Blog

Covid-19 and the new era

a line graph without clear labeling that shows a high peak towards the right hand side

by Mirkyton Ummashtarte

Part 1: Goodbye to the end of History

31 years ago, US political writer Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay titled The end of history. In it, he summed up what many were feeling at the conclusion of the Cold War: without a grand historical conflict between world superpowers, what further challenges could there be to the system we live under today: capitalist liberal-democracy? In this essay, and his later books, he wrote that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, most world governments would shift towards a liberal democracy, with an emphasis on transnational government much like the European Union, and with this new epoch would come a period of unparalleled peace. Events might still occur, he said, but the overall trend of civilisation would be towards endless peace, endless profit, and endless technological advancement that would eventually lead to humans having control over their own evolution.

What Fukuyama might not have predicted is that his simple thesis would become one of the most criticised essays of all time. Barely had the ink dried on his paper when scores of writers poked holes in his analysis – something very easy to do, for Fukuyama wasn’t much of a philosopher, but rather a political hack who summed up the dominant view among liberal thinkers at the time. In this, he was wholly successful, but he also ended up being correct in ways his critics couldn’t have predicted.

The next 31 years of history were some of the most uneventful, in terms of real movement, of any decades that had passed before – sure, not all countries became liberal democracies, and sure, history continued to chew up innocent lives and spit them back out, and sure, a few terrorists showed up here and there – but it seemed that no single event could ever truly change things beyond occupying the evening news for a few weeks. We have just emerged from the one of the most viscerally boring periods in human history, at least for the more sheltered populations in the west, and it’s important to recognise this.

Fukuyama’s end of history was not a new thesis: as the postmodernist Jaques Derrida, was quick to point out, Fukuyama had simply regurgitated some of the most turgid liberal philosophies of the early Cold-War era; the idea that liberal-democracy had emerged victorious, and that socialism had been proved wrong once and for all through the many perceived failures of Soviet societies. All that had changed was that Fukuyama said it at the right time: it truly was the end, capitalism had found its perfect justification in neoliberalism, a set of ideologies based in the idea that capitalism was a perfect, trans-historical goal of humanity, that only needed to be sufficiently untethered from regulation and sufficiently protected by a growing military and police forces in order to function properly. In this proper version of capitalism, untethered from the need to legitimise itself in the face of opposing ideologies, there was no need for capitalist societies to change to face new threats, for what can challenge an ideology that is so totalising it can convince people that it’s the only thing that exists? The only thing that has ever existed. A universal default.

In that sense, Fukuyama was perfectly right. History did grind to a halt for three decades. Not just the history of those decades, but all history, for every society throughout history could be painted as nothing but a stepping stone to this universal conclusion. There was no challenge to neoliberalism in that time, no great ideological foe to defeat, no workers’ movement to crush, and the best that the neoliberal states could offer up as some immense civilisational enemy was a pitiful force of Wahhabi terrorists – a by-product of the previous era, and therefore hardly a new historical agent. All that was left for the world to do was to reckon with the leftovers of the Cold-War period (the Wahhabis, remnant socialist societies, and shrinking unions), products of the last true period of historical movement, and wait for whatever technological innovation that would come next and inject some feeling of forward momentum into an otherwise stagnant society. 

In time, even technology failed to deliver a feeling of progress. Each new technology of the period wasn’t truly new: all that capitalism could deliver was slightly faster and more powerful versions of technologies based in the previous era of major public scientific investments. Internet, wi-fi, cell phones, miniaturised processors, satellite communications – every single one of these technologies was a product of Cold-War era military or public scientific investment, albeit with a better marketing team. It is almost as if capitalists could produce no new innovation whatsoever, other than a faster, slimmer version of existing tech, that broke more often.

In this sense, one of the two defining features of the past 30 years that gave life a sense of movement and progress, communications technology, proved to be nothing but a latent product of the previous era, that came up against a wall as soon as the legacy technologies it relied upon reached the limits of exploitability. The same would soon be proven true of the other great symbol of neoliberal progress: economic growth.

Since the beginning of the end of history, economic growth has skyrocketed. Only part of this was due to imperialism – the ability for strong states with financial capital to spare to offload their surpluses onto the global south. That would have been a source of actual value were it the primary cause of this continuous economic boom, since it would have meant greater exploitation of labour. Instead capitalism developed along the much easier route – pure speculation in financial markets and tech companies, both of which are largely phantasmal. 

Capital was creating a bubble – not of any one market, such as the late 90s tech bubble or the late 2000s housing bubble, but rather it was making a bubble out of capitalism as a whole. Who could have guessed what would pop it?

Part 2: What the fuck is going on?

Sometime around December 1, 2019, a few people got sick in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Many writers have spent thousands of hours speculating about the potential causes of transmission. Was it from a shopper at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market? Did the disease come from the actual produce at this market? Was it a bioweapon? Was it a bat? A Pangolin? Was everyone at the market just too weird and Chinese to not get the disease? What comparatively few news sites have focused on was how on earth a virus could cause an economic crisis so great that we have nothing to truly compare it to. 

This is because it could have been anything. It could have been a completely different virus in a completely different country, it could have been a sudden war erupting, it could have been a plane crash, it could have been a Wall Street Executive slipping on a banana peel. The system of global financial markets had been systematically hollowed out and prepared in every possible way to collapse at the drop of a hat sooner or later. To understand how, we need to understand three things: the underlying philosophy of neoliberalism, the way a modern financial market operates, and the general theory of economic crisis put forward by Karl Marx in his unfinished third volume of Capital.

