Saturday, December 26, 2015

Under the Christmas tree, the beach! This season's communising measures...

Happy Christmas fellow wage-slaves! I'm re-reading this Endnotes #2 text and wanted to share a great segment from it:

"The theory of communisation emerged as a critique of various conceptions of the revolution inherited from both the 2nd and 3rd International Marxism of the workers’ movement, as well as its dissident tendencies and oppositions. The experiences of revolutionary failure in the first half of the 20th century seemed to present as the essential question, whether workers can or should exercise their power through the party and state (Leninism, the Italian Communist Left), or through organisation at the point of production (anarcho-syndicalism, the Dutch-German Communist Left).

On the one hand some would claim that it was the absence of the party — or of the right kind of party — that had led to revolutionary chances being missed in Germany, Italy or Spain, while on the other hand others could say that it was precisely the party, and the “statist,” “political” conception of the revolution, that had failed in Russia and played a negative role elsewhere.

Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content.

Communisation implied a rejection of the view of revolution as an event where workers take power followed by a period of transition: instead it was to be seen as a movement characterised by immediate communist measures (such as the free distribution of goods) both for their own merit, and as a way of destroying the material basis of the counter-revolution.

If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself.

By contrast, the revolution as a communising movement would destroy — by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them — all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the state and — most fundamentally — wage labour and the working class itself."

So what the hell are 'communist measures'? There's a text on communist measures here, but one Libcom posters note that:

'communisation is a movement at the level of the totality'. So it's not a question of particular acts being communising, and enough of them adding up to communism/revolution, but that acts take on a communising character depending on the movement of which they're a part. This is all a bit abstract, so I'll give an example.

Let's imagine a single factory closes down, and is occupied, taken over and self-managed by its workers. This may or may not be a good thing; I doubt many communisation theorists, even those most critical of self-management would begrudge workers trying to survive, though some argue occupying to demand a higher severance package would be a better approach than assuming management of a failing firm. But a single act like this doesn't challenge the totality of capitalist relations, it would just swap a vertically managed firm for a horizontally managed one, leaving the 'totality' unchanged.

However, if factory takeovers were happening on a mass scale, such that they could start doing away with commercial/commodity relations between them; and at the same time there were insurgent street movements toppling governments; mass refusals to pay rent/mortgages and militant defence of subsequent 'squatting'; collective kitchens springing up to feed insurgents (whether they're 'workers' in a narrow sense, or homeless, or domestic workers, or unemployed or whatever); and free health clinics being opened either by laid off doctors/nurses, or in their spare time, or in occupied hospitals and other buildings... If this was happening across several countries then we might be looking at a communising movement at the level of the totality; toppling state power, superseding commercial relations, making possible social reproduction (housing, food, health) without mediation by money, self-management of the activities necessary for this etc (rather than self-management of commodity production and wage labour).

All a long way to say that: a) things can't go on the way they are, and b) the struggle against the way things are can't necessarily be the same as struggles of the past.

Time for some more reading!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

I designed a poster...

It's been a while, but here's my latest poster for the Labour History Project. It's a play on Lenin's famous text, the red flag, etc etc.

If you're in Wellington make sure to get to this event and help support the work of the LHP:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Upcoming AK Press fundraiser in Wellington - 26 September

A fundraising celebration of radical and independent publishing in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond!

AK Press is a worker-run, collectively managed anarchist publishing and distribution company, in operation since 1990. On March 21st of this year, a fire in a building behind AK’s caught fire and the fire spread to AK’s warehouse. Two people living in the building died in the fire, much of AK’s inventory was damaged by water and smoke, and the city has deemed their building uninhabitable. While they have suffered a major blow they are carrying on and continue to publish and distribute anarchist and radical literature around the world, including to Aotearoa New Zealand. But they need all the help they can get and all money raised at this event will go directly to their fire relief fund.

More information about AK Press and the fire can be found at

Speakers so far:
Jared Davidson
Mark Darby
Rebel Press
The Freedom Shop
Kassie Hartendorp
Faith Wilson
Leilani A Visesio
Kerry Ann Lee
Maria McMillan
Pip Adam
Scott Kendrick
Don Franks
Ken Simpson
Barry Pateman
Murdoch Stephens

With music by:
Mr Sterile Assembly
Te Kupu
Gold Medal Famous
The All Seeing Hand

When: Saturday September 26, 2015
Where: Moon, 167 Riddiford St, Newtown, Wellington
$10 to $10 million depending on how generous you're feeling!

Readings from 6:30 pm, music from 9pm
AK Press books will be available for sale through The Freedom Shop.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance (review)

Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance
By Scott Nikolas Nappalos, ed. (Alberta, Canada: Black Cat Press, 2013)
Review by Jared Davidson, first published in LHP Bulletin 64.

Lines of Work is a fascinating, at times bleak and emotive volume of stories about work and its effect on our lives. How fitting then, that my review copy was waiting for me after my usual 20-minute trip home from work had stretched to four hours, thanks to the flooding in Wellington of 14 May 2015. Work (with a little help from the weather) had kept me away from my loved ones even more than it already does on a day-to-day basis. That period after clocking out was clearly not my own time, but that of capital.

The thirty-two stories in Lines Of Work explore similar examples of contemporary working life. It brings together texts originally published on “Recomposition”, an online publication run by a collective of worker radicals based in the US and Canada. Written between 2009 and 2011, we hear from a range of people in various jobs, including non-profit organisations (which are no different from the rest). The writers are not professionals, and rightly so—the purpose of Lines of Work stems from a desire to link and explore the everyday experiences of people who work as an organising tool. As we know, “the personal is political”, and Lines of Work is an example of a radical praxis that supports the power of discourse without drifting into a Foucauldian abyss.

“In the eyes of dominant culture and the opinions of political culture” writes editor Scott Nappalos in the Introduction, “stories play second fiddle. In political life, literature is at best an emotional tool for theory, something to motivate people around a cause or worse, simply pure entertainment.” Yet “looking at stories in that way is out of step with working life. The lives of working-class people are filled with stories people share every day about their struggles, perspectives, and aspirations” (p.1).

