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The growing insanity

In 2014 the Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, after being diagnosed with cancer wrote Quicksand, a meditation on life and fate, in which a central obsession was the storing of nuclear waste, the potency of which lasts thousands of years.

Eight years later, a nuclear power station is used as a pawn in a European war and considered a ‘safe’ place from which to lob rockets.  When the UN is unable to intervene, the prospects for the planet are exceedingly grim.

Why isn’t NZ vehemently protesting and expecting others to do the same?

In Norway, a walrus that became a tourist attraction was put down ‘in a humane manner’ because the public were disregarding the recommendation to keep a safe distance. Therefore, according to the director of fisheries, ‘the possibility for potential harm to people was too high’ and the walrus is not an endangered species, there being 30,000 of them. I would have thought that any universalising of the proposition, once considered a useful part of ethical consideration, would have pointed to the obvious abundance of the human species. The walrus had no say in the matter.

Why not let the walrus gnaw at a few people to teach them a lesson and then take her to the nuclear power station in the Ukraine to chase off the soldiers. Any refusing to go should be humanely euthanised.

Repression

I keep finding myself in a surreal space of late, uncertain of what is real. A project will suddenly vanish or become distorted without seeming cause and another language is suddenly being spoken. I am uncertain if I’m real, or whether others are real. Beaming faces remain on the ads and young people are supposedly realising their goals and dreams at the same time as climate crises occur which shatter the prospect of a future.

Salvador Dali

Frederik Jameson makes the point that at times of crisis, ideologies are repressed, in the same way that trauma can be repressed in the psyche. The dominant ideology is that of entrepreneurialism, ‘the setting up of a business in order to make a profit’ with the entrepreneur ‘the person in control of a commercial undertaking’. This is the way to provide services and to solve problems and there is an obsessive energy attached. A variety of other possibilities are suppressed or marginalised or colonised, for example, the concept of public service, or the concept of ecology. Add to this the new technologies of the virtual and, ‘because the virtual is only the virtual, it can intensify in a mind boggling way’, to quote Baudrillard, ‘moving ever further from the real world and losing grip of any reality principle as the operators transcribe themselves into their own networks and their own codes’. This is of particular concern when it infects bureaucracies, where blatantly obvious solutions to mundane problems become repressed.

For example, in the field of state patronage of arts and culture, the need to democratise that patronage geographically and demographically requires a return to a previous community arts model but that cannot be recognised; instead, virtual entrepreneurial solutions of provincial start -ups are imagined. The nurse and doctor shortage crisis could be solved through providing a free education in this field with a bonding system, as used to exist for teachers, but that is never mentioned. A Labour government introduces a history curriculum which doesn’t mention class struggle or the working class input into our history.

It becomes a curious dictatorship. How does one respond? The technique of the magic realism novelists came from situations of absurdity as the personal whims of a dictator were writ large on a nation and embedded in its bureaucratic systems and fantastic events took place. Only fantasy can respond to fantasy and the novelist’s subjectivity challenged that of the dictator. But the novelist has the discipline of writing a coherent whole object and embedding fantasy in reality. The current challenges to the ‘dictatorship’ from populist impulses like Groundswell and the new conservative parties and the general business of fake news and social media simply add to the distortion and are equally driven by entrepreneurialism.

Beneath the magic realists was a continuing communist party in all its South American variety and that becomes the current political absence.

A moment of clarity

I attended a Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage consult involving regional arts people – the Ministry is preparing to brief the government as to cultural policy for the future. They are a government agency who listen and there proved to be a great clarity to the discussion.

On the one hand there were two of us oldies taking the line that art and culture is about presence and community story telling, that a previous structure of community arts officers and local and regional arts councils with secure and modest funding administered locally had done a great job and that a return to that structure is required.

On the other hand, the diverse group of younger people talked of the hope lying in the digital sphere and entrepreneurialism and start ups and marketing and international networking – the creative industry model first introduced by Helen Clark’s government. In their view the regions can attract trend setters, game developers and the like and a brave new world is possible culturally. The diversity people tended to be in this camp for there are business partnerships possible with the corporations as they are open to LGTBQIA2S… washing (it does become more complex on a daily basis).

In response I could talk about the rate of failure in Silicon Valley, the home of startups and the trend of start up entrepreneurs attracting venture capital, buying a house and car, then filing for bankruptcy – you can keep your house and car of course.  And successful startups are always bought up by the global giants.

And then there were the in betweeners, preparing surveys and reports for councils and the like, office holders really, wordsmiths for marginal bureaucracies, attracted perhaps to the radical notion of an artist’s wage if they begin dreaming.

