Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Monday, August 30, 2004
A Letter from Siberia
We crossed the border from Mongolia to Russia 4 days ago, a mammoth 11 and a half hour wait at the border with nothing to do but sit around in desolate train stations. But we were expecting the wait, so all things considered it didn't go too bad. Unfortunately I still had my dodgy guts (as did Dan) and we had to brave the most disgusting loos of the trip so far, at the Russian border station. I took a picture to preserve the memory, outside the dream-distorted ones of nightmares.
We travelled to Irkurtsk, which is another day's train ride after the border. Russian people all seem to be able to sing really well - unlike Japan, people here both like to sing *and* have the ability to carry it off. It makes me a little jealous, with my non-existant abilities. From Irkurtsk we drove to Lystvianka (I'm guessing at the spelling) on the shores of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. We had a homestay with Zoya, a Russian lady who had a big grandmotherly air going on, who greeted us with Russian pikelet-things, a huge plate of them. Her house was pretty run down, with an outdoor squat longdrop and outdoor Russian 'sauna' (basically boiling water and cold water you mix for yourself and wash with in a shed).
It sounds primitive, but after 3 days without a shower it came through for us. She had a really nice garden and lots of grandkids, and all the food she cooked for us tasted a lot like my granny made. Big helpings too.The first day was taken up with a tour of the "town" and a visit to the Baikal museum, which was good, but a little dull. I almost fell asleep during the video. I'm filled with facts about Lake Baikal though: the surface area of Belgium, with enough water to cover Australia in a 7 metre-deep flood and provide fresh water for the entire planet for 40 years, should we need it. Good to know anyway. Overall it accounts for 20-25% of the world's fresh water.
That night we went for a beer in Listvianka, which feels a lot like a Hi-de-hi tourist town mixed with run-down peasant shacks. The pub we chose had its car park filled with a limo and dancing Russians, the inside glum barmaids and bad music. We stayed for a beer, then ran away.Next day was the highlight, our tramp through Siberian taiga forest with Sasha, a hungover Russian guy who's son had got married the day before. A really, really nice guy, we walked through fairy-tale forests for the afternoon before camping on the shore of Lake Baikal for the night. Unfortunately, in his inebriated state, Sasha had packed 2 2-man tents instead of one 2-man and a 3-man, so Dan, Sasha and I spent an overly cosy night under some of the loudest thunder I've heard, some of it directly overhead. It got so hot inside the tent I was really close to braving the rain for a night outside, but things got cooler eventually.
The next day was cloudy but rain free and after breakfast we walked along the coast for the afternoon before heading back to Irkurtsk for another homestay in the city, where I am now.After Mongolia Siberia has been a lot closer to NZ and with less exciting stories to tell of. We did meet an old-man-of-the-sea fisherman at the campsite though, complete with bushy moustache. I'm not sure how much excitement that can make up for.It's hard to tell whether people like now or Soviet times better - Sasha said the older generations prefer Soviet times and he prefers the new freedoms, but still waxed nostalgic for the Soviet days when he and his friends could travel around Lake Baikal on a 5 day Deck Class (tents pitched in the snow and ice on the ferry's deck) for 5 roubles the whole trip. Roubles were worth more than, now 5 roubles is about 30c New Zealand, but still a good deal. Less freedom, more security about the future seemed to be the theme. A lot of Russians have got a lot poorer due to inflation since the fall of Communism.Time to go now. You'll be pleased to hear my stomach has cleared up, but I've traded it for a (mild) cold. Never mind,
Friday, August 20, 2004
BS Johnson Gets His Biography
But The Unfortunates was written so well that I read it three or four times, without thinking to change the page order.
When I got to university I searched the dusty cormers of the library for Johnson's other books, and found that I was the first person to borrow some of them since Kendrick Smithyman thirty years earlier. (And Smithyman didn't really count, because he'd borrowed everything. A friend of mine who taught in the English Department used to have a competition with a couple of his colleagues - they'd try to find a book which didn't have the name K Smithyman written on the LOAN card tucked in its back cover.)
I looked around for writing about Johnson in literary journals, and found nothing much besides a snide little article in the Times Literary Supplement about the problems which the unique format of The Unfortunates caused uptight British librarians. It was years before I learnt that the great man wasn't just suffering from writer's block or unsympathetic editors, but had died, by his own hand, in 1974, aged only forty.
It's good to see that one of the most unusual modern English novelists is now getting his just critical rewards, in the form of a big fat book by Jonathan Coe called Like a Fiery Elephant: The Life of BS Johnson. Frank Kermode writes a typically thoughtful review of the books here.
To whet your appetite, here is Kermode's quick summary of Coe's extended treatment of Johnson's novels:
His main interest is in the novels, and early in the book he provides a useful potted version of each of the seven. It was the more necessary to do so, since some of them have been hard to find; but there is now a new 'omnibus' volume from Picador containing Albert Angelo, Trawl and House Mother Normal. Picador have also in recent years nobly reproduced The Unfortunates in its box, and reprinted Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. For Johnson's first novel, Travelling People, and his last, See the Old Lady Decently, one had best try Amazon.
Coe describes Travelling People as concealing under 'a veneer of stylistic adventurousness . . . a conventional enough Bildungsroman' which mingles fiction and autobiography in a manner Johnson soon came to deplore. Each chapter is done in a different style, a homage to Ulysses, but this did not save it from its author's condemnation as a story, not the truth. Albert Angelo was meant to correct that fault. In its scattered, episodic way it tells the tale of a young architect forced to work as a supply teacher while lamenting the loss of - or, as he prefers to put it, his betrayal by - a girlfriend: an obsessively recurring theme in Johnson's work, so that even the devoted Coe gets fed up with it.
But this book made it obvious, if its predecessor hadn't quite done so, that Johnson was a strong writer; he had a wide range of interests and treated them in resourceful prose. His real enemy was not what he thought of as the inevitable falsity of stories but an agonised egotism, the sense that it was essential but impossible to tell the whole truth about himself. Warburg, who preferred novels, was right to think he would be fobbed off with a series of autobiographies. Johnson wanted his books to be entirely about himself, as he sat there in his familiar room writing them. He greatly admired Frank Harris's My Life and Loves, until he heard that Harris told lies. He might have admired Rousseau and eventually been disillusioned again. Not that he read Rousseau; his reading was scattered and he didn't seem to understand that his troubles were not uniquely his, that it is well known that autobiography and fiction share a very unstable frontier.
Trawl, the third novel, is hardly a novel at all, though Johnson perversely insisted on saying it was. It is an autobiographical account, 'all interior monologue', of three weeks passed in a deep sea trawler. Amid the discomforts of his passage the author reflects on or trawls his past, his sorrows and betrayals, his experience as a wartime evacuee. When he reaches port, his wife, who was to give him some years of relative happiness, is waiting on the quayside. Coe finds this conclusion 'too pat', and Johnson himself might have thought it involved a certain illicit manipulation of the facts, a concession to story, the enemy of truth. But Trawl has magnificent pages and can claim to be his best-written book.
The Unfortunates, the famous novel-in-a-box, was published in 1969. As I have already remarked, the randomness it aspires to is much reduced by the fact that the first and last sections are blatantly identified as such. In between are 25 sections one is invited to read in any order, a muddle in the middle. Johnson had been a football reporter on a Sunday paper, and his story is accordingly of a football reporter who goes to Nottingham to cover a game. A very close friend of his had lived there, though, with a vague gesture to Kafka, this man is said not to recognise the city. Eventually he makes his way slowly towards the stadium. We follow haphazardly, as he laments the death of his friend from cancer at 29. Mourning is randomly interspersed with other remarks on the protagonist's past, and comments on Nottingham architecture. The general effect is excellent; once again Johnson proves that his powers as a writer can withstand his quixotic attempt to overcome the hated restrictions imposed on his truth-telling by the odious convention of binding up paper, each page in its due and boring order, into artefacts known as books.
Formal experimentation continues in House Mother Normal (1971), which consists of a series of monologues by the inmates of an old folks' home, each further gone in senility than his or her predecessor. This regress is signalled not only by increases in mental confusion but by typography less and less coherent, the type straying over the page, and with some pages simply blank. As Coe explains, there are ten sections each of 21 pages, and the same event occurs on the same page, and on the same line, in all the sections. Coe argues that this makes the book 'richly polyphonic'. The House Mother has the final word: she describes herself as 'the concoction of a writer' - another sop to Johnson's conscientious objection to making things up.
The most amusing of the novels (and Johnson had considerable comic talents) is the brief Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973). Christie is a clerk in a Hammersmith cake factory (as Johnson himself had once been). Having mastered double-entry book-keeping (which I have heard described as the invention that made the modern world possible), Christie applies the principle - 'every Debit must have its Credit' - to his own dealings with that world. Whenever he suffers an injustice he credits his side of the ledger appropriately. Beginning with trifles, he progresses to larger evils. 'Socialism not given a chance' is balanced by £311,398. He ends by murdering 20,000-odd Londoners by poisoning their water supply. The number is selected because it is, roughly, the number of words in the novel. The Offence for which this slaughter provided Recompense was committed by Them. The book rattles along, its lexicon full of mysterious words like helmnuthoid, retripotent, campaniform, sufflamination, ungraith and brachyureate. There is much enjoyable fun at the expense of the author's own narcissism.
