender

Trans communism
Transcommunist flag by NinjaDrawsDBZ

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, from Fightback magazine’s upcoming issue on Socialist Feminism. Subscribe here.

Late last year, a veteran of communist politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand decided to contribute to a march for the traditional working-class demand for reproductive rights by standing outside it with a sign bearing only the words “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” – a dogwhistle for anti-trans feminists (or “trans-excluding radical feminists”, TERFs). Another veteran from the same organisation now has the same phrase at the head of her Twitter biography – displacing all mention of her record as a socialist and a union organiser. And they’re not the only ones. How has the motivation to punch down on trans people – and defend the “free speech” of fascists and others who do so – come to substitute for the fight for workers’ power and a post-capitalist world in the minds of veteran activists?

Freeze peach

Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks are veteran socialists and union organisers, who were founding authors of the blog Redline when it was set up in 20121. Whitmore’s Twitter account identifies her as part of the “Left Network for Free Speech” (LNFS). The Redline post in which this “Network” was announced says:

As partisans of the working class, we know that the working class has historically been denied democratic rights, including free speech. Even after hundreds of years of struggle, workers today face being fired for expressing, in their own time and on their own computers, views which their employers disapprove of.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of employers and the state disempowers workers and oppressed sections of society such as women, Maori, gay people and migrant workers… Free speech is necessary to expose racism, sexism and bigotry. In contrast, ‘hate speech’ restrictions don’t challenge these ideas. ‘Hate speech’ laws in practice are an arbitrary tool that are used to impose social regulation. They can be used to silence progressives on a range of issues.2

Given their defence of free speech as a weapon in defence of the interests of workers and gay people, it is strange that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau – the millionaire athlete who was released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after violating his contract by making religiously-based homophobic social media posts – or of “gender-critical” (i.e. transphobic) commentators and academics. The link between these and working-class activism seems thin, to say the least.

Free-speech absolutism on the Left has had a historical record of degenerating, first into tolerance for Right-wing ideas, then actual sympathy with them. The classic historical example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain, originally a split from the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation – always somewhat of an outlier on the British far-left – began to be distinguished in the mid-1980s by opposing the consensus that fascist movements such as the British National Party should not be given platforms on campus. This clearly prefigures the LNFS’ insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse, as well as its concern about “academic mobbing” of professors who promote transphobia.

The subsequent transformation of the RCP into an outright Right-wing libertarian outfit is quite notorious. Opposing the liberal consensus had become for them an end in itself, detached from socialist principle. The organisation itself wound up in the 1990s, as their Living Marxism magazine was sued out of existence for denial of the horrors of attempted genocide during the Yugoslav civil wars. They cropped up later in the form of the “Institute of Ideas”, promoting climate-change denial through documentaries such as The Great Global Warming Swindle. They continue to exist as Spiked, a libertarian Right-wing website funded by American billionaires the Koch brothers, some of whose writers have recently been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party.3

It is interesting to note that the place where this degeneration began – minimising the threat of fascism in favour of the supposed greater threat of liberal “thought policing” – is a very common trope on the anti-liberal Left, the kind of people whom Fightback has criticised in our previous articles on Conservative Left and Red-Brown tendencies. As we have previously stated, this kind of underestimation of the fascist threat – or even seeing fascist movements as having a positive side, in mobilising opposition to a centrist/liberal consensus – was the kind of thinking from Communists which led to the victory of Hitler in Germany.

The most shocking and disturbing thing on the LNFS Facebook page, however, is the un-ironic posting of this image4:

This is an extremely common meme in online “free speech” circles (and was recently quoted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter). But this is not a quote from the 18th century French writer Voltaire at all. It is in fact a quote from Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi writing in 1993. The clue to whom he was really referring is given in the following, full version of the meme:

There is no reason to believe that Whitmore, Franks et al. were aware of the true nasty nature of this meme. But in a way, that makes it even worse. Fightback has previously characterised the spread of “Red-Brown” ideas as like a “zombie plague”, in that socialists or others on the Left who start descending into Right-populist or even fascist politics don’t even realise that they’re doing so. It is a case of losing one’s political (or even moral) compass.

