Posts Tagged ‘Protest’

An age of protest.

datePosted on 12:50, November 13th, 2019 by Pablo

It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.

One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.

There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.

Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.

Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.

The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.

The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the gay and pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, or indigenous rights protests in Brazil); single-issue protests (e.g. climate change); or mixtures of the above.

The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.

Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.

Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.

In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.

The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.

On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.

In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.

One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).

Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.

The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.

The way in which state security organisations respond to protests is also a function of the degree of security sector coherence. Issues such as inter-service rivalries, factional disputes within the armed services, different perspectives on civil-military relations and standards of professional autonomy all factor into if and how those charged with the management of organised violence will respond to differentiations types of protest.

It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.

Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?

Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).

Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.

Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.

The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.

That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.

I did an interview on the TVNZ Breakfast Show about the situation in Hong Kong. I tried to frame the issue as a collective action problem between two sides with very different end games. The video is here.

Because of time constraints we could not discuss the fact that the Hong Kong protests do not have a unified leadership that could lend coherency to the strategy and connection between tactics and that strategy. It also did not address the fact that the protestors have now moved to challenging the (HK) State’s monopoly over organised violence in the territory, which means that it is posing an existential threat to a core function of that State. Since the Hong Kong State has little more than police and intelligence agencies as its repressive apparatus, that means that further and more serious challenges to this monopoly will be met by a State that has far more coercive power at its disposal–the PRC.

I should have mentioned at some point that the interplay between hard-liners and soft-liners on both sides is crucial to a peaceful settlement. Only if soft-liners prevail on both sides will the solution be peaceful, but in order to have that happen the soft-liners will have to prevail within their respective camps. With hard core nationalists on both sides rejecting any form of compromise as a loss of face and demonstration of weakness, the stage is set for them to prevail. If they do the outcome will be bloody.

The soft-line opposition strategy is based on the fact that the PRC can wait a long time while gauging international reaction to immediate events in Hong Kong, added to the fact that provoking a violent PRC response erases what the Hong Kong hard liners aspire to deliver ( and those goals are indeed aspirational rather than deliverable). It remains to be seen if the principles understand this type of logic.

We also did not discuss the how the moderate-militant approach I mention in the clip has to be part of a larger incremental gains strategy whereby the protestors try to push a “two steps forward, one step back” agenda that sees them roll back various authoritarian initiatives while conceding on short term or relatively minor issues (perhaps including the extradition bill that sparked the current round of protests).

Nor did we discuss the fact that at the time of initial handover from the UK, the PRC was in no position to contest the terms of the agreement, especially those centred on the “One Nation, Two Systems” 50 year compromise. Nearly halfway into that process, it is clear that conditions have changed. Among other things, Hong Kong is no longer the source of GDP and international capital that it was for the PRC in 1997, having been eclipsed by mainland centres of commerce like Shanghai. This makes it less risky for the PRC to impose its will and accelerate the devolution process before the 50 year transition period ends in 2047. That puts it on a collision course with those in Hong Kong who want more rather than less autonomy when that time comes.

Finally, we did not discuss the fact that should push come to shove the protesters are on their own. For all the US bluster and the threats of trade sanctions against the PRC if it uses force to quell the protests, no one is coming to the rescue. Not the UK, not the EU, not NATO, not SEATO, not Taiwan, not blue-helmeted UN troops–nobody will do anything significant in their defence.

That means that there is a limit to what the protestors can achieve by pushing the protest envelope, since there will be no counter to the PRC use of force if and when it comes. Hence the need for the incremental gains approach mentioned above, and even that may be too little to stave off the eventual PRC takeover in 2047.

Too Clever.

datePosted on 15:59, February 11th, 2016 by Pablo

The TPPA signing came and went, as did the nation-wide protests against it. I did not think that the government was going to be swayed from publicly commemorating what it considers to be the crown jewel of its trade-dominated foreign policy, but I had hoped that the numbers turning out to protest would add up to more than 100,000. At least that way the government could be put on notice that a sizeable portion of the electorate were unhappy about the surrender of sovereignty to corporate interests enshrined in the 6000 page text. Alas, the numbers assembled came nowhere close.

