Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cooking the Frankfurters

Elaborate and irrational conspiracy theories tend to end up as homages to the forces they mean to expose. When conspiracy theorists claim that the CIA organised the 9/11 attacks they vastly overestimate the resources and competence of that organisation; when Glenn Beck argues that the tiny Democratic Socialists of America outfit is the real power behind Barack Obama he mistakes the dreams of the radical left for reality.

For many historians of ideas, the career of the Frankfurt School of Marxism has symbolised how completely left-wing theory could become divorced from practical politics in Western Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. With their withdrawal from a hostile political environment, their interest in arcane subjects like the Kabbala and atonal classical music, their relentlessly difficult books, and their fractious relationship with each other and with their students, the professors of the Frankfurt University's Institute of Social Research were often condemned by more straightforwardly left-wing intellectuals as 'ivory tower' Marxists with a 'defeatist' attitude. The Frankfurters were certainly never accused of having much of an influence on mainstream political life.

In recent years, though, proponents of the 'cultural Marxism' conspiracy theory described in my last post have charged the Frankfurt School with corrupting the minds of millions and changing the history of the West for the worse. The Frankfurters are regular targets of Glenn Beck, and Anders Breivik denounced them in his manifesto.

I learned of the Frankfurt School's posthumous notoreity back in January, thanks to a discussion thread at Kiwiblog which saw me having some rather fruitless exchanges with the right-wing blogger Fletch, a man who also has some peculiar views about New Zealand prehistory.

Here is an abridged version of my dialogue with Fletch, whose delusions seem less amusing in the aftermath of Breivik's rampage:


It’s all a part of Political Correctness called ‘Critical Theory’ – which is basically to criticize everything to bring down Western culture and replace it with something else. It stems from the Frankfurt School (the mother of PC) in the

What the Frankfurt School essentially does is draw on both Marx and Freud in the thirties to create this theory called Critical Theory. The term is ingenious because you’re tempted to ask, “What is the theory?” The theory is to criticize. The theory is that the way to bring down Western culture and the capitalist order is not to lay down an alternative...

What Critical Theory is about is simply criticizing. It calls for the most destructive criticism possible, in every possible way, designed to bring the current order down. And, of course, when we hear from the feminists that the whole of society is just out to get women and so on, that kind of criticism is a derivative of Critical Theory. It is all coming from the 1930s, not the 1960s.


Fletch evidently hasn’t read the Frankfurters. Walter Benjamin, who is easily the most famous and influential member of the crowd, was a Jewish mystic who insisted upon the necessity of utopianism to contemporary politics. His last and most famous work, which he wrote shortly before being forced to take his own life to escape Nazi persecution, is called ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, and uses imagery from the Kabbala to argue against the ‘economism’ - that is, the preoccupation with material, short-term matters - of the contemporary West.

The second most famous Frankfurt School thinker is probably Herbert Marcuse, who became a hero to the hippy generation because of his rejection of ordinary politics and his advocacy of utopianism. Fletch might like to check out Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilisation, which sets out a picture of a utopian future somewhat reminiscent of that provided by William Morris in the nineteenth century. He might also want to read The Aesthetic Dimension, which is Marcuse’s tribute to some of the great works of Western literary tradition. Marcuse felt that the likes of Balzac and Goethe and Dickens should be read and honoured, because the richness of their works provided clues to how a future society might be built.

A third major Frankfurt School thinker is Theodor Adorno, who was so ‘politically correct’ and so popular with radical women that his last-ever public appearance was famously disrupted by a group of topless feminists. Like Marcuse, Adorno loved and wrote about Western high culture. Some of his writings on classical music have become canonical.

I suspect that when Fletch talks – or, rather, when the bit of text Fletch has found somewhere on the net and taken out of context talks – about the Frankfurt School hating the West, the reference is to Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s book The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, which is an attack on Western humanism. Horkheimer and Adorno claim that, beneath its slogans about freedom and secularism and rational inquiry, the Enlightenment represented a new mode of thought that was in its own way as bad as the religious doctrines it aimed to replace. They believe that modern, post-religious European thought, with its interest in quantifying and calculating everything and its forgetfulness about the limits of rationality, was one of the ingredients of the wars and genocides of the first half of the twentieth century. Adorno and Horkheimer’s claims in The Dialectic of the Enlightenment are extremely provocative, and have never been accepted by more than a handful of thinkers on the left. They were not even accepted by many members of the Frankfurt School. Ironically, Adorno and Horkheimer’s condemnation of the Enlightenment has been far more attractive to socially conservative intellectuals, like the current head of the Catholic church, than it has been to the left. Ratzinger was certainly acquainted with Adorno in the ’60s, when they were both opponents of the student radicals who were asserting themselves on German campuses, and he appears to be heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger, whose ideas about the decline of the West are very similar to those expressed in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. I blogged about this a while back.


Scott, I’m well aware of Marcuse et al – he who came to America from Frankfurt and stayed. he’s one of the instigators if the hippy movement in the 60s and why just about every American University is steeped in PC and cultrual Marxism. You can read about the cases going on in Universities HERE.

One of Marcuse’s books was the key book. It virtually became the bible of the SDS and the student rebels of the 60s. That book was
Eros and Civilization. Marcuse argues that...We can envision a future, if we can only destroy this existing oppressive order, in which we liberate eros, we liberate libido, in which we have a world of “polymorphous perversity,” in which you can “do you own thing.” And by the way, in that world there will no longer be work, only play. What a wonderful message for the radicals of the mid-60s! They’re students, they’re baby-boomers, and they’ve grown up never having to worry about anything except eventually having to get a job. And here is a guy writing in a way they can easily follow. He doesn’t require them to read a lot of heavy Marxism and tells them everything they want to hear which is essentially, “Do your own thing,” “If it feels good do it,” and “You never have to go to work.”

By the way, Marcuse is also the man who creates the phrase, “Make love, not war.” Coming back to the situation people face on campus, Marcuse defines “liberating tolerance” as intolerance for anything coming from the Right and tolerance for anything coming from the Left.

Marcuse joined the Frankfurt School, in 1932 (if I remember right). So, all of this goes back to the 1930s...anyone who doubts that Political Correctness stems from the Frankfurt School and the cultural Marxists is very much mistaken. It didn’t just grow from nowhere.


Fletch, can you honestly say you’ve read a book by any of the dozen or so thinkers associated with the two generations of the Frankfurt School? Those thinkers range in themes and in arguments enormously. Adorno and Marcuse are in many ways chalk and cheese.

If you take the trouble to read Adorno, or even just find out some of the basic facts about his life, you’ll learn he was bitterly at odds with the student movement in the universities in the ’60s. Radical feminists hated him and, as I noted, disrupted his last lecture.

Marcuse was much more popular with students, but he was in no way in favour of showing ‘intolerance for anything coming from the right’ and ‘tolerance for anything coming from the left’. If you look at The Aesthetic Dimension you’ll see that he explicitly argues against a lot of works of art created to express left-wing ideas in a propagandistic way, on the grounds that art should not be a vehicle for propaganda, and that he defends works of art created by right-wingers from leftists who would dismiss them out of hand (he talks, for instance, about Balzac as a man who had reactionary politics but was nevertheless a great writer).

In The Aesthetic Dimension Marcuse also attacks a number of forms of art thrown up by the hippe generation as shallow and inferior to the great works of the bourgeois writers of the nineteenth century. He denies, for example, that the Happening, which was a very popular artform amongst the counterculture of the '60s and '70s, has any real aesthetic or political merit. Marcuse never abandoned his belief in socialism, but he was always opposed to dogmatic or sloppy thinking, whether it came from the left or the right. He was attacked for this by some of the more hysterical groups of the ’60s and ’70s – the Maoist Progressive Labour Party, for example, seized on the fact that he had worked for Allied intelligence during World War Two, and accused him of being a police informer... I should note that the Frankfurt School was an institution, a sort of department at Frankfurt University. It wasn’t a political party or a secret society. The founder of the Institute for Social Research, as it was officially known, was a bloke named Henryk Grossman. He was a hardbitten, number-crunching Marxist economist of the old school, the sort of man who devoured tables of stats and had no interest in discussing culture. Marcuse and Adorno and the mob who got jobs in Grossman’s department had no time at all for Grossman’s intellectual interests – they were both interested in analysing culture, although each came to very different conclusions about culture.

Just as Marcuse differed from Grossman, so later arrivals at the School differed from Marcuse. Jorgen Habermas, for example, ditched Marcuse’s radical politics and developed some of the ideas which have become known in Britain as the ‘Third Way’. In the early noughties Habermas acted as an advisor to Blair’s German ally Schroeder and publically supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.

Habermas was in no way the first Frankfurter to take a rightward intellectual trajectory: Adorno and Max Horkheimer both moved to the right in the last decades of their lives. As I noted, Adorno opposed Germany’s left-wing student movement. On one occasion he called the police when he found that left-wing students had occupied the buildings of the Frankfurt School. For his part, Horkheimer became a supporter of LBJ’s war in Vietnam. It really is foolish to try to make a politically heterogenous collection of thinkers like the folks who taught at Frankfurt into some sort of secret super-radical revolutionary clique, but I don’t suppose the spectre of foolishness has ever deterred some people.