With this in mind, Lines of Work asks us to take a serious look at the way stories can help us build a better society. “There is something powerful in the process of someone who participates in struggle finding a voice to their experiences… reframing the role of stories requires us seeing this process as both part of being an active participant in social struggles, and as a way to participate” (p.2). In doing so a transformation can occur, opening “up space for deeper work” (p.2). Stories about work should be seen “not only for their beauty, tragedy, and motivating power in our lives, but also as a reflection of workers grappling with their world and creating new currents of counter-power autonomous from the dominance of capital and the State” (p.7). Stories of work, therefore, are a “part of workers’ activity to understand and change their lot under capitalism… through storytelling, [the stories] draw out the lessons of workplace woes, offering new paths and perspectives for social change and a new world” (blurb).

As another reviewer has pointed out, “a good amount of these jobs—finance, food service, clerical work, manufacturing bullets for imperialist wars—are not the seeds of a future society but a blight on the present one. There is no straight line from these jobs to a libertarian communist society, nor are most of them (except for the bullet factory, really), strategic ‘choke points’ of capital, as the present theories of circulation dictates that we seek out. A revolutionary struggle would be waged to eliminate these jobs, not to make them cooperative”. Yet this is not necesarily the point of the book. While it may lack the “what next” element some readers crave, Lines of Work is a welcome addition to the subjective aspect of working-class experience that is often missing from theoretical accounts of struggle.

In Lines of Work, the stories are organised into three sections: resistance, time, and sleep. The theme of “resistance” “gives accounts of trying to correct problems at work, and collective lessons that came out of those struggles” (p.7). What struck me about this section was the arbitrariness that so many workers have to deal with in their day-to-day work, from not being allowed to celebrate birthdays to managerial changes to a roster. These are not tales of general strikes or historic moments, but stories of little struggles: of the mundane yet important tasks that can either foster resistance or keep a workforce down. Some victories are shared, but so are many losses and regrets at what happened, or what could have been done differently.

“Time” was my favourite section and the largest in the book. It covers “the world of work, in all that it demands and takes from us” (p.7). What this means is spelled out in rare, intimate detail, and in a way that instantly resonates (well, for me at least). Travel to and from work, repetitive on-the-job tasks, shitty customers, shitty bosses, sexism and difficult workplace conversations, racism, identity, class, job control, poor health, despair—are explored across workplaces totally different yet unsurprisingly the same. I light-heartedly explained this to a friend as “the commonalities of crappiness”. But in all seriousness, what is great about this book is how the stories connect the common elements of working life, and place our own experiences of work into an international context.

The section titled “Sleep and Dreams” shares examples of how capital invades what is supposedly our “own” time: our sleep. Who hasn’t dreamed about work? Had a nightmare of turning up to work a job they quit years ago? “Awaking from a work dream only to find one’s work day only beginning is perhaps one of the banal horrors shared most widely by the entire worldwide proletariat”. These stories of dreams and (lack of) sleep are sad yet fascinating in their own right. But the underlining idea of un-free time and the reproduction of capital (in the form of what we do in between clocking out and signing in) is a strong critique of work as a separate activity of life—of alienation. It is the perfect way to end an engaging and highly readable expose of contemporary working life, and how unnatural the wage relation truly is.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Lunchtime talk - a few pics

Thank you all who attended my lunchtime talk. Images by Llewelyn Jones, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lunchtime talk - Censored Letters of the First World War

AD1 Box 771/ 23-8 Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, Wellington Office

For those in Wellington, I’d like to invite you to my free lunchtime talk at the National Library on Tuesday July 28.

Seeing Red: Censored Letters of the First World War 
A lunchtime talk at the National Library corner Aitken and Molesworth Streets, Thorndon 
Tuesday 28 July 12.10pm – 1.00pm

From the outbreak of the First World War until November 1920, the private letters of mothers, lovers, internees and workmates were subject to a strict censorship. A team of diligent readers in post offices across the country poured over pounds and pounds of mail. Some were stamped and sent on; others made their way into the hands of Police Commissioners. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of correspondence heralded the largest state invasion of private life in New Zealand’s history.

Using a unique, little-used collection of censored letters at Archives New Zealand (the Army’s ‘Secret Registry’) I hope to offer a fascinating insight into postal censorship, state attitudes toward dissent, and the New Zealand home front during the First World War.

Please RSVP to with ‘Seeing Red’ in the subject line.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Colonial Continuum: Archives, Access, and Power

This paper, which won the 2016 Michael Standish Prize for best archival essay, comes from Archifacts: Journal of the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand, April 2015. Many thanks to Julie Black, Kim McBreen and Hinerangi Himiona for their input and support. You can download a PDF version at here.

Abstract: As Ann Laura Stoler notes, “what constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power.” These forms and systems determine what records are discovered, how they are accessed, and the experience of the user.

Drawing on work with Māori/iwi/hapū groups, this paper addresses settler colonialism and its continuing impact on records creation, archival access, and knowledge production. It argues that archivists should address the way our institutions are organized (both spatially and structurally), and our obligations under te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

The use of public records is at the heart of my job as an archivist. I view myself as a facilitator of cultural production, someone who aids the accessing of stories in order to weave new narratives (including counter-narratives). But this image of myself is constantly challenged in my day-to-day practice. As an archivist working with government records, my relationship with the user is immediately complex: I become the personification of the state.i As a Pākehā archivist working with government records that document settler colonialism in its many forms—dispossession, theft, cultural suppression, sexism, murder—I become something more specific. Whether I like it or not, in my role and in relation to Māori researchers, I embody settler colonialism.

I am challenged by this idea, and feel uncomfortable that I may be seen as a gatekeeper to stolen knowledge—literally the person between the researcher and their tūpuna. Both the physical space of institutions, and the process of accessing records, does little to damper the perception that I serve the government of past and present. In the words of Sue McKemmish, “the very form of the archive provides evidence of the power relationships and social values of the society that produced it, including the prevailing evidentiary paradigm.”ii

If we are to shake off what colonial dust we can within current social and economic limitations, then questions relating to settler colonialism, records creation, archival access, and knowledge production need to be addressed. While I touch on these topics below, and highlight possible organizational models based on tikanga Māori and te Tiriti o Waitangi, my polemic does not pretend to cover them in any detail. Rather, it forms part of a wider constitutional discussion taking place outside of the archive—one I think archivists could and should be participating in.

