Occupy Wall Street

(Sitting here in New Zealand, I am obviously well-placed to Give Advice to the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Here on my blog I address an audience of as many as TEN different people, and I’m sure the weight of these multitudes will carry this message to the people who need it most. You’re welcome, freedom.)

OWS does not have a list of policy and process demands (yet) and it houses enormous diversity. This movement, says the media and political establishment, is incoherent and without focus.

But the OWS protestors do have a clear single focus; an overarching unified goal of which they share pursuit. The goal is this: getting the powerful to admit there is a fundamental problem with the economy.

This should be the core message of the protests. Every time a camera gets turned on someone at OWS, we should hear this demand. (I’m sure someone has said these words, somewhere, but I haven’t seen it and that means it isn’t high enough profile.)

The protesters all know there is a fundamental problem. They say to the camera: “We are here because our society is broken”. But I haven’t heard anyone say “and we demand that the bankers, the politicians, the media pundits, admit this!”

If this was the message, then perhaps the TV cameras would spend a little less time asking protesters what policy changes they want, and a little more time confronting bankers and politicians with the realities of the system they have created.

(OWS is changing the discourse anyway.)


I am angry.

Last night under urgency Parliament got a new law about internet and copyright almost all the way through. Three things about this make me angry:

(1) The law specifies that if you are accused of downloading illegally, you are presumed guilty (more info)

(2) The law gives government the power to punish a person by removing access to the internet entirely

(3) A controversial law such as this should not be put through under Parliamentary urgency.

More info about the bill is here.

This is a shameful episode in NZ politics. Bad law, and indefensible process. You cannot legislate morality, and you cannot legislate to fix technological failure.

Both major parties voted for this law. Only the Greens opposed (with two independent MPs). Remember that at election time.

The Left, slain by Bilbo

Aftermath of The Hobbit affair continues to rumble through the blogs and real-world conversations. In an almost ridiculous turn of fate, the disagreements over this film have split a seam in “the Left” in NZ, with much heat (and occasionally, light) in evidence. Right-oriented commentators are rubbing their hands with glee, or at the very least, rolling their eyes. (For the Left does love to schism, does it not?)

I’m going to characterize the dispute like this (beware of my own self-serving narrative). Those who subscribe to a more class-focused view of the left argue that the Actors Equity action deserved support, even if it was wrongheaded, because public dispute only plays into the hands of the boss classes. Those who do not acknowledge the primacy of class see opposition to Actors Equity as entirely justified by an analysis of the consequences. In general, both sides see the concessions and changes extracted by the movie studio as opportunism, but they tend to locate responsibility with the other side.

There’s more to it, but that’ll do as a starting point. And to nail my colours to the mast (and clarify my own bias), I’m firmly in the second chunk, seeing opposition to Actor’s Equity as entirely appropriate. In my view, NZ Actor’s Equity launched a mistargeted, over-reaching action without gaining a mandate from its members, without linking with other workers, without communicating effectively, and without understanding the consequences of this action.

So I’ve found it strange and depressing to read impassioned and ferocious pieces by writers I both like and respect (and, of course, many I don’t) attacking those holding my perspective, especially because we both agree on some fundamental values – the need to protect workers from exploitation, for example.

I’m not going to try and unpick all that here. Lew at Kiwipolitico I think comes more or less from the same perspective as me, and has been doing a great job of digging through the rhetoric for sense. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture, the frame in which these conversations are taking place.

Essentially, my point of dissent from the class-based analysis is that I am no longer convinced by the appropriateness of their metaphors. Starting with class itself – class is a metaphor, a symbolic way of talking about a large set of individuals who share certain circumstances to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t exist in isolation, but draws on a whole set of contingencies: capitalism of a particular kind, industry of a certain nature, normative social rules derived from these. When you talk about class, the word brings along a great deal of additional baggage.

I’m far from convinced the class metaphor makes sense in the 21st century western context of NZ. Many on the class-analysis left are disgusted that Labour Day, our day of celebrating worker’s rights and the successes of collective resistance to exploitation, saw protests nationwide supporting a multinational company’s will over that of Kiwi workers. But surely Occam’s Razor points away from this as evidence of a mass betrayal of the labour movement, or a lack of understanding of worker’s rights; surely the simplest and best explanation is that the metaphor of class no longer applies?

Consider the position of the independent contractor. Some on the class-analysis left see an employment relation as the only acceptable one, thanks to the hard-won rights to fair conditions and protections for employees in this country. I hope that most sensible analyses will see that an independent contractor relationship has a role to play as well, providing a freedom to engage that can suit both parties beautifully. The challenge, then, is where the distinction between the two is unclear and a worker under independent contract is treated poorly while deprived of the benefits and safety of employment.