The last novel, See the Old Lady Decently, was meant to be the first of a trilogy about the life of Johnson's mother and the contemporaneous decline of Britain. It covers the time between his mother's birth in 1908 and his own in 1933. Published posthumously (1975), it is a complicated book, mixing facts about his mother's youth as a waitress with documents including letters from her father in the army and facsimiles of the official correspondence concerning his death. Despite the degree of organisation implied by the numerical coding of the chapters, Coe can describe the book as 'diverse and fragmentary'. The medley includes concrete poems, extracts from Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, and an elaborate account of the progress of a foetus (himself) from conception to birth, so Coe's stricture seems just, if a little severe.
It is part of Johnson's charm that he has so many ways of making the medley interesting. He can explain his worship of the White Goddess and tell bawdy jokes, offering Chaucer as a precedent. The jokes may not be up to much, but in the end it seems right to admire the author's nerve...
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Letter from Mongolia
We've just spent the last four days travelling from China on the Trans-Siberian line and staying in a Ger camp in the Gobi desert. The train is pretty rough and ready - they lock the toilet (which empties straight onto the tracks) 30 minutes before each station stop, which meant over 4 hours without loos at the China/Mongolia border, delayed mainly because they have to change the train's bogies, things on the wheels, so it can fit on the different-width Mongolian/Russian rails.
I also got to see wicker hardhats on the Chinese border, not very safe looking. You also get woken up by the train attendants all the time and have to guard your stuff from thieves. We had extra delays in China when the police came on board after some hawkers got through, so they had to search the rooms and ceiling compartments again.
Mongolia is awesome. Our first stop was Shaysand, capital of the Gobi province where we arrived around 5am. It looked like something straight out of the Star Wars' Tatooine scenes, all sandy buildings, wind swept streets and many, many stray dogs. We, along with a Scots woman and an Irish guy got met at the station and driven out to our base camp in the desert, sort of a tourist set-up where you stay in gers, Mongolian tent/house thingys. From there we drove out to a camel breeders and rode camels around, visiting a 'forest' consisting of shrubs and scrub grass, and a series of sand dunes.
The camels were cool, much easier than horses but just as painful to ride. And when they spit, they really have a range on them. They're very skittish so you have to avoid cameras and cars spooking them, and they're really noisy, always bellowing and grunting to each other. They crap a hell of a lot too.We camped out that night, entertaining ourselves with our torches. I lent/gave our guide a spare torch I had and he spent about an hour alternating between mock signalling with it and singing (very good) snippets of Mongolian opera. We were told about the Gobi dangers, wolves, foxes and (rarely) bears, and I woke up at 3.30am to hear something moving around outside and (I thought) rustling the tent to get in. I expected to have to fight off a fox looking for food at any time, but it turned out it was a combination of wind and a horse that had turned up in the night. A little embarrassing, but there weren't any witnesses.
Seriously though, wolves seemed a real threat. They live out in the 'forest' we visited and weren't timid about attacking things, including tearing the throats out of camels. The camel herding family had recently lost a female camel probably to wolves or something similar. Apparently they lie prone and the camel doesn't spot them. As it walks over it, it leaps up and rips out the camel's throat. We were told to use fire or shine torches in the eyes of wolves if we met them, since they're afraid of fire.
The next day we visited a monastery restored after being destroyed in 1937 by the Communist government, with Soviet NKVD help. There's two main religious branches, the yellow and the red, both buddhist. Yellow can't marry or eat/kill animals, while the red didn't seem to have any restrictions. Surprisingly, the yellow branch seemed the stronger, at least where we were. The visit was fine, except a big group of 36 Taiwanese tourists had descended, bullying the kids into posing for photos and being pretty obnoxious.
After that we cameled, except for Dan who wussed over due to a sore butt and rode in the Russian jeep - no power steering, suspension could be better but pretty cool anyway - over to a petrified forest then a lama cave where buddhist priests came to fast and meditate. For initiation you needed to spend 108 days in a cave, 58 without food. The original guy and his disciple did it, but most of the others died. Two tried to quit mid-fast and were killed by the others, their bodies still inside a cave nearby.
After lunch we visited dinosaur fossils, bones and eggs. I spotted a previously unknown set of spine vetebrae, so I was pretty happy. I needed credibility with our camel guide, as he'd been making fun of my camel riding stylings and unfavourably comparing me to Susan's skills. She was definitely his favourite. Cindi opted out at this point to, so only Susan and I continued back to the Ger camp by camel, having perhaps the slowest ever camel race to end it off. I lost, despite my camel's apparent past race victories. Then the Tiwanese descended, making lewd suggestions and posing with two Belgian backpackers also there and going for a brief camel ride.
We set up tents and camped out near the family for our last night out, surrounded by goats, sheep, horses, dogs and camels (which we all milked - heaps easier than milking cows) before returning to the more touristy Ger base camp. The Gobi desert is unlike anywhere I've ever been before, you can clearly hear dogs barking 10 to 20 kilometers away. Nothing breaks the view of the horizon in any direction, and there's nothing there but sand, rocks, occasional scrubby grass, lizards and bones - apart from the 'dinosaurs' we saw a fox and a horse or wild ass as well as loads of unidentifiable ones. The clouds stretch out like little sky continents and the sunsets are really wonderful. I can't do any justice to how great it all looked.
The camel herders we stayed near where pretty friendly, and we tried the traditional tea and a rice-pudding-like breakfast of rice and milk. Both were good and they dressed and lived surprisingly traditionally, sleeping outside, churning up the milky buttery food, milking and herding the camels, goats and sheep, etc. A lot of the time they just didn't seem to have anything to do and the kids looked pretty bored.
On the other side, European hip hop of the likes of Ace of Bass was really popular, as was burning around on the desert in Russian jeeps and vans. It wasn't all quaint tradition. We spent the last day pretty boringly hanging round the base camp, then caught the train to Ulan Batar. Narumbord, our guide, was a really nice guy, really zealous in his job, unlike his slack counterpart the Scot and Irish guy had. He ignored them a lot of the time to hang out with his girlfriend at the base camp.
We had acouple of museum tours before getting on the train, and saw a necklace carved out of human skulls the Dalai Lama had gifted to Mongolia's most senior lama (forgot his name, but a real Renaissance man - scholar, actor, psychologist, doctor (using healing rocks too), priest and skilled with a variant of the ninja star. Not a man to mess with) and weapons used in the revolution of the 20s - homemade flintlocks at least a century obsolete.We hit Ulan Batar today after a night's train journey. Each cabin sleeps four people and has limited luggage space and we were pretty annoyed to find that dodgy mates of the train conductor had filled every available luggage space in our cabin with shoes and stuff to sell in Ulan Batar. We got some of it shifted eventually though, enough that we didn't have to sleep on our packs.
So now we're at a hotel, with beds and showers and proper toilets - Cindi was unlucky enough to get a dodgy belly when we were out on the steppe, where the bathroom extends in every direction with no convenient trees or shrubs to hide behind. Night was the preferred time, though Dan hastily aborted a visit after the camp's dogs went after him growling and barking while he squatted in the darkness. No such adventures for me, however. Tomorrow evening we leave for Russia and probably the most dodgy section security-wise. We also have a 12 hour stop at the border to look forward to, but this time thankfully there's a pay toilet on the Mongolian side we can use. I just hope I have enough tugruks to shell out for it.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
The Philosopher and the President
I've linked to it already, but I can't resist quoting from Alan Woods' account of his meeting with Hugo Chavez. I had a brief e mail conversation with Woods a while back after reading some of Reason in Revolt, his study of modern philosophy. I'd complained that he was a bit rough on Wittgenstein. Woods seemed a nice enough bloke, but I guess my opinion on his book doesn't count for much besides Hugo's!
"Immediately after the mass rally, the international delegates were invited to a reception inside the palace of Miraflores...Chavez again addressed the meeting, and one wonders where he gets his energy from...
Afterwards, he was surrounded by a lot of people wanting to shake his hand and exchange a few words. It was a bit like a rugby match, but eventually I managed to get close enough to introduce myself: "I am Alan Woods from London, the author of Reason in Revolt."
Grasping my outstretched hand firmly, he looked at me with curiosity: "What book did you say?"
"Reason in Revolt".
A broad smile lit up his face. "That is a fantastic book! I congratulate you."
Then looking around him he announced: "You must all read this book!"
Not wishing to take up any more of his time at the expense of other people who were waiting, I asked if we could meet.
"Of course we must meet. See my secretary." He pointed to a young man at his side, who promptly informed me that he "would be in touch".
I was going to leave, to allow others to meet the President, when he stopped me. He now seemed to be oblivious of all around him and spoke with obvious enthusiasm: "You know, I have got that book at my bedside and I am reading it every night. I have got as far as the chapter on ‘The molecular process of revolution'. You know, where you write about Gibbs' energy." It appears that this section has made a considerable impact on him, because he quotes it continually in his speeches. Mr. Gibbs has probably never been so famous before!
This is no accident. The Venezuelan revolution has now reached a critical point where the outcome must be determined in one sense or another. The chapter he referred to deals with just such a critical point in chemistry, where a certain amount of energy, known as Gibbs' energy, is needed to bring about a qualitative transformation. Chavez has grasped the fact that the revolution needs to make this qualitative leap, and this is why that passage in the book attracted his attention.
The following day I was completely occupied. I spoke at a meeting of a hundred people in a debate about the fundamental problems of the Revolution, in which I advocated the expropriation of the property of the oligarchy, the arming of the people and workers' control and management. I quoted Lenin's famous four conditions for workers' power, and the bit about the limitation on the salaries of officials proved particularly popular...
