Tuesday 3 January 2012

Occupy New Zealand: Less Than Beloved

The Casual Brutality Of The State: This astounding image of a Californian campus policeman casually pepper-spraying passive student occupiers quickly became a symbol of the US authorities' fear-driven hostility towards the ideas of the Occupy Movement. Old-timers recalled earlier struggles for human rights, and the solidarity of the protesters grew. The New Zealand Occupy Movement seemed tame and non-threatening by comparison. By the end of 2011 it had all but fizzled out.

“THE BELOVED COMMUNITY” was how Dr Martin Luther King described the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The relationships forged between participants in that brutal, often deadly, struggle were intense and enduring. Like war buddies, the lunch-counter desegregators, protest marchers and freedom riders look back on their experiences as both the worst and the best moments of their lives.

It is significant, therefore, to hear participants in the American Occupy Movement describe themselves as something akin to Dr King’s “beloved community”. Clearly, they see the occupations playing a role analogous to those first, defiant acts of passive resistance against the “separate but equal”, “Jim Crow” regimes of the Old South. Equally clearly, the Occupy Movement seeks to align itself with progressive America’s proud tradition of moral and physical resistance to injustice and oppression.

Can New Zealand’s Occupy Movement lay claim to such lofty credentials? Have our occupiers even come close to forming themselves into a “beloved community”?

Sadly, the answer must be: “No.”

There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the vast experiential gulf between those at the sharp end of inequality in the United States, and the New Zealand poor. Even in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of the post-war boom, the living standards and quality of life of the average American were much more precarious than those of the average Kiwi. The USA was able to construct only the rudiments of a functioning welfare state. New Zealand’s welfare provision, by contrast, was second only to the Scandinavians’. When the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) struck the USA in 2008, such safety nets as still remained beneath the ordinary American family were threadbare and full of holes. When put to the same test, our own proved to be in a much better state of repair.

It is also true that New Zealand’s “one-percenters” have a lot less to answer for than the one percent of Americans who control more than 20 percent of that country’s wealth. In particular, our (Australian controlled) financial system – most crucially its banks – weathered the GFC without the need for colossal bail-outs from the public purse. The spectacle most responsible for sharpening the social divisions of the USA was that of a reckless and bloated Wall Street being rescued from its own greed and folly, while an innocent and suffering Main Street was left to go to the Devil.

The contrast, captured for posterity by (of all networks) Russian Television, of New York City’s financial elite, on a balcony high above Wall Street, sipping Champagne from crystal flutes and peering down with amused condescension at the ragged “occupiers” waving their hand-lettered cardboard signs on the pavement, many floors below, could hardly have been more incendiary.

Rather than this gilded social contempt, New Zealand’s experience in 2011 was one of social solidarity and collective exhilaration. The devastating Christchurch earthquake which killed 181 people on 22 February 2011 drew New Zealanders much closer together and mobilised the very best qualities of the Kiwi character. While the sheer joy than enveloped the country when the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup made it especially hard for those hoping to expose the nation’s shortcomings to win a hearing.

In this context, the Occupy Movement’s New Zealand off-shoots never really managed to rise above their one-off novelty value, nor to overcome the unflattering comparisons between their own tatterdemalion derivativeness and the heroism of the American original. While the Kiwi occupiers did battle in provincial courtrooms with bemused and increasingly frustrated mayors, Occupy Oakland was laid waste by multiple police agencies hurling stun grenades and firing tear gas canisters into the terrified protesters tents.

And nowhere, among the Kiwi Occupiers’ interminable “General Assembly” attempts to reach an ontologically impossible “consensus” between anarchism and socialism, was there ever a mobilising image to match that of the burly University of California campus cop nonchalantly pepper-spraying the faces of kneeling, non-violent student occupiers.

New Zealand’s Occupy Movement has fizzled for all of the above reasons, and more, but its single greatest failure has been its refusal to transform its manifestly untrue claim to represent 99 percent of the New Zealand public into anything resembling reality. When even New Zealand’s conservative prime minister confesses that most Kiwis are socialists at heart, an appeal for greater equality should have been the easiest of sells. But aside from the excitement of the initial occupations, and the potent resonances of the borrowed American slogans, this never eventuated. Afraid of soiling their ideological purity through contact with the unenlightened majority, the New Zealand occupiers, like a collection of Antipodean Achilles, refused to come out of their tents.

Beloved communities arise out of the open and collective struggle for a better world, not from muddy encampments, or the ineffectual fluttering of consensual hands.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 January 2012.


Anonymous said...

