Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Right-wing students fight the army in southwest Venezuela

News is coming in of armed clashes between opponents of the Chavez government and National Guard soldiers in the small southwestern state of Merida. Armed with pistols and firebombs, right-wing militants based at the University of Los Andes have wounded twenty-nine soldiers, three of them seriously. (Bizarrely enough, the two main leaders of the insurgent students have the names Stalin Gonzalez and Nixon Moreno.)

The students and their supporters are opposed to a range of government policies, including attempts to broaden popular access to tertiary education by lowering the bars to admission to elite universities like the University Los Andes. The notion of right-wing student militancy might seem odd, especially in Venezuela, which has a very long history of left-wing student activism, but I mentioned a couple of months back that there had been a polarisation of opinion in Venezuela's intellectual community, reflected in large protests for and against Chavez's reforms to the education system last year. What appears to be new is the use of violence by the Merida students.

The trigger for the violence seems to have been attempts by Venezuela's electoral commission to monitor student elections at the University Los Andes. Leftist students had complained to the commission that the electoral process was manipulated by right-wing university administrators and their supporters in the student body.

Franz JT Lee has a typically waffly account of the violence in Merida up at the vheadline website. He tells us that the 'revolution is in immediate and serious danger', but doesn't explain why he thinks that what appears to be a local outbreak of violence in a relatively isolated state should be such a threat. The rabidly anti-Chavez Devil's Excrement blog has a report from the fighting and some photographs here.
Approach with caution.

Update: Venezuelanalysis is running a report on the violence here. Excerpts:

[T]he Venezuelan daily, El Mundo, reported last Friday, that various other Universities have joined in the protests, and are calling for a national demonstration tomorrow and a student march across the country...

While last week’s events are still unclear, government sources report that 26 Venezuelan National Guard and Police were wounded in the violence, many from gunshots. One officer is still in critical condition, and another testified to have just narrowly escaped a rape attempt. According to most reports, 10 students were wounded...

According to VTV, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Jesse Chacón, has categorically denied that the National Guard and police forces raided the ULA...

Rumors have surfaced over the possibility that last week’s violence could have been instigated by paramilitaries acting as students. The website,, reported last Thursday that “a group of organized mercenaries, acting and looking more like Colombian paramilitaries than students, burst in to the Center of the Humanities Faculty, well armed with high-caliber pistols and machine guns, faces covered with ski masks… with radios of the latest technology… and dispersed throughout Merida in strategic locations, in small groups, all armed, and interconnected through the radio system.”

Tomas who?

More than one reader of this blog has expressed bewilderment at the large lead that Tomas Transtromer has taken in our 'greatest living writer' poll. 'Who the Dickens is Transtromer?' one reader asks, 'And how is he winning? He's not one of your hoaxes is he, a new Ern Malley designed to discredit readers of your own blog?'

Jack Ross may have had doubts about the ontological status of his poll rival, but he was sharp enough to do some research: a quick google search showed him that Tomas Transtromer did indeed exist, albeit in the wilds of Sweden. Jack is now reduced to explaining the handsome lead Tomas enjoys over him as the product of a national chauvinist conspiracy of Swedish and Finno-Swedish readers of this blog. Alas, the tracking gear installed by Muzzlehatch shows that only a handful of Swedes and Finns have visited this site.

Perhaps those puzzled by Transtromer's eminence will have to think the unthinkable, and consider that he might have some English-language fans? Transtromer is actually amongst the most widely translated living European poets: at last count, he had made it into 46 languages besides Swedish. He is especially popular in the United States, where he has strongly influenced Robert Bly and a phalanx of younger poets. Critics who can read Transtromer in Swedish say that his relatively simple syntax and reliance on strong, strange imagery make him easy to bring into other languages.

I confess to having been a Transtromer fan for many years, though I'm less than happy with the prospect of him winning our poll. The prize for the man or woman annointed the greatest living writer is two flagons of Old Thumper Ale, and frankly I don't like the idea of paying to send the booze all the way to the Arctic Circle or thereabouts. I was rather hoping that our own Jack Ross might win the poll, for three reasons. In the first place, Jack is a mate of mine; secondly, and more importantly, I owe him some beers anyway; thirdly, and even more importantly, he lives a few miles away, and if he wins I can keep postage costs to a minimum. But who am I to argue with the wisdom of this blog's readers?

For those who haven't had the pleasure of reading Transtromer, here's a poem which he first published in 1970 and has described as a critique of certain aspects of modern Swedish society. It was translated by Robert Bly.


We are at a party which doesn't love us. Finally the party lets the mask fall and shows what it is: a shunting station for freight cars. In the fog cold giants stand on their tracks. A scribble of chalk on the car doors.
One can't say it aloud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That is why the furnishings seem so heavy. And why it is difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sun that moves over the house walls and over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never let down: "Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you"
I work the next morning in a different town. I drive there in a hum through the dawning hour which resembles a dark blue cylinder. Orion hangs over the frost. Children stand in a silent clump, waiting for the school bus, the children no one prays for. The light grows as gradually as our hair.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fancy another trip to the country, while the foreigners get on with it?

Sparks must have flown yesterday when East Timor's new government met for the first time since the Australian-led military intervention, and the supporters of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri faced off against the faction led by President Xanana Gusmao. Alkatiri reportedly opposed the decision to invite Australian-led foreign troops into East Timor, and he has also resisted Gusmao's attempts to take command of the army and police. For his part, Gusmao is now openly calling for Alkatiri's resignation, and is being echoed by the Australian government and the Murdoch press.

Gusmao and the Australians suggest that 'major changes' in the government (Gusmao's elevation to Prime Minister?) and the isolation of all armed groups in rural cantonments are the keys to peace in East Timor. This is not the first time Gusmao has used the word cantonment. In 1999 he helped thrash out an agreement that was intended to see Indonesian-backed militia and Falintil troops confined to separate rural bases during the period when a referendum on independence was held. When the militia defied the agreement and continued to roam East Timor at will, Gusmao insisted that Falintil troops must keep their side of the bargain. The result was that the East Timorese people were left largely defenceless in the face of the militia onslaught that followed the referendum. (The minority of Falintil troops that left their cantonments and took on the militia scored easy victories over their poorly armed and trained opponents. I'll talk more about this in a later post.)

In 1999 Gusmao was happy to trade the deaths of a thousand East Timorese civilians for the Aussie-led intervention that installed Fretilin as the ruling party of East Timor. Today he once again advocates cantonment for selfish reasons. Cantonment will not affect the small gangs of criminal youths roaming Dili, and it will leave East Timor's security at the mercy of a foreign force which knows nothing of local cultures and is controlled by an Australian government dedicated to the exploitation of East Timor.

Gusmao knows this, but he also knows that he lacks a large base in the armed forces - despite what many in the media are saying, the Australian-trained, pro-Gusmao Alfredo Reinaldo comands only a relatively small force of military police, not the large original group of mutinous soldiers known as 'the petitioners'. Gusmao did have a base of supporters in the police, but the police are very badly armed and many of them have been scattered by the violence of the past few days. The 130 'rebels' who have given up their arms to Aussies are likely to be Gusmao and Reinaldo supporters.

Cantonment is a way for Gusmao to take his rivals - the Alkatiri loyalists in the official army, and the original group of mutineers - out of the picture, and allow him to use the Australian-led intervention force to consolidate a new government. The price of a Gusmao Prime Ministership is certain to be even greater Australian control over Timorese affairs. If Gusmao is successful in forming a new government, then I predict its Finance and perhaps Defence Ministries will be effectively controlled by Australian 'permanent secretaries', along the lines of the arrangement that was imposed on the Solomons by Australia and the IMF in 2002.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Virtual invasions

Venezuela's government recently staged a mock-invasion on its coast, as part of preparations for the US attack which President Hugo Chavez insists is a possibility. Here's an excerpt from one report:

A naval landing craft made landfall on the shores of Western Falcon state carrying troops and over a dozen camouflaged tanks. The "invading" army then took over the massive Paraguana Refining Complex, a key asset of the world's No. 5 crude exporter.

The "occupation" is part of a military exercise to train troops and communities to repel a foreign invader... Venezuela's government has created community organizations called "Local Defense Councils" that would provide support during a potential invasion by hiding weapons deposits, relaying messages or sabotaging water and power services. Quintana said the mock attack involved nine warships, three combat planes and four helicopters -- two of which are Russian-made models Chavez started acquiring after the U.S. thwarted his attempts to acquire American technology.

On Friday, the mock invasion force is scheduled to be repelled by Venezuelans trained to defend the nation's strategic assets including oil terminals, fuel filling stations and tanker trucks.

