Marxism and mental health (audio)

Mental HealthFightback’s Polly Peek recently spoke on the topic of Marxism and mental health in Christchurch.

Capitalism functions in such a way that people impacted by mental illness are often lacking the health services needed, and face discrimination in employment and stigmatisation in wider society.

Downloadable MP3 available here

Putting the care into aged care

Upper Hutt aged care picket2 1.3.12

Grant Brookes, Health First candidate for Capital & Coast District Health Board

Aged care is in crisis. It’s headline news. In August, pay cuts of up to $100 a week for staff at Ranfurly Rest Home and Hospital in Auckland were the lead story on Campbell Live (When your employer proposes a pay cut). In early September, an inquiry into shocking neglect of elderly residents at Wellington’s Malvina Major Home was front page news in the Dominion Post (Rest Home failed all its residents, Ministry says)

Although the mainstream media reported these as isolated issues, in reality they are the tip of an iceberg.

The systemic crisis has been clear for at least the last three years. In 2010, opposition MPs Sue Kedgley and Winnie Laban led an alternative inquiry into aged care, after National Party members of the health select committee blocked a formal parliamentary inquiry. (October 2010 Aged Care Report)

And it was confirmed last December by the Caring Counts report, published by the Human Rights Commission. This found that the predominantly female workforce in aged care – many of whom are new migrants – and the elderly people they look after are undervalued and discriminated against. (Report of the Inquiry into the Aged Care Workforce)

The situation for support workers, often working alone to help elderly people in their homes, is largely invisible. But it’s probably even worse.

Aged care in New Zealand is suffering the ravages of neoliberal capitalism. Today’s crisis flows from the privatisation and deregulation of the sector over the last 25 years.

Up until the 1980s, rest homes were mainly run by charities. But by 2010, over two thirds of residential facilities were privately owned and run for profit.

The industry is dominated by multinational corporations, banks and private equity firms. A third of the beds nationwide are provided by six large chains.

One of them is Ryman Healthcare. Ryman owns the Malvina Major Home, of Dominion Post fame, where a confused elderly woman was repeatedly left lying in her own faeces.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were legal minimum staffing levels for homes like this. But in 2002, deregulation removed minimum staffing requirements.

Ryman Healthcare receives $800 million a year from the taxpayer. How much of this goes straight into the pockets of investors is unknown, as the company is not obliged to account for this public money.

It is known, however, that on night shifts they employ just one or two nurses to look after the 200 residents at Malvina Major. Is it any wonder that residents are sometimes neglected?

The aged care crisis has been the focus of a decade of campaigning by the three unions representing in the sector – the Nurses Organisation, the Service & Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota and the PSA.

But the proportion of workers who belong to a union, while higher than the private sector average, is much lower than in the public health system.

In 2006, union density across aged care averaged 20 percent. This has weakened the ability of workers use industrial action to press for change.

Despite this, aged care has featured prominently in strike statistics in recent years, winning modest improvements (or limiting the deterioration) for workers and residents in some places.

But given the relative industrial weakness, the unions have also turned to political campaigning. Because District Health Boards administer the funding contracts with aged care providers, elected members of the DHBs do have some influence.

The PSA is lobbying DHB candidates to commit to pay justice for contracted out home support workers, including equal pay with those directly employed by the DHBs (Time to Care).

The SFWU is calling on DHB candidates to support its Living Wage campaign (www.livingwage.org.nz), and its minimum hourly rate of $18.40.

And the Nurses Organisation is asking candidates to sign a pledge, including commitments to the Living Wage and equal pay for nurses and caregivers in aged care compared with their DHB counterparts (DHB Elections 2013, NZNO).

Standing as a candidate for Capital & Coast District Health Board, I am proud to continue my years of involvement in the battle for aged care by supporting these union campaigns.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

article by Anne Russell, reprinted from Scoop.co.nz.

The Queer Avengers (Wellington) are holding a solidarity action with Chelsea Manning on 2pm Saturday the 7th of September, at the US Embassy [Facebook event]

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on“Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused orhostile(trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning’s requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse. [Read more…]

Student Debt: Reinforcing the Logic of Capitalism

Thomas Inwood, Fightback.

Under liberal capitalist democracy the University is lauded as a cultural beacon, where the new generation of leaders and entrepreneurs develop themselves and explore new horizons. The reality of university life is one dominated by the corporate hierarchical model and ever present “market forces”.

