Housing accessibility and human rights

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by NIKKI STOKES

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

When our landlord issued a 90 day notice of intent to take back occupation of the home my young family had been renting for two years, I did what most people in my generation have had to do at some point; I spent hours of my time desperately scouring real estate websites, publications and new paper listings in hopes of finding another home to rent at a time when demand significantly outstrips supply.

Unlike the majority of hopeful tenants, however, I dismissed most of the available properties without forwarding an application. Instead I went into the Ministry of Social Development and applied for social housing in hope they could make up for the lack of private rental houses that would be even minimally accessible to my mobility impaired daughter.

I was advised to continue looking for private housing and to keep my daughter’s disability a secret to prevent any discomfort from potential landlords. The wait time for social housing would be months, perhaps years, and emergency housing providers would unlikely be able or willing to accommodate a family with our requirements.

By luck we were able to secure a private rental and with some hefty funding for a temporary ramp, hoist system and fancy shower chair, the house was made minimally accessible to her basic care needs.

Housing and erasure

While stories like this are seldom heard in the well chewed-over discussions on housing challenges and solutions, they are hardly isolated.

In October 2017 the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing presented a report on the right to adequate housing for persons with disabilities1. The report highlights the fact that globally, the right to adequate housing remains beyond reach for most persons with disability and that legislation and policy have generally ignored the need for action to protect the right to housing for disabled people.

For people with disabilities, being unable to access suitable and secure housing compromises the choices available to them within their communities. If housing cannot be secured, a person may be forced into living with family members beyond a time period that they feel is appropriate. If housing is not suitably accessible, or cannot be reasonably modified to enable independence, a person may find themselves reliant on disability support workers. If housing is not located convenient to community facilities, support, employment or reliable and accessible public transport, a person with disabilities may find themselves isolated and struggling to participate fully in society.This creates vulnerability as disabled people are forced into situations where they cannot fully exercise their human rights. and reinforces harmful narratives of the burden of disability on society.

In such a society disabled people are actively erased. While 2013 census data estimated that a total of 1.1 million people, or 24% of New Zealanders were disabled it is estimated that only 2% of our housing stock is accessible. As the United Nations report says: “Most housing and development is designed as if persons with disabilities do not exist, will not live there or deserve no consideration”.

While numerous organisations and consumer groups representing various disabled groups have highlighted the urgent need for minimum accessibility standards and action for access to adequate housing, little meaningful action has occured at Government level. Housing accessibility is protected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities2, to which New Zealand is a signatory. It is therefore fundamental to our responsibilities to Disabled People that any future policy or initiatives intended to address housing be centred around ensuring a minimum level of accessibility.

Is KiwiBuild accessible?

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life3. When comparing the cost of incorporating Universal Design into new builds against the cost of retrofitting those same builds, it soon becomes clear that failure to ensure accessibility in housing policy and initiatives is not only creating undue hardship to to persons with disability, but it is a poor economic choice in the longterm. According to the research, testing and consulting organisation BRANZ (www.branz.co.nz), building using concepts of Universal Design would add little additional cost (around $3,000 per dwelling). Yet retrofitting a building that has not been built to an accessible standard may well cost over $20,000.

The much-lauded KiwiBuild programme has made no assurances to or carried out consultation with any of the organisations representing disabled people. This seems at best counter productive to the purpose of state funded housing projects, and at worst a significant breach of Human Rights. A society that intends to be inclusive must begin with fully accessible communities, including access to housing for disabled people, and also “visitablity” – the ability to access the homes of friends, family and community members to ensure full and uncompromised participation in society.

The costs of not building new homes or carrying out renovations to a minimum standard of accessibility are significant, and in New Zealand that cost falls upon our already very stretched Health system. Funding for modifications is difficult and time-consuming to access, has strict limits that place financial burdens on disabled people and their families, and is not accessible to people who are unable to secure stable long term accommodation.

Recently Phil Twyford, the Minister championing the Kiwibuild programme was invited to speak at the Universal Design Conference of 2018. While his speech conveyed his recognition of the challenges of access to housing to that disabled people face and a need to ensure a diversity of housing stock to meet a diversity of need and family structure, it is concerning that no firm commitment has been made to ensure that a minimum standard of accessibility will be applied to the Kiwibuild programme.

Community connections

It was also announced in September this year that a new social housing development has been planned for Otara, incorporating features to meet the needs of disabled tenants. While 71 apartments have been planned for the development, only seven ground level apartments have been specifically planned to accommodate mobility impaired individuals. While there are many disabilities and needs beyond mobility impairment, this does not reflect that 14% of New Zealanders (over half of the disability community) have a mobility impairment.

Moreover, for people with disability, the ability to maintain connections with their communities and supports are vital. Creating separate communities for disabled people to exist in, rather than ensuring all housing provides the ability to accommodate all disabilities, forces people with disabilities to be cut off from their supports, their communities and to remain invisible.

As a carer the strain of inadequate housing cannot be understated. It has created an ongoing cycle of instability and crisis for our family. The struggle to find adequate housing in our local community has forced us to sever ties with our support networks, deal with transfer and inconsistency of service provision and case management, feel frequently vulnerable and exposed having unfamiliar care staff coming into our home, and struggle to find inclusive social situations. The lack of access to fully accessible housing or to state funded modifications has required that my physical safety and the safety of my child be compromised in the process of providing basic care.

Leaving disabled people vulnerable and without choices, and placing additional strain on their families and carers by failing to ensure adequate housing, continues to result in terrible human rights abuses for people with disabilities. We have a responsibility and the capability to ensure that adequate and secure housing is an accessible right for all.

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Toi Ora: Making the arts accessible

tishyartby Tricia Hall

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

When we talk about accessibility too often the discussion ends with the basics of food and shelter. But to be a fully accessible society for all we need to consider people in a holistic manner. Providing for physical emotional and spiritual needs can mean different things to different people, and how easily people can get these needs met also varies.

For those who have experienced Mental Health or other issues, accessing something like the Arts comes well down the priority list after shelter, food, medications and other treatments, transportation – all things that cost money in our society. However, it is precisely access to arts and community that people find allows them to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. We need to recognise the importance of having access to community – whether that is arts, sports, spiritual or something else, and that this is a fundamental human right for all.

For some years I have been a part of a community called Toi Ora, both as an artist, tutor and part of the strategic board. Toi Ora is an art space in central Auckland which provides classes across the spectrum of arts for people who have experienced Mental Health or substance abuse issues.

Toi Ora was set up in 1995 by a group of artists with lived experience of Mental Health issues who recognized that an important part of living well was finding something you liked doing and a community to support you to do it. Unlike so much of the health system, particularly those parts dealing with Mental Health, Toi Ora is not about what is wrong in people’s lives, but rather what is right. People are artists, musicians, writers – not whatever label society or the system may have placed upon them.

How Toi Ora works

Toi Ora provides a schedule of regular classes during term times in the visual arts, drama, music, creative writing and more. Members are encouraged to be part of running the studio in volunteer roles. The staff at Toi Ora have either their own personal experiences of unwellness, extensive training in mental health and/or the arts, or both. All tutors are practicing artists, writers or musicians.

