Thursday 3 May 2012

A "Pessimistic Reformist" Considers The "Aotearoa Is Not For Sale" Demonstration.

Better Than Nothing? Demonstrations can sometimes highlight a movement's weaknesses rather than its strengths. Why did nobody ask the question: Suppose we call for a massive, anti-mining-type, demonstration against the sale of state assets - and only 8,000 people show up?

POLITICAL ACTIVISTS should never be afraid of the truth. Sure, the praise of friends and comrades, good media coverage and inspiring photographs can all make activists feel good about themselves and their achievements. But, when it comes to determining the success or failure of an action, there's no substitute for undertaking a cold, hard analysis of the facts.

Unfortunately, my own cold, hard analysis of the facts of last Saturday’s Aotearoa Is Not For Sale demonstration has led me to the very upsetting (and no doubt highly unpopular) conclusion that, if it was intended to demonstrate to the Government that its “partial” privatisation plans have generated the same level of public opposition as its earlier proposals to permit mining on New Zealand’s conservation estate, then it failed.

The anti-mining march of 1 May 2010, organised by Greenpeace, was estimated by the NZ Herald to have attracted 50,000 protesters, which, if accurate, makes it one of the largest political demonstrations in New Zealand history. The key sentence in the Herald’s report states that: “Marchers left the bottom of Queen St about 11am and by the time the first of them arrived at Myers Park, just below Karangahape Rd, they were still leaving the bottom of Queen St.” That “end-to-end” description is the test of a truly massive Auckland demonstration – and Saturday’s anti-privatisation protest came nowhere near passing it.

So what? With somewhere between 6,000–8,000 participants the anti-privatisation march was still a very large protest. Why shouldn’t its organisers hail those numbers as a resounding success? The answer is brutally simple. A demonstration is called a demonstration precisely because its organisers have something they wish to demonstrate. If your intention is to prevent the Government from privatising state assets, then presumably the purpose of organising a protest march is to demonstrate the scale of public opposition.

And it’s important that the people you mobilise aren’t overwhelmingly representative of groups who would never dream of voting for the governing party. That was one of the most important features of the Greenpeace demonstration. Sure, there were plenty of ageing hippies and lots of young anti-capitalists on the march, but there were also thousands of people who looked and talked like National Party supporters. Greenpeace had mobilised a significant number of well-to-do suburbanites: people with batches on the Coromandel; people who went skiing in national parks; people who just might change their voting behaviour to prevent a mining company from spoiling their “favourite spot”.

Saturday’s protesters were, overwhelmingly, representative of the Left’s opposition to asset sales: people who’d rather die that cast a vote for the Tories.

So, why would the Government pay any attention to the anti-privatisation march? It was less than a fifth of the size of the anti-mining march, and was comprised almost exclusively of people who had voted for the Government’s political opponents. Reporting back to their masters, the Government’s spies undoubtedly reassured them that this was not a cause for which National Party voters were willing to put their feet on the street.

Many of the people I spoke to on the anti-privatisation march realised that there were “not enough” people to give the National-led Government pause, but added cheerily “still, it’s better than nothing”. Not necessarily. I would argue that Saturday’s march was, in fact, worse than nothing. By providing the Government with a vivid glimpse of its most vociferous opponents, and revealing just how few of them there really are (even in the country’s most populous city) the organisers of the anti-privatisation march have told the Government that it can now proceed without serious political risk.

Given the comparatively low turnout, it would have been safer to let the poll data on privatisation do the talking. The latter showed a clear majority of voters (in some polls two-thirds to three-quarters) opposed to “partial” privatisation. Those are scary numbers. But now the Government knows that, unlike the anti-mining sentiment of 2010, the anti-privatisation sentiment of 2012 isn’t strong enough to mobilise more than “the usual suspects”.


Perhaps anticipating this unfortunate outcome, some of the organisers added a subsidiary slogan to the official “Aotearoa is not for sale”. This new slogan - “What Parliament does, the Street can undo” - implicitly concedes that the Government-sponsored legislation partially privatising our state-owned energy companies and Air NZ has sufficient parliamentary support to become law. Not to worry though, because “The Street” (presumably mass protest on the streets) has the power to “undo” the Legislature’s evil deeds.

Assuming that this slogan is not mere rhetorical bravado, and that it reflects a sober assessment of the relative strength of political forces in New Zealand, how seriously should we take its insurrectionary sub-text?

Well, given the 6,000-8,000 turnout last Saturday, it would be foolish to dismiss it entirely. Six to eight thousand protesters, determined to directly challenge the power of the state, would pose a pretty serious headache for the authorities.

Except, of course, there are nothing like 6,000-8,000 people willing to confront state authority head-on. Of the people who marched up Queen Street on Saturday, I would estimate that no more than 500 would be willing to provoke such a confrontation – and abide the consequences. Saturday’s marchers were members of the Labour, Green and NZ First parties, trade unionists, environmentalists, students and academics: people who, by-and-large, remain attached to the institutions and praxis of our liberal democracy. The state-house tenants from Glen Innes; the radical Maori nationalists from Northland; and the members of the Mana Party and Socialist Aotearoa might sign-up for political insurrection – but that’s all.