I fear that if the US does invade Venezuela it will be able to muster more than a dozen or so tanks, Iraq commitments notwithstanding. The Venezuelans may seem paranoid to some unschooled observers, but they know that the US has a long history of intervening in its South American 'backyard' to change governments at the point of a gun. Memories of the CIA-backed 2002 coup attempt are particularly fresh in people's minds. And the US has already staged its own mock-invasion of Venezuela: a year before the abortive coup, US and NATO commanders wargamed a NATO attack on the country from launching pads in Panama and Colombia. Well, technically they were simulating the invasion of a couple of fictional countries by a couple of other fictional countries, but if we look at one of the maps that was used the similarities are pretty obvious:

Now it seems as though a bunch of cybergeeks has decided to give some guidance to the Pentagon. The new video game Mercenaries 2 asks players to help liberate a South American people from a 'power-hungry tyrant' who has 'interfered with our oil supply'. Not too tricky to figure out who they might be referring to, is it? Venezuelan National Assembly members are denouncing the game as an attempt to promote aggression against their country.

I'm not an expert on video games, but would I be wrong in saying that many of them seem these days to take the side of the overdog? How come there are so many games that give their players the job of helping America be world cop, and incidentally shooting lots of Arabs, Hispanics, and blacks, and so few that offer us the chance to strike back at the Empire? Where's Insurgency: the fight to liberate Iraq or Countercoup: fighting reaction on the streets of Caracas?

I remember visiting the legendary Miranda Hot Springs (that's Miranda on the Hauraki Plains, not Miranda in Venezuela) at the fag end of a fourth form camp, and getting to choose between swimming and playing on the spacies machines at the tuck shop beside the pool. No choice, after a week sleeping in tents. As I remember it, my old mate Adrian Price and I left the hoi polloi to their Pac Man, Star Wars, and Karate Kid, and took possession of a game called The Dictator. I still remember, or seem to remember, the blurb that thrilled us when it flashed on the screen everytime we inserted our coins:

The whole country is suffering under the cruel weight of the dictator...the people's only hope is your small band of rebels fighting against all odds high in the remote eastern are always outgunned, always outnumbered...good luck!

In case you hadn't guessed, the dictator had slicked back black hair, a chest full of medals, and dark glasses; the rebels all wore olive green uniforms and luxuriant beards. Adrian and I had recently decided, on the basis of one or two books about the Cuban revolution, that we were socialists, and we called our discovery 'The Fidel Castro game'. We played it with a vengeance, until our tuck shop and bus money was exhausted, and smoke and the echoes of grenades and machine gun fire had thoroughly disturbed the Eastern Mountains. I don't think we had enough coins to beat the dictator and liberate the country, though.

What's happened to The Dictator, and where are today's revolutionary video games? Some geek out there must have the answer...

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What was that you were saying, Brendan?

When they intervened in East Timor in 1999 Australian-led forces had little difficulty in 'restoring order'. Most of the violence perpetrated by Indonesian-backed militia had already abated by the time the Aussies and their allies got boots on the ground, and the faction of Fretilin which opposed the intervention chose to resist it non-violently.

In 2006 Australia faces a very different situation. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson's boast that "the simple exercise of deploying Australian Defence Force personnel...will have a peacemaking effect" is already sounding very hollow, as Aussie troops hidden in Black Hawks and tanks struggle to bring Dili under their control. Only a day or so into their mission, the troops are already coming under fire.

The Aussies cannot even secure the embassy of their Anzac ally, it seems. Helen Clark may be wondering what she's got herself into...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Is Xanana Gusmao staging a coup?

In the New Zealand media at least, the Labour government's decision this morning to send sixty troops to East Timor has overshadowed Xanana Gusmao's announcement that he is taking control of East Timor's police and armed forces from Prime Minister Mari Alkatari.

Yet Gusmao's move is an extraordinary one which demands our scrutiny. His post as President of East Timor is largely symbolic, and although the country's constitution calls him 'Supreme Commander of the country's defence force' and gives him the right to declare war he has never before attempted to exercise control over the army, let alone the police. Gusmao's attempt to gain control of these forces can thus been seen as a direct challenge not only to Alkatiri but to the constitution, at least it has been commonly interpreted in East Timor. It might not be going too far to say that, by unilaterally asking East Timor's security forces to disregard Alkatiri's authority and recognise his own, Gusmao is effectively attempting to stage a coup.

What is behind Gusmao's move? It is no secret that he has long been a bitter rival of his fellow Fretilin member Alkatiri, and reports suggest their rivalry has been reflected by the formation of well-organised factions within Fretilin and also within both the police and the army. When East Timor's constitution was being written in 2001 Gusmao and his close ally Jose Ramos-Horta clashed with Alkatiri over the powers that the new country's President ought to have. Alkatiri's view that the office of President should be largely symbolic prevailed.

Since then, Gusmao and Alkatiri have clashed over a number of issues, including Alkatiri's attempts to end religious instruction in schools and his opposition to World Bank loans. Gusmao attended the founding meeting of the Social Democratic Party, a centrist breakaway from Fretilin, and has often spoken in support of that party's six members of parliament against the policies of Fretilin. Many commentators have been puzzled by the relatively low profile that Gusmao has maintained during the soldiers' rebellion; some have suggested that he has been reluctant to boost Alkatiri by brokering a peace deal. At the recent Fretilin congress in Dili Alkatiri saw off a challenge for the post of party leader (and, effectively, Prime Minister) by East Timor's ambassador to the United Nations, who is a close ally of Gusmao and Ramos-Horta.

Now it appears that Gusmao has chosen to confront Alkatiri's authority head on, by attempting to seize control of East Timor's disintegrating army and police force. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to stamp his authority on forces that are bitterly antagonistic to each other and riven internally by an east-west regional divide as well as political divisions. Yesterday an array of factions of the army and the police fought battles in and around Dili; in one incident soldiers killed nine policemen who were seeking refuge in the city's UN compound.

One source that will not be surprised by Gusmao's power bid is the World Socialist Website. The WSWS, which has established a reputation on the left as an authority on East Timorese affairs, produced an article yesterday which claimed that Australia was backing a bid by Gusmao and Ramos-Horta to depose Alkatiri. Observing that Alfredo Reinaldo, a leader of some of the rebellious soldiers, was trained in Australia and favours the intervention of foreign troops in East Timor, the WSWS argues that the instability of recent weeks has been orchestrated by Canberra in an attempt to bring Alkatiri to his knees. The WSWS argues that Australia wants to get rid of Alkatiri because he has attempted to lessen East Timor's dependence on Canberra, confront John Howard over his country's exploitation of Timor Strait gas and oil reserves, and establish closer economic ties with Europe and China.

It is certainly true that Reinaldo has urged the intervention of foreign forces in East Timor, and that some Australian newspapers close to the Howard government have been critical of Alkatiri, but I wonder whether WSWS's analysis is not a little one-sided. For one thing, it ignores the fact that Reinaldo leads a small group of military policemen who only joined the rebel soldiers after April the 28th, when the mutiny against Alkatiri had already been underway for more than a month. Reinaldo does not claim to speak for all the rebels; in fact, he has warned Australia to beware of rebel groups other than his own. I also wonder whether it is credible to suggest that the Howard government would be prepared to provoke all the chaos we have seen in East Timor, and the attendant threat to Australian business intetests, diplomatic personnel and now soldiers, in exchange for reversing Alkatiri's very modest attempts to become more independent of Canberra. Alkatiri is hardly a communist.

Perhaps there is a danger, though, of trying to make analyses of events in East Timor too static, and forgetting that the key players in this drama are not bound to pursue the same strategies indefinitely. In 1999 Australia's Democratic Socialist Party made this sort of mistake when it decided that John Howard would never intervene in East Timor, and thus allowed itself to call for an intervention in order to 'expose' him. Of course, Howard was able to change tack and use intervention as a means of securing Australian control of East Timor's resources when public opinion and events on the ground made such a strategy preferable to non-intervention. Perhaps now that East Timor has slid into chaos and civil war Howard's government sees nothing to lose in backing the ouster of Alkatiri. Those of us who have been critical of the Alkatiri government should certainly beware of falling into the trap of welcoming anything that replaces it as automatically progressive.

Update: Gusmao's wife has given an interview in which she defends her husband's move to take control of the armed forces, and also claims he is in control of the international troops arriving in Dili. She concedes that Prime Minister Alkatiri is less than chuffed with the attempt to take control of the forces from him.