The next day I phoned Chavez's secretary to ask about the appointment. The reply was not encouraging: "The President is very busy. A lot of people want to see him."
"Well, let's get this straight: is the meeting going to take place – yes or no?"
"I think it will be impossible."
I drew the obvious conclusion and went to discuss with two oil workers leaders from Puerto la Cruz over lunch.
In the middle of lunch, I was surprised when Fernando Bossi entered the restaurant and came up to our table. He is an Argentinean and the head of the Bolivarian Peoples' Congress, spreading all over Latin America.
"Alan, be ready by half past five. The President will see you at half past six."
The palace of Miraflores is an elegant neo classical building probably built in the 19th century and with an air reminiscent of the Spanish colonial era. In the centre there is a large patio surrounded by columns. Although the meeting was initially scheduled for half past six, it was past ten o'clock by the time I was called. As I stood waiting I was struck by the sound of the local crickets, so much louder and more strident than the ones I am used to in Spain.
I was told to expect an interview of between twenty and thirty minutes, which seemed perfectly adequate to me. The person before me was Heinz Dieterich, a German now living in Mexico, and an old friend of Chavez. He was with the President for 40 minutes, and profusely apologised for keeping me waiting. I told him I did not mind. However, there was a long gap before I was finally called. I supposed that Chavez was tired after a long day and wanted a rest, or maybe he was having something to eat.
These speculations were incorrect. I later discovered that Hugo Chavez is not a man who tires easily. He starts work every day before 8 o'clock and works until about three in the morning. Then he reads (he is a voracious reader). I don't know when he sleeps, yet he always seems to be bubbling with energy and talking endlessly about all sorts of things. This does not make him an easy man to work with, as his personal secretary told me: "I would do anything for him, but there is never a moment's peace. Sometimes I can't even go to the toilet. I start to walk in that direction and somebody shouts: ‘the President wants you!'"
The reason I was kept waiting is that the President wanted to read all the material of the Hands off Venezuela campaign. As I walked into his office, he was sitting at his desk, with a huge portrait of Simon Bolivar behind him. On the desk I noticed a copy of Reason in Revolt and a letter I had sent him. The letter had been heavily underlined in blue.
Chavez greeted me very warmly. Here was no "protocol" but only openness and frankness. He began by asking me about Wales and my family background. I explained that I was from a working class family, and he replied that he was from a family of peasants. "Well, Alan, what have you got to say?" he asked. Actually, I was more interested in what he had to say – which was very interesting.
First I presented him with two books: my history of the Bolshevik Party (Bolshevism, the Road to Revolution) and Ted Grant's Russia – from Revolution to Counterrevolution. He looked extremely pleased. "I love books," he told me. "If they are good books, I love them even more. But even if they are bad books, I still love them."
Opening the Bolshevism book he read the dedication I had written, which reads: "To President Hugo Chavez with my best wishes. The Road to Revolution passes through the ideas, programme and traditions of Marxism. Forward to Victory!" He said "That is a wonderful dedication. Thank you, Alan." He began to turn the pages and stopped.
"I see you write about Plekhanov."
I read a book by Plekhanov a long time ago, and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History. Do you know it?"
"The role of the individual in history", he mused. "Well, I know none of us is really indispensable," he said.
"That is not quite correct," I replied. "There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference."
"Yes, I was pleased to see that in Reason in Revolt you say that Marxism cannot be reduced to economic factors."
"That is right. That is a vulgar caricature of Marxism."
"Do you know when I read Plekhanov's book The Role of the Individual in History?" he asked.
"I have no idea."
"I read it when I was a serving officer in an anti-guerrilla unit in the mountains. You know they gave us material to read so that we could understand subversion. I read that the subversives work among the people, defend their interests and win their hearts and minds. That seemed quite a good idea!”
"Then I began to read Plekhanov's book and it made a deep impression on me. I remember it was a beautiful starlit night in the mountains and I was in my tent reading with the light of a torch. The things I read made me think and I began to question what I was doing in the army. I became very unhappy.
"You know for us it was no problem. Moving about in the mountains with rifles in our hands. Also the guerrillas had no problems – they were doing the same as us. But the people who suffered were the ordinary peasants. They were helpless and they had a rough time. I remember one day we went into a village and I saw some soldiers torturing two peasants. I told them to stop that immediately, that there would be none of that as long as I was in command.
"Well, that really got me into trouble. They even wanted to put me on trial for military insubordination. [He put special emphasis on the last two words]. After that I decided that the army was no place for me. I wanted to quit, but I was stopped by an old Communist who said to me: ‘You are more useful to the Revolution in the army than ten trade unionists.' So I stayed. I now think that was the right thing to do.
"Do you know that I set up an army in those mountains? It was an army of five men. But we had a very long name. We called ourselves the Simon Bolivar people's national liberation army." He laughed heartily.
"When was that?" I asked.
"In 1974. You see, I thought to myself: this is the land of Simon Bolivar. There must be something of his spirit still alive – something in our genes, I suppose. So we set about trying to revive it"...
I was able to form an impression about Chavez the man. The first thing that strikes one is that he is transparently honest. His sincerity is absolutely clear, as is his dedication to the cause of the Revolution and his hatred of injustice and oppression. Of course, these qualities in and of themselves are not sufficient to guarantee the victory of the revolution, but they certainly explain his tremendous popularity with the masses.
He asked me what I thought of the movement in Venezuela. I replied that it was very impressive, that the masses were clearly the main motive force and that all the ingredients were present to carry the revolution through to the end, but that there was something missing. He asked what that was. I replied that the weakness of the movement was the absence of a clearly defined ideology and cadres. He agreed.
"You know, I don't consider myself a Marxist because I have not read enough Marxist books," he said.
From this conversation I had the distinct impression that Hugo Chavez was looking for ideas, and that he was genuinely interested in the ideas of Marxism and anxious to learn. This is related to the stage that the Venezuelan Revolution has reached. Sooner than many people expect, it will be faced with a stark choice: either liquidate the economic power of the oligarchy or else go soon to defeat...
The President glanced at his watch. It was eleven o’clock.
"Do you mind if I put the television on for just a moment? We are starting a new news programme and I would like to see what they've done."
We watched the news for about five minutes. It was a programme about Iraq.
"Well, Alan, what did you think of it?"
"Not bad at all."
"We're planning to launch a television service that will be broadcast all over Latin America."
No wonder the US imperialists are having sleepless nights about Hugo Chavez.
About George W. Bush, Chavez expresses himself in terms of the deepest contempt. "Personally, he is a coward. He attacked Fidel Castro at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) when Fidel was not present. If he had been there he would not have dared to do it. They say he is frightened to meet me and I believe it. He tries to avoid me. But one time we were together at an OAS summit and he was sitting quite near to me." Chavez chuckled to himself.
"I had one of those swivel chairs and I was sitting with my back to him. Then, after a while, I spun the chair round so I was facing him. "Hello, Mr. President!" I said. His face turned colour – from red to purple to blue. You can tell the man is just a bundle of complexes. That makes him dangerous – because of the power he has in his hands."
At the end of our meeting, Hugo Chavez expressed his firm support for the Hands off Venezuela campaign. He also gave his personal backing to the publication of a Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt, with the possibility of other books in the future. We parted company on the best of terms...
The following evening the foreign delegates were once again assembled in a hall inside the President's palace. Again there must have been about 200 people present, together with television cameras. I had arrived a little late and sat at the back of the crowded hall. After some minutes a man from the President's office came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder: "Mr. Woods, be ready to speak in five minutes."
I was not at all prepared for this, but I walked up to the microphone in front of the television cameras, next to the table where President was sitting. I spoke about the world crisis of capitalism and explained that all the wars, economic crises, terrorism etc. were only individual manifestations of this organic crisis of capitalism. I pointed out that the only way to solve the problems of humanity was through the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of world socialism. I explained that in the 200 years since the death of Bolivar, the bourgeoisie of Latin America had turned what ought to be an earthly paradise into a living hell for millions of people.
In conclusion I pointed to the colossal potential of the productive forces that was being wasted because of the two major barriers to human progress – private ownership of the means of production and "that relic of barbarism the nation state". I pointed to the enormous achievements of science and technology that were sufficient in themselves to transform the lives of the majority of the planet.
At this point I said: "It seems the Americans are now preparing to send a man to Mars. I believe we should support this proposal on one condition – that the man in question is George W. Bush and that he is on a one-way ticket."
At this the hall erupted into laughter, and Chavez shouted above the din: "And Aznar – don't forget Aznar."
To which I replied: "Mr. President, let us not speak ill of the dead!"...
As usual, Chavez spoke last and he spoke for a long time, during which he mentioned my speech on several occasions. At regular intervals someone would come in with a despairing note from the caterers whose food was being ruined by the delay. But Chavez was in full flight and nobody could stop him. He would glance at the unfortunate messenger and say: "What! You again!" And then continue as if nothing had happened.
Like all Venezuelans he has a huge sense of humour. At one point, after he had been speaking for quite some time, he called out:
"Are you still there, Alan?"
"Yes, I am still here."
"Are you asleep?"
"No, I am wide awake."
[Pause] "Who is this Gibbs?"
"Oh, a scientist." And then he continued as before.
The reference to Gibbs (or Hibbs as he pronounces it) had most of the audience mystified and I had to spend a little time telling people how it was spelt. It was nearly midnight when we finally sat down for dinner... We were entertained by a group of musicians playing Venezuelan music with guitars and harps and other traditional instruments, which Chavez pointed out to me, obviously enjoying himself tremendously.