Under neoliberalism, austerity is everything. The existence of everything, often including human life, has to be justified in terms of cost-effectiveness, self-reliance, and interoperability with the rest of the system. This is why social welfare, such as Work & Income New Zealand, operates by giving the absolute bare minimum to beneficiaries, and why all government departments, with the exclusion of Defence, Police, and Corrections, have to operate on paper-thin budgets, constantly needing to justify any expenditure whatsoever in terms of net-benefits to the economy. It is also not a rational ideology, in that in pursuing its goals of profitability and lean government, the means are much more important than the ends. A health system stretched thin (the “ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff model”) might actually be more costly to society than a health system which is budgeted to act preventatively and deal with unexpected crises, but this doesn’t really matter. Likewise, stockpiling, preemptively initiating spending, or even paying for proper maintenance can come to be seen as unnecessary luxuries in a system in which everything must be justified in terms of short-term profitability.

This is why the richest country in the world ended up with a shortage of basic medical supplies. Under ideal circumstances, each hospital should have had just enough masks, gloves and smocks to last a normal week, just in time for a new shipment. The same is true of most systems of logistics and supply under neoliberalism – things enter the warehouse, the shipping container, or the truck, just in time for them to leave. If anything stays in the warehouse, or is stockpiled, then that is an inefficiency in the system. Every minute those hospital gowns spend in the warehouse means a surplus is developing, which means profits lost for the manufacturer and shipping company.

The same logic rings true for financial markets. Each sector of the economy deals in just enough liquid assets (money) to operate under normal circumstances. If too much money circulates in the economy at any one time, then we get inflation – the decline in the value of currency. In a crisis, excess liquidity can be a good thing, which is why the US markets are being flooded with trillions of dollars, but under normal circumstances, these simple laws of financial supply and demand create an incentive for capitalists to invest their cash assets as soon as possible, never leaving anything in reserve in the event of a crisis. 

But all of this, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, is somewhat obsolete under late capitalism. Contrary to popular belief, most microeconomic problems are pretty easy to solve using the microeconomic levers most accessible to capitalists such as changing prices, production or wages. Capitalists make them out to be huge, complex issues so that price regulation can be painted as naive meddling in the arcane market, but really, these simple problems like overproduction, underproduction, low demand, and the like, can all be fixed using the tools of the private sector. Larger systemic problems (macroeconomic issues), such as sovereign debt, low competitiveness, trade deficits, and poor consumer buying power, can also be fixed, but through the financial levers available to the state, such as bailouts, stimulus packages, elimination of reserve requirements, and massive liquidity injections. What can’t be fixed, at least not permanently, is the general downward trend in profits relative to investment.

The more serious problems of late capitalist economics – wafer-thin profit margins, constantly slowing rates of growth, and constant fears that consumers are “killing” various industries – are all products of one phenomenon that Karl Marx identified as far back as 1857, the discovery of which he called his “greatest triumph” but which remains a lesser known Marxian theory. This is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a hypothesis which explains why capitalism is doomed to perpetually swing between boom and bust, until it reaches a crisis from which it can’t recover.

Central to Marx’s theory of crisis is a much more famous theory – the labour theory of value. Put simply this is the idea that all the value that capitalist society places on a commodity comes from the workers who harvested the raw materials, worked in the factory that made it, and built the machines that filled the factory. The work being done by living workers is supplemented by the machines that other workers have made to assist them in their work.

The living people involved in this system are the organic component, while the machines, products, and other lifeless objects are the inorganic component. Taken together, the ratio between these components is the organic composition of capital (OOC). When there are few workers but many machines in a factory, the OOC is lower, and so the productivity of these workers is very high because the machines allow them to multiply their efforts. But high productivity creates a problem – if all of this work can be done by fewer workers, then unemployment will surely rise, wages will go down, and fewer people will be able to pay for the products from the factories. Eventually this leads to a crisis of consumption, which is what we are currently experiencing, and unless you’re over 50 or so, you’ve probably been experiencing one your entire life.

In a consumption crisis, wages are far too low for people to buy commodities or easily reproduce their capacity to work. Since the 1970s, wages have stagnated in most Western countries, but until now capitalists had many ways they could “kick the can down the road,” delaying the crisis for another few years and making higher and higher profits in the meantime. For example, to absorb the huge surpluses generated by an economy undergoing a consumption crisis, Capitalist states could offload their surplus values onto colonies and nations in the global south by creating new markets, or waging wars and thereby investing in weapons and reconstruction. A good example of this was the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which ended up costing trillions of dollars, allowed for billions to be invested in weapons manufacturers, and opened up a handful of new markets in the bombed out ruins of Baghdad or Fallujah. 

This is one way to offset a major crisis, which we might call the “fuck the rest of the world” method. The other method is a bit harder for the capitalists, which is to massively increase consumer buying power through various measures. The most straightforward of these is the one capitalists are most loath to do, since it undermines neoliberal ideology, which is to simply give people money. This was done in Australia in 2008, when each Australian was given $300 and ordered to spend it immediately. Many other countries, even the US, are now rushing to copy this method of stimulus. Another method, which has been growing since mid last century, is by artificially raising a stratum of consumers through employing people in “bullshit jobs,” a term used by anthropologist David Graeber to refer to people engaged in work that doesn’t seem to do anything. This includes a lot of professionals: secretaries of secretaries, managers of managers, supervisors of supervisors and the like. Finally there is another method which is gaining traction among some of the more far-sighted capitalist technocrats, the Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would give people a flat rate of just enough money to fulfil their duty to the economy as consumers. Such a move would represent a last-ditch effort by capital to avoid the looming consumer crisis, which at time of writing appears to be a tsunami whose waters have only reached chest-height.

