Saturday, February 27, 2010

Raiding Act's art farm

One of New Zealand's richest men is opening his property to visitors this weekend - though entry comes at a price. Alan Gibbs' farm near Kaukapakapa, in the southern part of the Kaipara harbour region, is famous for its sculpture park and its strange animals, but few Kiwis have had the opportunity to visit it. Now, for a mere two hundred and fifty dollars, 'standard' visitors can wander about Gibbs' place on foot. 'Premium' guests, who will have forked out a cool grand, get a guided tour by jeep. Both sets of visitors will be free to examine the series of massive sculptures which Gibbs has commissioned for his property over the past decade. Guests will also get to hear Gibbs and Roger Douglas give talks on the topic 'What I would do if I were dictator of New Zealand for a year'.

Gibbs made his fortune in the eighties and early nineties, when he was intimately involved in the privatisation of assets like Telecom and New Zealand's exotic forests, and he remains an enthusiastic advocate of the neo-liberal economics that made him wealthy. He has had a close association with the Act Party, and in the lead-up to the 2008 election he donated two hundred thousand dollars to the organisation, helping it scrape back into parliament. The money raised by the 'open day' at Gibbs' property will be thrown at two right-wing websites, the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, which is run by former Act MP Muriel Newman, and the Centre for Resource Management Studies, which is headed by climate change 'sceptic' Owen McShane.

Fortunately, readers of this blog don't need to hand over large sums of money to the far right to enter Gibbs' secret kingdom - two of our regular readers, Maxine and Muzzlehatch, recently raided the place, and returned with images and analysis. I've interviewed them, and reproduced a few of their pictures.

Maxine: You can call it an art raid.

Muzzlehatch: But we weren't armed.

Maxine: No. Only with a camera.

Maps: Was it hard to get in?

Muzzlehatch: I think that Alan Gibbs as a principled capitalist believes in paying minimum wage to as many of his employees as possible. The security guards who are supposed to patrol the edges of his domain aren't exactly, y'know -

Maxine: Motivated. Imagine a fat guy with a walrus moustache slumped snoring over a half-eaten pie...

Maps: Falling asleep on sentry duty? That could get you shot in wartime...

Maxine: We just wanted to have a look. It's a big property. Four square kilometres. Hills rolling gently down to the harbour, their grass mown and manicured, occasional herds of strange animals like alpacas and zebras, and these huge sculptures, most of them in a minimalist style - well, minimalist but monumental, simple forms and immense size...

Muzzlehatch: Gibbs likes to boast that he only wants the biggest work an artist has ever produced -

Maxine: The sculptures are distributed quite evenly across the property, from the hills down to the sea. The work which particularly interested us, Richard Serra's Tuhirangi Contour - a subtly curving two hundred and fifty-seven metre wall made of carefully rusted steel - is visible from the road that runs south beside the Kaipara harbour on the way to Auckland. Once you sight that strip of deep red unfurling itself over the low hills to your right - well, if you're an aesthete, you're going to be tempted to stop...but then you park the car, you get out, and you find a high fence, and signs warning you away -

Muzzlehatch: Gibbs is sending out mixed messages -

Maps: But isn't that the nature of prestige objects, like luxury cars or expensive artworks? In order for these things to function as status symbols, they have to be displayed and protected at the same time. They have to be obtrusive, and they have to be exclusive. You get them flashed in your face, so that you know you can't have them.

Maxine: Alan Gibbs is a tease!

Maps: He's a tease. He wants you to know that he has this collection of massive, expensive artworks, and he wants you to know that he won't share his toys with you -

Muzzlehatch: Unless you want to fork out to his favourite charities...

Maxine: And that is what is disappointing about his so-called 'open day'. He's using the artworks he has commissioned and bought to support a narrow political agenda.

Muzzlehatch: Less than four percent of Kiwis voted for Act. They shouldn't even be in parliament. They're not exactly popular in the arts community, which tends to vote left.

Maps: I would say that even some Act members would have worries about some of the stuff that the New Zealand Centre for Political Research and the Centre for Resource Management Studies - what absurdly anodyne names they are! - turn out. The NZCPR promotes an extremely conservative line on moral and social questions - a family equals Mum, Dad and two and a half kids, New Zealand is a Christian nation, feminism, secularism and atheism are mortal threats - and also advances bizarre conspiracy theories about New Zealand history.

Muriel Newman, for instance, has published stuff on the site defending the theories of Martin Doutre, the Holocaust denier and 9/11 Truther who claims that historians and archaeologists and of course 'radical Maori' are working together to suppress evidence that New Zealand was settled thousands of years ago by peaceful white people who created an advanced civilisation but were subsequently wiped out by brutal and bestial Maori. Newman has also gone into bat for Gavin Menzies, the pseudo-historian who thinks that Chinese discovered New Zealand, and who claims that Maori are the descendants of Melanesian slaves who escaped from their Chinese masters and took their masters' Chinese concubines as wives. Newman is the editor of the site, so her defence of this sort of racist pseudo-history has to be taken seriously.

The NZCPR forum is infected with paranoid anti-semites like Clare Swinney, who thinks 9/11 was an inside job, and Sid Wilson, the leader of the neo-Nazi National Front. Swinney alone has made hundreds of posts to the forum advertising her views and various anti-semitic events. I see no sign she's ever been restrained by Newman...

Muzzlehatch: The site sounds like a dating agency for right-wing oddballs...

Maps: Act still bills itself as the 'liberal party', even though it's been making attempts to appeal to the redneck vote for years, and I think its remaining liberal members - I mean the people in Epsom and Karori who think that the free market is great, but don't have a problem with civil unions or the Treaty of Waitangi - would feel pretty uncomfortable with a lot of the stuff on NZCPR. And then there's the Centre for Resource Management Studies, the other outfit Gibbs is raising money for, which claims that global warming is a huge commie conspiracy! But I wanted to get back to the art. As you two know from first-hand experience, Gibbs' farm contains one of New Zealand's largest and most expensive collections of sculptures. There is work by leading Kiwi artists like Ralph Hotere, as well as big international names like Richard Serra. Maxine: Excuse me. You shouldn't talk about big New Zealand names and big international names as though they're mutually exclusive categories. I consider that Ralph is a major international name, as well as one of New Zealand's greatest living artists -

Maps: Sorry. I was going to point out that, even though it is as important and as substantial as some of collections of our larger galleries and museums, the Gibbs hoard exists beyond the reach of trust boards, and curators, and art critics, and even the vast majority of the art-loving public. It can only be accessed at Gibbs' pleasure. Does Gibbs' decision to use his collection to promote his own ideology, which we can perhaps charitably call eccentric, raise questions about the fundamental rights of artists, and perhaps also of everyone who loves art? Do the creators of the work at Gibbs' farm have any right - I'm talking about moral rights, rather than legal ones, here - to object to the way it is being used? What about the wider public? Or can Gibbs do as he pleases? Maxine: I'm sure he'd say he can do as he pleases. But I can acknowledge he can do as he pleases and still disapprove of what he does...

Maps: I wonder, though, what some of the creators of the work which adorns Gibbs' property would think of the purposes to which it is being put? I mean, here we have people paying money to what can fairly be described as a Maori-bashing site like NZCPR for the privilege of seeing, amongst other things, a sculpture by Ralph Hotere, a man whose work is filled with tributes to his whakapapa and to the struggles of Maori against discrimination and marginalisation. Maxine: Well, Ralph Hotere has always had a slightly ambiguous attitude to his Maori identity. He moved far away from his place of birth in Maori Northland. He has often worked in a very abstract style, and he has said at least once that he doesn't want to be considered a Maori artist, as that label is somewhat limiting. As I said earlier, he really is an international figure. On the other hand there is no sign he is ashamed of his Maori ancestry, and I doubt whether he would appreciate the ravings of rednecks who think that the Maori seats in parliament are a threat to democracy...

Maps: But I think that works like the Black Phoenix installation, where Hotere took the remains of a wrecked and burnt ship and constructed a sort of marae out of them, alluding in the process to events in the history of the people of the far north, show that he is engaged with Maori experience and history. Many people saw Black Phoenix as a commentary on Maori experience in the nineteenth and twentieth century - despite the destruction brought by colonisation something new has emerged...Moving on, though, I wanted to discuss the case of Richard Serra, whose Tuhirangi Contour obviously impressed you when you visited Gibbs' farm.

Maxine: It was the only work that impressed us, and it impressed us very much.

Maps: Serra has strongly left-wing political views. He has criticised the 'greed' which he thinks characterises modern American society, and in 2004 he produced a crayon drawing of an inmate of Abu Ghraib prison along with the words STOP BUSH. I think it'd be fair to say that Serra's politics are inimical to those of Act, which calls for a flat tax rate and wanted New Zealand to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Is it a problem that this man's work is being used to raise money for the extreme right?