“Progressive” transphobia

Unfortunately, trans-exclusive ideas are not confined to the comrades of Redline/LFNS. TERF politics are very strong on the British left, and one union activist recently arrived from Britain tried earlier this year to defend the free speech of transphobes on the “Unions NZ” Facebook group.6 Prominent veterans of the socialist movement in New Zealand – such as Unite Union stalwart Mike Treen and retired academic David Bedggood7 – have also made social media or blog posts opposing “transactivism” or defending local anti-trans activists such as Renee Gerlich. Such comrades often try to justify themselves by arguing that they are against discrimination against trans people, but that “transactivism/the transgender movement” goes too far. These are not dissimilar in form from the arguments against Gay Liberation from 1970s Communists, which are still used by fringe Stalinist groups like the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”.

This is particularly ironic in an era where some of the staunchest young communists in Aotearoa/New Zealand identify as trans, non-binary or in some other way “genderqueer”.9 As we noted in “Against Conservative Leftism”, incomprehension of new ways of living which have become common among young people in the era of neoliberal globalisation is a common feature among many veteran activists.

Beyond that, many activists have pointed to an extremely strong link between anti-sex-worker (sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism, or SWERF) and anti-trans politics. English sociology professor Sally Hines put it like this on Twitter:

If someone is a trans exclusionary feminist they will almost certainly have anti-sex work and anti-porn politics – and vice versa. The constant is a denial of body autonomy and a feminism that insists it knows what is best for other women (even when told otherwise).11

It is no coincidence that, due to social exclusion from other work, trans women have been disproportionately represented among sex workers. It is rumoured that several prominent TERFs in New Zealand developed their hostility to trans people after getting a hostile response to their anti-sex worker activism.

English trans musician “DeadBitBabe” also comments:

SWERF’N’TERFS can’t acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers because to them power only comes from maintaining the integrity of their fantasy construction of a female body… Are the cries of Lesbian erasure not strangely reminiscent of the fascist’s cries of white genocide?

The “lesbian erasure” trope is an interesting one. The AfterEllen website recently published an article entitled “A Butch Eradication, Served With a Progressive Smile”, claiming that the network of lesbian spaces and business which had been built up since the 1980s had collapsed due to an increasing tendency of “butch” (masculine-appearing) lesbians to identify as trans men. The author laments:

Our lesbian spaces are already dead. Our bookstores, our dances. Everything we built is dead and taken over by the trans nightmare.

If nothing else, this is a change from the usual TERF narrative, which tends to ignore the existence of trans men and non-binary people altogether, and instead to whip up moral panic about trans women “colonizing” or even “raping” cis women’s spaces. What should really make people stop and think about both these TERF narratives is how similarly they resemble fascist narratives about “The Great Replacement”, as made notorious by the manifesto of the terrorist who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch earlier this year.

Following the analysis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Fightback has previously argued that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them. The AfterEllen article quoted above mourns for the death of a network of lesbian/woman-identified small businesses. In most cases TERFs tend to be older, whiter feminists who have had some success in academia, writing, or in the bourgeois lesbian community (the most globally prominent example being Germaine Greer).

Analysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology might seem shocking or over-the-top; particularly because to do so would require us to categorize many veteran socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand to have slipped over into the “Red-Brown” camp. But defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable. As does the habit of TERF ideologues of suggesting that trans people are part of some kind of conspiracy of “elites”, as in the tweet reproduced below:

TERF conspiracy theories on Twitter about "elites backing the trans movement" are not dissimilar to fascist ones.

The full antisemitic force of that term “elites” can be grasped when you read a transphobic academic explicitly name George Soros, the Jewish liberal billionaire who has become a common bad guy in fascist conspiracy theory, as a guilty party. “Deadbitbabe” on Twitter again:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties.

The anarchist-communist website LibCom puts it more bluntly: “Transphobic feminists are, for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right.” Given this, the support given by the fascist and religious-fundamentalist Right for TERFs, described in other articles reprinted in this issue, begins to look less like an “enemy’s enemy” situation and more like a meeting of ideological bedfellows.

Perhaps the final word can be left to the author of the blog nothingiseverlost, in a criticism of the similar descent of the socialist-feminist academic Nina Power into TERF and other forms of right-wing politics: “you never seem to get people becoming less sympathetic to the far-right at the same time as getting into “gender critical”/trans-exclusionary versions of feminism.” It is extremely interesting that Power’s main move in defending her dabbling with transphobic and fascistic memes is an invocation of … free speech.