Members do not pay to join Toi Ora, and professional-quality materials are provided. People who join are signed up for one or more classes and fill in an enrolment form for each term. When they first join, a staff person will give them an orientation to ensure they understand what is expected of them, including what is appropriate behavior whilst using Toi Ora services.

Toi Ora’s membership criteria are personal experience of mental unwellness, which means a diversity of members both with long-term illnesses, and those who have recently had their first episode of unwellness. Members’ artistic abilities also vary, and Toi Ora is able to cater for a range of levels from absolute beginners to established artists.

There is some provision for space for independent projects to take place alongside classes, and there is also usually at least one artist in residence supported by the Toi Ora Trust. When Toi Ora moved to its current premises in 2009, we acquired gallery space in which to showcase our members’ artwork with regular exhibitions.

A large part of Toi Ora’s funding comes from the Auckland District Health Board, which only covers the central part of Auckland – so we are not able to admit new members who live in the western or southern parts of the Super-City. The service has regular audits to ensure that the DHB is getting “value for money”.

Other sources of funding have come through applying for philanthropic or other grants, usually for specific projects including the Express Yourself youth programme, October Gig, events promoting Mental Health Awareness Week, The Outsider Art Fair and more. Some of these have been organized in conjunction with groups or organisations such as Circability, Mapura studio, Mental Health Foundation, Clubhouse, Studio One Toi Tū and others within both Arts and Health fields.

Safety and accessibility

It can sometimes be challenging to cater for the varied needs and abilities of members in such a way that Toi Ora remains accessible for all. Alongside Mental unwellness there is an element of risk, and Toi Ora has strong policy guidelines for managing this.

All members sign an agreement when they first join to adhere to these guidelines, and if staff notice someone showing signs of potential unwellness they will speak to that member to encourage them to take appropriate steps to look after themselves. Toi Ora is a supportive community, and while not specifically therapy oriented, sometimes people may find that emotional triggers may occur during their time in the studio or classes. When this happens, either peers or staff will usually support the distressed person, and if necessary involve other support people if appropriate.

Tricia’s story

When I first came to Toi Ora around 2001, I was coming out of a period of ill health that had really shaken my confidence. I had dropped out of university and moved back in with my parents. Coming to a couple of classes a week at Toi Ora provided the beginnings of routine, a place to be, and understanding people to connect with.

Quite early in my time at Toi Ora I volunteered to be a member of the Trust Board. Part of the initial deed when Toi Ora was first set up included that the Board should have a percentage of members who had personal lived experience of Mental Health issues and were current members of Toi Ora. I was a part of the Board for several years, including as Chairperson until I stepped down as part of my maternity leave.

When one of the long-term tutors left, I was offered the role of art tutor for the beginners’ painting class, initially as a shared position. I have also filled in tutoring other classes such as Mosaics, Printmaking and Creative Writing and worked as a tutor with groups of young people across various arts as part of the Express Yourself programme (this is not currently running anymore due to lack of available funding)

Over the years I have also has support and opportunities from Toi Ora in various forms. I have been part of group exhibitions and performances both at Toi Ora and other galleries/venues and was able to put together a solo exhibition in 2011. I have also been supported as a delegate to conferences, and supported in learning New Zealand Sign Language, as Toi Ora extended a welcome to the Deaf community with specific workshops and exhibitions.

When my now feisty two-year-old daughter was born, I took maternity leave as a tutor for a year, but during that time stayed in contact with the studio. I even attended a few classes with my baby in tow, recognizing the importance for me of remaining connected with other adults and my own interests as I navigated to first year of my daughter’s life and struggled with mild post-natal depression. I have since returned to tutoring one day a week.

During 2017 I also had the privilege of being a participant on the Be Leadership programme, a leadership programme set over 10 months including some residential components. Participants develop new frames of thinking around leadership through having new and challenging conversations with each other and prominent leaders throughout New Zealand. I was fortunate to be able to attend the programme with my baby (who was 4 months old at the start of the programme) and to be a part of discussions around accessibility for all.

In defence of meds (and neurochemistry): Notes from a bipolar socialist

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by Ani White

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

Content warning: This article discusses a range of mental health conditions, including bipolar and suicidality.

Bipolar (definition): A mental condition characterised by depression and mania.

Mania (definition): An abnormally elevated mood state characterized by such symptoms as inappropriate elation, increased irritability, severe insomnia, grandiose notions, increased speed and/or volume of speech, disconnected and racing thoughts, increased sexual desire, markedly increased energy and activity level, poor judgment, and inappropriate social behavior.1

“…depression isn’t about brain chemistry at all, it’s about social context.” This turn of phrase, coming from a friend over dinner, set off immediate alarm bells. At all? Isn’t that simplistic? Surely brain chemistry and social context interact? My friend was recommending some fellow published in The Guardian, so while arguing back I agreed to look into it.

In the article2, author Johann Hari does actually acknowledge briefly that brain chemistry is a factor, and that medication can help, but strongly emphasises that improving peoples’ social conditions is necessary to alleviate depression and anxiety. I agree with all of this. High rates of mental distress in our society result from a brutally exploitative system that alienates us from ourselves, and a kinder (socialist!) society would result in better mental health outcomes. My point here isn’t about Hari, the ethics of his behaviour3, or the details of his work (I should admit upfront to not having reading his book, only the article). It’s about the popularity of his work, and the dangers associated with a simplified interpretation of it. I should also acknowledge that friends of mine with bipolar and borderline personality disorder find Hari’s work useful, so this is not intended to speak for all bipolar people.

However, I personally believe that what Hari says is most accurate and pertinent for people suffering from situational depression and anxiety. We should be careful about extending Hari’s arguments too far. They should not be blindly mapped onto all mental conditions. And I don’t accept that all mental illness is socially determined – Hari does not argue this, but it’s a common leftist outlook that Hari might appear superficially to confirm.

I’m bipolar (see byline for definition). One of my uncles experienced schizophrenia and committed suicide, another uncle experiences bipolar, my sister has experienced hypomania and depression. The evidence seems clear that bipolar is heritable,4 and given my family history it seems pretty likely my bipolar is inherited. This doesn’t mean social context is irrelevant: changes in my life have helped trigger my manic episodes for example. However, the phrase “depression isn’t about brain chemistry at all” isn’t useful for my situation, including my depressed periods. My brain does chemically have a greater tendency towards ‘imbalances’ than other brains, and my treatment has to acknowledge that. It’s common that bipolar is initially misdiagnosed as simply depression/anxiety, leading to treatment that can make the situation worse: for example, antidepressants can set off mania, as they did in my case. Our brains are simply not like other brains (this is not distinct to bipolar people – patterns in brain chemistry vary widely).

My bipolar diagnosis made a big difference to recovery, enabling a more appropriate treatment plan (including appropriate meds, talk therapy, and broader changes in my life). After 28 years with undiagnosed bipolar, the 2 years since my diagnosis have been marked by significant recovery. Over that time, I’ve also found that while many people are aware of how depression works, mania (again, see byline) is not widely understood.