Muzzlehatch: That's a pretty vague question. What sort of problem are you talking about, and who do you think has it?

Maps: Well I think it might be a problem for Serra's approach to art - I'll come to that later - but I also think it raises ethical questions relating to the treatment of commissioned artworks.

Muzzlehatch: I've been meaning to ask: how many conservatives are going to want to see the modernist and postmodernist sculptures on this farm? Serra is a very uncompromising modernist. He doesn't make any concessions to old-fashioned ideas of beauty. In my experience, people with conservative views of the world also have conservative views of art. They still haven't caught up with modernism, let alone postmodernism. They think that Picasso was a fraud, they think that poetry should rhyme -

Maps: I was googling up some stuff on Gibbs' farm, and I ran into a blog post by Peter Cresswell, who runs the libertarian Not PC site. Cresswell had seen some images of the works on Gibbs' property and become upset that his hero had wasted so much money on these things that weren't 'real art'...

Maxine: And the people who would appreciate the work on the farm are not likely to be in a position to pay a thousand bucks to see it. Let's face it - artists live on the bones of their arses...

Maps: I don't know of too many artists or writers who would fall over themselves to hear Roger Douglas fantasise about what he'd do if he were dictator of New Zealand, either -

Muzzlehatch: Cruel and unusual punishment! The people with the money and desire to attend the event will probably be Act supporters. Hardcore Act supporters. Libertarians, too, I guess. And they'll probably cough politely when they see those huge sculptures that don't look much like Laocoon or David, and wait impatiently for the Douglas speech...

Maps: I still think it's worth raising the question of the rights of an artwork's creators, and of the wider community, over that artwork, even after it has disappeared into the clutches of a private collector. Would it be acceptable for Alan Gibbs to charge money to see 'his' sculptures, if the money went to, say, a neo-Nazi group? Would it be acceptable for Gibbs to destroy 'his' collection, if he got bored with it? I think that if there's a possibility that an important artwork held in private hands will be either egregiously misused or destroyed, then the state has not only the right but the responsibility to step in.

Muzzlehatch: I don't think a libertarian would agree with you.

Maps: But there are only a few of those strange creatures in the whole country. And we regularly see the state intervening to protect pieces of land - urupa, other historic sites, places of beauty, and so on - from desecration or outright destruction at the hands of developers. Often these interventions occur as a result of public pressure. Can't an analogy be made with art?

Maxine: Alas, the public doesn't have the same affection for avant-garde art that it has for pohutakawa-shaded glades... Maps: I wanted to ask you two a little more about your view of what we might call the social function of Richard Serra's art. Despite his politics, Serra has often been perceived as a sculptor who is indifferent, or even hostile, to the people who have to live and work amidst his creations. In 1981 he created a huge black wall called Tilted Arc and installed it in New York City's Federal Plaza. This piece upset the office workers who liked to eat their lunches in the plaza, because it created shadows, and because it cut up their precious open space. Despite many complaints, Serra refused to relocate Tilted Arc. In interviews he talked of wanting to create 'anti-environments' in places like Federal Plaza, and attacked people like the office workers for thinking that they have 'proprietory rights' over the landscapes they inhabit. In 1989, Tilted Arc was pulled out of the Federal Plaza and turned to scrap metal.

Other works by Serra have created controversies similar to the one ignited by the wall in Federal Plaza. By its very nature, minimalist art is devoid of explicit reference to social and political realities. It is perhaps the most abstract form of abstract art. Some detractors of minimalism have argued that, because of its lack of reference to anything outside itself, it is liable to be co-opted by wealthy individuals and big corporations who might be disturbed by other types of contemporary art. 'Corporate minimalism' has become a derogatory term for a certain type of artwork that adorns many office interiors around the world. Is there a sense in which Serra's career bears out the critique of miniamlism I've been describing? Is the appropriation of Tuhirangi Contour by Gibbs another example of the dangers of minimalist art? Maxine: The trouble with your question is that it assumes all of Serra's work is cut from the same cloth, and - more seriously - that the uses to which an artwork is put define the essence of that artwork. Artists change and develop - even minimalists like Serra! As an aside, I don't think Serra would say his work had no reference to the 'real world'. I think he is trying to use very simple shapes and very strong materials - walls made of steel, for example - to express some of the primal qualities, some of the most basic and yet most elsuive qualities, of the natural world. A lot of minimalists have a mystical edge. Serra is probably more like a mystical Abstract Expressionist painter like Mark Rothko than a postmodernist jokester like Andy Warhol.

Maps: So you think it's unfair to try to connect Tuhirangi Contour with Tilted Arc?

Maxine: Tuhirangi Contour may be a step sideways. It may be step away from the uncompromising, unfriendly nature of that early work. But you have to disassociate Tuhirangi Contour from Alan Gibbs. Gibbs commissioned the work, he is using the work for politcal ends - but he does not define the work. The work transcends him. Gibbs does not understand art. Gibbs likes Tuhirangi Contour because it is a) really big and b) a little bit cryptic. It gives him a sense of power and exclusivity to own such a work. But artists have always needed a pay cheque. Don't assume Serra was serving Gibbs' agenda when he created the work.

Muzzlehatch: This size thing does make you wonder. Is Gibbs trying to compensate for something...

Maxine: Serra's work is powerful enough to transcend its origins and its misuse. It will live on long after Gibbs is dead and forgotten. Not only is it beautiful - it is super-durable! We're talking about two hundred and fifty-seven metres of steel. It's strong. It's ballsy, and not in the empty macho way that Gibbs probably likes to think he's ballsy. It defies the manicured lawns and careful partitions of Gibbs' farm. It follows the ancient contours of the landscape, of the Kaipara hills, and not the artificial order of the farm. It is like the wrecks you see sticking out of the sand at the north head of the Kaipara harbour - it is already ancient and ruined and eternal, even though it has only existed for a decade or so. It doesn't create an 'anti-environment', like Serra's American work supposedly did - it fuses itself with the environment, with the landscape. You put your hand on it and you can feel the flow of the hills, and also the warmth of the sun. It is organic. It reminds me of the ancient stone monuments of Britain. They've been tidied up, they've had their surroundings weeded and mown, thanks to history societies and the tourist industry - but they will still exist when the grass is long again, when weeds are growing out of the roads the tour buses run down...

Maps: So art is more powerful than money?

Maxine: Great art is. As I say, the other stuff on the farm isn't memorable - it looks gimmicky, it looks like it's been dropped on the landscape, it hasn't found a place in the landscape -

Muzzlehatch: A lot of them look like the toys dropped by forgetful infant giants. Huge but garish - and childish.

Maps: I wanted to ask about the way Gibbs is treating the farm as a whole. Reading accounts of his efforts to shape his private kingdom - of the vast amount of mowing and manicuring he pays for, to keep the property looking like some English country estate, and of his importation of species like the zebra and the peacock - I'm reminded of the way that members of the bourgeoisie treated places like Kawau and Motutapu islands in the nineteenth century. I think of Grey stocking Kawau with wallabies and peacocks and bringing in hundreds of foreign plants, and of Auckland's upper class establishing buffalo herds on Motutapu so that they could go shooting there.

Sociologist Bruce Curtis gave an interesting paper a few years ago in which he argued that in the nineteenth century the new owners of New Zealand attempted to transform it, by altering the landscape and introducing new species, in an effort to make it less alien, less 'other' -

Muzzlehatch: To feel more at home.

Maps: To disguise the fact that they were intruders in a land which had been settled by another people many hundreds of years ago, and which had been empty of humans for an almost inconceivably long time before that - to escape the otherness which our early Pakeha literary nationalists recognised and described, the otherness Ian Hamilton described when he wrote of the 'soft rainy silence' of the bush, the otherness that Allen Curnow wrote into his agraphobic early poetry -

Muzzlehatch: But why would Alan Gibbs feel so ill at ease here?

Maps: Isn't there a sort of perverse utopianism at work on Gibbs' farm - isn't he trying, with all his weeding and mowing, with his exotic species, with his alien sculptures, to expatriate himself, to forget he is in New Zealand?

Maxine: You don't feel like you're in New Zealand when you're on his farm. The miles of manicured lawns, the grids of gates and fences, the herds of exotic toy's a relief when you reach the top of a hill and look west out to the Kaipara harbour and to hills of scrub on adjacent properties, and ragged herds of mangy sheep - it's a relief to be able to see your way out of this artificial landscape.

