Tagged: anarchism

Guy Fawkes, Parihaka and the morals of the stories

Thinking about Guy Fawkes a.k.a. Parihaka Day yesterday, I started wondering what’s actually represented by the debate over what to commemorate on November 5th.

The shallowest way of looking at it is to say that it’s a debate between sparkly explosive things and politics/history/thinking.  But it takes only a little imagination to realise that we could set up a fireworks tradition on any night of the year we wanted; Matariki for example.  So really this is just saying lazy status quo versus politics/history/thinking.

A deeper way of looking at it is as a debate between NZ historical awareness and imported British history and culture.  Which is true enough.  (This seems to be how this Stuff poll interprets it; in which case it’s darkly funny that 63% of people say “No, we already have Waitangi Day”).

But the best way I can think of to understand it is to see Guy Fawkes Night vs. Parihaka Day as a debate between two images of violence, two ways of dealing with terrorism and two myths of how to achieve peace.

Guy Fawkes Night embodies the dominant story, the myth of redemptive violence, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the state, the plot of kids’ cartoons and CSI/NCIS/SVU/etc… It’s the idea that there are violent chaotic baddies everywhere, threatening our stability and our way of life… but, never fear, there are also good strong people and institutions, and the way to get peace and safety is for these good strong people to violently suppress the baddies and maintain order from the top down.

Guy Fawkes himself had this kind of vision for society, which is why he wanted to blow up the king and Parliament; but the king and Parliament’s vision was almost as bad, and theirs is the one that prevailed and the one that’s celebrated.  As much as it’s lost its meaning now, traditionally Guy Fawkes Night has been the central festival of British patriotism, whipping up a frenzy of love and gratitude for the Crown which represents all that is good and safe, and an equally unthinking and passionate hatred for its enemies, who represent chaos and danger.

Parihaka Day embodies a very different story.  In this story there are also dangerous forces of chaos, but the solution isn’t as easy as calling in the Crown to subdue them.  In this story, the Crown aren’t the protectors from terrorism and the enforcers of order; like in Shelley’s classic poem The Masque of Anarchy, they themselves are the terrorists threatening peaceful people’s ways of life.  In this story, the way to deal with violence and chaos and danger is for little people to have the wisdom to identify it at the centres of power instead of just on the margins, and the courage to oppose it with stubborn love.  Unlike Guy Fawkes or the cartoons, there are no easy happy endings in this story… a grassroots, unenforced peace doesn’t always ‘win’, as it didn’t for Te Whiti and Tohu, but if we all came to the party, including the conscripts on the other side, it couldn’t lose.

So I think it’s what Parihaka Day represents, more than the public’s love of pretty explosions, that’s holding us back from from establishing an official Parihaka Day on November 5th.  Peace is just too dangerous for the powerful when it’s not a peace imposed by them.

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Lower-than-expected crime rates should be expected, and so should police PR

Photo by Stephen Gardiner

Red zone private security costs $1000 a day (Charlie Gates, 6 August 2012)

Christchurch police credit the private security guards for averting a feared crime wave as residents abandoned red-zone suburbs …
Security guards patrol the red zone night and day, inspecting Cera-owned properties and reporting suspicious activity to the police. The private security is bolstered by community patrols and special policing …
”One of the things we were worried about after the quake was the potential for social unrest,” [Senior Sergeant Roy Appley] said. ”It would have been anticipated that there was a good chance that crime and other social issues would come to the fore. We would have thought that the chance of burglaries would be higher. It hasn’t seemed to in great numbers.”

Does anyone else find it a little spurious that the police are claiming credit for themselves and their untrained buddies for the fact that reality hasn’t matched their own uneducated guesses of a crime wave in the red zone?

Police were worried about a surge in crime after the earthquake, particularly burglaries.  But where do these fears come from?  They might as well be saying “I watch a lot of TV, and I read Lord of the Flies in high school, and I expected high crime”.  Or even more accurately, “The unquestioned assumptions I’ve passively inherited from my culture line up closely with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, and I expected high crime”.

It may come as a surprise to some people, but police are not actually criminological researchers.

If our journalists were actually journalists, the natural response to this police PR would be “what reliable peer-reviewed research shows that crime will rise in post-natural-disaster areas, or that security guard patrols can reverse this?”

If that question had been raised, it would have become abundantly clear that research in fact shows nothing of the sort.

Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell compiles evidence from disaster sociology and disasters around the world to show that communities do not in fact descend into chaos after disasters, as predicted by our Hobbesian assumptions.  In fact, while disasters certainly disrupt the normal operations of industrial capitalism, civil society often ends up being strengthened as people unite to respond and look after each other.

Solnit also shows that looting is so over-exaggerated that it can be called one of the biggest myths of natural disasters, and that the public panic feared by police is simply not an observable phenomenon – despite the much-publicised reports from the New Orleans Superdome, which were later quietly revealed to be total fabrications.  Far more common is ‘elite panic’ where governments, police and military are so scared of public chaos that they impose martial law and instruct their underlings to shoot suspected looters on sight.

