“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
The water seemed clearer, translucent. Was it the weather, or the lockdown? Across the harbour, a sole ferry burned its way in towards the city, its companions silenced for now, left to sit in sun or in shade: countless garages and front lawns; the rows of the boat park, stretching up. In the marina, yachts rested at their moorings, barnacles forming on hulls, mussels attaching to wet rope. Just how much pollution do Auckland’s boats make? Auckland’s cars? (A single container ship?) In absence of observation, it was hard to tell. Still we looked now, the world seen afresh. Small waves lapped at the rocks, shimmering. Pollution like the tide. Each wave insignificant in itself; their combination a rising sea.
Having spent a full 48-hours in our Auckland apartment, its front door forgotten like a tomb sealed by stone, we were out and walking, round Tāmaki Drive towards Okahu Bay and beyond, our first Sunday under lockdown and the two-kilometre limit not yet specified, just the late March sun and our skin, that need for motion, our feet. We weren’t alone. Like the sea, the road lay still, a scattered procession of pedestrians and cyclists, the odd car or bus startling, as if they no longer fully belonged. We looked back towards town and its towers, now quiet, the city without its hum. In such a dreamscape, time seemed porous; the lapping waves, the distance kept. Scenes repeated throughout these isles; life on many scales at once. An ecological thought. Uncanny, to be so disturbed.
Siri, just who is in charge?
For a certain strain of misanthrope, it is humanity that is the virus – an erasing, bunching thought, a virus itself. But here we were, walking, cycling. No deaths from us today! As proverbs make worlds, the road rose up and we met it, tension in the contrast of containment and our feet, the wise ape, still learning, still tied to our need for fuel. Motion silenced my belly, the kilometres fell away. Past the rocks raised over sea, placed there to collapse space, or rather reconfigure it, make it amenable to a new tool, the coloniser’s machines of coal and smoke, now petrol, rubber, steel. Past Okahu Bay, named after Okahu Matamomoe, son of Tamatekapua, captain of the Arawa waka that had brought Okahu south from Polynesia, a different technology, a different speed, disembarked to establish a village in this very spot, later interred in the cliffs close by. Past Bastion Point, te whenua of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, subject to countless abuses by the Crown and the resistance that captured a generation’s movement, now suggested as the site for a giant pou honouring Papatūānuku, a counter to the Sky Tower’s steel, a response.
Siri, just who is in charge?
On our steps led, up the hill and away from the sea, towards the grave of Michael Joesph Savage, sworn socialist, working man, and New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, serving from 1935 to 1940, perhaps the most beloved Labour leader of all time. In an early announcement on the challenges posed by Covid-19, Jacinda had spoken beneath his framed picture; now, it seemed likely his policies might return, in spirit if not to the letter. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. The spectre of communism, haunting a shelf in the PM’s mock office.
When Savage had died – early, as a result of a heart complication compounded by his refusal to get surgery because it would have disrupted a key political moment – there had been a huge send off, a state funeral and eventually the construction of this memorial, more-than-faint echos of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, an art deco reminder of our once-socialist state. That such reality existed seems, to me, a child of neoliberalism, almost unthinkable. That New Zealand’s government once built houses for its people on a huge scale, almost unimaginable: 70 a week in 1939 alone. That there was a point where there was no social support, and then, suddenly, by human hands, there was. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. To paraphrase Brecht, are we not the hammer that helps build our world?
Siri, just who is in charge?
For those falling into the space we call ‘Left’, Savage’s legacy (and the tomb so raised) is a call to arms, a reminder that the collectivity and social support we work towards isn’t just about respecting difference in an abstract sense, but turns on very real material components: the lack of food, warmth, shelter and security that afflict our most vulnerable, a smear on the dignity that is their right. A smear on our own dignity – for such scarcities aren’t inherent, but actively manufactured, a product of the competition and exploitation that has become bloated beyond all use, an idea that is using us.
