From Class Struggle 47 October/November 2002

Donnelly gets the bash

Last month Brian Donnelly, redneck member of parliament for the New Zealand First Party, was beaten up in Wellington by a group of youths shouting anti-racist slogans. The youths had spotted a number of New Zealand First MPs leaving a restaurant, and had attempted to confront party leader Winston Peters. In the scuffle that followed Donnelly was knocked to the ground while trying to protect his boss. Peters’ party did not take the incident to the police, a fact which suggests that they were not the innocent victims media coverage of the incident made them out to be. The stoush in Wellington reflects the intense antipathy which many immigrants, young people, and class-conscious workers feel towards Winston Peters and his party. Peters’ relentless and increasingly crude attempts to inspire fear and loathing of ‘Asian invaders’, ‘Maori radicals’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’ make him a fitting candidate for the anger of anti-racist youth.

In many parts of New Zealand society, however, Peters’ racism is considered respectable, even admirable. Letters to the editor quote him without embarrassment. Talkback hosts like Ian Wishart float his ideas over the airwaves. Newspaper columnists like Garth George and Frank Haden present doctrines similar to Peters’ as nothing more than good homespun common sense. What sort of racism is it that enjoys such currency in a society that prides itself on its official anti-racism? Before we answer this question, we ought to look at what Peters’ racism is not. Some of the more excitable parts of the left have labelled Peters a fascist, or a fascist in training. For their part, Peters apologists like ex-lefty turned professional redbaiter Chris Trotter present New Zealand First as little more than the healthy response of working class Kiwis to the dangers of Maori nationalism and the absurdities of political correctness.

Two strains of the same disease

Peters’ populist racism can be contrasted with the imperialist racism, which was a feature of New Zealand political life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Imperialist racism saw Europeans, and in particular Anglo-Saxons, as existing at the top of a sort of ladder of races, and as thus having responsibility for civilizing a world of ungrateful savages. Early New Zealand leaders like George Grey and Richard Seddon were ardent advocates of the white man’s solemn duty to colonise and conquer. Grey dressed up an invasion of the Maori-held Waikato as a civilizing mission, and Seddon helped build a New Zealand mini-Empire in the ‘savage’ islands of the South Pacific. Over the course of the twentieth century imperialist racism was discredited by the anti-imperialist national liberation struggles of ‘savage’ peoples around the world. The Indians, for instance, showed in the course of their campaign for independence that British colonial rule in their country was anything but a civilized force. In New Zealand, great Maori protests like the Land March and the occupation of Bastion Point shone a light on the injustices of the past, showing that Grey, Seddon, and their like had been more interested in conquest than charity.

Today no mainstream Western politician would dare to talk about a hierarchy of races and the superiority of Europeans. In fact, the best vehicle for today’s racism is the language of anti-racism. Across the West, the new strain of populist racists claim to speak for ‘silent majorities’ of ‘ordinary people’, majorities that are alleged oppressed by ‘vocal minorities’. In Britain, the heart of nineteenth century imperialism, the racist British National Party (BNP) calls not for the creation of new colonies but for the defence of a mythical ‘traditional British culture’ against attacks from ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘foreign ideas’. The BNP presents the British not as proud imperialists but as an oppressed people. The party insists it has ‘no problem’ with non-whites – it will leave them alone, as long as they ‘leave Britain alone’.

Peters mines the same vein of populist racism as the British National Party. According to Peters, the ‘Kiwi’ is an endangered species, a creature threatened with extinction by Muslim bomb-makers from Afghanistan, AIDS-infected vampires from Africa, and lousy drivers from Taiwan. Where the old imperialist racists shouted the might and infallibility of the European race, Peters plays up the weakness and vulnerability of the ‘Kiwi’. What the ‘Kiwi’ needs, Peters tells us, is some islands free of aliens, some sanctuary for its unique and static culture and lifestyle.

‘Kiwis’, or Workers?

It is Peters’ emphasis on the weakness and vulnerability of ‘Kiwis’, which makes his rhetoric so relevant, and so dangerous. Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest the majority of New Zealand First voters occupy the bottom end of what is euphemistically called the ‘socio-economic scale’. Many of these New Zealanders can thank the neoliberal ‘Rogernomics’ policies of Labour and National governments in the 80s and 90s for getting them where they are today. It was the privatisations, mass layoffs, and benefit cuts of neoliberals that pushed hundreds of thousands of working class New Zealanders from the relative security of the welfare state into poverty. The most significant result of Rogernomics was a radical falling away in union membership and strikes. A combination of union-busting legislation, mass unemployment and poor leadership undermined the organisations, which had always acted as the foundation for left-wing politics in New Zealand.

Rogernomics was disastrous for workers, but is was great for Winston Peters: it gave him an audience of workers who had been isolated and disoriented, and to whom the politics of nationalism and racism seemed to make sense. These workers had seen the trade unions which had once represented them become shrunken, marginal organisations incapable of defending the interests of their remaining members, let alone the interests of the working class as a whole. To workers who ceased to think of themselves and their problems in class terms, Peters and his party offer a vague but emotionally charged opposition between ‘Kiwis’ and ‘others’. The ‘others’ are Asians, Maori radicals, intellectuals, homosexuals, feminists, foreign businesses, and corrupt journalists. Combating this dastardly coalition involves not the collective struggle of the old trade unions but the placement of faith in a charismatic leader.

The answer to racism is working class unity. When the working class is strong, the racists are weak; when the working class is weak, the racists are strong. In New Zealand, building working class unity must mean rebuilding the trade unions. It is on the picket line, standing side by side with workers of other races, that the absurdity of dividing along racial lines becomes most obvious to workers. Workers who struggle together for pay rises and better conditions will never vote separately for politicians who tell them that class means nothing.

Of course, the unions will not be rebuilt in a day. What do we do about racism in the meantime? We must oppose racism everywhere it appears, but we must be careful to do so in ways that are consistent with our long-term goal. Physical attacks on the likes of Donnelly are understandable, but cannot combat racism effectively. They may even backfire and provoke public sympathy for the racists! A similarly ineffective response which has also been seen lately is the creation of cross-class anti-racist lobbying groups in immigrant communities. With establishment figures as patrons and immigrant businesses as sponsors, such groups are actually capitulating to the logic of populism, which argues that class is irrelevant, that race or cultural identity is what is important, and that workers and bosses should unite to defend their common interests against ‘others’. The longshoremen of the West Coast of America have found out where that idea leads.

Better models for anti-racist action can be found in the National Distribution Union, where Maori members have organised to campaign for justice in the case of Stephen Wallace, the young Maori shot in the back by a cop in Waitara, and in the Anti Imperialist Coalition, the Auckland anti-war group which was set up with the aim of getting members of Auckland’s huge community of working class immigrants to join the campaign against the War of Terror.

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