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Convoy politics and barbarians at the gate

The recent ‘convoy’ protest encampment of people outside Parliament and the chaotic confrontation with Police which eventually dispersed the camp has generated some disturbing questions in relation to the social and political landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. A variety of commentators have attempted to explore the roots of this event and many of us are struggling to develop a coherent analysis. What is it that has made people susceptible to the confused strands of ideology that we saw running riot? It seems clear that an eclectic mix of disaffected individuals and influences coalesced. I have been trying to make sense of all of this myself. I am not there yet, but some of the following is true.

The protest was, at least in the main, centred on opposition to mandated Covid vaccinations and the loss of ‘rights and freedoms’ associated with refusing this procedure – particularly loss of jobs and access to social/commercial venues. The mainstream official counterargument, of course, is that the issue of wider communal health and safety over-rides individual choice. Within this stand-off there is also the more nuanced argument that the time for vaccine mandates has passed since the Omicron variant is highly transmissible regardless of vaccination status. Public Health advice that unvaccinated individuals are more likely to become infected, and once infected are more likely to become seriously ill and require hospitalisation, is relied on by the Government to argue that the spur of mandates should remain at least until the current (and increasingly rampant) wave of infections has waned.

However, it is also clear that this protest was about more than vaccination mandates – it was about Covid more generally, perhaps symptomatic of associated fatigue and frustration. It was also about disinformation, misinformation, and experiences or perceptions of social exclusion. The protest gathered an unusual and disparate group including alternative life-style adherents, some people affiliated with fundamentalist churches and, at the edges, radical Neo Nazi extremists. The conflation of individual freedom and national identity is reminiscent of the Trump phenomenon in the US and the rise of narrow right-wing populism globally: a populism often cynically supported by private capital.

As Trotter has argued, the shared belief in the notion of ‘big government’ as a common enemy, distrust of ‘the media’ and tribal disapproval of the socially liberal values of what is viewed as a rich, educated  and generally privileged urban elite has characterised those drawn to alternate right politics – a politics of conspiracy, misinformation and generalised fear and loathing (Fraser, 2017). This sort of movement is ripe for the advancement of ‘strong’ authoritarian leaders and in its most disturbing incarnation, for the gestation of fascism. Much of the Trump constituency has been drawn from the rust-belt heartlands of the US and the small company towns devastated by the outsourcing that accompanied the globalisation of capitalist production: the use of the fractured working class as pawns in a self-interested game of power.

Ironically the associated prescription of freed-up business enterprise, minimal regulation, anti-union legislation, removal of environmental protections, sanctions against migrant labour – the ‘freedom’ generated by a marriage of capitalism and nationalism – ultimately does very little to advance the interests of the working-class people who are drawn to this propaganda. Alternative right interests have no desire for an active state that safeguards the material welfare of those without money, property, power, and opportunity. Distrust of government, complex deep-state conspiracies, racism, gendered bigotry, and homophobic beliefs are all grist for this divisive mill.

I am uncertain about how much of this analysis is valid in the Aotearoa New Zealand context. We clearly do have our own regional rust zones – our own glaring inequalities: towns that have lost their industry and infrastructure since the neoliberal turn of forty years ago now. The current Government’s ‘team of five million’ concerned for ‘our most vulnerable’ is a thin political construction in a society as socially and economically divided as the one that has been created here. Inter-generational working-class identities have fallen away, and we have adopted individualised, marketised and commodified personas in their place. Events such as the discordant anti-vax protest – with all its strange brew of differing constituencies – do, at least, provide a sense of common cause and solidarity.

Beyond the radical anti-collectivist right and the more ‘moderate’ position taken by vaccine doubters, we also saw bizarre denial of the Covid pandemic itself – beliefs difficult to fathom and mired in conspiracy. This seems to be linked, at least for some,  to suspicion of mainstream health science and of state authority. I was born in 1958 – part of the ‘lucky’ post war generation. I was influenced by the counterculture of protest and challenge to conservative life and politics that came  (just a little later) to Aotearoa New Zealand from the US and Europe. The hippie generation of those times questioned the status quo, the authority of the state and orthodox power relations. After all, the political use and misuse of science gave us Hiroshima, thalidomide, agent orange, and many other horrors – so that this sort of dissent does have a credible whakapapa.

Ironically the legacy of the collective rebellion of the 1970s also carried some of the seeds of radical individualism – surprisingly in tune with the contemporary project of the autonomous responsible neoliberal self – a self that is always free to choose. This is one of many intersections within the puzzling counter-factual realm of Covid denial and conspiracy: people who are conceptually primed to accept disinformation and to deny and disavow mainstream knowledge – to question it unquestioningly. I remember concerns about the legitimacy of vaccinations (and worry about the admission of low level electro-magnetic emissions from national grid power pylons) in the 1970s and 80s. For most such hesitancies were overshadowed by the Covid threat – the need to respond collectively and effectively to a lethal pandemic disease – but not so for a core of true unbelievers in a post-truth world.

