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Paul Maunder's blog

All the c’s

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Convolvulus is an extraordinarily aggressive weed at this time of year. The chicken coop is under attack. I tear at it but also know that every piece left lying around will produce a new tendril. It seems you have to burn it. I haven’t the time or patience for total eradication and at least it dies off in winter.  But as Christmas approaches it becomes a useful metaphor.

For convolvulus reminds me of commercialisation, of commodification, of. let’s name it, capitalism – all the c words. Entering the Warehouse or Mitre 10, or simply walking through the shopping centre, the banal Christmas jingles assault the ear, while the eye is bemused by the multiplicity of invitations to buy some junk. I had to compose a quick poster for the carol service at the Working Men’s Club so googled Christmas images. There were pages of bad design of the worst kind.

Yet Christmas is a complex cultural ritual: the birth of the prophet Christ as a man-god, the charitable work of fourth century Saint Nicholas, the tribal god Woden with his horse, the change of the earth’s orbit. This rich pot pourri has been historically vandalised by magazines, department stores and Coca Cola to see the concept of ‘gift’ reduced to the mass production and consumption of baubles and beads which together with the Boxing Day sales, ‘adds to the GDP’. It is a banal culture we live in and one which deserves to be washed away.

Still, there are a few signs of hope: the range of protestors in Katowice as the emperors fiddle (a new term- macho-fascist); the economist who has calculated the value of breast milk to the GDP, Marilyn Waring reinstating the value of unpaid work to the economy…

Today is a heavy, cloudy day, the wind chime faintly stirs and soon it will rain. The convolvulus will continue to grow. The dog quietly snuffles under my desk. For the moment, all is quiet.

Take care.

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The 1980s

Last weekend I attended the 30th anniversary of the Waimapihi Housing Co-operative which I helped set up in Holloway Road, Wellington, in 1988. We had successfully fought for a government designation to be lifted (they were going to bulldoze the gully and turn it into playing fields) and then the task was to enable the tenants to have first right to buy,

Even then, some tenants would never be able to raise a mortgage, or like me, didn’t believe in private ownership of housing, and we were able to borrow money from the Housing Corporation and buy seven houses plus a renovation fund. As we recorded an oral history, David McGill, who was our resident architect for the renovations pointed out that the co-op was able to take advantage of a six month window of opportunity. The government had been researching the usefulness of co-operatives as a means to provide housing and had set up a fund, which was then quickly gutted by the Roger Douglas faction. But we had been ready and able to take advantage of that brief moment.

But the reunion also brought back vivid memories of the eighties. It began of course with the mass mobilisations of the anti apartheid movement and the intense debates within the movement – between communists, Maori, feminists, lesbians, churchgoers… Meetings and protests were extraordinary performative affairs. For me the era was one of community involvement for the first time, of fathoming the practice of the progressive communist, and of being faced with feminism and the Maori struggle. We did a series of plays based on first contact: Thomas Kendall, Parihaka, Te Puea.  We toured marae with one of the plays which took me to the heartland of Maoridom. I tried to fathom the reality of oppression at the personal level, for example the victim of sexual abuse, as opposed to the ideology of oppression and the spokespeople for the ideology. They were intensely difficult issues without easy solution.

During the reunion I wrote a poem within a simple framework I use for primary school creative writing students. First line, one word, second line two words etc.

Waimapihi

Mickey Savage

George Maureen Pop

The protests of ’81

Old working class, new lefties

Blend in born agains, hippy craftspeople

A common enemy,  the corporate capitalist state

A diverse whanau searching for new social relations

Clearing the gorse. for some a time of healing

Changing property relations, dancing revolution, as Rogernomics entered stage right

dissolving the commons, speeding up production, investing in investment, privatising pain

But a co-op preserved something of the dream, as consumerism claimed centre stage

P1110858 Waimapihi Housing Co-op 2018

A daunting task

It’s an increasingly surreal world. The UN report on climate change now gives us twelve years to sort things out. Otherwise we pass the point of no return. Instead of having at least a couple of generations, perhaps more, the task has become immediate. And it’s not just climate change.

Mike Barret of the World Wildlife Fund writes, ‘What’s absolutely clear at the moment, looking at the declines of nature that we’re currently seeing, is that the planet does need to be put on life support.’

