Aunties Book Review: An essential collection

It was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail.

Book title: Aunties
Editors: Kassie Hartendorp, Ella Grace, M.Newton, Nadia Abu-Shanab
Released: 2020
Review by: Ani White

The Aunties collection was crowdfunded in 2018, a collection of articles bringing together the perspectives of women, transgender, non-binary, and intersex people involved in political organising across Aotearoa. This was an initiative of editors Ella Grace, M. Newton, Kassie Hartendorp and Nadia Abu-Shanab (although they assert on the website that “we’re not editors, we’re organisers”, the collection is well-edited).

Crowdfunding from the community has allowed this collection to be accountable to the community, rather than to NGOs or even corporate funders who tend to downplay anti-systemic perspectives. For example, the decision to include a prison abolitionist perspective from People Against Prisons (PAPA) organiser Emily Rākete goes beyond what prison reform NGOs would allow.

Although the collection took three years to produce after the crowdfunding campaign, this is reflected in the breadth of the collection, with 25 articles spanning 100 pages. Many articles are brief, but rich. The collection is beautifully produced, with excellent design by Natasha Mead, Natalie Thomson and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho – and many lovely illustrations and photographs throughout.

The cover is Simply Red, and it was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail. Although digital media has transformed communication in important ways, and can’t be ignored, there’s something to be said for a print collection in bringing together diverse articles in one lasting place, rather than isolated articles or fleeting 240-character hot takes. That said, for those who can’t afford the collection, there is a free pdf online until the end of the year – a good decision in terms of accessibility, in contrast to the academic approach which locks away important knowledge in subscription journals. The printed collection is also available to purchase for $30, and if you can afford that, it’s worth supporting the work and expense involved in drawing the collection together (international orders are also included).

The introduction accurately captures the conjuncture this collection intervenes in:

We face a number of challenges to our collective survival. We share an awareness of these challenges. Sometimes it makes us feel heavy and lost as we struggle to find our place.

We came together to make this magazine because you’re not alone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to face these things by yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t.

This emphasis on collective self-determination, as a solution to various interlocked crises, runs throughout the collection. Articles include a brief interview with Ihumātao organiser Pania Newton (for international readers: Ihumātao is a struggle for Māori land against property developers), an interview on organisation with beneficiary rights stalwart Sue Bradford (who calls for a “large scale party to the left of Labour and the Greens”), and an interview with veteran indigenous activist Hilda Harawira, among many others.

The collection takes in the perspective of both leading activists, and other contributors who may be erased even in activist politics. Related to the inclusion of these often-erased perspectives, Ihumātao ‘leader’ Pania Newton questions the very concept of ‘leadership’ in movements, as she has in her public speeches.

Although drawing clear political lines in the sand, the collection reflects the complexity and nuance of the various liberation struggles women and gender minorities are engaged in across Aotearoa. In part this stems from the emphasis on lived experience. The collection is also intergenerational, as suggested by the title Aunties.

Given the feminist decision to include only articles by women and gender minorities, often indigenous and women of colour, some may mutter about ‘identity politics.’ This is a bugbear of both the right and, unfortunately, much of the Conservative Left. However, a simple flick through the contents reveals that this collection transcends the tired identity vs class argument, with pieces by union organisers alongside wider community organisers and writers. Working-class self-organisation is not mutually exclusive with challenging multiplied forms of oppression, such as colonisation and sexism, and this collection reflects that fact. As union organiser Tali Williams outlines at the inception of her article:

A lot of the problems women experience stem from what happens at work. That’s why for centuries women have united and organised to confront the boss.

And as union organiser Shanna Olsen-Reeder points out in her article, the abuse she experienced from a boss “was a symptom of the system in which we operate: capitalism.”

All three union organiser contributors offer practical, useful and inspiring accounts of workplace organising, with Tali Williams writing on organising at a major NZ clothing brand, Shanna Olson-Reeder on organising at JB Hi-Fi, and Jacky Maaka interviewed on her work in the health sector respectively. This practicality of the approach to class is also reflected in the decision to include a WINZ Rights Info Sheet. 

That said, there is one weakness in the collection’s class politics: the articles on workplace organising are written by paid representatives, although at least one of them was first recruited from the shopfloor, and another is an elected paid delegate. In part this limitation is simply a reflection of wider conditions: no large-scale rank-and-file movement exists, so leftists tend to orientate towards left officials. Another underlying issue here is that even organised workers run the risk of facing (often illegal) disciplinary action if they speak up publicly, but a strong rank-and-file union movement should be able to back up workers who speak out publicly – perhaps anonymity is another option. I understand there was an intention to include more rank-and-file union perspectives, but this can be difficult to achieve in contemporary conditions  (as Fightback editors can attest).

The point here isn’t to moralistically condemn paid organisers, many of whom are good comrades. However, although organisers place an emphasis on workers’ self-organisation (Shanna Olsen-Reeder asserts that workplace organisers “didn’t rely on a union organiser to come in to our workplace” and Tali Williams asserts that there are “no experts here!”), we only hear the perspectives of paid representatives. This reflects the complex question raised by Pania Newton about the nature of ‘leadership’ in movements. Across the pond in Australia, I’ve been involved in a rank-and-file struggle against the collaborationist approach of the National Tertiary Education (NTEU) leadership, an approach sadly shared by the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in Aotearoa – although more militant unions do not necessarily share that approach, the collaborationism during the COVID crisis has not been challenged the way it has in Australia. Bringing in more rank-and-file union perspectives would have strengthened a generally excellent collection, which does tend to otherwise emphasise self-organisation of oppressed and exploited communities.

Another thing which would strengthen the collection is a consideration of how struggles in Aotearoa are interlocked with international struggles, for example the role of labour migration to Australia (recently politicised with the COVD-era backlash against returning New Zealanders, many of whom have lost work in Australia). The question of refugee rights, such as the recent growth of refugees from Syria, also indicates how local issues are interlocked with international ones. That said, even with 100 pages of brief articles, there’s only so much space to include Everything That Matters. Also, work by Pasefika activists and writers, such as Leilani Visesio’s article, does bring an Oceanic perspective to the collection.

Overall, this is an essential collection for anyone looking to learn about liberation movements across Aotearoa, or to strengthen their organising work – perhaps the underlying message of the collection is kia kaha, be strong. We need more work like this, collecting together the experiences and lessons of various connected struggles.