One interesting sidebar was the decision to stage a parallel protest at the Sky City complex  rather than join with the larger protest march down Queen Street. The specific objective of the Sky City protest was ostensibly to use so-called non-violent direct action (NVDA) and other acts of civil disobedience to block the streets surrounding the gambling complex. In the build up to signing (and protest) day the leaders of the two rival demonstrations publicly debated and largely disagreed on the merits of each. The Queen Street march organisers were concerned that any pushing and shoving at Sky City would feed into the government’s narrative that the matter was a law and order issue (following reports that the police had conducted riot control refresher training and door knocked activists warning them about the consequences of unruly acts). The leaders of the Sky City blockade argued that peaceful marches were simply ineffectual and were ignored by policy-makers. As it turns out, both were right.

The Sky City protesters, some of whom showed up in helmets and assorted face coverings, were forcibly prevented by the Police from effectively shutting down access to and from the venue and surrounding areas. The activists responded by engaging in a series of rolling blockades of major intersections, including the Cook Street on-ramp leading to the Harbour Bridge and Northern Motorway. This continued well after the signing ceremony was over and while the Queen Street march was still in progress. That had the effect of causing gridlock in the Auckland CBD.

Coincidentally or not, there was a bus strike that day. Although Auckland Council allowed its employees to work from home, many other entities did not. That meant that people who normally used buses to get to work had to use alternative transportation, including cars. That added to the number of cars on Auckland inner city roads at the time of the rolling blockades. Needless to say, motorists were not happy with the seemingly random temporary road closures in and around the CBD.

That is why things got too clever. As a tactical response to the police thwarting of the initial action, the move to rolling blockades was ingenious. But that bit of tactical ingenuity superseded the strategic objective, which was to draw attention to the extent of TPPA opposition. In fact, it appeared that the Sky City activists were trying to outdo each other in their attempts to make a point, but in doing so lost sight of the original point they were trying to make. After all, blocking people from leaving the city after the signing ceremony was over was not going to win over hearts and minds when it comes to opposing the TPPA. Plus, it displayed a callous disregard for the motorists affected. What if someone was rushing to a hospital to be with their badly injured child or terminally ill parent? What about those who needed to get to work on time so as to not be docked pay? What about cabbies and delivery people who earn their livings from their vehicles? None of this seems to have factored into the blockader’s minds. Instead, they seemed intent on proving to each other how committed they were to causing disruption regardless of consequence to others.

I have seen this before in other places, most recently in Greece, where anarchists and Trotskyites (in particular but not exclusively) infiltrate peaceful protests and engage in acts of violence in order to provoke what are known as “police riots” (a situation where isolated assaults on individual police officers eventually causes them to collectively lash out indiscriminately at protesters). Fortunately, NZ does not have the type of violent activist whose interest is in causing a police riot. Unfortunately, it has activists who seemingly are more interested in establishing and maintaining their street credentials as “radicals” or “militants” than using protest and civil disobedience as an effective counter-hegemonic tool. So what ended up happening was that the Sky City protestors were portrayed by the corporate media and authorities as anti-social misfits with no regard for others while the Queen Street march was briefly acknowledged, then forgotten.

On a more positive note, Jane Kelsey has to be congratulated for almost single-handedly re-defnining the terms of the debate about TPPA and keeping it in the public eye. As someone who walks the walk as well as talk the talk, she was one of the leaders of the Queen Street march and has comported herself with grace and dignity in the face of vicious smears by government officials and right wing pundits lacking half the integrity she has. I disagree about the concerns she and others have raised about secrecy during the negotiations, in part because I know from my reading and practical experience while working for the US government that all diplomatic negotiations, especially those that are complex and multi-state in nature, are conducted privately and only revealed (if at all) to the public upon completion of negotiations (if and when they are).