Chris, whilst you speak some TRUTHS, you write on something you don't know much about. The New-Zealand Occupations are getting stronger and in-fact, are multiplying!..as for the Wall st elite sipping on champers on some balcony and looking down and no doubt laughing at protesters, its these very people the worldwide Occupy movement is sick of and against!ie: worldwide corporate greed and other injustices!.

-Gregg B,

XChequer said...

However, in saying that Chris, it doesn't mean that New Zealand's inability to relate to the movement means the movement itself is wrong (not that you were saying that :-)).

Granted that it truly is "less than beloved" however the message that the pure, free market, capitalist system that has brought on the GFC is savagely flawed isn't necessarily wrong.

The movement maybe gone but the message remains.

It should be a question that each New Zealand asks themselves: Is money more important than people? Are we aspirational for us..... or our bank balances?

Cactus Kate said...

I predicted such from the observations during my first visit to the silliness.

Anonymous said...

Hard to take you seriously Chris, when you almost blame the Occupy NZ folks for the NZ Police - for once - exercising admirable restraint. It's like you desperately want the US conflict, to give you similar juicy photos and headlines to propound your weighty theories on.

For shame. Again.

Mad Marxist.

Allie said...

It also doesn't help that, in global terms, WE are the one per cent. Makes it a little more difficult to take the "occupiers" seriously.

Chris Trotter said...

I'd welcome some evidence for that rather bold assertion, Gregg B.

The occupations in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland have all either shut up shop, or are down to less than a handful of die-hards waiting to be arrested for Contempt of Court.

There was some talk in Auckland about extending the occupations to other public spaces in the city, but if this is happening no one in the news media has been informed.

Let me add, to XChequer and Mad Marxist, that I wholeheartedly endorse the Occupy Movement's goals, and acknowledge its global success in raising people's consciousness of inequality and injustice.

What I lament is the apparent failure of the NZ occupiers to build on what was a very promising beginning. In Auckland, for example, they had, all around them, the glittering towers of the great corporations. Were these occupied? With tens of thousands of passers-by just metres away were pamphlets distributed?

Behind its Cyclone fence, the Auckland site looked more like a prison camp than a brave new approach to politics in the 21st Century.

The good behaviour of the NZ Police matched perfectly the good behaviour of the protesters. But, as MLK knew only too well, good behaviour does not defeat inequality and injustice.

That only happens through struggle.

thor42 said...

Enough of the Occupy nonsense. What I'm wondering about, Chris, is your views on the strike at the Port of Auckland.

The port has now lost another customer - Fonterra - the country's largest exporter. They will now be using Tauranga and Napier.

Given that the average wage of the Auckland stevedores is $91,000 (plus generous healthcare etc), do you think they are a bunch of fat cats? Do you agree with the strike?

My view is that there are people who would be viewed far more sympathetically (if they went on strike) than the fat-cat Auckland watersiders.
They have no idea how well-off they are.

Anonymous said...

Points of information:

- Occupy Auckland has distributed thousands of flyers to the public

- the wire mesh fence around Occupy Aotea Square was put there by Council, not at the request of the occupiers. A journalist might want to ask how much the Council has wasted on fences and security guards (guarding what? the cops saw nothing to worry about) without blaming the protesters for Council staff decisions...

- to occupy corporate HQs, you need deep understanding in the public, so they suport the action. That takes time to build.

Mad Marxist.

Kumara Republic said...

In short, Occupy NZ seems to have the right ideas. The let-down is with the execution.

TM said...

Most of NZ supports the principle, but unlike MLK Jr there is no vision. It felt like the main goal was to occupy rather than achieve social change.

Anonymous said...

thor 42, the operations done by workers on the wharves are fraught with constant danger and done at all sorts of unsociable hours.
If you think its such a sweet ride, you try doing it some time.
If you want to blow off about undeserved income have a go at the Christchurch council CEO and his raise of $68 grand.
If the Christchurch Occupiers have any grunt left at all they will get going and take that one up.

Anonymous said...

@ thor42 - you may need to get informed from someone other than Tony Gibson (ceo of Ports of Auckland).

As I understand it:
- the $91,000 is an AVERAGE earnings, including overtime, so is not indicative of what wharfies get paid for a 40 hour week.

- PoA are among the most efficient ports in the world, with skilled staff.

- the real issue seems to be a desperate effort by Gibson and the Rodney Hide appointed PoA Board to 'break' the union before the 2 year initial Board appointments are up, and Auckland councillors can sack badly behaved Board members.

After all thor42, wouldn't it have been cheaper for PoA to have just rolled over existing pay and conditions than lose a bunch of customers to PoTauranga?

Because it is PoA bosses demanding 'flexibility'. Which seems to be code for casualisation of wharfie jobs...

Mad Marxist.

Michael said...