Feedback on East Timor

There's been quite a bit, as parts of my posts on the subject wash up on distant shores of the internet. On a bloggers' forum based in Australia there was a putdown of one of my posts by a bloke living in Lisbon; he spiced his critique up with all sorts of nice jibes, which is probably why it had been removed by the time I went to copy and paste it this morning. Damn. Here's something more positive, from an Australian who asks some very good questions:

This is the first account of the situation on East Timor that actually makes sense to me. The coverage on the mainstream press is disjointed and confusing despite the presence of reporters on the ground.

From a distance it seems the only explanation that makes sense is that the Australian Government is backing elements of the Freitlin Government to protect its own business interests in East Timor. What other explanation can there be for mobilising numerous warships, planes and sending 1300 troops into East Timor. As if we would do all this because we care about a handful of deaths in a nearby third world country. 180,000 Timorese died under the Indonesian Occupation and successive Australian Governments didnt even blink. Now 2 deaths in a shoot out are supposedly the reason we are sending in a massive military force!

Since the industrial action taken by 1/3 of the army - all we have seen is the East Timorese Government take is heavy handed actions - ie shooting at people. It obviously had no intentions of trying to find a peaceful solution to this situation.

Where is Xanana Gusmao - he supposedly signed the request to send in troop - he is the President. Tonight Brendan Nelson was the TV and said he was not in contact with him and didnt even know where he was - or the PM for that matter. The troops are on the ground even before terms of engagement have been agreed upon.
The whole thing is completely dodgy - if we gave two shits about the welfare of the Timorese we wouldnt be stealing their oil.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Aussie-Kiwi split over deployment to East Timor?

Helen Clark's Cabinet met today and seems to have to decided not to send troops to East Timor until it has more information on the situation there. This will come as an unpleasant surprise to Alexander Downer, Howard's Foreign Minister, who was virtually pre-empting New Zealand's decision earlier today (of course he virtually pre-empted East Timor's decision to call for troops, as well).

It looks, then, like a breach could be opening between the Anzac partners over this issue. One possible reason for Clark's caution is the very strong showing the rebels are making in the fighting that is raging in and around the East Timor capital Dili. There's an account of this fighting here, and its shows the professionalism of the rebels - they are no ragtag band of thugs, like the militia active in 1999 were.

The rebels could create real problems, particularly if the East Timorese government has insisted that foreign troops are not to be used as frontline fighters, but just as 'advisers' to the remainder of the East Timorese army and de facto cops on the streets of Dili. Recent reports suggest that Dili's airport is now cut off the from the rest of the city. Are Australian 'peacekeepers' going to have fight their way from their planes to their barracks? The photo at the top of this post shows Alfredo Reinhaldo, a senior military policeman who deserted to the rebel side after seeing the massacre of April the 28th. Reinhaldo knows how to fight - he was trained by the Australian army.

Aussie socialist Tom O'Lincoln has written a powerful analysis of the way that the 1999 intervention in East Timor prepared the way for the current mission. O'Lincoln sees the 1999 adventure as a turning point in Aussie military and diplomatic policy in the Asia Pacific region. Military spending did jump after 1999 and the strategy employed by Australia in the region changed dramatically. O'Lincoln points to the White Paper on Defence of 2000 as a sign of Australia's new thinking. The difference between the pre-1999 intervention in Bougainville - which, though still directed against the interests of the local people, was done through the Commonwealth, and involved mediation rather than ultimatium - and the aggressive unilateralism or 'join us or face the consequences' pseudo-multilateralism of recent years is obvious, and East Timor is part of the explanation for this change, along with 9/11 and the development of a super-aggressive US foreign policy.

Three figures

Today this blog attracted over one hundred unique visitors for the first time since Muzzlehatch installed a tracking device a couple of months ago. I know a century isn't exactly the big league, but I don't think it's bad for a blog that dwells on subjects like the intricacies of Marxist politics, obscure Kiwi poets, abandoned coal mines and the lives of retired test cricketers.

I'm celebrating our maiden hundred by posting the wagon wheel of the test century Rodney Redmond scored against Pakistan at Auckland in 1973. In his first test, opening batsman Redmond smashed 107, including a then world record of 24 off one over, in the first innings, and 56 in the second. For reasons that will probably forever remain somewhat obscure, unless I get round to writing a biography, Redmond was never picked to play for New Zealand again. (When I was a cricket-mad kid I would frequently ask my Dad why Redmond disappeared; he would mutter darkly 'The man was a non-conformist, son', and look away.) Let's hope this blog scores a few more tons than poor old Rodney.

Troops on their way to East Timor

East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta has invited Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, and Malaysia to send troops to his country. Australia and New Zealand had already said they would despatch forces speedily if they were requested, and Portugal has quickly accepted Ramos-Horta's request. It is likely that the first troops to arrive in the country will be thirty or so Kiwis from Burnham military base near Christchurch - they could be touching down in Dili in less than twenty four hours. Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson is talking about sending about 1,300 troops to 'bring the rebels to heel'.

The request for troops comes after an emergency meeting of Prime Minister Alkatiri's Cabinet yesterday. With firefights breaking out on the outskirts of Dili and reports coming in of violence in other parts of the country, Alkatiri's goverment has been forced to revise its forecast of a quick end to the crisis in East Timor, and forget about its boast that it could handle the security situation without the assistance of a foreign military force. Talk of a peace deal brokered by President Gusmao has also been abruptly dropped.

ABC is reporting that leaders of the rebel soldiers and military police are supportive of the idea of foreign intervention, because they think that a foreign force will rein in East Timor's government and its army. If they really believe this they will soon be disappointed, because the Australian-led intervention force will not act as any sort of mediator between the government and the rebels. Brendan Nelson's aggressive comments ought to make that clear.

This new intervention in East Timor throws down the gauntlet to the Australasian left. Many of the people who supported the intervention of 1999 are likely to be much more troubled about this new venture. The brutal behaviour of the Alkatiri government and the success of the rebellion in winning popular support in the western part of the country undermine the notion that the Australian-led force is embarking on some sort of righteous mission. The popular support which the rebels enjoy means that any efforts they make to resist the intervention will be far harder to deal with than those of the hated militia in 1999. Australia and New Zealand may be embarking upon an open-ended and costly mission.

Update: seems Helen Clark is a little tepid about the prospect of deployment - she's asking for more information before she sends troops. Meanwhile East Timor solidarity campaigner Maire Leadbeater is arguing against intervention.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Book

A couple of days ago I heard that one of my poems had been included in a textbook of 'creative writing' used by Massey University students. As someone who had to contend with the nightmarish poetry sections of School Cerificate English exams (name the theme of this poem; name three metaphors the poet uses to achieve his effect; name one rhetorical feature of this poem) I have rather mixed feelings about this development. I do, however, have faith in the ability of Jack Ross, one of the luminaries of the creative writing programme at Massey, to temper the tendency to scholasticism that is implicit in even the most well-intentioned textbook. And, let's face it, how could even the most recalcitrant and pretentious avant-gardist cope without textbooks and anthologies to react against? Here's a new poem:

The Book

Language is like a labelling gun, someone had told them. The boy goes from room to room taking aim. In the sunroom he labels a rocking horse; in the lounge he shoots a fir tree. She apologises to Sam, and to the guests, and hurries him upstairs to bed. Before the light goes out he takes possession of DOOR, BAD BEAR, and A FUNNY BUG. In the dark he tries to count her footsteps on the stairs, but the numbers run out after eleven. When the footsteps run out too he jumps out of bed, switches the light back on and steps into the wardrobe, where Mummy thinks she has hidden the book on his socks and undies shelf. He sits beside the bed and opens the book carefully. A is for ASTRONAUT. B is for BROWN BEAR. C is for CAMPER. D is for DOOR, which swings open to show Mummy holding a funny-looking glass with blood in it. 'Put that book away and go to bed, dear, or Daddy will be angry, and you'll never be an astronaut.' 'Can't we read it first Mummy?' 'For fuck's sake Simon! Shit! I mean no, no, sorry my dear, Mummy has to go and help Daddy help his friends, or Daddy will be angry. You understand. Now keep the light out. Sleep. Why don't you pretend you're sleeping in the tent?' The light goes off and the door shuts, but this time he doesn't count the footsteps. He lies on his stomach and closes his eyes, and listens to the big voices and the ringing glasses down where the stairs run out. He can't sleep. He doesn't want to sleep. He reaches under the bed and feels for the book with one hand, pushing Boring Bear and the rest of the Boring Toys out of the way. This time he stands beside the light switch for a few seconds before flicking it down. Straight away he hears footsteps on the stairs. Heavier, this time. His father's. Daddy's. He is not afraid, this time: he knows what he is going to do. He takes the book and opens it at his favourite page, at F is for FOREST. Big trees capped with snow stand straight and close together, and brown bears gather beside a river that is as fast and white as the Hooka Falls. It is Hooka Falls, he thinks. His father shouts something from the top of the stairs. He puts F is for FOREST on the ground, and straightens his back, and puts his feet together, and bows his head, so that he's standing the way he has to stand at the start of Keas meetings. He closes his eyes. He puts one foot then the other forward, shouting 'F is for FOREST' as loudly as he can. He opens his eyes and sees his feet instead of the big trees and the bears. He hears the small sound of the book's spine snapping, of a doorknob turning. D is for DOOR. D is for DADDY. He begins to cry.