Maps: There is a sense of disappointed utopianism about the whole political project represented by Act. Roger Douglas predicted the party would win over half the votes cast in the first MMP election, but it has always struggled with the 5% barrier, and it is now, in the words of Douglas himself, in danger of 'going out of business'. Douglas, Gibbs and their ilk frequently seem frustrated by the ingratitude and backwardness of Kiwis - why, they wonder, don't we want to revisit the halcyon days of Rogernomics, why do we vote again and again against a new programme of privatisations, why do we cling to the welfare state, why have we failed to become a thriving nation of entrepeneurs, the Hong Kong or Singapore of the South Pacific?

Douglas and Gibbs will be speaking at the fundraiser about what they would do if they were dictator of New Zealand, and in a sense this is what Act has been reduced to - fantasising about circumventing the constraints of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois legalism, about fearlessly and brutally remoulding society against the wishes but in the interests of ordinary recalcitrant Kiwis. In a sense, Gibbs' attempts to transform his farm into something bizarre and foreign are an expression of his loathing for this country he is stuck with -

Muzzlehatch: Well, he's not stuck here. He's got lots of money to travel -

Maps: Apparently he's spent the last few years travelling the world by helicopter! He says he loves the voyeurism of seeing the world from five hundred feet in the air...

Muzzlehatch: The dirty old man!

Maxine: It's the perfect expression of that peculiar alienation that the very rich often experience, isn't it?

Muzzlehatch: Above the world, but not of it...There's something else I'd like to mention. The Kaipara is a strange region. It is full of eccentrics. The night before we raided Gibbs' farm we stayed on the end of one of the peninsulas that pushes out into the centre of the harbour. There was a guy who was living in a hut, waiting for doomsday, drinking cheap beer, loading his shotgun. There was a bunch of hippies along the road who seemed to be obsessed with Lord of the Rings - they had built themselves a house which resembled in every respect the digs of the hobbits in the movie...The Kaipara seems to attract people who can't really live easily in the world. Perhaps it is the nature of the landscape - it doesn't overpower you like New Zealand's more mountanous, bushy regions, it is quite subtle, low hills and a grey smooth harbour. Perhaps it leaves a lot for an overactive imagination to do? Maybe Alan Gibbs is a just a high-rolling eccentric? Maybe his farm is really no different from the hobbit house we saw?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How evil is history?

There has been an interesting debate in the comments box under the post I made defending Mohsen al Attar, the anti-imperialist member of the University of Auckland Law School, from the attacks of Chris Trotter. In his latest contribution to the debate my post prompted, Chris Trotter claims that it is not so much Mohsen's alleged ignorance of historical facts as his approach to history which makes him a dangerously inadequate scholar and teacher:

The dispute...boils down to the question of agency.

It is Attar's attribution of conscious malice to the representatives of European civilisation: the reduction of historical data to the mere epiphenomena of some elaborate racial-cum-economic conspiracy spanning five centuries; that makes his course so unacceptable.

It's a world view which substitutes the dangerous simplicity of a totalitarian morality play for the boundless complexity of human society and culture.

Such an outlook has no place in a modern university.

Chris' comment includes some interesting points, but I think the thrust of his argument is worryingly authoritarian.

Like Chris, I am unenthusiastic about efforts to interpret history in essentially psychological terms - in arguing that so and so did such and such because he was such and such a type of person, or belonged to such and such a culture. It seems to me that one of the strengths of the Marxist or historical materialist approach to history is that it enables us to avoid such interpretations.

If we take the historical materialist approach, we don't have to consider, say, the Pakeha takeover of Aotearoa in the nineteenth century as some sort of expression of the inherent evil of white people: we can see it as, in part at least, a consequence of historical forces like capitalism and imperialism that transcend individual humans and individual cultures. My Irish ancestors did not float to New Zealand and settle on confiscated land because they were racists who wanted to help push Maori to the margins of Te Ika a Maui - they came here because they were tired of struggling to survive by growing flax on a few acres of swampy land rented from wealthy Anglo-Irish families. They were part of an imperialist adventure in the south seas, but they had themselves experienced at least some of the realities of imperialism at home, and this experience is what prompted them to come south.

We can also use the historical materialist approach to avoid 'scapegoating' individuals and cultures who are on the receiving end of colonisation and oppression. For example, we don't have to see, as some right-wingers do, the gap between Maori and Pakeha technology in the nineteenth century as the product of 'backwardness' or 'a lack of curiousity' amongst pre-contact Maori - we can refer, instead, to the extreme isolation in which Maori had lived for centuries, and the limited range of resources they had access to in Aotearoa, to explain the fact that they lacked the weapons and tools Pakeha brought to Aotearoa. The technological edge Pakeha enjoyed over the people they colonised was the result of historical and environmental circumstances beyond the control of Maori.

Even if an historical materialist concedes that a people have behaved with great brutality - as Marx does, when he discusses the way the Christians of Europe treated the societies they colonised - this behaviour has to be explained, not by reference to some mystical inherent quality possessed by a culture or faith, but by the action of wider historical forces.

We only need to look at the many cases in history where an oppressed people has turned into an oppressor people - to consider the brutal way the Highland Scots behaved toward Native Americans in the colonies they founded after being driven off their own land, or the way that Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama behaved after they invaded and conquered the Chathams in 1835, or the way Israelis are behaving today in the Occupied Territories - to see the problems of talking about inherently evil or inherently noble cultures.

But this is only my opinion. Historical materialism is far from the dominant trend in the humanities and social sciences at the moment. Whilst I think it offers, by and large, a better methodology than its rivals, I don't think those who employ it have a monopoly on good research. In fact, there has been, and continues to be, some dreadful scholarship produced by partisans of historical materialism.

Equally, there has been some excellent work produced by scholars who use methodologies that play down broad historical patterns and the effects of environmental and economic forces on history. I'm far from convinced that Mohsen al Attar is employing an approach to history which emphasises psychological and ethical factors to explain events, but let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he is. What right does Chris Trotter have to demand he, and others like him, be kept out of universities?

Would Chris really be happy to see, say, Daniel Goldhagen, kicked out of his post at Harvard University? Goldhagen is a scholar of fascism and anti-semitism who is convinced that Nazism and the Holocaust were primarily the products of a deep-seated anti-semitism amongst ordinary German people. Goldhagen's angry book Hitler's Willing Executioners was immensely controversial when it was published in 1996 because it argues that most Germans not only knew about but were enthusiastic supporters of the Holocaust.

With his priorising of psychological factors over material forces and big historical patterns, Goldhagen challenges traditional leftist approaches to the explanation of the Holocaust. Goldhagen would have little truck with Frankfurt School Marxist Max Horkheimer's statement that 'he who will not discuss capitalism should not discuss the Holocaust'.

I see no reason, though, why Goldhagen's outlook should 'have no place in a modern university'. Even if I am uncomfortable with the method behind his scholarship, I can recognise the quality of his scholarship and the power of his arguments. Even if his outlook is ultimately shown to be unreasonably circumscribed, he has enriched the study of fascism and raised questions that demand answers.

There is a disturbing authoritarianism implicit in many of the attacks that have been made on Moshen al Attar in recent days. As a reader of this blog has pointed out, Trevor Loudon, the former vice-Pesident of the Act Party and New Zealand's last Cold Warrior, was the first to call for Mohsen's removal from his post at the University of Auckland. Few people take Loudon's opinion about any subject seriously, but when a figure with more intellectual substance and more progressive politics echoes his call for Mohsen's dismissal then alarm bells ought to ring.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In defence of brainwashing

It is unusual for the details of an academic course to become a hot topic of conversation in the blogopshere, but over the last week or so a paper offered by Mohsen al Attar at the University of Auckland's Law School has engaged the attention, if not the intellects, of scores of commenters at New Zealand's most popular blog.

After Kiwiblog proprietor David Farrar posted a link to the outline of Mohsen's paper, which is called 'Colonialism to Golobalisation', comments boxes quickly filled with denunciations of the propagandists for communism, political correctness, civil unions, and similar abominations who supposedly dominate Kiwi campuses.

For the keyboard warriors who fight for liberty at Kiwiblog and other red meat sites, Mohsen al Attar makes a perfect target: he is foreign-born, he has a Muslim name, he is preoccupied with the history of of Western imperialism, and he is unafraid to flourish fashionable if slightly obscure left-wing phrases like 'counter-hegemony' and 'anti-globalisation' in his lectures and texts.

But it is not only at Kiwiblog that Mohsen al Attar's paper has been condemned. In an article published in several daily newspapers and on his blog, the left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter found himself agreeing with David Farrar about the creator of 'Colonisation to Globalisation'. For Chris, Mohsen offers a 'particularly stark example' of 'self-loathing leftism', a condition which is defined as:

that self-critical mode of left-wing analysis which takes "the politics of victimhood" out of its more familiar context in the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements, and extends it to the whole world.

