Friday 21 October 2011

Encountering Resistance

Offering Resistance: At the tender age of 26, I learned the hard way that mass support should never be assumed, or demanded. It has to be earned. "Resistance" was modelled on the Polish "Solidarity" (can't ya tell!). In theory a "movement of movements" seemed like a fine idea. Putting it into practice turned out to be a little more difficult.

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD of Resistance? No, not The Resistance, which fought the Germans in occupied France during World War II, but Resistance – as in the single word – like Solidarity? Don’t worry. Unless you lived in Dunedin in 1982, and have a very good memory, there’s no reason why “Resistance” should mean anything to you at all.

The only reason I remember it, is because I set it up.

Radicalised by the Springbok Tour protests of the year before; despairing of formal electoral politics following the narrow return of Rob Muldoon’s National Government; and inspired by the exploits of Poland’s free trade union, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), I was hoping to set up, right here in New Zealand, a similar extra-parliamentary people’s movement, broad enough to encompass all of the big issues of the day.

The movement was to be launched at what I called, with youthful grandiloquence, “The Dunedin People’s Congress”. Invitations went out to interest groups of all kinds: unions, students associations, environmental organisations.

It was a flop. Only a handful of people turned up. And, at the tender age of 26, I learned a bitter – but immensely valuable – lesson about political agitation. Mass support cannot be assumed, or demanded. It must be earned.

The then President of the Labour Party, Jim Anderton, summed it up for me a few months later, when he advised the radical core of Labour Youth’s Dunedin branch to: “Always build your footpaths where the people walk.”

Today, nearly thirty years on, the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement, and its multitude of emulators in the USA and around the world, are inspiring a new generation of activists – just as Solidarity inspired activists in the early-Eighties. In Auckland and Dunedin, small encampments have been erected in the city-centre by “occupiers” eager to assert the OWS slogan “We are the 99 Percent!” Occupy Auckland has even borrowed OWS’s ultra-democratic, consensus-based, decision-making process: setting up its own “General Assembly” to govern the occupation.

I simply couldn’t avoid a wry grin of recognition when I saw the big “General Assembly” banner unfurled in Aotea Square. “Dunedin People’s Congress” anyone?

The central question that Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin now have to answer, after six days of occupation, is whether or not “the people” are walking on the “footpaths” these groups have, with such enthusiasm (and not a little self-importance) constructed? Or, like the doomed “Dunedin People’s Congress”, is their General Assembly only attracting the most idealistic and/or naïve of the Radical Left?

Earlier this week, a friend of mine e-mailed me the link to a YouTube clip of the 15 October demonstration in Madrid. The Spanish capital’s most central public square – La Puerta del Sol – and the broad avenues leading into it were filled with demonstrators. There must have been at least 100,000 of them; an angry swarm of “indignant” Spanish citizens. The sort of crowd that, here in New Zealand, only great sporting events like the Rugby World Cup can assemble.

When Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin are able gather support on a similar, massive, scale, their claim to speak for “the 99 percent” of the population which cannot boast great wealth, nor wield great power, will acquire a measure of credibility.

But that day is, I fear, far away.

New Zealand is not Spain. We do not face an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Our government has not unleashed the sort of savage austerity measures that have so incensed the Spanish people. At time of writing, Police have yet to pepper-spray, tear-gas or baton-charge any of the non-violent occupiers camped-out in Aotea Square or the Octagon. And, if for some reason (the MV Rena sinks, for example) people do become indignant enough to fill those public spaces, the radical Left will soon discover just how conservative most ordinary people really are. Broad agreement is possible on economic issues – but on precious little else.

I speak from experience. Because, you see, I did end up at a Dunedin “people’s congress” – of sorts. It was called the Otago Trades Council, and its 100-plus delegates represented more than 25,000 unionised workers throughout the province. You dared not take these ordinary New Zealanders for granted. Their trust was a precious commodity – and you had to work hard for it. But when you’d earned it: when it was given; resistance was guaranteed.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 21 October 2011.


philoff said...

It's not until the middle class start losing their houses in mortgagee sales, until their tap water is undrinkable and unemployment for Pakeha is above 10% that kiwis will be on the streets en masse.