What more can I say? I do not usually write in such detail about individuals, and I am conscious of the fact that some people consider such things to be out of place in Marxist literature. But I think they are mistaken, or at least a bit one-sided. Marx explains that men and women make history and the study of those individuals who play a role in making history is a valid part of literature – including Marxist literature.
Personally, I have never been very interested in psychology, except in the very broadest sense of the word. All too often, second rate writers try to cover up their lack of real understanding of history by claiming to delve into the deepest recesses of the mind of certain individuals to discover, for example, that Stalin and Hitler had an unhappy childhood. This is then supposed to explain why they later became ruthless dictators who tyrannised over millions. But in reality such explanations explain nothing. There are many people who have unhappy childhoods but not many who become Hitlers or Stalins. To explain such phenomena one must understand the relations between classes and the objective socio-economic processes that shape them.
Nevertheless, up to a certain point, an individual's personality has an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends."
Victory in Venezuela!
Sunday, August 15, 2004
What Aussies are reading about our seabed and foreshore
In June 2003, the New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that the customary title of Maori (Aotearoa/New Zealand’s indigenous people) to the seabed and foreshore had never been legally extinguished, and that cases relating to it could therefore be heard by the Maori Land Court. The Labour government reacted to this decision by introducing legislation to place the ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the hands of the Crown. At hui (meetings) around the country, Maori almost unanimously rejected the government’s proposals. In May of this year, Maori from all parts of Aotearoa converged on Wellington in a massive hikoi (march) timed to coincide with the passage of Labour’s legislation.
Maori saw Labour’s law as an attack on their democratic rights and on their prospects for economic advancement. By ignoring the opposition of the Maori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and dissident Maori MPs, Labour seemed to be junking institutions which many Maori still see as their best avenues for the redress of wrongs. Maori also saw Labour’s legislation as a blow to their chances of establishing fish farms and tourist resorts in their tribal areas. Maori feared that Labour’s legislation would force them to compete with multinational companies for licenses to establish fish farms and resorts on their own coasts.
Many Maori see the establishment of tribal businesses as the key to their economic future. The reasons for their identification with Maori capitalism are not hard to find.As an oppressed people, Maori have a natural tendency to identify collectively across classes against their oppressors.Labour and National smashed Aotearoa’s labour movement in the 80s and 90s, but they chose to co-opt rather than confront Maori organisations. Both parties used the so-called ‘Treaty process’ to get Maori off the streets and into the courtroom, where they were tied up in red tape. A tiny minority of Maori became ‘corporate warriors’, administering Treaty payouts as the CEOs of corporate-style tribal organisations.
The process of co-option temporarily ended the militant protests that had markedthe 70s and early 80s, but it had the longer-term effect of actually raising Maoriexpectations and strengthening Maori organisation, so that Maori have a much lower threshold of disillusionment with Labour than Pakeha (non-Maori) workers, who remain weak and demoralised. The hikoi was initially ignored or belittled by much of the media and by the political establishment. The day before the marchers reached AucklandTelevision New Zealand claimed that they would muster only sixty people to cross the city’s harbour bridge.
Despite strong winds and heavy rain, eighty times that number made the journey, walking in the footsteps of the great Land March of 1975. The hikoi to grow in size, and the final rally of 25,000 in Wellington represented Aotearoa’s biggest political demonstration in nearly a quarter of a century. By the time it had reached Wellington, the hikoi was drawing increasing support from a vocal minority of Pakeha. Contingents of Pakeha marched down Lambton Quay behind the banners of left-liberal groups like the Green Party and the Peace Movement Foundation of Aotearoa.
More importantly, the hikoi had attracted some real sympathy within sections of the trade union movement. The Service and Food Workers, Manufacturing and Construction and National Distribution Unions all backed the march. Arguments raged inside other unions, as bureaucrats fought to dampen down rank and file calls for solidarity with the hikoi. Amalgamated Workers Union leader Ray Bianchi faced a rank and file revolt over his refusal to back the hikoi.
Awestruck by the sheer scale of the last stage of the hikoi, some in the media swapped insults for saccharine pseudo-compliments. Nauseating ‘broadcaster to the nation’ Paul Holmes had rubbished the hikoi and called one of its leaders a ‘ball of lard’, but by the evening of the hikoi’s arrival in Wellington he claimed that the marchers made him feel ‘love and pride’.‘Love and pride’ did not mean much in practice. The political establishment remained united against Maori, and Labour refused to call back its legislation. But the mana (prestige) of the hikoi put huge pressure on Labour’s Maori MPs, and two of them crossed the floor of parliament, forcing Labour to stitch up a last-minute deal with the right-wing New Zealand First Party to pass its legislation.
Cabinet Minister Tariana Turia resigned from Labour altogether, and was hailed as a hero when she joined the hikoi and announced the formation of a Maori Party designed to destroy the career’s of Labour’s loyal Maori MPs. Turia has insisted that the Maori Party will be open to coalition arrangements withthe right-wing National Party, and she has welcomed the support of right-wing Maori. It seems likely her party will try to play Labour and National off against each other, in an effort to win increased funding for Maori social services and businesses.
Why has the Labour Party been prepared to forsake a big chunk of its support base, by pushing through legislation in the face of such enormous opposition? To answer this question we need to understand the pressure that US imperialism is directly and indirectly exerting on the Labour government. Labour is desperate to get a free trade deal with the US, and is determined to remove barriers to foreign investment. Aotearoa’s long and beautiful coastline presents a tempting prospect to US investors keen on making a buck from sea farming or luxury resorts.
Maori correctly believe that nationalisation of the seabed and foreshore is a prelude to leases and ultimately sales to US investors. Maori and many Pakeha remember that Helen Clark was a Minister in the Labour government that privatised dozens of public assets in the 80s, including the railways and Telecom.Because of the need to remove obstacles to investment, Labour’s ‘red tape’ strategy of the 80s is no longer a feasible way of countering Maori dissent. Labour wants to roll back the already-derisory powers of Maori-focused legal structures like the Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal, in case they end up creating red tape for US investors.
Labour’s task is complicated by the fact that New Zealand’s bourgeoisie has installed Don Brash in the leadership of its National Party. Brash has launched an aggressive campaign on behalf of US imperialism and the US’s friends in Australia. Brash is very close to right-wingers in Australia, and his political strategy resembles John Howard’s – like Howard, Brash hides a neoliberal economic agenda inside the ‘Trojan horse’ of appeals to social conservatism and national chauvinism.
By scaremongering about the privatisation of the beaches by Maori capitalists, Brash has managed to win the support of a chunk of Labour’s white working class base. Brash plays on bad memories of the neoliberal privatisation programme of the 80s and 90s, but he would recommence that programme ifhe were elected. The core reason for Brash’s ability to manipulate Pakeha workers is not simple ignorance, but the defeat of the union movement in the 80s and 90s, and the resultant widespread loss of class consciousness.
Like Howard, Brash plays on the fears of an atomised, vulnerable electorate. Labour has begun implementing some of Brash’s policies as ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against his election campaign. Labour is prepared to sacrifice its Maori support for its larger white constituency, and in any case is unable to reconcile the interests of Maori capitalism and its commitment to the continued internationalisation of the economy.
Many Maori are aware of the imperialist monster lurking behind Labour’s confiscation legislation.Speakers at hui have compared the dispossession of the Maori to the fate of Iraqis under US occupation. On the hikoi, some of the most militant protesters wore Palestinian scarves, to show their solidarity with another people oppressed by imperialism. But in the absence of strong support from the Pakeha working class, most Maori are understandably sympathetic to Tariana Turia’s new bourgeois nationalist party.
The left could have been a bridge between Maori and the Pakeha working class, but its organisations failed to intervene effectively in the hikoi. Even in the big cities like Auckland and Wellington, the vast majority of marchers would never have seen a banner or placard with a left-wing slogan on it, or read a piece of socialist literature. The left also failed to mobilise enough of the small but significant minority of Pakeha trade unionists who were opposed to Labour’s legislation.
Many Pakeha-dominated left groups were slow to understand the extent of Maori anger about the seabed and foreshore, and those groups which did grapple with the issue often failed to deal with the contradictions of the movement. On the one hand, groups like the Green Party and the Stalinist Socialist Party of Aotearoa took a completely uncritical line towards the leadership of the Maori struggle, arguing that the development of Maori capitalism was something that both Pakeha and Maori workers should unreservedly support.
A small minority of leftists went to the opposite extreme, and refused to give any support at all to the hikoi because of its cross-class nature.A small number of socialists tried to combine support for the struggle against the theft of the seabed and foreshore with opposition to the pro-capitalist perspectives of some hikoi leaders. Trade unionist and long-time Maori activist Justin Taua was a focus for some of these socialists. At hui up and down the North Island Justin argued that a capitalist Maori Party was a dead end, and that the only way to defeat the government’s legislation was through direct action.
Along with other members of the Communist Workers Group, Justin argued that Maori should seize contested coastal sites throughout the country, and invite working class Pakeha to support them. Justin argued that any sea farming businesses should be run by workers, and pointed to the occupied factories movement in Argentina as an example to Maori. Justin’s message resonated with a number of the younger, more militant members of the hikoi, but lack ofresources prevented that support being translated into an organisational challenge to the political leadership of the hikoi.
