Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The trial of Roger Douglas, and other pieces of an alternate past

Last week Paul Janman and I visited Dave Bedggood, retired University of Auckland sociologist and tireless activist for the Marxist left, at his house in the kauri forests of Titirangi. After leading us to a basement decorated by a large red flag, Dave opened box after cardboard box, unloading newspapers, relics of the 1980s and ‘90s, with names like Redletter and Workers Power
In a poem about a journey through a part of England devastated by Thatcher’s closures of mines and factories, Michael Hoffmann sees posters for old socialist meetings and demonstrations peeling from half-demolished walls, and feels glumly nostalgic. It would be easy to feel the same way, reading the reports from picket lines outside long-demolished factories and the polemics against extinct left-wing parties in Dave’s newspaper archive.
In New Zealand and almost everywhere else, the late eighties and nineties were a period of disappointment and defeat for the left, and especially the radical left. As Thatcher and her avatars like New Zealand’s Roger Douglas globalised and deindustrialised the economies of the West, trade union memberships collapsed, support fell for left-wing parties, and Marxists had to cope with the jibes about the triumph of capitalism, the end of history, and the idiocy of the very notion of socialism.
But Dave’s archive might offer us a few glimpses of the future, as well as a view of the past. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, commentators in the mainstream media have begun to talk, in perplexed or alarmed voices, about a revival of interest in Marx’s vision of capitalism as a contradictory and unstable system. Thomas Piketty’s long and technical book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which piggybacks on some of Marx’s critique of capitalism, recently made the top of bestseller lists in the United States, shouldering aside romance novels and cookbooks. In the People's Republic of Donetsk crowds are allegedly raising hammer and sickle flags and singing the 'Internationale’. 
Paul and I have taken images and texts from Dave’s archives and used them in our contribution to A Sense of Place, the group exhibition that will open in a few days at the Papakura Art Gallery.
 The curators of A Sense of Place, Ioana Gordon-Smith and Talia Smith, had asked us to show some material related to the film and book we have intermittently been making about the Great South Road, which flows through Auckland’s traditional industrial suburbs towards battle sites from the Pakeha-Maori wars of the nineteenth century. We’d come up with the idea of piling up historical material – old newspaper articles, counterfeit banknotes issued by King Tawhiao, blurred photographs of battles, chunks of scoria used on the road south - in the gallery, and of stashing more of the stuff in airtight caches hidden at important sites along the road. With their curious mixture of passionate celebration and Marxian analysis, the articles about obscure strikes at long-extinct auto plants and workshops along the Great South Road that stud Dave’s newspapers are important artefacts. 
Paul and I had worried that Dave might not approve of our visit to his home and his archive. He might consider us antiquarians, who were interested in the past rather than the future of the radical left. Worse, perhaps, he might consider the alternate history we have created for our film, in which Maori resist British imperialism successfully in the nineteenth century and revolution spreads through Europe at about the same time, as a whimsical diversion from the serious business of analysing the real patterns of the past.
Marxists have had a sometimes difficult relationship with alternative history, or counterfactual history, as it is nowadays often called by academics. In 1872, just after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the non-Marxist revolutionary Louis Blanqui wrote a treatise called Eternity by the Stars from his prison cell. Blanqui’s book insisted that the universe was made up of an almost infinite number of worlds, in which humans have made history in an almost infinite number of ways. In some worlds revolution had triumphed; in others monarchs, or capitalists, or both, reigned happily.
Blanqui’s arguments both fascinated and exasperated Walter Benjamin, who decided that the notion of alternate worlds smacked of the bourgeois arcade, where any number of luxury goods can be bought or sold, and no purchase is more imperative than another. Blanqui had, it seemed, reduced history to whimsy. EP Thompson was as hostile to alternative history as Benjamin, describing it as a “waste of time”. In a piece for the London Review of Books, Slavoj Zizek lamented the domination of anthologies of counterfactual writing by right-wingers, and suggested that Marxists ought to contribute more to the genre.
But Dave Bedggood wasn’t displeased by talk of alternate histories. When Paul broached the topic he reached into one of his boxes, and produced a copy of Roger Comic, a graphic novel he helped produce at the end of the ‘80s. Roger Comic was published by the Socialist Alliance, which united most of New Zealand’s far left groups at the end of the ‘80s, but it was composed by Dave and a couple of comrades at the University of Auckland. Dave credited George Baxter, a university technician and trade union delegate, with creating many of the book’s cartoons.
Roger Comic was a response to the austerity programme that the Lange-Douglas government adopted shortly after taking power in 1984. Bedggood and his comrades address Kiwis disoriented by the spectacle of a Labour government privatising industries, closing post offices and railway workshops, and knighting aggressively anti-union businessmen like Bob Jones. 
As they explain the historical background to Rogernomics, the authors offer a series of lessons on subjects like the creation and crisis of New Zealand’s welfare state, the failed attempts to diversify the country’s economy in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the global breakdown of capitalism in the ‘70s, and the attempt by politicians like Thatcher and Douglas to restore profitability by privatising state assets and cutting wages in the ‘80s.
In its final pages, though, Roger Comic moves beyond pedagogy to speculative fiction, by imagining a workers’ uprising against Rogernomics. After a series of attacks on their picket lines and demonstrations by armed cops, workers occupy factories and offices, set up councils to run their workplaces, and create a militia. Roger Douglas, who was complicit in some of violence against workers, is put on trial. 
Like much of the material in Dave Bedggood's archive, Roger Comic makes both poignant and exciting reading in 2014. Examining this obscure artefact, leftists will remember sadly that the various strikes, demonstrations, and electoral adventures by the opponents of neo-liberalism never quite coalesced into something unstoppable, and that Roger Douglas’ renovation of New Zealand has never been reversed. But Roger Comic also reminds us of the energy and intellectual muscle of the radical opponents of Rogernomics. The audacity of its vision might just resonate with members of the generation that has come to maturity in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
Paul and I will be showing pages from this extraordinary work at the Papakura Art Gallery, and stashing a few of them beside the Great South Road. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Tiger Mountain said...