Settler colonialism 

Settler colonialism is “a process in which colons emigrate(d) with the express purposes of territorial occupation and the formation of a new community.”iii Rather than just the extraction of labour or resources (although this is still a feature), these new communities settle on land already occupied by indigenous peoples. Through various means, some more insidious than others, land and sovereignty was (and is) taken from these peoples for the benefit of settler communities.iv As Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini note, “settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present.” There is no such thing as post-colonialism, they argue, because settler colonialism—and the white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism that drives it—“is a resilient formation that rarely ends.”v

The effects of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples have been felt in every aspect of their spiritual and material lives. In her excellent paper on the tapu of taonga, Kim Mcbreen notes how colonialism attempts “to destroy the structures of Māori society including mātauranga Māori, and the tikanga based on it.”vi Not only does it impose “western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law and government, but the imposition of western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledge’s, languages and cultures.”vii As Waziyatawin, a Minnesota professor and activist, writes:

Colonialism is the massive fog that has clouded our imaginations regarding who we could be, excised our memories of who we once were, and numbed our understanding of our current existence. Colonialism is the force that disallows us from recognizing its confines while at the same time limiting our vision of possibilities. Colonialism is the farce that compels us to feel gratitude for small concessions while our fundamental freedoms are denied. Colonialism has set the parameters of our imaginations to constrain our vision of what is possible.viii

Because of this, indigenous peoples have struggled in various ways against settler colonialism. For some this entails a radical social shift, one that dismantles the entire colonial system, decentralizes power, and reestablishes the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. Without this, any repatriation of land or principles of partnership fall short of meaningful change. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) argues forcibly that “accommodation of cultural differences, and even transfers of land, can be accepted by the state so long as the power relationship remains intact and the capitalist system animating it remains unquestioned... accepting these offers of recognition has only meant the continued dispossession of our homelands."ix

The colonial continuum and issues of access

This is not the place to assess the Aotearoa experience with regard to decolonization or tino rangatiratanga. But with the ongoing settlement of claims relating to te Tiriti o Waitangi, more and more iwi and hapū are visiting archives for cultural redress. With this comes the very real issue of access. Writing of her work with an indigenous community in northern Australia, activist and intellectual property scholar Jane Anderson posits this challenge:

Imagine that members of the community have grown tired of having to travel for several days in order to see any documentation about the community. They have grown tired of people turning up with documents and information that they didn’t know existed. They have grown tired of being told their own history by non- indigenous people with greater access to archives in metropolitan centres. They have grown frustrated at not being able to control the circulation of the knowledge held within documents that they have not been given time to assess; that they do not own.x

My cultural biases may cloud my experience of iwi visits, but a recent example is telling. On the surface there is excitement at the prospect of accessing their stories as viewed and documented by the state. It is acknowledged that the collection is important, sacred, and one that must be cared for. But the colonial context and history that led to the creation of the records is always present. “The colonial collecting endeavor was not innocent,” argues Anderson. “It had intent, it had effects and it has remaining consequences.”xi For example, when showing a deed of purchase for a large tract of land to one researcher, I could feel the anger and emotion the record stirred. And there is every right to be angry—both at the undoing of indigenous sovereignty, and the fact that to access an account of that undoing has to be through a Pākehā intermediary, through a Pākehā finding aid and system of organization, and inside a Pākehā institution.

We cannot change the past; nor should we abandon core archival principles that help illuminate it. But as Ann Laura Stoler notes, “what constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power.”xii This relates as much to current practice as it does to the past.

The issue of colonial power manifests itself in other ways. Research shows that monocultural spaces such as government buildings can act as a barrier to access. A survey conducted by Auckland Libraries found that nearly a third of Māori participants reported feelings of discomfort, while my own research into non-users found that participants interviewed felt some form of institutional anxiety.xiii Such anxiety will always likely to be present for Māori until they see their culture reflected in public institutions; until information systems and spaces are truly “based on the philosophies or belief systems of iwi.”xiv Yet according to Luqman Hayes’ 2012 study, there was “scant evidence that kaupapa Māori, mātauranga Māori and Te Ao Māori form part of a formalized bicultural strategy within small and medium (that is, level two and three) public libraries in New Zealand.”xv That libraries are still ahead of archives in this area is revealing.

Records creation and the ownership of knowledge
The question of access leads on to records creation and the ownership of knowledge, especially indigenous knowledge. Anderson writes of colonial law being the “archon of the archive.” It governs the collection and ensures indigenous peoples, as the ‘subjects’ of records, are “not recognized as having legal rights as ‘authors’, ‘artists’ or ‘owners’. Simply, and literally, they did not ‘make’ the record.”xvi This paradigm of colonial control has “ongoing legacies in archives where indigenous people still have to mount arguments for why they also have rights to access, to copy and to control material that documents and records their lives and cultures in intimate detail.”xvii

Some may argue that according to the Public Records Act the records are ‘theirs’, in that the collection exists as a cultural memory accessible to anyone. They are, after all, public records. But this says nothing of power dynamics and the many barriers to access, let alone non-western understandings of knowledge and ownership. As one participant in my research argued, western paradigms, coupled with socio-economic factors, would prevent many like him from accessing archives. “There are all sorts of ways that people are disenfranchised from accessing information,” he said, “whether that’s various kinds of literacy i.e. the most basic literacy, or literacy on the level of being able to filter and understand the particular languages that are used by officialdom.” There was also the “emotional reality of being disenfranchised—what’s your motivation to access information and know about the particulars of your disenfranchisement if you don’t have hope for things being different?”xviii

To paraphrase Anderson and Stoler, the colonial continuum reveals and reproduces the power of the state. At its most basic level, it determines what records are discovered and accessed. For example, the iwi researcher could not understand why the deed, which contained many names of family signatories and sites of immense importance, were not listed in the finding aid. Why, he could have asked, was a detailed series description on the government agency that created the record available, but nothing existed on the other party? Were not the Māori signatories equal creators of the record, equal predecessor agencies? Where was the metadata that he could search, that he could relate to? Adding intuitive metadata for Māori to existing records is just one small way of unsettling such power. An EDRMS based on mātauranga Māori would be another way to future-proof intuitive access.

Tikanga Māori and te Tiriti o Waitangi 
If we are to remain custodians of documented interaction with tangata whenua, then we have a responsibility to continue changes in the archival profession. The way our institutions are organized (both spatially and structurally), and the way we approach knowledge production, need to be governed with those whose land our archives possess. In doing so we acknowledge that Māori, in signing te Tiriti o Waitangi (and not the English ‘version’) never ceded their sovereignty. In doing so we acknowledge that tikanga was the first law of Aotearoa, and that it has a place outside of policy documents or powhiri.

