Having had a Mayday celebration in Blackball continuously for the last 23 years and with locked-out Milton worker, Colin Weatherall travelling here to attend all of them, it felt wrong not to mark the occasion in some way, so I sent out a notice inviting locals to assemble briefly for the singing of Solidarity for Ever, with Colin on the end of his phone in Milton.
Solidarity for Ever was written by Ralph Chaplin during a major strike in the US in 1915. Chaplin was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) and the song has become the union anthem. The message is simple: We the workers are pitted against the bosses and if we band together we can remove them from their position of ‘haughty power’ and take control of economic production. The state doesn’t get a mention as an agent of change and the IWW was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation, liking neither the capitalist ‘democratic’ state nor state socialism.
As the ten people assembled for our little ceremony I waved them closer for the singing and the greeting of Colin, but there was a shaking of heads and muttering of ‘social distancing’. We’ve been locked down in Blackball for five weeks, there have been no cases here, no active cases on the Coast for three weeks, the likelihood of us giving one another Covid 19 as we sang Solidarity for Ever was as likely as a virgin birth.
I felt once again, the barriers, both internal and external that have been set up and the tensions. When will it be possible to throw a ball for another person to catch? We wait for the state to say to kids, Now you can hug your grandma. It’s looking like the bargain will be, When everyone downloads the tracking app. Then the state will know where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with. That’s the price of intimacy.
I have felt recalcitrant during the lockdown. For a start it has been authoritarian with one size fits all regulations which always create absurdities: what’s the difference between a 69 year old and a 70 year old? If the fish shop can stay open, why not the salami shop or the bottle store? Was there any reason for the blokes to stop working on the Croesus Road, six of them in their machines – sort out something for the tea breaks, perfect opportunity, no traffic? How come there was no money for teachers, then there was and now there’s money to throw around? Except the community-based midwives continue to be left out. Act as if you have the virus and as if everyone else has the virus – but I know I don’t and I know that no one else here has it. And don’t be sceptical, that’s selfish. In the old Eastern Europe, people were bedevilled by regulations yet were openly cynical, while keeping an eye out for informers. We had an informer in Blackball – took to it like a bee to a jam making session. Paranoia, distancing, no touching, be obedient and the rules are for your own good and think of the poor vulnerable people. We were suddenly in the new entrants class with Jacinda the favourite teacher with the kind heart, big smile and great classroom management, backed up by Ashleigh the principal. Opposition was traitorous. Kneel down and pray to God for Mummy and Daddy and for those in need and forgive us our trespasses. Old themes of sacrifice and obedience, pollution and untouchability were present.
I was thrown back to Palmerston North in the 1950s where most lived in their nuclear family ‘bubble’, fences were sacred and don’t have too much to do with the neighbours. There was the same self righteous and sentimental nationalism – New Zealand was God’s own country and on Anzac Day we remembered those who had died for our freedom (of course freedom was a more problematic concept if you were Gay or Maori or had read about the absurd slaughter of the working class in WW1). There was the beginning of the anal obsession with cleanliness, daily showers(showers just coming into being) and deodorant rather than a weekly bath and BO. Long drops were a thing of the past as well as cutting up squares of newspaper for the dunny. Shampoo was invented. Maoris were communal and dirty and Pakeha were individual and clean. Marching girls did their thing, we joined the cubs or the brownies, had military training at high school and we all listened to the rugby and went to church. On the plus side there was full employment, across the board union membership (compulsory) we all had a garden and we manufactured our own clothes, shoes etc.
The sixties counter cultural movement rebelled against this: communal was good, let your hair grow, don’t wash too much, take off the mask (and the bra), smoke dope and expand your mind, get the hell out of the nuclear family psycho drama, pull down the fences, have a community garden, touching is good, make love not war, the military culture is absurd, suspect authority and the state, come together in collective rituals where communitas exists – that relationship of mutuality between individuals, respect the wisdom of the indigenous peoples, listen to Gaia. We found a potent symbol in the guerrilla strategy of Ho Chi Minh and Che and the wildcat Wobblies. There were contradictions of course, a certain narcissism, the movement eventually got colonised by the consumer culture, ‘free’ relationships could become painful and abusive, drugs addled the brain and when the system got stroppy it all faded away under neo-liberalism, except it left lasting cultural antibodies in the bloodstream of those who had experienced it in their formative years.
So, an explanation of the reaction of an old white man who is irrelevant. But nevertheless I ask the question, What comes out the other side? Is this a portal which will see UBI, for instance, permaculture, a new green deal… We have the opportunity but don’t bet on it. It looks like they’ll give the corporates some big bucks to kick start the economy and we’ll race off for a takeaway fix and some consumerism. Already we’re seeing the ‘postponement’ of fair pay agreements, university staff under increasing threat of casualisation… I suspect the list will grow.
The most worrying thing is that people have absorbed the lockdown culture and kids will be taught it with great thoroughness. No touching, keep your distance, watch the screen/ Google docs will reign supreme.
Was there an alternative or was this the real TINA moment? Could they have chosen recommendation rather than regulation, given out the information and said to people: you choose how to deal with this, but this is what we advise. First of all we need to sort out the borders and that will require some assumption of authority as people transition. If you’re vulnerable you should stay at home and we’ll support you. Service providers need to work things out to keep their staff and customers safe. If you get the virus you should tell us, self isolate and we’ll need to trace and test your contacts. Rest homes need to be ultra careful and need to work things out with the residents, their families and staff. Ditto prisons. It’s silly to gather in large close numbers, so please don’t. It’s wise to keep your distance and it’s wise to wash your hands regularly. If you can work from home please do so. Don’t get in a situation where you need help from the emergency services. I’m sure you can work out how to do public transport. Schools need to figure things out with their parents and students. Some people are going to die, we know that. Most of them will be old and compromised. That’s how it is. If you go into a war zone you might get shot. If you drive a car you might get killed. If you live in an age of globalisation things spread. Let’s be adult and sensible and support one another through this. It’s going to last a while. We’ll update the information as it comes to hand.
Finally, and most importantly, there’s going to be an economic hit but this is actually an opportunity to revamp the economy and make it sustainable. Let’s begin the discussion.
That’s been the Swedish solution. Commentators are now saying that New Zealand and Sweden are the two top contenders in the contest of dealing best with the virus and only time will tell who the winner is.