Scott, yes I know it was a think tank started at the Frankfurt School, but everyone refers to it as the Frankfurt School kind of by default. I’m not saying Adorno’s ideology agreed with everything Marcuse did after they left again. Heck, when a student rebellion broke out in Germany where Adorno was and came into his classroom, he called the Police on them, and had them arrested [edit, as I see you have mentioned as well] But still, Frankfurt was the origin of this idea of cultural Marxism and Critical Theory, after economic Marxism failed. Just do a google on “Political Correctness” and “Critical Theory” and up pops Frankfurt. There are even youtube video documentaries about it.

To me, the origin is pretty clear (David Kahane says the same thing in his book,
Rules For Radical Conservatives). In the end it really doesn’t matter where Political Correctness started, as long as we can agree that it is bad.


Fletch, the problem with your method is reflected in this statement:

Just do a google on “Political Correctness” and “Critical Theory” and up pops Frankfurt

For goodness’ sake, the internet isn’t peer-reviewed or quality-controlled in any way! You didn’t reply to my question as to whether you’d actually read a book by any Frankfurt school thinker. I’m sure you haven’t. I’m also sure you haven’t read one of the scholarly studies of the different aspects of their work, or one of the several general surveys of the Institute. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I like to find out about something before I make generalisations about it.

When you write that:

Frankfurt was the origin of this idea of cultural Marxism and Critical Theory, after economic Marxism failed

you make yet another silly claim. Have you ever heard of chaps like Lukacs and Gramsci? They were writing about culture using Marxist concepts decades before the likes of Marcuse. As I noted, Henryk Grossman, the founder of Frankfurt, was a number-crunching economist par excellence. And not all of the people who came to work at the Institute later were interested in cultural rather than economic inquiry. During World War Two and the period afterwards the US government actually sponsored a series of quantitative surveys of different aspects of Western society by Frankfurters. Marcuse was focused on culture, but never abandoned his belief in the key tenets of classical Marxist economics. Adorno and Horkheimer on the other hand did. The sort of simplistic categories you’re using here just don’t match up with a complicated and rather interesting history.

But your lack of real interest in the Frankfurt School is shown by this statement:

In the end it really doesn’t matter where Political Correctness started, as long as we can agree that it is bad

In other words, you’re not going to feel any embarrassment about making the most ridiculous generalisations about a whole series of thinkers (claiming that Adorno was a friend of radical feminism, or that Marcuse hated Western culture), because such claims are only a means to your end of making some sort of statement about ‘political correctness’. You seem to understand political correctness as an attempt to shut down rational discussion. It seems to me that your lack of concern with the truth and your willingness to tar very different thinkers with the same brush actually makes rational discussion very hard.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Breivik's favourite conspiracy

In New Zealand and overseas, many commentators have tried to explain Anders Breivik's rampage on Utoya Island with references to mental illness and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Anybody who kills scores of teenagers in cold blood is by definition mentally abnormal, but Breivik's calm behaviour and relatively coherent writings differentiate him from spaced-out gunmen like Jared Loughner and John Hinckley. And although Breivik is obviously an Islamophobe, his targets were overwhelmingly non-Muslim.

The curious phrases 'cultural Marxism' and 'cultural Marxists' appear again and again in Breivik's writings, but they have received little attention from commentators on the Utoya massacre. This is a pity, because the concept of cultural Marxism is central not only to Breivik's ideology but to a shift in the ideology and propaganda of the far right over the past decade.

For much of the twentieth century, it was common for the fascist and cryptofascist fringe of the right to claim that a conspiracy of communists and Jews was imperilling Western capitalist civilisation. Communism, with its strongholds in the East and its supporters in the trade unions and the universities of the West, was seen as a monolithic, infinitely cunning enemy determined to sabotage and ultimately destroy capitalism by stoking conflict in the workplace and disorder on the streets.

Citing the role of Trotsky and other Jews in the Bolshevik revolution, the far right associated Judaism with communism, and warned that 'disloyal' Jewish bankers and newspaper owners were helping to destroy their 'host' nations in the West. The old anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist ideology sustained not only the Nazis and their 1930s allies like Oswald Mosley, but also postwar fascist organisations like the National Fronts of Britain and France and the paranoid John Birch Society in the United States.

Over the past couple of decades, though, the old conspiracy theory of the far right has needed extensive revision.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, when the far left was relatively strong, the Soviet Union was still seen as a counterweight to the capitalist West, and large, militant trade unions regularly faced down governments in places like Britain and France, fascists could hope to win an audience for claims that 'the reds' were about to bring down capitalism and civilisation. In the 1990s, though, the Soviet Union collapsed and Western trade unions lost vast numbers of members, as the effects of privatisation, deregulation, and other neo-liberal economic policies hit home. Today the claim that militant trade unionists and revolutionary communists pose a mortal threat to Western capitalism would seem fantastic. Capitalism may be in crisis in the West, but this crisis is the work of capitalists, not their enemies.

While claims of a red menace to the economy are untenable in the twenty-first century, conspiracy theories involving Jews are unpopular. Today the slums of London's East End and similar parts of other Western cities are filled not with refugee Jews but with Muslim immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and it is Muslims rather than Jews who are the main targets of racist attacks. For the far right, Islamophobia does much better business than anti-semitism.

Over the past decade the old conspiracy theory has been reworked, as the far right tries to pitch itself to a new generation. According to contemporary far right demagogues like British National Party leader Nick Griffin and American media entrepeneur Glenn Beck, a shadowy but cunning collection of 'cultural Marxists' has taken control of the schools, universities, courthouses, civil services, and parliaments of the West.

Where the trade union militants and streetfighting students of the 1970s wanted to destroy the economies of the West, today's Marxists want to bring down civilisation by eroding its patriarchal, Christian, and homophobic values. Polemicists like Griffin and Beck and organisations like the British National Party and the English Defence League accuse cultural Marxist teachers of brainwashing their pupils into a hatred of Western culture, and blame abominations like the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality on the cultural Marxist takeover of parliaments.

According to the conspiracy theorists, cultural Marxists have spent recent decades importing vast numbers of 'radical Muslims' into the West. It might seem hard to understand why godless liberals would want to make common cause with religious fundamentalists, but Glenn Beck and his co-thinkers are content to observe that the cultural Marxists and the jihadis have 'a common hatred of Christian civilisation'.

Although the power of trade unions and socialist political parties has declined greatly over the last twenty years, so that the right largely dictates economic policies, many of the cultural campaigns waged by the left in the 1970s and '80s have been successful. Western societies have, on the whole, become more liberal over the past quarter century, as abortion and contraception have become widely available, discrimination based on gender and sexuality has been ameliorated, and more recognition has been given to the history and needs of ethnic and linguistic minorities. These changes have discomforted a minority of conservative Westerners, and led to the series of arguments and legal conflicts that some commentators have dubbed 'the Culture Wars'.

The cultural Marxism conspiracy theory might lack logic and an evidential base, but its great strength, from the point of view of its proponents, is the way it appeals simultaneously to opponents of immigration to the West and to cultural conservatives upset by the successes of feminism and other liberalising forces.

Many commentators have been puzzled by Anders Breivik's decision to target Norway's Labour Party, rather than a predominantly Muslim organisation, but his choice makes sense when it is viewed through the prism of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory. For Breivik and for other supporters of the theory, Muslim immigrants are merely the tools of the Western-born Marxists who supposedly run organisations like the Norwegian Labour Party.

The ferocity of Breivik's attack on Utoya can also be understood with reference to the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory. Because of the very reach of the new Marxist conspiracy - because of the fact that it extends far beyond traditional left-wing strongholds like the unions, into the classroom, the media, and virtually every Western government - the menace cannot be defeated by old-fashioned electoral politics or by street protests. The brainwashing of a generation of students by Marxist teachers means that they are incapable of voting for Christian and patriotic candidates; the Marxist control of the media means that any God-fearing citizen who takes to the street in protest will be demeaned and discredited by news channels and papers.

The old parties of the right are uncertain allies against the tide of cultural Marxism. Britain's Tories might have stood up to Scargill and smashed the print unions back in the '80s, but in the era of cultural Marxism they are only too keen to appeal to young working women, gays, and other Satanic constituencies.

In his rambling posts to internet forums Breivik liked to complain that every single organisation represented in Norway's parliament, including even the aggressively anti-immigration Progress Party, had become a 'politically correct' servant of the cultural Marxists. Feeling isolated in the face of a vast and powerful conspiracy, Breivik believed that he had nothing to lose by a spectacularly violent assault on his enemies.

Footnote: over at Kiwipolitico Lew shows us that Anders Breivik has some admirers here in New Zealand.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Instead of a post about Anders Breivik

If you tuned in to talkback radio late the other night you may have caught a caller or two denouncing Anders Breivik and demanding his painful execution, and then seguing effortlessly into similarly vituperative attacks on the 'illegal immigrants' and 'Muslimists' who are supposedly besieging New Zealand.

