Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Is Jacinda a commie?

She's a pretty communist, said the placard a farmer brought to the pre-election demonstration in Morrinsville against Labour's plan for a tax on irrigators. After a photograph of the placard and its owner was run by the New Zealand Herald and other papers, social media teemed with discussions about the c word. On facebook and on twitter and on conservative blogs, many Kiwis insisted that Labour's new leader was, indeed, a communist. In the weeks since Ardern became Prime Minister, her allegiance to the communist creed has again been asserted.

In the comments boxes at Kiwiblog, New Zealand's most popular right-leaning blog, Ardern's communism is something like an article of faith. Commenter after commenter condemns Ardern as a dangerous extremist, but few offer any evidence for their political diagnosis.

In a recent post, Kiwiblog host David Farrar threw some red meat to the red-haters. Farrar quoted Ardern's claim that capitalism has been a 'blatant failure' at alleviating child poverty, and then noted that our new Prime Minister is a former head of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Given that history, what else could one expect from Ardern, Farrar asked, but resolute anti-capitalism?

Farrar went on to challenge Ardern to explain 'what socialism had ever done for poverty'.

Underneath Farrar's post, commenters accepted his insinuation that Ardern was a communist, and an admirer of societies like the Soviet Union and Mao's China. One commenter claimed that Ardern wanted to make New Zealand more like North Korea; another predicted she would build Stalinist gulags.
David Farrar’s grasp of the details of left-wing history and thought has often been uncertain. In a 2014 post to Kiwiblog he got the Communist Manifesto's publication date wrong by a quarter of a century, before going on claim that New Zealand's Labour Party had gotten most its policies from Marx and Engels' famous text. When he argues that Ardern is a revolutionary anti-capitalist because she once led the International Union of Socialist Youth, Farrar is either being mischievous or showing an ignorance of left-wing politics and traditions.  
The International Union of Socialist Youth represents youngsters from the organisations of the Second Socialist International. The Labour parties of Britain, Australia, New Zealand are included in the International, as well as Germany's Social Democratic Party, France's Socialist Party, South Africa's African National Congress, and scores of other outfits.

The member parties of the Second International share a social democratic politics. They don’t seek to abolish private property and the market and establish a planned economy, in the way that communists and other revolutionary anti-capitalists urge, but rather want to use the state to ameliorate what they see as the worst excesses of capitalism.
The Second International was founded in 1889, with the support of Engels. The Communist Manifesto had called on workers of the world to unite, and an international organisation was supposed to help its members to transcend national borders and parochialisms. Up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the International's parties were sometimes vexed mixtures of revolutionaries and social democrats. When war came, the leaderships of the European parties that dominated the International lined up behind their nations' flags and armies.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the most vociferous members of the International's revolutionary wing, was living in exile in Zurich in 1914. When he read in a newspaper that the German Social Democratic Party's representatives in the Reichstag had joined conservatives and voted in support of the Kaiser and war, Lenin at first believed that the paper was a forgery. When he realised that the leaders of the SDP and its sister really had sided with their bourgeoisies and declared war, Lenin denounced the Second International. After they had seized power in Russia in 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks founded a Third, revolutionary International, with its headquarters in Moscow.

After World War One the Second International slowly regrouped, and by the 1920s the Second and Third Internationals were competing for influence inside the trade union movements of the world.