However, all of these means can only delay the inevitable. A capitalist system undergoing crisis can only offset the real crunch for so long. In 2008, the global capitalist system experienced a major shock when a speculative housing bubble popped in US financial markets. If the crisis continued, the capitalist class would have had to sell off huge amounts of assets, including industrial machinery. This would have solved the underlying productivity crisis for a time by restoring the huge imbalance between the organic and inorganic composition of capital. But this imbalance had been building for decades. Could the capitalist system survive the shock? Mass sell-offs are nothing new – the first response of the US government to the 1929 Wall Street Crash was to encourage these sell-offs, only to find out that doing so would massively increase public unrest from both capital and workers.

In the end, the crisis was instead offset through fiscal policy, as the US federal reserve removed barriers to debt and artificially preserved the value of assets by paying off capitalists with sums that often exceeded the value of their entire business. For this reason, the recovery from the 2008 crisis was slow, but the crisis itself was short-lived. The speculative bubbles weren’t quite popped, but enough air was let out to delay the inevitable, for about 12 years, as it turned out.

Part 3: Infinite new era

It is still entirely possible that the capitalists will be able to kick the can further down the road, and avert the current crisis through arcane fiscal finagling or through truly barbaric methods like forcing US and UK workers back into the workplace well before it is safe to do so. 

But it seems equally possible that the world as we know it is over. By this I don’t mean that we’ll soon be living in a Mad Max-style apocalypse, but rather that period of “the end of history” is finally over. Capitalism will probably recover, either through solving the crisis through the above means before it gets worse, or it will allow the crisis to reach its conclusion and engage in massive selloffs of fixed capital, which might extend its rule by several decades by restoring some degree of profitability relative to investments. What that could mean for our people and ecology is anyone’s guess.

But whatever the results of this crisis are, one thing seems very clear. For the first time in our lives, workers have been forced to sit at home and think – not between shifts, or under the endless stress of being a beneficiary expected to look for work that often doesn’t exist, but just thinking, and getting bored. I don’t remember a time when capitalism gave an entire class of people the opportunity to get truly bored, apart from the upper classes, who get to call it ennui.

The politics of idleness are interesting. A few thousand years ago, the backbreaking labour of slaves, poor citizens, and women created the opportunity for the first truly idle class – the Ancient Greek philosophers who are credited with the entire foundation of our moral and political systems. For the next few thousand years, the only people who were allowed to be idle were the sons of rich nobles and merchants, and only with the birth of capitalism did common people find themselves idle – the unemployed newly-displaced rural folk who waited outside the great cities of Europe, waiting for jobs at the new textile factories to open up. Many of these people became the backbone of the first workers’ parties, often millenarian Christian-socialists and underground brotherhoods like the Chartists, Luddites, or League of the Just, which Marx and Engels would later co-opt and rename The Communist League.

Idleness in these times was feared greatly by those in power, and rightly so. Nothing worried them more than huge surplus populations growing restless, organising in their idle time, and realising their position somewhere near the bottom of a great social pyramid. From time to time these surplus populations grew so great that entire nations had to be set up just to get rid of them: the unemployed and wretched masses of the British Isles found themselves criminalised and subject to transportation to the penal colonies of the Caribbean, the Americas, and later New South Wales. Luckier surplus citizens found themselves in the free colonies, such as Perth, or New Zealand.

But are we truly surplus to requirements? Surely after the crash we’ll get our jobs back?

Many economists aren’t so sure. Unemployment modelling already shows rates are going to grow higher than during the great depression, and that’s without a much more pessimistic Marxian analysis of the crisis. To be surplus is a new experience to many of us. Idleness will force us to reckon with our position in the pyramid of society, just as those 19th century oligarchs were afraid of all those years ago.

The ideological backbone of capitalism as it currently exists has been broken. Neoliberalism has shown itself incapable of dealing with Covid-19. But what we make of this realisation is up to us. The ideological backbone might be broken, but the real nuts and bolts of the system: the police and politicians, bosses and workplaces, will still remain. Given enough time, they will use this crisis of legitimacy to forge a new kind of capitalism: maybe a society with a UBI? Or a form of eco-capitalism? Or maybe they’ll go the other direction, and lead us down a road to fascism, or Trumpian nationalistic fervor? If I had to place bets, I’d put it on a mix of all of the above, as usually seems to happen in a crisis of legitimacy. After all, the last great crisis of legitimacy happened during the Great Depression, leading to both the social-democratic compromise of the New Deal and Michael Joseph Savage’s welfare state, as well as the horrors of Nazism.

In truth I don’t think it matters so much what path capitalism chooses to take in order to legitimise itself in this new era, because unless the agency of that choice lies with working people – with beneficiaries, Māori, migrants, the multitude, the proletariat – it will leave us worse off. It might end the crisis, but we’ll live with the knowledge that the next one will be worse, and once again our lives will be utterly beyond our control.