Thanks Allie for the most important point :)
As for the rest of it - Chris, I think you have outlined the main reasons why it is hard for Occupy to get traction here. Tolerance, less of a divide, more of a safety net, more restraint by authorities. The issues here are harder to define, but therein is the danger. Are we a frog in a heating pot, already too lethargic to take heed of the warning signs? Growing inequality. The majority can no longer raise a family on one income. Home ownership slipping out of reach. Multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses to big execs while rank and file staff are laid off. Neo-liberal principles so ubiquitous we live and breath them without even noticing, anything else seems 'fringe'. Convulsions of a growing criminal underclass whose world we latte-sippers can scarcely imagine. Is this the road to hell, covered in a superficial film of ineffectual moderation but grounded in the hard metal of devil-take-the-hindmost market-worship, 'bottom line' the only line that matters, sealed with the facade of the prime minister's blokey smile, and naive, neoliberal good intentions? This threat is much harder to pin down than the madness of capitalism-USA, but they are arms of the same beast, and lead to the same place. I guess we have to be closer to that destination before Occupy will make sense here.

Kumara Republic said...

@thor42: Whoop-de-doo, turns out it's not about the pay rates. It's about "disposable labour" - use once, throw away, grab another, rinse & repeat.

Royton De'Ath said...

A delicious post, Sir. Well done. You've put these so-called protestors on toast with a post of carefully and delicately structured derision.

And fair enough, too. You have Our full support. They deserve it: they're just not poor enough, certainly not struggling enough, probably not black enough, just not beloved enough, not living in the 1960s enough and certainly not occupying their tents enough! And as to their ontology...Well, Ha! Laughable! And worst of all they didn't get substantial social change completed before the Christmas hols and they were just a demmed inconveniece.

What a waste of time, what a sham, what a fraud this protest was.

And these people have the temerity - the gall - to question their Betters (and particularly the Job Creators and other Grand Examples of Properly Succesful People)!

"Beloved Community"? What was MLK banging on about? Surely not the people the actually believed in equality and emancipation and did something about it? And what's more they didn't need to set up Tent Cities - much (We're sure that Tennessee's Tent City was just a silly 1960s hippie thing).

Thank goodness We've all moved beyond the need to support, or bear witness or form community with those who are not so well off. We didn't get to where We are today by all this "communal" guff; finding common ground with Common People who are Unsuccesful? It doesn't bear thinking about. Thank goodness thinking is such a scarce commodity.

Your wonderfully qualified and tepid "support" of the Occupy movement clearly indicates that the Great War on Equality and Emancipation is pretty well Done and Dusted. Thank You, Mr Trotter for your help.

It's wonderful that, just like Grand Folk like Hitchens, Furedi and O'Neill, you saw the light and came over the Right side at the Right time; Rightfully taking an opportune moment for delicately smothering this vestigial expression of unfounded social democracy (Pah, who needs it?) by a beautiful blend of solipsism and blinkered contrarianism.

Wonderful to behold. Thank you.

Sanctuary said...

It is an interesting sign of our confortable times that the self-sacrifice of living in a tent and the illegality of doing so on council land is regarded as the very height of daring protest.

What would Archibald Baxter have made of martyrdom being defined as a downtown camping holiday?

What would John A Lee have made of confronting authority being defined as smoking pot after hours in a park? Where are the hunger strikes, the unpermitted Hikoi from Occupy Auckland to Occupy Wellington?

And where are the rebellious priests? Smirking on the news at upsetting some reliable religious nutjob over your Christmas message outside St. Matthews in the city before retiring to your comfy bed in the vicarage wouldn't have buttered any parsnips for The Reverent Colin Scrimgeour, a man (perhaps apocryphally) famous for claiming that when the mob ripped up his fence pailings in Queen Street to better aid their rioting he "could think of no better use for church property".

Where are the occupations of corporate offices? Where are the shocking battles with the police?

Crisis of capitalism? What crisis?

In short, the NZ Occupy movement seems to be pretty half-hearted effort by basically respectful and law abiding middle class little shits, busily working their way through their anarchy phase whilst carefully avoiding any sort of criminal conviction that might upset their plans for an OE in a couple of years or so.

Anonymous said...

Have you visited the occupation Chris? You and Bryce Edwards seem to have written it off straight away. keeping in mind it is a rather new movement and also one that does not have lobbying as a core tactic.

You also condemned the Urewera accused straight away and seemed to write off climate camp very quickly as well. If the big hope you have is NZFirst and Labour... then surely you must be getting rather cynical in your later years.

