Strength, unity and solidarity: collectives and activism in New Zealand

by / 20/09/10

In a recent column in the New Zealand Listener, Bill Ralston quipped about the death of the neighbourhood pub, and the subsequent loss of a key forum for political and social debate. In his words, “the old neighbourhood pubs were more than just drinking holes. They were places where news was exchanged, fundraising done and community bonds strengthened.”

It was Margaret Thatcher who famously said “there is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” So, to what extent do we find truth in this element of Thatcherism here in New Zealand? How has the balance between New Zealander’s sense of community and individualism changed? And how has this impacted on activism in New Zealand?

Technological influences

Today’s incredible rate of technological innovation is copping a lot of flak for being one of the primary drivers in weakening communities. The Loka Institute is a non-profit research and advocacy organisation concerned with the social, political, and environmental repercussions of research, science and technology. Richard Sclove, the Institute’s Executive Director has written extensively on the impact of technology on communities. Sclove recognises that the shift in something as simple as online shopping not only ensures the decline of downtown shopping areas, it also significantly reduces the vibrancy of the cultural and communal connections that people make within those areas, similar to those made in Ralston’s pub.

Sclove argues that there are key problems surrounding the “electronic colonisation of personal time”. Time once allocated to family, friends and the community is now being spent online. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are a huge part of this, but Sclove points out that this “colonisation” extends to peoples’ tendency to no longer leave work at work. In addition, the flexibility allowed by the internet has seen the communities built around employment often suffer as a result of the ability to work from home.
While Dr Mike Lloyd of Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies concedes that that technology has influenced changes in how we communicate, he believes that there remains a “kind of romantic notion that people matter, local connections matter, and face-to-face connections matter”. As a result he plays down the level to which Sclove bases his concerns over a demise of tangible communities.

Dr Sandra Grey, also from Victoria’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, takes it a step further. With reference to social media in particular, she asserts that on one level, “it is about wanting to be a part of social networks”, and hence a type of community. She clarifies though that “there remains something about that, that allows you to remain one level removed from the face to face interaction”. So while online communities are certainly valid, they do present the opportunity for individuals to disassociate somewhat from opinions that, within traditional collectives, they might have worn more boldly on their proverbial sleeve.

Discouraging activism

This willingness to disassociate from one’s beliefs is perhaps exacerbated by a society that arguably looks down on activism and dissent. New Zealand does see protests from time to time—most notably in recent years, the Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi saw 25,000 people march on Parliament in 2004. But for the most part, New Zealanders seem to be wary of big public displays of dissatisfaction.

Dr Grey speculates that this might be for a number of reasons, primarily relating to New Zealander’s unique access to our leadership. “My sense is that it could be about being a small nation. We have access to parliamentary means to make changes. Perhaps not so much anymore, but we certainly did, so that sets the tone for activism.”
As in many countries, there is a certain level of discouragement from the top, and the post-2001 overuse of the word ‘terrorism’ within the global vernacular has no doubt played a role in this. Many activists talk about the fact that nearly all activism these days is seen as forms of terrorism. To be sure, there are instances where activists will take violent action against institutions, but rarely does this result in any injury or loss of life.

In her book Against Freedom: The war on terrorism in everyday New Zealand life, Wellington activist Valerie Morse comments: “It is clear that political dissent is now more perilous and more treacherous than before 11 September. Given the new counter-terrorism laws, the possibility of being not only labelled a terrorist in the media, but prosecuted as one, is a reality. By casting political dissent as terrorism, the government, its agencies, the media, and other vested interests assault our freedom of expression.”

Of course, New Zealand doesn’t have a rich activist history, largely due to the fact that the country has enjoyed a relatively strong trade union movement. That said, there is still the sense that there has been a decline in activist activity over recent decades, which one might conclude stems from the stigma now attached to it. Further to this, as Dr Grey point out, there is also a blatant hypocrisy in the attitudes of important activists of yesteryear.

“You get people like Helen Clark who was very involved with the Vietnam anti-war protests. But, when the hikoi over the foreshore and seabed hits Parliament, she calls them “wreckers and haters”. Hang on. How do we reconcile this? She believed she had a right as a young person to engage, but now she is in power, she doesn’t want people engaging?”

Constraints on activism from the student perspective

It is important to note that communal activism isn’t simply constrained by public perceptions and cultural norms. Within the student movement specifically, there are a number of significant underlying barriers to activism.

As Dr Grey comments, in the past, involvement in student movements was simply more attractive than it is today. “There were student allowances rather than student loans, year-long courses, timetabled lunchbreaks, active clubs and societies that were political as opposed to other things, and a university community that accepted this is a part of what you do. Your university education was, and should be, not just about your formal classes and your assessment. Your education is about your entire self.

“What gets squeezed out now, is being a good civic servant. The timetabling now doesn’t allow for students to get together as there is always somebody in a class. I think we often blame it on generational shifts and where people want to put their energies, and there is some truth to that, but I think we need to look at what we do as a society in terms of encouraging, making space for and teaching people, that not only should they be involved—they must be involved.”