It's not until kiwis feel the only way to conserve their way of life is radical change that our innate conservatism be cast aside or, rather, can be used in support of radical change, like it was in the 30s.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well the union movement's been gutted. That was shown when some old unionist praised the PPTA afew years ago for god's sake What's left but kids? I'm proud of them. I thought they were brainwashed.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

This site ( not the blog )sucks. It's a constant battle with 503 errors blah blah. How about making it user friendly.

Chris Trotter said...

Tell me about it, Guerilla Surgeon. Ever since it's big meltdown a few months ago, Blogger's been absolutely diabolical!

Adze said...

Dunedin People's Congress? Splitters!

Stevey said...

Hi Chris. Steve B here (remember "red Dunedin" 1993?) Like your blog and your too infrequent slots on the radio. I agree that we are a long way from any sort of meaningful resistance in ths country. Most of the public is either ignorant of the serious issues at hand, being instead focussed on trivialities and wall to wall sports hype, or desperately trying to make ends meet. Not enough of the middle class is screaming yet (as philoff says)still feeling secure in their heavily mortgaged lifestyle. In addition, we are still avid followers of that national past time BLAME THE VICTIM. One of the most distressing things about the last 25 years is the erosion of the collectivist spirit that built the modern nation that is slowly unravelling about us. Let me clarify that statement. We have official collectivism (the stadium of 4 million) and spontaneous collectivism (the grass roots response to the earthquakes and the oil spill.) Official collectivism is all about artificial hype, false consciousness and commodification of human relationships. The other type is about people making human, unmediated connections with those around them. One is heartily approved of by the system, the other viewed nervously as a potential threat (despite weaselly statements about the kiwi spirit.) The initial response of the government to people heading down to the beach at Papamoa was to tell them to stay away. Not for any public safety reasons, but so that any spontaneous collective effort did not materialise. Because once people start to realise that they can do things independently of the government, making positive change in their own communities without oversight from Wellington, the first seeds of true resistance begin to sprout. One thing is for sure though, we have one of the most idiotic administrations in living memory running the show here, and people are slowly getting tired of being told what to do by these charlatans. It might (God help us) take something even bigger than the Christchurch disaster to shift peoples conciousness, but be sure it's gonna happen. Probably when we least expect it....

Anonymous said...

Because once people start to realise that they can do things independently of the government, making positive change in their own communities without oversight from Wellington, the first seeds of true resistance begin to sprout.

Jesus. Jesus H. You've found it Stevey, and our philanthropic orgs are right behind you. Spread it around people, it's the avenue. And yep, Stevey, something much, much bigger is just around the corner.

Robert Winter said...

It will, I think, happen, and perhaps, as history shows, at the most unlikely of moments. The damage done to NZ since 1984 is still working is way through deep social currents, not just in terms of wages and inequality, but in terms of community and accountablity.

The 'spark' in the marketplace in Tunisia was unexpected, yet ran through the country like myriad powder trails. Those trails exist across NZ - in working conditions, in opportunity, in the environment, in issues Maori, in areas surrounding democratic control, and others.

I look at the UK, where I have recently spent time, and see those trails now deeply scored, almost beyond the reach of sustainable, orthodox political solution. They, in one sense, mark the failure of Labour, especially under Blair, to provide the alternatives that, as it were, 'dampen the powder'.

What strikes me is our political classes' distance from this possibility. I sometimes think that the professionalisation of politics has eroded that knowledge and intuition about real shifts and currents in society. If you operate primarily at one, insulated, and relatively privileged level. it is perhaps not surprising.

The other thing, about which we do not agree, is that the institutions and political practices that reflect these deep currents may not be those of our past or, if they are, they will substantially different. That's the bit that, for me, needs to be looked at more carefully

robertguyton said...

Meester Trotter and Stevey... I've taken the liberty of 'borrowing' some of your very fine thoughts here,and posting them on my own blog. I trust you won't object, but in case you do, you know where to find me :-)

Dave Kennedy said...

I agree with philoff, critical mass will only be achieved when the "middle classes" feel the pain as in the US. I think there are huge numbers of struggling people and families in New Zealand but many have been living close to the edge since the 1990s and probably feel resigned to their fate.

The small group that form the core of Occupy Invercargill are a mix of earnest but relatively naive young people who have bought into the many conspiracy theories that abound. What concerned me the most was the fact that many were not going to vote because they thought it would be colluding with a corrupt system.