The result is as predictable as it’s banal: an Avatar world of Goodies versus Baddies and Nature versus Technology, in which the holistic philosophy of innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers.

Like David Farrar, Chris bases his account of Mohsen al Attar's worldview on a reading of the outline of 'Colonisation to Globalisation' offered to prospective students of the paper. Chris believes that the outline's references to European imperialism are simplistic and overly vituperative.

It is difficult to make judgements about an academic course based merely on a reading of its outline. An outline is often more like a blurb on the back of a book than an abstract at the beginning of an academic essay - that is, it hints at the content of the paper it advertises, rather than distilling the essence of that paper's arguments.

To declare that a paper is intellectually suspect, simply because the outline which advertises it contains one or two provocative claims and makes the opinions of its author plain, is to misunderstand not only the scope and limits of a paper outline but the place of objectivity in scholarship and teaching.

For the baying, perpetually ill-informed mob in David Farrar's comments boxes, 'objectivity' means studying and teaching 'the facts', and avoiding any reference to 'theories'. Anything but the simple recitation of unvarnished facts is 'brainwashing'. This sort of naive, philistine attitude to scholarship and teaching never bore much relation to reality, and was made completely untenable by twentieth century philosophers, who showed that even the most seemingly obvious statement of fact is inevitably dependent upon implicit theoretical assumptions.

As EP Thompson liked to point out, scholarship requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. All of us have opinions. Strong opinions may actually help a scholar form interesting hypotheses. The question is whether a scholar is prepared to ‘listen’ to evidence, and to other scholars, and modify his or her hypothesis when it doesn’t fit the evidence.

Thompson had very strong opinions on all manner of subjects, yet was capable of changing his mind dramatically in the course of his research. For example, Thompson did a famous study of the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, which he began using the hypothesis that the practice was an example of the oppression of women by men. As he accumulated scores and then hundreds of cases of the practice, though, Thompson noticed that women often participated happily in their ’sale’, that the amount of money that changed hands was derisory, and that the ‘buyer’ of the wife was usually a man who had been having a relationship with her. Thompson eventually decided that the sale of wives was an informal working class form of divorce used in the days when only the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy could divorce legally. Thompson's strong opinions did not make him dogmatic, when unexpected evidence presented itself.

At university level, a teacher is not supposed to be a mere conveyor of facts and figures to a group of passive students - he or she is supposed to present those students with an argument, or a series of arguments, and to invite them to respond to those arguments. Both teacher and students have to test their arguments against the evidence which they will be exploring, and - in some papers - unearthing together. There is nothing to suggest to me that Mohsen al Attar's paper outline, with its series of provocative, deliberately unsupported statements, could not be an invitation to research and dialogue, rather than an exercise in propaganda.

I remember a course taught in the early noughties by Ian Carter, one of the most senior members of the University of Auckland's Sociology Department, on the modern world and modern consciousness. Carter advertised his paper with a brief statement that concluded with the sentence 'Students will soon discover the lecturer's lack of sympathy with postmodern thought'. This was a blatant expression of personal opinion and, sure enough, Ian didn't hold back from criticising Foucault, Baudrillard and other postmodernist thinkers during his very informal lectures.

But Ian did not make his own opinions into red lines for students - on the contrary, he intended them as invitations to debate and research. It would have been very unjust to conclude, from a reading of the outline that advertised his paper, that he was some sort of unscholarly propagandist for a particular point of view. Why shouldn't we give Mohsen the same sort of latitude that Ian and so many other fine teachers have enjoyed? Why are some of us so ready to assume that Mohsen is a sinister pseudo-scholar, simply because he has, like the rest of us, opinions?

Not only has Chris failed to recognise the limits of the outline of an academic paper, he seems to me to have misread Mohsen's outline. Here is the passage which Chris cites as proof of Mohsen's inveterate hatred of the West, and of his desire to return to a pre-capitalist era:

In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory.

What Mohsen is surely doing here is recalling the bloodsoaked origins of capitalism five or so centuries ago, and pointing to the contradictory outcomes of capitalist development. On the one hand, he seemes to be saying, capitalism has been implicated in abominations like slavery; on the other hand, it has given rise, thanks largely to the democratic struggles of the working classes it has created and the peoples it has colonised, to (supposedly) progressive features of the modern world like international law. Mohsen acknowledges the 'glory' of the modern world, but he considers this glory 'paradoxical'.

Mohsen's argument is not a new one: it can be found in The Communist Manifesto, which spends page after page extolling the wonders of capitalism before revealing the bloody corollaries of these wonders, and it permeates classical social democracy, which praises the productive forces capitalism has created but argues that these forces need to be placed under the control of responsible national and international institutions.

I suspect that Chris actually subscribes to the view of capitalism Mohsen is advancing, and I don't think he would find much to object to in the well-meaning, rather utopian opinion pieces Mohsen turns out for the national media, which call for the amelioration of the worst excesses of the twenty-first century world through the strengthening of international law.

I disagree with the portrait of capitalism Mohsen advances - in its attempt to see the good side of the devil and strike a bargain with him, it seems to me to owe more to Faust than to a realistic picture of the way the system operates. Against the view that capitalism has progressive features and can be taken over and civilised by well-meaning lefties, I would side with the Marx of the 1870s and '80s, who came to see the expansion of the system not as a necessary step in the march of progress but as an assault on much that was socialistic in indigenous societies.

But my objections to Mohsen's vision of history don't make me hostile to the paper he teaches. If I were a student again, I would be attracted, rather than perturbed, by the prospect of an encounter with a teacher with strongly-held beliefs and a provocative way of expressing those beliefs. It saddens me that, rather engaging in a discussion with Mohsen, Chris Trotter has chosen to side with the read meat brigade of the Kiwiblog comments boxes - a gang of misfits, obsessives and rednecks who surely represent, in an admittedly amusing way, the negation of the Western tradition of reason and debate that Chris rightly venerates.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Drinking and rambling with Carey Davies

A week ago I reported the arrival of Carey Davies in Pig Island, via a circuitous route that included the paddy fields and discos of Indochina and the Bohemian inner cities of Australia. Carey, a member of the new-look, anti-Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain, studied EP Thompson at Sheffield University before becoming a journalist and singer-songwriter. He may have succeeded in putting some distance between himself and his colleagues on Britain's fractious far left, but he has not been able to shake off some of his more polemical detractors, as the comments box under my last post shows.

Late last Wednesday night, in the aftermath of several frenetic games of badminton, a few of bottles of cider, and a viewing of the classic '70s sci fi epic Zardoz - imagine Sean Connery in a red jockstrap playing Zed the Destroyer - I submitted Carey to an interview which rambled across subjects as different as far left acronyms, the role of drugs in politics, the role of the Iraq war in politicising Britain's young people, a jam session with a member of Kiwi rock royalty in a Communist Party flat, the solo work of John Lennon, the solo writings of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and the post-industrial wonderland that is twenty-first century Sheffield. You can listen to the interview, which I've broken into two parts, here. (Skip that first part if you want to avoid a tenderly mocking discussion of the alphabet soup of acronyms which constitutes the British far left.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The lifestyle block socialist

Yesterday Skyler and I received 'personal messages' from both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. The epistle from comrade Key was not very surprising - he was using the resources of the state to try to sell National Educational Standards in a glossy brochure filled with intimidatingly recondite flow charts and graphs - but the message from Phil Goff intrigued us. Labour's leader is trying to rebuild his party and its poll ratings, and he invited us to send him our advice on how best to win the 2011 election on the back of a postcard. Skyler has shown her usual good faith in human intentions by replying to Phil in some detail.

Chris Trotter and several other commentators have divined a leftward turn in the policies of Labour since the election loss of 2008 and Goff's assumption of the leadership. For Trotter, Goff's attack on the Maori Party's alliance with National as a betrayal of ordinary Kiwis is a sign of a return to class politics, and not a cynical dog whistle. Trotter has backed calls for Labour to rejuvenate itself by dispensing with the tight top-down control of the Clark era, and by building up its membership. Goff's call for feedback on his party policies might seem, superficially at least, like a move in that direction.

Isn't it notable, though, that the party chooses to make contact with the masses not through the door knocking and town hall meetings of the good old days, but through glossy 'personal messages'? Why isn't Goff, or at least one of his supporters, joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Sky TV salesmen in the queue outside our door?
The paradox of the Labour Party is that it has maintained a mass electoral base without a large organisational base. After fronting the first part of the neo-liberal 'reform' programme that devastated New Zealand in the '80s and the '90s Labour deservedly lost its mass membership. For a time the party looked like it might have lost its vote too, as the breakaway Alliance made large strides in opinion polls. Labour eventually won the voters back, and then held power from 1999-2008 by tinkering artfully with the status quo that had been established by the reforms of the '80s and 90s. The nastiest manifestations of neo-liberalism, like charges for hospital beds and market rentals for state houses, were dropped, and a few progressive measures like Paid Parental Leave were adopted after vigorous lobbying, but Helen Clark's government worked well inside the parameters set by the previous, neo-liberal administrations.