Blogging from Dili

One of the reasons it's hard to understand what's going in East Timor is the paucity of English-language journalists and commentators on the ground in the country. It's good, then, to have the dili-gence blog, which is written by an expat working in East Timor's capital Dili. No word from him yet on the latest outbreak of violence, but plenty of interesting stuff in the archives.

While we're on the subject of East Timor, I wanted to post a couple of photos - I found them on Sydney indymedia - of the protests in Dili on April the 28th. They show protesters outside the Prime Minister's offices after police had opened fire on their rally. The photos clearly show that the protests of April the 28th included many civilians, as well as rebel soldiers.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

East Timor crisis continues

After surviving an attempt by members of his own party to unseat him, East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has backed down from his hardline stance against opponents and agreed to participate in mediation with the rebellious soldiers who have set up camp in the country's hills. President Xanana Gusmao is to play a role as mediator. Alkatiri's conciliatory gesture has failed to prevent new outbreaks of violence in Dili, and Australian and New Zealand troops are on standby for deployment to East Timor.

There's been some discussion on indymedia about the left's response to the crisis in East Timor, and a United Front leaflet against intervention has been mooted. Reproduced below is a rough draft I've written. It is aimed at people on the left and active in organisations like the unions who may not be up with all the nuances of the Marxist view on East Timor but are nevertheless very suspicious of characters like Howard and Bush. I think the view we need to combat is the Green Party one which distinguishes between 'bad' imperialism in Iraq and 'good' imperialism in East Timor and the Solomons.


Once again Australia and New Zealand stand on the brink of a major military intervention in East Timor. Australia already has more than one hundred troops in East Timor, and four of its warships sit off the country's coast. New Zealand troops at the Burnham base outside Christchurch are on standby for deployment to East Timor.

The new intervention is being planned because the East Timorese government faces widespread opposition which it has struggled to suppress on its own. In February nearly half of the East Timorese army went on strike to protest at poor pay and conditions and the brutality of military commanders and the East Timorese police force. On April the 28th the rebel soldeirs staged a peaceful march to Dili, where they were joined by thousands of civilans at a protest rally. On the orders of Prime Minister Alkatiri, the police opened fire on the protesters and killed at least five of them. Since April the 28th the police have been hunting down rebel soldiers and their supporters. Reports suggest that scores of these opponents of the Alkatiri regime have been killed.

Australia and New Zealand want to prop up the government of Alkatiri and his Fretilin party. They want Alkatiri to stay in power because he protects Australasian business intersts in East Timor. In recent years a series of one-sided deals with Fretilin's corrupt leaders have given Australia control of the oil and gas reserves under the Timor Strait. Aussie companies earn billions a year from these resources, but East Timor receives only a pittance in royalties and its people remain very poor.

Plans for an intervention in East Timor are supported by the United States. John Howard is George Bush's most loyal ally in the Asia Pacific region, and Australia has been pushing Bush's policies aggressively in this part of the world. Howard has already organised a military intervention in the Solomon Islands, and deployed Aussie cops across Papua New Guinea. Like Bush, Howard believes in using the military to impose extreme right-wing policies on Third World countries.

The vast majority of New Zealand workers oppose the war Bush and Howard are waging in Iraq. The Council of Trade Unions voted to oppose any Kiwi involvement in the military intervention in Iraq. We should oppose the same sort of intervention in our part of the world. If it's wrong in Iraq, it's wrong in East Timor. The people who need our solidarity are not Alkatiri and Howard but the workers and peasants of East Timor, who are waging a just struggle against a brutal government and its supporters in Canberra, Wellington, and Washington.

Update: the new violence in East Timor is getting a lot of coverage in the Australasian media because Aussie journo David O'Shea has been caught up in some of it. O'Shea was apparently interviewing some of the military policemen who have defected to the rebel soldiers' cause - TVNZ describes them as 'renegades' - when they were attacked by 'loyal' East Timorese soldiers. O'Shea believes two of the rebels were killed. It seems, then, that the East Timorese security forces are still launching attacks on the rebels, in spite of Alkatiri's announcement of a peace process.

Is your boss reading Marx?

I saw this on the marxmail list this morning...

Sharon Smith - Plug
Undisclosed-Recipient: >
Press Release
press_release_pom.doc (39KB)


Surprising call for Managers to turn to Marxism in academic journal

After the surprise result of Karl Marx being voted Britain’s Favourite Philosopher by the BBC’s audience last July, the new edition, published this week, of the academic Journal Philosophy of Management features a range of articles on Marxism and Management – with one calling for managers to turn to Marxism to be more successful.

Kieron Smith, an MBA graduate from the Open University, makes this link in his provocative piece entitled Marxism: Finding the Maestro in Management? He commented:

“I know it isn’t an obvious connection; however I felt managers were in dire need of some comprehensive self analysis and a set of tools with which to critically analyse the World around them. This is particularly pertinent at a time when Marx is being reassessed and Management is being criticized for its faddism and lack of academic rigor.”

This issue of Philosophy of Management is Guest Edited by David McLellan, Marx biographer, editor and scholar and Professor of Political Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London, who added:

“Large sections of contemporary management, both in the public and private sector, could benefit from more self-analysis and an attempt to locate themselves more clearly in contemporary economic development. Such a self-awareness can only help the contribution of managers to a more humane society. And the contributions to this issue show that the types of Marxist approach demonstrated in them can help in this process.”

Nigel Laurie, Editor and publisher of the Journal commented that:

“We’re delighted that one of the world’s leading Marx biographers and scholars has produced an issue that shows how concepts and theories from Marx and his followers can make sense of modern global management concerns – in the public and private sectors. This Marx issue continues our policy of bringing a range of philosophical traditions and standpoints to bear on one of the shaping forces of the modern world – and publishing work from practising managers as well as leading academics. In papers such as Marx and McDonaldization, How Neoliberalism Reproduces Itself, and How the State Changes Its Mind readers will find clear writing, fresh insights and rigorous thinking.”

Issue Contents:

David McLellan
Guest Editor Introduction: Marx, Marxism and Global Management

Kieron Smith
Marxism: Finding the Maestro in Management?

John Teta Luhman
Marx and McDonaldization: A Tropological Analysis

Bryan Evans
How the State Changes Its Mind: A Gramscian Account
of Ontario’s Managerial Culture Change

Alan Tuckman
Employment Struggles and the Commodification of Time:
Marx and the Analysis of Working Time Flexibility

Matthias Zick Varul
Marx, Morality and Management: The Normative Implications
of his Labour Value Theory and the Contradictions of HRM

Ernesto Gantman
Structural Change in Emergent Markets and the
Management Knowledge Industry: The Argentine Case

Kevin Young
How Neoliberalism Reproduces Itself: A Marxian Theory of Management

Nesta Devine

Is Analytic Marxism Possible? A ‘Socialist’ Interpretation of Public Choice Theory

Monday, May 22, 2006

Auckland's stonehenge

The Otuataua Stonefields Reserve is about as popular with tourists as Huntly or Island Block, yet it lies only a quarter of an hour from the centre of Auckland and includes half a dozen sites of considerable aesthetic as well as archaeological importance. The paucity of tour buses can probably explained by the fact that the stonefields sit on the shore of the Manukau Harbour between Mt Mangere and the airport, close to Auckland's recently decommissioned sewage works.

Yes, the shoreline still stinks, but a lot of work has gone into regenerating it - three new beaches, which the local council has given the genius names A, B, and C, have been created with sand and shells, thousands of trees have been planted, and a walkway has been laid. And, to be quite frank, I don't want this stretch of coast to completely lose its old smell, in case it starts to attract the yuppie couples who are gentrifying suburbs closer to town and chasing working class darkies away in the process. If the Mangere part of the Manukau Harbour gets too clean and pretty it'll end up on Metro magazine's list of 'Cool places to buy', and we'll see headlines like 'Mangere - the new Mission Bay?' in the Weekend Herald's Lifestyle section. Shit smells better than yuppies and their organic health food shops.