Fortunately, we haven’t observed anything like this in Christchurch, even with Gerry Brownlee’s draconian emergency powers.  But we shouldn’t be surprised that we also haven’t observed the chaos and crime that the police assumed would eventuate.

And the reason we haven’t observed this is not because of the sterling efforts by police and security guards.

Yes, the security patrols have probably made some difference in keeping crime down.  Similarly, the way red zone residents are informally keeping an eye on their neighbourhoods will have made some difference.

But criminological research tends to demonstrate that the level of policing/security enforcement is only ever a minor determinant of crime rates – far more important are broader socio-economic factors like inequality and disconnectedness.  We have to look at factors like these if we want to know why crime has risen in New Zealand since the 80s, but hasn’t risen much in Christchurch since 2010.

So it’s dishonest, self-serving and most likely inaccurate for police to claim credit for the fact that red zone crime rates are lower than their own guesstimates.

Rhetoric and reality

I’ve been noticing an unusual phenomenon over the past few weeks – National MPs drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the greed of corporates and the illusory nature of private property.  Are we living in an upside down world?

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It all started when I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Paula Bennett on the plight of poor beneficiaries.

Bennett drew attention to “absolutely sub-standard” yet “well over priced” housing, and landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere.  She asked such landlords to “have a good look at themselves”, provide housing they’d live in themselves, and show a good Kiwi “element of fairness”.  She even said she was looking at ways of “helping people towards home ownership”.

The funniest part about the whole thing is that she was responding to comments by Annette King on the accommodation supplement… so we have Labour criticising the welfare state and National pointing the finger at the propertied elite.

Of course, Bennett’s rhetoric falls flat when we remember that her party is entirely sold out to an economic system and worldview where the propertied are the good guys, individual self-interest is the universal incentive, and any fairness or concern for others is an optional extra.

So in criticising a few ‘bad apples’ among landlords, she’s actually endorsing the ideal of a ‘good landlord’, charging fair rates to their poor tenants even while getting filthy rich off them.

And any vague attempts to “help people towards home ownership” will be upstream rowing at best so long as they rule out ever taxing the proceeds of owning other people’s homes.

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A similar phenomenon happened the other day with Gerry Brownlee pointing the finger at private insurance companies for avoiding and delaying pay-outs in quake-hit Christchurch.  Although risk management/status quo protection is something that “the private sector claims it can do so particularly well”, Brownlee points out that it’s failing to do so – in fact, EQC, of all Kafkaesque government bureaucracies, is doing far better.

But is he really doubting the National party line that everything is better when owned and operated by private profit-maximisers?

When we look at another instance where the private sector is failing Christchurch, housing, his response was considerably different: Let the market sort it out.

So what’s the difference?  Well, firstly, as the minister in charge of EQC, Brownlee has a horse in the race.  But it’s also interesting that in an insurance crisis, it’s the property owners that suffer, and he’s taking umbrage.  But in the housing crisis, only the poor and ordinary people suffer, while the rental property owners prosper – and Brownlee can only see positives there.

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The worst example of this phenomenon, of course, has been John Key’s recent refrain that “nobody owns water”.

Key’s arrogance has reached new heights in this casual dismissal of traditional, Treaty-enshrined Māori rights.  Like a dog to its vomit, the Māori Party have returned to the fold after an assurance that National won’t legislate against Māori rights or claims – but you don’t need to legislate against something if you’re just going to use your legal prerogative to ignore it.

But Key’s use of the phrase “nobody owns water” to misrepresent Māori water claims is just as bad.

He’s portraying Māori as money-grabbing “opportunists” trying to take a vital natural resource away from ordinary New Zealanders, by referencing what we all instinctively know – that it’s wrong to be selfish and greedy, that nobody can really ‘own’ what belongs to everyone/nature/God, that property is ultimately theft because the world is everybody’s and nobody’s, etc etc.

But once again the reality belies the rhetoric when we see that he is using this line of thinking to dismiss Māori stewardship of public waterways, so that he can smoothly transfer hydro-electricity generation into the private hands of rich investors.

The fact is, the selfish opportunists are the very people National holds up as our role models, and the very people to whom they want to sell our power companies.  Key affecting an opposition to private property is a joke.  His party thinks everything should be private property – including water when it suits.

As Tim Selwyn put it, “Interesting how the Nats suddenly start espousing anarcho-socialism when Māori property rights are involved!”

In reality, as Tapu Misa eloquently explains, Māori rights surrounding water are far more in keeping with these anarcho-socialist ideals than the Pākehā/capitalist concept of private property.  Māori “ownership” means caretaking and free public use of everything that National wants to carve up, commodify and sell to the highest bidder.

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The consistent thread in all these stories is the way that National are co-opting quasi-socialist rhetoric to further their capitalist causes.

It’s hilarious, as well as worrying, that while the Labour leadership are still scared of sounding too much like a Labour party, even National can see the populist appeal in leftist language and the universals of fairness and co-operation it touches upon.

To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, the only proper reply to such shrewd ideological manipulation is: “if you really believe in social justice and sharing the world, then why are you doing what you are doing?