Mental health advocates around the world have launched a number of prominent depression awareness campaigns. Depression is a common issue: about 15% of Australians will suffer from depression, compared to about 1.8% experiencing bipolar. With overstretched and underfunded mental health systems, there are inestimable challenges facing mental health advocates, and raising awareness of the most common mental health disorders does make sense as a priority. However, people with rarer mental health conditions exist, and our conditions remain widely misunderstood.

Reactions to Kanye West are a case in point (hear me out). The recent announcement of his bipolar diagnosis did not surprise me at all. What’s notable, unusual about Kanye’s manic episodes is that they’re broadcast across the world. Every manic person embarrasses themselves, most do not do it on the evening news. Kanye’s episodes are otherwise quite typical of mania: delusions of grandeur, ranting, a general disconnection from the social body. I do not mean to excuse everything Kanye has said, particularly his endorsement of the alt right. Kanye has millions of dollars, not something most bipolar people can claim, so this probably factors into some of the disconnected ideas he expresses. Bipolar people must take responsibility; I myself have fucked up, behaving inappropriately while manic. Manic people may lack filters, but the ideas we express do come from our brains.

However, it seems to me that many who would not mock a celebrity’s depression will mock a celebrity’s manic behaviour. In a mental health support group online, I saw a comment dismissing Kanye as on the ‘delusion train.’ It struck me as unlikely that anyone in that space would dismiss someone on the ‘depression train’ (even a multi-millionaire such as Robin Williams).

In my experience, even those who do not mock manic delusions understandably find them confusing. This is not just because the ideas manic people express are confusing, though they often are; it’s also that there is no script for dealing with these episodes the way there is for depression.

During a video posted on Facebook, Johann Hari repeatedly emphasised that “you’re not crazy.” This is affirming for many. However, I prefer to acknowledge that manic episodes are crazy. They involve delusions, incoherence, reckless behaviour. For some of us, it may be more useful to acknowledge that insanity is part of the spectrum of human behaviour than to imply that nobody is crazy. Perhaps talk of ‘insanity’ is stigmatising, and I don’t insist everyone use it; my point is more that we need to be frank about the realities of mania.

Brains will always be diverse. This may manifest as mood imbalances. Moods and perceptions would not all be stable and identical under socialism. It may be that periods of lower energy and mood – what we call depression – would be accepted, not punished as ‘unproductive’, a punitive approach that only exacerbates depressive spirals. In other words, yes, mental distress would be alleviated, likely leading to lower rates of depression and anxiety. But this would not mean the eradication of complex, varied, sometimes ‘imbalanced’ brains – and meds would likely continue to help.

Perhaps a defence of neurochemistry and medication is unnecessary; meds continue to be the mental health system’s first port of call. However, my concern is that those who rightly call attention to social context do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

No Hashtag – Why campaigning needs to look more like a movement than marketing.

hashtag activism

Article by Ben Peterson, originally published on his personal blog leftwin.

If you speak to some activists, they’ll tell you that it’s a time of change. From the union office to the rally in the street, a new way of doing things is on the rise. The hard times for the left are coming to a close. There’s a new sheriff in town. The “social media campaigner” is here.

Or so the story goes.

Social media campaigning and “messaging” are now central to discussions on the left. Analysis of the political situation increasingly plays second fiddle to “framing” and media talking points. For example, at the recent Council of Trade Unions (CTU) conference the keynote speaker wasn’t a leader of a movement reflecting on a successful campaign. Rather, the key speaker was international language and communications consultant Anat Shenker-Onsario, on messaging. “Digital campaigning” is at the core of influential conferences such as Campaign Bootcamp and Step It Up.

Discussing social media is not a problem in itself. It is self-evident that unionists, environmentalists or anti-TPPA protestors should seek to be as effective as possible in communicating their ideas.

However, the focus and emphasis on media campaigning covers a deeper and more problematic political perspective.

Strategy must come first
The union movement is a good example. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, union membership has shrunk significantly since 1991, when the then National government brought in anti-union legislation. The union movement has steadied, but struggled to regain its influence.

As the economy changed towards service industry jobs, the union movement was slow to adapt, initially believing that these industries were too difficult to organise.  This has now changed, with Unite and FIRST union actively campaigning in hospitality and  retail respectively.

Both these unions seek to use effective messaging in their campaigns, but this is only effective due to the strategic choices of these unions. Media campaigning is only significant after identifying the shape of an organising campaign. For both of these unions, social media campaigning is part of their drive to organise and mobilise these workers.

Unite’s first campaign was #SuperSizeMyPay. It is impossible to understand this campaign without understanding the centrality of the organisation and mobilisation of union members and supporters. The campaign’s strength was built both before the media event, and was used to stimulate greater organising after. The media work was savvy, but it came after the strategic political choice to organise in fast food. Focusing on media messaging misses this important point. It also sidesteps a discussion on why significant parts of the union movement were convinced that organising young workers was not possible.

The same applies for the climate movement. Effective messaging is obviously important, but messaging to what ends? Is the solution to lobby politicians and fossil fuel companies? Or does the movement adopt a strategy of community mobilisation? The endpoint of one is a cup of tea and a chat in a corporate board room. The other might be a community blockade. The focus on media campaigning at best distracts from these vital discussions. At worst, it implicitly takes a side in these strategic debates and reinforces some of the problems that leftists need to overcome.

Movements of people, not “change corporations”
Having media as the central focus of campaigning can be at odds with the emancipatory project of the left.

The basis of a radical left project is ‘the people’. In short – the world is not run by or for the billions of ordinary people who populate the planet. Instead, a small financial and political elite runs the political and economic institutions that define our world. The solution is to reverse this situation and build new, more democratic institutions. This strategic analysis is built around one central assumption – the power and potential of working people to run their own society.

Social media campaigning often runs counter to this idea. The social media campaigner creates online content and hopes other people ‘retweet’ or share their content on Facebook. Most people are therefore only passively involved. People are encouraged to share content, but have no way of being involved in creating that content themselves.

Focusing on “effective messaging” reinforces this dynamic. A select few professionals drive a campaign. They are the ones with the media training. They decide on the message, and find graphic designers to make the content. For those outside the professional bubble, the scope for involvement in strategic decisions is non-existent.

This has a flow-on effect to other aspects of political organisation. Fundraising money is channelled away from maintaining a meeting space, printing for mass distribution or upskilling a range of volunteers. Instead funds go towards providing wages for professional spin. Organisations adopt organisation models with a board of directors, or even a CEO, instead of an organising committee accountable to regular membership meetings.
Ironically, this form of organising ends up mirroring the kind of institutions that we are organising against. It is a political perspective of creating “change corporations”, and like other corporations, ordinary people are not participants. Instead they are reduced to political consumers of the change-corp’s political product.
Campaign Bootcamp was a good example of this process. The camp was pitched to young people wanting to “make change”. It had a strong focus on online campaigning tools and media messaging. For the record, it is admirable to set out to provide training for young people to be better political activists. However, the perspectives put forward at the camp were likely to reinforce an elite conception of progressive politics.

In the first instance, the suggested cost was $1200 per attendee; this was later clarified that it would be for those who were paid to go by their employer. This may work for an up-and-comer in a wealthy church charity, but a young person working in a service industry job was not likely to be able to convince their employer to foot the bill. After being challenged, the organisers changed the fee to $800 for those working full time and $400 for students or unemployed.