So agency should be our watchword in this new era. So long as we lack agency, we are only a few years from collapse. So long as we lack agency, the response to crises will be arbitrary. New Zealanders got lucky in getting a rational response to the crisis, but next time we might be more like the US or UK – sending thousands more people to die in the name of profits. Taking power, then, is the only way to ensure that this total lack of agency never happens again.

So far in the things I’ve written for this blog, I’ve not actually included a call to join Organise Aotearoa. In a system built on broken promises, who am I to make a promise to readers that things will get better if only we fight for a revolutionary overthrow of the bosses, police and markets that put us in crisis again and again? As an organisation, we are young, and we are emerging from a very beaten-down, hollowed-out, and disparate left-wing movement. Revolution doesn’t seem realistic to many people, but then, neither did capitalism being crushed by a virus a few weeks ago. Socialism will never just happen – it takes work, and a sense of realism. We have a lot of work to do, but only in this period of transition can we see the possible futures laid out before us – apocalyptic misery, or social and economic justice. To fight for this is always worth the effort.

The best summary of the times we’re living in come from this quote I’m quite fond of:

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”

Justice for renters & homeless people during COVID-19

reverse silhouette of houses, above them hands hold a sign that reads: HOUSE THE HOMELESS! BAN EVICTIONS! RENT AMNESTY NOW!

–Ka mate kainga tahi, ka ora kainga rua–

Kia ora friends and comrades,

We’re asking comrade and supporters to demand a rent amnesty, housing for the homeless and a total ban on evictions!

As the COVID-19 emergency has put us into lockdown across Aotearoa, our unsheltered and home-renting population is at risk. Renters are facing evictions and growing debt as they struggle to maintain rent payments, and unsheltered people, who are unable to practise physical distancing, are at great risk of contracting the virus. The government is granting mortgagees a full holiday from payments for the duration of the emergency. For renters, it has enforced a freeze on rent increases and tighter rules against evictions, but this housing plan does not go far enough. More than 80,000 people have called for a rent holiday, but when asked whether the government was considering offering a holiday for renters as well as mortgagees, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said he believed the mortgage relief would trickle down to renters. In other words, the government is placing all the onus on the supposed “goodwill” of landlords.

This is not good enough. We need action from the government to house and offer relief to the people who really need it, so that no one is left behind.

Organise Aotearoa holds that housing is a human right. Emergency or not, homelessness should not exist. Landlording should not exist. But at a time when every other sector of society is cutting losses and as the government is spending billions, it’s beyond ridiculous that landlords are not being asked to make sacrifices as well. 

We’re asking you to help us by blasting the inboxes, answering phones, and Twitter and Facebook replies of Cabinet Ministers over the next few days, with demands for a rent amnesty, a total ban on evictions, and immediate housing for the unsheltered. We support the demands platformed on ActionStation below:

  • An immediate amnesty from paying rent and a ban on all evictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Long term rent caps to enable people to recover financially, emotionally from

COVID-19.

  • The government to buy unoccupied houses (ghost homes) and buildings on the private market for public housing for homeless people.
  • Remove all obligations to pay for the costs of temporary emergency housing, and reinstate this as a non-recoverable grant.

Please see our list of Cabinet Ministers and where you can reach them. If you don’t want to contact all ministers on the list, Dr Megan Woods and Grant Robertson are key people to focus on. We encourage you to share personal stories, especially if you’ve ever been homeless, been evicted, or otherwise had bad experiences with unsympathetic landlords. We also encourage you to add, omit, or alter these demands as you like. We don’t expect you to simply parrot us when you have more that you want to say.

We have commissioned an image from the talented Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho which anyone is welcome to send to MPs, put on social media, or otherwise use or share it for any non-commercial purposes. 

Below, we have included a script which you are welcome to use or borrow from while contacting MPs.


Kia ora *,

I’m writing to express my concern for renters and unsheltered people during the COVID-19 emergency.

While it’s great that you have worked to secure holidays for mortgagees, freezes on rent increases, and a more restrictive policy on evictions, much more needs to be done for the most vulnerable in our communities. If renters have to rely entirely on the good will of landlords to be granted rent relief and protection from evictions, thousands of people will inevitably be left behind. This is why more than 80,000 people have called for a rent amnesty

Every sector of society is making sacrifices right now, and landlords should be no different. People who don’t own property are much less likely to have savings and safety-nets than landlords, and enforcing a rent amnesty and a complete ban on evictions for all people who rent their homes is not an unreasonable action for the government to take in such extraordinary circumstances.

I would also like to ask what the government’s plan is for our unsheltered population. People without homes are at even greater risk of contracting the virus, as they’re unable to properly practise physical distancing. This puts everybody at greater risk.

ActionStation has put together a list of policy ideas which I think are very good, and believe the government should implement. They are:

  • An immediate amnesty from paying rent and a ban on all evictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Long term rent caps to enable people to recover financially, emotionally from

COVID-19.

  • The government to buy unoccupied houses (ghost homes) and buildings on the private market for public housing for homeless people.
  • Remove all obligations to pay for the costs of temporary emergency housing, and reinstate this as a non-recoverable grant.

These policies could save many lives in both the short and long term, and help us all to get through this crisis together. These policies also provide positive long-term solutions to the housing crisis. I ask you to take leadership on these issues and stand up for our population of unsheltered and non-home owning people.

Ngā mihi,

*


We would love it if you could share with us information about who you’ve contacted, what you’ve said, and any responses you’ve received. Fill in our Google form if you’d like to share details. 