According to Moana Jackson, “tikanga has been diminished and constrained by the labels of colonization... tikanga has been transformed from its expanding site of freedom and political sovereignty into a subordinate place of ceremony.”xix Ani Mikaere writes how this elaborate system of balance and regulation “was ensured through the exercise of rangatiratanga, which was ‘a total political authority’. Importantly,” she notes, “both the Declaration of Independence and te Tiriti o Waitangi that followed it reaffirmed that authority.”xx If we are to acknowledge te Tiriti as understood and documented in te reo Māori, then tikanga Māori and its political framework cannot be divorced from it.

This is not a matter of ‘special treatment’. Nor is it the imposition of the past actions of others onto future generations. It is the recognition that unlike Pakeha or other cultural groups that make up Aotearoa, “Māori are tangata whenua—Māori culture, history and language have no other home.”xxi Sven Lindqvist in Terra Nullius reminds us that as beneficiaries of settler colonialism, Pākehā have no right to disown the dirtier aspects of our past: “I’d had my share of the booty, so I had to take my share of the responsibility, too.”xxii

With this responsibility comes a unique opportunity—one that could inform others the world over. Recent debates around constitutional reform show us that sincere, Tiriti-based models of governance and organization are available. A long-standing example is the Raukawa-Mihinare Model. This decision-making structure consists of three houses:

Tikanga Māori House: where the Māori partners plan and prepare their proposals
Tikanga Pākehā House: where the Pākehā partners plan and prepare their submissions
Two-Tikanga (or Tiriti o Waitangi) House: where a council of representatives of the two tikanga houses consider individual and joint proposals against a set of criteriaxxiii

According to this structure, all proposals are tested against te Tiriti o Waitangi, and decision making within both the Māori and the Two-Tikanga house is by consensus.xxiv

One organization that has formally adopted and adapted this framework is the NZ Playcentre Federation. It is also governed at a national level by the Raukawa-Mihinare model. Decisions made by Te Whare Tikanga Māori and Tangata Tiriti House are brought together and then celebrated in Te Wa o Rongo, The Treaty of Waitangi House. In the words of Rachelle Hautapu, “we have said yes to the opportunity to show Aotearoa New Zealand what a Tiriti based partnership can look like, to demonstrate how we can preserve the mana of both Māori and Pākehā in ways that are authentic and meaningful.”xxv

This model had already been extended to the GLAM sector. Whatarangi Winiata from Te Wānanga o Raukawa talks of the relationship between a Māori worldview and the organization of their library, and the development of a kaupapa-tikanga framework.xxvi Winiata gives examples of how this works in practice:

Other examples exist, such as that used by The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (which has their own tikanga house model). The Independent Iwi Constitutional Working Group, convened by Professor Margaret Mutu and chaired by Moana Jackson, has also been developing a constitutional model based on tikanga Māori, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni (1835), and te Tiriti o Waitangi. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is core to their work.xxvii

In conclusion, there are past and present examples of how our institutions could be organised differently, as well as future opportunities not yet developed. A wider conversation is needed to see how an archival model could be implemented; one that is beyond the scope of this short text. Nonetheless, I want to end by echoing the words of Ani Mikaere: the recognition of tikanga Māori as the first law of Aotearoa need not be a cause for alarm. As Pākehā, confronting our past and our colonialism “might prove liberating.”xxviii Acknowledging tikanga Māori and the overriding authority of tino rangatiratanga that was reaffirmed in 1840 allows us to create a meaningful Tiriti relationship, one that carries the seeds of a fruitful future.xxix While extra metadata and the recognition of tikanga in the archive falls short of decolonization, it goes some way to address the promises made by the Crown. By honoring such promises, we honor the importance of our collection, our collective past, and our future users.

i. Given that the state is an abstract way of defining social relationships between people, it’s not technically correct for me to say that I personify it. More fitting would be that my relationship with the user becomes ‘statist’, but I didn’t want to bore with ultra-left semantics in the first paragraph.
ii. Sue McKemmish, ‘Traces: Document, record, archives, archives’ in Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed & Frank Upward (eds.), Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, New South Wales: Centre for Information Studies, 2005, p.18.
iii. Ashley Wiersma, ‘What is settler colonialism?’, available online at
iv. It is important to note that settler communities are not homogenous—divisions of class, gender etc ensures certain parts of the community benefit more than others. However, the fundamental fact that all settlers benefit from colonialism remains.
v. Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini, as cited by Wiersma, ‘What is settler colonialism?’
vi. Kim Mcbreen, ‘The tapu of toanga and wāhine in a colonized land’, available online at
vii. Linda Smith, as cited by Mcbreen, ‘The tapu of toanga and wāhine in a colonized land’
viii. Waziyatawin, ‘Colonialism on the Ground’ in Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality, Minnesota: Unsettling Minnesota, 2009, p.192.
ix. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), as cited by Daniel Tseghay, available online at
x. Jane Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’, available online at and-copyright-law/
xi. Ibid.
xii. Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science, 2007, p.87.
xiii. Luqman Hayes, ‘Kaupapa Māori In New Zealand Public Libraries,’ New Zealand Library and Information Management Journal 53 (December 2013). Available online at m%C4%81ori-newzealand-public-libraries; Jared Davidson, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Non-user Understandings of Archives in Aotearoa New Zealand’, Masters Research Essay, February 2014, available online at

xiv. Hayes, ‘Kaupapa Māori in New Zealand Public Libraries, p.87.
xv. Ibid.
xvi. Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’.
xvii. Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’.
xviii. Davidson, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind?, p.22.
xix. Moana Jackson, as cited by Ani Mikaere, ‘The Treaty of Waitangi and Recognition of Tikanga Māori’ in Michael Belgrave, Merata Kawharu, & David Vernon Williams (eds.), Waitangi Revisited: Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.330.
xx. Ibid., p.332.
xxi. Constitutional Advisory Panel, New Zealand’s Constitution: A Report on a Conversation, November 2013, p.33.
xxii. Sven Lindqvist, Terra Nullius: A Journey through No One’s Land, London: Grata Books, 2007, p.12.
xxiii. Whatarangi Winiata, ‘Raukawa-Mihinare Constitutional Model - Our People, Our Future, Our Way’. Presentation at Our People, Our Future, Our Way, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki, 18 November 2013.
xxiv. Ibid.
xxv. Rachelle Hautapu, ‘A Perspective on the New Federation Structure’, Playcentre Journal 142, 2011, p.27.
xxvi. Whatarangi Winiata, ‘Our knowledge, our future: Puna maumahara & the mātauranga continuum’. Presentation at Sixth International Indigenous Librarians' Forum , Ōtaki, 1-4 February, 2009.
xxvii. Independent Iwi Constitutional Working Group,
xxviii. Mikaere, ‘The Treaty of Waitangi and Recognition of Tikanga Māori’, p.345.
xxix. Ibid.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The myth of New Zealand exceptionalism (1): a workers paradise