I don't mean to sneer at the sort of hypocrisy such a juxtaposition of subjects represents: I feel it in myself, whenever I try to issue a ringing denunciation of the evils of the world.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago, after reading an account of the ways in which Parisian intellectuals adjusted to the occupation of their city by the Nazis in the middle of 1940 and realising how cowardly I would also have been when threatened with a visit from the Gestapo and deportation. I don't think we're any less adept at accommodating evil today than we were in 1940.

The Barbarians

Barbarism can never triumph over
civilisation: barbarians are inferior
to civilised men and women.
The conquerors cannot be barbarians, then,
despite their high fires of books
and the wire round the transit camps.
We must be the barbarians.

It is true that we resemble
civilised men and women,
relaxing on the sidewalk
of a potholed street,
warming our spare hands
on chipped cups of tea,
enjoying our lunchbreak,
enjoying the break in the rain,
sharing our rations of cigarettes,
our rations of gossip.

None of us mentions
the day the guns grew hoarse,
the day the whole town
had to stand to attention,
the day Olaf forgot to close his shop,
refused to stand outside, on the dirty kerb,
while the conquerors called their roll -
the day that Olaf got dragged
out of his bakery,
away from his half-kneaded sculptures,
the loaves and croissants
arranged on steel trays -
the day Olaf's knees hit the kerb together,
and the fists went
into his mouth
like bread.

Each of us remembers Olaf
in a different way.
One of us scribbles poems -
witty satires, and tubthumping
polemics - and publishes them
in his drawer.

One of us keeps his grandfather's pistol
in a shoebox,
under the bed
in the spare room

One of us turns tadpoles
into frogs, in the bathtub
she is forbidden to fill
with tapwater.

One of us drafts orders
for new consignments
of boots.

One of us supervises
a thesis
on Nietzsche.

One of us stares out of his study window
for days, watches his hedgerow growing

One of us is coopted
onto a textbook committee.

We lean forward in our chairs
and watch the civilised men
marching past, in triple file,
on their way back to barracks
or the city wall.
They stop.
They turn towards us.
Each of them stares straight ahead
like a man in the dock
about to be sentenced
or a judge staring down
a familiar defendant.

One of us smiles slowly
and begins to wave,
then looks around him
and stands up
with the rest of the table,
with the rest of the street.
My arm extends itself,
stiffens into a salute.

The soldiers turn
and march away,
and I sit down quickly,
thinking of Olaf
and his half-baked bread.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hone should be complemented, not condemned

Last week Hone Harawira tried to revise the oath members of New Zealand's parliament have to swear before taking their seats. Fresh from his victory in the Te Tai Tokerau byelection, the leader of the Mana Party refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the British Crown, and instead tried to affirm his loyalty to the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi. Harawira's oath was unceremoniously rejected, and he was asked to leave parliament, for the time being at least.

Over at Bowalley Road, Chris Trotter has pointed out that Hone's oath reflects his commitment to a 'bi-cultural Aotearoan republic'. Chris' sympathy for Harawira, in this and several other recent posts, has agitated some of his left-leaning readers.

A number of these readers have argued that Hone's support for the Maori version of the Treaty is inherently anti-democratic, because the Maori version of the document promises to protect the autonomy of chiefs. Here's how one dissident explained his preference for the English version of the Treaty, which he interprets as placing Maori under the control of the British Crown:

[M]any Maori and most Pakeha (myself again included) would object to Te Tiriti's reactionary, feudal principle of Tino rangatiratanga being imposed on us. Amongst other things, this would be an assault on our most precious Taonga as equal members of the human species, a principle for which a very large number of New Zealanders have laid down their lives. Our constitutional monarchy, whilst also obviously reactionary and feudal in form, provides us, in practice, with a reasonably effective way of fudging the harsh choices that a republic would force on us.

The view of New Zealand history encapsulated in this comment seems to me extraordinarily sanguine. It is no good citing the words about equal rights in the English version of the Treaty of Waitangi as though these words alone proved that, despite certain regrettable errors and a few unpleasant incidents, Maori and Pakeha have generally lived happily and harmoniously together since 1840.

The historical record contradicts such a whiggish narrative of progress. All too often, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries alike, Maori were offered the 'right' to assimilate completely to Pakeha culture, and to give up their land. If they did not gratefully accept this 'right', then they were held to be enemies of British values, and were regarded with contempt. (There are numerous nineteenth century examples of newspaper editorialists and mainstream politicians advocating the physical extermination of the Maori, on the grounds that they had failed to assimilate to British civilisation.)

Just as it is wrong to assume that the universalist language of the English version of the Treaty automatically implies something progressive, so it is a mistake to assume that the reference to chiefly autonomy in the Maori version of the Treaty means that every advocate of tino rangatiratanga is a proponent of 'feudalism'.

Tino rangatiratanga may well have implied chiefly abuses of power in 1840, at the tail-end of the Musket Wars, but one hundred and seventy years of thought and action have surely given us a variety of ways of interpeting the term. It is hard to imagine Wiremu Tamihana or Eva Rickard or Hone Tuwhare as an enemy of democracy, and Hone Harawira is not a twenty-first century incarnation of Hongi Hika.

It's not only at Bowalley Road that leftists are dissenting from Mana's Maori nationalist agenda. Oliver Woods, who was a leader of the RAM Party, which contested the 2008 election on a left-wing platform, has made his lack of enthusiasm for Hone's new organisation clear:

The unionists and working class activists...are biting their lips and hoping that on top of the very Maori nationalist focused identity of the party, there will be socialist policies. Those who felt let down by the Maori Party, I suspect, should get ready to experience that same emotion once more. Hone Harawira is going in to this election wanting to ruin the Maori Party, which booted him out...Mana is a revenge vehicle to take over the electoral territory of his former bosses. Its primary lens is race...

This year Woods is giving his vote to Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party, which has been one of the most vociferous critics of Hone Harawira and his new organisation.

But Hone's dream of a binational 'Aotearoan republic' is not, as Oliver Woods and the dissidents at Bowalley Road suggest, something foreign to the left. Socialists ought to be able to agree with Hone that the state, far from being some natural, neutral, historically inevitable entity, is the outcome of a series of often quite violent struggles, and tends to represent the interests of the victors of those struggles.

The New Zealand state was crafted by a settler capitalist elite in the midst of sometimes desperate battles against Maori nationalists like Tawhiao and Te Kooti, and was later refined to deal with challenges from organised labour like the Great Strike of 1913 and the Waterfront Lockout of 1951.
Not surprisingly, given the characteristics of the people who made it, the New Zealand state is rigged to act against the interests of both Maori and organised labour. The state was on the wrong side of picket lines in 1913 and 1951, and on the wrong side of the barricades at Bastion Point.

And it's not only at times of political crisis that the state shows its essential character. The contempt with which the victims of the Pike River disaster and their families have been treated over the past eight months shows up some of the institutionalised power imbalances in our society. Grieving families wanted a sustained effort to recover the miners' remains from Pike River, but the property rights and lobbying power of the mine's owners trumped their feelings. The miners' union wanted to be part of the initial response the disaster, but the police froze them out. The committee set up to inquire into the cause of the disaster includes representatives of mining companies, but not a single trade unionist.

Hone's stunt in parliament last week was an attempt to draw attention to the fact that the New Zealand state has a pronounced ethnic-national character, and to promote the idea of a binational rather than a Pakeha-chauvinist state. But the oath Hone tried to swear included a reference to 'the dispossessed' of New Zealand as well as to The Treaty, and this phrase can be seen as his nod and wink to the socialists and trade unionists who have rallied round his new party.

Socialists should take Hone's hint, and complement his call for the reorganisation of the New Zealand state on binational lines with their own proposals for a fundamental change in the class character of that state. We should argue that
the reform of the anti-Maori features of the New Zealand state will mean nothing if it is not accompanied by the empowerment of 'the dispossessed'.

The sad story of the Maori Party shows what happens when the quest for tino rangatiratanga is divorced from the politics of the left. After asserting that class politics have nothing to do with Maori advancement, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples have led their party into an alliance with National and Act. A party supported by the poorest section of the Kiwi population has voted for budgets which cut taxes for the rich and slashed spending on community education. The Maori Party's hammering in the recent Te Tai Tokerau byelection was inevitable and well-deserved.

On the other hand, the victories won in recent years by both indigenous peoples and organised labour in Venezuela and Bolivia show that national liberation movements and class politics can cohere powerfully.

In Venezuela, indigenous tribes and workers' and peasants' groups have staged hundreds of occupations of idle land held by multinational companies, and much of the occupied land has become their property, as the state has been pressured into creating institutions which prioritise the needs of people over capital. Indigenous groups have been allowed to set up their own governments, and peasants have set up cooperatives and, sometimes, collective farms on their new territory. Urban workers threatened with job losses have learned from the example of the countryside and taken over hundreds of businesses. In Bolivia similar events are occurring, as the indigenous majority asserts itself after centuries of marginalisation. Drawing on New Zealand traditions like Te Kauhanganui, and perhaps also on recent events in Bolivia and Venezuela, Hone has called for the establishment of a parliament to represent the Maori nation. Like Hone's abortive oath last week, this proposal is an unabashed challenge to the uninational character of the present New Zealand state.