Student debt in Aotearoa/NZ is over $10 billion dollars. The average student debt as calculated in 2007 was $28,000, a 54% rise since 2004. While the student loan scheme allows for interest free loans for tertiary study, debt itself controls the function of the university as well as the decisions of students.

A student taking on the average debt of $28,000 will be required to make compulsory repayments once they earn over a certain threshold (approximately $19,000 per annum). This effectively functions as an additional 12% tax on the income of post tertiary workers. With less and less job opportunities, many undergraduates are leaving university without easily finding employment. While students’ ability to study is largely supported by the working class, many students after attaining their degree will enter the working class themselves rather than high level positions in the ruling class.

The material reality of a large student debt can therefore act as a coercive force, providing an incentive to study those fields which are believed to have the most lucrative career option. The mythos of higher education has always been one of self-improvement; however due to this material reality of debt, many students will instead pursue study which they lack interest in and may not be particularly skilled at to begin with. In essence, accepting the logic to compete for jobs that pay well weakens the ability for the student to succeed at all.

This trend is reinforced constantly, with the University of Canterbury in a permanent state of ‘restructuring’. This restructuring has resulted in Gender Studies, Religious Studies, American Studies, and most languages either being completely cut or removed as options for a major. The struggle to resist these changes has not been successful, aside from Theatre and Film Studies being consistently threatened with the axe. Even more concerning is the apparent motivations for these cuts which do not always have an economic incentive. Universities function as a business, have shareholders etc. who are the only people the University is truly accountable to. However, many of the subjects being integrated or eliminated are not drains on university resources. There is an ideological motive for stripping back all subjects deemed ‘unnecessary’ by capitalism and the ruling class. Those areas which are not useful for capitalism are neglected.

Universities largely maintain ideological hegemony, or the system of ideas that justify capitalist rule. Economics degrees spend no time at all on one of the most comprehensive studies of capitalism itself, Marx’s Capital.

Students of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other supposedly critical subjects will find themselves largely focusing on the hegemonic ideas of the time – those that serve the ruling class. Political Science degrees merely reinforce capitalism and liberal democracy as the best system, with horizons limited to different regimes of regulation.

Even if some fields of critical work support counter-hegemony in theory, any transformative practice will be sharply opposed by management. Transformation of universities therefore requires developing radical student and staff organizations that can confront management.

Eroding the myth around the function of tertiary education brings to light an insight the Left has seen for well over a century – that for all the talk of individual choice and self-improvement, capitalism actually fails to deliver any of those things to all but the elite. More than that, capitalism is unable to provide for the interests and needs of all because it requires the subjugation of the majority in order for the minority to have all of their needs and interests tended to. Even within the bastion of liberal “progressive” thinking, the Academy, the individual loses out to capitalism.

At first glance it may appear that student debt is the problem, and if university was free and accessible to all we would have more freedom to pursue our interests. This ignores the fact that the university still exists as an institution within a capitalist economy. If it cannot make money, it will need to be funded through the state via taxation – a disproportionate amount always being taken from working class people. It is only through systematic change that education can become something valuable. With an economy based on social need rather than profit, it will become clear that the ability and facilities for people to pursue their interests are essential for an egalitarian society within the realm of social need. Moreover, the entire organization of the university must be rebuilt under the direct control of students, working with educators, rather than dictated by a managing board whose primary interests are making money.

Any struggle for zero fees should also seek the transformation of universities as a whole. Radical democratic control by students and staff, rather than by bureaucratic top-down control in pursuit of profit, would allow for a huge expansion of personal freedom.

Government shifts responsibility for enforcing welfare reforms

welfare-reform-beneficiary-bashing

Polly Peek, Fightback (Christchurch).

Recently released details around how the government plans to see its latest round of welfare reforms carried out, show that the Ministry of Social Development is taking a hands off approach to the implantation of its controversial changes.

The most recent benefit reforms, which came into effect on the 15th of July, make a number of changes to the requirements on people receiving social welfare as well as a complete restructuring of benefit categories, which are now reduced to three benefits: Jobseeker Support, Sole Parent Support and a Supported Living Payment for people living with their own or a dependant’s disability.

People receiving support will now be required to: notify Work and Income if they or their partner plan to leave the country, have their children enrolled with a preschool, school and doctor, undergo pre-employment or pre-training drug testing, clear any outstanding arrest warrants, and reapply for support every year.

Where these new requirements are not met, people will lose their benefit for 13 weeks, or have this halved for the same period if they have dependent children. If someone is considered fit for work and turns down a “suitable” job, they will also face these cuts to their support.

