I’ve been at protests. I’m a lifelong socialist, although my optimism for the future of humankind is running closer to empty. I’ve avoided arrest or injury, sometimes by luck. When I look back to the early 1990s, it was a time of much social anger. It was a formative experience. My parents had job worries. I was young, fired up, idealistic. University fees rocketed, unemployment zoomed over 10 percent, benefit cuts smashed the poorest at a time when they were at their most vulnerable, while the smirking Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson revelled in her role of putting the working class back in their place.
National Minister Bill Birch spoke at the University of Otago and it went bad when the audience turned on him and started jeering and booing. Birch and his police escort attempted to make their escape from the student common room only to have the exit door jammed shut by an entrepreneurial radical on the other side. More police came running for him down the long corridor and he scarpered. Birch popped out of the suddenly freed door like a cork out of a bottle. I alone pursued him and the phalanx of grim faced coppers to his vehicle, heckling relentlessly, before a swarm of angry people surged past me and surrounded the ministerial limo. Felix Geiringer lay down in front of it, but the driver failed to notice and drove onto him in an attempted hurried getaway. Felix was dragged out from under the front bumper and survived without serious injury and later became a hot shot lawyer. Various friends and campus characters were arrested and dragged off. The limo had a back window kicked in by one of the most mild-mannered activists I knew.
An anti-fees protest in 1993 ended badly, too. It was at the fine old Registry Building. Late in the piece most of the students had drifted off from the blockade they had mounted outside and gone home. A remainder were hanging around the front doors when a hit squad of riot cops rushed down the steps and clobbered them. Heads were cracked and crying and dazed teenagers wandered around. I had been on the wrong (or right) side of the building and missed getting caught up in it. I just saw the aftermath. No one had been throwing paving stones.
London 1999. I went to an anti WTO protest, around the same time that the “Battle for Seattle” raged. I saw paramilitary police carry out their new “kettling” tactic, and stood with onlookers at the entrance to a tube station watching horse mounted police charge bottle throwing crusties. In New Zealand, I’ve seen how the police operate against difficult groups of workers on picket lines. They can be reasonable. They can be nasty. But there is no doubt in these situations who is calling the shots, even in a boring centrist democracy like New Zealand. If 29 workers get blown up in a coal mine by a negligent employer, no one goes to jail. If you hold up a truck outside a factory, you get the full force of the law. This may sound an old fashioned sentiment. But as Warren Buffett noted in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The billionaire investor wasn’t being a total smart alec. A few years later, he complained that he found it wrong that he was effectively paying tax at a lower rate than his secretary. However, nothing much seems to have changed on that front.
The self-defined left have dissolved into competing tribes of lunatics shouting at each other on Twitter, irrelevant to the majority
What has changed is how political struggle plays out. Political divisions have grown increasingly opaque over my life time. When I first started paying attention to these things, I can remember old retired guys and their wives, solid working class types who were shocked and horrified by Rogernomics. They were losing a battle, but at least they knew what the battle was about. In the intervening years, the neoliberal capitalist agenda has been baked in. A few of the more extreme elements have been rolled back; ruling class politicians like John Key knew the important battles had been won, and messing with remaining social protections would probably be counterproductive.
The self-defined left have dissolved into competing tribes of lunatics shouting at each other on Twitter, irrelevant to the majority. And a large, disenfranchised group of wage earners, beneficiaries and small contractors have formed, who have no contact with traditional working class institutions like unions or the Labour Party. Why would they? The average union member is a middle aged female with a university degree. It’s good these areas are covered, but those who need unions even more don’t have them. Not only did unions provide a level of economic protection, they also had an educative role, and could funnel social frustration towards constructive social change. At least some of the time.
Outside its successful response to the pandemic, the Labour Government has largely given away the opportunity to make social change. The tragicomic aspect is how Jacinda Ardern is reviled as a “pretty communist” when she dumped the capital gains tax, a reform which would have been a symbolic and practical statement of intent. Even the pandemic response has led to a vast upward sucking of resources in this country, which is already heading back to a 19th Century-style wealth distribution. Journalist Bernard Hickey complained about it in a state midway between rage and resignation. “We’re talking a trillion dollars of wealth in less than two years landed in the hands of people who were already wealthy … at the same time as the Government last Christmas refused to increase the benefits by $50 because they were worried that it would increase the government debt.”
Everything seems to conspire to simply shovel cash upwards. How a centrist, status quo Government still under the sway of a neoliberal bureaucracy and a neoliberal business class has become identified as Bolshevik by a large, loud minority is one of the great mysteries of our time. No doubt we will have other tragicomedies coming down the line; one could be a Chris Luxon-led Government dealing with that cost of living crisis he seems so worried about.
Marches and occupations. Angry people. Maybe $700 a week rents would do it; maybe young people on modest wages being told to save up a few miserable thousand bucks a year when the cost of a house goes up $100K. But silence hangs over the suburbs. There is no movement or organisation capable of a cohesive, substantive response in building the economic power and political confidence of the majority, of leading the fight against climate catastrophe. After three decades of capitalist realism, the majority has been stunned and shocked into at best consumerism and at worst survivalism. The wheels spin but don’t connect. Something has been lost. People sense it. The mental dissonance of having free elections, free speech and free markets, and somehow progressively losing a sense of control – and being most definitely unfree.
