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I’ve been doing further reading on the kaupapa of some cultural worker activists from the northern hemisphere and been both startled, stimulated and grateful that the energy and analysis that arose in the 1990s and then had seemed to dissipate, even disappear, has returned – stronger and more coherent. It leaves me with a ‘I can die happy’ sort of feeling.

They are saying something like the following: We have to admit the crisis and realise that all the crises are connected. Rather than put our energy and tolerance of risk into surviving individually within a decaying capitalist system, let us put our energy into and take the risk of establishing relationships of solidarity.

And then a set of questions:

  • Given unstable incomes, unstable housing and an unknown future how do we organise within this set of completely unstable conditions?
  • Can we organise without money, space, stability and experts?
  • Do we trust ourselves?
  • Can we disentangle our nervous systems from the habits of capitalism?
  • Have we the courage to be disobedient in terms of energy and time?
  • Can we look at wishes not problems?
  • Can we understand that reciprocity is complex and that post capitalist reciprocation looks different? (By this they mean that relationships of gift and reception, work and payment are not simply binary.)
  • Can we understand that difference and change are our greatest powers?
  • Let us understand that what we are doing and making is done and made by workers, for the community.
  • Whatever we do has to be such that it cannot be colonised by google, has to outlast capitalism and doesn’t replace the government’s work.
  • Radical change is no longer about a singular confrontation or revolution, but rather a complex integration of multiple responses operating in a precarious manner – indigenous, gender, worker, hunter and gatherer, sexual orientation, national, ability, age, environmental, with often the conflict being between this diversity and the imposers of regularity. 

One of the activists, Cassie Thornton, who describes herself as a feminist economist artist, has modelled a system of care, based on what she saw happening in Greece during the austerity crisis. She calls it the hologram (giving a picture of a three dimensional person). The person who is the hologram gathers three people who interview the hologram  – one focusing on physical health, one on psychological health, the third on social and relationship health. They meet perhaps once a season or if there is a big decision to be made. It becomes a system of caring outside the mainstream. And then each of those listeners become a hologram, getting three people to form the triangle. And then those people meet etc. A network of different relationships spreads, like a virus. In this way, new systems of relationships could be built up, subverting capitalist relations.

Thornton is also active in a Canadian organisation called RiVAL (Reimagining Value Action Lab), which operates ‘at the intersections between art, research and social activism.’ The organisation mounts projects around three themes: Post extractive futures which requires an expanded imagination of ‘the economy’; Decolonising the settler imagination through establishing new communities of risk and relation and storytelling solidarity; and Investigating what comes after revenge politics (falling out of love with authoritarian institutions, transcending capitalist neurohacking(facebook etc) to establish a new radical humanism. The hallmarks of a project they would support is that it is about collaboration and relationship, has a radical imagination, is challenging conventions and power, and is in dialogue with struggles for social justice.

Another woman, Sibylle Peters of Fundus Theatre in Hamburg does this amazing theatre work with children based on the children’s wishes. If they want to be astronauts they build a spaceship, but then the sense of flying through space? – lie on your back and stare at the sky and imagine. You want to be rich? – start a children’s bank. Projects also involved finding the spirits within a school and inventing rituals to relate to them. You want to destroy something? Work out what and why and go and do it. Amazingly enough, schools (from low decile areas) go along with it. Once again art is used as a means of research.

There are other groups in the states and obviously a network which is building. I’ve started circulating people here. The question remains, Is this just arty-farty ideas? Well, at the moment, the shuttle co-op we’re running is proving popular as an income earner for locals who are under-employed and in some cases unwilling to go back to 12 hour shifts and 60 hour weeks. Put simply, they want a life. I have a feeling this is more generally the case, and the choice: over employed and stressed out. or under-employed, broke and stressed out. I begin to see the possibility of a ‘virus’ of co-ops solving this, meeting the outlined ideology. The one thing stopping it is access to capital. How do we organise without money?

Debate?