Why don't socialists complement Hone's call for a Maori parliament with a call for a workers' assembly? We could argue that, like Maori, workers are neglected by the existing parliament, and that workers' interests need to be championed by an independent body elected through organisations like the unions.

Like Hone's call for a Maori parliament, the demand for a workers' assembly has no chance of being granted in the current political climate. The demand might well, however, stimulate discussion about the class nature of the New Zealand state, the institutionalised discrimination against organised labour, and the parallels between Maori nationalist and socialist politics. It might enrich and enliven the political discussions Hone and his new party have already prompted. It would certainly make a good deal more sense than Oliver Woods' endorsement of Winston Peters.

Footnote: in the original version of this post I wrongly identified a 'Victor' who had made several negative comments about Hone at Bowalley Road with the trade unionist and former Alliance co-leader Victor Billot. My apologies to comrade Billot: as someone who has often been mistaken, on the basis of my name, for an ice skater or a jazz saxophonist with a cheesey moustache, I ought to have been more wary about jumping to conclusions. Thanks to Bryce Edwards for pointing out my blunder.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ambitious cruel bone

I'd love to say something profound here - to reply, for instance, to the luminously mysterious arguments the twenty-first century Heraclitean Paul Janman has made under my previous post - but my body has been throwing a party, for the second time in only a handful of years, in honour of that very tiresome virus known as campolybacter. I've spent most of the last couple of days lying in bed, listening to my skull ache behind my eyes and remembering some lines from a poem by the great Keith Douglas, the (anti-)hero of a post I made last Anzac Day:

But today, Cheng, when I touched your face,
I felt the urge
of the ambitious cruel bone to emerge

A few years after he imagined bones breaking through the attractive surface of his Oxford girlfriend's face, Keith Douglas wandered quietly across a North African battlefield, examining the mess left by the shells his tank brigade had fired an hour or so earlier. One of his most famous and most pitiless poems describes the headless corpse of an Italian he found lying in the sand, still comically clutching a souvenir trinket bought in Tripoli.

After running through Douglas' morbid poem for his girlfriend, my aching brain carries me helplessly off to an eerie corner of TS Eliot's oeuvre:

Webster was much possessed by death,
and saw the skull beneath the skin...

The 'naked' bones of long-dead humans are supposed to unnerve us, and plaster impressions of them are distributed in dark corners of fairground 'horror rides' to elicit screams from teenage couples; for Douglas and Eliot, though, what was truly terrifying was the continual presence of the skeleton beneath the plush flesh of living human beings. The skeleton might be quiescent for long periods of time - might bend and stretch politely, painlessly, at the command of its owner's brain - but it would inevitably assert itself sooner or later, by aching or breaking or even by bursting right through the mask of flesh.

For all of his short adult life, Keith Douglas was obsessed by the thought that a malign creature, which he referred to as his 'beast', was living on and feeding off his body, growing stronger when he grew weaker. In a series of frustrated fragmentary poems, Douglas struggled to describe the parasite:

If at times my eyes are lenses
through which the brain explores
constellations of feeling
my ears yielding like swinging doors
admit princes to the corridors
into the mind, do not envy me.
I have a beast on my back.

Certain critics have condemned or pitied Douglas, characterising him as a 'nihilist' or a 'psychic amputee', but his terrified sense of the otherness of his own body always seems very rational to me when I'm laid up in bed feeling my bones ache.

Here, anyway, are two morbid poems I've been fiddling with: I thought I'd better post them tonight, because I'm already starting to feel better, and I might not be able to wallow in self-pity for much longer...

Two Sickbed Poems for Keith Douglas and Cheng

1. Theology in the Geriatric Ward of North Shore Hospital

We are all agnostics
on our sickbeds. Why else
would we clutch at the orderly,
at the morphine pump?
Have you ever wondered why Uncle Ken's prayers were answered
ambiguously, or else not at all?
It's because God's first and only language is Esperanto
and Ken prayed in Kiwi vernacular English.
God understood a word here, a word there,
just as he graspsed little pieces of the pleas
uttered in Lisbon and Kiev,
but he couldn't find unity,
let alone consistency,
let alone the sort of formal beauty
he admires in his angels, and in Marcel Proust.
God puzzled over 'mate', and 'shit a brick',
and couldn't connect Ken's long list of promises
with his simple
impossible request.
At least God gave Ken
free and legal morphine.

2. Keith Douglas in the Catacombs Of Alexandria

The skull smiled
like a crocodile.
The skull smiled
and spoke
What you once were
I am.
What you will be
I am.
What you are
I am.

You shrugged your shoulders,
kicked the bone-flecked sand,
unholstered your pistol.

The kitset creature can be taken
apart. Those teeth can be eased out with pliers,
as if they were scraps of shrapnel.
The kneebone can be hacked off
and held in the hand.
The cranium can adorn a scholar's desk,
can scan his manuscripts for elisions,
for errors of taste.

The trouble begins when we attempt
molars and incisors suddenly look the same,
the jawbone has shrunk half an inch on one side,
the forelegs and hips seem to come
from different creatures.
How much easier it is to make a ghost.**

*Actually, I'm misquoting Douglas. I have a very bad habit of rewriting the lines of my favourite poets to bring them into line with my preoccupations. Here are the lines I've disfigured, which come from Douglas' 1940 poem 'The Prisoner':

Today, Cheng, I touched your face
with two fingers, as a gesture of love,
for I can never prove enough
by sight or sense your strange grace...

alas, Cheng, I cannot tell why,
today I touched a mask stretched on the stone-
hard face of death. There was the urge
to escape the bright flesh and emerge
of the ambitious cruel bone.

**Before Hamish Dewe or Richard Taylor exposes me, I should admit to ripping this last line off 'How to Kill', the Douglas poem Richard liked to read to startled guests of the Dead Poets Bookshop back in the '90s.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thompson gets youtubed

I think it would be fair to say that I have always had a tormented relationship with electronic technology. My pain began back in the 1980s, when my family found itself on the wrong side of the vicious VHS-Beta war. My parents bought a Beta video machine just as the vast majority of film distributors and video shops were defecting to the side of VHS technology. Rather than taking Karate Kid and Back to the Future home from Papakura Civic Video, I had to settle for The Guns of Navarone and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

More recently I have been battling yahoo, which has been scrambling and reassembling my e mails as if it were William Burroughs working on one of his cut-up novels, and blogger, which has stopped recognising my password and forced me to usurp Skyler's identity.

Given the sorry history of my dealings with the electronic universe, I was rather surprised to discover that the folks at Google Books have attached the following biographical thumbnail to their advertisement for my recently-published study of EP Thompson, The Crisis of Theory:

Scott Hamilton was Senior Lecturer at Manchester University in the UK, where, in addition to his research activities, he spent more than 30 years teaching electronic circuit design to undergraduate and graduate students. He is now retired.

Some people might argue that the last sentence of that profile is accurate enough.

Before I give the impression that I completely regret post-Neolithic technology, though, I wanted to publicise three superb additions to youtube's vast catalogue.
The clips at youtube show Thompson speaking at a 'Forum on Social Change' held by Britain's Social Sciences Research Council in March 1977.

Thompson replies lucidly and lengthily to the rather high falutin' queries of the scholars seated at the table around him, but there seems, to me at least, to be a peculiar sort of tension to his performance. His voice sometimes rises an octave, and his brow sometimes creases. He runs his hand through his shock of white hair nervously. His discussion may be involved and theoretical, but his body language is urgent and uncomplicated.

Only a couple of months before his talk to the SSRC, Thompson had returned from an extended and traumatic visit to India, where he discovered that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, an old friend of his family, had established, with the support of both the Communist Party and the CIA, a de facto dictatorship.

As he gave public lectures in India and watched students who had asked him excessively political questions being arrested by secret policemen, Thompson became terrified that Britain would follow in the footsteps of its former colony, and succumb to authoritarianism. As he noticed both India's Marxist academics and its US-trained exponents of 'development studies' excusing policies like forced sterilisation of the poor and the chasing of tribal peoples off their land in the name of 'historical progress' and the 'boosting of productive forces', he became achingly aware of the ways in which the lofty language of theory could act as a cover for avarice and repression.

In 'The Poverty of Theory', the one hundred and ninety-nine page polemic he published in 1978, Thompson would attack intellectuals to both his left and his right as dangerous traitors to reason, and in a legendary appearance at a conference in Oxford in 1979 he would denounce a vast audience of distinguished left-wing scholars - scholars who wanted to honour him - for their alleged failure to recognise the steady erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

When he talked to the SSRC in March 1977, then, EP Thompson was in the middle of a period of political and intellectual turmoil. Thompson's performance, which was apparently discovered on an old video tape (was it Beta, or VHS?) in the SSRC archive, is a taonga which historians of the left will study with delight.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ansell's confusions and Act's misfortunes

In the comments thread under my previous post, Chris Trotter and senior New Zealand sociologist Dave Bedggood argue that I am too dismissive of the possibility that Act's anti-Maori campaign might win mass support.