On top of the cost of attending, organisers required “ideal participants” to “have a minimum of one year’s experience working on social or environmental issues”. If this wasn’t enough, there were interviews to vet potential participants.

Taken together this paints a fairly clear picture. For Campaign Bootcamp, change is a professional process. The ideal person is someone who is young, educated, with a disposable income, and who either works for an NGO or wants to do so. Beneficiaries, high school dropout fast food workers, or even people who have not yet been involved in activism need not apply.

A left perspective.
The real problem is that this approach moves away from our strengths. The corporations that unionists or environmentalists find ourselves organising against will always have more money and resources. They will always be able to pay for the best PR and advertising, or commission the most studies.

A strategy that aims to create an elite group of trained media campaigners gives up our biggest strength – people. Our strategies need to focus on mobilisation and organisation of this base. Being effective in our messaging is important, but we need to encourage a more active involvement than simply asking people to ‘like’ and ‘share’ on Facebook.
Building real organisations where participants have active involvement and control over the direction of the campaign is possible – in fact it is how unions and environmental movements came about. The long tradition of organising meetings and active participation of members in their organisation needs to be continued. This kind of organisation gives movements the real roots and strength that can change the world. Online campaigning alone cannot substitute for the power that comes from the people.

Moves to gut public and Maori broadcasting

Te Hoki New Zealand in Afghanistan, broadcast on Maori TV. Image: Scoop, Lionel  de Coninck.

Te Hoki Huna New Zealand in Afghanistan, broadcast on Maori TV. Image: Scoop, Lionel de Coninck.

Ian Anderson (Fightback/MANA Poneke).

Paora Maxwell’s tenure as Maori TV CEO has been controversial. In August 2013, staff at Maori TV circulated a petition against Maxwell’s appointment by the Nats. More recently, Maxwell announced a restructuring process, and high-profile figures including Carol Hirschfeld left Maori TV. Now, plans to outsource TVNZ’s Maori and Pacific programming appear to confirm rumours of continued backdoor privatisation.

Maori TV remains the only TV broadcaster with content not dependant on advertising revenue, while TVNZ is now commercially funded. Public broadcasting enables journalism such as last year’s documentary He Toki Huna New Zealand In Afghanistan, commissioned and broadcast by Maori TV, which investigated New Zealand troops’ complicity in US occupation. Coupled with raids on independent journalist Nicky Hager’s house, and Maxwell’s banning of Hone Harawira from Marae Investigates, moves to gut Maori programming limit the capacity for critical journalism.

In an era of privatisation and neoliberal entrenchment, an era of Whale Oil and Kiwiblog, Maori TV’s continued existence is a tribute to decades of Maori struggle and organisation. At the same time, the complicity of the Maori Party in these changes reveals how a top layer of Maori have been co-opted into a system that dispossesses the majority.

With Hone Harawira booted out of his Taitokerau seat, the only serious public opposition to these moves has come from outside parliament. The struggle against neoliberal entrenchment, for a truly democratic society, is necessarily a community struggle. In addition to public broadcasting, we also need a people’s press, sources independent of capital and the state that aid struggles for self-determination.

Mass surveillance and sexual violence: The difference between Snowden and Assange

Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden: whistleblowers persecuted for exposing imperialist abuses

Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden: whistleblowers persecuted for exposing imperialist abuses

Last night’s ‘Moment of Truth’ event in Auckland, called together by Internet Party founder Kim Dotcom, revealed the extent of mass surveillance in Aotearoa/NZ. Our government, in complicity with a transnational regime headed by the US, collects extensive personal data through information technology. As seen in the 2007 Urewera Raids, governments will use this information to justify attacks on ordinary people.

The ‘Moment of Truth’ event brought Dotcom together with whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Wikileaks founding member Julian Assange, and journalist Glen Greenwald.

Although Snowden, Dotcom and Assange are all sought by authorities, the nature of the charges are different. Copyright and espionage laws are largely designed to help governments and corporations protect their power; sexual violence, in the case of Assange, is itself an abuse of power.

We can walk and chew gum, opposing both surveillance and sexual violence. Fightback supports exposing mass surveillance, however we argue it is not necessary to give a platform to Julian Assange. These cases need to be distinguished.

Edward Snowden
Snowden is a whistle-blower, known for leaking classified information from the US National Security Agency (NSA). He is sought by the US government for espionage and theft of government property, currently residing in Russia.

For socialists, the real crime is not Snowden’s betrayal of his imperialist masters, but the international system of violence and surveillance he helped expose. Betraying this system is a necessary, even heroic act.

At the ‘Moment of Truth’ event, Snowden revealed that the NSA has bases in Auckland and Northland. Progressives in Aotearoa/NZ welcome Snowden (and journalist Glenn Greenwald) in helping us expose the complicity of our government in imperialist abuses.

Kim Dotcom
Kim Dotcom is a German-Finnish resident of Aotearoa/NZ, the founder of file-sharing business Megaupload. In early 2012, Dotcom was arrested for copyright infringement at the behest of the US government.

Dotcom describes this experience of state repression as a politicising event. In opposition to imperialist agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and the Five Eyes agreement, Dotcom found unity with social democratic and radical indigenous forces, forging the basis of the Internet Mana electoral alliance.

Dotcom is no angel. He’s a profiteer (although Internet Mana’s policy process has led to Dotcom advocating taxes on the rich), and was accurately described by Internet Party gender spokesperson Pani Farvid as a “product of sexist culture.”

As phrased by Jacobin Magazine’s Gavin Mueller, “it’s so easy to hate Kim Dotcom that you almost forget that the US convinced the New Zealand government to send in an assault brigade, bereft of a valid warrant but outfitted with automatic weapons and helicopters, to arrest a Finnish citizen at the demand of Hollywood studios.”

Progressives in Internet Mana unite with Dotcom around shared demands, particularly opposing corporate copyright laws and transnational state repression.

Julian Assange
Assange is a founding member of Wikileaks, an organisation whose leaking of state secrets have helped in exposing international imperialist abuses. He is also sought for questioning related to charges of sexual violence.

Some accuse the women involved of being CIA ‘honey traps,’ or the authorities of manufacturing charges.

However, the facts of the case are well-established, admitted by Assange’s legal defence. Assange had sex with a woman while she was sleeping, and had sex without a condom when requested to wear a condom. These are violations of consent.

We don’t have to trust the state to believe women’s testimony of being assaulted.

Assange should not be given a platform at progressive events. This discredits the movement against neoliberalism and mass surveillance.

See also

Democracy, Freedom and the Realisation of the Imagination – or ‘What is Socialism’

capitalism democracy

By Joel Cosgrove (Fightback – Wellington)
(Notes from a talk in the “Introduction to Marxism” series)

We spent last week talking about capitalism (a social/economic structure which is based on the production of things for profit). The flip side of a discussion of capitalism is a discussion of socialism.

Clearly this is an hour long discussion so I’m not interested in stating a definitive answer to this question. But I am keen to start a discussion, because to be honest, I’ve been a revolutionary socialist since 2005 and I’m still learning, still pondering this question.