I marched with the hikoi through Hamilton, a city of 100,000 people built in the middle of rich plain lands confiscated from Maori after the Waikato war of 1863-64. Pakeha watched from the footpaths as the huge crowd marched slowly toward the city square, singing and chanting in Maori and flying tribal flags. Homemade placards announced large contingents from isolated rural communities like Marokopa and Mokau. Hundreds of local iwi members waiting in the square welcomed the march with adeafening but perfectly choreographed haka. The All Blacks have nothing over the boys from the Waikato!
The square overflowed with protesters, but I felt a sense of sadness when I noticed how few of them had white faces. A reporter for a local Maori radio station approached me, and asked me why a Pakeha like myself had joined the hikoi. I replied that all working class New Zealanders should be concerned about the theft of the seabed and foreshore, and that Pakeha trade unionists like myself had to get involved in the hikoi. The reporter listened sympathetically, and then asked me where all the Pakeha trade unionists were hiding. I could see his point.
A speaker in the square recalled the battle of Orakau, which was fought south of Hamilton during the Waikato war. The crowd responded by chanting the words of Rewi Maniapoto, the chief who led Maori forces at Orakau: ‘Ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake!’ Rewi’s words translate as ‘We will never surrender, we will fight forever and forever!’, but Rewi wasn’t able to fight forever – he was forced to retreat from the rich lands around Hamilton into the hinterland of the North Island, and his people eventually had to do a deal with the government which saw them lose their independence and most of their land.
Rewi’s heroism was not enough to defeat the might of imperialism, and the heroism of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi was not enough to defeat the might of twenty-first century imperialism. Without the support for a strong union movement able to hit capitalism where it hurts, the great movement against imperialism’s new confiscation has for the moment been diverted onto the path of compromise.
But the conditions that produced the hikoi will not go away, and they affect Pakeha as well as Maori workers. A month or so after the end of the hikoi I stood on a picket line outside Sky City casino, in downtown Auckland, and got a glimpse of the future of the struggle against racism in Aotearoa. I work for the Service and Food Workers Union, whose Sky City members were on strike demanding better wages and conditions and increased union rights. Sky City’s US owners made record profits last year – specify – yet they pay their employees a starting rate of only $10.61 an hour, and make them work in buildings infested with fleas.
Looking about the huge picket, I was struck by the way that Sky City workers mixed ethnic diversity with class solidarity. Maori, Samoan, Tongan, European, Asian and African workers all stood together on the picket line, chanting against the bosses who had tried to divide them with individual contracts and anti-union scare mongering.At Sky City, a dynamic and militant union has been built from scratch in a few short years, in the face of unfriendly labour laws and bosses’ harassment. It is no coincidence that the Sky City workers’ union is one of the few which officially supported the Maori struggle against the seabed and foreshore. Sky City’s workers know what Maori are up against.
A common enemy demands a common struggle, and the job of socialists should be to unite Maori and Pakeha workers against the imperialist carve-up of Aotearoa. We need to take the fighting spirit of the Sky City picket line onto the foreshore of Aotearoa.
Friday, August 13, 2004
Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999.
Anyone accustomed to thinking of philosophy as the otherworldly discourse of academics afflicted with what Fowlers’ Modern English usage called ‘abstractitis’ would surely be surprised and delighted by Imre Lakatos’ ‘Lectures on Scientific Method’ and by the book which houses them, For and Against Method.
Given to overflowing audiences at the London School of Economics in 1973, Lakatos’ addresses are remarkable examples of the cross-fertilisation of complex ideas and pressing social and political issues. To be sure, Lakatos is concerned in his lectures to treat a perceived crisis in the epistemological foundations of science, but in 1973 epistemology and politics were not easily separated.
As early as the fourth sentence of the first of his eight lectures Lakatos is acknowledging that his is not an “esoteric problem just for armchair philosophers”; soon he is launching into the first of many practical applications of the models for scientific method he is concerned to consider. The history of science (not to mention pseudo-science) is replete with potential props for Lakatos’ talks, but the Hungarian exile and disgraced anti-Nazi activist is determined to tie positions on scientific method to political positions, and twentieth century political phenomena as apparently diverse as the Hungarian revolution, racism in the Academy, the rise of fascism in Europe and the student disturbances of the 60s and early 70s are wheeled across the stage, often at considerable speed, to illustrate the dilemmas of the modern philosophy of science.
The texts of Lakatos’ lectures form the most valuable part of For and Against Method, a 1999 book Lakatos is credited with authoring with his close friend and professional rival, Paul Feyerabend. At the start of the 70s the two men had, to be sure, planned a book of the same title; after Lakatos’ death in 1974, Feyerabend did in fact publish his side of their argument as Against Method, the manifesto for ‘epistemological anarchism’ which won him fame, or rather notoriety.
For and Against Method, in its 1999 form, contains a wealth of documents which aim to ghost the book the two philosophers could never write together. Perhaps the most fascinating texts are found in the correspondence between Feyerabend and Lakatos between 1968 and 1974. The immediacy and openness of the letter-form reveals, even more than Lakatos’ freewheeling lectures, the political underpinnings of an important set of philosophical debates. For Lakatos and Feyerabend, politics was nothing less than an occupational hazard, as is shown by this excerpt from a letter wrote out of Feyerabend’s Berkeley office:
A few days ago a little revolution was going on in Berkeley with about $200,000 worth of windowpanes smashed, bombs going into police stations, one policeman killed, many wounded; I was on the street, when it happened, and almost got hit by a stone; next day, in both of my lectures, I preached…against “the revolution” (which, at any rate, is no revolution at all, it is ridiculous). Slogan (introduced here by me, but stolen originally from the KPD in Germany, 1929): the enemy is on the left. My lectures ceased to be systematic lectures long ago…
For Lakatos and Feyerabend, epistemology was self-defence. Feyerabend’s letters from Berkeley complain of persecution at the hands of university bureaucrats, right-wing colleagues, and members of an increasingly inflamed student body, not to mention the demented followers of Ayn Rand! Lakatos, for his part, had become an exile because of the possible consequences of his defence of what he considered scientific rationality, and there is evidence that he felt little safer in his new home, where militant political activity was on the rise. In one letter to Feyerabend he describes himself as the ‘favourite Fascist of the [London School of Economics] Socialist Society’. In the first of his 1973 lectures, he discusses the American Philosophical Society’s recent decision to condemn the work of a group of researchers as ‘racist, sexist, and anti-working class…dangerous and unscientific’, and juxtaposes it with an account of Stalin’s persecution of Mengelian biologists. When, in a latter lecture, Lakatos asks his audience point blank ‘What criteria would have to be satisfied in order to have a moral justification to burn down the LSE? [London School of Economics]’ he can hardly be said to be making a joke.
For and Against Method is a valuable book because it shows, very clearly, the relationship between some major philosophical achievements and some major political events. Lakatos, who always saw his ‘Methodology of Scientific Programmes’ as a sort of bulwark against the irrationalist chaos he perceived in the modern world, is revealed by this very personal book as a man vitally concerned with the practical application of philosophy both in the social sciences and in society.
The mandarin image of philosophers and the naïve or doctrinaire empiricism of many sociologists have perhaps tended to obscure, traditionally, the links between conceptual and social investigation. It is these links that Lakatos, in his work and in his attitudes, forces us to consider.
 Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, New Left books, London, 1975
 Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999, pg 191
ibid., pg 164
ibid., pg 21-23
Lakatos and Feyerabend, 1999, pg 24
PS: Just looked through this and realised it doesn't actually tell you much about Lakatos' ideas! I knew I was doing something wrong! I'll post something longer on the man when I have the time, but in the meantime go and get it from the horse's mouth: Imre Lakatos live!
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Letters from China
My old mate Adrian (Rosehill College fourth form nicknames: Aids, Aido, A drain etc) and his partner Susan are travelling through China on their way to the mysterious land of Mongolia, where they apparently plan to ride camels across the Gobi Desert (or a little bit of it, at least). Here's the first part of Adrian's logbook:
I'm writing this from our hostel in Beijing, on our third night in the city. We (Me, Susan, and two friends Dan and Cindi) caught the ferry from Kobe to Tianjin in China on the 6th of August and stayed on it for 2 and a half days. I was half expecting a watered-down Love Boat with a Chinese Cpt. Stubing and Gopher, but we got the Waiheke ferry sized up to handle open seas and with bunks beds.
We shared our room with a largish Chinese family who had some cute, but very annoying children who liked to come over to our side of the room and open the bunk curtains to stare at the sleeping (or trying to sleep) freaky foreigners. And they were really noisy, though that went for everyone on board. It didn"t help that all public addresses on board had the volume cranked right up, no matter the time of day or night.
For entertainment we had an emergency drill, Chinese movies with subtitles, and, at night, karaoke dominated by a really obnoxious American guy who belted out Rolling Stones' songs at top yell til all hours. Despite how all that sounds, it actually was pretty fun overall. Two days was about right though, anymore and it'd drive you a bit crazy.
When we arrived in China we had to organise Chinese money and transport to Beijing. Susan handled the money changing, and got us a pretty good deal after refusing the first offer. Dodgy looking guys run up and offer to change US dollars, and got pretty suspicious about yen, but took it in the end. Then the 2 and a half hour minibus ride cost 50 yuan each (NZ$10) and was only missing the cages of chickens for authenticity. It was a clapped out old heap packed full of people and luggage. The driver kicked out an old lady and her grandchild for us, which made us feel bad but she took it in her stride well.We crammed the four of us, our bags and two wheelchairs Susan and I took to China for a charity into what space was left and set off, careening through the streets.