Preserving Aotearoa/NZ’s revolutionary literature


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.

Fahrenheit 11/9 review: “There are many Americas”


By Ani White.

Why is there a water crisis in Michigan? “We don’t have the power. We don’t run the factories.”

I was worried that Michigan local Michael Moore might affirm the dominant ‘white working class’ narrative with this film. The above line, spoken by a black working class Michigan woman, abolishes that bullshit in one shot.

Moore is utterly clear that Trump was never the working class candidate. 75% of the USA didn’t vote for him, and the remaining 25% is the wealthiest slice of the electorate.

The film wisely doesn’t focus too heavily on Trump’s various daily inanities, implicitly assuming we already understand he’s evil and ridiculous. Rather, Moore asks what it is about the USA that allowed Trump to gain power. The answers: firstly a sensationalist media that Trump played like a harp from hell, secondly the electoral college, thirdly the demobilisation of the Democrat base, and fundamentally the perennial: racialised, gendered capitalism in advanced senility.

I’m not always a Moore fan – Bowling for Columbine was hilarious at age 13, Roger and Me was an important history lesson, but Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capitalism: A Love Story were politically messy and narcissistic. This film is getting bad box office, and I saw it essentially by accident, initially meaning to see Suspiria which was sold out. However, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a return to form.

Moore employs his traditional populist montage-heavy method for variously better and worse, it’s eclectic and too damn long, but overall it’s bang on target. My red heart swelled at shots of striking teachers set to marching drums. Moore’s familiarity with his home state delivers many cogent and powerful moments.

Couple of political criticisms: Moore sort of dog-whistles at 9/11 trutherism, and just to state an unpopular opinion on the left, he is too soft on the Sanders wave. Vote Democrat out of sheer desperation if you like, but it seems to me that turning the party left-wing is a fool’s errand.

That said, he conveys the deep disappointment generated by every prior Democratic president, constructing a convincing narrative of a party split. For all my many criticisms, I feel the excitement of a youthful socialist counterpublic forming, and understand the need for optimism.

Why do we need optimism? Because a racist misogynist failed businessman leads the ‘free world’, and the fascists are back.
Merry Fucking Christmas.


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


murdoch exhibition

Pataka gallery exhibition by Murdoch Stephens.

By Giovanni Tiso.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: The Impossible Revolution – Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy


Demonstration outside Syrian embassy in London – art by Hamid Sulaiman (source).

By Ani White.

As sectarianism and the far-right rear their heads internationally, it’s easy to forget the optimism of 2011. Those seeking to understand this trajectory must read Syrian revolutionary Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essay collection The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

A foreword by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote the excellent work Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, explains why this work is so essential:

 ” ‘They simply do not see us’, [Yassin al-Haj Saleh] laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running counter to all evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.”

For many ‘anti-imperialists’, this disengagement is a matter of maintaining a clear ideology. Given the focus on the USA as the Great Satan, a situation where the USA’s role is marginal, where a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ regime perpetrates mass slaughter with the support of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is ideologically inconvenient. The retreat into conspiracy theory (depicting revolutionaries as foreign agents) serves to warp reality so it stays consistent with ideology.

Although this ideology claims the mantle of anti-imperialism, its proponents see people exactly as empires do; pawns on a global chessboard. To regain our revolutionary conscience, ‘anti-imperialists’ must learn from the ground up, through an allegiance with people rather than states. As a Syrian communist partisan of the revolution, Saleh’s work is crucial in this rethinking of the world.

Having spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, Saleh is an implacable opponent of the regime – yet as the so-called ‘conscience of the revolution’, he is also a thoughtful opponent, raising challenging questions for all who read. Most of the essays in this collection were written during 2011, capturing the spirit of the moment. Yet right from the start, Saleh also delves deeper into historical and structural questions to explain driving factors in the revolution. Later essays, from 2012-2015, provide perhaps the most significant sustained analysis of the revolution’s tragic collapse available in English.

Saleh’s analysis is both educational on the Syrian situation specifically, and a master-class in structural analysis generally.  An early essay outlines the class composition of Syrian society. Saleh identifies a ‘new bourgeoisie’ that is the base of the Assads’ dictatorship; the loyal intellectuals of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, who offer superficial opposition without questioning the fundamentals of Assad’s rule; an urban middle class, and a poor rural majority, who together formed the base of the revolution. Saleh suggests that the middle class and poor were united by an experience of work, in contrast to those who prosper without working. This gulf widened during the early 2000s, with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

To explain how the Assads have maintained power, Saleh often returns to Assad Sr’s development of a brutal security apparatus, and an ideological apparatus centring on Assad himself. This fiefdom was inherited by his son. Saleh argues that this is a fascist state apparatus, a characterisation that is worth thinking through given the international rise of the far right, many in fact exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is commonly asserted that the Syrian revolution is discredited by sectarianism. In particular, the Sunni majority is often depicted as too sectarian to govern. Although it is a dangerous simplification, this view has a ring of truth as confusing sectarian warfare fills the nightly news: as Saleh grimly notes in his final essay, Syria’s war “promises to be an ideal specimen for the study of sectarianism.” In this disquieting spirit, the later essays consider the problem in detail.

Saleh famously distinguishes between the ‘neck-tie fascists’ of the regime and the ‘long-beard fascists’ of political Islam, indicating the way Syrians are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he avoids the common simplification that ‘both sides/all sides are equally bad.’ He centrally contends that sectarianism is a political tool, not a matter of ancient identity. More specifically, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the Assadist regime itself.

Saleh’s final essay, the longest in the collection, roots modern sectarianism in the Assadist ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ This state opportunistically fosters sectarianism in various ways, all preserving a dictatorial power structure. Firstly, the ‘neo-Sultanic state’ fosters sectarianism with the elevation of Alawites, an Islamic sect of which the ‘Sultans’ (Assads) are members. Secondly, while the repressive apparatus (or ‘inner state’) is sectarian, the ideological apparatus (or ‘outer state’) maintains a kind of hollow secularism that represses discussion of sectarianism. Thirdly, the development of a corrupt ‘clientelism’ (bribes, favours for friends, and other forms of cronyism) that favours some sects over others.