Let’s start with three points to build a discussion around.

• Democracy
• Freedom
• Imagination

Outside of the fact that things are good grouped in threes (which we all know people work well with), these are points that I think are important within my conception of Socialism.

Democracy
First off, I think this is a useful place to start. I think we can agree that there is more than one idea of democracy, a word which comes from Dēmokratía – Demos being the Greek word for ‘people’ and Kratos meaning “power” or “rule.”

Bryan Roper, a member of the International Socialist Organisation in Dunedin, has written a great book titled The History of Democracy: a Marxist Interpretation. In it, he talks about the polarisation between Athenian and Roman democracy, and the way in which that difference has been reflected in the application of democracy over the centuries.

To grossly generalize, in Athenian democracy you had an environment where the people were compensated to take part in the democratic process. Even though, in Greece at the time, the “people” didn’t include women, slaves or foreigners, still it was definite progress.

With Roman democracy you had an environment where those who had the time or money could take part. So what you had is a democracy where the rich could take part and the poor had no way of taking part.

It won’t be much of a surprise to say which of these examples of democracy was generally imitated. It wasn’t until 1892 that MPs in Aotearoa were given an annual salary and it wasn’t until 1944 that MPs were considered to be working fulltime. Needless to say, the history of democracy is also the history of struggle for representation by the working class. It is no coincidence that the changes above came about in a period when the Liberal government was enacting progressive reforms in the 1890s and the first Labour government was bringing increased working-class representation.

Still, within this dynamic, the history of democracy has been a history of struggle against the dominant expression of it; namely, a Roman model that structurally excludes the poor/working class. I think we can see the same thing in current practice, where hundreds of thousands of people are disengaged from the political process.

I don’t think it is a big call to say that the democratic frameworks we have currently are a bit shit. Because in part democracy is about more than putting your hand up, casting a vote every three years. It’s the environment surrounding the act of voting which frames the level of democracy we engage in. I’m not going to engage in much depth with the issue of three-yearly voting in elections. But Parliament is a relatively powerless thing, when it has no real ability to engage in the question of what is made in and what quantity. Clearly though, we need a process that involves actual participation as opposed to token involvement.

Building on that, the real gaping hole is in the workplace; namely, the lack of democratic decision making. We spend most of our time in the workplace and yet we have little say over what goes on, on what is produced. We’re not going to get on top of issues like climate change without democratization of our workplaces.

If you look back historically at the Soviets in Russia, the Factory Councils in Italy and Spain, what links them all (broadly) is a direct link between the workplace and the political decision-making bodies. But there is also a direct democracy that gives people some collective control over their lives. These are the stories that have inspired me, examples of people taking control over their lives. Yet, for some people, the fact that the Russian Revolution didn’t immediately lead to everyone having a beach house and a pool to get a tan by is some sort of indictment of the experience, as if freedom is just carefree idleness. The thing for me though, is that with this newfound freedom from their former lives under an autocratic Tsarist regime came more responsibility, not less, part and parcel with the freedoms that were won through struggle.

That unflinching determination makes sense when viewed as a fight for more responsibility, for the right to have a real say in how society is run – which echoes in part to the older tradition of Athenian dēmokratía.

Freedom/Liberty
I’m going to paraphrase both Immanuel Kant and Spiderman in saying “with freedom, comes great responsibility”. And also, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – twelve words by Marx, that he took from the French radical tradition.

For me, freedom is a term that has become hijacked by the Right. We’ve got to be aware of the neoliberal co-option of language, especially the powerful liberatory language of the Left. The dominant (right-wing) perspective lacks a collective framework for individual freedom. For me, my individual freedom is predicated on a broader collective freedom. If society as a whole is unfree, then there is little real basis for my personal freedom.

This is important when talking about socialism, seeing the world as a totality and not the individual as some abstract decontexualised Ayn Randian superman. All too often, when you look at the “freedom” of the Right, near the surface somewhere is the oppression that this freedom rests on. But for me, freedom and imagination are interlinked to a large extent. You can’t have real freedom without…

Imagination
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Einstein

This is the point where I hope there aren’t too many sniggers. But I passionately believe that without an ability to imagine, we’re stuck with the status quo that we currently have. Furthermore, I think we’ve seen a gradual limiting of the space within society in which we can dream/imagine something different, something new.

You only have to look at Margaret Thatcher’s well known phrase “there is no such thing as society,” or the survey result that came out a few years ago which showed that people could more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, to see how dangerous capitalism sees the imagination as being.

If we start with the Thatcher quote, I think we see a key battleground. Not just the right to dream, but the right to dream/imagine collectively. This collective imagination is tied back to my conception of freedom, based around a relationship between the individual and the collective. On top of that, we need to be able to imagine the future; otherwise we end up trapped in the present. As Marxists we need to be able to imagine this concept of a future society, based on our critique of capitalism and our understanding of the limitations of previous attempts at building an alternative to capitalism (France, Germany, Russia, China, Cuba etc). From there we need to be able realise and develop these ideas in practice.

This is where we gather together as a small group of people dreaming of revolution, of a fundamentally changed way in which society is run, where we have a totally different conception of democracy, freedom and the imagination than the bullshit we are presented with currently.
The challenge from this point of collective dreaming is the realization of these ideas on a small scale (let’s not pretend we are a revolutionary army of thousands), which right now, could be going on a poster run to promote the next Intro to Marxism session, opposing white supremacists in Christchurch, or helping make a banner for the anti-Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement march this Saturday.

At its core though, my point is a call for radical critical thinking and corresponding action.

Why the Internet Party is resonating

te kotahitanga o otangarei

By Byron Clark (Fightback).

In the March issue of Fightback we examined the politics at the then new Internet Party. The verdict at that time was that “there is no sign that it represents a progressive force”. There have been some developments since then, Kim Dotcom has dispelled the idea that he is a libertarian, confirming in his The Nation interview that he supports a welfare state. Later at the members-only picnic held at his Coatesville mansion he also spoke in favour of free education.

The policies released on their website, internet.org.nz, are all supportable (though the one about a digital currency seems like a silly gimmick). The main difference between the Internet Party and the Green Party -at least in the areas they share policy- appears to be a question of emphasis. If Dotcom were to fold the party if it failed to get over the 5% threshold for seats in parliament, something he indicated he would do, it could have been expected that the Greens would gain his endorsement.

This isn’t what happened. In what came as a surprise to many, he looked further to the left and sought out an alliance with the MANA movement. While Fightback opposed an alliance, the outcome of talks at the MANA AGM was to continue discussions between the two parties. Fightback remains opposed, but will continue to participate in the MANA movement, provided there is no compromise of core policy or principles.

The Internet Party has only got as far as it has with MANA because its message has resonated with a significant number of members. The greater chance of changing the government post-September 20th appears to be the only significant gain for MANA, and that wouldn’t be enough on its own to get people excited. The Internet Party has signed up over 2000 members in a matter of days, attracted 700 to its launch event and is equaling MANA in the polls (not to mention three other parties currently in parliament) before even officially registering. This level of support is not insignificant.