None of this fits easily within the class metaphor. The vast majority of independent contractors seem to be quite happy with their status, or even feel quite privileged, all without any cost to employees. Empirical evidence makes it clear that these two separate models of worker-boss relations can run in parallel in a society quite happily. Yet the furore over The Hobbit dispute positioned independent contractors as the useful idiots, if not the outright enemy, of the workers. Isn’t this analysis ridiculous just on its face?

Consider the nature of industry and capital. The class metaphor, and all the worker-boss relationships embedded within it, evisages a certain kind of industry – archetypally, the factory worker, with a large investment in plant and every incentive to exploit workers to generate more widgets more cheaply. Yet many things have changed. The globalisation of capital is well-known; capital flight happens when those factories get moved overseas, and it has been a threat levied against striking workers for decades. And yet that isn’t enough to make sense of the hyper-mobile short-term project that is a major Hollywood production. A better metaphor, and an appropriate one given the film, is that the project is like a dragon. It is huge, and wealthy, and incredibly selfish; and also temperamental, and even the spillage from its hoard is worth a fortune. If it decides it doesn’t like the conditions wherever it sits, it can easily leap up, and fly across to a different, more favorable land. The industry of making movies is very like coaxing a dragon to stay, and the question is how much you offer it before the wealth it will give stops being worthwhile. You don’t want to go so far as sacrificing your local virgins in tribute (because the dragon’ll take that if it gets offered), but you need to offer something juicy or the dragon won’t even land in the first place. Big-movie industry is about supplicating dragons. How does this metaphor fit within the class metaphor and all the baggage it contains? Short answer: it doesn’t. The dragon flies away.

Consider the notion of critical support that has been turning up in a lot of the class-analysis left discussions. One huge source of fury in this argument is that many voices on the left criticized the actors union for their actions, without embedding that criticism in support for their goals; many writers shorthand it to something like “criticism in private, solidarity in public”. But how can this approach survive in an environment where the difference between public and private conversations is massively eroded, and where engagement with ideas is a massive free-for-all? Of course people are going to criticise every aspect of a union action, including its goal; of course support is going to be withheld if the action doesn’t hold up. To do otherwise would be to abandon one’s own ability to think critically. How can a class metaphor account for a massive multiplicity of semi-public voices, except by excluding all those that do not come to the same conclusions as itself? How is that a strategy for any kind of success?

I’m in no way stepping away from the left here. I believe that a social analysis that starts with worker-boss relations contains profound truths that call to action. However, I also believe that received knowledge has accreted around these truths as a barrier, in some cases obscuring or distorting them.

And I write this lengthy ramble not as a cogent argument – it would take me much more time and energy than I wish to spend to interrogate all of this. Rather, this is an expression of unease with the whole foundation of the current disagreement. It seems to me that the heart of the matter is sitting unexamined and unexpressed. So I hope this points at least in the direction of that heart, despite whatever flaws and misrepresentations can be found in the paragraphs above. (No doubt there are plenty.)

The film-as-dragon metaphor, though – I’m quite pleased with that one.

Bloody Sunday

Back in ’04 we went to Derry. (That’s my photo above.) Met with far-uncle Hugh, who lives there still and sent a lovely gift for our wedding. Hugh’s father (my great-grandmother’s brother) was in the Easter Rising; I’d known this, but talking with Hugh, and wandering around Derry, gave it some more context; getting a better sense of the hard road Ireland has been down this last century.

We visited the scene of the Bloody Sunday massacre, and stopped in at an information centre, a spartan and simple hall with lots of material crammed inside. They obviously didn’t have much money. What they wanted was justice; what that would imply varied depending on whoever you spoke to, but what everyone agreed on was an acknowledgement by Westminster of the wrongs that were committed, and an apology for them. The Saville Inquiry was long underway (and indeed we wandered through the Guildhall where it was held) but there was little confidence that it would deliver what was hoped. They carried on nonetheless, hoping for a peaceful future for Derry. (I can’t recall for sure, but my memory tells me that the centre had volunteers from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide, people who want to move beyond the divisions of Republican and Unionist.)

Yesterday the Saville Inquiry’s report was released, and Westminster – in the person of British PM David Cameron acknowledged the wrongs that were committed, and issued an apology. It was an unequivocal acceptance of horrific wrongdoing and unwarranted state violence against innocent people.

My friend natural20 is my lightning rod for Irish politics – he always has something useful to say about what’s happening there. Over on his journal, he and his commenters express amazement and approval. Says one: “Never thought I’d see the day.”

It’s a great day. Ireland’s Troubles were brutal and real and founded in layers of historical injustice, exacerbated by contemporary violence and confounded by self-interested politics. Ireland has slowly been unwinding the barbed wire of history from around itself, moving cautiously towards peace. This is a major symbolic advance. This is a milestone in a wider and longer process, and while we haven’t heard the last of Bloody Sunday, the conversation around it will now have changed irrevocably, and for the better.