What is to be done?

Fightback has previously discussed what we see as another irruption of Right-wing ideology into socialist circles, here and elsewhere in the Western world – the demonization of the Syrian revolution. The repetitive argument from such people is that the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime and its Russian allies are not “real” subjects of liberation (such as, to take a more popular example, the Palestinian people), but instead pawns of some Zionist-jihadi-US State Department conspiracy against Syria’s “national sovereignty”. The really perverse issue is that some of the TERF-adjacent leftists we have quoted– and we might name David Bedggood here – have agreed with us in staunchly rejecting this dehumanizing rhetoric when used against the Syrian people in struggle… only to use similar rhetoric against trans people in struggle.20

At the very least, what this can tell us is that “it’s difficult to be right about everything”. But it also warns us against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment. We all live under a suffocating blanket of capitalist ideology, in which it becomes “natural” for different groups of the oppressed to be suspicious or hostile towards each other. Even with the best intentions, it can be very hard to consistently hold to a materialist analysis which can clearly identify patterns of oppression, exploitation and privilege, and not be confused by the “DARVO” (“Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”) tactics habitually used by fascist movements and domestic abusers.

Fightback believes that to effectively fight capitalism today means to fight fascism, the most dangerous form of capitalist ideology, which is currently on the rise. To fight fascism, we must have a united front of working and oppressed people. To have a united front we cannot tolerate racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, state-worship or any other ideology which suggests that some oppressed people are “deserving targets” within our united front, because that is literally the thin edge of the Fascist wedge.

The Left has had far too much opportunism recently – refusal to face Right-populist or even fascist ideas within the movements for fear of alienating people, of breaking up the mass movement. We need to hold to a practice of honest, sharp criticism of SWERF and TERF ideas where-ever they are raised, even by “comrades” or “good Leftists”, as contrary to the unity of all the oppressed we need to build a better world. We also need to centre the experiences of trans people and sex workers within our movement in such debates – nothing should be “about them, without them”.

At the same time, it is crucial to build the biggest possible anti-fascist, anti-capitalist united front – which will mean sometimes linking arms with SWERFs, TERFs and even partisans of Bashar al-Assad against a common enemy. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Special thanks to Sage Anastasi, Lisandru Grigorut and Anne Russell for their help with this article.

1 The founders of Redline were former members of the Workers Party of New Zealand – the organisation from which Fightback is also descended. We are aware of the historical ironies involved.

2 For refutations from the Left of the case against hate-speech restrictions, see Max Rashbrooke at Overland (liberal) and R. Totale at LibCom (anarcho-communist).

3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spiked, and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/us-billionaires-hard-right-britain-spiked-magazine-charles-david-koch-foundation

4 If this image is taken down before then, it was accessed July 13, 2019.

6 This post raised strong negative feedback and has since been deleted by the group administrators.

7 Treen has republished several anti-“transactivist” articles on social media, including those from Redline. Bedggood is the author of this blog post.

9 Not to even mention the contribution to the Communist movement over decades by “transactivists” such as the late Les Feinberg.

11 Hines even suggests that SWERFs and TERFs might be brought together under the label “Genital-Obsessed Feminists”.

20 An excellent article on LibCom shows how a Red-Brown conference in Sweden brought together transphobic speakers with some of the most notorious defenders of Assad, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley.

A Report from the New Conservative meeting in Christchurch

by BYRON CLARK. Originally published at his Patreon.

“They are coming for your children!” boomed the man on the stage. He projects his voice across the hall, he is emotional, but clear. He could be a stage actor.

It’s almost frightening.

I’m not frightened of anyone coming for our nation’s children. But I’m frightened for some of my friends.

I expected this topic would come up at this meeting, because I’ve followed this group for a while. The MC had hinted at it too:

“I’m a teacher, and I got involved because I’m very concerned about some of the stuff in the curriculum.”

At that comment, one of the young men in front of me had leaned to his friend beside him and whispered “trans stuff”.

Before telling the audience “they are coming for your children” the speaker had read aloud from a copy of Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out.

The passage he read was a transgender teenager talking about some of their early sexual experiences. He sounds like an American style evangelist, expect he’s Polynesian.