Saleh argues that sectarianism is ultimately about class, providing cultural justifications for material hierarchies. In Syria specifically, the Sunni majority is dispossessed, and their poverty is blamed on their cultural ignorance.

In this repressive context, devoid of a common civil society, it is remarkable that the 2011 revolution saw such a flowering of non-sectarian sentiment. Slogans such as ‘Sunnis and Alawis are One’ defied the Balkanisation of communities fostered under the Assad regime.

To undercut the legitimacy of the uprising, Assad’s regime set out to stoke sectarianism. The regime carried out massacres targeting Sunnis well before the revolutionaries armed themselves, and infamously released many Salafists from jail.

Saleh refers to the growth of political Islam in this context as a kind of ‘militant nihilism’ – seeing the whole world as corrupted, withdrawing into an abstracted mental space that justifies all manner of cleansing violence. Nonetheless, Saleh maintains that this is only a defensive posture given the besieged and isolated position of the Sunni majority (note that this analysis does not apply to ISIS, who are essentially an occupying power not borne of the revolution).

With the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many observers have returned to the confirmation bias which says Sunni Arabs are too backwards to govern, too easily forgetting what 2011 illuminated. While discussing the many sectarian ‘fiefdoms’ developing by 2013, Saleh clarifies: “The fall of the regime would not mean an end to the process of ‘feudalization’ – but there is no hope of stopping this feudalization without overthrowing the regime.”

Saleh promotes a democratic Syrian nationalism, as an alternative to both Assad’s Syria and an Islamic state.

This progressive nationalism is worth considering critically. Saleh suggests that only the revolutionaries truly adhere to the ideal of ‘Syria’, often implying their enemies are not truly Syrian (whether by citizenship or philosophy).  Assad’s regime is regularly compared to a colonial regime, and Islamists are depicted as fundamentally more international than local. These are compelling points, and everyone can probably agree that tensions internal to Syria have been exploited by various international actors. At one point Saleh suggests in passing that the ‘central bourgeoisie’ could also be considered an ‘external bourgeoisie’ due to its international trade. However, identifying the revolution with ‘Syria’ and counter-revolutionary enemies with ‘foreignness’ seems surprisingly Manichean for such a sophisticated thinker (and an ironic inversion of the Assadist propaganda that all rebels are foreign agents). Even if international forces exploit divisions in Syrian society, that doesn’t mean that all enemies come from outside Syrian society. Some may also question Saleh’s position on the Kurdish national question, apparently believing that a liberated Syria should include Kurdish territory under a single nation (though recognising linguistic and cultural rights), in contrast to the secessionist position held by the Kurdish leadership.

Conversely, Saleh’s nationalism is far from an unthinking adherence; rejecting the stifling culture of the Assad regime, he calls for the development of a pluralist Republican intellectual culture. Saleh’s nationalism is more Gramscian then jingoistic, seeking the development of a new civil society, and his ‘Syria’ is aspirational. For Saleh and other Syrian revolutionaries, ‘Free Syria’ holds the promise of a unity based on common citizenship rather than Balkanised sects. This vision stands in stark contrast to the Assadist form of ‘Modernization’, which treats the Sunni majority as children to be managed for their own good, rather than democratic subjects.

The Impossible Revolution is essential reading for anyone considering social transformation in the 21st Century. It should be read along with Burning Country (reviewed here).

Prince and Politics in Reagan’s America

prince symbol

Originally published by redwedgemagazine.

Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.

In the face of profound social, political and economic tragedy, it has often been the case that popular musicians, out of a sense of solidarity, put out a song to capture the moment and inspire the movement. It is often the case, by virtue of historic specificity, that these songs don’t date well, their universality caught in the particularity of a given moment. There are a few songs, however, that have outlasted their origins and continue to resonate. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and, most recently, in the face of the spate of police murder of Black youth, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Prince’s “Baltimore.”

Reminiscent of mid-period Prince and the Revolution, it combines a funkish shuffle in a minor key with vaguely country/western sounding acoustic and electric guitars. The lyrics, while angry, are more sad and resigned than anything else: “Nobody got in nobody’s way… So I guess you could say it was a good day… At least a little better than the day in Baltimore… If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Never an explicitly political artist, except perhaps in what he signified and his charmingly naïve “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” urging the new US president to end the Cold War, Prince nevertheless was compelled by circumstances to write a song for the moment, and it will remain relevant, even if the battle is ever won.

And it was in many ways his swan song.

The Reaper has been busy in 2016, Prince is dead at 57 years old and only recently on the road doing a well-received solo piano tour. Looking back at nearly four decades of hybridizing rock, funk and dance music, there can be no doubt that the man was a pioneer, sonically, aesthetically and as an artist who stood up and fought back against a music industry that alienated his labour. It’s damned-near impossible to think of an artist like Prince on any of these levels, as he is likely one of the last artists coming out of the guitar/bass/drums pre-1980 world to have virtually invented a new form of music. Starting out playing in funk bands, he became part of a vibrant Minneapolis music scene in the late seventies, a time in which an audience existed for both Black artists like Prince and Morris Day and white punk bands like the Replacements and Husker Du. Like Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott in Ireland, Prince never was seen as a “Black guy doing white music”, he was simply a musician in a red-hot and innovative music scene unaffected by coastal snobbery or Southern reaction.

In 1982 he put out his most ambitious record, the double vinyl 1999. Like Stevie Wonder’s 70s period, Prince played every instrument on the album. Pushing over 70 minutes, 1999 never drags at all, combining some of the great pop singles of all time with even deeper funk, harder rock and a synth sound as overworldly as anything coming from the growing synth-pop scene across the pond in the UK. With 1999 Prince took the sonic template he’d set with his first three records and set a musical and aesthetic template that would touch artists as varied as Beck, Ween, Daft Punk and Kool Keith. Like American punk rock vocalists trying to affect a British accent, a hell of a lot of rock and R&B since Prince has had vocalists affecting a Minnesota accent, the sibiliant “ts” and “s”, the extended vowels (fast, coming out as “fa-yast”). Listen to Beck’s vocal intonations, even Michael Jackson on his post-1983 work or most recently, Drake’s half-sung choruses – this is Prince-style phrasing.

