Coherent Chaos

Various events of the past few months may justify a claim that there is a growing sense of disquiet in some of what Roper would call the "advanced capitalist countries"(Brian S Roper Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political Change in New Zealand Since 1935 (Thompson/Dunmore Press, Victoria, 2005). A select few of those events could include the london riots, demonstrations in Greece, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in the United States and the various demonstrations that have been going on in New Zealand under names like "We Are The University", "National Student Day of Action",  "Occupy Queen Street" and others.

I attended and observed most of the activity in and around the University of Auckland on Monday 26 September (and even got some video that has been attracting a surprising number of views over on YouTube). During the 'occupation' of the Business School I was asked by various people passing by what the protest was all about. I had trouble answering them.

Eric Augenbraun, writing in The Guardain, has identified the lack of a coherent message as a key weakness of the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement that has been active for the past few weeks in the United States. Augenbraun also has the following to say about the role that protest has to play as part of an overall movement.
As history shows, protests can certainly be effective in winning concessions from those in power, but only to the extent that they are representative of broader movements. When it is effective, protest itself is little more than the public expression of a major social mobilisation already organised.

The same criticism applies to the activity here in New Zealand. As a general proposition, what we are seeing is a protest looking for a cause. While it is true that protesters are making various demands and have, in some cases, ties to established organisations with established goals, as an overall cohesive movement there is a lack of ideological vision.

There is a protest planned for Saturday 15 October 2011 in Auckland that is being called "Occupy Queen Street." According to the facebook event page, its stated aims are:

With all due respect to what I am sure are the genuine concerns of organisers, that list comes dangerously close to being a "grab bag of protests," which is of course how Steven Joyce described the 26 September demonstrations at Auckland University.

The last item mentioned - replacing capitalism with "something that works" - overrides the relevance of all the other demands. Replacing capitalism is a big job. Any process that legitimately sought to review the entire economic, political and social structure of our society would no doubt have a considerable impact on much more mundane matters like employment, wage rates and the provision of education. The only item listed that may have any independent weight whatsoever when grouped in with the overthrow of capitalism is the one about deep sea oil drilling.

This almost nonsensical collection of demands betrays the lack of organisation behind these events. Organisers are trying to build profile and momentum. That means bringing on board existing groups with existing support bases. That in turn means adopting to a greater or lesser extent the views of those existing groups. The problem with the current approach is that each time another cause joins the coalition their nominated demand simply gets tacked onto the list without any thought for how it fits into the coherent whole.

There are two things that need to happen before this movement can gain any sort of real credibility.

The first is that it needs leadership. As romantic as a 'leaderless revolution' may be, it simply can't happen. Augenbraun makes this point in relation to the Occupy Wall Street protests and points out that, contrary to many reports, the Egyptian uprising was far from a leaderless movement. If these groups can't come up with some method of organising and guiding their own movement then their suggestion that they have anything meaningful to say about the structure of society is laughable.

Once some sort of leadership is developed, the second (and much more important) thing that needs to happen is that a coherent and rational hierarchy of demands needs to be formulated. There is no reason why all of the items listed above can't be incorporated into the goals of this movement, but that can only happen if there is a system of priorities and principles that guide them.

For example, it would make sense to perhaps put the overthrow of capitalism at the top of the list as an 'ultimate goal' - something to which the movement aspires, but also something which it is recognised cannot occur overnight. As soon as you elevate one overriding demand to prominence in this way, all the other demands come to be understood in light of that overall goal.

The other social and economic goals like free education, a change in tax policy, etc can then be seen as stepping-stones or compromises on the road to achieving the overall goal. Less related ideas like deep sea oil drilling can be validly tacked on to the overall list as long as they are understood as 'ancillary goals' - that is to say, they do not really have much to do with the overall mission, but they don't detract from it either.

There is one more thing to note about the list above. I have selected the overthrow of capitalism as a guiding objective simply for the purposes of demonstration. That goal appears to link more closely with the objectives of similar movements overseas and serves as a fairly good umbrella for many of the other items listed. However it cannot be ignored that the other candidate in that list for the position of 'guiding objective' is tino rangatiratanga. That is a goal that could meaningfully occupy a similar position. Indeed, it may be possible for the two to be combined into one overall statement, but that would require a considerable about of work and I suggest that is well outside the capabilities of the movement as presently constituted in New Zealand.

Finally, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not oppose, nor do I entirely support, the activity that these groups are engaged in. I think tax, education and employment are all areas that call for a radical redesign in New Zealand. I don't think that can be achieved through a process of incremental change, whether that change is driven by National or Labour. I think greater recognition of tino rangatiratanga is desirable and support, in principle, a fresh national discussion on our constitutional arrangements on tikanga Maori terms (though I hasten to add that, in our present political climate, I don't think the capacity for such a discussion exists). Finally, I am not a Marxist. I don't think being a Marxist gets anyone anywhere. Even if New Zealand were to abandon the capitalist state and adopt some form of true socialism, I think such an attempt would be meaningless without a parallel revolution in the greater part of the world. This is an area in which New Zealand cannot lead.


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