It’s a great day because of what it demonstrates. The Troubles in Ireland echo the problems in many other parts of the world. What we’re seeing, grindingly slowly but genuinely, is proof that these problems can be resolved. Perhaps the grinding slowness is inevitable; perhaps every day of atrocity requires a decade’s hard work to unpick; but the fact remains that Saville’s report, Cameron’s words, and the new mood in Ireland show change can happen.

It’s the best news I’ve heard all year.

(The Bloody Sunday information centre has, if I’ve followed the information trail correctly, developed into the Museum of Free Derry.)

Conserve Versus Converse

Heard Kelvyn Eglinton of Newmont Waihi Gold on National Radio this morning making the case for drilling into conservation land. His line (people who’ve had media training always repeat their line word for word several times unless they’re very skilled) was that there’s plenty of low-value conservation land in the protected Schedule 4 territories, so lets see if we find some high-value minerals there and then we’ll have a conversation about what to do.

There have been well over 30,000 submissions on the government’s mining proposals. That is a phenomenal number – one for every hundred voters in the country. It’s impossible to know how many are against the mining of schedule four land, but I think 95% would be a fair guess.

I think that means, Kelvyn, that we’ve already had the conversation. What’s more, the government know it – they are carefully preparing a backdown, with the man responsible Gerry Brownlee seizing on a minor issue to pointedly distance himself from Newmont. It’s clearly the enormous vote-loser everyone sensible expected it to be. We’re no closer to understanding why the Nats didn’t see this steamroller of negative public opinion a mile off, they certainly haven’t revealed any late-stage maneuvers to show they were controlling the story the whole time. It isn’t because they’re poor at media management – witness their expert delivery of the budget, as smooth a piece of media control as has ever been seen in this country. They just didn’t see it as a problem until it was far too late. I can only presume they really are that out of touch with the national identity and with what New Zealanders truly value.

Its pleasing to see a grass-roots opposition movement really take off. Kelvyn Eglinton’s conversation is over before it starts. And that makes me happy.

(More info: http://www.2precious2mine.org.nz/ )

Mining Protest Was Mining Protest

There were a lot of people there. The house monkey spotted me and my Cal in this crowd photo from Scoop’s coverage (and I found him in this one). Ran into china_shop, who pointed out how weird it was that the speakers kept citing The Economist (thanks to this article that rips into this nation’s environmental credentials).

The fellow moose was elsewhere in the crowd, and mentions it at the end of this post. Also there was Stephen Judd, who adds a mighty GRAR, too. Both the dancing moose and Mr Judd lead with another story I hadn’t even heard of until their posts: sacking the democratically elected Environment Canterbury council to make way for some National cronies. See also Brother Knife. The Nats have opened the ‘gates and it’s all rushing through now. Expect morer, and worser.

A few dates short in the scone department

The above title is from Claire Browning’s great response to Gerry Brownlee on the subject of mining. It’s a clean and precise rebuttal. Read it. (I found it via the Dim-Post.)

I was talking to Dale yesterday about this and we shared our confusion at this whole situation. As Dale said, how can they not see this as a big vote-loser? Where are the gains to balance that out? Claire expresses similar feelings down in the comments, with the post title above being one of her explanations for the behaviour on display. I am no wiser. I’ve heard some conspiracy theories that it’s about controlling the media while other changes get pushed through, or about putting this or that MP over, and the govt will pull back and say “sorry folks we listen love us!” but I don’t have any faith in the present govt’s ability to run that kind of disciplined strategy, and Brownlee has totally nailed his credibility to this endeavour so I don’t think an elegant backdown is possible any more.

Insanity. So I’m intending to get to the protest today at Parliament, 12.30 to 1.30.

Mining on conservation land

I can’t even bring myself to write anything coherent on this subject. The calculated gains are so petty and the symbolic cost so huge (let alone the real costs) it just infuriates me.

If you’re a Kiwi, write to the PM about it. I just did. He’s at j.key@ministers.govt.nz and you can write to him this very moment. Stephen Judd has a great exemplar.

(If you’re not a Kiwi, feel free to write as well – living up to the international branding of NZ as clean and green is important to our tourism industry.)

Edited to add: the estimable Keith Ng rips into the facts, rationally.

Waihopai Ploughshares

I’d also like to add my voice to all those expressing bewildered delight that the Waihopai Three were acquitted. They were three nonviolent peace activists who broke into a secure base and deflated the canopy over one of the Echelon system‘s monitoring dishes.

I have no idea how the jury found them not guilty; the defence were running a pretty unlikely line. I can only conclude that the jury respected their actions and fudged the decision to avoid punishing them.

There might yet be an appeal. I feel the Crown might decide not to, though, as they probably know they’d be on a hiding to nothing pursuing the case – better to let it sink into history. One can only imagine what will be going on in the diplomatic backchannels about this, though.

Anyway. Crazy outcome.