And the response is to elect Bolsonaro, a Trump clone. The political trend internationally is to opt for thuggery, to rip up environmental protection, to retreat to persecutor-victim-rescuer syndromes and a resulting paranoia. A bruised and disenchanted working class combine with the ever present sub-fascist capitalists to push us over the cliff. Noam Chomsky writes, ‘… it’s as if we’re kind of like the proverbial lemmings just happily marching off the cliff, led by leaders who understand very well what they’re doing, but are so dedicated to enriching themselves and their friends in the near future that it simply doesn’t matter what happens to the human species. There’s nothing like this in all of human history. There have been plenty of monsters in the past, plenty of them. But you can’t find one who was dedicated, with passion, to destroying the prospects for organized human life.’

Meanwhile the media continues to beam smiling and positive people of diverse ethnicity and gender, promising us wonderful experiences. A strange utopia is portrayed, with limitless opportunity. If anything goes wrong we will be tended to by resolute police or fire people or ambos. Environmentalism becomes sentiment – smiling children bonding with penguins. The liberal opposition spirals into ever more anxious and varied postures of subjectivity. Trump supporters chanting, Lock them up, is redundant. The opposition is already locked up.

In the midst of the bread and circuses, it is tempting to similarly retreat to one’s own subjectivity, to take up meditation or Gurdjieff or tours of European cathedrals, to become immersed in family history or a local conservation project…

The one group making political judgements that ring true are the anarchists and there are some bright ones internationally who continue to argue that the nation state is the problem. They look back to those first Internationals and the struggle between the statists and those who preached direct confrontation between the working class and capital, who advocated for workers to join hands across national boundaries in the common task of revolution. In this scenario US, Afghani, New Zealand, Syrian, German, Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, Palestinian, Israeli etc. workers have the same agenda, to become a conscious articulate international force. Trade unions cease being ‘business’ unions, part of the service sector and instead become revolutionary vehicles driven by the simplest economic and social formula: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Include the environment in this maxim  and the singular obsession with preserving an ever more watered down social democracy is seen as a waste of energy, especially youthful energy.

From this point of view, the nation state historically was a structure which freed the middle class from feudal limitations. For the working class to try and take it over, leads to distortions. In the late 19th century, the statist faction, led by Marx, took over the Internationals and the distortions have played out ever since.  At the core of the libertarian socialists’ argument was and is, an ethical imperative, and an ethical imperative is necessary to save a life-sustaining planet.

The difficulty with anarchism is its requirement for sussed and sane working class people, without axes to grind or authoritarian tendencies, people who understand the discipline of freedom, yet are still capable of resolute action.  It’s not about dreamers or life-stylers.

And occasionally there is a flowering: the Spanish Civil War initially, some counter cultural moments in the sixties, the Zapatistas, and now the Kurdistan Workers Party and its establishing of a democratic confederation of cantons in northern Syria. Rojava is now the mecca for progressive European youth, for it’s a society attempting to put into practice principles of social ecology. Living at the centre of the world’s toxicity, these people are remarkable.

These small flowerings have to become a garden, and then to quickly fill the landscape. And that is a very daunting task indeed.

proletarios_unidos

 

Reflections on the Blackball Readers & Writers Festival

Art shows ‘a kind of people in a kind of place’. Raymond Williams.

As the Blackball Readers and Writers Festival approached I realised that I’d never been to a readers and writers festival and here I was organising one. Although I have seen video of a conversation with John Berger and attended the famous Grotowski session in Wellington in the 1970s so I had the gist of what happens. It is about conversations.

After the first day of the Blackball event I lay in bed pondering on the concept of ‘voice’ and who has a voice in society. Politicians, business people and media people have a voice (largely through the media, which can also give ordinary people a momentary voice when disasters or scandals erupt), but the writer’s voice is different. First of all something has to be written, then it has to get published, then it has to be publicised through interviews, reviews and festivals. It is a process of devotion and not many make much money. The festival then, gives the reader the chance to see the writer in the flesh.

The Blackball  festival was different from the city festival. It took place in a village, people had to come and stay, they generally attended everything, they got to know one another, there was an intimacy, it was held in a school and a working men’s club, there was the past political history and ‘ether’ of the place (workers’ struggles) and it was framed with mihi and karakia. People enjoyed this difference.

After the second day I lay in bed pondering on the reader psychology, the person with their head ’buried in a book’, escaping into a fictional world (even if non fiction) – something of the baby at the breast involved. A personality can collapse of course, if that escape is taken away.  Solitary confinement without a book to read would be hellish. And the reader has more control than the person watching a movie. The reader can set their own pace, can flip, daydream, return and reorder the story.

Of course, in the modern world there is the contentious digital voice: the tweet,  the unconsidered gossip of social media. But the gossip simply mirrors society and never achieves the status of the aesthetic. It is about a chaos of people in a chaotic place.