And even if we are willing to engage in the thought experiment that concedes the revolutionary sloganeers’ insurrectionary moment. What then? Is the country to be run from “The Street” indefinitely? Are the institutions of the state: its administrative organs; its hospitals and schools; and all of the workers they employ; going to wait for “The Street” to meet their wage-bill? Will “The Street” raise the revenue required to keep society functioning? Will it determine the nation’s spending priorities? Or will the people on the street decide, instead, to elect representatives to do all those things? And, having done so, will these (now successful) insurrectionists be willing to allow a fresh group of revolutionaries (or counter-revolutionaries) from “The Street” to undo them?

The same heedless anarchistic spirit which produced the slogan “What Parliament does, the Street can undo” was clearly evident in the organisation of the anti-privatisation march itself. Its “post-democratic” praxis led to the sort of “issue-creep” that left participants on the day feeling, at best, bemused or, at worst, alarmed. It’s lack of a proper command structure gave rise to simple errors, such as putting an unrealistic figure on the projected turnout, and left the news media uncertain as to who, exactly, they should talk to, both before and after the event. As one veteran left-wing activist said to me: “I hate all this post-democratic shit. You never know who’s calling the shots. One day we’re going to find ourselves marching up Queen Street only to discover that the whole bloody protest’s been organised by the fucking fascists!”

I cannot end this posting without acknowledging that the organisers of Saturday's march put in a Herculean effort. I know that getting 6,000-8,000 people to a protest is no easy matter, and I have nothing but praise for the hard work, creativity and sacrifice that went into the event. What I am saying, however, is that much more thought should have been given to the political consequences of failing to turn out the same sort of numbers as Greenpeace. Why did nobody ask the question: “Suppose we call for a massive demonstration against the sale of state assets – and only 8,000 people show up?”

“Optimism of the will” is all very well, but we should never forget the other half of Antonio Gramsci’s famous formula: “Pessimism of the intellect”. It's important because, like it or not, there are some political occasions when activism for activism’s sake is simply counter-productive. When, sadly, nothing is a lot better than something.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Alwyn said...

An interesting article Chris but I'm afraid repeating the mantra 6,000 - 8,000 half a dozen times doesn't make it true.
The real number was not very much more than 2,000. On this I think the police got it about right.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Alwyn, the Police sergeant I spoke to put the number of marchers at around 6,000 - which was also the number most of the people I spoke to volunteered.

Not that it really matters. Whether it was 2,000 or 8,000, the number was much, much smaller than the 50,000+ who took part in the Greenpeace march of 1/5/10.

Tiger Mountain said...

The ‘usual suspects’ might swallow (and enjoy) this account typical of the academics tendency for vacillation Chris, but there is more to this story. It is about the resurgence of grass roots political activity.

The Hikoi is largely a Te Mana (plus marginally Greens) and small hard left party driven event. Run on a best endeavour basis with minimal resources. Labour, Greens, various unions and Grey Power signed up to support the Auckland march, but in reality at executive level, and did not majorly promote membership involvement. Oh dear how sad.

After the necessary by-electoral scrabbling about in Te Tai Tokerau Mana has jumped the first hurdle and become a national movement with branches all over, not just an electoral organisation. As the hikoi moves down the country hundreds of people, many young are turning out in the smaller centres each day. Check out Te Mana on FB.

The Auckland demo and hikoi will ultimately assist the petition profile for a referendum on asset sales. The mining march was obviously a high water mark, and the wharfies support magnificent which had a significant effect. But numbers aren’t all. 200 of us marched to support the H Block hunger strikers in the pouring rain up Queen St one night after Bobby Sands demise, abused all the way, and I would not have had it any other way.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm not so sure about that, Tiger Mountain. Had the turnout been huge, I think you would be right - the referendum petition would have taken off. But, the comparatively low turnout (for a policy supposedly opposed by 2/3 to 3/4 of the population) may actually end up demoralising the petitioners. If people had to work that hard for 8,000 marchers, how much harder are they going to have to work for 307,000 signatures?

And, hey, what's with the "vacillating academic" cheap-shot? This is a serious attempt at critiquing an important left-wing initiative. Or isn't that permitted in the world of the triumphantly optimistic will?

Tiger Mountain said...

Cheap shot? I did not cite columnists... heh. No no no, yes. Our valued left supporting intellectuals are a great asset but in a tight spot are often prone to squiggle about.

CT-Auckland action was counter productive

TM-under prepared to deliver in Orcland, but has had a positive local organising effect in smaller centres for the future.

Chris Trotter said...

Fair enough, TM!

I'm the first to concede that there is a lot of very interesting creative work emerging from the anti-asset sales movement.

Some of the posters advertising the Auckland march - the McCahon take-off especially - were extremely effective.

Alex said...