Some in MANA, as well as commentators watching the saga unfold, have questioned how relevant an ‘Internet Party’ is to ‘someone who can’t afford a computer’. This might have been a valid point had the party emerged 15 years ago, but fails to see that internet access today is seen by most as an essential utility for full participation in society. Its notable that those making this political criticism are doing it largely via Internet platforms such as social media, and purporting to do so on behalf of those who don’t have the same level of access to those platforms.

One of the Internet Party’s core policies, increasing access to high speed internet and halving the price is a policy in the same league as halving the cost of electricity. It will appeal to a late night World of Warcraft player of course, but it will also appeal to a single parent aiming to escape life on the DPB through an internet delivered distance learning course. The latter actually benefits more from the policy, even if the former might be closer to the idea of an Internet Party supporter we have in our minds.

Examples of the crossover between the demographic targeted by MANA and the the policies of the Internet Party are easily found. Wahine Paewhenua of Te Kotahitanga Marae in the Whangarei suburb of Otangarei told The Herald that when they surveyed a newly formed youth group about what they’d like to have available, computers and internet access were to top of the list. The Marae now has an IT hub with twelve computers connected to ultra fast broadband.

“Before there was nothing happening for the children and the youth. Now they just have so many projects,” she told the Herald, adding that a lot of children in the area didn’t have internet access at home and that those involved in the project also wanted to roll out the programme to the senior citizens as a lot of them didn’t have a telephone.

“Otangarei has a very transient and poor population and to run a project like this is a big ask, but this has the potential to upskill people with the many opportunities that are available,” said Piripi Moore, project manager of the hub.

This sort of project is something MANA would support in principle, but the policies to make it happen are under developed. In contrast, the Internet Party places them front and centre. The “missing million” who didn’t vote in 2011 are over represented among youth, Maori and the poor, three groups that often intersect. No doubt many MANA members including in the leadership are in favour of an alliance as they see the potential for Internet Party policy to mobilise these groups. The growth in MANA’s membership since media coverage of the proposed alliance lends credence to that idea.

While there are local branches forming and an online forum for developing policy, the Internet Party is not holding an AGM until after the election, so its membership is not having the democratic discussion about an alliance that is going on within MANA. Yet some members have been vocal about their support.

On his Facebook page Hone Harawira shared an email he received after appearing on Nine to Noon. “My husband and I are geeks, that is to say, privileged, well paid, middle-class etc. We are natural supporters of the Internet Party and I want you to know that I don’t have any problem with an alliance between MANA and the Internet Party because from my perspective, the two have a lot in common – as Internet Party supporters, we believe that good internet access is a way out of poverty.” The email went on to say;

“I am appalled by Duncan Garner’s casual racism when he talks like this: ‘Dotcom wants internet freedom. Many of Hone’s rural supporters in outback Hokianga and Kaikohe don’t even own computers, let alone have super-fast broadband at their doorstep Hone wants jobs, opportunities and better wages; Dotcom wants to stay in NZ.’

He’s talking as though he can’t imagine a world where your supporters in Kaikohe and the Hokianga use computers to access the web, and this speaks volumes about the kinds jobs he sees them doing.

A big reason for our support of the Internet Party is that we believe that the people of rural Hokianga and Kaikohe should have computers as well as super-fast broadband because it’s a path towards jobs, opportunities and better wages for them as it has been for us and our family. If poverty is an inability to participate in society then the internet is a powerful tool that can break down the barriers that prevent participation.”

Indeed MANA and the Internet Party are not necessarily the strange bedfellows a casual observation would make them appear.

The risks of an alliance

Members of MANA, and no doubt voters as well, have been skeptical of Kim Dotcom because of the treatment of his own workers, the fact he is a foreigner lacking knowledge of Te Ao Maori (the MANA AGM was the first time he had been on a Marae), his class position, and the presumed politics that come with that. People have noted his use of the phrase “social fairness” during his address to the MANA AGM rather than “social justice” or “social equality”. The difference in meaning here is subtle but significant.

The woman who emailed Hone is correct when she says “good internet access is a way out of poverty,” but it’s only a way, not the way. It’s the way used by Kim Dotcom in his rags to riches story. Providing the opportunity might be “fair,” but it can’t work for everyone – not because of individual failings, but because capitalism is not structured in a way that means everyone can be an entrepreneur and become wealthy. If the focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism that Dotcom and party president Vikram Kumar are so keen on overshadows MANA’s goal of lifting everyone out of poverty, that becomes a problem.

Internet Party members have also raised their own worries about the alliance. “My biggest concern is that the Internet Party is not going to be taken seriously by voters because it is choosing to make an alliance with the Mana party,” writes a member going by the name Alana Hyland on the party’s policy forum “Everyone that I have talked to about the Internet Party has told me that they weren’t going to vote for the Internet Party because “they’re joining with the crazy racist group”. I think the Internet Party would do better on its own.” Responses to a photo of Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira the former shared on Twitter seem to be of the nature Alana talks about: “You had my vote. You lose it if you align with that racist idiot!” and “Hone is the biggest racist I’ve ever seen in a while” (sic).

These views of course are ignorant and incorrect, and we shouldn’t judge the party based on its supporters (its worth commending the Internet Party for a clause in their constitution stating “the Internet Party will also maintain and promote economic, cultural, social, ethnic, age and gender diversity and equality within the membership, candidacy and organisational structure of the Internet Party.”)

That said, how many potential Internet Party voters share the “Mana are racist” view, and would stay home on polling day rather than vote for an alliance? iPredict and other media are estimating the number of seats an alliance would win by adding together the poll results of both groups, yet this wont be an accurate prediction if a significant number of supporters of each party abstain.

Moreover, a joint list would have to mean a shared policy platform. At the AGM, Dotcom criticised MANA’s support of the Hone Heke (Financial Transactions) Tax and Capital Gains Tax, instead endorsing ‘luxury taxes.’ While Dotcom says he supports taxes on the wealthy, he appears to mean taxing consumption, not property or business. After Harawira’s principled opposition to raising GST, and endorsement of the Hone Heke Tax, it remains unclear whether Dotcom will compromise on this point. While it is entirely possible for a capitalist to support progressive working-class struggles, this also must mean betraying their class and making sacrifices, and Dotcom’s choices so far seem more opportunistic.

Perhaps MANA’s best course of action would be to adopt the Internet Party’s progressive policies and continue to advocate lowering the threshold for entry to parliament, remaining independent. As we go to print, results of the negotiation remain to be seen.

The Internet Party: A progressive force?

Kim-Dotcom-and-Internet-Party-logo--Getty-Images

By Byron Clark, Fightback (Christchurch).

The Internet Party is going to fundamentally change this country’s political landscape, apparently. It’s unusual for a party that has not registered with the electoral commission, and who haven’t announced any concrete policy or candidates, to be viewed in such high regard by the media, yet we are seeing comments like “something fantastic is brewing for New Zealand and I for one am watching happily as it unfolds,” from Derek Handley in the National Business Review, the publication that for one reason or another has given the party the most coverage. “Kim Dotcom will unleash the force of innovation and the internet in the electoral and democratic process,” claims Handley, what exactly he means by that is unclear.