As us two oldies tended to hold the floor, for there are a lack of stories in the other camps and the chief entrepreneurial spokesperson having left – too busy to spend too long on this – I realised the silencing and self censorshp that has taken place with regard to the judging of the failed experiments of neo-liberalism in so many areas of society and the continuing difficulty of picking up the pieces, for often the basic structure has been destroyed and we are left with a creeping parasite.

Whina

Whina is a film of great merit and marks a coming of age of Māori cinema. There is no special pleading; this simply takes the story of a great woman leader onto the world stage with charm and certainty. It solves the difficult task of compressing a long life into 90 minutes by using the land march as a frame from which to open the photographic album. The scripting and the acting are skilful enough to make often brief scenes engrossing, with some lovely cameos of people like Sir Apirana Ngata. The Māori/English mix is superb and both languages are carefully spoken. The photography is absorbing, with often a painterly texture and the music score one of the best.

It looked like there was investment from international production companies and their presence has been a benign one, insisting perhaps that this is not just a local story but an international story for an international audience, signalling that indigenous cultures have become mainstream rather than marginal romances.

It also becomes liberating, for Pākeha can be relieved of a burden of guilt in the matter of factness of the historical canon. For the ability to recreate and tell these facts and the knowledge that they will be heard creates cultural certainty. This is not then a story of loss even though loss is at its centre. Much cultural work has taken place previously to make this moment possible and there is a sense of Māori filmmaking tipuna overlooking and supporting this instant classic. Cultural work can often be ahead of political work and this film validates the Matike Mai framework of constitutional change and the liberation it could bring.

Heritage

A few years back I contributed a chapter to a scholarly publication called Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes. The chapter focused on the experience of trying to establish a museum of working class history and encountering a group of middle class practitioners operating within an identity politics ideology and oscillating between working for the government funder, establishing consultancies to prepare feasibility studies and contracting to curate exhibitions.

The editors of the book defined heritage as ‘not only tangible artefacts, buildings, places, sites and monuments, but also intangible traditions, commemorations, festivals, artworks, songs and literature.’ They went on to say that, ‘These chapters show that working class people have a remarkable ability to avoid reactionary nostalgia and self pity, and can build on their history, traditions and sense of place and community in novel ways.’

The Blackball Museum experience was, at the time, a ‘getting one’s fingers burnt exercise’, healed only by eventually managing to house relevant stories in a couple of containers, which, as an institution supported by unions, has proved remarkably resilient.

Forgetting that previous lesson (perhaps one of the dangers of old age), Te Puawai Co-operative Society which I helped set up has embarked on another heritage project: this time to repair and upgrade the old Jack’s Mill School near Moana so that it becomes a Kotare-style residential school exploring issues in a progressive way through enabling the exchanging of grass-roots knowledge. The site celebrates a past story of progressive education under the first Labour Government, a first exercise in technical education which resulted in the children of this rough-and-ready Coast sawmilling settlement designing, building and furnishing a much-celebrated child-size cottage. We were very grateful when the Ministry of Culture and Heritage granted us the $199,000 required from a covid-inspired innovation fund.

There are problems however: the site is owned by DOC who have a community agreement with the Kotuku Heritage Society and it is a Heritage 1 historic site so Heritage NZ are also involved, and of course Council has to provide resource and building consents. This means three bureaucracies and two community groups have to agree. Partnering with the community group has always been simple: the site is unpeopled and under utilised with most of the effort going into preserving the children’s cottage. This additional purpose was obviously a great idea.

Cash-strapped DOC were also grateful and very pleased that the money would be injected into the property. At the same time, we started to become aware of the heritage game: that a building should reflect itself in a passive manner, like replaced with like and so on. Fair enough, but old people looking into the mirror do not always appreciate what they see. And the heritage game can see a curious regression to infancy with adults playing with toys from the past.

Conservation Plans come into play, the guts of them being advice of replacing like with like with the addition of modern treatments of timber, sometimes to repile, to check the electrics, paint in heritage colours, no heat guns to be used, keep a record of changes and so on ­­- sensible practical requirements encased in value-laden description which seems to hide literary ambition. These plans are lodged with HNZ who become the national custodians of heritage sites, but devolve the administrative role to local bodies. Here we encounter the syndrome I wrote about previously: bureaucrats and consultants passing through a revolving door.

Everyone was supportive of the project until an application for resource consent found council requiring letters of approval from DOC, HNZ and the heritage society as affected parties. The heritage society were immediately forthcoming. DOC remained mute and HNZ wanted to impose conditions that were problematic: waiting for a new conservation plan, sign off of detailed plans and methodologies… The new conservation plan will take months and still won’t mention the upgrade of water and sewage and the fit out of an ablution block, kitchen and dormitory, all of which will have small impact on the fabric of a building which is in need of the repair that will happen. Plan approval on what grounds given that the building consent means that work meets the building code? Do HNZ have other measures for the installation of showers and toilets? And of course conditions will lead to nervous building officers and greater expense.