Although it retains the electoral loyalty of the urban working class, Labour has never regained the activist base it had in the early eighties, when its membership rose to close to one hundred thousand. At election time, the party often relies on paid organisers working for sympathetic trade unions and the extended families of candidates to get its vote out in areas like South Auckland. The party's MPs are generally middle class professionals with university degrees. Although some trade unionists graduate to the parliamentary team, they generally do so by converting themselves, culturally and politically, into middle class technocrats.

The content as well as the delivery of Phil Goff's 'personal message' reflects the conflicted nature of the contemporary Labour Party. Although Labour's greatest strength lies in the poorer suburbs of Auckland, Goff's message deploys imagery drawn from the city's posh southeastern fringe. Behind the pohutakawa tree which has replaced Labour's traditional red banner we can see the estuary of Whitford Creek, and the pleasant hills around the 'lifestyle villages' of Whitford, Maraetai, and Clevedon.

In the area the photograph shows, dairy farms and horticultural operations have been replaced by five or ten acre 'lifestyle blocks' whose owners can simultaneously seclude themselves from the crowds of the city and pretend to be indulging in the wholesome rural practices - erecting fences, stocking paddocks, and setting up TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED SIGNS - that have traditionally played such a part in the self-definition of Pakeha New Zealanders.

Whitford and the areas that surround it have become much more heavily populated in recent decades, as real agriculturalists subdivide their properties and depart, and pretenders relocate from the cities to toy farms, yet the photograph is almost uncontaminated by any sign of humanity. There are no cottages, or corrugated iron sheds, or septic tanks leaking through mud. Only a couple of puriri posts from a pleasantly decrepit fenceline are allowed into the view. Why should people and their doings spoil paradise?

Phil Goff may well have supplied the photo that accompanies his epistle - he lives in Clevedon, on a ten acre block, close to a new marina and several upmarket restaurants, and a good forty-minute drive from his constituents in the working class Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill. Perhaps Phil's glossy 'personal messages' are his only way of staying in touch with the people who vote for him?
This marvellous leaflet (click to enlarge it), which I discovered recently at the cafe in Swanson's gentrified train station, lacks the production values of Goff's 'personal message', but offers an equally sumptuous vision of utopia.

The first of the two texts on the leaflet comes from an ancient issue of the fearsomely dreary journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, an organisation which was long ago dubbed the 'Small Party of Good Boys' because of its resolute refusal to tarnish its message of the moral superiority of socialism with anything so coarse as political activism. For over one hundred years, the SPGB has contested parliamentary elections using the slogan 'World Socialism Now', whilst condemning the 'opportunism' of leftists who organise protest marches, stand on picket lines, and volunteer to fight fascism in Spain or pick coffee in Nicaragua. For reasons that are perhaps not mysterious, no SPGB candidate has ever come close to winning a seat in parliament.

The anonymous author of the Swanson leaflet has enlivened the SPGB's rhetoric wth an annotation that must have been produced on one of the last manual typewriters in New Zealand. The annotator's talk of socialism existing 'intuitively elsewhere' in the universe reminds me of Juan Posadas, the Argentinian Trotskyist and UFOlogist. Posadas believed that aliens regularly visited the earth, and insisted that these aliens must be socialists, because only a socialist system could bestow the levels of technology, productivity and cooperation necessary to the development of long-distance space travel. Posadas repeatedly called on the pilots of UFOs to intervene in human political affairs by overthrowing the rulers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The demand for 'Intuitive Universal Socialism' may seem a trifle abstract, but I don't find it any more bewildering than Phil Goff's use of Whitford and Clevedon to illustrate the merits of twenty-first century social democracy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Polynesian experiment

A month has passed since I arrived back in these Shaky Isles from my second visit to the tropical Pacific in half a year. I'm supposed to be proofreading my tome on EP Thompson, searching the internet and the smudged back pages of newspapers for full-time jobs, and shaking with indignation at the new crop of political outrages that every new year inevitably brings (and, make no mistake, John Key's decision to make the poor pay for a tax break for his posh mates in Parnell is an outrage).

Somehow, though, I can't quite engage with the tasks fate has assigned for me here at the bottom (or the top?) of the world. My body is certainly present in New Zealand - the shivering I suddenly experience every time the temperature drops below subtropical levels attests to that - but my head is still several thousand kilometres to the north, bobbing about like a coconut on the calm green water of Fanga'uta Lagoon, at the edge of the terraced tomb-complexes of Mu'a, the ancient capital of the Tongan Empire.

Last week I confessed my continuing preoccupation with tropical Polynesia to an old and trusted friend. He chuckled, and accused me of 'romantic escapism'. My desire to pinch a yacht from the marina at Whau estuary and sail north through the half-drowned archipelagos of Tonga or the Austral Islands is not, it seems, a noble, adventurous impulse, but rather evidence of some subtle estrangement from 'the real world'. For my friend, the tropical Pacific, with its volcanoes and atolls and ramshackle fishing villages and stretches of leprous sand, is a sort of 'anti-place' - a 'negation' of the busy and complex societies of the First World which attracts those weary of rush and complexity. 'At least Gauguin could paint', my mate pointed out. 'What can you actually do up there?'

It is certainly true that the travel industry likes to promote the Pacific as a sort of anti-place - a region 'unspoilt by the modern world' where jaded palangi can 'leave their cares behind'. Is it really tenable, though, to argue that every Westerner who wants to wander the Pacific is an alienated escapist? Is there not some positive attraction that island nations like Tonga and Samoa exert? I've argued for the attractions of both societies in a series of posts, but I think a more general point can be made about the importance of Polynesia.

For anyone interested in the way societies develop and cultures change, the Pacific, and Polynesia in particular, should exert a profound fascination. I've just been mining The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, a book published a quarter of a century ago by Patrick Vinton Kirch, an archaeologist who has dug holes all over the Pacific. In the introduction to his book, which synthesises a vast amount of archaeological and ethnographic data with rare grace, Kirch suggests that Polynesia can be considered as a vast experiment in human development:

Polynesia is as exemplary a setting for...a study of technological and social evolution as we may hope to find...The fifty ethnographically known soocieties that comprise Polynesia were all demonstrably derived from a single ancestral society. Each society presents an ecological and evolutionary isolate which together can be likened to a set of historical, cultural 'experiments', in which the founding ancestor was identical, but where certain variables - ecological, demographic, technologic, and so on - differed from case to case...

Kirch's Polynesia is not a verdant, ahistorical paradise designed for refugees from the Western working week, but a vast, complex, inexhaustibly fascinating collection of responses to the challenges that nature and history throw at humans. Who would have though that the same group of ancestors - the Lapita people, who scattered shards of their intricately beautiful pottery across the west Pacific three thousand years ago, as though they were leaving a trail for modern archaeologists to follow - could have had descendants as various as the Tongans, with their elaborate, incorrigibly hierarchical empire, the Moriori, with their egalitarian hunter gatherer society in the subantarctic, and the Tikopians, who were environmentally savvy enough to thrive for thousands of years on an isolated island a mere four square kilometres in size? As Kirch says, Polynesian pre-history should not be the preserve of a few ethnologists and archaeologists - it should be a subject that all social scientists consider. Marxists, who have too often made Europe the engine-room of history, and lumped 'peripheral' parts of the world like Polynesia together under clumsy headings like 'feudalism', are particularly in need of instruction from Kirch and other scholars able to consider Polynesian prehistory in a materialist but empirical manner.

I have been making new journeys into the tropics in recent weeks. Late at night, sitting in the blue haze of a computer screen, I find myself drifting from my proofreading duties to a map of the Pacific. I pick out the name of an island, google it, bring up some basic information on a site like wikipedia, then move to the online archives of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, then do a search, then sit and luxuriate in an ethnographic essay or an archaeological report, then make notes in my exercise book...