Prince was now a rock star in the height of Reagan’s America, a time of renewed conformism and neoliberalized expectations about collective political projects. The dominant themes at that time, in film and in music were taking the public’s false optimism and problematizing by showing its limits. Dated as they are, films like Footloose andFlashdance were essentially about the alienation of the body by social conservatism, the first attempt at “Making America great again”, an era captured well on the FX series The Americans. Prince took some of the great songs from his live set, notably his showstopper “Purple Rain,” and with some screenwriters, developed one of the greatest music films of all time, with that title. A sort of homage to The Harder they Come with a background more of a dysfunctional lower-middle class family and Ziggy Stardust-style dreams of escape for a character known merely as “the Kid”, Purple Rain was nearly blocked by the studios, but was released and was a huge hit. The accompanying album, a soundtrack but also a fully-realized record in its own right, was shorter than 1999, and this time more band driven and guitar heavy.  It was not without subtle sonic innovations, like the eerie “When Doves Cry,” which contains no bass-instruments and uses negative space in a fashion reminiscent of the Velvet Underground.

Prince spent the rest of the 80s touring through sonic textures and making them his own, evoking the Beatles onPaisley Park with its classic singalong choruses, notably “Raspberry Beret”; adding deep funk back into the mix onParade, the best Beck album that Beck never made.  Following this was another sprawling double album’, Sign O’ the Times, in which the aforementioned political bent came to the fore once again, along with a return to a pronounced sexual ambiguity, with a number of songs sung from the point of view of a female protagonist. The references to AIDS, still spoken about in hushed tones in early 1987 accompanied angry denunciations of Reagan’s Star Wars programme and the brand-new drug, crack cocaine. Like 1999, Sign… is a long album, even longer than 1999, but it doesn’t drag and while it isn’t the most “fun’ record Prince put out, it likely stands as crowning achievement.

Prince’s followup to Sign…, The Black Album (so named as its fall 1987 release was supposed to be in a plain Black album cover/CD booklet with no credits, names or even song-listings). While there are many stories as to why it was pulled, and many more wrong-headed accounts of it as Prince’s “failed attempt to reach a black audience,” the consensus among those close to Prince is that it was recorded and written during Prince’s discovery of MDMA (Ecstasy). Prince later had a sort of “bad trip” and decided to pull the album, likely knowing it would be widely bootlegged and with the legend around it, it was “officially” released in 1994. A dark druggie/sexy record, it goes above the status of being a mere curiosity in its signification of the end of Prince’s “classic period”. The album he put out instead, LoveSexy, had some great singles, but it marked the beginning of Prince seemingly realizing he needed to grope towards a new sound. This was hinted at with his shimmering, House-influenced score for Tim Burton’sBatman reboot.

One thing that can be said about Prince in the 80s that leads us back to his song last year for Black Lives Matter. This was his sense of humility, as an artist, in particular around his main theme, that of love and sex, and the divergences and intersections between the two, the combination of intensity with matter-of-fact. As a male artist, he was certainly far from perfect, but one would be hard pressed to find celebrations of rape culture or traditional “womanizing” in his lyrics. His career of crafting mega jams about getting down while being respectful and not paternalistic and highly sexual while not being proprietary stands in stark contrast to most other performers.* Likewise, in making political statements, Prince is expository and empathic, not posing as more militant-than-thou. Nuclear war, crack, AIDS, the murder of Black youth by the pigs, these all made Prince sad.

It is sad that he died at 57, but not as sad as the world might have been had he not made it somewhat more interesting, fun, danceable and contemplative. Nothing compared 2 him.

*I owe this insight to Bryan Doherty


Film Review: This Changes Everything

this changes everything trailer

Submitted to Fightback by Maria Ramos.

Although the seriousness of global warming and climate change has been made clear through the work of scientists and environmental advocates, it’s sometimes difficult to present this message in a way that resonates with the general public. As long as modern practices of pollution and resource extraction continue unchecked, ecological harm will almost certainly get worse. The documentary film This Changes Everything aims to alert viewers to the environmental hazards inherent in our economic system and ways of going about addressing the problem.

Based upon Naomi Klein’s 2014 book of the same name, the film was directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. Instead of focusing upon one or two specific effects of corporate disregard for our natural surroundings – say, a decline in polar bear populations or increased illnesses caused by polluted water – Klein and Lewis indict our entire neoliberal capitalist system as a whole. An ethos of viewing the earth as something to be ruthlessly exploited has caused unsustainable growth and ecological degradation. Most of the negative consequences hit hardest in poor communities, whose residents lack the financial resources and political clout to protect their rights through normal channels.

Even though certain pollution-reducing initiatives and public policy goals have been spearheaded by the wealthy and elite, the filmmakers show how these efforts have either been illusory from the start or have been derailed. The cap-and-trade system in particular is rife with abuse, often amounting to little more than the rich trading emissions among themselves with no overall reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. Corporate titans often parrot lines about green energy and clean business practices, but the reality is that any gains thereby achieved are often negated by the wholesale expansions of production in a quest for market share and profits.

This Changes Everything shows the stories of assorted individuals and communities around the world who have been adversely affected by the activities of big enterprises. This allows the documentary to explore the human side of climate change, which is often neglected in other similar works that focus their attention on lakes, rivers and animals. Unfortunately, the broad scope of the film combined with its running time of only 90 minutes mean that the final results feel a bit scatter-shot and disjointed. It’s difficult for the viewer to parse how the various stories relate to each other and to the overall theme of the movie.

Instead of just concerning itself with the damage caused by multinational businesses, This Changes Everything shows us how to fight back against these soulless entities. Through grassroots campaigns directed by the very people whose livelihoods or homes are threatened, depredations against Mother Nature can be halted. People in India have physically blocked the construction of fossil-fuel-burning plants while ranchers in Montana are defending themselves and their homes against a polluting oil company. Meanwhile, municipalities in Germany are purchasing their electric grids back from private companies. Because large national and international bodies are likely to be co-opted or have their missions subtly shift and morph over time, it is these small-scale, locally directed, authentic movements that are most promising.

According to a report from Direct Energy, more than 30 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from the combustion of fossil fuels in 2010, up from less than 15 gigatonnes in 1970. Clearly we must halt and reverse this trend if we would leave succeeding generations a healthy, comfortable planet to live upon.