I learnt that the festival conversation should be 60 minutes in length – no longer. That is the length of the psycho-analytic  session and there are similarities.  One is talking about lives leading to poems or novels, the other is talking about lives as expressed through dreams. The novelist constructs an edifice, has to learn about architecture. It is similar to the realist portrait or landscape painter: detail, colour, perspective etc. The poet is more the dreamer, with the imagery formed from resistance to desire. And ordering existential anxiety remains a motive in both forms.

It was great to have Jean Devanny resurrected. What amazing women she and Lola Ridge were, feminist communists of the 1920s and 1930s, both beginning on the Coast.

The book market that developed organically during the festival was lovely. Every writer has a box of unsold books under the bed. Signings took place on the veranda, authors swapped books, someone brought some lemons to sell – it was an unmediated, village market place.

On Friday, the environmentalist writer, Kennedy Warne visited a couple of local schools for conversations with the kids.  He simply talked about what he does: which is visit natural environments then photograph, write and speak about them. Future writers and photographers were discovered in the classrooms. There should be more of this sort of interaction, especially in rural areas.

Organisationally, the festival was an ad for anarcho syndicalism. Three co-op members appeared from the woodwork to take over registration, book sales and catering co-ordination, leaving me to deal with writers and the tech stuff. A bloke in Greymouth loaned us his fancy radio mic headsets for a koha, the local caterer did two lunches, three morning and afternoon teas  and a dinner for $40 a head and it all went smoothly. In the city this would have required an event team and the associated budget.

This desire for a voice is deeply felt. On the final evening the floor was open for people to read a letter. Most brought a letter written by an ancestor and I realised the impulse toward genealogy, the rest home or hospice interview and the family history, is also about having a voice.

As well, the festival gave Blackball a voice and local people appreciated that. A ‘welcome writers’ sign someone placed on the main road was a sweet indication.

But there is also the consumer voice, the voice of entitlement, which suddenly appeared after handing out feedback forms. How to gain feedback without arousing that voice?

Of course we’ll do it again, but biannually. The in-between year will be devoted to a writers’ retreat with workshop elements.  The concept of coal to words and the applying of the underground mine paradigm to literature is a valid one.

Finally, the perennial rage about arts funding not being available to the regions or the community continues to simmer. It is a political scandal that the lotto ticket buyer continues to pretty much exclusively subsidise the middle class urban life style.

                     Two of the guest writers: Panni Palasti and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

Flabbergasted

It’s not often I’m flabbergasted, but the fining of two New Zealand women, one Jewish, the other Palestinian, by an Israeli court for causing distress to three Israeli teenagers because they were instrumental in Lorde’s cancelling of her Tel Aviv concert is truly extraordinary. Instrumental because they wrote an open letter to Lorde suggesting she not play Tel Aviv because it would give moral support to Israel’s continuing oppression of the Palestinians.

It’s truly extraordinary because there exist in Gaza a million teenagers living in extreme distress, unable to move freely, reliant on food aid, homes bombed to rubble, unable to access education, subjected to extreme surveillance, sniped at, aware that drones flying overhead might, at the slightest provocation, release a missile, lacking water and electricity, without employment or hope, condemned to living in the largest prison on the planet, bereft of access to justice from a state forged from the theft of their land and possessing the third largest military in the world, a military heavily subsidised by the US, who has recently cut its aid programme to Gaza.

gaza 2

Israel prioritising the three teenagers distress at missing a concert over the situation in Gaza is an act of extraordinary arrogance, an arrogance that exposes their belief that the Palestinians are subhuman, something akin to feral cats and able to be killed with impunity. This impunity is justified by the past suffering of Jewish people, mainly at the hands of Europeans, which culminated in the Holocaust, a dreadful event for which the Palestinians bear no responsibility. But this event becomes an excuse for any Israeli action, no matter how vicious.

It is like the bully justifying murder, rape and theft because he suffered a traumatic childhood, in fact,  by now, because his parents or grandparents suffered a traumatic childhood. The boycott and divest movement threatens the bully’s excuses: his supposed keeping of order in the playground, it questions his right to exist in his current form, and It questions his right to beat up and steal from his victims. The bully is used to inspiring respect and fear, but like all bullies, Israel suffers from a deep insecurity and a corrupt psyche. It is a society in a state of moral decay. No wonder its leaders admire Trump.

Of course there are many Israeli citizens who are equally disturbed by this decay and this corruption. Unfortunately they remain a minority.