In his book-length polemic Left-wing Communism Lenin addressed his followers in nations like Britain and New Zealand, where Labour parties linked to the Second International were far larger and more influential than revolutionary organisations. Revolutionaries should support the social democratic parties in the way 'a rope supports a hanged man', Lenin said. They should cooperate with social democrats inside the workers' movement, but at the same time criticise their rivals and seek to replace them in the hearts of the workers.
The Communist Party of New Zealand never had more than a couple of thousand members, but it made several attempts to affiliate with the Labour Party, in an attempt to put Lenin's advice into practice. The party was always rebuffed by Labour. 
David Farrar invited Jacinda Ardern to explain what her brand of socialism has done for poverty. I’d expect that, as a former leader of the youth wing of the Second International, she’d be inclined to talk about the likes of Michael Joseph Savage’s 1930s NZ government, Norm Kirk’s government in the ’70s, and Clem Attlee’s government in postwar Britain, and initiatives like the welfare state and the National Health Service. She certainly wouldn’t be obliged to talk about the Soviet Union or China.
There’s a sense in which some of the ideas of the Second International have been assimilated even by conservatives in the West. David Farrar's National Party supports many of the anti-poverty innovations of Second International parties, like a public health system and welfare payments for the unemployed.
There have been senior Labour politicians who were in their youth members of revolutionary parties – Marion Hobbs, who was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand before she became a Quaker and a member of Helen Clark's cabinet, is one who comes to mind – but I haven’t seen any evidence that Ardern has ever been anything more than a social democrat. Not many revolutionaries have worked in the office of Tony Blair
We can get a sense of the distance of Jacinda Ardern's government from the revolutionary left by looking at the cool welcome that New Zealand's handful of revolutionary outfits have given it. The group that publishes a blog named Redline responded to Ardern's Prime Ministership with a piece called 'Tories out, Xenophobes in?' Redline denounced the new government's plans to cut immigration, and accused Labour as well as New Zealand First of 'anti-Asian racism'. Ardern's government will be, Redline predicts, the most xenophobic New Zealand has seen since the 1970s, when Rob Muldoon sent squads of cops on dawn raids against Pacific Island homes.

In an article published before Winston Peters gave New Zealand a Labour government, the Dunedin-based International Socialist Organisation was also critical of Ardern. The ISO blamed Labour's relatively poor electoral performance in a number of working class Auckland on the 'anti-migrant rhetoric' from Ardern and her comrades. For Redline and the ISO, the struggle between nationalism and internationalism that sundered the Second International in 1914 continues. Like the German Social Democrats in 1914, the New Zealand Labour Party of 2017 is guilty, they believe, of appeasing chthonic prejudices and kowtowing to its local bourgeoisie, instead of standing for internationalism and against capitalism.

When they call Jacinda Ardern a commie, David Farrar and others on the right are trying to elide two very different political traditions.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fomenting happy murder?

Kiwiblog, the popular website run by National Party pollster David Farrar, has the tagline 'Fomenting happy mischief'. Farrar says that he was 'slightly sad and very relieved' when Winston Peters chose last Thursday to support a Labour rather than a National government. Kiwiblog's host was one of a minority of National Party luminaries who considered that a spell in opposition would be preferable to the compromises involved in a coalition government with Peters' New Zealand First Party. 

But few of the National Party supporters who comment at Kiwiblog were as sanguine than Farrar. Many were furious that their party could have won 44% of the vote in last month's general election and still be shut out of government. They pointed out that the Labour Party received only a little less than 37% of the vote, and that Labour and the Greens combined won slightly fewer votes than National. They deplored the fact that Winston Peters, whose party was chosen by only 7% of voters, ended up choosing the new government. They waxed nostalgic for New Zealand's old, First Past the Post electoral system, which would have kept both the Greens and New Zealand First out of parliament and given National a thumping majority of seats. 

A few commenters at Kiwiblog have turned from sadness and anger to fantasies of violent revenge against the man they hold responsible for the defeat of their party and the corruption of New Zealand's electoral system. On Saturday morning, a long-time Kiwiblog commenter who uses the nom de plume rightoverlabour used the site's daily General Debate thread to argue that Winston Peters was a 'terrorist' who deserved a violent death. rightoverlabour explained that:

I believe in eliminating terrorism. Winston is a political and economic terrorist. He has held the country to ransom, and is obfuscating on everything. His assassination would not be something I would shed a tear over. I have time for Jacinda, and the Greens ( even though I oppose most of their policies), as they have been open and transparent. But Winston is a despicable, narcissistic individual. Emperor Nero comes to mind as a close comparison. Sometimes the elimination of a clear and present danger is a necessity for the survival of a reasonable society. Assassination may seem a step too far, but a society has to protect itself from these types of individuals gaining power. Ask the Russians, Germans, North Koreans.

rightoverlabour's comment was quickly endorsed by another veteran Kiwblog contributor, who uses the pseudonym oldpark:

Total agree what an indictment. Why compare him to Nero, how about Poll Pot, who caused the deaths of Millions. 