This Changes Everything and other documentaries are important in order to drum up support among ordinary people for combating dangers that could make the Earth uninhabitable or at least a poor place to live. While the scientific case for the reality of climate change is incredibly strong, we need public outreach and entertainment as a way of delivering the news in a way that the average person can easily access. After all, climate change deniers spend a lot of money spreading their version of the facts, so it’s only fair that we raise our voices against them in whatever media are available.

See also

Book Review: The FIRE Economy (Jane Kelsey)

UNDP Ms. Helen Clark meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key

Kelsey underlines the continuity between Labour and National governments over the last 30 years

By Ian Anderson, Fightback (Aotearoa / New Zealand).

Professor Jane Kelsey has made headlines in recent months combating the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), a secretive trade agreement that seeks to constitutionally embed neoliberalism. Her latest book, The FIRE Economy: New Zealand’s Reckoning, is a welcome explanation of the political-economic history that has led us to this point.

Before proceeding, it may be necessary to define some key terms. Neoliberalism refers to a certain organisation of capitalism, a certain way of responding to capitalist crisis, a certain configuration of the capitalist state, that has predominated for the last 30 years. Marxist geographer David Harvey has defined neoliberalism as a form of “accumulation by dispossession,” particularly privatisation of public assets. Kelsey draws on Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster’s characterisation of financialisation as the “shift in the centre of gravity in the capitalist economy” from industrial production to finance: FIRE refers to Finance, Insurance and Real Estate, the industries that have risen to prominence in this financialised regime. Kelsey notes that neoliberalism and financialisation are “analytically distinct but organically inseparable” – we might also say that financialisation is a key plank of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a reconfiguration of the relationship between labour, capital and the state: while Kelsey does not focus on this aspect, neoliberal attacks used state machinery to gut the power of organised labour.

Kelsey rigorously documents the institutional embedding of neoliberalism in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Neoliberal theorists knew that their project was potentially unpopular, voicing concerns about the “commitment problem,” “political slippage” and “despotic democracy” – the horrifying thought that elections, or popular pressure, might lead to future governments abandoning neoliberalism. The Reserve Bank, and other regulatory mechanisms, are an undemocratic form of “economic constitutionalism,” seeking to constrain the economic capacities of future governments – limiting monetary policy to setting interest rates, and subordinating fiscal policy to monetary policy. Alternative economic goals, such as full employment or raising incomes, are subordinated to price stability. While many critics of the TPPA present it as a departure from free trade, Kelsey clarifies that it’s the same “economic constitutionalism” on an international scale – binding future governments to the current course, giving multinational corporations the ability to sue for any reforms that impact their investments. Against those who contend the neoliberal era has come to an end, Kelsey underlines how structural reforms are institutionally embedded. Kelsey is clear about the continuity between Labour and National governments since 1984:

“While the decade of Labour-led government in New Zealand from 1999 softened the raw edges of Rogernomics, the government’s modernisation actually served to embed neoliberalism more deeply.”

Kelsey does suggest that the international neoliberal consensus has begun to fracture in the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC), although Aotearoa / New Zealand remains largely “cocooned” from these debates. State interventions in favour of the finance sector have been described as ‘Keynesian,’ or even ‘socialism for the rich.’ David Harvey observed even before the GFC that while neoliberal theory should warn ‘Lender, beware’, the practice is closer to ‘Borrower, beware.’ However, neoliberalism is a class project more than a theoretical project. Kelsey underlines how partial departures from orthodoxy only go far enough to protect the orthodoxy – usually injecting capital, then getting back to business-as-usual. Kelsey offers an unusually level-headed account of Iceland’s response to the crisis, which has been alternately ignored or overhyped. Iceland’s IMF-supported response to the GFC, particularly their use of capital controls, was the least orthodox:

“[The IMF rescue package] had three pillars: first, stabilising the currency using interest rates and capital controls to prevent capital from fleeing: second, restructuring the banking system; and third, making gradual cuts to public spending.”

This temporary departure from orthodoxy was not wholesale, and the Right has regained power in the ensuing period. Kelsey argues that instead of a piecemeal approach, those opposing neoliberalism must take a systemic approach – although she is officially agnostic about whether to overthrow capitalism or just the neoliberal regime.

Kelsey’s analysis does have some weaknesses, particularly concerning the nation-state and the ‘productive economy.’ Early in the book, Kelsey briefly references “people with real jobs making real products,” a somewhat idealised notion of capitalist industry. The book focuses explicitly on finance capital, largely leaving these “real” industries out of the equation. Kelsey acknowledges this limitation in her conclusion:

“Although realignments in the material economy are not the focus of this book, it is essential to recognise that they are what will drive any transformation.”

This gesture towards materialism elides a key point: ‘real jobs,’ the labour central to maintaining any social system, are exploitative under capitalism. Kelsey focuses on the ‘superstructure,’ the political-ideological structure which stabilises capitalism, and rightly emphasises the importance of developing a new hegemony (referencing Antonio Gramsci). However, this ideological project cannot let productive capital off the hook with a distinction between a “real” and a “fake” economy. New Zealand-owned companies Talley’s and Fonterra, which produce “real” products, are just as craven as any finance company.

Although often portrayed as purely parasitic, banking and finance are also necessary to capitalism. Lenders advance the initial capital needed for production (and consumption, particularly in a low-wage economy). Further, the incentives to gouge interest and to ‘gamble’ are structural, as banks and investors must make a profit. States can employ stabilising measures, but these are only stop-gaps allowed when affordable: as Kelsey herself acknowledges, we cannot simply turn the clock back to the post-WWII boom. The tendency towards crisis is systemic. In other words, the volatility Kelsey describes is not only unacceptable, it’s also necessary to capitalism. No national regulatory regime can defeat this beast – only a movement that recognises the class struggle is international on both sides, and that democracy rests with organised communities, not the state.

Despite these caveats, The FIRE Economy is an important book for anyone figuring out how we got into this mess. With a housing crisis looming on the horizon, understanding how we got here will be necessary to finding a way out.

Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate


by Naomi Klein: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review by Daphne Lawless (Fightback Auckland / Tāmaki Makarau)

It’s quite depressing to note how long the facts have been out there that capitalism is – literally and figuratively – eating up the only planet we have. Scientists were telling US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the emissions of industrial civilisation could dangerously heat the planet, a “greenhouse effect” which NASA scientist James Hansen made a household word with his testimony to the US Congress in 1988.