The stonefields themselves are the only sizeable remnant of the huge walled kumara gardens that Maori established across the Tamaki Makaurau peninsula many hundreds of years ago (the Waiohua iwi still has a strong presence in the Mangere area). The crooked, messy walls of the old Maori gardens contrast interestingly with the rigid lines of the walls European farmers built later to keep their stock out of volcanic vents and kumara pits. Ancient karaka and out of control Moreton Bay Fig trees rise out of piles of rock. Here and there the foundations of Maori dwellings can be seen. Rare native cucumbers grow between the stones, and there's even a publicly-owned avocado grove which passers by are invited to sample (the limit is five 'units', a large sign warns sternly).

Muzzlehatch and I were doing reasonably well crossing the stonefields until one of us had the bright idea of wandering from the trail. We ended up half a mile out in the Manukau Harbour, slogging through mud and mangroves in an effort to avoid a flock of hostile bulls and a vindictive electric fence. Things got worse when we tacked back to land and found ourselves in the middle of a quarry full of signs saying things like HIGHLY EXPLOSIVE EXPLOSIVES and DON'T BE A HERO - PHONE 111.

After climbing up a crumbling scoria cliff to escape the quarry we came face to face with one of the descendants of the nineteenth century European farmers who built those stern Protestant walls. In fact, the bloke was so old he may have been one of the wall-builders. After briefing us on the failings of our generation, our fathers' generation, and their fathers' generation, Cedric ordered us back into the high explosives zone, observing that 'I'm not responsible for any damage that occurs there'. He farms in the zone between the stonefields, the quarry, and the airport, and is regularly troubled by burglars. When I protested that we were not the burgling type, and were much more interested in native cucumbers, the old duffer became even less impressed with us. 'How do I know you're not something worse, then, eh? We've got the Japs and the Jerries knocking on the door, you know...'

After prolonged negotiations we were awarded safe passage up his cattle race and back to Muzzlehatch's car. A couple of stiff drinks and some greasy takeaways were in order.

Here are a couple of photos of Auckland's stonehenge and its surroundings. They're blurred because, let's face it, Muzzlehatch's camera is crap.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Apologising for Alkatiri?

The New Zealand Herald has finally discovered the political crisis in East Timor - yesterday's paper included a long article by Greg Ansley called 'East Timor a nation on a knife edge'. The article is accompanied by the first photo I have seen of the soldiers' protest on the 28th of April (I've reproduced it above this post), and suggests that the leader responsible for the bloody suppression of that protest will cling to his job:

Opponents claim Alkatiri is arrogant, autocratic, confrontational and out of touch, and blame him for the crisis in the Army that led to 594 soldiers - 40 per cent of its strength - being forced from its ranks.

Alkatiri's response put Timor on its latest razor's edge. Lashing out at "hooligans", provocateurs and "destabilising" critics, he threatened to resign as Prime Minister if he was dumped from the Fretilin leadership. His supporters threatened bloodshed if he was rolled by Guterres.

As the Weekend Herald went to press it appeared Alkatiri would survive, following a change from secret ballot to a show of hands for yesterday's vote. His rivals claimed the move would intimidate many of the 571 voting delegates at the Sunrise Convention Centre, especially public servants depending on Government goodwill for their jobs.

Ansley quotes Maire Leadbeater, long-time activist in the Indonesian Human Rights Committee and sister of Green MP Keith Locke, as saying that 'Most newly independent countries that have integrated former resistance fighters into a new, conventional, army have had problems'. If Leadbeater hasn't been misquoted here, then it seems to me that she needs to be taken to task for her words. All the reports from East Timor say that the vast majority of the six hundred or so soldiers who have rebelled against the government are not veterans of Falintil's long struggle against Indonesian occupation but young men who have only been part of the army a relatively short time. Most of them come from the west of the country, a region that was under-represented in Falintil's ranks. The rebels have complained about the domination of the army by former Falintil commanders, about the brutality of their country's police force, and about the poor pay they receive from the Alkatiri government. Every report I have read from East Timor has also emphasised that there is widespread popular support for the rebels, support that was reflected in the thousands of civilians who joined the march through Dili on April the 28th. And surely the massacre that Alkatiri's police perpetrated that day only confirms many of the arguments that the rebel soldiers have been making?

Maire Leadbeater's decades of activism around East Timorese and Indonesian issues must have given her a huge range of contacts, so I find it very hard to believe she would not know about the regional composition of the rebellious soldiers, the nature of their complaints, and the fact that they have received widespread support. Why, then, did she offer the Herald such a misleading explanation for the soldiers' rebellion? And where is her condemnation of the April the 28th massacre? Perhaps I've missed it, but I haven't seen anything from her or the Indonesian Human Rights Committee (if anyone has seen a statement, please put it in the comments boxes here and I'll correct my mistake).

Leadbeater seems to be unwilling to face the fact that a popular uprising has broken out against the Fretilin leaders she has supported for so long. Admitting that East Timor is on the brink of civil war, and not just experiencing post-independence teething problems, might force Leadbeater to re-examine her support for the 1999 military intervention in East Timor. That operation was supposed to deliver East Timor into a new era of peace and democracy; what if, six and a half years on, such an era has failed to materialise? What if the tiny minority of the Australasian left that argued that intervention would lead East Timor down a dead end road were right? What if Keith and his mates in the Aussie branch of the Khaki Greens are wrong when they say that Australasian troops need to be brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan so that they can be available to reoccupy East Timor?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Has Ken Livingstone been reading this blog, and will his heavies be coming after Aleksander Boyd?

The phrase 'to the right of Genghis Khan' pops up occasionally in political discourse in this part of the world - Bob Hawke, who was not exactly a raving commie himself, first brought it to the attention of headline writers when he used it on Robert 'Piggy' Muldoon back in the early '80s. Since then, the phrase has been regarded as a useful insult to hurl at politicians of the right.

I was unaware of anyone actually admitting to aspiring to the politics of Genghis Khan, though, until I stumbled upon the website of Aleksander Boyd, the very loud voice of the Venezuelan opposition-in-exile. As I pointed out to Guillermo Parra earlier this week, Boyd wants to eat his half-brother and lead a horde of nomads through Caracas on a mission of vengeance against commies and Chavistas. Boyd's cannibalistic impulses didn't stop him getting space in The Times and time on TV to condemn Hugo Chavez's recent visit to London. Now London mayor Ken Livingstone, who hosted a meeting and posh dinner for Chavez, has replied by quoting some of Boyd's writings and calling him 'a supporter of terrorism'. Boyd, who has a record of waging campaigns of harrassment against many of the Bolivarian revolution's prominent supporters in Britain and the US, has wasted no time in hitting the roof, claiming 'Red Ken' wants to deport him to fascist Venezuela. That'd be a difficult task, since Boyd's isn't wanted for any offence by the Venezuelan authorities. Isn't it terrible when you want a government to establish a police state and repress you and they just won't play along?

I expect the voice of Venezuelan democracy will be busy denouncing Livingstone for the next six months. A lot of people have questioned the value of blogging, but I think it's good for something if it keeps people like Boyd off the streets.

East Timor Update

I posted last week about the crisis caused in East Timor by the revolt of soldiers from the West of the country against the Fretelin-dominated government of Prime Minister Alkatari. Today (or rather yesterday!) Fretelin began a three-day congress where the leadership of Alkatari is expected to be challenged. Some observers warn of violence if Alkatari is able to cling to his job, and Dili is reported to be quiet and tense. Many of the roughly twenty thousand people who fled the city after last month's police riot are still unwilling to return.

Australia has repeatedly asked the East Timorese government if it requires additional military 'assistance' to deal with the situation, but has so far been turned down. (This may well reflect public attitudes toward the Australians and the UN in East Timor, because the Fretelin-dominated government has never been shy of accepting Aussie troops in the past.) Despite the cold shoulder from Dili, John Howard has dispatched four warships to waters near East Timor. New Zealand is ready and all too willing to send fresh forces, as well.

Last week's post was forwarded to the large Marxmail list, where it sparked some debate. You can read criticisms of my views here and here, and defences of my main argument here and here. This report, which purports to come from the hills outside Dili, was posted to the Marxmail list, but some people I have shown it to have doubted its veracity. They say that the hills lack internet access, and that it is unusual for an East Timorese leftist to begin a message with a greeting in Indonesian (although many younger East Timorese use Indonesian, the language is regarded as tainted by the twenty-four year occupation that ended in 1999).