Driving in China is like something from Mad Max: no one indicates, they just honk their horns and go for it and we had at least half a dozen (in my safe-driving opinion) near misses along the way. The bigger the vehicle, the less concern for road rules - on a latter taxi ride, our car was forced out of its lane by a bus, despite the driver's horn honking.We met a nice Mongolian woman on the minibus though, who gave us good advice for Beijing and her number in Ullan Bator when we visit there.
China is a lot different from Japan, heaps different. Everything's a lot smoggier - 50 metres is clear viewing, 500 is about the maximum limit due to the haze - and there's a lot of half collapsed buildings around with people living in them and the vibe is firmly third world. So far everyone's been pretty friendly and a lot more open and up front than in Japan - in China you know if someone's pleased to see you or hates your guts, while in Japan it can take months to find out what people really think of you.
We found people overall really friendly, though there's a lot of beggars in central Beijing, cause of all the tourists. We used the train to get to our hostel, but we ended up wandering around a lot cause we couldn't find it on the map. It was near the Workers' Stadium but that was as close as we could get. We got help eventually, with some helpful people who helped with gestures then led us to the hotel - really friendly. It turned out the name of the hostel had changed, which was our problem.
Next day Susan and I caught a taxi to deliver the wheelchairs. It was a 1 and 1/2 hour trip to the countryside southwest of Beijing and took a long time, with our driver asking for directions a load of times. The coutryside was pretty but well-used: still lots of smog and the place was pretty polluted. People are very poor out there, some covered head to foot in oil and big trucks all over the roads. The roads are wide, but due to bad potholes everyone ends up driving on the same lane for most of the way, honking the others out of the way.
At the Children's Hospital we met the Italian doctor Susan had talked to by email and he showed us round a little. It did specialist physiotherapy for children all over China run by a volunteer European organisation and we were delivering wheelchairs from a charity based in Japan. After he took Susan, me and the taxi driver out for lunch. We narrowly avoided the waitress opening up a bottle of apple vinegar for us, thinking it was apple juice, so I think the staple beverages were beer and tea only. The taxi driver was a really nice guy, though we couldn't understand each other, and after lunch we dropped the doctor off and said goodbye and headed back to Beijing for another hour and a half. The whole trip cost 420 yuan, NZ$85, so not too bad.
Today we went to Tiannamen (spelling?) Square and saw Mao's corpse in his tomb. Apparently it flaunts all rules of fengshui too. A huge queue policed by officials to stop the many queue jumpers, but it moved pretty quickly. I think his face is a wax mask set over the real one, so not too grisly.Then we had lunch and went to the Forbidden City. Huge and cool, but I wasn't as overwhelmed as I thought I'd be. After seeing all the temples and stuff in Japan I guess I have got a bit used to them.
So that's all the big stuff for now and I'm out of time,
[saccharine endearments to friends and family edited out]
Letter number two:
Since I have the internet opportunity, I thought I'd send another email off before I head into the wilds of Mongolia.Tomorrow we get up at 5am to catch the train to Mongolia, travelling 24 hours or so and getting off at a little station to ride camels for 3 days.
It sounds uncomfortable, as I'm not keen on horses and camels seem just like bigger, badder tempered versions. Fun.
Since our trip to the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square we've visited the Summer Palace, which used to be the Empresses' summer home during the Qing dynasty, a really huge series of gardens surrounding a big lake. Apparently she spirited away money from the Chinese navy to pay for it.
It was okay as a visit, your usual gardens plus pedal boats to chug around the lake on. I was keen so we all headed out on one, which turned out to be harder to pedal than I thought and then it pelted down with rain. Got a little ripped off on the taxi ride back, and Dan was pretty pissed off but I figure it's all part of the game over here. Everything seems negotiable, especally if you're a tourist.
Yesterday we went to part of the Great Wall, a 3 hour bus trip then pouring rain. It was surprisingly steep in parts, with steeply sloping steps and uneven paving. Really cool, but unchanging from what I could tell and in a constant state of (dis)repair - bricks in our part of the Wall ranged from 600 years old to 28 years. That piece of info comes courtesey of a destitute farmer woman who followed me up the first 300 metres of so trying to sell me stuff. She seemed pretty nice though, and told me bits and pieces about the Wall, though we had trouble understanding each other, and was mostly content just to follow along occasionally accidentely hitting me with her umbrella, sure of an eventual sale.I caved eventually and bought some overpriced postcards after much haggling. She was nice though so I didn't mind and once I figured she wasn't going to give up I thought I'd save her further walking.
On the bus journey back we passed an army truck. I was curious, so had a good gawk out the window as we passed. As I did I saw the driver and his buddy having a good gawk back, just as curious about a bunch of foreigners on a bus. Kind of embarrassing when we caught each other staring.
We went to a Beijing acrobatics show last night, all child performers. Pretty amazing stuff, 12 girls riding the same bicycle and contortionist tricks. The clown pulled Dan up from the audience, and would have to have made the perfect pick of the most outgoing, extrovert in the front row. He was very happy for the attention.
The other volunteer was a Japanese girl, instantly identifiable by her V sign posing for photos as soon as she hit the stage. They got her to pose in Mao-emblazoned bag and red star hat, then let her go.Got accosted by a horde of beggar kids on the way home,sicced on us by their parents. This didn't bother me much since my kid seemed to be having fun. He latched onto my arm and wouldn't let go, then kept jumping off the ground so I had to carry him along to keep walking. He seemed to think that was pretty funny, and we had a laugh together. Didn't get any money out of me though.
Able kids like that aren't depressing but there are some horribly disfigured beggars around, one guy covered in burn scars from head to foot, his hands reduced to stumpy claws. Another guy, not a beggar, lie on the footpath with a festering sore the size of a saucer on his side.
Went to the markets today and everyone else got fleeced. I didn't buy anything so I was okay. Cindi bought a jacket for 120 yuan, after an initial asking price of 1,200 yuan, so there's a huge mark up for tourists. Susan bought some DVDs too, latest stuff from a guy on the street, 4 DVDs for 30 yuan (NZ$6). Dodgy, but they look like they'll probably work. They had stuff that had only come out in the cinemas in the US this month.
Well that's it for now,
Beggars can make you feel pretty bad here
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Richard's Big Break
For almost fifteen years Richard Taylor has been reading his poems in Auckland’s pubs and cafes, and publishing them in literary rags with smart-ass monosyllabic names like Salt and .brief.
The first time I heard Richard he was drunk at the London Bar, and seemed to be composing as he performed: I remember the line ‘A daddy long-legs got drunk and blew up to the size of the First World War’. That one doesn’t sound so hot today, but there are plenty of lines from Richard’s book Red which still ring in my head:
In the rumours of the lost rooms...
The head on the table like an accusation...
Down stone steps to the conscious sea...
Unlike most regulars on the live poetry scene, Richard has never wanted to be a bard. You won’t find him wearing a beret, or quoting On the Road, or gnomically fingering a Baxterian beard. Richard has eschewed autobiography and didacticism in favour of an abstract yet highly distinctive poetry. Abstraction does not have to imply minimalism or solemnity, and Richard is much more a Pollock than a Mondrian. And Richard’s use of abstraction is not only energetic but very entertaining. He’s a populist as well as a postmodernist.
Because of its abstraction, of its literariness, a good Richard Taylor poem is able to communicate with an audience which would run in terror from most high modernist and postmodern poetry. The working class autodidact from Panmure takes the forms of postmodernism and affectionately pisstakes them, and in doing so conveys a very down to earth Kiwi sensibility:
Their breath came increasingly in the sacred little clouds that we were still too scared to pop, but
I thought of ‘green’ and ‘red’ and ‘insinuation’ and ‘xylophone’, and was proud. I know you are thinking that this is not how you would sense it, or place the rugger ball and the cross christed and socratic shadows of your private pit and what the fuck is he standing on? Bastard. Too zippy? Eh?
Now, just when we were getting used to stuff like that, Richard has offered up ‘Hospital’, a sequence of poems and prose fragments that will be excerpted in the next issue of .brief. Written as a sort of diary, ‘Hospital’ gives us the low-down on the drug scene at Middlemore Hospital, and extols the joys of constipation. I asked ‘Panmure’s greatest living postmodernist’ to explain himself...
Cliched question, I know, but how did you come to write 'Hospital'?
OK the serious answer is I was rising each day and reading certain texts before getting onto the net to play one-minute chess. I had become addicted to chess again when I discovered a site via the New York Times and the Buffalo Poetics group - in fact it was a recommendation of Ron Silliman's. My leisure time began to revolve around the international online one-minute chess marathons. While I was waiting for the whistle to blow start, I’d sit beside the computer and read through Kendrick Smithyman's books. Although he had been my tutor at Auckland University in 1968 I hadn’t found Smithyman very amenable - difficult, he seemed, as a writer. But after getting seriously interested in him thanks to the enthusiasm of you and Jack Ross and others I was toying with the idea of writing a book on the man. I was trying to "decipher" each poem, to crack it like a code. Impossible, of course, but I made my way through a lot of them, and there are surely some of the greatest poems written by anyone anywhere amongst Smithyman’s work.
I also thought I would look at Baxter, as a contrast, and I had somehow decided to read the Duino Elegies (translation by Stephen Spender), so before "the accident" I was thinking about Smithyman and about the New Zealand tradition he fitted into, or didn’t fit into. As you know, most of my poems are kind of "abstract" - like music, I hope, or abstract painting, no definite subject. But I was getting a little tired of abstraction - I wanted to get some sort of process, method, raison d'etre, grit, plan, philosophy, into my work.