But even at that stage, it became clear that the mega-corporates who were then beginning the process of neoliberal globalization did not see this as a priority. British comedian Ben Elton’s novel Stark, which came out in the previous year, envisaged the mega-rich building a spaceship to abandon a doomed planet. Almost 30 years later, all that has happened is that the question has become more urgent, as shown in the latest book by Canadian activist Naomi Klein.

Klein presents her book as an expose of:

“the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented [technological solutions to climate problems] from taking hold on anything close to the scale required… a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism”.

The central argument of Klein’s book is not only that climate change is an existential crisis for human civilisation, but that it is also the key link for a new movement which can challenge the era of neoliberal globalized capitalism. She argues that, since the end of the slave trade, all subsequent social movements have been defused by granting legal and social demands for equality while increasing economic equality:

“These economic demands… represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries…Climate change does not need some shiny new movement… where others failed; climate change can be the force… that will bring together all of these still living movements”.

This review will argue that, in this latest book, Klein’s main contribution to the movement is to show clearly that the struggle for social justice and post-capitalist economics goes hand-in-glove with not only the “eco-socialist” programme for a post-extractive economics, but the defence of the traditional rights and resources of Indigenous people. She even touches on feminist issues, given Western culture’s history of using metaphors for technological process which suggest the forcible violation of “Mother Nature”.

Sacrifice zones

One of Klein’s strengths is in coining pithy phrases to encapsulate vital issues for the movement to grasp. Her previous books have given us phrases like “disaster capitalism” and “the shock doctrine”; this book gives us not only “extreme extraction”, but “sacrifice zones”. The latter are “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and can therefore be poisoned, drained or otherwise destroyed” – landscapes sacrificed to big energy projects like hydro-dams or open-cast mines, for example.

Crucially, the lifeworlds of ethnic minorities or Indigenous people have also been considered “sacrifice zones” for big energy. We are not only talking about outright genocide and theft to grab Indigenous lands and fisheries, but slower processes of cultural genocide or even literal poisoning – such as the Aamjiwnaang people of southern Canada, who suffered a catastrophic drop in the number of boy babies after petrochemical plants opened on their ancestral land. Though Klein doesn’t go into it, you could argue that the same is true of all working-class communities under capitalism, whose lives are valued less. To give an example, the working-class suburb of Newton in Auckland was dug up almost entirely to build the Central Motorway Junction, its inhabitants exiled to the southern fringe of the urban area.

Klein effectively links “extractivism” – “a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth” – to the exploitation of not only natural resources, but the exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of various kinds of human being. As she puts it in relation to the Chinese “economic miracle”:

“The same logic that is willing to work labourers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls… our own corporations… with full participation from China’s autocratic rulers, turned the Pearl River Delta into their carbon-spewing Special Economic Zone, with the goods going straight onto container ships headed for our superstores.”

She gives us the cautionary tale of Nauru, the Pacific island which almost literally ate itself to death. 90% of the island was dug up for its phosphate deposits, sold as fertilizer to rich countries. The country drove fast cars and ate imported food for decades. When the phosphate ran out, leaving a mostly uninhabitable island, an increasingly panicked government lost most of the resource profits in a real estate scam, set itself up as a tax haven for money laundering, and finally rented itself out as a prison camp for Australia’s barbaric refugee policy.

The main legacy of Nauru’s resource wealth is the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world. As Klein notes, this is a timely warning for left-wing governments in South America such as Venezuela or Bolivia, which are still reliant on fossil fuels. Continuing these exploitative, extractive relationships will both engender corruption in the short term and leave these countries without a long-term future. It also shows the obsolescence of older “productivist” forms of socialist thought which also dreamed of Promethean dominance of nature and electricity too cheap to meter.

Klein also clearly exposes the fraudulent nature of the “emissions trading schemes”, which serve mainly as a means by which Western countries can “export” their emissions to China or India; enriching those countries’ ruling elites while turning the poorer areas into sacrifice zones. The crucial issue is that on these markets, emissions are counted where they are produced and not where the goods produced are consumed, and international transport emissions are not counted at all. This lets Western consumerism off the hook for both the products it buys from polluting industry in the developing countries, and for the coal and other fossil fuels it exports there.

The global economy is increasingly a unity, as is global ecology; pollution and resource exhaustion respect borders no more than capital does. Klein ruthlessly exposes “emissions trading” as a shell-game where responsibility for emissions is simply passed between different capitalist states, and which is rife with fraud; such as “carbon offsets” which means that emissions don’t go down at all, or oil companies in the Nigerian delta demanding carbon credits for not pointlessly burning natural gas.

Denial and dimming the sun

Klein goes into the belly of the beast, not only to show the impact of global climate change on ordinary people’s lives, but to show the extent that the ruling classes are engaged in deep-down denial of it. She explains:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism… The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe… are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

In her first chapter, she braves a conference of the climate-denying Heartland Institute, where “talking points [are] tested [which] will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video”. In an echo of Cameron Slater’s “Dirty Politics”, Klein explains the climate deniers’ message not to just twist the argument, but to destroy discourse altogether:

“the goal was never just to spread doubt but to spread fear – to send a clear message that saying anything at all about climate change was a sure-fire way to find your inbox and comment threads jammed with a toxic strain of vitriol.”

The Heartlanders, Klein argues, “did not become engaged with climate issues because they found flaws in the scientific facts. Rather, they became alarmed about the economic and political implications of those facts and set out to disprove them.” Paradoxically, Klein argues, the Heartlanders are precisely right in their linking of climate disaster with capitalist freedom itself – whereas there the mainstream green movement, with its neither left-nor-right slogan, has been in denial.

Another form of denial is “magical thinking” – admitting that climate change is a real problem, but believing in technological fixes which will make everything okay without requiring any sacrifice from the privileged. A conference on “geoengineering” at Chicherly Hall in England has rich donors such as Bill Gates listening intently as excited scientists talk up their projects for “safe” nuclear power, simulated volcanic explosions or giant mirrors to literally block out the sun.