I think New Zealanders are largely optimists and it takes extreme events (or perhaps sport) to mobilise us in any significant way.

Robert Winter said...

BSprout's and others' point about the middle class is borne out by events in Greece.

The Herald reports today on the most recent of a series of austerity measures that have been introduced by PASOK in Greece under the troika's 2010 Memorandum arrangement. Apart from another death on the streets, many commentaries now point to a Greek middle class being sorely hit by these measures, and joining the street demonstrations. Greece is on the verge of being ungovernable, and one hears that the Military are in the loop and have been consulted by the EU since 2010.

But this has been a process that has escalated dramatically over the last 18 months. Greece has been structurally adjusting since at least 2004 without ungovernability arising. It now has. NZ would have a long way to go to get to the same pass, but given where National wants to take us, it might arise quicker than we expect.

markus said...

Ultra-Conservative Catholic, Thatcherite Capitalist - Lech Walesa is quite some distance from being an inspirational hero in my book (although I realise Solidarity itself was quite a broad movement).

Incidently, there have been some quite solid claims over the years that Walesa was a paid informer for the Polish Secret Police during the early to mid 70s. But, then again, the same apparently goes for one or two leading members of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

Stevey said...

I like the metaphor of powder trails Mr Winter and agree that they exist. As for the spark, that is a more difficult question. Muldoon's decision to push the Springbok tour forward in 1981 provided just such a spark which ignited the fumes of anger and frustration which had been building in NZ for some time. At that time there was a pretty clear target at which to direct the anger, and a much stronger peoples network coupled with a(compared to today) relatively simple social structure. Conditions in 21st century, post industrial NZ are somewhat different.

The "blitzkrieg" policy approach adopted by adminstrations since 1984 has had the same effect as the military version in 1940's Europe. Use of maximum force at a concentrated point to shatter the defence and once broken through, push forward rapidly towards clearly defined objectives. Don't give your opponent anything to aim at except a moving target and understand that crushing their morale acheives victory quicker and more cheaply than engaging their main force. These are the tactics that the economic Talibanists of both Labour and National have used to great effect since 1984 and still employ. If you think I'm joking, go and read some interviews in the NBR from the mid '80's featuring Prebble and co. Oh and don't forget Clarke and Key's shameless abuse of the urgency process in parliament.

So we have sections of NZ society that are isolated, subjected to intense political barrages through the media thus creating a perception of crisis requiring decisive action,which is then supplied by the appropriate legislation. Just about every aspect of society has been through this, many several times until some resemble a metaphorical lunar landscape with the survivors scrabbling out a troglodytic existence. As stated before, the effect on people's morale has been the most tragic aspect of this and lots, if not most, have given up thinking that things will change or even recognising that they could be agents of change themselves.

My point about comunities getting on and doing things themselves, with their own resources and creating their own civil and economic networks is, I believe, crucial for two reasons.

Firstly, just imagine what would happen if Wellington decided to blitzkreig something that had been built up and sustained by the efforts of a broad based community network (especially if it was built up to replace some vital service previously axed by the politicians). People are more likely to display the doughty courage required to repulse such an assault if they are defending their own work rather than something supplied by government in the first place.

Second, blazing powder trails and social explosions lacking some sort of context or driving force other than just undirected rage are likely to result in a worse outcome for communities. The current National government has barely been able to contain its fascistic impulses up to this point. Rampaging youths and blazing shopping malls would be like manna from heaven to these people, enabling them to enact a whole host of legislation lurking on the statute books from the 1951 Emergency regulations (never repealed) to the numerous sinister Acts passed since 2001.

My hope is that the process of communities rebuilding themselves in their own way, in their own time, with their own ideas and resources gathers enough momentum. It is so obvious that the quislings in charge have no respect whatsoever for us and the likelyhood of change coming through the ballot box is next to zero. Let us quietly scoop up those powder trails, concentrate that energy and use it to build what we want. I for one am not interested in confronting or even debating with the oligarchs crucifying this country. Far better to engage with people who I see every day, who have open minds and hearts and are putting thier DIY skills to good use.

jh said...

I don't agree that unions are the answer. Unions tended to be a closed shop for the well paid lucky few. Instead we need to ensure that whoever is capable of accessing an occupation can (be it trade or profession) but we should ensure that capital gains on land don't go into a few hands like xxxxx the billionaire.