The final leaders’ debate was a saccharine affair, the set belonging to an ad for colour schemes, the costumes carefully chosen, Jacinda’s earrings bouncing light, Judith’s eyebrows arched and her costume dowdier, the moderator a head prefect presence, the ads in the breaks particularly surreal, the discussion superficial. A moment of crabbiness over the wealth tax, with no mention of the Guaranteed Minimum Income for which the wealth tax is simply one of the tools to raise the money. Too deep. So, reassurance for the rich, but ignore meaningful solutions to poverty. School lunches are hardly transformational. Housing reform is impossible because no one will prick the high price bubble – too much personal equity at stake. Build affordable houses, but how? Increase the housing supply? I would’ve thought that brings prices down? Climate crisis – don’t panic, link to brand NZ. So, Climate crisis NZ- no – clean green, Covid free, God’s own country. Be nicer to Maori. And be stable. Aspirations? To make politics a friendlier and more diverse space, a more bearable staffroom with the children playing safely outside. Closed borders and who do we let in other than our own? Well, Hollywood first, America Cup participants second, sports teams third, farm contractors fourth, fruit pickers fifth. Faith? Judith a liberal Anglican, whatever that means, Jacinda a lapsed Mormon and curiously disturbed by the question. Unions and workplace relations? Not a mention. It would bugger up the colour scheme.

I recently read a book: Workers without bosses, which revisits the stroppy Australian unionism of the late sixties and seventies when shop floor committees insisted on closed shops, on workers input into hiring and firing and into health and safety, when workers continued working when factories tried to close, had green bans, rainbow bans, stopped gentrification of working class housing areas, got involved in foreign policy, in fact ‘challenged the foundations of the capitalist employment relationships in which bosses govern and workers obey… challenged all aspects of the power, authority and control of the employer class.’ Attempts to introduce penal controls were ignored with further bans. It was only stopped by neo liberalism and the creating of unemployment.

Those were the aspirational days, my friends.

Demo by building workers to save the urban environment
Unionists save a working class heritage area

Glimmers of Light

It’s a world of magic realism. Because of a Certificate of Public Use running out, a toilet is legal today, illegal tomorrow, the event taking place presumably at midnight. No physical change has occurred, simply a regulation kicking in. In the UK, six is suddenly the number for legal gatherings. A family of seven becomes illicit. Darcy, a fly in fly out miner turns up at the airport with paperwork that allows a workmate standing beside him in the queue to fly across the Tasman but the same paperwork proves inadequate in his case. Different immigration officer. A headache perhaps, a relationship breaking up?  This begins a bureaucratic process that is truly Kafkaesque. Similarly, the Assange trial is pure Kafka. The go-to epidemiologist, with shocking pink hair, seems a character out of Alice in Wonderland. National’s team of ‘competent business people’ get their figures wrong. Floods, hurricanes and bush fires rage. We have entered the time of crisis. The centre will try and hold, with the margins collapsing. I video a local candidates meeting and it’s all predictable, Labour keeping things moving, Greens kindly and idealistic, NZ First full of policy, National preaching competence for recovery, the rest a bit loopy and nationalist with the anti money party having the insight of extremity. A drunk is embarrassing and no one can ask a simple question. Given the opportunity, people start raving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZER-Ss7gFg

I read a book, The mushroom at the end of the world, which posits a strange hope on the margins of precarity, as war vets, refugees and ferals gather matsutake mushrooms in the degraded pine forest of Wyoming. A complex supply train gets the mushrooms to Japan where they are a delicacy offered as gifts. The point made is that in a post human, intersectional, contaminated world, a community of outsiders can still find a rough praxis, different species interact and nurture one another and capital accumulates on the margins. I wonder whether the wilding pines are hiding this mushroom delicacy and in our lust for purity we forgot to notice.

In another book, Cassie Thornton, a feminist economist artist (that’s a mouthful) makes an interesting proposal: ‘How can we let go of what we know are false and deadly dreams of individual success within this murderous system to construct a yet unimaginable social world?’ she writes. ‘Instead of constantly risking everything to survive as individuals we might use our energy to take risks to make collective experiences of steadfast and deep solidarity where success is measured differently.’ And she is not preaching new ageism which she describes as a ‘middle class, saccharine, self congratulatory, individualistic, crypto masochistic, quasi activist rhetoric of healing, self care, pleasure, generosity and kindness.’ Not bad.

Thornton mounted an interesting dance project with dancers entering a large bank trying to find some dirt; which, if it existed, would be the only real thing in the building. A Hamburg colleague, Sybelle Peters, works with children and their wishes; one project involved the kids finding miracles in their neighbourhood – which sounds a worthwhile exercise well outside the National Standards testing regime.