People suddenly found themselves on the TV every night, sticking it to The Man. It was exhilarating and empowering
When it went down, it took something much less obvious to raise the banners and bring the people onto the streets. It took vaccines and public health measures in a pandemic. After two years the pent-up anger and political illiteracy congealed under pressure and exploded. It didn’t matter that it made no sense. People used to life on the outside of the narrative suddenly found themselves on the TV every night, sticking it to The Man. It was exhilarating and empowering, many at the protest claimed. It was also a complete disaster in terms of achieving positive change for the mass of people. It swelled the ranks on a diet of shifting grievances, and was infiltrated by opportunists who found a ready-made recruiting ground. The opposition to the protest ramped up the rhetoric in return. And while the majority of protestors obviously weren’t Nazis, their movement shares one tendency with fascism – irrationality.
War and disease. We’re never entirely free of them.
On the outskirts of Antwerp, Belgium, there is a retirement complex called The Pines. It was once known as the Lizzie Marsily Sanatorium – a hospital for those who suffered from tuberculosis. In the late 1940s, my grandmother Miriam died there. She was in her early 30s, and like many in those times, her life was cut short by this common disease. In the few photos we have of her, she is a tall, angular woman, fashionably dressed. She was born in Coventry, but her family had Belgian connections, and thus it was she spent her last years there, in a sanatorium, after the end of the Second World War. But the situation was complex because she had spent the war in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. Close to the coast of France, the islands had spent five years under German military occupation. Food ran short. Prisoners of war were used as slave labour. A few locals were sent to the camps or shot. The islands were only liberated when the War was basically over, long after D-Day. Miriam left behind a husband and a young son, my father.
My father has a clipping from the Jersey Evening Post from 1944. In his message, the German Commandant advises the Channel Islanders that “at the first signs of unrest or trouble I will close the streets to every (sic) traffic and will secure hostages … Attacks against the German Forces will be punishable by death.” The notice is next to a review of a local opera production. I thought of this clipping when I read a recent Facebook comment by a man discussing New Zealand’s pandemic response. He said we were living in a totalitarian state similar to Nazi Germany.
The fallout from the protests outside Parliament roll on. In the scheme of things, the level of savagery, they don’t compare to the Springbok Tour, or going back further, the Waterfront Lockout of 1951. The State did not clamp down. It embarrassed itself when the Speaker of the House turned sprinklers on the tent city. The political establishment ignored the protest, perhaps patronisingly. But there were after all, signs and demands calling for arrest and trial and possible execution of politicians and even bemused reporters, which wasn’t patronising, just disturbing and sinister. Eventually we watched the live footage of a police force move steadily across the lawn, while tents burned, pepper spray was sprayed, and objects flew through the air. Even the live feeds reflected a fractured, splintered reality, where the audience was off in their own heads, their own interpretation. It was depressing, ugly, pointless.
But it was not police batons being smashed on heads in Molesworth Street in 1981. It wasn’t the violent attack on a peaceful march of watersiders and their supporters in Queen Street in 1951. Hone Tuwhare wrote about that in his poem “After 151 Days of Rain, things became a lot clearer”:
That day in the streets, batons whistled just
Like a Tui strangling; a wharfie crumpled
to the gutter with blood rushing to his face.
No, it was not that. But the mood in 2022 had shifted lightning quick, catching the establishment off guard. The Government seemed stunned, the Prime Minister uncertain, and the new Leader of the Opposition shifting between trying to capitalise on this new mood while avoiding being drawn into alliance with a crowd of yelling ferals. Groundswell had passed through town to a largely unimpressed urban reaction. Bishop Tamaki and Billy T K Junior had their moments with some wild and occasionally well attended get togethers. But this was something new, something different – larger, more threatening, and even more incoherent.
A group so ridiculous it is surely an ironic conspiracy in-joke by some urban hipsters poking fun, is called Where is Clarke Gayford? and has 26,000 followers
Police actions against protestors usually get a fairly predictable response. The right wing say get a job to the longhairs, and cheer on the cops dragging them away. The liberals wince a bit and perhaps look to start a “conversation” about human rights. These days the world is turned upside down. Left wingers demand the law breakers be firmly dealt to. Right wingers scream police brutality while bricks rain down on the police. We are in a disorienting time. Situational awareness is being lost. It makes a visit to the World Wide Web these days a sobering experience. Generation Xers like me only went online in our 20s. We’re not digital natives like our children, or even 30-year-olds. Most of us will remember opening a Facebook account in what is now the dim past. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, a visit to Facebook may entail blocking or being blocked, or scrolling through hundreds of comments on news stories that suggest a possible majority of the population have lost their mind. It short, it seems like many people are nuts. But not so nuts that they can’t press send.