We'll see how successful the movement is once the petition campaign is underway. I think you will find that the government will have a hard time ignoring the views of hundreds of thousands of people if they decide to sign. The campaign will not stand or fall simply on the back of one march. This has a long way to run yet.

Chris Trotter said...

I hope you're right, Alex. Personally, I have my doubts.

The groups behind the petition are already over-extended (with the possible exception of Grey Power) and the collection of 307,000 signatures requires an intense focus.

I have worrying memories of Jim Anderton's attempt to use this legislation to save the state-owned forests. In spite of driving his Alliance volunteers like galley-slaves to meet the target, he failed.

Unless CIR signature-gathering exercises are able to instantly tap into deep-seated social prejudices, or are the result of flagrant government assaults on the public's sensibilities (e.g. the anti-smacking CIR) the signatures tend to peter-out at somewhere around the 150,000 mark - less than half of what's needed.

Maybe this one will prove me wrong, but the fact that 50,000 people didn't answer the call to march on 28/4 leads me to suspect that Reality is not about to correct my gloomy prognostications

Alex said...

@ Chris - Opinion polls in the lead up to the election suggested more than two thirds of the country were against asset sales.

Plus, you could argue that support is growing. 5000 at least in Wellington today, and the Green Party alone collected more than 1500 signatures. Like I said, there is a long way to go, but there is some good early momentum.

Than said...

@Alex - Yes, polls say 2/3 to 3/4 are against asset sales. Yet National still got almost 50% of the vote, and only a small number of people turned out for the protest march. If people answer a poll saying one thing, but their actions say another, which do you believe?

This march gave people an opportunity (their second including the general election) to speak out against partial asset sales. And as happened in the election, very few people chose to take it. Yes polls say people are opposed. But if people's actions are to vote for it, to not bother marching against it, then it becomes harder and harder to claim strong opposition. Chris is completely correct that the very modest turnout at this march has handed an argument to the pro-Asset Sales side.

activist said...

The worst sort of commentary chris. Self-serving.

You should let your readers know that you opposed naming a date for an anti-privatisation march at the first Aotearoa is Not for Sale meeting.

Now you have to justify this original position to (yourself?) the movement. You do yourself a disservice with this sort of self-justifying nonsense in the wake of significant mass protest. you got it wrong and that is that.

Chris Trotter said...

Quite right, "Activist".

I was a guest speaker, along with Bomber Bradbury, at a meeting called by Socialist Aotearoa on Thursday, 9 February.

During the course of that meeting the idea of holding a march "like the anti-mining march" was raised.

I was by no means the only person present who raised objections to the idea. A person who had been involved in the anti-mining march told the meeting that it took six months to organise and cost Greenpeace $90,000.

My objection then, as now, was that calling a march over asset sales was extremely risky. If it failed to match the Greenpeace exercise it could actually end up being counter-productive.

I came away from the meeting with serious misgivings. It appeared to me that there was already a clear intention on the part of a minority of those present to go ahead and organise a march irrespective of people's objections.

And so it proved. The march was organised and, as predicted, it fell well short of the anti-mining march's numbers. Last Saturday's 8,000-strong march was woefully shy of Greenpeace's 50,000, just as yesterday's 5,000 in Parliament Grounds were embarrassingly short of the F&S Hikoi's 25,000.

Those responsible for this exercise have done the whole anti-asset-sale cause a huge disservice. They have clearly demonstrated to the Government that while 2/3 to 3/4 of New Zealanders may SAY they're opposed to asset sales, only a much smaller, left-leaning, percentage of the population feels sufficently strong enough about the issue to put their feet on the streets in protest.

Not only have the organisers done that, but they have also, almost certainly, undermined the signature-gathering exercise preparatory to a Citizens Initiated Referendum on asset sales - which promised to be a much more effective method of stopping them than street demonstrations.

So, here we are, nearly three months later, in the very situation that I and many others present at the February meeting feared. Events have proved our misgivings to be entirely justified.

Summing up this debacle in the hope that future activists will not repeat the ANFS Hikoi's mistakes was the very least I could do.

jh said...

The issues around asset sales are complex especially given the embracing of internationalism by purists on the left. When i see a demonstration led by Mana I wonders whether their solution is to invoke kaitiaki tanga of our tangata whenua as the protectorate of Aotearoa's assets, (or something)?*

*Tuku Morgans underpants aside.

jh said...

I see David Farrar gave the thumbs up to the chap Moore's piece on the Crafar farm deal. He may even receive an invite to a barbie at Omahau.

Meanwhile a bit of analysis from Rod Oram compared the Crafar deal to "a 100 year old Vesty family model" (which) "screwed NZ". Rod Oram also is a rare bird in stating that population growth (in Auckland) has caused a decline in the quality of life there (not that high income elites would notice).

One thing the left (as opposed to green) doesn't recognize is that population and natural resources are seriously out of kilter and that our low birthrate and consequent population should be rewarded not penalised.
The xenophobes aren't necessarily wrong and while without judging the individuals who make up a population the population itself when imposed upon another population may be detrimental.

Peter said...


Do you have a link to the Oram story on Auckland population growth?


jh said...