The exercise became fraught to the point of wondering whether it was feasible. Generally, the web of regulation is leading to the demolition of heritage buildings, for repurposing is made problematic and expensive. Buildings instead, become passive mirrors of themselves as sentimental commodity, slowly sink into dereliction and are then pulled down. But as query followed query, I suddenly read a paragraph in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (I’m doing a study of Tolstoy at the moment): ‘He thought of the meetings, remembered how carefully and at what length everything relating to form and procedure was discussed at such meetings and how sedulously and promptly all that related to the gist of the matter was evaded.’  I suddenly realised that this was simply an exercise in form and procedure, to be dusted off only if there were a disaster and they could then be pointed to.

In turn I wondered about the generality of this phenomenon throughout the bureaucracies and if this is why problems seem insoluble in health, education and so on. Have we returned to medieval scholasticism, with governance being an attempt to reconcile enlightenment knowledge with religion, the religion in this case being identity and ritualistic presentations by multi-faceted and fluid individuals. Sin is intolerance, harassment, confrontation and bullying…

But like scholasticism, the paradigm generates elements of the absurd. For example, in the Nominalist camp of scholasticism only individuals existed rather than ‘supra-individuals’, essences or forms. Try and design a health system around that and imagine the problems that arise e.g. Are two individual high need clients both high need clients because the predicate ‘high need client’ applies to both of them? Or does ‘high need client’ apply to both of them because they resemble an exemplar ‘high need client’. Or are exemplars inevitably oppressive?

Bureaucrats thus obsessed will never be able to tackle the realities of staff and funding shortages, geographic service spread and so on.

This whole paradigm also reflects the current urban-rural divide: of rural areas and their people being dictated to by central authorities and their obsessions. The resulting bitterness fuels populist agenda which the recognition of iwi will not ameliorate. In fact, the combination will lead to an upsurge of settler racism.  It is remarkable how insensitive the current Labour Government is to this development.

War and Peace was written in 1862, about the same time the land wars were beginning. Where did I begin? That’s right: heritage.

Matike Mai

Zooming into a Kotare workshop on the legacy of Moana Jackson, in particular the Matike Mai proposal for constitutional change, and then catching the NZ On Air doco and a couple of conference presentations by this man of great mana, intelligence and integrity, made me ponder the sovereignty question.

In the Kotare workshop I argued that the Matike Mai proposal (a rangatira house, a kawanatanga house and a relationship space), resolves a structural  contradiction that for me, is already creating a resurgence of settler racism.  The contradiction involves a political representational structure based on birthright trying to co-exist with a representational structure based on one person one vote within a single chamber. We are already seeing this in the reaction against co-governance and there are issues for Māori reps of collaboration and reformism.

With the Matike Mai proposal both structures are seen as valid, but separate, and negotiation takes place from  worked through positions, in the same way that workplace collective agreement negotiations take place. In the latter case, both employees and employers have discussed what they want, from within their own structure and negotiation then takes place. The rules of the negotiation have been set and can evolve. The employers may well be thinking of profits and shareholders, the union will be representing a one person one vote constituency; but these representational interests and structures are the business of the particular side.

Behind this is the question of sovereignty. The sovereign (whether king, elected government or dictator) has the right to act as they wish within their nation, will require a bureaucracy to put decisions into practice and need sufficient charisma or apparatus of control to take the majority of subjects along with them. The tiriti promised continuing governance to the chiefs over their territories, but also brought in the overall sovereignty of the British crown for the combined territories regarded as a nation and the promise of citizenship rights of the nation for Māori. It was of course a dogs breakfast conceptually: is governance of a territory the same as sovereignty of a nation? How do the two concepts coexist?  How does tribal membership equate with citizenship of the nation? Behind it was the simplistic desire to control the sale of land and to control unruly British subjects. And then the establishing of settlements continued apace with a seemingly unlimited supply of migrants and the land wars led to confiscation of territory. This was followed in turn by the underhand imposing of privatisation of title which led to the near total imposition of settler sovereignty, bureaucracy and charisma and the disempowerment of Māori governance over a much diminished territory. We know the rest.

Now there is some restoration of territory to iwi (and business and capital and media must be seen as territory}, with some bureaucratic mechanisms in health and education and media under Māori control. The Makite Mai project imagines a reclaiming of Māori governance as a whole together with a bureaucracy and a sufficient level of charisma to have it accepted nationally as part of a shared sovereignty.

There are issues in this imagining. In which chamber do working and union issues sit? How are the high tech secondary health issues governed? What is the role of entrepreneurial global capitalism? Do iwi initiatives ever get listed on the stock exchange and therefore subject to takeovers?  There is already a narrative of primitive capital accumulation within Māoridom. Does the impulse toward co-governance continue within the kawanatanga sphere or will a process of separation be necessary? The relationships in te tiriti were under-defined, confused and in some ways a hopeful imagining and this sphere still seems very complex. There is a tendency for liberal Pākeha to have a religious faith with regard to this complexity. If we ‘pray’ sufficiently fervently and adopt the right language goodness should prevail.  