My august friend will be disgusted, I know, but here are reports on five islands I've 'discovered', and have been busy 'exploring' recently:


Rotuma, which is forty-three square kilometres in size, is politically part of Fiji, but it sits four hundred and twenty kilometres north of Suva, and has a Polynesian rather than Melanesian culture. In the 1980s Rotumans voted overwhelmingly against allowing large-scale tourism to come to their island, and after the 1987 coups led by Sitiveni Rabuka a minority of the island's population attempted to secede from Fiji. Although the secessionists did not succeed, Rotuma effectively governs itself, via an elected council.
/> Rotuma's isolation may have something to do with the idiosyncracies of its language, which is difficult for even trained linguists to acquire. Where most Polynesian languages have five or six vowels, Rotuman has ten. The language has a strange feature called 'metathesis', which means that a vowel sound at the end of a word must be pronounced before the consonant which immediately precedes it. In the ninteenth century, Catholic and Wesleyan missionaries developed rival orthographies for the language, so that Rotumans on different sides of the island were unable to communicate with each other in writing. Rotuman customs also differ in a number of ways from those of most other Polynesian societies. The island's idiosyncracies test the limits of our definition of Polynesian languages, and of Polynesian culture. Niuafo'ou

I discussed Niuafo'ou at length in my post on 'Eua, the island at the other end of the Kingdom of Tonga where many of its residents were resettled after a volcanic eruption in 1946. What I perhaps didn't emphasise in that post is the extraordinary physical features of the island: it is only fifteen square kilometres in size, and yet it features a large and very deep lake, which fills an ancient volcanic crater, and which is itself studded with small islands, at least one of which includes a lake of its own. Many of the island's villages are situated on the rim of the crater-lake, and a grass airstrip is also found there. Because Niuafo'ou lacks a good wharf, let alone a bay - the slopes of its volcano drop very steeply into deep water - the airstrip is cruical to its connection with the outside world. Unfortunately, the strip is so narrow, and the winds that blow above it so wild, that landings are only possible when conditions are perfect, and Air Chathams flights from Tonga's Vava'u Island as often as not have to turn around and return without touching down. Niuafo'ou's isolation, and the relatively late date of its incorporation into the Kingdom of Tonga, mean that its people have retained their own language, which belongs to the Samoic rather than the Tongic subgroup of Polynesian. The fact that the Tongan Empire was able to bring this remote, unwelcoming island into its embrace demonstrates the reach and power it had in the late medieval period.

Vanua Balavu

This island is the second largest in the Lau archipelago, which is scattered to the east of Fiji, and which has often been considered the boundary between Melanesia and Polynesia. The first settlers of Vanua Balavu, which is about fifty kilometres in size, came from Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, but later arrivals sailed west from Tonga, bringing their language and culture with them. In the nineteenth century a Tongan noble named Ma'afu established his own mini-nation in the Lau group, and settled many of his followers there. Today the Lau dialect of Fijian has a substratum of Tongan, and some villages on Vanua Balavu have Tongan names. The intersection of Polynesian and Melanesian cultures on the island has fascinated ethnologists and archaeologists.

Rennell and Bellona

These islands, which sit close to each other at the southwestern edge of the Solomon archipelago, are part of what is sometimes called 'Outlier Polynesia'. Most Polynesians live in the vast triangle of water and islands that has Hawa'ii, New Zealand, and Easter Island as its apices, but there are eighteen 'outlier' societies that exist to the west of the triangle, in archipelagos dominated by Melanesians or Micronesians. Early twentieth century ethnologists with diffusionist beliefs thought that Outlier Polynesian societies were 'stepping stones' left by the Polynesians as they travelled east out of Asia. Today, though, we know that Polynesian culture developed in the western part of the Polynesian triangle, in societies like Samoa and Tongan. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Outliers were settled from the east, after the establisment of Polynesian culture there.

Most of the Polynesian outliers are tiny, but Rennell Island is six hundred square kilometres - larger than Great Barrier Island, and six-sevenths the size of the entire Kingdom of Tonga. Rennell and Bellona were isolated for hundreds of years: their inhabitants could see the mountains of the main Solomons island of Guadalcanal in clear weather, but they feared the Melanesians who lived there, and seldom ventured beyond their islands. Rennell and Bellona did not adopt Christianity until 1938, and the first whites to stay a long time on Bellona were some Danish ethnographers who arrived in the late 1950s, and who were able to learn about pre-contact society from locals for whom it was a living memory.


This island covers fifty-odd kilometres, and sits at the southern end of the Austral group, in French Polynesia. Because of its location in the far south of the tropics, Rapa generally avoids cyclones, and has flora more reminiscent of northern New Zealand than Samoa or Hawa'ii. The resemblance to New Zealand is increased by the enormous earthwork forts which sit on the tops of the island's hills. These forts and familiar-looking fish hooks and adzes found on Rapa have led some Kiwi scholars to suggest that the island could have been the home, or at least one home, of the ancestors of the Maori. Despite its potential significance to New Zealand prehistory, Rapa has been visited only rarely by archaeologists and ethnologists. Now: does anybody have a spare yacht?

Footnote: while I have been travelling in my armchair, a young Yorkshireman named Carey Davies has been doing the real thing, slogging through swamps and rivers in Indochina, hacking through the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, and now wandering down the backroads of New Zealand.

Carey is a journalist and a member of the mavellously-titled Communist Party of Great Britain - Provisional Central Committee, a collection of masochists who have set for themselves the task of unifying Blighty's fractious far left in a new party that is rigorously democratic and anti-Stalinist. In pursuit of those ends, the CPGB-PCC (was the acronym any easier?) publishes the Weekly Worker, a paper filled with chaotic but entertaining debates between the various factions of the British and international left.

I came into contact with Carey when he was doing research into EP Thompson and the British New Left as part of a history degree he was pursuing at the University of Sheffield. During a visit to Manchester, Carey discovered more than a score of documents written by or about Thompson in the archives of the old, Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain. After Thompson left its fold in protest at the crimes of Stalin and Krushchev's invasion of Hungary, the party sometimes sent spies out to monitor his political activities, and Davies’ discoveries included detailed reports of Thompson’s appearances at political rallies - reports scribbled in the back rows of windy London halls by bitter old Stalinists.

Carey has been recording his travels on a blog called Rain on the Lens, where he combines photos of almost pre-Raphaelite delicacy with reports on exotic flora, fauna, and lavatories. Some of the fans of modernist architecture who visit this blog might be offended, or at least stimulated, by Carey's recent post on the Kawakawa toilet block and the Austrian hippy who built it.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Beyond performance pay

The Tertiary Education Union and the Public Services Association launched a campaign - you can find the website here - for a new and fairer pay system for general staff at the University of Auckland today.

Auckland is the only university in the country which uses a 'performance pay' system to decide the salary levels of its general staff, and the University of Auckland branches of the TEU and the PSA have heard many complaints about the ways in which the system is used to deny workers the pay increases and career progression they deserve. Over the next three weeks, the TEU and PSA will be holding a series of meetings across the sprawling Auckland campus to discuss the alternative pay system they have devised, and to prepare the way for negotiations with university management.

As the vice-President of the University of Auckland branch of the Tertiary Education Union, Skyler will be closely involved in the coming campaign. I'm too lazy for that sort of activism, but I did help the TEU do some of the background research for the campaign. Reproduced below is the text of a document which I helped the TEU put together on the sorry history of performance pay at the University of Auckland.

The Story of Performance Pay

The establishment of a system of performance pay for general staff at the University of Auckland was just one part of the story of the impact of neo-liberalism on New Zealand in the late 1980s and 1990s. Neo-liberalism is a doctrine which argues that humans are motivated by individual self-interest, and that society works best when individuals are left to compete with each other in a free market environment, without the protection of collective entities like trade unions or the state.

In 1984, the newly-elected Labour government began to import neo-liberal ideas and practices into New Zealand. Labour deregulated and privatised large parts of the economy, removing subsidies that protected companies from overseas competition and selling off state assets like the railways, Air New Zealand, and Telecom. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs due to Labour’s neo-liberal policies, and in 1990 the party lost power. The new National government, though, continued with neo-liberal policies.

Not until National was replaced by a Labour-Alliance government in 1999 was a brake put on the implementation of new neo-liberal policies. By that date, neo-liberalism had fundamentally changed the face of Kiwi society. An economy which had been heavily protected was one of the least regulated in the world. Trade unions which had once enjoyed many legal protections had few rights left. The real average wage had declined, and inequality had soared. Towns and suburbs had been devastated as the closure of factories and government institutions like post offices and hospitals caused job losses and forced families to move to new communities.

Neo-liberalism comes to the university

Up until the second half of the 1980s, both academic and general staff at New Zealand’s universities had their pay set by central bodies based in Wellington. Academic pay scales and rates were set by the Higher Salaries Commission, while general staff had their salary range and rates determined by a body that based its deliberations on the State Services Conditions of Employment Act of 1977. Both academics and general staff received automatic pay increases as their length of service at universities lengthened. The States Services Conditions of Employment Act had established blanket conditions for both academic and general staff, which individual universities could not modify.