There has been much controversy over this latest round of welfare reforms throughout the process of the changes being developed and upon their announcement, some of which has been covered in previous Fightback articles.

It has only been recently, however, that information has become available around some of the finer details of the legislation, particularly how private employment agencies and beneficiaries themselves will be made responsible for delivering some of the contentious requirements of the reforms. [Read more…]

Government expanding surveillance powers

Waihopai spy base

Waihopai spy base

By Byron Clark, Fightback Christchurch member.

Public protests against the GCSB bill will take place around the country on July 27th.

[Auckland event] [Hamilton event] [Wellington event]

 

[Nelson event] [Waihopi Spybase event]

 

[Christchurch event] [Dunedin event]

The spectacle of Kim Dotcom going face to face with John Key to make a submission on the Government Communications Security Bureau [GCSB] and Related Legislation Amendment Bill received huge media attention, but little has been said on the content of the bill. In part that is because the bill actually contains very little.

In the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, New Zealand passed a raft of laws with the supposed goal of combating terrorism. Legislation governing surveillance by the GCSB dates from that era. The present bill will amend the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003, removing the word ‘foreign’ from a number of places, and changing the definition of a foreign organization from “an unincorporated body of persons consisting exclusively of foreign organisations or foreign persons that carry on activities wholly outside New Zealand:” to “an unincorporated body of persons consisting principally of foreign organisations or foreign persons that carry on activities wholly outside New Zealand:”

The purpose of these changes appears to be giving the GCSB powers to spy on New Zealanders previously reserved for spying on foreigners. Typically domestic spying has been the role of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)  or the police, though the GCSB has been involved in spying in 88 cases since 2003.

Other subtle changes are repealing the current definitions of the terms ‘computer system’ and ‘network’, replacing them with the catch-all term ‘information infrastructure’ defined as “electromagnetic emissions, communications systems and networks, information technology systems and networks, and any communications carried on, contained in, or relating to those emissions, systems, or networks”. This provides scope for data collection from the wider range of communications devices now available (smartphones for example).

One that that remains undefined is the phrase “national security”. What all this amounts to is a law that gives the GCSB scope to spy on anyone, inside or outside the country, in a wide range of communications so long as they are seen to pose a risk to the “national security” of New Zealand. Given that the law, even before the current amendment, explicitly introduces the idea of threats to “economic well being” it would be entirely possible to define planning industrial action, such as a strike, as justification for spying.

Its worth noting in this instance that state surveillance of unions is not a hypothetical. Back in 2008 it came to light that Unite was being spied on, not by the GCSB but by the police Special Investigation Group (SIG). In their submission on the amendment bill, the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) have pointed out that reasons for surveillance such as ‘preventing activities aimed at undermining values that underpin New Zealand society’ provides a scope “wide enough to capture nearly any activity or discussion with a political motive.”

That the bill will erode the right to privacy is almost a given, of greater concern is that there is little recourse when remaining privacy rights are stepped on. When questioned by Radio New Zealand following the revelation of British and American surveillance programmes by whistleblower Edward Snowden, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said the commission does not have specific jurisdiction to monitor the GCSB. At that time she also stated it was not clear how the American programme PRISM might affect New Zealanders. It has since come to light, via Snowdens leaked documents, that the GCSB shared information with the American National Security Agency (NSA). [Read more…]

Politics and the mental health consumer movement

changing minds

Polly Peek

As a socialist and mental health consumer, I was recently excited to discover ‘The C Word,’ a blog on the Changing Minds website.

Changing Minds is a consumer organisation based in Auckland. Engaging in systemic advocacy and activism, the group acts as a network of mutual support for people who have used mental health services and want to be involved in improving the health system.

What’s exciting about this organisation and the information they’re providing for mental health consumers, is that they seem to be taking an openly political approach to their work, recognising the impact our material conditions have on all other aspects of our lives – including health and wellbeing.

The first C word examined in the changing minds blog is Capitalism.

“Capitalism” the author states, “is bad for my health. And in my opinion, it’s bad for everyone’s health”. Issues related to low wages and systemic unemployment are raised, and the inability to maintain a work-life balance within the present economic system is related to the people’s needs for rest, particularly where someone is managing mental distress.

The article goes on to discuss how the polarities of full-time or over-employment and unemployment are legitimised through an ideological equation of full-time work with full citizenship – a status unattainable to many mental health consumers due to the demanding nature of work under capitalism.