With love, thanks and solidarity,

Organise Aotearoa

Solidarity in the time of Coronavirus

supermarket shelves that stock dry pasta varieties are almost empty

by Ben Rosamond

What makes a pandemic, like the spread of Covid19, different from similarly destructive natural disasters and weather-related events? 

There are multiple answers to this question. One is that a pandemic, by definition, has an effect on the whole world, whereas disasters tend to be local affairs. This is somewhat convincing, but as weather patterns change and the climate catastrophe deepens, it now makes more sense to view seemingly isolated disaster events as part of a broader, global pattern.

Another answer is that pandemics don’t emerge from geological or weather-related phenomena, and therefore aren’t natural. Any sober look at the dynamics of viral mutation will tell you, however, that it’s as much a natural phenomenon as the shifting of tectonic plates or the path of an asteroid, making this response just as unsatisfactory.

The real, most important, difference between pandemics and other disasters is that pandemics spread through human contact. This gives them a significantly different character than other crises we face. Responses to wildfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, no matter how bungled they might be by governments, almost always involve bringing people together.

The paradox of the viral pandemic is that by spreading through human contact it is both the most and least social form of disaster. Human sociality itself is weaponized by the virus, making it seem that the only rational response is to prepare yourself, go into isolation, and stay away from others, refusing any and all forms of human contact outside of the household. Already, even in New Zealand where we haven’t received the full impact of the pandemic, we’re seeing such responses in the form of spectacular instances of panic buying spreading across social media.

Rather than the development of a form of ‘disaster communism’, where communal forms of social reproduction overcome the logic of capital and capitalism, even if only for a short while, pandemics instead invoke an affect of overly-cautious individualism. Anyone outside of your quarantine is a threat. Irrespective of actual health advice, the assumption is that the only safety is inside your home, insulated from the outside world. While physical distancing may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances, that is automatically translated into an isolationist standpoint. Despite its individualism, this logic is almost as antithetical to capital as ‘disaster communism’ is.

As the market collapse in the face of the virus has shown, capital thrives on the flow of goods and people. One of the originary features of capitalism was indeed to bring people together, facilitating a massive influx of workers from the rural peasantry into crowded urban factories. Capital needs workers to be able to come together under one roof and, in the age of globalisation especially, needs consumers and tourists to want to flock together rather than stay staunchly apart.

The logic of the pandemic prepper isn’t an expression of capitalism as we know it any more than it’s a prefiguration of communal social relations to come, instead it’s a harbinger of a dystopian future, a sign of a potential societal and economic order much worse than our current one. What if we remain scared of social gatherings for ever? What if the borders stay closed? What if we never leave our houses again?

Despite its seeming rationality as a response to a real crisis, this attitude clearly needs to be challenged. As socialists, we know that solutions to large-scale problems don’t come from individual actions, nor do they come from acts of state, they instead emerge when we organise together. We will always be stronger together than we are apart.

So how should socialists respond in times of pandemic? First off, we need to recognise that the scientific and medical advice we’re receiving is genuine and real. Despite our inclination towards collectivity, if we show symptoms or have been in contact with the infected, we should follow all advice we’re given. It’s important not to let our desire to help end up infecting more people. For New Zealanders, Dr. Siouxsie Wiles is providing excellent advice of this sort. This itself is a form of practical solidarity.

Secondly, we need to push for a strong government response. Basic demands such as indefinite paid sick leave, funds for precarious workers and the self-employed, suspensions on rent and mortgage payments, an end to benefit stand-downs and sanctions, and genuinely free and accessible healthcare are obvious areas to agitate around. 

We know, though, that the state governs in the interest of capital, not of workers. It is likely that far more government funds will be made available to stem the stock market collapse than to help those who’ll suffer the most from long periods without work, or indeed from infection. Given this fact, it’s understandable that skepticism of an effective government response would lead people to panic buy and stockpile their own resources.

To a certain extent, this skepticism has already been proven right by the response of the government of the United States, where 1.5 trillion USD has been offered in short term loans to banks while those without health insurance are unable to access coronavirus tests. As with other forms of natural disaster, pandemics reveal and exacerbate underlying inequalities, which capitalist states have neither the tools or the desire to remedy.

So while we should push to get as much as we can from the state, we also need to organise at a grassroots level to ensure no one in our communities goes without care, food, or shelter. Community groups, including socialist groups like Organise Aotearoa, trade unions, sports clubs and any other active societies, should embrace a strategy of mutual aid during an outbreak.

 Those who are healthy should do everything they can to support the sick, including buying and delivering groceries, offering rides to those who have no means of private transportation, pooling money to pay for housing and electricity costs, and offering basic human contact in a time of isolation. This is the foundation of a strategy for social solidarity in a time of crisis.

Only through such a concerted effort will we be able to break the common-sense of the pandemic, which encourages isolation and individualism at inhuman levels. Many people will suffer needlessly in an outbreak if we allow these ‘pandemic values’ to determine our actions. We might also find that, allowed to flourish, such a new common sense will make the return of collective values a daunting task even in times of normality. To ensure we’re not entering a dystopic future, we need to stay vigilant against the virus, agitate for everything we can get from the government, and pick up the pieces at a community scale when it’s inevitably not everything we need. Doing so will not only put us in a better position to endure the crisis, but also to ensure the values of social solidarity and collectivism emerge from it stronger, rather than irreparably weakened. 

Ben Rosamond is a trade unionist, researcher, and Organise Aotearoa member based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland

Settler-colonialism in Aotearoa

Historic painting of Te Whanganui-a-Tara, with ships coming into the harbour and a British Imperial flag erected to the left of the frame.