In 1988, though, Labour passed the State Services Act, which modified the pay arrangements of both academic and general staff. Influenced by the neo-liberal emphasis on difference and competition over common interest, the State Services Act divided general staff into a number of different occupation groups within the university. Each group had its own national agreement which needed to be negotiated separately.

Up until the passing of the State Services Act, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) had been more like a professional association of academics than a union. After the passing of the State Services Act, though, the AUT hired an Industrial Officer for the first time, and began to recruit significant numbers of general staff. The AUT realised that the rules that governed the university workplace were changing, and that bargaining was going to become a part of life for both academics and general staff.

The push for performance pay

At the same time that it was pushing the State Services Act through parliament, the Labour government was changing the culture of management in public sector institutions like universities. Managers were being encouraged to think in terms of individualism and competition, and to try to introduce market forces into their worksites wherever they could. University managers realised that they could use the changing environment created by the State Services Act to undermine the collectivism and strength of employees.

The replacement of the system of automatic pay increases tied to length of service with a system of ‘performance pay’ became a key goal of management. Under a system of performance pay workers would compete with each other for pay increases that were given at the discretion of management. The concept of performance pay fitted well with neo-liberalism, because performance pay treats workers as individuals and made them compete with each other.

In 1989, librarians represented by AUT held negotiations with management for a national contract. Management proposed that a performance pay system be a part of the new contract; librarians responded by passing a national resolution opposing performance pay.

Although it didn’t get its way in 1989, management remained committed to introducing performance pay into universities. The neo-liberal industrial relations policies of the National government elected in 1990 helped to strengthen the hand of management. In 1991 National passed the Employment Contracts Act, which removed unions’ status as recognised legal entities, banned many forms of strikes, and made multi-employer negotiations almost impossible. At the same time that it passed this anti-union legislation, National began to cut real funding to universities. Staff found their negotiating position weakened by these developments.

During negotiations in 1993 managers made a concerted effort to introduce pay performance systems into universities. The general staff at Otago University came close to accepting the system, but eventually rejected it. At The University of Auckland, though, general staff members agreed to accept a system of performance pay, in return for certain concessions, including an extension of the number of workers who were covered by their contract. Academic staff at Auckland retained a system of automatic pay increases. Today, Auckland remains the only university in New Zealand with a performance pay system for general staff. At other universities, the pay of general staff is set according to hybrid systems that combine automatic progression with some merit-based calculations.

The failure of performance pay

The acceptance of performance pay was made more palatable for some general staff by the rhetoric of university managers, who promised that the new system would lead to more frequent and bigger pay increases for most workers. But staff soon found that the reality of performance pay did not match the rhetoric of management.

As the 1990s went on, union organisers and delegates heard frequently about the failings of the performance pay system. Some workers felt that their managers assessed their performance wrongly because of prejudices; others believed that they were denied good ‘marks’ for their performance because the managers who assessed them wanted to avoid the cost of the pay increase that a good ‘mark’ might bring. Many workers discovered that the questionnaires and face-to-face ‘evaluation’ that were part of the pay performance process were a drain on their valuable time. Many others felt that the competition between staff that the new system encouraged was detracting from the cooperative atmosphere necessary in the university. In 2007 the union surveyed its general staff members to find out what workplace-related issues most concerned them. More than three quarters of the general staff involved in the survey said that they were unhappy with the performance pay system.

Research in the public sector in New Zealand and overseas backs up the feelings of staff about performance pay. In New Zealand and overseas, performance pay has failed to lift either productivity or salaries as well as the sort of automatic pay system it replaced at the University of Auckland. Because of the failure of performance pay, the Tertiary Education Union is initiating a campaign to change the system and bring the University of Auckland into line with other universities around the country.

At both the 2007 and 2008 collective agreement negotiations unions tabled claims for a fairer salary progression process for general staff. At the 2008 negotiations management and unions could not agree on the type of remuneration model general staff should receive. It was decided to put the issue aside temporarily and create a 'performance and development' framework which would provide a fairer way of evaluating the work of general staff (it was agreed that this framework would not be linked to pay).

The Tertiary Education Union and other unions on campus remain committed to replacing the system of performance pay with a fairer method of remuneration. In preparation for these discussions the combined unions have developed a preferred model and will be building membership awareness and support leading up to collective agreement negotiations in 2010.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

EP Thompson today

EP Thompson was born eighty-six years ago today. He won't be celebrating his birthday, of course, because he died in September 1993, after suffering for several years from the after-effects of Legionnaire's Disease and several other illnesses that severely damaged his lungs.

When we consider the longevity of some of Thompson's peers, the magnitude of the loss we suffered when he died at the age of only sixty-nine becomes clear. John Saville, Thompson's old comrade in the fight against the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956, and later his wonderfully patient editor, died last year at the age of ninety. Christopher Hill, whose pioneering left-wing reinterpretation of the English revolution inspired the young Thompson to take an interest in history, died in 2003, at the age of ninety-one. Eric Hobsbawm, who like Thompson has tried to fuse a life of political activism with a life of scholarship, is still writing opinion pieces and doing historical research in his ninety-second year.

But even if he died far too early, Thompson has much to teach the scholars and activists of the twenty-first century. Reproduced below is a short excerpt from the introduction to my book The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics, which will be published later this year by Manchester University Press.

EP Thompson was a man of many enthusiasms and wide expertise. Thompson’s scholarly work covers a remarkable range of subjects. He was as comfortable writing about food riots as the manuscripts of William Blake, and he was fascinated by the Soviet Union as much as Wordsworth. Thompson was famous for his books about eighteenth and nineteenth century England, but late in his career he delved skilfully into the twentieth century history of the Balkans and India. Up until the 1960s, at least, Thompson considered himself primarily a poet, and his literary legacy includes scores of poems, a number of short stories, and a science fiction novel.

Thompson was a man of action as well as a man of books, as self-assured on a soapbox as in an archive. Thompson’s political career began in the late 1930s, when he was almost expelled from his Methodist boarding school for propagandising on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Thompson turned the party’s anti-fascist rhetoric into action when he led a tank group up the Italian peninsula during World War Two. After leaving the Communist Party in 1956, Thompson became a public face of the first New Left, a brief, dynamic movement that questioned the political orthodoxies of both sides of the Cold War. In the early 1980s, Thompson became well known to a new generation as the most eloquent leader of Britain’s revived anti-nuclear movement. Thompson’s activism always involved writing, as much as speaking and protesting.

I began researching this book in the middle of 2002, about the time that millions of protesters took to the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities to deliver an unprecedented defeat to a CIA-backed coup against their left-wing government. I wrote my first, fumbling draft of a chapter at the beginning of 2003, when Anglo-American troops were massing on the southwestern border of Iraq, and anti-war protesters were taking to the streets around the world, and I finished revising the text in 2009, as a global financial crisis unprecedented for eighty years destabilised nations as different and distant as Iceland and Fiji. The spectacle of neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, the new popularity of socialist ideas in several South American nations, and chaos on financial markets have all helped to undermine the belief in the superiority of American-style capitalism over any possible rival which was so popular in the decade after the end of the Cold War. This book may be a study of a man who died in 1993, but its themes and its arguments are unavoidably influenced by the world of the twenty-first century.

As I read my way through Thompson’s oeuvre, I was continually impressed by the relevance of his preoccupations to our own age. When I read Thompson’s denunciations of the impact of right-wing ‘modernisation theory’ on the Third World in the 1960s and ‘70s, I thought about the contemporary anti-globalisation movement’s complaints against the ideology of bodies like the International Monetary Fund. When I found Thompson decrying the attacks on the jury system of 1970s British governments, I knew what he would make of the curtailing of civil liberties in his homeland during the age of the ‘War on Terror’. When I pondered the scores of articles Thompson wrote against the deployment of American and Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe during the Cold War, I remembered that a new generation of American and Russian leaders are engaged in an arms race in eastern Europe and in central Asia. Thompson’s sympathetic but critical treatments of intellectuals like Auden and Wordsworth, who became spokespeople for power and privilege after becoming disillusioned with the left, have continuing significance in an era when ‘recovering Marxists’ like Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz and Norman Geras act as cheerleaders for imperialist wars in the Middle East. Thompson’s oft-repeated concerns about the growth of philistinism, and his belief that poetry is as important to human progress as economics, are more relevant than ever in an era when the market and the mass media treat works of literature and art as commodities to be flourished and consumed, rather than opportunities for thought and debate.