It is interesting to consider this blog post in relation to the politics of the wider mental health consumer movement. [Read more…]

Teachers and public education under attack

christchurch-schools-protest

Rachel Broad, Fightback Hamilton branch, Aotearoa/NZ. Originally published by the Socialist Party of Australia.

Teachers in  New Zealand are facing a perfect storm. For the time being they have faced down government attempts to increase class sizes but have also had to contend with school closures and mergers in Christchurch and a move to introduce charter schools.

At the same time large numbers of teachers are going without pay or getting paid incorrectly thanks to the failure of their national payroll system. This is creating huge amounts of stress. Tensions are on the increase between teachers and the government, and the public are increasingly siding with the teachers.

Government’s failed attempt to increase class sizes

In mid 2012 the Ministry of Education attempted to introduce a new policy that would change teacher-student funding ratios in schools and would have increased class sizes and created job losses. Some school principals said that they would have to cut up to three jobs in each school if the policy was carried out. The student-to-teacher ratio would have been standardised at 27.5 students per teacher for year 2 to year 10 classes.

The policy was deeply unpopular. Some polls showed up to 89% of people in opposition to the policy. Teachers and many members of the public rallied against the proposed changes.

The government tried to carry out the changes within both primary and secondary schools at the same time. Usually, using divide and rule tactics, the government has attacked the primary and secondary sectors separately. By attacking both sectors at the same time the government had bitten off more than they could chew and were forced to back down.

These events were the beginning of a sharp decline for Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education and puppet for the government’s education plan. Parata was paraded by the ruling National Party as a high-flying Maori MP and was quickly promoted to cabinet.

During one teachers’ meeting about class sizes where Parata was under constant fire she condescendingly lectured teachers by telling them that one of the main problems with the education system was not underfunding but that many teachers don’t pronounce Maori and Pacific Island children’s names correctly. Without hesitation this divisiveness was roundly rejected by broad layers from the Maori and Pacific Island communities. Parata is now deeply unpopular. [Read more…]

Hundreds turn out against Christchurch School closures

Rally against school closuresWhile Christchurch primary school teachers had planned to take industrial action on February 19th this was called off just a few days prior. Under the Employment Relations Act strikes outside of bargaining are outlawed, had this strike taken place it would have been the first one to challenge the anti-strike laws.

In the end however, action took the form of a rally outside of school hours. Over a 1500 people gathered at the CBS arena in Addington, the number were made of up of teachers, parents, children and other supporters include from a number of other unions.

After a number of short speeches attendees voted on a motion of no confidence in Hekia Parata’s record as Education Minister. That motion was then delivered to the ministry of education following a lively march which included chants of “when Christchurch schools are under attack, stand up! Fight back!” and “Hek no- she must go!”

A Fairfax poll released the day after the education rally showed that 71% of people in Canterbury thought Parata should be stripped of the education portfolio. In addition to the “shake up” in Christchurch (seven schools to be closed and 12 to be merged) Parata has presided over the ongoing problems with Novapay and last year attempted to increase class sizes being backing down.

Of course, handing the education portfolio to another minister would not fix the problems faced in Christchurch any more than stripping Paula Bennett of the welfare policy would stop the government’s insidious welfare reforms. Government policy appears to be what has been termed “disaster capitalism” using a natural disaster as an excuse to restructure education in the city, both though the current closures and later through the imposition of charter schools.

The government’s plans can be defeated if teachers and supporters take militant action, particularly in the workplace.

Charter schools: Against the interests of the majority of teachers and students

Joel Cosgrove

‘Hard to see harm in a little more choice in education’ was the first line in a recent NZ Herald editorial regarding charter schools. On this issue the mainstream media has taken cues from the National government and presented the introduction of charter schools as harmless, not to be worried about, almost not worth debating.

The announcement of policy introducing charter schools arose from the coalition process between ACT MP John Banks and the National Party. It was a surprise for the public.

The policy has brought heavy criticism from teachers, parents, and everyday people who are concerned with social equality. Prime Minister John Key has shrugged off the criticism by laying the blame with the ACT Party.

He claims the policy is a consequence of having to enter coalition government. However the Act Party did not have a strong position in its negotiations with National.

In reality ACT play the role of pushing the National Party from the right. ACT puts forward extreme policies and the National Party waters them down and gives them a PR spin which makes them sound more acceptable. This gives National the appearance of being centrist or moderate when in fact they are pursuing a right wing economic agenda. [Read more…]