New Zealand. High Commission (Great Britain). New Zealand wants domestic servants; good homes, good wages. [ca 1912].. Information about New Zealand for domestic servants / issued by the High Commissioner for New Zealand...London, [ca 1912].. Ref: Eph-A-IMMIGRATION-1912-cover. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

There is a perception held by many that New Zealand as a nation state is somehow exceptional. 'We did things differently here'; 'we are unique and unlike any other nation in the world'. From this stems a number of myths, from 'the best race relations in the world' myth to 'our liberal democratic traditions'. In this way, the feel-good, capitalist, settler narrative succeeds in its task: the reproduction of the capitalist settler state. 

One myth of New Zealand exceptionalism that I addressed in Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism (AK Press, 2013) was the idea of nineteenth century New Zealand being a 'workers' paradise'. This was important to bring up, because this idea seemed to deny the need for (or the existence of) an anarchist movement in New Zealand. In this post I'm sharing parts from Chapter Three of Sewing Freedom.

Despite an upsurge of new unionism where workers “began to see themselves as representatives of a class rather than a craft or trade” (culminating in the national Maritime Strike of 1890), New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century has predominately been viewed as a ‘Workingman’s Paradise.’1 The arcadian imagery of New Zealand that was sold to its early immigrants—a ‘land of milk and honey’ where natural abundance and the innate moderation of its inhabitants would abolish the necessity for social organization and its by-products of wealth, power, and status—has lingered on, partly because the workers who packed up and left the Old World did not want to admit that their sacrifices had been in vain, and also because “powerful mechanisms prevented the formation of alternative and contrasting visualizations.”2

Historical narratives are one such mechanism. In Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies, casualized labour relationships and mobility between employment; the prevalence of the individualist, nomadic, and transient single male; and a minimal development of working class communities (or cohesive social organization in general), are upheld to illustrate that New Zealand society, at least before 1890, was relatively free of hierarchy and class divisions.3 One historian even goes so far as to ask whether New Zealanders “have or have had a bourgeoisie and a proletariat, and a struggle between the two.”4 Relatively progressive laws, coupled with perceived egalitarian attitudes of the population, led historians and contemporaries alike to promote the country as an equal society: a land without strikes.5 From 1894, when legislation was introduced that outlawed strike action and forced unions and employers into negotiated industrial awards governed by the Arbitration Court (known as the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, or ICA), until a strike by Auckland tramway workers in 1906, there were no recorded strikes in New Zealand.

Yet such a view conveniently precludes the existence of class struggle outside of strike action. The notion that the colony was free of class and hierarchy also neglects the fact that New Zealand’s Pākehā culture was founded on the destruction, exploitation, and colonization of the local indigenous population and their resources. And while it is true that before 1904 explicitly anarchist activity is minimal, it hides the fact that from the arrival of its very first settlers in the early-nineteenth century, New Zealand has been a capitalist society—divided by class and informed by social relations of production and accumulation in both urban and rural New Zealand.

Hierarchy, gender division, the subordination of all aspects of life to work, and the constant reproduction of capital is intertwined with such relations, and whether those relationships were casualized, sporadic, or isolated does not negate their existence. Even if workers had managed to avoid the wage relation for a short time (and worked for themselves), wage relations dominated the wider society in which that labour was performed. “Capitalism is not just a social system that exploits people through work,” but does so through its ability “to turn all of life into work for its own reproduction.”6 In other words, individuals—directly or indirectly—were always dominated by capitalist relations. As one of the world’s youngest colonies, New Zealand was no exception.

It is clear that the global reproduction of capital was a driving factor in the colonization of New Zealand. Capitalist relations were “transplanted quite deliberately by the sponsors of the New Zealand Company,” an organization that competed with the British government in the quest to monopolize New Zealand pastures. In response to the American and Australian example, and in order to give capital the opportunity to accumulate in New Zealand, the director of the company, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, repeatedly argued that:

the ruling authority should put a high price on virgin land so that the labourer would have to work a considerable time before he could save enough to become a landowner… before he withdrew [from the labour market] he would have to work long enough to provide capital accumulation for the original landowning employers and to save a sum to provide a fund to bring out other wage workers to take his place.7

Accordingly, land prices were kept high to ensure a class of labourers, agricultural mechanics and domestic servants would be available for exploitation by landowners who remained home in England, helping to cement “not a subsistence but a capitalist economy.”8 This economy, geared to provide British capital with fruits from New Zealand’s “quarry of stored-up natural resources,” relied on the suppression of Māori and the labour power of the working class.9 As a result, New Zealand soon featured the evils many immigrants thought they had left at the docks: wage labour, want in a land of plenty, strikes, and unemployment. The withdrawal of labour as acts of protest broke out in 1821, 1840, and again in 1841, and as early as 1877, large meetings of the unemployed could be found on the street corners of the colony.10

One early example is telling. Problems with the Pākehā settlement of Nelson by the New Zealand Company caused many issues for workers. Class relations were deliberately transplanted to Nelson by the Company: in 1842 four ships carried 60 cabin passengers and nearly 800 labourers, while two-thirds of Nelson land-owners were absentee (remaining back in Britain). This led to under cultivation and unemployment, and for months workers and their families had to survive on meagre aid from the Company. As Bill Sutch notes, many lived on fern roots, native berries, and potatoes (when they were available).

On 14 January 1843 a petition by 'The Working Men of Nelson' was sent to Captain Arthur Wakefield, the brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Company's agent in Nelson. "You sir are well aware that we have been seduced from our fatherland our homes and friends by the flattering pretensions of the New Zealand Company," began the petition. Arguing they had come to New Zealand as "honourable and Industrious men wishing only to live by our own industry and to produce a comfortable maintenance for ourselves and our family's," they wanted Wakefield to look into their situation and improve the Company's rations. "If you refuse to stand by the working men of Nelson you sign its Death warrant & seal its doom as a colony."