All of this has created a puzzle and a challenge for a divided political ‘left’ in Aotearoa New Zealand. It may, in fact, be a wake-up call. There was something very strange about protest politics being commandeered and manipulated by the far right, something disconcerting about many on the left looking for firmer Police intervention; something gobsmacking about dispossessed people whose needs would be much better served by a politics of redistribution being drawn so uncritically to the cause of market ‘freedom’ – with signs mis-identifying the moderate politics of the liberal centre-left as the work of the evil Socialist bogey-woman Jacinda Ardern. As if this prescription could possibly serve the long-run interests of downtrodden humans? There was something deeply galling and gutting in all of this. 

It does seem disturbingly likely that the protest spectacle will have strengthened and emboldened the extremist alternative right – broadening the toxic reach and influence of disinformation media platforms and increasing the risk of violent extremism. Accordingly, those of us who would like to see a re-visioned and reconfigured radical left politics have our work cut out. If nothing else the events of the last three weeks should alert us to the urgency and the challenge of the task that lies before us. It is better to understand and organise than to disparage the feral mob and order another latte. Do we risk sleep-walking our way to an unstable and much less ‘free’ society: a repressive and fear-laced system powered by a new variant of high-octane capitalism? We owe past and future generations more than this.

Feature Image: Adam Cohn

Reference

Fraser, N. (2017). From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond: American Affairs, Winter, 2017, Vol.1(4)

9 replies on “Convoy politics and barbarians at the gate”

Tena koe Ian
While the visibility on news, social media, etc. has been extensive, and what has been portrayed has been worrisome – I think we need to remember that the events that unfolded in Wellington (and other areas) represents a minority viewing within a much larger populace.
Yes, we have opinions and might express those, but the good news is that the majority of people don’t hold extremist views (or wear tinfoil hats) and just want to muck on with life.
Take a walk down your local street (its quite grounding) and you’ll see that most are just wanting to get on with things… the good news is that most kiwis don’t wear tinfoil hats and were pretty good at spotting d1ckhe@d5.
All will be well!
Jimi

Ngā mihi nui Ian

As always you bring a colourful analysis of a complex situation. I agree with much of what you are saying here, it was sad and sobering to see the violence and misinformation within the protest.

However, I do want to add that I know a lot of left leaning individuals who supported the intention behind the protest and who disagree with the government’s approach. I wonder if this situation highlights the importance of giving people a voice, rather than demonising the minority view. Many people have lost their jobs and have done so because they are standing up for what they believe in. Mainstream knowledge can be wrong sometimes.

I myself support the vaccine but I am no longer sure about the mandates due to the division and elitism it is creating. It’s complicated. But as social workers, we have a role to play in seeing the grey areas here just like we do with the whānau we work alongside.

Thanks for opening this space
Bex

Hi Bex – Thanks for this. Yep it is a volatile topic and difficult to debate rationally because of the positions that people have taken. I think that there is room for discussion about the mandate issue although I also think it was a valid decision at the time. As I have said in this post it has also become a Trojan horse for vaccine disbelievers more generally which to me is a crazy position in the face of potentially deadly pandemic disease. It has also brought a lot of people who are stressed and struggling under the influence of some very deceptive and dangerous far right ideology – ideology that is made attractive on the surface and very threatening to community well-being in the long run. Both denying that vaccination of the population has been needed to prevent large scale suffering and death and/or arguing that the answer to social problems is ‘freedom’ are both badly informed ideas. I do agree that we need to think about why people have come to believe such things – why people are so vulnerable to misinformation. There is a lot of misinformation out there, much of pain and anger, and a lot of people are doing it very hard and looking for support – there is a role for social work in all of this. I have said my piece here for people to think about – as others are doing through all kinds of media – I am not going to get into an on-line argument here with people who are deeply convinced about the anti-vax position or about the merits of the convoy protest because people are too polarised. I do think, sadly, that a lot of people have been led down a very deep rabbit hole.