Then I broke my leg – ironically, I did the damage while trying to get fit. I was taken straight to Middlemore, and I got my daughter to bring my notebook and decided to put an entry in each day. I had vague ideas it would become a "work", but it really just grew naturally. As it happened it was good to keep a diary: it made the whole experience of hospital more interesting. I used various devices such as reading or writing entries or aguing with nurses or others to keep sane - as one does, of course, in "real" life.
But I wouldn’t have really bothered to publish it if you and Jack weren’t interested: it would have probably Pessoafied, in a huge trunk...
Would it be fair to say, as Hamish Dewe has said, that 'Hospital' is your big break?
Hamish is famous for his minimalist wit, his brilliant acerbity - his genius for disturbing the universe. A break is a break is a break - and then there is the problem of 'fairness'...Sod's Law. In hospital I had to describe over and over how I broke my leg and it was bit emabrrassing, but only one doctor quipped "Sod's law, eh?’. He was sympathetic and I wanted to tell him Sod’s law is actually (unlike the very funny Parkinson's law) an actual mathematical law, but of course the bloke disappeared. Doctors in hospitals have an amazing abilty to disappear when you want to talk for hours about what to them is trivia!
What do you say to the rumours that you were drunk when you fell off those monkey bars in Panmure Park?
I was endorphined, feeling good - I used to do the fitness trail easily...but there you go. Think now, cunning corridors, contrived, propagating a fear and a refusal, denying a forward cogitation of a devil(s) (black and backward). Think of that so-called Al Qaeda video they trot out all the time : they are probably CIA or actors dressed up, but they are always on Monkey Bars. The tragedy of falling from Monkey Bars! Why couldn't I have been in a war of liberation or the hero in a bank robbery? And, nay, I had libated not...
Is there a genre of writing about hospitals and illness that you dipped into? Is there a tradition in New Zealand literature of dealing with this stuff? And what about the journal form? Have you tried that before? Do you keep a diary? Do you read other people's?
Amazing! I wandered into - in fact I got lost in the Uni library (the Old Quarter (very few know about it) ... it’s like Hamish's Green Door at the Greenlane Hospital)...and this - it has to be said – Borgesian apparition, (a man I think), and tall, ascetic white faced and bearded gentleman(?) escorted me to a dark gloomy interior room where there were huge tomes, which he translated for me rapidly in a strange high-pitched voice at immense speed though somehow as if I were in a dream I could follow every word! Those tomes dealt with the Hospital poetic/literary phenomenon going back thousands of years...
Seriously now - when I went to New York in 1993 one thing I went to was a journal reading - I think the group of young people were from St Marks at the Bowery with Bernadette Mayer. But I was almost always drunk my whole time in Manhattan so I can’t recall anything they said. The journal form and the essay form are surely related - the Language poets use it...I recently got Gide's huge journals and have dipped into them (James Schuyler mentions them in his great 'The Morning of the Poem', I also love his picnic cantata poem - do you know that Paul Bowles made it into an opera?)
A lot of Silliman's work is journalistic, Baxter, even Alan Loney...there is Wystan Curnow's excellent "Cancer Daybook"...I hadn’t been very successful keeping diaries - it seems to take so long to write things - what to leave out, or whether to keep everything in...at one extreme one wants to record everything, but everyone fails at that, even Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, which are surely just too prolix, have too many words, though one is intrigued by the attempt...
There are some pretty graphic descriptions of your injury and the incoveniences it caused you in 'Hospital'. Did you feel embarrassed about letting this stuff in? What would your mother say?
I think my mother would be proud, but I was always embarrassed discussing such things with my mother, though she read some very graphic novels, novels that were challenging: she was brighter and more knowing than I as a son thought. She didn't like poetry much, though she loved Edward Lear’s poems of the owl and the cat...I was a bit wary of some things but let's face it, it is reality there in the hospital... the worst thing I found about breaking my leg was not the pain, but the constipation caused by the morphines in my anaesthetic.
Third Man was real as were the nurses and doctors and many other people...the Maori bloke I argued with one night...the meals (which weren’t that bad)...I dropped out things related to my friends but kept in the "graphic" things...but I was never in any great pain and there was nothing gory...these days in fact my operation is (while serious) fairly routine.
Want to give some background on this ‘Third Man’ who keeps popping up in Hospital?
When I woke in my ward there was Third Man (I also call him Spider Man as he was tatooed all over and had spent 17 years in Paremoremo - he had FUCK YOU tatooed on his forehead!) Third Man had crushed his foot in an accident at work and had been in since before Xmas. He used to wheel himself all around the hospital, at all hours of the day or night. He was Third Man because apart from him and myself there was only a South African businessman (nice enough person)...later I was moved to another ward where there were more blokes – ‘Garth’ and a fellow whose name I forget...later a workman came in (he was English but had been here for years) who had smashed his hand falling off a ladder (forgot to secure the steps in the centre - humanum est errare)...
Why were you in 'Hospital' so long, if you only broke your leg? Were you malingering?
My doctor tells me that the average time of recovery for a leg break is 12 months. One hears of broken arms and legs (and of course that and worse happen daily) but it is impossible to experience it until it happens. Actually I was in hospital for 8 days: when my leg (fibula and tibia where it joins the ankle) broke there was a lot of swelling. Initially I was put in a corridor, and I waited for a long time - not to be seen so much as to get into a ward...I didn't realise that the main problem for the surgeons was swelling, which is caused by the breaking of tissues: they were wary of operating, as it is very much more difficult to work on a body that is so swollen, and risks of damage are higher...
So I was in 8 days but it seemed ages - not all of it unpleasant and a lot of it interesting. I know you joke about malingering but I started to kind of "settle in" - it was summer and my house had become infested with fleas. Once I realised I was stalling I got organised and got home.
A friend of mine who knows your work described it as a 'head trip'. She hasn't read 'Hospital' yet, of course. Do you think she'll change her opinion? Do you want to change her opinion?
I don’t know what she means. I just wrote it down and you happened to like it otherwise I would probably have just put it in drawer...I don't care what people think of it ethically - maybe she is meaning I'm going like Plath or Lowell...I was just noting things down - sure the first part was influenced by K Smithyman's methods...his pauses, repeats, caesuras, ambiguities, etc
I think as poets we are all egotists to a degree - we all have heads and go on trips...mine was from Panmure Basin by ambulance to Middlemore - it was interesting, a little alarming, but an exerience – a part of life.... I can’t "see" my own work - she may rightly adjudge it a load of codswollop...I'd like to think I am indifferent to that but that's not quite true - one loves praise...but by and large it doesn't really matter: the main thing is to be healthy and happy.
You used to be one of the most popular live poets in Auckland. Nowadays you don't read so much. Have you performed 'Hospital', and if you have what sort of response did you get?
I read sections of it and those present were responsive. I mixed my reading with some older work to set up a contrast but some of it they probaly didn't understand - others liked that part where I have a kind of mantra "Bone be bone..." but I have since dropped that....the "story" of the old man who became a communist was well liked...
I don't read as much - I used to need it so much I would write two or more poems a week and put on a performance of great intensity, but because I am very neurasthenic I used to imbibe a lot, and that lead to my getting in the black books of various judges and constables...
What role does Portugese nationalism play in your work? Where is Portugal in 'Hospital'?
Actually - ah, the blazing face of Europe! Actually I bought The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa) of course from the US...Pessoa in a way was another journalistic writer - with the many personas - I haven’t done the many personas - but the Eternal Trunk is there steadily filling with unpublished and probably unpublishable scrawlings... I wish Portugal well, it’s surely subsumed in there via Pessoa, and Mongolia. "Mongolia, I love you Mongolia, you are Mongolia because you are Mongolia..."
Where's the next break going to be?
On my nose! Hopefully some charity will take me in....I tend to write for an audience - unlike my friend Leicester Kyle I find it hard to self-motivate (some cruel personas would insinuate I was lazy) - I have projected works - but I used to write so much and so quickly I have deliberately tried to slow myself down: do projects...but I have to feed my cat, try to sell books, eat, shop, pay bills, read, eat, phone people randomly, play chess on the internet...some times I do brilliantly and other days everything goes terribly...
Is there any comment on the public service that might be justifiably extracted from 'Hospital'? Would you go private next time, if you had the money?
Not really – it’s not political per se - my sister has used private hospitals for years and some of the things she found "bad" were the same. Since I was young in many ways the hospitals have become more progressive - one is not treated so much as a child, one's rights are declared everywhere, and without being mollycoddling, people there are mostly very kind (given they have so much to do).
But we, I was lucky, that we have a medical stystem at all...I was reading a book about the times of Chaucer and the writer (Derek Brewer who also edits The Parlement of Foulys which I have just read) mentions that in those days a leg break or similar accident was almost always fatal.
The hospital system has improved even since the 70s, but of course all institutions, public and private, need to be watched - I am thinking of "The Unfortuante Experiment" by Sandra Coney...there maybe could be someone who might visit patients and give comfort or just make contact...a kind of Patients' Union...
I like what happened in China in the cultural revolution - patients became involved very much in their own care - a great leap forward by China, but maybe that can only happen for a brief time and humans revert downwards so to speak...who knows...Third Man didn’t believe for an instant that anything would ever be better for the poor versus the rich...Given the enormous workload the staff etc do brilliantly - and hospitals are huge and complex organisations where staff work long hours - even organising meals is complex.
No - we are lucky to even have a medical service and over time it is improving (there are of course larger nationwide problems of staffing etc and wages but they are a constant - and maybe there has been some downturn since Rogernomics etc) Let's be vigilant.