The workers' predictions almost came true when the Company stopped paying relief in 1844. Facing starvation and the swearing in of special constables at the request of landowners, workers squatted on Company reserves, and in the end the Company allowed settlers to lease or buy small allotments of land from the absentee landowners.

Teething pains for the new colony? No. If class was solely based on income (which it is not), one could also point out that between 1903 and 1904, 0.5 percent of the New Zealand population owned 33 percent of its wealth.11 Stevan Eldred-Grigg in New Zealand Working People notes that many landowners earned £20,000 to £30,000 a year, often tax free, while the wages of a farm labourer were £41 per year. Female nursemaids working the same estate house sometimes earned as little as £13 annually. While an idle few pocketed huge fortunes, such as Sir George Clifford and his £512,000 worth of assets (over 30,000 times the average working wage), the majority worked, and worked hard—a simple commodity in the eyes of some employers. “I just look on them as I do on a bag of potatoes,” claimed one factory owner.12 Again, it was worse if you were female. When the Wellington Domestic Workers’ Union asked the Arbitration Court for the hours worked by maids to be reduced to sixty-eight a week, they were turned away.

There is no doubting the fact that early colonial New Zealand was a considerable improvement on the Old World for Pākehā, that individualism was the prevalent ideology, and that some immigrants did find relative freedom when compared with their past lives. “It is clear that there was a high degree of transience and that the working class was fragmented in New Zealand,” writes Melanie Nolan, “fragmented by sex and race into pockets, and by the smallest of workplaces and communities.”13

But this does not equal a society without class. Likewise, the colony may have been free of recorded strikes for a short period, but it was never without capitalist relations—locally or globally. No amount of state liberalism in the form of women’s suffrage, pensions or law-locked unions could ever abolish hierarchy, class and gender divisions. In reality, these reforms were the direct response of capital to the resistance of New Zealand workers in the late 1880s, and while they certainly improved some aspects of working life, they simply helped file down the rough edges of capitalism’s chains. As Edward Tregear, ex-Secretary of the Labour Department, wrote: “there had been a feeling (perhaps unconscious) that they [the Government] had to settle every [Parliamentary] Session with how few bones could be thrown to the growling Labour Dog to keep him from actually biting.”14

1. Herbert Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand: Past and Present, Reed Education, 1973, p. 10.
2. Miles Fairburn, The Ideal Society and its Enemies: The Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society 1850–1900, Auckland University Press, 1989, p. 22. 

3. Ibid. 
4. W.H. Oliver, “Rees, Sinclair and the Social Patern,” in Peter Munz, (ed.), The Feel of Truth: Essays in New Zealand and Pacific History, A.H. Reed, 1969, p. 163. 
5. Stuart Moriarty-Patten, “A World to Win, a Hell to Lose: The Industrial Workers of the World in Early Twentieth Century New Zealand,” Thesis, Massey University, 2012, p. 6; p. 117. 
6. Harry Cleaver, “An Interview with Harry Cleaver,” available online at  
7. W.B. Sutch, The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840 to 1966, Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 8. 
8. Bert Roth & Jenny Hammond, Toil and Trouble: The Struggle For a Better Life in New Zealand, Methuen, 1981, p. 10; Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Penguin, 2000 Edition, p. 158. 
9. Sutch, The Quest For Security in New Zealand, p. ix. 
10. Roth & Hammond, Toil and Trouble, p. 12–14; Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, p. 168. 
11. Moriarty-Patten, “A World to Win,” p. 6. 
12. Steven Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People 1890–1990, Dunmore Press, 1990. 
13. Melanie Nolan, “Family and Culture: Jack and Maggie McCullough and the Christchurch Skilled Working Class, 1880s–1920s” in John Martin & Kerry Taylor, (eds.), Culture and the Labour Movement: essays in New Zealand Labour History, Dunmore Press, 1991, p. 165. 
14. Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, p. 209.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why do we ignore the New Zealand Wars? - Morgan Godfrey

Topographic plan and cross section of the Ōrākau pā. BAPP 24804 A1721 Box 179/a Green 34, Archives New Zealand

From E-Tangata: There is no shame in us pausing to grieve over the horrors and waste of human life in our overseas campaigns such as Gallipoli, but we shouldn't be proud of the way we pay so little attention to the homegrown battles that shaped our nation.

No one has built a tomb of the unknown toa. We don’t keep a cenotaph for the defeated tauā. There isn’t an obelisk for great rangatira. And, while we build and care for monuments to the men and women who perished in wars on foreign soil, as well as dedicate a day to those who fell at Gallipoli, we continue to ignore the lives lost in the New Zealand Wars.

It doesn’t quite add up. We commemorate New Zealand soldiers who were slaughtered for empire in the Turkish sands while we overlook the New Zealand soldiers and fighters – both Pakeha and Maori – who were slaughtered for empire in the muddy trenches at Orakau. Yet there is an explanation. New Zealand has got into the habit of tracing its nationhood to foreign campaigns in the early 20th century.

The nationhood myth, though, is misleading - maybe deliberately so - because it wasn’t a bitter defeat on foreign soil which forged modern New Zealand. It was the New Zealand Wars which did that.

New Zealand wasn’t like Australia, a vast and disconnected land which came together as a federation only in the early 20th century. Our nationhood really arrived before that with the war for control of the North Island. In eliminating the well-governed and well-functioning society which the Kingitanga had built, the government could finally cement the foundations of the New Zealand state.

Although ANZAC Day represents a kind of retrospective nationhood, the New Zealand Wars more accurately represent actual nationhood. Perhaps we ignore them because it’s not so clear who was dying for glory or good. War is often portrayed as a drama of opposites, but who was fighting for what in the New Zealand Wars?

The ANZAC Day narrative has become a simple story of bravery, comradeship, freedom and sacrifice. But the narrative for the New Zealand Wars hasn’t been shaped as clearly or as acceptably.  The truth is that invasion of the Waikato was a blatant land grab – Pakeha were never going to ignore the economic potential of Kingitanga lands. And so the Crown soldiers who died in the New Zealand Wars died for Pakeha control over the Indigenous people and over the New Zealand economy. That competition for control may be understandable but it doesn’t seem especially noble.

The Maori warriors who died did so in trying to preserve their rangatiratanga. That seems more noble as well as being understandable. So how do Pakeha come to terms with that?

