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PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

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Class struggle;; community politics; tourism

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.

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A week in politics

Andrew Little resigns. Must be tough to, in a sense, fail so publicly, for no real reason. He’s done a good job, stopped the infighting, been plausible, developed good policy… but failed to shift the polls. Lacked charisma, no star quality, no scandals, no media noise. How much do those polled know of policy? Probably not a lot. Teachers and nurses will know, farmers and business people likewise, but Jo Blog – not a lot.

The TV performance is then, everything. Those in government have an advantage; they’re seen opening schools and bridges, tending to disasters and meeting important people, whereas the opposition is mostly seen complaining. Andrew has the wrong shaped face for telly, is going bald, not quite at home in his body. As a director of actors I would suggest a tense jaw, which controls emotion and means a dull speech pattern. The stress of the constant public performance must be awful for a quiet sort of bloke.

Not only were the polls not moving, but suddenly the Greens hit a spot – both of scandal and of virtue, with Metiria’s announcing of a twenty percent increase for beneficiaries and of her own ‘cheating’ while on a benefit. A great Madonna/whore combination. For a moment, that tapped into the energy that lies in the electorate, the sub-neoliberal-conscious energy which can erupt, as Sanders and Corbyn found out. Everyone knows the neoliberal system has failed, but its controls are tight and the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra has penetrated deeply. To fight it is risking both irrelevance and the unleashing of a hatred from the power structure. Yet to take it on can energise some of the vast majority who it treats either indifferently or unjustly. A sort of hysterical energy occurs; ‘Bernie, Bernie, Bernie…’ And then the forces of reaction move in: the media, the political party systems, the investors, the conservative controllers, who attack viciously. But at that point, you at least know you’re fighting for something

Instead, Labour and the Greens signed up to the system, promising to be responsible, apart from some technical tinkering (and good tinkering), but it was not an energising stance. The Greens broke the contract and left Little in the lurch.

And Metiria’s ‘cheating’? What a joke. Everyone does the cash job. Everyone avoids taxes. The GFC was caused by con men who were bailed out and are still running the financial system, we’ve got the Trump family in power, the Russian mafia… The non declaration of a flatmate? Yet the boffin’s pontificate. It’s Alice in Wonderland.

Did Andrew do the right thing? It seems so, and for him, yes. You must say to yourself, Why bother with this shit. Why the sacrifice? Let me go to the beach and watch the waves come in. Let me turn off the phone and the twitter account and the email. Let me live again.

Into the breach walks Jacinda; a new performance: young, beautiful, of a generation for whom performance is second nature, a good name, welcomed by the media, for whom the election has been, so far, a dull event.

All this is taking place within the framework of ‘society as theatre’, first suggested by the German sociologist, Erving Goffman. It’s reasonably obvious: we play roles, we make our entrances and exits, wear our costumes, there are sets, scripts, scenes etc. Jacinda made her entry and delivered her first speech. The costume was carefully chosen. It was almost a ritual. The audience was watching, ready to be swayed one way or another. The media play a role which has been called that of SpectActor- both spectator and actor – as they ask questions and immediately take to the streets and interview people who also become SpectActors. In fact the SpectActor role, with social media, becomes almost universally available.

At the same time as being obviously true, this framework, as a theatre person, continues to bother me – in its banality. In the theatre situation, we rehearse, at great length, in the safety of the rehearsal room. We start with doubt, with nothingness; freely admitted. We are not playing ourselves, but another – and therein lies the creative truth; the I-I. In the theatre situation the self obsessed person (the drama queen) is a pain; the group is all; the ability to give and take is all. The content and the cast generate the form, over time. And then the silent dialogue with an audience, which alters the performance in a manner which is almost magical. And the beauty of there being no record afterward, except in the mind.

It seems to me, that if we could work toward a political system that was closer to this, rather than the current need for the most vulgar of melodrama, we would be getting somewhere.