Chris Trotter said...

Don't know which country you're referring to, jh, but in New Zealand, up until 1991, unions embraced practically the entire workforce on wages. (That's what compulsory unionisn meant!)

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting debate on France24 between a young 'occupier', and a British social democrat style MEP. The latter was saying the usual things about demands having to be processed through the existing structures, and even claimed that they could do something about tax havens etc. The young man was having none of it, since the socialist parties in Europe have clearly failed; but more importantly, he refused to compromise on the direct democracy principle, and accept any more 'representative' democracy institutions.

So don't follow leaders at all costs, especially the likes of Jim Anderton. I was hoping Chris would pick up on Anderton's valedictory speech, especially the part about how he finally go the glorious Kiwibank from Cullen. What he actually showed was how the Alliance got a few Cabinet posts, but Labour intended to out vote them on their pet policies. Never again should anyone on the Left buy into Anderton's argument about how great it is to be in government, somehow most policies get watered down, or not implemented at all.

Anonymous said...

The 99% are at the rugby

Anonymous said...

extract from the Wellington Occupiers:

"It has not been easy and it shows no signs of getting easier. Torrential 
rain and freezing cold temperatures have plagued occupiers from Auckland to 
Invercargill. There are other threats too - in New York, police brutality 
has become an everyday reality for the peaceful occupiers in Zucotti Park. 
In Melbourne and Sydney, our brothers and sisters have been dragged from 
their beds at 5am to be punched, kicked, elbowed, choked and dragged across 
the concrete by hordes of police. Across the world, peaceful protesters have 
been met with the full force of a violent system that will stop at nothing 
to keep itself alive. The longer we stay, the more people hear our 
message... and the more desperate the 1% become to shut us up.
Social change is never easy. The transformation of an unjust society into 
something better was never going to happen overnight, and it was never going 
to happen without the ruling financial elites lashing out and trying to 
scare us into backing down. Now more than ever we must stand our ground. We 
must remain together, we must remain warm, friendly and welcoming to all the 
people who can be engaged with our message of fairness, freedom and love. We 
must talk to each other, share our ideas and experiences, and find a way to 
take this movement forward. This is only the beginning of a struggle to 
change the world. We are taking on the entire might of the corporate power 
structure and its servants in the government and the state apparatus. While 
they have money and guns, we have koha and aroha. It is up to us, the 99%, 
to show the world which is more powerful. "

Impressive stuff eh.

Jerry Rubin with a touch of Captain Oates.

Modest too. Only the begining of changing the world. Can't wait to see the end.

Stevey said...

It is really hard to keep your head when in the midst of a terrifying police riot. But that is why they unleash the peelers on to you - precisely to instill fear and panic! You gotta try and not retaliate with violence, even when your mates are getting roughed up or worse. That is just what they want. Guaranteed the smallest scratch on a cop will be headline news, completely drowning out the X number of protesters beaten and/or hospitalised.

And the message of the protest/occupation is lost amidst the juicy media coverage of police sorting out the stirrers.

The 99% occupiers have 2 advantages that we did not have in the 1990's. A lot more public support, or at least understanding of your message. And the wonderful little gadgets that can record and disseminate images of police thuggery in a trice. Look at what happened in New York when that eejit cop pepper sprayed that woman.

If they set the police on to you it means you gottem worried!

Anonymous said...

they have money and guns, we have koha and aroha"

not a good swap lads.

you risk finishing up with syphilis and alcoholism.

jh said...

"Unions tended to be a closed shop for the well paid lucky few."

I meant the powerful unions in key industries who managed to achieve an above market rate for their labour.

At the other end some sort of unity is needed to guard against exploitation and unions can protect the isolated members of society.

Anonymous said...


Imagine there's no politics, it’s easy if you try
No votes or angry tones of voice
No red flags in the sky
Imagine all the people - consenting to everything

Imagine there's no parties, it isn't hard to do
No need to study Marxism, no dairy products too
Imagine all the people - eating free tofu

Imagine no demands at all I wonder if you can
No goals or accountability no boycott, strike or ban
Imagine all the people - imagining social change

You may say I'm authoritarian
The wrong sort of Lenin, spelled with “i”
its just I can’t see the point of
This new weird space you occupy.