Telling ourselves that we were on the right side at Gallipoli is more comforting than the moral ambiguity of the New Zealand Wars. That’s not to say the New Zealand Wars can be reduced to a morality tale. But it is true that the tales of bravery we hear on ANZAC Day are far more comforting for a young nation.

ANZAC Day encourages us to commemorate and honour the dead and the wounded from our overseas wars. There is nothing wrong with that. But before we can do that for victims in the New Zealand Wars we need to ask some questions – and come to terms with what happened. And why it happened.

New Zealand wasn’t ready to do this in the 20th century. But, with the historical settlement process coming to an end, now is the perfect time.

Michael King used to describe ANZAC Day as “the necessary myth”. Necessary in the sense that we needed a story about the birth of our shared sense of identity. And necessary as well in the sense that New Zealand needed an occasion of gravity to acknowledge the unimaginable suffering at Gallipoli and beyond.  Surely that necessity now extends to the identity forged through the suffering on our own soil.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

'100 Years of Trenches' and other disrupting narratives

I've been enjoying reading '100 Years of Trenches', a blog that's not afraid to question 'Anzackery' and other myths around the First World War. It's written by Tim Leadbeater, and is well worth a visit:

If you're in Wellington this week then check out 'Disrupting the Narrative', an exhibition on at Thistle Hall. “On Anzac day, Saturday 25 April, we’ve got a full afternoon of discussions followed by a night of performances" notes the Collective. "At noon, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, author of The Great Wrong War takes the stage for the keynote address. Peace Action Wellington follows with speakers discussing the contemporary implications of the First World War. The Labour History Project will discuss resistance at home and abroad during the war. Then, featured artists and historians will discuss the resistance of Māori in the war including Waikato and Tūhoe opposition to war. In the evening, the artists will take centre stage with discussions and performances along with some kai. All events are free and open to the public.” More information here:

Redline continues to publish great content—here's some of their First World War posts:

Vincent O'Malley shared his thought on air this week about the NZ Land Wars, and how it has been left out of the commemorations:

And on this note, Alison McCulloch's article about the differences between WW100 events and the Land Wars commemorations is a great read:

Across the ditch, Paul Daley's writing on the First World War and the Frontier Wars in Australia is definitely worth reading: Another useful source is the Australian website, Honest History:

And of course, my own blog has a number of articles about war and militarism:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Anzac Day 2015: a perverse spectacle?

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson
Anzac Day looms larger than ever this year, thanks to it being 100 years since the British invaded Gallipoli. New Zealand was part of that invasion, as was Australia. The overwhelming failure of the campaign left segments of their communities looking for some kind of justification. The myth of Anzac was crafted as a result.

A week out from 25 April, we have already been swamped with a number of remembrance-based projects, from oversized nurses ($8 million and a ratio of 2.4 seems to be the appropriate 'scale that they deserve'), to thousands of mini soldiers; from street re-enactments to chocolate biscuits, kids lunchboxes, and endless multimedia. Anzac Day 2015 has become a perverse spectacle—even more so than previous years.

Why is so much money, time and energy invested in the remembrance of Anzac Day? Why are the New Zealand Land Wars not given such attention? If death or sacrifice is the measure, then why do we not lament the hundreds of workers killed on the job each year? Or those killed and scarred as a result of domestic or sexual abuse?

This piece by David Stephens of the Honest History coalition was written last year and with an Australian focus. However it speaks to some of these issues, and is equally relevant to New Zealand.

Five arguments for downsizing Anzac Day 

Senator Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, says that the forthcoming centenary will be the most important period of commemoration in our history. I beg to differ.

I want to present five arguments why we should make Anzac less important than it is now and as it looks like becoming in the next four years. I am not talking about Anzac Day (provided it is done with dignity) but about the Anzac tradition, or myth, or legend, that ever-widening khaki thread that runs through our Australian national tapestry.

My first argument for downsizing Anzac is the vainglory argument. “Vainglory” means “excessive elation or pride in one’s achievements”. Another definition is “boastful vanity”.

Quite simply, the way we commemorate and celebrate the military parts of our history is boastful and way out of proportion to the impact of our arms on most of the conflicts in which we have been involved. Of course, there are particular battles and campaigns where a case can be made that Australian forces were decisive – Beersheba 1917, France in the summer of 1918, El Alamein 1942, for example – but generally we have been bit-part players in overseas wars. In the Gallipoli campaign, birthplace of the Anzac legend, Australians made up just 6 per cent of the forces involved on both sides and 5 per cent of the casualties on both sides.

Our war commemoration is boastful also – boastful and insensitive – because it takes very little account of the broader human impact of war. Raw statistics are not, of course, the only way of supporting this argument (and every soldier killed in war is a tragedy) but how do the 100 000 or so Australian war deaths in the twentieth century compare with total deaths in wars around the world in that century?

We are measuring here not only military deaths but civilian deaths as well. Almost all Australia’s war dead were volunteers serving in uniform beyond our shores; in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, however, they tend to have wars in their own backyards which means they have more dead civilians.

One reputable estimate of total deaths in wars and conflicts in the twentieth century is 231 million. That makes Australia’s 100 000 around 0.04 per cent of the total.

We are not just Australians but citizens of the world. Our common humanity demands that we in Australia broaden our perspective on war and deaths in war to recognise the impacts of war beyond our own kith and kin. Wars are not just noisy and colourful highlights in a single nation’s history. They are not just occasions for commemorative exercises wrapped in patriotism and clouded with nostalgia. They kill people, lots of them, and they injure and traumatise lots more. We need to focus more sharply on what war does to people – the world’s people – than on what Australian people do in war.

We say that, beneath our commemoration of war, there is an abhorrence of war. We insist that we do not glorify war. These denials often come, however, as add-ons to moving, patriotic, feel-good – or at least bitter-sweet – ceremonies with lots of flags, eloquent speeches, remembrance of heroic acts, sonorous hymns, wide-eyed children and, now, sound and light shows. Rather than routinely repeating, as an afterthought to nostalgic commemoration, that mantra about not glorifying war, would it not be a more effective argument against war to highlight the impacts of war on civilian populations, the great bulk of that 231 million dead?