But it is not only Thompson’s preoccupations which make him a contemporary figure. As a young man, Thompson left the relative comfort of the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest at the outrages of Stalinism. Cut off from the vast majority of Britain’s militant workers, and without the certainties of a party line to guide him, Thompson had to piece together a new, viable left-wing politics out of various, frequently fragmentary sources. The poetry of William Blake, the sociology of C Wright Mills, the utopias of William Morris, the fugitive texts produced by the dissidents of Eastern Europe, and the heroes of the early British labour movement were only a few of the examples Thompson turned to, as he struggled to find a politics which might concretise the values he had learned as a young man from his radical liberal father and his anti-fascist brother.

It seems to me that, in the twenty-first century, everyone committed to the politics of the left faces the predicament the young EP Thompson chose for himself in 1956. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1991 and the decline of Western social democracy into the neo-liberalism of the ‘Third Way’ have meant that the old sources of left-wing orthodoxy have vanished. For a generation that has grown up in the era of Putin and Blair, claims about the inevitable triumph of socialism, or even the inevitable amelioration of the worst features of capitalism by social democracy, seem absurd. The once-orthodox belief that socialism could save humanity by massively increasing the planet’s industrial output also seems anachronistic to a generation aware of the dangers posed by global warming, deforestation, and other side-effects of industrialism. Like EP Thompson, today’s leftists are forced to search in diverse places for alternatives to the dogmas of both Stalinism and old-fashioned social democracy.

Although I made a research trip to Britain in 2005, where I excavated the papers of Thompson’s old comrade John Saville and found many relevant unpublished texts, this book was written in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and is no doubt influenced by the history and cultures of the South Pacific, a region far from the centres of political and economic power in the modern world. The South Pacific seems to me a good place to write about EP Thompson, because it is a region that demands the sort of critical alertness to the complexity of tradition that Thompson possessed and advocated. In Aotearoa/New Zealand and in other South Pacific societies like Tonga, intellectuals have faced the challenge of reconciling European concepts with an ancient and intricate indigenous intellectual tradition. Ideas and practices which might seem ‘natural’ and unquestionable in Europe, where they have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years, have to be adapted and justified.

It can also be argued that the sociology of many South Pacific societies is directly relevant to one of Thompson’s great preoccupations. In the preface to the Making of the English Working Class, Thompson noted that, for ‘the greater part of the world’, industrialisation with its associated tragedies and transformations was an ongoing process, not an historical memory. Thompson was writing in 1963, but his observation still holds true for large parts of the world, including much of the South Pacific, where a Polynesian mode of production founded upon collective land ownership and labour coexists unstably with imported capitalism.

Thompson himself was drawn to marginal places and peoples. He felt uncomfortable in metropolitan centres of power like London and New York City, and chose to live in unglamorous provincial cities like Halifax, Worcester, and Pittsburgh. As a scholar, Thompson was drawn to the stories of people on the dangerous margins of modernity, like the workers in the factories of the West Riding early in the nineteenth century, or the Indian peasants facing expropriation at the hands of Sanjay Gandhi’s ruthless technocrats in the 1970s.

Thompson’s interest in marginal people and societies was motivated by more than sympathy. Like Marx in his last decade, Thompson believed that it is in the peripheries of capitalism that some of the most potent alternatives to the system can be found. Thompson would not be surprised to learn that it is the 'semi-developed' South American nations of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador that have seen the emergence of the first large-scale anti-capitalist movements of the twenty-first century. If twenty-first century socialists want to avoid repeating the errors of the twentieth century, then they have much to learn from EP Thompson.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

I'd rather play tennis

The late German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer liked to compare intellectual argument to tennis, a sport he played well into his nineties. Just as tennis players have to make their shots high enough to get over a net, and then land them within a specified area, so participants in intellectual debate should, Gadamer insisted, make arguments that allow for the possibility of a reply from opponents. A completely one-sided argument is no more plausible or desirable than a solo game of tennis.

On the internet, even the best intellectual arguments resemble a frenetic game of ping pong, not the stately sets of tennis Gadamer loved to play on the lawns of Freiburg. Thanks to the magic of high-speed connection and the convenience of comments boxes, propositions, evidence, and points of order shoot back and forward across the internet at a speed which can be bewildering as well as exhilerating.

The modest piece on Jeanette Fitzsimons' view of 9/11 which I posted last Thursday has prompted more comments than any other post to this blog - its nearest competitor is a discussion of a different brand of conspiracy theory - but, as writers as different as Stephen King and Jack Kerouac have shown, quantity does not always equal quality.

The 'debate' over 9/11 which has followed my post on Fitzsimons resembles not a friendly game of tennis, nor even a furious ping pong match, but a drawn-out session of solo squash. Again and again, Giovanni Tiso (amongst others) has aimed a well-struck shot in the direction of an anonymous 9/11'Truther'; again and again, the shot has collided with an impermeable wall and rebounded.

Solo squash is not exactly a spectator sport, and many readers will lack the desire to consider the two hundred or more comments under my post, so I'll offer an excerpt from the 'debate' between Giovanni and his Truther interlocutor which illustrates its essential nature:

Truther: [After a lecture on the failure of non-Truthers to consider evidence that 9/11 was an 'inside job'] There was no aircraft wreckage at the Pentagon.

Giovanni: No, you're full of crap
[provides link to photos of the wreckage].

Truther: OK. So where is the photographic evidence of this wreckage?

Giovanni: In the link provided.

Truther: These people falsify evidence all the time my friend.

Giovanni's interlocutor persisted with this pattern of engagement throughout the discussion under the Fitzsimons post. First he'd challenge his opponents to provide evidence 9/11 wasn't an inside job, then he'd respond to the evidence offered to him - evidence which included photos of plane wreckage, eyewitness accounts of plane crashes, transcripts of phone calls made from a hijacked plane, quite detailed explanations of why 757s and similar aircraft cannot be controlled remotely from the ground, and much else - by claiming that it could be disregarded, because it was just the sort of evidence that the vast conspiracy behind 9/11 would fabricate.

Of course, the Truther made no effort to explain how the evidence was fabricated, to name the people involved in the fabrication, or to offer any evidence of the fabrication of evidence - for him, it was enough to state baldly that the evidence was fabricated. Here's an exchange between the Truther and an anonymous critic of his views:

Anti-Truther: So how do you think all the calls from Flight 93 [the plane that was hijacked and then crashed, after passengers stormed the cockpit] were faked? Agents putting on voices? The real people taken some place and tortured into making the calls? Some kinda voice fabrication software that is so advanced we don't know about it yet? Or paying the people who say they got the calls to lie about their loved ones? I don't know which scenario is more insane.

Truther: It would merely be speculation. I simply don't know but the governments case
[ie, the case of those who don't believe 9/11 was an inside job] is weak to the point of unbelievable.

The impossibility of any sort of rational engagement with an interlocutor like Giovanni's Truther opponent should be clear. We are invited to provide evidence that has been ruled inadmissable in advance. Ping pong and tennis are out; we can only bang our heads against the wall that has been erected in front of us.

It is not always wrong for people to be unable or unwilling to justify their beliefs in rational terms. Many people who hold religious beliefs, for example, are uninterested in justifying these beliefs with argument. My good friend the Reverend Nathan Parry, who has studied and been inspired by a lot of the great Christian mystics, once explained his refusal to submit his deepest beliefs to rational interrogation by telling me 'God is bigger than the human brain'. I think I would struggle to justify some of my own cherished beliefs - my belief that poetry is as important as economics, or my belief that Huntly is one of New Zealand's most beautiful towns, or my belief that the Black Caps will one day win the World Cup - with rational argument. If Truthers and other conspiracy theorists admitted that they held to their beliefs in an essentially religious way, and that they were unable to consider any evidence which contradicted their beliefs, then a great deal of bandwith and confusion would be avoided.

We should not have to live our whole lives in the court of rational argument, but when we do invite other people to debate us about matters that rely on the analysis and interpretation of empirical evidence, then we have a responsibility to proceed with at least a modicum of rationality. This is particularly true when tragic events like the 9/11 attacks are under discussion. By inviting us to play ball, but then refusing to deal with our replies to their shots, Truthers waste their own time and ours.

Anyone for a game of tennis, or at least ping pong?

Footnote: I've just noticed that the Truther who is the subject of this post seems to have outed him or herself as an anti-semite, by calling Simon Wiesenthal and the organisation he set up to hunt Nazis and monitor anti-semitism 'vile' at the bottom of the discussion under the previous post. While I don't necessarily support everything Wiesenthal did and everything the organisation he founded says - along with the Jewish community of Venezuela, I thought that the Wiesenthal Centre was wrong to accuse Hugo Chavez of anti-semitism several years ago - I can't understand why anyone who wasn't an anti-semite would object so violently to a man who spent his life hunting the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and an organisation that spends a lot of time exposing neo-Nazis today. What is it about Truthers and anti-semitism?