Direct action praxis and the threshold of toleration.

datePosted on 23:17, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

The 2007 police raids on an assortment of activists sparked heated debate amongst progressives throughout the country about the merits of direct action. Some, whom I shall unfairly label the “soft” Left, argue that under  no circumstances should violence be used in pursuit of political ideals. Others, who I shall flatter with the label “hard” Left, argue that under certain circumstances the resort to violence is justified. How do we reconcile these views?

Please note that I shall not be referring here to issues of right wing praxis. Besides the fact that I think that the ultra-Right are beneath contempt, I do not want to offer any pointers they might not already have. I will note, however, that it is curious that the Police and SIS focus their attention on Left activists and appear singularly uninterested in according the same treatment to neo-nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites and Aryan survivalists even though these losers openly advocate violence against people on their websites and in their communiques, and have a history of violence against those they hate. Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the Police and SIS; perhaps it is because the ultra-Right are inept, but either way, the double standard seems weird.

Getting back to the point, what constitutes legitimate direct action in Aotearoa? Let us begin with two simple definitions. Direct action is the use of non-institutionalised (to include illegal), highly symbolic methods of resistance, protest, grievance or voice in pursuit of political objectives. Praxis is the melding of theory and practice into a coherent strategy of action. From a praxis standpoint, the nature of the cause matters less than the nature of the action (although the people involved may disagree). The resort to extra-institutional forms of redress is designed to highlight the cause or issue that is the focus of the action. But to be successful, direct action has to follow some simple rules: 1) it must raise public consciousness about the issue in a way that institutionalised channels and agencies can or do not; 2) it must force a government and/or private agent’s reaction that otherwise would not obtain; 3) it must elicit majority sympathy for the action or empathy for the cause. This last point is important because it brings up the issue of the threshold of toleration, which is the point at which favourable public reaction tips over into rejection. The key for direct action adherents is to get as close to that threshold of toleration without stepping over it and producing a negative backlash against both the activists and their cause. So long as they stay within the threshold of toleration, their actions will be successful (whether or not they are arrested or charged for violating criminal or civil statutes). Finally, direct action adherents must accept the legal consequences of their actions and be prepared to use the judicial system as an echo chamber and bully pulpit in which to reiterate the justice of their cause.

The main issue confronting the direct action advocate is to ascertain the limits of the permissible. In  New Zealand, it appears that regardless of cause, violence against people is not acceptable to the majority. The irony of NZ government-ordered  brutality against protestors notwithstanding (say, during the 1954 dockworkers strike or Springbok tour), it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders abhor political violence against persons. Hence, “terrorists” will find little fertile ground here, and anything that results in physical harm or the threat of harm to people is likely to elicit a negative reaction from the pubic. But what about things such as spitting or throwing excrement or blood on others? Is that within the threshold of toleration? In NZ, I would think not.

On the other hand, violence against property, be it public or private, is more open to discussion.  With sedition laws no longer in force, where are the limits to physical assaults on property? Is throwing a brick through a bank window an acceptable protest against corporate greed? Is painting a statue or monument in blood legitimate? Is setting fire to a mosque or synagogue acceptable protest against the perceived transgressions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Israel? Is trying to occupy NZDF headquarters acceptable protest against NZ involvement in foreign conflicts? Is destroying animal testing facilities OK? Is sabotaging rail lines to impede coal shipments within the threshold of toleration? Is tree-spiking a legitimate tactic? Is running around the bush throwing molotovs while talking trash about race wars and traitorous politicians a valid direct action precursor (or sidebar)?  Although the specific answers to these questions may or may not be easily found, the broader issue is finding the appropriate threshold of toleration for a given type of direct action given the context in which it is engaged.

By the rules I outlined above, the Waihopai Plowshares direct action was a success. Some may think it ineffectual since the Echelon eavesdropping stations remain operative, but the point was never to physically stop the operation (which is why the activists did not damage equipment once inside the dome). It was done in order to raise public awareness and questions about NZ’s participation in the Echelon network, and the action most certainly did that. On the other hand, threatening the spouses and children of pharmaceutical company executives over the latter’s role in animal testing is an example of crossing the threshold of toleration. Whatever the justice of the cause, threatening to harm people not directly involved in animal testing–especially children–is bound to elicit a negative reaction from the public majority. It is therefore counter-productive, even if many believe that executives need to be held directly and physically accountable for the corporate logics of profit that justify the exploitation and torture of animals for human benefit.