My second argument I call the strangulation argument. We do military history so well in Australia, through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Australian War Memorial and the various state memorials, through school curricula, through the endless flood of military history books, good, bad and indifferent, through military tourism for all ages, through movies and mini-series during the Great War centenary, through commercial hucksters flogging everything from Gallipoli champagne cruises entertained by Bert Newton or hosted by a retired General to a Gallipoli memorial swag, as well as lots and lots of commemoration, anniversaries of this battle and that, new memorials being built with government money, travelling exhibitions, re-enactments, performance art, symphonies, and so on, that there is a risk that some Australians, particularly young Australians, by the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, will think that really there is nothing in Australian history worth noticing except what occurs on battlefields.

Yet there is so much more to our history that we could be researching, presenting, popularising, and celebrating. We are a much more interesting country than we will seem if that khaki thread strangles all of the others.

Australian history is made by women, men, individuals, families, artists, philosophers, scientists, unionists, business people, public servants, soldiers and politicians. We carry the imprint of the First Australians, the builders of the CSIRO, the Sydney Opera House and the Snowy scheme, the pioneers of the bush frontier in the nineteenth century and the urban frontier in the 1950s, and “boat people”, whether they are convicts, post-war “ten pound Poms” and “New Australians” or asylum seekers. Australian history is to the credit – and the fault – of all of us, not just our Diggers.

My third argument is the devaluation argument, devaluation of the men and women who died. The type of commemoration exercise we engage in nowadays is really less about them – the Diggers – and more about us – about Australians today. Michael McGirr, writing in 2001, used the term “creeping Anzacism” to describe:
. . . the way in which the remembrance of war is moving from the personal to the public sphere and, with that, from a description of something unspeakable to something about which you can never say enough.
As fewer and fewer Australians actually know somebody who fought in World War I or World War II the commemoration of war has changed from a quiet remembrance of other people to an unrestrained endorsement of ourselves. As ideology comes to replace history, there are fewer and fewer faces to go with the stories. They have been replaced by a lather of clichés, most of which are as much about filling a void in the narcissistic present as lending dignity to the past.
People now seem to believe that in looking at the Anzacs they are looking at themselves. They aren’t. The dead deserve more respect than to be used to make ourselves feel larger.
I believe the tendencies McGirr described more than a decade ago have increased since.

My fourth argument is the bellicosity argument. “Bellicosity” means “an inclination to fight or quarrel”; it is sometimes rendered as “bellicoseness”.

Hugh White of the ANU has argued that the Anzac tradition encourages us to fight without thinking. I paraphrase his argument as follows. First, “soft” wars over the last 30 years – that is, wars with relatively low casualties – have made Australians more bellicose. Secondly, we regard the Australian-American alliance as vital to our national security so we are always susceptible to phone calls from the White House, seeking our involvement somewhere overseas.

Thirdly, Australians traditionally have not focused sharply on the purposes of war, either beforehand or in retrospect. We tend to go off to fight without too much analysis of why we are doing it. We don’t worry too much about whether and how fighting serves our national interest. Australians are altruistic warriors. Here is Prime Minister Abbott early in March addressing the troops returned from Afghanistan:
[Y]ou have fought for the universal decencies of mankind – the rights of the weak against the strong, the rights of the poor against the rich and the rights of all to strive for the very best they can. That’s what Australians do; we always have and we always will. Australians don’t fight to conquer; we fight to help, to build and to serve.
We say we are not militaristic. But the prime minister’s remarks suggest you don’t need to be militaristic to be inclined to fight.

Added to all this, says Professor White, is the reinforcing role of the Anzac tradition. While we steer away from why we fight, we focus sharply on how we fight, on the details of battles and the experiences of soldiers. (Think about all those military history books, all those commemorations of battles.) Professor White believes that part of the explanation for our failure to go into the purpose and cost of war is “the potent idea of war in Australian society, focused on the Anzac legend”. He writes about “the way Australians’ intense focus on military history, centred on the Gallipoli campaign, has shaped, and in some ways distorted, both our understanding of Australia’s history and our image of ourselves”.

My fifth and final argument for downsizing Anzac is the ideology argument. Geoffrey Serle years ago coined the term “Anzackery” to apply to the inflation, by excessive and bombastic commemoration, of a part of our history into a noisy myth. There are plenty of recent examples, many of them coming from our prime ministers on both sides of politics.

I believe there is a risk that Anzackery will develop into “Anzacism”, a form of state ideology, built on a narrow base, justifying a particular set of policies and punishing dissent. (And I’m here taking Anzacism a little further than McGirr did when he used the same term.)

Anzacism as a state ideology might have a number of characteristics. Let me compare these possible characteristics with state ideologies we have known in the past:
  • A linkage with traditional national symbols: thousands of national flags as the main feature of party rallies in totalitarian regimes; national flags as a dominant feature in Anzac Day marches.
  • A requirement for ritual observance: historians of the old Soviet Union refer to the “reverential” attitude towards Leninism; here, Angus Houston, chair of the then Anzac Centenary Advisory Board, said: “The Board is determined to ensure that the Anzac Centenary is marked in a way that captures the spirit and reverence it so deserves”.
  • Moving mass ceremonies affirming loyalty to the ideology: May Day ceremonies; Dawn Services.
  • Adoration of mythologised ordinary people: Stakhanov, the super-worker; John Simpson Kirkpatrick.
  • Intrusion into fields where ideology is not normally present but where people gather en masse: compare the attitudes of the crowds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics with those at the Anzac Day AFL match or the Anzac Test.
  • Loyalty tests: pledging loyalty to a state ideology as a feature of communist regimes; the prominence of Anzac in the citizenship literature of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

This may be an awkward attitude to have in the Anzac centenary years. Yet the freedom to have awkward views is presumably part of the freedom referred to on “the King’s Penny”, which was the large medallion received by the families of the men who died in World War I. The text on the medallion reads, “He died for freedom and honour”.

The last time I looked, it was not OK for children who believed in myths like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to lay into children who did not – and vice-versa. Nor was it acceptable for people of faith to seek to suppress the views of agnostics and atheists – and vice-versa.

The situation we are now facing is analogous. For example, a Coalition MP recently accused the ABC of lacking “situational awareness” for rebroadcasting in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War a segment which included questioning of the Anzac legend. Our group, Honest History, has been accused of the very same fault, labelled in exactly the same way, by a very senior Commonwealth official.

The myths and legends of our past must not become the basis of a jingoistic state ideology. An Anzac loyalty requirement – or any other pseudo-patriotic stipulation – is just as unacceptable as a fatwa against infidels or an edict against unbelievers.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History ( Honest History is a broad coalition of historians and others, committed to frank debate and expressing a diversity of opinions on specific issues.