Class struggle (2)

There was interest in my introducing the concept of class struggle into the Living Wage debate, as it occurred in a provincial town; to see in fact, councillors representing a class interest. Let me extend the concept, to see if the much-used paradigm of ‘community’ also has a class struggle component.

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Summer Festival, Blackball

Community is almost universally seen as a good thing (only being questioned for a period by identity politics activists who saw community as often rejecting difference). And of course, community can take many shapes: geographic, ethnic, gender, special interest to name a few.

When I was a kid you didn’t hear the word much. There were no community centres or community programmes. People sometimes talked of there having been a strong sense of community during the 1930’s Depression; that was about it.

Yet everyone who worked belonged to a union, there were lots of sporting clubs and church groups, the Communist Party existed, the Methodists in the district ran a dance for teenagers every Saturday night, Friday night shopping saw everyone in the town centre stopping to chat, the watersiders got through 1951 and draconian emergency regulations only through community support, pitching the family tent at a communal campsite was the common thing to do for a holiday, Saturday night saw eight hundred people in the picture theatre and family doctors really were family doctors; so in reality, there was a stronger community than now.  But there was a nasty homophobia, the Maori were still living in the sticks and married women mainly stayed at home.

Then, in the 1960s, community became a buzz word. Living more communally was a way to challenge consumerism, war, nuclear threat and environmental degradation. Being involved in a community, smoking the occasional joint and learning from indigenous cultures would lead to a change of consciousness. So, communes, community centres, community art centres, and community health centres sprang up as a way of challenging the capitalist system. But the impulse could degenerate into a lifestyle.

Then neoliberalism arrived and government services were privatised. Unemployment grew, the regions were hard hit, a whole lot of people got hurt, and community groups had to form to try and pick up the pieces. For a while they did so critically, understanding where the problem lay, but then funding mechanisms quietened them down and community became a buzzword for helping those who weren’t making it, who were falling through the cracks, individuals who weren’t setting and achieving goals, who were not getting onto the success ladder. An underclass of such people developed (over-populated by Maori and Pacific Islanders) and the helping became more and more targeted. The little community helpers disappeared and the big corporate ones grew, with ever larger portfolios. The charitable scene truly arrived with multinationals and the super-rich dispensing some of their wealth to the poor. It all became globalised, while still mouthing community, when, in reality, it constantly attacked community relations and continues to do so.

Like consumerism, while huge in scale, this pattern is nevertheless still operating at the grass roots level. Take a village on the Coast. The extractive industries which once were the lifeblood have all but disappeared.  People survive by doing some paid work and a bit of hunting and gathering. There are a couple of local businesses. The hotel is somewhat marginal in the off season. Then a great walk or a cycle way is proposed. Economic possibilities surface. Who’s going to take them up and in what manner?

The Ministry of Social Development arrives with a buzzword: community-led development. The community is like the individual. It must set goals and then achieve them. Council join in the game. A leftie activist, supported by the unions, sees the possibility of a co-operative of locals operating. MSD and Council don’t understand the concept so support the more normal business model. In fact they lead the development, using the local community organisations as a front, a disguise through which they open up the community to the commodity relations of tourism. A class struggle begins to occur and parallel systems exist.

Projecting into the future, development gets dumped on the town, more and more visitors arrive, the price of property rises, locals can’t afford to live there any longer and the precarious and badly paid jobs are taken over by young people on working visas. The community is, by now, fragmented and new community groups are required: addiction counselling, suicide prevention… The school is collapsing because of lack of numbers; young people on working visas don’t have kids in tow. The big tourist operator moves in and buys up the place. Has the co-operative managed to survive?

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This class struggle at the community level has taken place most formidably amongst the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. There it’s been the Zapatista against the government and NAFTA. But it is also taking place in less articulate fashion in every village on the globe. We just don’t see it happening.

zapatista-portada

photo: Dorset Chiapas Solidarity

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