Thursday, April 30, 2009

VUWSA exec incurs student wrath over ANZAC Day boycott

Apparently the kids just can't get enough of that ANZAC spirit

It seems that the executive of the Victoria University Students' Association (VUWSA) has roused its normally phlegmatic membership to a state of apoplexy over their decision not to lay a wreath at last weekend's ANZAC day commemoration service in Wellington.

(see also coverage on the student magazine Salient's website here)

ANZAC day celebrates the anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli as part of the abortive Allied invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Over 130 000 soldiers from both sides died during the year-long campaign that followed, fought for no other reason than to further the interests of Franco-British as against German/Austro-Hungarian imperialism (the Ottoman Empire being a client state of the latter).

While enthusiasm for ANZAC day declined markedly in New Zealand during the 1960s and 70s (as the post-war generation took up the cause of anti-militarism and progressive social change), recent years have seen an alarming reversal of this trend especially among the younger generation - with thousands of school students now flocking each year to dawn parades around the country and young Kiwis on their OE now increasingly making the secular "pilgrimage" to Gallipoli as some kind of national "rite of passage" (much to the delight of the purveyors of those cringe-inducing Contiki tour packages).

While some left commentators have argued that the renewed enthusiasm for ANZAC Day could represent a desire on the part of a younger generation brought up in an atomised society lacking in mass social movements (either progressive or reactionary) to get a glimpse of something "larger than themselves", and others have claimed it as evidence of the hold of right-wing ideology on the nation's youth, I actually think what the responses to the article on the Salient website show is that most of the students who support ANZAC day (i.e. all apart from the ACT on Campus crowd pursuing their VSM agenda and the Kyle Chapman doppelgänger who posts as "NZ Patriot") are actually operating on a sub-ideological, emotive level.

As I said in an exchange over on Reading the Maps recently:

In some ways I would almost prefer it if the thousands of people from my generation flocking to attend ANZAC day dawn services were actually doing so out of enthusiasm for NZ imperialism - at least that would show they had some political ideas in their heads! But instead all we have is this banal, unthinking vacuousness...

I guess the difficulty stemming from this is that the VUWSA executive is supposed to represent Victoria University students, yet at the same time there is an acute contradiction between the anti-imperialist views of Workers Party members (and WP allies) on the exec and the current miserable level of consciousness among students.

Another problem is that fact that VUWSA has not actually taken a hard anti-imperialist stance on this issue but rather adopted as WP member Don Franks says says an "agnostic" position, of being neither for nor against celebration of the ANZAC invasion of Turkey. Obviously as someone who isn't an active member of WP or studying at Victoria I'm not close enough to these events to know all the details, but I assume that this position was a compromise forced upon the WP exec members who are in the difficult position of being only a minority (albeit a sizable one) on the VUWSA executive.

What all this does highlight though I think are the difficulties inherent in revolutionaries taking on elected political positions in a period where the level of consciousness among students (and workers!) is at all-time historic lows. To be sure, it is necessary to continue to try to do something to reverse the process of de-politicisation but is running for elected political office the best way to do this?

I guess my feeling is that while in national elections it is at least possible to be clear that you are calling for a revolutionary protest vote and stick to your principles, in the world of student politics the very same apathy and de-politicisation that makes it possible for revolutionaries to get elected in the first place can also prove to be your Achilles' heel once you as duly elected representatives try to advance anti-imperialist or socialist politics.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Oliverio Girondo

My interest in the Argentine vanguardist poet Oliverio Girondo began after coming across a few months ago - quite by chance - a brilliant film entitled El lado oscuro del corazón (The dark side of the heart), which was Argentina's official entry in the Oscar category for best Foreign Film in 1992.

In the film we see the young protagonist - Oliverio - attempting to live his life in late 20th century Buenos Aires according to his own absurdist manifesto.

He refuses to get a job because, he says, his true vocation is that of a poet. When economic necessity compels him, he goes into the streets reciting poetry (of Girondo, Gelman and Benedetti) to random passers-by in return for money:

He also embarks on an impossible quest to find the ideal woman - but they all ultimately disappoint him since they lack what for Oliverio is the absolutely essential quality, the ability to fly.

In 1932 the original Oliverio (Girondo) rented a funeral coach and horses, and, accompanied by footmen dressed all in black and a giant papier-maché scarecrow, drove through the streets of Buenos Aires selling copies of his new volume of prose poems, Espantapájaros (Scarecrow).