The vague policy points that Internet Party have so far around issues of surveillance and high speed internet are not exactly new and exciting. “The emergence of the Internet Party is somewhat frustrating for the Greens,” writes former Green MP and intelligence spokesperson Keith Locke on The Daily Blog, “given that pretty much all of the Internet Party’s policies (such as internet freedom, defending privacy and withdrawing from the Five Eyes) are already Green policy.”

Locke seems to agree the the new party will be significant though, stating that “the Internet Party and the Greens, together, will be able to push [these issues] more strongly in the election,” and that “the Internet Party helps legitimise Green policies,” implying the policies of parliament’s third largest party need to be legitimised by what could turn out to be nothing more than the latest plaything from the mind of an eccentric millionaire.

Maybe its not the policy that is exciting, but how that policy comes to be. For Vikram Kumar, the former CEO of Kim Dotcom’s Mega.co.nz service who resigned to become general secretary of the new party, “the process of making the Internet Party’s policies, in an inclusive and engaging manner, is as important as the policies themselves.” Presumably Kumar envisions an Internet based system for determining policy. Again this isn’t particularly new, democratic parties have always use some mechanism to create policy, there is nothing  fundamentally different if such a system uses the most up to date communication technology.

The German Pirate Party, with whom the Internet Party has been compared (though ‘Pirate’ is probably a word they are keen to avoid given Dotcom’s circumstances) who have several MPs use an online system called ‘Liquidfeedback’ to shape policy, but the system doesn’t yield anything  particularly profound. “The ridiculous truth about the Pirates,” German Green MP Volker Beck told an interviewer in 2012, “is that they take our proposals from parliament and put in in their Liquidfeedback to discuss… they are taking up our content and [proposing it] as their own”

Liquidfeedback does even less good when the Party is voting on issues of little concern to its membership, when members don’t bother using it. The magazine Der Spiegel  described it as “a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate”.

“The Internet and technology are tools and ways of thinking,” writes Kumar. He is only half right. Somewhat confusingly he states that “Technologists know… that technical solutions to essentially political or business problems don’t work,” but also “it is up to us, whether by design or plodding along, to build a future for New Zealand we want. I believe the Internet Party can catalyse discussions about both the design itself as well as the need for a design in the first place. It’s not only what the State does but how.”

If by “design” he means reshaping the democratic process with a Liquidfeedback type system the future will likely be dead on arrival.

A left-wing option?

With policies most in common with The Green Party the Internet Party appears to be a left-wing option, the involvement of blogger Martin Bradbury, and former Scoop.co.nz editor Alistair Thompson lend credence to that idea. Kim Dotcom however is a capitalist by any definition. He is anti-establishment in that he represents a new media group of capitalists who are going up against states who have taken the side of the old media elite.

When manufacturing based industries began to decline in the USA and intellectual property based industry (such as film, music and software) became a substantial part of the American economy, laws were written to favour copyright holders and protect intellectual property. Among other changes, copyright terms were extended and copyright violation was turned into a criminal offence rather than a civil matter.

While New Zealand may seem a long way from the US, that didn’t stop Dotcom’s mansion being raided by armed police due to alleged copyright violation. Something that should seem ridiculous. In fact,  leaked US embassy cables from the trove released by Chelsea Manning show that a great deal of lobbying went into an effort for local intellectual property laws to reflect those of the USA.

The lobbying efforts for US-friendly copyright and intellectual property law continue through the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPPA), with John Key’s trip to Hollywood, and intellectual property negotiators from the US Trade Representative’s Office visiting Wellington.

Dotcom can take a populist anti-TPPA position that is no way in conflict with his business interests, such as when he told Russia Today two days before the announcement of the Internet Party, “What Hollywood is trying to do is basically to turn the internet into a totally censored and controlled network to their liking, and that’s what I’m fighting against.”

He’s not alone of course, no doubt Amazon.com would like to see copyright reform that let them create thousands of new ebooks that could be sold cheap but profitably without paying royalties to the authors, and Google would love to stream every possible movie and TV show on Youtube (with their own advertising of course).

But while the founders of Google and the CEO of Amazon.com are among the 85 people who together own more wealth than half the planets population, Kim Dotcom is relatively small player, allowing him to keep his folk-hero status even at a time when the wealthy are increasingly disliked and distrusted.

Kumar wrote in his NBR piece that, “the things that New Zealanders typically care about when voting can all benefit significantly from the Internet and technology. This includes the economy, jobs, health, education, and inequalities.” He doesn’t elaborate on how ‘the internet’ or ‘technology’ will solve inequality, in fact he goes on to say that “technological innovation not only perpetuates but amplifies societal divides.”

If not left, then what?

Some have been quick to label the party as ‘libertarian’, a political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. Certainly the announced policies of the Internet Party would not be out of place in a Libertarian manifesto. Pure libertarianism with its talk of dismantling the welfare state and abolishing the minimum wage has never been popular in New Zealand for obvious reasons (as we go to press the electoral commission has just deregistered the Libertarianz Party, most likely meaning they now have less than 500 members).

The Internet Party is unlikely to veer to that extreme, and more than likely it will want public money to fund the broadband internet infrastructure required for the high-tech future they appear to envision, as well as expecting the state to pick up the tap for the education required to create ‘internet-economy’ IT professionals, in line with how things are done in actually-existing capitalism.

The question must be asked though, with all the talk of innovation and entrepreneurship; quickly moving on from the brief mention of inequality Kumar praises “technologists” Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand and Sir Ralph Norris of ASB Bank. Kumar then asks readers to “consider the simple yet immensely powerful call from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan for New Zealand to be a country where talent wants to live.” How would Internet Party MP’s vote on issues such as raising the business and high income tax rates to fund social programmes? Or bringing about protections for casualised workers?

But will they get anywhere?

Despite the hype, there has been no obvious groundswell of support for the Internet Party. While the press release for the first Roy Morgan poll conducted since the party was announced noted their existence, they failed to make a showing in the actual poll. Perhaps when the party registers with the electoral commission, announces some candidates and policy and begins a campaign funded out of Kim Dotcom’s deep pockets they will improve their polling, but its hard to say for certain.

Much of the media optimism about the Internet Party has spoke of their potential to bring members of generation Y who didn’t vote in 2011 to the polls. This view is somewhat condescending – members of this generation have concerns greater than their internet speed, things like student debt, insecure work and the falling prospect of home ownership, just to name a few examples. While digital populism may motivate some young voters, the Internet Party does not represent the alternative needed to address these concerns.

While progressives may share some common ground with the Internet Party, there is no sign that it represents a progressive force.

Education and Capitalism: Behind the Massey-McDonald’s partnership

Morgan Welch

Massey University has formed a partnership with McDonalds Restaurants that will allow a number of McDonald’s store managers to cross-credit their prior learning towards an undergraduate business degree. An in-house course run for McDonalds by an external provider, Service HQ, provides managerial staff with the National Diploma in Hospitality, a New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) accredited qualification.

The head of Massey’s College of Business, Professor Ted Zorn, told the New Zealand Herald “We have gone in to McDonald’s and looked at what they are doing…We assessed the content [of the in house training], and found there was a pretty good fit with some of our first-year papers.”