And the real threat to the two admirable Kiwi women, is not this puerile fine, but the possibility of the Israeli special forces clandestinely turning up on their doorstep. It has happened before. This is a bully that will stop at nothing.

Playing Silly Buggers

The visit to Blackball by the Waitati Brigade was a  community ’happening’. The script was simple: Blackball had stolen their teapot which contained precious secrets and they had come to claim it back. This required the formation of a Blackball Brigade, with uniforms, chants, haka, speeches and weaponry (flour bombs, paper swords, a catapult, a cardboard tank) for the mock battle. Strategy had to be devised as well.

Thursday night and Saturday morning were times of preparation. Waitati had arrived by then and were able to assist with techniques for sword making and the like. They belittled our sausages, we belittled their politics. This was mana for the kids of course. And the dogs were not disinterested.

The battle duly proceeded and a scripted finale of two Blackball hostages being taken by alien supporters of Waitati resulted in their victory and the reclaiming of their teapot.

The whole thing was great fun and reminded me of the work of the UK group, Welfare State, who were active from the 1960s through to the 1980s. They traveled the world facilitating this sort of community event; sometimes there was a political edge, when, for example, they devised a show for a town that relied for its economy on building Trident submarines. Welfare State specialised in giant puppets  made from newspaper, carpet glue, bamboo and gaffer tape. Dependent on grants, like most community-based work, they were booted out by neo-liberalism, for their work (and there were other similar companies) was an attempt to take back community culture from the money people, from the event companies, from the commodifiers of everything.

Saturday’s event was raw, hands on carnival, and there were no stalls, nothing to sell or buy, no sausage sizzles, no car boot sales, there was no money changing hands – a wonderful relief.

Afterward I wandered home dusting the flour off of my medieval cloak, feeling content.

It had been a moment’s break from the hegemony of capital.

Problems with kindness

I went to a meeting with the Welfare Taskforce Group who are reporting to Government on the welfare system and changes required. I suspect that the group is wanting to persuade a persuadable government that the welfare system should be revalued; away from the current kaupapa of forcing beneficiaries to find work through a series of punitive measures, to a system whose primary aim is to alleviate poverty.

Welfare systems as currently structured activate the Victorian syndrome of deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor are people who have been hurt by fate or bad luck and need help to get on their feet again and back to independence. The undeserving poor are those who take advantage of systems set up to help the deserving poor in order to become work shy malingerers who sit around drinking and smoking and using their children as pawns with which to play the system. This becomes intergenerational, one DPB mother breeding another. In the 19th century such people were put into workhouses and endured daily toil for their soup and bread. Now they are forced to attend numerous workshops, to  fill out endless job applications and cold call and given stand downs if they don’t measure up.

When universal benefits are in place, these judgements disappear. No one is calling pensioners deserving or undeserving. Similarly no one is judging working for families nor the various forms of corporate welfare.

At the meeting, after talk of revaluing the system away from punishment, a local hairdresser spoke of the hard graft involved in establishing and then maintaining a small business, especially once you begin employing staff. The small business owner can look enviously at the paid holidays of her staff, the sick leave entitlement, the maternity cover, which she is often denied because she’s working to fill these absences. The small business person can obviously view with bitterness and resentment talk of living wage and unions and collective agreements, all of which are increasing the wage bill. Certainly the ‘undeserving poor’ make a bad impression. And these bitter and resentful small business people make up half the economy.

I suspect their point of view is reasonable from their subjective point of view. Currently they will be seeing a cabinet made up of teachers, unionists, nurses, social workers and professional politicians rather than people like themselves, who, as we are seeing, will make liberal tinkering difficult.

The system is constantly persuading people to enter the small business sector, despite the knowledge of the failure rate, the stress and the bitterness. And the resulting body of opinion stops the progressive movement from overturning the system with sensible propositions like the Universal Basic Income. The irony is that a UBI would make the small business venture much less stressful. These same people who would benefit from such structural change will be its harshest enemy and they will continue to be dubious and lack confidence in a ‘kind’ welfare system and a ‘kind’ government; for they have been created to form the hard heart of capitalism. Meanwhile the rentiers and the money men continue to get away with murder.

Digging

I’ve been at a school of late, getting a sense of things.