Reading about these women’s work there is a sense of entering a space which is real, a space where people have taken a scalpel to the dark clouds of mystification to let through a glimmer of light.

The aesthetic of the inarticulate

Over in Christchurch for a couple of days I went with Leigh to the film Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. An eighteen year old college girl finds she’s pregnant but can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania. Supported by her cousin, who steals some money from the supermarket where they both work weekends, she goes to New York for the procedure. Because she is over ten weeks it requires them staying there for two days. In between clinic appointments they are too broke to afford accommodation so roam the streets and the malls and ride the subway. The title of the film comes from interview questions from the counsellor as she asks about abusive sexual experiences (Never, rarely etc.).

The cousin is more outgoing but the central character is shut away within her inarticulate self. Her integrity is her inarticulateness. She suffers the experience and has no words for it. The relationship with her family is mute. Her relationship with her cousin is equally wordless, other than a couple of small moments of tenderness. Their home town looks singularly grim. New York is serial and the women in the clinic locked into procedure. The film is brilliantly acted and photographed, but at the end I was left with the question: Why has all the scripting, photography and editing – the whole machinery of articulation –  been devoted to create an oppressed silence without a glimmer of hope. Is it because hope would have been a romantic lie? Is it that these young women and their families are trapped in a nihilism where no one is capable of comprehending their experience. Is that the reality or is it the filmmaker’s perception of that reality? The filmmaker, after all, has chosen. What would Brecht have shown? Or Boal? Brecht was always keen to show with clarity the oppression caused by capitalist economic structures and is famous for that profound moment of silent articulation:  Mother Courage’s voiceless scream. Boal would insist on replaying the action and for the audience to explore with the actors, other choices. Boal insists on articulation and clarity. Leigh meanwhile, focused on the role of the women in the clinic. How could this young woman be supported, even while rejecting support?

As we talked, the plot of the film began to unravel and we became aware of moments of mystification: Was the girl’s father an abuser? If so, why not make it clear? Who was the father of the baby? Why was he not relevant? Why not allow the relationship of the two girls to develop? How did she find her cousin and the boy after they had vanished into the streets of New York? Would the women in the recovery room ignore one another?  Why couldn’t she talk to her mother? What conversation would she have with her mother when she returned home? These mystifications are necessary for the girls to remain inarticulate.

When we googled the filmmaker we found the intent was to make a pro abortion film. Presumably, if abortion were available in her home town, greater dialogue would have been possible? Although she didn’t want her parents to know, so dialogue with whom? And the final question: Who is going to see the film? Would the two girls at its centre sit through an art film? Unlikely. The portrayal of oppression involves aesthetic choices which are also political choices on the part of the artist. To deny the working class articulation in the interests of art is a serious decision to make: Never? Rarely? Sometimes? Always?

Despair (2)

A preview performance of our stories at Red Books went well. Performing is always healing, as is the coherence of a story formed and perfected. For a moment the dross falls away and clarity is achieved. The contradictions and ironies become the sinews of reality. For a moment.

Only one mask wearer, who in a situation of presence was absent. And that is one function of the mask, to protect oneself against the presence of the other and to protect the other against one’s own presence, to become effectively, as absent as possible. That is the rationality for the burqa, to protect the woman against serial male desire and to protect the woman from reciprocating. Presence and desire are then privatised to the patriarch’s bedroom.

A contrary function of the mask is to allow freedom of the libido, as in the carnival. For the Zapatista the mask protects the ‘we’ from the state gaze. And one of the ironies of any mandatory mask wearing will be to sabotage CCTV and facial recognition systems.

Meanwhile, the Greenland ice cap has melted. The canary is dead with barely a mention in the media.

Back to the despair of trying to forge different relationships in the real world. There’s a bulk food store for sale in Greymouth, the perfect venture for Te Puawai Co-op to facilitate an Invercargill style venture (www.thepantry.co.nz) where such a facility is run by a collective which involves people with a disability. Despite Provincial Growth Funds, mayoral job funds, Development West Coast, employment schemes, wage subsidies, various NGOs advocating for the disabled, there is no effective interest. If we did get something off the ground a saboteur would appear, a system centred buyer. For the sake of some minimal capital nothing transformative will happen outside the sphere of art.