Late at night and I am restless and unable to settle down with a book or a record. Facebook sends me a link to a group so ridiculous I think it is surely an ironic conspiracy in-joke by some urban hipsters poking fun. Where is Clarke Gayford? is the name of the group and it has 26,000 followers, most of whom apparently believe that Clarke Gayford is involved in some nefarious crime and is in hiding or custody. But there is not much irony here. And much of it is not even about Clarke. There are endless memes of Jacinda Ardern, horse jokes, bitch comments. Endless abuse, endless rage, endless libel. Worst of all is a series of abusive, almost depraved, posts about Nanaia Mahuta who is reviled and mocked, in clearly misogynistic and racist terms, by white men who appear on the surface to be normal enough members of society. Very little is substantive political debate or even a good old fashioned rave. It is pure loathing. The group rules tell people to be kind and courteous, and that no hate speech or bullying will tolerated. 10,000 people have signed up in the past week.
A great blurring has taken place. Some worthy Tories from the sticks were annoyed at water regulations; the next thing signs on Utes and tractors are screaming about Māori apartheid and communists. People were concerned about Government over-reach with the mandates; the next thing a teacher from Northland is throwing a brick at cops outside Parliament and people are claiming Covid is either non-existent, or a bioweapon, or part of a “plandemic” (or all three). They say the “plandemic” will end in one of two ways: concentration camps for the unvaccinated, or an uprising by the resistance and Nuremberg style trials of the Government, medics and journalists. Try to unpack that.
There is an amorphous incoherency to the movement. Intolerant of those outside its ranks, inside it is a broad tent, perhaps even a big top at the Circus. White supremacists stand alongside Māori carrying United Tribes flags; New Conservatives rub shoulders with juggling hippies; religious fundamentalists watch on in appreciation as gang members do burnouts on their chopped hogs. Vaccination and mandates seem at times to retreat into the background amongst the motley signs and demands. Anything goes. It may prove to be an ineffective organising model to achieve concrete goals. But it is achieving change of a kind. It has already changed New Zealand political discourse. Within a few short months it has driven the collapse of the poll ratings of one of the most popular leaders of a generation. The camp is gone from the Parliament lawn, but it is not gone.
Another voice from the past. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, incarcerated in one of Mussolini’s jails: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The goals of the loose movement evolving now are hard to define. But like the virus it ignores, it is evolving. It is spreading
The end of the occupation of the parliamentary grounds made me think of how the battle may have been won by the State, but the war is only beginning. After the “Senator for Fendalton” PM Sid Holland and his National Government smashed the waterfront union in 1951, the defeated wharfies were victimised, black listed, hounded out of the industry. But this simply distributed these hardened and justifiably angry men throughout the entire economy. Many went on to form the backbone of blue collar unionism in New Zealand and become an enormous pain in the arse for National governments for the rest of their lives –guys like Jim Knox and Bill Andersen. These were serious people who had serious goals. They wanted to get their class, the working class, into power. They were constrained by their times and the limitations of the world they came from, but there is no doubt they saw a world up ahead where ideas like solidarity and human need were more than slogans. In comparison, the goals or long-term vision of the loose movement evolving now are hard to define. But like the virus it ignores, denies or raves about, it is evolving. It is spreading.
Driving through Dunedin I pass by the camp that has sprouted in the Octagon and sits awkwardly taking up the space normally occupied by a few office workers eating sandwiches at this time of year. At one end a giant banner has been erected that pronounces a complex message about the Ukraine war. The bold painted script has echoes of Colin McCahon’s mystical messages that sit across the road in the Public Art Gallery. It also reminds me of the artwork of an old friend who gradually sank into mental illness, whose art became complex and decontextualised charts of great intricacy, the products of a disordered mind. Next to the banner a Ukrainian flag hangs: someone has affixed a Star of David to it and a sign points to it. GUTLESS SYMBOLISM. What this means is not entirely clear: the symbols are referring to some common meaning or shared knowledge that no longer exists. There is a breakdown of reference points where debate or disagreement can take place. At the other end of the Octagon there is a man in a bright yellow t-shirt that reads COVID IS A BIOWEAPON. He is down on the street selling other t-shirts with similar messages and talking to a young woman with a punk haircut in a mask. They look like they might be about to get into an argument. Another hopeful placard reads: “CONVERSATION NOT CONDEMNATION.” It’s the only sign that makes any sense, and the only one no one is paying any attention to.
At the tail end of the Second World War, the Lizzie Marsily Sanatorium was caught up in the last sputters of that monstrous conflict. The website history says on March 1, 1945 a stray V-Bomb rocket exploded, with two deaths and several pavilions destroyed. War and disease.
This year my father turns 82; my mother 79. They did not have an easy start in life but never lived through another world war or military occupation. They paid their taxes and had access to a public health system that despite its flaws changed life for the better. They are both vaccinated.
Victor Billot is the author of wildly popular Odes written in heraldic verse every Sunday at ReadingRoom.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: a review of a depressing novel shortlisted for the Ockhams