For example, the NZ public did not get to see the terms of the Wellington and Washington Agreements restoring NZ as a first-tier security partner of the US until after they were signed, and even today most of their content has been ignored by the press and no protests have occurred over the fact that such sensitive binding security arrangements were decided without public consultation. More specifically with regards to the TPPA, no public consultations were held in any of the 12 signatory states, and in the non-democratic regimes governing some of those states the full details have still not been released. Even so, I do think that it was a good opposition ploy to harp about “secrecy” as it simply does not smell right to those not versed in inter-state negotiations. In any event, what Ms. Kelsey did was exactly what public intellectuals should be doing more often–informing and influencing public opinion for the common good rather than in pursuit of financial or political favour.

I would suggest that opponents of the TPPA focus their attention on the Maori Party and its MPs. The Green Party’s opposition to TPPA is principled, NZ First’s opposition is in line with its economic nationalism and the Labour Party’s opposition is clearly tactical and opportunistic (at least among some of its leaders). So the question is how to wrestle votes away from the government side of the aisle when it comes to ratification. Peter Dunne and David Seymour are not going to be swayed to change sides, but the Maori Party are in a bit of an electoral predicament if they chose to once again side with the economic neo-colonialists in the National government.

For all the sitting down in the middle of public roadways, it may turn out that old fashioned hardball politicking may be the key to successfully stymying ratification of the TPPA in its present form.

Now THAT would be clever.

 

Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

Enemies like these

datePosted on 22:04, October 28th, 2010 by Lew

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.

L

Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

datePosted on 17:59, October 22nd, 2010 by Lew

The Hobbit saga has been an ugly but edifying lesson in the realities of how industrial action interacts with political posturing and national identity. My own view is that Actor’s Equity did their industry and their country — I would say ‘their membership’, but when they set this ball rolling they didn’t have one — an enormous disservice. Lacking a mandate and any legal standing, they undertook almost the worst possible course of action of calling an international SAG boycott. They attempted to hold a national icon and his nationally-iconic production to ransom at the apparent behest of an Australian union (the MEAA) with a history of this sort of aggressive mismanagement and who stands to gain from any reputational damage suffered by the New Zealand film industry. Their cause is worthy, but they picked the wrong fight with the wrong person at the wrong time, on the wrong basis, employing the wrong tactics, and did so without the support of their industry. Almost everything they could do to lose this battle, they did.

But too much has already been written on that topic, and I won’t add to it any further. The point I’d rather make is that the incompetence shown by AE in this dispute would never have thrived in a more robust industrial relations culture: that is to say, one in which union membership and participation was the norm rather than the exception, in which more workers had an understanding of what their union was there for and the union in question understood their industry’s needs and agenda better.

Fundamentally, the entire problem here is AE’s lack of a mandate: even leaving aside the fact that they had no legal standing as a NZ union until this time last week, the trouble is that they represent a tiny fraction of the actors who form a tiny fraction of those responsible for the production of any film, and yet they have the apparent ability to blacklist that entire industry (whom they don’t represent). Even the most ardent trade unionist can surely see the moral hazard here. All those who we’ve seen fronting AE have been the best-respected and most-established actors; actors whose careers aren’t in material danger regardless of the outcome of The Hobbit. But what of those actors who are genuinely struggling, whose faces don’t appear in tens of thousands of living rooms every Tuesday night, and who don’t top “best-of” lists? And what of the silent legions of drivers, designers, artists, labourers, riggers, electricians, carpenters and caterers who are the real motive engine behind the film industry? Are their needs well-served by the actions of a few prima donnas who represent them without their consent? Apparently not, which is why a thousand of them turned out to protest the actions of that unelected few. Orcs, Chris Trotter called them; useful idiots said Idiot/Savant.