“The book is called Beyond Magenta. On the other side it says ‘central’, ‘Christchurch City Libraries’, your rates – you fund it! It’s in the youth department! They are normalising paedophilia!”

The party’s Facebook page had shared a photo of this page earlier this same day. In the following paragraph, after talking about their experiences with other children the same age, the writer talks about unwanted sexual attention from adults. I doubt anyone reading the full page would come away with the impression the book was supporting paedophilia.

“It took me one minute to find it,” pipes up the MC from the floor.

“Our children need protection!” screams the speaker. “And this type of government is making an environment that is effectively unsafe!”

He’d brought up the government earlier, claiming that changes to the Human Rights Act protecting gender identity would result in people being charged for misgendering someone: “just as it’s happening in Canada!”

I remembered this story, it made it’s way around conservative news sites last year, and opposing the Canadian bill that added human rights protections for transgender people helped turn psychologist Jordan Peterson into something of a minor celebrity.

No one has been arrested or changed for misgendering someone in Canada though. Could it happen? “Absolutely not a chance,” according to University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman. “There is no criminalization of the misuse of pronouns,” she told the Associated Press.

My stomach churned at the speakers remarks. I’ve heard from older people about the “gay panic” in the nineteen eighties, when politicians and religious leaders claimed homosexuals were a danger to children.

The panic has been rehashed for a twenty first century audience. And this audience, which skewed mostly male but had a bigger range of ages than most political meetings, seemed to be receptive to the speaker’s fear-mongering.

I started following the New Conservative Party because they appear to have close links to the far right. They played a major role in the campaign against the UN Migration Compact in this country. That campaign was started by the far-right Austrian group Generation Identity.

Following the events of March 15 in Christchurch, where a terrorist killed 51 people in two mosques, it came to light that the shooter had previously donated to Generation Identity. He had also written “here’s your migration compact” on one of his weapons.

The two speakers fudged their answers to questions about this link: “The whole white extremist if you’re conservative, it’s just one way that the media want to label us so they can degenerate and devalue us, and we’re just not going to play their game,” says the leader, a middle aged Pākehā man, before moving on to a less challenging question: “What is the best way we can support and grow this party?”

New Conservative appear to be distancing themselves from the campaign they played such a huge role in last year, but have not said being involved was a mistake.

The party still appears to be courting an alt-right audience. On April Second, the party’s face book page shared a video promoting Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. The book claims European civilisation is under threat from Muslim immigration, and is a far right favourite. New Conservative described it as “a powerful understanding as to why our culture is suffering,” and noted: “We absolutely agree.”

Elliot Ikilei, the Polynesian man with the booming voice, seems to have a lot of friends on New Zealand’s far right. Speaking at a “Free Speech” rally in Auckland on August 10th, he noted that many in attendance were there to honour the memory of Jesse Anderson, “a good man who suffered trauma in his life”.

Anderson was another organiser of the campaign against the Migration Compact. His message for immigrants at one of the rallies made headlines: “Integrate, or get out!”. Anderson, who went by the handle “@extremerightboi” on Twitter, took his own life in the midst of a custody battle.

While his death is a tragedy whatever your political views (he was just twenty-four years old, and now will never have the opportunity to renounce his involvement in the alt-right scene that many young depressed white men gravitate to), it’s surprising that Ikilei brings up their friendship when speaking publicly.

But maybe not when he’s in front of this audience. When asking the crowd who has a firearms license a woman says “Oh, no not me”, presumably after raising her hand. “Kym has no firearms license,” laughs Ikilei. 

Kym is Kym Koloni. She’s not a New Conservative member; she had been a New Zealand First candidate before getting offside with the party, and starting One Nation NZ. That party didn’t have much of a presence outside of Facebook, and now it’s not there either. The page, along with Kym’s account, were removed after repeated violations of Facebook’s terms of service around fake news and graphic violence. 

One Nation NZ had shared the footage from the Christchurch shooter’s livestream, alleging that the victims were “crisis actors”.

The other speakers were Paul Davie, best known as the real estate against who was terminated for what the New Zealand Herald described as “racially charged” social media posts that disparaged Africans, Muslims, multiculturalism and Māori culture. Davie had been a candidate for the Conservative Party, before they re-branded with the “New” prefix, but these days has his own group called One New Zealand Party. Davie prattled on about Halal certification and supposed “no go zones” in the UK where “sharia law” is in force.

