JOHN MINTO IS RIGHT, New Zealand needs nothing more urgently than a mass movement committed to ending the wealth crisis. He is right, too, that those who can have a moral duty to do something about the obscene maldistribution of wealth in this country and across the planet. Nor would I quibble with the list of those we cannot and/or should not rely upon to intervene – i.e. the principal economic and political beneficiaries of wealth inequality, and the mainstream political parties. As John says: “only a broad, well-organised people’s movement will be able to end the wealth crisis.”
Where I suspect John and I would part company, however, is over the question of whether a “broad, well-organised people’s movement” is any longer achievable in the New Zealand of 2023.
John reckons it is. He cites the people’s movements of the past as proof of what can be achieved when New Zealanders get organised – and then get active. Certainly, the broad mass movements he cites: women’s suffrage; halting sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa; opposing the war in Vietnam, abolishing conscription, outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality; declaring New Zealand nuclear-free; were all successful in achieving their aims. Unfortunately, all of John’s examples peaked around four (or more) decades ago.
The only appreciably younger mass movement I recall achieving its objective is the early twenty-first century campaign to keep genetically-engineered organisms out of New Zealand. There were others – most notably the mass movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the mass movement against the Trans-Pacific Partnership – but they did not achieve their objectives.
Some may object that I have left out John’s reference to the 1975 Māori Land March, and the protest activity at Raglan, Bastion Point and Ihumatao. (To which I would add the impressive hikoi against the Foreshore & Seabed legislation of April 2004.) My reasons for doing so turn on John’s use of the crucial qualifier, “broad”. Māori have been successful in achieving a great many of their political, economic and cultural objectives, but these have, perforce, been sectional victories: “by Māori, for Māori”. As such, they do not fit John’s paradigm of the mass movement extending across class, race and gender boundaries to engage the broadest possible cross-section of the New Zealand population.
It is precisely the immense difficulties encountered by those attempting to surmount the barriers of class, race and gender identity that leads me to question the practicality of John’s appeal for a mass movement against the wealth crisis. The “Occupy” movement which swept across the English-speaking world in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 serves as a tragic test case for whether “broad, well-organised people’s movements” can any longer be constructed.
Certainly, it is difficult to imagine circumstances more conducive to the formation of a mass-movement against the obscene maldistribution of wealth than the GFC. Nor is it possible to fault the inspired slogan of the “1 Percent vs the 99 percent”. If any formula could generate unity across the broadest possible cross-section of society, then including on your side of the barricades everyone except the tiny group of super-exploiters memorably referred to by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the malefactors of great wealth” should have been the formula to do it.
And it did do it – but only briefly. Those who rallied to the cause, expecting to find an organisation with a clear statement of aims and objectives, a constitution, elected leaders, and sections dedicated to communications, fund-raising, and keeping the thousands of people eager to get involved in “Occupy” occupied, found something else entirely.
Occupy’s originators, activists drawn from the many manifestations of what people call, for want of a better description, “identity politics”, had no intention of building a movement on the organisational principles of the Boy Scouts of America. There were no elected leaders, speechifying was frowned upon, and rather than applaud or cheer, people were encouraged to wave their hands in the air – but only after they had “checked their privilege”.
Entirely unsurprisingly, most of the people encountering this brave new world of intersectional anarchy turned around and walked the other way. The authorities, initially terrified of this burgeoning political movement, received the reports of their informers and very soon realised that Occupy posed no threat at all. They waited until the Occupy gatherings were reduced to a fractious remnant of their former selves, and then sent in the pepper-spray, tear-gas and billy-clubs to, once again, make the world safe for the 1 Percent.
Occupy made it all the way to New Zealand, but its fate here did not differ substantially from its fate everywhere else around the world. The political praxis of identity politics, its extraordinary disintegrative power, made the organisation of any kind of credible threat to the status quo impossible. Ruling classes, throughout history, have always understood the effectiveness of the “divide and conquer” strategy. In the aftermath of the GFC, however, the “1 Percent” were astounded to discover that its deployment would not be necessary. The “Left” (or what passed for it in the 2000s) was doing it for them.
It is interesting to note that the mass movements cited by John conform neatly to the mode of mass political interventions listed by historian Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand. He mentions the visits of America’s President Johnson in 1966 and Vice-President Agnew in 1970. He covers-off the angry reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and recalls the student protests against the installation of the US Omega spy navigation system near Blenheim. Mentioned, too, is the mass campaign to “Save Manapouri”.
Missing from John’s and Michael’s lists, however, is any reference to the movement responsible for organising the 1960s’ and 70s’ most impressive demonstrations: the biggest and broadest mass movement of them all; the trade unions. Certainly, one of the largest demonstrations of the late-1960s and early-1970s coincided with what was effectively the half-day general strike of 12 May 1970, which managed to shut down most of the capital city’s industry and infrastructure. On that day, tens-of-thousands of workers and their families gathered outside Parliament to protest the soaring cost of living.
In the thick of that massive gathering was CARP – the Campaign Against Rising Prices. Formed in 1966 in Auckland, and 1967 in Wellington, CARP was a radical outgrowth of the Housewives Association. It was spurred to action by the abolition of government subsidies on key food items such as bread and milk. Led by the wives of trade unionists from both the private and public sectors, CARP became a household name for the best part of a decade, and a thorn in the side of both National and Labour governments.
New Zealand’s working families are again experiencing severe cost of living pressures. A movement dedicated to easing those pressures, organised by those most directly affected, and unafraid to take their message directly to the powers-that-be, would be a most welcome development.
Except, of course, the New Zealand of 2023 is not the New Zealand of 1966-67. A Housewives Association would be laughed off the political stage in 2023. It is also true to say that the sort of working-class communities that gave birth to political organisations like CARP, no longer exist. Poorly-paid wage-workers by necessity, de-unionised, ill-housed, isolated, with those forced to live outside the workforce under the constant surveillance of the state’s welfare agencies, the working-class women of today would find in difficult to even conceive of such autonomous and uncompromising interventions.
Although, to be fair, they would probably find it easier than the Council of Trade Unions!
It’s hard to mount a sincere fight against the wealth crisis when your union boss is taking home a six-figure salary. Hard, too, to construct a “broad, well-organised people’s movement” when those same people are immediately divided into their respective identity groups, discouraged from indulging in excessive individual assertion (i.e. leadership) and forbidden from applauding it.
Much and all as I agree with John, that a mass mobilisation against the malefactors of great wealth is what we need, I cannot see how it could be done.
I remain transfixed by the tragic image of all those revolutionary hands refusing to come together.
They’re not waving, John, they’re drowning.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 June 2023.