Meanwhile, the long-simmering argument inside the Kiwi left about the wisdom of supporting imperialist military intervention in East Timor has broken out again at indymedia, in the comments boxes under this report on the intervention in the Solomons.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

From Kalmykia to Huntly

Daniel Kalder's recently-published Lost Cosmonaut is a record of visits to four of Russia's 'most obscure and least glamorous' republics. The book begins with a spoof manifesto, a record of the 'Resolutions of the first international congress of Anti-Tourists', which was supposedly held at the 'Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent'. In this document and in the rest of his book, Kalder argues for an 'anti-travel writing' that exalts the humdrum, the ugly, and the obscure over the scenic, the historic, and the famous. Lost Cosmonaut is full of derelict factories, empty steppe, and rambling drunks.

In an interview with the Guardian, Kalder elaborated the idea behind his book:

"Me and Joe [his companion for two of the trips] had been living in Moscow for quite a while, and he had a map of Russia on his wall. We used to sit and look for places that we'd not only never heard of but had no mental image of either. And then we'd go...

I found out Kalmykia itself was just an empty wasteland, and I became fascinated by its nothingness. No one in Russia knew where it was: Joe spent two hours phoning travel agents, and they kept telling him it was in another country. When we did go, we had to tell people we were journalists, because they were just baffled by the idea of people coming to visit. The only way to get there was to fly in this really crappy little plane, that looked like a waiting room for death. And when we got there, physically, it was just this endless, empty land. There was nobody there; nothing. It was an absolute void, which is what we were both looking for...

I chose in the end to visit Udmurtia [the final stop on his tour] because the Udmurts basically no longer exist - they're already assimilated. I put that passage in because I didn't want people to be able to think 'I'm not like these folk. They're losers'. The whole point of the book was to try to bring those people close. I'm from Fife, which is another nothing zone, and a friend said to me when he read the Udmurt section that it sounded like I was a long-lost Udmurt coming to meet his brothers. And I felt pleased that he thought that: I didn't want to have this fake distance, this fake ... " he hestitates," ... exoticism, that travel-writing can produce."

It's an open question, though, whether Kalder manages to convince his readers of the ordinariness of the places he visits. Take Kalmykia, for instance: this republic in the Caucasus is inhabited by descendants of central Asian nomads who have retained their Buddhist religion and look more like Koreans than Russians. Their President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is also the head of the World Chess Federation, and spends most of his time attending chess tournaments far from his homeland. Back in the '90s he built a 'chess city' on the barren steppe of Kalmykia for an international tournament in the country. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Ilyumzhinov declared that he supported both Saddam Hussein and George Bush! All in all, Kalmykia doesn't sound quite like Fife.

It's also worth asking how original Kalder's 'anti-travel' writing is. Since the birth of modernism, at least, writers and artists have frequently been drawn to unglamorous, ugly or boring subject matter. Duchamp's 'readymades' made bicycle wheels and urinals into art objects; James Joyce delighted in the provincial mundanity and ugliness of turn of the century Dublin; Frank Sargeson heard poetry in the bar room talk of shearers in Te Kuiti...

If anyone ever writes an 'anti-travel' book set in New Zealand, then the region loosely known as the 'lower Waikato' deserves a chapter. Over the past few years I've fallen in love with this outwardly rather unloveable area, which most Aucklanders know only as a corridor between their city and Hamilton. Huntly, the gritty mining town that is 'capital' of the region, is the butt of jokes in the rest of the country in much the same way that Hull is the butt of jokes in Britain. In the '90s Auckland's student radio station even produced a mock-tribute song called 'What's wrong with Huntly?' The track, whose lyrics consisted mostly of quotes from the Huntly County Council's PR, ended up making the national charts.

Despite the best efforts of the County Council, the lower Waikato remains off the tourist radar: it has none of the snow-capped mountains, luxuriant forests, tumbling waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes that fill the heads of most visitors to New Zealand. What the lower Waikato does have is a big brown river, a big brown power station, a dozen or so very muddy riverine lakes, big stretches of swamp, dozens of abandoned coal mines, a couple of functioning mines at Huntly West and Maramarua, a few abandoned factories, mostly related to the coal industry, and several layers of fascinating history. This area was the home of one of the most militant sections of the New Zealand working class - of miners and dairy factory workers who developed an intense sense of solidarity living in small settlements dominated by single employers. They played rugby league, not rugby - an almost seditious act in the Waikato - and made formidable opponents in a string of famous industrial disputes.

In 1913 Huntly and surrounding townships were subject to occupation by 'Massey's Cossacks', the farmers on horseback who brutally defeated the general strike called that year by the 'Red' Federation of Labour; in 1932, in the aftermath of the famous Queen St riot, rumours flew around Auckland claiming that the miners of the lower Waikato had formed a red army and were marching on the city. (In the event, the out of work and hungry miners restricted themselves to ransacking the shops of Huntly.) During the 1951 waterfront dispute, National Prime Minister and wannabe dictator Sid Holland was able to declare the existence of a 'communist conspiracy' to create civil war in New Zealand after explosives were planted under a railway bridge near Huntly. Holland sent the army into the area to protect the trains carrying coal dug by scab labour.

Today in the lower Waikato the era of working class militancy is over, and seemingly almost forgotten; in the Huntly Coal Museum one can find records of the members of the town's croquet team in 1951, but nothing about the epic struggle of that year.
But there is another, earlier layer of lower Waikato history which has gained increased prominence in recent years. The most important phase of the 'New Zealand Wars' began when thousands of British troops and a few rag-tag colonial volunteers crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream, a small tributary of the Waikato River, just south of the frontier town of Mercer. The Mangatwhiri had been declared an 'aukati', or border, by the Ngaruawahia-based government of the Waikato Kingdown, and the intrusion of the British army sparked a series of battles which ended in the defeat of the Kingdom and the retreat of its leadership and army into the 'Rohe Potae' in the rough country south of Te Awamutu.

The 'Maori renaissance' of recent decades has increased awareness of the importance of the Waikato War, and today busloads of schoolkids troop obediently in and out of the small but fascinating tea shop-cum-museum run by a history buff in Rangiriri, site of the biggest battle of the war. But the earthworks of both Maori musket pa and European redoubts which litter the lower Waikato still go as unregarded as the remains of the area's coal industry.

Last Thursday Muzzlehatch and I drove through the mist and rain to try to find the spot where the British army crossed the 'aukati' and began the Waikato War. There were no tourist brochures to help us, only James Cowan's 1924 History of the Maori Wars, and when we found the spot it was marked not with a plaque but with the corpse of a cow, dozens of empty beer bottles, and scores of bullet shells. They're a wild bunch down in the Waikato.

Here's a shot of me on the northern side of the aukati (it's slightly blurry, on account of the mist):

And here's a view across the aukati, into the former territory of the Waikato Kingdom:

Later we drove to Rangiriri, and took this photo of the graveyard which sits on part of the battle site:

The Maori who died defending their pa site between the Waikato River and Lake Waikare were buried in a mass grave, whereas the Brits got individual spots marked by blank stones.

At the back of Meremere, the village built south of Mercer for the workforce of a now-derelict power station, there's a little-known area called Island Block which somehow manages to sum up the feel of the lower Waikato. Island Block is a thin strip of dairy farmland almost completely surrounded by the sprawling Whangamarino swamp. The Block seems to be permanently enveloped in mist; green rot marks the walls of its farmhouses. Here's a photo taking looking south from the block, out over the swamp:

Eat your heart out Daniel Kalder.

Socialism in one village

It's the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution, and the Weekly Standard, the main English-language business paper in the brave new capitalist China, is carrying a report from the village of Nanjie, whose inhabitants have rejected the market and held onto Maoism:

As the rest of China struggles with mounting social problems brought on by two decades of turbocharged economic reforms and vanishing social safety nets, the decidedly retro Nanjie seems to have found the good life. It is the best known of a handful of villages that have returned to the country's communist past...

The people of Nanjie also tried their hand at privatization, but they didn't like what they saw. In their view, the entrepreneurs who built factories exploited workers to line their own pockets and gave nothing back to the community.

The Nanjians decided to recollectivise their land and run the new factories co-operatively. Twenty years later, they're still going strong, thanks in part to a bloke called Wang Hongbin:

Today, Nanjie is home to 26 enterprises and joint ventures and employs about 11,000 laborers, making it the wealthiest village in Henan province. But as its de facto chief executive officer, Wang is no millionaire. He makes US$30 (HK$234) a month, a sum he set for himself and the rest of the cadres in his small-town utopia. That's about what a poor Chinese farmer earns but only about a third of what an urbanite makes.