In 2018, members of People Against Prisons Aotearoa summarised Evan Poata Smith’s analysis of settler colonialism in Aotearoa. This document was presented for discussion at PAPA branch meetings. It has now been reformatted for publication.

Written by Emilie Rākete, Aaliyah Zionov, Sophie Morgan, Jessica Lim, Cáit Ó Pronntaigh, Vanessa Arapko, Lisandru Grigorut. 

Edited and reformatted for publication by Cáit Ó Pronntaigh.


Evan Poata-Smith, in his 2001 thesis The Political Economy of Maori Protest Politics 1968-1995: A Marxist Analysis of the Roots of Maori Oppression and the Politics of Resistance, applied a Marxist analysis to the history of racism, colonialism, and dispossession which was brought to Aotearoa. Chapter 2 of his thesis, “Settler Colonialism and the Primitive Accumulation of Capital”, makes the argument that Marx’s account of the origins of capitalism also describes the process of settler-colonialism in Aotearoa. 

Colonisation can sometimes be mystified by its critics, chalked up to inherent incompatibility of Māori and Pākehā value systems. Against the idea that history is driven by ideas, beliefs, and irrational hatreds, Poata-Smith argued instead that the system of brutal, racist violence we see today is driven by the basic economic laws of capitalism. Bigotry and chauvinism have been sold to and taken on by Pākehā in order to justify this process of dispossession and capitalist accumulation.

I. The Age of Revolution and the Global Expansion of Capitalism

In the early 1800s, capitalism was in a period of crisis. There were too few opportunities to make a profit, too many resources were exhausted, and there were too many workers sitting around, getting hungry, angry and desperate. Revolution was brewing! To offset this looming catastrophe, the British capitalist class established a colony in Aotearoa. They sold land to settlers, who then farmed it and exported goods back to Britain. Because there was no capitalist development already here, it was much cheaper and easier to start a profitable venture here than it was back in Europe. 

Capitalism has never been economically stable for a meaningful period of time. Since its inception, capitalism has always been prone to large-scale, destructive economic crises. It is usually followed by a period of massive re-organisation, recovery, and growth, before eventually heading towards crisis once again. This is known by some economists as the “boom and bust” cycle. It was in the early 1800s, in the throes of what was at that point England’s biggest economic “bust” in history, that the colonisation of Aotearoa became a tempting way to recover from economic crises. 

The crisis of the early 1800s was brought about by the land-owning classes consuming all the profits of their land rather than throwing some of those profits into circulation as capital. Karl Marx described this process in his book Capital, terming it the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” This kept constant capital (raw materials like land) very expensive, thus preventing the development of local production and markets. When the cost of producing, for example, eggs goes up, companies have to either shut down or produce less to keep costs as they were before. Even if this starts in just one part of the economy, it can have serious flow-on effects. 

Firstly, it affects other capitalists. A company that makes, for example, cakes, will notice that the supply of eggs they need is suddenly too small or too expensive. They now have to reduce production as well, but they still have a ton of flour and sugar piling up that they have already invested in but can’t do anything with. In order to recuperate as much of their losses as possible, they may flood the market with the finished product at a reduced price. This means that they will not receive the full value of what they’re selling, and thus don’t have money to invest or grow. Over time, the entire “cycle of production”, across the entire economy, is disrupted. 

Secondly, because companies are reducing production and none are growing, people start to lose their jobs en masse and struggle to find new work. This, naturally, leads to devastating and widespread poverty. People can no longer afford to buy the products flooding the markets, or even meet their basic needs. This population of unemployed workers who are now considered “redundant” to the economy is called the relative surplus population. It was these exact conditions of overcrowding, mass unemployment, and misery that generated extreme discontent and rebellion among working people in early-1800s Britain. In order to ward off the threat of socialist revolution, the capitalist government needed to do something about its surplus workers.

At the same time, capitalists in England started trying to thwart the crisis by looking outside of Europe for opportunities to extract cheaper materials, create new markets for their products, and find labourers that will work for less. The New Zealand Company was founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his brothers. Wakefield developed very influential economic theories of colonisation while he was in prison, where he was sentenced after kidnapping and marrying 15-year-old Ellen Turner for her fortune. When Wakefield saw an opportunity to accumulate wealth, nothing could get in his way. The consent of Ellen Turner, her family, or the British judicial system that saw Miss Turner herself as property to be protected, were as insignificant to his goals as the mana and sovereignty of the indigenous people whose lands he would go on to colonise. For the latter, he would face no consequences from the British legal system. The New Zealand Company provided a solution to all of the problems that English capitalist class was facing. By selling land to settlers, the capitalist British state could dispose of its surplus population, create a new foreign trade market, and eventually benefit from imports! All it required was the colonisation of a new territory with the raw materials and resources that Britain now lacked — and the willingness to wade through an ocean of blood to do so.

II. Te Ao Tawhito: ‘The Ancient World’

The precolonial Māori economy was very different to that of Europe. The difficulty of producing enough of the things that people needed to survive meant that their wellbeing was tightly bound up together. Everybody worked together to turn Papatūānuku’s natural resources into houses, food, clothing, tools and weapons. The resources produced were used to benefit everyone, not to make wealth for individual capitalists. There were not enough resources for a minority of people to work less and profit more. If everybody didn’t work together, everybody would die. 