I could go on but the thrust of my argument should by now be clear. Direct action is an effective political tactic if it follows certain guidelines. It must differentiate between the target of the action (let’s say, the US embassy, which has been chosen to be flour-bombed ), the object of the action (to raise awareness of, lets say, extraordinary rendition and secret detention centres in which torture is practiced as an interrogation technique), and the subject of the action (the NZ government and public, so as to put pressure from both on US diplomats that NZ does not condone or accept such practices).  The purpose of the hypothetical illustration is not be polemical but instead to chart the ends-means sequence that needs to inform direct action for it to be successful.

The bottom line is this. Direct action is a legitimate political tactic when institutional channels fail. The nature of the action depends on the cause espoused and the society involved, since the threshold of toleration varies from culture to culture and political society to political society. What might be an acceptable form of direct action in Nigeria may not be so acceptable in NZ. Thus the main “problem set” for activists is to determine the toleration threshold for a given form of direct action in a particular socio-political context, Having done that, it is on to the barricades, comrades, y hasta la victoria, siempre, companeros!

Follow up on the SIS files and what should be done.

datePosted on 13:26, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

When I found out that I was mentioned in the SIS files on Keith Locke (apparently in an unflattering letter), I got to thinking further about what can  be done to improve that agency and rid it of an institutional culture that is seemingly unprofessional, unaccountable and biased in its presentation of threats. There is more to the story, which revolves around the window of opportunity presented to the new government by the director-general of the SIS, Warren Tucker,  in opening up the SIS files to public scrutiny. Rather that repeat it here, please see the link below, where I outline the broader picture. I do not mean to be shameless with the link, just synergistic. A full post (on direct action) is forthcoming soon.

Short not-sharp shock

datePosted on 10:26, February 11th, 2009 by Lew

NatRad’s PCR Jane Patterson on Nine to Noon this morning characterised the government’s counter-recession plan as “drip-feeding”, opposed to Obama and Rudd’s “big bang” approach (audio). But drip-feeding would imply a long-term commitment, and Key doesn’t believe the recession will be a medium or long-term problem.

Rather than either of those metaphors, I would characterise the front-loading of already-planned expenditure and development into the coming six to eighteen months as a short sharp shock; however, given the relatively small amount of expenditure and development in the plan, it’s not even very sharp. Of course, there’s the argument that the government doesn’t have any more money to spend, but Key has bet on a short recession, and that implies short-term debt. I would think that if one was betting on a short recession, one would do everything in one’s power to ensure it was a short recession.

If it turns out to not be a short recession, Key (and English) will have to return to the drawing board, and that will very likely mean another short (perhaps sharper this time) shock, rather than introducing a strategic counter-recession plan mid-term and mid-recession. DPF raises (in some jest) the idea that Key might emulate his hero Muldoon on another matter, but to me it looks like this track could lead to economic micro-management of a very Muldoon-like nature. And the broadband plan is very Think Big.


This week we look certain to see National repeal most of the Electoral Finance Act under urgency. While Simon Power is publicly stating they’re going to keep the disclosure rules, which sounds good but … as National well knows the disclosure rules have loopholes.

Like the old rules they allow organisations and individuals to wash large donations by cutting them into smaller donations which fit below the “anonymous” donations threshold. This is the same practice that was enabled by a similar loophole under the old electoral finance rules.

If National was committed to transparency it would be closing that loophole now, and publicly shaming any party that refused to support the action. In reality, of course, National is committed to the appearance of clean hands while maintaining funding routes for its large donors.

Whither Labour?

datePosted on 23:02, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

That’s a question, not an imperative.

It’s impossible to ignore the impact of the Clark-Cullen legacy on NZ’s political orthodoxy. Their government – like Thatcher’s and like Lange’s – moved the political mainstream, requiring incoming governments to appeal to it in order to win support. John Key’s ability to learn from some of the mistakes of his predecessors in both major parties, but not others, has been considered in plenty of different ways, and some of those give more than a moment’s thought to his future. At least now people agree that he has one which doesn’t involve being rolled by Bill English.

But what of Labour? I see two broad possibilities, which I’ll characterise as the Crusaders Game and the Hurricanes Game. Despite being a Hurricanes supporter, by that I don’t mean to privilege one over the other.