It's all part of his ``fool's'' theory, written prominently in red ink on the walls behind the village square: ``Only fools can save China.''

``China needs fools. The world needs fools,'' the down-to-earth Wang says. ``What does it mean to be foolish? Self-sacrifice.''

Pity about the giant portrait of Stalin in the village square, but I guess it's no more offensive than those golden arches you see everywhere else in China these days...

The BBC has a report on Nanjie's booming tourist trade.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Commie Mutant Traitor Scum! (Faux News discovers a new enemy)

The Media Matters website has an analysis of Faux News' discovery of a new threat to the American way of life here...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Maori Party heading for a split?

In an article published on indymedia and in the latest issue of Class Struggle, a rank and file Maori Party member discusses the disagreements between Hone Harawira and the party's other MPs over National's ninety day probation legislation and over the proper attitude to the Act Party. Here's an excerpt:

The Maori Party’s rightward shift away from its natural political ally the Labour Party, is a reactionary move in response to Labour’s anger at losing a significant part of its past support base. For a Party consisting of disillusioned castaways from the political mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before there is a clash between its pragmatic leadership and the more principled working class rank and file. The kaupapa (basic platform) that the Party and its constitution rests on, is being exposed as a weak excuse to accommodate political rivals.

The question being considered by members in many of the local branches is: are these early signs of an inevitable future split within the Maori Party centred on a breakaway led by Hone Harawira?

Here's hoping...

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hugo Chavez vs Genghis Khan

A week or so ago I published some criticisms that Guillermo Parra, the Venezuelan poet, blogger, and political activist, had
made of my view of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution. In trying to account for my support for the revolution he detests, Parra suggested that I am the victim of a romantic naivety: stuck down here at the bottom of the world in little old New Zealand, I have supposedly begun to project my unfulfilled political fantasies onto exotic Venezuela. Were I to visit Venezuela I would, Parra assured me, quickly become disillusioned with the revolution and join those noble souls who seek its reversal by coup or US invasion.

Well, it's true that intellectual, arty farty wankers like myself sometimes have a tendency to idealise sturdy men of action like Hugo Chavez, and it's also true that Kiwi socialists depressed by the conservatism of their own society can sometimes end up living a voyeuristic political life cheering on Third World revolutions from afar. But I'd like to think that my view of the Bolivarian revolution avoids the emotionalism and over-optimism which is a hallmark of romantic politics. I'd especially like to think I avoid signing up to any personality cult surrounding Hugo Chavez. As a Marxist, I dissent from the ever-popular view that great men (and very ocasionally the odd great woman) make history. I think that leaders are more often ciphers for complex sets of interests than epiphenomenal independent actors on the stage of history. My paper on Venezuela tries to correct the tendency of commentators on both the non-Marxist left and the right to conflate the Bolivarian revolution with Hugo Chavez.

I'd also caution Parra about automatically associating political romanticism with the left. Parra has written perceptively about the naive political romanticism of thirties poets like WH Auden and Stephen Spender, but he has perhaps forgotten that these same poets became equally romantic reactionaries by the time they reached middle age. Those of us not blinded by the right can see that Spender's alliance in the 1950s with the CIA was prompted by the same sort of naivety and misplaced idealism as his defence of Stalinism in the 1930s. The older man romanticised US imperialism as surely as the younger man had romanticised Stalin's state.

I think there is a strong vein of what we might call 'reactionary romanticism' in the political material on Parra's blog. On page after page we can see near-hysterical denunciations of opponents and replacement of analysis with emotion, rhetoric, and outright falsification. We can also see that Parra, who still calls himself a man of the left and a defender of democracy, has made some very unsavoury allies in his fight against Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution.

A particularly depressing example of Parra's lack of political judgement is the decision he has just made to reproduce on his blog an article which the Venezuelan oppositionist Aleksander Boyd published in The Times of London earlier this week.

Boyd's article reminds me of Raymond Williams' explanation of why he stopped reading The Times as a young man.
'I'd be halfway through the first page and already be composing six letters to the editor in my head', Williams said. 'I decided that I couldn't have these people in my house'. Boyd's litany of lies has already been demolished by Julia Buxton, so I won't bother to discuss it in any detail.

What I do want to do is draw Parra's attention to something else that Aleksander Boyd wrote - something that should make any true leftist and supporter of democracy very reluctant to treat Boyd as an authority on anything except the psychology of fascism and sadism. On March the 18th 2004 Boyd published an article called 'I Wish I Was Genghis Khan' on vcrisis, the anti-Bolivarian blog he runs from self-imposed exile in London. Here is an excerpt from Boyd's piece:

I wish I was Genghis Khan, I wish I had eaten my half-brother… Therefore the scum of this earth a.k.a. Hugo Chavez and followers would not be willing to piss me off. Ergo they would be extremely careful of not treading on my rights. Attempts to conquer commanded by me would encounter nothing less than total submission owing to the sheer fear that my presence would cause. That is today my surreal and unachievable dream. When I read the comments of CNE’s Francisco Carrasquero or the rulings of ‘top magistrate’ Ivan Rincon Urdaneta or the arguments of ‘people’s defender’ Isaias Rodriguez I wish I was Genghis Khan. I wish I was the Khan an order my hordes to capture them and pour melted silver into their eyes.

I wish I was the Khan so that I could get on my horse in Merida and when reaching Tabay learn that Hugo Chavez had already abandoned the country for more pleasant and truly democratic destinations such as Cuba.

I wish I was the deadly nomad so that the Colombian guerrilleros would go find other ‘havens of tranquility’. I wish the roar of my cavalry would cause the enemy tremble. I wish I could decapitate in public plazas Lina Ron and Diosdado Cabello. I wish I could torture for the rest of his remaining existence Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel in “El Nuevo Circo.” I wish I could fly over Caracas slums throwing the dead bodies of the criminals that have destroyed my country.

I had a bad dream last night, history had repeated itself. As my grandfathers did before me I had to engage in guerrilla warfare to get rid of insane individuals and as they did, such actions had taken an extraordinary toll on my family’s wellbeing. And I feel nothing but profound revulsion for Hugo Chavez and for everything he represents. I am disgusted to be defined as a human being when individuals like him belong to the same category. I wonder about the dynamics of creation and human thought; I wonder how the purest creature of them all (woman) can give birth to such lusus naturae.

I wonder how a freak who calls himself a patriot permits citizens from another nation to abuse his fellow countrymen. I had never set my hopes for a peaceful resolution very high, this morning however the apprehension turned into reality and fell like a ton of bricks.

There’s nothing left, with mentally unstable people one can not engage in dialogue. Only barbaric practices will neutralize them, much the same way the Khan did. I wish I was him…

Hard as it may be to believe, Boyd wasn't drunk, or mad, or taking the piss when he wrote this. It is no coincidence that he and his collaborators at vcrisis have felt no urge to remove 'I Wish I Was Genghis Khan' from their archive. Boyd's most famous article does no more than express the worldview and political tactics of a Venezuelan bourgeoisie which has spent the last seven years using coup attempts, economic sabotage, bombs, and murder to stop the process of political and social reorganisation known as the Bolivarian revolution.

Boyd speaks for a bourgeoisie which has killed hundreds of peasant activists in an effort to stop land reform; which firebomed buses carrying workers defying the national lockout it tried to impose; and which regularly appeals to George Bush to 'save Venezuela' by starting a new war. This is the bourgeoisie with which Parra chooses to align himself. It is also the class that Venezuelans have rejected in half a dozen elections over the past seven years. Venezuelans look likely to reject Boyd's politics again in this year's Presidential elections - the opposition's own polling gives Chavez a fifty percent lead over his nearest rival.

All this is hardly suprising, of course. For all his faults, who wouldn't prefer Hugo Chavez to Genghis Khan?

'Once you can't find anyone from your own species to mate with, you perhaps lower your standards'

That's the response of zoologist David Paetkau to the discovery of a grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the far north of Canada. The creature has (or had - it was, as you can see, shot by hunters a couple of weeks ago) long grizzly bear claws, a humped grizzly back, and mostly white fur. Petkau reckons it was created because a male grizzly bear which had travelled north to eat seals was unable one of his own species to mate with, and had to settle for a polar bear.

Whatever happened to romance?

There's now a contest on to think up clever names for the new sub-species - pizzly, grizzlar, and grolar are all doing the rounds amongst zoologists. Some people are even worrying that the purity of the polar bear volk might be at risk, as global warming brings more and more grizzly bears into their traditional territory and sets the scene for more unions:

If global warming is driving grizzlies farther north into polar bear territory, as some locals and scientists believe, there's a possibility that polar bear genes may disappear as the two species interbreed.