This agreement was initiated by McDonalds, who approached several tertiary institutions before selecting Massey, though director of teaching and learning for Massey’s College of Business, Shirley Carr, told Fairfax News that she hoped it was the first of many such arrangements with companies as part of the university’s drive to forge closer links with business.

The situation is telling when it comes to how education happens in what is sometimes referred to as late capitalist society.  The agreement has been decried by supporters of the humanities and the social sciences, seen as a further blow to the battered liberal arts education that has suffered cuts as funding for science, technology and trades education has increased. This publication aims to provide a critical analysis of society, and as such recognises the importance of the disciplines broadly defined as ‘the arts’.

However, placing the arts as in competition with other disciplines is not useful, given that any society, capitalist or post-capitalism, will require people with a diverse range of skills and knowledge- including even some of the ‘management’ skills Massey will teach McDonalds employees. A blended work and study model of education is actually something that has been advocated by Marxist educationists at various times in history, and has been a demand of the organised labour movement.

In addition to this, arguments that come from a defence-of-arts perspective can veer toward an ahistorical line that supposes a past where education in those disciplines was provided widely and comprehensively, this has never actually been the case, and education serving the interests of the employing class is nothing new.

Education and early capitalism

When capitalism emerged in the United Kingdom it grew to become the dominant economic system through mass production, which divided the production of goods into a series of small tasks, people concentrated in factories could be taught quickly the task they needed to perform. Mass production is much more efficient than individual production, and meant wealth could be created in great excess to that required to provide workers with the means of subsistence, which was paid in wages.

At the time of the industrial revolution in Britain people had little formal education, which was not required for the new factory jobs. Primary education for children was provided by churches with the support of charity, and some public funding from the 1830s. Primary education was not compulsory until 1870.

Secondary education throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century consisted of grammar schools; academic schools covered by student fees that prepared students for university, and the new tax-funded technical schools, providing students with the education required for new jobs that had been created by industrialisation, but required more skills than production line factory labour.

Universities at this time remained elite institutions, but the wealth created by capitalism meant a small proportion of the population could be engaged in study and research, this is the reason the nineteenth century is also associated with great advancement in science as well as industry. The social sciences- economics, sociology, anthropology- also emerged at this time.

The British model of education was spread to the colonies, including New Zealand, and the two countries followed a similar path, both making secondary education universal in 1944. Universal secondary education had been a demand of the labour movement and in the New Zealand context was among the reforms of the first Labour government. Of course this was not as comprehensive as secondary education today and many students left at sixteen or even younger.

The post war boom

In the economic boom following world war two a substantial amount of society’s wealth was available, via high taxation on the rich, for higher education and research. In the USA in particular, this meant the huge financial support for science and engineering which laid the foundation for the space programme and the internet. Money was also available for the arts, and when popular movements pushed for new disciplines such a woman’s studies (gender studies) and ethnic studies programs, these could be provided.

Tertiary education in New Zealand was free, and a prosperous economy meant students could choose their field of study with little concern about the lack of career options it provided, or fear of poorer economic wellbeing in the future compared to studying an alternative. It’s important to note however that the mid twentieth century wasn’t a golden age of higher learning, today a third of New Zealanders aged 55 to 64 have a tertiary qualification compared to almost half for New Zealanders aged 25 to 35. Secondary school examinations at this time were designed to fail half of the students taking them, regardless of ability, so university education was not an option for many.

Neoliberalism

The post war economic boom came to an end in the 1970s; in the decade following the election of the infamous fourth Labour government in 1984 changes to what was provided by the state were made across the board, including in education. In 1992 (under a National government elected the previous year) tertiary education was commoditised to an extent with the introduction of user pays. The state would still fund each student to study, but the student would pay a proportion of the costs themselves.

With “user pays”, education became an individual rather than a social responsibility. In line with the ideology of individualism that accompanied neoliberal economic reforms, students became consumers of education in a marketplace. When secondary examinations changed to the modern system of NCEA, which ended the arbitrary process of failing perfectly capable students, those who studied a discipline that didn’t lead to a prosperous career (along with those who choose not to study at all) were seen as making a poor choice, and ultimately responsible for further low wages or unemployment.

The growth of some disciplines and decline in others is not entirely the result of students (incredibly restricted) choice. The capitalist class is incredibly influential in what kind of education the state funds, when politicians talk of matching education to the needs of ‘business’ ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’ what is literally meant is using public money to educate workers to a level required to perform today’s jobs. “Success in education is essential to the Government’s goal of building a productive and competitive economy.” Reads the State Services Commission website, “It also helps New Zealanders develop the skills needed to reach their full potential and contribute to the economy and society.” Far from mere rhetoric, both these statements are accurate.

Education today

As manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas and other low skilled jobs are automated, the New Zealand working class of the future will need to be more highly skilled than previous generations. This is why the current government has put emphasis on increasing the number of 18 year olds with NCEA Level 2, and the number of 25 year olds with a level 4 qualification, as well as from 2014 providing all level 1 and 2 courses to under 25 year olds for free- this is, completely state funded, with not payment from students as individuals.

To oppose the expansion of tertiary education for the working class would be misguided, while the major beneficiaries is the capitalist class, a worker also benefits from increased education. Universal tertiary education (though unlikely to be free education under capitalism) is the direction New Zealand is heading in, and the form that education takes is likely to be different than tertiary education has been up until now.

As mentioned previously, the blended model of work and study that McDonalds managers will be undertaking is not dissimilar than models advocated by Marxist thinkers on education, and practised in the first decades of the Soviet Union. Educational ideas oppositional to capitalism can become absorbed into it – this has happened many times before- though this doesn’t mean they suddenly become bad ideas.

There are serious shortcomings with the Massey-McDonalds scheme, the only ones with access to degree level education subsided by McDonalds will be managers. In practice managing operations and managing people are not separate. While skills such as providing training and overseeing payroll are essential in any workplace, manager’s authority over workers means they can often join the wrong side of industrial disputes -like the recent McStrike campaign- education provision could mean more managers seeing their interests with those of the corporation rather than the rest of the work force.

McDonalds likes to play up the fact that most of their management -even at a senior level- have risen up from the shop floor, but the hierarchical structure of the business means the vast majority of workers will not advance to that level and gain the opportunities that come with it. McDonalds provides sub degree education (with NZQA accredited hospitality qualifications) to all long serving employees, though this is only the first step, not a complete pathway to a hospitality career.

Fundamentally, training schemes are not something to oppose. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the Service and Food Workers Union have long advocated for an educational pathway for aged care workers to become qualified nurses (arguably this is far more socially beneficial than training restaurant managers) and there are many other industries where this model could be applied. However, skills-based education must not be tied to corporate demands.

Where does this leave the arts?

Student groups and education unions have had limited success in defensive campaigns to keep arts education.  While an arts education is valuable, it does not necessarily have to be a thing apart from work or other learning. Arts subjects could be provided alongside science and/or practical training. With more people gaining tertiary education, including through mixed work-study models, perhaps the next step is for the various stakeholders in education; students, educators, unions-  to advocate for a more comprehensive tertiary education, combining technical and scientific subjects with social science and humanities.