Chris points out that anti-Maori sentiment is still common amongst Pakeha, and that it regularly emerges during the lengthy unofficial public inquiries into subjects like crime and child abuse held on talkback radio.

Dave argues that, in the wake of the global financial crisis, New Zealand's capitalist class needs to 'complete' the neo-liberal revolution which began in the mid-'80s and stalled in the late '90s, and that, since very few Kiwis favour the reprise of the privatisations and user charges for public services which marked the late '80s and early '90s, neo-liberalism has to return inside the Trojan horse of racism. Dave suggests that working class and middle class Pakeha might be inclined to overlook Act's hardline neo-liberal policies if those policies are overshadowed by the party's Maori-bashing.

I think there is a good deal of truth in what both Chris and Dave say. As this blog has related in depressing detail over the years, too many Pakeha do suffer from an almost encyclopedic ignorance of Maori culture, history, and political aspirations. And Dave is surely correct when he detects a desire amongst New Zealand's elite to return to what Roger Douglas has ominously called the 'unfinished business' of the 1980s and '90s.

I don't think, though, that Act’s current anti-Maori campaign will revive the party’s fortunes. Although there is a ready audience and a motivation for anti-Maori rhetoric, Act's sociological and ideological contradictions render it unable to deliver the anti-Maori message in a coherent way.

We can get a vivid picture of Act's incoherence by considering some of the recent statements John Ansell has made to the media, and to the readers of his on-again, off-again blog (Ansell may have resigned from Act last weekend, after his falling-out with Don Brash, but he remains, by his own admission, a supporter of the party).

In his interviews and in his rambling blog posts, Ansell advances two very different objections to Maori nationalism, and to state support for Maori culture and institutions.

On the one hand, Ansell argues that over the last century and a half intermarriage and economic development have resulted in the assimilation of Maori to the rest of New Zealand society. Maori certainly existed as a distinct ethnic group in 1840, Ansell says, but they no longer have such status. In the cosmopolitan world of the twenty-first century, Maori identity is something that comes not from whakapapa and birth and upbringing but from individual choice.

In many ways, Ansell suggests, the choice to be Maori can be compared to the choice to become a member of some religion. State support for Maori culture and Maori institutions is no better than state support for Catholicism or Islam. Ansell made a similar sort of assimilationist argument when he debated Maori nationalism on this blog last year.

Elsewhere, though, Ansell relies on a very different argument against 'Maorification'. He repeatedly criticises Maori for committing crimes, neglecting their families, and having an ungrateful attitude towards Pakeha. Ansell argues that all of these problems are connected to the state's tolerance for 'separatist' institutions like the Maori seats in parliament. Ansell's two arguments against 'Maorification' are radically contradictory. His first argument relies on the premise that Maori have ceased to exist as an ethnic group; his second argument continually finds fault with Maori as an ethnic group.

We can appreciate the contradiction in Ansell's thinking if we consider one of the most-quoted of his recent statements to the media:

[Thanks to Pakeha] Maori have gone from the Stone Age to the Space Age in 150 years, and haven't said thanks.

In this sentence, Ansell tries to finds fault with Maori, as a group, for their lack of appreciation of the contributions of Pakeha to New Zealand society. If the assimilationist argument Ansell has made so often holds true, though, how can he reasonably make this complaint? According to the assimilationist argument, Maori have been hopelessly mixed up with other Kiwis, so that it is impossible to talk about 'Pakeha' and 'Maori' as distinct ethnic groups. If this is the case, then it makes no sense to try to identify the positive achievements of modern New Zealand with Pakeha, and to withold credit for these achievements from Maori.

Ansell's talk about Maori crime rates also contradicts his assimilationist arguments. He wants to use Maori criminals as a stick to beat all Maori with, but in his assimilationist moods he claims that the only real Maori are people who have made individual decisions to embrace Maori culture. All the evidence suggests that, far from having undergone some sort of 'conversion' to Maoritanga, many Maori offenders have never had contact with the culture of their ancestors.

Chris Kahui, Macsyna King and their close relations are perhaps the most notorious examples of the criminally-inclined Maori ‘underclass’ John Ansell decries. When Kahui and King tried to organise a tangi for their slain twins, though, their lack of contact with Maoritanga became very clear. They had no 'home' marae which could hold the tangi, and when their immediate family eventually performed the ceremony they did so with an ineptness that embarrassed other Maori (for instance, they got an old man, rather than a woman, to perform the karanga at the beginning of the powhiri that welcomed mourners).

In his blog posts and in his talks with the media, Ansell slides continually between his two contradictory arguments against ‘Maorification’; not surprisingly, he leaves many members of his audiences bewildered.

But Ansell’s contradictions are not the result of a merely personal confusion: they reflect the sociological and political divisions inside Act. As I noted in my last post, Act’s members are a mixture of well-heeled, cosmopolitan apostles of neo-liberalism, who see the world in relentlessly individualistic terms, and petty bourgeois xenophobes, who see the world in terms of reactionary racial, gender, and class stereotypes.

Ansell’s assimilationist argument against ‘Maorification’, with its utopian vision of group identities melting away amidst capitalist prosperity, belongs to the well-heeled, cosmopolitan wing of the party; his complaints about Maori group behavior, with their appeals to the traditional cliches of Pakeha rednecks, belong to the party’s angry petty bourgeois faction. Ansell is unable to make the case against ‘Maorification’ coherently because his case draws on two incompatible intellectual and social sources.

[Posted by Maps]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Browns, reds, and rednecks: the real meaning of Ansell's new ad

I think Chris Trotter is being rather too generous when he presents the new advertisement John Ansell has produced for Act as a work of malevolent genius.

Whilst it was predictable that the left and Maori nationalists would respond to Act's new ads with derision, the reaction from the right has been very interesting. For many National and Act supporters, Ansell's latest work seems to have created not enthusiasm but bewilderment.

Compared with the famous Kiwi/Iwi billboards Ansell created for National's 2005 election campaign, the new advertisement is extraordinarily turgid. The ad opens with the rhetorical question 'Fed up with pandering to Maori Radicals?', but the relationship between this portentous heading and the acres of small print beneath it is rather mysterious.

Ansell wants to convince us that radical Maori are about to destroy New Zealand, but the evidence he offers is underwhelming. It's hard to see how National's failure to abolish the Maori seats or the Geographical Board's decision that Wanganui should be spelt with an 'h' has brought this country to the brink of a race war. It is not surprising that even many Act supporters have suggested that Don Brash and his team would be better off junking the ad and focusing on more substantial issues, like the state of the economy and Labour's proposed Capital Gains Tax.

For his part, Ansell has been unable to understand the indifference of many in the Act Party party, let alone the rest of the country, to the message in his new ad. In a series of contributions to a comments thread at Kiwiblog, Ansell has complained that New Zealand is 'full of white cowards' who refuse to 'fight for civilisation' against 'the Maorification of everything'. Between them, Ansell says, brown fascism and white cowardice have made New Zealand 'a joke' and a 'Third World country'.

What Ansell's ad represents is not some audacious new marketing campaign, but the irruption into the political mainstream of a very involved conspiracy theory which has previously been quarantined in a peculiar cranny of the far right.

For decades now, a relatively small number of right-wingers have been warning that a shadowy and sinister alliance of Maori radicals, Marxists, United Nations technocrats, Wellington civil servants, feminists and 'politically correct' scholars is working to impose a sort of red-brown dictatorship over New Zealand. While the academics falsify the past, repressing a secret alternate version of the Treaty of Waitangi and covering up evidence of the pre-Maori white civilisation which supposedly existed in these islands, the radicals and feminists are busy undermining the patriotic feelings and patriarchal family structures that lie at the heart of Kiwi civilisation, and the technocrats are pushing through legislation which, little by little, makes a Maori-commie dictatorship inevitable. In books like Geoff MacDonald's Shadows Over New Zealand and Stuart Scott's Travesty of Waitangi and on websites like Trevor Loudon's New Zeal and Muriel Newman's NZCPR the conspiracy has been catalogued and denounced at extraordinary length.

If Ansell sees an obvious connection between his ad's apocalyptic heading and its ho-hum small print, it is because he sees the small print through the prism of conspiracy theory. For most Kiwis, even those with right-wing political opinions, the Geographical Board's decision that W(h)anganui ought to be spelt with an 'h' is a fairly trivial matter; for Ansell and other true believers in the brown-red threat, though, the Board is not a group of civil servants delivering an isolated decision on a scholarly matter, but a cabal of enemy agents launching the latest battle in a vicious but undeclared war. In much the same way, National's abandonment of its proposal to abolish the Maori seats was not the product of a pragmatic desire to woo the Maori Party after the 2008 election, but rather evidence that John Key, like so many of his predecessors, had been 'gotten to' by the shadowy forces which threaten the freedom of all white Kiwis.