Māori came to Aotearoa from the Pacific, where they had lived on islands in a Polynesian diaspora. Conditions in Aotearoa were very different to conditions in the Pacific. Our home is rich in resources, birds, fish, etc., but it is also much colder. The relations of production — the social relations people must enter into in order to catch the fish, harvest the crops, build infrastructure, raise children — were collective. Production was not based on the ownership of resources as the private property of a handful of wealthy individuals. Instead, resources were understood as collectively belonging to the people themselves.

The most important social unit in this period was the hapū. Hapū are composed of a collection of related family groupings, who are connected to a specific area of land and mutually dependent on each other for their economic, social, and cultural survival. Compared to the intensive, high-speed production in Europe, made possible by advances in industrial technology, it was much more difficult in pre-capitalist Aotearoa to produce a surplus. In other words, groups generally only produced just enough to satisfy everyone’s needs and sustain their existence. If people took more than they needed to, tried to stockpile stuff for later, or otherwise didn’t work for the benefit of everybody else in the hapū, then the entire social unit would be at risk.

This material reality of scarcity meant that the techniques and technologies of production were highly socialised. Plans were laid out in advance by those more experienced, and then carried out by the hapū’s entire workforce. No one had exclusive ownership over any means of production, so no one had the power to exploit or control production for their own personal benefits. Production was carried out to ensure that the collective survived and that its constituents had their needs met. This economy was fundamentally non-capitalist. While goods were exchanged between communities, the purpose of this was not to produce a private profit but to better meet people’s needs.

III. The Primitive Accumulation of Capital

Capitalism is characterised by private, individual ownership of the means of production. This creates division and conflict between the “ownership class” (capitalists) and those that have no control or rights over the things they need to survive. This means that in order to make capitalism happen, aspiring capitalists must obtain ownership of the means of production. In Aotearoa and elsewhere, capitalists have used brutal violence to forcibly take the things people need to survive off them and seize the land.  As a result, the people of that land are turned into workers with no property, who must now sell their labour to the new owners in order to survive. This is what Marx termed “primitive accumulation”. Capitalism is not only different to non-capitalist societies, it is fundamentally incompatible with them and must destroy them in order to grow. In Aotearoa, this required the colonisation of Māori land, and all of the suffering and misery which this entailed.

Poata-Smith argues that we must understand capitalism as a mode of production defined by separation. By this, he is referring to the separation of people from the means of production. Instead of being the collective property of society, resources become the private property of a single class. This class, the capitalist class, then uses its ownership of the things society needs to survive to make people work for them. Where work was once carried out to produce the things people need to survive, and people were provided with those things because their survival was important, work is now only a means for increasing the wealth of capitalists. The needs and survival of ordinary people are secondary to the need for capitalists to make a profit and enjoy their wealth. 

Karl Marx terms the initial separation of producers from the means of production “primitive accumulation.” The first step in primitive accumulation is enclosure – the process of turning “common land,” which everyone was free to use and develop, into private property. Access to this land is literally “closed off”, like a farm enclosure, and the owner gets to decide who is allowed to use it. This land contained not only the soil and materials needed for production, but often people’s entire homes and communities. To make ends meet, the people of this land, who now own nothing but their own labour, are displaced. They have to work for someone else, on their terms, to survive. It is primitive accumulation which lays down the economic groundwork for capitalism to succeed as the main mode of production in society. 

Even in Europe, capitalism could not have taken off without primitive accumulation. In medieval Europe, capitalism replaced feudalism as peasants and self-sustaining communities were separated en masse from the land they had been tied to for generations. This process was extremely harsh and bloody. Displaced populations were forced to move on, many of them ending up in the cities, in workhouses, or in similarly terrible conditions of wage-labour.  When capitalism was strongly established in Europe, and the rate of profit started to fall (see Section I), starting the process of primitive accumulation all over again somewhere else offered capitalists new sources of profit and new markets to be established.

When British settlers arrived in Aotearoa and set the colonial process in motion, they found a society in which producers were not separated from the means of production. This was a society in which capitalism could not exist. This growing “colonial capitalist” class was therefore required to change that society so that these islands could serve their purpose in sustaining British capitalism. The New Zealand Company, a corporation set up by British capitalists, began to buy up land from Māori at a low cost to sell for a profit. This encouraged foreign markets to begin to enter Aotearoa, such as sealing and whaling companies. 

Colonisation was, in some ways, a gradual process. It is impossible to change the way an entire society organises itself overnight. The early European settlers and workers were, in fact, highly dependent on Māori for their survival. There were tensions, but there was also cooperation, and some Pākehā were even integrated into local hapū. However, as more settlers and workers began to arrive, British colonial powers felt that this cooperation was becoming a hindrance to profit. To best serve their economic interests, they  needed to establish a governing body which would legitimise and enforce capitalism as the dominant mode of production in New Zealand. When Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed in 1840, Māori still vastly outnumbered Pākehā. But throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Pākehā settlers began to outnumber Māori and exercise increasing control over the organisation of production and society. This was when it became clear to more and more Māori that their collective ownership of the means of production was under attack, and resistance grew. Māori resistance was met with land being confiscated by the colonial government.