This may sound like a plot line from an old Simpsons episode – or, when they start talking about orbital colonies or Martian terraforming, the plotline of Elton’s Stark come to life. But it proves that fiction, if anything, underestimates the depravity of the global ruling class, and their irrational belief that “inconvenient truths” such as climate change can be simply ignored out of existence. As Klein puts it:

“It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the time of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today…For the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

Klein points out again and again that it is the neoliberal free trade agenda – and even capitalism’s logic of endless growth itself, which predates the neoliberal/globalized era – which is simply incompatible with the kind of serious action which is now necessary. There is no argument against state intervention in the economy if it is a question of the very habitability of the planet, which runs counter to 40 years of neoliberal reforms. And so the corporate denialists, according to Klein, want:

“not action to prevent climate chaos but rather policies that would safeguard or even increase their profits no matter the weather… Their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swathes of humanity, and indeed, to rationalise profiting from the meltdown.”

Even when individual billionaires are convinced by the case for climate action – such as Richard Branson, who made a big deal out of “Gaia Capitalism” – when they come up against the logic of the market and profit maximisation, these ideals are put aside as too difficult. Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who could develop sustainable sources of jet fuel; but he never considered for a moment that actually cutting back the expansion of Virgin Air’s services might be an option.

Big Green

It’s not just the big corporates in denial. Our habit of making black humour about impending signs of the apocalypse, Klein argues, is another “way of looking away”, as is a kind of defensive misanthropy:

“Somewhere within each of us dwells a belief in [neoliberalism]’s– that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines… convinc[ing] us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth saving.”

Another is the middle-class urban liberal lifestyle option:

“Meditate and shop at farmer’s markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable… many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

Klein is bitingly precise that “dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation. The fossil fuels runaway train is coming for us one way or another.”

Other reviewers have suggested that This Changes Everything is not going to win any new converts to the climate movement. Klein is upfront that she blames 30 years of inaction in large part on the mainstream of the climate movement itself, and its attempts to disguise the essential conflict between capitalist economics and climate science. Her real ideological battle is against what she calls “Big Green” – the kind of people who surrendered to the neoliberal ideological offensive, who argue that “market logic and ecological limits” can be reconciled, who wish to “coddle conservatives” by appealing to patriotism or big-ticket technological solutions. These people, she suggests, do not realise the

“direct and compelling relationship between the dominance of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and … anti-environment views and behaviours”.

One biting section of her book discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the biggest milestones in the early neoliberal era. She points out that something like 80% of the US environmental movement of the time was won over to support this agreement, being fobbed off with toothless side-agreements. This may be one of the reasons why “Big Green” prefers not to draw attention to its complicity setting up the very neoliberal regime which allows big powers to sabotage one another’s renewable energy schemes by appealing to the various trade courts. Another may be that Al Gore, now among the biggest players in Big Green, was the US Vice-President who presided over NAFTA’s enactment.

Most shockingly, Big Green goes along with the logic of “sacrifice zones” (and thus lesser classes of human being) by supporting the alienation of Indigenous lands to create “carbon sinks” from which Indigenous people’s traditional activities are excluded. Klein describes these “green human rights abuses” as “a cost-benefit analysis that it’s easier to cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries.” It’s no coincidence that the dimming-the-sun projects of the geo-engineers would probably cause massive droughts in Africa and southern India, to save the Global North’s climate.

Klein’s argument that “less consumption”, rather than simply “green consumption” – reversing the consumption boom of the 1980s provoked by the first wave of neoliberal globalisation – is simply necessary is, therefore, also completely counter to the logic of the market economy. The Values Party, New Zealand’s pioneering green party of the 1970s, called for Zero Economic Growth; but this would mean nothing but recession and misery for ordinary people under a capitalist economy. Klein shows that the only time that emissions have ever gone down under industrial capitalism is during severe recessions; even the massive collapse of the post-Stalinist economies only brought emissions down by 5%, less than the 8% which science suggests we need year on year even to slow global warming down.

But still our rulers appear to have learned nothing, with the US having made sure that even lip service to climate realities was taken out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Klein convincingly makes the case that as long as market liberalism is the consensus of both Big Green and the globe’s power élites, the necessary action is simply inconceivable. As she herself points out: “when climate deniers argue that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s because they’ve been paying attention.”

Indigenous lead the way

Klein gives a great account of what must happen to protect a future for human civilisation – selective degrowth; reversing privatisation of electricity and water; an expansion of public, non-profit and caregiving economies; a shift from industrial agriculture to “agroecology” worldwide; and an end to “shitty jobs” made possible by a Universal Basic Income. But can we get there from here?

Part of her answer is found in the chapters she devotes to the pivotal role played by Indigenous peoples in climate struggle. She explains how – particularly in North and South America – Indigenous people have been spurred into combatting “extreme extraction” (open cast mining, fracking, new coal ports) by the imperatives of defending their traditional lands and fisheries. One example of this happening in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been the opposition by Northland Māori to the Norwegian state-owned oil company, Statoil, exploring the Cape Reinga basin.

This is made all the more vital by the fact that, once fossil fuels get a foothold in a particular area, they wreck the local lifeworld to the point where other ways of living become impossible. Areas based on fossil fuel economies, as Klein puts it, are “the ultimate in rootlessness” – Wild West-type situations, like the mining industry in Australia, where people only go to earn enough money to get out of there, and whose hyper-masculine culture encourages a massive sex-work industry.

Crucially, she also argues that globalization has meant that the entire planet has become a “sacrifice zone”. Fracking, for example, has spread to the rich countries of Western Europe. Significantly, when previously privileged communities find the lifeworlds threatened by extractivism, they too can rise in revolt, and even stand in solidarity with the oppressed. For example, when the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada first stood up for their historic fisheries 15 years ago, there was a huge racist backlash among white fishermen. But now, Mi’kmaq and white people stand together against Texan companies attempting to frack their water sources.

Similarly, when frackers came to the south of France, whose inhabitants prize themselves on their climate and the individuality and uniqueness of their local food products, the resulting outcry managed to have fracking banned in the entire country. And the privileged people of Auckland’s inner-eastern suburbs were able to stop the Eastern Motorway project of 2004 (and unseat right-wing mayor John Banks) where the people of Newton failed.

Klein has the essential insight that the climate struggle is a class struggle, as shown in her analysis of Heartland Institute propaganda:

“Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t expand on the question of how exactly the “undeserving poor” who don’t happen to be living on top of carbon bombs, or in picturesque places which might gain the sympathy of the privileged classes, can fight back.