John Ansell's recent comments on Kiwiblog make it clear how completely he has succumbed to the brand of conspiracy theory developed in recent decades by New Zealand's paranoid right. As well as making predictable complaints about the Maori seats, Ansell found the time to condemn 'feminazism' and the teaching of 'socialism' in New Zealand's schools, and then went on to claim that both the 'true' version of the Treaty of Waitangi and the 'true' story of the white 'tangata whenua' of New Zealand have been covered up by enemies of the white race.

Ansell has clearly been reading or conferring with Martin Doutre, the 'archaeo-astronomer', 9/11 Truther, and Holocaust denier who has emerged in recent years as the favourite pseudo-scholar of redneck conspiracy theorists. Doutre believes that a technologically advanced Celtic civilisation existed on these islands thousands of years ago, and is a champion the so-called 'Littlewood' version of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is actually a scrap of paper no Maori ever saw, let alone signed.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Doutre believes that if the reality of 'ancient Celtic New Zealand' and the 'Littlewood Treaty' were ever accepted, then contemporary New Zealand politics would be turned upside down, and organisations like the Waitangi Tribunal would be out of business. Doutre is convinced that a politically motivated cabal of academics and museum curators is working constantly to discredit his views on New Zealand history.

The conspiracy theory I have been describing has enjoyed the odd prominent supporter in the past. In the late 1980s, for example, the police detective turned National MP Ross Meurant regularly warned that sinister Maori forces were preparing to seize power over New Zealand. Muriel Newman, who has enthused over Martin Doutre's strange ideas, was an Act MP between 1996 and 2005 and served for a time as the deputy leader of the party.

But neither the National Party in Meurant's day nor Act in the late '90s and early noughties ever endorsed the anti-Maori conspiracy theory. As the leader of the National Party in 2004-2005, Brash campaigned against Maori nationalism using a lightly revised version of the assimilationist ideology popular in Kiwi politics for most of the twentieth century, but he steered clear of conspiracy-mongering.

Act's recent decision to endorse what was for so long a fairly marginal conspiracy theory has to be understood in terms of the peculiar sociology and history of the party. Act was established by a clique of politicians and businesspeople who had benefitted from the 'reforms' to New Zealand's economy in the late '80s and early '90s. These well-heeled folk had liberal social views and an enthusiasm for the way that capitalism was obliterating the boundaries between national economies and cultures. Their leader and hero Roger Douglas roamed the world, preaching the gospel of the free market and dispensing advice in capital cities as distant as Moscow and Ulan Bator. Douglas expected the newly-formed Act to sweep all before it in New Zealand's first MMP election in 1996, but only a narrow section of the Kiwi population had been enriched by the reordering of the economy of the late '80s and early '90s, and Douglas' party only just struggled over the 5% barrier and into parliament.

In an effort to broaden its base, Act soon began to appeal to the politics of what sociologist Paul Spoonley has called 'the radical petty bourgeoisie'. Insular and socially conservative, suspicious of economic as well as cultural globalisation, and as hostile to bankers as to trade unionists, the small farmers and small business owners of the radical petty bourgeoisie had in the past supported organisations like the kooky Social Credit Party, the anti-semitic League of Rights and the obsessively anti-communist Zenith Applied Philosophy cult.

Act's willingness to make the right noises about bludging beneficiaries, dangerous Maori, and tidal waves of crime drew a layer of angry white folk into the party. In the fora of websites like Muriel Newman's NZCPR, the old anti-semitic and anti-communist conspiracy theories transmogrified into the red-brown conspiracy theory which is so enthusiastically upheld by John Ansell today.

Act has always struggled to balance the views of its radical petty bourgeois grassroots members with those of the Roger Douglas fans who have dominated its leadership and full-time staff. In recent years the radical petty bourgeois wing of the party has grown in influence, largely as a result of the departure of many of the true believers in neo-liberalism. The placement of the disaster-prone David Garrett high on Act's list before the last election symbolised the growing influence of the rednecks.

Now the rednecks seem to have won the ear of Don Brash, who is desperate to get Act's poll ratings out of margin of error territory. For the first time in many decades, an elaborate and bigoted conspiracy theory is being promoted by a mainstream New Zealand political party.

[Posted by Maps]

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Should 'kupapa' be a swear word?

There have been some interesting responses across the left-wing blogosphere to Hone Harawira's recent byelection victory in Te Tai Tokerau. I wanted to focus, in my usual pedantic way, on a minor detail of one of the reactions to Hone's win at The Standard. In a post written to congratulate Hone, Eddie said that the Mana Party's rise would be good for the left, as well as a serious blow to the 'kupapa Maori Party'.

I understand that the word 'kupapa' was first used to describe Maori who supported the Crown in the series of 'New Zealand Wars' which began in the 1840s and lasted until the early 1870s. Maori fought on the side of Pakeha in virtually every one of the wars, and in some of the conflicts - the guerilla war against Te Kooti, for example - the great majority of government forces were brown-skinned.

Sometimes an entire iwi took the side of the government - Ngati Porou, for example, was an indefatigable ally of Wellington in the fight against Te Kooti. In other instances, though, tribes were divided over which side to support, and different hapu could wind up fighting each other. Most of the Waikato peoples took the side of King Tawhiao when his rohe was invaded by thousands of British and colonial troops in July 1863, but a few of them sided with the invaders.

Sometimes the same warriors fought for and against the Crown at different stages of the New Zealand Wars. Te Kooti, for example, began his military career as part of a pro-Crown army besieging the pa of Waerenga a hika, near modern-day Gisborne, where a force of 'hauhaus' had holed up. After being falsely accused of spying for the rebels and suffering deportation to the Chatham Islands, though, Te Kooti launched his own war of rebellion against the government in Wellington.

In the late twentieth century, the word 'kupapa' began to be used on the left to describe any Maori who was deemed to have a subservient relationship with the government, or with any Pakeha-dominated organisation opposed to the interests of Maori. The Maori cops deployed against anti-Springbok demonstrations in 1981 were sometimes called 'kupapa' by the protesters they fought; Donna Awatere was dubbed a 'kupapa Maori' when she joined the newly-minted Act Party in the mid-'90s; and now Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who sit at the table with Tories and have voted for budgets which cut taxes or the rich and slashed spending on community education, are being branded with the k-word.

I yield to no one in my opposition to the alliance Sharples and Turia have made with National, and I certainly have no problem with them being pilloried at The Standard. I wonder, though, whether there is not something misguided about the use of 'kupapa' as an insult.

The implication behind the derogatory use of 'kupapa' seems to be that Maori who supported the Crown during the wars of the nineteenth century were and are contemptible. The hundreds of Te Arawa and Ngati Porou fighters who hunted Te Kooti through the hinterland of the Te Maui a Ika, the warriors who defended the settler town of W(h)anganui in the battle of Moutoua, the great Nga Puhi rangatira Waka Nene, who fought Hone Heke in the Flagstaff War of the 1840s: all of them must have been deluded, or treacherous, or both, if they can be compared to the likes of Awatere and the Maori cops who fought the Patu Squad in 1981.

Few people on the left would dispute the assertion that the New Zealand Wars were exercises in imperialism, and that the victories Crown forces won on battelefields like Rangiriri and Nga Tapa led to the separation of many iwi from their land and to the cultural and political marginalisation of all Maori. But do the consequences of the New Zealand Wars mean that we can condemn those Maori who chose to fight for the Crown? To take such a position is to lose all sense of historical perspective, and to deny the rationality and agency of kupapa iwi and hapu. It also means ignoring the work some of New Zealand's most distinguished historians have done in recent decades.

Many late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Pakeha historians liked to counterpose the 'loyal' or 'friendly' kupapa Maori to those 'fanatical' or 'barbarous' iwi which supported 'rebels' like Tawhiao and Te Kooti. In his splenetic biography of Te Kooti, WH Ross presents the war with the prophet as a manichean struggle between civilisation, in the form of the Crown and its 'loyal' Ngati Porou and Te Arawa subjects, and the brainwashed, bloodthirsty creed of 'hauhauism'. The pro-Crown Maori had seen the light, and wanted to become honourary Britons; Te Kooti's mob wanted to wallow in an evil pre-Christian past.

Later historians have shown more subtlety than Ross. In his book The New Zealand Wars and the TV series that followed it, Jamie Belich argued that different Maori groups took different sides in the conflicts for reasons related to Maori history and sociology. Belich pointed out that the decentralised nature of Maori society and a history of inter-iwi warfare meant that, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, many iwi perceived other Maori, and not the European interlopers, as their most serious enemies. Although some iwi united against the coloniser, others saw a tactical alliance with the Crown as a way to recover lost land and mana. A few Maori groups sided with the Crown for economic reasons. The iwi who lived near the mouth of the Whanganui River, for example, were doing a good business trading with Pakeha, and didn't want to see the newcomers driven away by the attacks of iwi who lived upriver.

Some iwi showed considerable cunning in their dealings with the Crown. Ngati Porou, for instance, volunteered to fight against their ancient enemies in Tuhoe Country, who had given shelter to Te Kooti, but demanded that the Crown supply them with arms. After their campaign against Te Kooti, Ngati Porou refused to return their guns to the Pakeha, and told the government in Wellington that they would use the weapons against any outsiders who tried to acquire their land. Ngati Porou's tactics helped them hold onto much of their rohe.