It might be suggested that righoverlabour and oldpark are embittered eccentrics, whose opinions are not taken seriously even at Kiwiblog. By the end of Saturday, though, eight readers of the blog had upticked rightoverlabour's call for the assassination of Winston Peters, and nine had backed oldpark's comparison of Peters to Pol Pot. 

Some contributors to Kiwiblog have lamented the atmosphere at the site since Winston Peters chose Labour on Thursday. 'There is a lot of spite and denial on here at the moment', a National Party supporter who uses the pseudonym Disaster Area wrote. A contributor to the site who calls himself Kimbo suggested that National's supporters would have to pass through the famous 'five stages of grief', from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance, and predicted that their progress would be slow.

It is not only on Kiwiblog that supporters of the National Party have been dreaming of the violent demise of Winston Peters.  A series of facebook users have announced that Peters deserves to die for the choice he made last Thursday. In a comment made an hour after Peters announced he'd been teaming up with Labour, Blair Paterson, who identifies himself on his profile page as a former member of New Zealand's air force, argued that 'Uncle Winnie needs a bullet' and said that he was 'happy to do it for free'. In the same thread, Karl Green posted a montage of what he called 'the worst humans in history', in which Peters was featured alongside Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. 

Some facebook commenters seem to have been made incoherent by their rage against Peters. Angela Cryer posted this curious statement shortly before Peters announced his decision to form a government with Labour:

Remember who you are you traitor. If I disembodied you of your Maori blood you would be nothing but a pair of pakeha bloodshot blue eyes. I thought you were the future of this country. You were not elected. Nor were your body of advisors. None of you are representative of New Zealanders. This is no longer a democracy. You are a disgrace. I fear for my country and my fellow voters. All of whom you have betrayed.

Agitation at Peters' decision has filled some users of social media with literary daring. A twitter account with the grand title News of New Zealand posted this remarkable mixture of metaphors:

Full of Achilles Heels and festering boils NZ's new #CoalitionofLosers is a rocky ship headed for unchartered waters. 

David Farrar is not responsible for all the comments that his blog attracts, anymore than Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for everything that turns up on facebook. Nor can National's leadership be accused of inciting vitriol against the new government. 
In the speech and press conference that he gave on Thursday night, outgoing Prime Minister Bill English was courteous in defeat, refusing to condemn Winston Peters or impugn Labour's right to govern. 

But the calls on social media and Kiwiblog for Winston Peters' demise and the analogies made between a very slightly centre-left government and Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalin's Soviet Union suggest that a sliver, at least, of the New Zealand right has succumbed to what could be a dangerous irrationality. 

I've blogged about the descent of parts of New Zealand's right into paranoia and conspiracy theory here, here, and here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Double vision

[As I prepare Ghost South Road for publication, I've been 'filleting' the chapters by inserting accounts of some of the fascinating people I've met on my journey up and down the road. Here's a passage about my encounter with the remarkable Wiremu Puke.]

The last time I had visited East Hamilton my feet had been aching. Paul Janman and I had met Wiremu Puke at a café here, before beginning the third day of our walk up the Great South Road. Puke was a local. He’d arrived before us and settled behind an enormous bowl of latte. 