Also speaking was Lee Williams, who had travelled from Christchurch especially. Williams runs a YouTube channel called “Cross the Rubicon” where he promotes the idea that Jacinda Ardern is a “cultural Marxist” and “shadowy globalists” plan to “flood all western nations with mass migration from the third world”. Williams activism has attracted the attention of police, likely for it’s rhetorical similarity to the conspiracy theories that inspired by the Christchurch shooter. 

At the Auckland rally Williams spoke mostly about the “lying mainstream media” in particular signalling out Patrick Gower, the Newshub Journalist who did a series of stories on white supremacy in New Zealand. Williams, who was flanked by notorious white supremacist Phil Arps when speaking at a rally in Christchurch last year – a rally New Conservative leader Leighton Baker also spoke at – believes allegations of white supremacy in New Zealand are just slander by the leftist media to demonise conservatives. 

One of his YouTube videos on this theme was shared by the New Conservative Party on Facebook last month. The post described it as “an intelligent and succinct review, with a profound, poignant conclusion” Some of those at that meeting tonight might start to read up on the New Conservatives, maybe, I hope, they’ll come to realise that the threat our world is facing today is not “transgender ideology” but the rise of the far-right, something New Conservative might know a thing or two about.

Crowdfunded magazine on Syrian revolution to be launched at SYRIA SPEAKS meeting

Cover of the Arabic version of the magazine

Fightback’s crowdfunded magazine on Syria: Revolution and Counter-Revolution will be launched at a meeting in Auckland on Friday July 26th, where Syrians in New Zealand will speak about the uprising against the Assad government, the violence that has followed, the role of foreign governments in the conflict, and what New Zealanders can do to help.

(This meeting was originally scheduled for March 15 this year, but was postponed after the massacre that day of 50 worshippers at Christchurch mosques, some of whom were Syrian refugees. The meeting is co-sponsored by Organise Aotearoa – views of speakers do not necessarily reflect the views of either Fightback or Organise Aotearoa.)

Venue: The Peace Place, 22 Emily St, Auckland City

Time: Friday 26 July, 7pm – 9 pm (Facebook event)

Speakers:
ALI AKIL came from Syria as a teenager and has lived here for two decades. His father was an activist against the Assad regime who was imprisoned, tortured and narrowly escaped execution. Ali was the founder of Syrian Solidarity NZ, which was established in 2011 in response to the dignity uprising in Syria.

MIREAM SALAMEH (by Skype from Melbourne) was born in Homs, Syria in 1983. When the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011, Salameh was persecuted both as a revolutionary and visual artist. Miream, with her friends, founded a magazine called (Justice) in which they documented Assad abuses in the city of Homs. Due to her involvement in anti-government activism, she was forced to leave her homeland after regime forces made threats of rape, arrest and murder against her, looting and destroying most of her artwork. With her three remaining artworks, she fled her homeland to Lebanon in 2012 and came to Australia in 2013 as a refugee. Miream’s artwork addresses issues of social justice, freedom and the suffering of the Syrian people, who are being violently oppressed for resisting dictatorship. Miream is also the translator of Fightback’s new magazine.

Preserving Aotearoa/NZ’s revolutionary literature

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Radical Aotearoa Digital Archive (or RADAR) is a project to preserve the publications and media of the radical left in New Zealand. This archive is intended to serve as the central hub for efforts to digitise the many print publications of the radical left in New Zealand produced over the years – from the major newspapers & magazines, to individual pamphlets or leaflets, and eventually perhaps even rare books. Daphne Lawless, member of the Fightback editorial group and former editor of Socialist Worker Monthly Review and UNITY (2005-2011), was invited to give a talk to the launch of RADAR in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 2 February – the following message was read out.

Revolutionary greetings to comrades and friends at the launch of RADAR. I would have liked to be there, but travel expenses with a wife and toddler in tow were prohibitive.

For my sins, one of the many tasks with which I have burdened myself is cataloguing and sorting the Red Kiwi Library – the books and periodicals collection of the Communist Party of New Zealand and its successor, Socialist Worker, of which I was a leading member. To some extent, for me this has been similar to sorting through the effects of a deceased relative. Nostalgia, combined with occasional delight of discovery, and sadness for what might have been.