There are interesting parallels between the manoeuvres of kupapa Maori and the decisions of other colonised peoples to make tactical alliances with their coloniser. During the English Civil War the nation of Cornwall, which still enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy from England, sided with Charles I against Cromwell's Roundheads. Charles I may have been an incompetent autocrat with grotesque and outdated ideas about his divine right to rule, but he was prepared to tolerate Cornwall's distinctive culture, and the ornate, strongly Celtic brand of Christianity practiced there. Cromwell, by contrast, sent his troops to trash the peninsula's 'idolatrous' churches. In nineteenth century India the Sikh people were recruited in large numbers to the colonial British security forces, and played an important role in repressing nationalist uprisings like the 'Indian Mutiny' of 1857. Although Sikhs can be seen in hindsight to have been fighting on the wrong side of history, their alliance with the coloniser was not the product of foolishness, or simple treachery. As a small religious and ethnic minority subject to persecution from both Hindus and Muslims, they chose to throw in their lot with an external power. We ought to be able to recognise that, like the Cornish and the Sikhs, kupapa Maori had rational reasons for siding with the Crown, and that they do not deserve to be treated with contempt.

It might be argued that, as a Pakeha, I have no business debating the meaning of the word 'kupapa'. I think, though, that Pakeha have a vested interest in the way that the kupapa Maori of the nineteenth century are viewed in the twenty-first century. If we can create an honourable place in New Zealand history for the kupapa Maori, by acknowledging that they had good reasons for making what was ultimately the wrong decision, then we might also be able to find a way of remembering the Pakeha settlers of the nineteenth century without either celebrating or condemning them. It is certainly true that, like the kupapa Maori, many of the soldier-settlers who fought in the New Zealand Wars came from places - Ireland, Highland Scotland, Cornwall, the miserable mill towns of nothern England - which were assailed by the same economic system which made enemies of Tawhiao and Te Kooti. For Highland Scots forced off their land by the enclosures and mill workers suffering subsistence wages, the decision to emigrate to a new country on the other side of the world was not hard to make.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The boss, hard at work

Brett Cross is fond of Charles De Gaulle's dictum that 'silence is the ultimate weapon of power', and despite being the boss of Titus Books, the Kaipara-based independent publishing company which has given the world dozens of books of fiction, poetry, and art over the last seven years, he has always been a low-profile figure on the Kiwi literary scene. Brett seldom takes the stage during the launches of his company's books: instead, he can often be seen lurking near the door of the cafe or bar he has hired in his Bain jersey and tweed coast, impersonating an uncomprehending passerby who has ducked inside to get out of the wind and rain.

Even the most secretive leader, though, must be careful to find a balance between silence and anonymity. Brett's absence from literary events over recent months has gotten some followers of Titus wondering about his whereabouts, and about his plans for the future. It is common for a sclerotic and reclusive King or dictator to reassure his fans by releasing images that show him working cheerfully at home, or else enjoying some healthy outdoor exercise. In 1966 Mao Zedong emerged from a period of seclusion to swim in the Yangtze River, and thereby destroy rumours that he had suffered some incapacitating injury or disease. Unfortunately for China's writers, the Cultural Revolution soon followed.

Now a source close to Brett has leaked a photo (you can click to enlarge it) which shows the great helmsman of Titus Books working away in his Kaipara lair in the company of his long-time and slightly neurotic pet cat Rudy and his brand-new and delicately beautiful baby daughter, who has been given the first name of one of New Zealand's greatest painters. Brett has been understandably busy with the business of fatherhood over recent months, but his commitment to Titus hasn't slackened. Although he hasn't published any new volumes this year, he has managed to import a large, dispersed and very complicated printing system from the People's Republic of China.

Brett likes to call his imported possession 'the machine', and he promises that his new control of the means of production will make the Titus operation a lot more flexible and dynamic. Because it will no longer have to outsource its printing, Titus will be able to produce books in a wider range of formats, will be able to produce print runs in different quantities, and will be able to cut down costs considerably.

Hearing Brett describe the recent arrival from China, I was reminded of a poem which Richard Taylor used to recite to noisy audiences in Auckland pubs back in the mid-90s:

The Machine

we gotta get down there
down there and show you guys
the machine the machine is mean
man and its there it lives like
a lung but we gotta get there
we got here but where is there
we gotta get there man I know
you know but it's mean man
and what I mean man is it's
gunna get ya or we gunna
get it and its there it's a machine
it does something which does
something to something but we gotta
get cross town and down to
that god-fuckin’ mean machine
with those wires man what I
mean is we gotta we gotta we gotta
cause its that time man I
mean what you mean we
mean no thing but we gotta
get down there to that lean
that big black lean machine...

While Brett dreams up new publishing projects between nappy changing and burping duties, one of Titus' industrious volunteers has been working on the company's gloriously byzantine website, adding a section full of sound files, so that you can know what Jack Ross or Olwyn Stewart or, yes, Richard Taylor sounds like after a few ales.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

WAI262 and the anti-historians

I hate to sound like one of the handwringing, bone carving-wearing middle class Pakeha liberals who so torment Michael Laws, but I have been rather depressed by the response of many members of my volk to WAI262, which is the unfortunately dour nickname of the monumental new report from the Waitangi Tribunal. Charged with considering the impact of colonial and postcolonial governments on Maori culture and indigenous flora and fauna, the Tribunal has spent twenty years reconstructing much of the human and natural history of these islands and subjecting that history to a series of analyses.

I had imagined that National Party and Act politicians and right-wing commentators would give WAI262 a cursory read and then dismiss the document, but I was wrong: the likes of Don Brash and Muriel Newman have condemned the text as a dangerous waste of money without having bothered to read even one of its thousands of pages. Her Majesty's 'opposition' has preferred to subject the Tribunal's report to what Italian communists used to call 'the critique of silence'. The Labour Party seems to think that its researchers are better employed chasing after trivialities like the costs of John Key's bodyguards than in reading one of the widest-ranging of all Waitangi reports.

Those politicians and commentators who have opened WAI262 seem to have skipped straight to the handful of passages where the various scholars involved in the project make recommendations for changes in Crown policy and practice. This sort of skim reading is not at all new: anyone who relied upon media reports and Hansard for their knowledge of the work the Waitangi Tribunal has done over the past thirty years could be forgiven for thinking that the body has spent its whole twenty-five year existence doing nothing but issuing a stream of instructions to government departments. In reality, the vast majority of the pages in almost every Waitangi Report are given over not to policy points but to scholarship. For me, at least, the real strength of the Tribunal's work lies in its scholarship, not in its recommendations, which have always been circumscribed by realpolitik and the nature of the New Zealand state.

Some of New Zealand's finest historians, legal scholars, and natural scientists, from Judith Binney to Geoff Park to David Williams, have worked for the Tribunal, and the reports issued by the body have added immensely to the resources available to anybody who wants to investigate the history of this country. Some of the Tribunal's texts, like the Te Urewera Report of 2010, bring previously-unknown oral traditions into the light, and thereby add another dimension to our understanding of the past; others, like the fat and fascinating Kaipara Interim Report of 2006, use piles of obscure written documents - property titles, court hearings, frayed maps - to reconstruct the contested history of their corner of the country; still others, like the Rekohu (Chatham Islands) Report of 2002, include mostly well-known primary material, but synthesise that material in a new way, by advancing new theories to explain the patterns of past events.

The tendency to read only the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal Reports reflects the instrumental attitude that New Zealand's political class takes toward the work of historians, and towards scholarship in general. Research is reduced to its ends, and historians and social scientists are supposed to supply facts and statistics and predictions which can be carried like props into theatres of debate like the parliamentary chamber or the press conference. The texts produced by the Waitangi Tribunal, with their frequently generous lengths, juxtapositions of different historical viewpoints, and complex historiographical syntheses, are ill-suited to the rituals of contemporary Kiwi politics. That is one of the many reasons why they should be read.

Footnote: In his initial response to WAI262, Maori blogger Morgan Godfrey observes that the recommendations at the end of the text 'relegate Maori to secondary partners' with the New Zealand state. For reasons which I can't quite discern, though, Godfrey argues glumly that Maori have to accept that 'we cannot be recognised on our terms'. The Samoans, Niueans and Cook Islanders didn't have to live with Pakeha colonialism; why, then, should Tuhoe, or Nga Puhi, or Whanau a Apanui?

The New Zealand state is a product of British and Pakeha capitalism, and many of its institutions, including its legal system, are tilted against most Pakeha, as well as against almost all Maori. The violence with which the state intervened on the side of employers against Pakeha workers during the Great Strike of 1913 and the Waterfront of Lockout of 1951 can be compared to violence of events like the invasion of Maungapohatu in 1916 and the attack on Parihaka in 1881. Both Te Whiti's followers and the 'Red Feds' who asserted themselves in 1913 found that the machinery of the state was being operated by the Pakeha capitalist class - by runholders, property speculators, and the owners of industry. The state serves the same class today, even if a small minority of that class now has brown skin.