Colonisation brought Māori pre-capitalist production into conflict with capitalism. The land was taken by the government and sold to individual owners, putting primitive accumulation strongly into motion. In several cases, land was granted to families who served the British Empire through military service. The Wallace family who were granted Ihumātao after Governor Grey’s army forcibly confiscated it were such a family. Serial murderers who had loyally carried out the British Empire’s aims were rewarded, and their descendants still benefit from this stolen wealth. The newly established colonial government then passed laws, such as the Native Lands Act 1865 and the Native Land Fraud Prevention Bill 1870, which effectively outlawed communal ownership of land. This led to landless, propertyless Māori being separated from the land, which had previously been their livelihood. Rather than making things on their own terms, they were now forced to sell their labour-power (their ability to work), for a wage, which they could use to buy the things they needed to live, such as food, housing, clothes, and other desired goods and services. If they didn’t work, they would not be able to access those things. They would either die, or they would be forced to break laws in order to survive. If they were caught breaking laws, they would be subjected to the newly established criminal justice system. 

The land itself became the new source of profit which was to be privately owned and Māori were proletarianised. This meant that they were now part of a newly created New Zealand working class, dependent on capitalists to secure their livelihoods. Over time, more laws were passed to further entrench private ownership and capitalism, such as The Native Land Validation Act 1892, West Coast Settlement Reserves Act 1892, Native Land Purchase and Acquisition Act 1893, and the Advances to Settlers Act 1894. Underlying all of this was the fact that Māori who tried to resist this process were threatened with “intervention” by the military and violence from the New Zealand government.

Currently, the prison system has become one of the capitalist state’s primary weapons for maintaining capitalist power in Aotearoa. It is no accident that the majority of criminal offenses in New Zealand pertain to protecting private property rights, such as laws against trespassing, shoplifting, or benefit “fraud”. When protesters are criminalised, trespassing and property damage are some of the things they are most commonly charged with. It’s also no accident that poverty is the greatest factor for the growth of the prison population. In 2017, up to 87% of prisoners were unemployed before prison. Māori communities have been systematically robbed, first of land and tino rangatiratanga, and second, of jobs, housing, public funding, and opportunities, and this shows in the disproportionate prison population statistics, where Māori make up about half the prison population despite being only 15% of the general population. 

But these days, capitalist development on stolen land still continues. Attempts to build expensive housing developments at Ihumātao that few people will be able to afford, the enclosure of the foreshore and seabed in 2004 which directly benefited offshore oil drilling companies. We are reaching a point where fewer and fewer Pākehā even are benefiting from colonisation. In the 1800s, the revolution that working class people and peasants in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland needed was staved off. Instead they were offered the opportunity to improve their conditions, be granted work, income, cheap land and cheap housing off the backs of Māori, and Indigenous peoples in Canada, the US, Australia, and other settler-colonies around the world. Dispossessed people became agents and beneficiaries of British imperialism elsewhere, and British capitalism prolonged its life-support by accumulating new lands and resources. 

Today, we all suffer the consequences of global capitalism and the destruction of papatūānuku. As Teanau Tuiono said, capitalism came to Aotearoa by ship from England, and grew out of the barrel of a gun. Capitalism could not have developed here without the theft of land, sovereignty, and systematic dispossession of Māori. To dismantle capitalism and ensure the survival of the land and the people, imperialism must also be lifted out at the root. We must work together to dismantle the settler-colonial capitalist regime, and restore the tino rangatiratanga of Māori. 

Further reading: E.S. Te Ahu Poata Smith, The Political Economy of Maori Protest Politics 1968-1995: A Marxist Analysis of the Roots of Maori Oppression and the Politics of Resistance, University of Otago, 2001.

Statement from Organise Aotearoa: For Liberation and Socialism on the start of hostilities between the US and Iran.

The brightly coloured interior of Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz City, Iran.

To all of our members, supporters, and many friends and comrades in Aotearoa.

As you may know, at some time around 12:30pm yesterday it was reported that the Islamic Republic of Iran has responded to escalating US aggression by targeting several US Military sites within Iraq. For many, this signals a potential beginning to a new and terrible epoch of conventional warfare between world and regional powers.

As an organisation for socialism and international solidarity between all working people of the world, we stand firmly against this new threat to the lives of millions of people, especially those who have already suffered so much at the hands of outside aggressors in the Middle East. We pledge firmly to never support such a war, and that we will be seeking an alliance with all of those in Aotearoa who would see us pull out of all military and security treaties with the United States, and any other potential party in the coming war. 

With New Zealand as a signatory in several treaties and alliances, such as ANZUS and the Five Eyes Agreement, as well as a past and current participant in several US occupation forces, we are concerned that the New Zealand Government will be drawn into conflict with those whom we should instead join hands in international solidarity, the working people of Iran. Theirs is a beautiful country with a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we will not stand to see New Zealand troops acting as invaders, murderers, or accessories in crimes of war upon their soil.

In addition to an end to direct military cooperation between the US and the New Zealand Government, we demand an end to all forms of indirect support, such as fleet basing rights, arms sales, security contracting, and intelligence sharing. Furthermore we demand an end to militarism in all its forms.

For our part, we as an organisation offer our wholehearted support to any domestic efforts against this war which instead focus on the solidarity between peoples and the need for disarmament and anti-imperialism at home. We desperately need an alliance against war and imperialism, and commit ourselves fully to peace and liberation.

The coming months may offer great challenges, and we send our unreserved love to those who are willing to fight against war.

In a spirit of peace, solidarity and hope,
Organise Aotearoa


(Header image depicts the inside of Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz City, Iran. One of the cultural sites threatened by President Trump on Twitter. Photograph by Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji. Released under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.)