The Greenland ice cap has melted. The canary is dead.

A sign outside a café: Now that you have learned to wash your hands children, we will learn to put our chairs under our desks neatly.  Jacinda has become over exposed. There’s a visceral rebellion welling up which could seriously fragment the political landscape.

A commentator has described the current world as no longer capitalist, but neo feudal, with kings and queens, an aristocracy, a gentry, guilds of skilled workers, and at the bottom serfs no longer tied to land but tied to pracarity: a cheap rental if you’re lucky, or a cheap car, a shopping trolley, a sleeping bag, a cell phone if you’re unlucky… Within this the search for transformative relationship is hugely difficult: how to create the autonomous zone, the commune, how to link up effectively while respecting diversity? There are promising signs that the new age impulse is becoming politicised, past the privilege of food choice, life style block and mouse-click environmentalism, leading to the seeking of relations of solidarity not within or against but outside the feudal system.

Signs and signals.

I suddenly remember our production of Oedipus in the late seventies, couched as an environmental statement, something which I didn’t quite understand at the time; but now it’s obvious: the cursed baby (Western civilisation) saved by a shepherd’s sympathy (think Christ), grows up amongst strangers, loses his temper and kills a man at the crossroads (colonisation), solves the riddle (science), marries his mother in order to become king (the industrial revolution), the plague descends and in trying to find a solution he discovers his own culpability; the solution is to blind himself and go into the wilderness.

The Greenland ice cap has melted. The canary is dead.

A moment of despair

As the local establishment repeatedly demonstrate a lack of vision, living on the Coast can occasionally lead to despair. A lot of the debate, discussion – conversation is the latest term – has not taken place, so there is a going back to the beginning, and having been through the process years ago, it can feel tiresome.

Take the issue of support for the arts. Despite the arts being useless (not providing food or shelter), people have always created. It’s as basic as language. Once we moved past tribal or village life and more hierarchical and then capitalist relations took hold, and as the arts are labour intensive and considered a public good, the necessity of patronage, particularly public patronage became accepted. The debate around that patronage has been complex, circling around issues of privilege and excellence, mass participation and democratic purpose. Of late relationship to tourism and trade generated a creative industries concept and the community arts model has always been present, as has the therapeutic impulse. And then there’s Maori art and Pasifika art…

After advocacy for regional funding took place, Creative NZ has introduced a regional arts fund and I intuited that a coherent regional strategy would assist applications from the Coast. However, the CNZ model has a requirement to have contributions from regional stakeholders, in order to add value.

This creates a problem on the Coast for there is a sparse corporate sector, and councils are small and stretched. However there is an economic development body and this body should become the significant stakeholder. And I’m not talking about a big contribution: five to ten thousand dollars a year would possibly bring in forty to fifty thousand dollars. All good, gather a network of local artists, write a strategy and approach the body with what seems like a win-win situation – only to find they have little idea what I’m talking about.

– Writer in residence? What are the outcomes of that? A summer Shakespeare? A story telling tour of small towns? Where are the jobs? We’re on about the real world…

– But-

– There’s this proposal to barge shingle to Auckland. Some American company are looking at garnet mining. We’ve got a number of small business proposals. And we run entrepreneurial workshops.

– Don’t you see that stories generate stories and that the economy is simply a story? How do you quantify the knowledge that there’s a well known writer come to town to write a book? How do you quantify that there’s some actors coming to join locals to rehearse Hamlet and that you can then go and see the play and people will come from elsewhere? How do you quantify the outcome of listening to a story about a local inspirational teacher in the 1930s? How do you quantify a community film project which gives young people opportunities to be on a crew?

– Sorry, all too vague. That shingle project will generate 4 jobs.

– This is so dumb.

– I don’t like your tone. You won’t get anywhere with a tone like that.

It’s like negotiating with Jesuits. They only listen to themselves and a narrow ideology of clichés, whereas the activist has to listen, analyse what is being heard and then focus on an image, nurturing that image, seeking resonance with the wider community. The activist is operating from within a creative model, not perpetuating a bureaucratic, quasi religious order.