The Crusaders Game

Labour recognises that the political agenda is no longer theirs, and concentrates on their core stuff: defence, set-piece, taking advantage of their opposition’s mistakes and infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to seem a cheat).

This means a retrenchment of sorts. Goff is the ideal leader for this game: steady, capable, etc. but they will probably have to alienate the Greens, and if the māori party and its constituency gets what it needs from being part of the National-led government Labour may find themselves friendless. Whatever the case, this strategy will mean ceding the political field to National and starting again in three or six or nine years from within someone else’s political agenda – as National are doing now. This relies on fairly orthodox two-party-plus-hangers-on political thinking – the idea that occupying the centre is the route to success.

The Hurricanes Game

Labour sees in Key’s concessions to the Clark-Cullen agenda an opportunity, and maximises it by relying on gut instinct, team spirit, inspirational leadership, raw opportunism, personal brilliance and complaining about Key’s infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to appear a whinger).

This strategy will require three things: first, new leadership; second, a much closer relationship with the Greens; third, intense and sustained energy. Labour will have to learn to live lean, to rehabilitate itself with the wider left, and ultimately to normalise the idea of the Green New Deal among skeptical NZ voters. This relies upon a quite unorthodox political strategy – the idea that a party or bloc of parties can and should cooperate to move the centre in order to more easily occupy it in their common interest. The danger is that they run out of puff in getting there, and find themselves in three or six or nine years having to adopt the Crusaders Game anyway.

There are other possibilities, of course, but these seem most plausible and simple dichotomies are nice.

So, four questions: what should Labour do (in your humble opinion) and what will Labour do? How, and why?


Framing fires

datePosted on 16:03, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

Parliament is sitting today, and the 2009 session rightly opened with a unanimous motion of support for those affected by the Victoria bushfires. The events themselves have been very thoroughly covered on NZ media and internationally, but what I’m interested in is the way in which our politicians have been speaking about them. So, a quick look at each party’s contribution to the debate of the motion this afternoon.

John Key, National: Emphasised close cultural, economic and military relationship – “like no other”, and history of mutual support in times of need. Strong sporting rivalry means strong cultural ties. Firefighters as heroes who care not for borders and are an example to us all. Top-level links between himself and Rudd. Closed with “kia kaha”. Focused on the magnitude of the events on Australia, though a questionable choice of words with “the enormity of what is happening has burned into our consciousness”. Strongly-worded, statesmanlike, decisive.

Phil Goff, Labour: Spoke for “all New Zealanders”, focusing on impact on families of victims and the “human tragedy” and loss of property. Used family and sport metaphors for the strength of the relationship, like Key. The offer of 100 firefighters “was a good first step”. Generally somewhat procedural, lacked the bite of Key’s speech.

Russel Norman, Green: Very brief. Ticks off main points re support for the motion and assistance, and “respectfully note” the debate on climate change in Australia – but perhaps wisely doesn’t make too much of this.

Rodney Hide, ACT: “All New Zealanders” and “brothers and sisters”, again. Moved quickly to Rudd’s “hell on earth”, then to the possible criminal element behind the fires, hoping that those who committed the “evil” of the arson receive their “just desserts”. He’s angry, first and foremost.

Tariana Turia, māori party: Expressed sympathies in the first place to “the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd” and then to those “families and communities” who have suffered – formally, she’s speaking as ariki ki te ariki, I think. Rather than using family as a metaphor, highlighted the fact that many New Zealanders actually have relatives in Victoria. Fire is “merciless”, families are “scarred’. Said her party would “support the role that this government and this country will play” as if she’s not involved or hasn’t been consulted about it.

Jim Anderton, Progressive: “Brothers and sisters” again, emphasising global and historical magnitude of the fires. NZ being “compelled to share [victims'] grief”. Focused on rebuilding and the resilience and “Aussie dauntlessness”. Firefighters as heroes. Amazingly, he compared the fires to September 11 2001, rationalising it on the basis that the same proportion of population have supposedly been killed. Irony of flooding in Queensland at the same time. Generally a strong speech, but – September 11, WTF! At least he didn’t refer to the supposed arsonists as “terrorists”.

Peter Dunne, United Future: “Kith and kin”. Enormity of the events – “Australia’s worst peacetime tragedy”, which is rhetoric reminiscent of post-9/11. Warns that life will take a long time to return to normal. Talks about media imagery a lot. Encourages people to be “as generous with their resources as they are with their sentiments”.