Bad timing?

Klein argues that the climate movement suffered from “bad timing” – that it was unfortunate that climate change became an issue at the same time as the fall of the USSR and its satellite states. Klein argues that “right wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition”. Her argument seems to be that the struggle has to be an ideological one above all. She argues repeatedly for the decisive role of “right-wing think-tanks”, first in establishing the overwhelming neoliberal consensus of the 1990s, and since then in defending it against the urgent needs of the planet’s climate.

But neoliberalism – with its “Three Pillars” that Klein lists of privatisation, deregulation and low taxes – wasn’t simply a policy choice. It was a policy response to restore capitalist profits after the 1970s oil crisis. Crucially, the main reason the USSR fell (despite its even more extreme despoliation of the environment) was because the bureaucratic Stalinist system had no similar way to cut costs and increase consumption of its products. China, however, is proof that Stalinist bureaucratic authoritarianism works well with neoliberal, consumerist market economics.

Given that neoliberalism won because it was useful to the interests of the capitalist classes, the reason it still exists – and still strangles the climate movement – is that it continues to be useful to our rulers. Simply put, the right-wing think-tanks like the Heartland Institute which Klein identifies as the bogeypersons poisoning the “meme pool” are tools of class interest.

This ties in, interestingly, with the recent movement in Aotearoa/NZ to create a “left-wing think tank”. But an ideological struggle in isolation is doomed to failure; even a political one will be easily side-tracked. At the basis of ideological and political struggle has to be a basis in a new economic power – and where will that come from? The growing importance of the developing world might be part of this, particularly in the sense of challenging the stranglehold of various trade agreements, and demands for reparation for the “climate debt” of the Global North.

Klein is at her most convincing when she talks about the power of indigenous people protecting their treaty rights, as “many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims”. She’s absolutely right that white radicals who encourage Indigenous people to resist the temptations of selling out their lands and fisheries to fossil-fuel corporates must suggest and even create feasible economic alternatives by which those peoples can improve their lot in life.

But what counter-power and alternative economy is available to the urban working masses? The last paragraph in her book promotes Greece’s SYRIZA party as a source of hope, after the disappointment of the Obama administration. But just like Obama, but when it gained power, SYRIZA quickly buckled under to the demands of finance capital, since there was no other alternative available within “the system”.


This Changes Everything makes it clear that the titans of the global economy are not only stunningly uninterested in the supposedly global issue of ecological sustainability, but are gambling that when the disaster hits, it won’t hit them: “Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least for another generation or so.” Klein’s no-holds-barred exposé shows that Ben Elton’s vision of the mega-rich abandoning the planet (and the majority of its people) to its fate is all too plausible.

Her precise process for building an ideological, cultural and political movement which can overcome global capitalism and save the ecology can be critiqued as somewhat incomplete – concentrating on the Indigenous people and developing nations of the periphery, rather than the working masses of the urban core. But her clarity that climate change is not the only issue for the social issue, but the key issue which opens the door to all the other issues, is absolutely vital.

Particularly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the need for the tauiwi social justice movements to take Māori struggles and Māori ways of knowing seriously is vitally urgent. Klein shows that there is no socialist or post-capitalist future which is not ecologically sustainable and which does not have indigenous struggle at its heart. The alternative is “climate-fuelled disaster capitalism”. We need to build a future which is not only resilient, but regenerative:

“Resilience – though certainly one of nature’s gifts, is a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up. Regeneration, on the other hand, is active.”

Review: Catching Fire (movie)

Catching Fire

By Wei Sun (Fightback, Christchurch).

The second movie of The Hunger Games trilogy—Catching Fire, based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, officially started at the cinemas in November 2013. As a sequel to the first movie The Hunger Games, the story of Katniss Everdeen and the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem continues; and as in the previous movie, the kids from 12 districts selected by Capitol are being sent to the wild to fight against each other to death.

Catching Fire should possibly cause more concern to the far-right US commentators, after they targeted venom at a few ‘Marxist’ films such as The Muppets and The Lorax. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss temporarily loses her consciousness due to the massive explosion destroying the arena. Therefore, the 75th Hunger Games is forced to end earlier than it is originally planned by Capitol. When she wakes up, her sorrow turns into anger and determination in no time.

One major difference between the first and second movie is that in Catching Fire, the main characters—Katniss and Peeta from District Twelve—are getting more rebellious rather than being scared and depressed. The desire to end the oppression of Capitol keeps growing stronger throughout the movie. Katniss chooses to fight back against Capitol in the end, which is completely different to the first movie where she and Peeta attempted suicide to prevent Capitol from having only one victor for the 74th Hunger Games.

Very similar to our society, people are being divided into ‘districts’ that are forced to fight against each other to survive. A tyrannical dictatorship rules, and also ensures to enforce the brutal Hunger Games annually to make submissions to the state. The Hunger Games also act to distract the working-class from the daily grinding struggle.

Class politics is a major factor of The Hunger Games trilogy. While the ruling class in Capitol are enjoying all the luxuries, the poor and powerless class are being watched for the rich-class’s entertainment, struggling from poverty and having to fight completely unwillingly against one another to survive with the constant high risk of losing their lives.

Donald Sutherland, who plays the head of state President Snow, has said that he only plays this role to inspire young people to start a revolution and fight back, because the rich class need the annual Hunger Games to continue to make the state complete. And because class society is very fragile; the poor who are fighting back against the upper class nearly destroy Capitol in the end, indicating that the rebellion continues without doubt in the last movie Mockingjay.

Like the way capitalism oppresses the working-class in real life, Katniss is forced to wear a wedding dress. However, the white wedding dress burns and becomes a black dress with wings like a mockingjay when Katniss is asked to stand up and turn around to show all the audience her ‘magic trick’. Would this be a symbol that the revolution is about to start? According to the third book of the trilogy, the strength of the working-class is much bigger than what Capitol expects, and the fragile system of the state definitely fails eventually.

The movement based on the strength of the working-class clearly does not only exist in fictional worlds. The larger the upper-class gets, the smaller we get, and the easier the upper-class will oppress us. It is necessary for us to learn the theme of The Hunger Games—solidarity of the oppressed class to fight against the exploiters.

See also