In these poems Girondo reveals the revolutionary yet irreverent aesthetic which led fellow ultraísta Jorge Luis Borges to dub him "the Peter Pan of Argentine literature".

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reasons to be skeptical

The 1930s historical re-enactment society gets ready to storm parliament

These days it seems everyone on the left is getting terribly excited about the prospect of a "return to the 1930s" in the wake of the current financial crisis - with mass unemployment, labour unrest and political radicalisation.

Alas I tend to think this is a case of frustrated activists projecting their own subjective desires onto reality, rather than anything based in actual fact.

My skepticism has just been reinforced after a visit the blog of NZ's favourite right-wing conspiracy theorist Trevor Loudon where it seems that Trev too is predicting a return to the epoch of wars and revolutions - if only so his paranoid fantasies about communism taking over the world can finally find validation...

Footnote: as I have suggested in a comment posted on Loudon's blog, his fervid postings are in many ways similar to the utterances of Boston Legal's Judge Clark Brown as Trev busies himself reposting stuff from socialist and left wing websites while declaiming in a shocked voice "Outrageous!" "How dare they!"

Monday, April 20, 2009

Art and revolution

In recent weeks there has been an interesting debate taking place on various left blogs on the question of the relationship between art and revolutionary politics. The debate was initiated by Jared Davidson of the Christchurch Garage Collective in a posting on indymedia provocatively titled "Give up art and save the starving?" which you can find here.

The arguments Jared puts forward (summed up in the statement that "
Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolition of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die" have drawn heavy criticism from Scott Hamilton over at Reading the Maps as well as from fellow Christchurch-blogger Ross Brighton. Below is my belated foray into the debate, originally posted as a comment on Ross's blog (edited for spelling errors!):

I understand where Jared is coming from in his impatience with the failure of successive artistic movements and artists to mount a challenge to the relations of capitalist exploitation which does not merely end up being co-opted by capitalism itself. However I think he may be expecting too much of art, which in the absence of revolutionary movements in wider society can hardly be expected to bring the system crashing to its knees.

Moreover, in a period of protracted political downturn such as we are living through at the moment (at least in the Anglophone countries) where the basic social and economic conditions that would make an anti-capitalist revolution objectively possible *simply do not exist* it seems to me that "giving up art to save the starving" is not only a counsel of despair, but also accomplishes absolutely nothing in practical terms.

As someone who is currently writing a dissertation on the poets of the Latin American vanguardista movement of the period from roughly 1916-1935 (which was at various points influenced by Cubists such as Apollinaire and Reverdy, the Surrealist school, Futurism and Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara) I have quite a keen interest in the political possibilities and limitations of avant-garde art.

It is certainly true that many of the avant-garde had a fairly exalted idea of the role of the individual artist - the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro's characterisation of the poet as a "little god" springs to mind - however I do not think this should be read as evidence of some kind of "will to power over" their fellow human beings or denial of their right to participate in the creative process.

Rather they (the vanguardistas) were concerned to assert their autonomy in the face of hegemonic political and literary ideas. While some avant-garde schools (such as the school of creacionismo founded by Huidobro) could be read as containing elitist tendencies, one of the most problematic aspects of the rival surrealist school was its promotion of "automatic writing", based on the idea poetry amounted to nothing more than tapping into the unconscious - an egalitarian idea surely if ever there was one (although it proved to be less than successful!).

But what we should really ask ourselves is how realistic is it to expect art in bourgeois society to escape the social pressures and contradictions inherent in that very same society? Surely you cannot abolish the distinction between artist and non-artist without first overcoming the division in bourgeois society between intellectual and physical labour and between individual and collective consciousness - something which can only happen in a classless, communist society. And to believe that we can expedite this process simply through artists renouncing art nothing more than idealism pure and simple!

Bear in mind too that in the mid-1930s a large number of avant-garde writers (Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Louis Aragon for example) renounced their earlier work in accordance with the diktat of Stalin and those in the Comintern who argued that everything (including art) must now be subordinated to the anti-fascist struggle!

However I am sure that even Jared would not claim that this was a progressive move.

In the end I guess it comes back to the question of what is the purpose of art - to express a political message in crude didactic form or to enliven and enrich human experience? I would argue that it is the latter.

This is why I can enjoy the work of a reactionary writer such as (say) Miguel de Unamuno or TS Eliot - because despite their subjective prejudices they still manage to encapsulate in their work some essential facet of that underlying material reality.

The alternative view put forward by Jared - that it is whether or not the artist stands for or against revolution that is the sole arbiter of their work - concedes I feel too much power and status to the individual artist and perpetuates the kind of elitism that he is so keen to avoid in the first place.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mass politics without the masses?