It might be argued that an independent Maori state is not a viable prospect in New Zealand, because of the lack of a Maori majority over contiguous areas, but as Bolivia and Venezuela have shown over the past few years, it is possible to construct a 'multi-national' legal system and constitution within a single state.

Events in Venezuela, where the indigenous population is a tiny minority, suggest that such change can be supported by a non-indigenous majority, if it is shown that the minority and the majority have the same interests. In Venezuela landless non-indigenous peasants have repeatedly joined forces with indigenous peoples in battles against foreign-based agribusinesses like the British-owned Vestey cattle company and against mining companies. Both peasants and Amerindians have wanted to lay their hands on land that had in many cases either been appropriated or obtained for derisory amounts, and that was being either left to waste or despoiled. With the help of a sympathetic government, large areas of land have been won back from foreign businesses and shared out between the peasants and the Amerindians.

Of course, New Zealand is a very different place to Venezuela, and the Pakeha majority retains deeply conservative attitudes towards most Maori-related issues. But there have been a few instances in recent times where groups of Pakeha have identified their own interests with those of so-called 'Maori radicals'. The campaign against ironsand mining on the western Waikato and King Country coast, which has largely passed under the radar of the mainstream media, has brought together Maori nationalists with Pakeha surfers and boaties. In the eastern Bay of Plenty, Whanau a Apanui is apparently attracting some sympathy from local Pakeha for its campaign against oil exploration. In my local neighbourhood, a branch of Unite made up almost entirely of Pakeha low-paid workers and beneficiaries took to the streets to campaign for Hone Harawira during the recent byelection.

In Raglan and in the Bay of Plenty, Pakeha have been able to see that Maori nationalists are a much smaller threat to them than multinational corporations backed by the might of the New Zealand state; in West Auckland, Pakeha members of Unite understand that they have more in common with the unemployed and low-paid Maori workers of Moerewa and Kaitaia than they have with John Key and Don Brash. Given the intensification of the global financial crisis in recent weeks, the rightward trajectory of this National-Act government, and the mixture of socialist and Maori nationalist politics being advanced by the Mana Party, it is by no means impossible that larger groups of Pakeha might decide to follow the lead of the Waitemata branch of Unite.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The kids are alright

According to a slew of grumpy middle-aged commentators, including a chap who posts regularly on a blog very like this one, the 1990s saw the birth of the so-called 'digital generation', a breed for whom the cellphone and the blackberry are natural extensions of the human body, and for whom books, and especially the sort of books that house novels and short stories and poems, are either incomprehensible or pitifully old-fashioned things. According to our gloomy commentators, the algorhythmic patterns of computer programs and the hastily-composed haiku of the text messager are the only forms of literature relevant to the new 'digital natives'.

A couple of weeks ago, though, the avant-garde poet, Smithyman scholar, and Vipassana meditationist John Geraets handed me a stack of documents which seem to contradict some of the dogma surrounding the current crop of teenagers. John teaches English at St Peters College, a venerable Catholic boys' school in central Auckland, and he'd asked me to choose the winners of his school's annual Sam Hunt Literary Awards.

I soon found myself poring over poems about wolves and mutilated toy soldiers, stories about bungled Al Qaeda operations and successful hunting trips to the Ureweras, strange, ornate dialogues between characters with names like 'Gaia' and 'Progress', and complaints about the perfidy of today's mainstream media. Despite their inevitable flaws - who can write perfectly at forty or fifty, let alone fourteen or fifteen? - many of the entries John gave me showed an old-fashioned delight in language, storytelling, and argument. Thesauruses had been raided and emptied of their gaudiest adjectives, arguments went from polite to polemical to vituperative in the space of a couple of sentences, and plots were derailed and rerouted and rerouted again by twists and double twists and other brutally arbitrary interventions by their authors.

In the report I wrote for John I picked out two young authors for particular praise. Lewis Wheatley, who is, I think, what used to be called a fourth former, had a produced a novella called 'Matanuku' which offered an interestingly twenty-first century take on that staple of Pakeha juvenilia, the lost tribe story. Back at Drury Primary School in the mid-'80s I wrote a story about an expedition - an expedition led, of course, by the heroic Captain Scott Hamilton - that searched the nooks and crannies of Fjordland for the group of 'old time Maoris' which was popularly supposed, even in the late twentieth century, to dwell there. Lewis' story, which was carefully organised into chapters and moved easily backwards and forwards through time, suggested that a quarter century of the Maori Renaissance and a better informed generation of teachers have ameliorated some of the worst cliches of the Pakeha imagination. Lewis' wanderer in the Ureweras is not a member of some mysterious relict people, but rather a hermit who has been exiled from his native village because of an unusual and disfiguring medical condition. The hunters who stumbled upon the man do not shoot or net or even photograph him, but instead make him their friend.

The other entrant I picked out for particular praise was seventh former Anthony Kamphorst, who seems full of the sort of anguished ambiguity towards the Catholic faith that we recognise from the novels of James Joyce and Graham Greene. In one of Kamphorst's stories, a decrepit but pious priest and a jaded, Nietszche-quoting journalist carry on the sort of dialogue about God, evil, faith, faithlessness and destiny that might be inserted into The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter.

The Sam Hunt Awards ceremony was held last night in what seemed to be a large antechamber to St Peters' assembly hall. Entrants sat with beaming parents and bored-looking siblings around the tables set up by a superefficient Students' Academic Committee. Sipping the orange juice I'd been served, I wandered over to a wall and studied photographs of long-dead priest-teachers with the inevitable Irish surnames. On another wall several almost impossibly crisp rugby jerseys sat as securely as religious relics behind a fat pane of clean glass. They had once belonged to the captains of champion first-fifteen teams.

When John Geraets, who was suddenly dressed in an expensive suit, introduced me to the entrants, their families, and the teaching staff of St Peters as 'a big man of New Zealand literature', I decided he must be referring to my beer gut. Worried that the families of unsuccessful entrants might turn on me, I mumbled something about the 'inherently subjective nature' of all literary judgments, and urged everybody to remember that 'this isn't the Olympics'. I had chosen a winner for each form, as well as an overall winner, who was to be given the unlikely title of Sam Hunt Scholar. Every winner read a little of his work; mothers wiped their eyes.

After Anthony Kamphorst had been annointed Sam Hunt Scholar, a member of the Students' Academic Committee began a speech against "booze and bad behaviour", and in praise of literature. "At other schools a small minority is giving all youth a bad name with drinking and other immoral activities" the earnest young man claimed. "But tonight we see the real spirit of youth." I remembered how, at my secondary school, booze and pot were almost semi-official pastimes, and were indulged in by both students and staff. Our yearly balls were undisguised booze-ups and, if the media is to be trusted, the same dionysian spirit pervades the functions of most of today's schools. Perhaps, though, things really are very different at St Peters. Could this little school, wedged between the quarried slopes of Mount Eden and the torrential traffic on Khyber Pass Road, be a sort of island of civilisation, the twenty-first century equivalent of those monasteries, isolated on mountain tops and North Sea islets, that kept civilised arts like reading and calligraphy alive during the Dark Ages?

But if St Peters is going to breed the next generation of Kiwi writers, how are these writers going to cope with the fear and loathing of alcohol and other substances which is apparently being drilled into them? What, after all, would the history of literature look like without the influence of booze? How much would Hemingway have written without whiskey? How would Rimbaud have written his visionary poems without wine and hashish? Didn't great Catholic writers like Joyce and Greene and our own Maurice Duggan drink even more than their heathen counterparts?

I was pondering the relationship between booze and literature when the principal of St Peters took the stage. He looked worryingly like John Cleese, and I imagined him goosestepping down his school's corrdiors, with his index figure stretched under his nose. "We have gathered here tonight for the Sam Hunt Awards" the principal pointed out. "Sam Hunt was expelled, I am sorry to tell you, from this institution. There is a large hollow tree preserved on the boundary between the upper and lower schools - Sam Hunt used to sit in that tree and read his poems to a group of fellow dissidents that appeared around him. Sam Hunt wanted to create a state within a state. And a state within a state couldn't be tolerated."

The principal suddenly turned his head toward me, and I feared that I might be facing expulsion. "Doctor Hamilton's talk about the importance and distinctive qualities of literature made me think", he said slowly, "about a proposal over in Victoria to do away with English and replace it with something called Communication Studies. I suspect it's being pushed by some left-wing group - it's the sort of thing those people do. Thankyou, anyway, for reminding me to fight these left-wing people, Doctor Hamilton."

After the formal part of the evening had finally ended, the principal wandered over to the table where I was sitting, and picked up a copy of my latest book.
"I thought Id better bring a copy along" I told him, "just to prove that I really was a writer, and not some bum who'd wandered in to get out of the cold."
"That was a good idea", John Cleese murmured. "You're dressed like a bum, after all. Now what's this book about?"
"It's a study of EP Thompson, the Marxist historian and political activist" I told him. "It talks about the Spanish Civil War, and life in the Communist Party during the early years of the Cold War, and the campaign to get nuclear weapons out of Britain, and - "
The principal of St Peters College put my book down, turned around, and walked purposefully away.