On this particular day, many of the older kids have decided to spend lunch time in the sandpit, a place usually reserved for the littlies. They begin to dig deep holes until they are past the sand and into the earth below. The ‘problem’ boy is getting left out and desperately wants to explore the depths. But now all the spades have been taken. Melt down time. ‘Have a look in the equipment room.’ ‘They’ve all gone.’ He despairs and I go and find him a broken piece of plastic- that’ll do. A moment of parenting. He starts digging. Clay is found and possible flecks of gold. ‘We’ll need to screen it.’ These kids know about gold mining. Water is brought and the clay dug and washed. A teacher hovers – is this quite proper? Thankfully she goes. The clay is soaked in buckets of water. The problem boy has also discovered a layer of clay and is joined by another. Now he is part of the group. Dirty hands, dirty clothes. Seeking.

But the bell goes. The whole lunchtime has provided a wonderful topic for writing, and/or the clay could be used for a pottery session. But no, the task is a, ‘Be inspired by an achiever’ exercise, with quotes from Steve Adams and Richie McCaw and whoever… ‘Dream your dreams’ or ‘You are the dream’. Write an ad for Nike based on this neo liberal garbage. Conveniently forget that for every ‘success’ there are millions of ‘failures’.

This late capitalist propaganda is extraordinarily prevalent. Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book was nothing compared to this. And who’s controlling it? Who’s promoting it? Who’s telling the schools to indoctrinate the kids with this celebrity shit?

And now the new fad, predictive analytics, the gathering of metadata to predict the troubled kids before they turn up, so that ‘support’ is available (‘support’ meaning some psychological snake oil about stress and anger levels). George Orwell was onto it, but couldn’t imagine the tools now available. Freire’s basing of education on what people know, on their world, has become a distant dream.

It’s time for the bureaucrats and the teachers to get back into the sandpit and join the kids in digging for gold.

Surveillance

The old Eastern Europe had many informers, people who spied on their neighbours for the state. Everyone knew who they were and after a while, even a foreigner could pick them out. It was their demeanour, something about their presence that you picked up. Did they have a dress code? I remember overcoats. Anyway, you couldn’t get rid of them and it was unwise to confront, so you simply circled around them: there would be a glance from a companion, a lowered voice… They filled the secret service archives with endless reports, most of them useless, but they did pick up and marginalise the recalcitrant.

Surveillance in a modern Western ‘democracy’ is more subtle and more pervasive.  Glances, lowered voices, recognition of presence was a primitive game. Now, ‘they’ track your movements through your cell phone, through your eftpos transactions, emails and web searches, your journeys along motorways; managers can access your computer and can immobilise vehicles if they think an employee is up to no good. The television can spy on you, your computer may well have a chip in it for that purpose, every street has a CCTV camera, every shop, and there are facial recognition programmes to quickly identify. As schools digitalise their learning, the training in obedience starts early. The lessons are emailed to students and the teacher can check on what a student is doing at any moment, even if not in the classroom. The lesson plans are sort of cute but there is also an irritability present, the irritation of being under surveillance, the knowledge that the students are in some sort of prison being constantly watched and monitored. But presumably, if it starts when they’re young, they get used to it and accept. But schools are suddenly places where nobody sings.

And the recalcitrant? In the old Eastern Europe, if the rebel escaped the labour camp, they could often be forced, or chose, to live quietly away from the main centres, performing some menial task to earn a living. If they wrote, they either smuggled out the manuscript or it circulated locally, with each reader typing a copy, so that the readership grew. It was an amazing way to publish, requiring real reader devotion. It was the very opposite of commodification.

In current society publication is ridiculously easy and at the same time, a little meaningless, with a constant reduction in quality: from posts to tweets to instagrams.

Solzhenitsyn once stated that despite the parody of revolutionary society represented by the USSR state, at street level, socialism existed – relationships among ordinary people (other than the informers), were characterised by equality. I’m not sure that a similar, street level ‘goodness’ currently exists in the West, although there are isolated pockets, some ‘monastic’ centres. For instance, the City of Joy in the Congo; a centre where brutally violated women, victims of the warfare generated as various militia battle to gain control of the sources of precious metals vital for cellphone and computer manufacture, are healed and then go back to their communities to educate and to develop awareness and resilience.

In these monastic pockets, informers are irrelevant. The people have nothing to lose. The information to be gained would be information the inherently corrupt system doesn’t want to know.

The 10 Guiding Principles of the City of Joy are:

  1. TELL THE TRUTH
  2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE
  3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
  4. RAISE YOUR VOICE
  5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
  6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST
  7. FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH
  8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION
  9. PRACTICE KINDNESS
  10. TREAT YOUR SISTERS’ LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN

Let me finish with a quote from Solzhenitsyn: Not everything has a name. Some things lead us into a realm beyond words.

city of joy

A class in the City of Joy

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