To an extent it’s their fault for not being adequately organised to mount a counter-insurgency against AE’s hijack of their industry. And that’s why my suggestion is for film industry workers to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their needs. Whether it’s in separate unions by sector or a single, unified screen workers’ union doesn’t much matter, as long as there is strong and robust organisation behind it which elects leaders who hold a genuine mandate to speak for the real needs of their industry. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and the only way that a handful of pretty faces and household names with little or no industrial relations experience and an Australian carpetbagger with a reputation for mischief-making get to speak for an entire industry is when the alternative is nothing. Conventional wisdom — particularly from the government — is to de-unionise, and already the veiled threats about the consequences of a general strike during the 2011 Rugby World Cup are beginning. But de-unionisation at a time like this simply cedes the field. Efforts must be redoubled — not only to negotiate the sorts of concessions gained by Irish actors for collective bargaining among independent contractors, but to ensure that whoever claims to have a union mandate in future has the crowd with the torches and pitchforks following them, rather than chasing them.

L

Organic protest, and reframing the mineral debate

datePosted on 15:37, May 3rd, 2010 by Lew

political-pictures-mimes-million-march

Like many others, I was amazed at the turnout for the anti-mining protest in Auckland on Saturday. That 50,000 people would turn out for such an event is remarkable in itself — the NZRU’s financial problems would be solved if they could attract so many people to half a dozen rugby matches each year, and we’re currently rebuilding Eden Park so they can seat that many a dozen or so times next year, and then maybe once or twice a year thereafter.

But the more remarkable thing about this march was its apparently organic nature. From my read — based only on the media coverage, mind — this was not a visually and ideologically cohesive, “branded” demonstration such as “enough is enough” and the more recent child discipline march, which were more or less Boobs On Bikes without the boobs or the bikes, advocating the wholesale adoption of a political product. It was not a heavily stage-managed piece of public theatre as the Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi was, and it was not a set-piece undertaken with a specific tactical purpose such as the most memorable marches of the Springbok Tour were. There were t-shirts and banners and so on, but these were not issued like uniforms with marching orders and approved wording for slogans, imagery and talking points. These were not rented crowds, seas of mime-like bodies serving as a vehicle for someone else’s words and sentiments. This was a genuine all-comers march, and if its almost unprecedented turnout did not bring genuine authority, then its authenticity surely must.

The response from the usual authoritarians has been a heady blend of confusion, disbelief and denial — the same sorts of delusions I normally accuse Labour partisans of falling prey to, when the observable data fails to conform to ideological modelling. This is bad for them, and good for those who oppose the government’s mining plans: if the government persists in believing the models instead of the data, it will go the way of the last government which did so.

But I don’t think this government will do that. I think it will see the writing on the wall, and reframe the mineral debate. Key and Brownlee have surely now seen their error: addressing mining in Schedule 4 as a national economic development issue rather than as a set of regional development issues. Going for it all in one bite was greedy, and as Danyl says, reflects the sort of complacency which creeps in when your opposition isn’t up to the task of opposing. But as strong and authentic as the Auckland march was, it has a weakness, and that’s that it’s composed of Aucklanders. Mining schedule 4 as a national strategy has failed, and likely at the cost of the opportunity to mine in the Coromandel and on Great Barrier Island, but it has thrown into sharp relief those areas where local views are less opposed — such as Paparoa, and possibly Mt Aspiring. As I commented on The Standard earlier, West Coasters are overwhelmingly in support of extended mining, a solid turnout in Nelson notwithstanding. Portraying Nelsonites as latte-sipping greeny liberal lifestylers begrudging their honest hard-working brethren on the other side of the hill a chance at the riches of the land will turn this into a classic town/country divide of the sort National and its mining allies are very skilled at exploiting. So watch for a few hundred — or maybe a thousand — Coasters marching in Westport to support the mining proposal being equated to this weekend’s demonstration in Auckland, and watch for well-meaning Aucklanders, Wellingtonians, Nelsonites and those from elsewhere being told in fairly certain terms to butt out of their regional business.