Just as capitalism results from the decisions of those with capital – the propertied classes, business owners, corporate boards, and their connection to so-called ‘democratic’ power – so too does it emerge from our choices, our participation and consumption. Middle New Zealand has much to face if we’re to back our egalitarian claims. As Martin Luther King Jr. so poignantly noted, “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.”
Siri, just who is in charge (again)?
There has been much talk in different spheres about corona virus as a reminder of death, of the inescapable mortality that colours all human lives, no longer able to be sanitised and shelved away, put off, but as a reality that we have to live with, a decay from which rebirth might come: as above, so below. In this sense, death is about accountability, acknowledging a power outside the bounds we consider ourselves, forces that defy our control. So framed, we are all vulnerable, but it remains a hard fact that our poorest suffer more – both in the context of corona virus and the recession to come. So too, do our poorest have the most hurdles to overcome moving forward.
New Zealand liberals may welcome an increase in government spending and the ghost of Savage over Jacinda’s shoulder, but the devil remains in the detail: just who gets the bucks and the breaks and the jobs? Who holds them to account?
As the trajectory of Savage’s own life makes clear, poverty is a material condition, not a mental limit. There can be no adequate response that claims to address the difficulties experienced by the poor that doesn’t also empower them. Brazilian scholar-activist Paulo Freire describes responses that fall short of this as false generosity: small concessions that do little to shift the power imbalances responsible for deprivation. In contrast, “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity… in striving so that these [deprived] hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”
Freire is most famously known for his work on conscientisation, an absolute mouthful of a term that I’m yet to pronounce well, but one which captures the process of empowerment, from trembling hand to active soul. As Freire describes it, conscientisation or ‘critical consciousness’ is a cyclical process of action, reflection and learning in dialogue with others, an undertaking in which the participants come to understand political, economic, and social power, both that exercised over them and that latent within. In doing so, their status as passive object is left behind and they are reborn as active subjects, able to take action against “the oppressive elements of reality” – an emergence captured in Savage’s life as he transformed from grog store salesman to ditch digger then union member, the various working class jobs that followed on his path to PM interwoven with political organising, constant learning and the push for increased worker’s rights. Nothing stays as it was.
Siri, just who is in charge?
In the insights of Freire, those of us better off are reminded once more that our poorest are a periphery, exploited for their labour, offered tokens and crumbs and debt. While Savage’s policies stand as a shining light for all who would lift the bottom and improve our failing safety net, Freire highlights the limits in such an approach. Never are our poorest given the means to make themselves, to own their own cleaning companies or fast food chains, to set their own agenda, pay scales or terms of employment. Instead, they remain marginal, replaceable in the abstract until something like corona comes along and suddenly we – the collective, difference-erasing, largely middle-class ‘we’ – are revealed as dependent on the fruit pickers and shelf stackers, the truck drivers and petrol station attendants, their work no longer medial but essential to our safety, to our supplies, to our way of life. As they always have been.
What would happen, one wonders, if such communities weren’t left with a choice between destitution, a better dole or wage slavery but instead empowered, assisted into collectively owning their own businesses, into receiving the full value of the role they play? What would happen to the social and personal problems associated with scarcity if we got serious about eradicating them, and actually addressed their root cause? What worlds might such a shift build?
In the break cast by corona virus we enter a space of collective unknowing, those of us in Aotearoa lucky for all our low population density and Jacinda’s strong, evidence-based leadership has brought – but still far from out of the woods. As we prepare to wind back lockdown, and to wind up efforts to restart the economy, where will our support lie? Will existing disparities continue or be deepened, or will this rupture enable a different direction, empowering communities to not just select their own fate, but to build the local resilience necessary to respond to future shocks?
Countless possibilities remain, the future as uncertain as ever. In the space of stillness our retreat has left, the world moves on. Tides come and go. The sun rises and sets. Struggles for power and resources continue; our grave recedes, the stakes grow ever high.
Siri, how can control be undone?