How is Winston Peters or Labour going to do things like solve inequality in NZ? If Parliament is not up to the challenge of tacking certain issues, maybe the solutions will come from outside parliament. That would involve people getting outside their comfort zones, and doing more than marching, voting or sideline commentary.

Surely last year showed that socially big changes are on the way. The occupy movement was a response to the financial collapse and austerity responses of many governments that fail to solve anything.

Anonymous said...

When the Occupy Auckland protest camp was at its greatest numbers, I heard a well-spoken woman on the radio say in a puzzled, slightly exasperated tone of voice: “Who are these people? Where did they come from?” To me, that epitomises the gulf that has developed in NZ society over the last few decades. It’s enough to make you weep.

Anonymous said...

Royton De'Ath
makes me want to barf

not everything that festers
is fair dinkum protestors

blueleopardthinks said...

Bravo to those who have posted supportive stances toward the occupy movement and of particular mention Royton De'Aath, well put!

Chris Trotter, your article has some accurate observation in it, yet I feel that you along with many media commentators on the subject miss the point on two counts (at least)

We are no longer simply NZ in isolation; most countries are influenced by global finances now, and as I understand it Occupiers in NZ are not simply making points re the NZ 1%; (In fact its not really even the global 1%, rather a small percentage of them; A good proportion of NZers fall into the 1% and I do not suppose that occupiers have any bones to pick with them.)

The awareness that motivates this movement is about the way in which the global 1% having the means of production and are acting with too much narrow self interest and being rewarded too highly in this attitude, and this attitude is unnecessary and is leading to adverse effects for the majority. In fact, I'm confident to state that this too narrowly focussed self interest is completely undermining the positive system that we had. Supply & demand is no longer giving accurate signals and democratic expression is laughable in this country and others.

The second point is that this has been a grand opportunity for our media to educate the public on some serious issues going on globally. Have our media taken this opportunity and run with it? No, rather, they write small-minded articles like the one you have, whining about the weaknesses of those trying to raise awareness, and thereby undermining them further.

There are serious issues going on in the world today. The Occupy movement is pointing to the white elephant. The media are shooting the messengers. The public need to be more informed. What part are you. Mr Trotter playing in this theatre?

Anonymous said...

The occupy movement was a joke. It was a bunch of people who clearly were frustrated that the benefit doesn't pay more. Unsurprisingly the majority of those still occupying are those that were there before the fad started - the homeless. Some people just don't realease that camping in a public place doesn't equal results. Especially when your "1%" are at home with their curtains drawn. Dickheads.

blueleopardthinks said...

The joke is how there has been major corruption show up in our system, its been blatant--there for all to see--few, if any, have been prosecuted for this crookery, no real changes to our laws/regulations to stop it happening again, the actors have walked away with ever-increasing bonuses for their efforts, the public have footed the bill and stand to again, the corruption undermines the very system that creates our comfortable lives, (the comfort of which allows us to shut our eyes to the damage this is causing elsewhere in the world), the joke is how there can still be people writing in, with their heads buried so far in the ground, stating that the Occupy movement is a joke!! Lol

This is a movement that is calling our governments to account for the unbelievable mess that is going on!!

Anonymous said...

The OCCUPY movement is Communitarian astro-turf - a pure Hegelian 'progressive' tool.

Seriously we don't have capitalism...what we now have is:

Corporatism versus collectivism leading to a communitarian synthesis.

The third way - pah...baaaaaaahhhh...sheep.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you are an astro-turf "journalist".

The press release of 23rd December, 2011 clearly states that the occupations have multiplied.

The Occupy Auckland page itself has multiple posts between 23rd December 2011 & this article of yours dated January 3rd, 2012, explaining that Occupy Queen Street 2.0 & Occupy Te Huinga Waka at Victoria Park had been established.

There is then a mountain of independent media resources surrounding the establishment of Occupy Albert Park.

That you would write on January 3rd, 11 days after nearly every media outlet in the country was issued the press release, that it "hadn't happened", is outrageous.

Where in this tripe excuse for an article do you discuss the global mainstream media blackout of the Occupy movement?

Or the vast resources set against its success?

You don't.

The only context you give is your own bias.

Funnily enough, I don't EVER recall you being at Occupy. Nor do I recall you volunteering, helping, even guiding, the media team or anyone associated with it.

What I -DO- remember is you trying to capitalise off the smear campaign of Occupy, as this article is yet another example of.

I also recall you trolling the journalistic efforts of members of media team, when they produced photojournalism material in the greater public interest than your opinion-style hit pieces.

You have two choices now; one is publish this comment, and have the exposure of your hypocrisy be confined to this page.

Secondly, is to refuse to publish this comment & thus force us into composing a more detailed & public defense of your slurs against Occupy in New Zealand.

Shame on you.