The government will be taking a risk if it proceeds with this plan, even in a regional form, because it has already permitted the debate to be established as a national issue about national parks in which everyone from the Cape to the Bluff has a stake — but it has amassed plenty of political capital, and now is the time in the electoral cycle to use it. Particularly with the Australian federal government unveiling a new resource tax, New Zealand just got more attractive for mining interests, and the imperative to dig, baby, dig will be stronger than ever.

L

Convincing the Police we have a right to protest

datePosted on 13:01, July 4th, 2009 by Anita

It is good to see that – after a 12 year battle – the right to protest in Parliament grounds is finally being reaffirmed. The short version is that in 1997 the then speaker Doug Kidd authorised the arrest of 75 people protesting against education reforms in Parliament grounds and later trespassed them all. It has taken 12 years for the speaker’s office and the Police to finally agree to apologise and pay compensation.

It is frustrating that in a supposedly open democratic society there are so many example of the Police and authorities trying to stifle dissent, and that it takes many years and many costly lawyer hours to get to a point the courts finally make them back down. Recent examples that spring to mind are people being arrested and prosecuted for writing in chalk on a footpath, using a loud hailer and blowing a whistle again on a public footpath, and burning a NZ flag (which required a High Court appeal). If you’re interested in more examples I found this article while I was checking I remembered the chalk incident correctly.

In theory the Police are there to protect our rights, including our right to participate in democratic protest, but it frequently feels like their main goal is to protect the dominance of the current power elite. It was interesting to see this scenario appear in the ethics training material the Police have developed since the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct (driven by the Police rape trials)

Ethical dilemma example 7
I would like to imagine this is a sign of a turning tide, and the Police will now be protecting our right to protest, but recent examples of deliberate and exploitative infiltration of protest groups, and the use of defenders of torturers like Mark Lowenthal by the Police for training and advice is hardly a good sign. Do these recent examples pass their own test?

NZ Police SELF test

Raising democratic children

datePosted on 09:08, May 26th, 2009 by Anita

One of the right’s responses to the Hikoi yesterday has been to complain about the presence of children on the march which disingenuous comments like “Why are there school children there?”. One could criticise these comments for relying on barely hidden stereotypes about Māori, or for gross hypocrisy given the “family values” movements “family friendly” week day marches, but anyhow … what I actually want to talk about is why it is important that children are politically active.

As a child I attended many demonstrations, protests and marches: some at the suggestion of my parents, some off my own bat. I remember, as a 14 year old, asking my parents to write me a note for school so I could attend a rally at parliament in support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill; I attended in school uniform with no school friends or family members. I also remember being in Parliament the night it was passed  and realising that we had done it – I was a very very small part of that “we”, but  I was a part of that “we”. I grew into a politically engaged young adult, and now adult. I know that one can make a difference, I know that my voice matters and that I can make it heard.

That is an amazing thing to know, and that is at the heart of democracy – knowing that our opinions are respected, and that raising our voices is worthwhile.

I hope that, when Key and Hide back down, every child on that march is told “you did that, together we made that difference”, I hope that when they get old enough to vote they will vote in the seats they created, I hope that when they see something wrong in the future they say “I know I can do something about that”.

Raising democratic children is about way more than school, it is about raising children who know they have power and know how to exercise it.

Worker organised resistance

datePosted on 10:10, March 1st, 2009 by Anita

Once again Indymedia is the only place providing coverage of worker organised resistance against the current government’s policies.

While the media, major political parties and even the left wing blogs have concentrated on  what was going on inside the Jobs Summit a good old fashioned protest was going on outside. Despite the great messages, the photo friendly images and reality of the protest the coverage we’ve seen has focussed only on the centre-left’s response.

Even the left wing commentary on the lack of men at the summit has been full of images of men (to show the absence of women) rather than images of strong women raising their own voices.

I also haven’t seen any mainstream coverage of the Christchurch picket against the 90 day sacking law which attracted a variety of workers groups and unions.

Sometime in the next few years the left needs to realise that we’re no longer part of the orthodoxy, it’s ok to protest (in fact it always was). We can take our banner and loudspeakers out on the street and tell the world that our voices and our rights are important.