The despair comes then from this realisation of probable impasse. But to despair for too long or too often is poisonous. What to do becomes the question? It is of course what the Zapatista understood early on and they came to the conclusion that a parallel system was the only answer.

Problems of liberalism

Nuclear free, smoke free, predator free, Covid free…to save the careers of MPs and cabinet ministers it seems we also need to be sex free.

Meanwhile, for those of a left liberal inclination there remains the problem of Cuba, a country for whom the predator problem is of pressing importance because the US has imposed a stringent economic blockade ever since the revolution. There’s no more vicious predator than a bourgeoisie whose economic urges have been negated. As trade and financial transactions have been made as difficult as possible it has cost the Cubans billions of dollars. Obama tinkered with it, as was his want – when he wasn’t killing people by drone strikes (empathy doesn’t extend far) – but Trump has imposed it ever more stringently.

Every year the UN Assembly, opposed only by the US and Israel, votes to judge the embargo illegal. NZ diligently votes for the motion, but – here’s the rub –does nothing to back it up. The local commercial sector with its ties to the States whether by banking or trade, avoids the sanctions by obeying the blockade and having nothing to do with Cuba. The embassy and its staff are refused a bank account – even an eftpos account. A local importer of Cuban coffee cannot process the necessary transactions except by operating via a European country, which adds significantly to the cost. A NZ resident can’t send a donation to a Cuban school… and the government does nothing.  It could, like some European governments, pass a law making it illegal to apply the sanctions within our territory. The banks and companies would then have a safety net if penalised by the US. The US could well be outraged and even cancel our naval participation in the current war games aimed at China. That would be a tragedy?

But at least we wouldn’t be hypocrites. And our current hypocrisy should be a matter of concern. It should be noted that Cuba, a poor country, still managed to send medical teams to countries in need, causing apoplexy in the Trump administration. Have we been similarly generous or internationalist? Commentators point out how drastically Covid is affecting and will continue to affect developing world countries. Here’s Fatima Hassan, South African Civil Rights Lawyer talking about the impossibility of a successful First World Covid response in South Africa. ‘That science and that evidence is a First World science and evidence. It’s designed for countries where people can stay at home and work from home, where they have secure employment. It’s designed for countries where there is sufficient socioeconomic rights protection and benefits if you are unable to go to work. It’s designed for countries that can socially distance, where you don’t have thousands of informal settlements that are densely populated. It’s designed for countries where there’s proper sanitation, where there’s running water for every single person, where there’re secure food supplies…’  The UN has calculated that justice for the developing world in the current situation will cost 10% of the GDP of the First World. At the moment we contribute 0.2%; the US 0.15%. Sweden is the most generous with 1.36% followed by Norway with 1.14%.

When it comes to the number of refugees a country is giving shelter to per thousand inhabitants: Chad  30; Jordan  89; Lebanon  208; Sweden(once again the most generous developed country) 14; NZ  0.3.

Unfortunately this conversation is not part of our Covid response. Instead we’ve adopted a ‘God’s Own Country’ mantra, safe, wealthy and self congratulatory behind our borders.

The business of writing

As part of developing a literature programme centred on Blackball (which has a literary and activist tradition), the co-op running the programme gained funding from Creative NZ for a 4 week residency  in a miner’s cottage donated for the purpose by West Coast historian, Brian Wood. There was a modest stipend attached. A kaupapa was set: working class, activist, possibly looking at the portal to the future, Coast referenced – and writers at any stage of their career could apply.

The response has been considerable and as the cottage was described as Spartan and the stipend is around the minimum wage, it has to be the kaupapa that has attracted people. Given the book market ever more narrowly focusing on crime, romance, cooking, gardening, health and biographies of sporting heroes, there is hope in this.

Reading through the applications I was surprised by the range of writing and writers. Universities play a big role, with writing courses almost obligatory; and then the specialties. History offers employment opportunities especially through tiriti claims, there are technical writers employed by corporates and government departments, people write about architecture and heritage sites for councils and DOC, there’s the educational market, the health market, the advocacy market, there is biography and memoir, there’s journalism, blogs and opinion pieces for web sites and newspapers, before we get to fiction with its genres and poetry with its personal vision.