"Polar bears could lose their distinction," [Petkau] says.

"The trickle of grizzlies going north is turning into a stream. The hybrid event might be more common than we know."

Saturday, May 13, 2006


The revelation that the blogger AJ Chesswas is the invention of a couple of decadent IT geeks, and not the fair dinkum, no bullshit Taranaki farmer he claimed to be, has stirred a bit of debate on the Kiwi blogosphere about the ethics of hoaxing. Chesswas' creators claim he was designed to explore the parameters of a certain worldview, and expose some of its absurdities; his erstwhile polemical opponents complain that their time has been wasted. I don't want to discuss the specifics of the Chesswas case - I found the bloke boring even before he was exposed as fictional - but I do find the whole subject of literary hoaxing fascinating. I thought I'd post about a couple of famous hoaxes from Australia, a place which seems to be a stronghold of the genre.

The first case I want to mention is that of Ern Malley, the poet invented in 1943 by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two soldiers intent on discrediting Australian literature's fledgling modernist movement. These angry young men wrote sixteen poems in a day, opening books at random, bouncing lines off each other, free associating, and borrowing from their own writings to create what they considered to be a mish mash typical of the writing published in Angry Penguins, the Adelaide-based torchbearer for modernist art and literary trends like surrealism, Dadaism and Cubism. McAuley and Stewart wanted to ridicule the strange imagery, dislocated sentences, fascination with modernity, and revolutionary politics which they associated with Penguins and with modernism in general. Here is an excerpt from the Ern Malley poem 'Culture as Exhibit':

“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds ...” Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)
Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.

The Malley poems were fired off to Penguins along with a letter from Malley's sister lamenting her brother's untimely demise from Graves' disease in a working class suburb of Melbourne. When Penguins published Malley's oeuvre and lauded him as a 'great Australain poet', the two hoaxers revealed themselves, and Penguins and Australian modernism were ridiculed in national newspapers. The hoaxers' conservatism (political, as much as literary) would dominate Austalian letters for two decades, as editors and aspiring writers drawn to the experiments of modernism were cowed by the mockery that had killed Angry Penguins.

Eventually, though, the Malley poems were excavated by a gang of feisty young Aussie neo-Modernists, the so-called 'generation of '68', who thought them wonderful. Slowly, this revisionist view became literary orthodoxy, and the Ern Malley poems are now more admired and anthologised than anything else produced by the hoaxers. I certainly think there is a great deal of truth in the argument that McAuley and Stewart were able to escape the hidebound conventions of their conservative aesthetics and worldview and produce some memorable (if occasionally slightly silly) poetry by donning the Ern Malley disguise.

The second literary hoax I want to consider was published under the name of Helen Demidenko. Demidenko, whose real name was Darville, was an ambitious compulsive liar who wrote a novel called The Hand that Signed the Paper about the Ukrainian role in the Jewish Holocaust. Darville, who had no Ukrainian heritage, pretended to be a descendant of a participant in this slaughter recounting more-or-less factual details in the blood-splattered prose she had cut and pasted from numerous contemporary novels and short stories.

Many people detected anti-Semitism in The Hand that Signed the Paper, because Demidenko seemed to justify atrocities by pointing to the supposed oppression of Ukrainians by Jews during the centuries preceding the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. When the book won a major literary prize tension between the Jewish and Ukrainian communities in Australia rose to dangerous levels. Throughout the controversy, Demidenko's usurpation of Ukrainian identity was a key factor in the defences which were mounted on her behalf by Ukrainians and by friendly literary critics. She was, they argued, to be praised for confronting her past courageously. Outrage came from many quarters when a few simple inquiries by a journalist revealed that Demidenko had no Ukrainian background, and that her wearing of national dress for photoshoots and the long winded family histories given to interviewers were just parts of an elaborate con.

Incredibly, though, a few literary critics and academics stood by Demidenko, arguing that the whole notion of an author is a fiction, that language is autonomous and its meaning arbitrary, and so on ad nauseum. (One recalls Derrida's defence of the literary scholar Paul de Man after he was posthumously 'outed' as the author of a number of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspaper articles.) The thing that made the response of the pro-Demidenko lit critics and academics so sickening to me was the fact that few of them were Jewish and none, so far as I know, was Ukrainian, yet they felt themselves wholly equipped to pass judgement on a book which represented an attack of virtually physical force on both communities.

To me, the persona of Helen Demidenko is an essential part of every sentence of The Hand that Signed the Paper. To consider the book without considering the falsity of Demidenko's claims - about herself, and about the history of Ukraianian-Jewish relations - is pointless. It seems to me that the book fails because of the falsity of these claims. I don't think I'm alone in holding this opinion - The Hand that Signed the Paper is well on its way to being a forgotten book today. The Ern Malley poems, by contrast, seem to grow more and more popular - Peter Carey's recent novel My Life As A Fake is just the latest sign of the fascination the figure of Malley continues to evoke inside and outside Australia. The Hand that Signed the Paper is already out of print, but Ern Malley's poems can be found in any good Australian bookshop.

How do we account for Malley's longevity? Why has his work survived the unmasking of his creators by sixty-three years? We might answer 'Because his poems are so good' or 'Because McAuley and Stewart allowed themselves to write well', but this would be begging the question. Why do we find the Malley oeuvre so compelling, when the hapless Helen Demidenko is interesting for historical reasons only? Why were McAuley and Stewart able to unlock such creativity when they wrote the Malley poems? The Malley hoax was a polemical exercise - an unusual way of making a heartfelt argument against modernism and in favour of a conservative style of writing and a conservative view of the world. The same argumet is made in a much more naked way in many of the 'serious' poems of McAuley and Stewart.

Polemic is a rough and ready style of argument which relies on a peculiar mixture of caricature and logic. In a great polemic, like EP Thompson's The Peculiarities of the English, Lenin's Left-wing Communism, or Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading a balance is struck between these two elements. The target of a good polemic might be subject to all sorts of witty rhetorical attacks, but if his or her arguments are not given a reasonably fair treatment he or she can expect to emerge unscathed from the attack. Lenin's polemic can be devastating, because the force of his logic makes us understand the reason for his sometimes-extravgant caricatures and imprecations. We come to feel his frustration and anger at the shortcomings of his opponents. We empathise with his feelings because he has brought us close to his opponent's positions and allowed us to see their shortcomings.

Of course, there is a risk attached to this procedure: by laying out his opponent's arguments and showing us the reasons for them - the worldview expressed in them - Lenin runs the risk of losing us to his opponents. We might decide we like the formulations of the 'renegade Kautsky' or the 'infantile left-wing communists'. When researching the history of the British left in the 1920s and 30s, I was amazed by the number of people - John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell are prominent examples - who were persuaded of the merits of social democracy by Lenin's attacks on the creed in polemics with social democrats like Kautsky. Equally, many of the 'ultra-leftists' Lenin sought to counter in polemics like Left-wing communism had their faith bolstered by the book.

I think that the Ern Malley hoax can be considered a polemic which boomeranged on its authors, an attack on modernism that has ended up winning its readers to modernism. McAuley and Stewart achieved what was, for them, a dangerous level of empathy with their target. Trying to ridicule the style and worldview of mid-century literary modernism, they succeeded in giving that style and worldview unforgettably vivid expression:

Where I have lived
The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the comer.
I have heard them shout in the streets
The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
And in the magazines I have read
The Popular Front-to-Back.
But where I have lived
Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
Guernica is the ticking of the clock
The nightmare has become real, not as belief
But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo.

Can we go so far as to say that McAuley and Stewart fell in love with their creation, in the same way that Milton fell in love with Satan when he was writing Paradise Lost? Is McAuley and Stewart's post-Malley work so disappointing for the same reason Paradise Regained is so disappointing when set beside its predecessor?

It can be said without exaggeration that Ern Malley's poems are much better than the 'authetic' work that Angry Penguins published. McAuley and Stewart may have lost their argument with modernism, but their loss is our gain. The same cannot be said of The Hand that Signed the Paper. Helen Demidenko destroyed Helen Darville's reputation and put paid to her chances of a literary career, and she offers no compensatory rewards to the rest of us. Her book produced only bitterness and a sense of betrayal in Australia's Ukranian and Jewish communities. Demidenko's novel fails because it nowhere exhibits the profound imaginative empathy of the Ern Malley poems. The Hand that Signed the Paper never gets inside the heads of its targets. It is a pastiche full of cliched characters and unpleasant national and ethnic stereotypes. Caricature wins out over empathy, and the reader loses out. Darville may be a fantasist but she lacks an imagination.