I caught myself wondering on several occasions – is this what nearly 100 years of revolutionary socialist activism in Aotearoa/New Zealand amounts to? A hundred or so boxes of paper, much of it nothing but trash, most of the rest only of interest to sad obsessives like… well, like the people who’ve made it here today?

“Publishing the revolutionary paper” has been a nostrum of Lenin’s school of revolutionary politics since its beginning. The idea was not only the question of getting The Truth (or, in the Russian, pravda) into the working class’s hands, but that writing, producing, distributing and financing the paper were the “scaffolding” around which a revolutionary party might be built that would seize state power.

Far too often, though, The Paper (and revolutionary publishing in general) became not a tool for building the party; rather, the party becomes a mechanism for keeping The Paper alive, and thus giving a few committed socialist writers/editors something to do with their spare time. You’ve got to wonder: what is the point of a “revolutionary paper” which is funded by the revolutionaries themselves, rather than by the audience they hope to reach? The financial question is a political one.

I was part of the last major attempt at a mass socialist paper in this country, Workers’ Charter. I personally believe it was an excellent broad-left paper. But the working masses who read it clearly did not think it was vital enough to support it financially – and we quickly ran out of our own resources.

Clearly basing our activity around a paper publication would be woefully insufficient in the Internet era. (Workers’ Charter didn’t even have a website!) Gone are the days when we could sneer at social media and websites as “petty bourgeois”, the kind of thing that REAL WORKERS don’t waste their time with. Workers under 30 are digital natives. And workers over 30 are increasingly having to catch up with them. (One interesting tangent is how the online growth of conspiracy theory can be traced to people who grew up pre-Internet getting online late in life – without having developed the ability to recognize trolling, scamming and disinformation.)

To be frank, these days a Facebook post will probably reach as many workers as standing on a street corner selling a newspaper – and it takes less time, effort and expense. So is revolutionary publishing dead? Well, as I see it, it’s a lot like the music industry, and not just because it seems to rely in practice on exploiting the labour of the young and enthusiastic. No, it’s because it requires alternative revenue streams to function. Crowdfunding, Patreon and similar online initiatives are one possible solution to this. But there’s also the issue that it’s hard to get people to pay money for a non-physical good. So, the link between support for the content and handing over some capitalist currency so it can keep being produced needs to be re-established.

I would also say that one advantage that paper has over electrons is permanence. Electronic publications can be reproduced infinitely at no cost. But storage and bandwidth do cost, and are impermanent. On my office desk now are CPNZ publications going back to 1934. They sat in various offices for 85 years, gathering dust but otherwise intact. Can we be sure that the YouTube videos and podcasts which are now the cutting edge of leftist media outreach will even be still available in 10 years, let alone 85? The impermanence of the online medium is actually considered a benefit for people who don’t want to have their teenage Xena: Warrior Princess fan-fiction following them around as adults. But that’s the opposite of what socialist publishing needs.

Because there is another major problem in the actually existing socialist movement, and that is the lack of continuity. Over the last 10 years in New Zealand politics, all but one of the major revolutionary socialist groups collapsed. To make a broad summary: the “baby boom” generation who’d been carrying these organisations on their backs for 50 years were not able to continue, and the “Millennial” generation weren’t interested in carrying on in the old ways. (And there weren’t nearly enough of the in-between sort, like myself.)

New organisations and media projects have arisen. But there’s no organisational continuity. The “tacit knowledge” that literature on education in organisations talks about hasn’t been passed down. And most of the “explicit knowledge” contained in publications isn’t read by the younger generation. They don’t think they need it. It’s almost like 1969 again – “never trust anyone over 30” (and also, all the people who were anarchist hippies yesterday seem to be turning into Marxist-Leninists!) We seem to be re-inventing the wheel in some cases.

Which is where RADAR comes in, by at least providing some kind of permanence to electronic revolutionary publications in Aotearoa/New Zealand over the last 25 years. I hope that there will be synergy between this project and my own of making the “Red Kiwi Library” available to the movements once again. There’s a hell of a lot of dusty old polemics sitting in my office that could use scanning. Since the revolutionary groups have either collapsed or ossified, it seems to be left to us (amateur) historians and archivists to keep the ideas of the past alive.

A website of ancient blog posts, or a bunch of dusty old boxes of books, might not be a great legacy, but they are what we have. And you know what they say about people who forget the past.

The struggle continues.