...And freely men confess that this world's spent, When in the planets and the firmament They seek so many new; they see that this Is crumbled out again to his atomies. 'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone, All just supply, and all relation...

First of all, a short disclaimer - what follows is as much a self-criticism as it is a criticism directed against the praxis of friends and comrades still active in the arena of NZ left politics. For the past 11 years, beginning as a naive 17 year-old Labour Party activist before rapidly moving on to the extra-parliamentary socialist left, I have been a partisan of what you might call "working class politics".

During the same time I have also been a trade union delegate/activist (6 years) and been involved in 2 socialist election campaigns.

However I have now reached the conclusion that - in New Zealand at least - the construction of a working class political movement is at the present time a futile endeavour.


Simply because the working class as a collective conscious subject at the moment does not exist.

This is easily shown by the official government statistics, which reveal the number of workers belonging to trade unions and taking part in industrial action have since the mid-late 1990s remained at all-time historic lows. Even more damning is the fact that in the 2006 NZ Census over 35% of respondents identified as either "managers" or "professionals".

At a more fundamental level though (and despite the current financial crisis), the social conditions which could possibly lead to the emergence of class consciousness are largely absent from this country. Indeed, as a result of the decline in employment in NZ manufacturing and industry since the 1980s most workers are now employed either in white-collar service jobs or as semi-casual or transient employees in areas like retail, cleaning and hospitality. While the white-collar workers such as teachers and public servants are made to feel as though they are part of the bourgeoisie through the rhetoric of "partnership" and managerialism, the workers in supermarkets, hotels etc by virtue of their transient status are for the most part too atomised and too lacking in social weight to achieve any kind of collective consciousness. And I say this as someone who has had extensive experience of trying to unionise workers in the supermarket industry!

While a small number of unions such as Unite in Auckland through their heroic voluntaristic efforts succeed in unionising some of these workers, even their organisers will tell you that the membership turn-over in a 12 month period is nearly 100%.

Then of course there are the lumpen-proletariat - a growing portion of NZ society cast out on the economic scrapheap by the neo-liberal reforms of the past two decades, whose only "identity" such as it is derives from their membership of gang, boy-racer or perhaps the fundamentalist church fraternities.

So what does all of this mean for the political organisations of the left?

Essentially it means that for the most part when conducting protests, election campaigns, paper sales etc these groups - whether they be social democrats, anarchists or marxists - are talking to nobody but themselves. The working class does not exist either as an active subject or as a political audience.

Some left groups are so far away from understanding this that they talk as though "mass anger" and "grassroots rebellion" are imminent, only just lurking below the surface of the apathetic multitude.

Other groups are more realistic and correctly assess the nature of the period in which they are operating as one of political downturn, yet still they do not draw the logical conclusions that flow from this. They continue to maintain the apparatus of a political party/movement/organisation with a paid-up membership, publications, leading bodies etc and to believe that their interventions into other hollowed out "mass" organisations such as student or trade unions (in reality nothing more than paper tigers) actually have some significance.

Even worse, because they have not internalised the reality that trying to conduct "mass politics" without the masses is a futile exercise, they continue to act as though disputes over political program or their various little "interventions" are actually matters of life-and-death importance.

They have not yet understood that trying to maintain the project of working class political representation - in a period where the working class has been comprehensively defeated and atomised - through substitutionist and voluntarist methods is actually positively harmful and dangerous.

It can lead only to the fragmentation and demoralisation of the left, which instead of devoting its time to ideological debate and renewal instead wastes itself arguing over which organisation's program more authentically represents the interests of the working class, a class which is not in any case currently capable of being represented.

No wonder then that ranks of the NZ left are so thin - and so lacking in people of youth and talent as well as (in many ways the most essential ingredient!) personability!

Surely comrades it is time to draw a line through this whole ridiculous farrago, dissolve the Potemkin Villages of the left and put our time and energies into developing serious socialist political debate and analysis (and not just the received truths of 20th century gurus!) among the small number of radicalised individuals who we can hope to reach at the present time.

At the moment though it seems as though we are only running the film of Spain in the 1920s and 30s in reverse - there it was the circle of Republican progressive intellectuals who could not adequately make the transition from the age of ensayistas and tertulias to the age of mass politics and so fell victim to Franco.

Now in the 21st century that the curtain has fallen on the mass political party as a viable option the left is still refusing to exit that stage however and remains alone, sitting in the darkness.