For me, there is a need to be hard headed and analytic, to stay alert to contradiction and to use the process to resolve contradiction.

Ukraine

I listened to the speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Davos World Economic Forum. He predictably spoke of the need for a massive aid programme to rebuild the country. But then he mentioned, almost in passing – a slip of the tongue moment – Israel as the model of a nation which is surrounded by enemies and which therefore needs to be massively armed and supported by the West.  At that point an alarm bell rang. Is this what is in store for Ukraine, that it becomes the Israel of Europe, including having an ethnic minority composed of ‘the enemy’ and conflict over spiritual homes? Is it proposed that Russian oil and gas supplies are unlocked via regime change and further dissolution which results in a patchwork of Middle Eastern style oligarchies sycophantically attached to the West. Is it that Putin has made Nasser’s mistake of reacting to Western provocation and then losing?

The alarm bell continued to ring stridently as the above narrative assumed a chilling logic.

Real Me

The government has this algorithm called real me. It constitutes one’s entry key to a number of services: passports, IRD etc. It can even be used by banks. The terminology is unfortunate, making physical presence, whakapapa etc. secondary and unreal. It must have been dreamt up by someone with psychotic tendencies.

Recently I received a no-reply email stating that my real me needed to be updated – an interesting concept – and a dreadful battle with the algorithm began. Filling my name, address, date of birth etc was not a problem but the algorithm wanted a photo which it judged satisfactory. You can try and do it via the algorithm, following the advice of someone called Sarah. She smiled nicely, but then cut me off after a couple of failed attempts. Your times up, Buddy, or words to that effect. Go to a photo shop. But the next morning the algorithm had forgiven me and allowed a further attempt. I even got a photo accepted but then had to follow a video exercise of Sarah nodding, shaking her head and opening her eyes wide. Somehow I failed – perhaps I nodded when I should have shaked and once again I was banished. Sarah was still smiling however.

When I had to renew my passport I’d had a photo shop in town take what had been a satisfactory photo which I could then upload, so I went to see Stewart and had a photo taken, but then realized I didn’t know how to upload it. I rang up real me and after waiting 45 minutes spoke to a real person who was puzzled by my question and went off for five minutes to try and find the answer. Alas, there wasn’t one. Only the AA could take a photo of the real me and upload it to the algorithm. Why? I asked. No one knows.

The next day I went into the AA shop only to find that the young woman there couldn’t take such a photo because she hadn’t been trained to do so and the person who had was off work sick. I’d have to drive to Hokitika. The theater receptionist who used to work for them whispered to me, The training only takes five minutes. At that stage I understandably flew into a rage and have been wondering why the state creates a psychotic framework? Who in the state does it and why?

On the subject of real me, let me take a detour into the realm of the tangata whenua where an interesting debate is taking place. To be Māori  requires whakapapa. That’s a simple equation. Act Party leader, David Seymour has whakapapa so is a real Māori , but suddenly Willie Jackson is saying Seymour is not a real Māori  because he hasn’t Māori  values. That seems to be a tricky concept. Aryan but also a believer in the Reich in order to be German in the 1930s? Even trickier when National suggest the right of 3 days in hospital for a post birth mother, and a Māori  woman spokesperson for Labour won’t sign up to what would seem valid in terms of whanaungatanga.

Tired of the sticky swamp of post modernism I read a biography of Tolstoy and come to his middle-age spiritual crisis when he battled to reconcile faith and reason. I’m not a stranger to the debate personally, having always envied those with faith, but found reason intrusive enough to make faith impossible. And then Tolstoy’s rendering down of the gospels… Of course virgin births and raptures are nonsense, but what is left that reason can accommodate? Here are Tolstoy’s ‘commandments’.

Don’t be angry – more generally, resolve any psycho analytic shit.

Don’t be lustful, or entrepreneurial or imperializing – that whole energy field.

Don’t get tangled up with commitments to authorities that will determine your future behaviour or choices. For example, don’t join the army because it might mean you end up having to kill people. It is an anti state sentiment.

And then ‘the turn the other cheek of non violence’ and ‘the love the enemy’ of pacificism.

Tolstoy had of course no experience of bourgeois liberalism and capitalist technological development, nor of the proletarian attempts to use the state for the advancement of the working class: welfare state, free health and education, workers rights etc. His grappling with social justice issues was then problematic. Gandhi was similar in this regard. Yet there was a moral imperative and energy that was phenomenal. Real me, in comparison, is pathetic.  

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