Any questions you want to make up for yourself and answer?
You are "coming out" now after years of non-political poems, years of (brilliant? or just sloppy?) constructs and histrionic perfomances? What do you say? How public should a poet be? Was Eliot not right on this? Or do we go for Perloff's "materiality of the writing process, the radical artifice? Foreground the word? Where does the self fit in here?
‘Hospital’ is a kind of experiment. Of course there are many similar examples of this kind of writing: but I just felt I had written too much "abstract" (not an accurate term) stuff...but I don’t want to neccesarily stay in the 'realist' camp for too long...I think a writer needs to look widely and deeply at many styles from the very "conventional" to the crazily new...
ANYONE OUT THERE CONCERNED/PASSIONATE ABOUT POETRY ABOUT REAL MUSIC?!!!! ABOUT REALITY??!! EH!!! AT LEAST NEILSON WRIGHT CARES ABOUT WRITING!! COME ON!! READ .BRIEF!!! READ MY BOOK RED!! READ SCOTT'S BLOG!!
Sunday, August 08, 2004
Aussie comrade dies at Mt Hutt
Josh took his life seriously and was committed to his friends and family without a trace of cynicism. My comrade saw the perverse and absurd side of life and was happy to laugh along with it over a nice rare steak and a beer. He was bloody good company and a top cook.
Words fail me. I will grieve Josh’s passing for a long time to come and will look for him and his humanity in our friends and comrades for years to come. His body is trapped permanently in a glacier beneath the mountain that took him. It is fitting that a mountain stands as a monument to Josh. His was a huge personality and his love was boundless. My dear friend and comrade, you are desperately missed. My thoughts are with Gwen, as well as Carol, Bill and Angela. And from all your friends and comrades, Josh, a red salute. You are not forgotten.
Give the Coasters a Break!
A mining couple, Buller, c 1945. From Coal, Class, and Community
Over at indymedia Jonathan Oosterman has been reporting on the failure of an occupation by eco-activists to stop the creation of the Happy Valley mine near Buller. Jonathan writes that:
Even if the West Coast Regional Council does its job and adequately monitors the mine, great spotted kiwi and endangered snail habitat will have been made uninhabitable for a significant period of time, if not forever, another 5 million tonnes of coal will have been dug up and burnt, contributing to climate change, and a beautiful valley will have been destroyed. And for what? The coal isn’t even going to help supply electricity, because it’s for export.
Never before has a greenfields mine project been allowed to proceed when it was known it would destroy as much as 10% of the habitat of a nationally endangered and absolutely protected species, such as the powelliphanta “patrickensis” snail.
Climate change considerations were essentially ignored by the resource consent hearing commissioners. In other words, the greatest potential cause of future world suffering was sidelined as being of too little significance. Such a mindset is suicidal.
I remember Jonathan and his brother leading a group of young people who camped outside the US consulate in Auckland to protest the invasion of Iraq – it was as much as I could do to turn up a couple of times a day with some teabags and a shamefaced ‘good on ya mate’. I admired Jonathan then, and I admire him now for being prepared to camp out in a pretty rough neck of the woods like Happy Valley.
Once again though I find myself disagreeing with my old mate Strypey, who responds to Jonathan by arguing that:
The Coast is one of the most willfully backward parts of the country, both culturally and environmentally and their local government, media and business interests are almost indistinguishable.
It is economic backwardness which is really behind the antipathy of many Coasters to anti-mine and anti-logging campaigns. The West Coast is a good example of the erratic and uneven development that capitalism creates, especially in under-developed, export-dependent nations like New Zealand. Boom and bust have created a population which is desperate for new jobs.
But the Coasters have a proud tradition of labour activism, centred on the coal mines of the Buller and Gray Valley areas. The Coasters of the mining town of Blackball created the Red Federation of Labour, the Communist Party and (rather less gloriously) the Labour Party.
Strypey should read Len Richardson's classic book Coal, Class and Community, which documents the struggle of the coal miners on the Coast and in other parts of NZ for better pay, safer conditions, and a better world beyond the mines. Richardson shows that during the 1913 general strike the West Coast miners created a crisis for capitalism, taking over towns and setting up committees resembling the workers' councils (soviets) which have been a feature of workers' revolutions overseas.
Richardson quotes the speech a representative of the Westport Strike Committee made at the height of the 1913 strike:
The strikers control the coast...There is a Mayor in Westport, but he has been set aside, and everything is controlled by the strikers...if this is going to be a contest to see who is going to control, then we are prepared to make it a contest...We had our fellow workers brutally murdered in Waihi. There is no one instance from the workers’ ranks where we have caused any bloodshed. Now, if we are going to shed our blood, why should we look on our women and children being clubbed, and offer no retaliation? Now if they want a revolution they can have it. (pgs 150-151)
Worried by the prospect of mutiny, the Massey government declined to use the armed forces to put down the strike, relying instead on 'special' police constables who were mostly farmers
angered by the closure of the country's ports. Unlike the Bolsheviks four years later, the syndicalist Red Feds lacked policies that could appeal to working farmers, as well as wage workers. 'Massey's Cossacks' crushed the revolution.
Richardson's book also shows the long history of miners' support for progressive causes, including the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and later the anti-conscription movement.
Like workers throughout Aotearoa, the Coasters suffered terribly from the effects of globalisation, aka Rogernomics, in the 80s. The Coasters actually suffered even worse than most, because Rogernomics coincided roughly with the end of the energy crises that had marked the 70s, and a decline in demand for coal.
The recent alliances between business and workers in support of mining and logging operations are the result, not of some sort of cultural 'backwardness', but of the weakness of the union movement and the failures of the left, including the environmental movement.
Strypey is out of the ballpark when he suggests that the Coasters are committed to 'neo-liberalism'. What both workers and bosses on the Coast favour is an economic nationalist, or regionalist, alternative to neoliberalism, where local and central government brings together workers and bosses and intervenes in the economy to give them opportunities. And this is exactly the model of politics that the dominant strand of the Kiwi left advocates - it can be found in the press releases of the Green Party, in the speeches of CTU leaders, on the website of the Alliance, and all over indymedia itself (see, for example, John Anderson's recent story on a factory closure in Palmerston North).
It's a bit rich for the left to bag the Coasters because they have made alliances with their bosses and successfully lobbied government to create jobs for them. The left has to go a bit deeper, and see how the logic of economic nationalism and class collaborationism always leads to unfavourable outcomes like the Buller mining concession. With its organisations smashed and its consciousness weakened by anti-union legislation and massive unemployment, the working class of the Coast has been prepared to trade away its progressive traditions and make an alliance with business in which it inevitably occupies the place of the weaker party. But what about the consequences of similar exercises in economic nationalism sponsored by the left?
For instance, left outfits like the Greens and the Alliance advocate the introduction of the cabotage system of shipping in NZ waters. If introduced, cabotage would lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs currently held by workers who are not citizens of this country.
Cabotage-like regulations already govern the flow of labour into NZ, and union support for them has extended to the systematic dobbing in to the police and immigration authorities of 'illegals' working in the building and horticultural sectors. Economic nationalism also sees the local left supporting neo-liberalism at the point of a Kiwi gun in the Pacific and elsewhere. The Greens backed the invasion and recolonisation of the Solomons last year, because they regard local capitalism as progressive, and believe that Kiwi workers and Kiwi bosses are on the 'same side'. The occupation of the Solomons has facilitated the strip logging of the islands, but the Greens daren't mention that.
We can all see the damage that Buller mining will cause to the environment, but what about the damage that economic nationalism causes the people and the environment of the Third World? Why do the Greens oppose to the logging of rainforest on the West Coast, but turn a blind eye to the logging companies that operate in the rainforests of the Solomons, protected by ANZAC troops?
Economic nationalism is a cause as well as a symptom of the situation facing the union movement. The ease with which neo-liberalism conquered New Zealand in the 80s can be explained largely by the alliance between the Labour government and the union movement, which was unable to fight effectively because it lacked independence. Last year, the umbilical cord between Labour and the unions enabled Helen Clark to split our anti-war movement, buying anti-war unions off with a commitment to the UN and leaving militant protesters out in the cold without mass backing for direct action. Without the aid of organised labour, we were reduced to well-meaning stunts like the consulate camp-out.
The environmental movement by and large shares the nationalist outlook of the rest of the left - it focuses on lobbying the government, and has little or no interest in the idea of a working class challenge to environmental orthodoxy. The militant fringes of the environmental movement are isolated from the working class, and in some cases buy into a 'culturalist' politics which makes the average 'consumer' 'part of the problem, not the solution', and urges lifestyle change and direct action by small groups of 'eco-warriors' rather than class struggle as the way forward. But direct action without mass working class backing is still lobbying, albeit lobbying with a raised voice. What other agent but the state can small groups of militants expect to implement their programme? The leadership of the Green Party shows that today's lifestyle radicals are tommorrow's economic nationalist left establishment.
Eco-activists have to link their demands for a better natural environment to proposals which address the needs of poor families struggling to survive in isolated regions like the Coast. It is not good enough for the Green Party to fob desperate workers off with promises of second-rate jobs in the tourism sector. Coasters with a proud tradition of dignified and reasonably well-paid work do not want to clean tourists' crap out of latrines in our national parks for ten dollars an hour, twenty hours a week. The regions need real industries which can create real jobs.
And if the Happy Valley mine goes ahead, the best way to limit environmental damage is to make sure that a strong union branch is built on the site.
Fancy a career change Jonathan? ;)