I see a few true colours there, I think.


Propaganda is everywhere

datePosted on 13:42, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

Hi folks. I’ve been invited to join the other posters here, and I’ll put up things which occur to me from time to time. To start the ball rolling, here’s an image I think has some pretty interesting meanings:


(Image sourced from here.)



NGO advocacy: it’s all right with me!

datePosted on 06:00, February 10th, 2009 by Anita

Idiot/Savant has been wading through OIAs in an attempt to figure out which government agencies joined SOE Solid Energy in paying for a report to undermine government climate change policies. Solid Energy has paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars of our money to lobby against the government addressing climate change.

Yet at the same time NGOs are rigourously banned from using any state funding to advocate for legislative or policy change. Small volunteer run organisations are forced to segregate their government funding from any funding used for advocacy.

This causes all kinds of administrative and compliance overhead – if a social worker’s salary is paid by a government contract for service, can they discuss difficulties caused by Housing NZ policy when they meet HNZ staff to organise emergency housing for clients? If someone producing information material’s salary is 60% funded how can we prove that the time they spent putting together material for the CE’s meeting with the incoming Minister was in their other 40%?

On the one hand we give the most ethically dubious state owned enterprise the right to use as much of our money as they like to lobby, hire spies, breach the Conservation Act and pay private investigators to summarise Indymedia.

On the other we load such compliance cost on small NGOs that using their own money to lobby becomes impractical.

As well as tightening the leash on Solid Energy, we need to give NGOs their freedom. NGOs provide richness and diversity, they advocate for people whose voices are lost in our majoritarian culture – a little government funding would be worth every dollar.

The deserving poor

datePosted on 06:00, February 9th, 2009 by Anita

A few weeks ago I was reading about the way refugees are talked about and ran across an article by Vanessa Pupavac in which she talks about the way refugee advocacy groups have fought the negative xenophobic framing of refugees that has become so attractive to politicians across the world.

One of her findings is that advocates have built stories about exceptionally talented refugees and middle class professionals to build a picture of deservingness. Somehow we have come to believe that being a human being who is homeless due to persecution is not enough in itself to deserve help, we need to be told that they’re special.

The problem, of course, is that most refugees aren’t special, refugees are a mix of people just like our communities. To quote Pupavac

Asylum rights are thereby implicitly made conditional on qualifying as nice, talented, sensitive individuals. But where does this leave any unappealing, untalented, unskilled asylum seeker with culturally repellent views and habits? A well-founded fear of persecution is not confined to nice people.

This pattern of needing people to prove their deservingness before we give them basic human support and kindness is seen again and again in the rhetoric of the new right: there are deserving beneficiaries and the others that don’t deserve help, there are deserving families that deserve state help and those that don’t … .

When did we become a society where people have to prove that they deserve to be able to buy food for their children? Or live in a country where they won’t be killed?

Hat tip to Julie’s post at The Hand Mirror

Paying the “true cost”

datePosted on 06:00, February 8th, 2009 by Anita

Over at The Hand Mirror Anna has a post up about the anti-worker sentiment expressed by the 15% holiday surcharge, and I totally agree. But … :)

One of the things about the holiday surcharge is that it passes on to me the cost of disrupting someone else’s holiday. I am asking for someone to work on their holiday, shouldn’t I pay for my convenience? Penal rates are designed, in part, to be a disincentive to employers making people work on public holidays, so it makes a certain amount of sense that is is passed on to act as a disincentive to me.

In a free market economy ideal where nothing is to be banned, price signals take the place of regulation, and price signals are only effective when the cost is paid by the decision maker. So if we have accepted the free market approach, the question in this case is who the decision maker is; the cafe owner who opens the doors, or the cafe patron who comes through them?

This illustrates one of the many downsides of relying on price signals to define acceptable behaviour: some of us can pay  and some cannot; some can afford to turn down the money, some cannot. Secondly price signals very quickly turn into a price for everything and a value for nothing. if it’s worth it to your business you can open on a public holiday and pay the price, if it’s worth it to your business you can stick to the dangerous work practice and just pay the price of the deaths you cause.

So, paying 15% on a public holiday. It probably succeeds as a disincentive to some, but for many people all it does it prove that public holidays of the poor can be bought by the wealthy.

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