There are the myriad competitions and on line journals and magazines. The successful writer becomes either a toolkit (the technical writer) or a brand offering content for a researched market. Readings, book signings, festival appearances  and interviews become a performance. Every publication, every speech given, every workshop held is necessarily recorded. Brand and voice become blended. It requires a lot of diligent work for the free-lancer who remains poorly paid and it is still best to nestle somewhere in a university department if at all possible. Writers of fiction are apt to find themselves dreaming of the best seller which can bring fame and fortune. And then of course there are the intermediaries: publishers and editors and marketers and patrons.

It’s a minor industry and begins with the solitary person confronted with the blank page or the empty word document. It has certainly made me ponder, for I write primarily in order to work out what I’m thinking. If I don’t write I begin to feel like a clogged up drain. Is that useful to anyone else? Sometimes. It means I can read someone else working out what they’re thinking and comment effectively. And vice versa. If there’s a story involved that’s a bonus. But there’s always a story involved. As Berger says, writing is an approach to experience and prior to printing and capitalist production sits the storyteller, surrounded by the whanau after the day’s work has been done, feeding the imagination and making sense of the world.

See how quickly one travels from the market place. The cave, the fire, the miner’s cottage. A sense of place. A promise of a better world.

Maybe this rapid movement away from the market place led to the flood of applications? Perhaps that movement is what is now necessary? The European left has a new paradigm: not the market, not the state, but people to people.

story telling

Ironies

The ironies in the current political landscape, woven by the Covid virus, continue to unfold. In a climate of NZ first, the NZ First Party, built around that very agenda, is threatened with collapse.  The xenophobia has been mainstreamed into a kindlier version. It is no longer about appealing to a certain red neck and pearl and twinset sector of the regional population but has shifted to the urban liberals where the grumpy and cantankerous patriarchal role as played by Winston and Shane is not acceptable. And then there is the mainstreaming of Social Credit policy. After ninety years of being marginal and eccentric (‘funny money’) the idea of low-interest state credit is suddenly top of the pops. The party stalwarts stir in their graves.

Just below the surface of things the memory of the first 1935 Labour Government is being evoked. It was the longest running Labour government (14 years), Micky Savage was a kindly figure, and Bob Semple and his wheelbarrow is replaced by shovel ready projects (with diggers and dump trucks) but the agenda is the same: jobs.

Travel ahead to the war – leaders love the crisis of war – this time the war is the war on Covid, but as in any war situation the persecutor-victim-rescuer syndrome becomes the dominant pattern. We have been rescued from foreign invasion but the threat of persecution remains. Suddenly poor old David Clarke is the persecutor for stating the reasonably obvious: once policy is set, management is responsible for administering it. Ashleigh Bloomfield became the victim in need of rescuing through a gift of cut flowers. The compassionate lockdown leavers (victims of family circumstance) became persecutors. Returning Kiwis, like returning soldiers, threaten the national purse. Bunjy jumping is having to be rescued but that somehow persecutes small businesses, Our kindness doesn’t extend to work visa holders who could become swaggers reminiscent of those depression blokes wandering from farm to farm and sleeping in the woolshed. Somehow they don’t figure, are a sort of non people who will hopefully disappear.

A mythical homeless person inveigled themselves into a quarantine hotel (the hotels must be doing alright out of this) and supposedly lived in lockdown luxury – was he a persecutor, a victim, or was he being rescued? The new Greymouth hospital overruns its budget by 60 million (80%) and I wonder whether the old one couldn’t have been fixed up for far less. The Pike exercise has rescued a broken robot and a review of the health and disability sector, led by Helen Clark’s fix-it person forgot to consult the disability sector. The most technologically advanced country in the world can’t manage to do postal voting and I’m getting confused whether a document is on my computer, on my backup hard drive or on google docs or on all three and if the latter, whether they’re the same document. Meanwhile my daughter showed me the hotspot and tethering function on my phone, we tried it out briefly and the next day the offer of a new plan arrived. I didn’t get paranoid but did wonder whether we are being constantly processed by algorithms and if so, why there isn’t an algorithm that picks up viruses.

Meanwhile Rocket Lab sends up satellites for the US military and we are reassured that the 5 Eye system remains benign. We have sufficient morality to modestly protest the Israeli takeover of the West Bank (confirming Palestinian victimhood) but not sufficient to whimper against the US blockade of Cuba (persecuted because they refused to be victims).

Roll on NZ first.

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