In addition to the constraints around timetabling, the existence of huge student loan debts significantly affects peoples’ decisions. In terms of future job prospects, most students are primarily concerned with what they can do to ensure they find employment at the end of their studies. Rational thinking leads people to make pragmatic decisions about what they should be associated with. A prospective employer is going to be considerably more inclined to take on a member of the debating club than say a member of university’s Marxist community.

While it would be a stretch to suggest that student loans are a backhanded attempt by the government to ensure a lack of student dissent, the size of student loans and the desire to pay those loans off affect students’ decisions to be involved within activist movements. And of course, as has been mentioned: who wants to be involved with organisations that are so often branded with the ‘terrorist’ label?

The detriments are two-fold. As students we fail to attain the aforementioned well-rounded education and are not taught the importance of engaging at a level higher than voting. This explains to a degree the ever-increasing levels of the apathy of the youth. Perhaps more importantly though, we also miss out on many opportunities to make life-long connections with like-minded people and as such, we fail to form what could be substantial and important communities.

Sub-cultural competition

The clearest divide in New Zealand society as a whole is the media-induced perception of a bicultural Maori versus Pakeha paradigm. While Dr Lloyd explains that “there are good reasons why we have to go through that biculturalism moment before we open up multi-culturalism”, this view certainly sidelines the interests of many, if not most, New Zealanders.

Despite the automatic categorising often appropriated by the media, people do in fact have a significant number of other ‘interests’. For many activists there can occur a kind of ‘conflict of interests’ surrounding which group one believes they should associate with, and whether these groups should be looked at in terms of mutual exclusivity. Dr Grey agrees that there is somewhat of a dilemma facing many activists. She offers the example: “The women’s movement in New Zealand in the 1970s would have seen a lot of division around whether the major problem lay in not being a woman, but in being Maori.”

Despite this, Dr Grey believes this dilemma isn’t particularly significant. “You do get this competition between where the oppression lies. Is it to do with my gender? Is it to do with my ethnicity? Is it to do with my class? Is it to do with my sexuality? There are competing demands, but people do seem to naturally fall into the one that they do, depending on their ideology. If they are a primarily a feminist, they are going to focus with women’s issues.”

She does point out that there is a more important distinction to make. It refers to the increasing utilisation of consumer activism—that is, the support or boycott of a company through what one does and doesn’t decide to purchase. It is this which seems to be significantly undermining the power of the traditional sense of community in activism.

Consumerism and the importance of collectives

While the Maori-Pakeha paradigm sidelines many sub-cultural groupings in New Zealand, it has created an ‘us versus them’ scenario for Maori activists, which, despite creating somewhat of a racial divide, has been central to their success.

Dr Grey explains that consumerism as an activist activity fails to an extent because it fails to create this ‘us versus them’ scenario. There is the belief “that as consumers we are powerful, and that that is where activism should be. But, consumerism is very individualised, and doesn’t require a collective ‘us’ and ‘them’. It just requires me to choose or not to choose to buy particular products.

“I’m not saying that it is not a good thing, and I certainly don’t think people should turn away from buying fair-trade products, but that doesn’t have an ‘us’ and ‘them’. Who is the ‘them’ in that case? Some nefarious we-have-no-idea? It is very hard to tackle that thing that is global corporations.”

Further to this, she explains that the ‘us’ is also lost “because it is something that individuals act out individually. As a consumer, there might be ten other people doing the same action, but you don’t talk about it. You just do it as an individual. It is that division that I think is now more important than anything else.

“Of all of the things that we have done, it is actually denying the concept of the collective that is probably doing the most damage, as opposed to concentrating on one collective over another,” she says.

“We are collectives. For example, there are collectives of students. There is something common about the student experience whether you come from a very wealthy family or a very poor family. Once you come to being a student, there are some things that you have in common that you should be collectively considering. Of course, things will affect people varyingly, but the common experience in centrally important.”

As such, we might conclude that despite the effects of consumerism, Thatcher’s claim can be categorically denied. There is such thing as society, in the way different collectives and communities interact and engage to progress.

We are connected. We simply need to remember that, and act accordingly.

Protest, dissent and activism: A public symposium

Dramatic changes in state, society, and the economy have impacted activists seeking social justice, collective rights, and equity. At the start of the 21st century with rising inequalities in society and erosion of many of the earlier gains made by labour and social movements, it is crucial to evaluate the spaces for citizen dissent in New Zealand and Australia. This symposium centres on three core questions:

  • What has activism looked like in New Zealand and Australia over the last four decades?
  • What has enabled or hindered activism and protest in New Zealand and Australia?
  • What spaces now exist for activists fighting for social justice, collective rights, and equity?

This symposium draws together analysis from both academics and activists on the spaces for movements seeking social justice for workers, the poor, and women in society.

Saturday October 16th
9.30am to 5pm
Victoria University of Wellington – AM106

This is a free symposium, but registration is essential.

To register email sandra.grey@vuw.ac.nz by 9 October.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Judy Brown says:

    Hi Sandra

    I have just been awarded Marsden funding for a project that aims, inter alia, to challenge traditional accounting practices through working with activists to formulate “counter-accountings”.

    I’ll send you a separate e-mail outlining my interests etc.

    Cheers, Judy.

  2. smackdown says:

    thanks judy ill make sure sandra gets the message

    love your friend smackdown