As one who was ‘there at the time’ and still here, an interesting article on Dave Bedggood and his archives. The NZ hard left today while seemingly all over the road with it’s small groups formed from splits of splits has actually consolidated a bit in effect, through Te Mana Movement particularly. And is the main force behind several non Labour Party affiliated unions and active work and relationships with community movements such as Glenn Innes housing and No Drilling.

Sectarian behaviour appears less entrenched embracing the “work with and struggle against” method.
“Roger Comics” I recall and is still relevant. If your company closes down why take it meekly? You’re likely screwed anyway so occupy the premises and take a stand.

9:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


DONETSK, Ukraine — Nikolai Solntsev, the self-declared commissar of the Eastern Front and a founding father of the newly proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, has been waiting 22 years, three months and 14 days for this moment.

That is the time the former submariner in the Soviet Navy has had to endure since the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving him without a country he felt at home in and could serve with pride.

“The Soviet Union does not exist, but my oath of service remains. I never took an oath to Ukraine,” Mr. Solntsev said, explaining why he feels no loyalty to the country where he lives but is ready to serve an imaginary new nation that nobody, not even Russia, recognizes.

The Donetsk People’s Republic has no authority outside an 11-story Ukrainian government building that an unruly Russian-speaking, club-bearing crowd has occupied since Sunday. It also has no electricity: The authorities cut that off as soon as the People’s Republic declared its existence.

Continue reading the main story

Putin Warns of Restricting Natural Gas Supply to UkraineAPRIL 9, 2014
A supporter of pro-Russian demonstrators at a fortified barricade on Wednesday by the administrative building in Donetsk, Ukraine.Russia Plotting for Ukrainian Influence, Not Invasion, Analysts SayAPRIL 9, 2014
U.S. and NATO Warn Russia Against Further Intervention in UkraineAPRIL 8, 2014
Visitors at the Holocaust museum of the Menorah Center in Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine.Among Ukraine’s Jews, the Bigger Worry Is Putin, Not PogromsAPRIL 8, 2014
Russian soldiers last month in the Crimean Peninsula with compact encrypted radio units hanging on their shoulders.In Crimea, Russia Showcases a Rebooted ArmyAPRIL 2, 2014
It is a quixotic and, to many here, crackpot project, but one that feeds on a deep pool of resentment and fear that extends beyond the few hundred people now holed up in the government building.

9:20 am  
Blogger Richard said...

That's interesting. In 1987 the unions associated with the NZED (which was privatised soon after Douglas privatised the NZPO (now Telecom or Chorus) actually voted to progressively shut down the Auckland Power supply. This was a serious thing but I think everyone knew it would never happen. But it COULD have happened. The first sub station to be shut down was to be Pakuranga. In the finish it would mean no one, no industry would have any electrical power.

If the unions had been united in the real sense, such an action would have led to a violent struggle: as in Britain and the US where the forces aligned against Labour were greater (but some of the unions and indeed some sections of the working class were more united.

I am impressed with what Dave has done. That kind of imagining (so-called) is the kind of creative response that I felt was lacking in all parties on the Left but I did see a kind of revival in the mid 70s to mid 80s then later in the 2000s but I had moved away from politics being involved in personal issues and so on.

We were told, at a meeting in 1985, by the Union representatives, that Muldoon couldn't be contacted for talks, but that we should all vote Labour as they promised that they would never sell a single Government utility.

They also said there would be no tax increases: but not only was GST imposed (they said it would stay at 10% and other taxes wouldn't increase) but it did and they increased Income tax.

The Lange-Douglas Government shows all that is worst in human beings and the uselessness of Bourgeois democracy or "Parliamentary politics" which is fundamentally a fest of power for people who want to work less and get paid huge, in fact obscene, amounts of money to do very little.

Those who have "faith" in this facile "democracy" would do well to read more of those comics and to never forget the betrayal of the workers by the Labour Government.

We should all have voted for Muldoon: he was right, NZ had to "think big" and build good national industries and look after our export and primary industries and producers.

12:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Except of course, that voting at these false "elections" is bullshit. So, of course, Muldoon - encouraged the Springbok Tour of 1981. So it would just mean more of the same.

But the duplicity of Labour was also revealed.

So there will never be any "better" thing via parliament. It is part of a system that is inherently duplicitous and corrupt.

Hitler got to power using the German democratic system.

12:22 am  
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