Re- ” As I have said in this post it has also become a Trojan horse for vaccine disbelievers more generally which to me is a crazy position in the face of potentially deadly pandemic disease. ”
Yes that is a worry.The situation can also empower other lobbyist social, economic and cultural agendas into use the situation for their own ends.
Many times, “anti” rhetoric has been “politicized’ to effectively shut down discussion about mandates and how they are being used. The exaggerated partisan social environment serves to block interpersonal communication between opposing opinions by creating ‘noise’. Trying to open a sensible discussion in such a social environment is like trying to engage with a room full of drunks at aloud disco-only more dangerous to health and wellbeing.[ example – see the recent news item about a stouch between a Auckland Bus driver and passenger about mask protocols.]
Its not helping anyone on the ground [ for example the other bus passengers] and going to make reasonable people think twice before putting themselves or loved ones in such a situation, particularly if they are seniors, or parents. The effect-more people avoid using mass transit, or avoid what was previously ‘normal’ interpersonal engagement.
The enforcement of this policy drive seems to have also performed some sort of “marriage ceremony” between “antiv@ax and antim@&date ” issues to form a toxic social environment that can blow up at any time. It is a powerful reality that although the two are separate issues, they are being effectively locked out of public discussion. To understand this it is helpful to look at some behavioural science – such as the techniques of shutting down conversation using a ‘indirect policy enforcement’ strategy known as “the dead cat on the table”. The dead cat strategy, or “deadcatting”, is the introduction of a dramatic, shocking, or sensationalist topic to divert discourse`[or in this instance public behavior] away from a more damaging topic or action [such as questioning why governments and businesses who impose their need to enforce such extreme ‘mandate strategies’ in order to do business- no ‘conspiracy’ component needed!

Excellent identification of key currents in the Convoy movement occupation of the much loved national forecourt of our Patliament Buildings. Our national wharenui and its marae ground has been shat on. Desecration is nof too strong a word.
I think uoh nailed if when you mentioned the r word- redistribution. At the height of the occupation I thought a strong confession of a course correction towards a historic “Kiwi New Deal” would have been a lightening rod for all the static charge possessing the inchoate Convoy party. It would also provide a social text to take the initiative against the interernationsl crisis of democracy. The most organized vector of trumpism in Āotearoa maybe among congregations of pentecostalists organically linked to America’s highly politicized Christian nationalists. This movement hosts the Cult of white “ethno-nationalist eco-fascists” (to use the “Identity Motivated Violent Extremist” self-labelling if the Mosque shooter). Their dream image is of a man eith a hun standing jn front of a log cabin with a child holding the hand of a young blind woman with long blond Nordic plaits.
Wealth taxes now to help build an inclusive wellbeing state to replace the investor state. This will also consolidate our diplomatic, climatic and moral credibility on the world stage.

I agree with most of this analysis. Especially how many within the protest group are manipulated to support ideas that will NOT help them.

But there’s is not simply left and far left, right and far right. It is this linear division with is pushing us apart as a people globally. You’ll find most people are moderate in thier core beliefs if you depoliticise the language. We have to talk in a depoliticised non confrontational way and we’ll find most of us believe and want many of the same things.

thanks for starting to think about what is motivating the large number of people willing to occupy parliament.

There are a couple of things that I want to pick up on.

Left / Right political dynamics. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have effectively been absorbed by centrist politics. There is a centrist, soft-left party (Greens), a centre to soft-right party (Labour), and a right of centre party ( National ), and a smattering of further-right hopefuls. The Greens are the most left wing political option. They happen to be there because their active membership wants that. To obtain a broader vote they need to move right, and in government they do so whenever the opportunity arises. Left-leaning Greens and Labour supporters are constantly losing to the “pragmatic” decisions that exclude their wants.

For anyone who is disappointed by the existing state of affairs there are leaders who want to smash the state, and say so. Trump and Johnson both came to power on anti-government rhetoric. They’ve successfully discovered that they can appeal to both the cynical and the gullible with the same underlying anti-government message. During the previous century, that was a space for left-wing demagogues. It is only recently that the right wing has had any success there but they are relishing it and have no reason to vacate the space.

The call for social change in the sixties occurred in an environment with government policies designed to remove the social conditions that led to the first and second world wars. The secure social conditions that allowed boomers to travel the world, return home to full-time, well-paid jobs, buy houses, raise children, buy holiday homes, travel frequently, then buy third and fourth houses as a tax dodge are a bubble that only the boomers live in.

Personal worth and security, in the form of Income, Housing, Health, and Environment. Most people at the occupation could tick one or two of those boxes. Very few could tick three or four. Employment is no longer secure, it is poorly paid, it is tenuous. Short-term contracts replaced jobs. People doing menial jobs, like couriers, are contractors, not employees. They have no security at all. If they are sick they aren’t paid. They don’t get holidays. Housing, once used to provide social cohesion, is now leveraged for maximum profit. With wages going down in real terms, and housing prices going up in real terms, who can enjoy a sense of place and stability that comes with having a secure home?

A crossroads seems to imply viable alternatives. I don’t think that is the case. As a people we seem to be too soft to want changes that hurt now for a better future. We want instant gratification and all decisions must be pleasant, with political parties only thinking about being elected or reelected

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