Paul and I had walked the twenty-six kilometres from Te Awamutu the day before, arriving in the dusk and rendezvousing with Ian Powell in the bar of Hamilton’s casino, where we’d eased off our shoes and drunk whiskey and cokes, and showed Ian photographs of the empty bottles and used condoms and Warriors caps that fly from passing cars and settle on the road’s grassy margin like driftwood on the beach of a desert island. Now we were hungover, with toothaches in our heels. Puke chuckled as we winced into our seats and ordered Diet Cokes.

Wiremu Puke has double vision. When he looks at the towns and villages of the Waikato he sees, behind and beneath and before their pubs and steeples and war memorial parks, the ancient landmarks of the Tainui people. In an essay he wrote to accompany a collection of photographs of the Waikato by David Cook, Puke imagines travelling in space and in time, to the summit of the sacred maunga of Taupiri centuries before Pakeha landed in Aotearoa, and looks down on the prelapsarian rohe of Tainui. He sees fleets of waka bringing kumara and pounamu up and down the river, swamps seething with guardian-taniwha, palisades sharp as dragon’s teeth protecting smoky kainga. 

For Puke, the past is as real, as palpable, as the present. The Waikato was the Nile of Aotearoa, his essay argues, and Tainui must restore the civilisation that the river nourished and demarcated. 

Puke is an expert on Tainui arboriculture, architecture, carving. He campaigns for the replanting of native trees along the river, for the extirpation of willows and poplars. He cuts pou for kohanga reo. He blesses buildings raised by Tainui’s commercial arm, like that boozy casino on Hamilton’s mainstreet. 

Wiremu Puke had worn a Waikato Chiefs jersey to the cafe. He had the lumpy, artificially elongated nose of an unlucky hooker or prop. He introduced himself by talking about his relatives in Yorkshire, his blood links with Whitby, James Cook’s hometown. ‘I was there a few months ago’ he said. ‘I carved for them. I’ve got connections to both civilisations.’

Paul had begun to talk about our walk, about our obsession with the Great South Road. ‘We want to do what Lord of the Rings did, but in reverse’ he said. ‘We want to document the real history of this place, not plant a fantasy from abroad.’ 

Puke had laughed. ‘Some of my rellies, they look a lot like the creatures in Lord of the Rings. Some of my cousins, you look at them, you think: ogres, trolls.’ 

But then he had grown sombre, and talked about his double vision. ‘The East Hamilton shops, the café where we sit right now, right under our feet – there are caves, and people are buried in those caves. The bones are still there, even though the entrances are buried. It’s the same all over Hamilton. The past is tarsealed over. They think they can forget it.’

Puke’s father was a Maori All Black, and one of the team of negotiators that got Tainui a Treaty settlement in 1994. The son saw his work as a continuation, a consolidation, of what the father had won. ‘It is a slow struggle’ he had told us. ‘One tree at a time. One mind at a time.’

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 02, 2017

A reckless scheme

Paul Janman and I went to the University of Auckland's School of Architecture to give a guest lecture a couple of months ago. 
In one of the school's shadowy, open-plan buildings we met with Bill McKay and his students, who were together researching the architecture of the Pacific. I showed the students slides of a series of buildings raised by innovative religious and political movements, like the campus of the 'Atenisi Institute founded by Tongan pro-democracy campaigner Futa Helu, the psychedelic shack of the Seleka Club, Tonga's movement of kava drinking artists, and Fanafo, the utopian village that prophet and politician Jimmy Stevens had his followers hack out of the bush of Espiritu Santo in the years before the independence of Vanuatu.
After the lecture, Paul and I talked with McKay and his students. The teacher explained that he and several of his charges were trying to count and catalogue the churches of Tonga. This seemed to me then, and still seems to me know, a recklessly ambitious task.

Tonga is, after all, the most religious nation on earth, and its galaxy of Christian denominations multiply and divide more quickly than a junior maths champion. This month Bill McKay has published an article in Architecture Now that includes descriptions of one of the most remarkable Tongan churches, the Catholic cathedral of Nuku'alofa. It is marvellous to think that the cathedral's creators, who lacked any formal training in architecture, are gaining new admirers.